You are currently browsing the monthly archive for November 2007.

Poor Scotland! Their national football team have been playing deliciously and what is the country’s reward? Not qualification to Euro 2008, but the loss of their coach to Birmingham FC. Birmingham! And they’d only just lost Walter Smith to Rangers before that. Doesn’t seem fair – what are the chance of getting three great managers in a row?

Still, I’m pretty sure I’ve read that Scotland will be one of the best places to live when climate change starts doing its havoc-wreaking thing. So that’s a plus point. Indeed, Iceland should be so lucky. At a seminar I attended this evening (yes, another one!), Niels Einarsson* of the Stefansson Arctic Institute said many Icelanders can only see the upside to global warming, because it means the country might become a bit like Scotland** (“without the Scottish”, he said for laughs). Evidently Scotland is the new Provence, Iceland is the new Scotland and Greenland is the new, well, Greenland, only the “green” part might actually start to mean something.

I keep coming across Greenland. Not in an Eric the Red “Hello! This coastline doesn’t look like North Carolina” kind of a way. But it does crop up a lot in climate change literature. For a start, its glaciers are obviously really, really big (the ice contains 8% of all the world’s freshwater), and, until they melt, they are proving a useful answer to the vexing question of “Does anybody know where I can find a three-kilometre ice core around here?”.

Also, the abrupt disappearance from the records of early Norse settlements on Greenland in the 1400s seems to have some contemporary relevance, because it may be an example of what happens when a community does not adapt to rapid climate change (er, all the people die). Einarsson reckons the ambivalence towards global warming among modern-day Scandi-types might have something to do with the fact that in the Norse sagas, hell is cold (as opposed to Hades hot). Does that make Greenland hell on earth? I reckon it might have been in the little ice age. “The farmers were reduced to killing their last cows, eating even the hoofs, killing and eating their dogs, and scrounging for birds and rabbits,” writes Jared Diamond in Collapse. I bet they still wouldn’t have eaten the montelimars left at the bottom of the Quality Street tin, though.

Back at the seminar, a Professor Haeberli (whose work includes studying “slope movements”) pointed out the folly of the “at least it will be warm enough to eat deep-fried putrified shark*** in the street after the pubs close” argument. According to him, the effects of climate change are constantly simplified and underestimated thus. “People have got completely the wrong idea!” he said. A completely new approach to science is needed: we need to understand not equilibrium, but disequilibium. Is not Iceland, he asked, dependent on foreign trade with countries that are somewhat vulnerable to adverse effects of climate change? Besides, what if the Atlantic Conveyer Belt stops? Where will that leave Iceland then? No closer to qualifying for the European football finals, I bet – this time around it finished above only Liechtenstein in its group…

*Author of, inter alia, “Of Seals and Souls: Changes in the Position of Seals in the World View of Icelandic Small-Scale Fishermen” (surely a stocking filler).

**This reminds me of something I read on the BBC a while ago by Artyom Liss: “A meteorologist in Arkhangelsk, in the north of Russia, once told me: ‘I know global warming is a problem, but I would welcome a bit of warmth up here. Then I could grow my own tomatoes.'”

*** This may or may not be an ignorant cultural stereotype.

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The first signs of Christmas have appeared in Bonn. A logjam** of chalets have circled like wagons to form a Christmas market in the town square, the bakeries are bringing out the big guns (we’re talking marzipan on a major scale), and tonight I saw a huge trailer full of Christmas trees, with seven or eight men standing in a conflab beside it as if deciding who gets to be the fairy on the top.

Alas I won’t experience Crimble in Deutschland. In a few days I will be leaving Germany for Foreign Parts, and will be out of the country for about a month. Wonder if I will miss it? I don’t miss England much. Well, I do actually: I miss being told what to think by the liberal media, and sometimes I miss Oxford. To be more accurate, sometimes I wish I were an incredibly intelligent PhD student at Oxford University holding an intense yet entertaining debate in a tiny pub about climate change and global development with my coterie of super-smart yet gorgeous (and probably Swedish) friends. Pathetic.

