Saturday, 31 March 2012

thunderstump or paratonnerre

Maybe the day is not so far off when we can choose whether March goes out like a lion or like a lamb. Physicists in Toulouse, after an edifying battery of experiments with a high-powered laser beam (ion cannon) in the desert of Mexico, have demonstrated that they can redirect and guide, if not also trigger, a lightning bolt away from intended, Thor-chosen, target.

High powered pulses from a laser create a channel of ionized air that lingers like the ozone smell after a thunder storm and forms a path that the lightning will travel down, instead of keeping to the shortest route for grounding and discharge. Researchers hope that in the future, such techniques could protect buildings and power-grids from storm damage, but I think that this also has some exciting and dark implications. Maybe engineers could harass the power of thunderstorms for energy production with a better grasp and control of the pattern of strikes.

Or maybe, like my mother has always feared, this is the start of weather-control for diabolical purposes.
Lightning-wielding agents certainly could escalate tensions, grounding aircraft and decommissioning whole fleets of surveillance drones, as well as disrupting communication. The potential for intimidation could be stronger than any direct-attack, I think. The sabotage that weather can wreck on mood and health presents a potential marketing tussle as well, off-putting for some activities and making shut-ins of us all. I hope these fulminologists (those who study the phenomena) are being responsible with their research. Despite the sophistication of technology, the forces of nature are still surprising and overwhelming.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

toxicity or mabel, black-label

Unless and until I am proven (or convinced) otherwise, I tend to regard all exports and the odd re-import from the United States with quite a bit of skepticism and distrust. It was probably always there, a latent suspicious of institutionalizing industry and a gradual realization that there were independent and impenetrable markets elsewhere that did not need or want American products and that businesses were skimming, eking out nominal profits on a fair trade, but lately it seems to me that packaging, product placement and horizontal cartels have gotten much, much worse. It feels like everything that's peddled and touted is either poisoned by the chemical, pharmacological and cropping guilds with dyes, preservatives, unnatural agribusiness or old-fashioned guilt or is designed to make one dependent and indentured to a certain label.
 The intangibles from the States are acquiring that flavour as well, including best-practices that have seen that same conduct go international. Elections too have become more a vote on personalities rather than platforms and the unseating process has become likewise prying, and fillers—tricks, short-cuts, hacks—have started to infiltrate German consumption as well. None here would tolerate anything toxic or questionable in their food yet, but the alimentary-hack of Aroma, essence and Ersatz is taking on. It's all very unpalatable and I worry for those under the tyranny of apparent and abundant choice.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

collectors' edition or canting-arms

For all of the dreadful excellence of history and their respective and combined accomplish-ments, both Germany and France, it seems, rather squander their chances sometimes to mint special series of coins. There is a very byzantine regulation stipulating how often a euro-zone member can issue commemorative coins, the frequency and quantity, that one country is allowed no license for departure. Germany and France have only reinforced their perhaps unwelcome image and esteem as papa and mama euro by continuing to put out coins, two-euro pieces, that are recursive and self-referential to the EU and the currency. Germany’s 2012 model (which is really quite a cute design with construction cranes, wind turbines, sustainable housing and happily integrated families and Germany is issuing a series of coins within its borders that feature landmarks and monuments for each state) is another example, Germany and its neighbor having released coins that celebrate the Treaties of Rome, Maastricht, EU institutions and the Union’s founding personalities, like Robert Schuman. These are all great things that ought to be remembered, honoured and were nicely executed but perhaps not on currency. The symbols of unity and cooperation almost seem as if they risk becoming signs of animosity and division.  Contributing to the reputation that Europe’s more stable economies denigrate and shame the others, they become sort of like educational, public-service comic-book action heroes whose popularity never quite takes off—the EU Super Friends are no match for papa and mama euro.

interstitial or variety show

Radio is great co-pilot for the long commute, and I did enjoy listening to pure news broadcasts with the occasional searching of the spectrum for a good classic rock song when the Headline News effect, repetition, set in. I was afraid, however, I was always missing something and was never wholly satisfied with the same programme selection of pop. State broadcasters, who also offer the news station and one of the ubiquitous tiger beat stations, feature a channel (DE) that I usually passed over, thinking it was exclusively jazz or Volksmusik (Volxmusik), nothing against either genre, however dithered over it for a while one morning to discover that the bulk of the daytime line-up is brilliant and exactly the sort of stream-of-consciousness narrative on the news and cultural items that I was looking for. The reporting is more in depth and based on expert interviews and there’s a real mix of talk and interstitial (dazwischenliegend) music. “We’ll be discussing Obama’s embarrassing stage-whisper to Dmitri Medvedjev, which he will transmit to his once-and-future president, and then the continuing public-service sector strikes, but first we have two more hot mics for you: Johnny and June Carter-Cash performing their number Jackson.” That’s fantastic and the whole day’s stories are punctuated like that--with a clever soundtrack.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

