Saturday, December 31, 2016

Well, that was some year

I appear to have survived the year 2016, which is more than a lot of other people can say. A huge number of celebrities chose this year to shuffle off their mortal coils: David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Carrie Fisher to name but three. If you’re British, you’ll also be mourning the loss of the likes of Ronnie Corbett, Paul Daniels and Victoria Wood. For Germans, the list includes Tamme Hanken, Guido Westerwelle and Götz George.

It seems as if there isn’t a single person who hasn’t felt the loss of some childhood-defining figure or other: there was that anguished moment when three generations of Germans simultaneously cried, “No, not Peter Lustig!” My wife very kindly suggested that I should be grateful I’m not famous enough, which I suppose is one way of looking at my continued lack of stardom.

I like to think of myself as a bit rational most of the time, so I can console myself with probability theory, which suggests that actually all is right with the universe and that it would in fact be very strange if we never experienced a year as unusual as this one from time to time. All the same, when you hear the rhetoric of the US President Elect on things like nuclear weapons and the manaical world-domination plans of heavily-armed Islamic terrorists, you can’t help but imagine a mass exodus before the impending apocalypse.

It remains to be seen what the next year will bring. As my local paper helpfully explained this morning, as if this was some deep new insight currently sending shockwaves through the philosophical community, 2017 is the logical follow-on to 2016. Given that, I suppose we’ll just have to expect the unexpected. By this time next year, the new leader of the free world could be me.

Now, there’s a scary thought.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Why I’m a bit worried right now

This isn’t going to be a learned, academic piece. It’s my gut reaction to a news story, and so entirely subjective. Perhaps I’m being needlessly hysterical here — and if it’s any consolation, I really hope I’m badly mistaken. For once in my life, I would be really happy if, some time in the future, I have to stand up and say, “I was wrong, and I apologize to anyone who took my word for it.”

A few days ago, a man called Richard Spencer stood up in front of a small crowd of white men (I suppose there were some women there as well, but I didn’t notice any), told them their nation was created for them and for them only, and led them in a chorus of “Hail Trump”. Cue Nazi salutes.

A lot of people, on seeing that, will have felt shudders down the spine. I certainly did: there’s something very unsettling about witnessing the sort of scene you might expect in satirical comedy when it isn’t satire. The nearest thing you get to a laugh is watching an American trying to pronounce the “ü” in “Lügenpresse”.

It’s not the mere existence of people like this that worries me — they’ve always existed, and usually there aren’t enough of them to be more than a slight irritant. It’s the fact that they are uncomfortably close to power.

To be sure, I don’t think President Elect Trump is deliberately racist, or a Nazi. I think he’s a hopeless politician who lacks all the necessary skills to play the game, and he will lose. He certainly does have some very unpalatable views, and his despicable attitude towards women (to pick one example) doesn’t seem like an act. But I actually believe him when he says he condemns Spencer’s Alternative Right movement: it’s just that he doesn’t understand why it’s so important to nip that sort of thing in the bud, rather than wait for a journalist to ask him about it a few days later.

But it seems that the “alt-right” view Trump as their route to the White House, and it looks as if they’ve secured their first victory by installing their PR man as one of Trump’s key advisors. I am referring to Steve Bannon.

Until recently, Bannon ran Breitbart News, an online news platform that leans so far right it’s less of a platform and more of a slippery slope. This organisation appears very much to be the mouthpiece of the “alt-right”, in much the same way that Der Stürmer was the mouthpiece of the Nazi movement.

Would you rather your child had Nazism or Alt-Rightism?

Of course, I can’t find any official link between Breitbart and Spencer. But that doesn’t matter, because there was no official link between Der Stürmer and Hitler; indeed, for a brief period, the Nazis banned Der Stürmer (not for its content, but for its crude and borderline pornographic style). But Breitbart has no problems supporting Trump and echoing Spencer’s rhetoric, just as Der Stürmer had no problem introducing the wider public to Nazi propaganda.

Both publications criticized their champions for being “too soft” (Hitler was not ruthless enough against the Jews, Trump has gone soft on illegal immigrants), both purport to tell the truth while the evil “mainstream media” pander to elitist interests. The differences are that Breitbart looks superficially more respectable, and its former chief now has the President Elect’s ear.

Of course, Spencer’s movement is small, and most people — including most, I am sure, who voted Trump — would be horrified by it. But that’s basically the position the National Socialist German Workers’ Party — the NSDAP to give it its German abbreviation, also known as the Nazi Party by its detractors — was in less than 15 years before Hitler was appointed Chancellor: it was a small protest group based in Munich, whose members brawled in pubs. Its membership was so pitifully small that when it began issuing membership cards, it started the numbering at 500 just for the sake of saving its own embarrassment.

But it grew. It grew for many reasons, but feeding off the resentment of the masses was a big one. It benefitted from national emergencies, some fabricated (the Communist plot to burn down the Reichstag building), most not (the Great Depression). In fact, these national emergencies were exactly what the party needed, as it made it easier to bypass all the usual democratic checks and balances that should have stopped Hitler eventually — and illegally — assuming the role of President to become absolute ruler.

Looking at America today, there are plenty of national emergencies waiting in the wings. One of the first may well happen when it dawns on about 60 million Americans that Trump isn’t going to deliver half of what he promised. I have a very nasty suspicion that in later years, historians will point to how, in the decades leading up to whatever is about to be leashed upon us, large numbers of the citizenry weaponized themselves while the police became militarized to a degree that had even the military shaking its head in disbelief.

Of course, all of this is entirely speculative. I have no idea what will happen. Perhaps it will all blow over and we’ll all come to our senses. I hope it does. This is one of those rare moments when I actually hope that I end up looking like an ignorant idiot.

Friday, September 30, 2016

John’s pics

Every once in a while, something lands in my PO box that pretty much deserves its own video. Such is the case with a letter I received with some photos taken in Aschaffenburg in the mid-1950s, which immediately prompted a video in which I was able to compare the town as it was then with the modern town. The best thing about this video is that the historic images are ones you won’t find anywhere else — not those exact photos, in any case.

But while it was a great video (at least, I think so), it doesn’t really let you study the photos (either the old ones or the new ones) at your leisure. So here they are, in order they appear in the video (remember you can click to expand).

First, looking up Herstallstraße:

A few people commented on the video to complain about the ugly new building on the left. Bear in mind, though, that German cities did have to rebuild very extensively, and very rapidly, after the war. In the decade after, the emphasis was on building homes to deal with a massive shortage of housing stock. That said, Germany did a much better job of preserving or recreating historical buildings than, say, the UK.

Next, the Collegiate Church:

You can quite clearly see how I was unable to get the right angle. I found one photo taken from the air just after the completion of the new Town Hall, which was in 1958, and most of the buildings opposite the church simply weren’t there: it was basically a parking lot. I think that must be where John was standing when he took the photo, because try as I might I couldn’t get the whole spire in and also get the fountain where it appears on the old photo. Not without stepping backwards through a plate-glass window.

The Hotel is up next:

I like this one because at first sight it looks as if it’s hardly changed at all. And it hasn’t: it’s still run by the same family (well, at some point it passed to the in-laws, but I still count that as “in the family”), as it has been for over 100 years. It’s only when you look closely that you notice the little changes.

Finally, the castle:

What a shame that tower is under scaffolding, but the reality is that historic buildings like this require an awful lot of maintenance. I am, though, surprised that nobody picked me up on mentioning the “symbol of the six-spoked wheel” while showing images of wheels with at least eight spokes each. I probably should have watched the rough cut more closely before recording the commentary, but in fact the Mainz Wheel is supposed to have six spokes. It’s often depicted as having more, and in previous centuries people didn’t always pay attention to such fine details: nevertheless, the symbol of Mainz is supposed to have exactly six spokes.

Also notice that there are more trees (and vines, too) in the newer picture. John did take his photos in the winter (you can see a light dusting of snow in some), but still air raids and things like the lack of firewood during the war took their toll on the local tree population: this has, as you can see, since been corrected.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Public transport in Frankfurt: Additional notes

I could have picked a better day to make my video about the public transport system of Frankfurt; it was, if not the hottest day of the year, certainly not the ideal weather to be stomping about in the city. But into every life a little rain must fall (metaphorically, in this case), so I braved the elements and tried not to choke on the smog.

