Time for a Bike-Theft Crackdown

Yesterday I visited friends in Cologne and my bicycle broke down on the way without warning (the left pedal froze up). So I decided to park the bike near the Cologne Central Station so I could take a train to my destination. I was running late, so I didn’t have time to figure out how to use the ‘official’ Radstation bike parking, which is indoors. I parked my ride in a legal, official bike-parking stand next to the bus station and taxi rank, and went about my business, with a feeling of unease, since my bike was a pretty valuable Bulls Cross RS 1. Nevertheless, I reassured myself that at least the bike was in a highly-trafficked area. I looked around for video surveillance, but saw none.

When I got back a few hours later, the bike was gone, of course. Bike theft is endemic in Germany, so it wasn’t a stunning surprise, but it still makes one’s blood boil. I have dreams of finding someone riding the bike, tearing them off my precious steed, and inflicting exquisite tortures on them. But the bike’s almost certainly in the back of some truck, halfway to Latvia by now.

Fortunately, Germany’s crack police agencies have a sophisticated and well-funded system for recapturing stolen bikes called “BikeFinder 3.0”, so I’ll surely get it back in a few weeks. Just kidding! The chance of recovering a stolen bike in Germany hovers just over 0% (g). Once your bike’s gone, it’s gone, baby. German cops have much bigger fish to fry — in the 2000s, state and federal governments started slashing police budgets, anticipating a continuing decrease in crime caused by an aging society. Then, starting in 2015, federal politicians decided to allow almost a million young males from the most unstable parts of the globe into Germany without any background checks. The rest, as they say, is history (German prisons now have the highest proportion of foreign-born inmates in history (g)).

Endemic bike theft represents a larger policy failure. Germany wants to meet climate goals and reduce pollution by encouraging people to ride trains and bikes. But they’re simultaneously allowing trains and bikes to become ever more inefficient and risky. The German national train system, Deutsche Bahn, has been spiraling into crisis for years owing to relentless budget-cutting. On-time performance has decreased year after year even as ticket prices rise. Security on trains has also deteriorated, with attacks on train personnel sharply increasing (g) and many local train companies introducing police-like bodycams (g). After the first unpleasant incident on a late train, you might just chalk it up to chance. But after the 10th, or 20th, you will decide that investing in a car now makes sense.

German cities have created an increasing number of bike paths and bike infrastructure, but what good are those when you can’t park your bike safely, and have zero chance of recovering it after theft? If the chance of your bike being (1) stolen and (2) never recovered is more than negligible, and if you need ever-more expensive and inconvenient devices to prevent theft, the attractiveness of bicycles as a form of transport slowly erodes. And you’ll think longer about buying a car. After all, it’s getting harder and harder to steal cars.

German politicians don’t seem to perceive the links between safety and security and transportation choices. One sign of this is the embittered resistance to video surveillance. Video cameras are pretty much ubiquitous in private spaces in Germany because it’s cheap and it works. But when it comes to installing video surveillance in public areas, some left/Green politicians still trundle out antique arguments about Orwellian privacy loss and Stasi spying. It never seems to enter their minds that the trivial loss of privacy caused by your image being captured for a few fleeting seconds might be outweighed by the documented proof that video surveillance reduces crime and disorder and increases the reliability and success of criminal prosecutions.

There will never be 100% security against bike thefts, but it should be easily manageable to provide security for an open, public bike parking structure on public property with 100 bikes attached to it, like the one I used. Point some cameras at it, have someone actually looking at those cameras, and post large notices to announce the fact that it’s under camera surveillance. Even better, add an armed cop to patrol the public bike-parking areas every 30 minutes or so, on the lookout for suspicious behavior.

And right about now, with the loss fresh in my mind, I would be fine with giving that cop the right to beat bike thieves to death on the spot, and then hang their lifeless, flayed corpses on a nearby gibbet.

You won’t stop every bike theft, but you can at least offer ordinary citizens the reassurance that if they park a bike at a large open bike-parking lot near a main train station, it will be there when they get back. Shouldn’t that be the least we expect for the taxes we pay?

How ‘Fucked’ are Germans?

An editor’s website advises Germans not to use the word ‘fuck’ in professional settings:

A lot of Germans are surprised to find out that Brits and Americans can be rather prudish when it comes to using swear words. After all, in TV and movies, they hear the F word all the time so they don’t realise that in everyday life in the UK and the USA, swearwords can be quite controversial.

When I first came to Germany, I was astonished how many people swore, even in business situations and in front of children. Even children in Kindergarten were told so say, “Armeisenscheiße!” instead of saying, “Cheese!”, when getting their photograph taken.

