28 November 2005

German foreign minister heads Stateside

Less than a week after being sworn into office, the new German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD), has headed off on his first official trip - to the United States. Whilst there, he will first meet with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in New York, before travelling to Washington to meet with US Secretary of State.

The fact that the new Foreign Minister's first trip abroad is taking him the States is supposed to be symbolic of a new direction in German foreign policy vis-a-vis the USA and in particular the Bush administration. Schröder and Bush, as is well known, cared little for each other, and their opposing stances over the Iraq war in particular, as well as Schröder's very close relationship with Jacques Chirac's France, brought with them a distinct deterioration in relations between Washington and Berlin. One of Merkel's stated foreign policy aims is to set a new tone in the Transatlantic relationship, bringing about more constructive dialogue and closer cooperation, though what specific form this new relationship is to take has thus far been left largely unsaid. Certainly, there would not appear to be any chance that the new grand coalition government will revise Germany's stance on Iraq, which was, after all, the major sticking point with Washington. All in all, it would seem that a real "sea-change" in the US-German relationship remains unlikely. Any adjustments are far more likely to be a matter of style and tone, as these comments from Steinmeier in a recent interview would suggest:

In a separate interview with the Bild am Sonntag newspaper, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he saw no need for a "fresh start" in transatlantic ties despite the lingering tension over German opposition to the US-led Iraq war.

"We are standing by our position (on Iraq) for good reasons," he said, noting that Merkel's new left-right coalition government had also ruled out sending German troops to the war-ravaged country. But the Social Democrat emphasized that Berlin and Washington had "the same interests and goals on the vast majority of issues."

"We support Washington in all its efforts so that peace in the Middle East has a chance," he said. "And we want to make some real progress together on climate protection. The disastrous hurricanes in the south of the United States have also made the American public stop and think."

[Source: Deutsche Welle]
In other words, look for more talk about co-operation, more focus on points of similarity and understanding, but don't expect German troops in Iraq at any time soon, and don't expect Germany to change its stance on indefinite detention without charge of terror suspects or climate change.

The German press today are focussing on the issue of alleged secret CIA flights, involving so-called "special renditions", landing at US air bases in Germany. Steinmeier has stated that he is concerned about these allegations but would not be drawn on whether or not he intends to raise them with Condoleezza Rice. He is, however, under pressure from concerned players on both the left and the right of the spectrum to do so. The feeling amongst journalists and analysts seems to be that this controversial issue is likely to overshadow the positive, symbolic aspect of Steinmeier's US visit, even though that was never the original intention.

Meanwhile, there is also some speculation that Steinmeier and Merkel, who are from different parties, are heading inexorably towards a battle for control over foreign policy issues. The concern centres around the fact that Merkel's announcements about changes in foreign policy direction and tone may prove to be at odds with Steinmeier's own position, which is one of broad support for, and pride in, Schröder's refusal to join the "Coalition of the Willing." At the time, Steinmeier was one of Schröder's closest allies and confidantes, in the role of head of the Federal Chancellery, so he was involved in the policy-making. (This role has been turned into a Ministerial portfolio under the new government, though it was not when Steinmeier filled the post.) Spiegel Online has the best summary and analysis that I've found in English thus far of this potential battle of wills within the new Cabinet. Only time will tell, but it could make for an interesting and possibly turbulent time in German foreign policy over the next few years.

My personal feeling is that it may not, or at least not yet. Merkel's policy direction announcements are, as I've said, more matters of tone and style than concrete policy changes. If Steinmeier is as clever a politician as his supporters maintain, then I see no real reason why he cannot adjust to the new tone and style that Merkel seeks to dictate, while holding on to the anti-Iraq war stance of which he and his party were so proud, and which remain very popular with the German population at large. But I've been wrong before, of course.

27 November 2005

*Pats self on back*

Forgive me, but I have to put humility aside and congratulate myself briefly. You may recall that in this post about the developments in German politics, I noted that Schröder's resignation from the Bundestag would not require a by-election and that I thought that meant he would be replaced by one Clemens Bollen. Well, it turns out I was right and you read it here first before any of the news media outets I read reported it. Yay me! I know it's not hard to look up a list and work out who comes next on it, but this is the first time I've ever written anything even resembling a scoop, so indulge me here.

BERLIN - Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder resigned Wednesday from the new German parliament, one day after handing over office in Berlin to his successor Angela Merkel.

A spokeswoman said he signed the resignation, to take "immediate effect", in the office of the speaker of parliament, Norbert Lammert.

Schroeder, 61, had said earlier this month he would reopen his law practice in Berlin, but he surprised supporters Monday when he said he would end parliamentary life immediately. He has told Merkel he will let her get on with her job without sniping at her.

No by-election is required, as Schroeder was elected as part of a Social Democratic slate. Everyoneelse on the list moves up one, bringing a new Social Democrat, Clemens Bollen, 57, into the Bundestag.

In fact, since that Expatica article was written, it has been revealed that in addition to pratising law, Schröder has also been signed up by a Swiss publishing house as an international media and political consultant. The idea is that Schröder will accompany the publisher on trips abroad, advise him on the finer points of international politics and foreign affairs, and principally act as a sort of "door-opener." Smart move on the part of the publisher, I'd have thought.

/back pat.

A new line in Spam

We have all received literally thousands of those spam emails which are variations of the Nigerian 419 scam, right? You know the ones:
Dear Friend,
By grace of God all good wish to you and your family. I am dying of oesophageal cancer. Luckily I have access to 400 billion dollars, which I want, so God will, put in your bank account....

