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August 2009
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October 2009

Ignore the Space Tourist

Nothing makes the veins in my temple throb like yet another story about some twit who paid $30 million to fly into space. Every time this happens, we see reports in which some shady Russian zillionaire or monomaniacal entrepreneur is given all the time in the world to mouth banalities while wearing a spacesuit. What I would give for a world in which we saw 5 minutes of information about the real astronauts and the science missions, capped by the sentence: "Oh, and a space tourist will also be on the flight. Now, on to sports!"

But there's something especially ghastly about the most recent space tourist, Guy Laliberte, billionaire founder of Cirque du Soleil. I'll outsource the rest of this rant to the inimitable Phila:

What bothers me, apart from [Laliberte's] unctuous expressions of self-admiration, is that he sees this as a humanitarian mission, on account of he's going to read a poem about water while he's up there, in order to convince the struggling masses that water is important to children and other living things.

"My mission is dedicated to making a difference on this vital resource by using what I know best: artistry," Laliberte said. "This will be the first poetic social mission in space.

You know what? Fuck you. In the first place, space missions were poetic long before anyone ever heard of your dunced-out new-age horseshit. In the second place, you're an asshole. In the third place, if you care that much about access to water, $30 million could save a pretty amazing number of lives over the next 12 months. Hell, AIDG could work miracles with one million bucks. . . .

Unfortunately, Laliberte seems to be less worried about saving lives than about raising global consciousness through mime and poetry and mawkish entrepreneur-speak about the power of dreams.

"I think this is one of the best investments anybody has done in order to promote the awareness of water," he said.

"If the impact is achieved, we will reach much more people than I would have done if I spent that money on Earth trying to convince people that water is an important issue."

Did I mention fuck you? Perhaps I'm a cynic, but I suspect that if Laliberte had simply taken the money he spent visioning and test-marketing the noxious phrase "poetic social mission in space," and given it to an NGO that deals with water issues, it would've done more good for the world than any of his pompous techno-hippie hijinks.

If Laliberte really wants to make the world a better place, perhaps he should consider staying up there.

Yes, Phila, I think that about covers the bases.


All Hail the Sainte Laguë/Schepers Formula

As John Carter Wood pointed out in a comment to my last post, the overhang seats won't be needed to form a majority, according to the latest news. Instead, the votes cast for the parties which didn't reach the 5% hurdle will be distributed to the parties that did, according to the Hare/Niemeyer (g) formula, and that will put CDU/FDP comfortably over the top even without Ueberhangmandate. Or perhaps the D'Hondt formula will do it! No! It turns out the latest formula appears to be the Sainte Laguë/Schepers (g)!

If you want to start a fight among German political junkies, ask them to calculate the results of a hypothetical parliamentary election using one or the other of these methods. They'll begin by assuring you it's all quite simple, really, and usually end by reaching different results, even when they all claim to be using the same system (This is, by the way, an excellent response to snide Euro-mockery of the American electoral college).


Overhang Seats Rule (Us)

'Overhang seats'. No, it's not a Jackass prank, it's a feature of mixed member proportional representation election systems. They just decided the election we just witnessed here in Germany. But they're not just for Germans! Apparently the New Zealots Zealanders and Venezuelans have them too.

Which explains why there's a rather good English-language Wikipedia article explaining how they work. And the Economist has a valiant go at explaining this aspect German electoral system here.


American Federalism for Europeans 101 (Once Again)

Reacting to the news that Roman Polanski has been arrested in Switzerland and may be extradited to California to face charges on a 31-year-old sex charge, the Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorksi said: "I am considering approaching the American authorities over the possibility of the U.S. president proclaiming an act of clemency, which would settle the matter once and for all."

WRONG! I see this error constantly in the European media. As we see, even senior statesmen aren't immune.

Europeans, please listen very carefully: The President cannot pardon or grant clemency to Polanksi, because Polanski was convicted under state law, not federal law. Please get this into your heads, European jouralists: American federalism is a thousand times more federalist than in any European country. Each American state has its very own criminal code, property code, family code, and all other relevant laws. Each American state also has a complete and independent system of government, including a three-tiered court system and fully-fleshed out executive and legislative branches. As long as the state is operating within the (very broad) confines of its own state-level law, the federal government has essentially no power to intervene in state-level affairs.

In stark contrast to all European countries, the President of the United States has no authority to intervene in state-law prosecution or sentencing decisions (which are the vast majority of criminal prosecutions in the U.S.). None. Zip. Zilch. Thus, if Sikorski wishes to press for clemency, he'll have to address himself to his fellow Central European, California Governor Arnold 'The Governator' Schwarzenegger. And that all depends on how California law defines Schwarzenegger's clemency powers -- he may not be able to intervene until sentence has been passed, which it hasn't, as yet.

I know it's a very different system from what prevails across the Atlantic, but guess what: the U.S. is a completely independent country with a vastly different set of rules, not just a somewhat far-flung branch office of Europe!

On the merits: Yes, it was a despicable thing for Polanski to have sex with a thirteen-year-old girl, but she's forgiven him and, by all accounts, he had the bad luck to land in front of a California judge who was a shamelessly politicized publicity whore, and who was threatening to reject the plea deal worked out between Polanski and the prosecution and sentence him to an absurd 50-year sentence, just to appear 'tough' in the media. Nobody's a hero in this story, but Polanksi's decision to flee is understandable.


Extra: Left Party Encourages Voter Fraud!

Most of the people I meet in Duesseldorf assure me that the Left Party ('Die Linke') are scheming Communists who are just slavering to force us all into agricultural collectives. Or at least slap an outrageous tax on yacht wax. However, my neighborhood is an exception: in fact, the Left Party held its election eve party at a bar right across the street from where I live. And look what I found on my mail slot yesterday:

Image012

At first, I was touched at the personal attention. But then I thought to myself: "Hmm... there's something wrong here. I can't quite put my finger on it, but something just doesn't add up..." And then it struck me: "I'm a foreigner! I'm not even allowed to vote in Germany!" And yet here comes the Red Guard, hanging a placard from my very own mail slot encouraging ordering me to "Go Vote on Sunday!" I couldn't help seeing this as a not-so-veiled threat. Somehow, foreigner, by hook or by crook, you'd better go vote Communist on Sunday...or else.

They're completely shameless, these cadres. And you can hardly call it an innocent mistake: after all, who in their right mind would think "A. Hammel" might be a German name?


Steinmeier, You're no Barack Obama

Clay Risen takes the piss out of Germany's mainstream political parties for their interweb-Luddism:

But for all the leading parties' talk of digital politics, their Web strategies are just that: talk. Their blogs are Potemkin Web sites -- the posts are just rehashed news releases -- and their Facebook groups often have fewer friends than the average American teenager. The parties still think that the Web is just an advertising tool, not a way to raise money, activate volunteers or create a movement behind their candidates. As one official from Germany's center-right Christian Democrats told me bluntly: "It's not for the voters. Most of it is just to show the newspapers that we're modern and relevant."

But if European politicians don't understand the political power of the Internet, others do. Fewer and fewer Europeans are involved in mainstream politics, and they are moving more of their daily lives online. The result is a gap between the public and the European political center, one that fringe groups are eager to exploit. Right-wing extremists are becoming increasingly sophisticated online organizers. They've made great strides in Germany and elsewhere using the tools of online culture -- song downloads, games, social networking -- to spread their message. Europe's digital generation might not like politicians, but that doesn't mean it isn't political. And if the mainstream politicians don't connect with young voters soon, someone else will.

Later in the piece, Risen mentions another quaint feature of German society -- the political party as a social gathering nexus. I've even been privileged with the sight of the little red 'Party Book' of a faithful Social Democrat, complete with stamps and signatures showing regular dues payments!


The Church Nazis*

One of the most peculiar characteristics of German life is the 'church tax'. If you call yourself a Catholic or Protestant when you register your residency, the state will automatically assess a so-called church tax, which it withdraws from your paycheck and transfers to whatever denomination you've indicated. Kind of like an automatic tithe. Many Germans who leave the church to avoid paying the church tax later re-enter in order to get married or buried in churches (which you can only do if you're a paid-up member). Then they often leave again.

Turns out it's not only foreigners who find something a bit odd about this. Hartmut Zapp, a retired professor of canon law (!) in Staufen decided to register his formal withdrawal (g) from the Catholic Church, which you must do at the local Justice of the Peace's office. However, on the withdrawal form, he gave as his reason that he wanted only to withdraw from the "Catholic Church" as a quasi-public corporate entity (Kör­per­schaft des öf­fent­li­chen Rech­tes) on whose behalf the state collects taxes, but still wished to consider himself a Catholic and attend Mass.

The city accepted his explanation, but the local archidiocese rejected it, claiming that the further specification he added to the form rendered it invalid. Said the bishops: 'No church tax, NO CHURCH FOR YOU -- one year!'* The Freiburg Administrative Court has now ruled in favor of the Professor, and the Catholic Church has announced it will pursue all legal means to overturn that decision. If the ruling is upheld, it will probably spell the beginning of the end for the church tax.

I don't have much to say about this, I just thought it was interesting and would pass it along. Would the Catholic Church be able to continue to function in Germany only on the basis of private donations? Certainly not in its present form, I would imagine. All I can say is whatever happens, please don't f**k with the cathedrals!

* Of course, the title of this post refers -- ironically! winkingly! -- to this. Not this!


What are You Called, Beautiful Bastard?

So a few days ago I take a bike exursion to the Urdenbacher Kaempe (g), a large nature preserve just south of Duesseldorf. It's located in an area that was 'reclaimed' for dry land after the Rhine river changed direction in the 14th century. Because it's still close to river level, parts of it still flood every year. It has meadows, orchards, riverside forests, and swamp-like areas that stay moist all year. In the early 1990s, a quasi-public foundation bought the entire region and declared it a nature reserve. There's a 'biostation' (g) ('nature monitoring station', approximately) right in the middle of it, keepin' it real.

I could rhapsodize for pages about this enchanting place, but I have more pedestrian things to do. For now, I'd like to call upon the hive-mind to help me answer the question: what sort of bird is this?

Close up of Bird in Urdenbacher Kaempe

It stood on the bought of a dead tree, much more upright than a bird should stand, looking distressingly aloof. It's wearing tapered trousers and a morning coat, for God's sake! I clambered noisily through the underbrush to get this picture (best I could do), but the bird completely ignored me, as if I were a sniveling peon begging for leftover dormouse intestines from its midday meal.

I've looked through all my nature guides, to no avail. Can any friend of nature help a budding ornithologist?