Saturday, August 31, 2002

Back in NY

I have returned to New York. It is great to be back. I hung out in Yaffa (St. Mark's between 1st and A) before going home. Getting used to being here and hearing more English than other languages. Starting work again on Tuesday, so I have to get ready, and get all that non-work stuff out of the way by then.

Friday, August 30, 2002

Pashtun Hospitality in Frankfurt

I went to Frankfurt the day before my flight (which is today), so that I can spend some time with "A". "A" is originally from Afghanastan, and has been living in Frankfurt for a while. He is also an interesting character. We went out to dinner and chatted. He has lots of stories to tell about the days in Kandahar. I am greatful for his fine Pashtun sense of hospitality. It was rather extravagant.

The Anal Berlin Postal Service

I had to mail a package to Berlin. It was actually a book that I was scared to take with me to Lebanon, in case my bags were opened and there was Jewish stuff to be found. It was a present for "K" in Berlin.

Because I wanted to mail a book, and pay the book rate there was a very specific way that the package had to be wrapped. The burocrat in the post office at length explained to us how it had to be and what we had to do in order to properly send it. To get this rate the package has to be openable in such a way that they can close it the same way without damage to the package. The point is so that they can easily open and close the thing to inspect that there are only books, and no letters or other stuff. The special rate is just for books.

So I went to the stationary store, and bought appropriate packaging, whcih ended us costing more than the shipping. The fact that I could not just use scotch tape and let them retape it was a real pain in the neck. They wanted velcro, or metal fastners, or magnets, or something like that.


I spent three fairly uneventful days in Heidelberg. I stayed with "S" the first two nights, and with "I" the last night.

There was an exhibit in the library about Jewish professors from Heidelberg, I ate in various parts of the University and I searched in vain for something interesting to bring back to the US as gifts for friends.

I hung out with "H" again. "H" is unique, and worth hanging out with if you are ever in Heidelberg. He is always fun.

I had dinner with "S" and many others.

I was told that I seemed to have made a big impression in a few places in Heidelberg. (They did not all sound good. Especially in the synagogue in Heidelberg and with a certain Professor "K", though not the Professor "K" I met in Berlin.)

Saturday, August 24, 2002

Last day in Berlin

Today is my last full day in East Berlin. I am off to Heidelberg tomorrow on the last leg of my journey back to the New York.

Waiting for lights here in Berlin

People wait for lights here. It is odd. There can be no traffic, and a long light and pedestrians will not cross the street in Germany against the light. Bicyclists, of which there are many here, use the bicycle lane, and pedestrians say mean things when they do not.

Getting Controlled in Berlin

I got "controlled" for the first time here in Berlin yesterday. "Controlled" is the word they use here for when someone comes around to examine your train ticket and make sure you paid for the train. Their system is not entirely efficient, but I guess it works out in the end. You can get on to any train of tram here in the city (this is similar to much of Europe) and no one will stop you or make you pay or anything like that. You are supposed to know how to buy tickets, and which machine you are to put them in to get stamped. That is all.

Once in a while someone will come around and flash this funny plastic card and, if you are American, you think he is a beggar because everyone then reaches in to their pockets. Then you realize that they are all pulling out their train tickets to show to the guy. If you happen not to have your then he pulls you out of the train and give you a ticket.

(Oddly enough in Israel they have a similar thing on the busses. But there it is rare that you can get on to the bus without paying. You usually have to pass by the drivers from whom you purchase the ticket, so I can't imagine they ever catch someone. The only people they can catch are those who drop their tickets on the floor and those who come on through the back of the bus, and there aren't that many of them. So the odds of getting caught are rare. So why have the people checking tickets at all? The answer is obviously to keep the drivers honest. If no one would check the drivers would just give rides without tickets and pocket the money. This way the drivers can't get away with that.

In New York of course there is no "control" person. You just physically can't get near the train unless you have put in money or swiped your card. There are police who watch the barrier in case you do try to "jump the turnstile".)

Many people here have figured that the they really do not get "controlled" that often, given the amount of times they ride the subway, so it pays to take the occasional fine rather than pay for tickets each time, or pay for monthly passes.

But I bought tickets every time I was able to (total: about 70 percent of the time) ("K" never let us (until she got controlled last week), and "A-" believes that as Jews, Germans are not allowed to ask us for our "papers" on trains because we are historically traumatized about these things, and we should be free to ignore German orders and get off whenever we feel like it). The machines do not always accept bills, or the train sometimes comes before you have a chance to buy the ticket, so you just hop on. This time I was lucky. I had managed to get one. I had about five minutes to wait for my train and the machine accepted my EU 5 bill.

I remember getting controlled in other cities last year. Once in Budapest I think someone asked for my ticket. I passed that one too (that was the only time we figured out how to get tickets there). In some cities you really have to know the secret of where to get the tickets. I remember once in Munich having no idea what to do, so I avoided the guards (who wear uniforms there). In Romania, I am pretty sure that no one even made any pretext about getting tickets. No one bothered. There was no real system for getting them, and you just had to know what to do. But most of the locals did not really bother, and we never had any problems.

Like John Travolta said in Pulp Fiction about Europe "It's the little things that are really different." and they really do not know what a quarter pounder is.

Synagogue and drinking in Berlin

At the synagogue last night I ran in to "Professor K" who I know from Heidelberg. It was odd running in to someone I know (who is originally from New York) in Berlin, but the Jewish world is that small.

After the service I had to go and meet my flatmates (I can't believe I just used the British term for roomates!) For dinner, while "A-" and "K" went to eat at the local Chabad rabbi's house. The spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Germany was eating there too, and I walked then a bit and chatted with him. He was really friendly, just like you would expect a spokesperson to be, full on interesting stories, and never at a loss for words.

I then met my flatmates (about a half hour late) for dinner at Monsiour Voung, a Chinese restaurant. I had some good food there, and lots of wine while we all chatted about stuff. From there we went to this nice little artificial beach along the river, which had about a million people there at the same time. We found some nice sand to sit on and hung out there for a while drinking Beer and cocktails. Then we went to this other bar in Mitte, called Bargshtube and had more beer. Then the police came and told them to keep the noise down. We then left and went to Fun, another not so great bar, whose ambiance we did not really like, so we left. Then we tried this other bar, but it was closed, so we all went home. We got home at around 4:30 in the morning.

Incident on the Berlin Train

Last night I went with "A-" and "K" to the orthodox synagogue in Berlin. We went for Friday night prayers. The service itself was nice. I have discovered that there are about 6 synagogues in Berlin. Five are connected to the community, and one is independent. There is an antiquated (read: pre-war) religious system here where the Jewish community desires central control or something.

On the way we got in to an altercation on the train. It started not-so-innocently where this guy was staring at us on the train. "A-" was wearing a large Kippah, and the guy was showing a little too much interest in it. His looks were also a bit on the "I hate you" side. On his way off the train, we were still sitting down and "A-" had his back to a glass paprtition near the door which this guy was about to exist from. The guy then leans over and looks intently at "A-"'s kippah through the glass divider. Then the train stops and he exists.

"A-" was looking out the window at the guy leaving, and apparently they got in to a staring match, at which point "A-" starts giving the guy a really dirty look and then makes a mildly obscene kissing gesture.

The guy then comes back on to the train and walks over to us and starts saying something incomprehensible in German. Then he informs us, in German that he is a Palestinian, and gives "A-" the finger, at which point the door closes and the guy had missed his stop. He then resumes his position behind the glass divider which he spits at, and then stares at it for a while, looking like it did not really make him feel any better.

Me and "A-" and "K" are then chatting in a mixture of English and Hebrew ostensibly ignoring the quy while he then stood for two uncomfortable minutes waiting for the train to reach the next stop where he got off, and "A-" called him a "sharmuta". We got off two stops later at the Zoologische Gardens.

Friday, August 23, 2002

Germany needs some Animal Laws

Germany really needs to make laws about its dogs. There are no leash laws, no pooper scooper laws, and nothing prohibiting dogs from walking freely on their version of the subway. Someone forgot to tell the Germans that we build cities to keep animals and nature away from us. We are sheltered from it, and we build an infrastructure where we can thrive without the problems that nature causes us. We build houses to protect us from the elements, we build cultural institutions that are not hampered by whatever gets thrown at us. We build offices to harness nature for our benefit.

A city is like a laboratory. We are supposed to have full control of all the natural variables here. When we allow some of the variables to go unchecked we end up with a useless experiment. When we let nature go unchecked in a city we end up with crap that we do not want - literally. Trees are nice, but if we would just let them grow anywhere it would be problematic for the city. Imagine a tree in middle of a highway. We can say the same of dogs. Sure, sometimes we want them. Sometimes they are aesthetic or interesting, but they are too much a part of that part of nature that can be very annoying if left to itself.

It is for that reason that civilized cities do not allow the free roaming of animals on their streets.

Animals are autonomous agents. They have a will, and they are unpredictable. They are also not morally accountable, and they have the potential for doing great harm. (Need I remind you of the recent murder trial of that Lesbian in San Diego (?) who was killed in her hallway by a neighbor's dog?) There is no good reason why a controlled Germany can't have or enforce laws about dog restraining. There are plenty of laws on restraining people. There are laws about who you can vote for and what you can say and where and when you can say it.

There is of course no animal rights issues here. It is certainly permitted here to put your dog on a leash, it is also permitted to clean up after it. The issue is about weighing the needs and convenience of the people versus the thoughtlessness of dog-owners. When the latter gets priority, I am not sure.

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Last week approaching

Last night I went out drinking with A and K and four other people (2 from Austria). I really have not done this enough here. I spent a few evenings in beer gardens, but not enough.

I am now working out my schedule for my last week in Germany. I feel the light of New York calling me back. I feel reality setting in, and the wake of a new year with job and responsibilities beckoning.

Review of of Haruki Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

This week the New York Times had a review of Haruki Murakami's new book (I forget the title). By sheer coincidence, I just finished reading one of his books from a few years ago. I read The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.

I have to admit that for no real reason I had pretty low expectations of this book. It just didn't look all that interesting. But it really wasn't too bad. Murakami is imaginative and is able to tie together a complete plot. As stories go, this was enjoyable. I assure you you will find nothing deep here, but it is rather amusing. It is about one Mr. Toru Okada and the odd sequence of events that make up a few months of his life. It all starts with his cat getting lost and then just gets weird. His wife becomes rather distant, he has strange meetings with old men, fortune tellers, and teenage neighbors. He hears stories of people's lives and starts hanging out on the bottom of a dried up well. We are taken to World War II and battles with the Soviets. We hear stories of horror and intrigue. It is all wrapped up quite nicely, and the characters, while barely developed all have distinct personalities.

There is something very non-western about much of the novel, which is quite charming. Superstition, the dream world, and fortune play central roles in the novel. Much happens, and the writing is decent. I suspect that a tiny bit gets lost in translation, but it is hard to tell with a language that is as foreign to me as Japanese.

While I would not go so far as to hail Murakami as one of the great writers of our age, nor would I hope his works make it in to some cannon of great literature of the world, it was a good read. I really do not feel like my time reading it was wasted. However it really does not speak to me in any way that I feel the author has any special understanding of the world. He tells a good story. That's it.

Grocery Packaging Customs

Each country has their own grocery packaging habits. In the US, generally in supermarkets there is someone whose job it is to package your purchases. Generally the feeling you get if you are in a rush and try to help is that putting stuff in bags is a science and no one but professionals are qualified. You should not even try. This is actually somewhat true. Generally although you can pack a few 2 liter bottles of soda in to one bag, you should avoid this because it will be too heavy, so you match Soda with say Pringles (c), which has the same shape but weighs a lot less. You should keep cold things together and avoid mixing things that cannot get wet with things that form condensation. And on and on. Ask anyone who does this for a living. You'll find out all you need to know, and more.

This is knowledge that no American finds useful, because we have people who do this for us. But, I remember some ten years ago being in a grocery in Israel. I brought all my stuff up to the counter and paid, and then just stood there waiting, until the woman asked why I wasn't putting anything in a bag. So I packed up my stuff (really poorly) and took it home. I pitied anyone who was new at this and was buying eggs. Back then they did not even give you cardboard or Styrofoam containers. Actually I am still not sure how they did it. They have improved drastically since.

Here in Germany (I think I remember this in Switzerland too, but I forget) there are a few options. In big supermarkets you take your stuff up to the counter and pay for it, and then you take a bag from the box and the guy looks at you in a really mean way and tells you that he had no idea that you were going to take a bag, and that he forgot to charge you for it. So you end up paying an extra EU .50 for two bags. Then of course you have to package it yourself. In a bakery they separate each thing you buy and put it is a small paper bag. Then you collect them and carry them home. In general you are supposed to bring your own bags to these things. So people will come with all sorts of carrying contraptions to stores. This custom goes back about 10 years to a debate in Germany as to how they want to handle the environmental issues that affect us all. They decided to charge more for bags. (This of course explains why they think that the pittances of the Kyoto Protocols would be remotely useful. They thought that by eliminating bags they will save the planet. There is no notion that the sacrifice should be proportional to the benefit.) I do admit however that this might not be a bad free market approach to the problem. But I don't really see this making much of a dent. I mean it could have been worse, they could have outlawed plastic bags altogether.

(Oddly enough, when I suggested getting rid of straws in bars, and drinking cocktails straight from glasses, in order to now waste plastic on such things, people looked at me like I had suggested abandoning the concept of underwear. Go figure.)

The only place that you get packaging and bags is the small groceries that are generally operated by immigrant Asians. When they ring up your purchase they will ask you if you want a bag. If the answer is no then they will just give you a price and you pay and take your stuff. If your answer is in the affirmative they will give you a bag and put your stuff in it as they tally the price. These groceries are also open as much as the law lets them get away with. It is quite civilized.

Thoughts on Rebuilding Dresdin

For those of you following the news here there is massive flooding in various parts of Germany, Prague, China, and Russia. Three of my roommates went to Brandenberg (or maybe Dessau) to volunteer to help with the sandbagging and clean-up efforts.

A few days ago the headline on one of the German papers read "Germans helping Germans".

They asked if I wanted to come along. I said no, and I claimed that since I don't really speak much German, I would mostly get in the way. I am not sure this is true. For some reason I really do not want to help. I am not sure I want to be lumped under the banner of Germans who are helping Germany fight mother nature. Despite the fact that it was probably gratuitous, as an American, I have never thought it appropriate to apologize for the allies bombing of Dresdin. It never really dawned on me to feel bad.

But the paradox: I am here now. I feel no shame in walking the streets. I feel no problem looking around and going to do German things, living with German people, yet when it comes to helping Germany I feel quite reluctant.

However, I think the issue is far deeper than that. If there was a comparable situation in England or Mexico, and I could go there to help, I would. If my roommates were going to Prague, I would have joined. Certainly if it was in the United States and there was something for me to do, I would. So why the hesitancy here?

The Biblical city of Jericho comes to mind. Jericho was a city that Joshua destroyed when entering Canaan. Before the Israelite conquest of what became the Holy land, Joshua met opposition from Jericho, and besieged the city. He and his men walked around it seven times, blew some trumpets and the walls crumbled, and the city fell. God then ordered that on pain of death the city was never to be rebuilt, and no one (no Jew) was to ever live in it.

Sometimes I kind of feel the same way about Germany. One does not feel that the people here are less human. If you prick them, they bleed. Even if they are pricks, they bleed. The ordinary people here are no less deserving of respect than anyone else. But I have so little feel for the institutions here. I have so little feeling for the country. I keep thinking that I want them to end up like Jericho.

For me, rebuilding is a sign of disrespect to those who fought so hard to see it torn down.

That is not to say that I think that those who went to help were wrong. Certainly they were right in helping their fellow man. Moreover, the world looks a lot different from where they are coming from. They are making a new life. They are trying to resume a dignified life and never allow the shame that caused the war to re-emerge. And that is noble. It is virtuous to foster a spirit of help and cooperation here. It is noble anywhere, and should be encouraged.

It is noble to just help. I am just not sure it is noble for me to help.

Street fair in Berlin

I went to a a street fair on Sunday near the Berlin Zoo. As street fairs go this one was pretty good. They had a zillion booths, half of them making and selling food. Many selling suvineers, t-shirts, and other knickknacks. Because of the upcoming election there were also political booths for the Green party as well as the two major parties. Oddly enough, though I am sometimes sympathetic with the German left (frankly, the German right gives me the creeps) I cannot seem to sympathize with someone wearing a T-shirt that says "sozialist".

I was pretty scared to eat most of the food at the fair, as it all looked like scary meat and I really had no idea what any of it was.

Oddly enough many countries had booths there and you could see many little German children walking around with Israeli flags which they got from the Israeli booth which sold felafel and gave out JNF literature.

There was also a fashion show. There were a lot of models walking up and down a runway wearing nice enough clothing. It was nice. So were the models.

I realize that going to these things is really no fun alone. I really do not enjoy them as much when I am by myself.

Friday, August 16, 2002

Review of J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace

J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace has an extremely high acclaim to quality ratio. This leads me to wonder who gives out all these prizes,. I am now certain that it is all political, or at best academic, it has little to do with how good a story is told.

The story itself is notgreat, but neither is it altogether bad. Neither is the writing for that matter. It is the story of a professor of literature and communication in Cape Town, South Africa (That is what literature people call forshadowing, in this case of a very trendy PC story). At a certain point he has an affair with one of his students and the affair, for some mysterious reason goes awry, and she denounces him. Not being overly excited by his job, and somehow saddled with some odd principles, he allows himself to be fired and leaves his post at the university.

He then goes on to farm country, SA to spend some time with his hippy, lesbian daughter. One gets the impression from the novel that there he is supposed to attempt to find himself and fail due to his own (old male?) stubbornness. Actually in the end he does not really fail.

