Monday, May 22, 2017

Mainz: Additional notes

Well, I certainly had fun filming my latest “Destination” video, this time about the fair city of Mainz (or “Mayence”, as it’s occasionally known). It’s about the furthest a place can be for me to not need to get a hotel for a couple of nights, and I was there on two days. I still didn’t get everything, though: a problem Mainz has is that there’s a lot to see, but it’s quite spread out.

No wonder this lion looks so smug: he’s caught a sheep.

As I mentioned in the video, Mainz has a lot of historic buildings embedded among the more modern stuff, and there are very few places where you feel you’re standing in the middle of an ancient city. This means that wandering off through the quiet back streets isn’t often as rewarding as it is in most places: in fact, it can be a bit dispiriting.

The city is surrounded by a ring of autobahns, so in theory it’s not that hard to get to. You might want to approach it from the south and west, rather than the north and east, to avoid having to cross the river on the one (non-autobahn) bridge that exists, and which dumps you right into the middle of the city traffic.

Mainz is just west of Frankfurt: S-Bahn line S8 goes from Frankfurt via Frankfurt Airport to Mainz (and then on to Wiesbaden), stopping at Römisches Theater and the central station. Lines S1 and S9 go via Mainz-Kastel (confusingly, now a suburb of Wiesbaden), the station being right next to the reduit, and from there it’s an easy walk across the bridge. Mainz’s central station is, of course, a major stop for long-distance trains.

Local public transport is probably quite good in Mainz, but at the moment there are road construction projects going on that have resulted in several tram lines being truncated or rerouted. Unfortunately, information about diversions and replacement buses is very hard to find and confusing when you do: even the locals seem to be unsure about how to get from A to B.

Which way to the river?

Mainz has an interesting quirk which, in theory, is supposed to help with orientation. Street name signs come in two colours: red for streets that run toward the river, blue for streets that run parallel to it. House numbers go up either as you get closer to the river, or with the direction of flow of the river, always with odd numbers on the left.

This would be a very helpful if Mainz was on a grid layout, but of course it’s not. You will still need Google Maps. But at least it was an attempt (in 1853) to make finding your way fractionally less daunting, as Mainz really is very easy to get lost in.

And that, folks, is why I needed two visits and still didn’t get everything.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Bayreuth: Additional notes

My latest video is of the city of Bayreuth, not too far from Kulmbach. In fact, the two videos together represent a whole weekend of filming, which was really tiring.

On reflection, I should have gone there a little later in the year, as many of the fountains were still switched off and crated to protect them from the winter frosts; but for various reasons it was convenient to do it that weekend.

Getting there is fairly simple. By car, Bayreuth is directly on the A9 autobahn .

By train, Bayreuth is about an hour away from Nuremberg.

It has a fairly compact historic centre, much of which is pedestrianized, although this is surrounded on about three sides by a busy ring-road which is a bit of a barrier: at some points footbridges and (rather unpleasant) foot tunnels provide pedestrian access.

The Festival Theatre (“Festspielhaus”) is located a little way north of the station; the Hermitage a few miles east of the city, just the other side of the autobahn. The main car park is at the southern end of the village of Sankt Johannis.

There are a few confusing things about Bayreuth. First of all, there are two “Old Palaces”, one in the city and one at the Hermitage; similarly, there are two “New Palaces”. It doesn’t help matters that the New Palace in the city looks older than the Old Palace in the city.

The buses are also nothing if not confusing. There are two systems: one operates in the evenings and on Sunday mornings, while the other operates at other times. If you’re looking at a timetable and it looks as if the bus you want isn’t running for the next few hours, you may need to look for a timetable for a bus with a different number. That said, the buses are pretty good.

Another thing to watch out for is that Bayreuth is notoriously expensive. And it gets very expensive indeed during the annual Bayreuth Festival, which is usually from 25th July to 28th August: if you’re looking for vaguely affordable accommodation, avoid at all costs the end of July and all of August. If you are a Wagner fan and money’s no object, be aware that ten-year waiting lists for tickets to the festival are not unusual.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Kulmbach: Additional notes

The first “Destination” video of 2017 is up on YouTube — and for this one, I was in Kulmbach. It certainly made a change: usually, small towns are full of timber-framed houses, but Kulmbach was rebuilt in the 16th century and so is more Renaissance. “A bit severe” is how my wife describes it, but I liked it.

