May the 25th, 2003

Military Diaries Part II, or: Moving Out

    Some of my regular readers (I have regular readers? Cool!) might have wondered why it took me so long to update my home page. The reason for this is simple: I've been in Infantry Boot Camp from January to March, and when I came home during the weekends, I was too tired to work on my home page - too tired from training, from marching, and from being kept awake by hyperactive roommates several years younger than I am. And while I am now at my new unit (more on that later), I still have fairly long hours to work, so I am still very tired on the weekends, if not exactly half dead any more...

    But now I've figured out how to alter my home page from the computer rooms where I work now, and so I should be able to update this page more often

    But before talking about my boot camp experiences, I'd like to discuss the Gulf War and its aftermath (Standard Disclaimer: I am only voicing my private opinion here, and this opinion shouldn't be taken as representative of the Bundeswehr as a whole...).

    This war was inevitable, I guess; the Bush administration wanted a war against Saddam Hussein and his cronies for a long time. And the outcome of the war is also clear: Eventually, the Iraqi regime would be destroyed, and the American and British forces ("Coalition Forces"? Yeah, right...) would emerge victorious. Of that, I had no doubt, though the speed of the operation surprised me just as it did most people.

    But what happens now?

    See, I don't believe that the current US government is capable of transforming Iraq into a stable and democratic government, no matter what Bush Junior promises. Their comparisons to postwar Japan and Germany are faulty. First off, both countries had democratic forms of government before, however flawed they were, and thus there were enough natives familiar with democracy to start over. Iraq has never been democratic in the first place, and thus there will be few able politicians who genuinely believe in the spirit of democracy. Second, both nations were genuinely unified, and when the leaders surrendered, the entire country followed suit. Iraq, on the other hand, is a mess of multiple and mutually antagonistic ethnic groups (the Kurds are only the most prominent example), and once the brutal oppression through the central government fell away, they start jockeying for influence against each other to gain as many advantages for themselves as possible, without any regard for the whole of Iraq. And that's perhaps understandable, for what did Iraq ever do to create any kind of national loyalty?

    And third, the Marshall Plan happened a long time ago, and the USA do not really have the knowledge to rebuild a foreign nation from the ground up anymore. Sure, they have gotten pretty efficient at toppling governments, but that's all. It's not exactly encouraging that Bush didn't ask Congress for any of the money that he promised to the new and fragile Afghan government.  And much of the American foreign aid is simply used to prop up foreign leaders that support the US agenda, instead of helping the suffering people themselves...

    If the US government were smart, they'd have listened to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and get the United Nations to coordinate the rebuilding of Iraq. Sure, they may be inefficient, and they might not have the power to support serious weapon inspectors - but they know more about rebuilding poor and desperate nations than all of the conservative think tanks advising the Bush government together. What's more, they are far less distrusted in the region than the USA, which means they might actually get the job done without too much hassle from the natives.

    Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen, as many of the conservatives supporting Bush don't only see the UN as inefficient, but in fact the knowing tool of Satan. So what will happen in Iraq after this war is over?

    I predict a US military rule of Iraq that has to stay for many years and which has to use increasingly repressive methods to enforce stability, all the while they are being attacked by suicide bombers and other Moslem fanatics who will have added an occupied Iraq to an occupied Palestine on their list of grievances.. Eventually, the whole affair will be so costly in terms of both money and American lives that the USA will simply pull out and leave Iraq to its own devices, after which a bloody civil war will erupt which will last until a new warlord gathers enough power to step into Saddam Hussein´s footsteps... Yes, Saddam Hussein is gone, one way or another - but will it be worth the loss of thousands, if not tens of thousands of lives if another dictator rises in his place?

    I don't think so.

    My thoughts go out to the Iraqis who suffered first under Saddam Hussein, and now under this war - and my fellow soldiers in the US and British armies. May you return soon, safe and whole.

    But back to my own life.

    After living through three months of boot camp, I can say with conviction that my understanding of the military in general, and the German Bundeswehr in particular has improved. So, how does the Bundeswehr get a large number of recruits, most unwilling (for only few volunteer when compared to the huge number of draftees) and usually barely out of their teens to do what the instructors want?

    Well, basically, they use brainwashing.

    Don't get me wrong - the German Army doesn't differ in this from pretty much any other army in the world - and in fact, the German army is more liberal than most in many regards. Recruits have a large number of rights. Corporeal punishment is outlawed. And the instructors aren't even allowed to personally insult the recruits, which is something which may shock many Americans (but believe me, the instructors have a way of getting their points across...).

    But still.... they take you out of your familiar surroundings (and if you don't come on your own, the Feldjäger will come and get you), deprive you of sleep (if the tight schedules won't do the trick, hyperactive roommates will), put you into uniform clothing (pardon the pun), and put you through strange and often humiliating ordeals...

    Sounds all pretty much like some fringe religious cults, doesn't it? Or perhaps a comparison to the so-called "Stockholm Syndrome", where hostages come to sympathize with the hostage takers would be apt...

    The question is, of course, whether it is possible to train soldiers - and especially raw recruits - in any other way. Probably not. But I think it is important to know what being drafted means in the end...

    Well, basic training is over. Some of the highlights:
    All in all, it was quite a harrowing experience for a 27-year old who is not exactly at the peak of his physical condition. Many who have been in the Bundeswehr claim that one day you will grow nostalgic about basic training and see it as the "best part" of your service time. Well, for me, that day hasn't arrived, and I doubt it ever will.

    Instead, I think it would be more appropriate to compare basic training to a time when you have to write lots of important exams: You will feel like hell while you are doing it, but you'll feel much better once you have managed to finished it. I certainly learned more about dealing with stress during these three months than I did during all my years at the university, and I'm certainly not missing the 12 kg (26.5 pounds) of weight that I lost in them... but still, it is not something I would ordinarily have done out of my own free will.

    But that's all in the past now. Now I am at my new unit, and now I have time to reflect on all the ironies life has inflicted on me since January:

    Guess .

    Hint: I am a teetotaler.

    The answer will be revealed sometime within the next few weeks...

January the 6th, 2003

Military Diaries Part I, or: You are in the Army now!

    I've been a member of the German Armed Forces - the Bundeswehr - for five days now, and so far I haven't been called "worm", "sonofabitch", "scum of the Earth", or otherwise been verbally abused, as seen in certain American movies that portray boot camps.

    But that doesn't mean we have it easy, either.

    Maybe I should start at the beginning. The Federal Republic of Germany, which I call my home, is one of the few remaining Western nations that still have compulsory military service for all fit men from the ages of 18 to 27. This was installed in the 1950s during the Cold War. The mission of the Bundeswehr was "homeland defense", which would have meant in practice that we were supposed to hold off the Sovjet Hordes for the French to nuke us (i.e., Western Germany) so that the Red Army couldn't advance further than that. (And yes, the French really did have multiple nuclear warheads aimed at Western Germany until just a few years ago...)

    Technically, the mission statement of the Bundeswehr still is "homeland defense", but the Autrians just aren't able to project the same aura of menace as the Russians, and thus this mission becomes less credible every year. Still, the Draft remains, mostly for two reasons:

- The Bundeswehr couldn't get enough young recruits otherwise, and

- our medical service industry would have serious personnel shortages otherwise.

    The latter point deserves some additional explanations for readers unfamiliar with Germany. You see, when the Draft was reintroduced, the politicians wanted to give an alternative to military service for those whose conscience or religion forbade it to serve as a soldier. Given that the trauma of WWII was still fresh on everyones' minds, that was an understandable and reasonable sentiment. So, instead of military service, these young men would do a "civilian service", or Zivildienst . This Zivildienst would take several months longer than military service, and the Zivis would serve as orderlies in hospitals, retirement homes, or distribute Meals on Wheels or perform similar services. While it is a drag to work for a longer time than those who serve in the military, most Zivis can stay at home during their off hours - and they are usually better paid as well...

    In the beginning, it was quite hard to be accepted as a Zivi - this would usually involve a lengthy questioning by officials to see if the applicant was really sincere about this. Today matters are different - the would-be Zivi usually downloads a lengthy essay from one of many relevant internet sites that explains why he, the applicant, considers serving as a soldier to be against his conscience (usually Jesus, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King are invoked at this point), signs it with his name, and sends it to his military office, where the buerocrats will rubber-stamp it. Usually, they won't even bother to read the text - because they have seen the exact same text dozens of times already!

