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Angela Merkel: The Sharp Axe of Reason

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The global recession has hit Germany hard; its economy will likely shrink by 6 percent this year alone. Why should you care? Because it has the biggest economy in Europe and it's the biggest exporter in the world. More than that, you should care because an economic meltdown in Germany could change the course of history. That's not an overstatement. In the 1920s, massive hyperinflation rendered the German currency worthless; at 1 trillion marks to the dollar, a wheelbarrow full of cash wouldn't buy you a newspaper. In response to the dismal situation, the country turned to fascism, allowing the Nazi party to come to power, which in turn led to World War II.

So, at a time like the present, when the German economy stands on the verge of collapse, it would be comforting to know that the country has a calm, rational leader at its helm—one who listens well to others and believes in personal freedom. The good news is that it does, in the form of Angela Merkel, Germany's first female chancellor and its most popular leader since, well, Hitler.

Behind the Iron Curtain

Born in 1954, Angela Merkel grew up poor in East Germany, where her father was a Protestant minister. Because it was a communist country, the government held him in constant suspicion for worshiping something other than the state.

When Angela was a teenager, the Stasi—East Germany's vicious secret police—interrogated everyone in the family. Young Merkel wasn't tortured, just intimidated and asked to spy on her family. She refused.

wallNearly 20 years later, the Berlin Wall came down. Angela, who'd earned her Ph.D. in chemistry, was working as a scientist in an East Berlin lab at the time. When officials announced that travel to West Berlin was no longer forbidden, she did what many East Berliners did that day: She walked to the other side. Standing on the streets of West Germany, Merkel was overwhelmed by the possibilities of freedom. In that moment, she decided to make politics her career.

Merkel wasn't completely without experience. In her youth, she'd served as an officer of "Agitprop" (Agitation and Propaganda) for the state's communist youth organization. Although her work had focused on promoting the sciences, she parlayed her previous experience into a new gig in the burgeoning democratic movement. Within months, she became East Germany's press secretary. Next, after the country officially reunified with West Germany in October 1990, she ran for Parliament and won. The following year, Chancellor Helmut Kohl made her the youngest member of his cabinet.

Part of the reason for Merkel's meteoric rise was that, after spending her childhood behind the Iron Curtain, she appreciated free markets and small government. That led her to join the Christian Democratic Union, a conservative, male-dominated party akin to the moderate wing of the Republican Party in the United States. The Christian Democrats enjoyed using Merkel as their poster child for diversity, which helped her move up the party ranks.

The other reason for Merkel's rapid rise was simply her intelligence. Her experiences as a scientist taught her an analytical approach to problem solving that the popular press would later dub the "Merkel Method." As Germany's minister of the environment in the mid-1990s, she pushed for the creation of the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement to curb greenhouse gases. It's not surprising that, as a scientist, she would lead the fight against global warming. But as a conservative, it was an unlikely move. By Merkel's calculations, it was all about capitalism. "Unchecked climate change is likely to result in at least a 5 percent reduction—and even a 20 percent reduction—in global GDP," Merkel said in 2007. "Effective action to protect the climate would cost a good deal less—around 1 percent of the global GDP."

Under Merkel's guidance—both as the minister of environment and, later, as chancellor—Germany has introduced an environmental agenda that puts other European nations to shame. For example, while England only produced 3 percent of its electricity from renewable resources in 2007, Germany managed 14 percent. Merkel's goal is that by the year 2030, 45 percent of Germany's electricity will be renewable.

The Rational Choice for Chancellor

Even with her party's full support, getting Merkel elected chancellor in 2005 wasn't easy. Many Germans disliked the idea of a woman governing the country. Others thought she wasn't woman enough. They saw Merkel as a rational and clear-headed politician, but also a cold and calculating one. Despite being married (she's been married twice, in fact), Merkel was roundly criticized for not having children and for her austere physical appearance, which is why in 2005, Angela Merkel started wearing make-up for the first time in her life.

At the end of election season, her party, the Christian Democrats, won only 35.2 percent of the seats in parliament. The other major party, the Social Democrats, won 34.4 percent. Because neither party had a majority, German law dictated that they had to come together and broker a deal to select the next chancellor. The process was tantamount to getting all the moderate Republicans and Democrats in Congress to agree on the same person for president. In other words, it was a mess. After three weeks of debates and backroom negotiations, Merkel was named chancellor on November 22, 2005. However, pundits feared she would have no mandate to lead the country. Within a few short months, Merkel would prove them all wrong.

Almost immediately upon taking office, the new chancellor made her mark on the world stage. Merkel met with leaders from the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China, and took charge of the European Union summit meeting in December. For much of the previous year, the European Union had operated without a budget, largely because the British and the French spent more time trading insults than working together. Using her studious, analytical mind, Merkel listened carefully to the needs of all 25 member nations and quickly crafted a compromise that appealed to both Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac. By the end, the European Union had a budget. The only real moment of tension during the summit came when the delegates were served cold cod soup, a British staple. All eyes were on Jacques Chirac, but to the relief of everyone in the room, he consumed it without saying a word. Soon, Merkel was enjoying an 80 percent approval rating, the highest of any German chancellor since WWII.

During the past four years, Merkel's numbers haven't stayed quite that high, but she's had consistent support from the majority of her people. Germans respect her level-headed style. She supported the Iraq War (as a former resident of East Germany, she believes in ending despotism and protecting human rights), and then criticized President Bush for Guantánamo Bay (same reason). Her relationship with President Obama so far has been strained, mostly because they have fundamentally different philosophies on how to fix the global economic crisis. Obama believes Merkel hasn't done enough to promote stimulus spending in Germany, and Merkel believes Obama underestimates the risks involved with making the economy flush with cash. Her biggest fear is inflation, something Germans know plenty about. No one wants to return to pre-World War II Germany, but thanks to Angela Merkel, that's not really a concern.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine as part of Jenny Drapkin's look at "The 5 Gutsiest World Leaders."



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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
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Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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