31 December 2005

The last post

BerlinBear avatarSo, this is The Last Post. For the year, of course, not forever. (It's not that easy to get rid of me!) In New Zealand, it's already 2006. (Happy New Year, Kiwis!) Here, we have another seven-odd hours of 2005 before us.

I shall be welcoming in the new year this evening with friends at a house party. Not for me the tumult and the fireworks and laser-light show and the freezing temperatures in front of the Brandenburg Gate, even if it does look mighty impressive in photos and on television. Tomorrow, if experience is anything to go by, is likely to be a very quiet day.

2005 has been quite a year - a roller-coaster ride, if you will - both for me personally and around the world. There have been personal highs and successes, just as there have been personal lows and failures. Problems have arisen, problems have been solved, problems have been deferred. Disasters have been averted, other disasters have not. But at the end of it all, I'm still here, still healthy, still (largely) happy, still keeping my head above water. A glance back over the news that has hit the world headlines over the course of the past year serves as a stark reminder that, though my own life is not always a walk in the park, I have a lot to be very thankful for, and I have it a whole lot better than many others. I try to bear that in mind, and I will take that into the new year with me.

I have a few ideas up my sleeve for changes to this blog in the new year. One of the things I would like to do is to start blogging a bit more about languages, linguistics and language-learning. That is my real area of expertise and yet, looking back through my archives, I find that I've had precious little to say on those subjects. I aim to rectify that in the new year. I also hope to bring in a few other regular features including, but not necessarily limited to, this week in history, to highlight important anniversaries and historical events coming up in any given week, and Germany's talking about ..., to keep my readers up to speed on what's in the news in Germany in general, and Berlin and Trier specfically, but is not necessarily making world headlines. We'll see how it goes.

Talking to non-German friends over the course of the past year, I have frequently been struck by how little Germany enters the Anglo-Saxon consciousness, how rarely what's going on in Germany features in the international news media and, frankly, how little people know about Germany. With that in mind, I hope in 2006 to make The Capital Letter into a bit more of a bridge blog, to make a contribution to keeping non-Germans and those not resident in Germany informed about what life is like here, how things work, how Germans think and how they live their lives. In particular, I'd like to provide a bit of a window into German politics for those who are interested, but not necessarily well-versed in the details of the political system here and who exactly the movers and shakers are. I realise that those are Big Plans and I'm not entirely sure how successful I can be in realising them, but I'll give it my best shot.

Starting from next week, I'll be doing a series of posts looking at some of the highlights and lowlights of the recently-released Freedom House: Global Survey 2006, considering who's been naughty and who's been nice, where progress has been made, and where ground has been lost around the world. That should be a challenging but interesting way to warm up into the new blogging year.

Anyway, that's enough of all that. The real point of this post is actually to wish all of my readers all the best for 2006. I hope that, however you choose/chose to see in the new year, you have an enjoyable time and, more importantly, I hope that the year ahead brings you success, satisfaction and enjoyment. Above all, I wish you a smooth ride in 2006. I don't do new year's resolutions, but if you do, then I wish you every success in sticking to them - for a week or so at least.

Happy New Year to all. Roll on 2006!


Final snow photos

BerlinBear avatarWell, I said I wasn't going to post any more photos of the snow unless something amazing happened. I lied. Nothing amazing has happened, snow-wise, but I'm posting more nonetheless. If you object, take your complaints to BadAunt, who specifically requested more. Since I don't get many explicit requests around these parts, I thought I'd indulge her and post more photos of the snow around Berlin Wannsee and here they are.

Since I last posted snow photos, it hasn't snowed much more. There have been a few brief flurries, but mostly the weather's been clear and bright and cold. Not much of a thaw, then, if any, but very nice weather for walks. The photos below were taken yesterday on one of my walks in the woods near our place. If you compare them with the previous group of snow photos I posted, you'll see the sun makes quite a difference. (Click on the images for larger versions).

Snow in the woods 1

Snow in the woods 2

The path I was walking along when these photos were taken was, as you can see, well trodden. Not just walkers like myself, but plenty of dogs too, not to mention parents dragging their kids along on sleds and toboggans, on their way to steeper paths for a spot of Schlittenfahren

Shadows in the snow

My own shadow in the snow

The afternoon sun cast long shadows in the woods. Including my own.

Footprints and shadows in the snow

Even off the beaten track and between the trees, the snow told tales of who had been where.

Snow-covered milestone

This milestone not far from where we live bears the inscription "III Meilen von Berlin." It is based, evidently, on an old and very different interpretation of miles, because Wannsee is considerably further from the centre of Berlin than a mere three miles.

And there you have it. I hope you liked those, BadAunt. Once I'm back in Trier in the New Year, I might crack out some photo posts of some of Trier's more impressive sights. There will be plenty to choose from.


