Sunday, 31 July 2011

truth or consequences, new mexico

The label on the Uruguayan wine bottle with dinner informed me that the country’s name “means ‘River of Painted Birds’ in the native language.” I stumbled upon a clever world map that gives an etymology of the names of nations—although I am not entirely sure how accurate some of these are and it is kind of a shame that the map does not explain who Amerigo Vespucci was or how he managed to have two continents named after him (though I suppose the terminally interested could easily look that up in their Funk & Wagnalls’). Incidentally, driving home through France, I wondered why the central region, containing Paris, was called Île-de-France (Island of France), and it turns out that this was probably because of an ancient Gaulish misunderstanding of an Germanic Old Franconian designation for the place--Liddle Franke, little land of the Franks. I think it would be a neat project to make a more local map of derivations and translations, streets and suburbs and towns--sort of like how Bad Karma got its name.

crawlspace or urban spelunking

Via the superlative BLDGBLOG, Der Spiegel (auf englisch) reports on a persistent mystery that’s been buried and forgotten in locations all over Bavaria. There are hundreds of discovered ancient stone passageways tunneled into the earth, mostly impossibly narrow and tight, in farmers’ fields, under churchyards and in towns, that have been described with such creative names as Schrazelloch ("goblin hole") and Alraunenhöhle ("mandrake cave"), because locals believed that they were the mines of dwarves and oubliettes of elves—since no one can really say what the purpose of these articifical caves were.

Though known of for a long time, with similar phenomena occurring in other parts of Europe, curators are only now taking interest in studying them, speculating on their functions from emergency food storage, like a fall-out shelter, refuge from marauders, like a panic-room but being impracticably small, others have interpreted them to have had spiritual significance. These Erdstall catacombs are never documented as being built prior and throughout the Medieval period—only their slow, accidental discovery, and maybe were the meditation chambers of a mystery-cult. No one knows, but perhaps the attention will lead to more finds, and maybe there’s something to be found down in the underground of Bad Karma.

Saturday, 30 July 2011


Having just returned from a fantastic, educational and relaxing vacation in the Aquitaine and Medoc regions of southern France's Atlantic Coast, I wanted to take the opportunity to round-up a few photographs that did not make the travel blog and a few pensées (after Blaise Pascal's random collected thoughts and enigmas, like, the parrot wipes his beak even though it is clean). 
The area was just incredible--the port of La Rochelle along with this other hidden cove of Meschers-sur-Gironde with troglodyte dwellings pounded by the surf into the cliff was like a pirate theme-park. The caves there actually saw some piratery and were once host to French protestants who had to practice their religion in secret.
A sort of regional mascot too was a donkey in pajama bottoms, and later I learned that these pants were worn to protect them from mosquitos while working in the salt-flats that brought these cities great prominience.
The city of Bordeaux has a crest that resembles a bio-hazard or toxic-spill clean-up symbol, though I am sure there is no relation.  The coast was also dotted with these colossal and exemplary (really just like the perfect dreamscape of what one would imagine a fort or a castle to be with winding causeways, endless stairs, turrets, towers, loopholes and murder-holes) bastions from the handiwork of the Marquis de Vauban to protect trade and the rich harbours from foreign navies, but there was one inland garrison town that fell victim to the environment that created this wealth.
The mud-flats that are part of the oyster culture and the salt-flats which gave Aquitaine a monopoly are nourished by sediment washing in from the mouth of the Gironde colliding with the silt of the ocean.  Eventually, and probably rather sooner than anyone expected, the sediment choked this fortress off from the port by a good ten kilometers. 

Not useful for fending off invading ships, the town--which was also the birthplace of promogenitor Canadien Samuel de Champlain, the fort and billeting has been well-preserved.  There was a lot of neat stuff going on here and I have a lot of homework to do.

