Friday, May 31, 2013

Speaking in tongues

The guardians and shepherds of the French language have, at least according to the Telegraph, apparently decided to officially recognise a new word for what the anglais and américains have long referred to as 'French kissing'.

It sounds a bit...surprisingly unromantic.

Sadly, they have not preserved the 'French' in the kiss, choosing instead 'galocher' - to kiss with tongues - which sounds a bit too close to 'galoshes' for my liking, which are something a bit like Wellington boots, only they go over your shoes instead of in place of them, and is very definitely Not Sexy. 

It is odd, I think, that their version takes no national credit for the practice of kissing with tongues.

You'd think you'd want your country's name on that particular activity.

Minor digression: I think the above-noted author sorely underestimates the sexiness of Wellington boots.

Though whether we need a special verb for that sort of thing is another issue altogether.

On "Panzerschokolade" and other fun German inventions

Not least because a couple of friends have pointed me to it, I thought I would pass along a reference to this fascinating little article from the English-language version of Spiegel Online that explores the origins of 'crystal meth', finding it in late 1930s Germany.

When the then-Berlin-based drug maker Temmler Werke launched its methamphetamine compound onto the market in 1938, high-ranking army physiologist Otto Ranke saw in it a true miracle drug that could keep tired pilots alert and an entire army euphoric. It was the ideal war drug. In September 1939, Ranke tested the drug on university students, who were suddenly capable of impressive productivity despite being short on sleep.

From that point on, the Wehrmacht, Germany's World War II army, distributed millions of the tablets to soldiers on the front, who soon dubbed the stimulant "Panzerschokolade" ("tank chocolate"). British newspapers reported that German soldiers were using a "miracle pill." But for many soldiers, the miracle became a nightmare.

As enticing as the drug was, its long-term effects on the human body were just as devastating. 

And 'devastating', of course, remains an accurate term for the drug's impact.

On discovering that yet another major illegal drug has its origins in German chemistry I was reminded of an earlier post I wrote at this blog pointing out that, in the early 20th century, my adopted homeland was the leading global supplier of cocaine.

The above facts combined with another recent online reference pointed out to me by a friend -- to a Bayer-branded bottle of heroin -- got me thinking.

If we -- as in we Germans -- ever need a new motto to replace 'unity and justice and freedom' (which is, I will admit, not bad), can I now just suggest that the following might be appropriate for the country that invented heroin, cocaine and crystal meth: 'Germany: getting the party started since 1855'.


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Tiny visitor

We found this little fellow -- a baby blue-tit -- on our front doorstep when we came home from work this evening.

He fluttered around there for a while (actual flying still seems beyond his abilities) before hiding in some ivy in our back garden.

While we ate our own dinner, we watched him (we've rather spontaneously named him Ferdinand) be fed by his parents.

Shortly afterwards, we noted two other baby birds on a branch in another part of the garden. We think they're redstarts, but they might be finches.

It's all gotten very lively in the garden all of a sudden.

We're just hoping that they survive the neighbourhood cats. 

Fingers crossed.

[UPDATE]: They are redstarts. The Wife just saw the parents feeding them what seemed to be grubs. Yum!

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Hotel art #1

An occasional series: art in hotel rooms I (or we) have slept in.

Hotel Ullrich, Elfershausen, Germany (April 2013).

The present is a foreign country

I haven't been reading too much in detail about UKIP -- because, well, really, who wants to spend time thinking about these people? -- but the relative success of the anti-EU, anti-immigration party in Britain's local elections last week has brought forth a new round of attention to them.

Via Max Dunbar, I discovered Andrew Rawnsley's analysis of the UKIP phenomenon, which concludes with these striking passages:

All the main parties have cause to be anxious about Ukip and so all have been trying to understand the rise of the Farageists. One way they do this is to put together focus groups of voters who have switched to Ukip to try to fathom why these people are attracted to Nigel Farage's gang. One senior party strategist says he listened in some wonderment as his focus group of Ukip voters spent an entire 90-minute session wailing and gnashing their teeth about the state of Britain. Not a good word did they have to say about the country today. At the end of the session, he thanked them for their time, and said he had one more question. Was there anything about Britain that made them feel proud? There was a silence. Then one man leant forward and said: "The past." The rest of the group nodded in agreement.

The Ukip manifesto is a nonsense of contradictions. David Cameron, Nick Clegg or Ed Miliband would be torn to shreds by the media if they ever tried to offer anything similar. Mr Farage promises tax cuts for everyone and spending increases on just about everything from building more prisons to restoring the student grant to more generous pensions. But strategists from the main parties tell me that they get nowhere when they try to discuss policy with sample groups of Ukip voters. Even when they agree that the Ukip prospectus doesn't make sense, reports one party pollster: "They just don't care about that."

