Monday, January 11, 2016

Social media in 1980

When crusty old folk like me moan that the young whippersnappers of today are obsessed with social media and spend all their time staring at their phones instead of talking to each other, it’s often pointed out that we were never any good at talking to each other. Back in the 1980s, we used to listen to cassette tapes and watch TV: this generation has simply found new ways of ignoring each other.

And, I have to admit, that’s entirely correct. We tend to see our own childhoods through rose-tinted glasses, but they were just as awful back then as they are now. To illustrate the point, here’s a dramatization of a typical scene from 1980. Mr and Mrs Smith and their good friends, Mr and Mrs Jones, have gone out for a meal together. They’ve just ordered, and are waiting for their meals to arrive.

Mrs Smith: Hey, did you see Shoestring last night?

Mr Smith: Yes, brilliant episode! The bit where—

Mrs Jones: Oh, no, please don’t say any more! I haven’t seen it yet. I’ve been videotaping it, you see, so I don’t want to hear any spoilers.

Mr Smith: Oh, sorry.

(There is an awkward silence.)

Mr Jones: Well... we’ve been getting some awful weather lately.

Mrs Smith: Yes, but they say it should clear up in the next day or two.

Mrs Jones: Really? (She takes a sheaf of paper out of her bag and unfolds them. They’re meteorological maps.) Ah yes, it looks like this system will bring warm weather up from the Azores.

Mr Smith: The Azores? Are you sure?

Mrs Jones: Those are the Azores, aren't they?

Mr Smith: I’m pretty sure those are the Balearic Islands.

Mr Jones: Easy way to settle this. (He throws a large atlas onto the table, opens it up and starts flicking through the pages.) Hang on... North America... South America... Africa... hmm, page 352...

Mrs Jones: I don’t really think it’s that important...

Mr Jones: Hush! ...around here somewhere...

Mrs Smith: Anyway, how’s your Eric? Still at—

Mr Jones: AHA! Here they are! And... they’re not the Azores or the Balearics. Those are the Canary Islands.

(A phone rings.)

Mrs Jones: Oh, sorry, I have to answer this one. Do excuse me. (She takes a large, ringing, rotary-dial telephone out of her bag and lifts the receiver.) Yes? ... No, it’s in the living room. ... I told you. ... Well, use your eyes! ... On the coffee table. ... No, the coffee table. ... Okay, good. ... No, that’s fine. ... About ten-thirty. ... Good. ... Listen, I can’t talk now. ... See you then. ... Bye. (She hangs up.) Sorry about that. Typical Bridget.

Mr Jones: Bridget! Tsk!

Couldn’t blame autocorrect in those days.
(A breathless messenger jogs into the restaurant.)

Messenger: Text message for Mr Smith!

Mr Smith: That’s me! (The messenger gives him the message.) Excuse me just one moment. (He heaves a typewriter onto the table, feeds in a sheet of paper, types a few words, and hands the paper to the messenger.) Reply with this, please.

Mr Jones: Ah, here comes the food.

(A couple of waiters serve the food.)

Mr Smith: Right, then. (He grabs his Polaroid camera and takes a photograph of his food. Then he takes the photo to the door of the restaurant, opens the door, and holds up the photograph for all to see.) TUCKING IN TO THIS! HASHTAG FOODPORN!

Some passers-by: LIKE!

Another passer-by: YOU SUCK!

Mrs Jones: Isn’t modern technology wonderful?

(A town cryer walks into the restaurant and rings his bell.)

Town cryer: Hear ye! Hear ye! Ten scary things you should know about ABBA! Number seven will blow your mind!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

So, what happened in Cologne?

Right now, large sections of the world’s media are full of reports of the events that happened in front of the main railway station in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. A lot of these reports make harrowing reading: according to at least some of them, about a thousand men of swarthy appearance sexually assaulted and raped a number of women.

The impression you may have got from this is of a thousand immigrants descending on the station forecourt and basically gang-raping dozens of women, while police and fellow revellers looked on impassively. You may ask, as many have, why it took so long for this to be reported, and why the German government isn’t condemning it.

Except that that’s not quite what happened.