Well, I’ve been here five months now, and I am still waiting for Germany to get under my skin. I should probably explain why I wanted to come to Germany in the first place. For years and years, I felt that Britain was boring and that life was to be had Somewhere Else. I think I had Africa or Europe in mind. As yet, I have not been brave enough to think of building a career in Africa, let alone whether they would want me. I went to Tanzania on a gap year and spent 80% of my time in a state of terror, caused almost exclusively by the Timothy Leary-approved anti-malaria tablets I was taking. Europe, on the other hand, is Not Scary. It is Necessary. It is log cabins and snowy winters and hearts cut into the back of wooden furniture. If these criteria seem rather childish, it’s probably because I got my love of Europe, specifically northern Europe, when I was little, from fairy tales, Scandinavian storybooks and Ski Sunday with David Vine.

When I was a bit older and had a chance to actually visit some of these countries, I liked Abroadland even more. Everything seemed magical and different: drinking hot chocolate from bowls, walking to school when it was still dark, eating stinky salami rolls, being able to buy cigarettes from vending machines in the street (very important when you are 14), watching The Big Blue in French, and of course, the wonderfulness of talking in another language.

The feeling never left me, and at last I have figured out a way to make a living in Foreign. And while I much prefer it to living in Catford and no longer feel that life is happening elsewhere (or at least, here I feel a bit closer to the Else), Germany is not quite pinging my pants in the way it used to. Maybe it won’t ever feel magical like it did when I was young, thanks to globalisation, city life and the tediousness of adulthood: just like the sparkle of Christmas fades when you’re 12, however much you try to get it back.

But I think it’s probably because I am not really immersed in Germany deeply enough. I work using English all day, and I have been a bit complacent in assuming that going to a lecture every week on biological diversity will render me fluent in German – knowing how to say “multi-stakeholder forestry programme” isn’t going to help me in small talk with the natives. Every conversation is still a struggle. The other day one of my flatmate’s friends came into the kitchen and asked where the scissors were***. “Dunno,” I said in my very best Deutsch. Then he said something, and held out his palm. I assumed he wanted the knife I was using, and passed it over (blade first). It turned out had been introducing himself in German and was trying to shake my hand. I nearly sliced his fingers off. Well, it broke the ice.

Anyway, paddling around in the shallow end means I am not qualified to make any pronouncements on Life In Germany. I can only make flippant observations, such as: I really think the food industry needs to seriously think about diversifying away from the bakery sector. Or, the most (only?) stylish people here are Turkish teenage girls, who, and this may or may not be a coincidence, wear a strikingly small amount of brown. Or, there is a directness and lack of deference to the communication here that still takes me by surprise. For example, when people ask for directions in the street, there is no “terribly sorry to bother you” or “excuse me, would you mind awfully…” preamble. It’s straight into “WHERE IS THE TRAIN STATION?” Needless to say, if my German were good enough to accidentally on purpose give the wrong directions to these individuals, I would.

I don’t know if this way of talking to strangers is an indicator of classlessness in society or just the bluntness of the language (I have heard it is a Nordrhein-Westfalen thing). This is probably for the best, as I don’t suppose making uneducated, generalised statements about an entire nation is ever a very good idea. But I should at least be able to make observations about what troubles society here, what the dominant politics are, what the man on the street feels about Angela Merkel’s policy on the missing orange squash crisis. And I can’t, to my shame.

In the meantime, the strongest impressions I have are of a huge number of healthy people yet also a huge number of chemists (this needs an INTERPOL investigation), the hellish smell of the central subway station, some interesting architecture and, though it feels rude to say this, a kind of ugliness. Ugliness is not something I was expecting. Germany, to me, is home to super-cool forests and pointy roofs and wooden houses. But I have realised that it is also home to grey skies, suburban sprawl (at least in this crowded corner of the country) and the consequences of regrettable decisions made with the door-to-door cladding salesman, viz.:

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So, after (1) saving the planet and (2) knitting a disgusting pink thing, my priority task is to improve my German and find out more about life here. Secretly, as much as I like my flatmates, I would like to get an eco houseshare with other eco dudes to discuss eco issues in a, you know, eco kind of way. And I want to get closer to Nature, cause I liked it so much when I did archaeology-type stuff in France and the Czech Republic. Something to be rectified is that I don’t know about the history or prehistory of the landscape here. All I can remember is that there used to be Celts in these parts (I mean BC – before Clannad). Perhaps it would even be fun to live in the countryside. However, as I am a bit reclusive there is a danger that I’d start collecting twigs, then pretty soon I’d be talking to the animals, and one day I’d go into the woods and never come out… Oooh! I’d be like Hansel and Gretel! That would be proper German!

