Friday, April 3, 2015

Join the club

I once read an article in which some white, wealthy Germans from the city felt sorry for those asylum seekers in Germany being assigned accommodation in small villages “where there’s nothing to do.” I think it depends on a lot of factors, such as what you’re used to, what you personally enjoy, and what village you’re sent to. I haven’t had a chance to speak to any of the asylum seekers in our village (there’s every chance they’re half-insane with boredom); but while this isn’t exactly New York City, there’s plenty to do. Young, white, wealthy, urban Germans might find it hard to imagine, but I suppose young, wealthy, urban Germans (of any skin colour) might find what’s on offer here to be unattractive.

The key to enjoying German village is to be a member of a club or the volunteer fire brigade. Unfortunately, I can’t sing very well, have no sense of rhythm, never quite got the hang of sports, don’t much like firing guns and, due to my not having the right chromosomes, am ineligible for election as our Straw Bale Queen. So that disqualifies me for most of the interesting stuff.

However, for complicated reasons I won’t go into at this point, I was asked to drop by on the local choral society’s rehearsal session. This is for a concert they’re giving later this month; and it’s ambitious. We’re not talking folk songs. They’re doing a selection of songs from famous movies. And they’re singing them in English.

I don’t know who might be reading this, so I won’t spoil anything here. But they did give me a CD of some of their previous efforts, and that includes things like Sitting on the Dock of the Bay and the Beach Boys’ Barbara Ann, just to give you an idea of their repertoire.

I don’t think they’re going to be singing at the Albert Hall any time soon. (They wouldn’t want to: the acoustics are terrible.) And having listened to their rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody, I think there’s a chance they might have bitten off a little more than they could really chew (and by the way, the phrase “pulled my trigger” unexpectedly appears to present to Germans a linguistic challenge not far short of “squirrel”). But they went for it, and the CD was presented to me with a beam of pride.

Not, as some of the members told me, that the society has had an easy time of it. It was originally founded as a male voice choir in 1925 (this concert marks their 90th anniversary); in 1971 a mixed choir was formed, but by the 1980s there were so few men that the male voice choir had to be discontinued. More recently, in 2002, a new choir was formed with a more contemporary repertoire, mainly to encourage younger singers to join. Did it work? “Oh, yes,” came the answer.

It’s certainly very active, but the lack of male voices is very evident: a few more would lend it what my wife poetically calls “more oompf”. But the group of people gathered in the hall above the fire station swaying self-consciously to sounds you don’t normally associate with a village choral society were, I would estimate, aged between about 17 and 70.

I realise this is in danger of becoming a slightly patronising “look at these country folk deriving innocent pleasure from a simple thing” type of post, but the message I have for the wealthy city dwellers is this: this is not nothing. What we have here is people crafting something to be proud of, and sharing it with other people. Which is sort of what I do with my videos, come to think of it.

This isn’t at all a case of innocent pleasures. This is community.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Clyde’s secret revealed

Long-term followers of my videos and blog will probably be aware that we have two cats living with us: Bonnie and her brother Clyde. And it’s interesting to see how different they are, and at the same time how little we really know about them.

Bonnie is the kittenish, quirky little clown, always showing off and always wanting to know what’s going on. She’s most active during the day, and sleeps most of the night as far as we have been able to discover. Although she’s wary of strangers, she is quick to befriend people she takes a shine to.

Clyde is a big, muscular black cat, usually more placid than Bonnie, but more than capable of defending the house against other cats. Despite that, he is not fearless, avoids strangers at all costs, and actually hides whenever the doorbell rings. We have basically given up on Clyde ever making friends with any other human. At least, we thought he had.

The other thing about Clyde is that he’s a night cat. He sleeps most of the day, but given the sheer amount he eats and the fact that he is incredibly muscular — there’s not an ounce of fat on him — we do wonder what he gets up to. Is there a sort of feline gym, where he goes to work out? He must be getting some exercise.

The problem is that while we get regular reports from our neighbours about Bonnie and some of the things she gets up to, Clyde is out at night and he’s completely black.

Well, we have a report now, from the neighbours across the road: R, his wife B and their daughter LM. It seems that recently, Clyde has taken it upon himself to guard their house. Bear in mind, as you read the following, that Clyde hides behind a bookcase if he so much as hears a delivery van draw up outside.

