Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Jahr der Mathematik

The Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (Federal Ministry for Education and Research) has declared 2008 the Jahr der Mathematik (Year of Mathematics). So schools and universities all around Germany are having activities to raise public awareness of mathematics as a fascinating science, as a constant companion at work and in daily life, and as the basis of all sciences and technological developments. The University of Köln is no exception, and last night we had the kick-off event - a public lecture by Prof. Dr. Martin Grötschel from Berlin, addressing how complicated mathematics plays a role in our daily lives. Chris got to flex his German language muscles, yet thankfully (for both of us) the presentation involved lots of pictures and movies. Speaking of movies, there is an official trailer for the Jahr der Mathematik, which doesn't require knowing German or mathematics to enjoy.


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Ready or Not, Here Comes Karneval

We are just about to enter the Crazy Days of the "Fifth Season" here in Köln, so here is a quick primer about the festivities, as we understand it.

Karneval officially started on November 11 at 11:11 a.m., with a day of parties. It supposedly then went under the radar until the Crazy Days begin, which is this coming Thursday. Köln might not quite rival Rio's carnival, but it certainly is the biggest in Germany and one of the largest in Europe. The Crazy Days start on Thursday with Weiberfastnacht; at 11:11 a.m. women get to cut off the tie of any man, giving him a kiss for compensation. Other reports tell us that basically women can have their way with any man of their choosing.

Friday through Sunday there are parades during the day, followed by parties at night. Sunday morning is a big parade of school children, getting ready for the gigantic parade on Monday. The Rosenmontag parade is the climax of the Karnival celebrations with more than 1.4 million people. Lots of candy and treats are thrown out to the crowds, and we've heard that adults get a tad aggressive to get the loot. There are neighborhood parades on Tuesday and then on Ash Wednesday, everything is over, as the mostly catholic city enters Lent, and we all pray for rain to cleanse the city.

I don't believe I've mentioned the key point.... everybody wears a costume. Now, anyone who knows Chris, knows his unenthusiasm for costume parties, and I think my persuasion and charm ended a few years ago with a Halloween party in which I made him dress as Pigs in Space. Last night I braved one Karneval shop in search for a costume. I didn't make it to the outskirts of the city, where next to Ikea, there is another warehouse the size of Ikea which sells only Karneval related gear. With mobs of people, I scanned the racks of cheaply made costumes, settling on a somewhat subtle ladybug costume. Of all the costume articles I have in the states, not one of them made it with us to Germany, who would have known? (I would like to comment that I did show much restraint and did not buy a pig costume for Chris). In the last week, it has not been odd at all to see an old man on the tram dressed up in full traditional gear, or to have the table in the bar next to you occupied by a group of clowns (and I mean that literally). Part of the early costume wearing is so that people can get in the swing of things and start practicing all the traditional campy folk songs, which everyone sings. We'll have to find some to share with you....

I asked my collegues for some "words of wisdom" about Karneval. I was told that if you were using any "wisdom" during Karneval, then you didn't celebrate it properly. With that, let the festivities begin.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Weekend in Amsterdam

