Monday, February 28, 2011

Karneval, Fasching oder Fastnacht

We call it Mardi Gras: the celebration held before Ash Wednesday. In Germany it's called Karneval, Fasching or Fastnacht. The best known Karneval celebrations are held in Cologne (Köln), Mainz, Munich (München) and Rottweil. The most famous celebrations are held in Brazil, but Germany gets its share of notoriety as well. Karveval is mostly celebrated in the Roman Catholic regions of Germany (south and west); although, I was surprised to learn that Berlin also celebrates Karneval, but to a lesser extent. I’ve been visiting Berlin for 10 years, and this was the first I heard of it.

The main event of Karneval is the parade usually held on Rosenmontag (Rose Monday). In Berlin, the parade was held yesterday. Unlike Mardi Gras, where the participants throw cheap necklaces to the onlookers, the participants in the Karneval parade throw real gifts such as flowers, candy, popcorn, sausages, stuffed animals, and even aluminum foil. Now that’s a parade! In fact, I was almost injured scooping up all the free handouts and pushing the children out the way. J

Here are some pictures I took. Btw: I had a great time! 

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Scandal: German Style

Verteidigungsminister Guttenberg

The latest German political scandal involves Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. For the past few weeks, there have been calls for Mr. Guttenberg’s resignation after it was revealed he plagiarized parts of his Ph.D. thesis and may have used government employees to assist him in writing it. This week Mr. Guttenberg tried to quell calls for his resignation by asking the University to withdraw his Doctor title, which they did immediately. Yet, calls for his resignation persist.

Although polls indicate that over 70% of Germans believe the issue is unimportant, the opposition continues to call for Mr. Guttenberg to go.  Mr. Guttenberg, a rising star in Germany's Conservative Party, was once considered a likely to successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel. What makes Mr. Guttenberg's plight more interesting is his reputation for espousing high ethical standards. (Isn't this always the case? The guy who talks about moral decay is usually morally bankrupt.)

From an American point of view, this is a minor scandal. We're the country that produced Bill Clinton who said, under oath, that he "didn't have sex with that woman," Richard Nixon who stated unequivocally “I am not a crook," and more recently, Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut who lied about his war record. The list goes on and on. There was New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (sex, prostitution), Vice-President Spiro Agnew (tax fraud), South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (sex, mistress), Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (fraud), and my favorite of all, Rep. Wilbur Mills (sex, Tidal Basin Stripper).

As Americans, we take it for granted that politicians will sidestep the truth and push the envelope of moral responsibility. It seems that politicians act and behave as if they're above the law and any ethical standards. Moreover, instead of doing the will of the people, they act to further their own personal goals, the goals of their political contributors, and the goals of their friends, family, and special interest groups. Power, especially political power, corrupts.

I have always thought that one way to curb political power is term limits. Those who argue against term limits say the voters can always vote the guy out office. In theory, that’s correct; but in practice, it’s rare for an incumbent to lose office. The deck is always stacked in their favor. The incumbent has the advantage of money, strong organizational support, and name recognition.

So why no term limits in the Constitution for Congressional Representatives? The issue was debated during the Constitutional Convention, but it wasn't considered a priority since no one could envision career politicians: the pay was low, the power of government minimal, and the job status unimportant. (My have things changed!) Although term limits have been discussed for decades, don't expect them anytime soon. Remember, it's the politicians who need to enact them.

Friday, February 25, 2011


Tropfest is thought to be the world's largest short film festival. It is held each year in Sydney, Australia. Tropfest stands for the proposition that it's not the length or cost of a film that makes it good. Instead, good film making requires creativity, not test marketed stories and recycled plots. Here are a few of my favorites. Enjoy!

(Btw: I did not like the 2011 Tropfest winner.  If you're interested, you can view it at the link above.)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Changes and McDonald's Update

Change is inevitable - except from a vending machine.
Robert C. Gallagher

There is always something new to discover in Berlin. The city is constantly changing. New buildings go up, old buildings are renovated, and the cost of a subway ticket becomes slightly less affordable. We expect change. It's inevitable. In fact, we are told to embrace change. We can only hope that change means improvement.

Last week when I arrived in Berlin, I was expecting change. It's been 5 months since I was last here. Berlin isn't a static or museum city like Paris or Venice. It changes, it grows and it has energy. It's one of the reasons I live here. 

On the trip over, I pondered the changes that would await me. I wondered whether the apartment building down the street was finished after 2 years of renovation or whether an elevator was finally installed at my subway stop? (The steps are a killer, especially when carrying luggage.) The answer to both questions is an unfortunate no.

Nevertheless, I did find changes: those of the negative variety. My favorite cafe, Il Barista is gone and replaced by a chic bistro, my favorite sushi restaurant is now a trendy tea house, and the small bakery where I found delicious bread is all boarded up. It seems I'm a harbinger of death when it comes to commercial establishments. Places I frequent are doomed to failure. What will happen to other places I like in Berlin:  La Batea, a wonderful Spanish restaurant that serves great Tapas or Ikea? 

McDonald's Update

Michael Montgomery sent me this link concerning the oatmeal served at McDonald's. It seems the McDonald's oatmeal is not so healthy!  Read the article and beware of McDonald's oatmeal. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Perfect Murder?

