Thursday, November 26, 2015

Bridge over troubled autobahn

About four years ago, when we started planning the house we’re living in now, the surveyor made a small error. Then the architect made an error in his calculations. The result of those two errors is that our house is a couple of inches closer to the neighbouring house than regulations allow, although since the local planning department didn’t notice and all our neighbours signed to say they had no objections to the architect’s plans, that’s all moot. Or was, until we got a carport that’s just slightly too narrow for us to open both car doors.

Anyway, a story has just now broken that puts this into perspective. It concerns a bridge over an autobahn, which was completed in 2012.

This happened while work was progressing to widen the A2 autobahn between Kamen and Hamm, and old bridges had to be replaced. One bridge was built 45 centimetres — nearly 18 inches — too far to one side. It was a surveying error, which then wasn’t caught by the inspector, and remained undetected until it was too late.

A bridge too far over.

Whereas our carport is a bit on the cramped side but still usable, the poorly located bridge had some pretty major consequences. You can’t just put a wiggle in an autobahn: they had to redo the plans for 600 metres of autobahn and make alterations to three other bridges. The total cost of this error ran to €600,000. If my calculations are correct, that’s a thousand euros a metre. (I was never much good at arithmetics.)

So why has this story only now come to light? It was buried in this year’s annual report of the Federal Court of Auditors, and it took journalists a week to get bored enough to actually read it (seriously, if your job included reading the annual report of any organisation with “auditors” in its title, you might struggle to stay alive).

According to the report, right after the bridge went up, the construction workers noticed that something was amiss, and alerted the local road construction authority, who took careful measurements and concluded that everything was fine. Three months later, the construction workers said, “No, really, none of this makes sense,” and this time the measurements confirmed it. Sometimes it pays to listen to men with shovels.

Still, I’m now feeling a lot more relaxed about our carport.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The downside of vlogging about current affairs

One of the things that YouTube suggests as a way to attract viewers to your channel is to make videos about the hot topics of the moment. It’s a good piece of advice, as long as your channel can accommodate the subject at hand, but it does have its disadvantages.

One of those is the risk that your video will be made to look silly when things suddenly change. As I have now found out.

The news that Germany had decided to send the very controversial singer Xavier Naidoo to the Eurovision Song Contest was, it seemed, a godsend to me. It was relevant to Germany. It was a story that could be made to look ridiculous. It introduced non-Germans to a German celebrity they may never have heard of, not to mention a conspiracy theory ditto. Germans were busy vlogging, blogging and tweeting about it. Perfect.
Oh, drat.

So it was probably inevitable that, hours after I published the video, the news broke that, following harsh criticism, Xavier Naidoo would in fact not be competing after all.


Nevertheless, it’s a decent vlog, and I’m quite proud of it. I’ve been trying recently to do pieces that are more comedic, and this is the sort of tenor I’ve been aiming for. Not that it doesn’t accurately reflect my genuine feelings on the matter — it does — but that the monologue builds up to a punchline, which is the last sentence. I think it’s possible I may have upset a few Xavier Naidoo fans among my viewership, but it’s quite hard to take him seriously.

In addition to the things I said in the video, a lot of Germans were quite annoyed that Naidoo had simply been accounced as the German entry: until now, TV viewers have always had the chance to vote for the act they wanted to go through, but this year they’re only getting to vote for the song. Quite a few are complaining about this as if it were an attack on their democratic rights.

Well, there are a couple of things to say about that. First off, the actual contestants at the Eurovision Song Contest are not the performers, but the songwriters. The performers just perform the material, but they don’t get the prize. Second, not every country lets their viewing public vote for the performer: a very large number don’t. Third, the last time Germany got to choose the performer — last year — it all went horribly wrong. The winner, Andreas Kümmert, pulled out; so it was the runner-up, Ann-Sophie Dürmeyer, who performed. She came joint last with the Austrian entry, having scored a total of no points.

Well, there was drama there, that’s for sure. But that’s really why it’s such great fun (that, and the relentless cheese). Personally, I think that if you consider a Eurovision Song Contest win as a matter of national pride, you’ve probably not understood the Eurovision Song Contest.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Making use of fair use

A few days ago, I uploaded a video about the cult German sci-fi TV series Raumpatrouille (often incorrectly referred to as Raumpatrouille Orion). And I took what for me was the unusual step of including some clips from that series.

This is, of course, a risk; and since I didn’t ask Bavaria Film (or whoever currently owns the rights) for permission, what I did might be copyright infringement, i.e. illegal. Or not, as the case may be: actually, since nobody’s sued me, there’s no court ruling on my case, so I don’t actually know.

In this scene, Major van Dyke gives Major McLane a piece of her mind.

And it’s at this point that I must explain that I am not a lawyer. What follows is my personal opinion, but I am not offering it up as legal advice. If you need legal advice on one of your videos (or anything else), please ask a lawyer.

So, the default situation is that using somebody else’s intellectual property without their permission is illegal. But there are some exceptions to this; and in US law (which may apply here, since the service I uploaded the video to is owned by an American company), copyright law includes the concept of “fair use”.

Here’s how it works: if the copyright owner ever sues me in an American court, I can raise the “fair use” defence. The court will then have to consider whether my use of the disputed material was fair. If they think it was, the copyright owner loses their case.

There are a lot of myths about fair use, and I can’t address them all. But put quite bluntly, fair use is a lot less generous than most YouTubers seem to think: in fact, as a defence, it’s quite hard to prove. For example, one of the reasons for this concept is to allow teachers to, say, photocopy pages from a textbook for their students for the purposes of education: this does not, as a lot of people seem to think, mean that uploading an entire nature documentary to YouTube is “fair” simply because the content can be described as “educational”.

When the fair use defence is raised, a court has to consider various things, grouped together in four, broad criteria.

Purpose and character of the usewhy am I using that particular content, and how am I using it? I’m using it to illustrate the points I am making: for example, when I say that the ship’s controls look like the result of a trip to a home improvement store, I show some shots of the bridge that feature bathtaps and electric irons, which the characters have to fiddle with to pretend they’re flying a futuristic spaceship. That likely counts in favour of fair use: I can hardly use scenes from anything else to comment on scenes from that show. As for how, I’m actually using the clips unchanged and not being creative with them at all: that counts against fair use. (You win some, you lose some.) On the other hand, they don’t actually make up the bulk of my video: most of the time, it’s just me talking.

