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September 30, 2006


There's quite a debate going on in Germany about our education and school system. Recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) studies have shown German students to be far away from top positions and have mercilessly displayed the shortcomings of the German system. The results of the first PISA study in 2000 came as a bit of a shock for our politicians and - as always - promises were made to remedy the situation quickly. "Education is investment into our future!" "Highly skilled and well educated people are the only resources we have!" "A much higher portion of our gross domestic product has to spend on our school and university system." Surprisingly, we didn't do that much better in the next one in 2003 and the debate about what needs to be done is still going on but nothing seems to happen as is the way with politicians, I suppose.

One has to admit that the situation in Germany is a bit complicated, to say the least. Matters relating to schools, universities etc. are under the authority of the 16 Federal States. In former times that didn't even have common standards in Germany what students have to know when having completed a certain class at school. This caused all kinds of problems when students had to move for some reason form one state to another. For example, Bavarian Universities would not acknowledge the "Abitur" (the final exam at school that you need to pass before entering University) from Hessian schools, thereby excluding Hessian students from entering Bavarian Universities, because they thought the Hessian Abitur inferior to the Bavarian. They were most probably right in this but this was certainly no fault of the Hessian students.

I was lucky. I once had to move form Nordrhein-Westfalen to Hessen. Changing schools was easy for me but wouldn't have been the other way round. Now the Federal States have at least agreed on common guidelines for the Abitur. The aim is to have a centralised exam, meaning all students have to take the exams at the same day and time and will be asked the same questions. One would thinks this should have been a matter of course.

The schools face huge difficulties, mostly an overpowering lack of money. My sister, who is a teacher at a primary school in Niedersachsen, told me that for the second year in a row there was no money to clean the school rooms thoroughly at the beginning of the new term after the long summer vacation. I mean, it sort of helps if the pupils are able to look outside through the window, doesn't it? Likewise the frequency of cleaning has been cut down, instead every teacher was provided with a broom to look after the dust him/herself.

During the evaluation of the PISA results it has transpired that quite a lot of lessons in schools were cancelled because there were not enough teachers available, or on sickleave or whatever. At the last election of the Ministerpräsident (head of a Federal State) of Hessen the candidate who eventually won promised that provisions would be made so that no more lessons had to be cancelled in Hessian schools. Great! What did he do? Employ more teachers? No! The brilliant idea was to prolong the working hours of teachers. That doesn't improve the situation at all, of course.

I have experienced the German school system as one where the children are presented with the things they have to learn in lessons and they can either learn it or not. Not much thought was given of different ways of learning or promoting individual skills of the children. This is not so much a problem for the very good pupils but very much so for the rest. For years we have been allowing young people to leave school without having acquired even the most basic skills. It seems that teachers were content when after eight years at school the children were able to write down their own name.

This is probably the reason why we did not well in the PISA studies. The countries that came out top had learnt to promote the children individually to enable them to be asset to society after school instead of a burden. Now they try a similar approach in Germany but they are not providing the funds for it despite all they say. If you want to further and promote children individually you will need a lot more teachers than are available right now. And they will have to be properly trained especially for the very young who are still highly motivated and inquisitive when they enter school. Yet the estimate for this year is that we are short of 14,000 to 16,000 teachers which means that each week 1,000,000 lessons will have to be cancelled.

I wonder how much longer it will take for politicians to realise that the system itself needs to be radically changed and that it also means putting money into it and not squandering on another of their costly but utterly superfluous and badly managed pet schemes. Otherwise we will have to keep paying money for all those who were allowed to leave school without having learnt enough to be able to find a job and stick to it. This is highly frustrating not only for the young people themselves but also for the rest of the society who has to finance this through their taxes. I believe everyone can make a worthwhile contribution to society even if not all of us turn out to be 'Einsteins'.

Posted by Mausi at 12:48 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 29, 2006

G'day mate in abeyance?

My good friend Ozguru has decided to suspend his blog for the moment. This is partly due to pressures of work on him and his co-blogger Peskie but it is also down to increasing problems of access to the administration server for the server and blog provider (which incidently also hosts this blog!)

I can sympathise with Ozguru and Peskie on their withdrawal - I hope temporarily - from the blogosphere, as the pressure of work is increasingly making it difficult to find the time to keep posting. I have also noticed recently that many of the bloggers who were regular and reliable posters (and readers!) in the early days of my blog are increasingly not blogging regularly or have ceased to blog at all. And I wishfully thought I might have more time for this pleasant activity as I entered retirement - a thought I have had to rethink! My diary is filling up with work so rapidly that I think I will be in danger of working harder than ever from Day 1! Time for blogging, painting and writing? Not at this rate.

Ozguru and Peskie will be missed on my daily read as I am sure we will all have missed others who no longer post. We can but hope that they will make a comeback in due course.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 04:05 PM | TrackBack

September 28, 2006

Final days .....

It is interesting how the time just seems to slip away as the final day as a full time employee approaches. Even more interesting is how much work which I have been beavering away at reducing, finalising or simply passing on to my successor has suddenly assumed the importance of "life or death" and must be completed - or completed as a "consultant" post retirement. It begins to seem that, far from retiring, I shall be doing more than ever for my soon to be ex-employer, but at a higher rate of pay for each day! And they tell me that this is good economics.

Well, my bank manager would certainly agree that the economic balance is in my favour - but surely someone should have identified that, if I go, there will be a need for some continuity and a successor? Apparently not, for every time I have raised the issue I have been told that it is "in hand" or not necessary. Amazing how the perspective has changed as the scope of what I have been carrying on their behalf has emerged with the handover. I feel quite sorry for my successor - since he will have to shoulder my workload and the load he is currently carrying as well. No wonder there is stress beyond all reason.

I noted with interest Mausi's piece the other day setting out how much time she devotes to "administration" and how much to her "real" work - the science which she is supposed to have been hired to do and to manage. I know the feeling since my job up to now has been sinking into a similar quagmire of meetings and paperwork. It never fails to amaze me how all these "support" staff seem to exist only to check the forms that I have had to fill in so that they can file them. I still have to do the work of organising everything that I filled in the form to get anyway! And each form seems to require at least three people to handle it before a fourth files it. I think I could be excused for thinking that in reality my job is only there to create full employment for people who can't do anything productive anyway - but that would, I suppose, be unfair to most of them since it is not their fault that their jobs are so unproductive.

One thing I will certainly not miss is this constant paperchase. I seem to spend a disproportionate amount of my time writing "business cases" to spell out in Janet and John language for our "management" the blindingly obvious. "If we don't do this - our customers will go elsewhere" should be sufficient, but no, we are dealing with civil servants here. I am more than ever convinced that there are two qualities that are absolutely essential for employment in the civil service - the absence of any ability to actually think independently of the hive mind located in Whitehall, Berlin or any other capital, and a determination to make sure that nothing ever actually happens that would change their cosy little grip on the levers of power. I was once told by a very senior civil servant that, to survive in Whitehall, it is essential that you find a problem and make it your own. You must under no circumstances ever solve it - that would be suicide - you simply make it your own and you become indispensable as you are the only person who "understands" it. For that they get paid between £100k and £300k a year. Oh, and get a Knighthood and a pension with perks you and I pay for.

Well, I have less than five working days left at this particular duck factory - and I plan to start the wind down from tomorrow. My office is slowly being stripped of anything that is mine - and the rest can go to the shredder or the bonfire - their choice entirely. Roll on the 4th!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:22 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

September 27, 2006

Not everthing is rubbish

Hard to believe but true - not all is rubbish everything is rubbish on TV nowadays, sometimes they even show something really interesting. Last weekend I watched a program about Albrecht Dürer visiting Venice at the end of the fifteenth century. One of Dürer's mentors in Venice was his fellow countryman Anton Kolb, a publisher and entrepeneur. Kolb had been commissioned by the City of Venice to print a detailed map of the whole city at the scale of 1:750. The first copy of this map was printed in 1500 and then distributed among all major trading posts in Europe. In fact, the map was part of one of the biggest PR campaigns of the Middle Ages to ensure the economic survival of Venice.

The most astonishing fact about this map apart from its sheer size and the abundance of minute details is the fact that the city of Venice is printed as seen from about 300 m above the surface of the lagoon - a perfect three-dimensional picture. Now, how was that achieved. Easy, of course, the artist was sitting in a balloon and looking down. The only thing is, the brothers Montgolfier didn't let their first hot-air balloon take off until almost three hundred years later in 1783!

So, the artists had to think of something else. A few years before Dürer's visit to Venice painters and mathematicians in Northern Italy had discovered the laws of perspective. Hard to imagine nowadays that people had been unaware of these laws until the late 15th century. But when you look at paintings before that time you realise that they either look very flat or that some things seem to be out of proportion.

Anton Kolb employed a large number of artists and surveyors for his map. First a detailed survey of the Venice had to be accomplished. Then drawings of all buildings were made, all from the same viewing angle. The Venetian artists used a sheet of glass with a grid on it through which they viewed the buildings to be able to draw precisely and to scale. After that was done the individual drawings had to be put together and to be distorted according to the laws of perspective in such a way that the result gave the impression of viewing Venice through a bird's eye. What a task!

