Saturday, September 2, 2017

Ratzeburg: Additional notes

It seems that these days my blog serves little more than to explain how to get to places featured in my “Destination” series, so apologies for that. Nevertheless, here are some additional notes to accompany my video about the town of Ratzeburg, a pretty — and pretty unusual — little place in the far north of Germany.

Thanks in part to the support I’m getting via my Patreon page, I have been able to travel much further afield. This gives me the opportunity to show you something rather different: different building materials were available in different parts of the country, and architectural styles differed as well. There are fewer timber-framed buildings and a lot more red brick.

Rural idyll: the Island Town of Ratzeburg

Ratzeburg is a small place, but worth a day trip if you’re not looking for excitement and adventure — although you could, weather permitting, hire a canoe or simply go swimming. At least one restaurant I saw, on the lakeside right next to the Castle Green (Schlosswiese), offers freshly-caught fish straight from its own doorstep, so to speak.

The closest major city to Ratzeburg is Lübeck, from where it’s an easy day (or even half-day) trip. By car, it’s a quick drive down federal route 207 past the airport: Ratzeburg is signposted from central Lübeck.

As the seat of the local district administration, Ratzeburg is also served surprisingly well by public transport. It’s on the Lübeck-Lüneburg line, and there is an hourly service on, if my experience is typical, full trains.

The service also calls at Lübeck Airport, which some budget airlines fly to claiming it to be a Hamburg airport. Note that this stop is a request stop: you need to make sure the driver can see you on the platform. If you’re on the train wanting to get off at the airport, you need to press a button to signal your intention.

It’s also easily reachable from Hamburg, although it does involve a transfer at Büchen. You need to take a train bound for Schwerin and Rostock, and then transfer at Büchen for a train bound for Lübeck and Kiel. It is also possible to take a train to Lübeck and transfer there, but it takes longer and is more expensive.

There is a better alternative from Hamburg: a regular bus service runs from Wandsbek Markt U-Bahn station to Ratzeburg, taking an hour, which is actually faster than the train, including the time needed for transfers. It will also take you direct to the historic centre of Ratzeburg.

Ratzeburg train station is about 3 km (just under two miles) from the historic centre. A hundred years ago, as briefly mentioned in the video, there was a narrow-gauge railway that would have taken you there, but it is no more. The young and fit can easily walk that distance, but there are also frequent buses into town (including the aforementioned bus from Hamburg). “Demolierung” is probably the best place to alight, as it’s right by the (new) town hall which also serves as the tourist information centre.

Finally, don’t bother getting up at the crack of dawn and rushing to Ratzeburg as soon as you possibly can unless you’re a photographer. The place really doesn’t wake up properly until about 10 o’clock even on weekdays, and even the cathedral is closed until then.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Erfurt: Additional notes

Of all the sights I enjoyed most on my recent trip to Erfurt — and there were many — the one that made me smile the most was not (as you might expect) the exquisitely subversive Bernd das Brot, the depressive loaf of bread forced to work for children’s TV, but these characters:

This is Captain Blaubeer — his name means “blue bear” and is a pun on the German word for “blueberry” — and his sidekick, the rat Hein Blöd. Or rather, not so much the characters themselves, as the sculpture, which is probably the one that is the most dynamic and fun — I especially like the way Hein Blöd has somehow managed to get his leg stuck in the rowlock.

I should also like to express my profound thanks to the staff of the Augustinian Monastery, who basically gave me free (and, I may say, unsupervised, which was brave of them) access to Luther’s cell. Normally, you have to book a guided tour, but it’s well worth doing that if you’re interested in the life and works of Martin Luther.

Erfurt is at the intersection of the A4 and A71 autobahns, so not too difficult to get to. For rail passengers, Erfurt is Thuringia’s most important hub. There is even a small airport, Erfurt-Weimar, from where the number 4 tram will take you directly into the historic centre. For people who prefer travelling by coach, several routes call at Erfurt: the coach stops are a short walk from the train station, next to the bus station.

I found Erfurt to be easy to get around: its historic centre manages to be on the large side, yet compact enough that I didn’t need public transport.

I should point out that the tower of St Giles’s Church and the steps down to the cellar on the Merchants’ Bridge are not for anyone with physical difficulties (and if you’re in a wheelchair, don’t even think about it).

And that was Erfurt: an absolute gem, if you want my opinion, and a great addition to anyone’s itinerary.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Eisenach: Additional notes

Ah, Eisenach — the subject of my latest video. And for the avoidance of doubt, I should stress that I am talking about Eisenach, the historic town in Thuringia, and not Eisenach (Eifel), the village in Rhineland-Palatinate with a population of 355.

It rained the whole time I was there, which was unfortunate in the sense that I (and my camera) got soaked; but fortunate in the sense that I was able to get atmospheric shots like this:

The Wartburg looking suitably forbidding

This, of course, is the Wartburg, one of Eisenach’s top attractions, and it really does sit perched on top of a hill outside of the town. There is a bus that goes to the Wartburg, and a car park as well; but you can walk to it if you’re reasonably fit. Start at Luther’s school and walk up the steepest road you can see (called “Schlossberg”). Signs will tell you it’s 1.4 km to the Wartburg, and much further up is another sign telling you it’s 1.4 km, which will only confirm the feeling you’ve had that you have just walked one kilometer vertically upwards. (In fact, that second sign is wrong.)

At the point where the path to the Elisabethplan branches off there is a “donkey station”, apparently a 100-year-old tradition. In return for a fee, they’ll take you (or, for the sake of the donkeys, your children) the rest of the way.

Eisenach is on the Bebra-Halle line and is served regularly by ICE trains on the Frankfurt-Dresden run and IC trains running between Dortmund, Berlin and Stralsund.

Erfurt lies on the A4 autobahn which links Dresden with the A5 to Frankfurt; a new autobahn is being planned which will link Eisenach with Kassel.

The historic centre of Eisenach is small, and I did all the filming (including the Wartburg) in a single day. Of course, you’ll most likely want to tour the Wartburg and visit at least a couple of the museums, so you could easily fill two days here.

