Friday, November 15, 2013

Doctor W... Woah!

This isn’t going to make any sense to anyone who doesn’t follow my favourite TV show, Doctor Who, so if that’s you, you should probably stop reading now. It is, as I said, my favourite show, but I try not to obsess about it. I don’t have a TV (and in any case I’m in Germany, and by the way, the actor they got to dub Matt Smith’s voice sounds nothing like Matt Smith), but rather than move heaven and earth to see episodes as they go out or search for illegally-uploaded full episodes (which are usually not full episodes, but a screen grab and a description with a link that promises to let me watch it if I let a stranger have my credit card number), I wait until they come out on DVD. That does mean I spend half my time online trying (often unsuccessfully) to avoid spoilers, but this is one of those rare times when I’m fully caught up, so I’m in a self-indulgent mood.

There’s a lot of buzz and speculation about the upcoming 50th anniversary special, which we now know will feature Matt Smith, David Tenant... and a previously unknown incarnation played by — oh my gosh! — John Hurt.

Now it seems that, a week before the big day (and the episode cleverly called The Day of the Doctor — see what they did there?), Steven Moffat has either just let the cat out of the bag in a big way, or has given us one almighty red herring. But let’s just back up a bit, back to the RTD era and the 2005 revival.

One of the important things about the 2005 revival was that it was a revival and not a reboot; it was a continuation of the series, but didn’t pick up where it left off. The last time we saw the Doctor on screen (aside from the occasional parody and the little-known but quite wonderful animated adventure Scream of the Shalka, featuring an alternate 9th Doctor) was in the 1996 made-for-TV movie that failed to start a new series, in which he was played by Paul McGann. In 2005 we met an apparently newly-regenerated 9th Doctor played by Christopher Eccleston (in Rose, he sees himself in a mirror and complains about his ears). We never saw the regeneration, though.

But the Doctor was very different from the last time we saw him. The 8th Doctor was a romantic hero: the 9th was battle-weary, and suffering from survival guilt. We learned that he had been in a war, the Time War, which had destroyed both the Daleks and the Time Lords, and that he was one of the very few survivors. And we learned that somehow he was responsible for the double genocide.

Davies probably didn’t have a long-term plan in mind. The reason we never saw the regeneration was because it was one of the mistakes of the 1996 movie: new audiences we left cold when the character they had just got to know inexplicably changed partway through. The reason for the destruction of Gallifrey was to bring back some of the loneliness to the Doctor’s character, which had been lost as the classic series had gone all soap-opera-y. The reason for his mental battle scars was to re-introduce some danger to the character, make him more ambiguous and unpredictable, as he was way back in 1963 when he kidnapped Ian and Barbara and spent much of the next few months trying to engineer their deaths.

My theory is that Davies unwittingly gave Moffat a nice, big hole to explore in what we know of the Doctor: a regeneration and a war we didn’t see. But more than that: a lot of other unexplained things as well. In Doomsday, for example, the Doctor tells the Cult of Skaro that he survived the Time War by fighting on the front line, before taunting the Cult for having run away; later, in Journey’s End, the Doctor talks about being unable to save Davros.

These stories were penned, remember, by Davies. Moffat didn’t come up with the idea of the Doctor as a mighty warrior: he expanded on it. In A Good Man Goes to War, the Doctor’s warrior instincts resurface, but it takes a severe dressing-down by River Song for him to see it. If, like me, you were slightly uncomfortable with the way the Doctor casually blows up a load of ships just to get the Cybermen’s attention, the explanation for his actions is clearly in his as-yet-untold past.

The thing is, this grates a little. The image of the Doctor, any incarnation of the Doctor, fighting in a war and single-handedly wiping out two civilizations, is preposterous. This, remember, is the same man who, in Genesis of the Daleks, refuses, when he has the chance, to prevent the creation of the Daleks from ever happening, agonising over whether he has the right. What brought about this change?

So there was a vast, untold story, and a space within which to tell that story, and the 50th anniversary special coming up. How could Moffat have resisted?

So in The Name of the Doctor, now clearly the first installment of a trilogy (more on that later), we get a shocking reveal. There is an aspect of the Doctor we have never seen before. To refresh your memory: Clara has thrown herself into the Doctor’s timestream to undo the damage done by the Great Intelligence. Here’s the scene:

More recently, Moffat has said — in one of his infuriatingly cryptic statements — that we have been “lied to” all this time. As River Song says, rule number one is that the Doctor lies. There’s something lurking in the Doctor’s past that we haven’t been told about.

Speculation, obviously, went wild, and theories as to what part John Hurt is actually playing were rife. The 11th Doctor explains that this strange, shadowy figure looking out over the graves at Trenzalore is him, but not “the Doctor”. Yet on screen, Hurt is credited as the Doctor. Intriguing; but since the actual name of the Doctor is still shrouded in secrecy, perhaps there was no other way to describe the character to us. It turns out that the episode was called The Name of the Doctor not because we find out what his name is (although we were led to believe that’s what would happen, leaving us worried that it would turn out to be Keith), but because we find out the significance, to a Time Lord, of choosing his own moniker.

Then we got the first proper trailers for The Day of the Doctor:

This, the second trailer, begins with the 11th Doctor explaining that there is one life he has tried to forget. But what really set bloggers’ keyboards rattling was Hurt’s costume: he is clearly wearing the 9th Doctor’s leather jacket. And underneath it, something that looks like something the 8th Doctor would wear.

A favourite theory at this point was that Hurt was playing a sort of transitional Doctor, perhaps something like the Watcher (between his fourth and fifth incarnations) or the Valeyard (between his 12th and 13th incarnations). It was logical to assume, then, that if Hurt’s character was some sort of mixture of two Doctors, his clothes would reflect that. Moffat has since said he didn’t think the costume was supposed to be that, but while rule number one may not exactly be that Moffat always lies, it is certainly true that Moffat is very devious with the truth. He’s the writer, so may not have had any say in Hurt’s costume. That doesn’t mean the wardrobe didn’t read the script and come up with an appropriate costume for it.

Intriguingly, the BBC also released this short clip, which has a surprising detail:

Just behind the Doctor’s left shoulder, as we see his reaction to the unveiling of the painting, there is a woman wearing the fourth Doctor’s scarf — or something remarkably like it. Significant detail, red herring or just a nod to the series’ past? (I suspect the episode might just have little references to past Doctors and that there’s no more significance to it than simply that.)

But then the BBC released a 6-minute mini-episode on YouTube, entitled The Night of the Doctor, obviously the second part of a trilogy beginning with The Name... and concluding (I would imagine) with The Day... If you haven’t seen it yet, you may want to watch it before reading the rest of this article:

Woah! Not the Doctor we were expecting.

There’s a lot here to please fans. First of all, it features the 8th Doctor. This, after constant denials by writer and actor that McGann would be taking part in the anniversary special. Those denials were the truth and nothing but the truth, they just weren’t the whole truth: not the special itself, but its prequel. And then there’s the way the Doctor recites a list of names as he is about to drink the elixir: although he was only on screen for one story, he had a pretty good run in the semi-official Big Finish audio adventures, and those are the names of the companions he had in those adventures. Die-hard Who fans everywhere could be heard cheering as Moffat, in two seconds flat, brings the highly-regarded audio plays into the official canon.

But unless this is Moffat’s most devious piece of misdirection ever (a possibility that cannot be completely ruled out), we can probably forget any theories involving “the War Doctor” (as he is here credited) as some sort of not-quite-real version of the Doctor. It’s very clear: the 8th Doctor regenerates, not into the 9th Doctor as we had all assumed, but into a man who was the same Time Lord but, as his first words in the voice of John Hurt make clear, “Doctor no more”.

Unless I have got this very wrong, the man who normally calls himself “the Doctor” regenerates, and temporarily gives up that title and with it its attendant promise (to... never kill in cold blood?) in order to play his part in the Time War, fighting as a warrior to save the universe, but at a terrible cost. Later, when he regenerates again, he resumes the title and becomes the 9th Doctor, even though he is the 10th incarnation of that particular Time Lord. He retains the battered old leather jacket until his next regeneration, and the battered old jury-rigged TARDIS until the regeneration after that, which perhaps Moffat is interpreting as a metaphor for his slowly leaving this shameful incarnation behind, even though — as with A Good Man Goes to War — it inevitably never quite goes away again. And now he has to directly confront, and admit to, this past.

