Sunday, September 28, 2014

Maine Gubernatorial Candidates: Please End Animal Cruelty

This November voters in Maine will vote on Question 1. Question 1 is a referendum that seeks to prohibit the use of traps, bait, and dogs to hunt bears. A similar referendum was rejected by voters in 2003. Supporters of Question 1 want to end "cruel and unsportsmanlike" practices, claiming they are unnecessary to control the bear population in Maine. Supporters of the initiative include the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and PETA. Maine is the only state in the USA that still allows baiting, trapping, and hounding of bears. You would think that banning such practices would be a no brainer. Think again.

Hunting in Maine is big business and restrictions on hunting are viewed with suspicion. Opponents of the measure (which include the National Rifle Association, the Maine AFL-CIO, and conservative activist/singer Ted Nugent) characterized the referendum as limiting the ability of wildlife professionals to manage bear populations. I've heard similar arguments made by Norwegians about whale hunting and Canadians on seal clubbing. Most of Maine's elected politicians and all three candidates for Governor also opposed Question 1, including the so-called progressive and independent candidate Eliot Cutler. You see, in Maine, very few politicians are willing to defy the rich and influential hunting lobby. 

This election, I will vote, but only on Question 1. I will abstain from voting for Governor. A candidate that fails to see the cruelty associated with trapping and baiting of animals is unworthy of my vote. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

How Bertolt Brecht Changed My Life

Bertolt Brecht
My blog posts are nonfiction, but today I'll share a bit of fiction I recently wrote. Learning to write and enjoying the craft of writing has been an evolving process. I've always enjoyed reading, but not writing. Maybe it was typing on a manual typewriter, using that cumbersome white-out to correct my errors, or fiddling with the carbon papers required in high school (this was the early 1980s after all). Whatever it was, I didn't like writing.

In fact, I took great pains to avoid college courses involving a lot of writing. I'd even bypassed the English 1A and 1B requirement by testing out. But gradually, I learned to appreciate the skill and adventure of writing, thanks, in no small part, to word processing. It opened up a new world and freed me of my writing inhibitions. 

Recently, I enrolled in a creative writing course at my local university. Our first assignment was "What If." What if something had not happened in your life. So here is a semi-fictionalized account of how I came to live in Berlin.

How Bertolt Brecht Changed My Life

It was January, and Berlin was cold, damp, and gray. I was living near Kudamm, the Champs-Elysees of the former West Berlin. Kudamm or Kurfürstendamm, as it was officially called, had been the hot hip street in its day. But now, everyone was heading East, to East Berlin where artists and musicians from all over the world were congregating to discover the new Europe, and leaving Kudamm and West Berlin to the blue haired ladies.

I had rented an apartment for three months, taken a leave of absence from work, and left friends and family behind. I wanted the “European Experience,” an experience devoid of debris. Berlin seemed like the perfect choice. It was relatively cheap, cultural, and full of distractions to occupy my increasing loneliness.

The Christmas lights that had lined Kudamm during the holidays were now gone, and the faint smiles that the Berliners had managed to exhibit during the Christmas season were replaced with their usual grim and stern countenances. It was like living in that old Richard Burton movie about the Cold War, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. A film devoid of color and encased in a thick soup of fog, everywhere muted shades of black and white.

Now that I was here, what would I do. Perhaps, a course at the Volkhochschule, the German equivalent of Adult Ed. I could improve my German, meet people, and live like a real Berliner. But what to take? The cooking courses didn't appeal to me and neither did the foreign language classes. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a Bertolt Brecht course.

I'd seen the Three Penny Opera and Mother Courage and even liked them. I'd recently visited Brecht's grave at the Dorotheenstädtisher cemetery. It was tucked away in a quiet corner, next to his wife, the famous actress Helene Weigel. Brecht's grave was surprisingly simple, and I wondered what kind of man he was. He'd lived through the horrors of World War II, escaped to the USA, and then returned to East Germany to establish the Berliner Ensemble.

There were twelve of us in the class, a real cross-section of Berlin society. There were a few retirees, a couple of young punkers with assorted piercings and tattoos, a policeman, a school teacher, a civil servant, a nurse, and an au pair. We met once a week for 8 weeks discussing a particular Brecht work each session. During the break I would chat with the other students, but I quickly became friends with Philippa or Phil as she was called.

Phil was Australian, and had come to Berlin for a year to work as an au pair before entering University. She lived in Potsdam, a posh suburb of Berlin. She looked after two small girls, and her only duty was to speak English to them. There was an older couple who lived next to the main house, and they did the household cleaning, cooking, and gardening. Phil had lucked out with this gig.

Over the next few weeks, I told Phil my story. I was an attorney, like her employer, and that I specialized in Intellectual Property: Software and Internet stuff. Then one day, out-of-the blue, Phil said her boss wanted to talk to me about a potential job. A job! I'd come 3600 miles to escape from work, and a job was not on my agenda. I knew that Berlin was Germany's so-called answer to Silicon Valley, and that there were hundreds of Start-Ups seeking expertise on how to break into the American market. I told Phil that my specialty wasn't marketing or technology, but instead security and confidentiality. She said it didn't matter. Her boss wanted to chat with me anyway.

Herr Peters' Kanzlei or office was impressive. A Friedrichsstraße address, a restored Art Nouveau building, and an espresso bar to die for. Our conversation was succinct and friendly, in that way lawyers do--divorced from emotion. He needed a translator with knowledge of the American legal system. I fit the bill. The hours were ideal, the money good; and best of all, I could return to the USA as often as I liked. Like so many things in life, serendipity often plays an important role. I jumped at this once in a lifetime opportunity and took the job. Bertolt Brecht had changed my life.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Real Daughter of the American Revolution

Western Cemetery is Portland Maine's second oldest cemetery, and it's just a few blocks from where I live. I often take walks there during the summer or nordic ski during the winter. It's the final resting place for many of Portland's distinguished citizens, including Sarah Crossman Hatch. Ms. Hatch's name may not ring a bell, but she was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and not just any Daughter. Ms Hatch was a Real Daughter. That's to say, her father fought in the American War of Independence (the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775). Moreover, Ms. Hatch has the distinction of being the last surviving Real Daughter. She was born in 1816 and died in 1916. There were a lot Real Daughters but not many who lived into the 20th Century!
The DAR is a service organization for women who can prove direct bloodline descent from an ancestor who aided in achieving American independence, generally a person who fought in the American War of Independence. There are currently 177,000 DAR members in the USA and around the world. Famous DAR members have included Susan B. Anthony, Ginger Rogers, Bo Derek, Laura Bush, Rosalynn Carter, and Eleanor Roosevelt, who resigned from the DAR when it barred world-renowned singer Marian Anderson, an African American, from performing at its Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Street Signs of East Berlin / Die DDR-Straußenschilder

East German Street Sign

West German Street Sign
Vor 25 Jahren ist die Mauer in Berlin gefallen, endlich war die ganze Stadt wieder vereint. Die ehemalige Teilung erkennt man tatsächlich auch hier und da noch an den Straßenschildern. Die Schrift unterscheidet sich, die auf den DDR-Schildern ist etwas kleiner, und die Eszett (ß) ist auch unterschiedlich. Die DDR-Straßenschilder werden schnell verschwinden. Wie sie beschädigt, sie sind mit den Standard-westdeutschen Straßenschilder ausgetauscht werden.

It's been 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The event reunited the two Germany's, and transformed the East Berlin cityscape. Today, much of the East Berlin character is gone; but there are still traces of the former city, especially on the street signs. For example, the East German signs used a smaller font and the Sharp S (ß) was different. The East German signs are slowly being replaced with the standard West German signs. So next time you walk down a street in the eastern part of the city, be on the look out for the East German signs and see a little bit of history.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

How Dogs React to Magic

Jose Ahonen is a Finish magician and mentalist who decided to see how dogs would react to magic tricks. And like humans, our canine cousins reacted with astonishment, confusion, and puzzlement. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

My Amazing Fitbit: The Challenge Continues Day 1

Sometimes new technology and an addictive personality don't mix. Yesterday, at midday, my Fitbit arrived. I was so excited that I set it up immediately. The Fitbit is a digital trainer that you wear and which measures how many steps walked throughout the day in real-time. It's a sort of modern day pedometer. It provides instant feedback on your progress and urges to do more by awarding "badges" for each successive five thousand steps you walk.

I got my five thousand step badge quickly enough, and my ten thousand badge came by late afternoon. That was the badge that triggered my obsessiveness. I had to get my 15,000 badge by the day's end! I went for a "constitutional" after dinner, even though I normally stay in at that time of day (mosquitoes, you know). Sure enough, by the end of the day, I had racked up 16,100 steps (and with only a half day of monitoring), which Fitbit calculated to be 7.6 miles for a person of my height at six feet.

Now, you can easily cover ten thousand steps in the course of an average day without really trying, especially if you have stairs in your house, as I do. It surprised me when Fitbit explained with my 15,000 step badge that 15,000 steps is three times the average daily activity for an American! It's hard to visualize how little movement that really is. 

But here's the thing. The badges go up and up; and given my personality, I'm a little afraid that in a few weeks, I'll just be walking from dawn to dusk. For example, I know I'll easily get 20,000 today. And after that... Things could get really out of hand. But for now, I'm enjoying my first full day with the Fitbit, and I'm still behaving pretty normally. It is definitely fun so far.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Dogs of Berlin

Whether it's waiting outside a store, sitting on a window ledge, or just walking down a street, dogs seem to be everywhere in Berlin. For the most part, Berlin dogs are well-behaved, well-groomed, and undemanding. Here are some of my favorite photos of Berlin dogs being themselves. 


