Monthly Archives: April 2012

Literary Playlist: ‘We are more than our headscarves and our hymens’

America does austerity bigger than those European pussies.

Just when we all agreed that political candidates don’t matter, Mitt Romney had to come along and fuck everything up.

Chronically underfunded government institutions mean that for anything to happen, you have to wait for a hero to come along.

Latin American presidents want to end the drug war!

‘Facebook is the biggest social phenomenon since the telephone’

While economists and policymakers desperately search for ways to ‘upscale’ poverty alleviation, the academics are increasingly discovering that it can’t be done.

Every generation devises a narrative for why it suffers from depression.

Juveniles shouldn’t be held to the same moral standard for criminal behavior as adults. Unless, of course, a governor decides they should.

Now that the US has de facto lost the ability to raise taxes, states are courting casinos so they can suck on that sin-tax teet.

What it’s like to be a woman in the Middle East.

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I found an R. Crumb sketchbook in a used bookstore and read it on a train

 

 

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Cologne Promotes Health and Wellness, One Cigarette Machine at a Time

 

Did these used to be everywhere in Germany?

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Filed under Germany, Pictures, Travel

Germany’s Boringest City

Before I went to Cologne, everyone was all, 'There's nothing to do there!' 'Go to a real place instead!' ''It's super lame!'

And they were absolutely fucking correct.

Grapeseed?! Even their fucking crops are uncool.

You said it, street sign.

All of my photos are overly zoomed-in, to crop out as much of the surroundings as possible.

Once you get downtown, it's even worse.

Vertical strip malls punctuated by obsolete technology like horse-cops and cobblestones.

Deliberately narrow streets so you don't have to see it all at the same time.

See? Zooming again just to kill time. It's a citywide solitary confinement sentence.

Cologne's one claim to fame is this fucking upward sprawl. Old, check. Dirty, check. One photo is enough, but I took four. Out of sympathy.

Someone in Cologne told me that if humans disappeared tomorrow, this church would be one of the only structures left standing on earth in 1,000 years.

Maybe in Cologne, it just feels that long.

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Filed under Germany, Pictures, Travel

From The Bottom of My Art

Through a chain of serendipities, last week I ended up at Art Cologne, a trade fair for the art industry.

It's an opportunity for galleries to show off their artists, bag new clients and reach their yearly quota for the word ‘zeitgeist’.

I was wearing collared shirt and carrying a notebook, so people thought I was there to buy. As opposed to gawk and finagle, which was closer to the truth.

The art industry is the last true alchemy left in the modern economy.

Like most developed-world business models, it doesn’t really make anything.

It takes equal parts gossip, expectation and propaganda and turns them into revenue.

Collecting art is either an expression of self, the promotion of an idea or an investment in a commodity, depending on which two people are conversing.

Art galleries work like this: You rent a space, you give it a name, you find an artist. You put their stuff on the wall until someone buys it. You take a percentage and move on to the next wall.

It’s like running a mini-mart, except you don’t actually own anything you’re selling.

Creating art may be philosophy, but selling it is pure capitalism.

After the fair, I asked a gallery owner how he decides how much a particular piece will cost.

Why does this diorama, for example, cost $45,000?

Why not $10,000? Or $200,000?

‘Darling,’ he said.

‘It costs whatever they’ll pay.’

I asked him whether the artists attended.

‘You don’t see cows at a cattle rancher convention,’ he said.

After the show, I met a British performance artist

who had a job teaching English to factory workers in The Netherlands.

Instead of teaching them terms like ‘value chain’ and ‘synergy’, she replaced all the course materials with the works of Marx and explanations of labor rights.

‘If the school finds out, they’ll fire me,’ she said. ‘But it’s not a job, goddammit, it’s art.’

After last week I still agree with her sentiment.

But maybe not her italics.

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Filed under Germany, Personal, Pictures, Travel

German Honesty, Bookstore Edition

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Literary Playlist: ‘This was the very last thing I could do for her’

Journalism, by definition, uses the experiences of individuals as fodder for narratives written by others. It’s nice to see a journalist openly collaborating with a source.

With all my recent talk of obesity, it’s important to realize that world includes food challenges beyond eating too much of it.

Fuck the social commentary, more feature articles with gay one-liners please.

