Riding the Volcano

The island of Vulcano, situated off the north coast of Sicily, has an active crater which you can hike up to. It is possible to circumvent the crater on a narrow rim, walking through the smoke and the fumes at times, but you have to watch every step to avoid stepping into one of the hot crevices or to slip and slide down into the center of the crater.

None of this kept this courageous teenager from circumventing the volcano on a bicycle.

bicycle Vulcano

(Photo by Günter Moser. – Hier geht es zur deutschen Fassung.)

Posted in Italy, Photography, Sicily, Travel | Tagged | 4 Comments

“The Cold War Swap” by Ross Thomas

There is probably no better time than now to read a novel about two NSA employees who have absconded to the Soviet Union and about the US government’s attempts to get them back. Yes, I wrote Soviet Union instead of Russia, because the book is from 1966. It is The Cold War Swap, the first spy novel by Ross Thomas who went on to write another 20 of them or so.

Cold War SwapIt’s a typical spy story at the height of the Cold War. The meetings between the different agents take place in Berlin of course, on both sides of the wall, connected through tunnels and Checkpoint Charlie. Bonn is still important, people still smoke on airplanes and people still wait for Der Spiegel to come out on Monday to learn about the latest developments in the German government.

The story follows the owner of a bar who is drawn into the mess caused by the US government, the Soviet government, West and East German spies, the Chinese and plenty of freelancers against his own will. Typical Eric Ambler stuff. It’s a fast-paced story with a few twists and turns, as you would expect from a spy thriller. But, unlike Eric Ambler, it is not more than a thriller. The language shows no deeper literary quality. Ross Thomas seems to have thought that it adds authenticity if he mentions what each spy drinks, how much of it they drink and what cigarettes they smoke whenever they get together. I find such details tiresome and superfluous. Still, the story moves quite fast across the 214 pages and it’s never a boring read. At the very end, it even becomes melancholic, but in a good way, which might help to leave a lasting impression.

One thing that put me off was the portrayal of the two NSA defectors. They defected because they were gay, as if being gay in the Soviet Union was such a wonderful thing in 1966. They are portrayed in a very stereotypical manner, crying and holding hands when in danger. That is annoying.

Another thing that put me off, but which most readers might be able to ignore, are the misspelled German words and place names. When I come across words like Bahnhoff or Shönefeld or hochaus, I wonder why neither the author nor anyone at the publishing company bothered to either consult a dictionary or simply ask a German speaker to read through the manuscript. I am available.

In the book, the US offer up one of their own spies in exchange for the Soviet Union to return the NSA defectors. The defectors don’t want to return, of course, so they need to be forced. The US spy who is supposed to be presented to the KGB doesn’t want to do that either, so he escapes, trying to snatch the NSA defectors himself and return them to West Germany to buy his freedom. Far-fetched, but then stuff as crazy as this did happen during the Cold War. Still, not an option for Edward Snowden, I assume. He would better go along with this plan.

Posted in Books, Cold War, Germany, Language | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Man and Nature

Man can erect the most beautiful buildings, which last for 2,500 years and still impress with their shape and size, but the surrounding nature is the true source of beauty.

Segesta temple

Segesta temple in nature

The photos show the temple of Segesta, one of the oldest settlements on Sicily. The Elymians, one of the ancient people of Sicily, built the temple around 430/420 BC, but never finished it. It is still in surprisingly good shape, though.

(Photos by Günter Moser. – Zur deutschsprachigen Fassung.)

Posted in Environment, Italy, Photography, Sicily, Travel | Tagged | 4 Comments

Sad Things (10) :-(

sad smileyWhen I press the 1 button on my phone three times while writing a text message, my phone always tries to suggest that I want to write :-( instead of :-).

I wonder why my phone has such a negative attitude towards life. I might have to get rid of it. After all, I hardly answer any phone calls anyway.

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For religious reasons

Parent 1: I am too lazy to get up in the morning to get my kids to school.

Society: What an evil parent!

Parent 2: For religious reasons, I don’t allow my kids to attend school.

Society: Respect!

- – -

gay-wedding-cakePerson 1: I don’t want other people to get married.

Society: What do you care what other people do with their private life?

Person 2: It is against my religious belief if some other people get married.

Society: We’ll have to take this objection seriously.

- – -

Scientology buildingTaxpayer 1: I don’t want to pay taxes.

State: We’ll send the bailiff.

Taxpayer 2: I don’t want to pay taxes for religious reasons.

State: Oh, there is a certain tax status for that. You are welcome.

- – -

Butcher 1: I kill animals in a way that they bleed to death.

Society: How barbaric!

Butcher 2: For religious reasons, I kill animals in a way that they bleed to death.

Society: How barbaric! [There is no difference in opinion here because this is a Jewish and Muslim practice.]

- – -

Freedom of religion as a human right originally meant that the state must not interfere in a citizen’s religion, must not impose a certain religion, must not ban any religion and must not discriminate against citizens based on their religion. It was not intended as a right to be used by religious people to carve out ever more niches of society in which they apply their own rules or even try to force the rest of society to accept their rules.

Freedom of religion is a particularly sensitive right because it protects the belief in something which people can make up and re-interpret as they want, often arguing some instructions allegedly issued by somebody who doesn’t exist. Such a construct is prone to be abused. The more it is sought to be extended beyond its original meaning, the less serious it will be taken. If freedom of religion turns into a general freedom of doing whatever one wants, we don’t need a special human right for it. It only makes a mockery of all other, more important, rights.

(Diesen Artikel können Sie auch auf Deutsch lesen.)

Posted in Human Rights, Law, Life, Philosophy, Religion | Tagged | 27 Comments

Good Friday

Good Friday is the day of the year when Catholics try to show that they can be just as crazy and silly as members of most other religions. In the Philippines, some people beat themselves until they bleed, others re-enact the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Philippines flagellation Easter 1

Philippines flagellation Easter 2

Philippines flagellation Easter 3

Philippines flagellation Easter 4

Philippines crucifixion Easter 2

Philippines crucifixion Easter 1

No, this religion can’t be very good for one’s (mental) health.

(Hier geht es zur deutschsprachigen Fassung.)

Posted in Health, Religion | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments

Film Review: “Argo”

When I was in prison in Iran in 2009, I was hoping for somebody like Tony Mendez to burst open the door to my cell and to whisk me to a waiting helicopter. Except that I hadn’t heard of him at the time and that I would have dismissed stories of hostage-rescue missions in Iran as fiction. But then in 2012, the movie Argo came out with a dramatized version of CIA operation Canadian Caper. In 1979, when Iran had taken all personnel at the US Embassy in Tehran hostage, six US diplomats had managed to escape during the storming of the embassy compound. They were hiding in the house of the Canadian ambassador in Tehran.

CIA film poster for "Argo".

CIA film poster for “Argo”.

As the old saying goes, “life itself writes the best stories”, but you could add that the CIA writes even better ones. Considering “a lot of crazy ideas,” as they say in the film, they focus on “the best crazy idea”. The cover for the exfiltration of the American diplomats was to be a fake Hollywood movie, called Argo. The CIA set up a film production company, rented offices, printed posters, took out ads in magazines, gave press conferences about the science fiction film. There was even a full script. Tony Mendez, the CIA operative (played by Ben Affleck), was to fly to Tehran and use fake Canadian passports to present the six diplomats as location scouts for the upcoming fictitious film Argo. The goal was to leave by plane after a few days, directly under the watchful eyes of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

The film is basically a thriller, and quite a good one at that, but you may also regard it as a period piece about the late 70s, with ugly haircuts, wide ties, huge glasses, sideburns, fax machines and Dream On by Aerosmith. It also provides an accurate depiction of Tehran, the bustling city, its bazaar and the beautiful snow-covered mountain range you see when flying into the city. In today’s world of the NSA reading your e-mails, it is an homage to the good old times of real espionage when operatives risked their lives, protected only by a ludicrous cover. Although you might know how the story ends, the film is captivating and fast-paced. The final scene at the airport (which is fictional) brought back the stressful memory of my own escape from Iran under circumstances similar to those depicted in the film.

I have read some criticism about Argo along the lines that Iranians were being unfairly depicted in a bad light, and I disagree. The Iranian housekeeper of the Canadian ambassador protects the houseguests. When Iranian students storm the US Embassy, there are plenty of Iranians being shown who are at the embassy, applying for visas to get to the USA, thus symbolizing the rift that went through Iranian society in 1979 (and does until today to some extent) between those in favor and those against the Islamic Revolution and the governing system that grew out of it. That the occupiers of the US embassy and the Revolutionary Guards are portrayed as menacing is simply accurate. They were and they are. There is a reason why millions of Iranians have fled their own country since 1979 and continue doing so until today. It is an indisputable fact that taking 52 Americans hostage for 444 days soured Iran-US relations for decades to come, much more to the detriment of Iranians than that of Americans.

Argo can be accused of taking some artistic license, but it clearly does so in an effort to be a good thriller, not a work of propaganda. The intro to the film even provides an overview of Iran’s history before the Islamic Revolution, pointing out that the CIA was involved in a coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister Mosaddegh in 1953 and that the USA and other Western nations had propped up the dictatorship of the Shah. As far as I can tell, the promised Iranian cinematic response to Argo has not yet been released.

Posted in Films, History, Iran, Politics | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments