Daily Archives: May 30, 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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Filed under Journalism

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.


Filed under Food, Germany, Personal

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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Filed under Berlin, Germany, Serious