Monthly Archives: October 2009

Singapore

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Reading ‘Berlin’ in Singapore

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I'm in Singapore this week, and I picked up Antony Beevor's 'Berlin: The Downfall 1945' at Heathrow on the way over. Most of the book is a painstakingly detailed account of the Red Army advance through east Germany, complete with heteroese terms like 'batallion' and 'rightward flank'. You only find the good bad guy vs. bad guy stories in nonfiction.

The best parts of the book are the descriptions of life in Berlin during the Russian advance. Here's a city of 3.5 million people (plus probably 500,000 refugees) that has been the center of a rapidly expanding, and now dwindling, empire-let for the past four years. All the residents' husbands, and now sons, have been conscripted, often literally at gunpoint, and they know that they're going to lose the war. The only thing they're hoping for is that the Americans get to them before the Russians do.

The book contains passages like this:

Air raids were so frequent, with the British by night and the Americans by day, that Berliners felt that they spent more time in cellars and air-raid shelters than in their own beds.
[…]
The complex of shelters under the Gesundbrunnen U-bahn station had been designed to take 1,500 people, yet often more than three times that number packed in. Candles were used to measure the diminishing levels of oxygen. When a candle placed on the floor went out, children were picked up and held at shoulder height. When a candle on a chair went out, then the evacuation of the level began. And if a third candle, positioned at about chin level, began to sputter, then the whole bunker was evacuated, however heavy the attack above.

Beevor says there were more than 80 raids in just the first four months of 1945.

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Here's Berlin right before the 'Ivans' arrive, on April 21:

That morning, the ordinary women of Berlin emerged to queue for food after the air raid. The sound of artillery fire in the distance confirmed their fears that this might be their last chance to stock up. The sunshine buoyed the spirits of many. 'Suddenly one remembers it's spring,' wrote one young woman that afternoon. 'Through the fire-blackened ruins the scent of lilac comes in waves from ownerless gardens.'

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The sheer recentness of the history in Berlin makes it almost unique among European cities, and it's one of the reasons I like it so much. Beevor's book is a good reminder that in Germany, like every other country, history is the word we use when we talk about the derailing–and curtailing–of millions of lives. That 'ownerless gardens' thing gets me every time.

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World welcomes first YouTube casualty

Have you guys seen the clip of the Japanese hidden-camera show where a dude is tricked into thinking that a sniper is picking off everyone else in the room? It's pretty great huh.

You can never really say how you would react to extreme, surreal stress, but six years after the invention of YouTube, I can't help but think that the first time something genuinely terrible happens to me, my first reaction will be 'OK, where's the pinhole camera, asshole?'

Come to think of it, this is probably how I will die. Someone's gonna come into a subway car waving a handgun around and I'll yell 'Cut! Worst Punk'd'ing ever!' and get shot. The only ones screaming will be people who never upgraded from dial-up.

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The gay rallies in Washington last weekend weren’t the work of ‘fringe’ groups

They were the expression of a minority demographic group asking a president to deliver on the promises he made to us.

We're not comparing Obama to Hitler. We're not making things up or hopelessly exaggerating reasonable policies. We're not saying that gay marriage has to be legal at the federal level by Halloween.

All we're saying is that you should make demonstrable steps toward the shit you told us you were going to do. Some of that shit is easy, and some of that shit is hard. We understand this. Our advice:Start with the easy shit.   

It's not fringe when a group that the president has directly addressed asks him to enact the promises which were the reason we voted for him. Those words were the reason we supported you and, simply put, now is the time to put substance behind them. That's all we're asking.

 

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Prostitution and hitchhiking

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When you think about it, it's kind of silly that we don't hitchhike more in Western countries, especially the United States. The cars and roads are there. The distances are reasonable. No one is so socially disastrous that you can't make 15 minutes of small talk with them.

Yet we never consider it. Hitchhiking has become so rare that only the weirdos do it. It's taken on cultural connotations (lower-class, hippie, daisy dukes) that no respectable middle-class professional would want to be associated with. Consequently, we waste billions of petro-gallons driving empty chairs from A to B.

We've set up a series of cultural rules for ourselves that prohibit hitchhiking. We're awkward and untrusting in confined spaces with strangers. We're wary of the motives of someone who would want to take a random thumber in their car. We don't like making ourselves vulnerable, or relying on other people. We don't want to risk hearing a John Cougar Mellencamp mixtape.

We look at the cultural practices of developing countries and pull our hair out: 'These people are dying of AIDS yet they won't use condoms because they think it will dampen their manliness? Come on!' You can imagine someone walking around D.C. going, 'These people are so concerned about global warming that they'll spend thousands of dollars on local food, electric cars and building retrofits, yet they won't share their commute with strangers? Come on!' When you control for the cultural factors, we're all idiots.

That said, I'm not gonna start thumb-mmuting anytime soon. It would take hours to get anyone to pull over, and I am wary of their motives and personality. This is the world we've got. But hitchhiking is the kind of thing that governments all over the world should be encouraging, not discouraging. Practices like hitchhiking aren't inherently unsafe. They're unsafe in practice because only the fringe does them. The minute they become mainstream, the risk falls away.

I can't help thinking that prostitution somehow follows this model too. Most people would never get a prostitute  because, well, they're fucking prostitutes. The buyers and sellers of sex are a fringe group, and indeed, there are a number of risks associated with that market as its currently practiced.

But most of the seediness of prostitution really comes from its rareness and practitioners. Just like hitchhiking, the act of prostitution isn't what gives us the gishies, it's the reality of prostitution. The girls are exploited, the pimps are assholes, the brothels have lava-lamps, etc. It's not that it's immoral, necessarily, it's more that it's fucking tacky.

My generation's promiscuous as hell. We're not offended by one-night stands, or fuck-buddies, or threesomes, or any other kind of sexual hitchhiking, as long as its consensual. Yet most of us would never even consider buying or being a prostitute. In the world we've got, that's a prudent decision. But in moral terms, we should acknowledge that it's the current reality of prostitution that offends us, not the prostitution itself.

[P.S. you gotta admire this dude's candor: Why I Slept with 1,300 Women]

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I saw a movie in 3-D last night

for the first time since 'Captain Eo' at Disneyland when I was 12. I found the 3-D-ness kind of distracting, actually, but I bet people found color and sound distracting, too, when they were first introduced. Luckily the movie was 'Up', which is good no matter how many dimensions its in.

For some reason, this video reminded me of that

Olafur Arnalds


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