Separate the Colors, Leave the Lids On

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The local news visits the largest glass recycling facility in Europe, in Dormagen. The report clears up a few mysteries about the ubiquitous glass-recycling boxes you see in Germany.

First of all, separating glass by colors actually does matter. You typically hear Germans saying it doesn't, because the trucks which clear the containers seem to dump everything haphazardly into the trailer compartment. Wrong! What bystanders can't see is that the trucks have separate compartments for each color of glass.

Glass of the wrong color, as well as non-glass items such as ceramics or even gun parts (according to the plant manager) are removed from the stream by hand. The rest is automated.

Oh, and although every box has a warning sign tells you to remove the lid before you recycle the bottle, this turns out to be wrong. The machines can easily remove lids, which are recyclable themselves, and intact bottles with lids are "more hygienic" for the human sorters to handle.

This has been your public-service post for the month of October.

There’s Vegans, and Then There’s German Vegans

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American public radio highlights a recent report by German nutritionists warning about the potential risks of a vegan diet: 

Berlin resident Moza Kabbar … says there's a huge boom in enthusiasm for veganism in the city.

But not everyone in Germany is on board. In a new paper, the German Nutrition Society says a vegan diet can't provide everything your body needs.

"With a pure plant-based diet, it is difficult or impossible to attain an adequate supply of some nutrients," states the German Nutrition Society's new position on the vegan diet. "The most critical nutrient is B-12," which is found in eggs and meat. The group says if you follow a vegan diet, you should take supplements to protect against deficiencies.

According to the German nutritionists, other "potentially critical nutrients" that may be a challenge to get in a vegan diet include omega-3s — found in fatty fish — as well as minerals such as calcium, iron, iodine, zinc and selenium. So the group recommends that vegans get advice from a nutrition counselor and be "regularly checked by a physician." In addition, the society recommends against a vegan diet for pregnant women, women who are breast-feeding, children and adolescents.

Advocates for veganism say the new position from German nutritionists goes too far.

"With a little planning and knowledge, rest assured, you can get everything you need from a vegan diet for great health … at any age," Jimmy Pierson, a spokesperson for the Vegan Society, based in England, told us by phone….

But to make sure you're covering all your bases, "I would recommend [taking] a standard multivitamin," [U.S. dietitian Lisa] Cimperman says. It's a good insurance policy for vegans.

As for putting kids on vegan diets, the American Academy of Pediatrics says children can be well-nourished on all kinds of vegetarian diets, "but nutritional balance is very difficult to achieve if dairy products and eggs are completely eliminated," the position states. The academy recommends that if your child is following a vegetarian diet, "you need to guard against nutritional deficiencies."

Allow me to engage in some armchair sociologizin' here. Notice that this American news source quotes a Brit and an American, who both say perfectly sensible things about veganism. The target audience for the German nutrition report is not people like this. The target is German hard-core ideological vegans. These exist in the UK and US also, but I'd wager there are more of them here in Germany.

Why? Because Germany is the land of philosophical Idealism, deontological moral absolutes, and sayings such as "To be German means to do a thing for its own sake" (g, Wagner) and "A German is someone who cannot tell a lie without believing it himself." (Adorno). And, since the late 1960s, a public discourse which is drenched in moral judgment.

Many German vegans are vegans not just because it's healthy, or because they don't want to see animals exploited. They think in rigid ideological categories. They are fundamentally convinced, like fundamentalists, that mankind was fundamentally never meat to consume animal protein, and that doing so is fundamentally immoral. Not only that, taking supplements would be an admission that a vegan diet is not fundamentally sufficient, weakening its claim to be the only fundamentally morally acceptable way to feed oneself.

You encounter the word fundamentally a lot in German. Also the word konsequent, which describes someone whose actions align scrupulously with their stated principles. I have met many German vegans. The majority are sensible and take supplements. But there's a pretty large minority who absolutely refuse to do so, seeing it as an unacceptable ethical compromise. The notion that they would change their habits when they have children is also seen as…an unacceptable ethical compromise. After all, what is more important than passing on your own fundamentally morally superior values of absolute nonviolence and sustainability to your children, so they will continue the lonely, voice-in-the-wilderness crusade for a better world? Assuming, of course, that the neural tube defects leave them able to communicate.