Definitely see the Wartburg. Maybe pick a less wet day than I did, but absolutely see it.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Mainz: Additional notes

Well, I certainly had fun filming my latest “Destination” video, this time about the fair city of Mainz (or “Mayence”, as it’s occasionally known). It’s about the furthest a place can be for me to not need to get a hotel for a couple of nights, and I was there on two days. I still didn’t get everything, though: a problem Mainz has is that there’s a lot to see, but it’s quite spread out.

No wonder this lion looks so smug: he’s caught a sheep.

As I mentioned in the video, Mainz has a lot of historic buildings embedded among the more modern stuff, and there are very few places where you feel you’re standing in the middle of an ancient city. This means that wandering off through the quiet back streets isn’t often as rewarding as it is in most places: in fact, it can be a bit dispiriting.

The city is surrounded by a ring of autobahns, so in theory it’s not that hard to get to. You might want to approach it from the south and west, rather than the north and east, to avoid having to cross the river on the one (non-autobahn) bridge that exists, and which dumps you right into the middle of the city traffic.

Mainz is just west of Frankfurt: S-Bahn line S8 goes from Frankfurt via Frankfurt Airport to Mainz (and then on to Wiesbaden), stopping at Römisches Theater and the central station. Lines S1 and S9 go via Mainz-Kastel (confusingly, now a suburb of Wiesbaden), the station being right next to the reduit, and from there it’s an easy walk across the bridge. Mainz’s central station is, of course, a major stop for long-distance trains.

Local public transport is probably quite good in Mainz, but at the moment there are road construction projects going on that have resulted in several tram lines being truncated or rerouted. Unfortunately, information about diversions and replacement buses is very hard to find and confusing when you do: even the locals seem to be unsure about how to get from A to B.

Which way to the river?

Mainz has an interesting quirk which, in theory, is supposed to help with orientation. Street name signs come in two colours: red for streets that run toward the river, blue for streets that run parallel to it. House numbers go up either as you get closer to the river, or with the direction of flow of the river, always with odd numbers on the left.

This would be a very helpful if Mainz was on a grid layout, but of course it’s not. You will still need Google Maps. But at least it was an attempt (in 1853) to make finding your way fractionally less daunting, as Mainz really is very easy to get lost in.

And that, folks, is why I needed two visits and still didn’t get everything.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Bayreuth: Additional notes

My latest video is of the city of Bayreuth, not too far from Kulmbach. In fact, the two videos together represent a whole weekend of filming, which was really tiring.

On reflection, I should have gone there a little later in the year, as many of the fountains were still switched off and crated to protect them from the winter frosts; but for various reasons it was convenient to do it that weekend.

Getting there is fairly simple. By car, Bayreuth is directly on the A9 autobahn .

By train, Bayreuth is about an hour away from Nuremberg.

It has a fairly compact historic centre, much of which is pedestrianized, although this is surrounded on about three sides by a busy ring-road which is a bit of a barrier: at some points footbridges and (rather unpleasant) foot tunnels provide pedestrian access.

The Festival Theatre (“Festspielhaus”) is located a little way north of the station; the Hermitage a few miles east of the city, just the other side of the autobahn. The main car park is at the southern end of the village of Sankt Johannis.

There are a few confusing things about Bayreuth. First of all, there are two “Old Palaces”, one in the city and one at the Hermitage; similarly, there are two “New Palaces”. It doesn’t help matters that the New Palace in the city looks older than the Old Palace in the city.

The buses are also nothing if not confusing. There are two systems: one operates in the evenings and on Sunday mornings, while the other operates at other times. If you’re looking at a timetable and it looks as if the bus you want isn’t running for the next few hours, you may need to look for a timetable for a bus with a different number. That said, the buses are pretty good.

Another thing to watch out for is that Bayreuth is notoriously expensive. And it gets very expensive indeed during the annual Bayreuth Festival, which is usually from 25th July to 28th August: if you’re looking for vaguely affordable accommodation, avoid at all costs the end of July and all of August. If you are a Wagner fan and money’s no object, be aware that ten-year waiting lists for tickets to the festival are not unusual.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Kulmbach: Additional notes

The first “Destination” video of 2017 is up on YouTube — and for this one, I was in Kulmbach. It certainly made a change: usually, small towns are full of timber-framed houses, but Kulmbach was rebuilt in the 16th century and so is more Renaissance. “A bit severe” is how my wife describes it, but I liked it.

A visit to the Plassenburg fortress is a must if you go to Kulmbach: I was there in the morning so that I wouldn’t have to shoot into the sun, but there is a fantastic view of the old town, and the fortress itself contains a few museums that I didn’t have time for but are probably very good.

If you’re planning to do what I did and go up the Rehturm watchtower, it’s really tricky to find. There are no signs in town pointing the way, and striking out in the general direction while looking for roads that have “Reh” in their names, while ultimately effective, is not the best way to do it.

Looking at a map, you might think you need to go due east, but in fact you need to go south and find a road called “Am Rehberg” which takes you to a nature trail, and this takes you right to the tower. The tower, by the way, is free to go in.

Central Kulmbach, showing the historic centre,
the Plassenburg fortress and the train and bus stations.

The historic centre of Kulmbach lies at the foot of the hill on which the Plassenburg is built, and is fairly compact. The train and bus stations are very close by, and there is also a bus that shuttles between the old town and the Plassenburg for those who can’t (or don’t want to) walk.

Although Kulmbach is quite a long way from major roads and railways, it’s not too difficult to get to. The nearest major railway hub is Nuremberg. It’s actually slightly quicker to take a train from there to Lichtenfels and change rather than a direct train via Bayreuth, although there’s not much in it. If you’re coming from Würzburg, it’s easier to take a train to Bamberg and get a train direct from there. There are also connections to Hof.

By road, Kulmbach is a few miles off the A70 autobahn: take exit 24 and follow the signs to Kulmbach.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Why I’m on Patreon

So, it’s official: I have now launched my Patreon page, all the better for my most loyal fans to help keep me from starving. Or, depending your point of view, all the better for me to extract innocent people’s hard-earned cash to splash out on BMWs, private jets, diamond-encrusted bathtubs and so on.
This is what editing a video looks like.

