Friday, December 28, 2012

Bonnie and the crow

This was one of those serendipitous videos that I could just throw together and upload as sort of bonus extra. My wife shouted at me to “look at this”, which normally means I’ve done something really stupid. In fact, Bonnie was being teased by a pair of crows.

Bonnie, for her part, was just trying to catch a vole she’d failed to liquidate a couple of hours previously. The crows, though, decided to have a little fun with her. By the time I’d got the camera and started filming, one of the crows had already flown off; but the other was milking this for all it was worth.

What’s interesting here is the body language, as two very intelligent creatures try to outwit each other. The crow knows exactly what he’s doing and stays just out of lunging range: you can see him bracing himself when it looks as if Bonnie is about to attack. Bonnie, for her part, very quickly cottons on to that and tries to launch a surprise attack: nearly impossible in an open meadow, but she gives it her best shot. She pretends to be disinterested, and then she pounces. Right at the end, she walks up to the tree the crow has just flown into as nonchelantly as she can. It doesn’t help.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

And what a year that was

As you can probably tell by the frequency of my posts here of late, maintaining an online presence takes a lot of time and effort, and I really need to do better. However, I have an excuse: I was busy building, and then moving into, a new house; a process which, in this country, takes about a year.

The trouble — or part of the trouble — is that not only are there so many different places on the web you need to be active, but they’re constantly changing. A few short years ago, MySpace was the site everyone had to be on. MySpace was then eclipsed by Facebook, and Facebook in turn is being challenged by Google+; each performing approximately, but not exactly, the same sort of service. Around the edges other things pop up and either grow (Twitter), get bought up (Instagram) or vanish (DailyBooth).

As it is, I find myself switching around between YouTube, Twitter, Google+, Facebook and, of course, Blogger. Of course, some of these services can share things with each other, although that doesn’t always make things easier. I don’t let YouTube automatically send tweets, because the tweets always turn up in German (a language most of my followers don’t understand). On the other hand, Twitter will post tweets to my Facebook profile, but not to my Google+ profile; Blogger will share with Google+, but... Well, you get the picture.

It’s a bit of a mess, which takes quite a bit of sorting out. And one of the benefits of not being active so much recently is that I have had the chance to take stock and try to work out what I want to do with all these different platforms.

My YouTube channel, of course, is for video uploads. And I think my relatively recent idea, to concentrate on videos specifically about Germany and life in Germany for the benefit of non-Germans, was probably the right one. I’m thinking of refining it a little further, and giving people a feeling for the village I live in: a more... intimate insight, I suppose, enabling you to get to know the village in its own right. I already have a few ideas about this: we’ll have to see how it goes. This won’t be to the detriment of videos about other places — my “Destination” series, for example, has had a bit of a hiatus not because I’ve retired it (I haven’t), but because this year I simply haven’t had time to go anywhere.

I feel I should make better use of Twitter, with more updates on what’s going on around me. I don’t want to be one of those bores who tweets about every inane thought that pops into his head and every little chore he’s doing, but something to hold interest and enlighten or entertain in 140 characters should be doable, even for me.

My Facebook profile is for more private contacts, for keeping in touch with people I actually know. For networking with my audience, my platform of choice at this point is Google+ — don’t take this the wrong way, but having a Twitter-like system where people can follow you without you having to follow them back makes Google+ a far better platform than Facebook for this kind of thing. I’m still not sure exactly what shape this networking will take, or what I’m actually going to post to my profile, but I’m sure that will crystallize in due course.

I have recently started one of those new-fangled Google+ Communities called Germany for non-Germans: it’s a place where Germans, foreign residents in Germany and people expecting to visit or live in Germany can swap help, advice and tips. There are several Facebook Groups doing the same, mostly for military, but as far as I can tell, mine is the first Google+ Community doing this. It’s had a surprisingly good response so far, given that it has only just got started.

And finally this blog. I think that what I’ve been using it for so far — from video production notes to thoughts on current affairs — is right, but I obviously need to do it more often. In keeping with the whole “rewboss” theme, I ought really concentrate on things relating to Germany, but I feel I can be more flexible. For example, I probably could have said something about the Sandy Hook shootings and gun violence in the US in general, comparing it to the situation in Germany and seeing what light that can shed on the issue (Germany has had several very bad school shootings in the past, for example).

In any case, I hope to be able to improve and expand on my online presence from now on. Not having to spend every weekend plastering and painting is going to be a big help, there. If I were the type to make New Year’s resolutions, this would be it: but I’m not, so it isn’t.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The art of dull

One thing I’ve come to realise over the years is that even things that are boring are, in fact, interesting. The very fact of their boringness is a point of interest, which is nothing if not paradoxical.

To be sure, the village depicted in this video is very small, and there’s no budget for municipal decorations. The locals do what they can, but they can’t do a great deal. And of course, it’s really the weather that makes everything seem drab; a week ago, with all the snow lying around, it actually looked quite fetching.

Still, cue a video poking gentle fun at the lack of obvious Christmas spirit, always with the caveat that people here know how to have fun, and inside their apartments and houses they have lots of tasteful (or not so tasteful) decorations.

More interesting from the filming perspective is that for the opening to-camera bit, the lighting looks pretty good, and this is because I now have a second floodlight. What you’re looking at in those first forty seconds or so is thanks to eight hundred watts of halogen power. One light is fairly close to me, to my left (the camera’s right), while the second is a little further away, almost level with the camera.

There is also a reason why I insisted that my office be painted white, even though doing so made me snow-blind. One of the things you have to do when taking this kind of video is to set the white balance. Halogen light may look almost white to the human eye, but to a camera it’s yellow: white balance corrects for this so that the video looks closer to what the eye perceives. Automatic white balance simply isn’t up to this particular task, so it has to be set manually, by pointing the camera at something white — in this case, a wall. (Well, it’s not the only reason I wanted them white, but it’s a good one.)

Having Bonnie in the background was an unexpected bonus. I’d already done several takes when she jumped up onto by desk, and I liked the image so I did one more take. And that’s the take in this video.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Light, camera, action!

In order to at least keep my YouTube channel from falling into a coma, I have uploaded yet another vlog. It does, though, contain some footage from the little village I have now moved to, as well as some almost-fancy lighting.

“Almost-fancy lighting” means a single halogen floodlight, of the sort used when painting indoors on gloomy days. Which is indeed what we did use, and now it’s being pressed into service as studio lighting.

Ideally, I’d need two of these: one as the main “key” light, the other, slightly further away, as a “fill” light. Eventually, once I have my studio set up, I’ll need two more to light the greenscreen evenly.

The reason you can’t usually use only one light is that it throws very sharp shadows: half of your face is brightly lit, the other half almost completely black. But it is just about possible if you point the light at the ceiling, which then acts as a reflector, giving you a much more diffuse (but dimmer) light. It’s not perfect, but for now it will do.

It is, though, just enough to allow me to sit in front of a window. Without any light at all, one of two things would have happpened: either you would have seen out of the window in perfect clarity while I remained a silhouette, or you would have seen me against a way-too-bright background. Using bright artificial lighting, I can let you see my face and the scenery at the same time.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Having just moved...

Having just moved, I am drained of all my energy and pretty much all of my will to live. It’s been a tough year, building the place (there’s still a mountain of work to do); and particularly the last few months as we raced towards the deadline; and especially the last few weeks as, deadline almost upon us, the delays just mounted up and cause more delays; and especially the last few days as everything that could go wrong went wrong.

And I mean everything: unexpected expenses, workers suffering violent food poisoning, a flat tyre; even, at one point, my wife accidentally committing an act of theft (she realised her mistake and sorted it out before the police were called).

But it will all have been worth it, we keep telling ourselves. The new house is ours, meaning we’re not at the mercy of any landlord; it’s energy efficient, so we won’t be spending a king’s ransom on heating oil; it’s built to modern standards, meaning that I can light my studio properly without fear of blowing all the fuses or melting the wires; and twice a week, the baker’s van stops right outside.

Here’s a video for you:

Monday, October 8, 2012

There are different types of floor

Sometimes, it’s amazing how quickly you reach the limits of translatability. And sometimes, even translating into your own mother tongue can be unexpectedly tough, especially when it involves something that you’ve never done in your home country.

I have never built a house, or been involved in any way in the building of a house, in Britain. So I know, for example, that the nice, smooth not-quite concrete they poured into our house a few weeks ago is called “Estrich” in German, but I have to look it up to find out the English.

And that’s where the troubles begin, because one of the words you get is “screed”, which in British English means the top layer of cement and sand applied to a concrete floor, but in American English means the board used to smooth concrete. Various other translations suffer similar problems, with different meanings in different countries and never quite fully explaining what “Estrich” is.

Which is why, speaking as freely as I can, in this video I talk about waiting for the floor to dry so we can put the floor down. What I meant was, we’re waiting for the not-quite concrete to dry so we can put tiles down. And you thought this was easy.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Well, it’s been a while, but I have a very good reason

Now, a lot of you may have been wondering where I’ve been all this time, and all I can say is that I’ve been here. Or as much here as possible, which has been difficult because I’ve been doing a few things that have necessitated my not being here, exactly, as in here at my desk.

This post is already starting to go horribly wrong, but here’s a video that should go some way to explaining what I’ve been up to.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Perhaps we should stop now

A little while back, a British comedian called Jimmy Carr found himself in the media spotlight. Mr Carr is no stranger to the media spotlight: he’s well-known for saying controversial things, particularly in his live act, but sometimes offence is taken and Carr’s face is paraded on the front pages for all to see. In one memorable case, he suggested that the number of wounded soldiers returning from Afghanistan would mean that Britain would at least have a good Paralympics team; even though he’d used the line many times before, to veterans in fact, and almost certainly, according to at least one soldier, had had it told to him by a wounded Marine, when it slipped out on national TV it caused a media sensation.

Not that I am a big fan of Jimmy Carr. To be honest, I don’t much enjoy his comedy, and I doubt that I would enjoy his company either (although obviously if I did ever meet him, I’d be quite prepared to be pleasantly surprised). But I don’t despise him or hate him, which is important to understand as I continue.

A little while back (as I mentioned earlier), he found himself once again in the media spotlight. His name was top of a list of very rich individuals who had taken advantage of a tax-avoidance scheme. He invested his money in a company in Jersey, a tax haven, which then loaned it back to him. Since it was a loan, which could technically be recalled, he didn’t have to pay income tax on it.

This was all the more embarrassing for Mr Carr personally, because as a comedian and satirist, he had previously criticized the banks for their tax avoidance schemes, and quite savagely so.

A bunch of people predictably sprang to his defence. It was all perfectly legal, said many; and that’s almost certainly quite true, which is why we’re talking about tax avoidance here, and not tax evasion. That argument, though, misses the point: and after comedians had ridiculed government ministers for claiming it was all perfectly legal when they were caught with their hands in the till (and in many cases they really hadn’t broken the law), it’s not much of an argument at all. It was, as the Prime Minister said, morally wrong. (Government ministers, though, really shouldn’t talk about morals, and it wasn’t long before the papers had discovered that David Cameron’s family were equally creative with their investments.)

Other people suggested that it was British tax law which was to blame, with a top rate of 50% for the super-rich, and therefore Carr was hardly to blame. This argument conveniently forgets, or ignores, the fact that Jimmy Carr is one of the rarest human beings on the planet: a stand-up comic making so much money that he finds himself having to pay the top rate of income tax. He could, basically, well afford to pay his taxes and still have more money per month than I am likely to make in a year.

But I now find myself one of his staunchest defenders, and for one very good reason: he has apologised in a manner that seems sincere to me.

Mr Carr apologises quite a lot. An unkind soul might suggest it’s because he has more than most to apologise for: I think it’s because he walks a fine line but is willing to take responsibility for his own actions. His Paralympics jibe wasn’t cruel, just made in an inappropriate context; he apologised all the same.

And he apologised for his tax avoidance. Further, he promised to make amends, to pull out of the scheme and be more responsible with his money. He made no excuses, other than that it was hard for him to turn down the offer to save a small fortune in taxes perfectly legally, and spoke of his serious misjudgement. And that, as far as I am concerned, is the end of the story, unless I am convinced that he has gone back on his word.

So I was a bit disappointed to read a headline that suggested he had ranted at a Jersey resident and called him a tax-dodger. Surely not, Mr Carr?

As it turned out, not. Somebody somewhere had simply dug out a DVD of a live show he did last year. It’s the kind of humour for which Jimmy Carr is famous, and the type of humour that I don’t enjoy particularly. But it was humour, it was a joke, the audience enjoyed it, and although the idea that the people of Jersey should go forth and multiply because they are almost French might be offensive, but nobody with half a brain goes to a live Jimmy Carr show and not expect him to be offensive.

So, this is non-news. I don’t like Jimmy Carr much and I certainly don’t approve of what he did; but it’s history now, and perhaps we should concentrate more on those people who refuse to accept responsibility even after they have long run out of scapegoats.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

It’s all getting a bit hectic

I can’t say very much about what I’ve been up to lately, although I can reveal that it has nothing to do with the European Cup, Wimbledon or tax evasion. It is, however, just slightly fraught around here, which explains the lack of various kinds of online activity in recent weeks.

First off, I’ve been a bit preoccupied producing a DVD version of my phenomenally successful film. There have been a few hitches along the way, but most have been ironed out now, and it’s looking good. There is just one more small problem that needs to be dealt with one way or another (involving a small printing error that wasn’t my fault), and then we’re all set to go.

Then, on the strength of that video, I have been commissioned to make another DVD. This one’s going to be a bit of a challenge, which is scary, but in a good way. I’ll be able to say more about that in August.

All of this in turn means that I’m currently carving out a new “career”, for want of a better word. That is to say, at the age of forty-two, I’m starting something quite new, from scratch, and wondering whether to jump right in and completely reorganise my life (or parts of it), gradually ease my way in, or forget the whole thing because, let’s face it, I’m no Quentin Tarantino. I think I’ve decided to go for it and try to get more into videomaking: having two sell-out performances of my first work (which is not that great, but nobody seems to mind) has given me cause to stop and think.

Also, on a more personal note, there is a big project underway which sees my and my wife driving around the area, looking at complicated drawings and peering at price lists. I can’t reveal what that is just yet, but it’s going to take up most of the rest of the year. Things will really come to a head at the beginning of next month.

And finally, Bonnie and Clyde are proving to be amazingly efficient hunters. Anyone who has ever owned an outdoor cat will know what that means.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

My big break

Forgive me for boring you all to tears with this, but it’s a pretty exciting time for me at the moment. For those of you who haven’t been following my tweets, YouTube videos and Google+ posts (and if you haven’t, why haven’t you?), the basic facts are these: The (Catholic) Parish Church in Seligenstadt is, this year, celebrating the 200th anniversay of its move from its original church to the monastery church, and have been celebrating all year. As well as a special wine, a book and a whole range of festivities, exhibitions and so on, one of the highlights is going to be a showing of two short films in the local cinema: an old black-and-white 16mm movie from the 1940s or thereabouts, followed by a more recent video filmed and edited by yours truly.

Yes, I have been making a film which is to have its screen debut in a real cinema. People will be watching it having bought tickets and probably even popcorn, and I don’t mind telling you I am a little nervous. Apparently, the €5 ticket includes entry to a small reception afterwards, although since this will be midweek (Wednesday 25th April, to be exact), I assume it will be a fairly subdued affair. Mostly, though, I’m nervous because obviously I’m not a professional and the video is a bit rough around the edges here and there. I keep finding horrible mistakes.

Still, the people who count were pleased with the rough cut. I was even more pleased when we tested it at the cinema, just to make sure the technology was working correctly, and I have to say it looks surprisingly good on the big screen. And it sounds fantastic through the professional sound system. Not Hollywood by any means, but a lot better than I could have reasonably expected.

Given a bit more time to film, a slightly steadier hand, better lighting conditions, and maybe one or two assistants with reflectors and such, I could have turned in something looking almost professional. This isn’t a boast: this is by way of encouraging other people to try their hand, because the equipment I’m using is by no means state-of-the-art or even particularly expensive. In fact, let me make a little list:

  • Camcorder, admittedly near the top of the consumer range, but still a bargain at about €1000;
  • Shotgun microphone, €100;
  • Cheap lapel microphone, about €10 (I bought it so long ago, I really can’t remember);
  • Tripod, €50;
  • Video editing software, €100.
I would really love a better tripod that will allow me to pan smoothly (mine doesn’t) and a semi-pro camera of the sort that you carry on your shoulder, but I don’t have €10,000 lying around so that’s not going to happen just yet.

And yet I have successfully created something I feel justified in asking money for. Pretty good going for an outlay of less than €1300 and no formal training of any kind. And I daresay that with a much cheaper camera, it should be possible — just a bit harder — to create something not too shabby: you just have to understand your camera’s limitations and find ways of overcoming them.

And to be honest, I do sometimes wonder why people feel the need to spend serious money on expensive video editing software like Sony Vegas or Adobe Premiere. If, like me, you’re an amateur, you don’t need all the random whistles and bells that come with it. What you need — at least, what I need — is multiple tracks (I have 99, I have only ever used about ten), an intuitive user interface, and tools to tweak the image for those occasions when a reflector was necessary but not available (I have learned to love the way I can lighten shadows without affecting the rest of the image too much, although there is a limit to what you can get away with before it starts to look artificial).

So, in conclusion: You can’t tell me that the reason you’re not making videos is because you can’t afford to buy lots of expensive things.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Shiny new YouTube features

Once in a while, I get the chance to make a video for YouTube, which is nice of them. Or nice of me, perhaps, but I have ulterior motives: they bring more views which bring more cash. And you thought I was being altruistic.

In any case, this one introduces a whole range of updates which constituted a big, big project which got delayed again and again, which is always the way of big projects wherever they are. Finally it went live, and I have this mental image of YouTube engineers, haggard from worry and lack of sleep, collapsing exhausted among congealing slices of pizza and dirty coffee-cups, their heroic leader opening one eye to murmur, “Never again…” before falling back into a deep slumber.

Of course, the nightmare isn’t over yet, as soon all the bug reports will come rolling in to shatter this moment of temporary resolution.

There is always the chance that I simply have an overactive imagination.

Here’s the YouTube Creator Blog announcement. And here is the video:

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The end of an era

Pretty soon, Berlin’s historic Tegel airport will close, to coincide with the opening of the new Berlin Brandenburg airport.

I say “pretty soon”, but of course it won’t be until the beginning of June.

I say “historic”, but of course Berlin Tegel airport was opened a little while after the Second World War as a sort of a stop-gap, desparately bolted together on a field in the north of the city. It was only ever half-completed (literally: the original plans were for a second terminal, a mirror-image of the first, to be built, but when additional terminals came, they were hastily constructed out of what looked like laminated cardboard in the last couple of years in what could be described as Tegel’s terminal phase). What there was of it was designed so that passengers would only have to walk very short distances, which is why the airport was chronically overcrowded, with queues at the check-in desks obstructing the main concourse. Worryingly, the airport carried a secondary title — a concept unique to the German-speaking world — honouring Otto Lilienthal, one of the pioneers of powered flight, but also the first aviator in history to stall his plane and die in the resulting crash.

Lufthansa is planning to officially say goodbye to Tegel about ten days before it actually closes by allowing an A380 to circle above the aiport.

Not land, apparently: circle above it, unless I’ve misunderstood something. Or rather, circle above the city, since a plane of that size has a fairly large turning circle. Tegel, I believe, isn’t big enough for an A380, and Berlin Brandenburg won’t be open, so I’m not sure what they’re planning to do with the A380 once it’s circled. One assumes — hopes, certainly — that they won’t attempt to re-enact Lilienthal’s last flight.

To make the whole thing even more pointless (or less pointful?), the mayor of Berlin will name the plane “Berlin”. Suddenly, it becomes clear what all these civil servants are doing who earn three quarters of a million euros sitting in an office for 14 years: they’re not actually doing nothing, they’re being held in reserve should the need arise for a little brainstorming.

“Okay, chaps,” a schoolmasterly mandarin will say (although in German, obviously), “this is your big moment. We’re closing down Berlin’s principle airport. We need to mark the event somehow. What can you come up with?”

After a lot of civil service headscratching, a brave soul tables a suggestion. “How about we get the biggest plane we can find, fly it to Berlin, but we don’t let it land. To symbolize the lack of airport,”

“An interesting idea,” says the mandarin. “But can we think of a way to emphasize the connection with Berlin?”

A few minutes of finger-drumming and distracted humming ensue, until a nervous little man raises a hand. “Do you think,” he ventures, “we could get the mayor to give it a whack with a bottle of champagne?”

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Well, he said it.

Günter Grass is no stranger to controversy. An artist, sculptor and writer, he admitted in 2006 that he had once been a member of the Waffen-SS. He was 17, and thus quite likely somewhat naive, but at a time when large numbers of people had been brainwashed by a regime that knew how to use propaganda to win friends and influence people. He seems to have been trying to atone for this, founding an organisation to further the interests of the Sinti and Roma (that is, “Gypsies”), and lending his official support to a campaign for gay and lesbian partnerships to be given the same rights as heterosexual marriages. He is keen to be seen to be supporting at least two groups persecuted by the Nazis.

But never mind that, because he has thrown it all away by publishing a poem called Was gesagt werden muss (“What must be said”). And now all hell has broken loose.

It’s not a great poem, and it’s full of self-important guff about why he has decided to write this now with his “last ink”. Actually, as a poem, it’s as abysmal as you’d expect of a poem that contains phrases like “growing nuclear potential”; but this isn’t the reason it’s caused a fuss.

In short, the poem criticizes the state of Israel for, as he sees it, developing a nuclear threat to deal with, as he sees it, a non-existant threat from Iran. He does have a slightly over-simplistic grasp of foreign policy, does our Herr Grass, but as far as the state of Israel is concerned, the important thing is that a former SS officer is saying nasty things about Israel, and this should not be tolerated.

Even Grass’s critics (the non-Israeli ones, that is) appear to have been taken aback by the reaction. That he has been branded an “antisemite” comes as no shock to anyone, least of all to Grass, whose offending poem actually contains the line, “The verdict ‘antisemitism’ is prevelant.” I did mention the fact that this wasn’t a terribly good poem, didn’t I?

Israel’s politicians are up in arms about this. He has been declared persona non grata. The foreign minister has accused him of wanting to “sacrifice Jews on the altar of antisemitism”. There have been calls for him to be stripped of his Nobel Prize.

Now, the problem here is that Grass hasn’t been saying nasty things about Jews, which would be antisemitism. He has been criticizing Israeli foreign policy. The two things should not be confused. There is no doubt that Jews have historically fared very badly, and that this came to a head in the Third Reich. There is no doubt that antisemitism, along with other forms of racism, still exists. But to cry racism every time government policy is attacked is immature and cynical. Much of what Grass says may be completely wrong, but what it isn’t is antisemitic. Israel — and it’s important to note that I am here talking about Israel as a nation state, and not Jews as a race — appears to be seeking carte blanche on the grounds that they once suffered terribly.

This is no way to prove that you are a nation worthy of international respect. It is true that various Arab nations in the region have acted appallingly, but Israel has not exactly been a paragon of virtue either.

When people complain that, for example, Britain has no right to the Falkland Islands, I don’t take that as an insult to my culture, heritage or religion. It is a criticism of what my government is doing — in my name, granted, but not because I told them to. Usually, critics understand that; crucially, I understand that the critics understand that. I can agree or disagree, but I can’t cry “anti-Britishism” and expect that to settle the argument. I have, in my time, criticized America of a lot of wrongdoing, but that didn’t stop them from letting me into their country last year.

So let me put this as clearly as I can: We shouldn’t tolerate isms. But we must have the freedom to criticize governments. There is no room on this planet for a nation that thinks it has the right to do as it pleases on the grounds that their parents and grandparents were once persecuted.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Back to earth

No, I am not in fact in a plane somewhere over the Atlantic. Although, if I’m honest, I would have been great as a Star Trek baddie.

I actually didn’t expect anyone to seriously believe me, but a few comments I’ve had suggested some might have done — although I’m torn between believing that they did believe it, and believing that they were just playing along.

Sorry about the rough greenscreening, but I wasn’t paying too much attention to production standards.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

I have finally made it!

Yes, the big day approaches, and fame and fortune beckon. To be honest, I was finding it difficult to keep this under wraps, because this is such monumental news… but you have to be careful what you say, if you don’t want to scupper your chances.

Friday, March 30, 2012


YouTube is full of videos made by excited foreigners driving on the famed autobahns of Germany where, as everyone knows, there is no speed limit. Unfortunately, a lot of these videos involve people driving recklessly, committing various traffic offences and infractions, and, yes, sometimes even breaking the speed limit. Because, of course, not all autobahns are speed-limit free, and in any case the “no speed limit” thrill applies only to cars, and to other motor vehicles with a maximum permitted gross weight of at most 3.5 tonnes, as long as you’re not towing any trailers. Even then, you’re not really supposed to go much faster than about 130km/h (80mph), and that only if the road and weather conditions make it safe.

So much for the inspiration behind this video. What of the curious jump with me holding my nose? That’s a reference to an old British children’s television show, Rentaghost. It was very silly, and actually not very good (especially in its later years), but it remains an integral part of my schooldays. Rentaghost told the story of an agency run by, well, ghosts, who were available for hire for whatever you needed a ghost for. One of the things the ghosts could do was to teleport themselves by pinching their noses…

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Right... what was I thinking?

My latest video, the next in my increasingly popular “Surviving Germany” series, is about talking on the phone; and it may surprise you to know that there was three minutes’ worth of material in that idea. It certainly surprised me.

It’s the end credit sequence that I don’t understand, and I wrote the screenplay. In case you’re one of those who always bail as soon as the credits roll (and then comment to ask where I got the music), after the actual credits my “Surviving Germany” videos have a silent cameo scene. This is in fact because if I were to let the credits roll throughout the whole of the music, they’d roll hypnotically slowly.

This one, as I said, mystifies even me. I could think of nothing better than to have myself standing in the middle of nowhere with a mobile phone. The “middle of nowhere” is represented by signposts pointing to “Grossgüllen” and “Kleingüllen” and giving impossible distances. If I may be pretentious for just a moment, this is a reference to Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play The Visit (in German, Der Besuch der alten Dame), set in the fictional town of Güllen. The name Güllen, in turn, is derived from the German word for liquid manure.

But that’s about it, really. That is honestly as far as I got with the thinking for that little scene, and I simply don’t know what it’s supposed to mean. See for yourself.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Cryptic thumbnails and cats’ teeth

I love being cryptic with my video titles and thumbnails, and this little vlog is no exception. The title isn’t that difficult to understand: since I begin by denying that I am about to become a father, Denial seems to be the obvious title. But what of the text in the thumbnail? Ceci n’est pas une chatte is French for “this is not a cat” which, considering that it is emblazoned above an image of me holding a cat, would appear to be a denial of something that is patently obvious.

It is in fact a reference to a famous painting by René Magritte. It is a painting of a pipe, below which is written Ceci n’est pas une pipe. Mystifying at first; but when you think about it, the legend is perfectly accurate. It is not a pipe, it is a painting of a pipe. In the same way, what you see below is literally not a cat, but a video.

The unfortunate bit happens about one minute in, where I have a wonderful close-up of Clyde yawning and displaying his beautiful teeth. It wasn’t until I had uploaded the video and watched it back that I noticed something odd: Clyde seems to have lost his upper left canine tooth. He had been slightly off his food and rather subdued the last couple of days, but I’d put it down to having us grabbing him and dripping medication into his eyes three times a day.

Seems that another trip to the vet is required.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Write no evil

This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
After all these years, Adolf Hitler continues to exert a strange and hypnotic force on the German psyche. A weekly periodical called Zeitungszeugen has been denied permission to reprint heavily annotated excerpts from Mein Kampf, on the grounds that they couldn’t guarantee that readers would read the annotations. This would expose them, apparently, to the full, undiluted power of Hitler’s words, and they would all go out and start declaring war on Poland. I myself, in doing a bit of research for this post, accidentally allowed myself to catch sight of a picture of the front cover of the book, and am now seized with the desire to shout antisemitic slogans at random passers-by, so I know how dangerous this can be.

Well, obviously not: that was deliberate hyperbole in order to make a point. But the Munich Regional Court’s decision is enough to make you believe that that was what they were afraid of. The problem, according to the court, is that Zeitungszeugen had no plans to interweave the original with the annotations; they were to be separated.

That the courts were involved should not be construed as official censorship, as that would be undemocratic. This is a copyright dispute. Because Hitler died childless and nobody else claimed ownership (his great-nephew, unsurprisingly, wanted nothing to do with it), the copyright passed to the State of Bavaria. It’s due to expire in 2016, and the Bavarian government is, ahem, slightly concerned about what will happen then. It’s not illegal to buy or own copies of Mein Kampf. It’s not unconstitutional because it was written long before the German Basic Law was. It’s all a bit of a headache, really.

To put it into perspective, we are talking about a two-volume work that Mussolini described as “boring”. It’s very antisemitic, yes, but its controversial status — apart from the fact that it was written by a man who made Beelzebub look like a primary school teacher — derives from a single sentence about how many problems could be solved by murdering a few thousand Jews. There’s a lot of other stuff in there, like Hitler’s plan to form an alliance with Italy and (get this) the British Empire to hold back the insidious and (according to Hitler) Jewish influence of Marxism. A plan which, famously, didn’t quite work out.

The stated aim is to prevent such stirring stuff from getting into the hands of neonazis, but to be honest, I think you’ll find that extremist groups will write their own scripts. Most other Germans — most other people, in fact — are perfectly well aware that Hitler was a nasty man and that slaughtering millions of people is at the “really atrociously evil” end of the scale, and their opinions won’t be swayed by reading Mein Kampf, or little bits of it, without the helpful notes about what a rotten cad Hitler is, or whatever is supposed to go in these annotations.

Worse than too much information (and this brings me to my clever Dickens quote) is not enough information. As a collective whole, Germany is very serious about the need to ensure that This Never Happens Again, but being kept in the dark about the man who started it all and what motivated him is hardly helping. If anything, it’s helping to deify him, possibly the worst thing that can happen, as his Almighty Word is being treated as sacred. It’s not the most violent book ever written (the Old Testament beats Mein Kampf hands down), and the only reason it’s treated with such care is the identity of its author.

In any case, this being 2012, I just found the complete, unabridged and unannotated text of Mein Kampf online in PDF format, fully accessible without any tricks, proxies, anonymizer or other devious methods short of a quick Google search. I can’t link to it — I’m allowed to read the book, but I’m not allowed to disseminate it — but I can tell you one thing: Mussolini was right.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Berlin any more

So the former President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Christian Wulff, forced to resign (as you doubtless recall) as his fondness for the jet-setting high life came to light, just never quite manages to leave the newspapers. He may have been moved off the front page in favour of more important stories (like the Queen of England’s Diamond Jubilee), but he still takes up too many column inches for a man in his position.

He’s not willing to forego his €199,000 pension. He insists on his right to have a staffed office for the rest, it seems, of his natural life, costing the taxpayer another €280,000 a year. Now he wants a big send-off.

Apparently, he’s entitled to a Zapfenstreich, a word which can refer either to Last Post, or a full military tattoo. Since he’s not dead (and so still costing the taxpayer €479,000 annually), we’re talking about the tattoo: the sort where a military band plays a selection of songs by torchlight.

Wulff is entitled to choose three songs he’d like to have, and so he chose four. At this point, even his closest allies are starting to shuffle their feet in embarrassment. He’s chosen a march, a hymn, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, and…

Over the Rainbow.

Nobody’s quite sure what to make of that, but a song that is indelibly associated with a flight of fancy into a faraway world populated by talking lions and flying monkeys is an odd choice to say the least. I’ll leave you to ponder on what it says about the emotional state of the man, but it strikes me that there must be other songs more suited to politicians than the usual pompous church music.

ABBA’s hit Money, Money, Money, for example, might do for most politicians, including Wulff. Also appropriate for Wulff, and any politician forced to leave in disgrace, might be Ray Charles singing Hit the Road, Jack. The obvious choice for any politician caught out in the more lurid sort of scandal would be It Wasn’t Me by Shaggy. And so on; you get the general idea.

We can only hope that we never have to use Sympathy for the Devil.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Me making money from a scandal

Yes, this is me making money from a political scandal by uploading and monetizing a video on the subject. And in fact, since I made this video, another politician has got himself into a bit of a pickle: as happened to Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg (or Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, as his friends get to call him), it has been discovered that Bijan Djir-Sarai plagiarised his thesis and so has been stripped of his doctorate. How the mighty are fallen.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Vlogger of the flies

Well, it’s a blog, and pretty self-explanatory, so I won’t bother trying to explain it. Although, it is going to be interesting to see what guesses about the mysterious project my wife and I have ahead of us this year. Who would like to have a go?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

See no evil...

Multiculturalism is a topic that raises emotions, especially in Germany, as it is a subject that inevitably sparks violent arguments in which accusations of racism feature prominently. Start trying to investigate the causes of social unease, and whichever side of the argument you come down on, the other side will act as if you had just instituted Satanism as the official national religion. Sit on the fence, or disagree with both sides and come up with some new idea, and nobody will ever speak to you again. So better not to talk about it at all.

Now, let me make one thing clear at the outset. I am an immigrant. I think I have integrated quite well, all things considered, into German society and culture, although I must also point out that my own culture is not far removed from German culture so the transition was quite easy. Although not really relevant to what follows, I personally think that while immigration is generally a good thing, I think it has been mismanaged and the ideal of multiculturalism perverted in a way that in some areas has contributed to a ghettoisation of society.

The background is this: by far the greatest number of immigrants to German are Turkish. There are more Turks living in Berlin than live in any city in Turkey except Istanbul and Ankara — getting off the U-Bahn at Kottbusser Tor is enough to convince you of that (in fact, line U1 is locally known as the “Orient Express”). Mostly, everything seems to go remarkably smoothly, and the kind of race riots that flared up in Britian in the 1980s, or that flare up in Paris every now and again, are pretty much unknown here. Nevertheless, the Turkish community, like most immigrant communities anywhere in the world, features elevated levels of poverty and therefore also crime; and when I was living in Berlin, so-called “honour killings” — young men murdering their sisters for dating Germans — were semi-regularly reported in that sensationalist manner the tabloids have (so such reports have to be taken with a certain amount of salt).

So we have a prominent immigrant community with the typical challenges you’d expect, although you wish you didn’t. But recently, something new has arrived into the mix: the fear of Islamic terrorism. In particular, the fear that young men are being radicalised, a hatred of the West being instilled into them.

It’s easy to imagine how this happens. The children or grandchildren of immigrants, born in Germany to Turkish parents, may experience a sort of identity crisis: expected to be Turkish at home but German outside of the home, and not properly brought up in either culture, form their own identity, based on badly misunderstood Turkish values. Wait for these people to reach hormonal age, make them feel insecure about their identity, give them the beginnings of a persecution complex, and that seed will grow.

So, obviously, if you were the Interior Minister of Germany, you’d probably want to investigate this. Is it true? How much of it is true? Should we be worried? If it is true, what can be done about it? If it isn’t true, what can be done to reassure the general public? You’d probably start by commissioning a report. That’s exactly what Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich did.

It didn’t go down well at all. It probably wasn’t a wise decision to publish it in the Bild, Germany’s biggest tabloid newspaper, but let’s gloss over that. Friedrich’s study — in fact, not just the study itself, but Friedrich’s decision to even commission it — was roundly criticized by the opposition parties.

The Socialist Party’s Integration Representative, Aydan Özoguz, was quoted as saying:
Anyone who is serious about tackling the ghettoisation and violent tendencies of young people should not do so with the obvious intention without abandoning entire religious communities to populist sentiments.
Remember that bit about “entire religious communities”. This will be important later.

But criticism came from the governing coalition itself. The Integration Policy Spokesman of the Free Democrats, the junior coalition partner, a certain Serkan Tören, complained that:
…once more, taxpayers’ money is being used to finance a study to produce headlines but no new knowledge.
And the Justice Minister, who rejoices in the name of Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, gave us this pearl of wisdom:
We do not need a debate which conveys a distorted image of the country of immigration, Germany.
Now, this is true, in the sense that any debate should result, in the end, in an accurate picture. That’s what a debate is for. The study may be seriously flawed, it may be completely wrong; but if so, that should come out of the debate. You conduct a study, then you debate it, then you see what conclusions you come to. What you don’t do — and if she doesn’t grasp this fundamental point, she has no business being Justice Minister — is look at the study and then refuse to debate it on the grounds that it conflicts with your beliefs. If it conflicts with your beliefs, either it is wrong, or your beliefs are wrong, or, more likely, both are flawed.

By now, you may be wondering what on earth this study said that was so awful. Well, according to the Spiegel, the study found that about a quarter of young (between the ages of 14 and 32) Turks living in Germany with Turkish passports, and about 15% of those with German passports, were strongly religious, had strong aversions to the west, tended to be violent and tended not to have any wish to integrate.

Remember that bit of Özoguz’s statement I asked you to remember, the bit about “entire religious communities”? Would you say that the study concluded that all Muslims were unwilling to integrate? Özoguz apparently things so. As does Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, since she felt it necessary to point out that “citizens of Islamic faith live in Germany today, quite naturally, and are at home here”.

But of course, they’re falling into the classic trap of thinking that if all potential terrorists are Muslim, then all Muslims must be potential terrorists. It’s difficult to explain the fallacy to anyone who doesn’t get it, without drawing a Venn diagram, but Friedrich had a shot at it:
The bigger picture shows that Muslims in Germany categorically reject terrorism.
In other words, Friedrich is accusing his critics of concentrating on the sensationalist headlines instead of looking at the report properly. Which does rather make me wonder why he chose a sensationalist tabloid to publish his study, but politicians aren’t always known for their expert handling of the press.

Really, there needs to be a better way of dealing with the situation. It strikes me that either the study is accurate, or it is not accurate. If it is accurate, it must be taken seriously and acted on; if it is not accurate, we need to know exactly what isn’t accurate about it. Either way, refusing to debate, or even read, it properly is utterly counter-productive.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

German patriotism

There’s very little to say about my latest video, except that it is remarkably accurate (if I do say so myself). There was nothing particularly exciting about the production or the editing: all very boringly straightforward.

The song I parody is of course the German national anthem, which is universally (and incorrectly) known as Deutschland, Deutschland über alles; it is properly known as das Deutschlandlied (“the Germany song”). The first stanza, of course, does begin “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, / über alles der Welt” (“Germany, Germany above all, above all the world”). The problem is that while the song was originally intended as a call to unity — it was written at the time when the patchwork of tiny warring states I refer to was being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 19th century — the Nazis conveniently misinterpreted it to mean Germany was supreme. As a result, only the third verse actually constitutes the modern German national anthem: “Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit” it calls for; unity and justice and freedom.

The map showing the patchwork of little states is real: it’s a map of the Holy Roman Empire, around 1400. It was a bit saner by the time Bismarck unified Germany in 1871, but still a sight to behold.

Finally, in case you’re wondering, the preview thumbnail shows me against the Bavarian flag (or one variant of it: the “lozenge” variant). Just to drive home the point about “regional pride”.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Over Unison’s dead body

The Daily Telegraph reports on government interest in a scheme to use the heat from crematoria to heat swimming pools or generate electricity. What a good idea, I think; it won’t make a dent in the country’s carbon footprint, of course, but it’s a start and will certainly save local councils a few useful thousands of pounds every year. Definitely, you would have thought, worth a try in this age of austerity measures and government cuts.

But about half of the way down, the following sentence intrudes, as if escaped from some other article:
Unison, the trade union, has previously described the cost-saving proposals as “sick and an insult to local residents”. 
After that, the article returns to the gushing tone it started in, although it does quote the leader of Redditch Council as saying that she recognised “some people might not like it”.

Well, call me Mr Slow-on-the-Uptake, but whilst I understand that people generally are a bit squeamish about dead bodies in general, I can’t work out what could possibly be objectionable. Who’s being insulted? Is there something sacred about the heat generated by incinerating a corpse? Something that makes it necessary for the heat to be allowed to ascend to the heavens? If it ever gets that far, of course; what happens if the fumes get sucked into the engines of a passing jet airliner, do we have to exorcise it? Treat the passengers and crew for trauma?

Do people’s souls perhaps get trapped in the heat and fumes? Will they be released from their mortal coils, eager to go to their eternal rest, only to discover that they are doomed to push turbines round for the rest of time? Will our swimming pools become haunted? Or contaminated somehow? Who’re you gonna call, Ghostbusters?

Anyhow, if anyone from Unison knows just what it is that is so insulting about the idea of using hot air to heat stuff, please do let me know.

Friday, February 24, 2012

I feel sick

The budget for this video was €1.55. Guess what I lavishly, and ill-advisedly, spent it on, to my eternal regret.

Those “Super Dickmann’s” really are as gooey and hyper-sweet as they look. And my idea to eat one during the end credits seemed like a good one at first, but by the third take I was suffering. Needlessly, as it turns out, because I ended up using the first take after all.

The worst of it is, they come in boxes of nine. Three down, six to go.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Passwords: You’re doing it wrong

People get their accounts “hacked” all the time. Most of the time (in my limited experience) it seems that the victims were just incredibly lax with their security or simply naive, unthinkingly giving away their passwords to phishers and other scam artists. I’ve even seen people asking for help on the YouTube forums and giving their username and password so somebody could look at their account settings for them.

Sometimes, though, people’s accounts are hacked by brute force, often by the simplest technique imaginable: guessing the password.

An insight into why this would work was unwittingly given by one of the biggest porn sites on the web, which suffered a serious breach of security exposing members’ e-mail addresses and passwords. The site itself did what they could to contain the damage, but aside from the profound embarrassment suffered by those who probably didn’t want the world to know that they enjoy watching naked people doing naughty things, there was also the issue that many people use the same password for everything, so who knows what else might be compromised?

But the most interesting and, frankly, unsettling revelations comes to us thanks to a certain Ashkan Soltani, who created a word cloud of the most frequently used passwords for that site.

Especially popular are sequences of letters and numbers, most often in the order they appear on a computer keyboard: “qwerty123”, “qwerty123456” and “asdfgh123” feature prominently. The site’s name (with and without a sequence of numbers) was another choice, as was, incredibly, “password”. Several passwords were obscenities relating to sex, also obvious passwords for a would-be hacker to try; one of those, interestingly, was in German and actually has a very specific meaning (unlike the more general terms apparently favoured by English-speakers). Female names also seem quite popular, and I’m guessing that they are names of famous porn stars (unless an inordinate number of connoiseurs of erotica happen to be married to women called Melinda and are crass enough to use that name as a password to a porn site).

What do we learn from this? Well, for one, we learn that entrusting your data to any website is always taking a risk. Most importantly, though, we learn that anyone who thinks they’re safe choosing “qwerty123” as a password on the grounds that everybody knows you shouldn’t and so nobody would suspect that you would is deluding themselves.

Use secure passwords, folks.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Dinosaurs have feelings, too

It’s the height of Carnival at the moment, which in some parts of Germany (the Catholic parts, anyway) means dressing up in costumes, whatever age you happen to be. The effect is a bit like a sort of less spooky Halloween, with clowns instead of ghouls; in fact, Halloween didn’t really get started in Germany until 1991, when Carnival was cancelled due to the outbreak of the first Gulf War and, by the time October came around, people were wondering what to do with their costumes.

So now Germans dress up twice a year, just to prove they know as much as anyone about the art of letting their hair down, and today there were jesters, scarecrows and random members of the rock band Kiss aplenty.

Sometimes, though, you learn something new. Today, for example, I learned that dinosaurs have feelings, too.

The dinosaur I saw was about four years old, and was clutching a Spongebob Squarepants toy. She was green, with a long tail that dragged along the ground behind her and so was looking a bit grubby. The blood of her last victim (which apparently wasn’t Spongebob Squarepants) was dribbling down her chin, and she was walking reluctantly about three feet behind her parents, who unaccountably weren’t dinosaurs at all.

It seemed that this dinosaur’s feelings had been hurt, and so was scowling in a manner that suggested a recent tantrum. It was the type of four-year-old scowl which, even though her eyes were fixed at a spot about six inches in front of her toes, was clearly directed at the back of her parents’ necks and conveyed the message: “You are dessert.”

I was glad I was on the other side of the street. Dinosaurs do indeed have feelings, but it would be an act of folly to try to pacify one. Especially a green one.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

This is an ex president

In all of yesterday’s excitement with getting my video finished and uploaded, I didn’t have time to mention the German president’s resignation in the face of a series of scandals. If Iran invaded Germany now, there would be nobody to declare a State of Defence, although this being Germany, I’m sure they have some sort of back-up plan. After all, somebody would have to be on hand to declare a State of Defence if Iran invaded while the president was laid up with flu or holidaying on a tropical island as the guest of a businessman, so that base is surely covered.

But uncharacteristically, what the Germans didn’t foresee was what, under these circumstances, would happen to the president’s pension. He’s entitled to a cool €199,000 annually if he serves one or two full terms, or if he is forced from office “for political reasons”, but nowhere does it define what reasons might or might not count as “political”. All the scandals relate to indiscretions he is alleged to have made before he became president. They weren’t political indiscretions, they were personal indiscretions. But they made his position politically untenable.

Had he, for example, resigned because actually being president wasn’t that much fun really and besides he’d met a pole dancer in Las Vegas and decided he preferred her company to that of his wife and assorted government officials and so had to leave because the pole dancer, like everything else that “happens” in Vegas, was staying in Vegas… well, then it would be clear: No pension for you, matey.

But this isn’t like that. Neither is it anything like being forced out of office because the Bundestag had an election and the new government refused to work with the president. He’s not been forced out for political reasons, exactly… but he hasn’t been forced out for completely non-political reasons either. It’s a bit of a grey area, one that wasn’t foreseen by the architects of post-war Germany.

So, cue the next bitter argument. Wulff is a member of the CDU, the senior partner in the governing coalition and a close ally of the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who moved heaven and earth to get him voted in over the more popular choice of the independent Joachim Gauck. Predictably, then, the CDU thinks that Wulff should get his pension; everyone else in the Bundestag thinks he shouldn’t.

Not only that, of course, but the CDU can’t really put Gauck forward as Wulff’s successor, as that would be to admit that they’d made a mistake in insisting on Wulff in the first place; everyone else in the Bundestag thinks that Gauck would be perfect. It isn’t helping matters much that so far (as I write this), two of the top candidates for the job have declined this particular poisoned chalice.

Say what you like about a monarchy (and I am not exactly an out-and-out royalist), at least the British government doesn’t get embroiled in this sort of dilemma. You get the head of state that fate has given you, and then you’re stuck with them, end of discussion. And when the head of state stops being head of state, whether by virtue of eloping with an American divorcee or by virtue of no longer breathing, the next head of state is already lined up. And if the next head of state is called Charles, the chances are he’s been lined up for sixty or seventy years, so everyone knows well in advance what they’re getting and has had plenty of time to prepare.

Of course, if the head of state turns out to have delusions of grandeur and starts trying to rule the country by himself, you have to cut his head off, which is an obvious downside, but at least then everyone knows where they stand.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Vote me!

This video was surprisingly not as difficult to make as I thought it would be, although in preparation I had to watch political campaign ads from three different countries — the most bring twelve minutes of my life (I couldn’t bring myself to do any more).

I was fretting about the images to use for the American ad (the good old “attack ad”) — I don’t have a video editor capable of magnificent swirly graphics and stuff — but then I remembered that I had all that footage from California that I could use. Turn down the colour saturation, make it slow motion, and bingo. I had considered accompanying the mountain with an arrow pointing to the “secret base” and cartoon graphics of a missile and a cat popping up, but that would have been a step too far. It’s supposed to look like a genuine, but failed, attempt at an attack ad, not a caricature.

Incidentally, if, like me, you have ever wondered why American politicians always say, “I’m Dwight Hackenbacker III, and I approve this message,” the answer is that it’s a legal requirement designed to discourage negative advertising campaigns. The thinking is that while you can’t stop candidates from rubbishing the opposition (First Amendment and all that), you can force them to personally identify themselves with their own campaign ads. Overdo the negativity, and in theory voters will punish you.

I was originally going to go for a more polished, professional look for the British ad, but then I saw a party political broadcast featuring Dave in his pre-Prime Minister state (and shirtsleeves) with his back to the Thames wittering on about the National Health Service with all the panache and charisma of a bored goat. The corresponding Labour broadcast was a bit classier, showing scenes of Gordon Brown visiting some factory somewhere, while his disembodied voice said something about how the only way to save money was to spend money. But who could forget that famous video when Gordon was pushed in front of a camera and unwisely told to smile? So obviously, that had to go in, too.

The lion’s share of the tedium I experienced researching this was occasioned by watching German campaign ads, and the thing that struck me was that they all had pretty pictures, but revealed absolutely nothing about the parties or their manifestos. I shouldn’t have been surprised, really: the agendas of all the main political parties are so similar, you simply cannot tell them apart, and besides the German economy is actually doing quite well, so there’s not a great deal to campaign on, except who has the best pictures.

So there it is. In America, you bash your opponent, In Britain, you bore your voters into submission. And in Germany, you hypnotise them.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The fast food scandal

The discussion about the German President’s alleged corruption continues unabated, and now there are accusations of double standards. I’m right now reading an article in the Spiegel about how lower-ranking officials are being persecuted for the tiniest of indiscretions, such as teachers accepting a Christmas present from parents as a mark of gratitude.

The rules are really strict: any gift with a value of more than €10 cannot be accepted at all; even the smallest of gifts has to be declared to the appropriate authority.

A case illustrating the apparent problem is discussed more fully. In one town in Lower Saxony, police officers calling in at the local McDonald’s just before closing time would routinely find an extra burger or two, which would otherwise just have had to be thrown away. Hardly a crime in anyone’s eyes, but the authorities got wind of it and launched a massive investigation. In the end, the officers were sensibly found not guilty of any offence (surprisingly, the one place you’re most likely to find common sense in Germany is in the courtroom), but not before a hugely expensive operation.

However, there is one small piece of information, a chicken nugget of pure gold, that made reading the whole article worth every boring subordinate clause. In Germany, there’s no watchdog or ombudsman for the police, no equivalent of the British Independent Police Complaints Commission. If a complaint is made against police officers, this has to be investigated by the police. To avoid the obvious conflict of interests here, the investigating officers are brought in from another state.

In this case, the officers spending taxpayers’ money spying on other officers ordering their calories from a fast-food restaurant came from the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg.

Ah, I see you were ahead of me on that one. Well done.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Not quite got the hang of it

It’s Valentine’s Day, in case you haven’t noticed; not a festival that has a great or long tradition in Germany.

Not that Germans always live up to the stereotype of the cold, calculating Teuton who woos his beloved by convincing her that according to paragraph 4763.1, sub-paragraph 7, item B(iv) of the Cohabitation and Marriage Tax Allowance Calculation Tables Act of 1967 as amended by the 2004 Appendix 4c they would be better off by €1.64 per month if they lived together. Germans are in fact quite capable of romance, with sales of wine, chocolate and fluffy teddy-bears peaking noticeably in the first two weeks of February.

It’s just that where Valentine’s Day is concerned, they don’t seem to have quite got the hang of it, as proven in today’s local paper, which had a page dedicated to Valentine’s Day small ads. The majority, it is fair to say, had understood what was expected of them, with messages being addressed to “Liebling”, “Schatz” and “Schmusebär” (and if you don’t speak German, you probably don’t need me to tell you that these are all terms of endearment, which makes this parenthesis somewhat superfluous).

Some of the others, though, were slightly off the mark. I suppose it’s quite sweet that some messages were signed not just by the spouse, but the children as well. Not quite right — it’s romantic love, not family ties, we’re celebrating — but both German and English only have one word each for “love” to stand in for what the Greeks had something like forty-six words (or three, I can never quite remember), and we do hope that children love their parents (just not in a romantic way). All the same, the message addressed to an unidentified female and signed by two anonymous males does leave me with the burning question: was it written by her husband and son, or is it evidence of the most improbably romantic ménage à trois I have ever encountered? (Not, I hasten to add, that I have experienced very many. I haven’t experienced any first hand, at any rate.)

But in amongst all the gooey promises of undying love and eternal adoration, some of them employing multiple exclamation marks, I noticed at least three birthday greetings. Decorated with images of Cupid. Two of them were addressed to grandmothers; one to a grandfather.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Snow and social cohesion

We had some snow today. An inch or two of light, fluffy, powdery snow, which gave me the chance to do a bit of physical exercise and catch up with some of the neighbours. This is probably the most valuable aspect of this tradition, practiced most years, as Germans emerge from their homes clad in Warm Jackets and Proper Boots (the most dedicated may even don Ear Muffs or Woolly Hats), wield their Snow Shovels and have a bit of a natter.

The great thing about this custom is that you always have a conversation opener right at your fingertips. “Well, the forecast was right for a change” is usually a good one; or “I expect it will start snowing again the moment we finish, ha ha” for those who like to share a wry chuckle. I opted for: “It’s interesting to see where the cats have been.” That one never gets old.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The evolution of debate

Today is the 203rd anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the man widely held responsible for the theory of evolution. Actually, his ideas weren’t all that revolutionary even for the time: the idea of evolution (at the time called “transmutation”) had been knocking around for a bit; basically all he did was to pull together ideas from various sources, add his own observations to the mix, and come up with a mechanism by which new species could evolve naturally. In other words: “Here’s how I think evolution could have happened.”

All the more regrettable, then, that Darwin should now be the epicentre of the mother of all debates, although “debate” is a far too gentle word to describe what is actually happening on the fringes of religious fundamentalism and militant atheism, magnified by the magic of Web 2.0 and a classic case of “giving the rest a bad name” on both sides. There can hardly be a debate more polarized than the religion/science argument, which has now reached “shouting match” status.

All was well, in that mainstream religion either accepted, or elected to keep its nose out of, evolutionary theory, while science considered religion to be not something that science even needs to acknowledge (except for certain branches of science like anthropology, which considers religion as something interesting to study but still doesn’t need even to ask whether any kind deity exists).

The internet ended all that with its ability to give a voice to minorities whose screams then drown out saner arguments. Suddenly, everyone was exposed to religious fundamentalism and, at the same time, rampant materialism. And each side decided they had something to say about the other. While real scientists and real theologians, who are sensible enough to understand that they’re answering different questions, left the room clamping their hands over their ears in a vain attempt to shut out the din, anyone remaining was forced to take up one of two extremist positions. Religious fundamentalists, trying to make their ideas sound respectable, came up with a Frankenstein’s monster of philosophy, the infamous “Intelligent Design” hypothesis, which manages the rare trick of being both bad science and bad theology. This was in part a response to the atheist fundamentalists’ use of Charles Darwin and evolution as a stick to beat religious people with.

This is probably the most horrifically ironic part of the whole phenomenon. Anyone foolish enough to take part in the debate must choose which extremist position they prefer to take up, lest they be shouted down and villified by both sides simulteneously (and I have had that dubious pleasure myself). It seems that you cannot accept the theory of evolution as fact without rejecting every single religious or spiritual belief you have ever held (one of the rare points of agreement between the two extremes). This has the effect that atheism — as practiced by those extremist fundamentalists who make sensible atheists weep for humanity and consider living in a cave — seeks to convert with a missionary zeal that makes the Jehovah’s Witnesses look like Buddhists. Those who don’t wish to convert are thus pushed to the other fundamentalist extreme, thus swelling their numbers more efficiently than any mass baptisms ever did.

Worse, it also means that a large number of these atheists are former religious fundamentalists who converted. The problem is not actually what you believe; the problem is how you believe it. To the outsider who knows nothing of the existence of vast numbers of thoughtful and sensible people, atheism is beginning to look more and more like a religion.

Both fundamentalist positions share the same characteristics. They have their sacred texts (the Bible versus On the Origin of Species). They have their Messiahs (Jesus versus Charles Darwin). They have their Apostles (St Paul and Richard Dawkins). They have their favourite phrases to be trotted out at every opportunity (“All scripture is God-breathed” and “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”). They have their favourite arguments to fall back on when other arguments fail. When that fails, they use straw-man arguments. When that fails, they resort to personal insults. Each side characterizes as “deluded” anyone who does not agree with them, and accuses the other side of all kinds of moral shortcomings. Religious fundamentalists believe anyone who isn’t one of them is going to hell. Atheist fundamentalists take as gospel truth Dawkins’s opinion that even the most benign form of religious belief is a poison that threatens the very fabric of society (ironically pretty much how critics viewed Darwin’s work).

But the person whose reputation has really taken a hit is Darwin. An eminent scientist whose meticulous observations and flash of insight advanced our understanding of the natural world, he is now claimed by both sides as one of theirs, as if each has a hold on one of his ghost’s arms and is refusing to let go. “Atheists” claim, with very little evidence, that he suffered a crisis of belief and died an atheist. “Christians” believe, with no evidence at all, that he had a deathbed reconversion. The truth is that Darwin’s experiences did cause him to re-examine his faith; what conclusion, if any, he came to about that is a secret he and anyone he confided in apparently took with them to the grave.

There can be no greater illustration of the ridiculousness of the situation than that. Darwin certainly never deserved this. He spent a lifetime simply trying to apply a little common sense to evidence and so shed some light on why things are the way they are. It nearly cost him his health, it may or may not have cost him his faith; and all his work is good for, it seems, is to set off two groups of equally ignorant and bigoted people against each other.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Going slightly mad

It’s been a while since I last made a video, and surprisingly difficult, after a few weeks, to get back into the swing of things. So this is a vlog, explaining a bit about why I haven’t made one recently. And actually, what I say in the video isn’t far off the truth.

In addition, winter is always very difficult to film in because I am so reliant on natural light. This is actually a real handicap, but maybe one day I’ll have something sorted out.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Scraping the bottom of the barrel

The scandal surrounding the German President has reached the point at which things are beginning to look just slightly ridiculous.

The scandal that started the whole thing, the one about the loan, was somewhat concerning, but not the end of the world until other scandals surfaced onto the tabloids’ front pages: the extravagant parties, the exotic holidays paid for by “friends” in industry, the free flights, and so on. Not exactly corruption on a grand scale, but a potential conflict of interests and against the rules.

Just lately, though, the bottom of the barrel has been well and truly scraped. Every last indescretion, irregularity and mistake is being fished out, scrutinized, polished and presented to the public. It was probably when they got to the car that Wulff on slightly cheaper terms than most people would have done that the journalists should probably have taken the moment to pause and reflect on whether the public interest was really being served here.

Obviously, they didn’t, because we now have what may possibly go down in history as Nokiagate. Which can be summed up as follows: Friend lends President (long, long before he becomes President) mobile phone. President (long, long before he becomes President) pays for phone charges.

This is being reported by the press in a sort of smug schadenfreude, even by the otherwise perfectly respectable weekly publication Der Spiegel. That publication at least admitts that there was no question of any impropriety, but nevertheless maintains that the case “raises questions”. And proceeds to list all the questions it raises — all one of them: Why did he borrow a phone from a businessman? It then cites Wulff’s lawyer as saying it was a “purely private matter”, and that’s where the cutting-edge investigative journalism comes to an end. Instead of exploring the question further and explaining why anyone should even care, the article simply reiterates all the scandals that have come to light so far (as if keen to keep a running total, lest we momentarily forget the score). Finally, there is that damning statement to the effect that Wulff hasn’t returned the Spiegel’s calls, but does have the grace to suggest that the fact that he isn’t in the country right now may have some bearing on that.

You have to wonder what they’re going to come up with next. At this rate, it will be the news that he once accidentally put a plastic wrapper in the paper recycling bin.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

You mean I won?

I’ve often wondered what happens if you click on one of those Twitter spam links. You know, where you get a tweet from a complete stranger that goes, “@rewboss”. You look at the person’s profile and discover that their profile is full of these tweets, so you report them for spam and retire in the certain knowledge that you have, in a small way, contributed to the sum total of happiness.

Well, emboldened by the fact that I happened to be working with my Chromebook (which Google assures us is completely immune to any kind of malware), I decided to try one of these links, just to see what would happen. The good news is that I am still working with my Chromebook and nothing seems to have blown up just yet.

I suppose I shouldn’t have expected much. If you’re going to click on a spammy link like that, you’d probably fall for almost anything, so the creators of the site I ended up at hadn’t really put a great deal of effort into making it look even slightly plausible, which was faintly disappointing — like watching a movie with half-hearted special effects: you know it’s all CGI, you just want to be able to make believe it isn’t.

Basically, I won an iPad. Or I won the chance to test an iPad — it wasn’t entirely clear which. A JavaScript counter informed me I had five minutes to sign up. No — four minutes fifty. Four minutes forty-five. And so on. If I didn’t sign up fast enough, my iPad would go to somebody else in Berlin, which is only about three hundred miles out.

The best thing was the testimonials. There were three, all in English (the entire page was in English), all raving about how they thought it was a joke but filled out the forms and now have shiny new iPads to play with, and all accompanied by pictures of the proud owners holding their iPads to the camera. There was Miss Vaguely-Mexican-Name from Berlin, Mr Anglo-Saxon-Name from Hamburg and Mr Probably-Scandinavian-Name from Munich.

Ah no, my mistake: “Muenchen”, not “Munich”. Very easily confused; after all, “Muenchen” is the German name for Munich, although normally spelled with an umlaut: “München”. Helpfully, Mr Probably-Scandinavian-Name had supplied a photo taken outside his home, which revealed that his home town was not, as you might imagine knowing that the offer was specifically for Germans, Munich, Upper Bavaria; but Muenchen, California.

Unbelievably, the well-known metropolis of Muenchen, California has been completely left out of the Google Maps database. Such an oversight is not the kind of thing Google is usually prone to, but I’m sure the good citizens of Muenchen will launch an appeal to get their city back on the map.

Anyhow, I decided not to take up the offer. I already have a Chromebook; I really don’t need an iPad as well.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Neighbours, everybody needs good neighbours

A little while back, I blogged about the Squealing Wheels Problem of the little railway that connects our valley to civilisation (even if it is Hanau, which I am told technically counts as civilisation). The problem was no so much the squealing wheels and a host of other problems, but the unforgivable fact that the railway is run by the Hessians.

This morning, the newspaper reported that the man in charge of running our little line had been summoned to Munich to answer a few awkward questions regarding the reliability of the line. If you read only the headline and the first couple of paragraphs, you’d be forgiven for thinking that criminal proceedings and possibly a public hanging were in the offing. At the very least, the CEO of the company would be tarred, feathered and hauled over hot coals. Finally, retribution. Even Amnesty International, normally so squeamish about torture, would turn a blind eye to this one.

Anyone who actually read the entire article, though, would come away with a slightly different impression. While it is true that, of the dozen or so privately run railways in Bavaria, ours is the worst rated, the verdict of the commission looking into the issue was that the situation was “bad, but by no means catastrophic”. To the chagrin of those who believe the Hessians are rank somewhere between Neanderthal and chimp, half the problems that beset the railway are not the operator’s fault at all, but the fault of the company responsible for the infrastructure — a Bavarian company. And as for the commonest complaint, that since the Hessians took over the trains have always been late, our railway is the most punctual of the Bavarian private railways, with 98% of trains running on time, about the same rate as it was when the Bavarians were in charge.

It’s one of those strange facts in life that it is our immediate neighbours we despise the most. This is just further proof of that.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Feline update

As I privately predicted, I failed relatively early on in my bid to blog every day in February, but I’d had a slightly fraught day and didn’t get home until 9.30pm. And I had a bottle of Scotch to open (a classy one, too, with a cork stopper instead of a metal screw top).

Allow me, therefore, to update everyone on Bonnie and Clyde, our fine furry feline friends. As some of you who have been with me for some time know, Bonnie and Clyde are brother and sister and used to be pretty much inseparable.

That changed last autumn, though, when they had a bit of a falling out. The Middle East was playing out right there in our living room, and eventually we had to separate them. This actually didn’t prove all that difficult: Bonnie, who values her freedom, could go upstairs in my office with 24/7 access to the stairs and the cellar and from there to the cats’ secret exit to the outside world; Clyde, who is philosophical enough to stand being incarcerated for several hours at a time, could go downstairs and resign himself to sleeping indoors at night. It worked surprisingly well, although at first some sleight-of-door was required, and my wife and I had to communicate via Skype as we had to make sure only one cat at a time went out into the garden. (We relaxed that rule a bit later.)

It seems that this sort of thing is a common problem with cats of their age, and what you need in these situations is a nervous system of steel and a whole lot of patience. It takes, in our experience, months, but eventually you may, if you’re lucky, discover that things start to improve.

Now we’ve reached the point where Bonnie seems to have got Clyde where she wants him, which is cowering at the other end of the room. Basically, Clyde is a well-meaning gentle sort of cat, but much bigger than Bonnie and would get carried away playing with her, sometimes hurting her unintentionally. Bonnie had to first overcome her fear of him, then assert her authority over him, which is what she appears almost to have accomplished. She needs to know he won’t pin her to the ground. He needs to know he mustn’t run after her all the time.

Bonnie has been working to her own timetable. She’s now started coming in downstairs, and this afternoon even dozed off in the living room, just to prove how relaxed she’s become.

We still can’t have the cats in the same room. But things are moving in the right direction.