Nature of the copyrighted work — is the work I’m extracting from just a series of ideas or facts, or does it have artistic or literary merit? Unfortunately for me, it’s the latter: facts and ideas can’t be protected by copyright, but TV dramas certainly can. A lot of people put a lot of work into that show (as I mention in my video, post-production took an entire year), and I can’t just take advantage of all that work so that I don’t have to make my own show.

Amount and substantialityhow much of the original did I use, and which parts did I use? Here, I feel I’m on much safer ground. I used only a few small portions of the original whole (just a couple of minutes or two taken from two episodes, each an hour long, out of a total of seven), and I didn’t include any spoilers. Those two facts definitely count in favour of fair use.

Effect upon the work’s value — might I be denying the copyright owners of the chance to make money? In this case, quite unlikely: nobody is going to watch my video and decide there’s now no point in buying the DVDs. This last criterion, incidentally, is a lot tougher than you might suppose: if I were to sell a Raumpatrouille T-shirt, featuring the faces of all the major characters, the copyright owner might argue that by doing that, I am making it harder for them to earn money from their own merchandise.

A court would have to weigh up all those things against each other and come to a decision. Personally, I am pretty confident an American court would accept a fair use defence. But unless the copyright owners take me to court in America, I’ll never actually know for certain.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

On making a stand

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris were horrific and unjustified. Nothing can ever excuse indiscriminate violence inflicted on innocent people, and the way these attacks were executed is sickening. This is a tragedy and a brutal crime that I condemn in the strongest possible terms.

There’s a problem, though.

A couple of days before the Paris attacks, two suicide bombers in Beirut killed about forty people and wounded, according to more recent estimates, over 200 others. That was also an inexcusable and horrifying tragedy, and there are many others like it. Yet it’s quite likely you hadn’t heard about this one; not because it wasn’t reported in the media, but because not many people cared about it.

This is also a human tragedy.

But they should. Although we should probably take with a pinch of salt ISIL’s claim to have carried out that attack, it’s still the worst in that country since the end of the civil war, and may yet prove to be the catalyst for a revival of that conflict: more violence, more bloodshed, and a huge problem for the million or so Syrian refugees in that country — where are they supposed to go now?

How many people superimposed the Lebanese flag on their Facebook avatars? How many public buildings across the world were lit up in red, white and green? How many western politicians made statesman-like speeches?

Instead, while Paris merits a huge outpouring of grief and anguish, Beirut barely registers: that outrage disappeared into the background radiation of general violence in the Middle East. Nobody there, apparently, needs our support, our prayers, our blood donations. Paris is different.

Now, at this point, the temptation is to gloomily conclude that we’re basically racist, and that we’re simply not concerned about Muslims killing other Muslims. That, surely, is the point of this entry, right?

I almost wish it were that simple: it would be at least understandable.

On October 31st, a Russian airliner crashed in Egypt, killing all 224 passengers and crew, in what is now believed to be a terrorist attack of some kind. What was the reaction on social media? Speculation, some expressions of horror, but nothing like what we’ve seen for Paris.

And yet the scale of the tragedy was roughly similar, the likely culprits the same. We can’t even get away with saying that Islamic terrorism in France has never happened before.

Somehow, people everywhere who are unconnected with both events are acting as if Paris affected them personally, but Metrojet 9268 didn’t. This reaction mystifies me: what makes the difference here? Are Russians less valuable than Parisians? Is it the fact that the plane came down on an Arab country? Were the victims’ deaths somehow less terrifying? Or could it be that watching a dot disappear off a radar screen isn’t as compelling as watching terrified people running for their lives on live TV — and if that’s it, what does it say about us?

You won’t, then, see me changing my avatar on any social medium. It’s not because I don’t care, but because I would have to either pick and choose whom I mourn, or be in a constant state of mourning. I choose not to loudly proclaim “I stand with Paris”, not because I don’t, but because I don’t want to imply that I stand with nobody else. But the age of 45, I have lived through similarly turbulant times, and as horrifying as the idea is, this is still very much business as usual. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

My watch nags me.

I have recently acquired some new pieces of technology, something I am a little ambivalent about. On the one hand, it’s pretty amazing technology of the sort my thirteen-year-old self dreamed would one day be a reality; on the other, it can be frustrating at times.

The story begins with the Google Top Contributors’ Summit I recently attended. Google traditionally gives us some nice things to keep us happy while not paying us to do their front-line customer support for them, and this year it was a smart watch.

Of course, the thing about a smart watch is that it doesn’t work without a smart phone, and a smart phone is something I’ve never felt the need for. But if there’s one thing a week in America has taught me, it’s that everyone now simply assumes you have one, so “download this app” or “scan that QR code” are becoming common answers to many questions. Time, then, to cave in to all those voices saying, “I never knew I needed one until I got one,” and get one.

Well, the technology is ingenious. With my Android phone paired with my Android Wear watch, I can get text messages, weather alerts and reminders of upcoming appointments delivered straight to my wrist. Using voice recognition, I can even send my wife a quick text without having to take my phone out of my pocket. I get to feel like Dick Tracy.

The new bane of my life.

And yet, I’m not entirely convinced I really need all of this. About the most objectively useful thing I’ve found is that when I’m out in “the field” (as it were) organizing appointments, I can do that directly on my phone.

Other things could well be useful, although I haven’t had a chance to use them yet. For example, I might be in a strange town and in need of a pharmacy for some reason (perhaps I have woken up in my hotel room covered in itchy insect bites). I can ask my watch where the nearest pharmacy is, and it will give me a list along with their addresses, telephone numbers and opening times.

There are also cases where I feel tricks have been missed. Here’s an idea: on sites of historical interest, why not have the information plaque affixed to it incorporate a QR code? I could scan that code into my phone and get a proper, in-depth article fleshing out the necessarily terse information given on the plaque.

The trouble seems to be a lot of people not really knowing how best to implement this kind of technology. For example, take timetables in German train stations. They now incorporate a QR code you can scan to get, on your phone, a real-time departure board for that station. But the QR code is impossibly tiny and quite blurry, and nearly always behind glass, making it devilishly hard to scan... and all you need do is turn around, and there is a massive departure board hanging on the wall.

Then you get the overuse and over-reliance on technology that leaves people missing out on a lot. It’s nice to have, in the shape of Google Maps, a GPS navigation system, but the result is that more and more of my acquaintences can’t function without it. In particular, when visiting a place, they are more likely to scurry from tourist trap to tourist trap by the most direct route possible. There are now books explaining the art of wandering aimlessly, with, somewhat ironically, step-by-step guides (“if you see a man wearing glasses, take the next turning on the left”).

