You Read it First Here

Over a year ago, I predicted we might well learn that the German intelligence service, the BND, was probably doing all sorts of things that Germans might well disapprove of if they knew about them:

German spy agencies have extremely broad powers under existing law, and will gain new ones under the new Telecommunications Law which takes effect on 1 July. There is a parliamentary committee which provides general oversight of requests for surveillance and a so-called G-10 committee which rules on individual requests. They are supposed to follow strict minimization procedures and insist on adequate proof of possible wrongdoing before authorizing spying measures. However, since both of these committees operate in secret, we have no way of knowing how carefully these guidelines are respected. Plus, since there have been no German whistleblowers, we have no real insight into the scope of German programs. As the Green Party speaker Konstantin von Notz recently remarked, it is high time that Germans learned more about what their own spy agency is up to.

Nevertheless, I am shocked, shocked to find out the BND has been delivering data to the NSA for years (g). Shocked!


Hackberries and Willows in Bloom in Unterbach

Finally, Typepad lets you post multiple photos at once (more easily), so let's give it a whirl.

This being the Rheinland, there are a lot of former quarries and gravel pits around, many of which are turned into artificial lakes. Lake Unterbach (g) is in the western part of town, just a 20 minute bike ride from where I live. Perfect for a leisurely bike ride. The hazelnuts, willows, and hackberries (Traubenkirsche) are in bloom. At least I think that's what the brilliant white trees on the island are, but feel free to correct me if I'm wrong. 

Geese in Südpark
Geese in Südpark
Geese in Südpark
Geese in Südpark
Geese in Südpark
Geese in Südpark
Geese in Südpark
Geese in Südpark
Geese in Südpark


'Er ist Wieder Da' by Timur Vermes appears in English

Jamie Bulloch's translation of Er ist Wieder Da into English under the title Look Who's Back gets an uneasy review in the New York Times:

The novel’s conceit is easily summarized, less easily parsed. In 2011, Hitler awakes (apparently not from uneasy dreams, as Gregor Samsa does) in a field in Berlin. “I remember waking up,” he says. “I was lying on an area of undeveloped land, surrounded by terraces of houses.” He has no memory of his suicide. He has no idea how he’s gotten here. Soon enough he is taken with watching “modern-day television,” but when he finds only cooking shows, he is angered that “Providence had presented the German Volk with this wonderful, magnificent ­opportunity for propaganda, and it was being squandered on the production of leek rings.”

For the next 250 pages, Vermes walks us through months during which Hitler, resurrected by unexplained means, ­overcomes every presented obstacle. A newspaper vendor discovers him in ­uniform and assumes he must be an impersonator playing for dark comedy — the word Galgenhumor belongs, after all, to the Germans — and gives him a bed. Producers from an “Ali G”-style comedy show (hosted by the unimaginatively named “Ali Gagmez”) offer him a spot on the program. His first appearance quickly accrues hundreds of thousands of YouTube views. Soon Hitler gets his own show, website, production studio, even a back-alley beating by right-wingers who assume he’s making fun of himself. Eventually he also has a deal to write about his life. “I’m calling to ask whether you’d like to write a book?” the editor says. “I already have,” Hitler replies. “Two, in fact.”

Let me just admit it: the main reason I posted this is so I could include the illustration by Doug Chayka:

10-Torday-blog427


Who's Afraid of Big European Cocks? America, That's Who.

Topelement

[Hans von Thann (g) ringin' the bell of the Zytgloggenturm in Bern, Switzerland, if ya know what I mean]

I don't mean to give offense, so let me be clear: the word cocks doesn't mean what you're thinking. I only meant to refer to penises. When the BBC wanted to strap big English cocks into big English codpieces on the front of actors playing 16th-century Englishmen, the pussies at American Public Broadcasting Service said: 'not in my America': 

The codpieces in the adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall are “definitely too small”, according to a Cambridge academic who has been researching the 16th-century accessory through the literature and paintings of its time.

Victoria Miller, who is due to give a paper on codpieces at a Cambridge University conference on 30 April, concurred with actor Mark Rylance, who plays Thomas Cromwell in the adaptation and who said late last year: “I think the codpieces are just too small. I think that was a directive from our American producers, PBS. They wanted smaller codpieces.”

...“They’re way too small to be accurate – they should be at least double the size. You can kind of see them there, but they aren’t really stuffed, and are easily missed – they’ve really toned them down for a mainstream audience. The codpiece was meant to draw the eye to the general region.”

[h/t JR] Said it before, say it again: national stereotypes don't materialize out of thin air. Here's a photo from the Biblical Creation Museum in Kentucky, where the biggest challenge was, as Faggoty-Ass Faggot put it, how to hide Adam's cock:

Creation-006-small-thumb

Saturday Night Live once aired a skit (can't find the video, or even an image, alas) featuring John Belushi sitting at a bar. The guy next to him goes to the bathroom and comes back out with a noticeably grosser crotch bulging from his tight late-70's jeans, and a girl immediately latches on to him. Belushi tries the same thing with a few handfuls of toilet paper, to no effect. Then Belushi returns to the bathroom and stuffs entire rolls of toilet paper down the front of his pants until there's a bulge the size of a small automobile. He then waddles gingerly back into the bar and is immediately surrounding by fawning honeys.