Monday, September 8, 2014

"Go Slow" Day - Net Neutrality, We'll Miss When You're Gone

We've taken for granted that you can reach any site on the Internet with equal ease ("net neutrality"). That is about to change if the FCC (US Federal Communications Commission) has its way with proposed regulations that would eliminate net neutrality protections and allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to create "fast Internet lanes" for companies that are willing to pay. Of course, this implies the existence of slow lanes.

On September 10, 2014, many companies providing Internet services will stage a protest known as "Go Slow" Day, a day in which companies will simulate what Internet users could experience if the FCC regulations go into effect. The goal of Go Slow Day is to protest the proposed regulations and raise public awareness of what they really mean.

Without net neutrality, monopolistic ISPs such as Time Warner Cable (TWC) would decide which content gets seen by most people. Moreover, there is little to prevent the ISPs from favoring their own services or the services of their partner companies over competitors with privileged Internet access. For example, suppose TWC, which is the only provider of high speed Internet access in many parts of the USA, decided to offer a streaming video service. They could cause Netflix to run slower while their own service ran quickly. Customers would have little choice but to sign up for the TWC service, even if they liked Netflix offerings better. 

Another concern is that the big, established players (like Google or perhaps Netflix) could stifle competition and innovation. Suppose TWC initiated a fast Internet access fee, which only the big companies could afford. Startup companies, with little resources, would be at a severe disadvantage, effectively entrenching the current big players. 

Participating tech companies protesting the proposed FCC changes will install widgets on their sites displaying a revolving icon to symbolize how the Internet would function in a world without net neutrality. In effect, users will experience slow download times. 

This seems like an arcane issue, but as central as the Internet is to our lives, it has real practical relevance.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Talented Mr Niemann

Niemann's Controversial New Yorker Cover
Showing a Flowering Cherry Tree Following
the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, and a
Self-Portrait for Die Zeit Magazin  
Christoph Niemann is an award winning illustrator and graphic designer who is best known for his covers on The New Yorker, Die Zeit Magzin, and The New York Times Magazine. He's one of the world's most sought-after illustrators, and an exhibition of his work is currently showing at the Stiftung Mercator until December 12, 2014. The exhibition's theme of political communication is a subject close to Niemann's heart. By his own admission he's a political and news junkie that carries over into his work. I've always admired his paintings, and his creations are not only beautifully rendered but thought-provoking. 


Thursday, September 4, 2014

Ganes: Songs Sung in Ladin

Ganes is a music group that sings primarily in Ladin (German: Ladinisch), a language related to Swiss Romansh and mainly spoken in the Dolomite Mountains of Northern Italy, the South Tyrol, Trentino, and Belluno. It's the native language for about 30,000 people, and it's surprising that songs sung in such an obscure language have found a European audience.

Their music is a mix of folk, pop, and light rock. And though they do sing occasionally in English (Bang Bang Bun), it's their Ladin songs that have resonated with most people. And for the record: Ganes is family affair consisting of two sisters, Elisabeth and Marlene Schuen, and their cousin, Maria Moling.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Berlin's Memorial to "Euthanasia" Victims

A new monument in Berlin was inaugurated on Tuesday to commemorate the victims of the Nazi's so-called 'euthanasia,' program, the Action T4 program. The purpose of the T4 program was to eliminate those people deemed "mentally, physically and socially inferior," which included the weakest and most defenseless members of society: the mentally ill, physically or mentally disabled, and the 'antisocial or non-conformist' (homosexuals).

For decades, victims of the T4 program were excluded from official commemoration; in part, because the relatives of the victims didn't want the shameful stigma associated with the program. Things began to change after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; and for the last 20 years, there was increasing pressure to have some official recognition.  

Under the T4 program, all nursing homes and hospitals in the Reich had to fill out a special registration form for each patient admitted, in which a diagnosis and prognosis was recorded. Based on that information, a doctor would review the information and write a plus or minus on the form. A person given a minus was deemed 'unworthy' of life. Those designated with the minus symbol were later transported to specially equipped locations around Berlin to be gassed.

The families of the victims were sent a 'comfort letter' stating that their relative had died suddenly of some fictitious cause. Fake death certificates were issued, and most families only discovered the circumstances of the death following the war. By the war's end in 1945, an estimated 300,000 people had died under the T4 program. The program was particularly egregious since it involved the active support and participation of the medical community.

Located on the northern edge of the Kulturforum and behind the Philharmonie, the monument is situated at the former Tiergarten Straße 4 Villa (hence the name T4) where the program was formally administered. The 24-meter-long memorial wall is made of clear light blue glass and set into a dark grey concrete surface that gently slopes towards the center. The outdoor exhibition provides information about the history of the 'euthanasia' killings and their legacy up to the present day. The memorial is similar to a temporary exhibition that I saw last year. The memorial is accessible 24 hours a day and seven days a week.