In truth, as much as I would like to be able to make videos in my spare time “for the pure enjoyment of it” (I’ve been told by a few people I should), that’s actually not feasible. It’s a straight choice between giving up making YouTube videos, or trying to earn a living making YouTube videos. Given that my channel is currently on something of a roll, I’m going for the second option.

To better illustrate the amount of work that goes into a video, here are the steps I go through to make a simple vlog:
  1. Think of a subject. This is harder than it sounds: it has to be something people will want to know more about, and it should ideally have fairly wide appeal. It also has to be something that I can actually say something about: the challenges facing working mothers, for example, isn’t a subject that should really be tackled by a childless man.
  2. Research it. Proper research takes time, and I don’t at the moment have enough time to research properly. I can’t just regurgitate whatever I read on a Wikipedia page: you might as well just read the Wikipedia page instead of watching my video.
  3. Write a script. Yes, I script my vlogs. That way, I can minimize the risk of saying something stupid; I also don’t senselessly repeat myself, accidentally leave stuff out, or get sidetracked by some irrelevancy. I can revise and improve the script before I start filming. I have discovered that one page of A4 (the standard paper size in Europe) is about four minutes’ worth of vlogging, which is why my vlogs these days tend to be around the 3-to-5-minute mark, which seems to be about the right length. It’s at this stage I find out whether my chosen subject is going to work: sometimes it doesn’t, so I have to start again.
  4. Divide the script into paragraphs and assign a zoom level to each of them: wide, mid or close-up. The idea is that instead of learning the entire script and having to do it one take (well-nigh impossible for a four-minute speech peppered with statistics), I record it in small chunks, then edit everything together. Doing this at different levels of zoom avoids having jump cuts, which can give the impression they’re covering up for mistakes or the result of sloppy editing.
  5. Set up the camera and lighting. Usually, this is pretty simple, because I have the lights and tripod right where I want them.
  6. Start recording. I don’t record the entire thing in chronological order: I first record all the parts marked as “wide”, then zoom in and reposition the camer to record all the “mid” parts, then zoom in and reposition for “close”. I make sure I have at least two (ideally three) usable versions of each paragraph so I can choose the best take.
  7. Transfer the data from the camera to the PC. That part’s as simple as it sounds.
  8. Edit. This is where I slice the footage up, discard the bits I don’t want, and reassemble what remains into the correct order. It doesn’t take long, but requires precision. Once I’m happy with the rough edit, I can move onto the next stage.
  9. Post production. On-screen captions, graphics and music are added at this point, as well as the closing credits. If I need to create some graphics myself (things like graphs, for example), I have to spend time doing that as well.
  10. Render. This is the process of actually creating the video file to upload to YouTube. For a four-minute vlog in 1080p resolution, that can take something in the region of half an hour, during which time it’s a good idea to let the video editor hog as much CPU power as it wants. Time, basically, for coffee.
  11. Create a thumbnail. I usually take a frame from the video featuring me with a suitable expression on my face (if I can make it an amusing one, that’s a bonus), create a background for it, and then just add the logo to it.
  12. Start the upload. This also means entering all the metadata: title, description, certain settings and so on. I upload as private so that I can get everything just right before publishing. The bandwidth in my tiny bit of rural Germany is really not made for this, so it can take about an hour. In the meantime, I can...
  13. ...write the English-language closed captions. Although YouTube does have a speech recognition system, the technology is still very primitive. It’s actually quicker for me to write my own closed captions from scratch, rather than download YouTube’s automated captions and then try to correct them. And why captions? My videos are watched by many non-native speakers of English who find captions help them understand what is being said, and I want my videos to be accessible to the hearing-impaired. Also — and this is something every YouTube creator should know — closed captions are indexed by YouTube’s search engine, making videos easier to find.
  14. Upload and test the captions. This is to make sure I have no errors in the captions file, and the timings are correct.
  15. Add any cards I need, and the end screen. These are the things that pop up during, or at the end of, the video, begging you to click on them to take you to another video or my website.
  16. Translate the captions into German and upload. Again, although machine translations are available, they generally do a terrible job. There may be a glorious future when machines can do this stuff as well as a professional human, but instantly; but that future is a long way off.
  17. Publish the video, and tweet about it.
So, there you are: my handy 17-point guide to making a quick vlog. This is why it takes me the best part of a day. In theory, I could make a vlog in just a couple of hours from start to finish, but it wouldn’t be anything like as good. And I think you’d notice the difference.

I need to be able to support myself and make a meaningful contribution to our household budget; and this means that if I’m going to continue making videos to the standards I’m currently making them, I have to be making money with them. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’m now on Patreon.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Carnival at Seligenstadt: additional notes

So, I attended the 2017 Rose Monday parade in Seligenstadt, which is quite a popular event even if it isn’t as famous as Cologne or Düsseldorf. The video is on YouTube to see: I got virtually everything, but in a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it way. Look out for the Donald Trump Berlin Wall troupe and the Brexit whale.

As far as additional notes on filming are concerned, I have a couple:
  1. I picked a spot on one of the furthest reaches of the route, out of the historic centre and quite close to the railway station. There were fewer people there, but it was a longer wait for the parade to get there. I also made sure I had the sun behind me, although for the most part it was cloudy.
  2. A lot of the people in the parade were throwing sweets for the children — this is part of the tradition. Always hairy when you have a €1000 camera pointing at them, but it’s for moments like this that I have a UV filter. If the filter gets cracked, no big deal. I did get hit once on the head and once on the hand.
Seligenstadt is worth a visit and not hard to get to. The nearest major railway station is Hanau, from where local (RB and RE trains) operated by VIAS reach Seligenstadt in under ten minutes. Some of these trains start in Frankfurt, so there is a direct connection; at other times, Hanau is easily reached from Frankfurt by local train or S-Bahn. Seligenstadt station is about half a kilometre (500 yards) from the town centre. Be sure not to confuse this Seligenstadt with the tiny hamlet of Seligenstadt near Würzburg: on the Deutsche Bahn website and the DB Navigator app, make certain you select “Seligenstadt (Hess)”

If you’re driving, Seligenstadt is on the A3 autobahn: take exit 55 and follow the signs.