cordon sanitaire or the moon of endor

While Poland was hosting the new German president on his first official state visit, to reaffirm the ties of the two neighbouring countries, Poland was declared, again, the unwilling football of détente and appeasement. I am sure a great deal of diplomacy is carried out in the footlights, in hushed tones and without attendant-minders, like this Cold War melodrama. Certainly, there is an element of smug fatalism, but it seems as if old rivalries are drawing the same lines in the sand and perhaps the same promises written on water. Starting with the rise of Bolshevik governments out of the chaos of World War I, America sought to staunch the spread of the Communist revolution, but it was not until the victors picked over the wreckage of the World War II, that the US policy of containment became such a formalized game.

Crying foul at the “subversion” of free peoples by Soviet tyranny and without deference to Poland’s history of being swapped, the first bargaining-chip, the country was overlooked again, but despite the clash of the ideologues enveloping it, Poland—like many of the other Eastern Bloc, buffer states—did manage to overcome adversity and neglect to thrive. It is probably not more (but also not less) than an uncomfortable and sad reality to defer change or meaningful negotiations (in as much as such promises are worth) until after a campaign, as was overheard in the candid exchange between the US and Russia regarding Western encroachment into Russia’s domain—casting into question the fumble over the planned deflector shield, to protect Europe from Middle East aggression, to be based in Poland (and in the neighbouring Czech Republic). There is a certain quid pro quo detachment inherent in these dealings, which probably means that tensions and disagreement over Syria and Iran are being broached in the same way, and that’s likely the bigger embarrassment behind shelving the focus on this one slip.

Monday, 26 March 2012

österlichen brauchtum or thanks easter bunny, bock, bock!

Generally, we are pretty good about decorating for the season but this year, for Easter, we are being a bit delinquent. In the past, we’ve gotten these miraculous twigs, from whose boughs we hung papier-mâché Easter eggs to make an Osterbaum (which is something of a mixed metaphor). I call them magic, since the sticks, when kept in water for a few weeks, will suddenly transform from dead reeds into an explosion of yellow flowers, just in time for Easter Sunday. I think that’s pretty keen, and I tried to get some from the florist this year, too, earlier last week. I had noticed a few bundles outside the shop, but when I went back the next day, none were left. I poked around inside but realized, when I was going to ask where I might find them, I don’t know the proper name for such blooming sticks and also wasn’t sure how to pantomime my question. There is still time to be all decked out.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

coffee and tv or tea and sympathy

A very clever Dutch entrepreneur, frustrated with the cavalier, disposable attitude of many consumers but also sensitive to the hardships that make it usually easier to replace an item rather than repair it, is running a chain of cafes in Amsterdam (with more planned throughout the Netherlands) that brings together darners, tinkerers and fixers to give broken goods a second, fighting chance. Like knitting groups and crafting clubs, this new café culture attracts like-minded Do-It-Yourselfers and offers a workshop where they can meet, over a coffee, to repair gadgets, mend clothing, refinish furniture and educate themselves about how stuff works. This is a great idea, and I hope the founder’s continued success is contagious.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

olive tree, very pretty or gartenschlau

With the beginning of Spring, it is nearly warm enough, aside from some frosty mornings, to put some of the plants back on the balcony. Indoors real estate (with a view and a share of the sun) came at a premium and a lot of the houseplants were crowded and vying for space. I have had this ornamental olive tree for years and it has refused to grow much, since with the onset of Winter, it would drop all of its leaves and go dormant, which I figured was normal, especially in German climes, because a few tentacles of leaves would come back every year and continued to branch out over the summer.

It was always a little pathetic, however, since it never was again full and bushy and I would trim back the decidedly dead twigs and thread the one or two strands of leaves around, like a comb-over on a balding man. I keep trying with this one and I refuse to give up. It has sprouted a single leafing branch late this Winter again, however, this time, in revolt to whatever I am doing wrong, it seems to have evolved, mutated with these big wanky leaves that don’t appear to be regular olive leaves at all, which ought to be narrower and more cactus-like.

Maybe it’s some parasitic plant, I thought, at first, but it seems to be part of the olive tree. If this is the case, I never knew that a plant’s frustration could lead to adaptation. Here are some proper olive trees in temperate Rome, growing around the Triumphal Arch of Constantine, just behind the Colosseum.