According to the linked piece on Hans von Thann, Swiss codpieces were usually stuffed for protection of the genitals and contained enough room to store things like coins and keys, since the pocket wasn't invented until 1754. The German Word of the Week, by the way, is the antiquated German term for codpiece, Schamkapsel, or 'shame-capsule'. This joins shamelips, shamehair, shameregion, etc.


The Coming Exodus from Baltimore

I've been getting, and refusing, a few German press inquiries about recent events in Baltimore. I don't do hot-take live interviews. Someone was arrested and suffered a fatal injury; we are still a long way from knowing all there is to know about that incident.

Another reason I didn't give an interview is I have nothing new or reassuring to say. American cities occasionally erupt in riots after high-profile sporting events or police killings, something that happens in poor parts of cities across the globe. 67%-black Baltimore itself has been a watchword for urban despair for generations, as the 1977 Randy Newman song Baltimore shows:

Hard times in the city

In a hard town by the sea

Ain't nowhere to run to

There ain't nothin' here for free

 

Hooker on the corner

Waitin' for a train

Drunk lyin' on the sidewalk

Sleepin' in the rain

 

And they hide their faces

And they hide their eyes

'Cause the city's dyin'

And they don't know why

 

Oh, Baltimore

Man, it's hard just to live

Oh, Baltimore

Man, it's hard just to live, just to live

Baltimore's problems were also clinically dissected 30 years later in The Wire. Most talented people with valuable job skills have already left Baltimore, unless they are associated with medical or university institutions located there. Whenever poor parts of American cities burn, politicians usually convene a blue-ribbon commission, a report is issued, and there are various halfhearted efforts at urban revitalization for a few years afterward. Here is a recommendation from a 1965 report issued after rioting in the Watts area of Los Angeles:

We propose that the programs for the schools in disadvantaged areas be vastly reorganized and strengthened so as to strike at the heart of low achievement and break the cycle of failure. We advocate a new, massive, expensive, and frankly experimental onslaught on the problem of illiteracy. We propose that it be attacked at the time and place where there is an exciting prospect of success.

The program for education which we recommend is designed to raise the scholastic achievement of the average Negro child up to or perhaps above the present average achievement level in the City. We have no hard evidence to prove conclusively that the program advocated in this report will accomplish this purpose. 

Then attention fades, the money dries up, and conditions regress to the mean. I see no reason this time will be different. A few years or decades from now, Baltimore or some other city will burn, and again people will wonder at the fact that nothing has changed, and the people there are just as desperate and poor as they were before.

There are a few reasons for this eternal recurrence of the exact same debates. First, many problems of poor inner-city areas cannot be solved. Other problems could theoretically be solved, but doing so would involve huge investments of money, talent, time, and patience. People usually claim to be sympathetic to the problems of inner-city residents, but most voters don't want large amounts of their tax money diverted to try to fix their problems. I suspect the advice most Americans would give to residents of Baltimore is: 'Leave'.

Forcibly busing poor kids to rich areas and vice versa -- to combat racial segregation -- was tried once in America and turned out to be a disaster. This isn't just an American problem, either: Malmö, Stockholm, Paris, Marseille, Copenhagen all have heavily-immigrant problem zones that erupt into rioting once every few years. (Germany is an interesting counter-example). If even the world's most social-democratic countries can't find the resources, solutions, and political will to create lasting, meaningful improvements to life in urban poverty pockets, there's no chance the USA will.

So the exodus from Baltimore will continue.


Begin Japanology with Peter Barakan

I went to Japan last Christmas and loved it. Everywhere is clean, the people are courteous, street life is lively and safe, free public restrooms everywhere, spectacular shrines temples and gardens, handmade things made of natural materials. The entire country seems to be curated by people with discreetly minimalist good taste mixed with a bit of wabi-sabi aesthetic. I just scratched the surface, but it's quite a surface. 

While surfing around for things Japanese, I came across the oddly-named TV series Begin Japanology, produced by Japan's national television channel. The understated host, longtime Japan resident and fluent English speaker Peter Barakan (apparently he's half Burmese and half English) presents half-hour shows dedicated to everything from Kyudo to festivals to incense to fireworks to shopping streets to sake to masks to swords to folding fans to Western Japanophiles to pickles, plums, sushi, and calligraphy. Here's one on incense, which, it turns out, has its own highly formalized ceremony: 

By now there seem to be hundreds of episodes -- a long but not exhaustive Youtube playlist is here.  The production values are reasonably high, without being ostentatious. There's often a slight twist: the episode on kendo features an in-depth profile of a young kendo master with one arm who routinely beats two-armed opponents without being given any advantages. Barakan profiles many fascinating Japanese, from retired managers who carve masks in their spare time to famous tea masters, actors, puppeteers and architects. Barakan, a congenial, low-key host, also has a weakness for ordinary Japanese who are trying to maintain some of the many traditions which teeter on the verge of extinction. As with many Japanese shows, there's a lot of pleasantly burbling background music, some of it a bit incongruous.

