Friday, May 31, 2013

Puffin Cam



Broadcasting live with Ustream

The Puffins are back! Well, the decoy birds are. The webcam shows a puffin colony in Maine and so far, it seems that only the fake birds are there that will make the real puffins think that this is a good place to stay. They are charming birds and when I discovered the webcam last year, I had a lot of fun watching them. So here's to another successful puffin season.

For anyout outside the US, the webcam may not play. You can work around that with a proxy or with Media HintChrome or for Firefox (which allows access to stuff like Hulu or Netflix as well)

Edit: the real puffins have arrived

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Kameraden

Kameraden - Die Wehrmacht von innen by Felix Römer analyses the more than 150,000 pages of logs the US Army accumulated in one of their most secret WWII POW camps, the Joint Interrogation Center in Fort Hunt, Virginia. The prisoners were nothing out of the ordinary, a cross section of typical Wehrmacht soldiers, but their normality is what makes the logs so special.
Apart from being interrogated, the cells of the soldiers were wiretapped and their wardens took extremely detailed notes of their conversation, along with names and as much information about each person as they could possibly gather. This now allows a direct comparison between what was said during the interrogation and what the soldiers talked about among themselves, almost directly after they were taken prisoner. Many sources historians rely on have been written years after the fact or with a personal agenda, but this is fresh and, in their talks among themselves at least, the soldiers are saying what they think and feel.

It's one of the most fascinating books I've read about the Wehrmacht precisely because of that. The author looks at just how politically motivated the men really were, how the tradition of comradeship in the Wehrmacht influenced them, what brought some of the men to take part in not only a war, but in mass murder.
There are some broad trends that stand out: most of the men did not consider themselves political and were rather badly informed about Nazi ideology. Hitler was still considered a great leader by many, though, even in 1944. Men who had grown up during the Weimarer Republik or even the German Empire tended to be more critical of the regime than younger men who had known only Nazi Germany. Only very few men enjoyed or took pride in killing, but many took pride in the efficiency of the weapons and their skill in operating them. There were endless technical discussions and much talk about whose unit was the bravest, most efficient, but the act of killing was glossed over with endless euphemisms.

I do hope that the book will be translated into English because it deserves a wider audience and I hope that it will be read not only by historians, but also by people who want to know what their fathers or grandfathers did and why. The University of Mainz has a database of all the soldiers who were interrogated at Fort Hunt and their relatives can ask to see the logs and files.

Reviews 2013
17th book for the Library Challenge

Friday, May 24, 2013

Book of Choice: Bitter Seeds

1940: Great Britain has just lost an army at Dunkirk, the Miracle of Dunkirk didn't happen. Secret reports reveal that the German has successfully bred soldiers with supernatural abilities who can walk through walls, start fires, throw whole tanks with just their mind or predict the future.
Desperately, the British look for supernatural help of their own and find that they have a number of warlocks who can be convinced to join in the war effort. The warlocks enlist the Eidolons, strange, malevolent beings who ask a price for their help that gets harder and harder to pay.

I love alternate history books and Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis is one of the best I have read. It's the first of a trilogy, the Milkweed Triptych, and I'm definitely going to read the rest as well.

The Eidolons and the effect they have are incredibly creepy, precisely because they never make an actual appearance. They are much too alien to be really understood and right from the start, there's the feeling that the warlords are messing with things that are out of their control. Tregillis only ever describes as much as he absolutely needs to and lets the imagination of his readers do the rest, an effective technique that, for me, is a big part of the book's attraction.

The characters are well-rounded, but it's hard to find one to like. It would have been easy to paint them black and white, but that would probably have made for a very boring book. As it is, the character I liked most was Klaus, one of the supersoldiers who comes to doubt the program that created him and who was, as a Sinto, only tolerated because of his ability anyway. The British, who would have been the natural heroes and who are very likeable at the beginning, become so ruthless and caught up in their desperate struggle for victory that it's almost painful to read. There are no easy answers here when you put yourself in their position.

A minor thing, but a rare one: the German spoken in the book was correct. No grammar mistakes, no typos (that I saw). I appreciate it when authors/directors do their homeworks and don't go all Die Hard on the German.

Reviews 2013

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Graphic Novel Challenge: The Boxer

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The Boxer follows the life of Hertzko 'Harry' Haft. Haft was born in 1925 and in 1941, he was deported to Auschwitz. There, more or less by chance, he became a boxer and fought against other prisoners for the entertainment of the SS guards. He survived not only Auschwitz, but several other camps and death marches until he could escape and was picked up by US troops in 1945.

After his emigration to the US, he continued to box until his final fight against Rocky Marciano, which he lost. The fight may or may not have been bought by the mafia. Haft retired, married and ran a store in Brooklyn. He told his son Alan about his life in 2003, after keeping it a secret for all those years and Alan wrote his biography that was turned into a comic by Reinhard Kleist.

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Kleist's style reminded me of the drawings and wood engravings by Ernst Barlach, especially in the concentration camp scenes, and the thick, stark lines give those scenes even more of an impact. I'm very glad that the book does not concentrate only on Haft's experiences during his time in Auschwitz because his story deserves to be told in full and all that comes before and after is just as interesting. It would be a great disservice to Haft to see him solely as a boxer who fought for his life in a concentration camp.

The book has an appendix on other, mostly Jewish, boxers who were forced to fight in concentration camps - there were many of them, some professionals, some who just could fight and very few survived. Almost every concentration camp had organised fights to entertain the guards and very often, the loser was executed. Triumph of the Spirit tells the story of another survivor, Salamo Arouch and I knew about Johann Trollmann, who was denied the light-heavyweight title he won in 1933 because he was a Sinto. He was killed in a concentration camp in 1945 after being forced to fight many times, often against SS men who wanted the satisfaction of winning against him. Other names were unknown to me, so I very much appreciated the additional information included in the appendix.

10th book for the Graphic Novel Challenge
14th book for the Library Challenge
Reviews 2013

Friday, May 10, 2013

Bismarck

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The Bismarck monument in Hamburg...larger than life and and slowly tipping over. Which is actually a fairly good metaphor for the way Bismarck is seen by historians. There is no longer the unquestioning hero worship and plenty of criticism, but even over 100 years after his death, it seems to be hard to escape the force of his personality.

Jonathan Steinberg's Bismarck - A Life manages to walk the line between it all. I quite liked it that the author mentions his personal opinions outright, a rare thing for academic authors. And while Steinberg clearly admires Bismarck political abilities, it becomes obvious very fast that he has no liking for his subject as a person.

Bismarck comes across as a cold, calculating man, unforgiving and dogmatic, with more than just a bit of hypochondria (particularly when things were not going the way he wanted them to). But he was also an amazingly successful politician and diplomat and despite his dislike, Steinberg writes objectively about both sides of the coin.

At times I had to stop to look up the host of people introduced. For anyone who knows German history between WWI and II, many of the names will be familiar. People who will become important for Bismarck, either as allies or enemies (or both), are introduced in a couple of paragraphs and the reader is given a good idea of who they were not only in dates and titles, but also in terms of their personality. I really need to read up on Ludwig Windhorst for example, a man who was an almost constant antagonist to Bimarck, but who is much less remembered today, eclipsed by Bismarck's fame.

Reviews 2013
Library Challenge 2013

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

7th Sea: Spy Games

For cast of characters and background information, see our campaign homepage on Obsidian Portal.

last time...

Dear Isabel,

I'm not going to send this letter, hopefully we will see each other soon. But writing to you has become an important part of my day, so I'll continue with it and just give you the letter in person.

We had a few rather uneventful days before the Montaigne embassy celebrated L'Empereur's birthday with a three day festival. We all did well during the festival, I think. At least there were no more éclats and no-one had to fight a duel. The second day of the festival was devoted to an elaborate game that involved spotting the 'traitors' in a given group - or remain undetected if you happened to be a traitor. Which I was rather often, not that I did not enjoy it. I managed to stay in the game until the very last round, to the displeasure of several noblemen and -women who did not take kindly to losing to a commoner.

Raphael Nunez also remained in the game. Either he is much more cunning than he seems or someone had done a lot of work to get him there. I'm still not sure about him. In any case, I was one of the traitors and Raphael played for the loyal group. Since it was obviously important to someone that Raphael wins, I made a few crucial mistakes, although I am reasonably sure that it could not easily be traced back to me. And now Raphael and his group have won, among other things, an audience with L'Empereur. It might have been the wrong decision, since I do not know who protects Raphael and what his purpose is, but there is no way to play spy games without risk.

On the evening before, Ramon and Alain received letters from Eisen and it seems that both Alain's wife and Ramon's fiancée Maike will join us in Paix. Ramon is less then enthusiastic about this and I can see why. His little dalliance with Esmeralda has unleashed a flurry of rumours and those will be awkward to explain, to say the least. He also fears that Maike will become a liability. I don't know her enough to really judge that, but if he continues to keep her ignorant about what he is doing, it is bound to happen, I am sure. Rumours and intrigues are the preferred weapons in Paix, even more so in Charouse, and I certainly would consider using Maike against Ramon, if I intended to harm him. Which would become that much harder if they trusted each other, but I am not sure they do.

It will be a while yet before they arrive, we should already be back from Castille by then. I keep myself busy with preparations and with building friendships or rather alliances with certain people here in Paix, but I much rather would simply leave right now.

Love
Marcello

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To simulate the game played during the festival, we played a couple of rounds of The Resistance. We played with six people, so we had two traitors who were known only to each other and who could chose to sabotage a mission by voting that it does not succeed. If three missions are lost, the traitors have won, if three succeed, the loyal troops win.

In our second game, people thought they had it all figured out. The traitors only needed to sabotage the current mission to win. And then my fellow traitor decided to vote for the mission to succeed, just to mess with their heads. It worked beautifully and in a flurry of confusion notes were updated and theories abandoned. And then they trusted the traitor again.

It's a game that doesn't require much explanation and it's a lot of fun. It also worked really well in the 7th Sea context and it was much better than rolling dice to find out who stayed in the game for how long. That would have reflected the characters' abilities better maybe, but it would have been a lot less entertaining.