Airport security remains the world’s most pressing First World Problem.

Smoothies are a nutritional holocaust.

America: Our national sporting events have built-in barfights.

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Germany’s Only Natural Resource Is a Bunch of Whiny Nerds. And That’s a Good Thing.

This week I’m reading Michael Porter’s The Competitive Advantage of Nations. It’s an investigation of why countries are good at certain businesses but crappy at others. Why is Switzerland  good at making chocolates, South Korea good at making TVs and the United States good at making laptops in China?

There’s a whole chapter on Germany. We’re gonna need a bigger highlighter.

In Germany, the engineering and technical background of many senior executives produces a strong inclination toward methodical product and process improvement. [...] These characteristics lead to the greatest success in industries with high technical or engineering content (for example, optics, chemicals, complicated machinery), especially where intricate and complex products demand precision manufacturing, a careful development process, after-sale service, and hence a highly disciplined management structure. 

Porter says Germany is a rock star at high-grade manufacturing (think BMW, Bayer and Merck) because as far back as the 1890s, German labor was expensive, so companies had to train workers and automate production to get the most productivity for their money. Germany still has years-long apprenticeship programs, and factory floors are apparently more likely to resemble a Bjork video  than a Dickens novel.

Another reason for Germany’s tech-nerd prowess is its lack of natural resources. Without an infinite spigot of oil, minerals or farmland, German companies got good at wringing every last mark out of their imports. When the rest of the world began to demand conservation and efficiency, German companies were there to meet it.

So Germany is a world leader in high-level exports not because it had natural advantages but precisely because it didn’t:

Disadvantages, [...] such as high labor costs or resource disadvantages, have created further beneficial pressure. [...] A good example is in the agricultural field, where farmland is scarce and labor expensive. The result is a pressing need for high productivity, and Germany had the greatest number of combines per harvestable hectare in the European Community in 1983. German agriculture also placed a very early emphasis on fertilizers as far back as the nineteenth century.

So where does Germany suck?

[...] An area where Germany has serious weaknesses [...] is in the consumer sector. The historical lack of television and radio advertising (the major television channels can show advertising only about 20 minutes per day, with commercials all bunched together, and not on Sunday), coupled with the technical orientation of most German managers, means that image marketing skills are poorly developed.

[...] It is rare that a German firm succeeds in an industry in which intangible brand images and mass communication are important to competitive success. This is in stark contract to the case in America, Italy, or even Japan.

Porter’s book was published in 1992, so the specifics are out of date, but the general point still stands. Germans are visibly less image-oriented than their Italian, French, Scandinavian or British counterparts.

My personal theory on this is that the total eradication of social structures after World War II basically took the class system with it. The primary reason people are interested in fancy clothes, reflective shoes and asymmetrical haircuts is to demonstrate their class status, and in Germany that concept doesn’t really exist anymore. In France and Britain all of your consumption, from your clothes to your groceries, is class-coded. In Germany everyone pushes a cart around the dollar store in their sweatpants on a Saturday afternoon regardless of their income.

I think this still holds true too:

German buyers, both in households and in industry, are sophisticated and extremely demanding. Quality is insisted upon, and no one is bashful about complaining if it is not delivered. Buyers in the United States are often early buyers of new products or services but are not particularly demanding by international standards. German buyers may be somewhat later, but are among the toughest in the world.

‘Early adopters’ in present-day Germany are the people with two-way pagers.

Porter blithely notes that Germany’s dominance in high-end printing presses as far back as 1900 was partly due to the tendency of German consumers to complain to newspapers if they got ink on their hands. American readers didn’t put pressure on the periodicals, who never put pressure on the printers.

So in conclusion, according to Porter, if other countries want to emulate Germany’s success, all they have to do is torch their farmland, dismantle their oil pumps, overpay their workers and start complaining. Maybe Europe has a future after all.

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Filed under Germany, Serious

Literary Playlist: ‘We have a visa for their country, and yet they are not permitted into ours’

Ex-gay therapy‘ is an oxymoron of a magnitude equal to ‘morning person’

The more I learn about the fundraising-industrial complex, the more smug I feel about spending all my money on myself.

How do you write an epic feature on the history of bodybuilding and not mention the phrase ‘male beauty pageant’?