But worst of all for me is the fact that my phone, and therefore my watch, is constantly pestering me with totally irrelevant stuff. Stuff that can wait until I get home, stuff that distracts me from the here and now and, for no good reason, wants me to focus on the virtual world. But now I know why you so often see groups of people huddled together, each bent over their phones.

What happens is that every time you install an app, it assumes you want to be notified of everything. If you don’t go into each app’s settings and disable notifications, you get constant demands for your attention. Somebody liked your Facebook post. Somebody retweeted you. Somebody sent you an e-mail.

Of course, now that I have a watch paired with my phone, it gets all these push notifications sent to it. Plus, it has its own notifications because it includes a feature designed to help me keep fit. Just the other day, my wife asked me what time it was, and then sarcastically added, “...or doesn’t your watch tell the time?” Chuckling, I raised my arm to look at my watch, and... well, I had to swipe several notifications off its smug face before I could read the time. I had walked five kilometres already that day. The weather was cloudy but dry. An app I had recently installed on my phone had been checked by my virus scanner.

I think that this technology is potentially of great benefit, and the possibilities are endless. It’s just that you have spend so much time trying to stop it from pestering you all the time, it feels more like a curse.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Join the club

I once read an article in which some white, wealthy Germans from the city felt sorry for those asylum seekers in Germany being assigned accommodation in small villages “where there’s nothing to do.” I think it depends on a lot of factors, such as what you’re used to, what you personally enjoy, and what village you’re sent to. I haven’t had a chance to speak to any of the asylum seekers in our village (there’s every chance they’re half-insane with boredom); but while this isn’t exactly New York City, there’s plenty to do. Young, white, wealthy, urban Germans might find it hard to imagine, but I suppose young, wealthy, urban Germans (of any skin colour) might find what’s on offer here to be unattractive.

The key to enjoying German village is to be a member of a club or the volunteer fire brigade. Unfortunately, I can’t sing very well, have no sense of rhythm, never quite got the hang of sports, don’t much like firing guns and, due to my not having the right chromosomes, am ineligible for election as our Straw Bale Queen. So that disqualifies me for most of the interesting stuff.

However, for complicated reasons I won’t go into at this point, I was asked to drop by on the local choral society’s rehearsal session. This is for a concert they’re giving later this month; and it’s ambitious. We’re not talking folk songs. They’re doing a selection of songs from famous movies. And they’re singing them in English.

I don’t know who might be reading this, so I won’t spoil anything here. But they did give me a CD of some of their previous efforts, and that includes things like Sitting on the Dock of the Bay and the Beach Boys’ Barbara Ann, just to give you an idea of their repertoire.

I don’t think they’re going to be singing at the Albert Hall any time soon. (They wouldn’t want to: the acoustics are terrible.) And having listened to their rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody, I think there’s a chance they might have bitten off a little more than they could really chew (and by the way, the phrase “pulled my trigger” unexpectedly appears to present to Germans a linguistic challenge not far short of “squirrel”). But they went for it, and the CD was presented to me with a beam of pride.

Not, as some of the members told me, that the society has had an easy time of it. It was originally founded as a male voice choir in 1925 (this concert marks their 90th anniversary); in 1971 a mixed choir was formed, but by the 1980s there were so few men that the male voice choir had to be discontinued. More recently, in 2002, a new choir was formed with a more contemporary repertoire, mainly to encourage younger singers to join. Did it work? “Oh, yes,” came the answer.

It’s certainly very active, but the lack of male voices is very evident: a few more would lend it what my wife poetically calls “more oompf”. But the group of people gathered in the hall above the fire station swaying self-consciously to sounds you don’t normally associate with a village choral society were, I would estimate, aged between about 17 and 70.

I realise this is in danger of becoming a slightly patronising “look at these country folk deriving innocent pleasure from a simple thing” type of post, but the message I have for the wealthy city dwellers is this: this is not nothing. What we have here is people crafting something to be proud of, and sharing it with other people. Which is sort of what I do with my videos, come to think of it.

This isn’t at all a case of innocent pleasures. This is community.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Clyde’s secret revealed

Long-term followers of my videos and blog will probably be aware that we have two cats living with us: Bonnie and her brother Clyde. And it’s interesting to see how different they are, and at the same time how little we really know about them.

Bonnie is the kittenish, quirky little clown, always showing off and always wanting to know what’s going on. She’s most active during the day, and sleeps most of the night as far as we have been able to discover. Although she’s wary of strangers, she is quick to befriend people she takes a shine to.

Clyde is a big, muscular black cat, usually more placid than Bonnie, but more than capable of defending the house against other cats. Despite that, he is not fearless, avoids strangers at all costs, and actually hides whenever the doorbell rings. We have basically given up on Clyde ever making friends with any other human. At least, we thought he had.

The other thing about Clyde is that he’s a night cat. He sleeps most of the day, but given the sheer amount he eats and the fact that he is incredibly muscular — there’s not an ounce of fat on him — we do wonder what he gets up to. Is there a sort of feline gym, where he goes to work out? He must be getting some exercise.

The problem is that while we get regular reports from our neighbours about Bonnie and some of the things she gets up to, Clyde is out at night and he’s completely black.

Well, we have a report now, from the neighbours across the road: R, his wife B and their daughter LM. It seems that recently, Clyde has taken it upon himself to guard their house. Bear in mind, as you read the following, that Clyde hides behind a bookcase if he so much as hears a delivery van draw up outside.

R works nights, and frequently returns home to find Clyde lying on their doorstep. In fact, he has to step over him to get inside. LM has to leave for work very early in the morning, and also has to step over Clyde. In fact, Clyde seems to lean up against the door, because sometimes, when LM opens it, Clyde tumbles in.

It still doesn’t explain his physique; in fact, it raises another question: why on earth is he guarding their house?

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

On monetizing videos and the plague of ads

Advertisements are, and always have been, highly irritating. They get in the way of content with their insistent demands that you spend all your hard-earned cash on things that you actually didn’t need until you saw the ads. They shout and scream at you, insinuate that you are a lousy human being if you don’t buy particular products, and generally make life miserable.

Unfortunately, to some of us, they are also what make life possible.

