Bikini Goebbels

The other day I was listening to ‘Bikini Girls with Machine Guns’:

I misheard the lyrics as “Bikini Goebbels with Machine Guns.” Now I can’t get the image of Goebbels in a bikini out of my mind. And neither can you. You’re welcome.

The Mysterious Store Which May be an Oscilloscope Repair Workshop

A few years ago, a shop opened up on the Aachener Straße, in my beloved Bilk neighborhood. At first they stripped the walls down to the bricks, which led us all to thing yet another coffeeshop was coming. All that was needed was Edison bulbs, and the Global Coffee Shop aesthetic would be complete.

But no. Instead, the shop filled up with neatly-organized racks of what look like oscilloscopes, and tables piled with…something:

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It looks like a Stasi listening post, but I doubt many Stasi listening posts were housed at street level behind a glass facade. You can often see a man puttering around in overalls inside. He’ll give you a friendly wave if you make eye contact at him.

The workshop — if it is a workshop, and not something far more sinister — has no name or sign of any kind. It’s not listed on Google Maps.

What the hell is going on here?

German Universities Ranked by Ugliness

First there was Poets Ranked by Beard Weight, now here comes Vice Germany with German universities ranked by ugliness (g). Surprisingly, the winner isn’t the Ruhr University Bochum:

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Bochum places fourth, out-uglied by Regensburg, Siegen, and Bielefeld.

Some may ask: Wait, I thought German universities were quaint and picturesque, like Heidelberg or Tübingen. Don’t you study in old castles, or at least with views of old castles?

There are two separate kinds of German universities. The first kind are established old universities, which often don’t have any ‘campus’ as such; their faculties are spread out around the city, in buildings ancient and modern. These are the kinds of traditional universities people spontaneously associate with the phrase ‘German university’ (if they associate anything at all).

But that’s not where most German students learn. Almost all of the universities on the most-ugly list were thrown up hastily in the 1960s and 1970s. Along with various other social movements, there was a mass movement to reform the German university system, which was regarded as outdated and elitist. Criteria for university admission were drastically loosened, and a system of free tuition and student stipends was intended to reduce financial bias in admissions. As a result, the number of students at German universities quadrupled (g) between 1970 and 1997.

Lots of new buildings were needed for all these new students, and — alas — the need for these new buildings coincided with the flowering of Brutalism, the most inhumane and arrogant architectural movement in human history. Yes, there are some interesting and even beautiful Brutalist buildings. But for every one of them, there are 20 soul-crushing banalities.

Sad fact: The reason Brutalism prevailed was not because it was wise or inspiring or but because it was cheap. Just pour 50,000 tons of concrete into prefabricated molds and Bingo! There’s your university. What’s that you say? No, my friend, you don’t need to put anything over that concrete. Students and professors will be mesmerized and enchanted by thousands of cubic yards of stained, graying concrete and pea-gravel bearing the imprint of the wooden forms into which it was poured. Why cover that fascinating vision in gray with bourgeois fripperies like molding or paneling or paint or any fucking form of decoration whatsoever?

So that’s how newer German universities got to be the way they are. As I often told visitors to the University of Düsseldorf (which could have fit neatly in this Vice article): “Yes, most of this University is composed of hideous, soul-crushing bunkers which look as if their only purpose was to survive nuclear war. But this is what education in a social democracy looks like. The buildings are cheap, the salaries low, and middle-management basically non-existent. But you can still get a good education here if you put a lot of work into it. And that education is free. Which would you rather endure: 4 years of study in this monstrosity, or $100,000 in student-loan debt chasing you for the next 30 years?”

Fortunately, things are improving. German unis no longer need to expand at any cost, and now usually commission pleasant-looking buildings. And if they can’t afford to do that, at least they have started covering the naked slabs of exposed concrete with something humans might enjoy looking at. But time is running out: Some of these buildings are going to get protected historical landmark status soon if we’re not careful. Be on the lookout, and be proactive!

 

 

Time Capsule Bilk/Unterbilk, October 2018

Yesterday I took a stroll around the neighborhood, and took a few pictures of ephemera:

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Frozen between cheap cars and Juncker trips
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Every tree in Düsseldorf has a number, but not all have a felt wreath
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Basement Chemistry: Dirty-Hard and Bass-ocial
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Everything about being a soldier is dumb, say young commies

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“You come with Kölsch, we come with gasoline” (local soccer fans threaten)

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“Bilk Stays Dirty”

Mysterious things happen in my neighborhood, Bilk, the hippest, hottest place in Düsseldorf, the finest city on the Rhine. It’s vibrantly diverse, in the good way!

About a week ago, I crossed the Merowinger Bridge over the Düssel river, and saw this attached to it:

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“bilk stays dirty”.

I have no idea who put it there, or why (anyone know?). It’s gone now, either to a landfill or an art gallery

Just one of those odd things that sometimes happen here.

Europeans Love ‘Columbo’, and Who Can Blame Them?