An alternative, and much prettier, option is to take the number 50 bus from either Aschaffenburg or Kahl am Main, and get off at Fähre Seligenstadt (on the DB website and the DB Navigator, make sure you select “Großwelzheim, Fähre Seligenstadt, Karlstein”). This is across the river Main from the town: from there you take the ferry across, which lands right in the heart of the historic centre. The current fare (as I write this post) for adult pedestrians is 80 cents. You can also drive there, but I would recommend you park your car there if there’s room and take the ferry as a pedestrian rather than try to squeeze your car down Seligenstadt’s narrow cobbled streets and have to pay for parking. Check the ferry’s operating times, though, if you don’t want to risk being stranded.

Note that when something as big as the Rose Monday carnival parade is on, buses may not stop there and the roads may be blocked with traffic.

Seligenstadt from across the river.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The home-made car

Tucked away in the bottom right-hand corner of the back page of the national and world news section of our local paper this morning — the bit reserved for “quirky little stories to cheer you up after the doom and gloom you’ve just had to wade through over your coffee” — was the brilliant tale of two German schoolboys who were stopped by police after driving their home-made car on public roads.

Apparently, the two youngsters, aged 13 and 14, cobbled together a working vehicle out of a lawnmower motor and bits cannibalized from old cars, even including a clutch and brake pedal. Magnificently, they engineered the steering wheel so it worked backwards: steering left made the car turn right, and vice-versa.

I’m not sure whether the crazy steering was deliberate or not, but either way it worked and somehow they managed to drive the thing around without getting killed. Quite rightly, the police stopped them — it was an incredibly dangerous thing to be doing and quite illegal — but I have to say: hats off to the boys. Speaking as somebody who can barely put together a flat-pack wardrobe without incident, I’m impressed.

These days, we hear so much about how modern communications technology is turning us all into zombiefied dullards (in my day it was television; now it’s smartphones), but the fact is that just as has always been the case, countless teenagers everywhere are quietly being geniuses: sending home-made rockets into space, inventing generators powered by urine (and no, I’m not making this up), and now making cars out of lawnmowers.

The article said nothing about whether anyone was punished in connection with this. But if I ran a car repair shop in their area, I know I’d be offering them an apprenticeship when they leave school.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

There is no method in Trump’s madness

As we slowly come to terms with the fact that this isn’t a horrible nightmare and Donald J. Trump really is the President of the USA (God help America), the internet is full of journalists, bloggers and just everyone explaining all the clever tricks that Trump is using to consolidate power, distract us from the real issues and imitate Adolf Hitler. I’ve seen articles claiming that Trump has read all of the Führer’s speeches and is cleverly following the “Nazi playbook” outlined in Mein Kampf.

That would be an interesting trick: Mein Kampf was written more than ten years before Hitler seized power, right after the Munich Beer-Hall Putsch which ended when the putschists, led partly by Hitler himself, marched at random through the streets until they found themselves face-to-face with the army.

That’s one theory. The other current theory is that somebody else behind the scenes, almost certainly the man people are now calling “President Bannon”, is pulling Trump’s strings and making him do all that stuff.

If I were forced to choose one of those two positions, I’d go with the latter. Trump has never struck me as particularly intelligent, and I don’t think he is capable of strategic planning or political cunning. As if to prove this, a young commentator by the name of David Pakman has suggested that Donald Trump has very poor reading skills, and the evidence for that just keeps coming. This really does look like the Wizard of Oz model of government: we should be paying attention to the man behind the curtain.

I’m not convinced that this is the case.

But I would go further than that. I see people marvelling at the “clever” ways that Trump is manipulating us and the press, undermining confidence in the judiciary, gaslighting us into believing all sorts of fantasies and focusing our attention in all the wrong places, like a magician. But I don’t believe that at all: I don’t think Trump is deliberately doing any of that.

I used to think maybe he was. During the election campaign, when Melania Trump gave a speech that apparently plagiarized Michelle Obama, I was impressed. It was a tactic straight out of the pages of Donald’s book The Art of the Deal: it meant that for days afterwards, people were talking about Ms Trump in the same sentence as Ms Obama, getting people used to the idea of “First Lady Melania Trump”. A masterstroke!

But of course, Trump didn’t write The Art of the Deal, and David Pakman isn’t sure Trump has even read it. Perhaps — and this is just speculation — his ghostwriter simply watched how Trump does business, and organized his observations into a sort of instruction manual. It’s not that Trump is following this instruction manual: Trump is simply being Trump. His business practices are being retconned.

It’s a bit like asking a 100-year-old what the secret to a long life is. They’ll just tell you about some of their habits, whether it’s a bottle of gin a day or a strict vegetarian diet, but this is an example of “survivor bias”: they just got lucky, and happened to live to be 100 years old. It doesn’t mean their personal habits had anything to do with it: most likely, it was their genes, good fortune and decent healthcare.

If the decision to plagiarize Obama was deliberately intended to get us talking, it probably wasn’t Trump’s idea. If it was Trump’s idea, it was simply because, with his evidently poor literacy skills, he thought that Michelle’s speech was impressive and suggested his wife make a similar speech. Nothing more sophisticated than that.

It’s hopeless, I think, to look at Trump’s behaviour and try to discern a clever pattern: you will find one, but that’s thanks to our human ability to find clever patterns wherever we look. The reason Trump behaves like an ignorant, narcissistic bully given to temper tantrums is that he is an ignorant, narcissistic bully given to temper tantrums. It’s not an act.

