17 March 2011

Blog Update - Comments Box, Mobile Template & Sharing Function

Thanks to Blogger in Draft that lets you beta-use the latest Blogger developments before they are made available to the general public by default, there are a few new features I put in place to make this blog more user-friendly for you!

First, it is now much easier to post comments!
Following one of the most common complaints to Blogger, the developers made it possible to embed the comment box where it belongs: Under the post. Once you click on "comments" as you used to, the box will appear directly under the post, instead of in a pop-up window!

Second, my blog became smartphone-friendly!
Another overdue feature are "mobile templates". Basically, those are simple templates which load much faster, yet display all the pictures and videos. It will probably look like this:

Feedback from your experience with the template on your respective mobile handset is greatly appreciated!

Third, social bookmarking will soon be enabled to share this blog online:
Instead of just inserting the usual Share This button, I found some great icon sets online and will work on the customised code soon.

Fourth, I now have a QR Tag for sharing the blog on the phone.
There are some more ideas I have for that tag but I'll let you know later.
Try it out!  Choose the "barcode" function in your phone menu (at least that's how it's called on Nokia headsets) and scan the image below:

Fifth, I will enable mobile blogging.
As I will soon travel to Asia again to do another internship (more on that at a later point), it is likely I will spend ages stuck in traffic jams again. Also useful to keep cab drivers' chattiness at bay. You might think this sounds rude but if you mainly rely on taxis for transport and are the elephant in the room (young foreign working woman with the all-desired fair complexion, perhaps single?), you quickly get tired of answering the same questions over and over again early in the morning. Especially, if you prefer to catch another hour or so of sleep or if you want to mentally organise your day.

Behind the scenes
I now enjoy a much better yet perhaps slightly improvable drafting box. It is also much easier to insert, drag and drop pictures around the text which before was more or less impossible to change after the upload dialog box or alternatively required some inconvenient html coding.

Generally, I am very pleased with the new features Blogger offers. One commonly reported bug I would like to see fixed though, is the language of the spell-checker. Since I am currently blogging from Austria, Blogger spell-checks in German even if my Blogger language settings are set to English and my browser is installed in English. The only thing that is German is my OS but there is nothing I can change about that unless I do a system restore. Any ideas?

11 March 2011

15 things you did not know are Austrian!

Ha! If you are reading this post a few months from its publication, chances are that we just met and you thought a) Austria was Australia b) Austria is part of the former USSR c) Austria only brings out sex offenders or xenophobic politicians d) Austria must be part of Germany because we speak German (I'd refer to the German state of Bavaria, though Germans north or the Black Forest might disagree...) e) The Sound of Music! or f) Austria, wait, that's a country?

... and in order to give the poor little landlocked country I grew up in some exposure while having a perfect excuse to promote my blog, I sent you this link. Not to humiliate you but to give you an opportunity to learn from me about another country, just like I hope you give me the chance to learn about yours.

Although we rarely admit it, a lot of us will have (hopefully only) a few black spots on the world map. Usually, it is due to the fact that whichever country we grew up in, our continent most likely dominated our history and geography lessons. Still, in the spirit of world exploration and especially in times of ever-increasing globalisation, I think that one should attempt to overcome any education gaps.

A lot of Europeans would scoff if confronted on holiday with the fact that the locals do not recognise where they were from, and would react with, "I'm from Europe, you should at least know the countries of Europe, navel of modern world history!" (ignorant of the fact that history too, is selective, subjective and political). Yet how many Europeans would be able to point out the exact location of Malawi, the Niger (no, not Nigeria), Laos or Uzbekistan on a map? Or, even the location of Ohio, Illinois, Washington (no, not DC!) or Maine? Whether a complete knowledge of all countries of the world is useful to the everyday lives of people, particularly the socially disadvantaged, is another matter: Although I naturally believe that one should always thrive to learn new things whether useful or not, I also believe in prioritising needs.