If you like to see the result or at least a tiny bit of it for yourself, try this link: http://www.zdf.de/ZDFde/inhalt/20/0,1872,3980020,00.html

Venetians seem to have been extremely resourceful people. For one, they build a whole city on poles. Whole forests must have gone under water for this project. Nine poles were needed per sqare meter. Several hundred years later the buildings are still standing! Buried in salt water and shielded from air the tree trunks have become as hard and durable as concrete.

Venetians were also famous for being able to build ships as fast as no one else. They were even accused of using magic to do this. Their magic was that they had optimised their production line: 700 highly specialised workers - men, women and kids - put ships together from prefabricated modules. The Venetian dockyards not only turned out merchant vessels but also galleys to protect their trading routes.

The end of the 15th century also marked the downfall of Venice. In the East the Turks had started to take over the trading in the Black Sea region and to the West Portugese and Spaniards send out ships to discover new trading routes and markets. The Mediterranean Sea quickly loses its importance as an economic region. The final blow is the discovery of a sailing route to India by Portugese ships. Portugal takes over the trading of herbs and spices, Venice's last monopol.

Perhaps it is not surprisind that so many new ideas and inventions came to Europe via Venice during the Renaissance. A city where its inhabitants had to be resourceful and inventive to take on the daily challenges of trading successfully with the rest of the world must have been an ideal environment for art and science to flourish profusely.

Posted by Mausi at 08:40 PM | TrackBack

September 26, 2006


I've read recently that everyone in Germany lucky enough to have a job wastes 32,5 of his precious 250 working days per year. This is not done on purpose, of course, the hours just fade away in useless meetings, or because the same task has been assigned to two different people, and in ever increasing administrative tasks. I would readily subscribe to that considering how often I have to sit in meetings which I think could well be conducted in at least half the time they usually take if everyone only went to the meeting well prepared. The time that is wasted in this way is estimated to cost the tax payers more than 170 billion Euros per year, a mind boggling sum which equals about 8% of our gross domestic product. Another alarming estimate is that worldwide 30% of the working hours are squandered on unproductive activities.

A study conducted by Proudfoot Consulting blames inefficient leadership for this waste of time and money. Managers don't find the time to do their job properly and they don't talk enough to their employees. Unproductivity is generated by bad planning and controlling. Further reasons are bad training, ineffectiv communication and IT problems.

Too true! Far from making things easier for my computer at my office takes quite a few minutes off my working hours each day causing problems I didn't have before. Countless are the times when I wanted to bite into my keyboard or give that cheeky Dr Watson a good punch on the nose. And if at last you have persuaded the computer to perform a difficult task for you you can bet on it that next time both of you will have forgotten how to do it and you will be back to square one again.

It is a bit of a consolation, though, that even private firms face the same problems that I thought hitherto to have been only inherent to the civil service: too many administrative tasks, too many fruitless meetings etc. Still - I went into the civil service as a natural scientist fifteen years ago. But now a very small amount of my working hours is actually devoted to scientific work. Instead, writing a scientific report has become a kind of luxury. And because even the civil service has to cut down costs now and then a substantial number of the scientific and technical staff that has left the department over the past years has not been replaced. Strangely enough, the overall number of employees seems not to have changed much. But the only unit that has been prospering lately is the one that is supposed to do the administrative tasks for the department. Instead of taking this kind of work away from us they succeed effortlessly in creating even more of it for us. And that is a real waste of potential. For all of the scientific staff members were employed because of their special skills and knowledge in the first place which we are not allowed to use anymore to the extent we would like.

I find it quite remarkable that during the last 30 years actual production has been moved out of Germany to the East and lots of small or medium sized firms have gone bankrupt. But the civil service has been forever increasing. They just seem to breed among themselves. If one of the Federal Offices is closed another one springs up out of nowhere. But as long as our Parliament consists mainly of members from the civil service and lawyers there's not much hope that things will change in the near future. What a waste!

Posted by Mausi at 08:26 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 25, 2006

The music of Celts

While in Ireland recently, I had the opportunity to attend a live concert at the special visitor centre and theatre adjacent to the Rock of Cashel. This was the Bryn Boru concert which is a group of extremely talented musicians and dancers who put on the most stunning performance of music, song and dance - with a dash of Irish humour thrown in for free. My companion, who has suffered a brain tumour and now lives with epilepsy and diabetes, is herself a talented musician. Although, with her eyesight now failing due to glaucoma, and her motor co-ordination not the best, she listens and appreciate things rather than sees them or performs them. For her this was possibly the highlight of the trip - although the previous evening we had been taken to a pub called Strawberry Hill and been treated to a totally unplanned and impromptu concert by a group of musicians who practice and play there as it is their "local".

Celtic music at its best is emotive, provocative and full of a sense of pride in their achievements - and in the anguish of their suffering through various conflicts, suppression and the years of poverty. Ireland was poor for much of its history, dirt poor and ruled by absentee landlords and owners from afar. Thus a tradition has grown up which allows simple things to be used as musical instruments - the tin whistle, the fife, the bodrhum, the fiddle, the harp and of course the Celtic pipes. This last is a strange instrument with a bag tucked under the players elbow and strapped to to his waist, a simple bellows is operated by the other elbow while the chanter is played by the fingers and the drone pipes are keyed and operated by the wrist of the hand holding the upper part of the chanter pipe. The drones lie across the lap with the top end cradled over the left elbow as the player makes the music of the soul.

The Irish Harp - no pedals, a sounding case and a tuning system that is as simple as it is complex in its sound.

The concert was an amazing performance, solo harp, solo accordian, solo fife all blended into an extended performance interspersed with the most amazing dancing. At one point the piper picked up a tin whistle and wandered through the audience playing a jaunty solo and being teased by one of the dancers - whose fine baritone led performers and audience in several renditions of well known Irish songs. But it is definitely the versatility of the players which takes one's breath away. A harpist plucks out the most complex melody on her harp, then, as the accordians and the fifes pick it up and the bodrhum starts its rythmn - she stands, unclips her flowing skirt and steps off into the most amazing reel across the stage to be joined by several more ladies and finally the men as the performers pick up and develop the original tune. It is difficult to find the words to describe it all - and I sat enthralled, wishing I could capture even a tiny part of it on video - but not wishing to distract the performers even for a second with a camera!

At the end, the performers all stepped out from behind the curtain - and as this was the last performance for this season - invited the entire audience to the end of season ceilligh downstairs in the bar! What a party - the music never stops! Celtic music is best described as the music of the soul - for that is where it resides. The rythmns make your feet tap and your hands clap, your voice lifts to the songs and the heart sings with the beat of the drums. Young and old leap to the dance - it is irresistable and it is a part of everyone with even a trace of Celtic blood in their veins.

Resistance is futile!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 05:25 PM | TrackBack

September 24, 2006

Visit to Belgrade

Visiting Belgade for the first time is quite an experience. It is a city of contrasts and it is a city with a rich and varied history, not least because, since this spot was first settled in neolithic times, it has stood on one of the worlds major cross roads for history. It has been under Grecian rules during the Macedonian period, under Roman rule, then under the rule of Byzantium and, after a brief period of independence under their own Kings - know as the Despot - invaded and conquered by the Turks. Indepednence was again won after a protracted war but the southern provinces of Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia and Bosnia remained under Turkish domination for several more centuries.

Belgrade has been the capital of Serbia since 1500 when the then Despot moved here from the original capital located in modern Kosovo. It is small wonder that the Serbs are unhappy about the segregation of Kosovo from their nation as it is the birthplace of the Serbian nation, it is where their Kings are buried in the old capital and it is the place where the Turks were eventually driven from their land. The legacy of that occupation is to be seen in the conflict of today, between Orthodox Serbia and Muslims living in Albania, Bosnia and now seeking a separate Muslim state in Kosovo. In part that history is one of enforced conversion to Islam - the Selucid Turks and later the Ottoman empire forcibly removed all boys aged five and over annually from Christian Serbian (and other subject peoples) homes and, after compulsory conversion to Islam, trained them as the Sultan's personal guard, the famed Janissaries. Those who did not make the grade as Janissaries were castrated and put to work as eunuchs in the palaces and houses of the rich and powerful. This is a legacy that will not soon be forgotten since the Turks ruled these southern provinces until 1836, and memories run long here!

The Citadel in Belgrade incorporates Roman structures, medieval and later buildings in its remains. Today it is a public park and a meeting place for the city's young men and women. It is also home to a fascinating museum and a fabulous restuarant!

As every school child knows, the First World War was sparked in Sarajevo by the assasination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his consort by a Serbian patriot. Again, the rest is history, but what is seldom understood is that the Archduke represented a country whose fading Empire had recently fought an abortive war in the Balkans which had resulted in a seizure of parts of Serbia. Tempers ran hot and the incredible series of blunders that resulted in the almost opportunist shooting must surely be one of history's great mischances. Again, attempting to unravel the right and wrong of the Balkan War of 1912 - 1914 is almost impossible. The consequences changed the entire world order.

Belgrade is almost two cities. Nova Beograd is on an island between the Sava River and the Danube, Old Beograd is on the peninsula between the two rivers, with the Citadel crowning the high ground which commands the approach to both. Architecturally, Belgrade has suffered heavily from its position on the cross roads of world history, since every invader seems to have burned or destroyed large chunks of it. The communist years have not helped either, leaving a legacy of neglect and lack of maintenance that now needs to be addressed if the best of the city's rich legacy of buildings which survived the last two world wars is to be saved.