Of course, it’s tricky getting everything into a five-minute video (any more and people would have fallen asleep), so here are a few little extra bits — starting, though, with the map of the airport that did actually make the final cut:

There are, as I mentioned in the video, two stations. Or rather, the station is divided into two: tracks 1, 2 and 3 are in the older station, right below the entrance to Terminal 1, and are for local traffic; while tracks 4 to 7 are on the other side of the autobahn, and are for long-distance trains. You’d notice if you were going for the long-distance station by mistake: it’s quite a long walk. Printed timetables helpfully number the tracks “Regio 1” to “Regio 3” for local trains, and “Fern 4” to “Fern 7” for long-distance trains.

To get there from Terminal 2, you can walk if you’re a glutton for punishment, or you can take a courtesy bus or the SkyLine monorail. Currently under construction is Terminal 3, which is at the other end of the airport to the south, and will require an even longer journey by SkyLine.

I’m not completely sure of the logic of using an “S” to indicate the regional station and “T” to indicate the long-distance station, but that’s what’s on the signs at the airport.

For S-Bahn trains into Frankfurt, you need track 1: during the day, there should be one train every 15 minutes. Any S-Bahn train will do. Other regional trains departing from that platform will be travelling in the right direction, but those headed for Hanau or Aschaffenburg will call at Frankfurt Süd (also known as “Südbahnhof”): that’s okay, because you can still get off there and take the U-Bahn into the centre.

Some regional trains going towards Frankfurt depart, rather confusingly, from track 2, which also has trains travelling away from the city. It’s probably best simply to go to track 1 and take whichever S-Bahn train comes in next.

Regarding the Hauptbahnhof (“Hauptbahnhof” or “Hbf” indicates a city’s most important — not necessarily the most central — station), don’t be worried by the fact that track numbers go up to 104. It’s common, when a station is in two separate sections, for tracks in one section to be numbered beginning at 1, and in another section beginning at 101. That way, you can tell at a glance which part of the station the track you need is going to be. In this case, ground-level platforms are numbered 1 to 24, and low-level platforms (for most S-Bahn trains) are numbered 101 to 104.

The next map shows Frankfurt’s railways, with the S-Bahn in green and other lines in red:

Names of regional and long-distance stations are given, along with the types of train that stop there: anything in red is long-distance; “RB” indicates the “RegionalBahn”, with trains that call at every stop; and “RE” is “RegionalExpress”, with trains that, well, don’t call at every stop. The main point about this one is to give a brief overview of where the various long-distance stations are: probably a bit useless, but it might be useful for somebody.

Potentially more useful is this map of central Frankfurt:

Here, names of S-Bahn and U-Bahn stations are in white, while blue-green is for important areas of the city.

The only other thing to say is that the area around the Hauptbahnhof is not particularly pleasant. Frankfurt has, by German standards, a very high crime rate, and this is concentrated around the Hauptbahnhof area. This mostly involves drugs, and with it associated problems like violence (due to turf wars) and the like. The authorities have been unable to get a proper handle on the issue, and attempts to clean it up only result in temporarily moving it elsewhere. At the time of writing, the dealers have left Münchener Straße and are instead on Niddastraße.

It’s important to stress that while the crime rate is high, it is high by German standards — compared to many US cities, for example, it’s really not that bad. Still, walking out of the station to get a lungful of the aroma of urine is not a pleasant introduction to Germany, or to Frankfurt. You might, if this sort of thing worries you, want to avoid getting hotel or hostel accommodation in this area.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A clapperboard would look more professional

In my latest video, about the history and possible future of the geographic centre of the EU, I went “on location”, as we in the (cough!) film business say. After all, I live very close to it, so it would be stupid of me to stay at home to do it. Of course, since I don’t have a car (or a driving licence), that meant a sweaty trek cross country, over one ridge and up to the top of the next... with all my gear. To all those who still cling to the belief that making these videos means just sitting in front of a camera for five minutes, I hope you begin to appreciate just what is actually entailed.

Up until now, filming on location has meant using a long extension cord to connect my lapel mic directly to the camera and vaguely wondering if I could justify the expense of getting a radio mic. This does mean I am severely restricted in how far away I can position the camera and what movements I can make.

But then I had one of those forehead-slapping why-didn’t-I-think-of-that-before revelations: I have a digital sound recorder. I can plug the mic into that, and (as long as I am wearing relatively loose-fitting trousers) put it in my pocket.

The only real downside to that is that you end up with separate sound files that you then have to synchronize with the video. But there’s a very simply remedy to that: before you start talking, clap your hands.

In Hollywood, they use clapperboards for the same purpose. It’s not just a meaningless ritual: the clapperboard has, written on it, information about the scene and take, which is also verbally repeated, then the clapperboard is snapped shut. The camera records the visual part of that, the sound recorder the audio part. Later, it’s a simple question of getting the right audio file for the visual recording (that’s why you record the scene and take numbers), then lining up the sound of the clapperboard snapping to the visual cue of the clapperboard closing.

For a quick video like this, where you only have a couple of scenes, just clapping your hands serves the same purpose. A clap is ideal, because it’s a very short sound and so easy to line up with the visual: it shows up on the waveform in the video editor as an obvious peak.

It helps that my camera still has its own built-in microphones, which are recording the sound at the same time, so in the video editor I can also line up the peak in the audio file with the peak in the audio from the camera — although, depending on how far away the camera is and what other noise it’s picking up (wind, for example), it might not be so easy to find. But the image of me striking my hands together is very easy to find. Line everything up, delete the audio from the camera, and voilà!

Incidentally, you may have noticed that on some shots, the sound is quite bad. I think I must have initially had the sound turned up too high on the recorder, and it was peaking too much: at some point I accidentally knocked the dial to a more sensible level. I should have done some trial runs first to determine the right level, but at least now I know.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Production notes: Filming a festival

If you haven’t seen it yet, I urge you (for no other reason than that it’s mainly what this post is about) to watch my video on last weekend’s Straw Bale Festival in my home village. It condenses a four-hour festival (well, the four-hour climax to a day-and-a-half-long festival) into about ten and a half minutes.

I’m often told that making videos is really easy; and it’s true that many very excellent videos are pretty easy to make (simple vlogs, for example, if you happen to be naturally funny or engaging). But for an idea of how “easy” this video was, take a look at the arranger:

Just to make this clear: this is amateur level. People with more skills, resources, time and money than I have routinely make much more complex videos. But I found this one a fair challenge.

The six tracks you can see there are:
  1. Video (from the camera).
  2. Sound (also from the camera).
  3. Titles (including the open captions where people are speaking German).
  4. Visual images that will appear superimposed over the video in track 1.
  5. Music (the green lines show where the music fades up and down).
  6. Commentary.
In itself, that's quite simple. But there’s some complexity hidden there. For example, when the gentleman talks about his “straw bale garden” (he is, by the way, the local “straw professor” Alfred Leistenschläger), the scene cuts away from him to views of the straw bale garden... but his voice keeps going. Basically, I’ve taken the footage of him speaking, and at strategic points removed the video (but not the sound) and replaced it with different video.

This is one way to save a little time, by the way, as well as make it a bit more interesting. Instead of seeing him drone on, and then later showing the garden, we instantly see what he’s talking about.

But condensing a four-hour show into ten minutes is no mean feat. I came away with perhaps an hour and a half or more of material, in 355 takes. Most of that, of course, never made the cut; but you have to film more than you need (much more, if possible) and then decide what to do with it. And because some shots will later turn out to be unusable, you should never shy away from filming the same thing several times.

I spent a lot of time essentially pointing my camera in the direction of people having fun: eating, drinking, chatting, that sort of thing. I also took as many shots as I could of people seemingly watching, applauding, pointing cameras: this can be useful later to disguise edits or bad camera work. For example, if I were to slip on something as the Straw Bale Queen was making a speech, I could at that point (in the edit) cut away to people watching with rapt attention — just as long as I pick a shot that doesn’t have the Straw Bale Queen in it. (This didn’t happen, but you’ll notice a couple of those shots in the video all the same.)

There were many other things I filmed, and then didn’t use, mostly speeches. The outgoing Queen made a fairly long speech during which her voice cracked with emotion, but it was mostly a list of her engagements over the past year: not exactly riveting for my viewers. Some of the speakers attempted to tell jokes. A great deal of fuss was made over the fact that this was the first year Alfred Leistenschläger was not involved in organising the event. They forgot to give the runners-up their bottle of wine. There was also a long, and pretty awful, piece of doggerel read out by one of the guests of honour in a faultering voice and with great shuffling of pieces of paper.

All that had to go for various reasons. Most of all, though, when you have to condense something of this magnitude to something YouTube-ready, you have to decide on what story you really want to tell — and then to tell that story, and ruthlessly cut out everything else. I set out to tell the story of the election of the new Straw Bale Queen, and apart from the sequences of “people having fun”, everything is there to tell that story. The only extra thing I kept in was the pro-celebrity threshing, but even that explains what the hell that contraption is that the Queen was wheeled in on (it’s a winnowing machine).

You will, therefore, never find out how a knowledge of apple cultivars might win you a hot-air balloon ride, why a six-pack of beer suddenly appeared on the new Queen’s throne, or who that young lady in the pink ballgown is.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Miltenberg: Extra notes

It may seem obvious, but I’ve come to realize that one of the things this blog should be used for is to give extra information about the places I film for my Destination series. For those who like the video and perhaps feel that one day they should visit. So here are my extra notes to accompany my video of Miltenberg. And what a beautiful place it is, too.

Miltenberg: the classic view.

This, of course, despite the fact that it started raining while I was there — not much, but some of the rain is visible in the video. But at least the light was nice and even: no deep shadows, and no wishing I could afford a new camera with useful things like dynamic range stretch. (I’m still looking, by the way, for somebody foolish enough to pay me to make videos.)

In the video, I mention that the historic centre is in the shape of a narrow wedge. Basically, the river Main flows head on towards the Odenwald, and when it reaches it, makes a sharp right turn; and that’s where Miltenberg is built. Here’s what it looks like if you take a map of the town and draw a line around the historic centre:

What’s long, thin and about 700 years old?

It’s a long way from one end to the other (although you don’t have to go all the way to the Mainz Gate at the extreme western end unless you really want to). It is, though, for the most part, flat, except for the path up to the castle (which is seriously not wheelchair-accessible).

For those reliant on public transportation, Miltenberg is best reached from Aschaffenburg (which is itself easy to get to from Frankfurt), with slow RB trains departing every hour and faster RE trains every two hours.

It’s a fair distance from any autobahn, but there are good roads from the A3 near Aschaffenburg.

The Lilli Chapeau Theatre really is the smallest in the world, at least according to the Guinness Book of Records (and they should know). The story behind it is quite sweet: Lilli Chapeau was a member of a company of street performers which once stopped at Miltenberg. She fell in love with, and later married, a local, but found it hard to settle down and lead a conventional life. So he basically converted a room into a tiny theatre and founded a theatre company with one actor (Chapeau), and one other person (himself) doing all the rest. The theatre is only open from October to April: during the summer months, Chapeau performs at their new project, an open-air theatre in nearby Kleinheubach (with twice the number of seats) where she shares the bill with a string of horses.

Finally, afficionados of German post-war comedy films may recognize Miltenberg as one of the locations used for filming the 1958 classic The Spessart Inn (original title Das Wirtshaus im Spessart).

Monday, June 27, 2016

A very long list

The country of my birth, the country I grew up in and which educated me, the country which still contains most of my family, is going to pieces. The economy is shrinking faster than a deflating balloon, the government is in complete disarray, the opposition has completely collapsed, and a sense of near anarchy reigns with people walking around shouting racist abuse at random foreign-looking types.

It’s natural to want to pin the blame for all this on somebody or some thing, whether it’s “the Tories” or “xenophobia”, but I think pretty much the entire nation is probably responsible in some form. I can probably nearly excuse myself from most of it, having been living in Germany for over 20 years and been ineligible to vote: in the past few weeks I have been cast in the role of helpless bystander. Probably not entirely, though, since I do have a voice (thanks to YouTube, and social media generally), so I have to ask myself whether I could have used by voice more effectively.

But still, I am extremely angry at the moment with a large number of people, and so I have decided to write a very long list of some of my grievences. It will probably be therapeutic for me, but it’s likely to include you somewhere in it, so be warned. Of course, there’s a chance just writing this will make me even more angry, but I’m honestly past caring.

All right, so let me begin with some of the usual suspects and work my way through the UK’s population.

David Cameron

The way it looks from here, Dave, is that you had these loony eurosceptics on your back and wanted to shut them up. So you devised this wonderful plan: promise them a referendum. If you then lost the election, no problem. If you won the election, you could have the referendum, which you would win easily, and the eurosceptics would stop bugging you for the next five or ten years at least. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, now we know what could possibly go wrong, because it went wrong, didn’t it? And you didn’t plan for this. At no point, it seems, did you stop to think, “But what happens if I don’t win the referendum?” You just steamed right ahead, thinking you could tell people that in the event you lost you would immediately trigger Article 50, safe in the mistaken knowledge that you would never have to do it. And so here we are, and you had to renege on that promise because you were completely unprepared for it.

You used the future of an entire nation to quell the voices of a few irritating loons. You don’t do that unless you are prepared to lose. You don’t ever bet more than you can afford.

Boris Johnson

Looking at you, Boris, when you delivered your victory speech, you really didn’t want to win at all. Which raises the very important question: Why the hell did you campaign for Leave? What in heaven’s name possessed you? Was this really all about setting yourself up as the next Prime Minister? And how could you do this to your old chum Dave? Did you think this was a game of Monopoly?

And to do this, you ran a campaign full of deliberate lies. That whole £350 million a week for the NHS thing was a total fabrication, which you knew at the time. Well, the public bought that and other lies, and now they expect you deliver on promises you never intended to have to keep.

Michael Gove

Most of what I said about Boris applies to you, although at least you are known to have been an actual eurosceptic — so at least you had a smidgeon of integrity, although it’s damned difficult to find.

But that comment about everybody being fed up with experts will go down in history as the most imbecilic statement ever. Right there, in that one sentence, is the encapsulation of everything that’s wrong: this pandering to the idea that people with no knowledge are somehow more knowledgeable than those with expertise. And the result of that is that your wife went on Facebook to ask for people to come forward with helpful suggestions on what to do next: if you don’t see why that should be a problem, you have no business in any job that requires you to make decisions.

Nigel Farage

Well, I suppose at least you truly believe in what you’re doing, but sincerity will only take you so far. Hospitals are full of people who sincerely believed they could cross the road. Your tactic of appealing to the basest forms of xenophobia, as exemplified by your “Breaking Point” poster, is not just odious, it is reckless.

Jeremy Corbyn

What the actual hell? This is the “kinder, gentler politics” you wanted to usher in? You were being kind and gentle to whom, exactly? You showed such a total lack of leadership that your own Labour voters didn’t know which way you wanted them to vote. And so when one of your most respected front-bench colleagues confronted you, you fired him, triggering a series of resignations — so many, in fact, that you’re now having problems assembling a shadow cabinet. And you obstinately won’t resign, claiming, against all the evidence, that you somehow command the overwhelming support of the grass roots. Britain now has no functioning official opposition. If a snap election is called, how on earth do you think you’re going to win it?


