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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Jewish Museum

 

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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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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This Would Never Happen in America

I spent two hours today buying groceries. It’s not that I had to buy something elaborate or hard to come by. It’s just that I hadn’t bought food since Sunday, so I had to stock up. Plus, I wanted to make a few big meals so I could have leftovers for lunch at work the next few days.

First I went to Lidl, the Ryanair of German grocery stores. For some reason the cheap grocery stores here no longer provide baskets, so you’re left with the choice of either pushing a shopping cart or carrying your groceries like some kind of Denny’s waitress.

This was actually my first time in Lidl here, and it’s every bit as dire as people make it out to be. There are barely any fresh fruit or vegetables, the lights flicker like an airplane bathroom and there always seemed to be a baby crying somewhere in the distance. The prices weren’t even that good. I bought bratwurst and a few cans of beans and put them in my backpack, along with my laptop and some dirty tupperware.

Teetering, I headed for the proper grocery store. Five years in Europe has taught me that the best way to get both value and selection is run through your shopping list first at the cheap grocery store, then fill in the exotics at the upscale grocery store.

After Lidl, I walked into Kaiser’s like an East Berliner crossing over to the west for the first time in 1989. The choice! The ambience! The baskets!

Between the two trips, the commute, waiting in line and struggling with two bags and a cinder-block backpack on the way home, it was a full two hours from the time I left work til the time I arrived home. Dinner wasn’t on the table til 9.30.

The American in me wants to bitch about this, like somehow I’m entitled to pick up my groceries once every 10 days in my station wagon, the bagboy attending to my every whim.

Life takes more effort in Europe than it does in the States. You  have a tiny apartment without a freezer and a Liechtenstein of counter space. You climb four flights of stairs to get there. You can hear your neighbors’ every musical obsession, telephone argument and orgasm.

This is the cost of living in a place people want to live. You share a little more than you do in the States. You work a little harder to hit the reset button every day. Days like this are probably when I should miss the US the most, but instead they remind me why I’m here.

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Up, Down, Charm, Strange, Top and Bottom

My MVP culinary discover here so far is called quark. It’s basically yogurt, but it’s got three times the protein and half the jiggle.

The unflavored kind is essentially a cooking product, so I feel like a felony-grade foreigner eating it out of the package (with nuts and berries. I’m not a fucking Spartan) every morning.

By all appearances, it’s a fucking superfood. Way healthy, tastes good, bought cheap. Besides conjuring images of a lonely, obese teenager by eating it straight out of the package, I can’t see any reason to stop.

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Pool Meets Boy

On Saturday I went to a noon-to-midnight dance party at Stattbad. The DJs set up in the deep end of a drained swimming pool, and people danced in the slope to the shallow end.

There was a giant projector screen playing loops of bird flocks on the walls and ceilings. Giant inflatable tentacles reached into the air above the empty pool. There was a pillow fight at one point, and an inflatable liferaft was punched into the air above the crowd.

‘This is so fucking Berlin!’ I overheard heard at least five people say at various points and in various languages throughout the night.

I realize this makes me an unforgivable tourist, but I kept having the same thought. Days like Saturday are why I moved here.

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Heavy Metal Bands in Poor English-Speaking Countries Have The Best Names

Rainborn and Facebreaker are blatantly the result of Germans playing noun-verb Madlibs. And someone needs to brief the German people that you can’t just put the phrase ‘of death’ after anything and make it sound hardcore (I’m looking at you, Singstars of Death).

But anyway, yeah, disfigure that prostitute! Fuck the commerce! We take Visa and PayPal!

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Bike Commuters Are Objectively Better Than You

This screed against car commuting is basically why I’ll never go back to living in a country where I can’t bike to work every day.

I only realized this after I left the states and stopped car-muting, of course, but time spent in transit in Seattle always just felt like time subtracted from my day. Even if I was listening to the radio, I wasn’t doing something in the same way as working, or reading, or being social.

Commuting in London, on public transport, was slightly better. At least on a train you’re not in control, you’re not operating any machinery more consequential than an iPod. You can read the newspaper if it’s not to crowded, or gawk at the walk-of-shamers as you rattle to work.

It was only when I moved to Denmark and biked out of necessity (poverty!) that I fell in love with it. It requires enough skill that you feel like you’re engaged in an actual activity, rather than the vacuum-like absence of one, but not so much that you can’t enjoy a smartypants podcast.

Biking in Berlin’s not as Cadillac-comfortable as it is in Copenhagen, and the distances are longer. But It’s significantly faster than public transport, and you find pockets of the city you never would have otherwise.

Drivers act, as in every car-based urban economy, like children being informed that they can’t have their birthday every day of the year. I get honked at with a regularity that I can only describe as German. Car commuters shout at me for committing acts that don’t affect them.

This all just makes me feel more smug (which, admittedly, has to be an official synonym for ‘bike commuter’ at this point, right?). I’m in the middle of doing something, while they’re waiting for their day to start.

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Does Reading the Newspaper Actually Make You Smarter?

For the last few years I’ve toyed with the idea of instituting a policy of total current-events abstinence. No newspapers, no blogs, no BBC World, at least for a few weeks. I’d still read, but I’d devote my time to history, economics and science. You know, looking at the world with binoculars rather than a microscope.

This comes from my growing anxiety that the hour I spend consuming daily news and analysis isn’t actually teaching me anything. X celebrity died. Y is wrong on the internet. The former governor of Z is a living shenanigan.

The problem is that very little of the so-called daily news is actually news. I was reading this article today speculating about the Greek crisis and the end of the Eurozone. It’s interesting analysis, but I probably would have gotten more intellectual nutrition from just reading the currency union page on Wikipedia or this description of some other prior attempts.

If Greece decides to leave the euro, that’s legitimate news. But until that happens, am I really learning anything from speculation and various never-gonna-happen scenarios?

We have a strongly entrenched cultural value that being informed of current affairs is synonymous with intelligence. You can use ‘what do you think is going to happen with Greece?’ as a conversation-starter in a way you can’t with, say, ‘Why do you think communism failed?’

I wish I knew of more publications that occupied a space between news and history. Somewhere from rough draft to conventional wisdom, there are a lot of lessons to be learned, and a lot of former lessons to be edited. If journalism’s mandate is to inform the public, this is what it should be doing. And it would be a nice transition into forgoing it entirely.

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Food Needs a Recipe Like a Fish Needs A Bicycle

Since I’ve moved to Berlin, I’ve made a lot of really nice food, but it’s basically consisted of just two or three ingredients and various additions of heat.

Part of it is that I can afford all kinds of foods that I couldn’t in Denmark. The price of an eggplant went from $2 to $0.50. A mango went from $4 to $1. And don’t even get me started on the yogurt.

The other component is that there’s just a lot of great food that can basically be prepared recipe-free. Today for lunch I had cheddar and a banana (it’s even better melted!). Dinner last night was Eggplant and olive oil, roasted an hour.

I wonder how much of the intimidation people feel about eating healthy (or eating at home, anyway) is due to the perceived pain in the ass of making something from scratch. The cooking shows are Exhibit Fucking A on this. Rachael Ray and Jamie Oliver are all ‘crush this garlic!’ ‘zest this lemon!’ ‘deep-fry this garnish!’ in order to turn a mundane household task into fodder for a visual medium. Even the 15-minute recipes have like 19 steps.

If I had a cooking show, it would be devoted to shit that has no recipe: Buy sweet potato. Insert in oven. Wait an hour. Eat. After editing, it would be 45 seconds long.

There’s lots of ingredient-based meal ideas out there, but I feel like the food columnists and TV chefs don’t want to tell you because then you’d be all ‘the fuck I need you for?!’

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Immigrants Shouldn’t Be Required to Learn English

Here’s the president again:

Those who are here illegally, they have a responsibility as well.  So they broke the law, and that means they’ve got to pay their taxes, they’ve got to pay a fine, they’ve got to learn English.

And here’s The National Journal:

For years, in good economic times and bad, polls have consistently found that most Americans believe immigrants who are in the United States illegally should be provided a pathway to legal status if they take steps such as paying a fine or learning English.

Is this really necessary? If someone is able to get a job, make friends and generally build a life for themselves, what’s the point in legally requiring them to pass an English test? There are a million small and huge incentives to learn the language of the country where you live, all of which are significantly stronger than laws regulating this.

I’m currently an immigrant living in a country where I don’t speak the language.* I was hired for my communications skills in English, and I can basically get by without German — as long as I never try to explain anything out of the ordinary or interact with anyone over 45. I know people at work who have gone like this for years. If you work at an English-speaking organization and are married to another non-German speaker, where exactly are you supposed to find 10 hours a week for two years for language lessons and practice? For people with families, it’s basically impossible.

If immigrants in the States are able to get by without English, who are they harming? Despite the rhetoric of Sun Belt bigots, you’re not going to walk into the bank tomorrow and find that the person behind the counter can’t communicate in English.

Children raised and schooled in America failing to learn English is not now a problem, nor was it 100 years ago when basic education was far less accessible. Adults who don’t find the time to learn a difficult foreign language between working full-time and raising a family aren’t harming anyone. The US has better things to spend its money on than harassing and deporting middle-aged, undereducated manual labourers on the basis of their extracurricular educational attainment.

*I’m learning it as fast as I can, but dude, German grammar. This could be awhile.

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Take Your Huddled Masses Somewhere Else

Reading Obama’s speech on immigration today, it struck that this kind of sentiment

That’s the promise of this country — that anyone can write the next chapter in our story.  It doesn’t matter where you come from — (applause) — it doesn’t matter where you come from; it doesn’t matter what you look like; it doesn’t matter what faith you worship.  What matters is that you believe in the ideals on which we were founded; that you believe that all of us are created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.  (Applause.)  All of us deserve our freedoms and our pursuit of happiness.  In embracing America, you can become American.  That is what makes this country great.  That enriches all of us.

is a cliche for an American politician, but totally un-utterable for a European politician.

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The Plural of Anecdote is Journalism

‘Because so many journalists live there, and they had their own babies, so of course it must be a boom. We did the calculation. It is no boom.’

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