    So effectively, though not legally, it has become a matter of personal choice whether to do military or civilian service. So why did I opt for the military service?

    American readers might think that I did it out of a burning desire to do my part for my country. German readers might think that I was so desperate to get all this over with that I choose the nine-month military service instead of the eleven-month civilian service.

    Neither actually was the case. You see, after hearing that I was a certified physicist, my military office offered me to send me to a job at a Bundeswehr university after basic training. And shortly afterwards, I learned of a regulation that forbade anyone who had graduated from a university to take a job as a Zivi there. So in the end, I decided to put up with Basic Military Training so that I could do something that was actually relevant to my profession afterwards...

    So far, I've only been at the boot camp for two days. January the 1st is a public holiday in Germany, so I first arrived there on the 2nd. And currently, I'm on home leave for the three-day weekend - since January the 6th is also a public holiday, at least here in Bavaria... (Yes, we do have a lot of public holidays over here in Germany. We also have lots of vacation time - I get 19 vacation days for my nine-month tour of duty, though I can only take them after I finish basic training...)

    So far, training mostly consisted of standing in line (at the clothes and equipment depot, the cafeteria, and so on), standing attention, learning about the various military ranks , and how to greet them properly. The first two days were quite hectic - we were rarely able to take a break, and I suspect that this will last for the rest of the basic training. Sleeping hours are from 11 PM to 5 AM. While I don't mind getting up early, getting only six hours' worth of sleep is quite taxing. And I had trouble sleeping well in the first night to begin with. Ironically, the mattress over there is actually softer than what I am used to... and the rain-, hail-, and thunderstorm during the night didn't help, either.

    All in all, I was quite relieved when we were allowed to return home for the weekend.

    And when I left the gate of the compound, I saw a rainbow directly in front of me. Sometimes, life really is just like a bad movie...

    That's it for now - but I will add further thoughts and impressions of  life in the German Armed Forces in the future.

December the 8th, 2002

Jump-starting off-world colonisation, or: Shooting Nazis into Space

    Space exploration isn't as fashionable as it used to be, and it shows. NASA has no vision, no guts, and no money. The Russian space program has more guts, but even less money. The ESA is mostly busy with putting more observation satellites into orbit, whose data should (at least in theory) tell even the most stubborn American that yes, the global climate is changing. The only bright spot are the Chinese , who have an ambitious space program that might eventually get the Americans back into the race in an effort not to be beated by them (and as we all know, the best rocket fuel there is is pure American ego...).

    So we have to look for other sources for funding. Fortunately, there is one practically unlimited source of money: Human stupidity.

    As probably most people with an email adress that was used on an open forum (such as Usenet), I get plenty of emails from such scenice locations as Zimbabwe, South Africa, Congo, and Nigeria, all of which invariably involve some big bank account with several million US dollars in it. However, somehow the "rightful owners" have some trouble with getting to the money, and need my aid to get to it. Of course, they'd give me a sizable percentage of the proceedings...

    I can't believe that anybody would actually fall for this scam, but apparently the people behind it have made several billion dollars in profit. Which seems like quite a waste to me. Instead of just pouring money into the hands of crooks, why not use the money of idiots for some worthy cause - such as space exploration? All you'd need are some clever schemes. Fortunately, there are plenty of idiots on the Internet (as Ghost Orb Photography proves), and it is easy to come up with ideas for such schemes. Here are two I came up with:

    There are plenty of people who use religious quotations to support their views. One frequent claim in some newsgroups I'm frequenting is that the United States of America are the biblical Babylon of the Book of Revelation - the Great Whore who will eventually fall. However, I've examined the relevant bible passages, and come to a different conclusion:

    Rev. 18.2: "And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird."

    Now, how can a city "fall"? Some people might say that this should be interpreted as a metaphor. But I say we should interpret this literally.

    One idea would be that the city of "Babylon" is on the edge of a high cliff or something. But there are higher places to fall from. So how about... Earth Orbit? Babylon as an actual space station would make a lot of sense. Let's examine two other passages:

    Rev 18.10: "Standing afar off for the fear of her torment, saying, Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that mighty city! for in one hour is thy judgment come."