Friday, 23 March 2012

vor ort, for you, die II. staffel

The debate over continuing financial assistance for former East German stabilization and development, sparked by the election season rhetoric of some municipal hopefuls, has now, fuelled by bidden commentary, broadened from a suggestion, that could have had xenophobic overtones, to a discussion about power of the purse and the sturdiness of statistics (DE). I am not sure how to translate the meaning of “poor-mouthing.” Unlike private banking institutions in Germany, like Deutsche Bank or Commerzbank, savings and loan banks (Sparkassen) are supported and partially owned by their host communities.  Traditionally the profits of the Sparkassen have either been reabsorbed into the network in order to promote more growth and investment, locally, or have underwritten local charity initiatives, aside from shoring up capital, which can be problematic in an environment of tight credit, against expanding requirements for reserves.

Though not without resistance and fear of undue influence (benefit going not to the public but the politician), savings banks in a few of the same communities that were calling for the end to solidarity payments have agreed to share a part of the some 4,7 billion € made nation-wide last year in profit with the cities. Money is a very emotional issue and can be set on edge even more by accusing one group, making an otherness, of contributing to one’s own insolvency. Annually, the Sparkassen turnover for North Rhine-Westphalia is over 200 million €, which is, incidentally, the amount that the communities of the Ruhrgebiet have contributed to the Solidarity Pact fund. The pledge for financial assistance cannot be a matter that individual communities can take leave of at will and probably should not be ended prematurely, since wealth redistributed (within the same country, too) is not squandered, but neither should the social support of charitable organizations be beholden to political will, because even local-politics is not always in civic interest.

socks cousteau

Vacationing in London several years ago, we each got a pair of posh socks from Harrods’ as keep-sakes, perhaps lucky socks.
I try to wear mine gingerly but they’ve held up quite well. Inside-out (for washing—although I am not about the rationale behind the technique) one can see that each individual colour panel is stitched separately and the loose threads flay like some exotic sea-slug. Laundry can be quite an adventure of discovery, too.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

eine torte? nein danke!

beacon

Thank goodness for radio broadcasts and hobbyists, I was thinking while driving to work, since larger and larger swathes of the communication spectrum is going silent. First cable made aerials unnecessary, then quite a wide plateau followed with satellites but now analogue (and seemingly approachable) are being replaced wholesale by digital channels. Of course, everything is awash in an invisible smog of cellular and wireless transmissions but those do not have a significant range nor persistence.

For decades, the compendium of human business rippled, diffuse and faint but still with some tiny hope of being seen, out—slouching in all directions from television and radio. Now much (and with a tendency towards more) of communication is tethered, careening awkwardly in sort of a closed-circuit matter-of-record. Never before has so much been recorded verbatim, and many people are committing more words to the ages than exchanged in conversation, but the audience is limited, private and through the annuals of time, probably would not be beatified as a chronicle of the moment. I’ve amassed some visitors to PfRC from all over the world and it’s fun, but there’s no possibility, no point of entry, for anyone outside of our idiosyncratic protocols and routines, to share what we have done and what we are doing. One does not need to imagine some alien culture, curious that we've gone quiet, for this argument, since already we are finding difficulties with backwards-compatibility and our own future generations may dismiss our records as inscrutable or irrelevant, like so much surplus magnetic-tape and floppy disks.  The world-wide web is a closed system and perhaps irretrievable and irreparable should the architecture of the internet go away. That buzzing swarm of cell phones and WiFi and their longer-range counterparts are, besides, garbled and coded—further to make the intended the exclusive audience and allow no spillage, but I do wonder sometimes if encryption could possibly appear more intelligible than natural language.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

revival

Though sometimes reviled as pedestrian (especially after alternatives became readily available), Microsoft's Internet Explorer was truly a pioneering opus.  For the launch of its latest incarnation, MS has developed a brilliant series of marketing-infographics, embracing this love-hate relationship, to inaugurate its come-back.

lend-lease or ostalgie

Possibly in anticipation of a disgruntled electorate for regional voting in May, a very polarizing and divisive idea has been offered up for public consumption by some cash-strapped communities in North-Rhine Westphalia: civic leaders argue that the Solidarity Pact tariff (DE/EN) for helping integrate the former East Germany has become redundant and they can ill-afford to make further financial contributions.