When you think about it, there’s only one reason romance novels  enjoy a lesser literary status than Westerns, spy novels or sci-fi: Their primary readership contains vaginas.

Seattle’s got 99 problems, but a ditch ain’t one.

It’s about time someone applied cold, hard economic truth to the human struggle to find a good panini.

Maybe we’re all living alone into our 30s because it’s fucking awesome. Did you ever think of that, New Yorker, huh?

KFC is basically a tobacco company.

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Filed under America, Journalism

The Obesity Epidemic Is Over (If You Want It)

So I’ve listened to another 25 hours or so of Rudd Center podcasts, and I’ve come to two conclusions about what America needs to do to end the obesity epidemic:

1. Make prevention the only objective
If you’re already fat, you’re screwed. Diets and exercise are so unlikely to work in the long run that you might as well say they don’t. Habits are hard to break, the food environment is a persistent siren and keeping weight off basically means you’re hungry for the rest of your life. Government investment in weight-loss programs for adults are unlikely to have large effects.

Which is why the government should aim its entire obesity effort at preventing childhood obesity. Food industry arguments about personal responsibility, consumer choice and free speech break down when it comes to minors. Children cannot meaningfully understand marketing messages or give consent. They are profoundly subject to their environment and significantly less capable of long-term thinking than adults.

As obesity researcher Yoni Freedhof puts it:

Try to imagine childhood obesity as a flooding river with no end in sight. While teaching children how to swim might help temporarily in keeping them afloat, given that the flood isn’t abating, chances are, even with the best swimming instructions, the kids are going to get tired and sink. So while swimming lessons certainly can’t hurt, what we really need to be shouting about doing is actually changing their environment and building them a levee.

Big Government is perfectly placed to take drastic efforts to prevent childhood obesity. You can’t accuse the government of being a ‘nanny state’ when it comes to children: Protecting children is what nannies do. The government has a clear responsibility–and a profound obligation– to manipulate the economy, environment, infrastructure and legal framework to protect children from companies that lie to them and an environment that manipulates them.

The government needs to lay it out for food companies: When Americans turn 18, you can have them. Until then, they’re ours.

2. Hold companies responsible for obesity outcomes
One of the best ideas I heard on the Rudd Center podcasts was a dude who said that food companies should be given responsibility for quantitative indicators of children’s well-being. So Coca-Cola wants to control all the vending machines in a school district? Fine, but over the next five years the obesity of children in all of those schools has to go down by 5 percent. If obesity goes up during that time, you lose access to them.

This principle could be applied at a city, state or nationwide scale. The best program the government could undertake would be to gather together the major associations of food manufacturers, beverage companies and restaurants and tell them the following:

‘Look, 30 percent of the kids in this country are overweight or obese. We will reduce that to 15 percent, and we’ll do whatever it takes to get there. You can either help us in this goal voluntarily or we will force you through legislation. For the next five years, we’ll work with you to develop voluntary marketing codes, reduce the fat and sugar in your products and promote physical activity. If childhood obesity hasn’t gone down in five years, we’ll legally restrict your ability to sell food in schools. If it hasn’t gone down in 10 years, we’ll ban all marketing to children nationwide. If it hasn’t gone down in 15 years, we’ll tax the shit out of any product that has added sugar.’ And so on.

The food industry always argues that voluntary marketing standards and product guidelines are preferable to legislation. If those standards don’t have any impact on the rise in childhood obesity, however, they’re as useless as day-old French fries.

Holding companies responsible for outcomes instead of processes gives them the freedom to develop their own approaches and an incentive to police each other. Under this plan, industry confederations like the American Grocery Manufacturers and the American Restaurant Association could set industry-wide standards for, say, portion sizes or added sugar that all their members would have to abide by. An objective benchmark allows the government to say ‘you guys figure it out. Or we’ll do it for you’.

Other government agencies already take this approach. The Fed, for example, has committed to keeping inflation around 2 percent, and has said it will do whatever it takes to hit that target (including allowing unemployment to spike above 10 percent). It’s time the rest of the government took the same approach.

Every OECD country has committed to a free-market model that provides food companies unlimited access to consumers, and fuels a cycle of overconsumption, obesity and morbidity. I wonder if any of them will commit to ending it.

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