Well, today, as most days, I received several of those in my junk email inbox. But one of them was a bit different. This one was from someone I've actually heard of. It was, ostensibly, from none other than Suha Arafat, the wife of the late Yasser Arafat. Nice one. But there were other differences from the normal spam/scam emails too. For one thing, this one was written in accurate English, with none of the usual grammatical or spelling errors, and thus breaking all the conventions of email scamming. And for another, this email provided evidence backing up the legitimacy of the offer by means of two external links to articles discussing Arafat's missing millions (which could be in your bank account if you have the good sense to respond to Suha, damnit!) Of course, one of the two links was broken, but still.

Anyhow, here, for your viewing pleasure is Suha Arafat's heart-rending plea for assistance (with the odd editorial comment in italics).

Dear friend,
[I am not your friend, and I have a name. It is BerlinBear.]

I seek your permission to introduce myself to you.
[Permission denied.]
I am Mrs Suha Arafat,wife of Yasser Arafat the late
Palestinian ruler.
[You did it anyway. You're not listening, are you?]

Before the death of my husband,I had to close my swiss bank accounts and relocated the funds.
[Suha, dear, my heart just bleeds. I know how you feel. Before the death of my guinea pig, I had to close my "Kashin" children's savings account at the ASB. It was a traumatic time. I fell your pain.]

I proceeded to deposit the money as valuables in different private Vaulting companies for safe keeping.
[Ah, cunning. I should have done that. Instead, I just cut open the little plastic "Kashin" elephant piggybank and spent the money on sweets. I've regretted it ever since.]

This I did when the French Prosecutors started an inquiry into transfers I made into banks accounts I have in France.
[Those dastardly French eh?]

Please if you can assist in claiming this fund and investing it in your country,contact me as quickly as possible along with your full name,contact address and telephone number in order to give you the contact Information of the Vaulting company in Europe.
[Certainly, would you like my email account passwords, and my online banking pin as well?]

At the successful collection of the fund,you shall be compensated with 30% of the amount collected,5% shall be set aside to pay for the expenses incurred in the process of the collection and the balance 65% shall be retained for the investment.
[Suha, dear, you've blown it! You completely forgot to mention how many squillions of dollars my 30% share will represent. Up until then, I was interested. But what if it turns out to be less than what was in my "Kashin" elephant piggy bank? What do you take me for, some sort of fool? It sounds like you need to attend the 3rd Annual Nigerian Email Conference to improve your technique.]

I count on your absolute confidentiality while looking forward to your prompt reply.
[In fact, you cannot count on my absolute confidentiality. I may even put this on my blog, which is read by at least 5 people. Sorry love.]

See this website for more information:

[Nice. As "evidence" you link to an article which clearly states "it was also unclear whether even Suha Arafat knows where all of his millions lie." Clever.]
[Broken link, oldest trick in the book]


Suha Arafat.
Needless to say, Suha Arafat will not be receiving my "prompt reply." But I was amused.

26 November 2005

Just quickly

Shortly I'll be heading to the Irish Pub here in Trier to catch the All Blacks versus Scotland game. Since New Zealand are 250-1 favourites (I'm not kidding) to win this game, you can expect a Good News Saturday post to follow this evening, celebrating the All Blacks winning a Grand Slam against all four of the home nations for only the second time in 100 years. But, it hasn't happened yet, so let's not get ahead of ourselves.

For now, I just thought I'd bang out a quick post to share a couple of really odd news items that have come to my attention in the past few days.

First up, from the Netherlands, is the story of the sparrow who spoilt a world record domino attempt, by flying into the convention hall where the attempt was being made and accidentally knocking down 23,000 of the dominoes. And so what did the famously laid back and tolerant Dutch do? Did they laugh an ironic laugh and think to themselves, "Well, realistically, knocking down thousands of dominoes for a world record is utterly pointless anyway, so who cares?" No, they did not. Instead, someone whipped out a rifle and shot the poor sparrow. The brute! Was that really necessary? The rifle-toting domino-loser may yet get his comeuppance though: the Dutch animal protection agency is apparently investigating the incident because, wait for it, in the Netherlands, the common house sparrow is not common at all and is in fact an endangered species. The sparrow as an endangered species? Huh?! What part of that story is not totally and utterly strange? You can read the full story in the Guardian here.

And secondly, though this story is more disgusting and a bit sad than really weird, is the story of an elderly, drunk German man who got more than he bargained for after wetting his bed:

German man's bad bed day
Nov 23, 2005

A German man drank too much, wet his bed and set fire to his apartment trying to dry his bedding, police in the western town of Muelheim said.

"He was too drunk to go to the toilet," said a police spokesman. "The next morning he put a switched-on hairdryer on the bed to dry it and left the apartment." When the 60-year-old returned, his home and belongings were in flames.
I'm sorry, but he put an electric hairdryer on the bed and left his appartment? There is a word for that man, and it is Dumbarse. On two counts. That story came originally from Nzoom, but unfortunately it seems to have disappeared from their archives, as I can't find the direct link. [Hat-tip to Kiwi in Zurich for bringing it to my attention.]

And now, the rugby beckons.

23 November 2005

The Police Dog that Wasn't

Here's one especially for Ms. Bear. Since she's a former owner of a dog that flunked out of Police Dog School, I just know she's going to love the story of Buster, a two year-old German Shepherd who got fired from his job. After six months on the beat, Buster has been relocated as a pet to a family in Sheffield because, frankly, he was pretty rubbish at being a police dog.

Buster the German Shepherd could have had a great career as a British police dog had it not been for one flaw: his complete lack of interest in fighting crime.

The canine cop took early retirement after bosses at South Yorkshire Police noted his poor motivation and a fondness for making friends with rowdy drunkards, his former handler said Monday. ...

"He has a lack of drive and motivation when asked to do operational work," Stephenson told The Associated Press. "He's just a lovely pet."

Two-year-old Buster performed well at the start of his 14-week training program, but his work gradually deteriorated and the problem worsened once he started patrolling the streets, he said.

On one occasion, Buster walked straight past a suspected criminal hiding in the garden of a house late at night and went off to cock his leg.

"I searched the garden myself and found the bloke. The dog had walked past the spot where I found him," Stephenson said. "You would have expected him to use his nose to locate him."

During a separate tracking operation, also in the early hours of the morning, Buster gave up while in mid-chase across a golf course . "He just downed tools," Stephenson said. "He just lay down and there was nothing we could do. He has got a very low drive for finding people."

Nice one. He sounds like a nice dog. I think he must be a lover, not a fighter. Read the rest of Buster's story at ABC News here.

[Hat-tip to Brainstab]

New blogs to read

The eagle-eyed amongst you might have noticed a few new additions to my blogroll in the last couple of days. All of them are English-language blogs relating to Berlin, and they're all worth a read.

First up is Master of the Obvious, who has already received a hat-tip in my previous post. As far as I can tell, she's an American post-grad student living in Berlin.

Next on the list is Metroblogging Berlin, which is a colloborative blog that is part of the Metroblogging community. What I've read so far has been good. The Metroblogging community describes itself thus:
With almost 40 active sites, Metroblogging is the largest and fastest growing network of city-specific blogs on the Web. From San Francisco to Bangkok, from Karachi to Toronto, Metblogs are a hyper-local look at what's going on in the city. Our hand-picked core of regional bloggers give each site a new perspective on daily life; less calendar listings, more friendly advice. With Metblogs, you can read about life and times in your neighborhood, your favorite places to visit, places where you've never been, or get a feel for them all with the daily "best of" blog on the hub at metroblogging.com
And last, but certainly not least, welcome to the blogosphere to P. and Gunther over at Berlin Review. They've not been at it for long, so far, but what they've produced so far has been top notch, with excellent Berlin-specific posts as well as broader analysis of German politics etc. from (at least one, not sure about Gunther yet) ex-pat British perspective. Top stuff.

All those sites are worth your time and your bandwidth, so click on through and have a look around.

More cool blogmap stuff

This is cool. I'm surprised I didn't come across it earlier, actually. It's really only of interest to Berlin bloggers, or to readers interested in finding Berlin-based blogs, but if you fit into either of those categories, then this site is definitely for you.

It's called berlin.blogplan and it uses the Berlin S-Bahn and U-Bahn network map to locate blogs based in Berlin. By clicking on a given station, you can see a list of the blogs based near there, and follow links straight to them. Excellent stuff. I wish I'd known about it earlier. [Hat-tip: Master of the Obvious]

22 November 2005

More on Merkel

So, there we have it. Germany has a government. And it "only" took two months and 4 days! As I wrote earlier in the day, Germany's new Chancellor, Angela Merkel and her cabinet have now all been sworn into office.

The right-left "Grand Coalition", consisting of the CDU/CSU and SPD has a total of 448 seats in the German parliament, or Bundestag. Assuming that all the MPs from the opposition parties (FDP, Left Party, Greens) voted against her, this means that 51 coalition Members of Parliament did not give Merkel their seal of approval today. The ballot was a secret one, so noone knows for sure who voted against Merkel from the coalition camp, but the speculation is that there will have been a handful of CDU/CSU MPs and rather more SPD MPs who couldn't bring themselves to support her. That was always expected, however, especially given that for decades the SPD and CDU/CSU have been pitted against each other and are only now having to get used to co-operating for the first time since the 1960s (the last time there was a Grand Coalition government in Germany).

Merkel herself claims she had no concrete expectation of the numbers she might get in today's vote, but was pleasantly surprised by the strength of her majority. A few of her government colleagues have suggested that they'd have liked to see her hit the 400 mark. But realistically, all of that is neither here nor there. By next week, everyone will have forgotten what Merkel's margin of victory was. Instead, they'll be watching and waiting to see what her government can do to right the listing German ship.

The powers that be wasted no time in updating the German Chancellor's website to reflect todays' changes. Typing in the traditional address for the German Chancellor's office, www.bundeskanzeleramt.de, now sees you redirected straight to this website, [German link, I'm afraid] where Angie in presented in all her glory. You can even check out what's in her diary. If you were to do that, you'd find that she's not mucking around and is in fact off on her first foreign trip as Bundeskanzlerin tomorrow, to Paris and Brussels. (I wonder if it's too much to hope that she'll have a stern word in Jacques' ear to the effect that France's insistance on clinging to ridiculous and damaging farming subsidies is holding up the whole works when it comes to the EU budget? I expect so, what with it being her first day on the job and all.)