The industrial region of the state in question is called the Ruhrgebiet and has seen some struggles, contemporary and on-going since some mining and manufacturing operations have been curtailed, but is hardly a Rust-Belt. The cities and towns there on the verge of insolvency were prey and prone to the same mechanisms that have distributed this economic crisis globally. Perhaps it is the press coverage that is most politically-charged, igniting much comment and discussion. These assistance payments, scheduled to expire in 2019, helped the former East (the so-called Neue Länder—which is in fact true since under the East German regime, there were no states but rather districts that were restored to their former boundaries with reunification but when it’s said in the news, it sounds a little back-handed to me) to rebuild and thrive. No one, I think, is begrudging past payments or doubts it was necessary but are merely suggesting that perhaps its time has come—that East Germany is on equal footing with the West, however, the media has exploded the debate into greater dimensions.
Old prejudices come out—though they are never much restrained, like the small comments about having, for the first time in history (which spans a little more than two decades, just), both Chancellor and President from East Germany—and I think maybe people forget that the Solidarity Pact is not a tax solely levied on the people of the Ruhrgebiet but rather something paid by all citizens, East and West alike, and the fact that razing the border, along with added government support, also significantly increased the opportunity for commerce for Western firms and made quite a few businesses extraordinary wealth over night and fueled the German Wirtschaftswünder. It seems almost, in the realm of politicking, that the suggestion is a swipe against the economic rescue packages of the European Union, which are something held at arm’s length from a plebiscite.

conservation of energy or green-washing

Alexander Neubacher, writing for Der Spiegel’s international section (auf Englisch), presents a clever look at trenchant German environmental policies and psyche, suggesting that outcomes are sometimes marginalized for the sake of the movement and solidarity. Though I do believe that many ecological initiatives of Germany and the inchoate care and concern for the planet’s health are positive, like indoctrinating everyone at an early age to develop sustainable practices, wind- and solar-power and preservation of natural habitats, it is interesting to explore how some aspects of environmentalism, in practice, have perhaps become counterproductive and have been victimized by their own success.

Some of the more convoluted efforts, with no net gain or possibly a negative impact, seem more there to uphold the laws of thermo-dynamics (that neither energy nor matter can be created or destroyed) rather than help the ecosystem. The article addresses two of the biggest perversions, bio-fuel—ethanol, which takes the incentive away from farmers to raise food crops and practice traditional methods of sustainability, like crop-rotation, and must be harvested with diesel burning tractors—and energy-saving light-bulbs—which are poisonous and have the potential to make one as mad as a hatter and are a nightmare to dispose of, but there are other unintended consequences welling up from the best intentions no longer so well managed. The deposit programme (Pfand) on single-use containers has led to a reduction on truly reusable containers, extreme water-conservation has left the sewer systems of larger cities clogged up and extra water must be used just to flush it all away, abandoning nuclear energy only to import the shortfall from neighbours, the latest craze of insulation does save on heating and cooling but the siding suffocates homes and offices and promotes growth of mould. Germany is a model for environmental activism and stewardship, and no one should be discouraged by the estrangement of policy from outcomes but rather work within that same framework of recycling, conservation and improving efficiency towards a better means of execution.

Monday, 19 March 2012

litotes or meno male

There has been enough deflection in the news in recent weeks, what with the American Republican party primaries, unrest and due unwelcome in Afghanistan, general simonizing of the economy, one could rightly wonder what happened with the aegis of sovereign default that was clouding Greece, Italy and other euro-zone members. One would be forgiven, in fact, for thinking that the situation resolved itself, and the Greeks and other Occupiers have grinned and bore it through austerity and virtual deficits met a spectacular and fiery demise, greeting their anti-debt counterparts (fabricated and negotiated in kind), as if real markets and future prospects unfolded to the same morality play script, the personified Laziness and Greed versus the righteousness of the fabulists and troubadours.

I am sure there was no mutual annihilation, however, and rosiness and ease, by any number of estimations, are unfortunately not prevailing. Standards of ethics and morality of course do have everything to do with governance, stewardship and negotiation, but like the pronouncements of the Credit Rating Agencies, the so-called Troika, the triumvirate, is not the absolute moral authority it is setting itself up as.  I am sure the intent is pure but pontificating, far from under-shooting the mark, is a useful mask for hypocrisy and dread.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

sinecure or pretender to the throne

While back at the Bundestag, party representatives are holding their conclave to elect the next president of the republic, heir to a mostly ceremonial office that has perhaps made a lot of members of the public and constituencies across the government weary and frustrated with the latest succession of holders of that office.

The previous president resigned too early and the immediate predecessor resigned too late, it seems. Despite all the vested ceremony of having the upper house elect a president (the United States, before the advent of the Electoral College, also allowed the Senate select a president from among its peers), the office seems to be more of a liability (more of a personality rather than a platform) than a political coalition-builder. And perhaps because of the general disillusionment, a significant (though not properly surveyed) portion of the German public favours abolishing the office of the presidency altogether (the Chancellor wields executive power) and reinstating the monarchy, who would assume those roles--hosting foreign dignitaries, inaugurating museums, charitable launches, and the general indirect campaigning and the gauging of public-sentiment that a president seconding a chancellor or prime minister would do--after the idea was raised by a member of the Royal House of Prussia (the descendants, since there never was a German imperial family). Beyond the fascination that many Germans have for the British royal family and in-house nobility is fully-funded through with increased tourism--and perhaps courtiers vying for titles and recognition and the posts that make up a royal household--maybe the return of Kaiser and König as ceremonial figures, bereft of power, would be a good idea.
I can’t imagine that above and beyond what state authorities already contribute to maintaining Germany’s hundreds of former royal residences that much more money would be involved, not to mention discounting the politics of elevating a private citizen to public office, though there is sure to be contention and consequence over legitimacy and right to succession. Nationally and on the state level (Bavaria, like every Lander, has a minister-president and a prince von und zu Bayern, down to dukedoms, baronets, palatinates, counties, marches and fiefs), these dethroned royal families and their adherents have been prepared for this moment--not preening and conniving, I think, but just simply there and rarely does an administration come fully-formed.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