But what can one say of the people? Plenty. They are hard working, keen to catch up and be a part of the Europe they feel they belong too, proud of their heritage and a little defensive of their recent history. They are generous, they have a sense of humour and a deep sense of purpose. Everywhere there are signs that they are rolling up their sleeves and getting down to rebuilding what they lost under the communists, but they are doing it with hope and with pride in themselves and their history.

One thing will stand in my mind - the sign on the remains of a downed F-117A Stealth bomber:

"We apologise to the USAF for downing this aircraft - we were not told we weren't supposed to be able to see it."

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:23 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

September 23, 2006

Venturing into new waters ....

With retirement looming large the Monk has been busy looking at alternatives. One venture he began to explore recently is the possibility of publishing a work of fiction .... So, having started this book as a bit of fun it is now with the Publishers, AuthorHouse, and will hopefully hit the sales outlets in time for everyone to buy it for Christmas.

The cover design for the book reflects the story - three young men snatched from one period of history into the future ....

It has been great fun writing it and quite a challenge too. Surprising how much one needs to look up in order to write believable Sci-fi, you really cannot just make it all up anymore. Keeping track of characters - and choosing names for those you create is also quite a task. Some of the little devils develop minds of their own and do some things out of the sequence you originally planned and you just have to live with it and check that it hasn't thrown something else in another part of the book.

The book is titled "Out of time" and will be on sale through Author House and Amazon in time for Christmas. It will also be available in some Waterstones stores and, if I can really push my luck, may even be in jolly old WHSmith as well. If you'd like to see what it is about, I have an extract in the extended post below!

Starliner Artemis: January 2204

The Chairman of the Board of Interplanetary Development Consortium was in an ebullient mood as he greeted the assembling chairmen and board members of the various companies in which the Consortium had a stake. IPD existed in two parts, the visible arm being the great freighters that shuttled between the earth and the growing number of colony worlds and the various mining and industrial operations on moons and asteroids dotted about the section of the galaxy the Consortium’s ships could reach. The less visible holding company that actually controlled, through various guises and false front corporations, almost two thirds of the world’s major listed companies. This situation was the result of years of work on the part of several previous chairmen – in fact it was something the present chairman had been involved in from the start of his apprenticeship with the company some forty years earlier. The brainchild of a triumvirate of businessmen who saw in the inexorable rise of the bureaucracies that were slowly strangling the great democracies, an opportunity for the new aristocracy, the leaders of commerce and industry and their selected henchmen in the political classes, to seize control of government and direct the fate of nations for their advantage. The last hundred years had been spent in putting in place the people and the means by which this could be achieved and now they stood on the eve of obtaining that prize.
There was only one obstacle in the way of this ambition, a Fleet of starships established at almost the same time as the Consortium by visionary politicians who saw a need to have a powerful force of ships and men who could defend the earth and its multi-cultural peoples. A Fleet moreover, independent of political control, dedicated to the service of the ideals of the Alliance that created it. A Fleet composed of ships contributed by the various governments, and nominally manned and supported by them, but falling under the command of its own governing authority. Here the Consortium had not managed to penetrate, as it had hoped to do, into the command structure or the controlling authority. So they had changed their focus and, through the short-sightedness of the bureaucrats, obtained control of the support facilities instead. Thus, the Consortium now controlled the weapons development and repair company WeapTech, the repair docks and the building facilities in space within the solar system. As he rose to open the meeting, Ari Khamanei reflected with satisfaction that this had allowed him to build a fleet of his own at the expense of the Alliance Fleet and the bureaucrats and their political masters had even paid him to do it.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for taking the time to attend our conference, I am sure you will all find it rewarding.” he began, “I have excellent news to report to this assembly, the first we have held since the conference in 2199 in New Babylon. The work our founders began in 2089 is about to come to full fruition. Thanks to the enterprise of our many agents, we now have our people in key positions in all the ministries in the European Confederacy, and in the North American Union. In the Russian Federation we have key ministers as well as their bureaucrats and in the Southern European Union we have complete control of all ministries and the political parties. Only the defence forces controlled by the Fleet Authority remain outside of that control, but we now control their repair facilities, their weapons development and the ship building yards. We have also infiltrated their crews – as yet, not at command level, but our people are excellently placed to ensure that, when the time comes, the Fleet’s ships will not be able to strike against us.” Sure he now had their attention he continued as the huge screen behind him lit up and began to show pictures of huge new ships, bristling with weaponry, “I give you our fleet, ladies and gentlemen, every ship superior to its equivalent class in the Alliance Fleet, and now ready and manned by our own officers and ratings. Every ship that you see here has been built in our own facilities and at the expense of the Alliance, paid for by the gullible bureaucrats as we simply inflated costs once they had given us complete control of their own facilities.” He paused as his audience laughed, and then added, “It was once said by a Russian Premier I believe, that the Communist philosophy would ultimately hang all the Capitalists – after the Capitalists had sold them the rope for the purpose. We, ladies and gentlemen, have turned that statement into a reality!” He smiled as they laughed at this, “I have called this conference to tell you that the time has come to start the hangings.”
His speech continued for some time as he outlined the work and the achievements of the individuals and the companies under the consortium’s umbrella. Included in this were advances in genetic engineering, xeno-biological advances which allowed them to control access to medicine, colonial development and, to an extent, energy sources and resources for the world’s population. Exuding confidence, he outlined for them the next steps – steps which would take them to their ultimate goal of taking over the government of the Alliance nations, “First the Alliance,” he told them, “then the rest of the world. And we are ready. Those first steps will be taken in a matter of months. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you control of the democratic world and the colonies they govern!”

Bombay: 1804

HMS Spartan, seventy-four guns, HMS Rajahstan, forty guns, and HMS Swallow, twenty-two, weighed anchor and slowly made their way out of the roadstead to set a course south eastward towards the Cape of Good Hope, some seven thousand miles away. Homeward bound for the Spartan and her crew, she was turning homeward after a voyage begun in 1801 just after the Treaty of Amiens, and which had taken her to Port Jackson in New South Wales, the South Sea Islands and thence through the Coral Sea and into the Bay of Bengal. From there she had sailed to Trincomalee and onwards round into the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean to Bombay.
Midshipman Heron stood with the large signal telescope resting in the crook of his elbow as his signal party folded and stowed the flags from the signal just hauled down. He watched as the sloop Swallow, crowded on sail in order to beat her way to the station assigned to her as the eyes of the squadron in the van, ahead of the ponderous seventy-four. Astern, the sleek frigate Rajahstan settled into the larger ship’s wake. Henry Nelson-Heron, or Harry, as his friends called him, had been twelve when he joined this ship after six months in HMS Bellerophon. Now, his fifteenth birthday recently behind him, he was already a seasoned sailor and trusted by his officers as a promising leader. He had enjoyed this voyage and felt very privileged to have been able to see and do so much, but now he was looking forward to seeing his home again, in the soft and cooler climate of County Down.
With luck, he reflected, they would be home in a little over four months.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:34 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 22, 2006

Euro troubles?

In recent weeks I have had the opportunity to escape the ever present garbage about our illustrious leader and find out what is happening in the world outside the Peoples Republic of Blairdom. I was a little surprised to read in the Financial pages of one of the English national daily's (International Edition) that there is increasing concern in the Euro Bank and the IMF about the future viability of the Euro as a currency. It appears that too many of the members of the Euro Zone, but most notably Italy and Spain, are experiencing a form of runaway inflation masked by the fact that their currency is managed outside of their economic system. In fact, it is now being said that Italy in particular, may have to be ejected from the Euro before their problems bring it down and tear the entire Eurozone apart.

It seems that the pressure is increasing dramatically as more of the Eastern European economies link to it as well, since their need to play catch up on wages - viz the exit of skilled workers from these countries to better paid positions in the west - and to rebuild the infra structures and manufacturing base destroyed by years of centralised soviet style controls, created inflationary pressures a currency managed for the benefit of German and French interest rates can cope with. Now it may well be unfair to blame the Germans, but there can be no doubt that the German, Dutch, Belgian and French economies would suffer badly if interest rates were put up to the levels needed to damp down the inflationary pressures in Italy, Spain, Portugal and some of the newly joined member states. One commentator likened the situation to the debacle that resulted from trying to unify the British Pound in the early 1990's - the Pound almost tore the ERM as it then was, to pieces.

It could be argued that the present situation is or was predictable. This is, after all, merely the latest in a number of attempts in Europe to harmonise economies and have a single currency. France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland all adopted the Franc and tried to maintain a single value while running independent economies. The experiment fell apart as the different economies suffered diverging growth or stagnation. The end result was that the only common thing about them was the name - and you had to add the country name in front of it to differentaite. An example was another trip to a Pre-Euro Europe when I crossed from France into Belgium and on one side got Fr10 to the £1 and on the other Fr66 to the £1! The difference - one was the French Franc and the other the Belgian Franc.

The experts predict that this wobbly state will continue in the short term. They even think it can be propped up for a while longer, but they are all clear on one thing - it cannot continue to be propped up or the problems ignored for much longer. Unless the inequalities in national economies can be resolved swiftly, the Euro is likely to go the way of the Franc. Perhaps Mr Brown's five 'tests' before we in Britain enter the Euro will be entirely academic in a couple more years.