A visit to the Plassenburg fortress is a must if you go to Kulmbach: I was there in the morning so that I wouldn’t have to shoot into the sun, but there is a fantastic view of the old town, and the fortress itself contains a few museums that I didn’t have time for but are probably very good.

If you’re planning to do what I did and go up the Rehturm watchtower, it’s really tricky to find. There are no signs in town pointing the way, and striking out in the general direction while looking for roads that have “Reh” in their names, while ultimately effective, is not the best way to do it.

Looking at a map, you might think you need to go due east, but in fact you need to go south and find a road called “Am Rehberg” which takes you to a nature trail, and this takes you right to the tower. The tower, by the way, is free to go in.

Central Kulmbach, showing the historic centre,
the Plassenburg fortress and the train and bus stations.

The historic centre of Kulmbach lies at the foot of the hill on which the Plassenburg is built, and is fairly compact. The train and bus stations are very close by, and there is also a bus that shuttles between the old town and the Plassenburg for those who can’t (or don’t want to) walk.

Although Kulmbach is quite a long way from major roads and railways, it’s not too difficult to get to. The nearest major railway hub is Nuremberg. It’s actually slightly quicker to take a train from there to Lichtenfels and change rather than a direct train via Bayreuth, although there’s not much in it. If you’re coming from Würzburg, it’s easier to take a train to Bamberg and get a train direct from there. There are also connections to Hof.

By road, Kulmbach is a few miles off the A70 autobahn: take exit 24 and follow the signs to Kulmbach.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Why I’m on Patreon

So, it’s official: I have now launched my Patreon page, all the better for my most loyal fans to help keep me from starving. Or, depending your point of view, all the better for me to extract innocent people’s hard-earned cash to splash out on BMWs, private jets, diamond-encrusted bathtubs and so on.
This is what editing a video looks like.

In truth, as much as I would like to be able to make videos in my spare time “for the pure enjoyment of it” (I’ve been told by a few people I should), that’s actually not feasible. It’s a straight choice between giving up making YouTube videos, or trying to earn a living making YouTube videos. Given that my channel is currently on something of a roll, I’m going for the second option.