What actually happened is still the subject of a police investigation. And I don’t want to downplay the absolute awfulness of the incident: unless 80 or 90 women have deliberately filed false charges, at least that number of women were sexually assaulted. That behaviour is unacceptable, and has no place in any society. I was brought up never to touch women against their will. The people who did this need to be found and punished, and there is no excuse for molesting women (or men, for that matter) and making them fear for their safety.

So, let’s take it as read that I am not in any way trying to excuse the people who did this, and move on.

The reports circulating in even very respectable sections of the media are confused and partly contradict each other. Fortunately for us, my local paper this morning carried an article explaining what, actually, the police are saying about the event, and it’s not very much.

Firstly, there were actually two different incidents, although they may be connected (part of the police investigation is involved in establishing whether or not there is a link).

In the first incident, a group of men, as many as 1,000, started throwing bangers into the crowd, prompting the police to move in and clear the area to prevent a panic.

This needs some explanation. A central feature of German New Year’s Eve celebration, as it is in many parts of the world, is noisy fireworks. This goes back to an ancient tradition in which evil spirits were to be scared off at the start of the new year. But unlike, say, Guy Fawke’s Night in the UK, German New Year’s Eve sees members of the public buying vast arsenals of fireworks and letting them off in public spaces, which is great fun for the emergency services who have nothing better to do than put out fires and rush people to hospital.

The best-selling firework is the banger — known as Böller. It’s little more than a tube filled with gunpowder and a fuse. Light the fuse, throw the banger on the ground and it explodes with a bang. Harmless fun, although some people manage to get hold of bangers that are illegal in Germany and pack a much bigger punch, enough to cause injury or thousands of euros’ worth of damage to a car. Anyone who’s ever been in a German city between Christmas and New Year knows what that’s like: some ne’er-do-wells seem to think it fun to throw bangers under the feet of unsuspecting passers-by, and sometimes it can sound like a couple of rival gangs shooting at each other.

So, that was one thing. 1,000 men irresponsibly throwing little fireworks around. That’s where the number 1,000 came from.

The sexual assaults happened after that. Victims reported finding themselves surrounded by a small group of men and groped, and then discovering they’d been robbed. At least one of the reported incidents was so severe, that it may fit the legal definition of rape.

The “legal definition of rape”, by the way, is a concept you have to be careful with. Different legal systems define rape in different ways, which is why you can’t compare statistics (Sweden has a very high incidence of rape at least partly because it has an unusually wide definition of rape).

In the case of Germany, section 177 of the penal code (§ 177 StGB) talks of sexual assault and rape as essentially the same thing. Sexual assault is committed when a person uses the threat of violence to force the victim to perform a sexual act or allow a sexual act to be performed on them. It is considered more serious if some sort of penetration occurs, which is what is meant by “the legal definition of rape”. It doesn’t matter, by the way, whether the attacker penetrates the victim or forces the victim to penetrate him (or, much more rarely of course, her). And it also doesn’t matter which body part penetrates what orifice. I don’t know the details of the attack (only the people involved and the police know that), but that could, if I’ve understood correctly, be a French kiss. Which is horrible and distressing and rightly considered rape; but in a crowd it’s the sort of thing that could happen right next to you without noticing. It’s not as if the victim was stripped of her underwear and forced to undergo brutal vaginal sex right under the noses of the police as everybody else stood by and did nothing.

What happened was bad. It’s just not what the press seem to think happened.

Basically, these two things were conflated by the press. Certainly, the police are trying to establish whether there is a connection. So far they’re only saying that it’s “conceivable” that some of the men who had been throwing bangers around were also involved in the sexual assaults.

What the police seem to think they’re looking at here — and this is me reading between the lines, not anything that’s been said officially — is a band of pickpockets. Well, yes, they’re also guilty of sexual assault, but the victims reported also having their things stolen. The sexual assault, it seems, wasn’t what it was about. The sexual assault was being used as a distraction to allow the theft to take place. It’s a frightning new version of one of the oldest tricks in the book.

Which doesn’t make the sexual assault any better. We’re looking at people who are prepared to violate women simply to be able commit acts of petty theft. There’s nothing “better” about that.