30 December 2005

commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

Changed again

OK, since some people were having trouble viewing my blog in Internet Explorer (why anyone is still using IE is beyond me. Go and download Firefox now, you won't regret it), I've gone for a completely different template and stuck with the original settings, rather than tweaking things like I did with the last one. It's plain and simple and it displays accurately in both IE and Firefox, I checked. In other words, it'll do just nicely.

After posting this, I'm going to reinstall HaloScan commenting and trackbacks, and then I'll need to leave my blog alone for a while so that the HaloScan settings can kick in. More tomorrow afternoon.

29 December 2005

I'm not the only one

BerlinBear avatarIt would appear that I am not the only blogger in Berlin to be surprised and captivated enough by the snow to keep on posting photos of it.

I see that the good folk over at Hauptstadtblog have been blogging lots about the snow in the past few days too, including plenty of photos. (See, for example, this post, or this one, or this one.) The posts are all in German, but hey, a picture's worth a thousand words, after all.

Still snowing

BerlinBear avatarSeventy-two hours later, and it is still snowing here in Berlin. Not desperately heavily, mind you, but steadily. All the weather-forecasters have been saying that North-Eastern Germany (that's us) can expect a real snowstorm tonight, with 20-30cm of snowfall. No sign of the storm part yet, but the night is still young.

Being from Auckland - where it apparently once snowed in the 1930s, in Summer, but not since - I am quite captivated by the snow. Apart from in the mountains and at skifields, this is the most snow I've ever seen. It never ceases to amaze me how snow can make the most banal, even ugly, things look captivating and beautiful. Similarly, I am most taken with the way snow muffles all sound. It's quite something. Accordingly, I've been doing the following with alacrity:
  • Standing at the window, watching the snow fall, and watching the cars in our street take up to 15 minutes to get out of their parking spots

  • Going for long walks in the nearby forests

  • Taking lots of photos

  • Frequently going back to the window, to check if it's still snowing
Fun, fun, fun. So much snow has fallen around where we live that when I went for a walk in the woods today, it looked and felt not unlike Narnia before the White Witch's spell is broken. (I kept a lookout for Mr. Tumnus, but saw only a family of wild boar and a few scrawny-looking deer. A shame, really.) Actually, it's kind of like what I imagine Norway or Sweden to be like in winter, only perhaps not so cold. As I've never been to either of those places at all, let alone in winter, I cannot confirm the accuracy of this assumption.

I was amused to see on the local television news today a headline and story which I never saw in over five years living in the UK: Weather does not cause traffic chaos in Berlin and Brandenburg began the news item, and they proceeded to show trains running on time, a few of the 500-odd special vehicles they have for clearing the snow and spreading sand and gravel, and a selection of hardy orange-clad gents clearing footpaths with brooms and shovels. Oh, and a number of minor traffic accidents, of which, the reporter stressed, none were serious. I chuckled to recall the handful of times I'd watched South-East England come to a complete standstill in weather not half as bad as this, and wondered if I'd been too hasty in writing German efficiency off as a myth.

There follows a small selection of the many photos I took today of my own private Narnia.

That is the street I live in, which is too small and insignificant to qualify to be cleared in weather like this. The fellows from Berlin's Winterdienst clearly have bigger fish to fry at present.

The snow has made the cobblestone streets around here very treacherous indeed. They look more like dirt roads at the moment. I've never seen Germans drive so slowly!

The snow can even render a humble garden shed into something more like a romantic log cabin.

Either a) coots are hardier than other birds; b) coots are the only birds to have worked out that the water is warmer than the land in this kind of weather; or c) there is some factual basis to the saying "as crazy as a coot."

The forest near our place is doing it's very best impression of Narnia.

In the Pohlesee, the freeze has begun but is not very advanced. At around -3 degrees C, it's cold enough for snow, but not cold enough to freeze over the lakes around here. Yet.

Not only were the trains running on time, but they also provided the only flashes of colour I saw during my long walk in the woods (except for one particularly hardy jogger wearing a bright red parka. Unfortunately I was too slow on the draw to capture her on camera.)

OK, I promise I'll stop posting photos of the snow now. Unless, that is, something truly amazing happens.

28 December 2005

commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

27 December 2005

New Year - New Look

With a new year just around the corner, I thought it was time for a bit of fresh air in here and a new look. I hope you like it.

As you can see, I've made a few changes to the colour scheme and the layout. I've updated my blogroll and ditched a few blogs that are no longer being updated or that no longer hold my interest as they once did. I've also binned the blogmap, because it bugged me and made the page slow to load. I'll be updating my links during the course of the evening. I've also added the "email this story" link to the bottom of each post, so now you can flick any The Capital Letter
story which takes your fancy on to all and sundry by email.

There may be a few more minor changes and tweaks to come, but essentially this is it, for the next little while at least.

The new year will also bring with it a few content-related changes around here, but that is the subject of another post entirely, later in the week.

My year in bullet points

New Zealand blogger David Slack has put together a nifty little online generator, which will sum up your year for you in ten bullet points. It's simple, it's quick, it's trivial, it's much easier than writing a wordy and detailed review of your year, and it's kinda cool.

