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It is a fact that even if you were a really, really horrible human specimen in life, the worst there ever was, the most child bullying, war crime committing, clitoridectomy performing tyrant of them all, when you become old you automatically become A Sweet Old Person and thereafter people will smile at you and help you to cross the road and take the correct change out of your purse for you when you can’t make out the coins and offer up their seat for you and stalk you in the street to take prying photographs of you for their blog.

It is also true that babies and children are Innocent and do not push friends off swings or steal Pannini stickers of Socrates from other people’s drawers until they are 11 and a half. What happens when you are 11 and a half is that you are taken to A Car & Caravan Trade Show and learn the nature of true evil. This stays with you until you turn 79 or when you have completed 7,250 newspaper crosswords, whichever comes soonest, when your evil is captured in a bottle of sweet sherry that you have been saving for the occasion.


Did I really read that Fidel Castro was dead on Perez Hilton yesterday? No, that must have been a dream: when online, I only look at sensible news items to do with Roy Keane or climate change.

Indeed, I read three super interesting things about Roy Keane climate change this week, which have got me thinking about the relationship between a government and its citizens. Is it a question of ‘do as I say’, ‘do as I do’, or ‘do as Greenpeace says because the government isn’t saying or doing anything helpful anyway’?

First thing I read was a comment from a climate change sceptic posted in response to a BBC news story headlined Rich ‘can pay poor to cut carbon’. In the story, the United Nations’ climate change head was quoted (apparently erroneously, I feel duty bound to say) as suggesting that rich countries should be able to meet their greenhouse gas emission reduction targets by paying for reduction projects in developing countries through the international carbon markets. It’s cheaper to achieve emission cuts in projects abroad, you see (see here for some background on ‘emissions trading’).

nb: “greenhouse gas emission reduction targets” = five nouns in one! I should win an outsized teddy bear for that, surely?

Back to the story. The extrapolation was: ‘UN says America can pay Africa to reduce GHGs on its behalf while it continues to emit willy nilly’. Unsurprisingly, this led to accusations of colonialism from some readers, of leaching from others and of corruption of the UN from, well, nearly everybody. (That’s before I even get to the conspiracy theories that the UN dreamed up climate change as a Marxist plot to steal money from the developed world to give to poor countries.) Honestly. Does no one like the UN apart from Angelina Jolie? It’s like working for the Inland Revenue.

Anyway, any story about climate change also tempts the sceptics into the light, always happy to break off their work correcting the findings of Copernicus and Arrhenius for a quick swipe at the BBC. Their comments are both dispiriting and entertaining, like this one from a sceptic called Righty Rightwing:

“If there were any truth to MMGW [manmade global warming] at all, & if there was real danger for mankind, then our politicans would not be so willing to see airport expansion & exponentially growing the free movement of people, goods & services across transnational boundaries.”

I hate to agree with him, but you must admit he has a point. You do wonder why*, assuming that politicians have been handed all the data about global warming by all the world’s scared scientists, they haven’t declared a state of emergency.

The second thing I read was a survey of 2,500 Chinese young people, of whom the majority said they were concerned about climate change but 76% also said they hoped to buy a new car once they had enough money (click here for the story). “Strong resistance is highly likely if the public are required to sacrifice their current living standards for the sake of sustainable consumption,” concluded China Youth Daily (‘China Youth Daily‘? Subscribe me at once!). Who can blame them? They’re just following their own government, which has said it is worried about climate change but claims the right to develop at the same time, and, by the way, shouldn’t the US be doing something about this because it caused most of the emissions in the first place? In June, Ma Kai, minister of China’s Reform and Development Commission, said,

“The international community should respect the rights of the developing countries and allow them enough space for development. The consequences of inhibiting their development would be far greater than not doing anything to fight climate change.”

(click here for a similar attitude from the Indian environment ministry.) Note that in the Chinese survey, 78% expected the government to take the responsibility of protecting the environment.

It feels like this debate about how countries will develop is not going to go away. Developing countries including China, India and Brazil were ‘excused’ from the Kyoto Protocol because historically they have barely contributed to global greenhouse gas emissions. This is one of the objections used by America and Australia** not to sign up. Funnily enough, the Australian president John Howard now says that it is important not to force emission caps on India and China because he, too, believes in their unquestionable right to economic growth:

“The world’s developing countries have made clear that they will not accept short-term, Kyoto-style emissions limits. Any meaningful regional discussion on climate change must recognise legitimate national aspirations for economic growth and energy security. No country – least of all rising economic superpowers like China and India – is going to embrace measures that imperil these objectives.” (Source here)

(If you followed the perfectly reasonable logic of Mr Righty Rightwing, that last sentence should be changed to:

“No country is going to embrace measures that imperil its citizens [by causing climate change].”)

But they now need to come up with a replacement for Kyoto, and given the great leaps of China, India and others, I bet no one is going to excuse them this time around. China, as every man and his dog knows, has become the world’s second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and possibly the biggest. Meanwhile, Indonesia is becoming a major emitter because, in developing its land, it is getting rid of its tropical forest. Then there is a group of poorer countries still, many of them in Africa, which have millennium development goals (including universal primary school education and reducing child mortality) to meet, and they seem to get little enough aid as it is without extra aid to help them develop in a climate-friendly way.

Also pushing developing countries to the centre of the debate is this business of trading emission credits, which is thought by the UN and people like Nicholas Stern (I wonder if he is stern by name, stern by nature? “You at the back, East Sumatra! STOP burning those peat bogs and face the front!”) to be essential if rich countries are to meet their targets. Setting up lots of emissions reduction projects in developing countries could also help them avoid becoming large emitters themselves.

So… the least developed countries want to improve living standards but need access to green technology if they’re to do so without making climate change worse, rich countries want the least developed countries to take on green projects so they can buy their carbon credits but have been dragging their heels on their own reductions, the countries in the middle just want to carry on developing so they can have a slice of the good life that America and Europe have had for all these years, and somewhere someone needs to find and distribute money for clean energy R&D and energy efficiency and reforestation to prevent us all going to the dogs.

First of all, who says there is such a right as the ‘right of a nation to develop’? I found out It Has Been Written by some trifling organisation called the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. But surely governments can’t just wave this right around like a back-stage pass. I would be interested to find out who defines development, and whether the definition is shared among countries. Is it part of China’s development goal for all of its young people to own a car, for example? Is 1970s America an adequate level of progress to aim for, or does every kitchen need 2007 technology such as ‘air purifying floor tiles’ (buy them here) for a nation to consider itself developed? Unfortunately, specific criteria such as outdoor patio heaters are not mentioned as such in the UN Declaration on the Right to Development.

Secondly, I don’t think this right can take precedence over the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, nothing can. The Declaration says that:

“The right to development should be fulfilled so as to meet equitably the developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.”

In other words, what is the point of developing your nation to reduce poverty and disease among your citizens, if many of them then succumb to malaria caused by the spread of the mosquito or are forced to lived in camps because landslides, drought or whatever have made their homelands unliveable?

Thirdly, are developing nations using, say, United States or Japan as a blueprint for development? What about the increased incidence of obesity, certain types of cancer and clinical depression in these industrialised societies? I assume that if there is another way to develop a nation that avoids these problems, there is also another way to develop that avoids dependence on fossil fuels. With traditional industrialisation, for every 1% of GDP growth there is a 0.9% growth in emissions per head. Mark Lynas writes that “if China achieves the kind of carbon-intensive lifestyle currently enjoyed by Americans, then there is no hope for the planet.”

I suppose what is needed is sustainable development; I must research more about this. (Environmental sustainability is another of the millennium develoment goals, by the way, and by the look of this report things aren’t going 100% swimmingly in that department.) This is summed up well in this story in China Daily.

“Searching for the answers is what sustainable development is about, challenging all countries, rich or poor. It is on this issue where a breakthrough – technology-wise and/or or policy-institution-wise – and international collaboration are needed not only in China but globally. Therefore, the question is not whether China takes the position for or against mitigating climate change. The question is how China can shift its growth pattern to achieve sustainable development, in which mitigating climate change is embedded. This is the goal that China itself has established.”

A place where we can observe this tension between concern about climate change and the compulsion to develop is Norway, which, unlike the millennium goal countries, is already wealthy and has a climate that is projected to benefit, rather than suffer, from global warming. The government may have got rich from flogging oil to others (Frederic Hauge of super-cool-cause-it’s-based-in-Oslo green group Bellona says Norway is “a nice, little, selfish country of petroholics”), but it has also instigated green policies and recently pledged to become carbon-neutral by 2050. Perhaps Norway is managing its schizophrenia better than most nations.

Now it is faced with a new challenge (in the third Quite Interesting thing I read this week): should it go after the oil that may or may not be in the Arctic (as the saying goes, you can’t be too rich or have too many fjords), or should it practise what it preaches and campaign for the oil to be left in the seabed? Apparently it is worried about not claiming the land and the oil being exploited by someone like Russia or Canada anyway. Wouldn’t it be cool if Norway claimed it, then announced it wouldn’t drill there? Suppose we’ll have to watch what happens in the Arctic Circle. If Norway can’t make a sacrifice, why should we expect any better of developing countries?

*The answer behind politicians’ baffling inaction and the large numbers of deniers like Righty Rightwing might be as much psychological as anything. See Climate Change Denial for an interesting blog on the psychological aspects of, er, climate change denial. In June I went to a talk by Mark Lynas, who spoke about the psychological difficulty of accepting climate change. He said nowhere was this almost schizophrenic affliction more evident than in the actions of Tony Blair, who would speak about global warming presenting “a challenge so far-reaching in its impact and irreversible in its destructive power, that it alters radically human existence” but also shrug off criticism about flying to America on holiday and hinder grants for solar panel installation (hope I have remembered that right; see his blog for more and here for a depressing 2004 speech from Blair in which he talks about the need for urgency).

**Have found a good blog on Australia’s political incalcitrance based on a book here.

Just found a note on the communal blackboard on the back of the kitchen door that I never look at:

“Von wem sind die schwarzen Streifen auf dem Boden?”

Oops, how long has that been there? How long have I been blithely leaving black rubbery streaks from my substandard British boots all over the kitchen floor?

Scary or what?

Ooh, look what I found in a town in the middle of nowhere, near the Nurburgring: a goth punk shop!


Cushions as hats: it’s what we’re all wearing here, you know. You might say it will never catch on, but they said that about the hedgehog-fur merkin. Some people are so blinkered when it comes to fashion.

Spotted in* a church:


I called on the Lord on: (date) at: (time)
I had an encounter with the Lord on: (date) at: (time)

It is important to be precise in these matters.

*Well, pinched from.

My father came to visit for the weekend. On Saturday night, did we:
(a) Go clubbing in Berlin?
(b) Play German drinking games with the alcoholics in Bonn railway station?
(c) Attend a chi-chi outdoor classical music concert?



Yes, we took the bourgeois option: a Mozart-SaintSaens-Prokoviev combo, to which flocked Bonn’s finest (wearing C&A’s finest, I am sartorially saddened to report). The conductor’s combover was indecently low, the Macedonian lead violinist jerked like Mr Hyde, but the music was pure as the driven snow; as sweet and smooth as Golden Syrup. A man who resembled none other than Mr Tourette (


) peddled pretzels disconsolately – I fear hoi oligoi had little interest in such simple carbs.

As the audience listened to the orchestra in wondered hush, I started to muse on what would be the most inappropriate disruption. There are the obvious ones – someone standing up and shouting ‘Bollocks!’, excrement from an enormous seagull landing with a loud ‘plop’ on the conductor’s head, a bow flying from the hand of a violinist during an energetic passage and silently impaling a frail gentleman in the crowd – but my favourite disruption would be a large, red remote-controlled monster truck being sent beetling through the audience and on to the stage with an annoying, high-pitched whine during the adagio doloroso.