cornucopian or QED

Though many clever and novel ideas are later disproven or shown to have specious connections—not unlike spontaneous generation, the theory of humours, leechcraft or alchemy but not plate tectonics, natural selection, the heliocentric solar system, and so on—a hypothesis, regardless of how intriguing or alluring it sounds at first, is something that is to be tested and ought to be taken as such while the verdict is still out. The verdict is still out on a lot of things. Boing Boing’s science correspondent understands the scientific method very well and warns readers to proceed with rigour and caution when entertaining this brief from Discovery magazine regarding a supposition from the University of Copenhagen that environmental pollution, specifically elevated carbon-dioxide levels, may be contributing to the marked increase in the incidence of obesity.
The argument, though untested, holds that breathing an excess of carbon-dioxide turns the blood slightly more acidic and throws off the chemistry of the body and the mind, triggering people to feel hungry more often and be less inclined to sleep properly. This notion has sparked some rather strident opinions on both sides, which underscores, I think, the importance of scientific thoroughness, especially when it has become all too common for pharmaceutical interests, environmental activists, nutritionists and the agricultural lobby to skew results in their favour, and basically setting up competent authorities to act as their pushers. A cornucopian, by the way, who could be characterized either as a denier or an optimist depending on one’s leanings, describes a futurist who believes, either through attrition or innovation, that mankind will not run out of resources any time soon. Traditional wisdom is not necessarily bad science or pseudo-science, but when false connections take root, it can be very hard to disabuse people of those beliefs, especially with a strong marketing force behind them. The idea of the slight change in the pH levels of one’s blood could contribute to obesity (it seems that the whole glass-of-wine-a-day argument and the fitness of French people approached this hypothesis from the other side, and the idea about the acidic of blood making someone prone or immune to disease reminds me of the mysterious survivors of the alien outbreak in the Andromeda Strain, whose blood was too acid to allow the virus to take hold) possibly simplifies the condition, since it seems far more likely that the afore-mentioned peddlers and pushers and a sedentary lifestyle are the causes, and it doesn’t seem quite right to entangle care for the environment with personal health or vanity, though that may prove most effective for bettering both.

d-base or memory hole

The British tabloid The Mirror (via Boing Boing) is reporting on a proposed scheme that could virtually over- night deputize all filling stations in the UK as agents of Miniplenty: closed-circuit television cameras, already installed at gas stations in order to catch motorists who dash off rather than paying for the fuel that they have pumped, will soon be cross-referencing tax-authorities’ and insurers’ databases to make certain that each and every car is current on its obligations.

In the interest of public-safety, cars found to be dead-beat drivers or if their records cannot be found, the driver will not be allowed to gas up. There is a similar scheme in place in Germany, dating back to the times of the Red Army Faction to help police track criminals on the run, but it has not expanded, grown more pseudopods into other areas of people’s lives—yet, nor does it have a mechanism to switch off the pump. This is an absolutely chilling development, which I think will yield more inconvenience and bad bookkeeping and loss of revenue for filling-stations than delinquent drivers. Having a line of liability does not make the streets safer or prevent accidents and only enables inflated settlements and enriches the insurance companies. Only a very small percentage of drivers, as the proponents behind this idea, some 4%, state and tax-dodging with an automobile sounds as if it would be no worth the effort. Why should authorities stop there?  Why not make the purchase of essentials linked all across the board, ensuring that everyone of us has discharged our debts, public and private, on schedule (and with positive indicators that we will be able to continue making timely payments in full in the future)?  One has to wonder what sort of retro-future and insincere visions inspire such surveillance.

