Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Emerging Ecosystem

It all started with a simple bird feeder. I wanted to encourage wildlife in the neighborhood so what better way to accomplish this goal than to purchased a bird feeder. For the first couple of days, there was little activity, and I was disappointed the birds were ignoring the stylish feeder that I had so carefully selected at Target. I needn't have worried. Before long, the feeder was attracting sparrows, starlings, finches and all manner of unidentifiable bird species. The feeder was a success!

Then several days later, I noticed that cardinals were congregating on the porch floor eating seed. It turns out that the small birds (which are messy eaters!) toss out the larger seeds from the feeder. At some point the larger birds had discovered this new food source. Wow, I thought. My porch has become a sort of bird mecca. 

Nevertheless, my elation was short-lived, since the neighborhood squirrels soon discovered the discarded seed as well, and were now competing with the larger birds for the food. To my dismay, the squirrels always won these ugly confrontations.

The current top of the food-chain, as of this week, is a neighborhood cat that has also managed to find the feeder. The cat hides underneath a porch chair near the feeder, lying in wait as the unsuspecting birds eat the discarded seed. I've seen the cat pounce; although, so far as I know, it hasn't caught anything (yet).

Concerned that the cat would eventually catch a bird, I decided to move the feeder. Unfortunately, relocating the feeder had no effect. When the cat arrived, he initially hid in his usual spot, but after half an hour or so, when no birds showed up, he noticed the new feeder location and put two and two together. It just proves the stereotype that cats are crafty and intelligent, especially when it comes to hunting. 

It seems that the purchase of a simple bird feeder has turned the entire porch into a miniature ecosystem supporting birds, squirrels, and even cats! I wonder what's next? 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Photo of the Day: (Squirrels: A Cute Nuisance)

Photo courtesy of the Guardian
My neighborhood has a lot of squirrels and they're a big nuisance. They eat the bird seed I put out for the wild birds, they dig up my newly planted bulbs, and they gnaw at electrical power lines. Moreover, I've seen squirrels cause havoc by jumping in front of moving cars and bicycles. Nevertheless, there's something adorable, and even endearing, about these little neighborhood pests.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Good-Bye Borders

Borders South Portland
It's official. The Borders bookstore chain is closing. The announcement is sad, but not unexpected. Book-buying habits have changed drastically in the past decades, and even with its well-stocked shelves, comfy chairs, and coffee bar, Borders eventually failed. I wonder whether the traditional bookstore is destined to suffer the same fate as the video store?

First, the independent bookstores were replaced by the mega-bookstores (Borders and Barnes & Noble). Then these stores had to compete against the discount chains (Walmart and Costco) and online retailers (Amazon). And now, even paper books may soon be a thing of the past with the advent of e-books (Kindle and Nook).

Not to be nostalgic, but it wasn't long ago that independent bookstores were everywhere. Browsing in these small independent bookstores was one of my favorite leisure activities. I remember spending hours browsing in Cody's in Berkeley, Papa Bach's in West Los Angeles, Tower Books in Sacramento, and, recently, Cunningham Books in Portland. They were once all here, and now they're gone.

Of course, the truly special thing about the independents was the owner or manager who was a true bibliophile and who knew books. These people could tell you anything you wanted to know about a book, author, or publisher.

For me, books, like anything of value in life, need to be experienced in person, hands on. It's a sensory experience. I love opening a book and leafing through its pages. I like the tactile sensation, the weight, and the physical look of the printing. And while I do buy books online and have a Kindle, I still prefer books on paper and buying them at a bricks-and-mortar bookstore. For all the benefits online shopping provides, it can't match the social benefits of going to the bookstore and chatting with staff and other customers.

Yesterday, I visited the Borders in South Portland. As I was browsing through the sale items, I mentioned to a store employee how sad it was that Borders was closing. Every time, I had been to Borders, the store seemed bustling and full of life. He agreed the store was popular, but people used it more like a library than a store. They would hang-out, read, browsed and schmoozed, but didn't really buy books. At least, not enough. So like any business, if it doesn't earn a profit, it's doomed to failure.

Friday, July 22, 2011

It's Hot!

