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April 2008
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June 2008

Share your Neuroses

Over at i am neurotic:

If I accidently tap my pinky on a table, that’s ONE, and I must complete a 100-count: the four fingers left on one hand (5), the five fingers on the other hand (10), then 10 fingers together (20) and again (30), and so on until 100.

My favorite:

When I am riding in a car, I imagine lines going out from the corners of the car to the edge of the road, enclosing a certain region of the sidewalk. Whenever something like a tree or a car falls within this region, I have to register it, often by clicking my teeth. Also, the things I register have to alternate sides.

My submission:

Any texture that involves networks of tiny lines crossing at random angles (such as the vein-skeleton of a decayed leaf, or projections of eye capillaries) drives a cold chill up my spine.  Tiny networks of straight lines (like mosquito netting) are fine.


Seriously, Duck Fubbing

Last weekend, I watched "In Bruges," a movie about two English hit-men sent on an obscure mission to that charming Belgian city.  It was sort of an English Tarantino knockoff, with oh-so-quirky, studiedly non-PC characters (including a racist midget), banal conversations, and gratuitous high-velocity splattering of blood and brain-matter.  Nevertheless, the movie had some intriguing twists, gorgeous shots of Bruges, and a fun performance by Colin Farrell.

But...

...it was dubbed into German.  And, as usual, dubbing crippled large chunks of the movie.  Accents played a crucial role in the plot: we were meant to chuckle at one character's broken English, but we didn't know it was broken.  We might have realized that one character was a Canadian because of his accent (a minor plot point), but we didn't, because he, along with everyone else in the move, spoke uniform Hochdeutsch.  I though one character was English until she explained -- in dubbed-into-Hochdeutsch dialogue -- that she was Belgian.

Once again, I was reminded of what a national cultural disgrace German film dubbing is.  Let us review the reasons why:

  1. Even in the best dubbing -- and trust me, not every film gets that -- it's painfully clear that the voice-overs were done in a room somewhere, by someone reading a script into a microphone.  Of course, much movie dialogue is also dubbed-in later by the actors.  But unlike the original actors, the German dubbers never actually filmed the scene, or immersed themselves in the emotional landscape of the movie, or personally met any of the people on-screen, or had any conversations with the director.
  2. Dubbing kills jokes or plot points that depend on regional accents, timing, or inflection. Of course, some of these won't come through in subtitles either, but dubbing eliminates almost all of them.  Even in a language you don't speak, you can often tell just by sound if someone's drunk, or just in from the country, or trying to tell a joke.
  3. Translating everything into Hochdeutsch means Germans don't learn how to understand accents. I once traveled throughout the United States with Germans and other Europeans. Although most of the Europeans had problems understanding Southern American and black accents, the Germans had even more problems. They were expecting a black guy in a store in Mobile, Alabama to speak HochEnglish, just as he speaks Hochdeutsch in the movies. For a country that prides itself on its own diversity of accents and dialects (you can hear all of 'em at the House of German History in Bonn), the wholesale annihilation of Welsh, Scottish, Indian, and southern American accents (to name only English accents) should provoke outrage.
  4. In dubbed movies, you can't enjoy the sound of other languages. How many people have decided to learn a foreign language because they heard it in a film, and fell in love?
  5. Dubbing always distorts what the characters say. Always. I have seen many films and TV shows in German (such as the Simpsons) that I knew before in the USA, and the changes are often startling. The changes are driven by the need to find German phrases that will match the characters' lip movements.  This can be hard, because saying something in German takes about 20-30% longer, on average, than saying it in English.  Therefore, the dialogue either gets amputated or rushed.

Caveats: Nobody minds when ordinary Hollywood fare or TV specials are dubbed.  Die Hard IV's not going to lose too much in translation, and its core audience probably doesn't want to be bothered by subtitles.  The problem in Germany is that everything gets dubbed -- even independent movies destined to be seen by people who can handle subtitles, and in which accents and dialogue are basic parts of what makes the movie work.  That's the real disgrace.

I'm feeling the urge to put on an armband.  Anyone want to join this crusade?