Ads are a constant source of complaint on YouTube: why is Google shoving ads in our faces when Google has billions? On the face of it, a perfectly reasonable question, but in fact it’s based on a couple of false assumptions: that it’s Google doing it, and Google that’s getting the revenue.

First of all, although YouTube is owned by Google, YouTube is run separately. It’s hard to see the boundaries — they’re fuzzy at best — but (from I’ve been led to believe) uniquely among the various Google products, YouTube is expected to run its own affairs and pay its own way. It’s not even based in the same building: Google has its Googleplex in Mountain View, California, while YouTube is about forty miles north-west of there, in San Bruno. How YouTube does pay its own way is unknown: it’s been calculated that Google must be helping YouTube out with its bandwidth costs, because there’s no other way to explain how YouTube even continues to exist.

Second, not only does Google not get YouTube’s advertising revenue, but YouTube only takes a portion of it. The rest goes to the content owner, whether that’s the uploader or, if the ads have been put on due to a Content ID match, the copyright owner of the material used. I’m not allowed to tell you what portion YouTube takes (and it varies from case to case anyhow), but it is public knowledge that the content owner gets most of the revenue.

It’s true that a lot of people abuse the system, uploading videos they have no right to upload (music videos, clips from TV shows, entire episodes, even complete movies) and then illegally monetize them: that’s illegal for obvious reasons. But speaking as one who doesn’t do that, let me explain why my videos are monetized and why I am not best pleased when people use AdBlock just because they don’t like seeing ads.

I work fairly hard on my videos. I don’t have a staff or any kind of professional set-up, so my videos aren’t months in the making. Even so, it takes quite a bit of effort, and even a simple vlog-type video takes the best part of a day to make. I once illustrated this in a series of posts on my Google+ page (here, here, here, here, here and here), but to expand on that and explain what really goes on:
  1. Research. I don’t claim to get everything 100% right, but I try to get it as right as I can. I don’t have a research department, but at least these days I have the internet. I try not to rely on Wikipedia (because it’s a reference, not a source), but sometimes I have little time and just have to trust that what’s in Wikipedia is an accurate representation of what is known about a particular subject.
  2. Writing the script. People often ask how I manage to condense so much information into such a short space of time. That comes from taking special care to craft a good script from the information I have gathered, reworking it and condensing it, focusing on what connects to what, discarding anything irrelevant to the matter in hand. I aim to get it all onto one side of A4 paper, which represents approximately four minutes of vlogging. I have to present facts in a logical order, try to strike a balance to get enough detail but not too much, and add a little something to make it at least a bit entertaining. My English needs to be readily understood not just by British and American viewers (so I have to make sure I avoid too many anglicisms and americanisms), but by native German speakers as well. For the benefit of those Germans who don't understand English, I will have to write German subtitles, so I also have to continually ask myself: “Will this still make sense when translated into German?” Finally, because I can’t easily memorize, in the time I have, a whole page of text, I divide it up into chunks which I can then film at different zoom levels (usually three) so I can cut between them in the edit.
  3. Setting up. I have to set up the lights and the camera, set white balance, exposure, microphone gain and focus, and get that pesky microphone clipped to my clothing.
  4. Rehearsal and filming. Because I have divided my script into chunks, I can do the rehearsal and filming at the same time. First the wide shots, each one in turn: rehearse and film. I usually do several takes of each so I can choose the best one. Once that’s done, stop the camera, zoom in and reposition (I have to get out of my chair and walk over to the camera to do this), then do all the mid shots. Finally, all the close shots. Incidentally, I can’t always film when it’s convenient: at certain times of day, the sun shines in through the window behind me, making filming virtually impossible unless it happens to be overcast.
  5. Editing. For a straightforward vlog, this is actually the easiest part. For anything slightly more ambitious... it’s less easy. Once the editing process is finished, I have to render the video: the process takes half an hour or more (depending on lots of factors), and if when I play it back  spot an error, I have to make edits and render all over again. And rendering takes up a lot of CPU power, so during that time my computer isn’t much use for anything else. Time for lunch.
  6. Making the thumbnail. I am not a Photoshop genius. I can just about make a passable thumbnail. If I could afford to pay somebody to do it for me, I would.
  7. Uploading and subtitles. These two things go together. As the video is uploading, I write the English subtitles. Why English subtitles? Because some of my viewers are hearing-impaired. Why not use YouTube’s automated captions? Because they suck. By the time I’m finished with the subtitles, the video has usually finished uploading and processing. I can then upload the subtitles immediately and check that they are working correctly and are as accurate as I can reasonably get them. This also allows me to check that the video has uploaded properly without glitches. If all works well, I can then prepare German subtitles and upload those. Finally, I can put in the annotations (which I use sparingly).
The thing is, that’s a lot of work: and I’m making relatively simple videos. Other content creators have an awful lot more work to do, but I don’t have the staff or the time for that.

And here’s the thing: this is about an entire day I have spent not doing actual, paid work. I’m self-employed: time is money in a very literal sense. If I don’t work, I don’t get paid, simple as that. As it happens, my wife has a good job so it’s not absolutely critical unless the company she works for goes bust, but I don’t want to have to beg her to pay my health insurance for me. Strange as it may seem to some people, but doing all this for free is simply not an option.

But to bring you all these videos in the first place, I have overheads. Obviously, there’s the equipment. My camera has a few years left in it, so that’s something I don’t have to worry about just yet. But one of the spare batteries just died, so that’s going to have to be replaced — and the cost of batteries is eye-watering, even the “cheap” ones made not by the company that made the camera. My computer and software are also still good for a little while yet. Last year I invested in audio equipment, a few hundred euros to make my videos sound a tiny bit better. This year, I’m planning to get proper lighting gear. Some videos incur additional costs: travel costs mostly, but I’ve even had to purchase filming permits, and my Berlin video involved a few nights in a hotel. This is why, when people ask me to film Bremen, or Dresden, or Cologne, or whatever far-flung city they want to see on my channel, I can’t ever promise to do so. I simply don’t have the time, and I’m not making the money.

How much money do I make? Well, there’s no simple answer to that, but (and I am allowed to tell you this), for the month of January, I got €136, which is roughly $150. Enough to stop me feeling guilty about making videos. Not enough to live on.

“Why not use Patreon?” is a question I have been asked. I once considered it, but not enough of my subscribers expressed an interest. It may be an idea worth revisiting, but for it to work I would have to think up some perks, like exclusive content, which means working even harder in order to badger my viewers into pledging actual cash instead of simply refraining from using AdBlock. I can’t see how I would be able to fit it in right now. Creating a completely new paid channel isn’t going to work for a similar reason, as well as the fact that I actually want my videos to be available to everyone. Fan Funding looks promising, but currently isn’t available in Germany.

