Blue Dog Diapers

The best thing about generic, easy-to-set-up Blogger blogs is the button on the top-right: "next blog", which may forward you halfway across the world to a randomly-chosen Blogger blog written in a completely different language.

I recommend at least one or two of these clicks per day. Recently I found this photo at Tom Sølvberg‘s blog. He (Sølvberg not the dog!) appears to be an artist who will have his debut exhibition at the [something] gallery on 19 January 2007. Here’s his picture of a differently-abled dog:

Brussels vs. the Tophats

So I’m waiting for a doctor’s appointment this morning paging through Spiegel and see this article (G) about chimney sweeps in Germany. Germany still has Schornsteinfeger, those quaint figures in black tophats (good-luck symbols!) who make sure your coal-burning stoves and tile-ovens are in order and clean your chimneys of all the dust, dead pigeons, urchin residue, and unexploded bombs.

But wait, nobody has basement boilers or coal-burning stoves anymore; and the number of apartments with actual working chimneys is pretty tiny. So the chimney sweep must be a thing of the past, right? Wrong! There are most definitely still chimney sweeps in Germany. They not only offer their services to you, they force their services upon you. When they come by to inspect your building, you must let them in (they can even call the police and force entry), and you must pay them a fee determined by the local board.

Http___wwwschornsteinfeger1The article profiles Joachim Datko, a 55-year-old engineer from Regensburg who tried to reject the chimney-sweeper’s services, pointing out that he had installed an ultra-modern gas heating system that didn’t produce a single particle of dust or smoke. He lost, and the chimney sweeper was permitted to barge his way into Datko’s house to conduct pointless measurements.

Who gave them these secure, life-long jobs? The Nazis, of course. In a job-creation boondoogle that’s more reminiscent of 1435 than 1935, they they divided all of Germany up into small "sweep districts," and created a tiny chimney-sweep monopoly in each one. Chimney-sweeps in training have to wait 12 years to be assigned a district. When they get one, they have to live there and volunteer for the fire department. In return, though, they have a monopoly on inspecting and cleaning chimneys and heating devices in that district. In their defense, they point out that they’re much more than chimney sweeps and are, like, totally modern now, and know how to check your home for all sorts of harmful vapors and gases. But however useful their services may be, they still have a monopoly.

Who will save us? The EU, of course. Monopolies violate EU guidelines, so Brussels is soon going to force the chimney sweepers to compete for their services. Yes, that’s right — Brussels will be intervening to reduce bureaucracy. The battle-lines are drawn. On the one side, chimney-sweeps, with their official website glorifying themselves as "experts on security, energy, and the environment" The website’s mascot is the charming young thing picture above, who can sweep my chimney anytime. [was that really necessary? — ed.]. In the other corner, Joachim Datko — yes, that Datko — who’s got his own anti-chinmey-sweep website (G)!

I don’t know where I stand on this issue. On the one hand, it does seem awfully old-fashioned to preserve a monopoly, especially a Nazi monopoly (Nazopoly?). On the other hand, they wear tophats!


Silke & Normen Kowalewski have created Rheinschuh, an on-line "database of Rotblumewashed-up shoes."

All the shoes were found on the banks of the Rhine. Everything’s organized by category: boots, slippers, sneakers, dismembered shoe parts, even gloves (handschuhe = "hand shoes" in German). Data concerning the shoes is carefully documented, and each shoe even has a name (Redbloom is to the left).

Why RheinShoe? you may be asking yourself. The website’s owners have provided an answer, translated by yours truly:

Rhineshoe is..

A river in snapshots.
Completely nuts.
Documenting flotsam and jetsam.
A bit of nonsense.
A look at the smaller things of life.
An instruction-book for inventing stories.
Delighted with input.
The scope of a no-longer-completely-new medium.
A mudfight gloriously lost.
The meeting of the eternal and the banal
Something to cheer up your afternoon.
An answer to gaudy and dumb.
An invitation to discovery.
The materialization of the physical in the virtual.
A forum for views and insights.
Better than television.
Lived interaction.
An off-kilter experiment.
Always surprising.