But for the people who are really in charge — the usual suspects being Bannon, Miller, Pence, and possibly also Priebus — Trump is the gift that keeps on giving:
  1. He has no political skills whatever, and so has no way of understanding what’s being done to him.
  2. He isn’t even interested in politics, beyond the simplistic “build a wall and deport the illegals” philosophy he espouses, and so won’t be inclined to ask questions.
  3. His childish behaviour and outbursts can be safely relied upon to grab the headlines and cause outrage, leaving Bannon et al to get on with their work.
  4. As an extra bonus, he can be kept out of the way, happily occupied with milking the system for his own personal gain — which will be why he was allowed to pretend his family constitutes a “blind trust”.
  5. Unable — or at least unwilling — to read anything complicated at all, he will obediently sign anything that’s shoved under his nose.
This isn’t Trump’s cleverness at all: as deplorable as he is as a human being, I actually think he’s as much a victim of all of this as anyone else. He’s a useful idiot — and, I think, part of a panel of useful idiots that includes Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway and Betsy DeVos: all patently hopeless at their jobs, all the focus of media attention.

The way they are being deployed is actually very simple: let the idiots do their idiotic stuff and grab the headlines. Forget about all the complicated psychological tricks they’re supposedly using, the clever use of a particular word or a sophisticated tactic: none of that is planned. They’re just idiots, and they pretty much run themselves.

Take the current ruckus over the dozens of terrorist attacks the media allegedly didn’t cover. This started with an offhand comment Trump made during a speech; but I don’t think it was planned. I don’t think it was part of his speech: if we assume that he can barely read, it looks as if he reads out a sentence or two, then extemporizes a bit, before tackling the next sentence. It’s totally random.

So Trump simply vaguely aired a personal grievance, probably picked up from the likes of Breitbart or Fox News, and the media collectively went, “Wha...?” Back in the White House, somebody saw an opportunity, and quickly (very quickly, judging by the spelling mistakes) drew up a list of terrorist (and some non-terrorist) incidents culled from the web. Conway and Spicer were then armed with that list and sent out to talk to the press about it.

I am convinced there is no rhyme or reason behind Trump’s behaviour. It’s not, in itself, part of a plan. It’s just Donald Trump being Donald Trump, and it just by chance happens to be exactly what Bannon and his cronies need at the moment, and they are taking advantage of every opportunity as and when it arises.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Illegal symbols

My latest video discusses the various proposals for the redesign of the German national flag following the Second World War, and contains some images which are outlawed in Germany.

Well, that’s not strictly true; but almost. The images are that of the flag used by the Nazi regime as a national flag, and the Nazi-era War Ensign. Both incorporate the swastika. As symbols of the National Socialist regime, their use is so heavily restricted that they might as well be banned.

This image contains a banned symbol.

In fact, even that isn’t 100% accurate. What’s regulated is the use of symbols of organizations which have been identified as working in opposition to the German constitution, the Basic Law. That’s usually Nazi symbols, of course, but in fact other symbols are also affected: for example, the variant of the Jihadist banner used by ISIS falls under the same law.

It’s § 86a StGB, which, translated into something you don’t need to be a German lawyer to understand, is section 86a of the German Criminal Code. If you’re wondering about the “a”, the section had to be inserted after section 86, which criminalizes the propaganda of these organizations, including their symbols; but extremist groups were getting around this by using subtly altered versions, such as mirror images. The new section explicitly outlaws symbols which “could be mistaken” for outlawed symbols.

Luckily, I have a get-out clause, in that I’m using these symbols as part of a factual lecture, not political propaganda. The symbols themselves aren’t outlawed, but their use in connection with unconstitutional activities is — which means that, for example, Buddhists reading this can relax. Incidentally, it’s not actually true that if a swastika rotates to the right it’s a religious symbol but if it rotates to the left it’s a Nazi symbol: that’s often the case, but not always. Legally, it’s the context it’s used in that’s the important factor.

This is perfectly fine

This does highlight a problem videomakers like me can face. Although I was fairly sure I wouldn’t fall foul of § 86a StGB, I did actually look it up to make absolutely certain. The maximum sentence is three years in prison: I doubt that any court would even bother about a case of a couple of swastikas appearing for a few seconds in a four-minute YouTube video about flags, but sometimes a little paranoia is a good thing to have.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Misquoting Hitler

In my previous post, I expressed my reservations about the idea that punching Nazis is ever actually going to achieve anything. That hasn’t stopped anyone from putting out tweets advocating Nazi-punching as a viable means of preventing the rise of a totalitarian dictatorship (one tweet I saw this morning even implied that not punching a Nazi would allow said Nazi to punch “five minorities”, which makes me want to ask in exactly which parallel universe this is even vaguely true), but I’m not vain enough ever to have thought it would.

Why don’t I just stop following people who tweet that kind of stuff? Because I prefer not to construct an echo chamber for myself, if I can possibly help it. It’s always possible I’m wrong. After all, maybe punching a Nazi might stop him punching five minorities: I haven’t had a chance to put it to the test. I’m just highly skeptical.

So one of the things I’ve seen is a quote, supposedly from Hitler himself. With a few minor variations, it takes on this form:
Only one thing could have stopped our movement — if our adversaries had understood its principle and from the first day smashed with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement.
I didn’t know this, but apparently this is widely circulated among various antifascist groups: as one tweet put it, Hitler literally gave instructions on how to defeat Nazis. (I’m sure the author of that particular tweet didn’t literally mean that Hitler stood up one day and said, “Guys — just FYI, next time somebody like me comes along, this is what you have to do.”) If Hitler himself said that the only way to stop Nazis was to attack them as often as you could, then that justifies Nazi-punching, right?

(This post is going to get very long, by the way, but it was well worth writing. It includes some historical context, and you might want read it and judge for yourselves whether, and if so to what extent, it offers any parallels to what’s happening at this very moment.)

A couple of thoughts crossed my mind. First, whatever other justifications you may have — and I’m sure there are many — quoting Hitler is probably not the most convincing argument. We can’t rely on anything he says at all. Besides, it’s entirely possible that he could have been stopped if only a few more politicians at the time had shown a little more backbone and not given in to his bullying — we’ll never know for sure, of course, but reading up on the history of the years leading up to the imposition of the single-party state makes you wonder (the story of how he got his Enabling Act to pass is a real eye-opener). If he’s saying that only a sustained and brutal attack would have stopped him, that was an idle boast: “We were very nearly invincible!”