These are the people the German nutritionists are trying to reach. Of course, hard-core ideological German vegans will ignore the message, because that's the kind of people they are.

As Wickham Steed put it: "The Germans dive deeper — but they come up muddier."

Behold! I Shall Fish the Bottles Out of the Düssel

Take a look at this:

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This is the Düssel river, the local Rhein tributary that gives Düsseldorf its name. Some rivers are so big, cities are built around them, not over them. The Düssel isn't that big. The city fathers of Düsseldorf did actually keep the river, mind you. However, it flows underground most of the way through the city, only popping into view occasionally. But when it does come into view, it's a refreshing change. And as here, near the Karolingerstraße, a bit of riverbank has been preserved, creating a nice park-like atmosphere.

Granted, it's only a little brook, and the riverbank is only about 5 meters on either side before the streets and buildings begin. But even a small bit of nature and green in the city does a surprising amount to make a place more livable. Trust me, I've lived in cities which don't know how to do this.

But here's the thing: you see those shapes in the water? No, they're not fish. There are fish in the Düssel, but they're much smaller. Those things are bottles. 

Fucking bottles.

Over the years, subhuman fucksticks have finished their bottles of cheap beer and casually tossed them into the river. Even though there's a bottle deposit in Germany, which poor people rely on, scouring the city for deposits. You could simply put the bottle on the bridge over the river, and it would be gone in literally 5 minutes, collected by some retiree living on a miserly pension. Also, no more than 2 meters from where I shot this photo, there are not only trash bins but a fucking glass recycling box.

But did Jackass McShitforbrains (or perhaps Güldüz Al-Antisocial) use any of these opportunities? No. He just threw the fucking bottle into the cool, clear, pristine water of the river. So every single time a human crosses this bridge and pauses to enjoy a nice view, he's reminded of the fact that certain humanoid entities exist who would fuck up a nice little view out of sheer laziness or spite.

I have never actually seen anyone throw a bottle in the Düssel. Actually, that's pretty fortunate, because if I did, I would probably fly into a rage and try to beat them to death. I'm not joking. One of the reasons Northwestern Europe is such a nice place to live is that people take care of public spaces. One of the many curses of the developing world is that people in those countries have no understanding of why it's important to keep public spaces clean. They are often scrupulously neat in their private homes, but think nothing of throwing garbage anywhere in the open. This is one of the key conflicts that arise when immigrants from the Third World arrive in Germany: they go picknicking in the park and leave a mound of dirty diapers, trash, bottles, plastic bags, disposable barbecues, and food remains just sitting in a pile in the middle of a pristine meadow of luscious green grass. 

Now, part of this is because the countries they come from don't have functioning garbage-disposal infrastructures, etc. But there's also a cultural component, as anybody who's ever lived in a country like India can tell you. Even in middle-class families, there's a sense that the interior of the home is a focus of pride and should be kept spotless, but if you don't own the land — especially if nobody owns the land — then it's fair game to just throw anything away there. As a 2013 book call The Concept of the Public Realm puts it:

Take something as simple as streets and public parks. Since they lie outside the family home, they are seen as a no-man's land, an empty space, almost a wilderness. While the Indian home is clean and tidy, streets and even parks are unacceptably dirty. Streets are used as garbage heaps, and rubbish and leftover food is thrown around in parks. Even the front of the house is sometimes turned into as a garbage heap. Since public spaces are not seen as theirs, Indians generally take no care of them and expect the civic authority to do so. And if it does not, as is generally the case, things are left as they are. It is striking that few Indians protest against dirty streets and lack of pavements and zebra crossings, almost as if they cannot see how things can be otherwise (Kakar and Kakar 2007, p. 21).

Not that India deserves to be singled out. The problem also exists all over the Arab world and even in Italy, although it's much less serious there.

