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.