To better illustrate the amount of work that goes into a video, here are the steps I go through to make a simple vlog:
  1. Think of a subject. This is harder than it sounds: it has to be something people will want to know more about, and it should ideally have fairly wide appeal. It also has to be something that I can actually say something about: the challenges facing working mothers, for example, isn’t a subject that should really be tackled by a childless man.
  2. Research it. Proper research takes time, and I don’t at the moment have enough time to research properly. I can’t just regurgitate whatever I read on a Wikipedia page: you might as well just read the Wikipedia page instead of watching my video.
  3. Write a script. Yes, I script my vlogs. That way, I can minimize the risk of saying something stupid; I also don’t senselessly repeat myself, accidentally leave stuff out, or get sidetracked by some irrelevancy. I can revise and improve the script before I start filming. I have discovered that one page of A4 (the standard paper size in Europe) is about four minutes’ worth of vlogging, which is why my vlogs these days tend to be around the 3-to-5-minute mark, which seems to be about the right length. It’s at this stage I find out whether my chosen subject is going to work: sometimes it doesn’t, so I have to start again.
  4. Divide the script into paragraphs and assign a zoom level to each of them: wide, mid or close-up. The idea is that instead of learning the entire script and having to do it one take (well-nigh impossible for a four-minute speech peppered with statistics), I record it in small chunks, then edit everything together. Doing this at different levels of zoom avoids having jump cuts, which can give the impression they’re covering up for mistakes or the result of sloppy editing.
  5. Set up the camera and lighting. Usually, this is pretty simple, because I have the lights and tripod right where I want them.
  6. Start recording. I don’t record the entire thing in chronological order: I first record all the parts marked as “wide”, then zoom in and reposition the camer to record all the “mid” parts, then zoom in and reposition for “close”. I make sure I have at least two (ideally three) usable versions of each paragraph so I can choose the best take.
  7. Transfer the data from the camera to the PC. That part’s as simple as it sounds.
  8. Edit. This is where I slice the footage up, discard the bits I don’t want, and reassemble what remains into the correct order. It doesn’t take long, but requires precision. Once I’m happy with the rough edit, I can move onto the next stage.
  9. Post production. On-screen captions, graphics and music are added at this point, as well as the closing credits. If I need to create some graphics myself (things like graphs, for example), I have to spend time doing that as well.
  10. Render. This is the process of actually creating the video file to upload to YouTube. For a four-minute vlog in 1080p resolution, that can take something in the region of half an hour, during which time it’s a good idea to let the video editor hog as much CPU power as it wants. Time, basically, for coffee.
  11. Create a thumbnail. I usually take a frame from the video featuring me with a suitable expression on my face (if I can make it an amusing one, that’s a bonus), create a background for it, and then just add the logo to it.
  12. Start the upload. This also means entering all the metadata: title, description, certain settings and so on. I upload as private so that I can get everything just right before publishing. The bandwidth in my tiny bit of rural Germany is really not made for this, so it can take about an hour. In the meantime, I can...
  13. ...write the English-language closed captions. Although YouTube does have a speech recognition system, the technology is still very primitive. It’s actually quicker for me to write my own closed captions from scratch, rather than download YouTube’s automated captions and then try to correct them. And why captions? My videos are watched by many non-native speakers of English who find captions help them understand what is being said, and I want my videos to be accessible to the hearing-impaired. Also — and this is something every YouTube creator should know — closed captions are indexed by YouTube’s search engine, making videos easier to find.
  14. Upload and test the captions. This is to make sure I have no errors in the captions file, and the timings are correct.
  15. Add any cards I need, and the end screen. These are the things that pop up during, or at the end of, the video, begging you to click on them to take you to another video or my website.
  16. Translate the captions into German and upload. Again, although machine translations are available, they generally do a terrible job. There may be a glorious future when machines can do this stuff as well as a professional human, but instantly; but that future is a long way off.
  17. Publish the video, and tweet about it.
So, there you are: my handy 17-point guide to making a quick vlog. This is why it takes me the best part of a day. In theory, I could make a vlog in just a couple of hours from start to finish, but it wouldn’t be anything like as good. And I think you’d notice the difference.

I need to be able to support myself and make a meaningful contribution to our household budget; and this means that if I’m going to continue making videos to the standards I’m currently making them, I have to be making money with them. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’m now on Patreon.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Carnival at Seligenstadt: additional notes

So, I attended the 2017 Rose Monday parade in Seligenstadt, which is quite a popular event even if it isn’t as famous as Cologne or Düsseldorf. The video is on YouTube to see: I got virtually everything, but in a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it way. Look out for the Donald Trump Berlin Wall troupe and the Brexit whale.

As far as additional notes on filming are concerned, I have a couple:
  1. I picked a spot on one of the furthest reaches of the route, out of the historic centre and quite close to the railway station. There were fewer people there, but it was a longer wait for the parade to get there. I also made sure I had the sun behind me, although for the most part it was cloudy.
  2. A lot of the people in the parade were throwing sweets for the children — this is part of the tradition. Always hairy when you have a €1000 camera pointing at them, but it’s for moments like this that I have a UV filter. If the filter gets cracked, no big deal. I did get hit once on the head and once on the hand.
Seligenstadt is worth a visit and not hard to get to. The nearest major railway station is Hanau, from where local (RB and RE trains) operated by VIAS reach Seligenstadt in under ten minutes. Some of these trains start in Frankfurt, so there is a direct connection; at other times, Hanau is easily reached from Frankfurt by local train or S-Bahn. Seligenstadt station is about half a kilometre (500 yards) from the town centre. Be sure not to confuse this Seligenstadt with the tiny hamlet of Seligenstadt near Würzburg: on the Deutsche Bahn website and the DB Navigator app, make certain you select “Seligenstadt (Hess)”

If you’re driving, Seligenstadt is on the A3 autobahn: take exit 55 and follow the signs.