I have always been a Geography geek. I guess it has something to do with travelling and hiking loads as a child, holding lots of maps and playing "What is the capital of...?". I also had a globe in my room - the kind that shows you the sun's path across the Earth depending on the time of year - and our house is full with souvenirs from around the world. Foreign countries have fascinated me for as long as I can remember, not least due to my dual heritage. I am sure it is the reason why I studied social anthropology and embarked on a career in international development. So much for my own curiosity for places far away.

In Southeast Asia, I came across many people who had never heard of the country I come from, or they have but don't associate it with much. While it does not offend me (for many reasons), it is very frustrating to have to say, "It is very similar to Germany" if I want to help people place me. Austria and Germany, while on friendly terms, are competing neighbours with similar but different cultures, kind of like Malaysia vs. Singapore or China vs. Taiwan.

Instead of giving an abbreviated history of Austria (available on Wikipedia anyway), I decided to pick 15 brands/names/things that you probably have heard of but might not associated with Austria. I tried to make the facts interesting for Austrian readers as well!

#1 Movies that featured Austrian film locations:

Look familiar?

Click on the image to see the complete picture.

You saw it at the beginning of James Bond's Quantum of Solace (partially shot in Bregenz & Feldkirch). Austria has a lot of lakes and hosts quite a few festivals on floating stages.
Bridget Jones flew down the slopes in Lech am Arlberg in the Edge of Reason and Brad Pitt hiked somewhere around Lienz in Seven Years in Tibet, playing Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer.

#2 Swarovski crystals:
Founded in 1895 by Daniel Swarovski who set up the factory in the Tyrol (to use local hydroelectric power for the energy-intensive grinding process). The museum is a popular tourist attraction. Look for yourself on its official website!

#3 Famous Queens:
Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France, was Austrian. Her mother, based in Vienna, was Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, Maria Theresia [please DO NOT confuse with Mother Theresa...] who had 16 kids (of which 3 did not survive infancy, 3 more died as teenagers) AND was a leader of the Habsburg empire that at some point in time included pretty much half of Europe (conquered by marriage). A great reformer, she abolished torture and for the first time, capital punishment (which was later reintroduced by her successors; the last person was executed in 1950 and the capital punishment was finally banned in 1968), introduced compulsory school attendance, taxed the nobility (to great benefit of the Austrian economy), introduced small pox vaccinations for children (setting a good example with her own) and reduced the influence of the Church, among other accomplishments.

"Let them sit cake" - by Vienna-based Croatian designer Dejana Kabiljo.

#4 Mozart

... was probably Austria's most famous wunderkind. Since we just had International Women's Day, let's mention for once that his sister, Maria Anna (nicknamed "Nannerl") was also a gifted composer and could have been very successful if she had lived in another era:

"When she was seven years old, her father [Leopold] started teaching her to play the harpsichord. Leopold took her and Wolfgang on tours of many cities, such as Vienna and Paris, to showcase their talents. In the early days she sometimes received top billing and she was noted as an excellent harpsichord player and fortepianist.

However, given the views of her parents, prevalent in her society at the time, it became impossible as she grew older for Marianne to continue her career any further. According to New Grove, 'from 1769 onwards she was no longer permitted to show her artistic talent on travels with her brother, as she had reached a marriageable age.'

Wolfgang went on during the 1770s to many artistic triumphs while traveling in Italy with Leopold, but Marianne had to stay home in Salzburg with her mother. She likewise stayed home with Leopold when Wolfgang visited Paris and other cities (1777-1779) accompanied by his mother. There is evidence that Marianne wrote musical compositions, as there are letters from Wolfgang praising her work, but the voluminous correspondence of father Leopold never mentions any of her compositions, and none have survived." - From Wikipedia.

Beethoven (German) spent the majority and rest of his life in Austria as did many other musicians because Vienna used to be the music capital of Europe (think of it as the Hollywood of classical music). Nowadays, young people from around the world (a lot from East Asia) come to Vienna to study music (much like art students who go to Paris). Last year, I attended a Christmas concert by the Taiwanese embassy featuring some 40 really gifted Taiwanese students performing European classical music and Taiwanese compositions. I think I finally had an idea of the amazement of Malays and Indonesians when meeting foreigners who learn their history and/or language!

#5 Arnold Schwarzenegger, the "Governator"
... is Austrian.

#6 Movies made BY Austrians:
Stefan Ruzowitzky - The Counterfeiters

"The Counterfeiters (German: Die Fälscher) is a film written and directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky. It fictionalizes Operation Bernhard, a secret plan by the Nazis during the Second World War to destabilize Great Britain by flooding its economy with forged Bank of England bank notes. The film centres on a Jewish counterfeiter, Salomon 'Sally' Sorowitsch, who is coerced into assisting the Nazi operation at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp." - quoted from IMDB. It won the 2007 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Erwin Wagenhofer - We feed the World

"Every day in Vienna the amount of unsold bread sent back to be disposed of is enough to supply Austria's second-largest city, Graz. Around 350,000 hectares of agricultural land, above all in Latin America, are dedicated to the cultivation of soybeans to feed Austria's livestock while one quarter of the local population starves. Every European eats ten kilograms a year of artificially irrigated greenhouse vegetables from southern Spain, with water shortages the result.

In WE FEED THE WORLD, Austrian filmmaker Erwin Wagenhofer traces the origins of the food we eat. His journey takes him to France, Spain, Romania, Switzerland, Brazil and back to Austria.

Leading us through the film is an interview with Jean Ziegler, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food." - quoted from the official website. If you like Food, Inc., you'll like this movie.

Michael Haneke - The Piano Teacher (French: La Pianiste)

A 2001 film directed by Michael Haneke, starring Isabelle Huppert and Benoît Magimel. The film is based on a novel by Elfriede Jelinek. She received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004.

"Erika Kohut, in her late thirties, and a piano teacher at the Vienna Conservatory, lives with her tyrannical elderly mother in a hermetically sealed world of love-hate and dependency in which there is no room for men. Her sex life consists of voyeurism and masochistic self-injury. Then one of Erika's pupils decides to seduce his teacher." - quoted from the film's profile by the Cannes Film Festival. Yes, the content is provocative for Austrian standards too.

#7 Automobile Engineers
Before its founder Mr. Ferdinand Porsche established himself with racing car motors, he created the VW Beetle, the first gasoline-electric hybrid car. Quite an improvement, that some visualised creatively as shown below:

Siegfried Marcus:

Forgotten by the world, credited as the person who got the first gas-powered car running (late 19th century)!

#8 Gustav Klimt
...painted The Kiss:

#9 Diplomats
Kurt Waldheim, controversial 4th UN Secretary-General (late in his career, it was revealed that he used to be a Nazi intelligence officer and he was subsequently banned from entering the US)

#10 Ignaz Semmelweis, M. D.
Discovered in the 1840s that childbed fever could be drastically reduced if doctors washed their hands between autopsies and gynaecological examinations (yay!). It was only in the 1860s however, when Louis Pasteur proved the germ theory of diseases that Semmelweis findings were confirmed and broadly accepted.

#11 Physicists
Austria has quite a lot of renown physicists. These three are the ones you have most likely heard of:

Ernst Mach:
Physicist and philosopher who studied shock waves. The Mach number, the unit of the speed of sound, is named after him.

Christian Doppler:
Physicist and mathematician the Doppler Effect is named after.

Erwin Schrödinger:
One of the founders of quantum mechanics, just google "Schroedinger's cat". Nobel Prize winner.

#12 Made in Austria:
Red Bull:
Have you ever seen the following drink in Thailand and wondered if it was a Red Bull knock-off?

Actually, it is the other way around: In the 1980s, Austrian entrepreneur Dietrich Mateschitz was on a trip to Thailand as international marketing director of a toothpaste brand and discovered that the local drink called Krating Daeng (in turn, based on Japanese drink Lipovitan/Livita) relieved his jet lag. Global headquarters are in Fuschl am See.