EDIT, 20:00 CET: The police have announced that they’re looking into the possibility of this being a case of organised crime. A number of suspects have been identified, but there are conflicting reports over how many, and whether they have been arrested or whether some individuals who were arrested a few days ago are included in that number.

But this has been spun out into a story of a thousand men forcing themselves on a much smaller number of women. People are talking about this as if this was some act of gang-rape on a massive scale. How can women possibly defend themselves, they’re asking, when they’re surrounded by a thousand men as they’re being brutally raped?

That didn’t happen. The number of men involved in the sexual assault is unknown. It could be as few as five. It could be as many as thirty or forty. There was an alarmingly high number of incidents in which individual women were molested by a small number of men. That’s pretty much all we know.

All this is bad enough. But things have got worse. I don’t mean to say, by the way, that what happened next was worse than the sexual assault. I mean that what happened next made an already awful situation just a bit more awful.

The incident didn’t initially get a great deal of attention. It was reported, but the scale of what had happened wasn’t known. Part of the reason for this is that eighty or ninety women didn’t all file charges en masse. Rather, over the next couple of days, women came forward to file charges.

At first, the police will have dutifully taken down the details and sighed heavily: these were serious incidents, but the chances of actually identifying the culprits are very slim. But more and more women came forward, and as the numbers increased, the police slowly came to realise that they were dealing with something really big. Some of the victims will have delayed coming forward because they were too upset or frightened — this is quite a common occurrance.

So it took a few days for the true scale of the incident to become evident. It’s not that the press, or the police, or anyone else, tried to cover it up. It was reported at the time, but was eclipsed by what was, at the time, a much bigger story: police in Munich had been forced to evacuate two railway stations following a credible tip-off of a possible terrorist attack, and were now trying to identify, locate and apprehend the alleged terrorists. That’s the story that grabbed the national headlines and forced the story of what at the time was a small number of women reporting being groped onto the inside pages.

Since then, the latter story has grown. One factor in its growth is the growing realisation that it’s bigger than was originally thought. Unfortunately, a more important factor has been extremist right-wing propaganda.

Most of the victims described their attackers as being of “north African or Arab” appearance.

There are a lot of people in Germany who fit that description. Even I fit that description, even though as far as I can tell I don’t have any ancestors from north Africa or Arabia: but I have encountered people who assumed I was from Spain, Turkey, Israel, Palestine and, on one memorable occasion, Pakistan. Turks have walked up to me and spoken to me in Turkish.

There are, in Germany, nearly three million people who hold or once held Turkish passports, or have at least one parent who was born in Turkey. There are many millions more who have Turkish grandparents. All those people could be said to fit the description.

The problem is that right-wing extremist groups have seized on this. Now, it’s not merely 1,000 men brutally gang-raping women. Now, it’s 1,000 immigrants brutally gang-raping women. And this has led to certain, very loud and abusive, sections of society to lead a crusade against the German government’s policy on the refugee crisis. “This is what happens,” they say, “when we open the floodgates and allow Muslims to invade us.”

Suddenly, this becomes a race issue. Wild, and widely debunked, stories of immigrants have been circulating, alleging things like routine mass rape among Syrian refugees. These stories have been investigated, and they are all false. Studies have been conducted and reveal that the refugees Germany has taken on so far commit crimes at roughly the same rate as native Germans do. It turns out, they’re human too.

And it’s worth pointing out that Germans commit heinous crimes as well. The same newspaper that landed on my breakfast table this morning carrying an article explaining what the actual known facts are also carries a front-page report of the sentencing of a man known only as “Chris” (his full name can’t be published for legal reasons). He set up a Facebook page pretending to be a photographer, and contacted very young women asking them to take part in photo-shoots. He claimed it was part of an anti-alcohol campaign showing the effects of drinking too much, and so persuaded them to down so much alcohol that they passed out. Then he raped them.

I don’t think this is any more or less horrifying than the Cologne incident. It’s just as cold and calculating, with the only real difference being that in the case of “Chris”, the sexual assault was the end, not the means to a different end. Which, materially, doesn’t make that much difference.

If you haven’t heard about “Chris”, it’s not because that case has been hushed up. It’s just not what people on social media are talking about right now.