Here, for what it's worth, is my year in bullet points.

My year in bullet points: 2005

  • Wasted money on the special German tax for people who are fool enough not have had children yet.

  • Went nowhere.

  • National debt exploded. Not responsible.

  • Stayed out of family feuds.

  • Memory of outstanding meal at Klein Florenz in Trier all but eclipsed by appalling swill at the (now defunct) Mexican restaurant in Wannsee.

  • Lusted after Angelina Jolie. No result.

  • Anger management issues severely tested by Winston Peters.

  • Voted for Greens. Better luck next time.

  • Gained weight.

  • This year's resolution: finish my PhD.

  • Next year's resolution: try again.
Generate your own Year in Bullet Points review here.

[Hat-tip to Charlie Tan]

26 December 2005

And it snowed

And then, as if to make up for the fact that Christmas had been overlooked this year, in precipitation terms at least, it snowed...

And it snowed...

And it kept snowing...

All day...

With no regard whatsoever for the fact that BerlinBear and the lovely Ms. Bear have to go out into town this evening.

Typical. But pretty nonetheless, eh?.

Spare a thought

As you go about your post-Christmas business today, spare a thought for the more than 200,000 victims of the Asian Tsunami, which occurred a year ago today. And take a moment out of your day too to think about the many hundreds of thousands of survivors, many of whom are still without permanent homes or adequate facilities. Throughout the day today, survivors and the families of victims from around the world are taking part in memorial services in numerous different locations. It cannot be easy.

To all the survivors, to those who lost loved ones in the worst natural disaster in living memory, and to the many thousands of volunteers and aid workers who gave and are giving their time and energy to help the affected regions get back on their feet, my thoughts are with you today.

25 December 2005

You've gotta laugh

Isn't it funny? Everyone spends most of December speculating as to whether or not it's going to be a white Christmas. Then, come Christmas Eve, everyone holds out for snow. Same deal on Christmas Day. But it doesn't come.

However, sometime soon after midnight on Christmas Day, the first light snowfall begins. It proceeds to snow for much of the night, meaning that when you awake on Boxing Day, there's a generous carpet of snow and everything is hushed, sounds snatched away by the muting power of the snow before they reach your ears. The view out your window, the day after Christmas Day then looks something like this:

You've gotta laugh, really.

Happy Birthday Pooh

On this day in 1925, a bear was born. His name was Winnie-the-Pooh.
As regular readers of The Capital Letter will have noticed, we like bears around here. We like them a lot. But the bear we like best of all, and have for many many years now, is Pooh, the Bear of Very Little Brain.

On Christmas Eve 1925, the very first Winnie-the-Pooh story was published in the London Evening News. It was the story of The Wrong Sort of Bees. (You know the one: "Tut-tut, looks like rain.") That, of course, makes Winnie-the-Pooh eighty years old. BBC News has the details. Congratulations, sir, and Happy Birthday.

It seems appropriate to end with my all time favourite Winnie-the-Pooh quote. It's from Chapter Three of Winnie the Pooh: "In which Pooh and Piglet go hunting and nearly catch a Woozle." Here goes:
"The Piglet lived in a very grand house in the middle of a beech-tree, and the beech-tree was in the middle of the Forest, and the Piglet lived in the middle of the house. Next to his house was a piece of broken board which had: "TRESPASSERS W" on it. When Christopher Robin asked the Piglet what it meant, he said it was his grandfather's name, and had been in the family for a long time. Christopher Robin said you couldn't be called Trespassers W, and Piglet said yes, you could, because his grandfather was, and it was short for Trespassers Will, which was short for Trespassers William. And his grandfather had had two names in case he lost one - Trespassers after an uncle, and William after Trespassers."

[Hat-tip to Idiot/Savant at No Right Turn.]

24 December 2005

Merry Christmas to all

I'm sure it will not have escaped your notice that Christmas is here. In New Zealand, it's already the 25th, and here in Germany Christmas traditionally starts on the evening of the 24th anyway, when they do all their gift giving. In other words, as the song which has been relentlessly thrashed on German radio stations all month tells us: "So this is Christmas..."

Which reminds me of the main reason that there is a part of me which can't wait for Christmas to be over and done with for another year: the Christmas songs. Here in Germany, it's mostly the same songs that we in the Anglo-Saxon world know and love (to hate), which get trucked out from the beginning of December and played in a constant loop for the next 24 days. You know the ones I mean: Chris Rea's "Driving home for Christmas", the Beach Boys' "Christmas time is here again", Boney M's "Feliz Navidad", WHAM's "Last Christmas", countless different artists' versions of "This Christmas", Band Aid's "Do they know it's Christmas" and so on, and on, and on, until you get toothache. Don't get me wrong, I like Christmas music, but I can only handle it for about a week. In other words, I was over it about three weeks ago.

Though I've heard each of the above songs, and numerous others, at least 50 or 60 times in the past month, I have not once heard either of my favourite Christmas songs: "Snoopy's Christmas" or "Frosty the Snowman", and to be honest it's not really Christmas at all without Snoopy's Christmas, is it? Ah well, can't win 'em all, eh?

I saw on the World Weather on BBC World this morning that it is forecast to rain in New Zealand on the 25th. This did not surprise me at all. In fact, I'd sat down to watch the forecast muttering to myself: "I bet it'll rain in New Zealand on Christmas Day," and sure enough. It's been raining on Christmas Day in New Zealand for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, it would always be lovely in the week leading up to Christmas and then rain on Christmas Day, only to be nice again from Boxing Day. Or at least that's how it seems in my mind's eye, looking back. Whether, objectively speaking, that's exactly how it happened every year is another story entirely. But in any case, apparently it'll be raining again this year. So much for having Christmas in summer!

As for Berlin, I've given up on hoping for a White Christmas here. It's clear that it just isn't going to happen. I went out earlier on to get the paper and it was so mild I wondered why I'd bothered to wear my coat. So, forget about snow, and settle in for the rain, which is bound to come. Oh well, at least my family in New Zealand and I will be celebrating Christmas in similar weather - as far as precipitation is concerned, not temperature, obviously.

Anyway, I'm rambling, and that was not the point of this post.

The actual point was to wish all who find their way here a very Merry Christmas. However and whenever you celebrate, whomever you celebrate with and whatever the weather, I hope you have a lovely festive season. May it be as relaxing as such events can possibly be. May your presents be good, the food be delicious, the time with your loved ones treasured and enjoyable, and your hangover short-lived. In short, have a good one! I'll see you on the other side.

23 December 2005

Berlin Friedrichstraße

So, I did it. I took my life in my hands and went shopping in Friedrichstraße, one of Berlin's busiest shopping streets, the day before Christmas. It was quite fun, actually. I luxuriated in the experience of shopping for myself on a day when everyone else was frantically trying to find those last few presents for others. Not that I bought much: just a couple of books and new inserts for my filofax, but I took a sort of perverse pleasure in being under no pressure at all while those around me had the pressure of finding that little something for Aunt Helga written all over their faces.

It was pretty grey and dark - even at 2pm - also rainy, but not really especially cold. But the rain and the fog meant that the Fernsehturm was struggling to make itself seen.

My retail outlet of choice today was Dussmann, a big four-storey bookshop. They'd made quite an effort in front of the store with their Christmas decorations.

Inside, though, it was another story. Every Berliner and his or her dog was there, shopping for Aunt Helga. It was madness.

While I was in Friedrichstraße, I took the opportunity to check out the Christmas lights and decorations there and around the corner in Unter den Linden. Just as I had heard, some of them were quite spectacular.

But those efforts were nothing compared with what they've done with Unter den Linden! Unter den Linden's most striking feature is the four rows of Linden trees which line the entire length of the avenue, leading right up to the Brandenburg Gate. And as you can see from the pictures which follow, every single one has been decked out with Christmas lights. Up close, they look like this:

But it's when you stand back and look at the whole picture, up or down the avenue, that it becomes really impressive.

Judging by the conspicuously placed advertising, also in Christmas lights, I'd say it wasn't financed by the City of Berlin, nor the State of Berlin, but rather Vodafone and Vattenfall (an energy company), wouldn't you?

And at the end of Unter den Linden, of course, is the Brandenburger Tor, which was, I must say, looking truly splendid this evening, despite the less than ideal weather.

And after all that, I'm feeling well and truly Christmassy. Exactly as planned.

22 December 2005

Back in Berlin

As of about 4 hours ago, I'm back in Berlin for the Christmas break. Excellent! I'll be here with Ms. Bear (and her family) for 2 whole weeks this time. What luxury! It'll be the longest that I've had the pleasure of her company in over three months. I've got lots of work to do over the 'break', so it's not going to be a matter of just kicking back having a holiday for two weeks straight, but that's not the point. Despite the work that's on the agenda, it's going to be great to have the chance to move a bit slower and recharge the batteries after what has been a hectic second half of the year.

In particular, I'm looking forward to heading out into the Berlin fray and readjusting to the hustle and bustle of a metropolis once more. It'll be the first thing I do tomorrow. Call me a masochist, but I'm heading straight to Friedrichstrasse to see the Christmas lights I've heard so much about and to immerse myself in the last-minute shopping panic of others, safe in the knowledge that all of my own Christmas shopping is long since done. Who knows, maybe I'll see a Berliner smile, though I'm not holding my breath.

Perhaps I'll take my camera and see if I can capture some of the final pre-Christmas madness for you. It's been ages since I did a photo-post. I'll see what I can rustle up.

21 December 2005

Dear Germans

Part One in an intermittent, irregular series

Dear Germans,

I know it is winter, and it is cold and either snowing or raining (or sometimes, oddly, both) and dark by shortly after 4pm.