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If you want to strike up a conversation with any European, just mention ‘Columbo’. I have yet to meet any European who doesn’t know and love the rumpled, quizzical gumshoe. Even Hungarians.

A few theories as to why he’s so popular:

  1. Pragmatic: The show seems to have been broadcast everywhere in Europe for much of its storied 32-year run. Can’t become a pop icon without everyone seeing you. The broadcast rights must have been fairly affordable.
  2. Linguistic: ‘Columbo’ and most of the characters spoke relatively slowly, without too much slang. This makes them easy to dub or subtitle.
  3. Universal cultural references: Everyone across the world likes Los Angeles, and knows (or thinks they know) enough about it to get most of the references.
  4. Universal themes: Everyone gets greed, duplicity, jealousy, and hate.
  5. Non-political in a vaguely leftist way: ‘Columbo’ was one of the few American TV series which was broadcast in Communist countries: “Hungarians love the series because it’s ‘thinking’ television, one in which the audiences enjoy watching the detective solve a murder…. ‘Columbo,’ like ‘The Saint,’ was among the few TV series allowed on the airwaves during the reign of communism — both shows were apolitical and painted the West as a den of murder and mayhem — making Falk a favorite uncle for Hungarian viewers over 30.” ‘Columbo’ was one of the few cultural products that were the same on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
  6. ‘Thinking’ television. Europeans have far less tolerance for gore and violence than Americans do (this is slowly changing). There was never any violence on ‘Columbo’; and he solved crimes by using his noggin. His European Jewish noggin. Not his giant American revolver.
  7. ‘Columbo’ was a real human: Bildergebnis für peter falkHe had a glass eye, slightly stained teeth (at least in the 1970s), rumpled clothes, strong opinions, a sharp tongue, faults, and moods. Europeans distrust and dislike shiny happy beautiful thin fun-loving perfectly suntanned Americans with their terrifyingly straight rows of blindingly white teeth. They like their heros to be slightly-above average schlubs, like Columbo was.

All told, ‘Columbo’ was probably one of the most effective American cultural exports of the late 20th century. And the show’s still pretty fun to watch.

Musil on Socialism

I’m dipping into the English translation of the diaries of Robert Musil, a handsome book published in 1998. Here is his discussion of socialism from the 1919-1921:

Ideology of socialism

  1. ) All people are equal
  2. ) Love thy neighbor as thyself.

1. is a downright untruth. The real true meaning of this assertion has become apparent in the meantime. Trials by jury, councils, parliament, the pupil often cleverer than the teacher. Take, from time to time, a spiritual purgative to clear out all knowledge. Spirit is destructive, and only constructive through setting up a collection of solutions from which practice makes its selection. When left to its own devices, spirit is a feud without end. (From this follows the position of the creative writer and the philosopher in socialist society.)

2. This principle has never been realized. It is not only unsuitable for the ethics of everyday life but also for the ethics of those who are most advanced. The only way it is realized, if at all, is in the exaggerated form: “Love thy neighbor more than thyself.” But then it is no longer pure, for here an idea is loved, an issue. Moreover, it denotes a condition, that of love.

This should be replaced by a principle that is, in ethical terms, of much less consequence but, in practical terms, more important: “Act in solidarity.”

Accordingly, the ethics of socialism rest on 2 practical maxims. That corresponds to the tasks of a political movement.

Hatred of the oppressors, feeling for the subjugated—all these ideas so dear to the socialist, his elan? First of all, these ideas all belong to the “status nascendi” of socialism, not to the finished society. [. . .]

Cycling the Rotthäuser Bachtal

The Rotthäuser Bachtal is a nature preserve just east of the Düsseldorf suburb of Gerresheim. Trails accompany a creek valley whose Western bank is made up of steep cliffs made of sandy yellowish soil with many erosion paths. The east flank of the creek is largely flat, and dotted with pastures. The area is heavily forested, mainly with splendid old beech trees. As the soil has eroded beneath them, many of these trees have begun to tip over at hair-raising angles, and some have been uprooted entirely by storms. If the fallen tree blocks the trail, then so be it: most of the fallen trees have been left where they are, and you just have to climb under or over them.DSC07474.JPG

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The trail is twisty, with moderate ups and downs, plenty of tree roots, and some marshy areas, so it’s something for my 10-year-old Trek mountain-bike, Tapio, not my cross-bike, Elfriede. The creek has been dammed to create a series of fishponds which attract many native bird species, including a magnificent gray heron which exploded into flight right next to me as I skirted one of the ponds. There are also some protected plant species, like the odd-looking horsetail plant, with its long, spiky “leaves”. Of course, marshy areas mean mosquitoes in late summer, but they’re more of a nuisance than anything else.

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The southern part of the trail skirts the Gerresheim Forest Cemetery, which opened in 1906. The idea behind a German forest cemetery is to leave large parts of the forest intact, and to spread graves around in a random-seeming manner, as if they had been scattered about by natural forces. The trails run up and down 20-meter inclines around the outside fence of the cemetery, which extends across the crowns of several hills. Owing to the height difference, the cemetery offers a free bus service for people who don’t fancy climbing to the higher graves on their own.