* This is a joke for William if he reads this.
** Is that the correct collective noun?
*** He had bought some flowers for my (male) flatmate’s birthday. Very metrosexual.

And the Lord came to me in a newsagents shop, and He told me to take up knitting. BEHOLD:

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Weee! My very own magazine, full of delicious knitting patterns. I also picked up a copy of…

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… as in, your mum is. Its sister titles Minger and He’s Lush: For girls who fancy their chemistry teachers were nowhere to be seen on the shelves. However, I did see – and resist – Sauna & Solarium, the chess player’s must-read Schach Magazin 64, Crema (subtitle: For Coffee Lovers) and Rodentia, the small mammal magazine. Don’t I have awesome willpower?

But anyway. Those knitting patterns. If Rebecca is indeed a sign from God that I need to pick up needles, I might need some guidance on where to start. I can’t decide between:

The Audrey Heppurl. You CAN wear a thermal vest and go to the ball!

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The Carpet Underlay Tube Dress. Shown in damp mould green. Yarn also available in fungal spore grey.

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The BabaYaga. (Advanced pattern includes Turin Shroud design on the back.)

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The Ray Mears Bivouac (Requires 379 balls of 12-ply.)

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The Horror.

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(nb: props to the art director, who seems who have got all models to simulate a state of near ecstacy while wearing some rather tricologically challenged clothing.)

I would appreciate any thoughts on your favourite pattern, but I think I have nearly decided. When I saw this I thought it was an averagely offensive pink jumper made worse by being teamed with a ridiculous puffball skirt.

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But on closer inspection, it is revealed that the skirt is part of the design.

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GENIUS. This, surely, is a garment that needs to be seen on the streets of Bonn.

It has been somewhat cold here. The people who told me that Bonn always stays warm owing to some kind of freakish micro-climate (I pictured a Germanic Shangri-La, or perhaps a Land-of-Neverending-Sunshine at the top of the Faraway Tree), were lying. Still, it is even colder elsewhere. I wish I could have visited the uber-gorgeous Sauerland at the weekend (webcam here!), where they have had their first snows of the season, but work, monetary prudence and an overdue Bruce Springsteen CD that needed to be returned to the library stayed my hand.

At home I have been seeing how long I can manage without lighting the terrifying oil burner-heater-stove-thing in my room, in an experiment to see what it will be like in the Long Emergency. Also the maintenance man came recently and said it was too dangerous to use. I didn’t quite catch why, but I believe the worst-case scenario has something to do with pools of oil, flames licking up my walls and a gruesome death. The result is an unromantically chilly garret. At night I am up to an extra jumper, a sleeping bag, a duvet, two blankets and a hot water bottle. And I can still feel the pea under the mattress! If it gets colder I plan to go into the hills, kill a couple of sheep and sleep inside their skins, using their still warm entrails as bed socks.

In the meantime, I have been treating Bonn to the sight of me in my black woolly hat in a bid to save my earlobes from an early death. In my head, I look like this:

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Keira Knightley (from JustJared.com).

However, a glimpse of myself caught in a shop window has revealed that the look I am closer to achieving is:

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Henry VII (from http://www.tudorhistory.org).

This is unfortunate.

I was surprised to learn the other day that Sweden imports biomass for fuel, electricity and heating (biomass being any kind of plant or animal matter). I thought that Sweden would have enough biomass in the form of timber and wood chippings for anybody. Being a compulsive and irrational Scandinaviophile, I looked into this immediately, concerned that Sweden might be doing Bad Things With Biofuels in the name of environmental sustainability.