An alternative, and much prettier, option is to take the number 50 bus from either Aschaffenburg or Kahl am Main, and get off at Fähre Seligenstadt (on the DB website and the DB Navigator, make sure you select “Großwelzheim, Fähre Seligenstadt, Karlstein”). This is across the river Main from the town: from there you take the ferry across, which lands right in the heart of the historic centre. The current fare (as I write this post) for adult pedestrians is 80 cents. You can also drive there, but I would recommend you park your car there if there’s room and take the ferry as a pedestrian rather than try to squeeze your car down Seligenstadt’s narrow cobbled streets and have to pay for parking. Check the ferry’s operating times, though, if you don’t want to risk being stranded.

Note that when something as big as the Rose Monday carnival parade is on, buses may not stop there and the roads may be blocked with traffic.

Seligenstadt from across the river.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The home-made car

Tucked away in the bottom right-hand corner of the back page of the national and world news section of our local paper this morning — the bit reserved for “quirky little stories to cheer you up after the doom and gloom you’ve just had to wade through over your coffee” — was the brilliant tale of two German schoolboys who were stopped by police after driving their home-made car on public roads.

Apparently, the two youngsters, aged 13 and 14, cobbled together a working vehicle out of a lawnmower motor and bits cannibalized from old cars, even including a clutch and brake pedal. Magnificently, they engineered the steering wheel so it worked backwards: steering left made the car turn right, and vice-versa.

I’m not sure whether the crazy steering was deliberate or not, but either way it worked and somehow they managed to drive the thing around without getting killed. Quite rightly, the police stopped them — it was an incredibly dangerous thing to be doing and quite illegal — but I have to say: hats off to the boys. Speaking as somebody who can barely put together a flat-pack wardrobe without incident, I’m impressed.

These days, we hear so much about how modern communications technology is turning us all into zombiefied dullards (in my day it was television; now it’s smartphones), but the fact is that just as has always been the case, countless teenagers everywhere are quietly being geniuses: sending home-made rockets into space, inventing generators powered by urine (and no, I’m not making this up), and now making cars out of lawnmowers.

The article said nothing about whether anyone was punished in connection with this. But if I ran a car repair shop in their area, I know I’d be offering them an apprenticeship when they leave school.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

There is no method in Trump’s madness

As we slowly come to terms with the fact that this isn’t a horrible nightmare and Donald J. Trump really is the President of the USA (God help America), the internet is full of journalists, bloggers and just everyone explaining all the clever tricks that Trump is using to consolidate power, distract us from the real issues and imitate Adolf Hitler. I’ve seen articles claiming that Trump has read all of the Führer’s speeches and is cleverly following the “Nazi playbook” outlined in Mein Kampf.

That would be an interesting trick: Mein Kampf was written more than ten years before Hitler seized power, right after the Munich Beer-Hall Putsch which ended when the putschists, led partly by Hitler himself, marched at random through the streets until they found themselves face-to-face with the army.

That’s one theory. The other current theory is that somebody else behind the scenes, almost certainly the man people are now calling “President Bannon”, is pulling Trump’s strings and making him do all that stuff.

If I were forced to choose one of those two positions, I’d go with the latter. Trump has never struck me as particularly intelligent, and I don’t think he is capable of strategic planning or political cunning. As if to prove this, a young commentator by the name of David Pakman has suggested that Donald Trump has very poor reading skills, and the evidence for that just keeps coming. This really does look like the Wizard of Oz model of government: we should be paying attention to the man behind the curtain.

I’m not convinced that this is the case.

But I would go further than that. I see people marvelling at the “clever” ways that Trump is manipulating us and the press, undermining confidence in the judiciary, gaslighting us into believing all sorts of fantasies and focusing our attention in all the wrong places, like a magician. But I don’t believe that at all: I don’t think Trump is deliberately doing any of that.