This is sort of true, sort of not. Germans will often use the English word ‘fuck’ in all sorts of situations — both in Germany and France, it’s often used to express dismay at a minor catastrophe: dropping an ice-cream cone, or stubbing a toe against a piece of furniture, getting shot. And then there was the notorious ‘Fuck the Diet‘ (in English) ad slogan by a German food company.

Many Germans simply don’t understand quite how rude this word is in English. One handy guide is to tell them that it’s as rude in English as the word ficken (“to fuck”) is in German, which is very rude indeed. Why they wouldn’t have understood this from the beginning is an interesting question. My guess is that it comes from watching American movies and TV shows, where characters say “fuck” far more than ordinary Americans do in real life:

On the other hand, the German law students I used to teach nearly jumped out of their skins the first time I dropped an ‘f-bomb’ on them. German law students, bless their prim little hearts, are old-school haute bourgeoisie. Think wooden toys, recorder lessons, set mealtimes, and choir practice.

I didn’t do it for effect — not at first. I just naturally sometimes say ‘fuck’, don’t we all? Most of my law professors dropped an effy once in a while, although of course they didn’t make a habit of it.

Eventually, I confess, I started dropping f-bombs just for the fun of it. They never failed to elicit a few gasps and chuckles. To prepare my students, I decided to play an educational recording for them about the word ‘fuck’ in English:

This really helped cross the cultural bridge!

‘New Metallurgists’ at the Julia Stoschek Collection

One of the many advantages of life in one of the world’s most cultured cities is that, in addition to the ‘official’ public museums and galleries run by the city, there are dozens of exquisitely-run, professional-standard small private museums and galleries to explore.

When Julia Stoschek inherited millions from her family’s auto-parts business, she did what many wealthy Germans do: she began collecting art, focusing on contemporary video and installation art — or, as the promotional material for the collection puts it, “time-based” art. By all accounts, she’s a thoughtful and dedicated connoisseur (or is it connoisseuse?).

Just over ten years ago, she converted a former factory built in 1907 (g) in the tony suburb of Oberkassel to house her collection, with a nod to Beuys at the entrance.

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Oberkassel, with typical Gründerzeit townhouses and a signature Düsseldorf gas lamp

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You’re missing an ‘e’ there, but we forgive you ‘cuz you art good

The Julia Stoschek Collection is open to the public for free every Sunday. It has a theater in the basement for showing art films and films about art, and several exhibition floors designed for video installations. Some of the rooms are open, others are closed inside glass walls to limit sonic bleedover and enable better concentration. This means views within the museum offer layered reflections of several different pieces at once:

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The current exhibition is ‘New Metallurgists’, featuring recent works by Chinese artists.

The reference to metallurgy is derived from some bit of Deleuze/Guattari foofaraw which need not detain us further.

Now, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I’m rarely impressed by contemporary Chinese art. Too often, it combines an obligatory shout-out to China’s Rich Cultural Heritage™ with a cheeky reference to contemporary ‘social issues’. Yang Yongliang‘s traditional landscapes speckled with building cranes and half-finished housing developments, for instance, or basically anything by Ai Weiwei. Snarky juxtaposition only takes me so far. Maybe it’s the German in me, but art doesn’t get its hooks into me unless it has a seam of the ineffable/oneiric/eerily sublime buried in it somewhere.

Some of pieces in ‘New Metallurgists’ don’t get far beyond the snarky juxtaposition, for instance a piece tracking the many interim owners of a mid-sized airplane scattered about the globe, or an three-part video display tracking hundreds of players in a World of Warcraft game.

Other pieces were less on the nose. Fang Di was represented by three cheeky, trippy works the length and style of music videos, the most interesting of which was Triumph in the Skies, in which three cyborg flight attendants with creamy, soft plastic sex-doll faces cavort in a sort of post-apocalyptic cave bar.

Warm Spell by Shen Xin is a 35 minute long (many of the works are around this length) exploration of a Thai tourist resort, stripped of all conventional narrative. The effects of mass tourism are hinted at, but the film is mostly an moistly atmospheric, meandering, hypnotic exploration of jungle, sea, and people working. There is a bit of narration, in broken English and Thai, by a native, some of which is translated, some of which isn’t. Other pieces that caught my eye were the 9-minute Ecdysiast Molt (what a title!) by Yao Quingmei, an impossible-to-categorize work in which an amateur choir sings and recites odd bits of philosophy and song while a traffic cop seems to guide an ecdysiast (striptease artist, that is) through her performance.

And then there were two pieces by Wang Tuo, the most interesting being Smoke and Fire, which juxtaposes an elliptical portrayal of a migrant worker’s revenge killing filmed in color with grainy black-and-white interludes depicting fragments of Chinese revenge and ghost stories. It all hangs together, and falls apart, in an agreeably dreamlike way.

Overall many sharp, provocative pieces in an interesting space. It seems churlish to complain about a free museum, but the bare benches in many of the rooms were too uncomfortable to sit on for the longer pieces, and the headphones were too loud, although that might have been the artists’ specification.