Bank Merger Soul

MBNA and Bank of America recently merged their consumer automobile-finance divisions. Two delighted men wrote a song about it, based on U2’s "One". My favorite lyric:

It’s your choice, your right

To pick a car that shows your heart and your pride.

Please Check Box For Unspecified Social Change

Courtesy of Riesenmaschine, I bring you a question (G-PDF) presented to the citizens of Berlin on 17 September 2006, concerning the "New Regulations on Referenda and Petitions for Referenda":

Ballot Question: Do you agree to the changes in Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution of the City of Berlin, as published on pages 446 and 447 of the Law- and Regulations-Gazette of Berlin on 3 June 2006?   


Kathrin Passig of Riesenmaschine comments (G):

The ordinary citizem, steeled by years of psychological testing and market research, recognizes that the question is hardly meant to be taken at face value. Something completely different is being tested here, namely: how many Berliners are willing to vote on some completely invented subject? And how many of them will choose the progressive "yes" option ("Change! Change is always good!") and how many the conservative ("I have no idea what it is, but I want it to remain exactly the same.").

New Objectivity in New York

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is hosting a major show of Neue Sachlichkeit ("New Objectivity") portraits, and the New York Times calls it "amazing":

Organized by Sabine Rewald, curator of 19th-century, modern and contemporary art at the Met, this exhibition creates an indelible, psychologically charged picture of Weimar Germany as it teetered between World Wars I and II. In a larger sense it is a humane hall of mirrors whose representation of individuals and types, of the quick and the deluded, the knowing and the devouring, has a sharpness that still cuts.

Presented in seven galleries devoid of fanfare or froufrou, “Glitter and Doom” contains just more than 100 paintings and drawings by 10 artists, prominent among them George Grosz, Christian Schad, Rudolf Schlichter and Karl Hubbuch, and most conspicuously the unrelentingly savage Otto Dix and his magnificent other, Max Beckmann. With Dix represented by 53 works and Beckmann holding his own at 17, the two preside over this exhibition like Picasso and Braque, except that they are equals.

A slideshow is found here which highlights the glistening, icily perverted work of Christian Schad (G), who’s not as well-known as his more traditionally "Expressionist-looking" colleagues:

The meticulous Schad, represented by works done in Berlin during the late 1920s, seems to have been more evenhanded. He imbued all his subjects, including himself, with an enervated yet dignified remoteness. The exception may be the portrait of a pair of sideshow performers, “Agosta the ‘Winged One’ and Rasha the ‘Black Dove.’ ” Here a slim man with an inverted rib cage and a watchful black woman summon a challenging energy and direct it right at us.

For those of you who, like me, can’t pop off to New York to see the show, I recommend the glorious Taschen book on this period, The New Objectivity (German version here). Dozens of large, full-color illustrations and sympathetic essays bring these odd, intense, cynical, vulnerable creators to life.

Teach me to Laugh, Herr Boyes

Roger Boyes is an Englishman and Berlin correspondent for the London Times. He can often be seen on German talk shows commenting on international affairs (in perfect German). Now he’s written a book, "My dear Krauts," which is designed to help Germans learn to laugh. First, I’ll give you the gist of Boyes, then I’ll add my take:

Germany is in urgent need of "humor development aid," Roger Boyes, the London Times correspondent in Berlin.

The Germans are a nation of paranoid schizophrenics who can’t decide whether to love or loathe themselves, says Roger Boyes, the Berlin correspondent for the London Times, whose new book "My dear Krauts" marks the start of a one-man mission to help the country lighten up.