I used to think maybe he was. During the election campaign, when Melania Trump gave a speech that apparently plagiarized Michelle Obama, I was impressed. It was a tactic straight out of the pages of Donald’s book The Art of the Deal: it meant that for days afterwards, people were talking about Ms Trump in the same sentence as Ms Obama, getting people used to the idea of “First Lady Melania Trump”. A masterstroke!

But of course, Trump didn’t write The Art of the Deal, and David Pakman isn’t sure Trump has even read it. Perhaps — and this is just speculation — his ghostwriter simply watched how Trump does business, and organized his observations into a sort of instruction manual. It’s not that Trump is following this instruction manual: Trump is simply being Trump. His business practices are being retconned.

It’s a bit like asking a 100-year-old what the secret to a long life is. They’ll just tell you about some of their habits, whether it’s a bottle of gin a day or a strict vegetarian diet, but this is an example of “survivor bias”: they just got lucky, and happened to live to be 100 years old. It doesn’t mean their personal habits had anything to do with it: most likely, it was their genes, good fortune and decent healthcare.

If the decision to plagiarize Obama was deliberately intended to get us talking, it probably wasn’t Trump’s idea. If it was Trump’s idea, it was simply because, with his evidently poor literacy skills, he thought that Michelle’s speech was impressive and suggested his wife make a similar speech. Nothing more sophisticated than that.

It’s hopeless, I think, to look at Trump’s behaviour and try to discern a clever pattern: you will find one, but that’s thanks to our human ability to find clever patterns wherever we look. The reason Trump behaves like an ignorant, narcissistic bully given to temper tantrums is that he is an ignorant, narcissistic bully given to temper tantrums. It’s not an act.

But for the people who are really in charge — the usual suspects being Bannon, Miller, Pence, and possibly also Priebus — Trump is the gift that keeps on giving:
  1. He has no political skills whatever, and so has no way of understanding what’s being done to him.
  2. He isn’t even interested in politics, beyond the simplistic “build a wall and deport the illegals” philosophy he espouses, and so won’t be inclined to ask questions.
  3. His childish behaviour and outbursts can be safely relied upon to grab the headlines and cause outrage, leaving Bannon et al to get on with their work.
  4. As an extra bonus, he can be kept out of the way, happily occupied with milking the system for his own personal gain — which will be why he was allowed to pretend his family constitutes a “blind trust”.
  5. Unable — or at least unwilling — to read anything complicated at all, he will obediently sign anything that’s shoved under his nose.
This isn’t Trump’s cleverness at all: as deplorable as he is as a human being, I actually think he’s as much a victim of all of this as anyone else. He’s a useful idiot — and, I think, part of a panel of useful idiots that includes Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway and Betsy DeVos: all patently hopeless at their jobs, all the focus of media attention.

The way they are being deployed is actually very simple: let the idiots do their idiotic stuff and grab the headlines. Forget about all the complicated psychological tricks they’re supposedly using, the clever use of a particular word or a sophisticated tactic: none of that is planned. They’re just idiots, and they pretty much run themselves.

Take the current ruckus over the dozens of terrorist attacks the media allegedly didn’t cover. This started with an offhand comment Trump made during a speech; but I don’t think it was planned. I don’t think it was part of his speech: if we assume that he can barely read, it looks as if he reads out a sentence or two, then extemporizes a bit, before tackling the next sentence. It’s totally random.

So Trump simply vaguely aired a personal grievance, probably picked up from the likes of Breitbart or Fox News, and the media collectively went, “Wha...?” Back in the White House, somebody saw an opportunity, and quickly (very quickly, judging by the spelling mistakes) drew up a list of terrorist (and some non-terrorist) incidents culled from the web. Conway and Spicer were then armed with that list and sent out to talk to the press about it.

I am convinced there is no rhyme or reason behind Trump’s behaviour. It’s not, in itself, part of a plan. It’s just Donald Trump being Donald Trump, and it just by chance happens to be exactly what Bannon and his cronies need at the moment, and they are taking advantage of every opportunity as and when it arises.