I discovered that making fuel (specifically, bioethanol) from wood or other biomass such as grass or straw is known as second generation biofuel production. It requires several types of enzyme to break down the cellulose from plant cells into sugars (natural enzymes such as termites, or perhaps genetically engineered dudes, may also do the job for you), and it is therefore a rather expensive and inefficient process. Sweden is hoping for a breakthrough so that it can exploit its poplar trees, willows and other resources – in fact, the government wants to produce 12-14 TWh of biofuel every year from its forest and arable land by 2020.

But in the meantime it is much easier to draw sugars from ‘first generation’ crops such as maize, palm oil and, in particular, sugar cane, which explains why Sweden, which wants to be an oil-free country by 2020, is Europe’s biggest importer of sugar-cane bioethanol from Brazil.

Being a cursory reader of matters green, I have come to assume that biofuels are basically rubbish without really having looked into them that much. On closer inspection I have come to the conclusion that yea, verily, biofuel really is the devil’s Ribena! For a start, there are those horrible stories of Indonesian forest and peat bogs (and the people that use them) being cleared for palm oil plantations. But are things better in the West? Well, not really. In America, for example, it looks like large-scale maize farming for ethanol production is leading to soil erosion and pesticide run-off, while ruining small farm operations. The government is having to heavily subsidise the industry and apply import tariffs on Brazilian ethanol to compete, but there is no way it can possibly realise its hopes of replacing petrol with biofuel without imports: the US is running out of farm land, and even if all its harvested grain were used for ethanol, it would only fuel about 15% of the country’s vehicles (according to the Earth Policy Institute).

Europe faces a similar problem, only with less land and a worse climate. What’s worse, the energy balance of ethanol produced from corn, wheat and sugar beet is not good – I’ve read that for some crops, the energy needed from fossil fuels for production is greater than the energy eventually available from the resulting ethanol.

But in Brazil, whre ethanol has been produced in force since the mid-seventies, things seem to be different. It seems that if you’re going to produce bioethanol at all, you should do it from sugar cane, and if you’re going to grow sugar cane anywhere, let it be in Brazil. Brazilian sugar-cane biofuel has an extremely high energy balance of 8.3 (whatever that means; sorry, no good with the science). It requires little or no irrigation, and needs less pesticide, insecticide and fungicide than many other crops. Sugar cane also yields a valuable waste product, bagasse, which can be burned to fuel ethanol production plants. Its high yields and other advantages mean that one acre of sugar cane produces 650 gallons of ethanol; an acre of maize produces only 400 gallons. So far, I’m with Sweden all the way.

Given the advantages of sugar cane, it is not surprising that Brazil is the world’s largest bioethanol producer, along with the US. President Lula da Silva has committed nearly $6 billion for the industry over the next four years, and he came to Europe in the autumn to sign up more takers. Apparently, there are 250 million hectares of land “available” in the country for sugar cane expansion should the world follow Sweden’s lead. (In fact, there is a EU directive that biofuels must make up 10% of the fuel mix by 2020, which suggests countries must follow suit!)

And this, obviously, is where it is worrying. Just what kind of land might be converted into plantations? Obviously no one wants sugar cane to encroach upon rainforest land, but there are also vulnerable grasslands called cerrados, covering a quarter of the country, that conservationists don’t want to be touched. “Brazil can convert 250 million acres of degraded pastureland to sugar-cane production along with 225 million acres of savannah,” is the breezy message in an article by Financial Sense, which provides advice to investors (putting money in biofuels is big news). But a report by Isabella Kenfield for the Americas Program quotes an NGO called FoodFirst, which believes that “in order to satisfy future global demand, Brazil will need to clear an additional 148 million acres of forest”. Another consequence may be that sugar-cane companies will displace cattle ranchers, who will turn to the Amazon for land. Clearly, it is no good saying that growing energy crops will take back the CO2 emitted from burning biofuel, if existing sinks – ie CO2-sucking forests – have had to be cleared first.

Nor, I found out, should it be assumed that expansion of the sugar-cane business would be good for all of Brazil. According to many angry NGOs (a useful compilation of their complaints may be found here), most of the profits of sugar-cane production go to the big agribusiness multinationals that prowl the land. Brazilian bioethanol is very cheap, nearly as cheap as oil (it’s actually cheaper than petrol within Brazil, apparently), and no wonder: a field worker on a sugar-cane plantation in the state of São Paolo, where half of Brazil’s sugar cane is produced, earns $195 a month. The result is rural poverty, social inequality and loss of livelihoods that have been flattened by sugar-cane monoculture. There are tensions between workers and plantation owners, which observers fear may become a global trend if demand for fuel intensifies. “On 19 February [2007],” writes Isabella Kenfield, “the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST) and the Central Union of Workers organized about 2,000 MST members and rural workers to non-violently occupy 12 plantations totalling 15,600 hectares in nine municipalities of São Paulo state.”

All of this makes it a bit worrying to read that Brazil and Sweden have signed a pact to promote the growth of energy crops in African countries, where the climate is good but food shortages and rural poverty are common (obviously I am not an expert here…). Protecting forest (or land in general) is not one of the activities that can earn countries credits under the Kyoto Protocol, so countries do not – yet – have much incentive to keep plantation owners out. (It will be interesting to see if countries agree to include forest/land protection in the Kyoto replacement when they meet in Bali next month.)

So, biofuel – it still smells a bit whiffy to me. It seems that it would be better for countries to wait for second generation biofuels to become viable. In the meantime, the first generation biofuel industry worldwide needs better regulation, less intensive farming practices, and more power to be placed in the hands of farming cooperatives. I wonder if there is any ‘certification’ on the energy balance, ecological impact and working conditions of the biofuel that Sweden imports? After all, in a report by Sweden’s Commission on Oil Independence published in 2006, the authors wrote: “The Commission would like to stress how important it is that energy production in fields and forests takes place as far as possible in harmony with food production and existing forestry, as well as societies’ other general objectives, including biodiversity, nature conservation and outdoor life in forest and cultivated countryside.” Hope that philosophy doesn’t just apply to Sweden…

I saw a piece of rock from the moon today! It looks like a sparkly grey loofah, and it lives in a cabinet at the Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (a historical museum of the country from 1945 on). No, I am not sure what the 1969 moon landings have to do with Germany either, except perhaps (nice link coming up) for all the bombed-out wartime landscapes that resembled the moon’s ’roid-pitted surface. Photos and film reels showed Dresden, Cologne and Frankfurt collapsed into piles, with bridges broken, gargoyles intact and buildings reduced to skeletons that have since been bleached by the old black and white film. So it goes. (I am being pretentious – just read Slaughterhouse Five*.)

It is somehow reassuring to know that Bonn was part of the British occupation zone when Germany was divvied up in 1945. An exhibit displayed an order in English from the military government at the time, demanding the immediate surrender “of firearms, ammunition, weapons, carrier pigeons…”. This is troubling. Did the pigeons become prisoners of war? Was there a pigeon amnesty? Did some pigeons fly over British HQ and drop tiny leaflets saying, “Come and get me?”

Another exhibit showed a foreword written by Roosevelt to a book called Germany Is Our Problem, which read, “It will be necessary for [the German people] to earn their way back into the fellowship of peace-loving and law-abiding nations.” I find it hard to imagine today how alienated Germany must have been from the rest of the world in 1945. One military pamphlet exhorted occupying American soldiers to remember those “who have died to eliminate the German warmakers”. “DO NOT FRATERNIZE”, it thundered. In his foreword, Roosevelt wrote that he hoped Germans would be weaponless – “relieved of the burden of carrying guns”, in his words – forever. So I was surprised to find that as early as 1957, fresh German armed forces joined NATO, evidently despite much public concern about this rapid Wiederbewaffnung.

It’s quite impressive how much public demonstrating Germans have done over the last 60 years: no sooner had they rebuilt their cities than they were out on the streets again, protesting for more generous food rations, for one of the new political parties set up, for the Americans to go home, for the Americans to get out of Vietnam, for George Harrison to be officially named the Coolest Beatle (presumably)… I don’t know where people got the energy from. Perhaps from the tins of pure lard (“tenderflake and pre-creamed”) available after the war? I found out that in 1953, for example, a demonstration of 100,000 people in East Berlin and beyond was held against the nasty-sounding ruling SED party, triggered by a strike of construction workers. SED didn’t like this much, and called in some tanks from the Soviets to come and shoot at the protestors. Many died; more were arrested. So it goes (wow, this is a really useful expression!).

Don’t know why I am so interested in Germany during and after the war. Seems a bit rude, given that I’m a guest here. Feels like poking around in people’s underwear drawers. Not that I have, in fact, ever poked around in anyone’s underwear drawers. I mean, what are you going to find – pants? Big surprise.

* Another book that goes into my “less entertaining than a Dick Francis horse-nobbler” category.

Took the jeep out into the bush tonight to do some nighttime big-game hunting:

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Well, that, or I went to an evening lecture at the local natural history museum.

Lectures, mes amis, are the new, new thing. Trust me. Absolutely EVERYBODY is going to them. Quite why so many talks I’m choosing seem to be animal-related I am not sure (tonight’s was on the unique fauna of Madagascar). Perhaps it’s because reading about climate change and the stupidity of man can be a bit depressing – it does one good to kick back with a few lemur anecdotes now and again.

If it weren’t for the fact that it doesn’t lie in Scandinavia, Madagascar would be one of my favourite countries. In Antananarivo it has, vowel for vowel, one of the best capital city names going. Plus I am interested in a Malagasy custom of honouring the dead that is often written about. Bodies are re-exhumed (does that word exist?), wrapped in new shrouds and ‘danced’ with lest they get too cold in their graves, as far as I understand. When I studied archaeology, some resarchers were suggesting that early Europeans followed a similar ritual (bones are often found jumbled together in Neolithic stone tombs); for a taste, try this or this. Mind you, they could kind of suggest what they liked, really. Archaeology is a cross between old-school anthropology before people realised it was fundamentally racist and fantasy fiction writing: anything goes.

Well, the talk tonight wasn’t about that. It was, as I have intimated, about lemurs. Did you know Madagascar has 86 types of lemur? Does the world need 86 types of lemur? On reflection, I think lemurs are probably produced by a Japanese toy company. When taxonomists have found 100 of them, it will be game over: all the lemurs will be killed, and their tiny furry corpses will be swapped at lunchtimes to be stuck into albums. There used to be even more lemurs on Madagascar – as recently as 500 years ago there was a monster called Megaladapis (read about it here!) – but either the Japanese manufacturers took it off the market or early settlers detroyed its natural habitat. Probably the former.

Madagascar was once part of India, but it sensibly split when it realised that India was heading straight for a nasty collision with Eurasia of Himalayan proportions, and decided to stick close to Mozambique instead. Over the years, it seems that animals made their way across from Africa on rafts they had bound together from twigs and leaves, but whenever elephants and lions tried to follow their lunch they would sink when barely past Zanzibar. This is why the heaviest animal of Madagascar would appear to be the chameleon. There are also frogs and snakes, though none of the latter is venomous, which makes Madagascar definitely my favourite country in the potentiously-terrifying-rainforest category. Apparently people are still recording species; one newly unearthed chameleon is only 13mm long. Can you imagine discovering it? You’d spend hours studying soggy leaves intensely in the rain, finally spot a never-before-catalogued form, rub your face with elation and relief, and realise too late that you had just squashed Chameleo shortlivedeo all over your forehead.

So, lemurs, chameleons, frogs and snakes. Big-game hunters wouldn’t have much sport – they’d have to shoot baobab trees instead. Talking of shooting, we were shown a slide of two frogs mating. To wit, the male frog sat on the female’s head, and its sperm would trickle down her back until it dripped on to eggs she had laid and fertilize them. I think, judging from the disbelieving laughs of the audience, that this is not a typical sexual practice among the middle classes here. Good to know.

Actually, the audience ooh-ed and aah-ed at everything. Without having a TV or having been to the cinema since I got here, I can quite understand: going to an exotic lecture feels like going to the talkies must have done in the 1930s. OOH! See the turquoise and orange stick insect! AAH! Gaze in awe at the volcanic lake. EEK! Watch the researchers’ 4×4 get stuck in the river! No wonder lectures were so popular in Victorian times, when the only other entertainment going was to attend a creepy seance or embroider your own chastity belt.