pepperland

The creative haberdashers at Civilicious (sadly no longer in business it seems) have released this tee-shirt, Sea of Hope, featuring the Obamas rendered in the artistic style of Yellow Submarine (DE/EN). They also offer a whole line of political-themed apparel with some clever and subtle references.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

rico sUAVe

Ruben Bolling who writes the uncomfortably true Tom the Dancing Bug series over at Boing Boing perfectly captures the off-putting dissonance behind the latest by-products of the war on terrorism, which is now turning back on itself--like the Ouroboros, the archetypal symbol of the snaking consuming itself and which ought to be the badge for this whole mission--in a helpful pamphlet. I found it most hard to understand how an individual with a background in constitutional law (Verfassungsrecht) could possibly, not under duress, let such conclusions and interpretations have free reign. There must be some horrendous goods and rank majesty out there to persuade those in power and in the public to suffer such a stance so lightly.  I like the pamphlet’s suggestion, for those equally confused, to write an essay about it which the CIA will grade after the thought criminals are dispatched with, but the whole subject, reality outstripping satire, is not so much conducive to humour.

jump back loreta or velvet underground

The golden city of Prague, for all its tangible history and its legend and lore, is an inexhaustible place, a story-telling at every pass, corresponding point for point. Here are just a few impressions that didn’t fit elsewhere. The Loreta church of the Immaculate Conception is a pilgrimage site, inspired by the Holy Hut where Maria lived that was salvaged from Saracen raiders and brought to Italy, with an altar and reliquaries dedicated to the Holy Family.

An Italianate arcade surrounds the chapel, Casa Sancta, and there is an impressive treasury and museum with a detailed history of the cult and patronage.

Prague is also a canvas for revolution, aside from the famous and ephemeral John Lennon Wall, a side of a building belonging to the Knights of Malta who allowed the graffiti artists to make their statements throughout the times of the Velvet Revolution until today, like this infinite loop, Möbius strip, of tanks and construction vehicles tearing across the city.
The city has done an extraordinary job in preserving the sacred and profane, acknowledging that invention and openness are sometimes the better curators.  Also on the palette of expression were these looming--close by the canals and water-wheel of the the Lennon Wall, giant and monstrous baby sculptures in the park on Kampa Island in the Vltava.

Friday, 9 March 2012

ahoj-hoj or bohemian rhapsody

PfRC is taking a few days of vacation in the Czech capital. Please be sure to follow our continuing adventures on our little travel blog. In the meantime, here is an interesting point to ponder: the ancient city’s host of kings and emperors are famous for their patronage of the occult arts and sciences, like alchemy, astrology and numerology, through a few highly visible landmarks, like the Astronomical Clock or the dormitories and workshops of the royal hermeticists on the Golden Row below Prague Castle, but there is also a more subtle homage to the esoterical. The pedestrian bridge spanning the Vltava (Moldau) was realized at 0531 in the morning on 9. July in the year 1357, when the bridge’s namesake (Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV) personally laid the first foundation stone. The precise time is known because this palindromic timestamp (the same forwards and backwards, 135797531) hewn into the bridge tower was picked by court astrologers as the most auspicious time to start building the bridge.  I wonder what other mystical symbols might be hiding in plain sight.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

centennial

With the deadly cruise ship fiascos of the recent weeks, the somber commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic coming up in mid-April probably constitutes one of the most infamous events of the year 1912, but that year, on the cusps of revolution, exploration and war, was filled with a calendar of events. The year, framed by drug issues, begins with the International Opium Convention, ratified at Den Haag and ends with a Germany pharmaceutical concern developing and patenting the amphetamine that would become known as Ecstasy. In between, a biochemist identified and defined the concept vitamins, isolating essential nutrients, and another pharmacist developed an organoleptic scale to rate the relative spiciness of chili peppers. The studio system in Hollywood was formed at this time, man reaches the South Pole and the Balkan Powder Keg began to rumble. Monarchy was not the exception but rather the rule in Europe, with only the Swiss Confederation and twee San Marino as republics, and European colonial possessions formed a patchwork in Africa and Asia for later strife by proxy.
 There were firsts for aviators and aviatrixes, with national air defense forces formed in earnest—and the auto-pilot came into being. Bold experimentation in the arts took place, during the active periods of the likes of Picasso, Kandinsky and Duchamp, as well as the literature of Joseph Conrad, Willa Cather, DH Lawrence, Jack London and Thomas Mann--Bertrand Russell also philosophizing and Carl Jung probing the collective unconsciousness. Some of the art and personalities seem distant and unreachable—not dismissed and forgotten, but only just so, on the advancing edge of modernity. I wonder how people might remember about 2012 and how vital those far-off ripples from our time might heave or wash-out.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

uncanny

Surely the mad scientists in the government that have seeded the clouds with drones and brought the public dragnet surveillance have always been churning out creepy and diabolical inventions but, I guess, were made to dip their flag to publicity and P-R (or just out of pride) and put their technological achievements on display. Dexterity and upright posture are only a question of degrees and will improve, I think (barring some unknown Pinocchio principle about balance), but as with aerial drones, a robot whose mobility can outstrip man's is unsettling.