Anyway. Speaking of the sacred and the profane, check out this charmant piece of architecture:


Delightful, even if it is yellow. But it forms only two sides of the square. So how would Bonn’s town planners choose to complement this piece of yolky goodness? Why, thusly, of course:


If this were an eggy soldier, it would be from the mangiest, stalest piece of plain brown bread left in the bottom of the bread bin.

Here is something more wholesome: a photo from the beach volleyball tournament held in Bonn over the weekend (yes, they imported the sand).


Notice how the player in red is making bunny shapes behind his back. I hardly think this is the time or place for shadow puppetry. Note: I would have photographed the women too, but I felt enough of a perv as it was. However, I can emphatically answer an important but delicate question: yes, you do get wedgies playing beach volleyball.

A few examples from the ‘cool square building’ school of architecture.


A dentistry I go past on the way to work (I think the architect was told that the fewer the windows, the more sound-proofed the dentist rooms).


The headquarters of the national tin foil association of Germany*.


The local museum (Rheinisches Landmuseum). See how they have put the nice wooden building into glass so it can be kept clean! In here I saw a skeleton of the Neandertal man excavated in, er, Neandertal, near Dusseldorf. Here are the 19 (I think) bones found:

Look at the occipital ridge on that! (Thanks to the German ministry of education and research) I may take a trip to Neandertal in the near future in order to take photographic evidence of real, living Neandertals.

*It also houses the Centre of Advanced European Studies and Research.

Thunder and lightning all around tonight. Meanwhile, talk in the country of a Blutbad: six Italian men in Duisberg (apparently an industrial city in Nordrhein Westfalen) (not that that narrows things down much) have been executed in a Mafia killing. Curse my German: I can’t understand any of the local news reports about it. Luckily there are some stories in English. Italy’s deputy director of police, Luigi De Sena, says, “The Calabria mafia has a significant presence in Germany.” Gulp!

In other news:
– I have seen a lot of people (Turkish teenagers especially) wearing baseball caps really high on their heads. They look like this:

(Thank you, The Broad View)

– My weird thing of imagining myself falling down stairs or tripping over and breaking my ankle or smashing my face is happening a lot at the moment. Also when I see old people walking I imagine them falling and breaking bones. Do I subconsciously want to push them?

– I went to the Rheinaue Park before work this morning. At the edge of the trees, grazing rabbits were stationed on the grass at regular intervals like dustbins put out for collection.

– At the same time in Mosul, Iraq, I read that people were digging for bomb survivors with their hands.

– My things have arrived from England. Most pointless thing to have brought 500 miles: an empty Morrison’s supermarket carrier bag.

– I have had my old bicycle pimped, German style! Photo to come as soon as the transformation is complete. In the meantime, here is a picture of the super cool old wooden bed I bought in a second hand shop:

It looks like there might be a rabbit under the duvet, but that’s just the light.

Update: this blog is now one of nine results on Google for “Sponge X and Y”.

Today I had work from the office to do, study to catch up on (an understatement) and tedious laundry awaiting, so I did the sensible thing and went on a day trip to Mainz. Presently twinned with Watford, Mainz was once a key Roman stronghold against barbarians and later an influential medieval trading city with links high up in the Holy Roman Empire.

The train journey south from Bonn along the Rhine is said to be one of the finest in the world, so you will be pleased to hear that I spent only some of it reading about the Premiership matches yesterday instead of looking out of the window. Now that I’ve mentioned the view, here are some ineptly-taken pictures:


Those terraces on the opposite bank may be vineyards; I have no idea. Note whizzy boat, bottom right.


As you can see, there are lots of castle and towers in various states of decrepitude on the hilltops. Note whizzy car, bottom right.

We were travelling through Rhineland-Palatinate, which is wine-growing country – grapes were introduced by the Romans. I wish someone would introduce some Robinson’s sugar-free squash to Nordrhein Westfalen; I’m desperate. Anyway, the train ride was fun. In one carriage a group of elderly travellers was having breakfast of bread, cheese, jam and apple juice on a chequered tablecloth they’d brought with them. But all the seats in that carriage faced backwards, so I sat in a smoking car instead with a lady with red glasses and redder hair. You know the type.

Mainz was pretty but had that dead feeling most towns have on a Sunday, despite the tourists, and seemed excessively well-endowed in the sex shop department. Here is an expertly under-exposed photograph of a sex shop, I mean, Mainz cathedral:


Note the pinkness, if you can make it out. Just as Bonn’s city planners always seem to have yellow on their minds, so the architects of Mainz appear to have been going through a pink period for the past 900 years. I am unable to write much about the cathedral, not having been able to, ahem, precisely locate the tourist office, but Lonely Planet tells me that the first version burned down in 1000 AD, just one day before its consecration. Do you think it was arson by a stonemason who wanted his contract extended?

Inside, the cathedral was hazy with incense and soft pink stone, with painted friezes high up giving it a southern European feeling. But I must admit to feeling slightly frustrated that so much time and effort over the centuries has gone into religion, which I personally believe to be bogus, and maintaining a power structure around it, even if beautiful cathedrals resulted.

I had similar feelings when I visited the Gutenberg Museum just across the square. I have wanted to visit this for ages, having been vaguely involved in printing and typesetting at various points in my career (‘career’ is laughably pompous but I can’t think of another word). Yes, I’m referring to the museum celebrating Johannes Gutenberg, father of the modern printing press, not Steve Guttenberg, star of Police Academy – not that he doesn’t deserve a museum of his own.

Excitingly, Herr Gutenberg was a bit of a ducker and a diver, fleeing Mainz when it kicked off between the guilds and the bishops and setting up various business partnerships that would later turn sour. I read that at one point he went into business with a friend selling ‘Aachen pilgrim mirrors’. Apparently, pilgrims would pilgrimerate to Aachen, where every seven years four bits of cloth, sorry, holy relics, would be brought out of some coffer. If you had one of Gutenberg’s special mirrors, you could hold it up to catch some of the miraculous rays emitted by the relics and thereby take them home with you. It’s as if Bill Gates started his career by flogging dreamcatchers at Glastonbury.

Luckily for Catherine Cookson fans, Gutenberg soon moved on to his next venture (in 1450-ish): the movable printing press. This was important because you no longer had to etch each plate or carve a wood block for each page, nor indeed get some vitamin D-starved monk to write out each page by hand. Instead, you could make up a plate with individual metal letters and characters, then reuse them (hence movable type). This is especially good for professional typo inserters like me – imagine the wrath of the prince-bishop of Mainz if you spelled ‘in principio creavit Deus’ incorrectly backwards on a copper engraving. We were given a demonstration of a press by a scary/charismatic lady in the museum, not unreminscent of the shouty owner of the Stables of Bad Luck. Neither lady is afraid of PROJECTING.

The first things to be printed using Gutenberg’s super cool new invention were a school grammar, the Bible and some Chinese takeaway menus*. I saw some really beautiful illuminated bibles, but the sheer amount of religious material and biblical scenery started to get on my nerves. Still, from there came science and written music, I suppose… Another exhibition tracked the development of newspapers, and displayed some propaganda-soaked front pages from World War II. “Unser Fuhrer ist gefallen,” ran the first line of the Hamburger Zeitung on Wednesday, 2 May 1945, reporting Hitler’s “heroic death in action”. “In tiefster Trauer und Ehrfurcht verneigt sich das deutscher Volk.” (The German people bow down in deep sadness and reverence.) I wonder if German people get sick of such depressing references in museums, or if they just get used to it?

On the way back, I pondered the future of the towns squeezed between the river and the hills behind if Rhine levels and flooding incidence rise as predicted…

*An untruth.