We finally managed to get ourselves to Amsterdam last weekend. Friday morning we boarded a train at 11, and by 1:30 were weaving our way through swarms of bikes - not a bad way to travel at all. Unfortunately the weather report was correct, and it rained most of Friday and Saturday, with some fierce wind on Sunday, but all that really meant is that we took most of our pictures in the cozy confines of bars instead of outside along the pretty canals. We had spent almost a week in Amsterdam in 2005, and kept ourselves pretty busy just revisiting some of the highlights of that trip. We managed to get a delicious meal at the squat Overtoom 301 on Friday (something we hadn't been able to get into in 2005); visited de Appel gallery (unfortunately the current exhibit couldn't rival "On Patrol" with Jill Magid, Harun Farocki, etc) and checked out the opening of "Rehab" at the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam. Most of de Appel was dedicated this time to work by American painter Richard Hawkins, but there was also a surprisingly absorbing video interview with "Adriano," an infamous Italian bank robber.
I think it was during our 2005 trip to Amsterdam that we really embraced Belgian beer and discovered the ever so handy European Beer Guide, so it was with great pleasure that we could enjoy it all again. At 't Arnedsnest (Eagle's Nest) we enjoyed a menu of exclusively Dutch beers, certainly not the norm. Imagine our surprise when we discovered not one, nor two but three different beers that actually contained heavy amounts of hops (one of our favorites - SNAB - actually contains Cascade hops from Washington/Oregon)!!!! It was like we were in Seattle drinking delicious IPA.
Fast forward to the next night, and we find that Trappist Westvleteren is actually available - not only at Cafe Golem, but also in the specialty beer store The Cracked Kettle across the alley (where they do take Visa, but they don't take Maestro). This is sort of a big deal. The last time we ran into this beer was in Leuven, where we passed on the the 12 Euro price tag on a .33 liter bottle. Since then we learned of the impossibility of obtaining such a delicious treat. Like all trappist beers, Westvlerten is brewed by monks. However, this particular monastery makes limited amounts and has no distribution, so tasting it legitimately means booking an advance appointment with the monastary, giving them your license plate number to get in, and buying limited quantities which you agree not to resell. But people do this, as the Westvlerten 12 bier is ranked by many as the best beer on Earth. Long story short, we brought back two different kinds of Westvleteren (the 8 and 12). Expect one very long post discussing our impressions of such a highly regarded and seemingly impossible beer to find.
Sunday evening we stopped at a cheese shop and bought delicious sandwiches for the train, and were back in Köln by 10 or so, where the locals were already showing their Karneval colors.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Recently Played: Serge Gainsbourg et Brigitte Bardot - “Bonnie and Clyde”

I used to hate this song.

Serge Gainsbourg et Brigitte Bardot – Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Now I love it. And not just because the mp3 I have utilizes both the English “and” and the French “et,” tho I challenge you to argue that that isn't reason enough.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


Friday began with Kelly booking us a trip to Amsterdam for next weekend. Then she attended a last batch of seminars at the conference in Bonn, which were also attended by the Max Planck Institut's favorite inquisitive math hobbyist. In the evening we stepped out for a rendezvous with some other English speakers, who Kelly'd found on the expat forum Toytown. Despite the fact that we didn't previously know anybody we were out with, it was quite a good time. Viele Leute aus Großbritannien, and one other American. And we didn't spend the whole evening talking about the presidential primaries. Then, on the way home, my foot had a nasty run-in with a particularly aggressive, root-rippled patch of pavement. The whole thing transpired with stunning speed (pun intended). Kelly was midway into a detailed description of the chessmen cookies she'd eaten earlier in Bonn. Suddenly my left brow slammed into the ground. Once we'd established that, no, that was mud, not blood, Kelly finished her cookie description. A few minutes later we were back home thrilling to the first episode of the new season of The Wire. It was so good that we watched it again today. And I'm limping a little, but no big thing. Nothing to rival the knot Kelly's Dad took home as a Köln souvenir.

Chantal Akerman's D'est

I've been struggling for an opportunity to see Chantal Akerman's elegiac urban landscape film D'est for, what, like four years? Monday evening I miraculously laid hands on it. Tuesday morning I cupboarded all distractions, adjusted lighting, fluffed pillows, poured a medium-sized glass of water, and in general made all the necessary preparations for an ideal viewing, and then promptly fell asleep.

Wednesday I re-attempted viewing, with more successful results. It's great, although this YouTube clip should give some impression of how, when you're out of coffee, such a film might make one drowsy, no matter how hotly anticipated.

Friday, January 11, 2008


And the voice-dub campaign contines... Friday we went to a preview screening of Anton Corbijn's Ian Curtis biopic, Control. I like watching movies at museums, cause it makes me feel all smart. What doesn't make me feel smart is sitting through English-language films dubbed in German. Despite advertising to the contrary, that's just what this was. I was pretty familiar with the Joy Division story, and the music sequences were mercifully not dubbed, so this wasn't altogether a complete catastrophe.

My classmate Juan hasn't found dubbing to be quite the disaster that I have, probably because he's caught on to the language more quickly than I. Last week he caught the remake of The Heartbreak Kid with German dubbing, something The Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum probably wouldn't object to.

Recently Played: Carl Craig remixes

That Carl Craig dude has been turning out a grip of hot remixes lately, no? Below are the usual suspects, songs you can find on a dozen other blogs, but I figured I'd post these in an effort to better misrepresent myself as someone who keeps his freezer stocked with glowsticks. Y'know, for the weekend...

