Monday, March 31, 2014

Abolish Animal Use!

You never know what you'll see in Berlin. As I was going to work this morning, I noticed this man riding his bike with a large placard attached to it. I followed him for about a mile to get this photo. The placards states: Tier Nutzung Abschaffen! (Abolish Animal Use!). After little research, I also discovered that April 26, 2014, is the International Abolition of Animal Testing Day (Internationaler Tag zur Abschaffung der Tierversuche), sponsored by Doctor's Against Animal Testing (Ärzte Gegen Tierversuche). 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

TV Tax In Germany

"No one asked us... Away with the TV Tax Dictators"
When I returned to Berlin a few weeks ago, I discovered a letter from the television tax authorities in the mailbox. I knew the letter was coming, but I was hoping it would come later rather than sooner. In Germany, households are required to pay a flat monthly tax (17,98 euro [$24 USD]) for all electronic devices (TV, radio, computer, or tablet) in the house. Whether you watch TV, listen to the radio, or have an Internet connection, you pay the tax! This amount is in addition to the cable or satellite service fee you may also have. 

Technically, this not a tax but a mandatory license fee (a distinction without a difference), and it's how public broadcasting (ARD, ZDF, RBB, Deutschlandradio, etc.) is funded. To add insult to injury, the public networks also receive revenue from advertising, although advertising can only appear in 5 or 10 minute blocks, and only before or after a program.

Germany also has commercial TV (VOX, RTL, Kabel 1, etc.) where advertising is as bad or even worse than in the U.S. Most of the American shows that are broadcast in Germany are found on these stations. For example, you can watch Married With Children, The Prince of Bel-Air, or CSI Miami. These shows aren't my cup of tea, but they are available and not supported by the TV tax. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Max und Moritz: It Doesn't Pay to be Naughty

One hundred fifty years ago, the forerunner of the modern comic book was born: Max and Moritz, A Story of Seven Pranks (Max und Moritz - Eine Bubengeschichte in sieben Streichen). This classic tale by Wilhelm Busch recounts the "adventures" of two boys who wreak havoc in a small German village, causing a tailor to almost drown, a dog to be beaten, and a teacher to be burned. Of course, in the German tradition, no wrong goes unpunished, and the duo meet an untimely death when they are ground into bits at a mill and devoured by ducks. The stories are an important part of German literature; and even today, parents read these graphic tales to their young children. The moral: it doesn't pay to be naughty.

An exhibition celebrating the 150th anniversary of Max and Moritz is currently on display at the Deutsche Museum für Karikatur und Zeichenkunst in Hannover, and includes over 350 original drawings and rare manuscripts. It's definitely worth a trip, if only to understand German sensibilities.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Partners in Crime: "They are Never Really Dead, These Super Criminals."

Agatha Christie Challenge: Book 10

Partners in Crime is a collection of short stories involving the irresistible Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, the husband and wife detective duo that mix humor, playful banter, and romance to solve crimes. And although Tommy and Tuppence appear in only four full-length novels and this collection of short stories, they are perhaps the most charming and witty of all Agatha Christie's fictional characters. Their stories are more the comedy spy thriller than the straightforward whodunit; and unlike Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, the Beresford's age in real time with the real world, which allows them to reflect the social milieu of the time.

Each story in this collection spoofs a popular detective of the 1920s, including Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes. And while the "mysteries" themselves lack the ingenuity of Christie's other works, the stories are nevertheless clever and very entertaining. It's easy to see why Christie's found Tommy and Tuppence to be her most endearing characters. 

Rating: A-

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Welcome to the Strange World of Maine Laws

I often learn some strange things about my home state when traveling overseas. Did you know that in Maine, you're required to bring a firearm to church, for protection, in case of an attack by Native Americans? Or that it's illegal to step out of an airplane that's still is in flight or catch lobsters with your bare hands? These laws may be old and out-of-date, but they're still on the books. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Urban Spring in Berlin

Warm and sunny weather greeted Berlin on the first full day of Spring. Here's a photo of people sitting on a bridge overlooking an enormous train interchange in Friedrichshain. This urban/industrial vista has a beauty unto its own, which attracts quite a few city dwellers.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

1.5 Million Dollars for a Dog!

Is a dog worth $1.5 (USD)? A least one person thinks so. A wealthy Chinese person recently paid that much for a red Tibetan Mastiff. It seems like a shameless display of wealth considering the millions of abandoned cats and dogs in the world.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Should Justice Ginsburg Step Down?

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been a great American jurist. She has twice survived cancer, and at 81, she is still energetic and sharp as a tack. But is it time for Justice Ginsburg to step down? Here's what Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the UC Irvine School of Law has to say on the subject. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Is Berlin Still Cool?

During the last decade, Berlin has experienced a sort of cultural renaissance. With its 24-hour nightlife, vibrant music scene, thriving arts community, and relatively cheap housing, Berlin is arguably Europe's most affordable, if not coolest city.

But popularity can be a double-edged sword. Berlin's soaring housing costs are beginning to drive out many of the people that have made the city so attractive. Berlin's affordable housing is slowly giving way to luxury apartments, short-term holiday rentals, and high-priced hotels. For many, Berlin's image as affordable (and cool) seems more image than reality these days.  

The Süddeustche Zeitung (South German Newspaper), located in Berlin's rival city of Munich, cheerfully noted that Berlin's popularity bubble had burst, and even Berlin's Tagesspiegel (Daily Mirror) commented that Berlin is waning and may no longer be cool. As the Süddeustche Zeitung put it, "Berlin is Over."