Friday, 15 July 2011

nam alii oc, alii si, alii vero disunt oil

"Everyone has two countries, his or her own--and France," someone once said. PfRC is going on holiday to the Aquitaine, the pays d'òc. Traditionally, this area was one of the areas where Occitan (Provençal) was spoken. The Latin phrase in the title and language itself is from Dante's observation that for yes "some say òc (from Latin hoc--this), some say sì (from sicut--thus), and others oïl (from hoc illud--this is it)." Please stay-tuned to our little travel blog for regular updates and more adventures.

foundry sans informal

Though I hope I am not too much of a font snob or look down my nose too much at Comic Sans, but I do appreciate the attention to detail, aesthetic balance that goes into type-setting. Scribble (via Neatorama) has a nifty flow-chart and other guides to facilitate choosing the appropriate font. Personally, within the quiver of standard type-faces, Gill Sans is quite presentable. It's similar to the lettering the British Broadcasting Company uses and to the style of German traffic signage, DIN (Deutsches Institut für Normung) 1451.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

flea, fly, flea-fly-mosquito

Though I generally am little disappointed by the effort, I usually do read through the comments section after a news article. Beyond destructive criticism and roundly sharing blame and deeply personal affronts, there are sometimes interesting takes and tangents on the news.  And sometimes there is the serendipitously non sequitur, like dadaist graffiti.  After an article about the economic situation in America, there was a comment, ignored but weirdly trenchant--FACT: Bears eat beets. Bears. Beets. Battlestar Galactica.  I thought that was priceless, and a lot more arresting than normal angry opinions-to-power.  FACT: Cats fly cranes. Cats. Cranes. Cook County Sheriff.

cosmic architektonik

This Spiegel (bedauerlich nur auf deutsch) gallery and review of by-gone communist architecture, alien like the shipwrecks of a failed space-invasion curated by photographer Roman Bezjak during a five year odyssey through East Europe, behind the former Iron Curtain, is fantastic grand tour of old out-of-this-world Soviet relics and structural design through the former East Germany, Tirana, Pristina, Bratislava, Tiflis and Prague.
These expressive images certainly convey more than the imposing, gray monstrosities that are usually conjured up when one thinks of such buildings. We have seen a bit of both: the industrial, utilitarian and the inspired and elevated, and I certainly would like to visit these places. One can peruse the complete journey in Bezjak's book "Socialist Modernism - Period Archeology," and would be perfect destinations for the intrepid trekkers from Atlas Obscura.
In a related collection, Spiegel also features evocative images of post-modern monuments to war and revolution mostly from the former Yugoslavia and Balkans that are surpassingly bizarre and theatrical. One can find out more about the artists' visions in Jan Kempenaers' collection, "Spomenik."

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

evasive maneuvers

First seeing the headline that US pensioners might be affected by the looming national borrowing frontier, I scoffed a little, wondering why anyone would proffer such a new worry, reviving the fears and panicky behaviour of a few months ago of a government-services collapse. That was a battle-of-the-wills too, to see who would risk compromise or be obstinate on blame. I thought the pronouncement was only some reporter glomming on to one phrase and appeal that was not meant to be showcased--that is, until I heard the same scary news picked up by German broadcasters. Maybe it is still just a threatening projection, because I think too the rest of the world is prone to gawk at a country that would just shut-down or threaten to do so. I don't think there have been accords by the polarized political parties and talks have not progressed, but there have certain been some exercises in creative and critical think. Apparently, mostly without such theomachy, the US president has asked and been granted lifting the debt ceiling about one hundred times in the past, having exceeded what the US Congress had appropriated in the fiscal budget. Some are proposing a bit of theatre, legal fiction, to give the office of the president autonomous authority and responsibility to raise the legal borrowing limit, independent of congress. This does not create extra money or save social programs, but it allows for no deflection of responsibility (de facto but not in fact since all agencies are responsible for their own fund management). Further, this shifting of blame may prevent delay of the US government defaulting on its obligations (to creditors, and to its people) but taking on more debt, regardless--for example, in August, the government is scheduled to make $23 billion in Social Security payments but only expects to generate $12 billion in taxes on the day outlays come due, and unable to pawn more debt, the government can only spend what it takes in--only restores allocations' and appropriations' role, again threatening a government closure. I don't know what can be done but there is no choice between supporting corporate or public welfare and the two should not be stood up as warring standard-bearers.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