"It’s not that they can’t be funny. In fact they like a good laugh. It’s just that they’re a bit slower on the uptake than the rest of the world. And they don’t understand irony."…

The problem is that for Germans, humor is confined to certain events or times — such as a comedy show on television or the week-long Rhineland carnival season, says Boyes. "Humor is in a ghetto. It’s stockaded. But why can’t it invade every part of life? Why can’t wit be part of normal daily life?"…

Boyes admires Germany because it’s safe and clean and people who should take their duties seriously in fact do so. Further, he admires German seriousness about friendship. But

[o]n the downside, public debate in Germany is stifled by a collective need for consensus, says Boyes, who has grown tired of the nation’s endless cycle of turgid TV talk shows, which usually focus on minor changes to the generous welfare system and seem to set the agenda.

And then there’s the negative energy the nation exudes. "They had all the Turks cheering Germany during the World Cup, which may have been a starting point for a discussion about integration. Did they have that discussion? No. Instead they’ve spent the last few months returning to the anguished debate about immigration being a problem."

Note to Germans cultural critics: your reaction to Boyes should not take the form of a turgid diatribe about how this chauvinistic Englishman has violated Germany’s dignity and failed to take a konsequent (morally serious) approach to the problem. If you do that, you’re proving his point.

Let me add a few of my own observations here. First, as Boyes correctly points out, the problem is not that Germans "have no sense of humor"; the problem is that deploying irony, or even taking a light-hearted tone to a particular subject, is perceived by officially-minded Germans as undignified. I see here a cultural memory-trace from the 19th century, when solid bourgeois parents recoiled in horror at the thought their sons and daughts might become actors or actresses.

Serious things are accompished by serious people. „Res severa (est) verum gaudium“, it says on the wall at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, where the orchestra of the same name plays: "True joy is a serious thing". Mere entertainment? Witty remarks? Making people laugh? These are unimportant skills, best honed and practiced by people from the lower classes. It’s not uncommon to read biographies of German intellectuals from the 19th century and 20th century in which it is casually noted that they were never once seen laughing. Not. Once. Ever.

Now, things have loosened up considerably in Germany since that time, but there’s still a trace of stigma attached to light-heartedness and irony. It is largely banished from almost all social endeavors that are labeled "serious." So that means at academic conferences, business meetings, literary readings, classical music performances, even some family gatherings etc., one is only allowed to go so far with any joke.

This leads to misunderstandings, especially between Germans and Anglo-Saxons. An example: Let’s say you casually remark during the intermission of a classical concert that the conductor’s gestures make it look as if he’s building sandwich at a Subway fast-food restaurant. This will be taken by many Germans as a rather serious insult, because (1) you are not respecting the conductor’s position (after all, he has talent, studied so long to get there, etc. etc.) and (2) you have violated his dignity by ‘making a fool out of’ (verarschen) him. Once you see that your little joke comment has visibly shocked the poor Germans, you can try to explain it: "No, no, I think he’s doing a fine job and I’m enoying the concert. I was just trying to make a witty remark about his unusual conducting style."

Then comes the inevitable reply: "But why is it necessary to make a witty remark about him, when it disrespects him?" At this point, the Anglo-Saxon realizes he is standing on one side of a cultural divide, the German is standing on the other, and this divide is unbridgeable. (Are witty remarks ever unnecessary?). Different meta-languanges are being spoken here, different sets of neurons being activated, thousands of hours of different cultural training are being brought to bear. Note, however, that you are certainly allowed to criticize the conductor, if he’s actually doing a poor job. For that matter, you are allowed to criticize him far more brutally than you would ever be allowed to criticize him in the Anglo-Saxon world ("This gesticulating idiot is brutally raping Tannhaeuser and should be sent to prison!"). You must, however, take him seriously.