For some Berliner's, this may be good news. Many Berliner's have taken their city's popularity badly, responding to the influx of visitors and new residents with frustration and anger. In some neighborhoods, such as Kreuzberg, this anti-newcomer sentiment has led to a wave of touristenhass (tourist hate). Signs proclaiming, "Berlin Doesn't Love You" are as common as the broken beers bottles you encounter on the street. So while the Berlin tourist industry may lament Berlin's loss of cool, many residents may feel a sense of relief.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Happy Birthday Pi and Albert Einstein!

Today is Pi Day: 3.14. It's also the birthday of Albert Einstein. Pi is the distance around a perfect circle or the circumference, divided by the distance across it, or the diameter. It's involved in calculating the area of a circle, the volume of a sphere, and many other mathematical formulas you might need in science. In fact, there's no way to calculate it exactly. Its digits go on infinitely (3.1415926535...). Pi is one of those things that is drilled into you in High School.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Would You Want to Know Whether You Will Develop Alzheimer's Disease?

Researchers have developed a blood test for Alzheimer's disease that predicts with astounding accuracy (90%) whether a healthy person will develop the disease. Although it needs some fine-tuning, the test may be available at your doctor's office within the next few years. As of yet, there is no cure or prevention for this devastating disease. Moreover, the likelihood of a medical breakthrough seems decades away. 

This new test raises the question: would you want to know whether you will develop the disease? In my case, I would want to know, if only to find a practical and efficient way to end my life before the condition progressed too far. I'm not religious and have no illusions of a wondrous afterlife. I recognize that life is limited, and it's the quality of that life that's important. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Ain't Nobody Got Time For That!

I must be the last person in the world to have heard of Sweet Brown. Kimberly "Sweet Brown" Williams gained worldwide fame when she told an Oklahoma TV-news station that she fled her burning apartment building because she suffered from bronchitis, and "ain't nobody got time for that." Her interview and music video became a viral sensation on YouTube. Ms. Brown's expressive qualities are simply magic! 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Gun in Donated Clothing Kills Thrift Store Employee

Here's a bizarre and tragic story from Chicago involving a handgun that accidentally went off, killing a mother of two. The gun was hidden in clothing donated to a thrift store. Apparently, America's obsession with guns has no limit. 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Do Republican's Even Care About Minority Voters?

In My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle tells Freddy Eynsford Hill:
Words! Words! Words! I'm so sick of words! I get words all day through; First from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do? Don't talk of stars burning above; If you're love, show me!

Minority voters might wish for even that much from the conservative Republicans currently attending the CPAC convention (Conservative Political Action Committee). As you can see in this photo, the so called 'Minority Outreach' Panel presentation drew very little interest from CPAC participants. For all the cleverly worded rhetoric about reaching out to minority groups and addressing their concerns, the harsh reality is that conservative Republicans who attend CPAC could care less about minorities. 

Actions speak louder than words, and CPAC's feeble attempt at outreach doesn't even rise the level of words. No wonder, minority voters vote overwhelming for Democrats.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Now, That's a Safety Demonstration!

Innovation is the key to success, and Virgin Airlines seems to be getting it right. While other airlines find ways to make air travel more annoying and uncomfortable, Virgin has taken steps to improve customer service. For example, Virgin Australia has introduced an app that can be downloaded to your mobile device. It provides free in-flight entertainment, including movies, music, games, and audio books. By contrast, others airlines have started charging for what little entertainment they offer, if they offer any at all. Now, Virgin Atlantic is really thinking outside the box, turning the necessary safety demonstration into a very clever and entertaining video.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Iconic "Dating Game"

Jim Lange, the host of The Dating Game, died last week. The Dating Game was a silly and often embarrassing game show where contestants would select a date from a pool of three eligible people. The show reflected the changing morals of the 1960's (albeit in a sanitized TV fashion), and lasted in various incarnations into the 1980's. At a time when American TV was limited to three networks, I frequently watched the show, even as a child with no interest in dating.

The Dating Game can arguably claim to have started the careers of many aspiring artists. Karen Carpenter, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Jackson, and Farrah Fawcett all appeared on the show before becoming famous. It's unclear how many of these dates lead to second dates, let alone marriage.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Beard Transplants: the New Black

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last 5 years, you've probably noticed that beards are all the rage. It seems that almost every man (but not me!) is sporting a beard or some facsimile of one these days. So I suppose we shouldn't be surprised to hear about beard transplants, which have become increasingly popular among men who have difficulty achieving that full beard look. And, at a cost of $7,000-10,000 per procedure, beard transplants can be a costly fashion statement.

This trend toward facial hair has never appealed to me, nor does the tattoo phenomena of recent years. I hope people will soon tire of all that hair and body art. Of course, during the 19th century, facial hair was in vogue for decades, which isn't at all encouraging. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Python Eats Crocodile!

Here's a story from Queensland, Australia where a 3 meter water python consumed a crocodile. That's two reasons not to live in Australia. Yikes!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Predicting Death

A new study from Finnish and Estonian researchers suggests that a simple blood test may be able to predict a person's likelihood of dying within the next five years. Researchers have identified four chemical agents in the blood that offer a reliable signal that death is near. People with high concentrations of these so called "biomarkers" have a 19 times higher risk of dying within five years as compared to people with lower biomarker levels. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Germans Can Be Funny: Ladykracher

Ladykracher is a very popular German sketch comedy show that originally ran from 2002 to 2004, and then reproduced in 2008. At times, the show can be irreverent, ironic, and even satirical. Here are two clips. In one clip, two women spot a cute man at the park, but notice his red beach towel, which could have a Munich football insignia on it. You see, the woman have had bad experiences with football obsessed men, especially Munich fans, and want nothing to do with them. After they invite him over, they discover, to their delight, that he's not a football fan and that the towel isn't football related. The other clip is a parody of the classic song, American Pie.