My madcap adventures in Germany during my year as a Fulbright Scholar.

27 March 2007

I finally realize how wrong I've been all these years...

...and all thanks to this video, called "The atheist's nightmare: the banana."

Yes, you read that correctly.

How silly I've been to doubt the existence of God when I consume proof positive every morning for breakfast! And, after seeing this video I realized how foolish I was to believe in evolution. After all, peanut butter is proof to the contrary.

I'd almost be willing to cite Poe's law on this, if the entire series weren't sad proof that this is true and not satire.

Via Shakespeare's Sister and Richard Dawkins

21 March 2007

The unbearable cuteness of Knut

I really think that was enough foot-related blog content for the time being. Onwards and upwards.

Let's talk about current events, namely this adorable little current event:

Let's check in with Stephen Colbert to get some much-needed perspective on the issue.

I, like all of you, have been hearing all about that cuddly little bear cub vicious killer lately.

I'm sure you've all been following the story, but I'll summarize it anyway: Knut was born in December, rejected by his mother and subsequently raised by hand and bottle-fed by zookeepers. He's been a star in the German media since his birth, but only made international headlines last week when some animal rights activists called for him to be put down.

What bothers me about the argument used by the activists is the idea that Knut should be euthanized murdered executed killed because it is "natural."

Their whole argument utterly disregards this simple fact:

Zoos aren't natural.

Zoos simply do not exist to replicate natural conditions, and it's a mistake to expect them to operate according to what would happen to their animals in nature. After all, if things happened naturally, those animals wouldn't be in zoos.

Whatever you hold to be the true purpose of zoos, killing Knut doesn't make any sense. Let me demonstrate:

The cynic's view holds that zoos are (a) colonialist endeavors, attempts to fetishize and control the "exotic" world, package it and sell it, that (b) still exist in the post-colonial period because they make money. The idealist's view holds that zoos exist to perform valuable educational and conservational services.

If the zoo's purpose is the former, keeping Knut alive makes sense because he is exotic, can be marketed, and can make lots of money for the zoo (indeed has made lots of money for the zoo). If it is the latter, killing him would only impede education and conservation; it is very difficult to educate someone about the polar bear you just murdered. Plus, with the potentially devastating impact of global warming on the polar bear, the existence of the species might depend on breeding of captive animals like Knut.

But wouldn't "Killing Knut" be a good name for a band?


More about socks

There's enough of a story behind that second pair of socks from Monday's entry to warrant another post.

I called them "Hundertwasser" socks:

I called them that because the yarn takes its colors from the works of Friedensreich Hundertwasser. He was a truly one-of-a-kind artist and architect who made innovative use of form and color in his works. He started as a painter, but is probably better known as an architect. He once remarked, "A person in a rented apartment must be able to lean out of his window and scrape off the masonry within arm's reach. And he must be allowed to take a long brush and paint everything outside within arm's reach. So that it will be visible from afar to everyone in the street that someone lives there who is different from the imprisoned, enslaved, standardised man who lives next door." Hundertwasser explored biomorphic forms in his work and eschewed straight lines. He wondered why walls and floors had to be flat.

Why, indeed?

Well, when I saw the Hundertwasser sock yarn collection I fell in love with it. My only problem was deciding which colorway to buy; when I couldn't make up my mind I just got on eBay and bought them all:

This is the sock

This is the original painting (it's a pretty poor quality image; sorry):

Here's a detail:

I used Wendy's generic toe-up sock pattern, but for some reason I wasn't getting the heel to turn enough. Also, I didn't particularly like how they fit; there was bunching under my arch. For the second sock I added some shaping to the foot. It's extra work, but I figure if you're going to go to the trouble of knitting yourself a pair of socks by hand, they ought to fight perfectly.

I was so happy with the outcome I cast on almost immediately for another pair:

This pair will always remind me of the Fulbright Berlin Conference. At the reception the first evening I went to chat with a very nice couple I'd met at the orientation, seen once subsequently but never again. At some point they mentioned their newfound interest in who else but Friedensreich Hundertwasser. While they're here they want to visit as many of his buildings as they can; they even took a detour to see one on the way to Berlin. I could hardly believe my ears, and my first reaction, of course, was to pull out my sock-in-progress. At first they gave me some funny looks that said "Why, exactly, did you just pull a sock out of your purse?" but when I explained what it was they were suitably impressed.

On the second day of the conference I cast on for the second sock, and over the course of three panel sessions, two receptions and a musical gala I managed to finish it. It's called "Straße zum Sozialismus" (Street to socialism), and it's so awesome I can hardly stand it:


19 March 2007

What I've really been up to lately...

I may have been a lazy blogger of late, but I compensated by being one helluva prolific knitter. (I have a huge project due in a couple weeks. I had to find some way to procrastinate.)

Just check out this January 30 photo. How many recently completed, in progress or planned knitting projects can you spot?

I count five.

Most of them are done by now.