I am also aware that you, like me, find yourselves in the grim, icy, grip of Weihnachtsstress: that you haven't bought all your Christmas presents yet; that your mothers-in-law are coming to celebrate Christmas at your place; that you find you have less disposable income to blow on gifts this year; that the baking and cooking for Christmas Day remain to be done; and that all the tall, straight, plush-looking Christmas trees are already gone and it's going to have to be a scraggy, crooked, anaemic-looking tree for you and yours again this year.

It has also not escaped my notice that you've not had a particularly good year in general; that uncertainty and existential angst plague you; that you ended up with a government which noone really wished for and are unsure of how it's all going to pan out; that you, like me, couldn't get tickets for the World Cup next year, even though you're hosting it; that the weather seemed to go crazy all over the world, all year long; that unemployment is uncomfortably high; that the news that the moustache is out still has not reached Germany, some twenty years on.

Germans, my friends, I know all that and believe me, I feel your pain. I understand and I empathise. And yet, I'm still going to have to trouble you with a request. It's only a little one, mind you, but a request all the same: in the course of the next few days, in the final lead-up to Christmas, is there any chance that one of you could crack a smile? Someone? Anyone?

I'd be ever so grateful.

Yours, with best wishes for a merry Christmas and (as they don't say in English, but ought to) a good slide into the new year,


19 December 2005

Bush duped by "Voice of God"

Here's a link to brighten up a dark, gloomy, snowy Monday afternoon and put a smile on your dial.

Voice Of God Revealed To Be Cheney On Intercom

December 7, 2005

WASHINGTON, DC—Telephone logs recorded by the National Security Agency and obtained by Congress as part of an ongoing investigation suggest that the vice president may have used the Oval Office intercom system to address President Bush at crucial moments, giving categorical directives in a voice the president believed to be that of God.
Read the rest of this Onion article here. Enjoy.

18 December 2005

The wrong number

Why do the weird news stories from Germany almost always involve people being drunk? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Germans are ranked third in the world for beer consumption and fifth in the world for overall alcohol consumption. Whatever the reason, they certainly seem to produce their fair share of drunken capers which make the news. Here, for your Sunday reading pleasure, is yet another.

Q: You're drunk, very drunk, but you're driving home nevertheless. You then get a puncture and are too drunk to repair it yourself. What do you do?

A: You call the breakdown service and ask them to come quickly. You explain in detail that you've got a flat tire, you're very drunk and you're disqualified from driving, so it'd be bad if the police drove by in the meantime while you were waiting. Whatever you do though, check that it's actually the breakdown service you've called and not the police.


Bad Santa(s)

My home town, Auckland, has made the front page of the BBC news website today, but once again it's for all the wrong reasons. It would appear that a bunch of around 40 drunken men dressed as Santas have been creating havoc in what they see as a protest against the commercialisation of Christmas. Dickheads!

Calling themselves 'Santarchists', these 40 idiots worked their way through Central Auckland over the course of Saturday afternoon, raising what the New Zealand Herald has dubbed 'merry hell'. Their particular brand of merry hell included, but was not limited to, urinating on cars from an overpass, tagging, throwing rocks and beer bottles, theft of alcohol and soft drinks from a shop, assaulting security guards, vandalising a Christmas tree and, in one case, climbing the mooring line of a cruise ship. A classy lot, these Santas!

The police were only able to make three arrests, due to difficulties in, ahem, identifying the men involved. ("Well, Officer, he was quite fat, with white hair and a beard, and wearing a red hat, red coat and trousers, with a wide black belt around his substantial middle.")

A quick scan of Google News reveals that this story has been reported not just on the BBC and in New Zealand, but also in Germany, the US, Japan, Australia, etc. etc. etc. Oh dear, oh dear!

What's even more unfortunate is that a police spokesman has been widely quoted on this incident as saying it was "fairly average behaviour" from an "organised group of idiots." I do wish they'd train police spokespeople to choose their words a little more carefully. I know it's not what he meant, but what that quote communicates to the world is this: "It is unremarkable behaviour for a group of 40 men to get pissed and rampage through town, breaking laws, breaking things and generally causing mayhem. That sort of thing happens all the time here in Auckland."

While the sad truth of that interpretation might be up for debate, what is actually going on here is a linguistic issue. It's common in New Zealand English to use 'average' with a distinctly negative connotation. It's a type of sarcastic understatement, a rhetorical device which is heavily favoured in NZ English in all sorts of contexts. So, for example, if you have the 'flu and someone asks how you're feeling, you might respond, "Pretty average mate, to be honest," though you actually mean: "Mate, I feel like death on a stick."

I know this; New Zealanders reading the story in the Herald will know this; but somehow I suspect it'll be lost on most of the readers of the BBC News website, unfortunately.

Still, it could be worse: I could be Australian and have to put up with my Prime Minister publicly denying that race riots on the beaches were an indication of underlying racism in our country, when it's patently obvious to all concerned that that's exactly what they are an indication of. I'd take drunken Santas over that sort of carry on any day of the week.

Something to watch on telly

If you have television access to either BBC News 24 or BBC World TV, then there's a programme on this afternoon/evening you might want to try and catch. In it, former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, is interviewed by Sir David Frost. The interview is wide-ranging and covers topics such as Iraq, troop withdrawal, WMD, intelligence, Powell's relationship with Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, as well as the current hot-potato here in Europe: the practice of extraordinary rendition. Powell is pretty frank in the interview, meaning that it makes for some very interesting viewing.

The interview is being screened on BBC News 24 today at 14:30 GMT and 21:30 GMT and on BBC World TV at 19:30GMT. If, like me, you don't have access to either of those channels, you can read about the interview here, or watch a 6 minute 30 extract online here.

Of particular interest to me is Colin Powell's assertion in the interview that his 'European friends' cannot be surprised or shocked by the news emerging about the practice of extraordinary rendition, with the strong implication being that in fact they knew about it all along. I suspect he is right. Of course, that doesn't make it acceptable; nor does it mean the US shouldn't be put under pressure to stop outsourcing its dirty work to countries with a looser interpretation of the acceptability of torture. But, if true, it does mean that some of the moralistic posturing, shock and dismay currently being expressed by governments here in Europe - Germany included - comes off as pretty disingenuous.

If extraordinary rendition and toture are topics you're interested in, I recommend you have a read of Naomi Klein's recent column in the Guardian: The US has used toture for decades. All that's new is the openness about it, for a bit of the background history which is largely being ignored (not to say rewritten) in this debate on both sides of the Atlantic.

17 December 2005

Good news Saturday

After a few weeks of early-winter hibernation, Good news Saturday returns today with the unexpectedly positive results of the EU budget negotiations in Brussels.

2005 has been an annus horribilis for the European Union, what with the draft constitution being rejected by both the Netherlands in France, and its ratification by various other governments stalled in the wake of those results, along with the unsuccessful budget negotiations which ended without a deal earlier in the year. But now it would appear that the year will be ending on a modest high note, with the provisional agreement of a new budget deal late last night in Brussels, after two days of negotiations.

The British Prime Minister and current EU President, Tony Blair, made last minute concessions over the UK's budget rebate in order to secure agreement on the budget. Blair agreed to relinquish some 20% of the rebate it would have received over the next seven years. That money will instead be used to help pay for the ongoing costs of last year's enlargement of the EU. In return - though it's hard a tit-for-tat concession, France agreed to a wide-ranging budget review, including the Common Agricultural Policy, in 2008-9. This represents movement on Chirac's previous stance, in which he had insisted that farming subsidies under the CAP not be touched until 2013. Though all of the member states will have the chance to veto the 2008 review, France will be under pressure to give ground on the CAP, given Blair's agreement to relinquish some of the UK's rebate. Of course, on the other hand, Tony Blair is going to take a pasting at home from the Eurosceptic, tending Europhobic, sectors of the press and the Conservative Party, who will level charges of "surrrender" and "capitulation" at him. When that happens (which will start tomorrow), it'll be precious little comfort to him that he is today, for once, being praised by other European leaders for doing the right thing, rather than being accused of being divisive and obstructionist, as has previously been the case.

BBC News has a breakdown of the most important points of the EU budget agreement here.

From a German perspective, there is further good news coming out of the Brussels summit, namely that Angela Merkel appears to have put in a command performance at her very first summit as Chancellor. According to both German and British reports, Merkel played a key role in brokering yesterday's deal. This represents an important change in both style and substance from that of her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, who had a reputation for cosying up to Chirac and the French position, and striking special deals with the French before EU summits even began, thus serving to make compromise deals more difficult rather than facilitating them.

Merkel and her advisors will be very pleased with this perception of her performance, not least because she is still in the crucial 100-day "grace period" of her Chancellorship, in which lasting public opinion about her competence and suitability for the post will be formed.

Oh the delicious irony!

It's been a long time since I posted anything about Zimbabwe or its "President", Robert Mugabe. It's not that I've lost interest, nor that Mugabe's atrocities or injustices have miraculously ceased. I just haven't had anything in particular to say about the situation there for a couple of months. But the silence has lasted long enough, and it's time to report a delicious irony which came to my attention today.

Last week, Robert Mugabe gave a 'State of the Nation' address, in which he pledged to address the ongoing problem of electricity shortages in Zimbabwe. His speech was televised live, except nobody watching on TV heard Mugabe make the electricity pledge - because, umm, there was a power outage.

The Guardian reports:

Power cuts yesterday blacked out much of President Robert Mugabe's state of the nation address, during which he promised to address Zimbabwe's chronic electricity shortages.

Central Harare was hit by widespread power failures minutes before state-run radio and television were due to broadcast Mr Mugabe's speech live from parliament. The television station ran cartoons until power was restored about half an hour into the speech, which usually lasts an hour.

Disruption of power and water supplies have become routine in Zimbabwe, which is caught in its worst economic crisis since it gained independence from Britain in 1980.

How glorious is that?! Someone call Alanis Morrisette and tell her that that is what irony is.

11 December 2005

New blog to read

There's been nothing from me for a few days around these parts, as I'm sure you've noticed. That's because I'm in Berlin for the weekend, for the first time in three weeks. And, of course, when precious time with Ms. Bear is in the offing, spending time in front of the computer, tends to take something of a back seat. I'm sure you'll understand.

That said, I did think I should make time this evening to knock out a couple of quick posts, of which this is the first. And the point of it is to draw your attention to the new addition to my blogroll.

Love and Other Catastrophes is a new blog by the Libran, an Australian living in Leamington Spa in the British Midlands. This particular Australian, though, happens to be a good friend of mine. He's only a few posts into his blogging career thus far, but what he's written up till now is good stuff. So take a few moments, click the link, and see what you think.

More later.

07 December 2005

Blaireron gets its first outing

In yesterday's post about the election of David Cameron as Leader of the British Conservative Party, I wrote that all eyes would be on Cameron's performance in today's Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) and how he decided to distribute the Shadow Cabinet posts. 24 hours later, Cameron has survived the former and begun releasing details regarding the latter. Here's the rub:

As regards PMQs, it would appear that Cameron has come through his first encounter with Tony Blair at the dispatch boxes pretty well. Cameron opted to go for a conciliatory, rather than a confrontational approach, in line with his earlier pledge to work to remove the Punch and Judy Show element of Westminster politics. And by all accounts he seems to have done so quite well, though not transcendently, with the results that a) he spent much of his time agreeing with Tony Blair and pledging to support him on various policies (Blaireron gets its first airing?), and b) he forced Tony Blair to seek to distance and differentiate himself from Tory policies. It's an interesting tactic, but one that seems to have worked rather well on its first outing. It remains, of course, to be seen how long this lovey-dovey, consensus approach will last.

This BBC News article offers analysis of Cameron's first PMQs performance and does this Times column, while this one (BBC News again) gives a point-by-point run down of what was discussed and by whom. From the first, my favourite quote, and the favourite of HB, who drew my attention to it (Cheers, mate) is this one:
In his first question time against Tony Blair, Mr Cameron was almost unnaturally even frighteningly relaxed, consensual and confident. That must be what the public school education buys.
I laughed hard at that one. Tony Blair, of course, is also Public School educated. Make of that what you will. And in case you're reading this post and thinking to yourself, "What the heck is Prime Minister's Questions then?", this is the concise explanation you need.

As for the announcement of the first Shadow Cabinet appointments, the big news is the return of William Hague, former leader of the Conservatives, in the Shadow Foreign Secretary role, while David Davis (Cameron's rival in the last round of the leadership battle) has been kept on as Shadow Home Secretary. This Times piece has all the details.

06 December 2005

Tories have a new leader

Tonight, the British Conservative Party finally has a new leader. It was a long time coming. Seven months after Michael Howard announced his intention to stand down after his defeat in the general election, the Conservative Party membership has elected David Cameron to take his place in what turned out to be a landslide victory. Cameron's winning margin of 134,446 votes to 64,398 over David Davis is described by The Times' political editor as "a very considerable mandate", and it's difficult to argue with that.

Cameron, 39, is the MP for Witney in Oxfordshire. Educated at Eton and Brasenose College, Oxford, he is the father of two young children, with another on the way. He has only been an MP for four years, and was considered a rank outsider in this leadership race until he made a storming speech at the Conservative Party Conference, thus launching himself on the national stage and thoroughly pulling the rug out from under the then front-runner David Davis.

The similarities between Cameron now and Tony Blair when he took over the Labour Party leadership back in 1994 are striking and have been noted and discussed at length in the British media, even prompting some commentators to speak of "Blaireron", implying that the two are indistinguishable.

This will make for a very interesting next few years in British politics. Cameron has plenty of time to settle in and cut his teeth in the leader's job before he has to fight an election campaign, and a lot of things can, and will, happen before then. It would be premature to make predicitions at this stage as to whether or not Cameron will have the ability to reverse the result of the last three elections and lead the Conservatives to victory. However, when you read his profile, or interviews with him, or look at what he has campaigned on and the style and media savvy with which it is all brought across, it is easy to see why the British Conservatives are feeling more buoyant and confident tonight than they have for many a year.

David Cameron's first two tasks as leader will be to name his Shadow Cabinet and to take on Tony Blair at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday. Which way he goes in the former case will give an indication as to the direction he intends to take the Tories in between now and the next election; the latter will be a fascinating first duel between a relatively inexperienced but evidently very talented young politician and a Prime Minister who was once just like his opponent but is now on the way out and finds himself politically on the ropes both at home and in Europe. Fascinating stuff.

[It goes without saying that this is the top story in the UK at the moment. All the major newspapers and news outlets have extensive coverage and analysis. Go on, knock yourself out.]

Who broke blogger?

Is it just me, or did someone break blogger.com? How come all the the blogspot blogs in my blogroll, including my own, can't be accessed? And how come, if none of the blogs are accessible, I can still get into my blogger dashboard to write this post?

Is any of this related to the fact that pop server on the German Yahoo! service has been down all evening? Is the internet falling apart? When I awake in the morning, will everything be better, or will it be worse? Will all other websites gradually follow suit and break too, until there is no more internet? Will I have to access information in books and on TV again? Will I have to buy hard copies of the paper? Will I have to write letters, or, heaven forbid, look phone numbers up in the phone book? How will I know what is on at the cinema? Where will I get recipes from? Will I have to buy a special magazine just to find out what's on the telly? And where will I buy my books, or, for that matter, pretty much everything else bar groceries? Will I have to interact with real people, you know, face-to-face to pass the time? Yikes, it doesn't even bear thinking about; I'm going to bed.

Fingers crossed, eh?

Taking body armour to the next level

Hot on the, ahem, paws of my recent post about the police dog that wasn't, comes this gem from Fulda in Eastern Germany. It would appear that a German security firm has had the birght idea of manufacturing bulletproof vests (insofar as you can call it a vest) for dogs that are in the firing line. Strikes me as an excellent idea. Deutsche Welle reports:
A German security firm is helping to ensure that our four-legged friends in dangerous situations are protected. It's unveiled a bulletproof vest that will let Fido take a round in the flank and live to bark about it.

Not all dogs are of the lap variety, leading lives of lazy luxury. Some are out there on the front lines, dealing with gun-toting criminals, stone-throwing rioters and other projectile-wielding characters.

For dogs whose lives are on the line, a German firm is manufacturing bulletproof protective gear that can mean the difference between life and doggie heaven. The vest, by the Fulda-based firm Mehler, is on display at the MILIPOL security trade show outside of Paris. It weighs around three kilos (6.6 pounds) and comes in six sizes. It's already being used by furry conscripts to the Swiss army, according to company spokesman Thomas Kuhnlein.

But protection doesn't come cheap. Wholesale prices range between 800 and 1,000 euros ($950 - $1,150). That's a lot of doggie treats.

Actually, when you think about it, eight or nine hundred Euros potentially to save the life of a working dog is probably not all that expensive. When you consider the many hours that have to go into training police or military dogs before they can even be put to work, and the work that they can do for their employers which it would be very difficult or impossible for humans to do, I suspect that the economic balance would come out very much in favour of the dogs. As I say, I reckon it's a great idea, provided the dogs can function just as efficiently with the vests on as they could without them, which I assume to be the case. If it's good enough for Police horses in the UK to be kitted out with riot protection gear, I don't see why the same care shouldn't be taken for dogs.

What I want to know is whether the offer of extra protection could have encouraged Buster to display a little more commitment to his job? Somehow, I doubt it.

04 December 2005

Timothy Garton Ash on the erosion of liberty

If you've been reading The Capital Letter for a while now, you'll have noticed that I'm a big fan of Guardian columnist, academic, political historian and analyst extraordinaire Timothy Garton Ash. Last week, he hit the nail on the head once again with a column in the Guardian entitled "Freedom has been halted." In this column, Garton Ash writes about what he sees as the erosion of liberty in "most established democracies" since the September 11, 2001 attacks. His analysis is good, and the column is definitely worth a read.
The totalitarianisms of the 20th century promised more security in return for less liberty. In liberal democracies we generally accept less security in return for more liberty.

Faced with jihadist suicide bombers, we must reconsider and perhaps adjust the balance. Irritating though they are, I assume that tighter security controls at airports, railway stations and public buildings are necessary. Unlike many liberals, I also think identity cards may help, provided they work properly and we have effective controls over the information stored on them. When I read that MI5 are recruiting 800 more spies to combat the threat of Islamist terrorism, I am disturbed - but I can see the argument for it. But in every case we need to be convinced that the reduction of liberty will bring a commensurate increase in security.

What is unforgivable is the measure that makes Britons at once less free and less safe. Lately, they've been getting too many of those: actions designed to prevent suicide bombers that end up creating more of them.

Read the whole column here.

Personally, I couldn't agree more. Garton Ash has articulated (much more eloquently than I could have hoped to) a concern I've held for some time now. I don't have the answer to exactly where the balance between liberty and security ought to lie, but I'm pretty certain that it's not where Western governments have been looking for it in recent years.

On a totally unrelated note, you'll have noticed it's been a quiet around here lately. It's not that the Bear has gone into hibernation for the winter, but rather that real life and work and visits from friends have conspired to reduce my blogging output considerably in recent weeks. I hope that I'll be able to find a bit more time to blog next week. Do keep checking back, though. This blog is very much still alive.