    Rev 18.21: "And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all."

    Sounds a lot like a space station crashing into the ocean, doesn't it? And that earlier bit about "become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird" seems to be suspiciously similar to a really messy nuclear reactor break-up once the station comes crashing down...

    So how does this help? After all, the End Times isn't something that most people look forward to, with all the dying and wailing all over the place. However, it turns out that there are actually people who would welcome the End Times and for whom they can't come soon enough. Presumably, because they believe they are saintly enough to be carried away in the Rapture instead of suffering down on Earth with the rest of us. (Personally, I find this doubtful. If you really with for the death of billions of people, how saintly can you be? But I digress...)

    And here is where our little fund-raising scheme comes in. If you meet any such people, tell them about this interpretation of the Book of Revelations, and then suggest that obviously the Fall of Babylon - and thus, the End Times - can't come if there are no space stations in Earth Orbit. If that isn't enough, tell them that it is well known that space stations named "Babylon" tend to have a very short life span.

    Now if that doesn't convince these people to put some money into improving space infrastructure, I don't know what would.

    Now for my other suggestion: Sometimes, on Usenet, you come across a particular type of idiot - one fully deserving of being called "arsehole", and quite a few other things as well. Recently, I came across a certain posting that included the following sentences:

    'I really want to move to a nation where niggers are despised.  I fucking hate america and the idea that nigger crimes and society is considered "equal"...'

    "...So if  anyone from ANY nation knows a nation where nigger culture for what it is, or has no MALICIOUS NIGGER INFLUENCE, it will be my dream nation to go there."

    As much as I detest such people, I see an opportunity here. Obviously, the "dream nation" of such people can't exist anywhere on Earth. But what about... Outer Space?

    So the obvious solution is, of course, to tell these people to invest a good chunk of their money into space exploration and life support systems research (that's certainly a better use of their money than using it to print Hate Pamphlets, isn't it?). Then, once the technology has been sufficiently advanced, they can create a colony on one of the asteroids in the Main Belt (the one between Mars and Jupiter). Now they can have their "Aryan homeland" or whatever, and Earth is well rid of a bunch of malcontents. Everybody wins!

    (Incidentally, a short time after I made these suggestions on Usenet, I recieved an email from an anonymous remailer that started with "Shut the Fuck up, you stupid Eurotrash!" Which means I will have to improve my arguing skills somewhat. But I think the basic idea is sound...)

November the 10th, 2002

Profound ethical dilemmas, or: What's wrong with human cloning?

    Ever since a few Scottish researchers cloned the first mammal a few years back, cloning has become a regular topic in the news. The latest controversity revolving around stem cell research - some want to clone human cells to generate new stem cells that might - or might not - enable the medical industry to come up with tissues with amazing regenerative qualities that could cure all sorts of ills. Others are leery of creating human embryos that are used only for medical purposes instead of growing into living, breathing human beings. When asked about their stance on the issue, the governments in both the USA and Germany displayed their usual moral forthrightness by saying: "Uhm... ask me later when this issue isn't controversial anymore. Incidentally, would you vote for me? Pretty please?"

    But cloning for stem cell research isn't what I want to talk about today. Instead, I want to talk about reproductive cloning - using cloning techniques to produce a living, breathing human being that is, genetically speaking, identical (or nearly so, depending on the technique used) to another human.

    You see, I have noticed something odd in the debate around reproductive cloning: Almost every time it is mentioned, it is automatically assumed that it is something that Just Shouldn't Be Done - if reproductive cloning became widespread, it would immediately End Civilization As We Know It. Clones would be either abominable monsters or pitiable creatures that should never have been made. In short, the only people who would clone someone would be classical Mad Scientists, the only people who would want to clone someone would be lacking any moral values.

    But I have to wonder: Why? Why would allowing people to clone themselves or others (if they had the permission to use the genes, of course) be such a bad thing?

    I like to make clear that I consider any attempt at cloning humans at this point to be premature. Cloning is far from a mature technology, and we need to make sure that it is before trying this on humans - the clone sheep Dolly, for example, might have a higher physiological age than it would have if it had been born normally, and producing human clones that age rapidly isn't a good idea - or very ethical. But one day cloning will be a mature technology, and then we will have to ask ourselves whether or not we should allow humans to be cloned. And I cannot see a good reason to prohibit it.