Second: is this a genuine quote? It’s pretty much a fundamental rule of the internet that you don’t simply believe whatever quotes you see (as Arthur Conan Doyle once said), and it’s always good to get to the bottom of things.

It proved frustrating, as I was constantly finding people asking exactly the same question and coming up against dead ends everywhere they looked. The quote appears on various predominantly antifascist sites vaguely attributed to “Adolf Hitler (1934)”. I did track down a German version, but it contains a relatively recent anglicism, suggesting it was translated from the English, not the other way around.

So I asked one of the people tweeting this if they knew where it came from, and they didn’t answer; but somebody else did, and provided a link to a blog post which — yes! — had a link to the original source.

The good news is that it is, essentially, a genuine Hitler quote. The bad news is that it has been very badly misquoted to the point that it very nearly says the exact opposite.

“Greetings from Nuremberg, the city of party conferences”

The source is about as close to the horse’s mouth as you can get: it’s a book containing the speeches made by Hitler at the 1933 party conference in Nuremberg. The vague attribution “(1934)” can be explained by the fact that the book was published in that year; the speeches, though, were written and delivered the previous year.

The quote is taken from his closing speech, which takes up a monster twelve and a half pages of the book. How anyone was able to sit through that I don’t know, but I decided to concentrate on the immediate context of the quote itself: a few passages on pages 41 and 42 — this part:

If you’re not familiar with Fraktur typefaces, spacing the letters out is the equivalent of italics. This is relevant, because I’m going to translate this passage, and the emphases are Hitler’s, not mine.

A little context: the 1933 party conference took place in the late summer of that year. The last (relatively) free election of the Weimar Republic had been held in March that year, with the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the Nazis) confirmed as the biggest party in government. In November 1933 there would be another election with the Nazis as the only party on the ballot paper. But already by this time the March 1933 parliament had collapsed and dissolved, most of the other parties had “voluntarily” disbanded, and a new law was in place banning the formation of new parties: this was made possible by the Enabling Act, which had been forced through just days after the March election.

In this section, Hitler is reflecting on the 14-year struggle that had got him to where he was now: the leader of a de facto totalitarian state. What this section doesn’t do is give us much in the way of verifiable facts or instructions on how to defeat Nazis. What it does do is to give us an insight into Hitler’s strategy — or, at the very least, what Hitler wanted people to think of as his strategy.

This is my own translation of the original. It’s as accurate as I was able to make it, but any suggestions for improvements would be gratefully received.

We join Hitler as he explains his method for attracting a following: 
Propagate avarice as the substance of a movement and all egoists will join it. Propagate cowardly subservience and the subserviant will come. Elevate theft, robbery and plundering to [the status of] ideals, and the criminal classes will organise themselves into gangs. Just think of ownership and talk about business and then you can unite your supporters in economic parties. But demand sacrifice and courage, bravery, loyalty, faith and heroism, and that part of society that claims these virtues as their own will come forward.
There are a few rough edges to this translation (really, I have a living to make, and there are limits to how much time I can spend on this), but the basic message is clear: promote as ideals the values you want to see in your followers, and they will come. The weird reference to “economic parties” is, I think, a reference to a political party that existed in the 1920s and catered for the interests of the middle classes. “Gangs” here refers to a specific kind of organised criminal gang that used to exist in Germany.

I’m not sure what to make of the next paragraph, which, as far as I can tell, translates as follows: 
But this has, in all periods, been the factor that makes history. But the formation of nations and states, and their conservation, is the substance of what we include in the word “history”.
Well, Hitler certainly made history, that’s absolutely true. An actual historian will probably be able to say whether or not Hitler viewed history in terms of popular or populist movements, but let’s move on. 
So in the year [19]19 I started a program and laid down a tendency that deliberately slapped the pacifist-democratic world in the face. If there were still people of that kind in our society, then victory would be inevitable. For then this fanaticism of resolve and deed would necessarily attract people who would feel affinity to it. Wherever people with this characteristic were, they would one day have to hear the voice of their blood and, whether they wanted to or not, follow the movement which was the expression of their own innermost selves. That could take five, ten, twenty years, but a state of authority gradually formed within the state of democracy, a core of fanatical devotion and reckless resolve.
This marks the first use of the word which, in the quote that started this blog post, is translated as “nucleus”. That’s a perfectly valid translation, but I think “core” is a better fit.

So, Hitler says that what he did was to attack democracy itself, and thereby attract to his movement people who felt the need to act. In his view, the attraction would be irresistable: if you had the urge to destroy the democratic system, you would be drawn to a movement that was making a show of doing exactly that.

In those days, democracy was a new concept in Germany, and at the same time, times were hard. People put two and two together to conclude that their problems were caused by “democracy”. The modern equivalent would seem to be “the establishment” or “the political elite”.

So we have the image of an unstoppable movement that would, if Hitler is to be believed, almost grow by itself, while Hitler bided his time for as long as it would take. Now comes the paragraph the original “quote” comes from:
Only one thing could have endangered this development: Had the enemy recognized the principle, gained clarity over these thoughts and avoided all resistance. Or if they had destroyed the first germ of this new gathering with utmost brutality on the first day.
Just to clarify: “germ” is in the sense of that part of a seed that grows. Hitler wasn’t comparing the Nazi movement to a bacterium.

Here again is the quote as circulated among various antifascist movements:
Only one thing could have stopped our movement — if our adversaries had understood its principle and from the first day smashed with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement.
Some of the discrepancies are perfectly valid (for example, it’s almost certainly the case that “new gathering” refers to the nascent Nazi movement), but there are two big problems.

First, the quote has been contracted, and leaves out the crucial point that doing nothing at all would have stopped the movement — at least, that was Hitler’s claim: as pointed out above, we really can’t trust him on this, or anything at all. The phrase “avoided all resistance” is simply omitted, and the beginning of one sentence is fused to the end of another.

The second problem seems very minor, and could have been a genuine mistake rather than a deliberate attempt to change the quote; however, it does have a significant impact and distorts the meaning quite badly. Where Hitler originally said “on the first day”, the new version has “from the first day”.

My guess is that this error occured not in translation, but somewhere along the line after translation: misreading “from” as “on” is quite an understandable mistake. In German, the difference is between “am ersten Tag” (the original Hitler quote) and “vom ersten Tag an”: much less likely to have been misread or misheard.

This is extremely important: the misquoted version suggests that Hitler recommended a consistent and sustained attack. In fact, he suggested nothing of the kind: his enemies should have either offered no resistance at all, or else struck decisively and early on, before the movement got too strong to resist.

Hence his use of the word “germ”, in German “Keim”. The German version of the idiom “to nip in the bud” is “im Keim ersticken”: literally “to suffocate in the germ”. He’s just painted a picture of a popular movement irresistably attracting followers and getting stronger all time: if you’re going to strike it dead, you need to do it while it’s still young and weak.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has studied Hitler’s military tactics. It’s a description that can be applied to the strategy of blitzkrieg: a massive military strike early on, before the enemy even has time to work out what’s happening, to neutralize all resistance and avoid a long, drawn-out war of attrition.

In the first half of the next paragraph, Hitler explains why, in his view, offering no resistance at all would have worked: 
Neither happened. This time was no more capable of the resolve to or the execution of an annihiliation, and neither did it have the nerve or possibly even the comprehension for a completely fitting and adequate attitude. By beginning instead to attack this young movement on a civic scale, [people] supported the process of natural selection in the most fortuitous manner. It was then only a question of time before the government of the nation fell to this hardened stock of people! And so I could wait 14 years, becoming progressively more imbued with the realization that our time would have to come.
This was a particularly difficult passage to translate, and I may have made a bad job of it, but it’s clear that Hitler is claiming that the resistance that was offered to his movement unwittingly helped it.

One word that was very difficult to translate for me was the word “bürgerlich”, which I translated as “civic”. If I had more time available, I could find somebody with a doctorate in a relevant discipline and ask for help, but the word has many possible translations. It can mean “middle-class” or “bourgeois”, but can also mean “pertaining to the citizenry”.

The overall impression, though, is that Hitler is saying that what resistance came was too little (and, in the context of what he’d just said, too late). Instead of damaging the movement, it unwittingly helped it. Hitler didn’t need a large movement, he needed a hardened core who would not allow themselves to be intimidated by whatever resistance was thrown their way. The anti-Nazi movement, he seems to be saying, had the effect of removing the weak-willed, leaving a consolidated core of the truly fanatical.

Of course, the caveat here is that this Adolf Hitler we’re listening to here, and if ever there was a movement adept at the art of the “alternative fact”, it was Hitler’s National Socialist movement. And really, this is more of a gloat than anything else.

But still: just because accurately quoting Hitler is not a good way to justify your actions doesn’t mean that misquoting him is any better.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Why I’m not going to start punching Nazis

In case you missed it, a short video is doing the rounds of the internet of Richard Spencer, the leader of the alt-right movement whose meetings tend to feature cries of “Heil Trump”, being punched. And all of a sudden, my Twitter feed is full of different versions of this video and a whole slew of likes and retweets featuring people seeking to justify the act.

It will, of course, depend on who you actually choose to follow, but I appear to be getting one half of the argument. In essence, it boils down to this: Richard Spencer is a Nazi, and it is the duty of everyone who values democracy to punch any Nazi they see. From what I can gather, the other side of the argument is that violence is wrong, and those using violence to combat violence are guilty of double standards.

Let me begin by saying that I think Richard Spencer’s policies, so far as I understand them, are repulsive and dangerous. At least, that’s my opinion. I also can’t bring myself to feel sorry for him, if I’m honest: if you are going to adopt the rhetoric of a hated and hateful tyrannical regime, you’re not going to be universally loved. Those who live by the sword die by the sword: you reap what you sow. Call it “karma” if you must.

But I must confess I do start to feel uncomfortable when people start using excuses for violence and vigilantism, because I begin to wonder where it ends. One Tweet I saw took the position that violence is only justified when used in self-defence, and punching a Nazi is always self-defence.

Is it, though? If I punch a Nazi who just happens to cross my path, what am I defending myself from? The theoretical possibility that one day he may come to power and enact policies which will be disadvantageous to me? I mean, he might; but there’s a theoretical possibility that anyone I meet might stab me in the back. It’s not a particularly good argument.

And who decides who is a Nazi and who isn’t? In the case of Richard Spencer it seems clear, despite the fact that since the word “Nazi” means “member of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party” we’re already using it inaccurately. Spencer clearly draws much inspiration from that movement, that’s good enough for me.

But how about somebody who thinks there’s something in what Spencer says? How about somebody who voted Trump? Somebody who once shared a Breitbart article on Facebook?

More importantly, though: exactly what does punching a Nazi achieve? It might give the puncher the satisfaction of a job well done, but beyond that? If we’re defending ourselves from a theoretical future Nazi dictatorship, how does raining blows on somebody prevent that? Do we think that the likes of Spencer would go home, holding a blooded hankerchief to the nose, and think: “Goodness, some people don’t like me. I should turn over a new leaf.”

The issue here is actually quite a simple one, because it’s a basic human tendency. I am certain every single human does it. You do it, I do it, we all do it, even if we don’t want to admit it even to ourselves. I’m trying my hardest not to do it right now, but I have no way of knowing how successful I am.

We discriminate.

We can’t help it, because it’s pretty much hard-wired into our brains. We need to have some way of distinguishing between things that threaten us and things that don’t. But we modern humans, thanks to our innate ability to use language, have developed some very highly sophisticated and incredibly subtles ways of discrimination.

Basically, we divide humanity into two parts: one good, and one bad. But we carefully do it so that we’re always in the “good” part. No matter how many different ways we divide humanity, we always draw the line so that we ourselves are on the “good” side.

We can be phenomenally clever with this. We are even able to put ourselves on the “good” side while pretending to put ourselves on the “bad” side: if I say, for example, that I’m a racist, I’m not dividing humanity into “racist” and “non-racist”; I’m dividing it into “deluded” and “self-aware”, and putting myself on the “self-aware” side.

Following this line of argument much further, of course, we have to conclude that my simply saying “We all discriminate” is making exactly that distinction in exactly that way, as is this paragraph I am typing now, and we disappear into a pretty nasty paradox. I’ll simply have to ask you to bear with me and consider whether or not my basic point here makes sense to you.

This is the same phenomenon behind all those competing theories about how Donald Trump got elected, or how Brexit happened. Every time you see one of those essays, always imagine the author carefully constructing the argument in order to be innocent. The simpler the argument, the more likely it is to be self-serving. “People voted Trump because they’re all racist” means “I didn’t vote Trump, therefore I am not racist.” Conversely, “People voted Trump because they wanted to get rid of the political establishment” means “I voted Trump because I believe mainstream politicians are trying to destroy me.”

And this is why I’m not going to start punching Nazis. The sequence of events thus far is:
  1. Spencer divides humanity into “good” white people of European stock — people who look like him — and everyone else, who are “bad”.
  2. Somebody else divides humanity into “bad” Nazis, and the “good” people who actively resists them, and so justifies landing a punch.
  3. Countless other people divide humanity into “bad” people who attack, and “good” people who merely defend themselves. Some put Spencer into the “bad” group, some put him into the “good” group. They all put themselves into the “good” group, of course.
But this is a lazy, and ultimately counter-productive, way to go about it. Quite simply, humanity doesn’t divide up so neatly, and all of these divisions are arbitrary. But the more we do this, and the more importance we attach to these divisions, the more polarized society becomes, and before you know it, we’re drawing up the battle lines.

There are better ways of resisting and counteracting extremism. Forcing people to decide between one of two extremes is not at all helpful.

Friday, January 20, 2017

How not to be green

A few days ago, I spotted an advert for a device that promised something little short of a green revolution. I say “advert”: it was actually one of those social media posts that people reflexively share, not realizing that they’re basically doing the job of advertising the product for free, which is what the company intend them to do.

This device is installed in the kitchen. You put left-over food in it, which it then apparently grinds up and magically transforms it into the perfect fertilizer for your garden. That way, your food waste doesn’t go to landfill, and it also means you don’t have to buy chemical fertilizers: the perfect green solution!

I imagine that most of you have already spotted it. For those who haven’t, I should explain that gardeners have been “magically” transforming food waste into fertilizer since time immemorial: the process is known as “composting” and involves no technology more complex than a large wooden box.

Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t actually smell.

The truly worrying thing about this amazing device is that it claims to do this within 24 hours, which means either that it’s a scam, or it uses vast amounts of power. The vast amounts of power must come from somewhere, and even “clean” wind energy comes at a cost: in this part of Germany, the cost of surprisingly large numbers of trees, since the only place you can build a wind farm in hilly country is on hilltops, which are very often forested. (I once got into conversation with a northerner — a flatlander, therefore — who actually told me I was lying about that last point, because what kind of idiot would build wind farms on hilltops? There are times when you’re left with no choice but to quietly drop the subject and tiptoe away.)

It strikes me as one of the odd paradoxes of our time that so many people are paying lip-service to supposedly “green” initiatives, while at the same time we as a society are becoming increasingly less green. A controversial statement, I know, but stay with me here: the idea of a “green” solution that is actually, objectively, less green than the age-old solution the manufacturers are pretending doesn’t exist is a perfect illustration.

So you have a five-year-old car which is not the most fuel-efficient. Do you (a) replace it with a new electric car, or (b) walk, cycle or take public transport as often as possible and the car only when completely unavoidable?

If you answered (a), you would almost certainly be responsible for more environmental damage than you would cause if you changed nothing at all: your old car has to be scrapped and a new car built, and an electric car’s batteries contain some quite rare materials that have to be mined at great cost to the environment.

“But,” you protest, “public transport is not an option for me: the bus only goes once an hour.” That never worried your great-grandparents, and in any case if you truly want to save the planet, you’re going to have to make some personal sacrifices.

I do, of course, understand that in many parts of the world — large areas of the US, for example — public transport is virtually non-existent, which is why you need to persuade your President that Trump-branded streetcars are just the thing to Make America Great Again, or at least to Make America Move Again.

Trump Trams, made in Detroit. Make it happen, America. Just don’t tell Donald Trump it’s to help save the environment.

(Disclaimer: Building trams may require lots of power and natural resources. Dammit, this isn’t as easy as I thought.)

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Farewell, quirky Christmas tree

If you’re in Germany and like to do things the traditional way, you put your Christmas decorations up on Christmas Eve and don’t take them down until after Twelfth Night. If you’re in a rural area where local volunteers provide a service to pick up and dispose of spent Christmas trees and they announce they’re coming round on 14th January, you wait until then to strip your tree and dump it outside. Well, normally, you’d have done that on 13th, unless the tail end of Storm Egon threatens to blow it into the path of unsuspecting cars.

Which explains why, if you’d been spying on me at breakfast this morning, you’d have seen me suddenly point excitedly out of the window, leap out of my seat and start wrestling with the tree.

The tree, by the way, was a rescue tree. In the same way that if we’d got our cats from a shelter we’d have come home with a one-eyed tom and a kitten with a limp, my wife took pity on this hard-luck case:

Please give this tree a home.
Yes, we loved our special tree, and we don’t care what anyone says: it was a delight to have around and we wouldn’t have had it any other way. Of course, we would have loved it more if it hadn’t dripped resin all over the floor, but that’s one reason we don’t have carpets.

Of course, even though we had already stripped the tree, it was still not the easiest thing in the world to get it outside. When you buy a tree, they have a special machine to bundle it up into some netting so it will fit through any door. We don’t have one of those machines lying around in our living room, so I had to try to squeeze it through the patio door, as my wife held it open and gave me useful pieces of advice like, “Take a run-up!” All of this before I had quite finished my first coffee.

I made it in time and returned to find the floor green with the needles that had been shaved off the tree during its passage through the door.

So, farewell, Christmas tree; you were a part of our lives for three weeks, and now you have gone to that great forest in the sky. We shall miss you, and will always remember the... the stickiness you brought to our tiles.