Pass the crystal ball and I'll have another look at the future ......

Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:32 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

September 21, 2006

The Rock of Cashell

Possibly one of Irelands most historic, and certainly one of its most picturesque places is the Rock of Cashell. This great ruined castle cathedral sits atop a huge granite upthrust and was once the home of the Kings of Munster and then of the Archbishops of Cashell. It must surely be unique in concept and in purpose. The cathedral has a long Chior (or Quire) on its Eastern arm, and two equal length transepts - but almost no nave. At least half of what would have been the nave is taken up with a massive square keep as high as the great certal tower which straddles the crossing between the main church and the transepts.

In the space between the Gatehouse or Barbican that gives entrance to the outer Bailey of the enclosure, is the stump of a very ancient "High Cross", known as St Patrick's Cross. The weathered state of the unusual stump gives testimony to its age but the entire upper part of the cross is gone. It marks the fact that St Patrick is said to have visited the site and baptised many converts here.

The Rock of Cashell seen from the North, once the fortified palace of the Kings of Munster who gave it to the Church who turned it into a Cathedral Castle. The top of the round tower can be seen against the sky and the central tower.

As a fortress the Rock has had to withstand many seiges and assaults both as a Royal Fortress in the many wars between Irelands numerous "Kings" all struggling to gain the coveted status of High King. In fact it was one of their number who eventually, in 1169, invited a Norman invasion - an invasion which led to the annexation of Ireland by Henry II of England and the rest, as they say, is history!

Entrance to the cathedral inside the enclosing walls. Seen here from the South West, the great central tower rises above the crossing.The West End of the cathedral is shortened and its place taken by the Keep - a fortified dwelling for the Archbishops.

Tucked into the South East angle of the Quire and South Transept is an even more ancient building than the Cathedral which dates, in its present form, from the 13th Century. This is Cormac's Chapel, unusual because its Chancel and Sanctuary is not centred on the nave, but is offset to the south side. On the North Eastern corner of the North Transept is an even more ancient structure - the Round Tower, a tower of the type built in the 8th and 9th Centuries as a lookout and refuge tower as the Viking raids gathered momentum. This one dates from 1101 and can be seen in the photographs with this piece as the tall 'finger' with its conical roof of stone. Cormac's Chapel is in the Romanesque style and is said to be one of the earliest and the finest stone churches in Ireland although no date is available for the building of it in any guides we found. It is almost windowless, with blind arcading decorating the exterior and the interior and the fine Norman style tympania above the doors are decorated with Celtic style carvings, hinting that this is a building that predates the invasion.

The cathedral suffered badly during the Parliamentary assault on religion during the Commonwealth period and it was sacked by a Parliamentary Army under Lord Inchiquin in 1647. However, it was partly restored and, now as a Cathedral of the Church of Ireland" continued in use until 1748 when the cummulative damage of the centuries and the rising cost of repairing and maintaining a church design to exclude rather than include a congregation, led to its abandonment. The Cathedral status being moved to the church of St John in the town. The Rock's church remained partially roofed until 1845 when the roof and part of the Keep collapsed and finally the Eastern gable fell as well. In 1869 ownership transferred to the National Monuments Board and has been conserved in its present state since then.

The Hall of the Vicar's Choral now serves as a visitor centre, shop, museum and small conema in which visitors may see the history of the place through a short video presentation and is, in itself an interesting insight into life on the Rock. Again, a very holy place with much, much more that needs to be explored.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:27 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 20, 2006

Seeing the sights of Dublin ...

Dublin the modern city is a very different place from the city of the early ninteenth century or the disasterous 1845 potato famine years. Then its tenements teemed with vermin, its inhabitants struggled to earn enough to survive and the air was foul with the smoke of open fires, ofal and sewage. The folksong "Dirty old town" was written to describe it. Going back even further one traces its origins to the Baille athe claithe or "town at the bridge" the name for the settlement which sat on the Western bank of the Liffey beside the Duhb Linn, the Dark Pool.

The "Trollop with the scallop" as our tour guide rather colourfully referred to the statue of Molly Malone, a mythical shell fish seller made famous in the folk song "In Dublin's fair city".

Then came the Vikings and they built a permanent settlement and port for their raiding and trading forays into Europe and Britain. It was through here that the boy who would become Saint Patrick would have been dragged as a slave and it was from here that he fled as the handler for the great hounds that the Vikings bought in Ireland and sold into Europe as guardians. These were the fierce Irish Wolfhounds - and in those days they were a very different breed to the modern ones. It would seem that the runaway slave Patrick, having lived among the hounds in his master's household, was given passage only because the traders didn't have anyone who could keep the hounds under control.

Dublin is a fascinating place for many varied reasons. It is a vibrant place with music, busy with commerce and filling up with returning Irish and workers from all over Europe. It is an interesting fact that the most common language is English, the second most common is Polish and third comes Gaelic. One is never far from the history - and never far from the blood that has been spilled by one side of the many conflicts or another.

Is it worth the visit? Of course it is, the Book of Kells, O'Connell Street, the National Museum, Christ Church and St Patrick's Cathedral to name but a few of the sights that await you are all worth the visit. So too is the Irish national personality, the individuals - and the Guinness!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:04 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

September 19, 2006


Germany consists of 16 Federal States and at this time of the year I am always brought to realise the extreme diversity of our different states. Last weekend the famous Oktoberfest in Munich, Bavaria, started and will last until October 3. I think to really enjoy something like that you have to be a Bavarian.

The Octoberfest is the world's largest fair with over 6 million (!) visitors each year. Most of the festival area is taken up by enormous tents of the local breweries where people can eat and drink and listen to music bands playing. I don't know if they can hear much of the music because the noise level inside the tents must be enormous. Each tent is big enough for several thousand people.

Bavaria is the land of breweries, probably because there have also always been quite a number of monastries. And the monks had to survive during winter and the time of Lent. Therefore beer in Bavaria is not considered an alcoholic beverage but part of your daily food. During the Octoberfest the local breweries brew a special beer for the occasion called Wiesnbier. It contains a bit more alcohol than the usual Bavarian beer.

Beer at the Oktoberfest is served in a 1-litre tankard, called Maßkrug. The waitresses dressed up in their traditional Bavarian costumes, Dirndls, have all my admiration. Fancy carrying 10 or more of these tankards through the enormous tents all day! Prices for a 'Maß' have been going up steadily over the the years. They have now reached 7.50 Euros. The other thing is that the breweries always tried to make some extra profit by short serving customers. That was quite easy when they still used earthenware tankards. With the beer foam on top it was impossible to tell how much beer was inside. Its not so easy nowadays when glass tankards are mandatory but even if you short serve customers only a little bit it adds to your profit considerably. In 2005 6 million tankards of beer were sold during the festival! Some years ago a private association has been founded whose members check the amount of beer in the tankards and encourage customers to demand that their glasses are topped if they have been short served. I bet these people have a great time during the two weeks of the festival although they are exactly popular with the landlords. On the other hand it is impossible to check each one of 6,000,0000 tankards! Hard to believe but true: the local Munich breweries sell 30 percent of their yearly
production during the two weeks of the Oktoberfest.

The Oktoberfest has a long tradition. The first took place in 1810 on the occasion of Crown Prince Ludwig, who later became King Ludwig I., with Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. At first all kinds of sports events were organised during the Oktoberfest. Legend has it that Pierre de Coubertin got his idea for the modern Olympic games from the competitions during the early October festivals in Munich.

Since 1950 the Octoberfest is traditionally begun with 12 gun-salute and the tapping of the first barrel by the mayor of Munich who utters the traditional war cry of "O'zapft is!".

Ever since 1960 the number of visitors has been steadily growing from all over the world. Especially Americans, Japanese and New Zealanders obviously love to come and enjoy the festival. I am afraid the Oktoberfest is also responsible for the picture of the typcial German in the world. I remember when my sister had an English girl visiting her during a pupil's exchange program in the 1970's Fiona was very much surprised that my father wasn't wearing leather breeches and we didn't live on Sauerkraut and Knödel.

Probably the most interesting part of the Oktoberfest is the parade of the breweries on the first Saturday. Quite a sight - the big horses drawing the beer carts through Munich onto the Theresienwiese where the festival takes place.

But as for the rest - for the life of me I cannot imagine what makes people sit in a big, noisy tent, day after day, drinking themselves stupid and thinking this is a great way of spending your day. But then, I was born in the North of Germany, at the opposite end, so to speak.

Posted by Mausi at 03:37 PM | TrackBack

September 18, 2006

Bit of Fun ...

Looking out of my window into a November-grey, misty afternoon in September I thought it would be a good idea to share some fun with you on the blog at least. Here's another one of my beloved brain teasers:

Four children called Evelin, Claudia, Martin and Karsten are playing outside in the garden. Suddenly Karsten asks: "By the way, how old is each one of you three?"
Evelin is the first to answer: "In three years Martin will be exactly the age I was when Claudia was as old as Martin will be in seven years."
And Claudia adds: "A year ago I was exactly twice as old as Martin and Evelin together." (A little hint: as old as Martin and Evelin were together a year ago.)
How old is each of the three?

040708_mausi-xs.jpgOnly positive integers count as solution. Have fun! It sounds easy and straightforward, I know, but it kept my humans quite busy for some time. Little puffs of smoke coming out of their ears ... Hrrmmmpfff!

Posted by Mausi at 12:11 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

September 17, 2006

Mausi, the Hunter

You know, sometimes I wonder what is going on inside the head of Mausi, the Cat. One moment she is enjoying the warm September morning sun on the grass ...


... and the next moment a sound has been picked up by her radar ears and off she goes, jumping the fence and vanishing into the neighbouring field. A few minutes later she is back bringing in her kill.


This time it is a vole and she won't even eat it. She rather leaves it lying around for one of us to give a proper burial. Which we did, of course. It is not that she doesn't get stuffed with tinned food in the house. She wouldn't have to hunt for mice. Alright, they probably taste better than the tinned ones, juicy and fresh, I suppose. But then why does she kill even those she has no intention to eat at all?

Sometimes I think she hunts down everything that is smaller than she is and moves around the garden without her specific permission. A misinterpretation of her duties as a cat? This afternoon she gave a giant dark-blue dragonfly a speculative look. But then decided that it would take too much effort and cunning and went back to sleep. 1:0 for the dragonfly!

Posted by Mausi at 08:06 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 16, 2006

The Heads beneath the Scarves

Eight years ago there was big discussion in Germany because a young womam named Fereshda Ludin seeked employment as a teacher in the Federal State of Baden-Württemberg. In Germany teachers are civil servants. Ms Ludin is a Muslim and she wanted to keep wearing a scarf around her head in school. Apart from the scarf her way of dressing is very much Western European and her German flawless, as can be expected from a teacher.

The State of Baden-Würrtemberg refused to employ her stating that the scarf was a symbol islamic fundamentalism incompatible with working as a civil servant in a Christian society. The case was taken to court and Ms Ludin lost her case. The outcome of it was that most of the Federal States in Gemany issued a ban on scarfs for teachers or others seeking employing in the civil service.

Looking back it seems a bit astonishing that during the heated discussion in the media so little attention was given to the actual heads underneath the scarves. What did they think about religion and fundamentalism? Why did they want to wear a scarf around their heads at all? A common prejudice was that they had been forced to do so by brothers, fathers or husbands.

Recently a study has been carried out by the Adenauer foundation among 315 Turkish women of all ages from different parts in Germany. These women had all kinds of educational backgrounds, some had obtained German citizenship, some had jobs, some were housewives and staying at home.

If the scarf were indeed a symbol of islamic fundamentalism one would expect to find quite a number of fundamentalists among the 315 women. Interestingly, however, 90% of them wished for a democratically elected government. This is not much different from the average German population. What makes it even more significant is the fact the women not only came from three inconspicuous congregations in Berlin, Hamburg and Stuttgart but also from a certain Mosque in Aachen which is under surveillance by German authorities. One would therefore clearly have expected to find a certain number of fundamentalists among the women.

But quite contrary: the results obtained by questioning the Turkish women about the importance of marriage and partnership, personal freedom, financial security, jobs or children were not at all different from those that had been gathered form questioning German women during the last years. The signifcant difference was that the Turkish women were by far more religious than the German women.

Then why the scarf? By far the most said that brothers, fathers and husbands had nothing to do with their decision to wear a scarf. They said instead that it is proper for a female muslim to wear a scarf and that they did it voluntarily. They also claimed that the scarf gave them a certain amount of self-confidence. This may be explained by one third of them saying they believed that they were especially dear to Allah, although two thirds believed everyone is equal before God.

I think it's high time for a proper dialogue to begin between different groups in our society. Far too long ethnic groups have been allowed to live only among themselves. Often Turkish citizens of the second generation are even less integrated into German society than their parents. But a society can only function if we know each other's thoughts, needs and ambitions. Just basing your verdicts on prejudices will not do.

Posted by Mausi at 07:30 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 15, 2006

Need a breeze?

I don't know about the places where you live but around here summer has been a bit of a roller coaster. Periods of high temperatures alternated with colder and very wet periods. A succession of droughts and floods you could say. In my childhood we had the occasional showers of rain and thunderstorms in summer as well but they did not last for weeks as they seem to do nowadays.

At the moment we go through another period of temperatures near 30 degrees Centrigrade whhile Spain is obviously flooded. I don't mind 30 deg outside in the garden but I do object strongly to having them in my office at noon and for the rest of the afternoon. If you, like me, are in need of a breeze have a look at this picture and see it gently rippling the pattern.


I am glad, though, I am not a polar bear. They are really in trouble. American scientists have observed that the permanent ice around the North Pole was suddenly reduced by 14% between 2004 and 2005. In winter however the overall amount seasonal and permanent ice was the same as the year before. The distribution of the ice has changed however. If the seasonal ice melts again in summer this could create vast ice free areas and change live around the North Pole dramatically.

The melting of the ice would contribute to the green house effect because solar radiation would not be reflected from the dark surface of the sea as effectively as it is reflected from the ice surface. Neighbouring oceans could warm up. A good thing is, however, that the water levels would not rise as floating ice displaces exactly the volume it will take as water. Phew! At least the Dutch can relax but Polar bears will have to give survival strategies in summer some serious thought.

Posted by Mausi at 06:12 PM | TrackBack

September 14, 2006

The post-war Baby Boomer Generation

The Monk being away to foreign countries again has asked me to turn a newspaper article he came across a couple of days ago into a post for this blog. He has assured me that he agrees with every word the author has written.

The author claims that the post-war Baby Boomer generation has done its best to ruin the world for those they'll leave behind. He gives a number of examples to prove his point:

  • Bill Clinton, a prominent representative of this generation, of ignored the al Qaeda threats to his country because he was too busy with personal affairs.
  • Britains baby boomers have created a culture where sentiment takes precedence over substance. Especially since Tony Blair and New Labour it seems to be more important to present oneself as a good person than acutally being one.
  • Boomer feminists are to blame for today's porno-culture. And their ill-conceived hatred of housewives and their desire to see them leave the kitchens for other workplaces has destroyed the lives of those women who now do tiwce the amount of work they did before.
  • Baby Boomers also destroyed music for generations to come, shown by the endless stream of geeks with guitars inspired by The Beatles.
  • Drug-taking in the Boomer culture was seen as an expression of freedom. This now causes thousands of people each year to succumb to cannabis-induced shizophrenia. Britain's inner-city poor are imprisoned on estates ruled by crack lords.
  • Another Baby Boomer, Bob Geldof, uses the misery in Africa for boosting his own fame and wealth stating he wants to raise awareness about Africa. As if everyone weren't aware that Mugabe is a murderous villain.
  • The Boomers' wish to appear cool and empathetic made them hate the idea of integration. They rather wanted immigrants to maintain their identities, which has caused serious segregrational problems in Britain.
  • The author blames the Baby Boomer generation for having to live in a society that has no direction. Young people of his generation are scarred by divorce, drug-use, and empathetic parenting, when they needed structure and discipline. On the other hadn his generation is hated by the Baby Boomers for their apathy, materialism and licentiousness which is only a product of the abysm the Baby Boomers created. And he looking forward for the Baby Boomers to retire or better still expire.
  • Although I can see some of his points on the whole I cannot agree with the young author. It is a much too easy way in my eyes to just blame others. Because we have choices in our lives. I would never do anything, like taking drugs or smoking, just because everyone else around me did it.

    I, too, deplore the tendency presemtation seems to count more than content and substance. But I don't think this is restricted to Baby Boomers. It's more human nature. It is for us to fight against this and not let the others get away with it.

    And I don't agree that music has been destroyed for generations by The Beatles and followers. It doesn't mean that good music is not good any more. If you prefer Bach to John Lennon - fine! It's your choice! And I must say that I like The Beatles a lot better than today's Heavy Metal or Rap Music.
    Women leaving their kitchens and starting to work somewhere else is a difficult topic. But I know quite a few examples where both partners work at reduced hours or alternately and manage jobs, kids and family quite well. It is a decision everyone has to make for him- or herself. And I think it was caused by the girls having suddenly access to better education than before the war rather than some feminist Baby Boomers.

    It is too easy in my eyes to just see yourself as a victim of a preceding generation. Do something about it. It may be that some of the young generation lacked guidance and discipline and their parents were not the best of examples. But no one prevents you from taking someone else as an example of how you want to be. Just think of that whole generation of children in Europe who lost parents and family during the last war. Many of them only had very little education and guidance and still many of them became fine people.
    And I even know some Baby Boomers who are great people as well.

    Posted by Mausi at 06:54 PM | TrackBack

    September 13, 2006

    One man's hero .......

    During my visit to Dublin I have had to confront a number of images, not least the concept of "terror" versus "freedom struggle". It is difficult not to be confronted by this if you have any Irish connection, and like anything in Ireland, there are more sides to the truth than the usual two or three. I will, on this occassion, focus on three - the Republican, the Loyalist and the Myth.

    What brought this musing on? A number of things really, not least the fact that I have had to deal with my own feelings about certain issues of loyalty, fealty and nationalism recently in a number of different spheres of my life. In Ireland, everywhere you go you are confronted by the myth enhanced facts - and there certainly are facts beneath the imagery that is presented of the "struggle" for freedom from the "Oppression of the English". There certainly was a famine in the nineteenth century and it was a human tragedy of epic proportions. There were evil landlords, but there were good ones too. There were those on both sides who exploited the poor and there certainly were the idealists on both sides who justified every attrocity carried out in the name of their "cause" - either "unionist" or "nationalist". The scars from both run very deep indeed - and strangely show in the way the towns and cities show a paucity of architectural development beyond the utilitarian and functional in housing and in commercial premises. Little wonder really since the "landed gentry" increasingly cut themselves off from the working classes who seemed incapable of adopting any sensible approach to the problems they all faced. So the rich got richer and the poor got poorer - and the middle classes plotted their way to power.

    A look at the history of this beautiful country and its quarrelsome people tells its own story. Why did the "English" - in reality the Anglo-Normans - invade in 1169? They were invited to do so by none other than the "King" of Leinster who cherished ambitions of the High Kingship. When the Normans then went on to take full control, it set the scene for the next 800 years - since the Earl of Gloucester, a member of the deClare family, was a vassil of Henry II who was quick to demand that the oaths of fealty bound the Irish throne to himself. Ever since the Irish have been divided on the question of who should rule in Ireland - the English King or Queen or an Irish ruler of one sort or another.

    This history set the scene for the present troubles as, over the centuries, any attrocity committed by one side of the "struggle" has been matched by a response from the other. These boiled to a head in 1916 with the Easter Uprising, harshly suppressed by the British forces - again, ironically Irishmen taking arms against their fellows. A very large part of the Irish population had joined the British Forces in 1914 - and served loyally and with distinction, badly led, under valued and treated as mere cannon fodder by incompetent generals, but loyal to the death. They returned home to a new war, one led by Middle Class politicians whose zeal for shedding other peoples blood in the name of their cause tore their beautiful country apart and drove many of their best young men away. My grandfather was one of those, but to listen to my host, whose grandfather was responsible for a number of murders in the name of his "cause" and who was obviously a hero in his eyes, all was made alright by the fact that his grandfather always prayed for his victims and attended confession afterward. And while he was out planting bombs and shooting "traitors" to the republican cause, his wife was working for the British in Dublin Castle and passing all their secrets to the men lying in wait to commit murder. But it was all alright - because they prayed for their victims.

    Contrast that attitude with the far larger number of young Irish men who went off to fight for their King and country - another "cause", this time the making of the zealots in Serbia and the intractible Austro-Hungarian nobility. They fought and died in their thousands for something far greater than mere nationalist ambition, or so they thought, yet, when they returned home to work the land, the factories and the wheels of commerce, their republican fellows saw them as traitors to be eliminated. Bomb fodder in the campaign for the "liberation" of the Irish nation.

    The supreme irony must be that Irish "Home Rule" had been agreed by the British Government and the Irish Home Rule advocacy in 1914 - and the "Kaiser's War" prevented it's implementation, yet the British and their Irish counterparts had an agreement that, as soon as the European War was over, Ireland would get Home Rule. But that was not good enough for the Republican Movement who set about aiding and abetting the German war effort in return for guns and bombs. One does have to wonder how many men could have been saved had the IRA's spies not passed on the plans for every major offensive the allies mounted in Flanders and France. I fdound myself wondering how those who did this reconciled their consciences to the slaughter of their fellow countrymen at the Somme, at Ypres and on Paschendal. My Grandfather ran away to join up at fifteen together with his best friend. They were together on the first day of the Somme, and on the second as they lay wounded in the bomb and shell pitted landscape of no-man's land on the second and the third. How ironic that they survived because of the maggots in their wounds when they were found - only to be shot at in a bus queue by one of their own countrymen after being discharged in 1919.

    My Grandfather left Ireland, turning his back on his country, his home and his countrymen in bitterness and anger - and never returned. But it was alright for the gunman because, no doubt, he prayed for those he would kill and injure in that bus queue before he opened fire. No wonder that men like my Grandfather never could bring themselves to say the name of any of the leadership of the Irish Free State without a curse, and no wonder there is so much bitterness directed towards the Catholic community in the North.

    Will this hurt ever be healed? I doubt it, for, as in Israel and the Middle East, the blood of centuries lies spilled for the vanity of evil men and women whose ambition blinded them to the value of the lives of others - even those who disagreed with them. There can be few more evil things than the abuse of the faith of any man to justify a political "cause". No political cause is worth dying for and perhaps it is also time for there to be a reality check for those who promote the idea that, because the ruling authority is not the local crook, it is alright to resort to bombing and shooting unarmed civilians. The tragedy of Ireland is that it combines sites of great holiness and beauty with unspeakable evil dressed up as necessity for a "cause" of "liberation".

    It was once said to me that every place of great holiness always attracts people and things of great evil, because evil will always seek to drive out the holiness. Listening to my host, I felt that very keenly. His heroes are my villians, and my heroes his oppressors. I wonder if we will ever find a middle ground on that? Somehow I doubt it very much indeed.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:39 PM | TrackBack

    September 12, 2006

    Do not trust your eyes ...

    One of the first things you learn as a forensic scientist is never to trust your eyes too much. Why? Because they can be fooled and misled easily. It's always much better to take measurements to confirm your visual observations. You don't believe me? See for yourself.

    Are those lines straight and parallel or not?

    What I find fascinating about this picture is that the brain has no difficulties to identify the lines as parallels as long as the pattern is regular as on top and bottom. But when it gets sort of irregular in the middle, the it is fooled.

    Circles or spirals?

    And now have a good look at the last one:

    Do you see them moving?

    I assure you after experiences like these you begin to see some eyewitnesses' statements in quite a different light. Although made in good faith they need not necessarily be true. As the circles are not revolving of course although you see them do it.

    Posted by Mausi at 09:02 PM | TrackBack

    September 11, 2006


    A magazine called "simplify.de" has published an article recently that almost every second working person in German feels rushed in his or her job. They are under the impression that they have to do more and more work in less and less time.

    According to the magazine this is because generally people have a bad time management and find themselves in a permanent struggle against the clock. The only way out of this were not to pay attention to the clock and just get on with your work. Another clever idea is described in the article to find out about your own sense of time. Close your eyes and open them again after what you think are three minutes. If you opened your eyes after less than 2.5 minutes you tend to overestimate the amount of time that is available to you. If you open them again after more than 3 minutes there is a danger you see yourself as a victim of time and don't make the most of your possibilities.

    Hmmm. I've tried this and my sense of time is pretty accurate. Still, for most of the week I too feel myself rushed in my tasks. I wonder if this is a sign of the times we live in or just of this period of my live. I often have a feeling that I have to work on too many different things at the same time and are forever juggling priorities to keep everything going. I try to concentrate on getting my work done and often forget about the clock. But when I get one thing finished and see what is left for the day that needs to be done - the clock strikes back. Besides it is quite true that over the last years we have to do more and more work with fewer people.

    Being incorrigibly optimistic by nature I never cease to hope that this phase in my life will pass and I will one day be able to work on a clean desk and get rid of all the piles that clutter it at the moment. After all it is preferably to having to work on an assembly line, isn't it? Or having to do some kind of work that you don't enjoy at all. I still like mine - sometimes...

    Posted by Mausi at 08:49 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    September 10, 2006


    Last week Mausi was able to watch a partial lunar eclipse. She rushed downstairs to fetch her camera and tried to shoot this event although her zoom lens is not powerful enough to get a really good picture. When she had a closer look at the pictures on her computer and was able to enlarge the tiny bright dots on the screen she had a bit of a surprise:

    Partial eclipse of the moon - the shadow of the Earth is just visible on the top

    There was an interestingly green round object quite close to the moon! Unknown planet? UFO? Alien space station? No, nothing like that. Just a reflection within the camera lens. Sigh! Bit of a catastrophe if you are a professional photograher, of course, but Mausi still thinks the picture looks rather nice. By the way, the little bright dot at seven o'clock is an aeroplane.

    What Mausi likes to do with pictures likes these is giving The Gimp a go and see what happens...

    060910_moon-lens.jpg   060910_moon-kubism.jpg
    --- when adding a few more reflections for good measure or having a go at cubism!

    Posted by Mausi at 10:12 AM | TrackBack

    September 09, 2006


    With Mausi (not exactly) looking forward to an extremely busy day today and the Monk being away on a (hopefully) pleasurable trip to Ireland this is going to be only a short post. Two memorable things happened yesterday. The first is that Tony Blair has promised to resign within the next 12 months. Congratulations Monk! He must have found this blog and taken your hints at last.

    Yesterday was also the 40 anniversary of the first Star Trek episode. Gosh, is it really that long ago? I practically grew up with them in my teens. My parents were always very wary about what we kids were allowed to watch on TV, especially where American films were involved. But Star Trek or 'Raumschiff Enterprise' as it ws called in German seemed harmless enough. I enjoyed these films although I am not exactly a sci-fi fan. But as the Monk wrote some days ago there was enough in this series apart from the science to make it interesting to watch. My favourite character was Mr Spock It took me months of practice but at last I could draw up one of my eyebrows just the way he could. Nice trick, that comes in handy now and then.

    It was only when I came across the film 'Galaxy Quest' a couple of years ago that I started to see the extremely funny side of Star Trek. It made me suddenly realise the common pattern that's behind all episodes of the first series and which runs much along the same lines the Monk has pointed out in his post:

    Either by enemy attack or some accident the Enterprise is damaged and needs some rare raw material which is conveniently found on a nearby alien planet.
    The moment the search party looking for this material is beamed onto the planet's surface something happens to the Enterprise's beaming apparatus.
    While the Chief Engineer is busy repariring the damage the party on the planet has an encounter with some hostile aliens and at the very last moment (n-1) persons of the party are able to make it back on board again. One, very often valiant Captain Kirk, is left behind and has to fight for himself. He is always rescued of course after half an hour because that's the end of the episode.
    Interestingly when members of the Enterprise crew visit other planets they never need a space suit nor do they have difficulties with for example gravity. Space travel was still in the very beginning at that time.