But we’re left with a new problem. Traditionally, a Time Lord can regenerate twelve times. And now we discover that the 11th Doctor is in fact the 12th incarnation of [insert unknown name here], which means that the 12th Doctor (who we now know is to be played by Peter Capaldi) ought to be the last, worrying fans everywhere. And yet Moffat, in another typically infuriating interview, has said that yes, the 12-regeneration limit stays, but that yes, Doctor Who will continue... and that we should all re-watch our DVD collections because there’s something we’ve missed.

Well, River Song did give the Doctor all her remaining regenerations, but that’s too obvious. The Master did manage to cheat, but only by stealing a body, in one of the more grisly ideas to come from the Tom Baker days. Fans were left wildly counting on their fingers: there isn’t a war on, but is it possible that we miscounted? It didn’t help that Peter Davison, on the same subject, cryptically said that Moffat had laid the groundwork, and then shut up.

Well, I’m looking forward to seeing how that’s going to work out, but it’s a few years down the line. One thing that intrigues me, though, is that in The Night of the Doctor, the Doctor actually dies, but is then brought back to life by the Sisterhood of Karn in what is not (initially) a regeneration, but a resurrection. Does this perhaps reset his regeneration count?

Friday, November 8, 2013

The inevitable march to middle-age decline

At the age of 43¾, little things continually remind me that youth is now but a fond memory and the relentless march of time is delivering me, unresisting, into the arms of old age. As youthful as my looks still are, bits of me are starting to creak, fail and wrinkle.

Right now, it’s my eyes that are giving me grief. In recent months I’ve had the increasing tendency to take my glasses off to read, and over the last week or two I’ve been straining my eyes just working at the computer. Which means that I am about to join the legions of the Varifocal Brigade, that breed of humanity that has to tip their heads back to read posters.

Still, this morning’s bus driver did his best to cheer me up by addressing me as “young man”, which didn’t cheer me up as much as he’d probably hoped because I was left with the nagging feeling that the fact he called me “young” at all was because he thought I would appreciate it: in other words, that I looked old.

Hoping for a sudden miracle which never came, I trudged my gloomy way into the optician’s, which just happens to have a special offer on varifocals at the moment. “That’s quite fortunate,” I explained to the optician. “I think I’m going to need varifocals.”

“Oh, good,” replied the optician. Not really the answer I was looking for, but at least he wasn’t rubbing his hands as he said it.

This optician was nothing if not thorough. Normally, if, when asked to read the bottom line, I start with, “Well... H, I think... A, or maybe R... Squiggle...” the optician will stop me and adjust something. This man was probably as sadistic as it’s possible for an optician to get, as he made me read to the end of the line. “Good!” he said, as I finally slumped back in a cold sweat. I felt like a schoolchild who was making small but significant breakthroughs in learning to read.

Later, with me wearing those sci-fi superspecs they use to find the right prescription, he gave me a card with texts printed at different sizes, pointed to one paragraph (“This is the standard size for the fine print on contracts...”) and asked me to read it out. Well, he’d got the prescription right, so I rattled through the first couple of sentences and thought he’d stop me. Surely it was obvious I was seeing it pin-sharp?

Nope. This is a man who loves the sound of people reading out loud, apparently. It was a long paragraph, and I actually got bored reading it.

He also gave the Dagger of Potential Mid-Life Crisis an extra gratuitous twist when, having asked me if was taking any medication for diabetes, announced: “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you a very personal question. How old are you?”

Here’s a tip for anyone whose job entails asking adults how old they are: the correct way is to ask normally and then, when the answer comes, to look surprised and say, “Gosh, you’re looking good on it, I would never have guessed!”

I was handed over to a nice lady from the sales team who helped me choose a frame and who, at one point, went all apologetic and said, “I’m terribly sorry, but I’m afraid I have to ask how old you are.”

She asked me if I didn’t want a really “chic” frame, which is German for “something that can be seen a mile off”. It’s not just me: one of the things foreigners often tell me they notice first about Germans is their unshakable belief that spectacles are the perfect showcase for avant-garde fashion. I politely explained that, being British, I have a slightly different idea of the aesthetics of eyeware and preferred something more discreet.

Now, as I said, this optician’s is currently having a special offer on varifocals; but I was perfectly well aware that what you get for the price written in huge digits on the posters (preceeded by the tiny word “from”) is a pair of glasses that looks ugly, fits only one person in the entire world (and it isn’t you) and is only of any use if you promise never to work at a computer. A pair that will actually help you see is going to cost so much, they have to make you sit down before telling you. And so it proved.

We did the business of me promising to come back in two weeks to take away a pair of glasses and them promising to suck vast amounts of money from my bank account, during which she needed my address and phone number. Being the clever, practical sort, I just handed over my business card.

“You teach English!” she exclaimed. “Why, that’s the perfect job for you!”

“How so?”

“Well, you being English and all.”

I am very rarely rendered speechless. But really, what was I supposed to say to that?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Video killed the radio star (sort of)

For a few months, until recently, I was on an English-language radio show broadcast on a small community station in the Oldenburg area. I didn’t get to travel up to Oldenburg: I “phoned in” my pieces live via Skype, and it all worked pretty well.

But the imaginately-named English Show came to an end, only to rise again as a TV show. Still on the same community station, but now on TV instead of radio. The downside is that there will only be one show every two months (at least at first), but that’s okay because it means a lot of extra work for me. I’ll now be filming and editing my reports, and sending them in.

The show is going to be called L!ve from the Schlaues Haus, the “Schlaues Haus” being the name of the building where the studios are. It won’t actually be live, but it will be recorded “as live”, which is just as scary.

You don’t have to be in Oldenburg to see it, as it will also be broadcast on the internet. The dates and times of the first show are as follows:
  • Friday, 15th November, 5 pm
  • Saturday, 16th November, 5 pm
  • Sunday, 17th November, 10 pm
  • Wednesday, 20th November, 7 pm and 11 pm
  • Thursday, 21st November, 7pm and 11 pm.
All times are Central European Time.

A good idea would be to follow me on Twitter, and I’ll try to remind you of the broadcasts nearer the time, assuming I remember myself. But after all the broadcasts are over, I’ll be uploading my pieces to YouTube, but in high definition (so you can see all the mistakes in much better quality).

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Filming pets

Filming your pets can be a tricky business, because they won’t adapt to you: you have to adapt to them. They won’t always take direction, although dogs can be trained to follow orders and do tricks, as can some other animals. Other than that, they can be very unpredictable and can spend a lot of time running out of shot, refusing to stay put or doing nothing of any interest at all. And if you can predict what they’ll do in a given situation, the chances are the first time you point a camera at them, they’ll be too interested in the camera.

Our cats, Bonnie and Clyde, are now used to having cameras pointed at them, so most the time cameras get ignored. Even so, getting something interesting on film involves pointing cameras at them a lot. As it happens, there is one thing they enjoy doing with me that is intrinsically interesting: they like to accompany me on short walks.

Still, there’s a great deal more footage that wasn’t used in this video than was used. In a sense, an interesting pet video has to be a sort of “edited highlights”. This one, however, is partly an exception to this, because I chose shots that, put together in the right way, tell a story. To get enough footage to be able to do that meant filming almost the whole time. Shots that might look as if they follow on from each other might in fact have been taken a minute or two apart.

That aside, there is one very important rule when filming pets — and this also applies to children. Get the camera down to their level: their eye level, if you can. For cats, this means holding the camera a couple of inches off the ground: some of those tracking shots involved me walking like a gibbon with lumbago. No wonder it looks a bit rough in places.

One possible way to make this sort of filming slightly more comfortable might be to put the camera on a monopod, and then hold it upside-down. You could then walk normally with a straight back, and you’d only have to worry about keeping your subject in shot and not hitting any stones with your camera. You can then digitally flip the image at the editing stage. The disadvantage of this would be that you would not be able to reach your camera’s controls.

Still, here it is: me going for a walk with the cats.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

How mistranslations occur

Ever been faced with a horrible piece of gobbledegook instead of easy-to-follow instructions? A friend of mine was confronted with this prize offering, after using a translation app:

In convectomaten they dampen the pasta in a perforated container gastronomy. Then pivot in liquid butter.