eight-bit or the red-coats are coming

The military, especially the US army, has an expensive fashion-sense. I understand the role is of fatigues and battle-rattle to help keep soldiers safe and inconspicuous but a lot of changes seemed to be pushed through all at once, the repeal of DADT besides. The reviled standard issue black berets went away and combat boots changed, Velcro badges, and now the introduction of the latest camoufleur pattern to be field-tested downrange in Afghanistan. Surely, it is pricey for the government to award all these apparel contracts, and it’s at a cost to the individual solider too, who though issued uniforms end up paying for it on store credit (not to mention the dry-cleaning bills) like a carefree troop of novice flight-attendants. Here, a deploying unit is in formation with the rear-detachment, who will stay behind. The juxtaposition is interesting, and I do like the new retro-camouflage a lot better than the pixilated old one. One got used to it and I suppose the uniforms become invisible though no one really blends in. The new so-called multi-cam has a classic look, single and in the right sun, the colours almost look like a trained, super-imposition of an old Kodachrome photograph, instead of some cheap and over-done CGI special-effect.


H has become quite handy and bold with assaying our fair Lady, and making sure she is fully outfitted for our upcoming big trip. The word jalopy has, I think, too many negative connotations and can't aspire to be something refined and finely engineered. Our third generation Volkswagen Transporter--sometimes sold as Vanagons in the States (Lady is a "Sport R" and I always thought that was a very special and rare model... maybe we should have named her VGER like the Voyager space probe in the first Star Trek movie)--was the first model of bus water cooled (instead of air-cooled) and was the last VW of any type to have the engine in the rear. That's a bit like those dinosaurs that had two brains, one in the head and one in the tail to govern each. The word jalopy does suggest, however, dependability--or at least, flexibility, serviceableness and the ability to intuit. It is always comforting to know that one's trip won't have a contrary, single-minded computer as a roadblock and that with less, one can go further.

H- hat sehr kompetent bei der Ausrüstung der Ladys geworden, und sie ist fit für die Reise. Jalopy heißt Bleichkiste, aber hat das Wort einen negativen Beigeschmack und steht nichts für etwas ausgereift und verfeinert. Unserer dritte Generation Modell war das Erste mit Wasserkühlung die letzte mit einem Heckmotor. Statt Transporter ist die Lady als Sport R genannt--eine sehr exklusive Sonderauflage. Dennoch verspricht das Wort Bleichkiste Elastizität und Zugänglichkeit. Wir kommen mehr mit weniger aus.

Monday, 11 July 2011

odious debt

As the economic sleight of hand for the US became only a delaying tactic and the States are galloping towards the legal debt ceiling (Schuldenobergrenze), debate over how to interpret the sibylline leaves of their constitution (which is not a technicality given its well-trod appeals and reductio) and ideological anchors that cannot be finessed or maneuvered around is just making the situation appear more and more dire. On a sub-national level, governments have been shutdown and there does not seem much urgency to restore it, nor an institutional life-line to reach resolution.
Meanwhile, back at the Ranch, German and EU officials are holding emergency meetings to in part address the framework and mechanisms that do not cause debt and deficit but rather the language and esteem used to talk about it. German finance ministers, among others, do not want the European Union threatened with dissolution over the opinions of the three dominant and American-based credit-rating agencies (Ratingagenturen). This cartel has been ceded too much power, Germany, argues and although these firms failed to avert disasters in the past, like internet and housing bubbles, can spook the markets and scandalize countries with a cross word, like with Greece and Portugal.
I think further that this exclusive group of Stygian oracles, beholden to the will of banks, certainly nudges a controlled-crash, an emergency-landing of debtor nations right into receivership. German is entertaining either promoting more competition and diversity of opinion by splitting up the big agencies, or establishing separate, regional entities to cover European and Asian sovereigns separately. The debt and credit-worthiness of individuals and countries are not measured in the same way--though perhaps they should be, either both strictly by the numbers or both on hope and promise and being a good neighbor--and maybe muting down doom among the general din might yield a credit score that's more meaningful, limned with those same dimensions of long-term aspiration, inheritance and legacy. One can still manage, however, to make any pronouncement portentous or pessimistic, depending on what one wants to hear.

Friday, 8 July 2011

the perils of penelope pitstop or dutch-east-india company

The final stage of two eras is in the works: one, the de-commissioning of the US Space Shuttle programme, and the edict of the German government to end nuclear energy within its borders. The latter decision, in my opinion, was a bit rash, maybe too hysterical, but nonetheless a necessary one, since nuclear power and the waste it produces is not a tenable situation in the long run. The former choice is being met crestfallen, while on the other hand, Germany’s action was not made without debate and planning for contingencies. In fact, businesses, universities and scientists are recognizing that there’s a job to do to satisfy this mandate and fill the deficit left in the country’s power supply. Already, creative thinkers are working together to approach this problem from all angles, designing more aesthetic masts for high tension wires, wind-turbines and photovoltaic arrays with input from ecologists, engineers, architects and historic preservationists—as well as the daydreamers. The space shuttle is a shuttle, something for hauling cargo, but I think representative of ingenuity and at least the spirit of exploration. There’s little waiting in the wings, it seems, to replace it (thank goodness for the hale and hearty Soyuz that Russia is not stinting and continues to deliver). Proceeding without a framework to replace this flagship is a bit disheartening—especially for the rocket scientists at NASA, I’m sure—and is not conducive to invention. Hopefully some creative entrepreneurs will usher in greater strides, but space should not be solely a commercial enterprise for any partner in discovery.

poll tax

Ever pragmatic and with a healthy dose of skepticism, the German public is divided over pre-election promises to lower taxes. The survey does not delivery overwhelming verdicts either for or against cutting personal taxes over austerity, shoring up funds for a rainy-day, but a clear majority is doubtful that any reduction or reprieve would translate to any appreciable household savings. It reminds me of the excruciating and mean-spirited debate last year over increasing the monthly allowance for families on welfare (Hartz IV) that netted five euro in the end. Of course, allotted over all recipients, that's quite a monthly cumulative sum but it probably was more an insult than a help individually. With German employment at record highs and the export-mechanism churning strongly, the government is realizing some windfalls but it is still scheduled to take on more public debt. About half of the respondents were more in favour of sustaining their current tax situation and not undermine the economic recovery or handicap the ability to weather future turmoil. Most further view this tax-cut proposal as a myopic campaign-promise, which probably fails to factor in (I think) the loss of Zivildiener or Zivis with the end of mandatory conscription for young Germans. Without this labour pool to draw from, I think, social services will become more expensive to provide, and no one would want to see a cut in that area. If the government insists on paying back the people, maybe they'd do better to roll back the Value-Added Tax (Mehrwertsteuer, sort of like a national sales tax) by a percentage point. Everyone, regardless of their tax-situation, would see an immediate benefit and cost to the treasury, I think, would be minimal in the long-term.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

green shoots

Watching this plant recover and slowly start to grow again once moved from the window sill to the balcony, it's new bunch of leaves ready to unfurl like something inchoate from a chrysalis, and the venerable, old cactus sprouting a new pseudo pod, has got me think about the different cues of light and temperature that plant-life has outside of seasonal fits and bursts. Perhaps there are things more subtle in the senses that yield good horticulture and horticulturists.
Our geraniums were looking a bit unremarkable, healthy but late-bloomers, and learned that if during transportation, the flowers are kept in the dark for more than forty hours, they hold off on further growth after the first spurt. Despite any amount good care and coaxing, they need to normalize their cycle on their own terms. That too made me think about the curious story of tropical poinsettias (Weihnachtsstern), which will only flower or develop those trademark red leaves when exposed to equal amounts of diurnal sunlight and dark night, like the conditions near the Equator.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

kraken or there be dragons here

The Big Think, a surpassingly excellent curator for unusual examples of cartography, has a thoughtful piece on political satire, not such subtle ones, and portrayal of maps with anthropomorphism and zoomorphism. Going by national symbols alone, one would have a whole motley herd of eagles, lions, bears, dragons and griffons, but we also have these geo-political works of art that betray sentiment and fears. One of the more utilitarian propaganda monsters has been the land octopus, the kraken, an unappeasable force of nature that is a bigger threat than caricatures of kaisers and ministers. A lot of different countries, not just Russia and its successors, have assumed these writhing tentacles and it is interesting to reflect on these allegorical portrayals and meaning behind them--like in this map from the collections of Bibliodyssey. United, more or less under shifting regencies, Europe was often depicted as the Queen of the World, Europa Regina. I am sure that along with all available map-making precision at the time, a lot of thought, slights and glories, went into every feature. I cannot fathom the symbolism and deferring nature of this language but I hope we retain the ability to interpret the subtle and the dense and multi-layered.

Karte oft ungewöhn-licher Kartographen und Satirikern finden in The Big Think blog, und in der jungsten Ausgabe befinden sich ein nach-denklich Artikel über vermenschlichter und zoomorphischen Figuren der Karten. Anstatt nur nationalen Symbolen--die Löwen, Adler, Bären, Drachen, Griffins--gibt auch die festlandlich Krake, auf Gefühl und Angst hindeuten. Die pur Naturgewalt--der Kraken--ist Propagandamittel und mehr bedrohlicher als politischen Karikaturen. Nicht nur Russland sondern auch vielen anderen Ländern dargestellt mit Ausläufern war. In der Vergangenheit gezeigt Europa so wie eine Königin. Das ist sehr komplex und vielschichtig. Hoffentlich können wir weiter solche Sinnbilder und Symbolismus schätzen und verstehen.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011


The local has a dispatch from the Baltic strand of Rügen about designs to convert the colossal planned holiday-going compound of Prora, which stretches for 4,5 kilometers along the strait separating the Bay of Jasmund (Jasmunder Bodden - recently too elevated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site [DE]) from the sea, after many decades, back towards its original intent.

This ambitious feat of engineering and architecture, built from 1936-1939, had over twenty-thousand accommodations, theatres, dance-halls and a berth for cruise ships and was sponsored by the Third Reich's Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy) programme as a rest-and-recuperation facility for military personnel. The KdF programme was also the original impetus, incidentally, to make automobile ownership possible for every citizen, sort of a people's car or a Volks Wagon. As the war escalated, resources were diverted and the Seebad Prora never saw a single guest.
After the war, the complex was used by the East German military for billeting and training, and access for the public was restricted--the buildings' existence was virtually unknown during the DDR time and it still does not appear on many maps. Mostly, since--except for a bizarre and endearing museum installation in the central building, the place has been derelict. When we toured the Baltic in the Bulli last summer, we camped just outside of the monolithic shadows of Prora and had a great time on the fine beach and exploring the unspoilt ruins, untouched and undeveloped. I was a bit disappointed to read, already back then, of plans--placarded on the buildings themselves, to refurbish some of the units and offer them as vacation homes. It was a bit creepy, chilling I thought, to live there--but mostly I would not want to see the place over-developed and loose that austere and imposing isolation, even with surrounding beaches crowded.
Now the state government has introduced a compromise measure, to open up the resort as a youth hostel. Many castles and fortresses here include a youth hostel on their grounds and rather than detracting from the historic character, acts as a curating influence, letting young people get excited about staying in the midst of such a place and keeping away the vandals that helped along the decline.

Monday, 4 July 2011


Otto von Hapsburg, the eldest son of the last Emperor of Austria-Hungary, has passed away, at the advanced age of 98, and with him one of the last links to this time in the world, not so long ago, when monarchy and lineage dominated and republics were the exception.

I wonder that people can really put their minds around such a difference in governance and birth-right. Hapsburg of course renounced his claim to crown-lands back in 1961 and has since worked ardently for European peace and unity, but his passing raises questions about a resurgence in entertaining a return to royal rule. Hapsburg was not only a private citizen, serving decades in the European parliament but did live quietly under a self-imposed exile in Bavaria and outside of his native Austria. The subdued word of his death—though respectful—seems like a cautious calculation, to avoid exalting him too highly and invite royalists and courtiers of all persuasions that have used disenfranchised nobility for all sorts of causes, positive and negative. A.E.I.O.U. incidentally was a symbolic (signature) device used by the Austrian emperor, which no one really knows stood for--probably "Alles Erdreich ist Österreich untertan" or "All the world is subject to Austria" but no one is for certain, maybe also in Latin Austria Europae Imago, Onus, Unio or "Austria is Europe's spitting image, burden and unification." Further, I wonder about that singular moment in 1919, after witnessing the nightmare of World War I, when the royals abdicated en masse. How that played out does not seem clear to me: did revolution and revolt compel the nobles or did they choose to give up their power on their own accord, did they all agree without dissent or expect the situation to be temporary or as the Empire and Kingdom went, dukes and barons found their free-hold to be without meaning or enforcement? Such events, something never to happen again since their no ceremony and strife of succession, ought to be marked solemnly, but not kept out of sight or we really will be losing that historical era and that historical change.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

national lampoon

A few weeks ago the Onion reported that a think tank in Washington concluded that all of America’s economic problems can be attributed to the fact it was built on top of an ancient Indian burial ground. A few weeks before that, some clever person through the looking-glass started collecting the musings and the outrage of people who do not realize that the Onion is a news parody, whose commentary probably is more telling that most journalism. That jokes and pranks can draw out the same sort of internet hissy-fits is pretty telling as well. What is truly funny does not go stale.