    In Galaxy Quest the never ending trouble with the beaming device is hilariously illustrated when a monster pig is beamed aboard the space ship as a test of the new digital beaming apparatus. Somethings goes wrong, as could only be expected, and the monster pig arrives inside out and explodes 10 seconds later. Bits of of pig are showered over everyone nearby. Hrrrmmmppfffffff!

    Another series I enjoyed very much is the Flash Gordon version of the 1930's. Obviously electricity was a big issue then. Laboratories of mad scientists are filled with devices that produce arcs in all shapes. The spaceship looks rather like a WW I U-boat from the outside and like a tram car from inside. People keep standing during take-offs and landings, no strapping down with fancy seat belts! Space travel was still a long way off at that time!

    Posted by Mausi at 04:09 PM | TrackBack

    September 08, 2006


    I've just listened to an interview with a magician who also performs hypnosis on stage. He told about his work and the listeners on the radio were encouraged to call the broadcasting station and ask questions. One question was if it were possible to perform hypnosis via TV. Oh yes, said the magician, it had been done a few years ago during a famous TV show in Germany called "Wetten dass?" (Bet you!) A hypnotist told the TV viewers to lock their hands. Which they did. And then thousands of hypnotists had to be send out to the people because a lot of them panicked - not being able to unlock their hands again. Hypnosis via TV obviously isn't a good idea.

    At the end of the interview he described an interesting experiment: stand up and let your right foot do clockwise circles in the air. Then write the number 6 into the air with your right hand - and instantaneously your right foot will change direction, now doing its circles counter clockwise! Have a try yourself but take care not to lose your balance.

    Mausi, the Cat, is a most successful hypnotist and conjurer herself. Every day she comes into the kitchen and hypnotises her empty feeding bowls. And bang - food suddenly appears as if by magic. Never fails. Wish, she would let me know her tricks, would save a lot of time not having to do the cooking....

    Mausi, the Cat - a professional hypnotist at work

    Posted by Mausi at 08:19 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    September 07, 2006

    The Australian approach ......

    Interestingly in my post entitled Three cheers for Australia, attracted a couple of commenters - one accusing me of plagiarism and citing an article in Snopes.com and a second, which for some reason I seem to be unable to "approve" which provided a second link and identified this post on the same site as a source for verification of my first. I am going to do a cut and paste job on the comment I cannot approve to give the sender the credit for the link he sent me.

    Name: Vapor Email Address: texan95@comcast.net URL: Comments:


    It wasn't plagiarized from any article about the U.S. It was pasted
    together from actual quotes.

    It is encouraging that more and more moderate voices from within the Islamic community around the world are slowly beginning to denounce the men and women of violence who have highjacked their religion in the pursuit of power. It is encouraging, but there is still a long way to go as the events of this week have proved with tourists being gunned down in Jordan one of the more "moderate" Islamic nations. Equally, the howling mob rejoicing at the roadside bombing that killed yet more servicemen for Mr Blair and his fellow anti-military cronies in Iraq, proves that reason and a desire for peace and normality is not uppermost in the minds of the average denizen of that benighted region.

    We can but wait and see who will ultimately win this battle for the heart and soul of Islam. I suspect that it will be a long a very protracted struggle with many more innocent lives lost in the process.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:55 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    September 06, 2006

    The ultimate guide to Star Trek ....

    Being a Sci-fi and Sci-fantasy fan I do, from time to time, have a laugh at some of the plot lines in some of my favourites. Now, I have to admit, that I am a bit of a "Trekkie" - at least of the "Next Generation" series. The first group was just too transparent and "sixties" for my taste. Still, it made an impact and it also set a genre. Recently I read that a Sci-fi Conference had heard a series of speakers "lamenting that since Star Trek, there was no 'real' science fiction any longer." Well, I would disagree with them, particularly as I feel that much of what they seem to regard as "Sci-fi" is so far fetched as to be not really credible.

    Now perhpas that is the distinction. Star Trek, Babylon 5, Star Wars, the hallmark was that they simply extrapolated existing technology to create a believable "science" in the future. That was Asimov's great strength, also Heinlein and Arthur C Clark. In the case of Clark and Asimov it was also backed by the fact that their "day job" was actually science. It is my belief that this is why Star Trek, Babylon 5 and Star Wars have attracted such huge followings, they were believable (well OK, at least they had some foundation in credible scientific ideas) and they dealt with emotions and problems we see around us all the time. Even the much laughed at Battlestar Galactica series - the original not the almost ludicrous Season 2 or the more recent one which has turned Adama into a power crazed drunk! - dealt with issues most of us have had to face or deal with at some stage in our lives.

    What is sometimes a bit of a problem is the dramatic effect rules followed by TV and film makers everywhere. Thus, every officianado of the Sci-fi multiverse needs the guide I have placed in the extended post ......

    Star Trek: TOS Survival Guide


    So you’ve graduated from Star Fleet Academy, top of your class, and finally have your own ship. She may just be a refuse barge delivering disused prophylactic kits into the searing hot inner corona of the nearest star but she’s a ship nonetheless. But in case of emergency, and there should be about one major one every week, there’s a view rules of thumb, or heuristics, that may come in handy.

    1) If the Captain or any crew member is acting out of character they aren’t upset they are actually an alien in disguise. Alien changelings prefer to assume the role of captain so that they’re presence can be more rapidly detected.

    2) Any primitive society that has any sort of background radiation or irregular energy readings or has a stalled development or worships a physical idol or possesses a fanatic devotion to religion is being secretly ruled by a computer. This computer is usually underground and will most likely be disable-able by “outsmarting” it by presenting it with a logical paradox.

    3) If an alien creature is attacking and killing crewman at random it is most likely made out of pure energy and either “feeds on fear or negative emotions” or is misunderstood somehow and would promptly stop eating people if only you could communicate with it. As with most alien’s that are incapable of verbal communication select your favorite Vulcan to mind-meld with it. If there are no Vulcans aboard your vessel you’re pretty much screwed.

    4) When your chief engineer warns you that something is impossible or incredibly hazardous you can safely ignore them. Apparently engineers in the future are huge pussycats that think the ship is going to fly apart or blow up at the drop of a hat. Also if your engineer says something will take a certain amount of time and it is cutting it close don’t worry it will be finished just in time for you to beam away or fire phasers in a pinch. Likewise with medical science; if you contract a deadly disease you will find a cure shortly before dying.

    5) A sure-fire tactic to win a space battle is to play dead and await your enemy’s gloating demand for surrender and then hose them; apparently enemy races are really just chatterboxes at heart. On the ground always bring security teams comprised of people no one cares about because the enemy will always kill them first. Despite having a non-lethal ranged weapon most fighting will still be hand to hand. Not to worry apparently hitting someone gently on the shoulder knocks them the fuck out in the future, nano-enhanced muscles anyone?

    5b) If this is any newer Star Trek than The Original Series than your solution to almost everything is either a tachyon pulse or recalibrating the phase array or remodulating the shields. Have your resident Android do the heavy lifting number wise and come up with improbable technical solutions to problems. If your ship does not have an android you are probably one of those “other” ships that are sometimes found derelict, crew barely alive with the dying Captain’s last words warning of impending danger right before the ship blows up.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:08 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    September 05, 2006

    Let the rain begin .....

    I cannot resist posting this item sent by an atheist friend. Like me, he shares a deep cynicism when it comes to the current flood of regulations and legislation governing every aspect of our thinking, living and working. Read the following and when you get to the punchline, you might join me in my new religion, the Church of Latter Day Cynics.

    In the year 2006, the Lord came unto Noah, who was now living in England and said, "Once again, the earth has become wicked and over-populated, and I see the end of all flesh before me. Build another Ark and save 2 of every living thing along with a few good humans." He gave Noah the CAD drawings, saying, "You have 6 months to build the Ark before I will start the unending rain for 40 days and 40 nights."

    Six months later, the Lord looked down and saw Noah weeping in his yard - but no Ark. "Noah!" He roared, "I'm about to start the rain! Where is the Ark?"
    "Forgive me, Lord," begged Noah, "but things have changed. I needed Building Regulations Approval. I've been arguing with the Fire Brigade about the need for a sprinkler system. My neighbours claim that I should have obtained planning permission for building the Ark in my garden because it is development of the site even though in my view it is a temporary structure. We had to go to appeal to the Secretary of State for a decision. Then the Department of Transport demanded a bond be posted for the future costs of moving power lines and other overhead obstructions, to clear the passage for the Ark's move to the sea. I told them that the sea would be coming to us, but they would hear nothing of it. Getting the wood was another problem. All the decent trees have Tree Preservation Orders on them and we live in a Site of Special Scientific Interest set up in order to protect the spotted owl. I tried to convince the environmentalists that I needed the wood to save the owls - but no go! When I started gathering the animals, the RSPCA sued me. They insisted that I was confining wild animals against their will. They argued the accommodation was too restrictive, and it was cruel and inhumane to put so many animals in a confined space. Then the County Council, the Environment Agency ruled that I couldn't build the Ark until they'd conducted a Flood Risk Assessment on your proposed flood. I'm still trying to resolve a complaint with the Equal Opportunities Commission on how many BMEs I'm supposed to hire for my building team. The trades unions say I can't use my sons. They insist I have to hire Only CSCS accredited workers with Ark-building experience. To make matters worse, Customs and Excise seized all my assets, claiming I'm trying to leave the country illegally with endangered species. So, forgive me, Lord, but it would take at least 10 years for me to finish this Ark."