Yes, you: those who still think that Jeremy Corbyn is the Greatest Thing Ever and Can Do No Wrong. I’ll bet most of you wanted Remain to win. Maybe you should know that Jeremy Corbyn is a eurosceptic: his view on the EU is that it is a corrupt capitalist organisation that puts the needs of big business ahead of the needs of ordinary workers. You may dismiss as “mainstream media bias” stories that he didn’t do all he could to campaign for Remain, but he really didn’t. Unable to decide between supporting the fat-cat capitalists in the City and the swivel-eyed racists and Islamophobes everywhere else, he dithered and left the working-class Labour heartlands to vote according to gut instinct. You want proof? He refuses to confirm that he voted Remain. “His own private business,” you may say, but you’re making excuses for him: somebody supposedly part of the Remain campaign shouldn’t feel he’s giving anything away by saying which way he voted, unless he voted Leave.

Barack Obama

Yes, Mr President, you. It was very nice of you to come over and help Dave’s campaign, and full points for using the word “queue”. Unfortunately, just about everything else you said seemed deliberately scripted to irritate the British. At one time you said that Brexit would leave Britain unable to enjoy the full benefits of TTIP. I suppose you believe in it yourself, but the threat of TTIP is the one thing that would make even the most committed europhile stop and think. Here in Europe, we tend to believe that businesses should obey the law, not the other way around.

The tabloid press

For decades now some of you have been feeding your readers exaggerations, misinformation and outright lies about the EU. You make up stories that aren’t true, whip up racial hatred when it suits you, and don’t even seem quite clear yourself just how the EU works or what it does. And by the way, just to clear this one up once and for all: The European Court of Human Rights has nothing whatever to do with the EU.

And so you told your readers that by voting Leave, they would usher in an instant and golden future in which Britain can in some unspecified way get back its sovereignty and freedom which will be really good for some reason. Now you’re having to explain to your readers why the economy is going down the pan, why the country is still in the EU, and why the immigrants haven’t gone home.

The “You Can’t Say That” brigade

Look, racism (and other -isms) are obnoxious and have no place in our society. But if your response to it is to constantly tell people who express it that they are bigots and intellectually-challenged thugs, if your response is to ridicule and publicly humliate them, to pillory them and hound them, you are not solving the problem. You may think you are, but that’s only because people become cautious about saying things.

And so the venom remains, seething below the surface, where resentfulness and suspicion lurk — until something happens to release the pressure, and then all hell, as we have just seen, is let loose.

People aren’t racist just because they have this sort of evil racist gene. They become racist because they are worried about their jobs, their security, their livelihoods. It’s not that hard to understand: when in difficult circumstances, they look for ways to explain their predicament, and immigrants are a natural target. Tell these people to shut up because you think they’re stupid, and they will simply feel marginalised, magnifying their hatred and making it worse.

Instead of pouring your energy into well-meaning but ultimately counter-productive vigilantism, work on trying to understand why people feel the way they do, and then doing something constructive about it.


You thought this referendum was about giving the Establishment a kicking? (In which case, why did you then take Boris Johnson’s side?) You thought your vote wouldn’t count? You didn’t think to find out what exactly you were voting for?

Well, at least you now realise what you did. Let’s hope you’ve learned your lesson.

Young people

So the older generations have ruined your future. Yes, that’s horrendous — but you’re partly to blame for that.

Well, not those of you who bothered to vote; but the problem is, that’s not many. Of all those of you in the 18-24 demographic, a whopping 64% didn’t vote. Where the hell were you?

It’s no good moaning that the government should have given 16-year-olds the vote. It probably wouldn’t have made that much difference: at 18, you’re likely to be thinking of studying, possibly abroad; at 16 — and I know this, because, although I don’t often admit it, I was once a 16-year-old — those considerations are much less pressing.

No, the fact is: You should have voted.

But oh, the whining, which started as soon as the referendum date was set: you complained that it clashed with Glastonbury, and so the PM had to explain the concept of a postal vote without sounding patronising. Vast numbers of you didn’t even register to vote, and some of you even complained that three months’ notice wasn’t enough.

It’s no good now stamping your feet and saying it’s not fair: you had your chance, and you blew it, and in doing so you left the country to take that “leap in the dark” the Remain camp warned us about and we all thought it was scaremongering but it turns out it wasn’t.

Maybe at the next elections we’ll see a better turnout among you lot. Maybe you’ll stop listening to Russell Brand.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Now the party’s over

When the British electorate went to the polls to vote on whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union or leave it, a lot of people looked at the arguments that had been presented (such as they were), decided to vote Leave. And that’s absolutely fine: I would have voted Remain if I’d been eligible, but I recognize that this is a complex issue nobody really understands, and it may yet prove that leaving the EU is the right thing to do. I doubt it, but I understand that’s how a lot of people see it. So I have no issue with these people, who exercised their democratic right in a responsible way.

My issue is with those people who said they voted Leave and now regret doing so; with those people who googled “What is the EU?” after the results had been announced; and with those people who are busy phoning election officials asking if they can change their vote.

What did they think this was? Britain’s Got Talent?

The whole thing was a terrible advert for democracy. First, the capaigning on both sides was short on facts, long on hysteria. Then, it seems that significant proportions of the electorate saw this referendum as a way to give “the political elite” a good kicking, without actually realising that this was going to have consequences. As a result, there’s a very real chance that two years from now, if Brexit negotiations go ahead and end in stalemate, my passport will be about as useful to me in Germany as a piece of cardboard torn from a cornflakes packet.

What am I supposed to do with this?

I think it’s true that the EU has serious problems it refuses to address: in particular, although it’s a lot more democratic than most people realize, the system of government is so complicated that nobody has a snowball’s chance in hell of working out how it operates and what the point of EU elections is. Yes, it can be overly bureaucratic, and is only now realizing that it should perhaps make a little more effort when it comes to listening to and dealing with the concerns of its citizens. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to get drunk on mindless jingoism, punch Brussels in the face and then wake up the following morning with a splitting headache to find Brussels standing over you, divorce papers in hand and asking for a signature.

The level of “What have I done?” is staggering. More value was wiped off the British economy in just a few minutes than Britain would ever have saved in not paying EU contributions. Cornwall, which voted overwhelmingly to leave, now wants the UK to ask the EU to continue paying subsidies after Brexit, which is literally not going to happen. Yorkshire, which also voted to leave, thinks the British government can now just take over paying these subsidies. Scotland is considering another independence referendum, but if it thinks it can then just get EU membership on its own terms, that is something else that simply will not happen — you don’t get things just because you wish very hard for them. There’s even now a movement calling for London to declare independence from England (London voted Remain), which is totally boneheaded: the logical extreme of this attitude (if the rest of the country disagrees with you, declare independence) is that every constituency will eventually declare independence. My mother would have to get a visa just to visit my sister. Meanwhile, in the event of Brexit, Northern Ireland (which did vote Remain) is going to have to choose between staying in the UK and needing a visa to visit the Irish Republic, and reuniting with the Irish Republic and needing a visa to visit the UK.

In British politics, the traditional way to punish whichever party is in power is in local council elections — voting for people in charge of things like garbage collection and public toilets. If putting a cross in a box helps you feel you’ve given the Prime Minister a bloody nose, be my guest; but not in any election or referendum that is going to have a major effect on the political and economic future of the entire country.

Friday, June 17, 2016

A matter of scale

It never ceases to amaze me just what we consider important enough to spend our lives arguing about. Never mind about how to solve the Middle East, end poverty or cure cancer: what really exercises our minds is whether Fahrenheit is better than Celsius.

It’s been eight months since I uploaded a video explaining the two scales, and since then a thread has been steadily growing over which scale is “more accurate”, a thread which shows no signs of abating (so far I have twice posted to politely suggest that it may be time to move on, and been roundly ignored both times). Improbably, given the total lack of import, that thread has at times got so personal, I seriously considered disabling comments for a couple of months. At this point, I’m with the one who declared “°Réaumur for life!”

I’m reminded of this because Dana of Wanted Adventure recently uploaded a video explaining why she felt she had to unlist an earlier video on why she prefers Fahrenheit. The comments, apparently, were fine. But it was only the second time that one of her videos got more dislikes than likes.

Okay, we’re not (as I understand it) talking about death threats or trolling or any of that really nasty stuff that makes you think that evolution may have been a big mistake. We’re talking about the bizarrely inconsequential things we discuss as if they were about life-or-death.