Portland Maine set a record today. It was 100°. That's the hottest July temperature on record, and only the fourth time in Portland's history that it has been in the triple digits. In fact, the all-time high for Portland is 103°, set in August 1975. Central Maine Power reported that power usage also set an all-time high.

I don't know what's all the excitement. I'm from Sacramento where 110° is not uncommon in summer. Now, that's hot!

Lucian Freud

Lucian Freud has died at the age 88. He was widely acknowledged as one of the greatest British painters of the 20Th century. Known mostly for his nude portraits, Freud was the grandson of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and achieved fame in depicting his subjects realistically and honestly. 

I found his work particularly unsettling, and, at times, difficult to view; but, I did like it. I remember seeing his, Naked Man, Back View, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (you can listen to a discussion of this work by linking to the Met) and not understanding its appeal. One of his most controversial and unflattering pictures was of Queen Elizabeth II, who posed for Freud fully clothed. When the Queen saw the finished portrait, she wasn't pleased. 

Freud's Naked Man, Back View
The Queen

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Fernsehfilme: Vorhersehbar, aber viele der schönen Menschen (German TV: Predictable but a lot of Beautiful People)

Typical Scenic Landscape from a Fernsehfilm
Germany TV reminds me of 1970s American television: most of it mediocre, but, at least, there was something for everybody. Sadly, American TV has become a wasteland for reality TV, talk shows, and schlock. I avoid it. Nevertheless, with the Internet and HDMI, I'm able to follow German TV in the USA.

Each day, I watch the German evening news (Der Tagesschau); and, if time permits, a made-for-TV movie (Fernsehfilm) -- preferably a sentimental, romantic drama (something I usually don't watch otherwise). Strangely, I find this kind of mindless entertainment relaxing and comforting. The scenery is breathtaking, the actors good-looking and the plots completely predictable, even when they are far fetched. These Fernsehfilme follow the standard formula: man meets woman, man falls in love with woman, man and woman break up, and lastly, man and woman are reunited.

Here are a few examples of what I've recently seen on DasErste:

Plötzlich ist es Liebe (Suddenly, it's Love)

Ralf Bauer
Filmed in the beautiful German countryside and on the Italian seacoast, this story involves, Barbara, a beautiful orphaned girl living in Italy. It seems Barbara's mother was discredited by her wealthy family because of an “undesirable affair” with Barbara's rakish and good-looking Italian father. After the death of her parents, Barbara is invited to Germany by her wealthy uncle. Of course, Barbara lacks the social graces of her wealthy relatives, but soon her natural charms delight the men, especially her hunky and very good-looking neighbor Christian (Ralf Bauer). Plot spoiler:

Barbara and Christian fall in love.

Zwei Herzen und ein Edelweiß (Two Hearts and an Edelweiß Flower)

Scene from Zwei Herzen
After her divorce, Bettina Finke has only one wish: to forget her marriage and take a vacation with her children to Italy. However, on route to Italy, she decides to visit to her great-uncle Gustav who she hasn't seen since childhood. Of course, Uncle Gustav lives on an idyllic farm in the Bavarian Alps; but sadly by the time Bettina reaches Bavaria, Uncle Gustav is dead. After the funeral, Bettina learns that uncle Gustav has left his entire estate to her!!

At first, Bettina and her children want nothing to do with this picture postcard farm. It seems Bettina and the children long for the dirt, congestion, and high-speed Internet of the big city. Then Bettina meets Martin, a handsome man who owns the auto repair shop in the village. Plot Spoiler:

Bettina and Martin fall in love, the children forget they lack high-speed Internet, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Auf der anderen Seite (On the Other Hand)
English title: The Edge of Heaven

This movie is the exception to the usual Fernsehfilm. (It was originally a theatrical release.) There's no beautiful scenery, no handsome actors, and no happy ending (my kind of movie). The film involves a son traveling to Istanbul to look for the daughter of his father's girlfriend. Missed connections, tragic murders, and a bittersweet ending contribute to this “arty” European film. (BTW: it won lots of film awards).

It stars some well-known actors, including Hanna Schygulla (The Marriage of Maria Braun, Berlin Alexanderplatz). I remember Ms. Schygulla from the 1970s as the sensually erotic actress who starred in a number of Fassbinder films (which, by the way, are the opposite of these soothing, unremarkable Fernsehfilme).

Hanna Schygulla
Unlike most American actors, Ms. Schygulla doesn't appear to have had plastic surgery. She looks her age, an attractive and matronly woman in her 60s. And while I didn't recognize her at first, Ms. Schygulla still has those radiant eyes that convey deep emotion. Looking at her today, she reminds me of Hillary Clinton.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Beat the Summer Heat in Berlin

Summers in Berlin can be hot. Here are some places to go to escape the heat.

Sowjetische Ehrendenkmal (Soviet Remembrance Memorial)

Thousands of Russian soldiers died in WWII's battle for Berlin. The Sowjetische Ehrendenkmal in Treptower Park commemorates the fallen with a huge and sobering monument. At one end of a tree-lined avenue is the statute of Mother Russia weeping for her lost sons. At the other end of the memorial is a huge statute of a Soviet soldier holding a child in one arm and destroying the Swastika with the other. This place is always a few degrees cooler than the rest of the city. It's a great place for an afternoon stroll at any time of the year. And one big plus: it's seldom crowded except for the occasional Russian tour bus. I often visit the nearby beer garden and then stop here for a lazy read or nap.

Müggelsee and Wannsee

Müggelsee Beer Garden
Berlin is surrounded by numerous lakes, forests and rivers. The Müggelsee and Wannsee are two lakes where Berliners go for summer fun. The Müggelsee is east Berlin's water sports playground. There's sailing, swimming, and Windsurfing. The Wannsee is west Berlin's equivalent. Both are crowded on the weekends so get there early. They are easily accessible by public transport or bicycle. Be cautious during July and August since the water at both places has been known to contain high levels of bacteria. 
Crowded Weekend at Wannsee

Friday, July 15, 2011

"Fair and Balanced," Really?

Rupert Murdoch, media mogul and creator of Fox News, is in the headlines. It's alleged that some of his United Kingdom Newspapers paid more than $1.5 million in hush money to cover up hacking into cell phones in the pursuit of stories. They allegedly hacked into the phone records of members of parliament, cabinet ministers, and even deputy prime ministers. If these allegations are true, Mr Murdoch is in deep trouble, indeed.

I have to admit that I'm relishing in these allegations. Not only are the alleged crimes serious in their own right, I believe Mr. Murdoch has contributed to the decline of our national politics of the last few decades. Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those liberal lefties that enjoys seeing a politically conservative person get his comeuppance. In fact, I'm, by most accounts, a political moderate that has even voted Republican in the days the Republican Party had reasoned and logical ideas (as opposed to the fiscally irresponsible and theocratic Party it has become).

This recent news scandal brought to mind how Mr. Murdoch's American creation, Fox News, cloaks itself in a tawdry veil of objectivity, endlessly shouting its “Fair and Balanced” and “We Report, You Decide” slogans. Yet looked objectively, Fox News isn't balanced, but just another tabloid that provides blustering, loud, obnoxious, in-your-face opinion. It's nothing but a mouthpiece for the Republican Party. 

Watching Fox News commentators Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck is frightening. They manipulate facts and use incendiary rhetoric to promote division in America, all in the name of being good Americans. A lot of people watch this drivel and take it seriously. Even believe it. Unfortunately, Fox News seems to be everywhere. You find it in restaurants, gyms, bars, and even hospital waiting rooms.

I'm the first to defend freedom speech, but I don't patronize establishments that promote hateful, bigoted, and untrue information. For example, there's a small deli near my house that has reasonably good food; however, the two times that I've been there, Rush Limbaugh has been on the radio. Mr. Limbaugh is a particularly offensive person that uses intolerant and xenophobic overtones to spread his right-wing “ideas.” I no longer frequent this deli or Longhorn Steakhouse, another establishment that finds it appropriate to show Fox News to its patrons.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Colonoscopy: Not Just For People!

Victorian houses have plenty of character. My house was built in 1885, with lots of period details including built-in ice boxes, a slate kitchen sink, cedar lined closets, stained glass windows, a wrap around porch, and original hard wood floors. However, old houses also have inadequate insulation, outdated electrical systems, and ineffective plumbing.

A couple of weeks ago, an original cast iron pipe had to be removed after it cracked. This week there was another plumbing problem caused by an inadequate drain trap. The problem has been temporarily fixed, but the long-term repair will cost anywhere from $2,000 - $5,000. Like everything else these days, plumbing repair is expensive and high tech.

I was surprised to learn that one diagnostic tool used by the modern day plumber is a fiber optic video camera. The plumber slips the camera down the pipe where footage film is transmitted either in real-time, or recorded and stored for later use. Using the video camera allows the plumber to pinpoint problems such as broken pipes, corrosion, leaking joints, and blockages.

These video cameras have even been used to find lost jewelry and other items that have been accidentally flushed down the toilet. Before the use of video cameras, determining the cause of a plumbing problem was an arduous process that took lots of time and money. Now it can be done in just minutes. In many respects, watching the video of my household pipes was like looking at a human colonoscopy. It was really quite amazing.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Picture of the Day: Eine Mutter Ente und ihre Küken

Courtesy of Der Tagesspiegel

Berlin drivers are certainly aggressive, but they do have a soft side. Here, they let a mother duck and her children cross the street. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Viktoriapark Denkmal: Deutsche Geschichte von Schinkel

A few nights ago, I watched the excellent BBC series The Art of Germany. It's available for viewing on YouTube. The focus of the series is understanding the complexities of the German character by exploring German Art from the Middle Ages to the present. The series doesn't shy away from tackling controversial ideas, and it reinforces the notion that art cannot be fully appreciated unless viewed in its historic context.

For example, in Berlin's Viktoriapark, there's a monument designed by Schinkel. I never realized that this structure had significance beyond its status as a ubiquitous war memorial.

At the time the monument was completed in 1821, Germany was still an assemblage of small Germanic states and not yet unified. For hundreds of years, the small German states were at the mercy of the great European powers: France, Sweden, Russia, and the United Kingdom. 

And although this monument is dedicated to Prussia's role in the Napoleonic wars and designed in the old Gothic style, its cutting-edge cast iron construction and use of innovative rust proof paint signaled the end of Germany as a feudal and powerless state. In a sense, the monument foreshadowed a nation that would lead the world in science, industrialization, and war. 

Over the next 150 years, this dark cathedral-like structure would overlook the Berlin skyline observing a nation that would achieve economic greatness, suffer the ravages of war, and rebuild itself into a modern leader of freedom.    

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Bone Chilling Movie

Last night, I saw Seance on a Wet Afternoon. It's a darkly uncomfortable movie. As the atmospheric story unfolds, it justified my initial uneasiness. To say I enjoyed the movie would be inaccurate. The movie made me feel agitated, and when it was over it left me weary and unsettled. It was two hours of pure anxiety. I see a lot of movies where truly bad things happen; yet, I'm able to divorce myself from the narrative. Not so with this movie. It took me in, and there was no escape until the end.

Objectively, the movie is a masterpiece of suspense. It's almost Hitchcockian in its construction. For the first 30 minutes, I wasn't sure what was going to happen; yet it doesn't seem slow or muddled. The writing is tight, and the direction by Bryan Forbes captures the psychological complexities of the two main characters. The chilling performances by Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough are faultless. By every measure, this is a very good movie. However, did I like it? And is liking a movie the only criterion by which to judge it?

The mark of a good movie is its ability to evoke emotion, and a suspense movie is supposed to make you feel fear and worry. This one did its job. I'm glad I saw it, but I could have done without the nightmares.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Way of the Dodo Bird?

It's summer and that means it's mosquito time. Ever since I was a child, I've been a magnet for mosquitoes. Don't take my word for it, ask people who walk with me. They can verify this uncanny attraction. Furthermore, whereas a mosquito bite is generally an irritating itch for most people, a mosquito bite on me swells up into a big welt. I try to limit my outdoor activities during the summer months, especially during the dawn and dusk hours when mosquitoes are most active. Nevertheless, the mosquito tends to make me a virtual prisoner in my own home. Short of wearing a beekeepers suit, I invariably get stung. Sure I can wear DEET, but the side effects (headaches) are often worse than the mosquito bite itself. Over the years, I have adapted; but I do miss out on things such as the 4th of July fireworks show the other night.

I've often wondered whether mosquitoes have any value other than causing diseases such as malaria, encephalitis, West Nile virus, etc.? Historically, mosquitoes have been a sort of population control. They have kept human, and even some animal, populations down by facilitating pestilence and death. On the positive side, mosquitoes do provide some food to fish, frogs, birds and bats. But the question remains, if there were no mosquitoes would life be better?

Most scientific research seems to indicate that if the mosquito were eliminated from the face of the earth (no easy chore), it would make little or no difference to the ecosystem. In fact, the elimination of the mosquito would improve the human condition.

So is it immoral to make a species go extinct for the benefit of mankind? I know we lack the ability to eradicate all mosquitoes, but isn't it a pleasant fantasy anyway. 

Sunday, July 3, 2011

July Dog of the Month: Pepe !

What a face! I just want to pick him up and give him a big squeeze. Pepe is 11.5 years old but doesn't look a day over 8. He has an extremely good-nature even when under the weather. His hobbies include sleeping, eating, and snoring. In fact, I hear tell that he's a world class snorer. You can hear him snore several rooms away even with the doors closed. Now, that's something! 

Shanghai, City of the Future

Shanghai Skyline
Last month, at the DDD Summit held in Portland, I had the opportunity to talk with one of the attendees who is now based in Shanghai. We talked about many things but mostly about the changing city of Shanghai. Shanghai is one of the most dynamic cities of the world these days. It's China's center for finance, commerce, and technology; and its ability to adapt itself has made it one of the world's top global centers. Starting out as a large third world city, on the scale of a Mexico City, Shanghai is moving rapidly in the direction of a London or New York.

Out for a Stroll
According this attendee, Shanghai's leaders studied the characteristics of successful global cities around the world (New York, London, and Hong Kong). Interestingly, they discovered that one quality all these cities shared was the percentage of foreign residents living there, around 20 percent.

A Vanishing Face of Shanghai
Moreover, it wasn't just the percentage of foreign residents that made a particular city successful, but rather the number of multiple nationalities that made a city thrive and be innovative. In other words, cities with one dominant nationality didn't do as well as cities with multiple nationalities. That's not surprising. Foreign residents not only bring money and investment capital, but they have fresh ideas for solving problems. 

So in order for Shanghai to become a successful global city itself, the Chinese central government instituted policies that encouraged more foreign residents, including favorable tax incentives and easy resident visas. It's a bold move on the part of the Chinese government, but bold moves separate the wheat from the chaff. It's no wonder China has been so successful within the last 20 years. It makes me think of the contrast between the United States of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the United States of today with its anti-immigration sentiment.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

It's the Little Things that Count

A couple of nights ago, I was awakened to the sounds of machines outside my bedroom window accompanied by flashing lights. Oh, there it goes again! You see, I've become accustomed to nighttime disturbances these days.

It seems the City of Portland likes to perform its public maintenance during the night. I'm used to snow removal at midnight, street cleaning at 1 AM, street repairs at 3 AM, etc. The list goes on and on. Last night it was painting crosswalks (midnight). It's not like our intersection needs any more warnings. There are already 4 stop signs and a flashing red light. What's more, don't people know to stop at an intersection anyway?

In every city that I have lived, routine city maintenance occurs during the day. That seems reasonable, at least in residential areas, since why would you want to disturb the residents during the night. Sure traffic might be inconvenienced, but at least the neighborhood residents can sleep. Moreover, isn't it more economical to performed routine maintenance during the day? Maybe nighttime maintenance would be worth it in a busy downtown area, but not in a quiet neighborhood.

In any case, this was just another example of Maine inefficiency. I keep hearing how Maine needs to cut "wasteful" public spending and reduce "high" public employee pensions; however, one step in curbing excessive public spending would be to look at the little things that eat up public revenue. Something like nighttime maintenance is a small thing, but small things add up.