Archive for October, 2013

On Goethe and “sobbenbunker”

Leaving Germany earlier today, I tweeted a farewell, politely using the native language of those I was farewelling “Ladies of Germany, auf wiedersehen. But don’t cry in your sobbenbunkers: I shall be back to schaden your freudes and zeit your geists asap”.

Two German speakers asked me what “sobbenbunker” means, which surprised me. It simply refers to a room for crying in. German culture invented the word “angst” because Germans spend at least 15% of their day crying over existential worries about the futility of it all. Given that most homes have a dedicated room for the toilet – an activity which normally consumes much less than 15% of the day – it’s unsurprising that middle class Germans had a dedicated room for weeping and sobbing. (Now they get it all out at football matches.)

The “sobbenbunker” was the subject of one of the big song and dance numbers that German poet Goethe wrote in his early draft of “Faust: the musical”. In the song, Mrs Faust learns of her husband’s pact with the devil, and goes off for some angst in the sobbenbunker. Faust sings “My pact with satan is a clunker/ mein Frau ist in der sobbenbunker./ My heart recoils at words she’s spoken: / for me, her fotze is verboten.”

However, Goethe removed the song before publication. Although at heart, he was a light entertainer, he was constantly stung by criticism from serious High German artists that he was dumbing-down the culture. Beethoven and Brecht were particularly scathing, deliberately re-naming him “Goatse” in interviews to show their disdain. In an attempt to rid himself of his low-brow image, he took all the songs out of “Faust: the musical”, and reinvented it as a rather dull treatise on good and evil.

On prostitution

Mariya tweeted a link to an article on why young women in rural China become mistresses of older men, which reminded me of living next door to a paid mistress in Thailand, and she prompted me to blog about it. So here goes. Names are changed, by the way.

When I moved to Thailand in 1996 to help set up a school, I took a 3 month rent on a small room in a new hotel near my work. On my floor there was only one other resident, a very well-dressed, attractive woman in her mid-20s. We soon became friends, leaving our doors open and popping in and out of each other’s rooms to chat, gossip, eat, drink beer and smoke.

Lek didn’t seem to work, but attended college every day to learn how to cook, went out most nights and, frankly, seemed to have more disposable income than I had. This was surprising for two reasons; firstly, most Westerners employed in Bangkok with work permits earned three or four times what the locals earned. Secondly, while there were many Thai kids with rich parents, they tended to be fair-skinned, whereas Lek was dark-skinned and from the impoverished Southern provinces of Thailand where a long-running terrorism campaign to secede from Thailand and join muslim Malaysia had damaged the area.

I asked her about it, and she told me straight: she had an older, Western boyfriend called Mike who was posted to work in Thailand in some big engineering project. Mike was married, but his wife was back in England with their kids. Mike paid for the apartment, her college course and took care of her living expenses. In return, she was his mistress. She was to be available for sex, going out to parties or weekends away. The sole stipulation was that she was not to have sex with anyone else (a wise move; in the late 90s, HIV was rife in Thailand). She didn’t love Mike, although she liked him – she viewed it purely as a business relationship. Mike, however, did get jealous of me (until we lied and told him I’m gay); I found lots of Westerners who had mistresses or picked up prostitutes deluded themselves that they were emotionally involved rather than simply buying a service.

Before I’d met Lek, I had always assumed that prostitution was a sordid business of trafficked or abused women being forced into it by a pimp. It had never occurred to me that it could be voluntary. I asked Lek if she felt exploited. “Absolutely not”, she answered. She explained that she had a sister, a year younger, still living in the home village “in the jungle” (as she put it). Her sister had four children by a man who beat her when he was drunk, and who forced her to wear a veil. “I have a nice apartment, I’m getting an education. Mike is a good guy who treats me well, we go to parties where I meet lots of people, I’ve learned English and have friends from all over the world. This is freedom – don’t pity me.”

Who was I to argue?

It made me wonder, though, why we still get so squeamish about sex. If someone works with their bodies to entertain by dancing, or gymnastics, or sports, we don’t pity them. Neither do we condescend to other people who look after others’ physical needs for money – we don’t pity a person who cooks food or others, or cuts their hair, or massages their aches, or looks after their teeth. So why do we look down on people who voluntarily offer sexual services?

Reading List

A bumper reading list as I forgot to press “publish” on it last week.

Closing the gap

A look at some discussions and emerging standards that attempt to close the gap between usability of web and usability of native apps:

  • Installable webapps: extend the sandbox – a proposal by Boris Smus of Google to allow web apps that are actually on the web (rather than packaged) use extended permissions
  • Exposing privileged APIs to web content – similar to the above: “a discussion on the challenges we face in exposing privileged APIs to web content and a proposal for exposing such APIs to web pages by mitigating the risks inherent in doing so” by Rich Tibbett (Opera)
  • Enabling new types of web user experiences – “In the court of public opinion, the war between native apps and web apps appears to be over. Even though the web world is valiantly and consistently improving the web platform, the world seems to have moved on, embracing and rewarding native apps.”
  • requestAutocomplete – take my money, not my time – an article by @jaffathecake on the API that’s “a superhero in beige clothing”, eg that looks quite dull but which makes payments, especially on mobile, much easier
  • What is EME (Encrypted Media Extensions)? asks (then answers) Mozilla’s Henri Sivonen: “soon the video DRM capability will be the only thing that Silverlight and Flash have but the HTML/CSS/JS platform doesn’t”



Chicken, chorizo, sausages and winter veg in orange juice

Not to be outdone by Sil’s 15 Minute Meals done by an idiot, here’s the lunch I cooked my yesterday for my brood as a change from normal roasts, to unanimous acclaim and a request to do it for Xmas dinner.


  • Enough chicken legs for everyone
  • 8 good sausages (I used Sainsbury’s best Pork and Apple ones)
  • Loads of thyme and some sage (out of the garden)
  • Half a chorizo ring
  • Jar of black olives (cheapo ones are fine)
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • Some pickled chills if you like a tang
  • butternut squash (or courgette, or potato, or whatever)
  • 2 – 3 parsnips, depending on size
  • 4 or 5 good size carrots
  • 3 oranges (and some lemon/ lime if you want)
  • olive oil, salt, pepper
  • Purple sprouting broccoli
  • Frozen peas

Get a large baking dish, and pre-heat the oven to about gas mark 5.

Lay the chicken in the baking dish. Cut sausages into 3 pieces, and throw them into the tray. Chop chorizo into fingernail sized chunks, throw them on. Peel and chop the squash, carrots and parsnips into decent-sized chunks – about half the size of your thumb (too small and they’ll disintegrate). Throw it all on. Ditto olives and pickled chillis.

Juice the oranges and pour it over everything, drizzle olive oil over it all (not too much as the meat will produce its own fat).

Finely chop garlic, some orange zest and pour it over. Add some salt, and black pepper and lots of sage and thyme. Wuffle it around with a wooden spoon to make sure everything is oiled and seasoned. If you like tang, put pickled chillis on the top. Don’t chop them; that way, they’re easily identifiable and can be removed for people who like the flavour they impart but don’t want to eat chunks of palate-scouring chilli.

Put it in the oven. Open bottle of wine to let it breathe. Drink a glass of it to test it. 25 mins later, turn everything over in the dish and put it back.

About 1 hour after you turned the oven on, put the kettle on and boil some water. While it’s boiling, put peas and broccoli in a microwavable bowl, add 2 tbsp of water, cover and nuke for 5 mins.

Serve everything. Use juices left in pan, veg water, a glug of wine and water from kettle plus a Knorr Chicken Stock Pot to make gravy. Eat it all.

Total cost, excluding wine, about15 for 4 people.

UK ISPs confirm central database of filter opt-ins

After convincing my Member of Parliament, John Hemming, of the folly of Cameron’s plan to censor the web in the UK (sorry, I mean filter the web), he’s been doing some digging with the ISPs, writing to them to ask whether they plan to store your opt-ins privately on your router, or centrally.

He’s published the answers to his emails to BT, Sky and Virgin. BT were evasive, and TalkTalk didn’t formally respond, but it’s pretty clear they’ll store them in a centralised database. What could possibly go wrong with the government having access to a list of all those who want to see porn or “extremist” sites? It’s not like we live in a surveillance society, is it?

John and I would like to publish a fuller list. If you are a customer of an ISP that’s not on the list, please email them and ask them if they plan to store your opt-ins on a centralised database, what categories they intend to filter (eg, porn, extremism, alcohol, drugs) and how they will categorise them (eg, who will decide whether BNP/ EDL sites are “extremist”?) and paste it into a comment below. Please include the date and time the reply was sent, and who signed it (so we can double-check before publishing on John’s blog).