What I wonder, however, is how much contact Boyes has with young, hip Germans. He seems to be of a certain age himself, and is a correspondent for a famous newspaper. Thus, he probably spends countless hours with politicians, business leaders, diplomats, professors, etc. Whatever their other accomplishments, these folks, in Germany, are almost never witty or entertaining. Even if they are capable of wit in private, that all goes out the window whenever they have anything official to do, such as talking to a journalist. The po-faced earnestness begins to pile up quickly, and soon reaches ankle-depth.

Younger Germans, however, are a different kettle of fish. Assuming you’re hanging out with relatively well-educated folks, they will all speak, read and understand English, and are likely to be on intimate terms with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the Simpsons, and various other sources of irony. This generation can recognize and deploy irony with the best of them. Regardless of your opinion of Harald Schmidt, or of movies like Liegen Lernen, Goodbye, Lenin, Herr Lehmann, and Schtonk, they reflect an extremely high level of irony-consciousness. It may sometimes be a sort of melancholy-tinged, slightly world-weary Middle European irony (actually my favorite kind), but it’s irony. Any German under 50 knows of Germany’s reputation for dreary earnestness (yes, many have seen Sprockets), and many are dedicated to personally countering this reputation in word and deed (without, however, slavishly copying Anglo-Saxon cultural patterns).

So, to sum up: Boyes is correct to note that there’s a lot less wit and irony floating around German society in general. But there’s plenty of exquisite irony to be found, if you look in the right places.

Prepare to Die, Eurabians!

Wake up, Europe! You’re on the edge of doom! In a couple of decades, your prancing fairy-men are going to be fighting Islamic insurgencies in burned-out cities and your women will be wearing veils.

Or so says the new book "America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It" by right-wing polemicist Mark Steyn. Steyn, perhaps best known for his fervent, nay unhinged advocacy of the triumphantly successful invasion of Iraq, has now written a book comparing the United States and Europe. It’s been adoringly reviewed by right-wing commentator on Middle Eastern affairs Daniel Pipes, also a big fan of the invasion of Iraq (Pipes on the Iraq war in April 2006: "Oh, it was a success. We got rid of Saddam Hussein. Beyond that is icing."). Over to you, Daniel:

[Steyn] begins with the legacy of two totalitarianisms. Traumatized by the electoral appeal of fascism, post-World War II European states were constructed in a top-down manner, "so as to insulate almost entirely the political class from populist pressures." [Err, what is ‘almost entirely’ supposed to modify there? – ed.] As a result, the establishment has "come to regard the electorate as children." Second, the Soviet menace during the Cold War prompted American leaders, impatient with Europe’s (and Canada’s) weak responses, effectively to take over their defense. This benign and far-sighted policy led to victory by 1991, but it also had the unintended and less salutary side effect of freeing up Europe’s funds to build a welfare state. This welfare state had several malign implications.

  • The nanny state infantilized Europeans, making them worry about such pseudo-issues as climate change while feminizing the males.
  • It also neutered them, annexing "most of the core functions of adulthood," starting with the instinct to breed. From about 1980, birth rates plummeted, leaving an inadequate base for today’s workers to receive their pensions. Structured on a pay-as-you-go basis, it amounted to an intergenerational Ponzi scheme under which today’s workers depend on their children for their pensions.
  • The demographic collapse meant that the indigenous peoples of countries like Russia, Italy, and Spain are at the start of a population death spiral.
  • It led to a collapse of confidence that in turn bred "civilizational exhaustion," leaving Europeans unprepared to fight for their ways.

Leaving aside the rather unsettling mixed metaphor of a "state…annexing" the "instinct to breed," I should like to ask, if European men have been "feminized" and "neutered," how do you explain the Finnish wife-carrying contest (prize: your wife’s weight in beer), or the cover of the German punk band Die Toten Hosen‘s album Reich & Sexy?

But I digress. Back to the doom-mongering:

Arriving at a time of demographic, political, and cultural weakness, Muslims are profoundly changing Europe: "Islam has youth and will, Europe has age and welfare." Put differently, "Premodern Islam beats post-modern Christianity." Much of the Western world, Mr. Steyn flat-out predicts, ‘will not survive the twenty-first century, and much of it will effectively disappear within our lifetimes, including many if not most European countries." With even more drama, he adds, "It’s the end of the world as we know it."

