Archive for February of 2010

February 18, 2010
Love is Like the Summer

Summer is the most beautiful season -- I think so, as many people do, but not everyone agrees. Summer is liberating and exhilarating, a time of warmth and long days, when all of nature is alive and welcoming, freeing us from the shelter of our homes and from thick bundles of sweaters and jackets and boots. It's a time of green grass and blue skies, days at the beach and nights under the stars, sensual and passionate, the heat on our skin felt all the way into our hearts.

Summer days can be blazing, blinding, overwhelming. It's prudent to protect yourself, with screen for the skin, a cover for your head, shade for the eyes, and maybe an extra layer of clothing after all. Sometimes it's necessary to seek out the shade, and some days you're better off just staying inside, avoiding the unbearable light and heat altogether.

Some summers can kill you.

Once in a while, a summer is a an extraordinary gift, with months of perfect days that never seem to end, lasting longer than anyone expected. Other summers are mediocre, and a few of them are frustrating disappointments, filled up with days of rain and overcast skies and mild temperatures, and too few redeeming days of sunshine scattered between them, ending abruptly when the chill of autumn arrives much too soon, so that we are left wondering whether the season was ever really there at all.

Summer is transient. We see the signs of its inevitable passing slowly but surely building up around us, the coolness in the air, the shortening days, nature's gradual retreat into dormancy. We bulk up and brace ourselves for the long season of darkness and cold. Winter is more oppressive and harder to survive. But it has its own kind of beauty, the quiet elegance of stillness and solitude.

Not everything about love is like the summer. The seasons are predictable -- we never know exactly when they will begin and end, but we know that they come and go once every year.

February 12, 2010
Cease, Desist and Cut That Out

People are always talking about cease and desist letters, but why do these things go to all the trouble to demand that you cease AND desist? What if you cease, but decline to desist? Could you get in trouble if you desist, but pass up on the ceasing?

By way of contrast, it makes perfect sense to tell someone not to "fold, spindle or mutilate" something. Folding is not the same as spindling, nor is it the same as mutilating; and you can spindle a thing without mutilating it, just as you could mutilate it without spindling it. Folding, spindling and mutilating are three different things, so if you don't want someone to do any of them, you have to tell them not to do all three.

A demand to both cease and desist implies that they're two different things, and you're demanding them not to do either one (ask your friendly neighborhood linguist about the Gricean maxim of quantity). Otherwise it's just a waste of words. To be sure, it only takes a second to say "cease and desist", but think of all the accumulated loss of productivity in all of the lawyer's offices all over the world, dictating and typing more than is necessary. Think of all the printer toner wasted printing out three words, when one would have been enough. In these difficult economic times, every little bit of extra efficiency makes a difference.

I'm troubled by the thought that I could get one of these things, and sincerely attempt to comply, but unwittingly fail because of some unfathomably subtle legal distinction between ceasing and desisting. A Kafkaesque nightmare scenario comes to mind -- cops and lawyers hammering on the door, the cops slapping on the cuffs while the lawyer cackles, "You CEASED but you didn't DESIST, SUCKAH!"

February 11, 2010
It's the Kitsch that Binds Us, and Sets Us Apart

So last night I was over at SureShot's, and somewhere in the middle of the conversation, I'm still not sure why, he started singing out "Manchmal möchte ich so gern mit Dir ...". In an almost solemn voice, suitable for a musical. "You know that, don't you?", he said, "that Roland Kaiser feeling?"

Um, I didn't know what the hell he was talking about.

"Komm", he said, exasperated at my Ami cluelessness, "you've lived here all this time."

The song was apparently a Schlager. Germans just love their Schlager (the word is presumably related to "hit"), popular music from German artists with German lyrics, with something of a 70's flair -- many of the popular numbers really are from that era, although they're still making them to this day. Kitsch is a German word, and Schlager form the Platonic ideal of Kitsch; an explosion, a fountainhead, a tsunami of schmaltziness. I'm certain that this is the music they play over the loudspeakers of Hell -- how could there be a worse psychological torture than having to listen to this stuff through all of eternity? And yet, I rarely see Germans getting more animated and loose than when the Schlager are playing. There are places around the Reeperbahn in Hamburg with jukeboxes fully loaded with the stuff, blasting out one after another all night long, while everyone in the place bursts out joyfully singing along, and I look around feeling bewildered and stupid. Every year, the weekend-long Schlagermove is one of the biggest parties in Hamburg (so much that they have three of them planned just for this year), complete with a parade of floats down the Reeperbahn, sort of a self-consciously lowbrow answer to the Love Parade. Everyone there is decked out in garish, hippy-ish outfits, the more outlandish, and the more outrageous the color contrasts, the better. I've had a great time when I've been there, but when everyone is singing along with the Schlager, I have to grin and move my lips as if I know what I'm doing.