After snaking around the trails next to the Forest Cemetery, you descend into the idyllic pastures surrounding Pappendelle Farm, with its two large ponds, half-timbered farmhouse, and contented cattle munching grass.

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If you live in central Düsseldorf, your ride home takes you through the former Glassmaker’s Quarter in Gerresheim. This used to be a massive glass factory drawing workers from all over Germany, but it has been torn down to make way for new apartments. All except for the former water-tower, which is now a protected landmark.

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The Rotthäuser Bachtal is one of the gems to the east of Düsseldorf, in the outskirts of hilly Bergisches Land territory. The trails are well-marked, the scenery diverse, and the ups and downs make for a solid workout. If you haven’t paid it a visit yet, now’s the time — the fall foliage is just coming in.

German Word of the Week: Reanimieren

Here’s a headline from Austria about an accident during a youth outing. A boat capsized, and two girls were rescued from drowning and resuscitated:

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The German word for resuscitation is “reanimate”. Which makes me think two things:

1. That’s a lot less fussy and pretentious than “resuscitate”.

2. H.P. Lovecraft would approve.

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Zombie Institutions and Zombies in Institutions

A reporter for the Berlin Tagesspiegel visits (g) an evangelical Christian church in Berlin, where the congregation is young, hip, friendly, and enthusiastic. The big mainstream established churches in Germany, Catholic and Protestant, have been hemorrhaging members, but the evangelical churches are growing, even without the official status and tax subsidies the big churches get.

The big churches are zombie institutions — they still exist, even though their primary purpose has nearly disappeared. They still do secondary stuff like run hospitals and schools, but only a small fraction of Germans use them for regularly gathering to celebrate the Christian faith. Germany has a lot of these zombie (or near-zombie) institutions, some huge, some as tiny as a single job. Examples: TV license collecting bureaucracies, various commissions which produce reports and recommendations nobody will ever read, dead-weight older professors and teachers and civil servants who have stopped showing up, or are on various kinds of permanent sick leave.

Part of this is down to Germans. Germans on average, are conservative and tradition-oriented, so they will keep doing stuff that previous generations did, even if it no longer serves much of a purpose. (This is why you still see fax numbers everywhere). Protestant pastors and Catholic priests in official state churches preach to near-empty churches in German cities, but they are government employees with great job security and benefits. You basically can’t fire them.

And they don’t want to quit. In many other countries, people might give up jobs like this, since every workday means being confronted with the increasing futility of your profession. Why not switch to something more fulfilling — some thing people actually want you to do? Because that’s not how most Germans think. Most Germans still show up to do jobs which have become largely meaningless (most of which are in the public sector, of course). Who cares if your job makes no sense in the larger scheme of things? Who cares if nobody really cares about what you do or how you do it? Your psyche doesn’t require you to actually care about something larger than yourself or transform your life into a kick-ass mission to change the world. It only requires that you perform certain assigned duties, in accordance with contractual stipulations. And by God, you’re gonna do that.

The other reason is institutional stickiness. Say you have a 61-year-old schoolteacher, Elfriede, who’s burned out. She starts showing up only a few times a week, and then began daisy-chaining various kinds of sick leave, disability leave, and vacation to the point that she never shows up for weeks, or even months, at a time. (Very much doable if you’re clever).

Now the rest of the staff is faced with a dilemma. Sure, you can fire Elfriede, but you know that as soon as she notices that process starting, she’ll wake up from her magical slumber, hire a lawyer, and fight. She doesn’t want to do her job, but she also doesn’t want to lose it. You may be able to finally fire her, after a 12-to-18 month process, minimum. But you’re still less than halfway done. Now, you’ll need to go through the complex rigmarole of hiring someone new: publishing job announcements, holding interminable meetings to discuss qualifications, commissioning the disability and gender equity ombudsmen to issue reports, holding interviews, negotiating about office space and funding for assistants, etc.

It’s all a huge hassle. Why not just keep her on the payroll until she ages out at 65? It’s only four years, and replacing a retiring employee is easier than firing someone. And during the interminable meetings held to discuss what to do about Elfriede, something magical happens: Other professors and staff realize, quietly, to themselves: “Holy crud, she’s going to get away with it. Which means I can too, when I get to be 61 or 62. That means three or four extra years of de facto retirement, while I’m still accruing pension benefits.”

Does this mean they’ll all head for the exits at 61? No, these are Germans, after all. 80% of them will keep working, and many will keep helping for free even after their official retirement. But maybe 20% of the most dissatisfied and bored fifty-something profs intend to pull an Elfriede. And 30% of the fifty-something profs would at least like to keep that option open. So they vote to keep Elfriede on the payroll, to set a precedent they can follow later.

Germans will keep showing up for jobs that they find meaningless, which keeps zombie institutions alive. And if they stop showing up, German law makes it prohibitively complex and expensive to fire them, which keeps zombies within institutions alive.