To sum up, in the past six weeks I've made:

a hat that you've already seen,

this nifty little sock-like creation to keep my computer's AC adapter from getting scratched,

socks (Magic Stripes),

socks (Hundertwasser),

and more socks (Yarn Bee Cameo)

That colorway is called cereulean agate. Pretty, isn't it?

I also finally finished the clapotis I started back in June. I'm not overly happy with how it turned out; I mostly finished it just to have it stop weighing on my mind.


16 March 2007

Bad Blogger

Sorry I've been such a miserable, lazy blogger lately. In addition to my work on a big project due at the end of the month I had a houseguest and went to the German-American Fulbright Commission's Berlin Meeting. It was a really great conference, but, quite frankly, I can't think of anything better than conferences like this, uniting free food, drink and activities, intelligent conversation with Fulbright scholars and interesting panels. I went to panels on higher education reform, demographics and immigration, and integration of immigrants and minorities in schools.

The conference also taught me a lot about the nature of the problems Germany is having on these fronts. In each of these panels there was at least one example of Germans creating complex institutions and structures and being left utterly unable to change them when they fail. For example:

In the panel on higher education reform, one woman came across as being mostly against the attempts to reform higher education in the EU. At one point, she complained that her department's new Master's degree program has not been able to admit the best candidates. Apparently, their admissions criteria is heavily based on grades and countries like Romania have inflated grades.

Take a moment to let the absurdity of that sink in.

She was upset about the Bologna process because her department's [arbitrary] admission guidelines weren't set up to deal with the differences between the grading systems of EU universities. Apparently it never occurred to her that they should just CHANGE THE DAMN ADMISSIONS GUIDELINES.

Sadly, this was not the only such example, and listening to so many Germans demonstrate this same unwillingness to change their own systems when they don't work was enough to make me want to bang my head against a wall over and over and lament, "When will they ever learn?"

The only factor that prevented my coming home with a concussion was that Fulbright was pretty generous with the booze the whole time. After the second glass of wine it all begins to seem less depressing and more funny.

Speaking of alcohol, you might find it hard to believe, but I drank beer for what I believe is the first time since I came to Germany. Shocking, I know, but I never particularly liked beer and therefore always order wine or cocktails. But, for some reason, not once but twice during the conference I wound up with friends at a brewery. And you can't go to a brewery and not order beer. So in addition to learning lots about prejudice, racism, education and integration, and the German university system, I also learned something about beer at this conference: namely, that it's not as bad as I remembered it, and that actually some kinds are quite good. But, since I don't drink enough to employ the "trial and error" method, I don't know how to find the good beers. Any suggestions?


07 March 2007

Finally, the long-promised post about embassies.

For quite a while I’ve been suffering under the misconception that embassies exist largely to serve that particular foreign population who live in the country (and to do various diplomatic things, I suppose).

This is clearly not the case, since most embassies are surrounded by a ten-foot metal fence, complete with barbed wire and guardhouse. While their architecture tends to be pretty good (with the notable exception of the Swiss Embassy), the security is off-putting. However, in an emergency, you deal with it. When my passport was stolen I went to the U.S. Consulate in Barcelona and was granted entrance to the secure compound merely by showing a copy of the stolen passport. It was amazingly simple.

Somehow, I don’t think that would be the case here. See, this is the American Embassy in Berlin:

No way you’re gaining entrance to that place. Note the permanent barricades. A German wanting to get a student visa to the U.S. or an American looking to replace a stolen passport would, in fact, travel to a completely different part of town to the “Consular Section.”

The British Embassy also has heavy security:

At least their barricades are pretty (and removable; the middle two sink into the ground), and there is still pedestrian access, as far as I can tell.

Well by now you might be wondering what the point of this post is. Don’t worry, I’m coming to it.

You see, with embassies that old real estate slogan is eminently applicable, for all anyone seems to worry about is location, location, location. Most are located just south of the Tiergarten, near the Kulturforum. The Swiss probably have the best location, across the street from the Reichstag, and near the new Hauptbahnhof, but, as I’ve said, their embassy is painfully ugly, so it doesn’t really count. Plus, they’re Swiss. Boring.

See? Ugly.

The British embassy is located just a block away from the Brandenburger Tor, on a side street, and the U.S. embassy is about a block further away, also on a side street. But here comes the sticking point: the Russian embassy is located on Unter den Linden, less than a block from Pariser Platz and said Brandenburger Tor. And, well, we Americans can’t allow the Russians to have a better location, can we?

So, the Americans are building a new embassy, and, this you’ll have to file under “What the hell were the Americans thinking?”, it’s located on Pariser Platz, next door to the Brandenburg Gate:

See the cranes? That’s where they’re building the new embassy. The current embassy, with its full-time police protection and permanent cement barricades located in a good but discrete and out-of-the-way location, simply won’t cut it. Apparently, we feel the need to build a brand new embassy on what must be the single most expensive and sought-after piece of real estate in all of Germany…next to the biggest tourist attraction in the city.

You can’t get within 5 meters of the current embassy! How the hell are they going to handle the millions of tourists standing around outside the new embassy’s front door?