In an ideal world, I could rely on donations, merchandising and perhaps even some kind of sponsorship so I could give up my real job, concentrate on making really high quality videos and still make enough to live on. This isn’t an ideal world, though, and I have to monetize my videos or stop making videos; it’s that simple.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Reductio ad Hitlerum

Godwin’s Law states that as an internet debate continues, the probability of somebody making an inappropriate comparison with Hitler or the nazis tends towards 1. In plain English, this means that if you get into a long argument, somebody is bound to say something crass and stupid, like “Hitler had a dog, therefore all dog-owners are nazis.” The unwritten rule is that when this happens, the debate is over, and whoever made that comparison is automatically deemed to have lost it. I imagine there is an equivalent law for inappropriate references to Stalin or communism, and if anyone knows what it’s called, I’d be interested to find out.

It’s an important point for me because I personally cringe whenever, for example, people complain that Google is staffed by Nazis just because YouTube redesigned its site. I’ve thought long and hard about why I don’t have the same reaction when people make light of the Spanish Inquisition, and come to the conclusion that it’s several generations removed from us, no longer so clearly in the collective consciousness. That, and the fact that it always makes me think of Monty Python.

Nazi Germany, though, is still just about in living memory, and not something Germans feel they can joke about. There is also the point that there are extremist political groups that draw on nazi ideology for their inspiration — which is to say, there are actual groups of people that can fairly and almost accurately be termed “nazi”. These groups do not include people who insist on criticizing every split infinitive and misattached modifier.

I recently saw a fairly old tweet (which I won’t attempt to identify, as I’m not trying to start a twit-storm) featuring an image of a Venn diagram. Various circles with labels like “MRAs” (i.e., “Men’s Rights Activists”) and “Gamers” all intersected to such a degree that very little was outside of the intersection labelled “Nazis”.

Now, I suspect this is supposed to be sarcastic, but I can’t really tell. Mostly, I can’t really tell because, well, it looks sarcastic, but then somebody tweeted to him that you can’t call these people Nazis, and he tweeted back that yes, he could. Well... yes, he can. I just don’t think it’s a good idea, and if he was being serious, he was also being horribly ignorant. Looking through his Twitter feed, he certainly seems to have it in for gamers.

I think “gamers” probably refers to the storm-in-a-teacup story known as “gamergate” which revealed to a barely credulous world the astounding fact that some people who play or create video games are (gasp!) nasty bullies who are prepared to use threats of physical (including sexual) violence to intimidate. Which is a horrible situation that should never be, but hardly a surprise to anyone who has had any kind of experience with human beings, and certainly doesn’t warrant classing nearly all gamers as nazis. MRAs, for those who don’t know, are men who ostensibly worry that feminism has gone too far, but when you speak to them they turn out to be what my mother euphemistically calls “male chauvinist pigs”.

Nasty people. But “nazis”?

In my estimation, nazis are also nasty people, but it doesn’t follow that all nasty people are nazis. Let’s be clear what we are talking about: National socialism is a political ideology which takes fascism (which itself replaces socialism’s class warfare with warfare between nations) and grafts onto it “scientific racism” (a nice way to refer to the practice of using pseudo-science to justify xenophobia). Having established a one-party state, the nazis set about imprisoning and murdering millions and millions of people, spending vast amounts of money nobody had which would have ruined Germany’s economy had they not also provoked a deadly war which laid waste to much of Europe. Estimates of the number of people killed by the nazi regime go up to about 21 million.

There is, quite simply, no comparison there. It jars to see people using the word “nazi” to mean “unpleasant” or “unnecessarily strict” because while many members of the Nazi Party were undoubtedly both, the term means a whole lot more besides.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

On turning a setback into an opportunity

Germans are regularly accused of not having a sense of humour, which of course isn’t true. (To clarify: yes, it is true they are regularly accused; it is not true they don’t have one.) German humour may sometimes be laboured and overly goofy, and it is true there are areas of life where humour is definitely unwelcome (try giving a light-hearted eulogy at a German funeral, for example, and nobody will speak to you for three months); but that’s not the same as saying Germans are humourless. It’s just that there is a Time And A Place.

Sometimes, though, a little humour can pop up in unexpected places, and the sheer rarity of that happening makes it all the more awesome.

Case in point: a little while back, an optician’s in our area was broken into, and the thieves made off with thousands of euros’ worth of spectacle frames.

Yes, spectacle frames. It’s hard to imagine a black market in spectacle frames, but unless the burglars were themselves in dire need of eye tests and broke into the wrong establishment, it seems there is, somewhere on this planet, a man sidling up to opticians in pubs and whispering out of the corner of his mouth: “Got some stuff for you. Two dozen frames. Fell off the back of a lorry. To you, half a grand.”

It is a pretty weird story, but the optician’s managed to find a way to turn it to their advantage. In this morning’s paper was their latest ad, featuring a man in a balaclava and brandishing a flashlight. “Our frames are so good,” proclaimed the ad, “people are even stealing them.” Which is definitely a more positive way of looking at it. “We welcome all customers,” it went on. “But please, during business hours only.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

How to get yourself arrested

Generally speaking, in Germany, if you want to get yourself arrested, you have to be fairly determined or terminally stupid. Where possible, the police prefer the non-confrontational approach; so how, you might well ask, can you get yourself arrested for not getting up from your seat? By being really, incredibly dumb, that’s how.

The story begins on one of Germany’s high-speed trains, an ICE (Intercity Express for the uninitiated). A passenger, who has just boarded the train, has finally found his reserved seat and is slightly dismayed to find a young man already sitting there. I personally hate it when that happens, because it means I have to speak to a stranger, which, for an Englishman, is up there with “being waterboarded” on the list of things I would rather not have to do. But since our unfortunate passenger is German, he doesn’t hesitate to politely ask the young man to move.

He stays put.

Nobody likes to have to move, but there it is: if you didn’t pay to reserve that seat, you’re supposed to give it up to whoever did. That’s sort of the point, really. So there began what our newspaper referred to as “a discussion”.

And then the young man decided that the only way to be allowed to stay in his seat (which wasn’t his seat) would be to commit a crime, so he operated the emergency brake. Yes, in Germany, it’s a crime. The fines can be massive, not to mention the court costs; and if the sudden halt caused any injuries, you can be looking at a bill with a six-figure sum on it.