R works nights, and frequently returns home to find Clyde lying on their doorstep. In fact, he has to step over him to get inside. LM has to leave for work very early in the morning, and also has to step over Clyde. In fact, Clyde seems to lean up against the door, because sometimes, when LM opens it, Clyde tumbles in.

It still doesn’t explain his physique; in fact, it raises another question: why on earth is he guarding their house?

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

On monetizing videos and the plague of ads

Advertisements are, and always have been, highly irritating. They get in the way of content with their insistent demands that you spend all your hard-earned cash on things that you actually didn’t need until you saw the ads. They shout and scream at you, insinuate that you are a lousy human being if you don’t buy particular products, and generally make life miserable.

Unfortunately, to some of us, they are also what make life possible.

Ads are a constant source of complaint on YouTube: why is Google shoving ads in our faces when Google has billions? On the face of it, a perfectly reasonable question, but in fact it’s based on a couple of false assumptions: that it’s Google doing it, and Google that’s getting the revenue.

First of all, although YouTube is owned by Google, YouTube is run separately. It’s hard to see the boundaries — they’re fuzzy at best — but (from I’ve been led to believe) uniquely among the various Google products, YouTube is expected to run its own affairs and pay its own way. It’s not even based in the same building: Google has its Googleplex in Mountain View, California, while YouTube is about forty miles north-west of there, in San Bruno. How YouTube does pay its own way is unknown: it’s been calculated that Google must be helping YouTube out with its bandwidth costs, because there’s no other way to explain how YouTube even continues to exist.

Second, not only does Google not get YouTube’s advertising revenue, but YouTube only takes a portion of it. The rest goes to the content owner, whether that’s the uploader or, if the ads have been put on due to a Content ID match, the copyright owner of the material used. I’m not allowed to tell you what portion YouTube takes (and it varies from case to case anyhow), but it is public knowledge that the content owner gets most of the revenue.

It’s true that a lot of people abuse the system, uploading videos they have no right to upload (music videos, clips from TV shows, entire episodes, even complete movies) and then illegally monetize them: that’s illegal for obvious reasons. But speaking as one who doesn’t do that, let me explain why my videos are monetized and why I am not best pleased when people use AdBlock just because they don’t like seeing ads.

I work fairly hard on my videos. I don’t have a staff or any kind of professional set-up, so my videos aren’t months in the making. Even so, it takes quite a bit of effort, and even a simple vlog-type video takes the best part of a day to make. I once illustrated this in a series of posts on my Google+ page (here, here, here, here, here and here), but to expand on that and explain what really goes on:
  1. Research. I don’t claim to get everything 100% right, but I try to get it as right as I can. I don’t have a research department, but at least these days I have the internet. I try not to rely on Wikipedia (because it’s a reference, not a source), but sometimes I have little time and just have to trust that what’s in Wikipedia is an accurate representation of what is known about a particular subject.
  2. Writing the script. People often ask how I manage to condense so much information into such a short space of time. That comes from taking special care to craft a good script from the information I have gathered, reworking it and condensing it, focusing on what connects to what, discarding anything irrelevant to the matter in hand. I aim to get it all onto one side of A4 paper, which represents approximately four minutes of vlogging. I have to present facts in a logical order, try to strike a balance to get enough detail but not too much, and add a little something to make it at least a bit entertaining. My English needs to be readily understood not just by British and American viewers (so I have to make sure I avoid too many anglicisms and americanisms), but by native German speakers as well. For the benefit of those Germans who don't understand English, I will have to write German subtitles, so I also have to continually ask myself: “Will this still make sense when translated into German?” Finally, because I can’t easily memorize, in the time I have, a whole page of text, I divide it up into chunks which I can then film at different zoom levels (usually three) so I can cut between them in the edit.
  3. Setting up. I have to set up the lights and the camera, set white balance, exposure, microphone gain and focus, and get that pesky microphone clipped to my clothing.
  4. Rehearsal and filming. Because I have divided my script into chunks, I can do the rehearsal and filming at the same time. First the wide shots, each one in turn: rehearse and film. I usually do several takes of each so I can choose the best one. Once that’s done, stop the camera, zoom in and reposition (I have to get out of my chair and walk over to the camera to do this), then do all the mid shots. Finally, all the close shots. Incidentally, I can’t always film when it’s convenient: at certain times of day, the sun shines in through the window behind me, making filming virtually impossible unless it happens to be overcast.
  5. Editing. For a straightforward vlog, this is actually the easiest part. For anything slightly more ambitious... it’s less easy. Once the editing process is finished, I have to render the video: the process takes half an hour or more (depending on lots of factors), and if when I play it back  spot an error, I have to make edits and render all over again. And rendering takes up a lot of CPU power, so during that time my computer isn’t much use for anything else. Time for lunch.
  6. Making the thumbnail. I am not a Photoshop genius. I can just about make a passable thumbnail. If I could afford to pay somebody to do it for me, I would.
  7. Uploading and subtitles. These two things go together. As the video is uploading, I write the English subtitles. Why English subtitles? Because some of my viewers are hearing-impaired. Why not use YouTube’s automated captions? Because they suck. By the time I’m finished with the subtitles, the video has usually finished uploading and processing. I can then upload the subtitles immediately and check that they are working correctly and are as accurate as I can reasonably get them. This also allows me to check that the video has uploaded properly without glitches. If all works well, I can then prepare German subtitles and upload those. Finally, I can put in the annotations (which I use sparingly).
The thing is, that’s a lot of work: and I’m making relatively simple videos. Other content creators have an awful lot more work to do, but I don’t have the staff or the time for that.

And here’s the thing: this is about an entire day I have spent not doing actual, paid work. I’m self-employed: time is money in a very literal sense. If I don’t work, I don’t get paid, simple as that. As it happens, my wife has a good job so it’s not absolutely critical unless the company she works for goes bust, but I don’t want to have to beg her to pay my health insurance for me. Strange as it may seem to some people, but doing all this for free is simply not an option.

But to bring you all these videos in the first place, I have overheads. Obviously, there’s the equipment. My camera has a few years left in it, so that’s something I don’t have to worry about just yet. But one of the spare batteries just died, so that’s going to have to be replaced — and the cost of batteries is eye-watering, even the “cheap” ones made not by the company that made the camera. My computer and software are also still good for a little while yet. Last year I invested in audio equipment, a few hundred euros to make my videos sound a tiny bit better. This year, I’m planning to get proper lighting gear. Some videos incur additional costs: travel costs mostly, but I’ve even had to purchase filming permits, and my Berlin video involved a few nights in a hotel. This is why, when people ask me to film Bremen, or Dresden, or Cologne, or whatever far-flung city they want to see on my channel, I can’t ever promise to do so. I simply don’t have the time, and I’m not making the money.

How much money do I make? Well, there’s no simple answer to that, but (and I am allowed to tell you this), for the month of January, I got €136, which is roughly $150. Enough to stop me feeling guilty about making videos. Not enough to live on.

“Why not use Patreon?” is a question I have been asked. I once considered it, but not enough of my subscribers expressed an interest. It may be an idea worth revisiting, but for it to work I would have to think up some perks, like exclusive content, which means working even harder in order to badger my viewers into pledging actual cash instead of simply refraining from using AdBlock. I can’t see how I would be able to fit it in right now. Creating a completely new paid channel isn’t going to work for a similar reason, as well as the fact that I actually want my videos to be available to everyone. Fan Funding looks promising, but currently isn’t available in Germany.

In an ideal world, I could rely on donations, merchandising and perhaps even some kind of sponsorship so I could give up my real job, concentrate on making really high quality videos and still make enough to live on. This isn’t an ideal world, though, and I have to monetize my videos or stop making videos; it’s that simple.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Reductio ad Hitlerum

Godwin’s Law states that as an internet debate continues, the probability of somebody making an inappropriate comparison with Hitler or the nazis tends towards 1. In plain English, this means that if you get into a long argument, somebody is bound to say something crass and stupid, like “Hitler had a dog, therefore all dog-owners are nazis.” The unwritten rule is that when this happens, the debate is over, and whoever made that comparison is automatically deemed to have lost it. I imagine there is an equivalent law for inappropriate references to Stalin or communism, and if anyone knows what it’s called, I’d be interested to find out.