The fact that Merkel has taken office naturally means that the previous German Chancellor is on his bike. Schröder was the first to congratulate Merkel on her victory today, and handed over the keys to the Chancellor's office and residence this afternoon, having already cleared his things out yesterday. Schröder, for his part, has announced that he will be renouncing his mandate as an MP tomorrow, in favour of returning to practising law and taking time out to write his memoirs. (I imagine there's also a fairly lucrative after-dinner speech market in the offing too). Noone seems to care enough who will be taking his place in parliament to bother reporting it, so I had to do my own research on that. Schröder was a list candidate from Niedersachsen, meaning that no by-election is required to replace him.

His seat simply goes to the next person on the SPD's Niedersachsen party list. As far as I can tell from this website, that would appear to be one Clemens Bollen, who was number 11 on the SPD Niedersachsen Party List. Never heard of him. Nor, it would seem, has anyone from any of Germany's big daily papers, so I don't feel too bad.

Unsurprisingly enough, all of the major media outlets I've checked are carrying this story today. The BBC's coverage is pretty superficial, which is par for the course when it comes to German storie
s covered by British outlets, I'm afraid. Deutsche Welle does it better, here. But the best analysis in English I've found so far is at Der Spiegel's English website, here, which covers not just today's vote, but also some of the challenges facing Merkel and her new government. If you're only going to click on one of those links, follow that one.

And finally, for the Americans amongst you, who must be wondering who Germany's new "First Lady" is now that there is a female Chancellor in office, try this link. You won't find out very much about Professor Joachim Sauer, Merkel's husband, because he has been extremely assiduous about keeping out of the limelight. He is a quantum chemist at the Humboldt University in Berlin. He has already been dubbed "The Phantom of the Opera" by sections of the press, because one of the very few occasions he has been seen in public at Merkel's side was at this year's Bayreuth Opera Festival. But that's about it. Basically, the chances of him playing a Laura Bush role, or even a Dennis Thatcher role are virtually nil. Can't say I blame him.

An historic day for Germany

At last, it's official. As of about half an hour ago, Germany finally has a new Chancellor. And for the first time in the country's history, it's a woman.

Angela Merkel, leader of the centre-right CDU (Christian Democratic Union) was voted in as Bundeskanzlerin (Federal Chancellor) in the first round of voting in the German Bundestag this morning. She needed 308 votes to be elected. In the end she received a healthy majority of 398. She will be officially appointed by the President, Horst Köhler this afternoon, and the members of her right-left "Grand Coalition" cabinet will be sworn in. More analysis on this from me this evening, but for now, congratulations Frau Merkel, and well done Germany for finally getting around to having a woman in the top job.

[Correction: Angela Merkel in fact received 397 votes. That was typo, rather than a change in the offical count. My bad!]

13 November 2005

British man recovers from HIV

Here's an amazing story from the BBC website: apparently a British man who tested positive for HIV subsequently tested negative some 14 months later, and there was not an error in his first test result. In other words, for reasons unknown, this guy has recovered from HIV with no treatment or medication. What are the chances?

Doctors say they want to investigate the case of a British man with HIV who apparently became clear of the virus.

Scotsman Andrew Stimpson, 25 was diagnosed HIV-positive in 2002 but was found to be negative in October 2003. Mr Stimpson, from London, said he was "one of the luckiest people alive".

Chelsea and Westminster Healthcare NHS Trust confirmed the tests were accurate but were unable to confirm Mr Stimpson's cure because he had declined to undergo further tests.

Read the rest of this article here.

There's one thing I don't get. In the article, Mr. Stimpson is quoted as saying that he would do anything he could to help find a cure. And yet he is refusing to undergo any further testing so that doctors can find out how his recovery came about. Surely, if he were going to do anything at all to help find a cure, submitting to further testing would be the thing, no? It all seems a bit odd to me. I shall be watching further developments with interest.

Magic hands

Now this is cool. Check out the video on this website. It's called the 'Thousand hand Bodhisattva dance' and it is quite astonishing. Enjoy.

[Hat-tip to HB]

Germany finally has a government - almost

As of Friday evening, Germany finally has a government again - almost. What it actually has is a 130-page coalition agreement between the centre-right CDU/CSU parties and the centre-left SPD. This agreement still requires approval from full party congresses of all three parties, which are due to take place tomorrow, Monday. Not before time either. The process of hammering out a coalition deal has taken almost two full months since the general election back on 18th September.

The New York Times [registration required, but you can borrow one here] and Deutsche Welle both have good summaries of the new coalition agreement and the delicate talks and political machinations leading up to the announcement last Friday.

If the three party congresses sign off on the coalition agreement tomorrow, the stage is set for Angela Merkel to be voted in as Chancellor by the German parliament, the Bundestag, on 22nd November. The SPD has given assurances that, despite earlier suggestions to the contrary, its MPs will back Merkel as Chancellor. Accordingly, it now looks very likely that she will finally become Germany's first woman Chancellor
and the first Chancellor from the former East.

Even before it has been finally approved by the parties involved, the coalition agreement is coming under widespread criticism. Naturally, the opposition parties (the FDP, the Greens and the Left Party) have lambasted the new government's plans, but that is to be expected. More worrying for the incoming grand coalition is the fact that business leaders, economists, trade unions and large sectors of the press have all given the coalition agreement a frosty reception, each for differing reasons.

To be frank, I think the frosty reception is perfectly justified. While there are a few measures in the coalition agreement that I find positive, such as increased investment in research and education, the decision not to change the closure timetable for Germany's remaining nuclear plants (yet), and the removal of a number of tax loopholes, there are quite a number of areas in which the grand coalitions plans quite simply leave me shaking my head in wonder and exasperation.

