Sunday, January 30, 2011

Das Boot

Mr Bookscorpion and I have watched Das Boot over the weekend and I mean the massive 282 minutes TV version (on DVD). I absolutely love that movie and I've seen it many times, since my mom loves it just as much and we caught just about every re-run on TV. No matter how often I see it, the beginning never fails to give me goosebumps, with the underwater silhouette of the boat slowly coming into view to the sounds of Klaus Doldinger's awesome soundtrack.

I really recommend watching the movie and if you do, try watching it in German (with subtitles of your choice). It doesn't matter if you speak German or not, but I always feel that the voice of an actor is an important part of the performance and yes, I do actually watch movies in languages I don't understand. In the case of Das Boot, the main actors actually dubbed their own voices in the English version, though. Oh, and if you do speak German, you will have fun with the different dialects, almost no-one speaks standard German.

The camera work is just amazing. The movie was shot in a full sized-mock up of a German Type VII submarine, with the cameraman running after the actors. If you have ever been on board of any WWII submarine, you know how cramped they are and how difficult it is to get anywhere quickly. I've been to the museum submarine in Laboe a few times, the same type U96 was, and it's absolutely claustrophobic.

Lothar Günther Buchheim, who wrote the book the movie is based on after his experiences as a war correspondent, thought that is was too shallow and that it only glorified the war. I would disagree and I think that unless you are totally ignorant, you will see the anti-war message here, at the latest when the boat actually sinks a ship and the crew has to watch the sailors drown.
Of course it's a thrilling movie and it may not show with 100% accuracy how the crews of submarine behaved (Buchheim applauded the technical accuracy, though), but on the whole I think it's a story well told.

I have read all the books Buchheim wrote on submarines and I noticed that try as he might, he can't avoid showing just how fascinating submarines are. The movie does that as well and it's the reason why I'm such a sucker for submarines today. I believe I have seen most submarines you can see in Western Europe plus the USS Pampanito in San Francisco. The first date I had with Mr Bookscorpion was on the Russian submarine here in Hamburg and I'm always ready to add one more submarine to my collection.

There are many awesome scenes in the movie, but one of the best features Otto Sander as the totally wasted Kapitänleutnant Thomsen, who has just been awarded the Ritterkreuz and makes a speech. I couldn't find an English version, but just watch the faces of the crowd...they are terrified that Thomsen will actually say anything against the war and Hitler before they laugh in relief when he rips into Churchill.

By the way, if you think that U96 looks somehow familiar: the full-scale model was used in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The crew of Das Boot came to work one morning and their boat was gone. Spielberg had hired the model, but it had somehow been neglected to pass that information along to the crew. That must have been awkward.

I love the Bundesverfassungsgericht

The Bundesverfassungsgericht (Federal Constitutional Court) is called on to review legislations and court rulings to make sure that they are in accordance with the constitution, the German Grundgesetz. Anyone can make such a constitutional complaint, although only a minority are actually taken up by the court.

The court has overruled many things that were or would have been downright discriminating and it's responsible for many rulings that protected the privacy and the rights of the citizens of Germany. It was for example declared unconstitutional to pre-emptively monitor telephones and in 2001 civil partnerships were confirmed to be equal to traditional marriages.

A few days ago, the judges of the Bundesverfassungsgericht rules that transsexual individuals no longer need to have genital surgery to be recognised as the opposite sex by law. While many persons do want that operation, many others don't and so I think that the ruling is another step towards equality of treatment.

The Bundesverfassungsgericht rules.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Happy belated birthday, Opportunity!

Seven years ago, Opportunity landed on Mars and began it's mission. It was supposed to have lasted for three months and it's still going strong.
Click here for a gorgeous Mars panorama. I still get a thrill from looking at those photos, no matter how often I see them. It's another world and I can sit on my couch and look at colour photos from it. Sure, we probably won't go there in a hurry (I hope we will, though), but it's still awesome.

Opportunity's twin Spirit has become stuck, but may still be functional after hibernating through the Mars winter. We'll know more in March. I'll definitely remember it as the hero in the (so far) only xkcd comic to make me cry.