It’s an important point for me because I personally cringe whenever, for example, people complain that Google is staffed by Nazis just because YouTube redesigned its site. I’ve thought long and hard about why I don’t have the same reaction when people make light of the Spanish Inquisition, and come to the conclusion that it’s several generations removed from us, no longer so clearly in the collective consciousness. That, and the fact that it always makes me think of Monty Python.

Nazi Germany, though, is still just about in living memory, and not something Germans feel they can joke about. There is also the point that there are extremist political groups that draw on nazi ideology for their inspiration — which is to say, there are actual groups of people that can fairly and almost accurately be termed “nazi”. These groups do not include people who insist on criticizing every split infinitive and misattached modifier.

I recently saw a fairly old tweet (which I won’t attempt to identify, as I’m not trying to start a twit-storm) featuring an image of a Venn diagram. Various circles with labels like “MRAs” (i.e., “Men’s Rights Activists”) and “Gamers” all intersected to such a degree that very little was outside of the intersection labelled “Nazis”.

Now, I suspect this is supposed to be sarcastic, but I can’t really tell. Mostly, I can’t really tell because, well, it looks sarcastic, but then somebody tweeted to him that you can’t call these people Nazis, and he tweeted back that yes, he could. Well... yes, he can. I just don’t think it’s a good idea, and if he was being serious, he was also being horribly ignorant. Looking through his Twitter feed, he certainly seems to have it in for gamers.

I think “gamers” probably refers to the storm-in-a-teacup story known as “gamergate” which revealed to a barely credulous world the astounding fact that some people who play or create video games are (gasp!) nasty bullies who are prepared to use threats of physical (including sexual) violence to intimidate. Which is a horrible situation that should never be, but hardly a surprise to anyone who has had any kind of experience with human beings, and certainly doesn’t warrant classing nearly all gamers as nazis. MRAs, for those who don’t know, are men who ostensibly worry that feminism has gone too far, but when you speak to them they turn out to be what my mother euphemistically calls “male chauvinist pigs”.

Nasty people. But “nazis”?

In my estimation, nazis are also nasty people, but it doesn’t follow that all nasty people are nazis. Let’s be clear what we are talking about: National socialism is a political ideology which takes fascism (which itself replaces socialism’s class warfare with warfare between nations) and grafts onto it “scientific racism” (a nice way to refer to the practice of using pseudo-science to justify xenophobia). Having established a one-party state, the nazis set about imprisoning and murdering millions and millions of people, spending vast amounts of money nobody had which would have ruined Germany’s economy had they not also provoked a deadly war which laid waste to much of Europe. Estimates of the number of people killed by the nazi regime go up to about 21 million.

There is, quite simply, no comparison there. It jars to see people using the word “nazi” to mean “unpleasant” or “unnecessarily strict” because while many members of the Nazi Party were undoubtedly both, the term means a whole lot more besides.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

On turning a setback into an opportunity

Germans are regularly accused of not having a sense of humour, which of course isn’t true. (To clarify: yes, it is true they are regularly accused; it is not true they don’t have one.) German humour may sometimes be laboured and overly goofy, and it is true there are areas of life where humour is definitely unwelcome (try giving a light-hearted eulogy at a German funeral, for example, and nobody will speak to you for three months); but that’s not the same as saying Germans are humourless. It’s just that there is a Time And A Place.

Sometimes, though, a little humour can pop up in unexpected places, and the sheer rarity of that happening makes it all the more awesome.

Case in point: a little while back, an optician’s in our area was broken into, and the thieves made off with thousands of euros’ worth of spectacle frames.

Yes, spectacle frames. It’s hard to imagine a black market in spectacle frames, but unless the burglars were themselves in dire need of eye tests and broke into the wrong establishment, it seems there is, somewhere on this planet, a man sidling up to opticians in pubs and whispering out of the corner of his mouth: “Got some stuff for you. Two dozen frames. Fell off the back of a lorry. To you, half a grand.”