In any case, I've had enough. I already have a really long pole which I use for certain camera shots. I just ordered a pool net strainer. When the weather cools down, I am going to go out there and clean out those bottles. You'd think some German would have done this already, but there's an old German proverb — as accurate now as it ever was — which goes: "A German is someone who, when he sees a mess, sneers in disapproval (die Nase rümpfen) instead of cleaning it up." 

Well, fuck that shit. Just as Tyrell Corporation's motto is "more human than human", mine is "more German than German". I am going to clean out those goddamn bottles, and post before-and-after pics to prove it. If that doesn't earn be the German Service Cross, I don't know what will.

England Crushed by the Jackboot of the Nanny State

England just introduced a 5p charge for plastic bags at stores, which is apparently engulfing Albion in pandemonium, madness. While clawing over the bodies amid the stinging smoke, the editors of one English tabloid came up with a brilliant, devious, cunning plan to evade Big Brother's latest overreach: Bring your own shopping bag. The article prompted this inspired tweet: 

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Germany has suffered under the yoke of bag fees for generations now. Which means any and every self-respecting environmentally conscious German — and that's pretty much all of them — has become an expert in bag technology. In a German store, you are expected to whip out your own reusable bag and pack your own groceries aber schnell bitte. Any deviation from this standard of conduct will be met with disapproving glances. 

You need the right bag. Everywhere I go, I carry a foldable ChicoBag which expands from the size of a pack of cigarettes to basically infinity. That's for spontaneous purchases. For more intensive shopping, you need a bag that will (1) fold up flat like IKEA furniture; (2) maintain its shape on its own when unfolded, (3) has various sized handles; and (4) has a velcro strip on the top inside so you can seal the top and make sure bulky objects don't fall out.

1The very best bag for this — and I've tried a hell of a lot of them — is the Edeka shopping bag. This comes from the high-end Edeka line of German supermarkets, which are the cleanest, most orderly supermarkets you will ever see. They fill all 4 criteria and are big, stable, and indestructible. They even have little flanges on the inside so you can stabilize bulky objects against the side of the bag. They're fucking ingenious.

England, fear not. The survivors will crawl out of the smoking ruins of a once-great land, painstakingly knit their own reusable bags from scraps of torn, bloody fabric, and get on with their lives. Germans will soon send over shipments of recycled, reusable bags in the spirit of European solidarity, and you can put the bloody-fabric bags in the Museum of the Great 5p Bag Crisis.

The Urdenbach Marshes in Summer

Yesterday I biked down to the Urdenbach Marshes south of Düsseldorf. It's a large nature reserve which used to be on the path of the Rhein until the river made a curve. City planners are now diverting brooks in the nature reserve to allow it to revert to marshland. It's now home to plenty of waterfowl, and the authorities are even planning to introduce water buffalo, although the locals aren't all that thrilled and may stop the plan. Unlike marshes in most parts of the world, this one isn't full of things that want to kill you. The sweet, intoxicating odor of decay and burgeoning life is everywhere. Before I move on to the pictures, one bleg: can anyone identify the light-purple labiate flowers? They're everywhere near the raised path. I looked everywhere, but could only find flowers which look a lot like these, but not quite the same. Frustrating.

UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
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UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond

 

Tatort as After-School Special

There's an English phrase that always comes to my mind when I watch a particularly preachy episode of Tatort ("crime scene"), the weekly crime show that is a German institution. The phrase is "after-school special". An after-school special, was a TV show, usually a drama, that played at 4 pm or so, just as kids would come home from school. The scripts taught us kids to to tolerate all races; be proud of who we were; accept people who are different; be kind to the handicapped; avoid drugs, smoking, alcohol, and sex; not let strangers touch us "there"; and so on. The clip above gives you an idea of what we're dealing with (and, as an extra bonus, it features the title "The Boy who Drank Too Much"!).*

German publicly-financed television has a so-called Bildungsauftrag, roughly, "duty to educate". Now there's nothing wrong with requiring broadcasters who are financed by TV fees to provide educational programming. The talk shows and documentaries you see on regular German television — as much as we might mock them — are streets ahead of anything on American TV. The show Titel Thesen Temperamente (g) which runs every Sunday on the main German broadcast station, shows a fantastic dog's breakfast of 8-10 minute long clips about everything from jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani to discrimination against homosexuals in Turkey to Tiken Jah Fakoly (including a tour of his home and studio in Bamako, Mali), to anti-right-wing activists to Werner Herzog's new films to the Nazi past of the Alpine climbing group. Just about every one of these segments would have been deemed too controversial/hifalutin/boring/full of non-Americans for any of the 500 channels of American television. Except the stuff about Nazis, of course. Nazis always sell.

The problem is that this duty to educate often seeps into the dramas. Tatort, nominally a crime thriller, often reeks of after-school special. Frank Junghänel provides an example (g) in the Frankfurter Rundschau (my translation):

The problem is often the stories…they always have to be relevant. If there's a case from the 'beekeeper milieu', we're guaranteed to find out that the bees ate some genetically-modified rapeseed. Then the detectives will spontaneously discuss the dangers of adulterated honey, [Detective] Freddy Schenk will wring his hands over his granddaughter's future, and, at the end, the pharmaceutical industry will be outed as the villain, having sponsored experiments with rapeseed…

These after-school-special theme episodes are rarely highlights. But Tatort produders want to remain true to their mission to educate the public. "I'm trying to motivate the screenwriters to be more flexible with their narrative structures", says Tönsmann. "The theme should develop from the story, not be imposed beforehand." Screenwriters tend to want to explain too much. "We want to reduce the didactic element." At home, he likes to watch DVD series such as "The Wire." It plays in Baltimore, and shows police mostly at work.

The article goes through an entire laundry list of weaknesses in Tatort scripts: the sensitive would-be literati who write them have no idea about real police work, the situations are often ludicrously exaggerated, the characters make implausibly long and well-organized speeches, didacticism makes things boring and predictable, the same targets get whacked again and again. The problem, in a nutshell, is that the after-school special in the USA was designed for teenagers, while Tatort, broadcast on Sunday night, is watched (mostly) by adults.

Which leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that the people who write for German public TV stations think of their audience as largish children still in need of moral instruction. According to Tatort, adult Germans need to be taught that neo-fascists are bad, asylum seekers/transvestites/nonconformist teenagers are misunderstood and unjustly persecuted, corporations (especially pharmaceutical and agricultural corporations) are evil, sexual abuse destroys lives, yet even pedophiles deserve a second chance, vengeance is always an wrong, Eastern European crime gangs and their rich German customers exploit women, your cheap clothes come from stinking sweatshops, etc.*

As Junghänel's article shows, there are some producers and writers for Tatort who are aware of the after-school special problem. The mention of The Wire is promising: High-end American TV has recently gotten very good indeed at Balzacian realism, and The Wire is among the best shows ever made. It's based on careful observation of reality, and its writers generally let the chips fall where they may: if a scene was logical and right, it got shot, regardless of whether it might have happened to confound or confirm a stereotype.

An example: one character, Kima Greggs, is a detective who — even though she's a a gay black woman — is not shown to be unusually noble, self-sacrificing, or wise. She's out on patrol when a bunch of mostly-white officers are arresting some black men, and one of them turns around and assaults a cop. Big mistake. A cluster of uniforms surrounds the hapless arrestee, beating the living crap out of him. Greggs runs over to the scene. Does she deliver a lecture on racial tolerance or police brutality to the beefy white cops? No, she joins in — because a good cop always protects fellow officers, and that includes making sure anybody who attacks a cop lives to regret it. And of course there's no disciplinary proceeding, because (a) the guy really was resisting arrest, and (b) nobody's going to snitch. This would be the point at which a robot programmed with politically-correct Tatort episodes would begin shrieking "does not compute" and finally explode in a shower of sparks. Good riddance.

* Now, just to clear the air: I agree with most of these messages. We should be nice to other people! Kids should steer clear of drugs and alcohol! Neo-nazis are bad! Etc. etc. My issue is with crappy dramas caused by political stances, not political stances as such.