Donna Leon

I usually get tired quickly of crime novel series, but that's not the reason with Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti novels. I enjoy the banter between Brunetti and his wife, the lack of guns, violence and rooftop chases and of course the location: Venice.

Corruption is a major theme in the novels and often Brunetti can't get a conviction or has no way of getting the charge to stick, even though he knows very well who is responsible. In the Scandinavian crime novels that are all the rage at the moment I find that absolutely frustrating, but for some reason that's not the case here.
Maybe because Brunetti has kept his faith, if not in the state and justice system, then at least in himself.

"About Face" deals with the illegal transportation of garbage, including chemicals and radioactive waste. Brunetti also meets Franca Marinello, wo fascinates him with her knowledge of Cicero and other classical author, but who at the same time shocks him with a face that has been lifted so many times it's almost immobile. At least that's what the gossip says and here's the second major theme of the novel: rash conclusions we jump to and the love people have for gossip.

I enjoyed the interaction between Brunetti and and Franca Marinello because I connect that easily with people who have read the same books as well and I know the joy of meeting someone who shares my eclectic taste. We also get a closer look at Brunetti's parents in law, the Conte and Contessa Falier, with whom he has been developing a closer relationship over the last couple of novels.

If your taste in crime novels is more Agatha Christie than Kathy Reichs, then I highly recommend Donna Leon to you. The novels can be read independently of each other, but I think they will be more enjoyable if read in order. Death at La Fenice is the first one.

About Face is the sixth book for me in the Library Challenge

Friday, January 28, 2011


Today, 25 years ago, the space shuttle Challenger exploded. It's one of the clearest of my early memories and I remember watching the footage on the news over and over again. I still can't watch it without crying.

This song was supposed to have been played at a concert, with Ron McNair playing the saxophone part from outer space.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


I switched over to the Disqus comment system after seeing it at Rule of the Dice. The Blogger comment system got on my nerves and I like being able to directly reply to comments.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


I came across the What I Killed Today blog a few years back and I just found it again. It's the blog of a vet assistant who records every animal she (I think) had to euthanize. It makes for sad reading, but I still love this blog because of the idea behind it. Killing animals is of course part of the job and in many cases it's a good thing, but I appreciate it when it's done with compassion.

I keep rodents and they just don't live long and are prone to so many illnesses including tumors. I'm thankful that I can ask my vet to put the animal to sleep before the tumor gets too big or before the animal is in too much pain. It's always a difficult decision, but I think over the years I have developed a good instinct that tells me when it's time. The last thing I need at that time is a vet who tells me that it would be cheaper just to smash the mouse with a hammer (this actually happened) or a vet who injects the mouse and then is out of the door before the animal has even stopped moving. I do realize that they need to keep a professional distance and I'm totally fine with that, but behaving like this is a bit too much distance. Especially since the reason for it is often that the patient in question is smaller and cheaper than a dog or a cat. If thinking that size or price of lifespan doesn't define the worth of an animal makes me weird, then so be it. I'll add it to the other things that make me weird.

I managed to depress myself now. If you need something to cheer you up as well, let's look at Orbit Buddy by Royaba for a while:

I feel better already.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book of Choice: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

I saw the movie years ago and at the time, I didn't like it much, apart from the scene where Chief Bromden says thanks for the chewing gum. But it stayed with me and I remember it vividly although I have never seen it again.

I suspect that the book will stay with me as well. I loved it right from the start and the McMurphy in the book even managed not to look like Jack Nicholson in my mind after only a few pages. Often, it's hard to get rid of the actors' faces when you read the book after seeing the movie, but that wasn't a problem here.

The book is intense and I enjoyed the voice of Chief Bromden who acts as our eyes and ears, at first only watching, but then taking more and more part in the action. It may take some getting used to because he includes us into his hallucinations and beliefs, but for me, that was part of the attraction. Some of the paragraphs in which he hallucinates about the machines that control life on the ward, as he believes, are striking in their wild and creepy imagery.

The book explores the theme of sane vs insane/normality as it is decided on by the majority, something which has always interested me. Very few of the patients come across as insane, most are just different and have retreated to the psychiatric ward to hide from a society that demands that they fit in at all costs.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey is my fifth book of the Library Challenge

Artworks I'd Steal: Caspar David Friedrich

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Source: Wikiepdia

I'm going to steal this one as soon as my time machine is complete. It vanished in 1945 and is presumed to have been destroyed.
I love the tall ruin, graceful even in decay, and the way it's framed by the crippled trees and the eerie light. No-one paints melancholy and loneliness as beautifully as Friedrich. His landscapes always feel to me like they are totally silent, with no human around for miles.

A few years ago, the Kunsthalle in Hamburg hosted a huge Caspar David Friedrich exhibition and I got the chance to see many of his works. What fascinated me most were works he did for Nicholas I on transparent paper. The painting were illuminated from behind by daylight or candlelight shining through a glass bowl filled with water or white wine, a so-called Schusterkugel (shoemaker's bowl). There's only one if these paintings left, Gebirgige Flußlandschaft, but the Kunsthalle showed three drafts Friedrich did as well and even had music composed since the music that was meant to be played when the painting were exhibited was lost. If you ever have the chance of seeing this, I really recommend it, it was amazing.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Q&A Rant

What is it with some people and their pets? Or maybe what is it with some people and their common sense? I volunteer for an online Q&A service and on a regular basis I get questions like "Hi, my gerbil is bleeding from his behind, he can't walk and he's squeaking with pain. What do I do?". I'm not exaggerating.

Why is it that people can't come up with the simple solution of seeing a vet with an animal that's clearly sick and even in pain? I can understand not recognising some symptoms of illness, although if people had done their research before actually getting a pet, that wouldn't be a problem either. But a bleeding animal that is too weak to walk?

I'm also annoyed by the apparent assumption that I not only should be able to diagnose their pet over the internet, but that I also should be able to heal it, presumably by laying my hand on the computer screen and sending good vibrations or something. Yeah, so finding and seeing a competent vet takes time and effort and it will cost you. But this is a living being we're talking about here and you can't tell me that you didn't at least know that, even if you were ignorant about all the other things you should have known about your pet.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


I picked up Oliver Hilmes' biography of Alma Mahler-Werfel "Witwe im Wahn" (roughly translated "Delusional Widow") because after reading "The Rest is Noise", I wanted to read a Mahler biography. Those were all checked out, but why not start with his wife.

Alma Mahler-Werfel was an exceptional woman. A strong and domineering personality, she sought all her life for the one man that would make her happy. She always chose men she thought would accomplish great things and she was right, but it seems that they never were good enough for her. The book follows her life through her many affairs and marriages (to Gustav Mahler, Walther Gropius and Franz Werfel) and we get a (sometimes very) intimate glimpse and her life through letters and diaries.

Alma Mahler-Werfel has written her autobiography and published her diaries, but those are sources that need to be taken with more than a grain of salt. Hilmer used her uncensored diaries and letters as a source for this biography, as well as letters found in the estate of Alma's friends and lovers. His book is the first that extensively discusses Alma's antisemitism, earlier biographies left out much of it and it was purged altogether from the German edition of her autobiography (after bad reactions to the English editions). She did surround herself with Jews for much of her life, but that didn't stop her from considering them inferior and she always thought that part of her role was to improve them.

If you pick any Austrian or German artists or writer who was her contemporary, the chances are very good that she has met him (or her). Many fell in love with her, others were much less taken with her. But it seems that she made an impression with everyone who met her. At times the book reads like a lesson in how not to achieve a happy life, Alma had a tendency to begin affairs or even marry when she already knew that it couldn't end well or when she had already fallen out of love. She saw herself in the role of the muse who influences the men she is involved with and if her partner wasn't very headstrong, her influence was heavy indeed.

Oskar Kokoschka for example was obsessed with her. The affair didn't last very long and both were unhappy in it, but Alma is featured in many of his works (Bride of the Wind for example) and they never really lost contact.

I read through the book in only two days and her life is definitely worth reading about, although the more I read, the less I liked her.
Always one for turning juicy stuff into hilarious songs, Tom Lehrer wrote one about her

Unfortunately, there is no English translation of the book at the time I'm writing this. Hilmer has also written an excellent biography of Cosima Wagner, I wrote a review here and this one is available in English.

4th book of the Library Challenge

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Nightmare of Eden

I just watched Nightmare of Eden and the Mandrel are the most adorable monsters I've seen so far on Doctor Who. They are fluffy, clumsy and have big, round eyes. Aaawww.. I want one - if there were any action figures or even better, plush toys of them, I'd buy one.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Stanislaw Lem: Robot Fairy Tales

The Robot's Tales are fairy tales written for robots, with only robots as characters. Despite the medieval setting with kings, knights and princesses, they are very much classic science fiction, with people, pardon me: robots travelling in space, visiting strange planets ect.

Science is blended with the logic of fairy tales and the results are enchanting and often very funny, especially if you have a background or at least an interest in physics. They can just as well be read without any deeper knowledge of the subject, though. Apart from the humor, there's another dimension to the fables: they invite you to think further about the questions raised in them and soon you find yourself having a philosophical debate, which is typical for Lem's writing.

You can read one of the stories here. I highly recommend it, especially if you want to know why you have never seen a brashation. Or a targalisk.

Stanislaw Lem is sometimes not an easy author to read, but the Robot's Tales are a good place to start if you have never read any of his stuff. I also find the comparison between hem and Asimov's robot tales fascinating - two very different tales on the same subject.

This is my third book for the Library Challenge and the second for the Science Fiction Challenge.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Dice don't kill, players do

I had my monthly Cthulhu session last weekend. Our group consists of a medical examiner, a pilot who also manages a speakeasy and a professional poker player (moi). We were investigating a series of murders - don't ask why, that's a long story. Let's just say we had a good reason. During that investigation we find a book containing invocations used by a cult. While I'm busy with other things, the ME and the pilot decide to take a look at the book. First, the ME reads the book and asks the pilot to shut the book after five minutes. That works well enough, although the ME then downs half a bottle of whiskey and is out for a while.

During that time, the pilot can't resist and reads the book on his own, until I come back and snap the book shut, getting attacked in return. Hilarity ensues and ends with a dislocated jaw for the pilot.
So I'm at a total loss at what to do. I know that the pilot is not that stable at the best of times (we've been playing the characters a while now) and reading that book can't have helped. He ensures me that he feels fine, but even if I couldn't read people very well, I would be distrustful.

Since I can't very well get him committed when nothing is obviously wrong, I play along. The situation ended more or less well and it seems that the pilot managed to break the spell the book put on him...but I'm not so sure of that (both as player and character).

I have never been so close to killing another player's character in all my roleplaying years. If he had made a wrong move like attacking us or siding with the cult, I probably would have. I've played in groups where such a story would have ended in a fight between the players because people take things a character does as a personal affront, even when the action is absolutely justified. In this group, we all enjoyed ourselves precisely because of the extreme situation and the difficult decisions our characters had to make. It's one of the reasons I love playing Cthulhu, especially with my current group - getting into really ugly situations that may very well end even uglier. Going insane is not a bug, it's a feature.

Murakami: After Dark

After Dark tells of chance meetings taking place during one night - at least they seem like chance meetings at first glance. Maybe they are, maybe not. Not all questions are answered when we leave the characters in the morning and it's an invitation to spin our own stories for them. If you like wandering the streets and night and thinking about the people you meet, what they may be doing and why, then I think you will enjoy After Dark.

A friend introduced me to Murakami's books a while ago, since then I have read quite a few, Hard-Boiled Wonderland is my favourite. I love the way weird things edge their way into normality in his books. It creeps in until you are surrounded by a reality that's very different from what you are used to. Take a wrong turn and you may never find your way back or you will only realise that you're lost when it's far too late to turn back.

Second book for the Library Challenge

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Chance Meeting

I'm reading a Mao biography at the moment when I'm commuting to and from work. The train I take for part of the way comes from the airport. So I get in and sit down next to an older man who cranes his neck to look at the book I'm reading. I hold up the book so that he can read the title and just like that we're having a conversation about Mao, good biographies and China - he had just come back from there after teaching three months at a university.
Usually, I prefer to be left alone. But somehow, conversations that start with books are always interesting.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

William de Worde

The hamster is getting old. William is now a bit over two years old and he weighs almost nothing. 30 grams say the kitchen scales, but that's with both cheekpouches full of food, so he probably weighs less than 25 grams, he used to weigh about 40 (60 when he moved in). Both photos are a few months old.
Apart from losing so much weight that you can feel all the bones in his body, he's very restless and has even started to gnaw the wire on the cage doors. He's perfectly healthy, so I don't know what causes this change in behaviour, but I suspect he may be getting a bit senile. Whatever the cause, I taped up the lower portion of the wire doors to stop him from climbing all the way to the top, I'm afraid he may slip and break a leg
I'm grateful for every day he's around now, he had been my first hamster after a much too long hamster-free time. Live without hamsters is possible, but not really worth it.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Guest post

I have a guest post over at Old School Heretic. If you're a RPG gamemaster in need of some monster ideas or if you just get a kick out of weird animals, head over there. They are a treasure trove for roleplaying and storytelling resources anyway and for weird stuff in general, so if you're into this, you'll find much of interest there.

Cato Bontjes van Beek

The library I work in has an exhibition of biographies and autobiographies at the moment and I have found a lot of books that I'm interested in. I picked up Hermann Vinke's biography of Cato Bontjes van Beek because while I had heard the name, I knew almost nothing about her.
Cato was executed for treason in 1943, she was 22 years old.She had grown up in an artistic community in Fischerhude, with many ties to the community in Worpswede. A childhood with a lot of freedom and many friends with views that were decidedly anti-fascist.
Cato never conformed to the standards of the Nazi regime. When living in Berlin, she and her sister Mietje would give French prisoners of war small gifts such as cigarettes and soap and would secretly exchange letters with them, even though this may well have landed them in prison.

Finally, she came into contact with the resistance group Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra) and began writing, printing and distributing leaflets for them. When the group was exposed, Cato was arrested and sentenced to death. Despite many petitions and recommendations by highranking Nazi offcials including Hermann Göring to transform the verdict into a prison sentence, Hitler himself made the final decision to go ahead with the execution. Cato died along with 15 others at Plötzensee Prison

Cato and her friends of the Red Orchestra were forgotten afterwards in Germany or were depicted as traitors due to their ties with the Soviet Union. These days, their stories are rediscovered, but compared to Sophie Scholl or Claus Graf von Stauffenberg, only very few people know anything about them.

Hermann Vinke spoke with Cato's brother and sister and had access to the many letters they wrote to each other and friends. He makes her come very much alive and paints a vivid picture of an exceptional young woman. If you read German, I highly recommend the book to you.
This is the first book I read as part of the Library challenge.

Added in November 2011:
I see that a lot of Canadians find this entry after a documentary on Cato was shown on TV there. I'm happy that so many of you are interested in her and I looked for some more websites about her. Here's one about the Red Orchestra with a short bio and another one. If you read German, then this will be interesting (opens as PDF) or maybe Google translate can help.

Animals I have petted

I just did a quiz and one of the questions was if I had ever petted a stingray. I did and it made me wonder what other animals I got the chance to pet during my life. Turns out it's quite a list...