It is a pretty weird story, but the optician’s managed to find a way to turn it to their advantage. In this morning’s paper was their latest ad, featuring a man in a balaclava and brandishing a flashlight. “Our frames are so good,” proclaimed the ad, “people are even stealing them.” Which is definitely a more positive way of looking at it. “We welcome all customers,” it went on. “But please, during business hours only.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

How to get yourself arrested

Generally speaking, in Germany, if you want to get yourself arrested, you have to be fairly determined or terminally stupid. Where possible, the police prefer the non-confrontational approach; so how, you might well ask, can you get yourself arrested for not getting up from your seat? By being really, incredibly dumb, that’s how.

The story begins on one of Germany’s high-speed trains, an ICE (Intercity Express for the uninitiated). A passenger, who has just boarded the train, has finally found his reserved seat and is slightly dismayed to find a young man already sitting there. I personally hate it when that happens, because it means I have to speak to a stranger, which, for an Englishman, is up there with “being waterboarded” on the list of things I would rather not have to do. But since our unfortunate passenger is German, he doesn’t hesitate to politely ask the young man to move.

He stays put.

Nobody likes to have to move, but there it is: if you didn’t pay to reserve that seat, you’re supposed to give it up to whoever did. That’s sort of the point, really. So there began what our newspaper referred to as “a discussion”.

And then the young man decided that the only way to be allowed to stay in his seat (which wasn’t his seat) would be to commit a crime, so he operated the emergency brake. Yes, in Germany, it’s a crime. The fines can be massive, not to mention the court costs; and if the sudden halt caused any injuries, you can be looking at a bill with a six-figure sum on it.

You have to wonder which planet this guy’s brain was orbiting at the time. The guards came to discover that the “emergency” was a squabble over a seat reservation. Any other passengers whose sympathies may have been with the young man were unlikely, at this point, to be as well-disposed towards him. Unsurprisingly, the guards informed him that when the train arrived at the next stop (fifteen minutes late now, because... well, y’know, emergency brake and everything), the young man would have to leave the train.

For some reason, and don’t try this at home, he thought to himself, “How can I possibly make this even worse for myself?” It was a stroke of genius (of a kind) what he came up with: not only did he still refuse to leave, meaning the police would have to be called to physically haul him off the train, but he casually explained that he had a knife and wasn’t afraid to use it, meaning that the police, when they came, came in force.

I don’t know the details of his arrest, but I can guarantee it was a spectacle of the sort you so rarely get in this country. Accusations of police brutality do surface from time to time, but what was this guy thinking? Did he think everyone would back down? Did he suppose he would be let off with a warning? Perhaps a free ticket and an apology for the inconvenience?

At any rate, the police — however many of them there were — manhandled him off the train using whatever technique they had of dealing with potentially armed idiots to prevent them from sticking their knife into anything, and of course found, perhaps predictably, that he didn’t have any kind of weapon on him.

I think the only way anyone would be able to top this would be to board a plane, smile apologetically at the cabin crew and say, “I’m a bit nervous — this is my first suicide bombing mission.”

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Those untrustworthy Hessians

There’s a story about an American doing some historical research in England, who stumbles on two towns, just a couple of miles apart. The inhabitants of one refuse to speak to the inhabitants of the other, and vice versa. This intrigued the American, and he scoured the local libraries and museums for clues as to how and why this came about. After three years of hard work, he finally discovered that the problem started after one of the towns neglected to warn the other that the Danes were invading, 1,000 years previously.

You’d think the Germans would be more sensible than that, but you’d be wrong, as a recent conversation that took place bears testimony. As a bonus, it also describes, in a nutshell, the typical mode of communication employed by me and my wife.

Wife: So, I was at the store, and this man — Hessian, of course — came in with a bottle and told the cashier she’d just sold it to his brother. Well, obviously, her face fell; she could get into serious trouble for that. So, anyway—

Me: (interrupting) Hang on — trouble? Why?

Wife: Well, him being under 18 and everything.

Me: Oh! She sold a bottle of something alcoholic to somebody who was under age?

You see what I’m up against? I usually have to remember half my wife’s lines for her.

Wife: That’s what I said.

Me: Then what?

Wife: Well, I’d already paid, so I didn’t hang around. But I saw him leave the store, with the bottle, and get into the only car there registered in Hesse.

Me: What does his being Hessian have to do with it?

Wife: Well, nothing. But... you know, Hessian. What else would you expect?