Glock guns:
Most widely distributed gun among police forces world-wide (including Royal Malaysian Police & Armed Forces, Philippine security forces, the Thai National Police, the Geneva Police, the London Metropolitan Police Firearms Unit and pretty much every law enforcement agency in the USA). At home in Deutsch-Wagram.

Fischer & Atomic Skis:
Some of the largest manufacturers of equipment for competitive winter sport athletes (just watch a world cup or the winter olympics!).

#13 Sigmund Freud:
Founder of psychoanalysis.

#14 Bertha von Suttner:
Radical pacifist. First female winner of the Nobel Peace Prize (1905). Believed to have been influential in Nobel's decision to include a peace prize category. Can be found on the 2€ coin.

Interestingly, most people, including myself until now, falsely believe it is her contemporary Empress Elisabeth (Sisi), notable for her feminist spirit, and more famous in contemporary popular culture (a successful musical production about her life that was sold to as far as Japan; a movie trilogy starring Romy Schneider that is shown each year over the Christmas holidays on national TV and probably has been ever since it was released in 1955) on the 2€ coin.

#15 United Nations
Austria's capital Vienna was the third of the United Nation HQs, after New York and Geneva and before Nairobi. It also hosts the global headquarters of the IAEA (yes, Mr. Mohamad ElBaradei!), UNIDO and UNODC (UN Office on Drugs and Crime). The last UN Special Rapporteur for Torture, Manfred Nowak, was from Austria.

I hope you enjoyed this post and learned a few new things, I certainly did while researching some facts!

07 March 2011

83rd Academy Awards - Winning Documentaries!

From Brooklyn to Brazil, from Israel to Indonesia and China, this year's crop of nominated documentaries are of particular interest for anyone concerned about peace, development and the environment. The short-length movies listed below give voice to refugee children, Muslims who lost family members to terrorism and who challenge extremists in front of the camera, and environmental refugees (the current buzz in UNHCR's policy research). They bring the plight of a remote Chinese village to screens and the attention of thousands around the world. One feature-length and highly acclaimed documentary also tells us the story of a group of people in Rio whose livelihood is to pick recyclable garbage and whose lives change when an artist arrives and together with them, creates highly sought after art out of what they find in the dump.

All of the documentaries definitely deserve to be winners! Yet, I am glad that Strangers No More won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject. It succeeds at showing that refugees are survivors by not showing them as victims, it manages to get viewers in peaceful receiving countries to relate through an experience they are likely familiar with (school and dreams of what they want to do later in life), thereby - whether consciously or not - tackling the fear of "the" refugee as the the unimaginable Other. Also, what this school does is just great peace building!

Everyone who knows me well knows that I am absolutely nuts for documentaries (always happy for film festival buddies!). In fact, I would love to shoot my own (plural!) some day and if there are any other folks out there serious about film, we should get together some time! I did some research on the technical and practical aspects of low&no budget documentary film-making, have some usable equipment at home and am happy to get rollin'!

For now though, sit back, relax and be inspired by the trailers below!

Strangers No More (Winner of 2011 Oscar for Best Documentary)

Produced and directed by Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon
Simon & Goodman Picture Company
40 min. Israel

"In the heart of Tel Aviv, there is an exceptional school where children from forty-eight different countries and diverse backgrounds come together to learn. Many of the students arrive at Bialik-Rogozin School fleeing poverty, political adversity and even genocide. Here, no child is a stranger.

Strangers No More follows several students’ struggle to acclimate to life in a new land while slowly opening up to share their stories of hardship and tragedy.

With tremendous effort and dedication, the school provides the support these children need to recover from their past. Together, the bond between teacher and student, and amongst the students themselves, enables them to create new lives in this exceptional community."

(Quote from the official website where you can also find out about screenings in your city)

Killing in the Name
Produced & directed by Jed Rothstein, Liz Garbus, Rory Kennedy
Moxie Firecracker Films
39 min. USA/Indonesia/Jordan

"Ashraf was celebrating the happiest day of his life when an Al-Qaeda suicide bomber walked into his wedding and killed his father and 26 other family members in front of his eyes. Now, he’s rising from tragedy to break the silence in the Muslim community on the taboo subject of terrorism. From a recruiter for Al-Qaeda, to an Islamic militant behind one of the world’s worst terrorist attacks, to a madrassa filled with young boys ready to fulfill the duty of jihad, Ashraf takes us on a harrowing journey around the world to see if one man can speak truth to terror, and begin to turn the global tide."

"The [Global Survivors] Network grew out of the first ever United Nations Symposium on Supporting Victims of Terrorism on 9 September 2008. The UN Secretary-General gave a platform and an opportunity to 18 victims of terror and ten experts to share their stories and insights, in the hope of influencing delegates from 192 nations to pass resolutions and policies aimed at preventing future acts of terror."
"It is comprised of people from six continents representing many different religions."

(Quotes from the official website of the movie at the Global Survivors Network)

Sun Come Up
Produced/Directed by Jennifer Redfearn
Sun Come Up Productions
38 min. Papua New Guinea

"Sun Come Up follows the relocation of some of the the Carteret Islanders a peaceful community living on a remote island chain in the South Pacific Ocean, and now, some of the world’s first environmental refugees.

When rising seas threaten their survival, the islanders face a painful decision: they must leave their beloved land in search of a new place to call home.

The film follows a group of young Carteret Islanders led by Nick Hakata as they search for land in Bougainville, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea 50 miles across the open ocean.

The move will not be easy as Bougainville is recovering from a 10-year civil war. Many Bougainvilleans remain traumatized by the “Crisis” as the civil war is known locally. Yet, Sun Come Up isn’t a familiar third world narrative. Out of this tragedy comes a story of hope, strength, and profound generosity.

Sun Come Up tells the story of some of the world's first environmental refugees, the Carteret Islanders. The film follows relocation leader Ursula Rakova and a group of young families as they search for new homes in war torn Bougainville, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea."

(Quote from the official website)

Winner of a dozen awards including the UNHCR Film Festival 2010 and the (up and coming!) EcoFocus Film Festival 2010.

The Warriors of Qiugang
Directed by Ruby Yang, Produced by Thomas Lennon
Thomas Lennon Films, co-produced with Yale Environment 360
39 min. China

"Zhang Gongli is a farmer who grew up in the village of Qiugang, in Anhui Province; his house and fields lie near the banks of the Huai River. In 2004, private chemical companies took over an old state-owned enterprise that had long produced pesticides and dyes in Qiugang. As production ramped up, black waters disgorged from the plants and flooded the fields of Qiugang. Fish died, crops failed, and villagers grew alarmed by the large numbers of their own succumbing to cancer." "For five years they fight to transform their environment and as they do, they find themselves transformed as well."

(Quote from the official website & IMDB)

Waste Land
Directed by Lucy Walker, Karen Harley & João Jardim
Produced by Angus Aynsley & Hank Levine
Almega Projects & O2 Filmes
99 min. Brazil

"Filmed over nearly three years, WASTE LAND follows renowned artist Vik Muniz as he journeys from his home base in Brooklyn to his native Brazil and the world's largest garbage dump, Jardim Gramacho, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. There he photographs an eclectic band of “catadores”—self-designated pickers of recyclable materials. Muniz’s initial objective was to “paint” the catadores with garbage. However, his collaboration with these inspiring characters as they recreate photographic images of themselves out of garbage reveals both the dignity and despair of the catadores as they begin to re-imagine their lives. Director Lucy Walker (DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND, BLINDSIGHT and COUNTDOWN TO ZERO) and co-directors João Jardim and Karen Harley have great access to the entire process and, in the end, offer stirring evidence of the transformative power of art and the alchemy of the human spirit."

(Quote from the official website)

Winner of the Amnesty International Film Prize 2010, the Berlinale Audience Award 2010 and the Sundance Audience Award 2010.