Junior Boys – Like A Child (Carl Craig Remix) (2007)

Its no secret that Kelly and I love the Junior Boys. I think their last album contains something like seven of Kelly's top ten most-played tracks, according to her iTunes stats. “Like A Child” is one of several highlights of that album, and needn't be tampered with. And yet, is Jeremy Greenspan's voice not tailor-made for a house anthem? Carl Craig doesn't give us that house anthem, but starting by substituting fingersnaps for the original's handclaps, he does give us something hushed, eerie, yet propulsive. It's a slow builder, a “pot boiler” I believe they call 'em, and it's one of my favorite tracks of 2007.

Rhythm & Sound – Poor People Must Work (Carl Craig Remix w/ Bobbo Shanti) (2006)

Phillip Sherburne's already been all up in your grill about this poverty and starvation dance floor filler, I expect, so I'll just let you listen. Ah, except that I'll add that Rhythm & Sound's See Mi Yah Remixes is well worth your attention. And that I should really devote an entire post to this now-defunct duo in the near future.

Tony Allen – Kilode (Carl Craig Remix) (2007)

Another shoe-in for my faves of 2007, Honest Jon's Records put out a 12” this year featuring not one but two jaw-dropping Carl Craig interpretations of Tony Allen's afrobeat update “Kilode.” His “Straight Mix” (not this one) is on, believe it or not, a post-punk vibe sure should knock socks off the ESG fan in your life. But since we're looking to the club today, I give you the A-side, in which Craig crafts a Detroit approximation of afrobeat rhythm, percussively layered throughout with staccato synth blasts. At about the 4:00 mark, things get outrageously good. The stage is cleared, and out saunters a low keyboard melody so deliciously fat, you'll swear you can hear Eddie Murphy stuffing a banana into a tailpipe (if you catch my meaning) (and I think you do). To say that this record has been playing on my headphones nonstop, well, that's what they call the art of gross understatement. Honest Jon's says they're mere hours from selling mp3s on their website, so be sure to get the rest of this record, as well as the Mark Ernestus and (OMG) Moritz von Oswald remix records.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Dicke Pitter

Not being in Köln for Christmas, we missed the ringing of the cathedral bells. There certainly is no shortage of church bells in this city (from about 8 am on we hear them at least twice an hour, if not more), however the Dom bell is a little something special. At 24 tons, it is the largest free-swinging bell in the world and is rung only on major holidays. Epiphany, as you might guess, certainly qualifies as a major feast here, and the bells actually ring twice. (Epiphany celebrates the Three Kings coming to visit the baby Jesus and the Kölner Dom boasts that they have the remains of not one but all three Kings, so go figure.) We attended our first Heilige Messe (high mass) there on Saturday night, and then got to experience the fantastic sound of der Dicke Pitter (Bell of St. Peter). The bell was also rang this Sunday morning at 9:30 am, but that is a little too early for us to be out and about. For those who like to sleep in, this Sunday evening at the Heilege Messe there are no bells, but instead a procession to the shrine of the three kings (where CBS will be filming a very special CSI in which the remains are positively identified as the beloved Three Kings).

Wrong Telephone Number

Saturday morning I woke up to find I had missed four phone calls. This was quite odd, since Chris is the only person who calls me. I listened to the cryptic voice mails, but couldn't figure out at all who was calling or why. We left later that morning for our Saturday afternoon ritual of delicious coffee at Kaffeebaum, and I managed to leave my phone on the charger. We come home to six missed calls, and the phone is ringing. The kind woman on the other end finally explained to me what was happening. Apparently the Saturday newspaper here has an advertisement for a new apartment and the person who placed the ad included the wrong phone number. More than thirty people have called me in the past two days looking for a new apartment. Vielleicht ein bischen komisch. Chances are if you try to call me now, all you will hear is me rattling "Die Nummer in der Zeitung ist falsch. Ich habe keine Wohnung."

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Silvester, Movies, etc.

Frohe Neues Jahr, or something like that. After spending Christmas in Berlin, we're back in the land of greased mullets, fake tanning, and itsy-bitsy beer glasses. The Weihnachtsmärkte were shuttered, dismantled, and all but a memory in the days after Christmas, and the town's attention switched to Silvester, the German name for the New Year celebration.