Soon after he arrives three black men enter his daughter's house, burglarize it, gang-rape his daughter and set him on fire. The daughter is obviously traumatized, but refuses to do anything to help herself. She keeps the child, and refuses to tell the police about the rape. It also becomes obvious that her black neighbor/assistant who she implicitly trusts was involved. It is likely that he orchestrated it. She knows this, but accepts it as her fate, almost as punishment for the immoral history of white people in South Africa. She ultimately agrees to marry this neighbor, as a sort of pragmatic fiction, even as one of the rapists lives in his house.

Do not really bother reading this novel. It seems like it was written in 1999 just so all those trendy lit crit students who are doing PhDs in stuff like "Post-colonial Literature", or "The New South African Novel" or "Truth and Reconciliation Literature" . . . will have something new to write about. There is no deep meaning, and one gets little insight in to what South Africa is like. One is not driven to feel for any of the characters except possibly for the daughter who is obviously a victim of her own stupidity.

Thursday, August 15, 2002

Why Europe never likes us

I think I figured out why everyone in Europe hates the US.

Despite popular belief, it has little to do with cultural imperialism. They like our culture, that is why they buy our crappy music and eat at McDonalds. Whatever they don't like they don't have. They like the fact that we go to war and kill the bad guys, because they know that if we didn't it would be their soldiers coming home in body bags, and they would be paying even more than they already do for the cleap oil that they are addicted to as we are.

It is simple.

It works something like this. Right now there is an upcoming election in Germany. There are two candidates Schroeder (who is the current Chancellor) and Shtiobel (who is the favourite). Schroeder is the leftist, and Shtoibel is the right winger. Schroeder supported the US war on the Taliban. Naturally so would Shtoibel. But now there are elections.

Schroeder does not need to say much, everyone knows what he stands for. Schroeder now has to distinguish himself, so he has come out fiercely against any invasion of Iraq.

Now it is not to hard for anyone to see that there would be little that is unjust in toppling SH. He is a monster. Thanks to him there are 40 less villages in Iraq. He used chemical weapons aginst thousands of civilians for no real reason. There are thousands dead, and countless permanently disfigured because he happens not to like them. If we got rid of SH we could end economic sanctions and allow life in Iraq to go on as before. Medicine could get through, and they could go on being just another Middle East dictatorship with no rights but relatively little violence and physical repression.

But Schroeder must tell his people that he is different and on the left, so he appeals to the old leftist, anti-capitalist, anti-America sentiment that he knows his people will buy. Now he is Chancellor, and he does and did hold a lot of support, so people still listen to him, and when he says "vote for me because I think America is bad" people listen, and even if they don't vote for him believe that America is bad. The right does the same thing.

In short anti-Americanism is a political card that all sides of any conflict, political, religious, economic, or ethnic will pull out when they want to distinguish themselves from their opponents. Since the US government changes so often (from Republican to Democrat) it is easy for either side to blame someone in the US.

It is the same all over the world actually. In the Middle East the politicians blame all the country's problems on the US. That is of course east. You just say, "look, they have a good economy, we have a bad one. In theory the world should even out, so if there is an imbalance then it must be that they are taking from us." Then if there is anyone who is allowed to think enough to point out the foolishness of this claim, he disappears before he can tell someone else.

So it really does trickle down from the politicians. Few people have any clue what the US is like except for the American movies which they love to watch, and the American junk they love to buy. They know few Americans and couldn't understand a newspaper unless the pictures are particularly colorful. Almost no European understands why the US pulled out of the Kyoto protocols. They are just told it is bad, and the US did it.

So pardon me for not caring when some polls show that the English don't like Americans.

Stop being so damned gullible.

The Wall

Last summer I was in Berlin for a few days with Z. We did not do all that much. We went to some film museum in Potsdam, which was so so, and I visited the Reichstag. . .. This summer I really have not done anything touristy, and I really do not intend on. I am here in Berlin to work, and not to be distracted. But I remember when I was here last time I went to Checkpoint Charlie and the Mauer Museum there. It was somewhat of an emotional experience. Many of those emotions have been coming back to me lately as I speak to Germans here about living in East Berlin and the social and economic and political divides that personify this city.

Now, divided cities are not unusual. Beirut during the 80s, Berlin during communism, and Jerusalem (sort of) are just a few examples. (Hmmmm, all these cities that were on my tour . . .) But each division has meaning, and for me, they all see to take some personal meaning. The reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 was not an even I was around for. But the repercussions are still felt today for me as a supporter of the little state. The reunification of Berlin was an event that I remember. I recall watching on TV the tearing down of the wall. I remember watching George Bush talking about it on TV in my parents' basement when I was about 15 years old. I am not sure I grasped the significance of it then, and I did not spend much time thinking about it since. But being here, living here in East Berlin makes it a rather pervasive experience.

East Berlin is now part of Berlin. The unification of Germany (which if memory serves, is noted in many rabbinic books (eg the Meshech Chochma (maybe Rashi too) as a harbinger of doom) profoundly effected Germany and especially Berlin. Berliners were not drafted in the German army because just being in Berlin put them on the front lines. Berliners were treated as a sort of martyrs for Germany. . .

But now it is different. Berlin is now the capitol. (As of like two years ago, and the people are not used to it.) West Germany is still bailing out East Germany's post-communist economy. And all Germans are profoundly aware of the changes.

Having spoken to people about this a lot lately, I am forced to bring up the memories of last summer and the memories of a whole lifetime in understanding my reactions to a unified Germany.

When I was a child my friend "C" and I had stamp collections (I stopped when I was around 9 years old, and took up other hobbies). I was fascinated by what was important enough to a country that they would put it on their stamps. I marvelled at the fact that some country would put fish, or Mickey mouse, or flowers or military leaders, or candy on their stamps. I was amused. There were two countries from which I had no stamps. If I got any by accident I threw them out. In the album where I used to keep all my stamps I just scribbled all over the page that was meant for those stamps. The two countries were Germany and Russia. I really did hate both of those countries.

Needless to say the reasons why were obvious. Growing up in a family with four grandparents who were victims in in one way or another of the Nazis, there was no way I could ever think Germany a civilized place populated with human beings and the like. I wanted no part of them. At age 7, that meant no Nazi stamps for me.

I hated Russia for equally obvious reasons. The Russians were communists. If that is not enough, they were anti freedom. People wanted to leave; they could not. People wanted to enter business for themselves they could not. People wanted to practice their religions; they could not. Moreover, Brooklyn where I grew up was the central place for the struggle to free Jewish Soviet dissidents. I remember hearing about rallies and protests to help free Sharansky and other Soviet Jews. The few reports that did come out that I was able to hear about from Russians in 1986, 87, and 88 who got out were exactly like they were described by Orwell in his nightmarish 1984.

It wasn't until I really started thinking about the fall of the wall did I have to really ask myself who I hated more.

For me, the Berlin wall represented two opposing things that I never really reconciled. On the one hand the Berlin wall meant that Germany was punished. This is how the world hurt Germany. It took the country and divided it in two. Half suffered under the Russians while the other half was rebuilt by the allies and was never allowed to have its own real military, and still had to pay reparations.

On the other hand the Berlin wall represented the communist stronghold in Europe. The commies were next door to all the good Allied countries. The communists had bases and stuff there. They were repressing more and more people. Who can forget Ronald Regan's "Mr. Grobachev, tear down that wall!" speech. I can't. I never will.

The Berlin wall was Germany's punishment, but it was also the world's. And while I didn't mind punishing Germany, I did not like the idea of the evil in the world getting stronger.

Except for the fact that the Nazis killed my family (and were more brutal), and the communists killed 50 million others, there is little difference between their insane totalitarian mentalities. They were both looking out for the good of the world. Granted, the communists envisioned it all at least in theory turning out like a real utopia for all, and the Nazis saw a utopia with only white protestants, and everyone else dead, but in practice, and in the short run that is not what happened.

So being here in East Berlin is a rather strange phenomenon. On the one hand I am in a place that turned in to a Jew-killing factory overnight. It is a place that tortured and killed the families of some of my closest relatives. I am walking on a place that I was quite happy was enslaved by the Soviets. The people left in Germany didn't deserve any better.

On the other hand, as a Jew, I do get off knowing that I am more welcome here (in Germany) than most anyone else. As a Jew I have more rights and protections, both officially and unofficially than anyone can imagine.

As an American I am walking on ground that was once communist and is now part of a free-market democracy. On two levels I am expressing triumph over enemies. But I am walking on graves.

Regarding Nationalism and Socialism

Beside all the killing and wanting to take over the world, and all the dreams of ethnic cleansing and the other Eugenics nightmares there were two main problems with National Socialism. The first was nationalism. The second was socialism. The first can be rendered harmless if, like say in the US, you have a country and government and way of life that did not include all those evil things I just mentioned. The second is still evil.

Somehow the German left got this in to their head. Even though the problems with nationalism were obviated in the way I just mentioned, ie, they do not have genocidal maniacs running their country, there is still something wrong with nationalism. However socialism is still good. I just cannot figure out these do-gooders. Are they all so stupid?

Irritating accents

The following sentiment dawned on me, and I was wondering if it was shared by anyone else: British accents (and French accents and most foreign accents, for that matter) are charming on women I would like to sleep with, and fairly irritating on most everyone else.

Readjusting one's life-plan

There has been little to report lately. I am sitting here in formerly-communist east Berlin talking to some people, but mostly holed up doing work. That has given me much time to think about life and my work, but little that I thought would be interesting enough for the viewing public.

A thought that did strike me was something I said to "H" at a party on my last night in Tel Aviv, that I really can't get out of my head. We were sitting there thinking about the direction of or lives, and I thought about my family and siblings, and many of the people I grew up with. When they were born their lives were laid out for them. There was this plan, this outline that they had to fit in to. For the most part, most of them did.

They went to school, got married, got a job, and are now early on in the establishing-a-life phase. Now here is what I told "H": When I was younger I had a plan. I knew that at age 20 I would be here, and at 25 I would be here and at 30 I would be here. I have since made peace with the fact that my life will not go according to that plan. I am not where I ever thought I would be at my age. That is OK. However, I never made a new plan. And I feel like I do not know where I am supposed to be. I feel like I am floating, and I feel like I am supposed to have a plan, and daily I wake up wondering what it is." She claimed to feel the same way.

Sunday, August 11, 2002

European keyboards

Someone really needs to do something about all these messed up keyboards they have in countries that are not the US. Here in Germany there are all these extra keys that I have little use for, they mess up the "Y" and "Z" keys, and you need to press three keys to type an "@" and you just have to figure this out. In Budapest, I was using a Norwegian keyboard (don't ask), and there they also had the funny way to type "@", but they had some even stranger keys (like that mushed together AE letter from the olden days), and it didn't let me write all the Hungarian characters. (Hungarian has two different kinds of umlauts.) These problems can go on and on.

Now though I have not read any of those backpacker guides to anywhere, there ought to be a warning that travelers may be frustrated when using these weird keys. Moreover I bet it would be helpful if some internet cafes had regular (read American) keyboards, and one of them guides told you which one it was. I bet that they would do well with backpackers.

Licha Dodi - without me

"A-" has discovered that you can sing "Lecha Dodi" to the tune of the new Eminem song (Without Me), and it goes pretty well. That tune (sans zemira) got stuck in my head yesterday.

donner kebops

It seems that all of east Berlin exists on these things called donner kebops. What are those? you ask. They are these things that have shawarma meat in them (usually chicken) and the regular salads and sauces, all in this funny square or triangle shaped bread. Most of them are made by immigrants from Turkey, and ocassionally by people from Arab countries.

For some reason many of the places that serve these things look seedy, perhaps because they all have some sort of electronic jackpot machines, or because they are all cheap and attract old creepy-looking people, or perhaps because they all just seem dark, and people feel free to bring their dogs into the stores with them.

By the way, although all the dogs here are fairly friendy, they have no concept of leash laws. That just creeps me out. Also they seem to just go in to all the stores and hang out there. Sometimes it reminds me of a farside cartoon with a few animals in a bar just hanging out with each other.

German party

Nothing too exciting to report. I went to party Friday night with "A-" and "K". I chatted with a bunch of people. I discovered that I am fully capable of asking for a drink in German (though I have no idea what kind, and after a while it really didn't matter). The people were all friendly enough.

Review of Douglas Coupland's Girlfriend in a Coma

Douglas Coupland's Girlfriend in a Coma is a pretty good novel. (Yes, there are many Smiths references.) Not great, but pretty good. It is about a few friends from Vancouver who go through their Gen-X-style lives, not really becoming anything too meaningful. One dies in high school, and one ends up in a coma for 17 years. The rest get jobs and lead unfulfilled lifes toying with drugs, depression and all around unhappiness.

Then some 17 years after high school weird things start to happen, and all the friends happen to reassemble in their home town when the girl in the coma miraculously reawakens. At that point the world falls apart, and it is just the few of them left.

Coupland wrote a thoughtful book. In it he attempts to doagnose just what it is that made Gen X the way it was. He attempts to give us the answer to our problems. We are not interested enough in the past, we are not concerned enough about asking the questions whose answers may help un understand things. Coupland tries to convince us that we can break out of the vicious cycle that is our meaninglesness if only we probed deeply and an hard enough. Then will we get out of our miserabel lives.

This is one of those books that does leave a bit of room for interpretation. One can see the characters in different ways if one wants to. I personally am not sure what to really make of the whole thing. I really doubt I agree with his analysis of the problem, nor do I see how we can start making a change to look for meaning. Life just seems to be the way it is.

Thursday, August 08, 2002

I, as a philosopher really disagree with you!

Imagine you were the editor of some fashion magazine, or maybe you just worked in the fashon industry. At any rate imagine you spend a lot of your life studying and thinking about fashion, and were considered somewhat of an expert on it. Perhaps you teach classes in modeling school, perhaps you do consulting work for large chain stores who buy lots of clothing, or maybe you are the editor of the fashion segment of the local news.

Now what if someone came over to you and said "certainly one should to wear stripes with plaids". That would sound rather odd. And you would of course respond in your capacity as fashion maven, that one must not if they want to look normal.

Let us then say that the individula persists and says the following to you: "How could you, as a fashion expert who has spent time thinking about this, think that you should not wear stripes with plaid." What do you respond to this person?

Naturally you reply that "after countless hours of thought, and lessons, and reading about what others think about fashion, I have come to the realization stripes and plaids do not go together.

Now I have had that experience not less then three times in the past 2 weeks. I have having a conversation with a relative stranger and they say somehting about ethics. (I am a philosopher and teach ethics) Then I disagree. Then they look at me in wonder as I, as a teacher of ethics in a university disagree with them. They then say "How can you as a philosopher believe that?" I usually reply that "I as a philosopher have thought about it and read a lot about it and still, in my capacity as philosopher, disagree".

I am assuming that they are amazed that someone who has given this any thought at all can disagree with them. Now, that is not to say I am always right, or even that on this particular issue (yes, it was the same issue all three times) I am right. I might be wrong, or more likely it is a matter of opinion, but I wonder what the deal with people is.

Naturally after they realize that there are clear counterexamples to what they say they still go on believing that they are right. I guess that they assume that the guy who did the MTV skit from which they got this juicy piece of ethics from has a good quality answer. But it annoys me to no end that people think that experts are generally there to confirm what they believe. (Certainly as an astronomer you understand how a Capricorn should not travel on airplanes when the sun is crossing Jupiter.) Is that what education is? It annoys me greatly when experts do this, and "rearrange" research. But that is clear dishonesty. Shouldn't it be the same when regular people do it?

Wednesday, August 07, 2002

X bar

Went to a beer garden with A- and then his girlfriend "K" joined us later in the X bar. Had a good time and a martini. Played some backgammon too.

Review of Stephen Kellert's In the Wake of Chaos

Stephen Kellert's In the Wake of Chaos is a book in the field of philosophy of science. The book deals with a few philosophical issues that pertain to the now fashionable branch of mathematics known as chaos theory. Chaos theory examines the mathematics behind dynamic behavior, or chaotic systems, seeking patterns in their apparent absence.

The book has five chapters. The first one does a decent job of telling the reader what chaos theory is. It elaborates rather carefully on the exact definition of chaos theory.

The second chapter sorts out the epistemic, metaphysical, and methodological concerns that come up in chaos theory. It then addressses the question as to whether there is a difference between "in theory" and "in practice" when it comes to solving problems. Kellert then goes on to suggest that chaos theory provides a counterexample to that srrong distinction.

The third chapter is one of the stronger, and unfortunately one of the least related chapters to the rest of the book, does a good job on the ins and outs of determinism. What is it? What are the varieties that are important? What do we mean when we talk about the universe being deterministic? All of these questions are then held up to the foil of chaos theory to see if our previous notions still hold. For Kellert, they do not (really) hold.

The fourth chapter explores the concept of understanding vis-a-vis chaos theory. It seems like the chapter is geared to giving us the authors view of "dynamical understanding" which I find somewhat unsatisfying. It does a confused and poor job of separating the questions of explanation from understanding, and does not address explanation at all, though it pretends to.

Finally the fifth chapter which is genuinely the least satisfying, attempts to explore the question of why chaos theory took 50 years to catch on. This is done by appealing to institutionalized (male-like) prejudices against non-linearity. I had trouble seeing the problem, and even more trouble seeing why the solution he offered was satisfying even if you accepted that there was a problem.

This book is not for the mathematically uninitiated, though I think it is possible to understand most of what is going on without a serious mathematics background.

However, I do not think that it is that good a book that it was worth the read. There are better popular works out there on chaos theory and better philosophical ones. The treatment is not broadly and carefully philosophical enough that it is satisfying from that perspective, nor was it adequately expository so that one appreciated the nature of chaos theory. Nor was it technical enough so that it gave a good feel for the results.

That is not to say that a book needs all three. A book that had all three would be readable by about 4 people. But to be satisfying it needs to be at least one so that there is an audience who can benefit. This book had too little of all of them so as to be unsatisfying to all.

Tuesday, August 06, 2002

Karzi's task

If Karzai had any sense whatsoever he would probably want to massacre Padsha Khan Zadran, a local warlord who is trying to establish dominance over some part of Afghanistan. Short of that Karzai will be perceived as weak and will last only as long as someone stronger doesn't oust him. Karzai, if there is to be any hope for the country, must establish a strong central government and quash all opposition - mercilessly. Then over a perid of many years can he introduce democratic reform.

Hark. I hear in the distance liberal screams going something like this: How can you hope to start a democracy when you have to squash the opposition. Well, my well meaning friends, think back to the US civil war. There would still be slavery in this country without war. Also, if the warlords win there is no hope for democracy at all. Better a rough start with some hope for a better world then a bloody massacre that kills lots of innocent Afghanis and leaves no hope for the future of that country.

Trainrides as metaphor

My train ride from Budapest to Berlin could act as a great metaphor for some of my past relationships. Four of us sat in this tiny room on the train for 12 hours together without anyone saying a word to anyone else. We obviously had three different native languages, but at least three of us spoke German, and three spoke English.

We stared at each other from time to time, and busied ourselves with our books and our fingernails. Inevitably someone would turn away with only the slightest touch of embarrassment. At some point I offered everyone some Juicy Fruit gum. I got one taker and two mumbles.

Fate trapped us in a room for 12 hours, but it could not make us communicate. There is something very applicable about this as a metaphor.

Review of Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis

Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis exhibits some of the features of much of his earlier work. 1) There are many bite-sized chapters. Nothing too long. 2) You really don't read the book for the plot. 3) It is cool.

In the book, Ellis describes some of the life of Victor Ward - fashion model, friend to the stars, and all-round hip guy. Victor is obsessed with celebrity, clothing, trendiness, and sex. There seems to be little else that can capture his interest for any prolonged period of time. Actually one of the more interesting reasons for reading this book is to see what life looks like through the eyes of someone as unidimensional as Victor Ward. The other reason for reading the book is the style. The writing is full of vivid detail and minute description of details of people and the clothing they wear.

It was a fun read though the end kind of lost me (like all good literature). I really did not get what was going on when victor gradually starts seeing life through the eyes of a movie director and he is replaced in New York by a body double. A few more details would have been nice.

The book was not as gory as say American Psycho, but it had its moments, including a rather vivid description of one of Victor's sexual encounters. If you are already a fan, this is vintage Ellis, and worth the read. If you are not, this book will probably not change your mind.

The Beauty of Budapest

Budapest is a beautiful city. It was somehow lucky enough to be built in a place and time where beauty was valued and there was enough money to put invest in aesthetic considerations. Everything here is big. In your average middle-class apartment, the ceilings are about 15 feet high and there is enough square footage of floor space to be comfortable.

German trains

For all the precision and efficiency that the Germnas are supposed to exhibit, they have a lot to learn about trains.

In search of Moderate Arabs

Why are there no pro-peace and tolerance Arab groups whose platform declares that it is their goal to show Israelis that they can be trusted with a state? Sure it is a little embarrassing to say that, but one would think that it needs to be said. The fact that Israelis believe that terrorism is in their future regardless of what move Israel makes - is the single biggest obstacle in the way of Middle East peace.

The time is now for Arafat to think like Ghandi, and realize that he will only get about 90% of what he is asking for.

In the meanwhile remind me not to feel bad for Arabs who have to wait and get "humiliated" by waiting at long checkpionts while these scared-to-death Israeli soldiers making sure that if there is a car full of semtex that tries to get through it won't make it to the civilians. (Ask the people who have to live without legs, because a terrorist picked their shopping mall, what humiliation is.)

Israel really wants some incentive to trust the Arab population. Trust means both sides have to set their objectives to be mutually compatible with the other side doing well.

People in Arab countries and the Arab Press do not talk about cooperation. They talk about winning. You cannot trust someone who is trying to defeat you. Every confidence building measure you do is then interpreted as an opportunity for your opponent to take advantage of.

Every cafe that welcomes its Arab guests is now a target (think "Moment"). Universities, in all of Israel's history, a bastion of tolerance and cooperation are now just another place where a terrorist can walk around without arousing suspicion.

Israel needs to realize that being nice and tolerant got it no where. Everyone still hates Israel. For God's sake the Germans are the only ones in Europe who are not openly anti-Semitic or anti-Israel, and that is only because they are not allowed to be (it is illegal).

Sunday, August 04, 2002

What good is Amnesty International?

In the Sziget festival there was this Amnesty International tent with all these pictures of tortured people and children and stuff. I felt really bad for them. Then I realized that no matter how much we support Amnesty International there is no way that all that will stop. Amnesty International only has a say in what happens in civilized countries. The only people who look at the loads of crappy and poorly thought out reports that they put together are people in civilized countries who do not need an organization like AI to tell them that torturing innocent slave children is bad. The people who do need to hear it are the people in these crazy Fucked up countries like the Sudan where this stuff actually goes on. However the AI reports are not really widely distributed in these countries, and AI has no real teeth, neither does anyone else have the ability to stop this.

So in short, people who do not sit around indiscriminately killing people are innudated with AI propoganda about how bad they are because of these tiny infractions that they commit (think lack of Korans in Guantanamo Bay), and their jobs of fighting terrorists and criminals are made that much harder, while the people int he Sudan can just keep on doing what they are doing because AI has little access to then. So what is the point of having this organization in the first place? To keep America democratic? We need AI for that?

Is the Arab world doomed?

The more I read about this Ibrahim fellow who was imprisoned in Egypt, the more I think that there is little hope for the Arab world, and any change will be slow and internal. The American left will continue to bitch incessantly if we were to dare mess with internal Arab politics, even when we want to stop a genocidal maniac like Sadam Hussain. Then they will complain when we fail to do something like take steps to help free an Egyptian with an American passport who was imprisoned for the crime of teaching democracy to Egyptians - what they referred to as an affront to Egypt.

Americans will continue to be the victims of the Mohammed Attas that come out of this world, and we are in no position to offer any political or educational means toward establishing democracy. It is up the the US to employ military and political pressure on organizations that sponsor terrorism without any real concern for the feeling of the countries whose toes we step on.

If a country as ``moderate'' as Egypt can imprison a 60 something year old guy for talking about democracy there is little reason to believe that we have been making any headway trying to establish human rights or democratic reform. It is not likely that we will.

We must do whatever we can to protect ourselves from the dangers that these countries pose, and we must not feel bad when we try to oust bad leaders or institute reform by force. There have been few good leaders in the Arab world, and we should not fool ourselves in to thinkinking that there will be in the near future. Anyone good has been assasinated and vilified throughout the region (think Sadat). In a region with no rules and no hope, we must be careful. We must not be hopefull. We are addicted to cheap oil, and we ought to take it when it is convenient. There is little else of value there.

There is little hope that there will be anything resembling democracy or human rights in a country unless we actually invade it. There is no reason to believe otherwise. We ought not be squeamish as we are. We will be benefitting ourselves, and all future generations of Arabs by invading Iraq. People who object to our invasion of Iraq are dooming future generations of Iraqies to more terror, secret police, repression, torture, and genocide. Only a left-wing racist would want that.

Bathrooms in Europe

I am still trying to figure out what the deal with all these weird European stuff is. Anyone notice the toiletes they have here? (Those of you who have been here know what I am talking about.) What is up with those? And is it really too much to ask to have the shower attached to the wall?

Bar in Budapest

I just went out to this cool little bar/cafe in Budapest. It was really nice. I went with E, and her friends J and S. We did tequilas. All in all quite pleasant. I return to Berlin tomorrow.


I slept all day today. I will soon go out and do some cool Hungarian things tonight.

Sziget music festival in Budapest

On a whim I decided to go to the Sziget music festival in Budapest. So I took a train that was all screwed up, and because of that the train company in Germany put me up in a hotel in Dresdin for the night. Me and this guy I met drank a lot there.

I spent 10 hours in a little train compartment with 5 other people. That was pretty awful, but the people were nice and eventually made it to Budapest. I felt really bad for this Romaninan guy who was smoking with his ear (he had an interesting excuse), and kept getting questioned because he was Romanian. It must be something like being an Arab in Israel. No one seemed to trust him. The five uof us got our passports glanced at, but he was scrutiniyed at every step.

I am staying with "E" in Budapest. She is wonderful, and a big help.

I went to the festival yesterday. It was cool. There are all these tents and music playing and stuff going on. I don't think I heard of any of the bands. I stayed there till about 7AM this morning.

I ate all these Hungarian foods. I had langos, kürtos kolacs, and Turorudi. I feel so traditional.

A few Words about this Türorudi. It sucks. All Hungarian children seem to love it, but it really tastes awful. Hungarians do not understand why foreigners can't stomach it. The thing is this chocolate covered stick of cottage cheese. Both the chocolate and the cottage cheese tase like what Orwell would call Victory Chocolate. It is this dry, brittle, bitter chocolate that the comunists told you was good, so you ate it. Now everyone is grown up and they still like it. People who were not raised on communist food will be unable to eat this. This is one thing Hungarian culture will never export.

Thursday, August 01, 2002

Bombing at Hebrew University

Bombing yesterday at Hebrew University. I have not eaten at that place since last summer, but everyone does. Still waiting for emails from people.


Today I went to the Reichstag with one of my roommates. I took some pictures, and came home to get some work done.

Jewish Museum in Berlin

Yesterday I went to the Jewish Museum in Berlin with "K" and "A-" . It was nice, even though "A-" was being somewhat irreverent, as was I, I must admit. "A-" tends to be that way, and when around him I tend to be that way too. It was a good museum, though not entirely to my taste.

Summer roomies

I am now in a house in Pappelallee street. I am staying here for the next month so I am getting settled in. It is a converted former government office space from the East berlin Government. There is likely nothing historic about it, other than the fact that hundreds of people were probably frustrated about the length of time it took to get passports here. It is right near a U-bahn station. That is like a subway in New York, only far less complicated, and it always takes at least 3 to get to where you need to go. I have about 6 other people who live here. I think I met all of them. We had some wine and conversation last night, though I am scared I wasn't being friendly to all of them. I was a bit tired, and I am still a bit shy. I will try harder today.

Of airports and flights

Till now my flights have been fairly uneventful. I really don't recall my trip to Reykjavik, only that I sat in the back row myself and had three seats. At some point I got up to go to the washroom and I returned to find an old lady sleeping in my row. So I waited till she was finished napping and went back to my seat.

During my flight to Cyprus I sat next to this German gay couple, "T" was quite talkative and entertaining; he acted in musicals or something. He spent a lot of time finding the clapping at the end of the flight amusing. His friend was asleep most of the flight.

My flight to Beirut was too short to notice. When we took off the flight attendants were racing to give us little boxes of juice. By the time they were able to collect them we had landed. That was quite fast.

Going To Berlin was a nightmare. First the flight was at 5:45 Sunday morning. So I did not really sleep. I went to the airport straight from the party. The airport was quite the nightmare. If anyone in Ben Gurion Airort ever tells you to go to gate 85, you might as well give up right then and there.

The trick to actually getting through was Israelis call "lines" are to just use brute force. Literally. To get to where I had to go after about 40 minutes of waiting on a line that was about 8 feet long, I simply pushed everyone out of the way. This sounds rude, but that was the strategy that was employed by everyone else, and that was the one recommended to me by the people who were behind me. I managed to push half a platoon of soldier who were headed to Warsaw and a very large Romanian family to the sides so I can pass. It was hell.

The Turkish airport was nice, and I landed in Berlin after that without any further problems.

Arrival in Berlin

Sorry about the long delay. I have not had reliable internet access here in Berlin for a few days.

Party on Saturday night in Tel Aviv. I get there at around 1AM, so things were in the winding down phase. Film students. Some interesting characters.