You have to wonder which planet this guy’s brain was orbiting at the time. The guards came to discover that the “emergency” was a squabble over a seat reservation. Any other passengers whose sympathies may have been with the young man were unlikely, at this point, to be as well-disposed towards him. Unsurprisingly, the guards informed him that when the train arrived at the next stop (fifteen minutes late now, because... well, y’know, emergency brake and everything), the young man would have to leave the train.

For some reason, and don’t try this at home, he thought to himself, “How can I possibly make this even worse for myself?” It was a stroke of genius (of a kind) what he came up with: not only did he still refuse to leave, meaning the police would have to be called to physically haul him off the train, but he casually explained that he had a knife and wasn’t afraid to use it, meaning that the police, when they came, came in force.

I don’t know the details of his arrest, but I can guarantee it was a spectacle of the sort you so rarely get in this country. Accusations of police brutality do surface from time to time, but what was this guy thinking? Did he think everyone would back down? Did he suppose he would be let off with a warning? Perhaps a free ticket and an apology for the inconvenience?

At any rate, the police — however many of them there were — manhandled him off the train using whatever technique they had of dealing with potentially armed idiots to prevent them from sticking their knife into anything, and of course found, perhaps predictably, that he didn’t have any kind of weapon on him.

I think the only way anyone would be able to top this would be to board a plane, smile apologetically at the cabin crew and say, “I’m a bit nervous — this is my first suicide bombing mission.”

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Those untrustworthy Hessians

There’s a story about an American doing some historical research in England, who stumbles on two towns, just a couple of miles apart. The inhabitants of one refuse to speak to the inhabitants of the other, and vice versa. This intrigued the American, and he scoured the local libraries and museums for clues as to how and why this came about. After three years of hard work, he finally discovered that the problem started after one of the towns neglected to warn the other that the Danes were invading, 1,000 years previously.

You’d think the Germans would be more sensible than that, but you’d be wrong, as a recent conversation that took place bears testimony. As a bonus, it also describes, in a nutshell, the typical mode of communication employed by me and my wife.

Wife: So, I was at the store, and this man — Hessian, of course — came in with a bottle and told the cashier she’d just sold it to his brother. Well, obviously, her face fell; she could get into serious trouble for that. So, anyway—

Me: (interrupting) Hang on — trouble? Why?

Wife: Well, him being under 18 and everything.

Me: Oh! She sold a bottle of something alcoholic to somebody who was under age?

You see what I’m up against? I usually have to remember half my wife’s lines for her.

Wife: That’s what I said.

Me: Then what?

Wife: Well, I’d already paid, so I didn’t hang around. But I saw him leave the store, with the bottle, and get into the only car there registered in Hesse.

Me: What does his being Hessian have to do with it?

Wife: Well, nothing. But... you know, Hessian. What else would you expect?

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Lest we forget

Earlier this week saw Holocaust Memorial Day on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and I’m afraid it passed me by. I actually wasn’t aware there was a Holocaust Memorial Day, but it makes sense of the recently-published study that suggested that 81% of Germans wanted to forget Auschwitz.

At least, that’s how it’s been reported. I haven’t yet been able to find the study — news websites I’ve looked at just vaguely refer to “a study” and, because this is the internet, neglect to link to the source — so it’s hard to know what to make of it. Politicians, of course, know what to make of it (they always do): this is very disturbing, and we must never be allowed to forget.

The devil is always in the detail you never see, though. Did 81% of those polled say they never wanted to hear anything about the concentration camps ever again? Or did they merely say that right now, Germany has more serious issues to deal with?

UPDATE: Thanks to @HollyGoMadly for providing a link to the actual study. According to this, 81% of Germans agreed with the statement “We should concentrate on current problems rather than on crimes committed against the Jews which happened over 60 years ago.” Interestingly, so did 64% of Israelis polled. Also, 55% of Germans agreed with the statement that we should not keep talking about the persecution of the Jews and instead draw a line under the affair, but the report points out that since 1991 the number of people saying they disagree with the statement has steadily risen. It seems the press have conflated these two results to come up with “81% of Germans want to forget Auschwitz”. See pp 24 and 25 of the report.

I have a certain sympathy with the idea that perhaps Germany has been overdoing it with the self-flagellation on this subject; and as I write this, I realise the sound of thin ice cracking under my feet has reached my ears. But it has been two generations now, and there’s a sense that Germany hasn’t yet quite managed to move on. And by “move on”, I don’t mean “forget”.

The years of Nazi dictatorship were bad — horribly bad. The systematic torture and murder of millions of people based on things like ethnicity, sexual orientation, political views and religious affiliation, together with a warmongering mindset that eventually laid waste to most of central Europe, can’t ever be swept under the carpet. But neither was the Nazi regime the only one of its kind: human history, including recent human history, has endured (and continues to endure) countless others: Stalin, Pol Pot and (if the sketchy and often unverified accounts are to be believed) the Kim dynasty of North Korea all belong on that list.

Is it possible that in trying too hard — almost eagerly — to display hitherto unprecedented levels of contrition, Germans might simply be giving themselves a complex?

It seems appropriate in a country that has given us philosophy and psychanalysis and with them words like angst and weltschmerz that it should give itself something to agonize over. The same study revealed that an awful lot of Germans strongly disapprove of Israel’s policies in the Middle East; the implication for some hand-wringing politicians appears to be that an awful lot of Germans are antisemitic. Does this mean that those Germans who welcome Muslim refugees from that part of the world are antisemitic (because if Israel is right, they have no business claiming to be victims of persecution)? Must Germans choose between antisemitism and islamophobia?

The obvious answer, of course, is that opposing a government’s official policy is not the same as hating that government’s subjects. I can, say, speak out against the death penalty in the US; this does not imply that if you happen to be American, I will refuse to be your friend. But we humans have a tendency — a need, really — to categorize things as neatly and as simply as possible, into things that can hurt us and things that can’t, which is how the whole sorry mess got going in the first place. A system that puts antelopes into a category of safe things and tigers into a category of harmful things works well for hunter-gatherers, but doesn’t work for human society. We end up categorizing people who think like us as safe and people who think differently as harmful.