Chanda Turner
I've been a fan of detective novels since I was a kid. From Encyclopedia Brown to P.D. James, there is nothing better than a good crime read, and the "perfect murder" is the bread and butter of the genre.

In most crime fiction, no bad deed goes unpunished. Even the most carefully planned murder always goes awry once the Columbo like character arrives on the scene. However, the perfect murder may be easier to commit than you think. Forget about destroying the evidence or planning the deed to the smallest detail. One sure way to commit the perfect murder is to rely on good old-fashioned police and medical examiner incompetence. 

Take the case of Chanda Turner. This may be an example of the perfect murder. I heard about Ms. Turner on National Public Radio. In July 2000, Ms. Turner was found dead with a gunshot wound to her chest at the house she shared with her boyfriend. When the police arrived, the boyfriend told them that he found Chanda slumped over the back steps, a suicide victim. Despite evidence that some kind of struggle had occurred in the house, the police and medical examiner believed the boyfriend's story and no autopsy was performed! Case closed. The perfect murder?

Well, Ms. Turner's parents didn't believe the story. So they took matters into their own hands. After 10 years of hard work, without the help of any governmental agency, the Turner's were finally able to have Chanda's body exhumed and an autopsy performed. The result: Chanda died as a result of homicide. Big surprise. I won't go into the details since this story is far from over. It's best you listen yourself.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Lonely Funeral

This afternoon I came across an interesting radio program concerning the plight of people who die completely alone. What happens to those people who die without relatives, friends, or anyone who cares about them?
Every year up to twenty people die completely alone in Amsterdam. They have no one to prepare their funeral or mourn them. Some die alone in their home, with nothing but their identity. These forgotten dead have, for some reason or other, lost all social contacts. Some are elderly, some abandoned infants, and some illegal immigrants. Some are poor and some have plenty of money. These forgotten people come from all levels of society. However, they do share one common characteristic: they died lonely and forgotten.
For 20 years, retired civil servant Ger Frits has made sure that these lonely and forgotten citizens have a dignified funeral. He visits their homes if they have one, and selects the music to be played at their publicly funded funeral. He puts flowers on the coffin and accompanies each person to their final resting place. A few years ago, Amsterdam poet Frank Starik decided that these people also deserved to be eulogized. He contacted the Amsterdam city services and asked if he could take part in these funerals and write poems for the forgotten dead. 

It seems terribly sad that people should be totally forgotten by society. As Herr Frits says, "every one of these people had a mother, lived a life . . . They deserve some level of respect when they die."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Now that is Snow

Fish Sculpture in Spring
Fish Almost Completely Covered in Middle of January
Fish Completely Covered February 2
One way I tell whether it has been a particularly hard winter is to measure snowfall by looking at my fish sculpture in the side garden. This winter's lack of snow melt and the numerous storms have caused the fish to be completely covered. Now that is snow. 

Sitting Kills

It's difficult to stay active during the winter months, especially on days when I am snowed in. I'm reminded of my inactivity, on days like these, when leaving the house becomes difficult. Today, I wasn't able to go to the gym; but, I was still was able to take a brisk walk around the neighborhood. For years, health experts have been telling us to exercise 30 minutes each day. But is that enough for good health? New research suggests that our bodies need more than just one period of active exercise per day, and that inactivity such as sitting maybe harmful to our bodies.

"The body's idling state is very very unhealthy," says James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic. His research has shown a consistent link between chair time and death from heart disease. The more people sat, the more likely they were to die of heart disease within 12 years--even if they were slim and exercised regularly!! Prolonged sitting (for as little as 2 hours) can negatively change our body's chemistry. The solution: avoid sitting for long periods of time. Standing or walking at regular intervals throughout the day is vital to good health. Standing not only burns more calories than sitting but it reduces cholesterol levels as well. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Miranda: A Lost Treasure of a Movie

I hope this doesn't sound like an advertisement, but if you don't already subscribe to Netflix, it's time you did. Netflix is a subscription-based movie and televisions show rental service that offers video entertainment to subscribers via the Internet and via the US mail. DVD's are sent directly to your home. When you're done with the DVD, you simply return it with the postage paid envelope. Subscribers can also watch unlimited movies through the Internet by video streaming. Instead, of waiting for a movie to arrive by mail, you select a movie on your computer. It is then "streamed" to your television or computer for immediate watching. I've been a happy Netflix subscriber for about 10 years. (I wish I had bought the stock when it was an IPO. I would be a millionaire twice over by now.)

In the age of the television "reality show," television has become the medium for the brain dead. There is nothing to watch. One wonders who watches traditional TV? Luckily, there is Netflix. It has a huge selection of domestic and foreign movies, documentaries, and television shows. There is something for every taste and age. 

Miranda 1948
Starring Glynis Johns 

One thing I like to do is browse through the Netflix movie catalogue. You never know what you might find. Last night, I discovered a 1948 British film entitled Miranda. I had never heard of it, but it sounded fun and cozy: something to watch on a cold snowy night.

Miranda is a charming bit of comic whimsy. It's funny, in a dry British way; and it will keep you guessing until the very end. There isn't any violence, nudity, action scenes, or foul language. This movie isn't for everybody. A lot of people will find Miranda dated and somewhat old-fashioned, but I found it pure FUN and an opportunity to view post-war Britain. Although it captures an innocent time, I wonder how the ending got past the censors.