There are videos you expect to generate a passionate response. I expected the worst when I uploaded a video about the refugee crisis, although it was actually not really awful. It was a bit awful, just not really awful. At least that one’s rational: every time I mention the trains I get a slew of rants about how unspeakably terrible German trains are, usually from people who almost never use the trains or who have rarely travelled abroad. But that’s predictable and expected, if baffling.

But temperature scales? I never saw that one coming. I get months of acrimonious argument. Dana gets several thousand people who think that the downvote button is a disagree button. What’s going on?

I wonder what else would make viewers explode with apoplectic rage. Kilos? Litres? Euros? Will people start spending six weeks arguing over whether metres are better than yards because they’re longer? If I branch out into astrophysics, will my videos get downvoted if I measure distances in light years instead of parsecs? If not, why not?

We live in odd times. I don't at all mind the fact that people pay close attention to the small stuff. But to pour so much energy into something that is actually quite trivial is something I don’t think I’ll ever quite understand.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Shooting into the sun (not all that bad)

Some of you may already have seen my video about the city of Darmstadt. Just to make something clear before I start: I simply did not have time to see the Woog (if you live in Darmstadt, you’ll know what that is); the Rosenhöhe would have been, I would guess, not at its best at this time of year; and to the guy who said he could have fixed me up with a visit to the European Space Operations Center if only he’d known in advance I was to be in Darmstadt — many thanks, and the sentiment is more than appreciated (because that would have been seriously cool), but this is why I really want to find a way to be able to do this as my real job instead of squeezing it into my free time.

Still, since some of you seem to interested in the nuts and bolts of videomaking — a skill I’m still more or less learning by doing — I thought it would be good to start talking some behind-the-scenes stuff. Today: what happens when you have to shoot into the sun.

Here’s a still straight from the camera: it’s a shot of the main building of the Technical University.

It doesn’t look too good, does it? Here’s why: it was a gloriously sunny day, and this shot was taken almost directly into the sun. The entire façade is in fact in shadow; to try to compensate, I set the camera’s white balance to “cloudy”, which at least made the colours less blue. That didn’t help much beyond that: everything looks flat and washed out. You can also see that there is some dust on the camera lens, which I should have cleaned first, but there was nothing I could do about that post-production.

It took me the whole day to cover as much of Darmstadt as I could; returning later when the sun was in a different position wasn’t an option. So I had to tweak it in the video editor as best I could.

First of all, with the colours all washed out, I slightly increased the saturation. This makes the colours more vibrant, less grey, but if you overdo it, the result can look artificial and ugly. My video editor allows me to set the saturation anywhere between -100 (no colour at all) to +100 (LSD trip), and I took it to +36:

The difference is barely noticeable, but it is there. There’s slightly more colour now, but it still looks washed out: there aren’t enough dark tones. So I next increased the contrast, to 73 on a scale of 0 to 100:

This gives me much more contrast between shadows and highlights, but now the bright parts of the image are too bright. If I simply reduce the brightness, the image would go all murky; so instead, I reach for a useful tool called selective brightness. I can choose whether I want to adjust the highlights, the midtones or the shadows. My problem here is that the bright areas are too bright, so I select highlights and set them to -41 brightness. This darkens the bright areas of the image but leaves the rest untouched:

And there you have it. The sky still looks white instead of the bright blue it actually was — I can’t fix that — but I think the whole image looks much better now. At least it looks like it did to me when I was standing in front of it.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Was Hitler a Zionist?

Of all the questions you expect to have to deal with in the course of a lifetime, the question about whether Hitler was a Zionist is not one. Hitler and his cronies, as we all know, were responsible for the deaths of six million Jews, while countless others were forcibly deported or forced to flee. Surely Hitler is the very opposite of a Zionist, committed as he was to the complete destruction of “the Jews”. Why, then, am I wasting time even addressing the question?

Because of British politics, that’s why. Honestly, the more I hear about what’s going on there, the more convinced I am that I left just in time.

Those of you who have been keeping an eye on British politics, or are living in Britain at the moment, will know the story I’m talking about. For the benefit of everyone else, here’s a brief recap.

For some time now, accusations have been growing that many members of the left-of-centre Labour Party, currently in opposition, have been making antisemitic statements, and that the party leadership has failed to do anything about it. Most of the alleged antisemitic statements have been coming from the left wing of the party, and this has caused a rift with the party’s own right wing.

The Labour left has responded to these allegations by pointing out that criticism of the state of Israel is not the same as antisemitism, and that playing the antisemitism card is just a way of silencing debate.

So this argument rages on for a bit, which is an unedifying spectacle and very unhelpful to the Labour Party as a whole, as it is distracting it from the very important job of opposing the Conservative government. A government which seems to be in the process of dismantling the UK and handing it over to Russian oligarchs, so now is really not the time to be squabbling about contentious political opinions about the Middle East.

During this row, it emerged that a few years ago, Labour Member of Parliament Naseem “Naz” Shah had shared on Facebook a post suggesting that the solution to the conflict in the Middle East was to deport Israeli Jews and relocate them to the US, something which to my mind goes beyond criticizing the policies of the government of Israel. After her rather unconvincing argument that she didn’t endorse the views in the post (which raises the question of why she shared it), she was suspended by a Labour Party increasingly under pressure to show they won’t tolerate antisemitism in their ranks.

There’s a valid debate to be had over what actually constitutes antisemitism; and it’s not easy, because there are very few nations in the world that so neatly correspond to adherence to a particular religion. It’s not always easy to tell the difference, but — and I offer this as a piece of advice to anyone intent on stepping into this particular minefield — if your statement includes the phrase “the Jews”, there’s a high chance it’s antisemitic.

All of this was bad enough, before veteran Labour politician and former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone waded into the debate with all the sensitivity of Godzilla and stated in a radio interview that:

...when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism — this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.

At the end of a madcap day that saw him hounded by the press, an irate colleague and a dog, Livingstone was also suspended from the party. But he continues to insist that everything he said was historically true citing Lenni Brenner’s book Zionism in the Age of Dictators in his defence.

So, what’s this all about? Hitler a Zionist?

On the 25th August 1933, Germany, now under Nazi rule, signed the Ha’avara Agreement with Zionist Jews, to facilitate the resettlement of Jews to Palestine. So, Brenner and Livingstone were right?

Not without an ulterior motive.

Not so fast. We’re talking about Germany under Hitler. Hitler also put his signature to a document promising Britain that he wasn’t going to start a war, later commenting that he simply thought he’d give the British Prime Minister his autograph. Anyone who thinks Hitler wanted at that point in history to be nice to “the Jews” clearly hasn’t heard of Mein Kampf, Hitler’s autobiography and propaganda tract written well before he came to power, in which he said:

...the personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew.


The black-haired Jewish youth lies in wait for hours on end, satanically glaring at and spying on the unsuspicious girl whom he plans to seduce, adulterating her blood and removing her from the bosom of her own people. The Jew uses every possible means to undermine the racial foundations of a subjugated people.

and, most famously:

Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: “by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”

That was written years before 1933. Let there be no mistake: Hitler had no sympathy with the Zionist cause, or with the Jewish people. His regime had already started with its program of oppressing German Jews, who wanted out not because they had ideas about booting Muslims out of Palestine, but because the atmosphere in Germany was becoming more hostile.

This is the problem, incidentally, with ascribing certain views to Hitler. Put simply, Hitler is not a man whose word you can trust. This same “Zionist” Hitler is quoted as saying, “The peoples of Islam will always be closer to us than, for example, France,” although that quote is rather doubtful. But whatever he says or even does, you have to bear in mind the possibility that there is an ulterior motive at work.

So what could Hitler possibily have gained from the Ha’avara Agreement?

Well, first of all, and most importantly, he wanted Jews to leave Germany. That was basically it: he didn’t particularly care where they went or what happened to them, just so long as they weren’t in Germany any more. Hitler “supported” Zionism not because he agreed with its aims, but rather in the hope that it would solve one of his problems. The great advantage would be that by concentrating all the Jews in one small part of Palestine, it would be easier to control them and prevent them from becoming a threat.

The other problem he had was the Anti-Nazi boycott, in which several countries boycotted German goods in response to the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor, and Germans in response boycotted Jewish businesses. And the Ha’avara Agreement provided a way around that.

It worked like this: Jews who wanted to emigrate to Palestine would temporarily give up all their possessions, and pay £1000 (a lot of money in those days) to the Ha’avara Company. This money would then be used to buy German goods, which the emigrants would take with them to the Yishuv community in Palestine and then, basically, sell.

There’s a much more detailed discussion of the agreement, its aims and its effects, in this PDF document; but essentially, Hitler “supported Zionism” only insofar as it was a handy way to further his obsession with ridding Germany of “the Jewish problem” once and for all.

On a related subject, Livingstone also claimed that in 1935, the Nazi government passed a law banning the flying of any flag except the swastika and the Zionist flag. In fact, if you read German, the text of the Imperial Flag Act of 1935 is online and says nothing about the Zionist flag. It also says nothing about banning anything: it simply states that the “imperial colours” are black, white and red, and that the swastika was to be the official imperial, national and trade flag.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The least surprising revelation of all

The thing that most amuses me about the Panama scandal is that so many people act as if they’re surprised by it. For as long as I can remember, politicians and celebrities and businessmen have been avoiding/dodging/evading tax. It’s sort of the wallpaper of public life: hideous, and it really needs to go, but it’s quite simply there.

So some anonymous whistleblower sends a vast pile of data to a newspaper, and the collective response is: “My goodness me, all those politicians who’ve been enriching themselves at our expense — they’ve been enriching themselves at our expense!” This, of course, is swiftly followed by, “Throw them out!”

At least in some countries. Yesterday, one of my students wanted to know why the British were making such a huge fuss about it. Germans aren’t too bothered, she said. Probably; but then the German economy is doing reasonably well, while in Britain, a group of rich people in government have been telling the populace for years now that they need to tighten their belts.

So, yes: “David Cameron must go!” chant the protestors, because he has personally benefitted from his father’s tax-avoiding activities, although he may not actually have broken the law. But then, this is a moral, rather than a legal, issue. But then again, I don’t think these are people who originally supported David Cameron, and have now had an unwelcome epiphany: they’re people who were violently opposed to the Conservative government anyhow, and these latest not-particularly-surprising revelations are a good reason to voice their opinions.

Also, I wonder if they have thought through their demands. According to some of the placards they were waving, they seem to think that Cameron resigning is the same as the Conservative Party being forced out of Parliament. If so, they’re in for a shock: it would just mean a new, and probably considerably less popular, Conservative Prime Minister. If we’re very unlucky, it could be George Osborne, a man who has managed to hold on to his job of Chancellor of the Exchequer — Britain’s finance minister, basically — despite the fact that just about everything he does or says is deeply unpopular not only with the general population, but with the whole of his own party.

Another interesting thing is that people seem to think this is just a Conservative Party Thing. Well, so far, apart from David Cameron (indirectly), a grand total of three former British MPs are caught up in this particular scandal, and they are all Conservatives. But of course, as massive as this leak is, it only involves one company operating in one tax haven, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the tip of the iceberg. And just for the record, it’s not as if people who describe themselves as socialists are immune from this kind of behaviour.

I am, though, quite convinced that the current leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, has the moral high ground on this one. Jeremy Corbyn, for those who don’t know, is a politician way out on the left wing of the Labour Party who, after 30 years on the backbenches quietly rebelling, was unexpectedly and dramatically voted leader of the party, and therefore also Leader of the Opposition.

Unfortunately, Corbyn hasn’t been doing his job very well. His job, incidentally, is to hold the government to account and pick holes in government policy. He’s quite useless at that: for all that his supporters keep telling me that he “destroys the government” every week at Prime Minister’s Questions, a look through the Hansard, the official record of parliamentary business, reveals that he just politely asks question after question, and never really challenges the answers he gets.

Of course, this scandal has actually succeeded in making Cameron’s approval rating drop below that of Corbyn, so it turns out that the opposition didn’t really need to do much opposing. And really, absolutely nobody believes Jeremy Corbyn has fifty million hidden away in a trust fund in the Cayman Islands. I mean, just look at the man. Say what you like, his probity is not in question.

So, amid all the fashionable bash-the-rich grassroots politics that are going on at the moment, do I think Corbyn would make a better Prime Minister than Cameron?

I think that question’s moot. I don’t think either of them are good Prime Minister material. Corbyn, because as a former rebel he won’t be able to unite the party behind him, and also because his policies seem to have just woken up from a forty-year coma. And Cameron, not for the reasons it’s currently fashionable to bash him for — he’s rich, he once almost certainly didn’t put part of his anatomy anywhere near a dead pig’s snout but it’s too good a story to risk fact-checking, and his late father did some questionable financial jiggery-pokery to make the family richer than it had a right to be — but because he has so far been an appalling Prime Minister, and has far too much faith in his even more appalling Chancellor.

Fifteen years after I left the UK I lost my right to vote there, which is a great relief because it means that whatever happens from now on, it’s not my fault. It also means I don’t have to choose between the Disaster Party, the Dithering Party, the Non-Existent Party, the Screaming Xenophobe Party, and Russell bloody Brand.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Turkish President tries to censor accusations of censorship

It seems to be Idiots’ Month right now. There’s the man who thought the best way to be reunited with his ex-wife would be to hijack a plane while wearing a fake suicide vest. There’s the politician attempting to get “down with the kids” by communicating with them “on the Twitters”. There’s the woman who climbed to the summit of Britain’s highest mountain wearing shorts. And there’s Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

For a long time, Erdoğan has been accused of an increasingly autocratic style of rule. A glance at his Wikipedia page is quite sobering, especially the sub-headings in the “Controversies” section: Accusations of antisemitism; Politicisation of the judiciary; Media intimidation and censorship; Electoral fraud; Political polarisation; Mehmet Aksoy lawsuit (in which the President ordered the destruction of a sculpture that called for reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia); Crackdown on Academics for Peace.

Quick! Ban this photo!

Now, one of the things that has annoyed and frustrated Turkey for some time now has been that the country doesn’t seem to be eligible to join the EU. Something about Cyprus and “human rights”, apparently. Erdoğan is the latest in a long line of Turkish leaders trying to convince the EU to let his country in.

Earlier this month, some headway seemed to have been made, insofar as Germany had started saying that maybe, if Turkey gets its act together, there may be a case for allowing Turkey in. You’d think, therefore, that Erdoğan might be doing his homework on what European values are.

A few days later, a satirical German TV show called Extra 3 criticized some of the excesses of Erdoğan’s government in the form of a song with accompanying video (activate the “CC” icon for English subtitles). Sung to the tune of an old Nena hit called Irgendwie, irgendwo, irgendwann, it made reference to allegations of oppression of the Kurds, the use of violence to counter peaceful demonstrations and the highly controversial new presidential palace illegally built in a nature reserve. But it also prominently mentioned government interference in press freedoms, with lines like these:
Bei Pressefreiheit kriegt er ’nen Hals,
drum braucht er viele Schals.
Ein Journalist, der was verfasst,
das Erdoğan nicht passt,
ist morgen schon im Knast.
Press freedom makes his neck bulge,
which is why he needs lots of scarves.
A journalist who writes something
that Erdoğan doesn’t like
will be in jail by next morning.
(“Getting a neck” or “getting something in the throat” is a German idiom that means being roused to anger.)

Now, Erdoğan naturally wishes to repudiate those claims. He’s not a totalitarian dictator, of course not — whatever gave us that idea? When he was Mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, he managed to solve a lot of the city’s problems with traffic congestion, pollution and crumbling infrastructure. Sure, he was then forced to relinquish his post after his party was shut down on the grounds that it was pushing a fundamentalist Islamic agenda which was at odds with the Turkish constitution, but hey — since when was that ever an issue?

So Erdoğan, anxious to preserve his image as totally not an enemy of press freedom, summoned the German Ambassador and basically demanded that the German authorities ban the video and prevent its distribution.

You have to think about this one to let the full irony sink in here. Turkey wants to join the EU. Turkey has almost won over Germany to the point that Germany’s response to the Turkish authorities storming the offices of a newspaper were fairly muted and cautious.

That might have worked (for Turkey) as long as it remained an internal Turkish affair. When, though, Turkey insists that Germany must suspend a key section of its own constitution just because the President feels insulted, things are unlikely to go quite as smoothly. Members of all the parties in the Bundestag — including many who have themselves been at the receiving end of Extra 3’s skewering wit — have spoken out against the not-dictator’s attitude. The official government response has simply been to state that the Ambassador lectured Turkey on the importance of a free press; but I suspect this whole incident has cost Turkey — and especially Erdoğan — quite a few valuable sympathy points.

Extra 3, meanwhile, as well as naming him “Employee of the Month”, has posted a cartoon showing Erdoğan pointing a fire extinguisher at a laptop and saying, “Either you remove that video, or I delete the internet!”

Sunday, March 27, 2016

I have a problem with Rick Lax

A few days ago, I wrote a post in which I mentioned the British magician Paul Daniels, who had recently died. Like many people for whom Daniels was a part of growing up, I have been spending a bit too much time on the net, reading up on him and watching some of his routines on YouTube. And from there, the internet being what it is, I have been learning more than is healthy about conjuring in general, and also discovering some other fantastic acts. How can it be that I have, until now, remained ignorant of the existence of Penn and Teller?

Yes, this is what the internet is for.

Pick a card. Any card.

But to every silver lining there is a cloud, and so it was inevitable that I should also stumble across the grinning face of somebody who rejoices in the name of Rick Lax. I’m tempted to say his name sounds like a cure for constipation, but with a name like mine it’s probably wise not to milk that line too much.

It seems he’s making a big splash on Facebook right now. His page has over a million likes and a very impressive number of video views, which he is stridently proud of. I think perhaps if his ego wasn’t on display everywhere I wouldn’t pay him much attention. But let’s put that aside for the moment and consider Rick Lax, the magician.

The first of his videos I saw consisted of a mind-reading act. Think of a US state, take the last letter in that state’s name and hit “Like” to “lock in” your answer. Here’s a bunch of letters, some red, some white, some blue. Look for the letter you’re thinking of. It’s red, isn’t it?

It’s not hard to see how that one’s done. Yes, you could have chosen any one of 50 states, but if you take the last letters of those states, that only accounts for about half the alphabet. There are, by my reckoning, twenty states that end in the letter “A”.

It was one of those sub-par tricks that have been popping up on Facebook in recent years. It wasn’t even particularly well done: there were a few mistakes, including the “G” being the wrong colour, to the disappointment of the good citizens of Wyoming. I’d have moved on from there and not given it another thought, were it not for the fact that something, something, was nagging at me.

I think it was the blatant begging for “Likes”. You’re supposed to hit “Like” when you’ve watched the video and liked it. If you’re going to put pressure on people to “like” it halfway through, before the trick is even complete, you’re not really in a position to accuse Criss Angel of buying followers. Although at that point I didn’t know about his proud claim to be “America’s most popular”, the way the video screamed “Like me! Share me! Feed my craving for adulation!” irked me enough to want to find out more.

The problem I have with him is that I don’t know what to make of him. Fraud? Self-deprecating genius? Troll? I seriously have no idea.

Try this. Start with your age. Now add 5. Now subtract your age. You’re left with 5, am I right?

I can tell you’re not impressed. But this is seriously the level of all the mind-reading tricks of his that I have seen. When I was at school, we had similar mind-reading tricks that basically involved simple arithmetic, but at least you had to understand powers of two and algebra to figure out how they worked.

Think I’m exaggerating here? This is seriously one of his tricks (pay attention to steps 1 and 6):
  1. Think of your age.
  2. Add 3.
  3. Subtract 5.
  4. Add 7.
  5. Push “Like” to, you know, “lock in your answer”.
  6. Subtract your age.
  7. Add 5.
  8. Multiply by 2.
  9. Add 1.
  10. The answer is 21.
It seems to fool a very large number of people. Mr Lax himself warns people not to put any “spoilers” in the comments. Spoilers? This is elementary school stuff.

He also does some close-up table-top practical illusions, and they’re okay. They’re cheap tricks you can pick up at a store, and I later discovered why he was using them. They work, and will entertain your friends, but they’re not at the standard that would justify being called “mind-bending”. Pushing a coin “through” a sheet of latex? It’s not immediately obvious how that one’s done, but neither is it particularly amazing.

Digging deeper, I discovered that he works for a company that makes these tricks: he in fact designs them. Which is where my problem with him starts, because it makes sense of at least those videos. He’s demonstrating his own designs. All magicians have to start somewhere, and in any event as a way of enlivening a dinner party, they’re just the ticket; there’s a need for this sort of product, and that’s what he’s selling. I sort of wish he was a bit more honest about the fact, but perhaps that’s just how he does his marketing. All good.

Or not.

Because as I started poking around, I found that he seemed to be something quite big in the world of conjuring. He has, it seems, worked for David Copperfield. But he’s also given interviews and written articles all over the place; and in at least some of them he makes a plea for originality (and manages to imply that he counts himself as one of the 1% of truly original illusionists).

Originality is not, on the evidence I’ve so far seen, his greatest strength. Perhaps his most visually impressive trick is the one where he pushes a knife into his finger (although it's a pity that the fake blood looks like the thin dribble of ketchup you get when you forget to shake the bottle). Great stuff, but his claim to originality wears a little thin given that this is basically just a scaled-down version of the “X-sword” illusion created by somebody called Adam Steinfeld about twenty years ago. (Did I mention I’d recently been reading up on conjuring?)

But then, he did appear on a Penn and Teller show called Fool Us, in which magicians perform tricks in the hope that Penn and Teller would be unable to work out how it was done. Lax succeeded in fooling the duo with a card trick.

He’s good with a theatre audience, that’s for sure. But what of the trick?

Well, it seems impressive to me. It foxed Penn and Teller, or so it seems. This is miles away from the extraordinarily lame think-of-a-number stuff he serves up on Facebook. This, finally, is a man I could imagine working for David Copperfield.

And then you disappear down the rabbit-hole of internet forums of amateur magicians and afficionados complaining that the trick wasn’t that impressive, and that they could think of ways it could very easily be done. That may be beginners’ bravado (“Ooh, I could do that!”), but the accusation that Penn and Teller are in fact rewarding acts they liked as opposed to acts that actually outwitted them is hard to dismiss. Be that as it may, it is, undeniably, a good and highly polished routine, entertaining and, to those of us who aren’t magicians, baffling. Well, he says he was once thrown out of a casino for card-counting, so it could have been a memory feat, but still a very impressive one.

And there you have it: the two sides of Rick Lax. There’s the lame, attention-seeking, egotistical purveyor of cheap tricks taking advantage of the inexperienced and gullible to feed his ego; and then there’s the accomplished, charismatic performer who leaves the professionals (if not the I-know-it-all you-can’t-teach-me-anything beginners) scratching their heads.

There’s only one way I can make sense of this. One of the things he does is write about deceptive techniques used in places like Las Vegas, and how not to fall victim to them. Why not? Other magicians, like James Randi, Derren Brown and even Paul Daniels, have warned people against charlatans who use the same techniques they do, but in order to deceive and defraud rather than for entertainment. Maybe Rick Lax’s Facebook page is part of some sort of social experiment for his next book?

Friday, March 25, 2016

When a celebrity dies

This post is going to land me in a lot of trouble. I am going to be accused of heartlessness and insensitivity. Inevitably I’ll be told “if you don’t like it, ignore it,” which raises the question: how can I know to ignore something if I ignore it? People will explain that they need to express their “grief”, and I shouldn’t be trying to stop them.

Yet another celebrity has died. This time, it’s Garry Shandling.

Well, that’s sad. Not that I had any particular fondness for the man or even paid much attention to his work, but no man is an island and all that. I expect he was a great influence on the latest generation of comedians, to whom he has now passed the baton. It’s up to them now.

Last week it was Paul Daniels. If you’re not British, you may be asking: “Paul who?” Paul Daniels, a British magician who was instrumental in bringing conjuring acts to the mainstream. When he started his showbiz career, magicians were men in top hats and capes who came on stage accompanied by a smiling assistant and mystical music, and silently performed trick after routine trick to dutiful applause. Daniels was one of a new breed of acts who looked to add something extra — for him, it was humour, comedy and occasionally even slapstick — to make it interesting and fun, and also engaged the audience, inspiring the modern trend for close-up magic. Look him up on YouTube: this is the raw stuff out of which the likes of Derren Brown cut their cloth.

There was a time in the 80s when Paul Daniels was constantly on British TV (as well as a magician he was a quiz show host), so he was a big part of my childhood. He died last week, aged 77. Well, that’s sad. But his legacy lives on.

The “outpouring of grief”, though, that’s what gets me. In the sense that it irritates me greatly. All over social media, people fall over themselves to express their grief and shock at the passing away of somebody they may possibly have met once in their lives, and hadn’t even thought about for many years. It’s not just Shandling and Daniels, but the whole lot of them: actors, singers, writers, even record producers that few people had ever heard of until they died, but had something to do with the Beatles and therefore it is a great and profound shock.

And always the same, tired old clichés. “I have no words” (yes you do, you just used four of them). “A legend” (almost certainly not). “Oh, no” (what, did you just lose a bet or something?). “Gutted”, “devastated”, “numb with shock” — no, you’re not, because five minutes later you shared yet another lame Trump meme and commented “This is hilarious.”

And sometimes the sentiments are patently ridiculous. The number of people who were “shocked” at the death of Paul Daniels was quite remarkable, given that just one month previously all the British news media reported that he’d been diagnosed with a fatal and inoperable brain tumour. “Shocking” is the one thing Daniels’s death wasn’t, since we were all expecting it. On the contrary, it was quite merciful: his family said his tumour was preventing him from processing new information, so he didn’t know he was dying. He watched some TV, ate some ice-cream, fell asleep and then didn’t wake up. I’ll tell you one thing: that’s how I want to go.

And all this is from people who never actually knew him. Perhaps once they’d been “a volunteer from the audience”, or maybe they have his autograph or a selfie with him. They never knew the man, not really. Half of them might not have liked him much if they did know him: he had, for example, some pretty trenchant views on homelessness and taxation that a lot of people found unsavoury. He also boasted that, for example, without him there would be no David Copperfield, which is quite a claim. Whether it’s true or not, it’s not something I want him to be banging on about for half an hour in the pub.

If this is how people react to the expected death of somebody they never knew, one wonders how they might react to the sudden death of a near relative.

And then there are the woeful posts, tweets and so on about how so many awesome celebrities are dying at the moment. Unthinkingly, people take to the internet to broadcast their belief that God is just being mean and taking all the popular people, leaving us all down here bereft of their wit, genius, musical ability, or whatever qualities they were deemed to have.

Well, first of all, barely a week goes by without some celebrity somewhere dying. It’s what all celebrities do sooner or later. It’s what all of us do sooner or later. You’re going to have to face up to that one.

Second, the phonograph was invented in 1877, since when we have had the ability to record performances more or less permanently. We still have access to all these celebrities’ work, and in most cases those celebrities had stopped producing new material. In some cases — James Dean springs to mind — very promising careers are cut short. But in most, the deceased already has their best work behind them.

And third, as I hinted above, if they’re any good, their legacy will live on in the next generation. People who were inspired by them will add their own ingredients to the mix and keep that legacy alive. The good ones will do so creatively, and become the next great “legends” of their time, with fresh approaches and new ideas to keep everything moving along, making life interesting and adding to the great store of everything that is good and fun. Nothing is being taken away.

When somebody famous dies, it’s reported in the media. There’s no need for everybody to also splash it all over their social media feeds with insincere expressions of the kinds of emotion that the deceased’s immediate family may be feeling. And it is insincere, because you don’t really feel those emotions.

Ah, but how could I possibly know you don’t really feel those emotions? Because if you did, you wouldn’t be shouting them out to the bottomless void that is the internet. You would be contacting the family, expressing your condolences to them and asking if there’s anything you can do. And don’t forget, if I can see your “grief-stricken” posts, I can probably see the rest of your social media feed, and I can see all the goofy selfies you posted that day, the Russian dashcam video you shared and the fact that you’re “ecstatic” about your team’s ability to carry a ball over a line more times than the other team.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Security theatre

Once again, the news is dominated by a terrorist attack, this time in Brussels. At the time of writing, something like two dozen people are reported to have died in what seem like coordinated attacks on an airport and a metro station (a death toll which is likely to rise, as death tolls usually do). Once again, as the dust settles on scenes of what can certainly be called mass murder, thoughts turn to how vulnerable we all are, and how we can protect ourselves.

It’s a natural — and, to be honest, perfectly sane — reaction. It’s a shocking thing to have happen, and all the more shocking now that modern technology means that minutes after the event, we can see uncensored pictures and videos of the desolation and the walking wounded, bringing an even greater sense of immediacy to it all. It is, of course, likely perfectly true that this is exactly “what the terrorists want”, although by now we should probably recognise that pointing this out every time isn’t very helpful.

The problem, I think, is that security theatre will be stepped up, because the focus of the attacks was an airport.

“Security theatre” is basically the phrase used to describe security measures that are put in place not because they actually work, but because they make people believe they are safe. After 9/11, airport security was stepped up to quite ludicrous levels, and there is no evidence that this has prevented, or even could prevent, a single terrorist attack. In fact, the security measures don’t even appear to work, and attacks have continued. The real security goes on behind the scenes: detective work, surveillance and intelligence, that kind of thing. It’s when these methods fail that attacks can take place.

The obvious flaw in the airport security we currently have is this: even if it prevents people from taking bombs onto place, it doesn’t prevent bombings — as we have now seen. If they can’t bomb planes, they’ll bomb terminals.

I’ve long speculated about this. If I were a terrorist intent on dying for my cause, I’d go to an airport with my explosives and a boarding pass (which can very easily be faked, by the way). It would be a major airport at a busy time, and I’d get into the queue for security, which is usually a crush because airports weren’t built with this kind of security in mind. And in the middle of that crowd, I’d detonate my bomb. I suspect the casualty list would be extremely high: typically, these queues are trapped in narrow areas, hampered by the sheer number of people, the X-ray machines and those barriers they use to make the queues snake around so they can pack as many people into a tight space as possible. I could certain shut down the whole terminal, probably for a long time.

Of course, detonating a bomb almost anywhere in an airport would be extremely effective.

So, it’s probably natural to want to put security at the entrance to the terminal itself. But that doesn't solve the problem: it simply moves it elsewhere. Because then you’d just have crowds of people waiting for security outside the terminal instead of inside it, so that’s where a terrorist would do the bombing.

Or not. A terrorist could, instead, attack something else. On this occasion, they did attack the Brussels metro as well — why assume they wouldn’t? In the 7/7 bombings in London, 56 people died and over 700 were injured when bombers attacked three underground stations and a bus. Much more recently, several people were killed in a suicide bombing attack in Istanbul. Ankara saw over 100 people die last year, another 30 last month (including one German tourist from a neighbouring village to mine) and nearly 40 just a few days ago. And I’m sure we could all reel off a list of equally devastating terrorist attacks that had nothing to do with airports, starting with the Paris attacks last year that killed over 100.

The thing is, airport security isn’t doing anything; and increased airport security will also do nothing. The terrorists will simply target other things: metro and railway stations, shopping malls, night clubs, busy plazas, markets, you name it. What are we to do, put security checkpoints on every street corner?

This isn’t how to fight terrorism. It may be seen as a quick way to calm the nerves of terrified citizens, but that only works until the next attack. What’s actually needed is proper, competent behind-the-scenes intelligence work that actually targets the right people (mass surveillance of all our communications is another distraction, but that’s an entirely different subject). That’s where the resources need to be directed, not pointless security theatre.