Like, for example, the decision to increase the retirement age from 65 to 67, but so gradually that no one will actually be retiring at 67 until at least 2012. Why so slow? If the measure is necessary, let's get on with. Or the decision to tinker with the rules on probationary employment periods and job protection, without making it significantly easier for employers to hire and fire workers, which is one of the measures which I believe is required to speed up job creation.

Another example of a missed opportunity is the minimal increase in working hours for civil servants and state employees (a very broad category in Germany, encompassing teachers, academics, police etc. etc.) from 40 hours per week to 41. If you're going to make changes to employment conditions for these state employees, known as Beamte, why not start by making it possible to fire those who do not perform, so that the dead wood can be removed from the system and so that there is at least some motivation for them to achieve high standards? Or, gee, why not be really daring and actually ask them to contribute to their pensions, like other mere mortals have to?

In another area, while I don't have anything against the proposed "rich tax" on incomes over €250,000 per annum for singles or €500,000 per annum for couples per se, my concern is simply that it will encourage a number of the highest earners (and therefore largest contributors to taxation income) to take their money offshore. If that happens, the new tax could well end up being an own goal for the coalition government and could even lead to reduced tax takes.

As for the signalled 3% increase of Mehrwertsteuer (VAT/GST) from 2007, is that not going to prove counterproductive? Isn't it likely to cause people to tighten their belts still further and reduce spending at a time when what the government really requires is household spending to increase to get the economy moving again? I'm no economist, but I'd have thought so. It will certainly effect my spending decisions.

And finally, if you have a minimum €35 billion gap in your finances that you need to fill, is the best first step really to announce up to €25 billion of fresh spending initiatives? Somehow, I doubt it.

All in all, then, I'm not especially impressed with what I've seen of the grand coalition's plans for its time in government. One comfort, I suppose, is that there's every chance that the coalition won't last the full four year term and that Germans will be back at the ballot boxes long before 2009. Time will tell.

11 November 2005

Request for blogger advice

I wonder if a friendly blogspot.com blogger can help me out. I've noticed that on many, even most, blogspot blogs, the blog title at the top of each page is a link back to the main page. What I don't know is how that is done.

First, I tried turning the Blog title into a link on the settings page. That worked for making it a link, but it messed up the title in the browser's title bar when I viewed my blog, so I ditched it again.

Then I tried inserting a link into the <$BlogTitle$> tags in my template. That didn't seem to make any difference whatsoever. Can someone tell me what I am doing wrong? It must be easy to do, since so many blogs have their titles as links to the main page, but I can't for the life of me work out what I need to tweak.

Any assistance greatly appreciated.

Weird and random facts - Part Two

OK, here is the rest of that meme I started on Wednesday.

Just as a reminder, this is the meme:

Rules of the game: Post 5 Weird and Random Facts about yourself, then at the end list the names of 5 people who are next in line to do this.

2. I am something of an 'accent chameleon'. By that I mean that, without intending to or making any effort, I pick up characteristics of the accent of wherever I am living very quickly. This has advantages and disadvantages. On the down side, for example, having lived in the UK for five years before I moved to Germany, my English (language) accent now has a noticably British aspect to it. It's not completely British, by any means. But it's no longer strictly a New Zealand accent either, such that when I'm in the UK, people can tell I'm not British but find it very difficult to place me, and when I'm in New Zealand people ask me where I'm from and then either look astonished or flat-out refuse to believe me when I say "Auckland." In other words, when it comes to speaking English, I am now lingusitically homeless. On the plus side, though, I can almost always pass myself off as a German when necessary, until people ask my name, which is decidedly un-German.

3. Kylie Minogue once made me a cup of tea. It was delicious, and she was much nicer and more down-to-earth than I expected.

4. When I was a little kid, maybe five or six, a friend's mother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. In response, I anounced that I wasn't sure yet, but I knew what I wasn't going to be: a drunk driver. I have stuck to that to this day.

5. The most inspiring and moving person I have ever heard speak is Toni Morisson. In 2003, thanks to a good friend who hooked me and Ms. Bear up with tickets, I had the pleasure of attending a reading and lecture by Ms. Morisson at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. She read from
Love spoke about the book and the writing process and answered questions from the floor. She electrified the room. And, what a spectacularly mellifluous voice. I was stunned.

There, it is done. I don't have five people to pick on with this meme, so anyone who wants to pick it up and run with it is more than welcome. I would, though, be very interested to read Themarina's responses, if she is up for it.

I've been wondering

There's something I've been wondering about for a few days now, so I thought I'd just throw it out there. You know the (relatively) new comment-spam prevention measure in use on many blogger.com blogs, whereby the commenter has to type in a validation code consisting of five or six random letters? And you know how the presentation of the code is kind of warped and skewed, so that it is not machine-readable?

Well, it occurred to me that that those codes might be pretty difficult for people with dyslexia, mightn't they? I don't really know very much about dyslexia, but as I understand it, it is often charaterised by difficulties with reading and writing (especially spelling) that are disproportionate to the sufferer's level of intelligence. So, if dyslexic people have difficulty decyphering and writing real words, could it not be expected that they'd have particular trouble with random strings of letters that don't have any meaning? And if so, mightn't that make it almost impossible, or at least an extremely frustrating process of trial and error, for dyslexic people to leave comments on blogs with that random letter code "feature" enabled? I don't know, I'm just wondering aloud, based on the fact that despite not being dyslexic, I have on several occasions managed to type in the wrong code and had to try again in order to post a comment on such blogs.