I should note that Mark Steyn is Canadian, so he cannot be held responsible for noble America’s tragic error, which was to pursue "far-sighted and benign" policies that somehow led foolish, wicked Europeans to create their "malign" welfare states and obsess themselves with "pseudo-issues" like global warming.*

If only the Americans had implemented the Morgenthau Plan (G)! As a fine songwriter once put it, sometimes you’ve got to be cruel to be kind.

Oh well, at least when the Musulmann takes over, I’ll finally be allowed to have several wives. If he doesn’t behead me with his scimitar (Krummsäbel) first.

* German readers who are upset to know Europe is headed down the toilet: Don’t fret! You’ll have good company. For, you see, American is also headed straight down the toilet, according to Morris Berman’s "A Culture on the Way to Collapse: America Leads the Way", which has helpfully been translated into German for your Schadenfreudig pleasure.

The End of a Legal Battle over Traffic Lights

If there was one thing everyone could agree on about East German socialism, it was that world peace could only be assured after the inevitable victory of international socialism, when all peoples would unite as brothers under the banner of understanding among peoples.

AmpelmaennchenThat and the traffic lights. They were fuckin’ adorable, especially the green "walk" signal. OK, his outstretched arm is much too long for his body and seems to be deformed into a hideous, fingerless club. But he’s striding so zestily into the glorious Socialist future that you just can’t help adoring him, and the hat and the shoes are sharp, in all senses of the word. (The red "stop" signal looks a little bit too cruciform/mummy-like for my tastes, but is still very popular, especially as a keychain).

Two German business titans each claimed to have the rights to use the image of the Ampelmaennchen ("little traffic-light men"). In this corner, Markus Heckhausen, a Berlin designer with roots in West Germany. He trademarked the figures in 2003, and plans to use them on a wide range of consumer knickknacks. In the other corner, Joachim Roßberg, an East German engineer who used to be in charge of producing East Germany’s traffic lights, and who claimed to have already registered the figures in 1997.

A complex, wearisome legal battle (there are no other kinds) ensued, and, of course, the West German interloper won (G). The poor East German engineer had 13 of his 15 registered trademarks cancelled, and is now only allowed to use the Ampelmaennchen to sell alcohol, of all things.

Don’t feel too sorry for the Ossie person from the new federal states, though. As he saw that the ship of his legal case was about to smash against the rocks of German jurisprudence, he tried a desperate ‘Hail Mary.’ (according to the Spiegel article linked above): He claimed he wasn’t even a party to the lawsuit, since it was actually his son, also named Joachim Roßberg, who actually owned the rights to the images. Problem was, if that were the case, the son obtained the rights when he was nine, and was director of a company when he was twelve. The judges have referred Roßberg Senior to the local District Attorney.

David Dow on WDR Fernsehen

I’m watching a DVD last night (Kieslowski’s Blind Chance; interesting but flawed) when a friend calls: "Turn on WDR Fernsehen, there’s a documentary about the death row in Texas"!  Since I used to be a death penalty lawyer myself, I tuned in. It was a documentary about the execution of Texas death row inmate Frances Newton, which took place on September 14th, 2005.

The first talking head I saw was Professor David Dow, who taught me the nuts and bolts of death penalty law lo those many years ago. He was talking about the terrible legal representation Ms. Newton got at her trial, where she was defended by a local Houston, Texas attorney who represented almost twenty hapless murder defendants in Houston, Texas in the 1980s, all of whom ended up on death row. Professor Dow sounded as smart as ever, even dubbed into German (not sure he’d be happy about that).