A Ukip vote is not mainly, if at all, about making a choice based on an assessment of policy. More than anything, it is about expressing an emotion – usually a feeling of intense rage about how Britain has changed and how they are served by the established political parties. It is a howl against the modern world, a scream against the establishment. There's no arguing with that. Or, if there is a way of dealing with it, none of the main parties has yet discovered what it is.

The politics of Kulturpessimismus have a long and not very encouraging history.

Dunbar, by way of addressing a claim made by Dan Hodges at the Telegraph that the results disprove the existence of a 'progressive majority' in the UK, himself points to grounds for a different kind of pessimism: that about finding an effective response to Farageism:

In fact, there are plenty of progressives in this country. They’re just not in politics. As I’ve argued recently, British politics is not a place for reasonable people anymore. Smart progressives who want to make a difference don’t go into politics, they go into public policy or advocacy or journalism or law or the police or the Royal Marines. Because smart people are leaving politics, the field is left clear for maniacs, illiterates, thieves, neo-Nazis and toytown power merchants. This is particularly true at local level.

And it’s not true, by the way, that UKIP represent an ‘anti-politics party’. UKIP are more pro politics than anyone. They encourage huge unrealistic expectations of what politics can deliver. Vote for me and I’ll give you everything you want or need, your darkest fear, your fondest dream.

I don't know enough about the contemporary British political scene to make any deeply reasoned judgements about the above claims.

But I must say, I'm not feeling very optimistic.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Coolness is overrated

Though I haven't yet heard more than the two tracks that have so far been released (one of which I previously noted), I'm pretty excited about the new Vampire Weekend album, since I love their first two.

(There are albums for which I want to be in the right state of mind before I hear them, and I just haven't gotten there yet in this case.)

There's a passage from today's Guardian review of the album and interview with the band that has only reinforced that anticipation:

Ezra [Koenig] speaks like a throwback from 1920s New York: clipped, nasal, articulate. It could come off as an affectation, and read like standoff-ish arrogance in print. But in person, he is quietly charming and intelligent with an undefinable star quality. There are no errant words in his sentences, no gauche contemporary "likes" or "y'knows". Despite being the product of an age where over-stimulation and lack of attention span has apparently made it impossible for us to be bored (and therefore, the theory goes, be creative), he philosophises a lot, too. About what it means to be in a band; about wanting money ("I'm not ashamed to say it"); about accepting it's OK not to be "cool". For instance: "It's great to be like everyone else, it's great to be able to identify what's important to you and respect what's important to other people and find a middle ground where you feel connected to people. There's something narcissistic about thinking you're special and everyone else is boring, and if you end up doing normal things you're a loser. You have to find your way around that otherwise it will just fuck you up." 

That quote reminded me of something I recently read in a not-so recent interview with John Darnielle, of The Mountain Goats:

Pitchfork: You started putting out Mountain Goats albums in the midst of 1990s indie culture, which some associate with generational cynicism.

JD: People are afraid of not looking cool, which involves dismissive and exclusionary stances. I grew up in Claremont, Calif., and when we would all go to L.A., we'd always worry that we weren't fitting in. When our bands would try to play there, we'd get a big "no" from all the clubs. We didn't know any of the right people. So we constructed our own scene where there were bands that you could not, for the life of you, try to figure out what they were trying to accomplish-- but you'd find the beat and nod your head to it. There's been a movement over the past few years toward focusing on good-hearted things that bring pleasure. Thrash kids back in the day talked about being badass, wicked, and evil. Those were all positive terms in that scene. You learn to present dark things without including their ability to harm, treasuring them for what they are.

To which I can only say: 'Cool'. 

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Investigating the investigators

For those of you interested in this sort of thing, my review essay on Haia Shpayer-Makov's fascinating new book on the history of police detectives has just been published at Reviews in History.

It starts like this:

‘A detective’, wrote a crime-fiction reviewer in 1932, ‘should have something of the god about him’:

It was the divine, aloof, condescending quality in the old great ones of Poe, Gaboriau, Wilkie Collins and Sherlock Holmes that made their adventures so glamorously irresistible. A writer of detective stories might have a style as brilliant as Poe’s, as consummately competent as Collins’s, as pompously absurd as Doyle’s – it did not matter: what mattered was whether he gave us a detective whom we could worship.

Even the most ardent fan of crime fiction might think ‘worship’ an overstatement; nonetheless, by the time those words were written, detectives had indeed become among the most popular figures of modern literature. In the decades since that ‘golden age’ of crime fiction, police detectives have often even managed to hold their own against their previously more celebrated private counterparts, whether in print, on television or at the cinema. As The Ascent of the Detective makes clear, such trends are remarkable in view of the suspicion that greeted real-life police detectives in their early years and their frequent literary belittlement.

I hope you find the rest worth reading: both the review and the book.