German Small Talk: NO NAMES

This isn’t bad. Other acceptable topics for German small talk include insurance, heating and energy costs, insurance, restaurants that have opened or closed nearby, insurance, local crime, insurance, insurance, the most recent episode of Tatort, insurance, sales and discounts, insurance, and insurance.

But there’s one pitfall I must warn you about.

Let’s say you’re trying to fit in with your German colleagues, and you begin with this gambit: “I was talking to Ulrike, my insurance agent, the other day, and she told me I could get a better rate on my retirement insurance by switching to Rate Group Norm Cluster 25/A4/36, which will entitle me to a matching government subsidy of €-.00032 on every Euro I contribute. That will really add up over 25 years!”

Congratulations, you’ve done four things right:

First, you’ve steered the conversation to insurance, a subject on which every German, from a captain of industry to the most humble currywurst chef, can chunter on about for hours. Literally hours — I have the scars to prove it.

Second, you mentioned a bargain. Germans love bargains. Among the high points of German lives are childbirth and finding a “perfectly good” vacuum cleaner for “only €24.99” at a local discounter which is “just as good as the big name-brands” but “costs half as much because they [i.e. the Golden Miracle Light Manufactures Corp., 23 山羊肛門 Road, Shantian] don’t bother with advertisements or in-store displays or celebrity endorsements or any of that fooferaw and just focus on making a solid product. If only our German firms would… [insert 4 minutes of general bitching here]”.

Third, you mentioned retirement. The specter of retirement haunts the average middle-class German like Nemesis. I have met Germans who switched from jobs they liked to a jobs they hated solely because the retirement bennies were better. Combining insurance and retirement is like injecting a speedball directly into the conversational centers of the middle-class German brain.

Fourth, you’re using a state subsidy. Germany packs tiny little subsidies from Father State state into every nook and cranny of society. You already played the role of savvy citizen in voting for these perks; now it’s time to play the role of savvy consumer in taking advantage of them.

So you did much right. But you made one mistake, which every German you talked to will note. You used a name. Now you might think this is a courteous thing to do — you’re trying to humanize an insurance agent, as difficult as that may seem. She’s not just another cog in the juggernaut that is the German insurance industry, she’s a person. She’s Ulrike.

But to a German, what you have just done is a faux pas. Ever read 19th or 18th century novels in which one of the main characters is identified only as the Baron of W_____, and all the letters are dated March 19, 18__? That is a trace of a long-standing cultural pattern of discretion. You don’t just casually identify absent third parties in conversation without their permission. What it Ulrike is ashamed of being an insurance agent? What if she’s never told her parents about her choice? What if Ulrike’s marriage is hanging by a thread because of her insurance-selling addiction, and it gets back to her husband that she sneaked into an insurance company’s office to fuel her shameful obsession?

Congratulations! You just ruined Ulrike’s life. I hope you’re happy.

One trick that helps foreigners maintain a proper level of conversational discretion is to imagine that it’s East Germany, and you’re talking about your dissident friends in an apartment you know is bugged. Now, this will make conversations pretty hard to follow. At some point, you may have to say things like: “While I was talking to my insurance agent, another insurance agent came in an introduced himself, and my insurance agent talked to that insurance agent until their boss came in, and invited us all to lunch. So I had lunch with my insurance agent, another insurance agent, and their boss.” This would have been a lot easier and less bureaucratic-sounding if you’d actually given these humans names. But this stilted syntax is, to most Germans, a reasonable price to pay to preserve everyone’s plausible deniability.

So, I have taken the video made by Rache — this human female and added some extra depth to it. You’re welcome!

You’ll Never Forget the Flavor Explosion of this Sizzling Wurst!

The First German Bratwurst Museum (g) in Holzhausen, Thuringia is so popular it’s outgrown its present location. The nearby town of Mühlhausen invited the wurst-lovers to relocate to a former military base of the East German army on the outskirts of town. The area is now abandoned and overgrown. It seemed like a perfect match, and the museum began drawing up plans.

But then came a hitch. Turns out that before it was an East German military base, the area was an “satellite camp” (g) of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Satellite camps hosted forced-labor detachments transferred to live and work on location in factories or quarries.

Perhaps this wouldn’t have been a problem if the museum were a thoughtful, sober meditation on the history of the sizzling pork tubes. But no. The planned museum features a “bratwurst cannon”, a bratwurst song contest, a golden pig and — best of all, a “walk-in bratwurst”. This is a photo from inside the current “world’s largest walk-in bratwurst”:

Festive, no?

Alas, the plans for a sausage museum on a former slave-labor camp did not go down well in Germany, and it’s probably not going to happen. I personally would have suggested combining the two purposes, but then again, not all of my ideas are good ones.