    Clones are not monsters. At best, they are identical twins that are younger than their "originals". They are humans, just like you or me. Comparisons to movies like The Phantom Menace or Blade Runner , like those some of the more hysterical opponents of reproductive cloning are making, are not viable arguments - if you want either super-soldiers or slaves, then there are far cheaper methods than to clone someone.

    Questioning the moral uprightness of those who want a cloned child doesn't help, either. Do you really want to deny people who are infertile the only way in which they could produce offspring? And others, who only want a cloned child out of some narcisstic impulse to have a "younger self" will soon find themselves disappointed when their offspring isn't anything like themselves - the clones will grow up with their own personalities. Once this is realized, cloning will be seen as just  another way of having offspring - just as in-vitro fertilization, which also was extremely controversial not so long ago. And let us remember that all these clones will presumably be wantedby their parents, which is more than can be said for many other children born today.

    Some commentators suggest that human clones should not be created because they will be discriminated against. Discrimination of clones is, of course, a very real possibility. But then again, should members of ethnic minorities not have children because they might be discriminated against? I don't think so...

    Others warn of a loss of variation in the human gene pool - if everyone only cloned themselves, genes would not mix and propagate beyond a few "clone lines". But this only becomes a danger if cloning gets so popular that other methods of reproduction fall out of favor with humanity at large - and unless someone manages to remove all sex drive from humans, this is unlikely to happen.

    Personally, I predict that reproductive cloning will be legalized in many First World nations at some time in the next few decades. In another generation or so, people will look back in time and wonder what all the fuss was about - and instead will concentrate on the great debate of their time: Whether to allow massive genetic alterations of humans.

    But that's a topic for a future essay...

September the 23st, 2002

The German Federal Elections Part Two, or: What I Saw On CNN

Well, well, well... that was an interesting night, to say the least.

For those of you who tuned in late, yesterday were federal elections in Germany. Last time I talked about the voting system, the parties we could choose from, and the people in the front line. Today I will talk about what came out of this mess.

First, the results. The percentage of the vote comes first, and after that the number of seats in the Bundestag. The results from the last federal election in 1998 are also provided for comparision.

Voter Turnout

This means that the same government coalition will continue as before - but with a smaller majority (only 306 out of 603 seats). More on the repercussions of this later.

    I decided to watch the show on CNN, just to learn how the outside world viewed this election. The impressions I got were... interesting. CNN originally had scheduled a two-hour special from 1800 to 2000 CET, but it was extended far beyond that time span when the first projections were inclusive - the margin were so slim that the election could have gone either way. Anyway, here are my thoughts on the coverage:

Incidentally, quite a few political commentators called him by his full name today - Jürgen W. Möllemann. Read into that what you will...
Earlier this year, the Bundestag passed a law that regulated immigration - and eased up immigration laws for highly skilled workers, and made it easier for residents to naturalize. But most laws in Germany need also be approved by the Bundesrat, an assembly of the German states, or Länder (think US Senate, and you are not toofar wrong). Naturally, the CDU/CSU opposed this plan, and they hold a slight advantage in that assembly. In the end, the result boiled down to the vote of, you guessed it, Brandenburg. And Stolpe and Schönbohm  found themselves in the crossfire of their parties' collective interest - a situation they were not keen on, since they had built a good working relationship.

So when the vote was taken, the Speaker of the Bundesrat called for the vote of Brandenburg. Stolpe answered "yes", and Schönbohm answered "no". The Speaker reminded them that the vote of a Land could only be given uniamously, and asked again. Stolpe answered "yes", and Schönbohm said: "You know my opinion." The Speaker counted this as an overall "yes" result. At this point, the CDU representatives at the assemply burst into righteous indignation, called this "an open break of the constitution" and held rather lengthy speeches. Some commentators wondered how they could hold such lengthy speeches so spontaneusly... and it turned out that they didn't, as the whole act had been prepared with the aid of Schönbohm. So much for the "righteous indignation"...
Well, obviously this wasn't the case. There is an advantage to a system where no chads can fall on the floor - and only a few hours later, the results were pretty obvious. As more and more vote counts came in, the winners and losers of the election knew exactly where they stood. Nimm das, Florida!
Gee. Bush and his team have tried to sabotage almost every matter of international importance dear to most Germans, like the Kyoto protocols or the International Crime Court, and now it is supposed to be the German government that has "poisoned relationships" just because we don't show enough Niebelungentreue?