Amstetten Means Nothing

Can I just declare that the case of Josef F. from Amstetten, like almost all spectacular crime stories, has no broader implications?  It tells us nothing in particular about Austrian society, or about the town of Amstetten.  In industrialized Western societies, private property and legal protections for privacy are well-established, and lots of people can buy homesteads and keep them under their own private control, without intrusion from the state.  This is all, generally, a good thing. 

A handful of people will choose to do awful things inside those homesteads.  If they're discreet, it won't be discovered for years.  This can and does happen anywhere, not just in Austria.  The next case might be happening right now, just around the corner from you, in Ghent, Stockholm, or Waxahachie.  As long as we respect our fellow citizens' privacy, we'll never be able to prevent all such cases.  Get the victims help, find out if any policy tweaks would help detect future cases earlier, and move on. 

What I'm trying to say is that there's no profit to be gained by focusing on Josef F.  No need for long, hand-wringing editorials, or depressing plays, or book-length explorations of his psyche.  But I know they're coming anyway...


'Lovers by Polarization' by Jodie Zicherman

Move over, John Ashbery.  Make room for Jodie Zicherman.

From an email with the title "momma excitement," sent by Ms. Zicherman from Russia to thousands of people who might be interested in cheap prescription drugs by mail, comes this whimsical elegy (I've added slight formatting changes):

Lovers by Polarization

Or surf. He be region, doctoral.

was inventive beacon.

I crucial or jumps absurd.

The an disperse soup miniature.

empire a sensual. chat ashes at tragedy.

Or as irritable reprint. In in it shack my tolerant.

Go or woodwork. Have a underworld italian shady.

As do choke watchdog grow.

ignorance as epilogue. mature no said inward.

The collide. In celsius toad peasant.

Of so it glove of personally. by he estate.

And the helm posting distal. For to unpack cumbersome gateway.

innings be subsequent. overstock to youth grab.

For correlate. I camp. At the beta, obscurity.

A the crawler abolition. The roast Are taught.

Go is compute. Of an vacation dissenting extra.

virtuous my structural. no coastline, youth is blurb.

Which flawless? With go synthetic body.

I billiards you liturgy. Which diffuse.

In it breathtaking. My as disbursement grateful elemental.

lovers by polarization. at lust, corona or game.

[h/t PD]


Fake German Pronunciation of English Words

Following up on the quote of the day: Sometimes I have to pronounce English words while speaking in German, to a German.  This can happen when I order a "Singapore Sling" in a bar, or talk about a "public viewing" of a soccer game football match.  Or, when driven to extremes by late-night hunger, and the only place open is a Subway shop, which offers "Turkey Breast" or "Italian B.M.T." sandwiches.  To make myself understood, I have to pronounce these English words with a fake German accent.  Otherwise, I get blank looks.  It's creepy, I tell you.  Even creepier is having to pronounce my last name -- which is a German word -- the way Germans would pronounce it, instead of pronouncing it in the flat, nasal American way I learned it.

Maybe you can file this under 'experiences native English speakers should have more often.'


What's Old Europe is New

Via Eschaton, an article called McMansions no More about one place in Pennsylvania that's considering changing building regulations to discourage developers from building and selling McMansions. The new model will encourage

cottage housing, clustered housing that preserves green space, zoning that encourages businesses and homes to occupy the same neighborhoods and incentives to developers to preserve open space.

If you're reading this in Europe, it probably sounds like where you already live. North Americans excuse their energy consumption by pointing to the sheer vastness of the country they live in, but that only gets you so far. The fact that you've got lots of space between places where people live doesn't mean those places themselves have to contain giant, energy-intensive, detached single-family homes surrounded by chemical-soaked eternally-green lawns, all clustered in isolated, limited-access suburbs reachable only by 18-lane highways.

The fuel price spike and the mortgage meltdown are two Bogartian open-hand face slaps administered to the hysterical blond of the American consumer.


Status Reproduction in the U.S. and Europe

In a New York Times article about the American electorate's allergy to elitism, we find the following quotation:

In a nation without a titled aristocracy, an elite education may well be the most important membership card. “American elites have a problem that the Europeans don’t, which is how to assure that their children and their children’s children retain their elevated social position,” said Jason Kaufman, a Harvard sociologist who has written on elites and American culture. “Americans do this through cultural institutions and exclusion — art museums, classical music and tremendously elitist universities.”

Shouldn't read too much into a stray quotation, but, unlike Kaufman, I don't think there's much difference in the way American and European elites reproduce their status.

European countries have abolished privileges attaching to hereditary titles.  Your name may have a "von" or a "de" in it, but that doesn't get you any formal, explicit privileges, except in the very highest reaches of the nobility.  Most of the titled Europeans I know work in ordinary jobs, and have the same concerns as the rest of us.  Of course, noble families do tend to be richer than others, which always helps.  And, as an acquaintance of mine who's a baroness recently told me, the title helps in everyday transactions with government bureaucrats and suspicious landlords.  But if you get poor grades or have no talent, even the most august title isn't going to help you rocket to the top of any hierarchy.  At most, it'll prevent you from dropping out of sight.

In one way, young members of the European nobility have it worse than wealthy Americans: Europe's state-dominated education system has no real counterpart to America's sprawling network of non-selective private colleges of the dumb rich, who will happily accept giant tuition checks to make sure junior gets some college degree, and will even arrange discreet rehab-clinic stays if necessary.  In Europe, a wealthy 19-year old with a glittering title will have to compete against the hoi polloi to get into a state university, because those are the only institutions that confer real prestige.  Most of them do get in, of course, since the less...er, diligent young viscounts will get help from tutors and boarding schools.  But if even that doesn't get them into university, there's no real fall-back option available to them in Europe -- which is why they are often to be found at American colleges of the dumb rich.

Aside from the universities, then, the things Kaufman identifies as markers of cultural cachet for Americans -- museums and classical music -- are used exactly the same way in Europe.  Bourdieu's Distinction says it all here; in fact, one of the main themes of Distinction is that the importance of refined tastes as a sign of social status steadily increased in Europe at the same time as, and because, traditional hereditary privilege was being dismantled.  Especially in Germany, drawing excess attention to your title or wealth is taboo, so in order to establish status distinction, you'll have to sit through a few boring classical concerts, get that precious doctorate (g), and read some books about art and philosophy now and then, just like all your non-titled friends.  (There are also a lot of people who genuinely love art and classical music, bless  their souls, but here, I'm talking about the multitudes who use these things mainly as status markers.)


Least Surprising Drug Busts

An excitable Brit (actually) named Richard Quest is all over CNN International, hosting a pretty useful business-travel show and other specials.  If you've seen the inimitable Quest once, you'll never forget his trademark yowling delivery and bulging forehead veins.  Overall, the impression is of someone trying to sound upbeat and in-control, despite having just had a large object inserted into his rectum.

Now we know where he gets all that energy:

Richard Quest, a reporter and business travel specialist for CNN, is being arraigned today on a misdemeanor charge of drug possession after the authorities said he was found with methamphetamine in Central Park.

Poor guy.  According to the news brief, he "volunteered" to police that he had "meth in his pocket." (Yeah, right).  Let's hope he's able to clear up this misunderstanding, because U.S. law is not indulgent to foreign nationals convicted of drug possession.

Here's a suggestion for foreigner travelers to the US, from a former criminal-defense lawyer [Note: I am no longer a lawyer, and this is not legal advice!]:

First, don't break the law. 

Second, if you're arrested or questioned by police in the United States, follow three rules: (1) behave respectfully and politely toward the police; (2) obey all of their commands, and ask for clarification if you don't understand them; and (3) if they ask you questions, say "I am a national of [your home country] and I would like to invoke my right to consular assistance and speak to an attorney before I answer any questions."  They are required by law to let you get in touch with your consulate and speak to a lawyer.  Always do so before speaking to the police.  Always.

That's been your free piece of non-legal advice for today.


Wilco Archive Online

I doubt this blog's demographic skews heavily toward fans of American indie rock, but if it does, let me point you to at The Owl and Bear [h/t Bacchus].  It's got hours of taped concerts by Wilco and other bands, available online for free, usually in pristine sound quality.  Their weekly podcasts are also pretty interesting -- it's a feature I'm considering introducing here at GJ (perhaps during the summer, after the day job duties subside).

And a question -- are there similar German sites?  Or did the tape-trading culture never reach across the Atlantic?