Monthly Archives: March 2012

Literary Playlist: ‘Men are Giants or Pygmies’

If you want to reduce inequality, you need to change how much people make, not just how much they pay in taxes.

As sophisticated as we think we are, we inevitably succumb to the social pressure of ‘How can I help you today?’

Movie trailers are an increasingly relevant art form. Eventually a filmmaker is going to realize that you don’t need dialogue, plot or characters. Just give us flashing images and sound editing, and we’ll do the rest of the work ourselves.

Heartbreaking letter from a man who thinks he’s too ugly to ever be loved. I instinctively distrust people who have never momentarily felt that way.

British people are sub-literate because their primary source of news consists exclusively of middle-school gossip and grandmotherly fear-mongering.

Eventually we’ll all adjust to the new Information Age equilibrium, and we’ll all realize that just because technology allows you to broadcast yourself to the whole world, that doesn’t mean anyone’s actually watching.

Capitalism is a deliberate march toward the specialization and separation of labor. About 10 years ago, it reached pop music.

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Why Don’t Bad Employees Get Fired?

I know the purpose of this thread is to vent against our specific unproductive coworkers and marinate in middle-distance  smugness, but it mostly makes me sad. Every unproductive, overpaid employee is someone who would probably be better off doing something else, something they enjoyed more and were better at.

I think this phenomenon—people sleepwalking through their jobs—becomes an increasing problem in mid- and late-career employees, and I think it’s caused by a combination of America’s lack of a safety net for workers who quit or are fired and the extreme difficulty of switching careers after you have significant experience in one field.

People who realize at age 36 that their current job is not their passion have few options for finding another one. Going back to school is risky and financially ruinous. Leaving your current job means giving up healthcare. Employers are unlikely to hire a 40-year-old for an entry-level job. There might not be any better jobs in the city where you live and your kids go to school, etc.

We’ve built a whole labour market and economy on the assumption that workers enter and leave employment purely on the basis of their preferences and worth, but that’s rarely the case. Spending eight hours a day doing something you don’t enjoy is preferable to gambling your home, pension and security on a career change.

The real question isn’t why bad employees don’t get fired. It’s why they can’t quit.

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Filed under America, Serious, Work

Corbusierhaus, West Berlin

This weekend I got a tour of Le Corbusier's famous apartment block. I'll tell you what I learned:

Four identical buildings were built, two in Germany and two in France. Each is slightly adapted to its setting.

The French apartments, for example, have slightly lower ceilings since French people are shorter than Germans. Corbusier wanted the ceilings low enough so that residents could paint them without standing on a ladder.

I know it sounds like I'm making that up, but it's true. Architects are weird little dictators sometimes.

The Berlin apartments were built in 1957, as ammunition in a war of aesthetics between East and West Berlin.

Corbusier is often blamed—fairly or unfairly, what the hell do I know?—for the trend of up-built project blocks surrounded by empty green space.

In spite of all the criticism that idea receives, our guide insisted that this particular model was successful. The apartments are all occupied, there's a long waiting list.

Almost all of the apartments span two floors. Most of them consist of a narrow kitchen and living room above (or below, depending on which floor they're on) a big-ass bedroom.

The trim pattern is standard across all four Corbusier buildings, but the colors are customized to the location. These are apparently meant to evoke Northern Germany.

Indeed, staring at these you can almost smell a currywurst rotating.

All of the railings are specifically designed to be at chest-height of the average German.

The building is designed to face precisely north-south, to maximize the amount of sunlight that comes in.

The font is Corbusier's; the doodle, not.

The hallways have special corrugated roofs to reduce the echo effect you find in every other apartment hallway ever.

The walls between the apartments are thicker on the lower floors, since they're supporting more weight.

The apartments were built to isolate noise, but apparently Corbusier forgot about smells, and residents routinely complain about experiencing each others' dinners.

The laundry room was deliberately built too large for its purpose, so residents have to mingle with one another.

So the main thing I learned? If architects ran the world, our lives would be different in a number of ways. But mostly our laundry, our ceilings and our smells.

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Filed under Berlin, Germany, Pictures

World in Miniature

For some reason I've started taking long bike rides every Monday after work.

About 50 percent of the time I end up making it to Potsdam.

This is the bridge where West Germany met East for 46 years.

The thing I like about living in Europe is that all the cities look like model train sets from far away.

Up close, you see the effort in all the details.

and it makes you glad you took your time getting there.

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Filed under Berlin, Germany, Pictures, Serious, Travel

Sachsenhausen

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Filed under Berlin, Germany, Pictures, Travel

Hand Over Fist

So I’m eight months into my first NGO fundraising job. I’m enjoying it, but the translation of genuine human need into effective marketing sometimes makes me feel cynical and complicit.

We were having a discussion the other day how to best communicate our issue in few words and strong images. We’re trying to strike a balance between enticing people to donate and ensuring that we aren’t manipulating them or blowing our issue out of proportion.

Convincing people to support your organization isn’t the same as selling them a bicycle or a spatula. There are actual human beings at the receiving end of the work we do, and I think that gives us an obligation for truth, sobriety and maturity in our communications that we don’t share with conventional marketers.

And then there’s Unicef:

You can imagine some bespectacled 30-something at a consulting firm (in fucking Brooklyn, undoubtedly) going, ‘You! Get me a picture of the cutest, saddest African baby alive! … And you! What’s the most tragic five words you can imagine? I want ‘em in all caps!’

I’m not offended or disappointed by this, exactly. Unicef’s a great organization, and if we all spent 200 bucks a year supporting them instead of updating our iPods or whatever, the world would probably be a better place. It’s just funny, in an inevitable sort of way, how marketing turns everything it touches into camp.

Or in other words, don’t hate the player, hate the game. Unicef is officially a ‘competitor’, so I clearly need to rise to this standard. Is that baby available for a photo shoot in Berlin? I’ll contact his agent.

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Filed under Random, Work

Desire Lines

When I first got here, I was irritated at how much the German countryside resembles Denmark.

All crewcut and radiant, mocking you with its productivity.

I've lived here almost a year now, and I'm starting to notice the differences.

It turns out I just had to wait, and look harder.

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Filed under Berlin, Personal, Pictures, Travel

Literary Playlist: ‘The Ride Down is Likely to be Unhurried’

Jon Krakauer’s meditation on futility just cements my impression—firmly in my 30s now—that the key to happiness is defining life through a series of arbitrary goals, then achieving them.

In gayness: The fact that the dudes charged with sodomy in Lawrence v. Texas weren’t dating or even sleeping together renders the judgement more, not less, essential. Also, it’s probably not a great idea to charge an individual with another individual’s suicide.

It’s depressing to realize that an idea you disagree with has objectively won.

Is anything on NPR true?!

Buying the correct stuff is probably not a robust recipe for saving the world.

Try to read this article and not spend at least 15 minutes afterward ruminating on the difference between ‘immoral’ and ‘amoral’.

It’s funny how telling a story from start to finish will inevitably give you sympathy for its protagonists, even sleazeball online poker managers.

Internet videos of people saying stupid-slash-infuriating things are generally worth less than you paid for them.

How do we not marvel every single day at the ability of capitalism to turn the things which are killing us into business opportunities?

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So Far So Goethe

Last weekend I went to Leipzig.

It's big and historic and charming, and you get the feeling that if it was in another country, it would be a majorer tourist attraction.

But since Germany is already so sardined with cute cities, it's like 12th on everyone's list.

The list of former residents reads like Germany's greatest hits: Bach! Mendelssohn! Schumann! Kafka! Wagner! Leibniz! Goethe!

The rich history informs current lifestyles. In the malls, all the dollar stores are called Faustian Bargains.

The bike share scheme is called The Ride of the Valkyries.

And the gyms have signs outside that say 'Metamorphosis!' in the imperative form.

OK, those are lies, but people here probably get those references.

Leipzig has the same basic biography as most of Berlin's surrounding cities:

City founded in random location un-near river, lake or major trade route.

City gains reputation through robust university and cultural life.

City significantly bombed in World War II.

City restored to snowglobe status by East German government.

The particulars are where it gets interesting. This is the monument to when Leipzig beat Napoleon in 1813. It's shaped like a middle finger, and the Latin inscription reads 'How's the weather on Elba, punk?'

The statues inside depict sullen teenagers, as a tribute to Germany's youthful soldiers at the time.

Shortly after this was built, Leipzig became famous for cotton production, pastries and Nazi resistance.

And you can still find two of the three here today.

In the '80s, Leipzig was a site of major resistance to the East German regime. Nowadays it's an overstuffed college town, full of students and artists gliding around on bike paths.

Only here they call them Bach lanes.

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Filed under Germany, Pictures, Travel

Stuff I Didn’t Know About the Great Depression

Last week I read Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed. It describes the leadup to the Great Depression through the directors of the U.S., British, German and French central banks. It begins with the debate over World War I reparations and follows all the interest rate hikes, speculation orgies and gold standardizing that led the world to the stock market crash in 1929.

The main thing I didn’t know about the 1920s was that pretty much everyone saw the stock market crash coming:

One is led to the inescapable but unsatisfying conclusion that the bull market of 1929 was so violent and intense and driven by passions so strong that the Fed could do nothing about it. Every official had tried to talk it down. The president was against it, Congress too; even the normally reticent secretary of the treasury had spoken out. But it was remarkable how difficult it was to kill it. All that the Fed could do, it seemed, was to step aside and let the frenzy burn itself out. By trying to stand up to the market and then failing, it simply made itself look as impotent as everybody else.

Another thing I didn’t know was that amateur stock market speculation was basically an American phenomenon:

Though the size of the British stock market was comparable as a percentage of GDP to that in the United States ,the average British person preferred to bet on sports and left the stock market to the City bigwigs, while in France and Germany the size ofthe stock markets was tiny. Thus the crash did not exert the same hold on the psychology of European consumers and investors, and the effect on their economies was correspondingly less traumatic. 

Someone needs to write the history of sports betting in Britain. I literally cannot fathom a more useless way to spend one’s time.

In the 1920s, all the major economies were pegged to the gold standard, and the supply of gold was crucial for the health of their exchange rates. As usual, I was much less interested in the economics than the logistics:

Unknown to most people, much of the gold that had supposedly flown into France was actually sitting in London. Bullion was so heavy–a seventeen-inch cube weighs about a ton–that instead of shipping crates of it across hundreds of miles from one country to another and paying high insurance costs, central banks had taken to ‘earmarking’ the metal, that is, keeping it in the same vault but simple re-registering its ownership.

Thus the decline in Britain’s gold reserves and their accumulation in France and the United States was accomplished by a group of men descending into the vaults of the Bank of England, loading some bars of bullion onto a low wooden truck with small rubber tires, trundling them thirty feet across the room to the other wall, and offloading them, though not before attaching some white name tags indicating that the gold now belonged to the Banque de France or the Federal Reserve Bank.

It’s a 564-page book, and I took away three factoids. Sounds about right.

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