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.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Try, try again

It’s an exhausting business, writing stuff. Any writer will tell you this, and I don’t even count myself as a writer (although I’m on Day Five of my Let’s-See-If-I-Can-Blog-Daily-For-A-Whole-Month experiment): it’s not just a simple process of typing a few well-chosen words in the correct order. It’s about realising that most of the stuff you do get around to writing probably won’t be seen by anybody who hasn’t taken up residence in your wastepaper basket.

Earlier today, one the ultra-sensationalist free papers that get thrust at us whether we want them or not carried a story about some residents who were “up in arms” and “about to man the barricades” having received the news that a funeral parlour was setting up business in their street. Clearly, this was a failed tabloid journalist’s attempt to make a scandal out of molehill, but I found there was no way of writing about it in a humorous fashion without making it seem as if I was making fun of people who found dead bodies a bit creepy. For me, humour can be as black and as morbid as you like, but not cruel.

I could have written about the cold weather, and especially about how Britain has gone into panic mode again, but I’ve flogged that horse to the point where even a German would wave me to silence and say, “Okay, we’ve got the joke now, try something else.” There’s nothing much to be mined comedy-wise from the fact that we’ve been doing our taxes this weekend; and the fact that Clyde twice walked into the house covered in so much dust that great clouds of it flew up when I tried to pet him is one of those “you had to be there” moments and not enough for an entire blog post.

So instead, I am writing about the difficulty of writing (and the same goes for videomaking) and emphasising the golden rule which is: Most of what you write (or film) will be garbage, but that’s no reason not to do it. Write, write, write and write (or film, film, film and film) and eventually, you’ll strike gold. Maybe not much, but enough.

Not that everyone is a born writer, of course. But I get a bit testy when I see somebody posting to the YouTube Creator’s Corner forum disappointed that success doesn’t come instantly and gloomily concluding that they’re no good at videomaking. A lot of them post this because, in their Eeyore-like view of the world, they have at some point decided that the only thing they can do is post illegal music videos and have just been dinged for copyright infringement. “I’m no good at videos,” they say; but usually, if they have tried, they gave up too quickly.

My advice: Make original videos anyway. Post them. Then watch them over and over again, and identify as many mistakes as you can. Then make more videos, avoiding the mistakes you identified. Then watch those… and so on. Keep doing that, and eventually (if you do it right) you’ll have a video that’s actually halfway good.

And then anything’s possible.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Not quite Siberia

It’s cold. One newspaper reporting on the cold weather explained that this was due to cold air coming in from Siberia, before helpfully adding: “It is, however, not actually as cold here as it is in Siberia.” Or, indeed, Romania, where it’s almost at the stage that if you sneeze, it hits the ground with a thud.

The weather here can be summed up as “cold, but not that cold”. It is, of course, colder than in Britain where, as is the custom every year, the emergency services are on high alert and the tabloids full of horror stories involving “patches of ice” and “up to two inches of snow”, but I have written enough on that particular subject in one form or another that I really don’t need to bang on about it now.

It’s cold enough that even Bonnie is reluctant to go outside. This is a problem, because she has far too much energy for a cat her size (Einstein, had he known her, would have been in serious doubt as to whether E=mc² could come close to describing the number of ergs represented by her mass), and so she’s constantly begging me to play with her. I wouldn’t mind, but “Sorry I couldn’t meet the deadline, I had to teach my cat to juggle toy mice” doesn’t really cut it.

But at least I have a warm jacket. My wife bought it for me some time ago, and at last I have had a chance to try it out. It’s a nice jacket, and very warm, but includes a whole range of mysterious features. Like a digital camera that has too many software menus for you to memorize, this jacket, once you have removed all the tags (itself a daunting task, and there’s always one you don’t notice and so it dangles down your back to the amusement of passers-by), boasts a range of zips, velcro strips, toggles and studs to put the flight deck of a 747 to shame. Putting it on is like donning a spacesuit, except that in a spacesuit, there’s less chance of getting tangled up in what turns out to be a removable lining.

Don’t get me wrong, I like it. It’s just that in the 21st century, you shouldn’t be spending more time putting on and taking off an item of clothing than you do actually wearing it.

But still, I do appreciate it, because the weather is cold. Not quite Siberia, but cold.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A nation of animal-lovers

Traditionally, it’s us Brits who get the reputation for going all sentimental about animals. It is sometimes said of British drivers that they would rather swerve into a lamp-post than risk hitting a squirrel. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, it is regularly pointed out, was originally formed as an offshoot of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. And note that the former never received the honour of being allowed to call itself a “royal” society.

But the British love of animals is as nothing compared to the German obsession with all creatures great and small. Only the Germans could really make a media sensation out of a polar bear, for example. When Knut died, I almost expected there to be calls for a state funeral, so great was the outpouring of grief.

But Knut was soon forgotten, because along came Heidi, the cross-eyed opossum. I don’t know how many opossums there are in German zoos at the moment (the results of the latest opossum census are not currently available to me, chiefly because I can’t be bothered to look for them), but I’m guessing that it’s a few. None of them ever get any attention (they’re the sort of animals you politely look at on your way to the lion enclosure), except for this one Heidi, on the grounds that she looks — or rather, looked — as if she was trying to look up her own nostrils.