This Wikipedia article on dyslexia
suggests that between 5 and 15% of the population can be diagnosed as having dyslexia. That's quite a high percentage. Assuming that dyslexic people are similarly represented in cyberspace as in the real world, and assuming that this code nonsense really is troublesome for them, that's quite a lot of people who are going to struggle to leave comments, right?

Does anyone reading this have any experience with this potential problem? Is there anyone who is dyslexic who can either confirm or deny my suspicions? I'd be very interested to know.

09 November 2005

Weird and Random Facts - Part One

Over a week ago, I put my cyber-hand up to take on a meme over at my fellow Kiwi expat Badaunt's blog. Ever since, I've been stalling on it, because it turns out it's much harder than I bargained on and several other posts and life in meatspace have got in the way.

The idea is to list five weird and random facts about yourself and then pass the meme on to five people. It's late though, and I'm knackered and have an early start in the morning. However, I'm determined to make a start, in the (possibly vain) hope that once it's up and running, the rest will come easily. So tonight I'll give just one weird and random fact about myself, with a view to completing the task tomorrow.

Here's the (beginning of the) meme:

Rules of the game: Post 5 Weird and Random Facts about yourself, then at the end list the names of 5 people who are next in line to do this.

1. I may regret admitting to this, but it certainly qualifies as weird and random: I have hairs which grow on one shoulder and not the other.

Let me explain. I'm a reasonably hariy guy. Not desperately so. Not needs-to-shave-three-times-a-day type hairy, or could-be-mistaken-for-a-bear hairy, but put it this way, I've don't have any trouble growing a full beard if and when desired. The hair on my (left) shoulder is not thick. In fact it's pretty sparse. It's really just a few random stragglers. At most about 10 - 15, right on the top of my shoulder. But there are none whatsoever in the same place on my right shoulder.

I think I know why. I used to play Australian Rules football. It's a rough and physical game and shoulder injuries are pretty common. I was not spared, and dislocated my (right) shoulder whilst playing on several occasions. As a result, I took to strapping up my shoulder pretty heavily before games. As any reasonably hairy man who's ever had to strap anything will tell you, it pays to shave the parts you're strapping beforehand. If you don't, when you take the tape off after the game it tears the hair underneath out by the roots. And that is not the most comfortable feeling in the world (as any woman who has taken to waxing can attest).

The point is, when I used to strap my shoulder, I kept the hair under my right arm and at the top right of my chest shaved for exactly that reason. By I never once shaved the hair on top of my right shoulder. My theory is this: there used to be a similar number of straggler hairs on top of my right shoulder, just like on the left one. But the poor little blighters, without the protection of prophylactic shaving, got torn out by the roots so often as I was ripping off the strapping after a game that they eventually gave up trying and never returned. I've not strapped my shoulder for some years now (at least six) and there is still no sign of them. Evidently, they got the message and they got it good.

I am considering taking up strapping my left shoulder. Just to balance things out.

The rest tomorrow, all being well.

06 November 2005

NZ Greens Co-Leader Passes Away

Desperately sad news from New Zealand this weekend: the co-leader of the New Zealand Green Party, Rod Donald, died suddenly last night, aged just 48. Though he had been ill with a chest infection, it would seem that his death was caused by a heart attack. He is survived by his partner and three daughters.

I was shocked and deeply saddened to read news of this earlier today. 48 is too young for anyone to die. It is an especially tragic loss for his family, of course, but also for the Green Party and for New Zealand politics in general. Parliament will be a poorer place without his energy, hard work and integrity. It is a clear indication of how well respected Mr. Donald was that the comments and condolences on Frogblog (the Green Party blog) come not just from Greens supporters but from right across the political spectrum. As a politician and as a person he was clearly held in the highest esteem by a great many New Zealanders.

The Green Party's press release is here.
The relevant post from the Green Part blog, Frogblog, is here.
The Prime Minister's reaction is here.

What a crying shame. So young, and with so much left to give.

Blogflux Scramble

A handy new tool for bloggers has just come to my attention, and it seems pretty good, so I thought I'd publicise it. It's called Blogflux Scramble, and it makes it extra simple to scramble your email address on your blog or website, so that it can't be harvested by those dastardly spambots.

It's dead simple. Just click on this link, enter your email address and push the "Scramble email link button". In no time at all, it will have generated code for you to insert into your template, and hey presto, you have a bot-proof email link.

I've tried it out on the email link at the bottom of the page, and it certainly works in terms of generating an accurate email address. Since I've only just installed it, I can't yet vouch for its spamproofiness, of course.

Blogflux has a whole bunch of other cool functions too, including a blog directory, button generator, pagerank checker etc., all of which you can access from the page I've linked to above. (I also have links in the sidebar on the right). If you're a blogger, it's certainly worth a look.

05 November 2005

Good news Saturday

This week's instalment of Good News Saturday comes from the Berlin Zoo, where the male panda Bao Bao (which means "Sweetheart" or "Little Treasure") celebrated the 25th anniversary of his arrival.

Bao Bao received a cake to mark the occasion, though judging by the photo, he was more interested in his bamboo shoots instead. Bao Bao came to Berlin in 1980 along with the female panda Tjen Tjen, as a gift from then German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. He has been in good health ever since. Herr Störmer, who has been Bao Bao's keeper for some 24 years, describes him as "a reliable buddy."

Bao Bao is considered something of a ladies' man. In 1991, he was shipped to London in the hope that he would mate with Ming Ming. He proved so keen, and threw himself on his new partner with such relish that keepers had to separate the two with the assistance of a fire extinguisher to quell Bao Bao's inferno of lust.

Well done Bao Bao, and congratulations on your quarter century as a "Berliner".

[Source: Der Tagesspiegel: Bilder der Woche]

The BoBs

German news and radio service, Deutsche Welle, whose English-language service I quote from and link to fairly regularly on this blog, is running a blog awards series. They've called these awards The BoBs - the Best of the Blogs. It's not just about German blogs either, or even principally about German blogs. The BoBs website says:
Finalists in nine languages are competing for honors as Best Weblog, Best Multimedia Blog, Best Podcasting Site, a special award from Reporters Without Borders and Best Journalistic Blog in each of the contest's languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Persian, Portuguese, Russian und Spanish).

Readers can vote for the blog or blogs they consider to be the best out of the field of finalists in each category. The various finalists are an interesting and diverse looking bunch. So, if this is your kind of thing, head across to the BoBs homepage to read more. You might just find something new that tickles your fancy.

03 November 2005

Bears in Central Europe

Earlier this year, I blogged excitedly about the news that a brown bear had been spotted in the wild in Switzerland for the first time in over a hundred years. (It was on my old blog and I'm afraid I can't be bothered trawling through the archives to link back to it).

Well, it turns out that there have been bear resettlement projects going on in Italy, Austria and France for some years now, with varying degrees of success. This was news to me, but I find it both fascinating and exciting.

This week, Der Spiegel's English website has an excellent article about the bear resettlement programmes and the tensions between bears and humans in central Europe, entitled The Great Bear Comeback. It's long, but it's both well written and well translated, and I recommend it as an interesting and informative read.

Check out The Great Bear Comeback at Spiegelonline.

Understatement of the week

Right, well now that I know that this blog-by-email function works just nicely, I can go right ahead and write a real blog post. I find myself reduced to this because for some reason blogger.com is playing silly buggers today and won't let me into my dashboard to compose a post. So email it is.

The prize for Understatement of the Week has to go to French President Jacques Chirac. In the face of seven consecutive nights of rioting in the Paris banlieu, in which at least 177 cars have been set alight, numerous shops and other buildings looted and/or ransacked and/or set on fire, and shots have been fired at police and firefighters, Monsieur Chirac warned yesterday of a "dangerous situation" in the Paris suburbs. Gee! Do you think? Well spotted, M. le President.

And, not to be outdone, French interior minister (who is likely to stand for President in 2007), Nicolas Sarkozy, has put in a pretty good bid for the "Dubious Approach to Solving a Problem" award. His tactics for stopping the rioting include, amongst other things, labelling the rioters as "scum." An odd tactic, I think, and not one that would seem to me to be very likely to make the rioters reassess their actions.

Not that I'm in favour of rioting, or supporting the rioters in this instance. But something tells me there might be an underlying problem here, of which the riots are merely the latest symptom. I'd have thought that a more promising solution might be a recognition that all is most definitely not well in the banlieu and an undertaking to address the fundamental issues in dialogue with the residents, just as soon as they'll stop burning cars and shooting at police thank you very much. I just can't see how alienating the disaffected youths who are causing the trouble even further with such terms of abuse, as M. Sarkozy seems determined to do, is going to help. I think I prefer Dominique de Villepin, the Prime Minister's rather more diplomatic and concilliatory approach.


I'm just testing Blogger's blog by email function. Apologies for the
false alarm.

01 November 2005

SPD all over the place

In the last 24 hours, big things have happened in German politics. There have been developments which, it would seem, noone had predicted. As a result, everything but everything is up in the air again.

The background is this: after the general election in September, neither of the major parties (meaning the Social Democrats -
SPD - and the Christian Democrats - CDU and CSU) had enough support to form a government either alone or in coalition with a smaller party. After weeks of wrangling, it emerged that the only workable solution was a so-called Grand Coalition between the CDU/CSU (they are two parties, but form one faction, since the CSU exists only in Bavaria, and the CDU does not contest Bavaria) and the SPD. This coalition was agreed in principle by the three parties (two factions) involved. It was decided that Angela Merkel (CDU) would be the new Chancellor, that the leader of the SPD, Franz Müntefering, would be Deputy Chancellor and that the leader of the CSU, Edmund Stoiber would be Economics Minister, with a little bit of research and space travel thrown into his portfolio to keep him interested. So far, so good.

Then, the three parties sat down together to hammer out the details of their coalition agreement. This, they said two weeks ago when they began the talks, would take four weeks. By mid-November, they said, Germany would know once and for all who was leading them, how, and what they had planned. Coalition talks have been proceeding apace since then. But now, the SPD has really thrown the cat amongst the pigeons with an internal leadership battle which is threatening to tear the whole party apart and scupper a possible coalition agreement.

It's complicated, very complicated. Perhaps the best way is to explain it with a schoolyard analogy which everyone will be able to relate to.

You have to imagine that it's the lunchbreak at school. A football game is about to start, just as it does every lunchtime. As happens sometimes at schools which have only one playing field, this game is to include large sides, with people from different years and levels on both sides. Naturally, it's the older boys and girls who have the upper hand, even if some of the youngsters are in fact better footballers.

And just as happens every lunchtime, the two designated captains are picking out who they want to be on their team and what positions they want them to play in. Angela Merkel is captaining the blue team for the first time, though Edmund Stoiber doesn't really accept this and secretly reckons that she and he are co-captains. And since Gerhard Schröder, former captain of the red team, has decided he doesn't want to play anymore, Franz Müntefering has elevated himself from vice-captain to captain of the red team.

After initial wrangling over who gets to pick first, things go along swimmingly for the first few picks. The teams are starting to take shape. But then, a youngster, Andrea Nahles (who in our analogy is the equivalent of say a year seven girl) decides that she is fed up with sitting on the bench and announces that she wants to play in an important position - centre half. She announces this loudly to all and sundry, after the captain of the red team, Franz Müntefering, has already said that he wants his friend from year nine, Kajo Wasserhövel, to play in that position. The thing is, you see, Nahles used to be captain of the junior red team, and people - especially Müntefering - remember very clearly that she is very left-footed. But Müntefering, bearing in mind that it's the blue team they're up against, is looking for people who can play with both feet, even favouring the right foot where necessary. Besides, he thinks that Nahles is a little upstart and is annoyed that she's challenging his authority as captain. Who does she think she is, this little left-footed year seven!?

Since neither Wasserhövel/Müntefering, nor Nahles will back down, the senior players on the team decide to have a vote on who they think should play centre half. The result surprises everyone: a large majority fancies giving the left-footed Nahles a turn.

The captain of the red team, Müntefering, is hopping mad. He told the senior players whom he wanted at centre-half, and he reckons they picked someone else just to spite him. It's a direct challenge to his authority and he doesn't like it one bit. In a fit of rage, he picks up his ball and announces "This is my ball, and I'm not playing with her on the team. I'm taking my ball and I'm going home."

Naturally, the red team, who thought that this lunchtime they had a pretty good chance against the blue team, are pretty shocked and up in arms. This is not what was supposed to happen! A great deal of discussion and disagreement breaks out amongst the red ranks. Some think that Nahles was right to want to have a go. Some think that Nahles is a cheeky little upstart who has unleashed a disaster she could never have fathomed. Some think that Müntefering is right to take his ball and go home. Some think that Müntefering is being a spoilt brat and should adjust to the new line-up and keep playing. Some don't know what they think yet. But everyone knows that this is a Very Bad Thing, not least because they haven't a clue who would make a good red team captain if Müntefering really does go home. And they don't know where to get another ball from either.

Meanwhile, all is not well on the blue team either. After watching all this unfold with mouths agape in surprise, the players on the blue team initially rubbed their hands with glee, thinking they could definitely capitalise on this situation. If the red team doesn't know who's in charge, those on the blue team thought to themselves, then we will definitely have the upper hand in picking the rest of the teams and deciding on the rules. But the blue team had forgotten about Edmund Stoiber.

You see, Eddie is in his final year. He's been around a long time. He's an important player. Noone really likes him, but they recognise that he's a key player. Usually though, he plays cricket at lunchtime, at the other end of the playground. This lunchtime, Angela Merkel and the other senior players on the blue team had talked him into playing football with them, because they needed him to mark Müntefering. Stoiber, after much umming and ahhing, had finally agreed. But now he starts thinking to himself, "Well, if Franz Müntefering isn't playing, then I don't think I want to play either. Football without getting to mark Franz will suck!"

Eddie Stoiber mumbles this to a few people who are standing around wondering what happens next. Pretty soon, the rumour that Eddie is going back to the other end of the playground to play cricket gains currency. And soon enough it's being talked about as if it's a certainty. No matter how much they might think they need him, the blue team are not going to have the services of Eddie Stoiber this lunchtime. Cricket, after all, is way better.

And while Eddie Stoiber makes up his mind, over on the red team Andrea Nahles is having second thoughts. Maybe, she thinks, the bench wasn't so bad after all. And the other players are thinking to themselves, maybe if we can convince Nahles to wait a few lunchtimes before asking to play in such an important position, Franz Müntefering will come back and play after all. Noone's really sure, but they're fervently hoping that's what might happen.

Needless to say, all this mess on both teams leaves Angela Merkel, captain of the blue team, who thought she'd won the toss and would get to kick off, in a very difficult position. It is no longer clear who is going to be captain of the red team, or who is going to play in which positions on that side. And now she's losing her centre forward as well. In fact, it's no longer entirely clear that the game is going to take place this lunchtime at all. They may very well have to pick new teams next lunchtime, because the bell is about to go.

[Note: If that was all a bit cryptic for you, this key might help. In the above, the blue team is the CDU/CSU and the red team is the SPD. The position of centre-half is the post of General Secretary of the SPD. Year seven is around 35 years of age. Year nine is mid-forties. Final year is beyond sixty. Captain of the junior red team is the position of leader of the so-called Jusos, or Young Social Democrats. The senior players on the red team are the Central Committee of the SPD. Left-footedness represents belonging to the left-wing faction within the SPD, while right-footedness represents belonging to the right-wing faction of the SPD, the so-called Seeheimer Kreis. The ability to play with both feet represents the centrist faction within the SPD. Cricket at the other end of the playground represents Bavarian state politics, where Edmund Stoiber has until now been State President. Winning the toss and kicking off is getting the keys to the Chancellor's office. Pciking new teams next lunchtime represents a new election.]

To see what actually happened without all the anologies, try these news stories: BBC News (in English, but pretty poor coverage to be honest); Deutsche Welle (also in English, and much better).

And to see what the German press is saying about all this malarkey, try this Deutsche Welle press round-up.

Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction.

[Update: I've found much better coverage in English of this debacle: Spiegel Online English Version]