So what's my opinion on the election? I think in the end every party got what they deserved.

So what will the future bring for Germany? That's where things get less rosy...

One of the highest priorities of the newly re-elected government will be to smooth over the troubled relationships with the Bush administration, though this relationship might be beyond repair in some ways. Nevertheless, it must be attempted - it is not a pleasant situation for any government if the US government is against you. I just wonder how high the price will be that we will have to pay...

Internally, things don't look better. The German economy is the most lethargic in Europe, and I have my doubts if the government has the strength to push the neccessary reforms that might bring it back on track. And if the German economy suffers, the rest of the EU will suffer with it, and so will the nations who want to join the EU. Much needs to be done, but Germany already operates on a tight budget - and too many Germans are comfortable with what they have now, instead of worrying about the larger picture.

Well, I have done my part by voting yesterday. We will see what the future will bring for Germany.

September the 21st, 2002

The German Federal Elections Part One, or: You think Your Electoral System is Confusing?

    Last time I discussed US politics. This time, I will talk about something closer to home. With this I mean, of course, the German federal elections taking place tomorrow, on Sunday the 22nd September. Despite what certain news sources (such as Newsweek ) might tell you, the two main candidates are not identical, and the outcome of the election will matter - at least to us Germans...

    Since this homepage is intended for an international audience (why else would I be writing this in English?), I think a short explanation of the German electoral system is on order.

Every voter, which is every German citizen of age 18 and older (no, you don't have to register to vote here, and being an ex-felon doesn't take your right to vote away, either) gets two votes. The first one is the Erststimme, or primary vote. With this, the voter can choose one of the candidates for the local voting district. The candidate with the most votes gets into the German parliament, or Bundestag (with certain exceptions... more on those later).
    The Zweitstimme, or secondary vote, is actually more important. This vote goes to a specific party. If only directly elected candidates from the electoral districts could go to the Bundestag, only the biggest parties could get into the Bundestag at all (which is basically what happens in the USA and in the UK). But with the secondary votes the parties can get additional representatives from their party lists into the Bundestag until their percentage of representatives matches the percentage of their secondary votes. In other words, if a party gets roughly 8% of the votes, it will get roughly 8% of all seats in the Bundestag. (There are some arcane formulas for determining the exact number of seats, but that's the general principle...)
    Not every party can get into the Bundestag, however. In the Weimar Republic, every 60,000 votes translated into one seat in the Reichstag - and predictably, the Reichstag was so full of different parties and splinter groups that it became almost impossible to form a stable government - yet another reason why that first experiment in German democracy failed so badly.
    Today, a party can only get into the Bundestag if it gets at least 5% of all secondary votes, or at directly elected candidates from at least three voting districts. This means that the number of parties that can get into the Bundestag is fairly limited - unlike in Italy, where forming governments remains an art form of its own.
    After the votes have been counted and the seats in the Bundestag have been distributed, someone needs to form a government. This government needs the approval of the majority of representatives in the Bundestag. In practice, this usually means that two parties that aren't too hostile to each other and have the majority of seats hammer out a coalition and distribute the various government departments among each other. Then the Bundestag votes on it, the German president (yes, we have one of those, too - though they are usually content to play "moral authority" and only rarely involve themselves into daily politics) gives it his seal of approval, and the Kanzler, or chancellor (the German head of government - as opposed to the head of state, which is the German president) can get to work.

    Incidentally, readers from Florida might be interested to hear that you vote here by putting an "x" on a nationally standardized sheet of paper with the list of candidates and list of parties. The votes are then counted in the same building where the voting took place, under scrutiny of representatives from all parties that bother to send one - and nobody leaves the building until they can agree on the vote count (this is rarely later than three hours after the voting booths are closed). Mail-in votes are counted at the same time - they have to be sent in per mail in time for this.

    So how many parties can the German voter choose from? More than 30, or so I am told - but there are only five (or six, depending on how you count) that have a real chance of getting into the Bundestag. Here is a short description:

Of course, elections aren't just about parties - they are about people as well. Here, then, are some of the major players in German politics:

So how will all this turn out? The SPD-Green front and the Union-FDP front are closely balanced, with the former enjoying a slight lead. But what could decide the election is how the PDS will fare - if they manage to get into the Bundestag again, they might prevent any of the other groups from having a clear majority and forcing the SPD and the Union into a grand coaltion. But if they fail to get 5% of the secondary votes, or to gain three directly elected representatives, one of the two groups will be able to form a majority blocks, and thus a government coalition...

So tune in towmorrow on your favorite news channel, and watch the show!

September the 10th, 2002

A friendly Welcome to my readers, or: Who the hell are you again?

    Welcome two my first real stab at creating a home page (there was another one years ago, but the less said about it, the better...). Who am I, and why the hell am I creating a home page? That's what I hope you would ask, and if you wouldn't - too bad, I am going to answer anyway.
    My name is Jürgen Hubert, and I am a freshly-minted physicist from a small Bavarian city that you have probably never heard of. My interests include reading (what kinds of books? All kinds of books!), bicycling (I actually live in a corner of the world where you can get by without needing a car as long as you are single), pen & paper role-playing games, other nations and cultures, Chinese cooking, and reading far more webcomics than I have really any time for.
    Why am I creating a home page? Mostly because the time is right. I have recently finished my diploma in physics, and I haven't found a job yet to occupy me until January (when I will be drafted into the German Army). This means I have plenty of spare time to devote to a project like this.
    In addition to that, it has now become much easier for me to create and maintain a home page. Up until now, I was dependent on the resources of my former university to get internet access, which was a major pain. But thanks to my brother, I now finally have Internet access at home, as well as ample (and completely ads-free!) web space at my brother's domain. Thanks, bro! Give his home page a look when you go, will ya?
    As you can see, the design of this home page still leaves a bit to be desired, but I hope to improve it as I go along. So far, most of these pages are devoted to  pen & paper role-playing games, a major hobby of mine. What are role-playing games? Good question - and a quite hard one to answer. But others have explained this better than I could, and thus I will limit myself to linking to their explanation .

    As I had a look at other home pages, I became aware that other home pages frequently have a regular column where the author comments on whatever preoccupies his mind at the moment. This is commonly known as a "rant". Since I have my share of opinions (and am as qualified to voice them as anyone else on the Net), I decided to do the same.
    For starters, I decided to stick to an easy one: politics. When I have nothing better to do, I browse the MSN messageboards - especially when one is attached to an article on US foreign politics. Thearticle in question dealt with the environmental summit in Johannesburg, but the accompanying message board predictably degenerated into a flamewar about the Iraq question, and ironically, how "the European allies were stabbing the USA in the back". I stated that there are several reasons why the current U.S. government is viewed with distrust by many Europeans. One American later contacted me per email and asked me what precisely these reasons were. This is what I answered:

"OK. I will try. I will mostly answer this from the German perspective, since that is the one I am most familiar with.

Part of the problem is that George W. Bush has a serious PR problem here in Europe.

George W. Bush is no diplomat. He is blunt - _very_ blunt - by European standards. This bluntness - or forwardness, if you prefer, might be a major selling point in the USA. But here in Europe, every head of government has always to keep in mind how other nations will view his comments. Take Germany, for example - Germany has borders with nine other nations, all within a day's drive. And Germany was at war with most of them just six decades ago. Now they are all firm allies, but still the Chancellor and his cabinet always have to be careful when speaking about international affairs. The importance of diplomacy in German politics can be seen in that the Foreign Minister is also traditionally the Vice Chancellor, and the second most important government member after the Chancellor himself. Can Colin Powell claim the same clout?

It is no wonder that George W. Bush, with his lack of tact in diplomatic affairs, is generally seen as an "Elephant im Porzellanladen", or elephant in a china shop, as the saying goes... Bill Clinton, for all his faults, was a great diplomat, which is why most Europeans got along with him even when there was conflict with certain US policies. Bush, with his apparent determination to do everything differently from Clinton, cannot help but compare badly in European Eyes.

Then there's the fact that George W. Bush is the son of an earlier president. These kinds of "political dynasties" so common in the USA seem strange to German eyes - to the German POV, the Americans kicked out the King of Britain, and then proceeded to install Ersatz-aristocracies. This smacks of "political incest". Whaever else can be said of the German post-war chancellors, they are all self-made men - none of their parents were important politicians of their own.

Then there was the last American election. The various details that came to light during the Florida debacle were very disturbing to most Germans - apparently, it was _not_ common practice to count all the votes, and it seemed like it was perfectly acceptable to disregard mail-in vote if it seemed like there was a clear majority. This is a huge difference from the German federal elections, where everyone tries very hard to make the vote count as accurate as possible, and every vote can count. Many Germans still believe that George W. Bush "stole" the election...

Those griefs that many Germans - and Europeans - bring against the Bush administration are mostly a matter of perception. Now to the real ones.

The biggest issue is environmental politics. Environmental issues are very important in the European Union, and especially in Germany - it's not for nothing that the Green party of Germany is the junior government member of the ruling coalition. Bush was never forgiven for simply walking out of the Kyoto protocols negotiations, and all Germans expect from the US delegation in Johannesburg is that they will attempt to sabotage the summit at every turn. The obvious disdain the US government has for any theories that claim that human influence might lead to climate changes is galling, especially as Germany has recently suffered a 500-year record in summer rainfalls and floods that have caused tens of billions of dollars. The Bush statement regarding environmental controls that he "won't commit to anything that might harm the US economy" is seen as an excuse to rape the Earth and plunder its resources to the detriment of future generations. Most Germans who care about environmental issues at all (and that's a lot) hope for a government change in the USA - and fast.

Next up is the outright hostility the US government has displayed towards the International Criminal Court. Instead of considering it an ideal place to put, say, Saddam Hussein for crimes against humanity, the Bush administration has become hysterical at the exceedingly unlikely idea that US soldiers might land in this court. Attempts to sabotage this court usually revolve around a flat excemption for US citizens. "All people are equal, but some are more equal than others..." Last thing I heard, the US government has threatened to cut all military aid to nations that won't sign treaties that they will _never_ give US citizens to this court...

(I will leave out trade dispute issues here - while there are genuine griefs against the Bush administration among these, such as the steel tariffs, the EU does the similar things in other areas. Really, trade disputes between the USA and the EU are just business as usual...)

And finally, there is the current warmongering among the more hawkish elements of the Bush administration. The Germans - and other Europeans - were just as shocked as anyone else at 9/11 - the only ones who were celebrating were a few neo-nazis and other fringe elements. The German government was quick to pledge their aid in catching the perpetrators - even combat missions in Afghanistan were approved despite some objections from elements in the Green party. German intelligence services have been a lot of help in investigating this tragedy - even John Ashcroft had nothing but the highest praise for the German minister of the interior (and did you know that the CIA mostly depends on the German BND for sattelite image analysis?). Vast amounts of German foreign aid go to Afghanistan, and 1,200 German peacekeepers are stationed in the vincity of Kabul to keep the government stable. Some of them have already died in the line of duty. (And this is why the claims of some posters that the European allies are "useless" anger me a lot...) Germany is fully committed to the "War On Terror".

But few people in Germany are convinced that the proposed invasion of Iraq has anything to do with this War. They want to see clear evidence of links between Saddam Hussein and Al Quada (in other words, better than "a flunky of Saddam might have met a flunky of bin Laden once by accident" - even the CIA has better links to Al Quada than this...) before committing _any_ resources on such an invasion.

And many Germans fear - and the German government seems to agree - that such an invasion, even if successful (and few doubt that a fully committed US military can topple Saddam Hussein, though maybe with more casualites than some people seem to believe) will have catastrophic repercussions throughout the Middle East. They feel that US efforts would be better spent at (a) catching bin Laden, and (b) getting Israel and the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiation table. Anything else would just strengthen the "clash of cultures" - something that European nations, with their large number of Muslim immigrants (more than 3% of the people living in Germany are Muslims) hope to avoid..."

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