The original was, of course, in German, a language that presents special difficulties to machine translators because of its unusual word order. It serves as a great example of the complexities of human language: it’s not really the fault of the people who wrote the app, it’s just that modern computers are number-crunching machines and actually have no capacity to think.

So let’s go through the whole thing and see if we can make sense of it.

convectomaten: This would appear to be the German word Konvektomaten, which is Konvektomat plus a grammatical ending. This is a convection oven, as used in the catering industry. These aren’t instructions for your average housewife. So the original German is either im Konvektomaten (“in the convection oven”) or in Konvektomaten (“in convection ovens”). Regardless of which it was, the more idiomatic English rendering would be “in a convection oven”.

they: This very clearly represents the German word Sie. This can have different meanings: it can mean “she”, but if the verb is used in its plural form, it can mean either “they”, or the polite form of “you”. If it’s the latter, it will always be spelled with a capital S. What the app doesn’t understand, of course, is that because this is a set of instructions, it’s more likely “you”. In German, instructions are issued in the polite form in this manner: Helfen Sie mir means “Help me”, for example.

dampen: The German word dämpfen can mean “dampen” — the close similarity of the words is obvious — but in the sense of “suppress”, not “moisten”. In cooking, this word actually means “steam”.

container gastronomy: The German for “container” is Behälter; straightforward enough. The German word Gastronomie refers to the catering business: cafés, restaurants, snack bars and so on are all in the Gastronomie business. Put the two words together, and you get Gastronomiebehälter, which is a catering container, or a food container. These are those standardized stainless steel containers used by caterers and self-service restaurants. The food is cooked in them, and then they are simply transferred to a bain marie to keep them warm, and the food served straight from them. I’m not sure why the app reversed the order of those two words: the original order would actually have made more sense.

pivot: Translate this word into German, and you get schwenken. This can mean other things besides: to rotate, to swivel, to turn, and so on. But in the context of cooking, we use the word “toss”. Incidentally, the word “they” doesn’t appear here: either the app has this time understood that we’re dealing with an instruction, or the original German uses the alternative form, a simple infinitive instead of the third person plural.

liquid: Clearly, this should be “molten” or “melted”.

So I would guess that the original German might have something like this:

Im Konvektomaten, dämpfen Sie die Pasta in einem perforierten Gastronomiebehälter. Danach in flüssiger Butter schwenken.

That may not be exactly what it said, but it must be close. This translates as:

In a convection oven, steam the pasta in a perforated catering container. Then toss in melted butter.

Much better. Not perfect (“toss in melted butter” is ambiguous), but it’s much clearer what it means.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Gained in translation

A big problem with going to the cinema or watching TV in Germany is that not only is the dubbing not as good as it should be, but the translations often leave something to be desired. This is the case even with titles: sometimes, the translation is lacklustre and unimaginative (the Star Trek TV series, for example, was called Raumschiff Enterprise — yes, quite simply the German for “Starship Enterprise”), but quite often you feel the translators just gave up and went home (The Hangover was entitled Hangover, for example).

There are some very, very rare examples where the translators actually came up with a title superior to the original. The movie The Internship, about a couple of clueless lads who land themselves an internship at Google, looks like the kind of screwball comedy I give as wide a berth as possible, but I would like to meet whoever came up with the German title and shake him or her by the hand.

The translator could have stuck with a straightforward translation: the German for “internship” is Praktikum, and as a title, that would have retained the bland, unimaginative ring of the original. Instead:

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Lists rule, apparently

So yesterday, I threw together a quick little video. The whole process — conception, writing, filming, editing and uploading — took me less than a day. At its core, it’s just me reeling off a list of ten fairly random things I just throught of off the top of my head. And twelve hours after I published it, it had twice as many hits as a video I published a week ago. In fact, even while it was still “sending to subscribers’ feeds”, it clocked up at least two dozen views. Here it is:

I still don’t know why people instinctively flocked to this one, but the response so far has been generally positive. It could possibly simply be that YouTube has just tweaked something and now subscription videos are more reliably appearing in feeds, but that’s pure speculation on my part. Or maybe the “list” format is more attractive, because it presents little bite-size nuggets of goodness that are more easily digested. Or I’ve misjudged my audience over the last few months.

It wasn’t something I thought was particularly good. I was proud of the “dubbing” gag, but the rest didn’t seem to me to be more than solidly mediocre. I wanted it to be funnier than it turned out, but it was just something that, as I said, I threw together in an afternoon. It does invite further discussion, of course: lists like this are subjective, and people can always add their own ideas or dispute yours.

One thing I did learn, though, is that the term “cold calling” for a particular type of telemarketing is not generally known in America. The term exists, but apparently as business jargon. So, Americans: for “cold calling” read “telemarketing”.

Monday, September 9, 2013

How to extract cash from other people

I got a phone call this morning — at 7.30 am, I should point out — from the publishers of the Yellow Pages. One of their reps was in my area, and they wanted to know if I would be interested in talking to him about the creation of a QR code, which would “make it easier for people to find your business”, according to the warm, friendly, non-threatening yet businesslike male voice on the other end of the line.

It was one of those moments where you feel that you have slipped into some sort of parallel dimension, one in which everything was basically the same, save for some very small, but significant, differences. I’m no longer in the Yellow Pages, right? Right, but there’s still my (free) online entry. But what use is a QR code online? No, no, I misunderstand: I can use my QR code in all my printed media. But anyone can get a QR code for themselves, completely free, and in seconds. Well yes, but a lot of small businesses don’t know how, so they’re offering this service.

I told them I wasn’t interested and hung up, but that last bit stuck in my mind: a lot of small businesses don’t know how. And so they saw an opportunity to pounce.

The “how” is simple. True, a lot of small businessmen — by which we usually mean plumbers, joiners, tilers, electricians and so on — don’t know how, but they almost certainly know somebody who does know how, even if it’s a 12-year-old nephew. Just to prove the point to myself, I went online and got a free QR code in less than ten seconds. And that ten seconds included the time it took to google for a QR code generator, which led me to And here it is:

So it’s really easy to get one, and it’s free. Granted, it’s a bitmap rather than a vector graphic, but it should scale perfectly well nonetheless.

But do I need it? Well, quite frankly, no; and I doubt that many plumbers, joiners, tilers, electricians and so on would need one either.

QR codes are a great invention, and are put to excellent use. Bus timetables now have QR codes embedded in them, for up-to-the-minute information about delays, cancellations and such. VR cards can be encoded into a QR code which can be printed on a business card. Art galleries have QR codes next to each painting, pointing to lots of information about the painting itself, the artist and so on. They’re brilliant, although I’m not sure I’m willing to have one on a T-shirt.

Why would I use one? Well, perhaps if I were running some kind of special campaign, with a long or cryptic URL: I could have the QR code embedded on billboards and flyers. Such a QR code could include a parameter that tells me, the website owner, where the visitor found the QR code.

But I don’t have billboards and flyers all over the place, and I don’t run the kind of campaign that, say, Coca-Cola or Time Warner might run. And I don’t know any plumbers, joiners, tilers, electricians and so on who do. When I need somebody to fix the sink, I find their phone number in the local phone book or Yellow Pages, or ask my neighbours who they’d recommend. I might google for them, but a printed local directory is likely to be slightly more geographically accurate. What I don’t do is see their posters up everywhere and think, “Gosh, if only that had a QR code, I’d visit their website.”

There’s something about this whole business that leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. It seems to me to be rather opportunistic to try to sell something to somebody who almost certainly doesn’t need it and could have for free if they do. Generally speaking, if somebody does offer you something you’ve never needed before, promising you that it will drive customers to your business, especially if it involves new technology... get the advice of somebody you trust and who knows about this stuff.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

From the virtual cutting room floor

I don’t use every second of footage I shoot. That probably doesn’t need further explanation: after all, if I go somewhere and come away with forty minutes’ worth of material for a ten-minute video, that’s thirty minutes of video sitting on my computer’s hard disk, unused.

Most of that, to be sure, is from trimming down shots. When I’m pointing a camera at something for one of my travel documentaries, I want a good twenty seconds at least; and I’m probably also going to take several shots from various angles, some close-ups of interesting details, some establishing shots from further away. But how will that footage actually get used? That gets decided later, when I am doing the research and writing the script: it might be just a second or two during a montage, or I might spend a whole minute explaining the historical significance of whatever it is we’re looking at.

Sometimes, though, for various reasons, a scene might never get used at all. Often this is because it simply wasn’t relevant: when focusing, for example, on Obernburg’s Roman past and mediaeval remains, a casual mention of a war memorial honouring the dead of the Franco-Prussian War is a complete non-sequitur, no matter how magnificent the memorial is. Other times, the footage was just not usable, such as the spectacular shot through the window of the Merkurbahn funicular in Baden-Baden — a great idea spoiled by the really extraordinarily bright reflections.

So here are some of those scenes, collected into one, commentary-free video.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

So, what have I been up to?

Well, quite a lot really. There’s a sort of irony in the fact that having lots of exciting things to blog about leaves me with little time to blog. I could blog about blogging, which would solve that problem, but I think it would bore me, let alone you.

Perhaps the most important thing that happened to me recently was an actual TV appearance. That’s not as spectacular as it sounds: basically, it’s a tiny, local, private broadcaster called, which broadcasts to two districts. Still, I was interviewed for one of their shows, and if you understand German, you might like to watch it by following this link.

It was fun to do, and they were very nice about it: the interviewer, Sabrina Koblenz, obligingly asked if I’d consider making videos for money, quite deliberately.

In fact, generally I’ve been making sure that people in the area get to know me. I’ve turned up with my camera at a few events in my local village, with the effect that all my neighbours now know what I do. Here’s one:

Kleinkahl is the kind of place where few people can be anonymous for any time, and so by the next event, people were stopping me to ask what I did with my videos, the organiser gave me a shout out and now I feel I pretty much have carte blanche to film anywhere and anything. Why didn’t I think of this before, you may ask? I only moved here in November, is my reply.

I’ve started a playlist for my videos about Kleinkahl, so they’re all in one handy place. I like to think that eventually, it will become an interesting portrait of life in a small German village.

All I need now is for somebody to give me obscene amounts of money to make videos, and I’m all set. Meanwhile, I shall endeavour to blog more.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Enough is enough: no more rape threats

My, but it has been a long time since I last blogged, hasn’t it? But here comes a subject that I can’t say nothing about, even if it isn’t directly related to this blog, or even to me. You see, I’m not a woman. I am, however, a man who was brought up to treat strangers with respect.

As such, I have always been disappointed at the amount of trolling on the internet: there seems to be a class of people who have nothing better to do all day than say nasty things to people they have never actually met. My method of dealing with this, and my advice to others, has always been to quietly delete it and not give the trolls the attention they deserve. Up to a point, I stand by that advice. But only up to that point.

It works for low level trolling, the pathetic attempt to elicit a response from somebody by throwing stupid and vague insults at them. Refuse to rise to the bait, and they go away.

The point beyond which a response is demanded is when specific threats of violence are made, especially when they involve sexual violence and especially when they are made in such numbers that actual debate is no longer possible. Even if those threats are not at all credible (and most are not), they are deeply intimidating. The problem is, especially with such threats and insults directed by men at women, that they are often made with the assumption that the victims should put up and shut up; ignoring them is exactly that, and exactly what the perpetrators want.

I don’t know if the problem has only recently got suddenly much worse, or if it has always been bad. This is because only recently have some of the victims started kicking up a fuss. Are they kicking up a fuss in response to increased trolling, or because after years of silence their patience has finally snapped?

In Britain, this has become a hot topic recently. It first hove into sight on my personal horizon with reports about Professor Mary Beard, a professor of classics who has presented some TV shows about Roman history, and who voiced some opinions of her own on the subject of immigration. People — I should say men — who disagreed with her expressed their disagreement not with reasoned argument, but with nasty comments about her appearance and, yes, threats of sexual violence. Professor Beard’s tactic has been not to shut up, but to retweet some of the offending comments. In one recent case, one of her followers offered to send her the troll’s mother’s address, upon which the troll removed the offending tweet and issued a profound apology, thus neatly fitting into the classic stereotype of the internet troll.

This isn’t the only case, and in the last few days the issue has really hurled itself at the top of the agenda. When it was revealed that, in one of the neverending redesigns to British banknotes, Elizabeth Fry would be replaced by Winston Churchill, meaning that the only woman on British banknotes would henceforth be the Queen herself, a certain Caroline Criado Perez successfully campaigned for one of the other banknotes to feature a woman (in a few years, we can expect to see Jane Austen on the £10 note). All well and good, but Ms Criado Perez was immediately subject to a torrent of vile abuse, about one abusive tweet every minute for a sustained period. But she refused to shut up about it, and so ensured that it would become news, and even the police, hitherto reluctant to get involved in policing the internet (for all kinds of reasons, not least the difficulty and time involved in tracing anonymous tweeters) investigated and have started making arrests.

Then a Member of Parliament, Stella Creasy, spoke up in support of Ms Criado Perez, and was herself subject to similar abuse. Meanwhile, another MP, Claire Perry, made some comments about internet pornography and found herself the target of abuse as well.

The thing is that these instances go beyond just unkind comments and pubescent crudeness. We’re talking about threats that are graphic enough to be actually illegal, and certainly far too graphic for me to want to repeat them here. And whole armies of men are standing on the sidelines, cheering on the trolls and talking about “free speech” and “it’s just a joke”.

Except that it’s not just a joke. Rape isn’t a laughing matter, and some professional comedians really need to be taught the difference between “edgy” and “offensive” (yes, Mr Jimmy Carr, I’m looking at you). The oft-repeated justification that every good joke is bound to be offensive to somebody may be true, but this doesn’t mean that everything that is offensive is a good joke.

My intention here is not to try to point the finger of blame at anyone, but there comes a point where any reasonable person has to say that things have gone way too far and we need to stop. There is quite simply no justification at all for anyone to threaten physical or sexual violence, even “as a joke”. The intention is very obviously to use intimidation and harassment to silence women with strong or unpopular views.

I live in Germany, where any time an extremist right-wing organisation demonstrates, a counter-demonstration of angry local residents, determined to show that they will not tolerate such views, is hastily organised. In once case not far from here, a local priest ordered the church bells to be rung to drown out an inflammatory speech at a right-wing rally.

Journalist Caitlin Moran has suggested that people should boycott Twitter for a day in protest, but it has been pointed out that if such a boycott worked, it would leave Twitter to the trolls, exactly what they’re trying to achieve.

No, we need the opposite. I’m not usually one for online protests, changing all my avatars to show my support for this, that and the other, mostly because I feel them ineffective. That’s because the issues, such pressuring the US Congress to pass a certain law, aren’t affected by what happens online. I always consider it a lazy way to appear to be active without actually doing anything.

But here is an issue that is actually online to begin with, and it relates directly to how people use social media. The message we are trying to convey is directed specifically at online users and hosts.

There have been real life demonstrations by men against domestic violence. So I think men need to demonstrate online against online violence. Rather than leaving it up to the victims, who, when they speak out, are accused of “whining”, it is men who should be standing up and saying: “Enough is enough: we will not allow our mothers, our sisters, our wives, our girlfriends, our daughters to be treated this way.”

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Making a video

Not everybody, it seems, appreciates just how much work actually goes into making even a deceptively simple video. My latest video, for example, consists of me talking to camera in pretty much one take for five minutes, plus a few modest visual effects. It is, in fact, this video:

Nothing to it, right?


Here are all the stages I had to go through to make this video. It took me the best part of two days (I probably could have done it in one if real life didn’t get in the way).

Initial research. This involves finding out about what I want to talk about, which is things you might want to do if you’re in Germany in June. And this involves trawling the internet, looking for likely candidates. Out of countless hundreds on offer, from barbecues to rock festivals, I noted down about twenty-four that caught my eye.

Narrowing down. Having got my shortlist, I had to whittle it down to a small number (I ended up with seven), because frankly, a half-hour video was never going to be an option. The goal was to end up with a mix of different types of festival scattered about Germany. Among those that, for different reasons, went by the wayside were Luther’s Wedding in Wittenberg, the Strawberry Festival in Wolgast, the Ironman contest in Berlin, the Kite Festival in Wyk auf Föhr and (most regretfully of all) the Great Boiled Potato Feast in Nienburg.

Further research. The things left on my final list had to researched more fully, including looking up the official websites (if any). It’s no good, for example, just saying that there is a festival called the Röbeler Fischtage; you might want to know what happens at that festival, and what kind of fish is involved in what way.

Graphics. Each one of the maps is a separate graphic. I don’t have graphics for every single town and city in Germany, so I have to make new ones.

Rehearsal. I want to speak as fluently as possible without reading off a script (although having a list in my hand is pretty much necessary). That means walking about the house talking to myself for a couple of hours.

Setting up. This means setting up the camera and the lighting, and making sure everthing is working properly.

Filming. Even after all that rehearsal, nothing ever goes smoothly while filming. I managed to get through the piece in one go about three times, but each successful attempt was preceded by several false starts, fluffed lines and the like. Because I wanted to do it in one take, each mistake meant starting from scratch. At one point, the battery died, so I had to take the spare and refocus the camera.

Editing. This is almost the easiest part. First I got the most successful shot, added the intro and outro, and then added the other visuals on top.

Rendering. This is the name given to the process whereby the video editor takes the project and uses it to generate an actual video file. This takes half an hour or so.

Review. Simply watching the video to make sure everything went according to plan.

Writing the subtitles. Now I have to write the subtitles, which I do by hand as this is much more reliable and actually less hassle than letting some unpredictable automated system loose on it.

Thumbail. The custom thumbnail comes next, a simple design which takes just a few minutes.

Upload. This took about an hour to upload to YouTube on my connection. This is nail-biting stuff, as any little glitch or power failure could wreck your plans for the rest of the day. This is also where I get to write the video description, with all the handy links to websites for all the events I mentioned.

Adding subtitles and testing them. Subtitles are uploaded separately. I then have to review the video to make certain the subtitles are completely correct, making final edits as necessary.

Publishing. That's just a simple matter of switching the uploaded video to “Public”.

So there you have it. One simple five-minute video: that’s how totally not easy it is.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Why I won’t endorse a political party

Last week, comedienne Susan Calman appeared on a satirical BBC radio show, The News Quiz. On it, she had to answer a question about the pending referendum on independence for Scotland. Being the consummate satirist that she is, she poked fun at politicians on both sides, but consistently refused to state which side of the debate she was on. With good reason: her job is not to tell us what we should think, but to bring the politicians down to earth and expose their little hypocrisies.

As she relates on her blog, things got out of hand, and she found herself on the receiving end of some particularly nasty abuse.

I’m not really a political satirist, although I have come close on occasion. I have certainly expressed political views in my time, but I rather imagine — hope, really — that those who don’t know me personally would have a hard time pinning me down to one particular political ideology or party. Basically, I try, in public, to be apolitical — not for exactly the same reasons as Susan Calman, but certainly because I want to maintain my image as the outsider looking in: the curious and slightly perplexed man with his nose pressed up against the glass trying to work out the rules of the game being played within. If I compromise that, I am no longer credible as an innocent bystander.

I say this because today I was asked by somebody I happen to know if I would appear, if his political career takes off, in a party political video with him.

Well, no.

There are some things I can’t really avoid. If his party wants to embed one of my videos on its website, then fine: it’s a legitimate party, I have not disabled embedding, if they think it will do them any good, okay. This is the internet, links happen.

Just not in any way that implies I endorse the party or any of their candidates. Or in a context that distorts the import of what I was actually saying in the video.

But actually appear in a video made for party political reasons? Never.

Similarly, if any party, as long as it is legal under the German Basic Law, wants me to make a party political video for them, then okay — but I won’t have my name or my face associated with it.

I believe that all political debate is important (until you get into the outer reaches of the fruitcake zone), and that even unpalatable or unpopular views should be heard, if only so that facts and arguments from the other side of the debate can be brought to the table. We live in a democracy, and this is what democracy means. If a party wants to ban women from voting, let them say so, so that other parties can remind us why women should be allowed to vote. And if celebrities want to endorse those views, that is their business. (Am I celebrity? I’ve just been asked to help somebody’s political career by endorsing it, so I feel like a celebrity.)

But to everyone out there who watches my videos, reads this blog and follows me on Twitter: I promise that you will not see me endorse anyone. Maybe a product, if it’s a product a genuinely like. But not a political party. I have built up a reputation as an outsider, and this extends beyond my de facto status as a foreign national. And that, at least in public, is how I intend to remain.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

YouTube: more sophisticated captions

As my regular viewers probably know, I always add closed captions to my videos. Not only do I have an audience split between English-speakers and German-speakers, but I also have a fair sprinkling of hearing-impaired viewers. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it.

Hitherto, YouTube has only officially supported two formats: SubRip and SubViewer. Both are good, both are easy to do by hand (they’re simple text files), both work, but both were only supported to the extent of their official specifications: no formatting of any kind.

When I uploaded my latest video, I noticed that YouTube had quietly introduced support for a raft of additional formats.

This is excellent news, particularly for professional broadcasters, who can now use broadcast-quality standards like EIA-608 for NTSC systems and EBU-STL for PAL. This gives them, assuming YouTube has implemented full support, a lot of flexibility regarding formatting, colours and so on.

For those of us stuck somewhere in the middle, for whom broadcast standard captions are a quagmire of technical jiggery-pokery, YouTube has provided at least partial support for some simpler formats that allow a slightly greater degree of flexibility.

One of those is a relatively new standard called WebVTT, which is designed primarily to allow browsers to implement captions and subtitles for HTML5 playback. Browsers don’t yet support this, but will do (we hope) in the future; since YouTube will eventually — even if it takes a few more years — move over to HTML5 video playback, support for WebVTT would seem the logical thing to do.

WebVTT is particularly attractive to me, because it is basically SubRip plus a few extra features; and I’ve been using SubRip ever since I started captioning my videos.

There are a few things YouTube’s implementation of WebVTT won’t do. Many features, notably colour, would normally be implemented by using stylesheet rules, but for the most basic reasons of security, YouTube can’t let you manipulate the site’s stylesheets. But other features implemented in the caption file itself also aren’t supported: position, alignment and size. (However, including the code for these features doesn’t throw up an error.)

What does work for WebVTT is italics, bold and underlining. Not much, but better than nothing, and it does enable you to add a little more expression, or differentiate between two speakers. YouTube also allows you to insert comments (which are not displayed).

I uploaded a test caption file to a video I had on my test account. You’ll see the formatting early on in the video (later in the video I experimented with the other features, which didn’t work). The button to enable captions is at the bottom, near the right, labelled either “CC” or with an icon representing subtitles at the bottom of a TV screen. Go here to watch the video.

If you are already familar with SubRip, as I was, the changes are minimal:
  • The file begins with the string WEBVTT followed by a blank line.
  • In the timecodes, replace commas with decimal points.
  • Comments are between subtitles, by typing NOTE (in capitals), followed by your comment; a blank line indicates the end of the comment.
  • Italic, bold and underlined text is indicated with HTML-style <i>, <b> and <u> tags.
For example, here is a subtitle in the original SubRip format:

00:00:08,600 --> 00:00:11,520
The microphone is a Rode Videomic,

And here it is converted to WebVTT, with the words “Rode Videomic” in italics:

00:00:08.600 --> 00:00:11.520
The microphone is a <i>Rode Videomic</i>,

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is pretty much it.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Disappearing videos

Before I get started on this, this isn’t a rant: it’s just a description of what has happened to two of my videos, one of which I took down voluntarily, the other of which was taken down by force with a copyright infringement complaint. Other people might rant and rave about such things: I tend to think that there are more things worth ranting and raving about.

The first video to disappear was that time-lapse video some may have seen of a bus journey. The actual time-lapse footage was bracketed between short real-time segments showing general views of bus stations. In those sequences, several people were visible. One of those people approached me last week and asked me to take the video down, for reasons he didn’t specify. It was a polite request, and I complied; not because I necessarily had to (I didn’t deliberately focus on him; he just happened to be in shot) but because the video had probably already run its course and it serves no purpose to gain a reputation. In Germany, the right to one’s own image is actually enshrined in law, and although crowd scenes and people randomly walking into shot are usually legally fine, people take this right extremely seriously. There is an aversion in this country to anything that smacks of a “Big Brother” society. No problem: I can re-edit it to remove the offending shot and upload a new version, if I so wish.

The second video disappeared the very next day. It was a video of me talking about successfully monetizing videos, and if you go there now (at the time of writing this), you will see a message referring to a complaint by New Voyage Communications.

Now, this isn’t the usual run-of-the-mill Content ID match, which is an automated process over which even the claimant doesn’t have full control: this is an actual complaint of copyright infringement pursuant to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Basically, New Voyage saw my video (unless they made a typo in the claim form and were actually trying to take down somebody else’s video), decided that it contained material that rightfully belongs to them and which I was using without their authorisation, and notified YouTube. This in turn means that YouTube is obliged to disable access to my video until the dispute is resolved. It’s important to note that YouTube is not at fault here: this is a legal dispute between me and New Voyage, and YouTube is merely fulfilling its legal obligations in order to avoid being held responsible for users’ infringing activities.

Quite why New Voyage thought my video contained their intellectual property I have no idea. The work they say I infringed is their documentary Tesla, Master of Lightning, which I hadn’t even heard about when I made my video. My best guess is that it’s my intro with the lightning bolts, with appropriate sound effect. (I haven’t seen the documentary, so I don’t know if that’s a possibility, but it sound plausible.)

One of the things this has taught me is that if you ever do receive a DMCA takedown notification, you cannot fail to notice. You get an e-mail for a start (in fact, I received two, one in English and one in German, for some insane reason); when you next visit YouTube you are confronted with a page full of a text, explaining what has happened.

At this point, I would urge anyone in this situation to actually read the text. All too often, the YouTube Help Forums are full of people saying they have received what they call a “copyright strike”, but it quickly becomes clear that they have no idea whether it’s a DMCA takedown or a Content ID match, and that they simply didn’t read the notification before dismissing it. Very often, they ask questions that are actually answered in the notifications they didn’t read, which is really frustrating. One user even copy-pasted the notification, complete with the “Click here to learn more” link, into the forum and asked what it meant and what he was supposed to do.

With this notice, there is an “I acknowledge” button, which you must click on before you can proceed. There is actually a problem here, because this “I acknowledge” button is not the same as the “I acknowledge” button on a Content ID match notice.

On a Content ID match, “I acknowledge” means that you acknowledge that the match is correct and you do not dispute it. They key thing here is that not clicking on that button does not prevent you from continuing and using YouTube. But if you do click on it, you can’t then dispute the match using the form provided by YouTube (although there is nothing stopping you from contacting the claimant directly, as they can release their claim any time they want).

If you are unable to do anything at all except click on “I acknowledge”, then this is a DMCA takedown, and “I acknowledge” simply means “I have read this text and understand that somebody is accusing me of copyright infringement.” There is no problem clicking on that.

You are then taken to Copyright School. If you are sent to Copyright School, even if you believe you did nothing wrong, I strongly urge you to watch the video: as infantile and annoying as it is, it does explain what the legal situation is, in very simple terms. In reality, it’s a lot more complicated, but the video does bust several quite dangerous myths and misconceptions. You then have to answer a series of true/false questions: take time to read the questions properly, and remember them. When you’ve done that, the correct answers are given with a short explanation of each: again, read this stuff, as the Help Forums are full of people who plainly haven’t read it and don’t understand why they’re being penalised.

When that’s done, you can access your account, where you will find you have a copyright strike, and you may also have lost some of your privileges. The video can still be found in your Video Manager, but it will be listed as having been removed. Many people make the mistake at this point of deleting the video, thinking this will remove the copyright strike: again, had they read the information they were given, they would know that this is not the case. A copyright strike may expire of its own accord after at least six months; if you want it removed sooner, you will have to have the dispute resolved in your favour. This is best done by submitting a counter notice, but this can only be done if you have legitimate grounds for doing this. In the entry in your Video Manager, you just click on “Submit Counter-Notification”: this takes you first to a page of text which — and I can’t stress this highly enough — you must read. It is very important that you do so: everyone concerned will assume you have actually done so, so if you do something wrong at this point, it’s your fault.

The counter notification form asks for private contact details, which you are required to give by law. This includes your home address and telephone number. If this worries you, you can have a lawyer submit a counter notification on your behalf, but those fields must be completed honestly and accurately. If you give very obviously false details, your counter notification may be rejected.

There is a field where you must tell YouTube why you are filing a counter notice, and a second field where you may tell the claimant why you are countering. You have a maximum of 200 characters in each field, so make it brief and to the point. Do not threaten or beg: just neutrally state your reasons. “No portion of the word allegedly infringed was used in my video” is a good reason (if it is true, obviously), and you don’t need to say any more than that.

Some people worry that if they abuse this form, they can be sued or prosecuted. Technically, this is true; but for that to happen, you’d have to be abusing the system on an industrial scale. In fact, I have never heard of this ever happening. That said, if you are not certain whether you can legitimate file a counter, you should really ask a legal expert before doing this.

What happens next is that once the claimant receives your counter, they have at least ten working days to respond. They can, if they wish, withdraw their complaint. If YouTube hears nothing at all, YouTube is at liberty (but is not legally required) to restore your video. This usually takes longer than the minimum ten working days.

If the claimant insists on their claim, they must go to court and obtain an order restraining you from your (allegedly) infringing activities. If that happens, you would need to defend yourself in court if you want a chance of regaining your video.

And this is where I could come unstuck, because of course I am in Germany. However, I can appoint somebody in the States to put my defence to the court.

But there is another, oft-overlooked, weapon in my arsenal: I can e-mail the claimant myself, which I plan to do in the next couple of days. Again, don’t threaten, beg or cajole: simply state your case as neutrally as you can. If possible, get somebody who knows a bit about law to at least read through your mail before you send it.

So that’s where I stand right now: counter notice submitted, polite e-mail in the works. I’ll let you know how this pans out.

Update 11 May: Ten working days after I received notification that my counter notice had been sent to the claimant, the complaint has been withdrawn, the copyright strike removed and all my privileges restored.

Friday, April 19, 2013

How to misinterpret a photograph

A couple of days ago, Commander Chris Hadfield, an astronaut currently on board the International Space Station, tweeted a photograph of Berlin by night, remarking on how it still shows the old east-west divide. The next day, The Telegraph picked up this image, and journalist Jeevan Vasagar (who is apparently in Berlin) waxed lyrical on this image, and came to an interesting conclusion. According to him, it “highlights the higher levels of commercial activity in the west”.

Does it?

Here’s the image as reprinted by The Telegraph:

According to the article, the bright lights in the government quarter and along West Berlin’s premier shopping boulevard the Kurfürstendamm contrast with the “softer, yellow glow in the east”. This rather implies that the intrepid journalist believes that the yellow lights are dimmer than the whiter ones, and (although this is a bit ambiguous) that all the bright white lights are either in the west, or in the government quarter.

First, the “softer, yellow glow”. It was a commenter on The Telegraph going by the name of “george” who had the simple idea of desaturating the image — taking the colour out of it. “Find the line of wall now!” he said:

Not so easy. So now, where was the wall exactly? The article suggests all you need do is draw a line where yellow meets white, but in fact there’s a whole mass of white that is actually in former East Berlin; basically, the district of Mitte, central Berlin, where most of the tourists go. I’ve done my best to draw in where the wall went: it may not be completely accurate, but it’s good enough.

So now where are most of the bright lights? Clearly, there’s not much in it at all. In the west, the bright lights are stretched out into a long thin line, while in the east they’re in a large cluster. Now let me just add a few labels (you may need to click to make it readable):

The government quarter straddles the border just north of the Brandenburg Gate and is actually relatively poorly lit, save for a particularly bright spot which I first thought must be the Reichstag, but on reflection is more likely to be the helipad on the Chancellory. Stretching eastwards from the Brandenburg Gate is East Berlin’s main street, Unter den Linden, and you can clearly see where it intersects with Friedrichstrasse. The focal point of East Berlin is Alexanderplatz, which is ablaze. Potsdamer Platz is a new development on former No Man’s Land, while the Culture Forum, just to the west, is where the Philharmonic, the Chamber Music Hall, the State Library, the Crafts Museum and the National Gallery are located.

So there it is: contrary to what one newspaper would have you believe, East Berlin is looking very bright these days.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Monks, monuments and mice

Finally, we got out and about and I have started a new season of “Destination” videos. Last year I did absolutely nothing in this regard, being far too busy with the house. This year, we started early, despite the cold weather (it’s been the longest winter for a long time).

“We”, of course, means me and my ever-loyal wife; but this time we were joined by a friend and his colleague, who had just flown in from New York. Literally, “just” flown in: his flight landed at 11 in the morning, and we met up at one. This was his idea, by the way: a trick to combat jet lag. I hope he made it to work the next morning.

So here it is:

I’m not sure I’m completely happy with the edit: it seems a bit too tight. Then again, some people might appreciate the pace. In my defence, I did have three people in tow, and I didn’t want to ask them to hang around twiddling thumbs while I carefully selected shots and such, so I didn’t have as much footage as I’d normally have had.

Incidentally, I was exposed to an unlikely occupational hazard filming in the monastery church. As I was doing so, I saw something in the corner of my eye, falling, and I distinctly heard it land. It was, in fact, a bat, which appeared to have fallen through a crack in the ceiling. Our friend carefully picked it up in his gloved hand and put it out of the way on a ledge, although it clung very tightly to his thumb.

The story of the Mouse Tower of Bingen is one of those wonderful bits of folklore that make researching history such fun. Archbishop Hatto II did really live, although I haven’t been able to find out if he was as cruel as the legend says (probably not). But according to the full version of the legend, he used the tower to extort tolls from passing ships (it was, in real life, a customs post and watchtower, so that part of the legend is not without foundation), firing on them if the refused. He amassed huge amounts of grain and, when famine came, refused to share them with the peasants. When they complained, he appeared to relent: he told them to go into a barn and he would give them grain. Instead he locked them in and set fire to the barn. As they screamed in pain and terror, he said: “Can you hear the mice squeaking?” And so it was poetic justice that he was killed by hungry mice. Here’s a 16th-century depiction of this grisly affair:

In fact, this story is what is known as a “folk etymology”: the tower was called the “Mouse Tower”, and the legend was invented to fit. In fact, it’s a corruption of a much older word meaning something like “to watch”.

And for those architects who think I got my dates horribly wrong: no, the tower as we see it today is not the original 10th-century version, but a much later replacement.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

...and One Channel to rule them all

Recent visitors to my YouTube channel may have noticed that I have switched over to the new design, which YouTube calls “One Channel”. It is probably just as well they didn’t launch an advertising campaign featuring music by Bob Marley (“One love, one channel, let’s get together and upload videos”), but at least they did give us some useful information to help us prepare for the final roll-out.

Predictably, some people have been very vocal in their opposition to this new design, which always happens when YouTube messes about with the user interface. I’m not going to get into a discussion about how good or bad the new design looks, or whether or not it is going to be a disaster for YouTube and how Google is taking the “You” out of “YouTube” (as if users ever had a say in channel design, or in fact any other aspect of YouTube). The fact is that the new design is coming, whether we like it or not, and YouTube is committed to it.

One Channel has now entered “full beta”, which means that I am no longer a member of the privileged elite: everyone has the ability to opt in by going to the One Channel page, scrolling right down to the bottom and hitting the big blue button. While the design is still in beta testing phase, you will be able to opt out again; but soon the beta phase will be complete and everyone will be permanently switched over, regardless of whether they want to be or not. Please don’t complain to me about this: every single channel design change has been the same.

Why is YouTube doing this? Well, officially at least, it’s to accommodate an ever-growing range of different devices that YouTube has to be viewed on. Not so long ago, it was fine if your website looked great on a desktop and functioned okay on a phone. Now mobile devices, with their small screens, are becoming far more common, while at the opposite end of the scale YouTube is now available on games consoles and TVs. The challenge for YouTube is to come up with a way that lets users design their channel once, but which looks good on smartphones, tablet PCs, netbooks, laptops, desktops (some with very high-resolution displays) and high-definition TV screens. And with phones and tablets, there is the added complication that they can be held vertically or horizontally, plus the next big thing of retina displays, which call for very high-resolution images.

One Channel is YouTube’s response to this. The first thing to note is that it’s goodbye fancy channel backgrounds: for the first time ever (that I can recall), YouTube is taking away the ability for you to design a custom background image for your channel.

This, in itself, has caused a lot of disappointment, as many people have created some very clever channel backgrounds that really gave their channels a pretty unique look. The problem is that this only works if you have a fixed size for your channel, but that’s no longer practicable: we’re back to the days when a fixed layout is no longer acceptable. Change the size of the browser window, and the trailer video (the video that autoplays if you visit my channel page and are not subscribed to it) changes size as well. If I were to design a fancy channel background that puts a beautiful border around my video, it would only work if the browser window was set to a very specific size: at all other sizes, it would look horrible. So, bye-bye channel backgrounds.

But hello, Channel Art. Because what YouTube taketh away, YouTube sometimes giveth back in a slightly different form. Instead of designing a background, you now get to design a graphic that appears as a banner (in different sizes) on most devices, but as a full-sized image on TVs. YouTube has published the specifications for your Channel Art, so you can see how it works and what you need to know. The challenge right now is that the image is big (it has to look really cool on a high-definition TV screen), but the only place you can put your logo is right in the middle. When you upload it, YouTube gives you a preview of how it’s going to look on different displays. Here’s my attempt:

It’s not easy, and I’m not yet completely happy with how mine looks on TV; but for now it works.

As I said, like it or not, this new design will eventually be mandatory; so unless you’re going to vote with your feet and leave YouTube for good, it would be wise to start preparing now. In addition to the information YouTube has already given, let me offer a few extra tips of my own:
  • The trailer video will autoplay for anyone visiting your channel who is not subscribed to it. This is your opportunity to explain what your channel is about and why people should subscribe to it. Remember that it will autoplay, so don’t make it annoyingly loud, or potential subscribers may instantly leave your page, never to return. But do try to subtly attract their attention. My current trailer is somewhat of a placeholder until I can find the time and inspiration to make something a bit cooler, but I do like my suggestion that subscribing will make this annoying video go away.
  • Also make your trailer brief and snappy. MysteryGuitarMan has managed to create a 30-second video which I think works extremely well (and I’m not talking about the special effects, although they’re cool too).
  • I uploaded my trailer as unlisted, primarily so as not to plague my existing subscribers with reasons they should subscribe. But when I went to set it as the trailer, it didn’t show up on the selection of videos that popped up: it only showed public videos. But no matter, because there was a space to copy and paste the video URL into, and that worked perfectly for my unlisted video.
  • On your channel profile, videos are organised into what are called “sections”, which visitors can scroll through. There are a few pre-defined sections that are automatically generated. When I switched over, YouTube also auto-generated sections out of a few of the playlists I had most recently added to.
  • Sections can be deleted, and you can also create new sections. A section can be created from an existing playlist, or you can create a section by using a tag. For example, I could create a new section using the tag “awesome”, and YouTube will then put all my uploaded videos that have the tag “awesome” into that section. So if you have videos that are not in a playlist but you want to have grouped together, you can start by adding appropriate tags to them so that, when you switch over, you can instantly create the new sections.
  • Sections can also be rearranged, but it’s not immediately obvious how to do this. Basically, only the left-hand edge is grabbable, and you have to be quite accurate with the mouse.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Copy, paste, graduate

I really didn’t know what I was going to do with this video. The natural choice would have been a “Surviving Germany” video about Fasching, but I really couldn’t get it off the ground. I had wanted to film the storming of the town hall in Schöllkrippen (one of the traditional events around here, and the one I allude to in this video), but it was cold and the clouds were clearly full of sleet, so I stayed at home instead.

In desperation, I started writing a script about the plagiarism scandal. They seem to be happening with alarming regularity these days: some important figurehead, usually a politician, is found to have lifted dozens of passages from other people’s works and used them in a thesis without proper attribution. One of my friends, who spends a lot of time coaching teachers and professors in how to spot when their students have been plagiarising, is now a recognised expert on the subject. On one occasion, she returned from a holiday to be met by a barrage of journalists and the news that another scandal had broke.

In the original version of the script, I ranted on about how there was no point in doing satire these days because you can’t satirise something that’s already funny in itself (the line about the jokes writing themselves is all that remains of that angle), but somehow that wasn’t working. Probably, more than anything else, pointing out the absurdity of something is what satire is.

So I slept on it, and awoke to the news that Pope Benedict XVI had announced his retirement. I don’t know if the result can be described as particularly funny, but I think it’s an improvement on what I had originally planned. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why it’s important to sleep on things.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Oh yes, and then there was this interview...

Last week I was interviewed for The English Programme, a show on community radio station Oldenburg Eins, and it went... surprisingly. One of the surprising aspects was the sound quality, and another was the fact that my planned ten-minute interview went to over 20 minutes because the other guest never turned up. Here is the visually uninteresting video:

In answer to the question on what other subjects I would like to make videos about in future, I should have mentioned the fact that little Kleinkahl, where I live, has more festivals than is good for it: a fish festival, a cheese festival, a lantern festival, a hay-bale festival, you name it. And of course the carneval season is about to get underway, with all the attendant opportunities that brings.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Response to German words

When you wake up and discover that a blog post you wrote the evening before has already been viewed over 300 times when you normally struggle to get 50, you know that Something Has Happened. Sometimes, as in this case, it turns out that you’ve had a brief moment of fame on Reddit, the self-proclaimed “front page of the internet”.

That’s very gratifying, and thank you to “Aschebescher” for submitting my post, but it does mean that all the interesting discussion is over on Reddit instead of right here, and if you don’t have and don’t particularly want to have a Reddit account, you can’t join in. Seriously, I already fritter away enough time on various bits of the web here and there, I don’t need another distraction from my real life.

So let me just pick up on a few things that are being said over at Reddit:
I’m still confused as to why he listed “Fernweh” on there, if wanderlust is not comparable conveyance of it.
I may be wrong, but I think that Fernweh and Wanderlust are two subtly different things. Wanderlust is generally the desire to get out and travel, while Fernweh very specifically is the longing for faraway places in a much more wistful manner. In any case, Wanderlust is itself a German word and so we still don’t have an English word for it.
No worries, there’s an English word for [Treppenwitz]: staircase wit.
I had to look this up and check it, and in fact it seems you’re right. I’ve never heard this word actually used in English before — I’ve only ever seen it as part of an explanation for what the German word or its French equivalient esprit d’escalier means, as in this Wikipedia entry. It doesn’t seem to be a very common expression, so perhaps we should lobby for it to become more widely used. Or, even better, one of the alternatives I’ve seen listed, “afterwit”, a word I never knew existed before but which I have enjoyed immensely.
To rebook?
This was a suggested translation for umbuchen, but I don’t know how current it is. It’s hard to google for it, because Google automatically assumes you meant “Reebok”. The American Heritage Dictionary does give “to change a booking” as one of the meanings of this word, but also lists the meanings I’d have used it for: to book again, or to cancel the original booking and make a completely new booking. I’d love some more input on this: have you ever had to alter a booking, such as changing a table for six to a table for eight, and would you use “rebook” to describe this?
I don't think I’ve ever heard “umtüten” at all.
Well, the word was eintüten, although umtüten (which would mean “to remove something from one envelope and put it in a different envelope”) is a very nice example of how one language can very easily encapsulate a concept which another language cannot. For logophiles, the key is the German prefix um-, which denotes change, alteration, swapping or circular motion, as in beschreiben “to describe” versus umschreiben “to paraphrase”, that is, to describe something using different words, or “to circumscribe”.

For the record, I have encountered the word eintüten in normal conversation: “Sorry, I’m running late: I’ve just printed off a hundred invoices and I’m still eintüten them.”

Thank you, people of Reddit, for this fruitful discussion.

UPDATE: More comments trickle in over on Reddit.
I fail to see why not having a single word for taking something down is a problem. If you really must have a single word, you could just use “unhang”, though you'll likely get odd looks.
Apparently, “unhang” does exist, although I have never heard it or used it myself. But I don’t want to get odd looks. As a translator, if I deliver a text that makes people look oddly when the original was perfectly clear and natural, I have failed. Also, of course, not having a word for this isn’t a problem per se: the article was really just a bit of fun.
really? no Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung? Come on now...
Excellent suggestion. If I ever decide to write a Part Two, that word’s going in. Thank you.
Regrettably, there are many ways to translate this word: “busy”, “assiduous”, “hard-working” and “studious” are just a few.

UPDATE 2: A list of suggested translations has appeared.
  • Allgemeinbildung = common sense: It’s a great deal more than that. Common sense is things that anyone can work out for themselves: if you put your hand in a fire you will get burned, and if you put too many heavy books on a shelf the shelf may collapse. Allgemeinbildung also includes general knowledge: fresh fruit and vegetables are a good source of vitamin C, and Paris is the capital of France.
  • eintüten = to stuff: This is incorrect, as the word “stuff” implies the use of force due to the bulkiness of the things you are trying to insert into the container; by extension it can also imply a certan slapdash approach. None of this is implicit in the German word.
  • Spießer = a square: A square is any person ignorant of current fashion. This is not necessarily true of a Spießer: such a person may be all too aware of current fashion, but disapprove of it. A square is merely a dull person, while a Spießer wishes everyone else to be as dull as he is. Additionally, “square” in this meaning is hopelessly outdated and people who use it reveal themselves to be out of touch with modern trends.
  • Treppenwitz is translated from the French, as is the English version: The English version has already been discussed here. As for it being a translation of a French expression, that makes no difference to whether or not there is an acceptable and concise English translation.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

German words you wish existed in English

Hello, you wonderful people from Reddit. I’m enjoying the debate you’re having over there, and thank you for your interest. Once you’ve finished reading this, you might like to read my follow-up post where I address a few points you have so far raised. Do bear in mind, though, that this is just a bit of fun. Interesting, and hopefully educational, fun; but fun nonetheless.

If you have had a reasonably good education, the chances are you may have encountered the word schadenfreude, to mean “malicious delight at another’s misfortune”. There is no word for this in English, and so we have borrowed the German word and incorporated it into our language. Well, here are some more German words with no easy English translation, which I think would be useful additions to the language:
  • abhängen: to remove something that is hanging, such as a picture from a wall.
  • Allgemeinbildung: everything that any adult capable of living independently can reasonably be expected to know, including general knowledge, common sense, most things taught in elementary schools or discussed in such things as newspapers, periodicals, TV chat shows and so on. For example, the fact that an exclusive diet of cheeseburgers is likely to give you health problems is Allgemeinbildung.
  • eintüten: to put something, such as a letter, into an envelope.
  • Erklärungsnot: the state of requiring a credible explanation at very short notice, such as being discovered by your spouse in the company of an attractive young acquaintance, having claimed to be working late.
  • Fernweh: the desire to leave home and travel far; the opposite of home-sickness and akin to Wanderlust.
  • Ostalgie: nostalgia for things relating to the former Democratic Republic of Germany.
  • Scheinselbständigkeit: the state of having registered yourself as self-employed or freelance despite only having one client, thereby avoiding the higher rate of tax that would be due if you were on that client’s payroll.
  • schweigen: to refrain from speaking; to remain silent.
  • Sitzfleisch: the ability to sit or remain unmoved for long periods of time despite everything that anyone else can throw at you. In a positive sense, this means the ability to endure hardship merely by sitting it out. In a negative sense, a party guest with Sitzfleisch is difficult to get rid of and may not be invited a second time.
  • Sitzpinkler: a man who sits in order to urinate.
  • Spießer: a fussy and fastidious man, typically from the aspiring middle classes, who demands certain standards of attire, language and behaviour to the point of being a killjoy; the type of person who would confiscate a child’s toy because it spoiled the look of the neighbourhood.
  • Treppenwitz: the things you should have said but only occur to you when it is too late, such as all the witty one-liners you only think of after you have left the party.
  • umbuchen: to alter a previously made reservation or booking.
  • Verschlimmbesserung: a change which is intended or announced as an improvement, but any improvement is outweighed by all the disadvantages brought about by said change.
  • vorgestern: the day before yesterday.
  • vorvorgestern: the day before the day before yesterday.