Us, we had American movies to think about. New films by Wes Anderson and David Cronenberg finally rolled into Germany this week. Sunday we caught Eastern Promises, re-titled as Tödliche Versprechen, or Deadly Promises. Immer and always, Germany likes to play up the drama in advertising for American films. Take Sleuth, for example – here its called 1 Murder For 2. But then, America did rechristen Lola Rennt, seemingly by Dr. Seuss, as Run Lola Run. Anyway, we saw the movie at the Off-Broadway on Zülpicherstraße, not far from where we live. Its a cute theater with a courtyard and a small bar and, to my surprise, seating reservations. I have mixed feelings about this - mostly negative. How am I to know whether there'll be upright, teased-out hair occupying the seat in front of the one I've committed to? Fortunately, we had no such problems. Also not a problem was the film's language – the spoken language was English, with German subtitles. As Eastern Promises concerns London's Russian mafia, we had to rely on the German subs for any Russian-language dialogue, which actually wasn't too bad. The trailers before the film, however, were all in German. Not only did we have 30 minutes of trailers, but in fact we had two trailers each for My Blueberry Nights, Darjeeling Limited, and I'm Not There. Dubbing is something we Americans haven't cozied up to, and if I was on the fence before, I'm convinced of its odiousness now. As stupid a title as My Blueberry Nights already is, it doesn't hold a candle to the utter ridiculousness of Jude Law's German voice-dub as, in the midst of a jaunty German diatribe, he sings the words “blueberry pie” in English. Or worse – far, far worse – Owen Wilson dubbed in German.

Which brings us to New Year's Eve... I scored free tickets to a preview screening of Darjeeling Limited, showing at 7pm on New Year's Eve. We were greeted at the theater with complementary champagne, whether for the holiday or the preview I couldn't say. There weren't near as many trailers this time (tho we endured a third Deutsche Jude Law cringe). However. The movie starts and we find that, despite our best researching efforts, we are watching a German-dubbed Wes Anderson film starring Owen Wilson. Myself, I was ready to up and leave, especially since the tickets had been free, but we were pretty boxed in with a capacity audience, so we resigned ourselves to sticking it out. I can't say we're all that clear on the particulars of the film's plot, but we understood a good deal of what was happening. When we didn't understand, we simply tuned out and immersed ourself in the unlocking the mystery of what could possibly convince someone that cartoon-voice overdubs lend themselves well to faithful translations. The film opens officially this weekend, and at least one theater in town advertises original English with German subs. Later this month we get My Blueberry Nights (for better or for worse, I dunno) in English. Sometime in February I'm Not There opens. Not sure how they intend to handle the language on that one, but German-dubbed Bob Dylan impersonations sound like some fun, no?

A couple tips for ex-pats and visitors in Germany: “OV” means “original language.” “OmdU” means “original language with German subtitles.” “OmeU” means “original language with English subs,” referring to non-English-language films (and something you'll not often encounter).

Oh yeah, and New Year's. Perhaps because there's no 4th of July here, Silvester is a major fireworks holiday. You can buy your fireworks in town. If you wish, you can even buy them at the grocery store. Its no problem to set them off in the middle of the street or, really, just about anywhere. Also, transportation of your combustibles is no sweat. Fireworks may be carried on the train and, as we saw at the Darjeeling screening, brought into the movie theater. And why not? This was, after all, a film by the director of Bottle Rocket...

Recently Played: Sister Sledge

I'd intended to post this song way back in October, and had written a truly incredible analysis of its strengths, the posting of which very probably would have altogether redirected the course of the current disco reevaluation. But then I lost it, and honestly I haven't the patience to reattempt it. You'll just have to take my word for it – it was breathtaking in its profundity, relevance, scope, and uninhibited brilliance.

To briefly cover the basics, the original version of this track is from Sister Sledge's massively successful 1979 album, We Are Family, which was overseen by the production team of Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers, the masterminds behind Chic, a disco hit machine if there ever was one. This particular remix, by the same pair, has the good sense to seize on the most heart-quickening moments of the original, and stretch and repeat them gloriously. The philosophy here is that if you liked a little of it, you're bound to love a lot of it. Boy are they right.

Sister Sledge – Lost In Music (1984 Bernard Edwards & Nile Rodgers Remix)

Mind those lyrics. The warning is well taken when the song is as mesmerizing as this one.

As a shout-out to Köln, here are three discretely released Chic remixes from Justus Köhncke. The mp3s are ripped from vinyl, so the quality isn't sterling, but you won't these find in stores.

Science 2101 – I'm So Lucky
Science 2102 – Now Phreeq!
Science 2102 - Everybody

If anyone knows where I can find the Science 2103 record, holla atchya boy.