I started typing at SureShot's laptop. "No, no," he said, knowing what I was up to, "no Roland Kaiser, not now, please ..." But he asked for it.

(It's about a guy imagining telling his neighbor that he has the hots for her, but he can't risk going through with it. "You'll lose your husband, and I'll lose my friend ...", cue the ominous minor chord.)

I've been in Germany for going on my 24th year now, and SureShot was amazed that I didn't know the first thing about Roland Kaiser, or most other Schlagersänger for that matter. To be sure, I'm now versed in German cultural references I never could have imagined 24 years ago, but you have to grow up with this stuff, or else it might as well be from Mars. "I grew up in America," I told him, "let me show you the kind of thing I know and you've never heard of," and started tapping at his laptop again.

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February 10, 2010
Gifts from Chucky P

It was back in September 2007 when I got an electrifying message from SureShot -- Chuck Palahniuk, author of the novel Fight Club, which is best known for the film with Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter and Meat Loaf, would be appearing at Uebel & Gefährlich for a reading of his book Rant (which was just coming out at the time).

Count me among the legions of fans who think of "Fight Club" as a life-changer, high on my list of favorite films of all time. I have a standing challenge to SureShot that he hit me as hard as he can -- so far, we've both been too chicken to go through with it, but one of these days, if I manage to get him pissed off enough ... And like many other fans, I was turned on to Chuck's writing by the film. There was no way I was going to miss the reading, this would be a brush with greatness.

The reading featured a man and a woman reading excerpts of the German translation of "Rant", and Chuck himself read a chapter in his native Upper Northwest accent. The best part of the evening, though, was the Q&A session -- all you had to do was get him going with a good question, and he would run with it, telling fantastic, hilarious stories. He wanted to encourage questions -- audiences in Hamburg tend to be very reserved -- so he promised that anyone who spoke up would get an envelope with an address, which you could send in, and he would send you a little something sometime later. He didn't elaborate. But that was good enough for me, I thrusted up my arm like an eager Arnold Horshack.

"Rant" is structured as a fictional oral history, told as quotations from various characters, and some of the quotations are attributed to the "Field Notes of Green Taylor Simms", which was not explained at the reading. So I asked Chuck what that was all about, hoping I would get him started on another good story. But it seemed that the question bored him; he gave a flat, matter-of-fact answer, and that was that. I was a little chastened, but I got the envelope, which was addressed to his agency in New York. I stuck in a note, saying that if I could wish for anything, it would be for an autograph with the dedication "Dear Geoff, I want you to hit me as hard as you can, Chuck", and mailed it in the next day.

The week after Christmas, a package arrived, and what a box of surprises I found inside.

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February 08, 2010
Goodbye, Cruel Sun

On January 27th, the Oracle Corporation completed the acquisition of Sun Microsystems, my former employer.

The history of Sun's high ride and demise, and the continuing story of the newly-merged Oracle's fortunes, will occupy the minds of the IT industry and its pundits for a long time to come. I could easily go on and on about it, but that's not what I want to talk about here. Instead, I think that something should be pointed out about the way it all ended. It's another example of a phenomenon that's been covered extensively in political circles, and present in the public mind ever since the Wall Street collapse -- grotesquely extravagant compensation and golden parachutes for executives whose performance, on objective terms, can only be viewed as failure, compared to the burdens borne by laid-off rank-and-file employees who were far less responsible for the company's woes. What does this tell us about the Reaganist dogma of an unencumbered free market that currently has a powerful grip on the minds of almost everyone in the US ruling class? The circumstances of my own departure from Sun, under the laws and standards of a "socialist" European state, have something to say about that.

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