African Pygmy Dormouse - soft fur, but very quick. I walked out of the room with one clinging to my back (luckily, he didn't jump off)
African Pygmy Mouse - it's hard to tell that there even is something sitting on your hand.
Alpaka - very, very soft, but they don't really enjoy being touched
Asian Elephant - surprisingly soft and warm
Atlas Moth - at the London Zoo, they are very soft
Bearded Dragon - their are spiny, but the beard feels awesome
Black and White Ruffed Lemur - fluffy and their feet feel like warm leather. The lemur was fascinated by my long hair and kept stroking it.
Brazilian Tapir - their fur is coarse, but they really bliss out when they get their neck scratched
budgerigar - a soft bundle of feathers
bumblebee - furry and cute and they don't mind being gently touched at all
Bushy-Tailed Jirds - they hate being petted because our hands make their fur greasy. Very soft, though. Don't pull their tail or you will end up holding the skin of the tail.
camel - that shaggy fur is really warm
carp - koi and mirror carps. Not as slimy as you'd think, but they much prefer nibbling your fingers.
cat - who hasn't. The softest cat I ever petted was a Norwegian Forest Cat.
Chinchilla - they are fur and not much else
Chiton - a marine mollusc, soft and a bit slimy.
dog - Samoyeds are my favourite petting dog, if you don't mind white, long hairs all over your clothes.
donkeys - Poitou donkeys have great wooly ears.
Egyptian Jerboa - both Greater and Lesser. They like running around much more than being petted and watching them is hilarious.
emu - the feathers are very soft, but they don't like being touched
English Park Cattle - a calf at a zoo, it was very soft and it followed me around
fancy mouse - soft and so tiny
frogs - several species, they are slimy but as a child I loved playing with the frogs in our pond (I very much doubt the frogs enjoyed it, though)
Giant African Snail - also much less slimy than you'd think
Giant Tortoise - they love being petted, try it if you have the chance. the skin on their neck is really soft. Hands down the most enjoyable animal to pet.
goat - at a lot of petting zoos, various breeds. Smelly, but fun.
guinea pig - it just wanted the cucumber I was holding
Himalayan Tahr - there was this one Tahr at the zoo who used to wait at the fence for people to pet him and he would just close his eyes and enjoy. Petting Tahrs makes you smell like Tahr, though.
honey bee - furry
horse - I love the smell of horses
Indian Python - totally soft and very warm
land hermit crab - some of them are really hairy, especially after molting
leech - there was one living in our pond and I used to look for him because I loved seeing him swim. He had a velvety skin
Marabou - careful with that huge beak. The feathers are not really soft, except on the neck and head.
millipede - several species. May make your fingers smell a bit weird due to their defensive liquid
Mongolian Gerbil - the claws scratch
Moon Jellyfish - it's a lot less like touching jell-o while they are alive and swimming in the water.
Multimammate Mouse - also known as Natal Rat. They are very, very soft, but they can be pretty aggressive and I've had my worst rodent bite ever from them.
Persian Jird - like Bushy-Tailed Jirds, they are not that much into getting petted.
rabbit - an angora rabbit is about the softest thing ever
rat - not as soft as other rodents. I love it when they put their tail around my neck.
roach - they don't like being petted, but hissing roaches at least won't run away immediately. Their exoskeleton is hard and their feet are scratchy.
Rothschild Giraffe - you can feed the giraffes at the zoo here and so I got to pet a giraffe. I also got slobbered on by it when it wrapped its very long and very purple tongue around my hand. The fur is short and not really soft, except on the nose, which feels like a horse's nose.
sea cucumber - they're velvety and not at all slimy
sea urchin - they have those little sucker feet that will cling to your hand
sheep - a few breeds, always soft and great if you have dry hands (the lanolin in their fur is like using hand lotion)
Spiny Mouse - several species. They really are spiny.
stingray - coarse skin, the eggs are also cool to touch
Syrian hamster - I like the short-haired breeds much more than the Teddies and hamsters are the best rodents to smell
Winter White dwarf hamster - their fur gets greasy from human hands really fast, but they are so soft. And they have those great hairy feet.
woodlice - they were my first exotic pets and I had one that grew particularly big. Their exoskeleton is very hard and their feet tickle.

I'm not sure this list is complete, but the really weird or unusual animals at least are all there. How many different animals have you petted?