The shows focus on traditional, non-controversial topics, so I don't think we're going to see a episode on soaplands anytime soon. But within their limited scope, these shows are well-done, with thoughtful scripts, interesting subject choices, and a few modest surprises here and there. Highly recommended.


African Immigrants and the Peter Singer Problem

Those who advocate open borders, or at least a huge liberalization of EU immigration policy, have an ally in the influential Australian philosopher Peter Singer, who has argued that all people in the West must make painful financial sacrifices of most of their disposable income to help the world's poor:

Peter Singer has argued in Practical Ethics (1993) that you are morally deficient if you eat meat, or if you fail to give a good bit of your income – 5% if you earn more than $100,000, and at least 10% of income over $150,000 – to help the world’s most destitute. It’s actually worse than that. If you take Singer’s arguments seriously, you should be giving nearly everything you have to charity. (Singer himself doesn’t go that far, giving away only 20% of his income. Nobody’s perfect.)

...Singer’s basic argument is simple, relying on two main principles. Somewhat paraphrased, these principles are, first, maximize pleasure and minimize suffering; and second, all pleasure or suffering counts equally. (Because of Singer’s particular interests, the bit about minimizing suffering plays a larger role than the bit about maximizing pleasure.) You can question how to apply these principles in particular situations, but for Singer there are no principles more fundamental.

One immediate consequence of Singer’s principles is that animal suffering should weigh as heavily in your decisions as human suffering: that’s part of what he means by ‘all suffering counts equally.’ Animals may not suffer as much as humans, but whatever their suffering, it’s as significant as an equal amount of human suffering.

Another consequence of treating everyone’s – sorry, every organism’s – suffering the same, is that your suffering doesn’t count more than anyone else’s. Since there are so many people in the world who suffer more than you, it follows that you should give a substantial part of your wealth to alleviate that suffering...

To convince you that you should give more of your wealth to alleviate suffering, Singer uses a persuasive analogy. Suppose you see a child drowning in a pool. You can rescue the child at no danger to yourself, but at the cost of ruining your new suit (PE, p.229). Clearly, you are morally obliged to wade in, suit be damned. But, says Singer, if you are a moderately well-off citizen of a first world nation, donating 10% of your income to CARE or Oxfam will similarly relieve much suffering, with only a modest impingement on your lifestyle (p.222). As with the drowning child, you can’t just walk by. You have to grab your chequebook and wade on in.

Using similar principles, Singer concludes that you must be a vegetarian, 'that you shouldn’t give your own children extraordinary advantages' and that we should encourage very old people to kill themselves -- perhaps even kill them ourselves -- so that we can spend the €200,000 it costs to prolong Grandma's life for 4 months to immunize 1000 poor children. Some of these things Peter Singer believes, others are thought experiments designed to foster discussion (and boy, do they ever). He cheerfully admits people will never do most of these things, but they should.

I don't know whether Peter Singer has endorsed open borders between Europe and Africa, but I can imagine he would. And therein lies the problem: almost no Westerners have ever lived up to Peter Singer's idea of completely moral conduct, and they never will. And most of them are OK with that, don't like being scolded as immoral, and think that they are nevertheless decent people. The counter-arguments to Singer are manifold, starting with Hume, who declares it to be perfectly normal and understandable that we care more about those closest to us than those far distant. (The linked article sets out all the critiques). Catholic social teaching holds the same view. And virtually every human alive does too, especially if we judge them by their actions, not their words. Plus, you can't develop a workable ethical system without context-based compromises:

In real societies, and especially in large-scale modern societies, there are a profusion of competing ethical principles. In speaking of ‘competing principles’, I don’t just mean that different people have different principles (although they do), but that there are many principles, in competition with each other, guiding any single person’s actions. All those principles can’t all be true all the time. We harmonize them, to the extent we can, by adjusting the contexts in which we see them as applicable.

If ethical rules arise out of the rough and tumble of harmonizing our own interests, including our social impulses, with the interests of others, and with the contingencies thrown up by an infinitely-various natural world, then the rules we come up with are likely to be partial rules for the here and now, not universal rules which will work in all situations, especially those far from our experience; and there are likely to be a large number of rules, each applicable in a small if ill-defined context. For even the most basic ethical rule, there will be contexts where it clearly applies, contexts where it clearly doesn’t apply, and a large grey area in which there can be indecision and controversy. ‘Thou shalt not kill’, for example, is an unimpeachable moral principle, but we can still argue about its range of legitimate application. Self-defense? Just wars? Abortion? Euthanasia? Animals? Vegetables? Around the sizeable edges, there is plenty of room for dispute. It’s not a criticism of a rule to admit that it’s not always clear where it applies.