Similarly, if you hadn’t heard about the Cologne incident until a day or two ago, it’s not because that case was hushed up either. That doesn’t stop extremists from loudly complaining of a cover-up by “the lying press”. Why, they ask, is the press censoring the story? The press isn’t: they just weren’t paying attention.

So now we’re being forced into a conversation about the wisdom of Angela Merkel’s Willkommenskultur, which is not what this story should be about. There is not one single shred of evidence that the one thing has to do with the other, but that’s the narrative that’s being pushed. And because it’s being pushed, it’s what the media are talking about. And so fact becomes confused with propaganda, and the whole issue blows up not necessarily out of proportion, but for the wrong reasons.

And so the mayor of Cologne does what politicians do in these situations: since politicians are routinely criticised when they say nothing about a major news story, they feel the need to say something. Unfortunately, they often make things even worse, especially when caught off-guard.

Much of what Henriette Reker said at her press conference was pretty unremarkable. There is no evidence the offences were committed by refugees. The police are investigating. The scale of the problem only started to become clear the following morning.

Then a journalist asked a question: how could women protect themselves?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Perhaps Reker should have recognised the potential for a massive foul-up here, but, with all the grace and diplomacy of an elephant, elected to answer the question.

She should have reframed it. She should have explained that we all have a duty towards each other, and that we are all responsible for our own actions. That victim-blaming is not the right response. That we should be looking at ways of ensuing that women can feel safe without having to take special gender-specific precautions.

But no; she answered the question that was asked, and did so badly.

Not completely badly: take out the "advice for women" part, and some of it is advice I, as a man, have been given: make sure you’re with friends, demand the help of bystanders if you are attacked, report any incidents to the police. Not all of it brilliant advice, but not especially bad; it just shouldn’t have been directed specifically at women.

But one piece of advice she gave stands out as particularly divorced from any semblance of reality: that “there is always the option of keeping a certain distance of at least an arm’s length”. Oh, brilliant.

That was pretty awful. But then social media did its thing and focused on that one sentence. And as a consequence, so did the press. Now it’s no longer even about the actual sexual assault, but about the public shaming of the mayor of Cologne as a victim-blaming rape apologist, as if she had just issued some kind of press release lecturing women on how not to get raped. What it actually is, if we’re going to be honest, is a politician’s stupid answer to a stupid question. The rest of the press conference will be forgotten, and with it, the official version of the current situation. Which in turn suits the right-wing conspiracy theorists.

This whole thing started off being horrific. It’s not being made any better by misreporting, political propaganda and, now, a witch-hunt.

One last thing. Questions are, rightly, being raised about the Cologne Carnival. This is a very famous event in which vast crowds gather: in the light of the police’s failure to keep women safe on New Year’s Eve, how safe are they going to be at the Carnival?

Well, on New Year’s Eve, the police say they were taken by surprise. There were up to 200 officers there, but they weren’t expecting this kind of trouble. It had never happened before.

The police officers’ union says that the police presence was “normal” for this type of event. It wasn’t a demonstration, but a good-natured public gathering. They might have been expecting some incidents: pickpockets are always a problem in crowds, or there might be some isolated drunken brawls, that kind of thing. Sexual assault on such a large scale is something the German police have never before encountered. To quote Dirk Weber, spokesman for the Cologne police: “We are experienced in crowd situations. But we didn’t reckon with this modus operandi.”

The Carnival, though, is a different matter. It’s traditionally associated with the suspension of the usual morals, but unfortunately a lot of men — German men, it must be pointed out — still think that’s a licence for them to, well, basically rape women. As far as Carnival is concered, the police are always on extra high alert for this type of incident.

That’s not say that you’d be safe from sexual assault at Carnival, of course. Sadly, there is always a risk. But on New Year’s Eve, the police were wrongfooted in a way that is, we hope, less likely at Carnival.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Hermann: the gift that keeps on giving... and giving... and giving...

If you’re German, you may have encountered the “Hermann” (or “Herman”), sometimes known as a “friendship cake”. The idea is that somebody gives you a tub of cake mix and a set of instructions: over the next ten days you follow the instructions, adding ingredients like flour, milk and sugar, as it sits there bubbling away and smelling of beer. Then you divide the mix into four or five portions, bake one, keep one to start a new batch, and give the others away.