Vor wenigen Wochen gab die Onion ein Bericht, der kommt zu dem Schluss, dass die Depression der amerikanischen Wirtschaft erwächst vollständig aus der Tatsache, dass das Land liegt auf einem riesig, vorzeitlichem indischem Begräbnisfeld (wie im Film ,,Poltergeist’’ – hier findet man solche Kultkino Kreationen). Und aggregiert davor ein geschickt Gruppe den Empörung an Menschen ohne Kenntnisse dass die Onion haben die Nachrichten parodiert. Manchmal sagt Parodie mehr, als jede wahr Nachricht, genau wie Leichtgläubigkeit. Obwohl nichts Neues, versauern nicht was lustig ist.

Friday, 1 July 2011

the glazier's fallacy or ce qu'on voit et ce qu'on ne voit pas

The New York Times has a circumspect article on the end of mandatory military conscription in Germany, which official ended today, marking the transition into an all voluntary force. Formerly, when young men and women reached the age of majority, they were required to serve a tour of eighteen months in military or comparable civilian service, with waivers granted for certain career tracks. Often I think about the incidents and accidents and quirks of history and how things would have turned out completely different had events and practices taken another course: H was able to avoid conscription in the East German Peoples' Army because of the timing of Reunification, and without East Germany to begin with, an American military presence in Germany certainly would not have been so enduring. I wonder if one knows when human events took the wrong course. What does that feel like? I cannot speak to whether the experience is formative for young people or whether the democratized military benefited more from mandatory rather than a voluntary composition, but I do imagine that all sorts of business and industries as well as the apprentices gained a lot from the free-help and career-sampling and development opportunities. As the New York Times story points out, a disproportionate number of military personnel are represented by residents of the former East, where sometimes gainful employment can be harder to secure. Perhaps military service, on a voluntary-basis too, can help distribute opportunities to talented individuals and not become the distasteful, minioned last resort it is elsewhere. It is a big experiment to shift the direction of one's armies like this, and while I am not sure about any analogues or the shape of things to come of this, it did not take place without discussion and debate, and perhaps introduces a measure of reason to the stuff of defense and aggression.

Hier geht es zu einem Artikel von Focus über der Ende der Wehrpflicht--der Schnittstelle der Übergangs von obligatorisch zu freiwilligen Dienst. Vormals, werden alle jungen Männer und Frauen müsse, sich mit 18 Jahren entweder für die Bundeswehr oder Zivildienst zu dienen. Often habe ich mich selbst über die möglichen vom Vorfällen und Begebenheiten Geschichtes nachzudenken. Wie könnte es anderes sein? H vermied Einberufung bei der DDR-Volksarmee aus Gründen des Timings der Wiedervereinigung. Ohne der DDR, haben nicht weder der amerikanischen Militärpräsenz in Deutschland für mich erdulden mussten. Ich frage mich, ob das vom Kurs abkommen. Ich weiß nicht, ob das Erleben was prägend für Jugendlichen oder nichts, oder ob das mit gut für die Armee war. Aber ich glaube, dass begünstigte Arbeits- und Sozialausschusses davon Helfer und Nachwuchsförderung. Das Militärpersonal kommen Bürger aus die neuen östlichen Bundesländern. Manchmal gibt dort nur wenig Möglichkeiten, Qualifikationen zu erwerben. Vielleicht wird weiterhin Freiwilligendiensten als effektiver Zugangsmöglichkeit und Bildungschance statt letzten Ausweg unterstützen. Auf diese Weise würde der Armee einen bisher unbekannten Wagemut an den Tag legen. Vielleicht wenn wir setzen die Debatte fortzu, dann können wir eine gewisse Menschenverstand und Vernunft in die Verteidigung und Aggression einführen.