Such a contraption could round up undesirables, be an expendable cat-burglar, but I suspect that it won't be primarily deployed in search-and-rescue missions, like a fire-fighter's companion. Nimbleness and agility are exclusively human domains, but even without a modicum more of artificial intelligence, the way that man interacts with machine will change significantly. Ethicists and sociologists are drafting laws, rules of conduct to try to anticipate this new cultural shift, which I am sure will touch on all areas of human life, labour and leisure. Broadly, I am sure a lot of highly intelligent visionaries are trying to equip philosophical quivers against all contingencies and changing norms, but those robot laws that I have heard proposed so far seem naïve and inadequate and very pro-business. It is as if one is getting a parody, like the sorry and pointed lampoon of Dr. Seuss' Lorax, instead of Asimov: 'no robot should be designed primarily to kill or harm a human being; no robot should exploit the empathy of humans, nor should they be indistinguishable from humans; one should always be able to determine who has legal responsibility for a robot…' That is all well and good but seems a little shallow. Machines have been making their human counterparts redundant for some time, but advances in robotics equates to the shock the first criminal who was caught by his finger-print had and the perfect crime entailed more than outwitting a detective.  Progress cannot be legislated but it can thrive within an ethical and sufficient framework—bureaucracy is still trying to catch up to the personal computer. This next revolution needs to have creative and thoughtful architects, and the rate of progress will be exciting and catapulting.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

antidote

On certain slow news days, when the headlines are dominated by pageantry, corrections, retractions, revisitations and pro forma events, I wonder if there is not some sort of viral persuasion for disengagement and even repulsion in circulation among mainstream media outlets. This anti-news is a confirmed and competent school of journalism, it seems, and latches on to the day’s events with a subtle and ingenious mechanism to distract and dissuade. Such reporting is not of the opportunist variety, taking advantage of gladiatorial games or easy-chair terrorization to obscure substantive stories, but something else—something insidious and lulling enough to cause the public to take leave of that estate. Focus is not magnification, and as bad as the idleness that can be inspired through misinformation or omission is, the idolatry is even more dangerous.

Monday, 5 March 2012

matryoshka or flying circus

In his work about the experimental Republic, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville made the initial observation that the country was too big, diverse both in terms of territory and population, for the democratic exercise and would most probably end with monarchy.

I wonder what the political scientist would make of the royal family of brokers and bankers, and though Russia has elected no czar or despot, I wonder if de Tocqueville would have made the same prediction of the much vaster land in the east. No novice candidate in his or her mid-twenties—someone with no direct and living-memory of the old order—would be called to run, nor would anyone want that sort break with the past, and the opposition presented a paucity of choice, that’s very much a part of the democratic process. Acrobatics and a little braggadocio are essential for straddling those points of departure, schisms that are mostly attributed from the outside of the continuum of Russia. To a large extent, freedom from want has been transmogrified and restructured in an orderly fashion. With a clear mandate and no reasonable chance of losing, why would Putin have risked the side-show of ballot-stuffing and vote-fraud? The cries of foul were not just the sour-grapes of the competition nor administrative irregularities but perhaps something more orchestrated. A monopolar world is always slipping, and perhaps the guardians of democracy, croupiers and ring-masters touting the freedom to want, would rather not see individuals outside of their vetting and credentialing process retain power. Maybe the financial dynasties, the ruling elite, would like to discredit and destabilize the regimes that they cannot buy.

blue laws

Generally, I am only keenly aware of the restrictions against smoking when corralled through security after a trans-Atlantic flight. The labyrinthine shepherding through the airport, hermetically sealed and no chance of escape is maddening. Already the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants is over four years old, and though it is no hardship and actually more pleasant all around—although I have not really just gone out for a drink or stayed for more than one, since the rules went into effect, it does strike me as strange that the whole of Europe could screw its collective nerve and resolve to a comprehensive ban that was not universally favoured. One still sees a lot of smoking in thresholds and out-of-doors during nice weather, but it is hard to dispel images of soupy smoke in cafes and pubs, and even as some businesses contemplate the unthinkable, relaxing the ban, there is a certain stale smell of revision—not that some establishments might be allowed to go back to the way things were before, but rather that smoking indoors was never permitted, except in the movies. Bavaria instituted some of the most stringent restrictions, to later back away from a few that were over-reaching, and there’s yet this funny legal steering to get around the letter of the law, with smoking “clubs” that are not open to the general public and only to dues-paying members, or the elaborate (and rather kosher-sounding) work-around of having a tent erected inside a community centre, since one could smoke in a tent. The powerful tobacco lobby in the Netherlands is making it possible for bars that are tended and staffed only by one person who owns the establishment to permit smoking. This sort of conditional dispensation is even more strange.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

vor ort, for you

Though I sincerely hope that it remains otherwise and the rare exception, changes in the landscape of the German jobs' market are being politicized as assaults and affronts on labour, with the same shrill cries of their American cousins. Ensuring a fair and level venue for business is one part of legislation, so is aiding those poisoned or exploited, but governments cannot outlaw poor business practices nor incessantly cushion bad decisions through subsidies and bailouts.

While I do not think any of the current transitions, brought before the public, like the decision to mothball Berlin Templehof airport or to expand the Stuttgart train-station (though many people do not like the outcome and perhaps the tyranny of the majority is out-of-place, deceived or bought), or ultimately transparent through mismanagement and complacency, I am afraid that support for the worker could all around degenerate into some campaign pledge or distinction, meaningless but divisive. Listed from minor to major in the terms of real impact--the latest bundle of changes have not yet been characterized as such but are good candidates for this new dispersing wake: the upcoming rounds of draw-downs of the US troop presence in stations across western Germany, the forced closure of more than half of the outlet of a chain of neighbourhood drug stores and energy reforms. None of these arrangements came to a crisis point without missteps or a narrow field of vision but the changes also will not be without consequences. Not only are German civilian employees facing the prospect of loss of jobs, communities hosting the Americans, from renters to retailers and restaurateurs will be losing a client base. And although this is not the biggest or the first transformation in US troop presence in Germany still the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany, the incidence is magnified by the other changes in the jobs’ market and the Bundeswehrs own restructuring, ending mandatory service and the alternative civilian service that went along with conscription. The insolvent chain of drug stores, just before the state of its troubled finances were revealed, introduced as new marketing slogan, "Vor ort, for you," which is a confusion of German and English (vor ort means locally) and I am not sure what the aim was with this appeal.  It was, however, a good way to describe their important role in communities, especially smaller, more isolated ones with an aging population. These stores are everywhere and are vital in small villages, serving as an employer and selling to people that are perhaps not very mobile.
Their ubiquity probably made them a victim of their own success, anchors not only in rural areas but also in urban neighbour-hoods, saturating the market and not as agile as their competitors. Energy reform (called die Wende, like the term used to describe the turning points of Perestroika and the opening up of the former East German borders) was not invoked in the immediate aftermath of the disasters in Fukushima, plans to phase out nuclear power was already in place, but the tragedy in Japan certainly provided the impetus for Germany to wean itself off of the reactors at an accelerated pace. Redirecting the industry, however, will cost jobs--though hopefully create others, and the associated cost, making many resources more dear unexpectedly, is having unforeseen repercussions, like forcing subsidies for other alternative energy sources, like solar-power credits, to be cut. People should not strive to better the ecology merely in exchange for tax breaks, but loosing that incentive has consequences too. Like all my co-workers, I have had some idle angst about job-security, but I do feel confident that this change is only going to open up better opportunities. I stopped my whinging and feeling sorry for myself too, after learning of one co-worker's potential situation--not only does she work for the US army at a post slated to close, but her son and husband work at the nuclear power plant and her daughter works at one of the drug store franchises that will close. Her predicament seems much more dire, and already without polarizing politics, and though she is not being complaisant, counting only on government welfare and forces of advocacy, she is also not panicking.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

thesaurus or go ahead, NARC yourselves out

Joel Johnson of Animal New York reports on America's security jabberwocky and its recently disclosed and clarified policy of trawling social media networks (via subcontracted proxy) for possible emergent activity and warnings. Certain, recursive key words invite further scrutiny, as illustrated exhaustively in this word cloud generated by Wordle, but such augury is after wider social trends and sentiment and does not target the individual, unless he or she has been identified as a person-of-interest. I wonder how that works, with the author's anonymity burdened with being uninteresting in the first place.

face the book

Much of the computing press (DE/EN) has looked to this day, when the coordination and communication among the ancillary services of a major internet search engine is allowed free congress and is no longer compart-mentalized among the respective services, with great trepidation, as if, untimely, like a baby at the ball, the internet would vomit out, inopportune and indiscrete, every single embarrassing thing that one has done on the internet and inexorably link it to everything one does henceforth. I think those fears are magnified, latent insecurities over the Pandora's Box of convenience and connectivity that can't be put back in the bottle. Vigilance and education about privacy issues and abuse is very important if we are to prevent the drift of nosiness and full, involuntary disclosure, but, given that a rival social network was discovered to have slandered the major search engine by promoting exaggerated and false stories in the press about its competitors' policies, mostly to deflect from its own unsavoury and prying practices. I wonder if the bigger prize is not merely the users' data but rather sewing distrust.