December 31, 2016

Gedanken in bezug auf die Neujahrsansprache Bundeskanzlerin Merkels 31.12.2016

(I've rather cheekily given this post a title in German, even though the text is completely in English. Forgive me. It's really not meant as clickbait - not that I would be getting many clicks in any event.)

Well, I've now read over the German transcript of the Chancellor's address.

I find a lot to admire in it, honestly. I have some disagreements with it, too, but I find it interesting that she can still speak optimistically about things and is trying to take the long view. She admits that it's hard to do these days.

But at the same time that she is a diehard optimist when it comes to the ability of the German social market economy to meet the crises and changes of the time, as she says, better than any other economic system in the world. And she emphasizes the values of German democracy throughout. She's - I wouldn't quite say begging, but let's say almost imploring people not to give up on parliamentary democracy or the European idea.

I think Chancellor Merkel has in this speech missed or glossed over some of the real reasons for that dissatisfaction - not totally, but at the same time clearly not giving enough honest attention to those reasons to satisfy the average AfD member, I would imagine. I think she does to some extent want to have it both ways, but maybe not in the sense that neoneocon meant it in her analysis.

In my reading of it, her wanting it both ways is in the sense that on the one hand, as I said, Merkel remains optimistic about the robustness of German society and so on. But on the other hand, there is a certain pessimism about the ability of Germany to stand economically or otherwise as a truly independent country, for example. She calls that a 'Zerrbild,' a caricature. (One wonders why she, the leader of such a big country, should be so wary of the prospect of independence from the EU when other leaders of countries that are so much smaller - Hungary, the Czech Republic, for example - seem to have no similar trepidation.) This is coupled with a certain grim hanging-on attitude when it comes to making the European project work over the long term.

At least she doesn't seem to me to do what His Majesty at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. would have done in her place - just continue to wave off all worries, criticisms, fears for the future of one's country as just a "false choice" and give objectors the back of his hand.

Some might say the Chancellor allowed at least one straw man to take up residence in her text, namely that reference to some people somewhere - she didn't say who exactly - who reject parliamentary democracy in general as serving the interests of only the few. If she was pointing that at the AfD and PEGIDA side, then yes, it was a straw man.

But at the same time, we have to remember that in Germany, there is a long history of a violent, indeed Fascist branch of the far left, complete with street muscle, which is not shy about forcefully expressing its contempt for normal values. I think it more likely that she is aiming that particular criticism at them. (I've never had any direct encounters with the AntiFa types, thankfully.)

But she focuses too narrowly and exclusively on the problem of terrorism, I think, as the source of much of this disquiet. Where she talks about setting German fellow-feeling ('Mitmenschlichkeit' is better translated this way, I think, than as merely 'human' or even as 'compassion') and solidarity against the hate of the terrorists, expressing thereby that the terrorists will not define how Germans are to live, she widely misses the point that it is precisely not because of the occasional spectacular bombing or similar that Germans are becoming so fearful of the future of their way of life, but the little things - Muslims demanding that German women wear the hijab in certain neighborhoods, or stop serving haram foods like Schnitzel at the university canteen, or that Muslim-only prayer rooms be provided at train stations or hospitals - and the authorities don't have the courage to insist on integration in such cases. They're afraid, and Germans see this. These and much else are the kinds of under-the-radar things that are indeed redefining how Germans are to live. One can well ask how Chancellor Merkel continues to be so blind to this aspect. I admit I can't really grasp it - I hate to say it, but in this, her speech betrays more than a little of the Obamian tendency to play the ostrich and try to wish the hard realities away.

But I still think that for Merkel and those with her, at least as expressed in this speech, there is indeed a love of country on their part, just that their love of country is more abstract than what we, or indeed a good many Germans, would think of as real patriotism. That, to me, is not the same thing as what has been on offer from the White House pulpit of late. As I see it, in this talk, the Chancellor is expressing what she believes to be good German values, not trying to tear down or redefine her society's traditional ideals out of resentment or petty narcissism (moral or otherwise).

I admit that Chancellor Merkel's vision as I see it expressed on this occasion and that of His Majesty have a lot in common, but not everything. I suppose there is precious little hope that she will change her mind on anything fundamental to the long-term health of her country at this point, but at least she shows some capacity to move her views, however slightly, and to begin to acknowledge the scope of the problems. She is not quite so obstinate or so impervious to learning as her counterpart in Washington has shown himself to be at every turn - she acknowledged, for example, that it is specifically Islamist terrorism that we are talking about.

This is partly why I can still respect her stance in a very difficult situation, though I have a lot of sympathy for those Germans who have by now withdrawn every last morsel of respect for her. Now granted, should it have taken so long or so many dead for her to make even that little bit of progress? That is a Schande, indeed. But one can redeem oneself from shame, sometimes.  I think that Merkel in particular and the German people in general have been between a rock and a hard place for a long time, and she therefore has somewhat more of an excuse for making such choices as she has done than His Majesty does or did for his own.

Ein frohes neues Jahr an alle!

February 10, 2016

Wine of the Day: Idol Ridge Riesling 2013

Hello again. Tonight, I shall open a bottle of wine, namely this one:

The front of the bottle

The back of the bottle
This I bought along with several others from this winery at their booth at the 2015 Altamont Apple & Wine Festival. I collected quite a few Rieslings at that event, partly because I was doing comparison studies between the 'dry' and 'semi-dry' Rieslings available from several of those vintners who were offering both. I was interested to see what the relative range of sweetness would be between the two. As I recall, most of those that I sampled in this way had a more or less pronounced distance between their 'dry' and 'semi-dry' Riesling vintages. For the record, Heron Hill seemed to me to achieve the most reasonable separation, narrower than the others.

So I expect this vintage to be fairly sweet. Let's see...

Nose: somewhat fruity, a little pear-like, maybe.

Taste: a bit of a bite on the tip of the tongue; otherwise seems fairly smooth. Definitely on the sweetish side of things, though I'm not sure I'd say that it's really sweet (YMMV, obviously). I suppose the placement of the little indicator on the scale on the back label is accurate, though. Sweet enough that I won't be in a hurry to my second glass, but not so sweet that I'd feel overwhelmed.

Sweetness is obviously not the only palate-related topic we could consider here. Just a moment--I need to clean my eyeglasses so I can taste the wine better... There. At first I thought the bouquet hinted of pear, but on the palate, now I'm thinking more apricot/mandarin orange. Finish has perhaps just a hint of grapefruit.

Verdict: It's all right. Several years ago, I went through a Riesling phase. As I said in the last wine post, I'm much more attracted to Spanish reds nowadays, for example. But I never entirely gave up Rieslings. This one I think is a reasonable specimen of the type.

February 08, 2016

Car complaints

While my car is in the shop, I've been renting this little hatchback, a Hyundai Veloster. I like economy cars, also on those occasions when I rent a vehicle. This one is leaving me a little cold, though.

First off, the name: what the heck is a veloster? One expects most car models to be named after something, after all--an animal, a place, an emotion, a concept. I ask again: what the heck is a veloster?! It seems to be missing a syllable or something. Is it an attempt to evoke Jurassic Park (Velociraptor)? Or should I be impressed with its speed? (I've not tried to determine the maximum acceleration rate, so maybe it really is best-in-class 0-to-60 or something like that.) It just makes me want to snicker or cringe, or even better to snicker while cringing.

The thing handles well enough, though. But the really big thing that I don't like about this car: the sightlines and external visibility do not impress me. I usually use the mirrors less to check my blind spots before changing lanes, for example, compared to looking over my shoulders. Looking over my right shoulder in particular, given the structure of the rear windows and the C-pillar, I can't see a thing in the right blind spot. So I need to use the mirrors more, which is against my usual style. I don't like to depend on the mirrors with their potential for visual trickery (misjudgement of scale--see the aforementioned Jurassic Park for an amusing allusion to same). And the visibility out the rear window, mirrors or no, is not much.

Speaking of the rear-view mirror, there are three buttons along the bottom for OnStar, SOS calls and something else. (The rental came with no owner's manual for me to consult, so I don't know what the last button is.) Now if I want to use the dimmer switch, the natural place for me to put my thumb for the typical leverage on the mirror's edge is right where one of those buttons is. Suppose I don't feel like pressing that button while I'm flipping the dimmer into place? Too bad. So I have to use a less natural motion.

Ergonomically, I have a bit of a problem with the placement of the power-window and locking switches on the door's handrest a little farther back than I think they should be. Also, in the middle, where I would expect the armrest to extend to support my right elbow, it doesn't come far enough forward to do so.

One final (slight) flaw that I just discovered this evening, which really has nothing to do with the car as such: it's kind of difficult to properly brush snow off of a white car at night, because it's so hard to tell where the snow ends and the paint begins. I could gripe a bit about how the snow seems to want to accumulate in an exasperating manner in and around the door handles, especially on the third (rear) door; but that would be just peevish.

I will say that the important controls are laid out well enough and seem to work comfortably. The gauges are fine, too. I'm having a bit of trouble figuring out the MPG graph that's available in the onboard computer, but I'm not particularly concerned about it for the few days that I'm going to be driving this car.

So, while this Veloster is practical enough for short hauls for a single rider like me, I don't see myself hurrying to own one.

February 06, 2016

Wine of the day: Cune Crianza 2011

I have an idea! (Uh-oh, says the world.)

I could blog about wine.

How about this? With each wine I try out at home, I could take a picture of the label and write a little bit about the vintage. It's bound to be completely uneducated--I have no feel for the technical points of wine tasting. Please forgive my naiveté, of which there's bound to be a great deal in anything I say about wine.

Here's the label of the bottle I just opened:

The things you can learn about this stuff... I find it nice to read up a little on the vineyards from which my drinks originate. It seems that though the label says 'Cune' pretty clearly, the real intent there is the acronym 'CVNE', derived from the full name of the winery, as shown at the bottom of the label: Compañia Vinicola del Norte de España.

I like this one, as I do so many Spanish reds these days. Lively fruit bouquet with a bit of a teasing aspect--definitely not one-dimensional; active on various parts of the tongue, yet smooth behavior. It's a success, definitely.

On Spaceflight

A few days ago, I happened across this article that describes a hypothetical plan that might have been attempted to rescue the crew of the Columbia shuttle, destroyed on re-entry in 2003. Apparently, the plan described therein was an appendix to the official report on the crash. (I don't like to use nouns like 'tragedy' to describe such events, though they are certainly that. Such a choice of words seems to me to emphasize the emotional dimension of the event a little too much. Perhaps in a different context, I might describe it thus--but not on this occasion.) It's the most absorbing reading I've found this week.

February 01, 2016

Small thoughts on Grant

I do most of my non-chess reading over meals at home. I live alone, so I don't have to worry about my spouse or significant other being neglected while I read at table there. Be assured that if I did have a guest or mate or someone of that sort around, I wouldn't be reading like that with him/her/them at the table with me. Or at worst, I'd be reading aloud for their benefit.

That's precisely what's done at monasteries that I've been to during meals. Traditional practice in Orthodox monasteries (at least of the coenobitic variety), as far as I'm aware, is that meals are taken communally in silence, the only voice heard being that of a monk chosen to read aloud from a selection of spiritual commentary from the Fathers. When I was last at St. Nektarios Monastery in Roscoe, NY, for example, the reading was from a book by St. Nektarios himself--I was only dimly aware of its subject, unfortunately, because the reading was in Greek and my Greek wasn't good enough to follow along. I find this a very salutary use of mealtime. If I had a wife and children, I might be moved to do something like this for them sometimes.

But as things are, I read to and for myself. Lately, I've worked through Ulysses Grant's memoir and, following immediately thereafter, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. I suppose I could have read them a little more profitably in chronological order, but this is the way it worked out. I'd been keen on reading Grant for some time, more so than on reading Douglass. The latter turned out to be a very quick read in comparison--Grant's writing is fairly dense.

I here refer to the 1999 Penguin Classics edition of the Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant.

(By the way, I find the literary style that was apparently in vogue in late 19th-century America so appealing that I feel quite at ease adopting its cadences and manner. It's really amazingly agreeable to me. You can see this happen to me sometimes even in such a simple thing as that un-modern phrasing "I here refer...".)

Grant and I have some things in common. We're both Midwesterners, for one thing, he having been born in Ohio and I in Illinois (where he later lived as well). I see also that he had a tough time making anything of himself in early adulthood, having had a couple of attempts at going into business for himself fail in the 1850s. It took me longer than it should have to get my own career going, largely because of my own faults, so I can sympathize with such a life.

Grant is of course a military man, but not without wit and a subtle humor. See this rather biting comment on some of his fellow officers in the period of the war with Mexico, from the opening paragraph of chapter 3, for example:
It did seem to me, in my early army days, that too many of the older officers, when they came to command posts, made it a study to think what orders they could publish to annoy their subordinates and render them uncomfortable. I noticed, however, a few years later, when the Mexican war broke out, that most of this class of officers discovered they were possessed of disabilities which entirely incapacitated them for active field service. They had the moral courage to proclaim it, too. They were right; but they did not always give their disease the right name.

This is not characteristic of most of the memoir, though--Grant usually describes most everything in a very to-the-point manner with a minimum of editorialization. At least we can say that he has what in a modern American writer would be considered an almost pathological reluctance to advertise himself and his own role in the events in question. It's refreshing to read someone with such a sense of self-restraint.

Moments at which Grant describes contemporary protocol between American officers are of interest, such as his relation of the surrender negotiations at Fort Donelson (including but not limited to the famous 'unconditional surrender' missive) and of course the climactic encounter between him and General Lee at Appomattox, but also, along the way, several other interactions between him and the Confederate or Mexican commanders opposite him. I say they are of interest not only because of the fame of the historic occasions involved, but also because they show a kind of all-American chivalry or sense of honor, not so prettified or ritualized as would have been the case in a meeting between European aristocratic army officers of that or previous eras--though Grant commented rather ruefully on his own dressed-down condition compared to General Lee, the quintessential Southern gentleman, at Appomattox Court House--yet seemingly naturally assumed; courtesy without undue pretension, I guess, is a good way to describe it.

Grant has interesting comments as well on the quality of American vis-a-vis European soldiery of the time. In his view, the American Civil War produced a type of American soldier that was superior on a moral level to most European infantrymen, because the American soldier was literate and understood what he was fighting for. He makes mention of this sort of thing at a couple of different points in the narrative--I forget exactly where the first of these is found--I want to say somewhere during his account of the operations around Chattanooga in 1863-64. The second is toward the very end of the book, as part of his summation of the whole Civil War.

I am not quite sure whether Grant's views would have been quite accurate concerning the typical European soldier of the second half of the nineteenth century. It would be interesting to look at, say, a French or Prussian infantryman's diary from the Sedan campaign to see if those men might not have been more invested in their causes than Grant seems ready to give them credit for. Of course, French or Prussian peasants being relatively freer than Russian ones of the time, one might expect a somewhat greater level of reflection from the rank-and-file men. I note that Grant does not extend his comments to apply to the European officer classes. His point was to contrast the bulk of the army in the two cases, European versus American. Presumably the gulf in quality and morale between the officer classes of the two continents would not have been as wide.

I wish he had written something about his time as President as well. But maybe he would have viewed that as too self-aggrandizing, or he just didn't have the time to do so before he succumbed to his ailments.

I've written long enough on this--and it's so paltry--but it's getting very late, so it's time to sleep. Douglass will have to wait. Good night.

January 29, 2016

An interesting analysis of some social media

This comment on a blog that's among my daily reads (see the blogroll) seemed particularly insightful.

January 27, 2016

Post XVII: the blog awakens

It just had to be said.

I've not done anything with this blog for ages and ages. Not that I had nothing at all to say over the past five or so years, but blogging lost its attraction for me for a while. But unexpectedly, I felt inspired to return to it after having seen Star Wars Episode VII a week or two ago. I think the main reason for this was the title of this post--once that came to me, I felt I absolutely had to use it.

So the occasion of the revival of this blog from slumber becomes a commentary on the latest Big Thing. I didn't get particularly caught up in the pre-opening publicity, though I thought the trailers had their neat moments and all. But I did a pretty good job of avoiding any other spoilers, electing to go to a late show a few weeks after opening night. There were perhaps ten other souls in the theater on the occasion, so I could stretch out and relax. (Afterward, part of me regretted not having gone to opening night somewhere.)

As with most movies that I see at the theater (a rare thing for me to do), I like to devote all my attention to absorbing the experience in as much detail as possible. There were several moments in this one that exhilarated me, a few that shocked me--one or two of which will be obvious candidates to those of you that have seen it--and several moments that made me think or even left me just puzzled.

Even though I know probably everyone has already seen the movie who's going to, I guess I should pause and put up the obligatory SPOILERS! gate here. I don't know what I'm going to say yet, but there will definitely be some discussion of details.