Prof. Dow is a fearless public critic of the many grievous shortcoming of the Texas death penalty justice system. His criticism is as sulfurously uncompromising as it needs to be in a State that has likely sent several innocent people to the lethal-injection gurney deaths in the recent past, but it is also based on careful research and almost two decades of experience.

Professor Dow continues to provide outstanding legal assistance to people on Texas’ death row and in Texas prison as Executive Director of the Texas Innocence Network. You can read about their achievements here — people released from prison after the TIN proved their innocence, moribund cases revived by TIN investigations, TIN attorneys and student investigators helping to create legal precedents that will benefit thousands of inmates. This is difficult and thankless work on many different levels, and it is not paid for by the government. If you would like to support the work, your donation will be gratefully accepted here.

Oh, and he’s also prolific author. His unsparing, behind-the-scenes account of Texas’ death penalty regime, Executed on a Technicality, can be ordered here. You’ll learn how bafflingly complex the law of death penalty appeals has become, and read mind-boggling stories of judicial incompetence and indifference, and read harrowing such as that of Cesar Roberto Fierro, who has spent almost three decades on death row trying to get any court to hear evidence of his innocence. Here is Prof. Dow’s account of his last visit to Fierro:

I used to think Fierro would walk out of prison because I thought it was quite likely that he is innocent. Now I hope he is not. I  hope I was wrong and that he committed the murder, because the alternative is that he has spent the last twenty-five years of his life going insane in a sixty-square-foot cell for a crime he had nothing to do with. His mother has died. His daughter no longer visits. He thinks his lawyers are trying to injure him. He is incapable of having friends and carrying on a conversation. The guards taunt him and laugh at him. Yet if Fierro dies in prison, it will not be because Texas proved that he killed Nicolas Catanon. It will be because Fierro did not convinct the state court that he did not, and because no federal court will even let him try. If Fierro is executed, it will be because a technicality allowed the authorities to coerce a confession from him and then get away with it.

[from p. 50-51 of the hardcover version]. Plus, if that weren’t enough, Prof. Dow has a blog, which he seems to be updating more frequently lately.

Anyway, it was good to know that hundreds of thousands of Germans were able to see Prof. Dow in action. He is the real thing, and if you want to make a meaningful contribution to helping people get justice in Texas, you can do no better than contribute to his organization. Here‘s that link again, in case you missed it the first time.

Correcting a Guest’s Bad Manners

Note: This solution requires ownership of a courtier with exquisite manners who may be commanded to do your bidding:

The Bishop of Verona, the Italian work [Galateo by Della Casa] relates, one day receives a visit from a Duke Richard. [Richard] appears to the Bishop and his Court as "gentilisssime vavaliere e di belissime maniere." The host notes in his guest a single fault. But he says nothing. On the Duke’s departure the Bishop sends a man of his court, Galateo, to accompany him. Galateo has particularly good manners, acquired at the courts of the great: "molto havea de’ suoi di usato alle corti de’ gran Signori." This is explicitly emphasized.

This Galateo therefore accompanies Duke Richard part of the way, and says the following to him before taking his leave: His master, the Bishop, would like to make the Duke a parting gift. The Bishop has never in his life seen a nobleman with better manners than the Duke. He has discovered in him only a single fault — he smacks his lips too loudly when eating, so making a noise that is unpleasant for others to hear. To inform him of this is the Bishop’s parting gift, which he begs will not be ill-received.

[Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process, p.65 (1994, E. Jephcott, Trans.)]

World Leaders in Pretty Dresses

Can I just say that I always look forward to Asian economic summits, because they usually lead to pictures world leaders wearing brightly-colored dresses in public? Yes, I know these things are called ao dai and there’s some profound cultural meaning I’m missing here.

But ain’t it just adorable? Boys seem to get blue, girls pink. The girls (in this case, President Michelle Bachelet of Chile) also get the hats, which makes it them look like medieval Marys with halos. I don’t have anywhere to go with this, except to say I just wish there were some way to make world leaders dress like this all the time.