    Suddenly the skies cleared, the sun began to shine, and a rainbow stretched across the sky.

    Noah looked up in wonder and asked, "You mean you're not going to destroy the world?"
    "No," said the Lord. "The government beat me to it."

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:36 AM | TrackBack

    September 04, 2006

    Festival Time

    Yesterday was the day of the biennial Village Festival. It's not a big event - after all the village is very small but everyone in the village contributes something. People bake cakes and make salads and organise amusements for the kids. Then there's always a big barbecue and lots to drink, of course.

    Centre of the village where the festival takes place

    The festival is organised by the Table Tennis Sports Club and the Voluntary Fire Fighters who open their station to the public on this day and allow the salad bar to be set up in their garage and a cafe in their assembly room.

    060904_festival02.JPG   060904_festival03.JPG
    Fire station and stage

    A stage is erected next to the fire station and a live band is playing during the day. Its an old tradition for Fire Fighters from neighbouring villages visit the festival during the morning for a 'Frühschoppen' which means to have a beer or even several before noon in good company.

    The weather didn't look promising at all at this morning - leaden grey sky and a slight drizzle but almost 20 C. But the drizzle soon stopped and we had more visitors than we had hoped for. Mausi's job this year was selling vouchers for the barbecue from noon till 3 p.m. She had a very busy time, helping people to decide what to eat, then rapidly doing sums in her head and answering all sorts of questions in between. Now she knows why no one else volunteered for this particular shift! Still, all in all it had been good fun and Mausi really enjoyed herself.

    There's nothing like working together all day in good company and then share a pint in the evening when everything is over. Prost!

    Posted by Mausi at 08:18 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    September 03, 2006

    A Journey into the Past

    Two years ago my parents went on a cruise on the Baltic Sea. By chance I discovered the photographs of their trip a few days ago. It took them along the coasts of Germany, Poland, Russia, Finnland and Sweden. Apart from being able to visit quite a few well known and famous towns it also provided my mother with the opportunity to see again the farm she grew up on as a child. Even after almost 60 years it was exactly as she had remembered it. The farm is situated in an area that now belongs to Poland.

    One of the most stunning cities my parents visited was doubtless St Petersburg. As the Monk wrote two days ago it was the armoured cruiser 'Aurora' which started the October Revolution in 1917 by firing at St Petersburg's Winter Palace. Here you see what she was aiming at.

    The Winter Palace, now part of the Hermitage Museum complex

    A great number of St Petersburg's buildings has been lovingly restored in recent years. The Winter Palace is now one of five buildings that form the well know Hermitage Museum.

    The foundations for St Petersburg were laid in 1703. Tsar Peter the Great wanted to build a new capital at the mouth of the river Newa. Not a brilliant idea it seems as the area consisted mainly of swamps and was flooded regularly. Many died during while the town was built. In 1712 Peter the Great declared St Petersburg the new capital of the Russian Empire which she stayed until 1918 except for a brief period from 1728 to 1732 when the Court moved temporarily back to Moscow.

    Peter the Great wanted a 'window into the west' and tried to make St Petersburg a centre for European Science and Technology right from the start. However, when he died in 1725 the enthusiasm of the Russian Emperors for the 'window' subsided briefly and the Court moved to Moscow. But Tsarina Anna returned to St Petersburg and made substantial modifications regarding the layout of the city.

    Most of the magnificent buildings were erected during the reign (1741-62) of Tsarina Elisabeth. She invited many artists and architects from Western Europe to work in St Petersburg. The Catharine Palace was extended to honour her mother Catharine I - a tribute indeed.

    The Catharine Palace originating from 1717, planned by the German architect Johann-Friedrich Braunstein.

    During the reign (1762-1792) of Catherine the Great scientists were encouraged to settle down in St Petersburg and schools were founded, among them the first public school for girls. The abolishment of serfdom in 1861 under Tsar Alexander II encouraged a great number of people to move to this town and the number of inhabitants increased considerably.

    On the other hand all important revolts and revolutions of the Russian history until 1918 also took place in St Petersburg. As mentioned before the October revolution started with the Aurora firing at the Winter Palace. Well, looking at all the splendour and magnificence found in St Petersburg which takes me straight back to all of Dostoevski's novels I've read in my youth and which was only available to very few people while the rest of the Russian people had to live under very different circumstances I do not find it astonishing that revolutions took place here. I'd say they were bound to happen sooner or later. I had the same feeling when I saw some of the famous castles at the Loire in France for the first time.

    It's a good thing those times are over and a lot more of us can now enjoy places like St Petersburg.

    Posted by Mausi at 10:10 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    September 02, 2006

    Old Customs

    Mausi lives in a small village at the foothills of the Taunus Mountains. All in all there are about 280 inhabitants, no shops, no pubs but a public phone box and a letter box. And a bus stops there several times a day as well. So the village is not entirely cut off from the rest of the world.

    Every two years at the first weekend in September a big event takes place: the Village Festival. Traditionally the festival starts with the villagers baking their own bread as in old times.

    The old oven used for bread baking

    The very old oven of the village is used for this purpose. It is out of service for the rest of the year. It is made of stone with a brick layer inside as can be seen on the photograph below.

    A look inside the oven - warm and cosy!

    It takes of course ages, well several hours at least, to heat it up to the proper temperature. And you need a bit of experience to operate it properly and not get the bread burnt. But all went well and Mausi was lucky enough to secure herself a fresh loaf - still warm and crispy. The best bread she has ever tasted!

    Posted by Mausi at 08:23 PM | TrackBack

    September 01, 2006

    Reminder of the past

    Some ships survive because they are unique, some because they are loved and some because they have stood at the cross roads of history. Into this last category must surely fall the Russian "Protected Cruiser" Aurora. Laid down in 1897 and commissioned in 1900 she has a fascinating history and is the sole survivor of her type as far as I can ascertain. Unusually she is also the holder of two "Decorations" for her service to the State. The first was awarded in 1924 and is the Order of the Red Banner of the USSR Central Committee, the second, awarded in 1927 was the Order of the Red Banner. The reason? This is the ship which triggered the "October Revolution" of 1917 when she fired on the Winter Palace, then the seat of the Provisional Government, in support of Lenin's Bolshevik movement. The 1924 decoration was replaced in 1968 by the Order of the October Revolution.

    The Museum Ship RUS Aurora moored in the Neva River at St Petersburg opposite the Russian Naval Academy.

    When launched the ship carried fourteen six inch guns and twenty four three inch guns, with armoured protection over her engine spaces and magazines. Her engines were originally able to propell her through the water at a top speed of 24 knots and she had a cruising range of just over 1,400 miles at 20 knots. As can be seen in the photograph, taken a few years ago by Mausi's father, her hull has a pronounced "tumblehome" - a feature of the old "wooden wall" sailing ships and adopted in European naval designs for warships as it provided additional strength to the hull, allowed better armour protection by presenting a sloped surface and reduced "top weight" thus improving stability. In this configuration she was part of the Baltic Fleet sent to relieve Port Arthur in the Russo-Japanese War and took part in the infamous Dogger Bank Incident in which the Russian Fleet fired on the Hull Trawler fleet after mistaking them for Japanese Battleships! She reached the Far East and took part in the Battle of Tsushima and was one of three cruisers that escaped destruction and capture, making her way to Manila where she was interned.

    In 1906, repaired and returned to the Baltic she became a Training Ship, in which capacity she served until 1914 when she returned to Fleet patrol duty. In 1916 she was re-armed with most of the three inch guns removed and the remainder replaced by high angle anti-aircraft weapons. She then served until the fleet mutiny of 1917 (the Battleship Potemkin incident) and finally, under an "elected" Captain, fired the first shots in the Bolshevik Revolution.

    After the Revolution she became once more a training ship and served in that capacity until the outbreak of hostilities in 1940. Moved from the Neva to the Port of St Petersburg, she was used as a floating artillery defence and anti-aircraft battery until finally sunk in 1943. She was raised in 1944 and fully restored in 1945 - 48, when she returned again to duty as a Training Ship, although now on a permanent mooring in the Neva River. In 1956 she became a Museum Ship and is still maintained and manned by the cadets from the Naval College across the river from her mooring. During the 1980's the ship's hull was found to be in a dangerous state and her plating badly corroded. She was substantially rebuilt during 1984 - 87 to original specification and the hull is now virtually completely renewed. New funnels and upperworks were also fitted during this reconstruction so the ship is now virtually new. Her original machinery is still installed and can be viewed by visitors for a fee.

    In 1992 the Soviet flags were replaced on the ship with the Russian Naval banner of St Andrew, thus completing the cycle and restoring to her the colours she lost when the Red Banner was hoisted in October 1917.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:15 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack