Monthly Archives: May 2011

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

I hate paragraphs like this:

Indeed, average one-way commuting time has steadily crept up over the course of the past five decades, and now sits at 24 minutes (although we routinely under-report the time it really takes us to get to work). About one in six workers commutes for more than 45 minutes, each way. And about 3.5 million Americans commute a whopping 90 minutes each way—the so-called “extreme commuters,” whose number has doubled since 1990, according to the Census Bureau. They collectively spend 164 billion minutes per year shuttling to and from work.

Whenever I see raw numbers rather than percentages, my bullshit-meter goes into the yellow. ‘About 3.5 million Americans’ is just above one percent of the population, or about 3 percent of the working population. It’s exteme that they’re spending 90 minutes commuting each way, but 3 percent isn’t exactly an epidemic. 

Writing is about choices. The author of this piece (whose work I actually really like) could have written that sentence as a percentage or as a raw number. She knew the percentage sounded weak, so she used the population figure. She then exacerbated this choice with that appalling sentence about how many minutes this amounts to in total.

164 billion minutes is utterly meaningless. America has 300 million people. There are 1,440 minutes in the day. If you measure anything by minutes, it sounds like it’s out of control.

The sentences ‘The average American spends 10 minutes showering every morning’ and ‘Americans spend 3 billion minutes every day standing in hot water!’ convey exactly the same information. One is framed neutrally to inform, the other is framed for scale to manipulate.

You expect this shit from NGOs (’5 trillion grains of rice are denied to poor children every year!’) because their job is to mobilize. Journalists, whose job is to inform, should know better.

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A Jury of Your Spears

It’s white asparagus season in Germany, so last night I tried to make a traditional spargle-mit-cheese-sauce.

I did everything right: I asked the internet for the best asparagus to buy, the most efficient peeling technique, the proper point for chopping off the base, the correct ratio of boiling water to butter and salt, the recommended cooking time and the approved method for checking done-ness. 

‘I’ve got your shit in check,’ I told my meticulously chosen spears, sliding them into the pot.

But they fucking bested me. They came out really tasteless and reedy, like thick blades of grass. ‘Are they supposed to be like this?I thought, chewing like a cow, ‘Or did I forget to ask the internet how to eat them?’ 

So now I have two options. Either I conclude that my preparation somehow failed and try cooking them again, or I conclude that my preparation was correct, and that Germans just like eating dandelion-ass dinner foods.

There’s no polite way to ask a German person about this. But either way, I’m never asking the internet about anything again.

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Shoah ‘Nuff

Yesterday I went to the Jewish Museum. I learned heaps!

I’ll start with the outside: The museum was designed by Daniel Liebeskind, and my Berlinian friend Michael says the modern section is shaped like a slightly skewed Star of David when seen from above. There’s no outside entrance, and the floors, walls and windows are deliberately skewed to give you a sense of disorientation. 

My kneejerk reaction to this kind of high-concept architecture is usually eye-rolling. Liebeskind’s preservation of a few empty rooms inside the museum to symbolize the void created by the Holocaust, for example, is the kind of thing that sounds slightly cheesy when your audioguide tells you in the introduction. 

But it’s executed incredibly well, and it is a visual reminder that what you’re contemplating this afternoon is one of humanity’s ugliest moments, perpetrated at a time not a long time ago or in a galaxy far away, but where you’re standing, in the lifetime of your parents and grandparents. 

On the inside, the museum traces the history of the Jewish people in Germany from their arrival in 341 CE until now. 

As someone who basically knows nothing about this, a few threads of this history stood out to me: 

First of all, it seems that for as long as anyone can remember, Jews occupied a sort of third rail of European life. They were seen as weirdos for their religious beliefs (the concept of race and ethnicity didn’t really exist in Europe before about 1850, it seems, so they weren’t originally mistrusted on those grounds), and they were barred from civil service and other professions. Throughout the middle ages in Germany, they were prohibited from living in cities. 

This separateness, however, made them remarkably efficient economic actors. Due to the constant pogroms and geographical restrictions, their labour mobility was higher than other demographic groups’, so they could move to the economic hotspots more efficiently. Their wide ethnic ties, in an era where credit depended on informal relationships, allowed them to become remarkably successful international traders. When you’re not allowed to be a worker, being an owner or a manager are the only options available. 

The second thing I was struck by was how Jews became a stand-in for whatever the political establishment was opposed to at the time.

When Christian hegemony was sacrosanct, Jews were infidels. When euguenics was in fashion, Jews were genetically inferior. When the Russian revolution threatened to spread into Germany, Jews were communists. When the political right became obsessed with Germany’s glorious past, Jews were modernizers. When the fatherland had to be protected, Jews were too foreign. Once the contempt was there, any ammunition would do.

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Kaiser Wilhelm II Was Kind Of a Dick

‘In addition to his palace at Potsdam and his immense yacht the Hohenzollern, the kaiser possessed at the height of his power some thirty castles and estates all over Germany. He visited a third of them each year, sometimes for no more than a weekend. There was nothing he loved more than to speed through the countryside at night in his own creamy-white train with gold trimmings.

During the hunting season he would sometimes kill more than a thousand animals in a single week. Whenever he graced a military manoeuvre with his imperial presence, every unit of his own army had to win — which did not always suit the purpose of the manouevre. The Hohenzollern — with 350 crew members and space for 80 guests — was kept in readines for him to board at any moment. In Europe he was known as ‘the showman  of the continent, the ‘crown megalomaniac’, the man who ‘wanted every day to be his birthday’.

Geert Mak, ‘In Europe’

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Dresden

I went to Dresden on Saturday

Everyone knows the city was basically destroyed in WWII, but not everyone knows that it was famous before that.

Dresden was considered Germany's Venice in the first half of the 20th century, and a lot of Germans thought it was over the top for the US and British to destroy it so completely

The Allies argue that Dresden was a communications, infrastructure and production hub in 1945, and that intelligence at the time suggested that bombing it would hasten the end of the war by up to 6 months.

To which the Germans retort that all the war production and infrastructure was outside the city center. Dresden's major bridges, for example, weren't even targeted by British bombers.

Meanwhile, while everyone's been arguing, the city has rebuilt itself, exactly as it was.

Walking around, you realize that the grandeur of old-timey European architecture is as dependent on its age as its artistry.

Baroque buildings without grime or wear, built by construction cranes and rendering software, dull their impact and make you feel like you're at LegoLand.

That's not really Dresden's fault, of course. What else are they gonna do?

Fashioning a bunch of replicas beats building a mall or a high rise, and allows the city to feel like it's finally trampling the past.

Still, it's strange to be reminded of destruction not by ruins but by renewal.

Suddenly old buildings aren't monuments or achievements, they're survivors.

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Filed under Germany, Pictures, Serious, Travel

Within the Space of One Lifetime

‘Midway through the 20th century, in the 1950s, an elderly citizen of Berlin could have told you about the sleepy 19th century provincial city of his childhood, the imperial Berlin of his youth, the starving Berlin of 1915, the wild and roaring Berlin of the mid-1920s, the Nazi Berlin of his children, the ravaged Berlin of 1945 and the reconstructed, divided Berlin of his grandchildren. All one and the same city, all within the space of one lifetime.’

– Geert Mak, ‘In Europe’

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The Damien Hurst Cake

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The Early Bird

This Sunday I got up at 7 am, had some quark and blueberries, watched a BBC World show on the euro crisis, then went dancing at a gay nightclub.

Berghain is legendary for its marathon Saturday nights. You hear people say things like ‘there still a queue outside at 6 am!’ and ‘It’s still going at noon on Sunday!’ I arrived at 8 am, and sure enough, it was still at least at half capacity. ‘Is this pepper spray?’ the bouncer asked me, feeling through my bag. ‘It’s sunscreen,’ I said. ‘I’m going to the park after this.’ He waved me through.

Inside, the crowd was actually more mixed than you find at more normal clubbing hours. Hipsters in their 20s, gay-banker types, even some women and ethnic minorities. Had they really all been up since the day before? I’m sure there were pharmaceuticals involved in a significant portion of the stamina on display, but overall, the crowd didn’t seem any more wasted than, say, 3 am.