By the way, I have been reading about John Tyndall, a natural scientist who discovered the greenhouse effect and was a hit on the British and American lecture circuits in the 1850s.

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John Tyndall

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A lemur

He makes me feel ignorant about my struggles with the language here, because apparently when he was in his twenties Tyndall went to Marburg, Germany, without speaking a word of German just to study under the man who invented the Bunsen burner, who happened to be called Professor Bunsen. Wikipedia says, “Bunsen almost died from arsenic poisoning, and an explosion with cacodyl cost him sight in his right eye”. Tyndall, meanwhile, seems to have expired from an overdose of chloral hydrate he was taking for insomnia. Hardly surprising. If I thought my discovery of the most important global phenomenon to confront mankind since the ice age would be overshadowed in school science curricula by my erstwhile mentor’s invention of a device to heat up petri dishes, I don’t think I would be able to sleep either.

Apologies for not blogging about any adventures recently. I realise this is bad form: rule #27 in Elizabeth’s blogging book tells me to Post Frequently. Unfortunately, in recent days I have mostly been working, going to seminars or taking EIGHT HOURS to translate my own stupid precis of a report about rainforests; i.e. not very bloggable material. I also bought some Heinz salad cream from a man with a van.

Actually this is exciting news. I like buying foreign comestibles here – it makes me feel like an ex pat in 1930s French Indochina. Not that (a) colonialism is ever good or (b)  Indochinese ex pats probably ate much Heinz salad cream, but still. I got my housemates to try it and they all pronounced it “Lecker”. One of them said, “Oh, and there are 47 varieties to try!” Hmm.

I explained that salad cream is seen as a rather kitschy food item in England, which I wish I had never said, because it prompted a bad-tempered argument between my two male housemates about whether there was ever such a thing as a kitsch art movement (they are a bit pseudy). Rather extraordinarily, the very next day I saw a book on display in the art section of the public library called Was Ist Kitsch?, which could have settled things, but I think sometimes it is better to leave both people thinking they are right about something.

On the subject of seminars, Bonn’s cup is flowing over in this regard, if not spilling its contents all over the floor. Tomorrow night alone I could attend a talk entitled “The streets of Malacca: the artery of global trade”, a lecture on the Maji-Maji rebellion in German East Africa, 1905-1907, or an exciting but inscrutable event about El Salvador called “Ya somos terroristas!”. Something for all the family, I’d say.

If I don’t make the Maji-Maji knees-up tomorrow, I will try to blog something fascinating about forests (I have been reading some good sh*t in that department). In the meantime here are some pictoral items:

(1) I found a super-cool book in the outdoor cupboard called Das Wetter (published 1970). This chapter is called “The art of the weather forecast”. I don’t know if you can see this in the picture, but Geek #1 is printing out “I want to be Buzz Aldrin” in BASIC and Geek #2 (in the background) is heating up a Pot Noodle in the microwave. By the way, in the diagram on the left is depicted the international network of weather stations: Tokyo! New Delhi! New York! Mos-kau! BRACKNELL!

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(2) Having read the book from cover to cover, I can confidently give the following Beobachtungsdaten uber das Wetter: it has been raining.

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(3) Here are some green parrots.
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This right here is basically the most fun you can have in a jumpsuit, short of being a Ghostbuster:

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These lucky individuals are leaf blowers. See how the man on the left makes the leaves dance like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice! Magic. In the mornings they blow all the leaves on the pavement into piles, and in the evenings their colleagues come along and suck them up into big vans. This keeps the city clean and ensures that citizens get up nice and early (owing to the super-annoying drone of machinery that makes you dream that someone is running after you with a chainsaw).

(n.b. You might think the cleaner’s backpack is a rocket pack; I also wish this were the case. I have not seen anyone flying around just yet, although it is perhaps intriguing to note that Wikipedia reports of an experimental jet pack called a Himmelsturmer developed in Germany during the Second World War and notes, I think significantly, that “what became of the device is not known”. It is well known that radical technological inventions often surface in local authorities’ street cleansing departments.)

I think we would all agree that a blue jumpsuit and luminous orange jerkin is a timeless fashion statement, but I have seen other street teams working emerald green quite nicely, and also one blower in civilian clothing who seemed to be operating solo (a mercenary leafy hunter?). I expect there is a strong local rivalry between the different gangs and probably an arcane guild called the Deciduan Order of the Leaf Blowers where they meet to do funny handshakes and swap leaf jokes* in the name of brotherhood.

There is certainly enough work going around. In fact, the level of leafery is so ridiculously high that I am starting to suspect that either (a) the truck that collects the leaves has a big hole in it or (b) the street cleaning unions have got a nice racket going on…

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*Here are my first last attempts at leaf humour:

Have you heard about the tree that ran away from the woods in winter? It’s absent without leaves.

Q: Why do deciduous trees make poor waiters?
A: Because they’re always dropping their leaves

Q: How do bristlecone pines meet their partners?
A: Tree-ring dating

Q: What did the deciduous tree say when the junkie asked it for a needle?
A: Sorry, I haven’t botany

Q: Why did the tree bark?
A: Because the dogweed

Q: Where does a squirrel hide his nuts?
A: Between his legs

A bit sad that I couldn’t watch the match between Arsenal and Manchester United today. Both teams are in fine form by all accounts, and although the season is still young neither side has yet had to resort to picking up the ball and throwing it into the goal like the football handball teams do here. In the absence of post-match analysis from Sky or BBC Five Live, I have had to come up with some football stats of my own, triggered by a realisation this morning that whatever you think about the relative pretentiousness and aggression of Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson, they both have a lovely head of hair.

Anyway, here are my findings:

  • Average age of a Premier League manager: 49.95 years.
  • Percentage of Premier League managers suffering from notable male pattern baldness (i.e. Benitez, Coppell and Eriksson): 15%.

To arrive at a measurement of “notable” balding, I have borrowed the concept of albedo from climate science. This is used to express how much a given material reflects light. Materials with a high albedo include glaciers, fresh snow and Steve Coppell’s forehead. Someone like the swarthily lovely Roy Keane has an extremely low albedo, equivalent to the surface of a lake. I have considered only high albedan (adj.?) cases as “notable”, thereby excluding managers with a medium albedo such as sneakily balding Gary Megson and Martin O’Neill – truly the coniferous forest canopies of the Premier League.

Only three shiny foreheads in a group of 20 men whose average age is 50 is a pretty low rate of baldness activity. According to my contact at the Journal of Investigative Dermatology (well, Google), male pattern baldness is already present in 20% of most Caucasian men when they’re 20. These managers must be passing around some powerful hair-regrowth moonshine – was there none left over for Zinedine Zidane? It turns out the secret might lie in managers’ footballing pasts, as the kind of daily aerobic activity that a footballer gets up to, such as running around a lot and sleeping with models, lowers levels of a baldifying androgen called dihydrotestosterone.

That’s as may be, but it doesn’t help poor Martin Jol much. It is now crystal clear that he was sacked last week not because he was rubbish or because his rumbly Dutch voice was regularly too low to be picked up by microphones in pre-match interviews, but because he is a male pattern baldness albedonian of the highest order. How insulting that he has been replaced at Spurs by the extraordinarily hirsute Juande “just call me damp dark soil” Ramos!

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While Jol ponders a hair implant, Ramos shows off his follicles (note the way he is subconsciously pointing to his intimidatingly luxuriant hair with his finger). Really, there is no earthly excuse to have hair that low on your forehead unless you are Steven Gerrard (Pictures nicked from here and here).

Did you know Sven-Goran Eriksson was England’s first bald coach since Ron Greenwood? No wonder the FA ran straight into the arms of the relatively hairy Steve McLaren. I wouldn’t be surprised if having at least 95% of your hair left is one of the prequisites for attaining those annoying “coaching badges”, which always make me think of gymnastics BAGA badges you get when you’re little (I don’t think I got past BAGA 3 – could never do the splits). This must be why I am always slightly surprised when people talk about how great Bill Shankly was. I used to think it was because he looked like a removal man, but now I realise: his albedo was simply too high.

After all that, it was a draw – 2:2.