And that does an awful lot of damage all round. The Nazis persuaded people that certain easily identifiable groups of people were harmful. Pegida wants us to put all Muslims (except those willing to “integrate”) into the “harmful” category. Quite a lot of people want us to label as harmful all Germans (“because they’re Nazis and always will be Nazis”). Some would like us to believe that all those who criticize Israel are antisemitic. Some, that all those who do not criticize Israel are militant zionists. We still haven’t really stopped.

The truth is that each individual is a mess of different opinions about everything, and most people are not really extreme at all. Imposing labels on them — “antisemitic”, “islamophobic”, “fascist”, “bleeding-heart liberal”, “feminist”, “misogynist”, whatever label you want to impose — is nearly irresistable for us humans, but it’s unhelpful and forces people into corners they don’t want to go. It’s one of the reasons you’ll never get me to tell you which political party I support: you’ll just assume that I agree wholeheartedly with everything you think that party printed in its most recent manifesto, and I can pretty much guarantee you’d be wrong.

I think, with the Holocaust, as far as Germans are concerned, the focus is slightly wrong. The focus shouldn’t be: “We Germans were horrible to the Jews.” It should be: “This is what happens when human beings stop seeing individual human beings as individuals.”

Monday, January 19, 2015

Are you sure you don’t run a travel agency? Have you checked?

There are various ways of contacting me, including the option of sending me something by snail mail to a PO box. It normally works very well: whenever I am in Aschaffenburg, I drop by the post office conveniently located by the railway station and collect my mail.

At least, it normally works very well, and this is the problem with German efficiency. It’s very efficient as long as everyone plays by the rules. The moment something unexpected happens, the system just collapses.

I found a large, white A4 envelope in my PO box, but addressed to some other company — a travel agency of some kind. The PO box number, number was mine, so presumably there are three possibilities:
  1. The sender typed the wrong number.
  2. The company had mistyped its own address.
  3. The PO box I am now using once belonged to this company, and the sender doesn’t know that the old address is no longer current.
No problem: I wrote on the envelope something to the effect that box number 100629 does not belong to the company addressed and pushed it through the hole in the wall labelled “Incorrectly posted items” and thought nothing of it.

It is, I know, hard to believe, but there are countries in the world where post office workers would read that, and either post it in the correct box or send it back. At least, that’s what happens in less efficient countries where things are expected to go wrong from time to time, and people just deal with it.

Not so Germany. In Germany, Things Cannot Go Wrong, so the drone behind the scenes saw the white A4 envelope, looked at the PO box number in the address, and posted it in the box with that number. Because That Is The Number, and therefore That Is Where It Goes.

The next time I went to pick up my post, there was the white A4 envelope waiting for me. So I took my trusty pen, and wrote in big letters, “DO NOT POST THIS IN BOX 100629! THE BOX NUMBER IS INCORRECT!” And to make extra certain, I struck through the PO box number on the address and wrote, “This PO box number is wrong.”

I don’t know if I’m missing something here, but it seems quite clear to me. Imagine, then, my dismay when I went in today and found the white A4 envelope waiting for me. The postal drone had not only returned it whence it came, but next to my frantic attempts to alert him to the wrongness of his actions had drawn a big question mark. Not only that, I also had a new A4 envelope, but brown, addressed in the same manner: to a travel agency I had never even heard of, but with my PO box number.

So I went round to the front, where the counters are, queued up and, when it was my turn, stepped up and presented exhibits A and B and explained the problem in words of one syllable (which, in German, is quite a feat).

“I see,” said the clerk, plainly not seeing at all. “And who are you?”

I didn’t honestly know how to answer that question. This is the problem in Germany: people’s brains aren’t wired up to cope with things not going to plan, so they have a little nervous breakdown. I showed him some of the post that was for me, and I showed him the key to my box, and what else was I to do?

Fortunately, the clerk had managed to reassemble enough of his scrambled brain cells to start functioning rationally, and led me back to the PO boxes; there he disappeared behind the scenes to see what he could find out. Which turned out to be nothing, judging by the question he asked when he finally resurfaced: “And you have nothing to do with this company?”

I suppose he was just double-checking, but why else would I have been complaining? No, I assured him, I had nothing to do with this company.

“Is it possible that you registered this company recently?”

No, I assured him I had done no such thing, and probably would have noticed if I did. My problem was that I was getting post that wasn’t actually for me, because it had the wrong box number on it, and no matter how many times I returned it, it just landed straight back in my box and I wanted it to stop.

“Maybe it’s not the same item; maybe it’s new post coming in.”

I pointed to the two large A4 envelopes he was still clutching. The brown one was new, I explained, but the white one has now been put in my box three times.

He capitulated. “All right, leave this with me. I’ll write them a note.”

I expressed the hope that this would be the end of it.

“Oh yes. After all, you did write on the envelope, so there’s no way it will be posted back to you.”

We shall see. This is beginning to feel like Groundhog Day.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

What do they mean by “integration”?

In a recent debate I had about what we might call the difference between acceptable and unacceptable immigration, I was told that all immigrants to Germany must adopt German culture and values, which is difficult for me because my wife is downstairs watching German comedy. That’s partly why I’m not downstairs with her.

And for my second paragraph, I shall try (no doubt unsuccessfully) to head off the usual howls of protest I get from Germans whenever I discuss the German sense of humour. For the record, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with German comedy, and I know for a fact that Germans have a sense of humour. Please, if you’re German, don’t write and tell me off for saying Germans don’t have a sense of humour. (You will, of course, because no matter how many times I explicitly say you do have a sense of humour, you always tell me I said you didn’t.)

I can’t, however, bring myself to enjoy German humour; certainly not the kind you see on TV. That doesn’t mean German humour is objectively bad, just that subjectively it doesn’t make me laugh. (Right now, two men dressed up as an amateur dramatics idea of a retired couple are throwing sausages into an audience of Germans splitting their sides with hysterical laughter.) So... does this mean I am not integrated? Am I failing to share German culture and values?

I’m quite worried about this, actually. I’ve never liked beer, which puts me at a distinct disadvantage in ways you can’t possibly imagine. On the other hand, I do enjoy the occasional shot of that kind of digestif which smells like cough medicine, which my (German) wife can’t stand, so in that respect I’m more integrated than she is. I suppose that sort of balances out, then.

Another value I can’t bring myself to fully embrace is bus stop etiquette. In Britain, where I grew up, even a single person at a bus stop will, in the immortal words of the great George Mikes, “form an orderly queue of one”. Here, it’s battle-elbows at the ready, and no quarter is given. It takes about twice as long to board a German bus with all that pushing and shoving, yet straight-faced Germans have explained to me, with relentless Teutonic logic, that it’s actually quicker if everyone tries to be first at the same time.

While I am not known for sartorial elegance (just ask my wife and watch her roll her eyes), there are some things I simply will not stoop to. Combining khaki shorts with white socks and brown sandals, for example.

When I’m invited to a birthday party, I find it hard to inflict on the birthday boy/girl an epic yet humorous poem written entirely in iambic tetrameter, and an uncompomising AABB rhyming scheme my wife calls Reim dich oder ich hau dich — rhyme, or I’ll hit you. The strain of making every second line a punchline and the embarrassment of having to briefly pause in order to accentuate said punchline are too much for me to bear.

There’s actually quite a long list of things I am failing to adopt as my own. But I have been making some progress, so I am hoping that if certain parties get voted in they’ll grant me a stay of execution. Since I come from Somerset, liking Apfelwein was quite an easy thing. Slightly more challenging was Sauerkraut, but I think I’ve got the hang of that now. And I am proud to announce that I have mastered the art of looking at my watch and tutting with impatience if a train is more than thirty-five seconds late.

So, it’s hard. I may never attain the Borg-like level of assimilation some might be looking for; I just hope that my efforts so far will be recognised. Please don’t send me back: they have the English Defence League over there.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Battle lines

As a general rule, I don’t make New Year’s resolutions; but I did promise to myself that this year I would blog more regularly (or blog at all, actually). Little did I know that 2015 would begin with such a horrific story: Islamic terrorists shoot dead half a dozen cartoonists. And it’s not the sort of thing I really wanted to blog about, but sometimes you just have to. You have to, because there are times when you have to make a stand, lest history later judges you on your silence.

The generally accepted narrative is that these terrorists are brainwashed madmen who want to impose their narrow, bigoted ideas on the rest of the world and rob us of our freedom of speech; that they are religious fanatics who are prepared to kill in the name of a fairy tale.

That’s the narrative that has long been accepted by large numbers of people in the west; ever since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, suggestions that there might be a more rational explanation have largely gone unheeded. It’s clear what the tactics are: to cause a backlash, to provoke us westerners into persecuting Muslims in order to make ordinary Muslims want to — need to — fight back.

And it’s working. Our local paper contacted some local Muslim community leaders to get their response; most declined, citing their own fears in the light of attacks on Parisian businesses run by Muslims. For weeks now, various people have been quoting figures at me that literally make no sense in the light of my own personal experience: that 50% of Germans support the anti-Islamic PEGIDA organisation, or that 80% of British Muslims truly believe that cartoonists who depict Mohammed deserve to die. These are representative surveys conducted by reputable agencies, or so I am told; they don’t represent anyone I know.

And obediently following the terrorists’ agenda and stoking the fires of sectarian violence blunders Richard Dawkins, a man who is a world expert on evolutionary biology and a complete idiot on everything else. It’s almost as if he had never opened a history book in his life. He certainly has never opened a book on theology, and is even proud of the fact: that sort of makes him less an expert on how religious people really think than he is on subjects he’s actually studied.

There is a sense here of battle lines being drawn up, of positions being taken, of the identification of allies and enemies. It feels like what the writers of Doctor Who would call a “tipping point”: what we decide now will decide our futures. Are we going to declare war?

And in the middle of these thoughts, I stumbled over one cartoon by Joe Sacco that gave me something to hang my thoughts on. The pen is mightier than the sword — indeed, mightier than the Kalashnikov — and that makes it a weapon. Like all weapons, those who wield it must do so responsibly.

It’s not that I would want to see the freedom of speech curtailed, at least not by legal or religious fiat. But I have long said that those who wish to exercise their freedoms must take responsibility for the consequences. How many times can you poke a sleeping tiger with a sharp stick before it bites your arm off?

At this point, it is important to state very clearly that of course the attacks we saw in Paris — and attacks we have seen elsewhere, including 9/11 in New York, 7/7 in London and more recently in Sydney — are atrocious crimes and are to be condemned in the strongest possible terms.

But, as Sacco pointed out, the staff of Charlie Hebdo were being highly provocative, and very irresponsible. Not — I repeat — that they deserved what happened to them; but that it did isn’t surprising.

Free speech is now being used as an excuse to provoke, which is not what those who espoused the idea in the first place had in mind. But here the “insane” terrorists are doing a better job, because they haven’t deluded themselves that the other side will back down: they’re counting on us to lash out. They’re counting on us to churn out, in a show of defiance, yet more cartoons and articles designed to vilify entire belief systems, and by extension demonise sincere adherents to those belief systems; they are deliberately planting in our minds the idea of Islam as inherently violent and murderous, and therefore dangerous, so that we will drive them out of town and into the welcoming arms of IS.

And they are succeeding. In this war, we are already losing the first battle. That first battle is not for our freedom of speech, it is for our hearts and minds.

It’s not too late, but it soon will be. We can win this battle, but we first have to acknowledge that this is the battle we are actually fighting.

I mentioned earlier that the surveys showing how divided we have supposedly become don’t square with my own experiences. Let me relate, by way of presenting a glimmer of hope at the end of this uncharateristically pessimistic piece, just one of those experiences.

I live in a small, secluded valley in the extreme north-west of Bavaria. It is staunchly Catholic, and staunchly conservative: the only mayors around here that are not members of the right-of-centre CSU are independents. Immigration around here is low, and low immigration is usually associated with low tolerance towards immigration. In short, if ever there was a place you would expect ordinary folk to reject Muslims, statistically speaking, this would be it.

And yet when shelters for asylum seekers started opening up in the villages around here, the locals rushed to help out. They visited the shelters, made the people feel welcome, talked to them, listened to their stories, swapped recipes even. These weren’t trendy young folk determined to cement their credentials as revolutionary rebels kicking against the reactionary nature of their parents’ generation: they were sixty-year-old ladies with time on their hands and a sense of duty.

One of these shelters is in my own community, and houses several refugees from Palestine. The local priest was delighted to discover that their native language was Aramaic, “the language spoken by Our Lord,” as the local paper quoted him, and this despite their being Muslim. A reminder, said the priest, that we must accept everyone, regardless of origin or religion.

This is where we must begin: by refusing to draw battle lines. The terrorists want us to demonise Muslims en masse. Let us instead meet Muslims individually, and swap recipes. Our salvation lies, I am quite certain, in the example of housewives who just want to help out.