It’s a sort of culinary chain letter, a bit like the Amish friendship bread. And like the friendship bread, if you’re not careful, it can take over the world. Or at least make you heartily sick of the sight of it.

My wife acquired a portion of Hermann just before Christmas, explaining to me that she’d wanted one. Well, okay. This one came with a set of instructions that claimed the original batch had been made by Pope Francis himself, a claim neither of us was prepared to believe. Pope Francis, being a theologian, is no doubt familiar with the Biblical image of a small amount of yeast working its way through the whole batch of dough, which of course is how the Hermann works. And also why it stinks of beer. Pope Francis, though, has more important things on his mind, and even if he does take the bus to work, I don’t know how much baking he does these days.

Be that as it may, the thing bubbled and fumed all over Christmas, as if we didn’t have enough to eat. And the time came to bake one portion and give the others away in a beautiful gesture of human sharing, community and love.

Which is where we hit a snag. The baking part went well — although, having just feasted on unacceptable quantities of fine food, it took an effort of will to eat a slice of Hermann.

The giving away part fared less well. In fact, it was a complete disaster: nobody wanted any of it.

The problem is that most of our friends and family here in Germany, not to mention all of our neighbours, lived through the Peace and Ecology Era of the 1980s — a decade in which Hermann featured as heavily as it did in the nation’s stomachs. The downside of this outpouring of metaphorical whatnot was the glut of Hermann, a bubbling mass of sourdough that threatened, like a poorly-conceived Doctor Who monster, to take over the planet and wipe out the human race. Nobody got around to baking anything but Hermann, because that was all there was. No sooner had a family laid the last bit of Hermann to rest than they were confronted by a neighbour bearing a Tupperware bowl, a grubby piece of paper and a cheery smile.

Everyone now alive and older than about 30 vividly remembers months of Hermann. And when the Hermann curse was finally lifted, Germans collectively vowed: “Never again.”

So we never did find anyone to give Hermann a loving home, and we couldn’t face the prospect of baking even more of it. Eventually, it grew a crust and stopped bubbling, at which point we surreptitiously disposed of the remains.

Please don’t tell the Pope.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Bridge over troubled autobahn

About four years ago, when we started planning the house we’re living in now, the surveyor made a small error. Then the architect made an error in his calculations. The result of those two errors is that our house is a couple of inches closer to the neighbouring house than regulations allow, although since the local planning department didn’t notice and all our neighbours signed to say they had no objections to the architect’s plans, that’s all moot. Or was, until we got a carport that’s just slightly too narrow for us to open both car doors.

Anyway, a story has just now broken that puts this into perspective. It concerns a bridge over an autobahn, which was completed in 2012.

This happened while work was progressing to widen the A2 autobahn between Kamen and Hamm, and old bridges had to be replaced. One bridge was built 45 centimetres — nearly 18 inches — too far to one side. It was a surveying error, which then wasn’t caught by the inspector, and remained undetected until it was too late.

A bridge too far over.

Whereas our carport is a bit on the cramped side but still usable, the poorly located bridge had some pretty major consequences. You can’t just put a wiggle in an autobahn: they had to redo the plans for 600 metres of autobahn and make alterations to three other bridges. The total cost of this error ran to €600,000. If my calculations are correct, that’s a thousand euros a metre. (I was never much good at arithmetics.)

So why has this story only now come to light? It was buried in this year’s annual report of the Federal Court of Auditors, and it took journalists a week to get bored enough to actually read it (seriously, if your job included reading the annual report of any organisation with “auditors” in its title, you might struggle to stay alive).

According to the report, right after the bridge went up, the construction workers noticed that something was amiss, and alerted the local road construction authority, who took careful measurements and concluded that everything was fine. Three months later, the construction workers said, “No, really, none of this makes sense,” and this time the measurements confirmed it. Sometimes it pays to listen to men with shovels.

Still, I’m now feeling a lot more relaxed about our carport.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The downside of vlogging about current affairs

One of the things that YouTube suggests as a way to attract viewers to your channel is to make videos about the hot topics of the moment. It’s a good piece of advice, as long as your channel can accommodate the subject at hand, but it does have its disadvantages.

One of those is the risk that your video will be made to look silly when things suddenly change. As I have now found out.

The news that Germany had decided to send the very controversial singer Xavier Naidoo to the Eurovision Song Contest was, it seemed, a godsend to me. It was relevant to Germany. It was a story that could be made to look ridiculous. It introduced non-Germans to a German celebrity they may never have heard of, not to mention a conspiracy theory ditto. Germans were busy vlogging, blogging and tweeting about it. Perfect.
Oh, drat.

So it was probably inevitable that, hours after I published the video, the news broke that, following harsh criticism, Xavier Naidoo would in fact not be competing after all.


Nevertheless, it’s a decent vlog, and I’m quite proud of it. I’ve been trying recently to do pieces that are more comedic, and this is the sort of tenor I’ve been aiming for. Not that it doesn’t accurately reflect my genuine feelings on the matter — it does — but that the monologue builds up to a punchline, which is the last sentence. I think it’s possible I may have upset a few Xavier Naidoo fans among my viewership, but it’s quite hard to take him seriously.

In addition to the things I said in the video, a lot of Germans were quite annoyed that Naidoo had simply been accounced as the German entry: until now, TV viewers have always had the chance to vote for the act they wanted to go through, but this year they’re only getting to vote for the song. Quite a few are complaining about this as if it were an attack on their democratic rights.

Well, there are a couple of things to say about that. First off, the actual contestants at the Eurovision Song Contest are not the performers, but the songwriters. The performers just perform the material, but they don’t get the prize. Second, not every country lets their viewing public vote for the performer: a very large number don’t. Third, the last time Germany got to choose the performer — last year — it all went horribly wrong. The winner, Andreas Kümmert, pulled out; so it was the runner-up, Ann-Sophie Dürmeyer, who performed. She came joint last with the Austrian entry, having scored a total of no points.

Well, there was drama there, that’s for sure. But that’s really why it’s such great fun (that, and the relentless cheese). Personally, I think that if you consider a Eurovision Song Contest win as a matter of national pride, you’ve probably not understood the Eurovision Song Contest.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Making use of fair use

A few days ago, I uploaded a video about the cult German sci-fi TV series Raumpatrouille (often incorrectly referred to as Raumpatrouille Orion). And I took what for me was the unusual step of including some clips from that series.

This is, of course, a risk; and since I didn’t ask Bavaria Film (or whoever currently owns the rights) for permission, what I did might be copyright infringement, i.e. illegal. Or not, as the case may be: actually, since nobody’s sued me, there’s no court ruling on my case, so I don’t actually know.

In this scene, Major van Dyke gives Major McLane a piece of her mind.

And it’s at this point that I must explain that I am not a lawyer. What follows is my personal opinion, but I am not offering it up as legal advice. If you need legal advice on one of your videos (or anything else), please ask a lawyer.

So, the default situation is that using somebody else’s intellectual property without their permission is illegal. But there are some exceptions to this; and in US law (which may apply here, since the service I uploaded the video to is owned by an American company), copyright law includes the concept of “fair use”.

Here’s how it works: if the copyright owner ever sues me in an American court, I can raise the “fair use” defence. The court will then have to consider whether my use of the disputed material was fair. If they think it was, the copyright owner loses their case.

There are a lot of myths about fair use, and I can’t address them all. But put quite bluntly, fair use is a lot less generous than most YouTubers seem to think: in fact, as a defence, it’s quite hard to prove. For example, one of the reasons for this concept is to allow teachers to, say, photocopy pages from a textbook for their students for the purposes of education: this does not, as a lot of people seem to think, mean that uploading an entire nature documentary to YouTube is “fair” simply because the content can be described as “educational”.

When the fair use defence is raised, a court has to consider various things, grouped together in four, broad criteria.

Purpose and character of the usewhy am I using that particular content, and how am I using it? I’m using it to illustrate the points I am making: for example, when I say that the ship’s controls look like the result of a trip to a home improvement store, I show some shots of the bridge that feature bathtaps and electric irons, which the characters have to fiddle with to pretend they’re flying a futuristic spaceship. That likely counts in favour of fair use: I can hardly use scenes from anything else to comment on scenes from that show. As for how, I’m actually using the clips unchanged and not being creative with them at all: that counts against fair use. (You win some, you lose some.) On the other hand, they don’t actually make up the bulk of my video: most of the time, it’s just me talking.

Nature of the copyrighted work — is the work I’m extracting from just a series of ideas or facts, or does it have artistic or literary merit? Unfortunately for me, it’s the latter: facts and ideas can’t be protected by copyright, but TV dramas certainly can. A lot of people put a lot of work into that show (as I mention in my video, post-production took an entire year), and I can’t just take advantage of all that work so that I don’t have to make my own show.

Amount and substantialityhow much of the original did I use, and which parts did I use? Here, I feel I’m on much safer ground. I used only a few small portions of the original whole (just a couple of minutes or two taken from two episodes, each an hour long, out of a total of seven), and I didn’t include any spoilers. Those two facts definitely count in favour of fair use.

Effect upon the work’s value — might I be denying the copyright owners of the chance to make money? In this case, quite unlikely: nobody is going to watch my video and decide there’s now no point in buying the DVDs. This last criterion, incidentally, is a lot tougher than you might suppose: if I were to sell a Raumpatrouille T-shirt, featuring the faces of all the major characters, the copyright owner might argue that by doing that, I am making it harder for them to earn money from their own merchandise.

A court would have to weigh up all those things against each other and come to a decision. Personally, I am pretty confident an American court would accept a fair use defence. But unless the copyright owners take me to court in America, I’ll never actually know for certain.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

On making a stand

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris were horrific and unjustified. Nothing can ever excuse indiscriminate violence inflicted on innocent people, and the way these attacks were executed is sickening. This is a tragedy and a brutal crime that I condemn in the strongest possible terms.

There’s a problem, though.

A couple of days before the Paris attacks, two suicide bombers in Beirut killed about forty people and wounded, according to more recent estimates, over 200 others. That was also an inexcusable and horrifying tragedy, and there are many others like it. Yet it’s quite likely you hadn’t heard about this one; not because it wasn’t reported in the media, but because not many people cared about it.

This is also a human tragedy.

But they should. Although we should probably take with a pinch of salt ISIL’s claim to have carried out that attack, it’s still the worst in that country since the end of the civil war, and may yet prove to be the catalyst for a revival of that conflict: more violence, more bloodshed, and a huge problem for the million or so Syrian refugees in that country — where are they supposed to go now?

How many people superimposed the Lebanese flag on their Facebook avatars? How many public buildings across the world were lit up in red, white and green? How many western politicians made statesman-like speeches?

Instead, while Paris merits a huge outpouring of grief and anguish, Beirut barely registers: that outrage disappeared into the background radiation of general violence in the Middle East. Nobody there, apparently, needs our support, our prayers, our blood donations. Paris is different.

Now, at this point, the temptation is to gloomily conclude that we’re basically racist, and that we’re simply not concerned about Muslims killing other Muslims. That, surely, is the point of this entry, right?

I almost wish it were that simple: it would be at least understandable.

On October 31st, a Russian airliner crashed in Egypt, killing all 224 passengers and crew, in what is now believed to be a terrorist attack of some kind. What was the reaction on social media? Speculation, some expressions of horror, but nothing like what we’ve seen for Paris.

And yet the scale of the tragedy was roughly similar, the likely culprits the same. We can’t even get away with saying that Islamic terrorism in France has never happened before.

Somehow, people everywhere who are unconnected with both events are acting as if Paris affected them personally, but Metrojet 9268 didn’t. This reaction mystifies me: what makes the difference here? Are Russians less valuable than Parisians? Is it the fact that the plane came down on an Arab country? Were the victims’ deaths somehow less terrifying? Or could it be that watching a dot disappear off a radar screen isn’t as compelling as watching terrified people running for their lives on live TV — and if that’s it, what does it say about us?

You won’t, then, see me changing my avatar on any social medium. It’s not because I don’t care, but because I would have to either pick and choose whom I mourn, or be in a constant state of mourning. I choose not to loudly proclaim “I stand with Paris”, not because I don’t, but because I don’t want to imply that I stand with nobody else. But the age of 45, I have lived through similarly turbulant times, and as horrifying as the idea is, this is still very much business as usual. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.