There was a lounge outside where people were drinking coffee and relaxing, before coming back in and dancing. The dance floor had huge steel shutters that did a good job of blocking out the light, but when the music reached a crescendo, they opened them all and let the light in. The crowd loved it.

I danced for a bit, chatted to some Germans and some tourists, and wandered back out into the sunshine at 11 am. I stood past the exit, watching people squint out the door and into waiting cabs. And I started applying sunscreen.

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Where is the Netflix of the Banking Industry?

I opened a German bank account today. My account contract is 59 pages long and only available in German.

I get 0% interest on my current (i.e. checking) account and 1% on my savings account if I have more than €5,000 in it. If I have less than that, I get 0.5%. The inflation rate in Germany is 2.6%

Most banks in Germany charge a monthly fee of up to €12 just to have an account. Mine doesn’t, but only if I deposit €1,200 per month, every month, into it. I’m not allowed to have a credit card until I’ve been in my current job for six months.

It also comes with the following fees:

  • Having a credit card: €30.00 per year
  • Failing to approve my monthly balance statement within 24 hours: €2.50
  • Withdrawing money from a non-German bank account: €6.00
  • Using my credit card outside of Germany: €3.00 or 1% of the purchase, whichever is higher.
  • Transferring money to the US: €30
  • Overdraft: 18% of the amount over

Those are just the ones I remember. The overall fee structure is so complicated that my account manager had a handwritten cheat-sheet for herself so she could tell me what I owed. After I asked questions related to my specific circumstances (I travel, I shop online, etc), she got exasperated: ‘You can’t expect me to know what all the fees are!’ she said.

This bank was recommended to me by my coworkers as offering some of the best conditions in Germany. If this is one of the good ones, I can’t imagine what the others are like.

Whatever country I live in, I’m struck by the sheer magnitude of the ethical problems built into the banking sector. Banks provide an incredibly limited range of services, all through existing infrastructure, with business practices and customer relations straight out of the used-car-salesman playbook.

It’s not like the bank puts a bunch of my bank notes in a big vault somewhere. They invest my money and make interest. The bank-customer relationship is one of mutualism, not parasitism. I give them capital, they give me security. So why am I constantly charged for routine services?

I don’t know much about the particulars of the banking sector in Germany, but I feel like there must be something preventing new entrants into the market. A bank that charged no fees for routine services and gave interest rates comparable to inflation would still make money investing its customers’ deposits. So why aren’t there a bunch of lean, service-oriented banks?

Free-marketeers are always making the argument that without competition, access to goods and services would come to resemble to DMV. It’s worth pointing out that without regulation, the private sector could come to resemble the banks.

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The Soviets Out-Monument The Germans

Brian Ladd’s book has a nice description of the difficulty the West Berlin government had finding heroes after World War II. Most of the legitimate resistance to the Nazis was undertaken by communists, and the French, British and US weren’t exactly keen on building a bunch of statues to fallen Stalinists in the 1950s. 

The only other option was the dudes who tried to kill Hitler in 1944. They were good guys, right? Standing up to power and shit. 

It turns out the dudes who tried to assassinate Hitler were basically pissed off because he wasn’t a good enough Nazi. They were as into Aryan purity and national conquest as Hitler was, they just thought he was doing it wrong. 

The Soviets, on the other hand, had no such challenges. East Berlin is full of monuments to communist resisters. A lot of these were cleared, and streets renamed, after 1989, but surprisingly much remains. Stalin Allee has been renamed, but to Karl Marx Allee. 

The photo above is the statue commemorating the Soviet defeat of Nazism. It depicts a Russian soldier, holding a sword, cradling a toddler, stomping on a swastika. You can blame the Soviets for many things, but muddled symbolism isn’t among them. 

There’s a whole site, near the Spree, with a bunch of monuments. It’s actually quite moving, and when I visited there was a tour group of Russian World War II veterans. 

The US has a great reverence for its World War II veterans, and our guys went through a lot between Normandy and Berlin. But maaaaan, the way from Stalingrad to Berlin was a lot worse.

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