She was put down last September, suffering from the effects of old age, and at the time Leipzig Zoo promised that she would be stuffed and mounted so that — get this — members of the public could “express their grief”. Maybe that’s the difference between a dictatorship and a democracy: a dictatorship is where a deceased leader lies in state so that people can shuffle past and pay their last respects; in a democracy, it’s the same, but with marsupials.

But now comes heart-breaking news: the announcement that the zoo has now given up trying to stuff the ex-opossum. It wasn’t just the “technical scale” of the project, but that the zoo wanted to “preserve positive memories” of the creature.

The mind boggles. Was the taxidermist really that bad?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Border control

There’s an article in today’s paper about how badly run the little railway is that goes through our valley. The rot set in, apparently, when a company from Hesse took over. Never mind that half the problems catalogued existed before the takeover. Never mind either that half the remaining problems aren’t the operator’s fault at all. The important thing is that the operator is from Hesse, and so is responsible for everything that goes wrong, including the stuff it’s not responsible for, in stark contrast to the pre-takeover days when any problems that did occur were part of the rich tapestry of life. The Squealing Wheels Problem used to be just one of those things, and since there are no trains at night there was no point in getting worked up about it. Now that the Hessians are in charge, the Squealing Wheels Problem is an unbearable assault on everyone’s ears and mental health.

You see, we’re in Bavaria, but only just. We are right at the most northwesterly corner of the most northwesterly part of Bavaria, and everything to the north and west is Hesse. The attitude of the locals to all things Hesse is best summed up in this joke:

The local train (the same one that now has the Squealing Wheels Problem) derails. A local journalist interviews the driver. “There was a Hessian on the track,” says the driver. “Then why,” asks the journalist, “didn’t you just run him over?” The driver looks at him and says, “Well, he jumped off the tracks, so I derailed the train and I still missed.”

Talk to anyone from around here, and you quickly get the impression that the Hessians are bad at everything: they’re badly educated, badly behaved, bad at driving (especially the ones from Offenbach), bad dressers, bad lovers and bad at building houses. Their cities are dirtier and noisier, their police ruder and more violent, their speed traps more plentiful and less forgiving.

The local dialect, incidentally, is continually confused with that of Hesse. It’s an easy mistake to make, of course: the dialect is most definitely Franconian, despite the fact that it sounds completely different to the Franconian spoken in other parts of Franconia. Under no circumstances whatsoever can it ever be described as “Hessian”, because it is a completely different dialect with absolutely no features in common. The fact that it sounds exactly the same is just one of those great, unsolved mysteries of life (there’s a rumour that the Higgs Boson may yield an explanation).

One linguist tried to make a point some years ago by placing a large stone monument at the place where the Hessian pronunciation of the German word for “apple” gave way to the Franconian pronunciation. This stone is several miles east of here, roughly halfway between Aschaffenburg and Würzburg. This was reported in all the local media as the border between two subtly different variants of the Franconian dialect.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

I am not a morning person

Comedy writer and tutor Sally Holloway has some advice for people who want to write comedy. According to her, the trick is to get up an hour earlier than normal and, before you do anything else, use “your morning energy, your first flush, your get out of bed and face the world vigour”.

Dear Ms Holloway: What is this “get out of bed and face the world vigour” of which you speak? This is a concept as alien to me as fact-checking is to a tabloid journalist. It’s all I can do, first thing in the morning, to prise my eyelids apart, much less string a coherent sentence together, as my wife will unhappily confirm. My first flush is the one that sends the former contents of my bladder into the sewers; after that, the only flush I can expect to experience before lunchtime is the hot one that comes with the realization that I have blearily trashed the mail and mailed the trash.

My wife has long since given up talking to me before I have at least had one coffee, and even then she takes care never to tell me anything important. Not for fear of destroying my creativity, you understand. At that time of day, I don’t have any creativity, which is why my wife knows better than to engage me in conversation.

Perhaps, Ms Holloway, you’re a morning person; and all I can say is, I envy you. It must be bliss to wake up to glorious sunshine, sweet birdsong and Bill Withers singing Lovely Day, to throw off the fluffy duvet like people do in adverts for low-fat yoghurt, throw open the windows and greet the day with the kind of carefree smile that the rest of us can only hope to achieve by smoking something illegal. We in the rest of the human race aren’t like that.

The most creative morning I had was the one after my cat Clyde had woken me up in the middle of the night and tried to persuade me to get up, which wasn’t like him at all. I successfully ignored him until he gave up, but when six o’clock came round, I found out why he’d been so keen to get me out of bed when I put my hand into a cold puddle of cat sick. There was comedy gold right there, Ms Holloway, but I was too busy using up my creative energy stripping the bed to actually write about it. I believe I may have tweeted the event, but like most things that happen a.m., it’s all a bit of a blur.

Also, I don’t know what kind of e-mails you write, but mine don’t use up any creative energy. They usually say things like, “Please find invoice attached.” Unless I write them less than hour after getting up, in which case they are far more likely to read, “Plesdr find innvoice attacked.”

By all means, give the masses the benefit of your get-out-of-bed-and-face-the-world-vigour. I think the masses would appreciate it if I didn’t give them mine.