Monthly Archives: June 2011

Who Invented ‘Sorry My House Is Such A Mess’?

I never know how to respond to that statement. If I say ‘that’s OK’, it’s like I’m acknowledging ‘yes, this place is a shithole, but I’ll survive‘. If I say ‘It’s fine’ my host says something like ‘noooo, it’s a landfill!’ and we waste 7 minutes on an argument neither of us wants to win.

Personally, my apartment is a shithole because I’m a fucking slob. My friends all know this, and those that didn’t, well now they do. I don’t apologize for my hair being messed up or smelling feloniously unshowered in the middle of the week either.

I still find myself resisting the temptation to say something when people come to my house, though. Western society needs to some up with some other catechism to utter when hosting guests. I suggest ‘this is how I live, son!’

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Cellphones Aren’t Degrading Our Relationships

Brian Christian has been making the podcast rounds with a really fascinating book about how our conception of humanity has changed now that we compare ourselves to computers rather than animals.

He makes a bunch of auxillary points, one of which is based around the observation that when you talk on a cellphone, it takes 600 milliseconds for the sound to reach your conversation partner, compared to 100 milliseconds on landlines.

I would also say that the shift in telephone technology from landlines to cellphones has had a kind of unforeseen trade-off, which is that we’re now much more accessible geographically, but the cost is that the lag on the connection is six times greater. So it’s about half of a second instead of a little bit less than a tenth of a second.

And it may not seem like much, but in fact it is enough to disrupt a lot of the subtle dynamics of timing and pauses, and yielding to other people, and it’s turning communication much more into a kind of peer data exchange, you know, pure content.

It’s easy to latch onto these subtle degradations in the quality of our communications options and lament that ‘no one talks to each other anymore!’

But really, would anyone trade instant, infinitely mobile communication for those lost 500 milliseconds? Yes, cellphone conversations aren’t as rich as landline conversations. Which aren’t as rich as in-person conversations. Acknowledged, fine, whatever.

But it’s nonsense to make the argument that our relationships are based on ‘pure content’ more than they were in the time when we had fewer communications options. The lag-time involved in communicating by handwritten letter is a hell of a lot longer than 600 milliseconds.

The point he’s making here is interesting, but weighed against the benefits of mobile communication, it’s a drop in the ocean. However damaged our conversations are from longer pauses, they’re even more damaged by pointless contrarianism.

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1930s Germany Had Political Cartoons Too

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Known Unknowns

Everyone knows the debate over how much Germans really knew about the Holocaust as it was taking place. It's easy to say things like 'How could they not know?' and 'Anyone who had their eyes open knew what was going on.'

We should acknowledge, though, that we've grown up in a world where a Holocaust has already taken place. Industrialized mass murder is something we're familiar enough with to consider it a possibility.

To the Europe of 1933-1945, something like that had never happened before.

There's a huge grey zone between knowing the full story (assembly-line genocide) and deliberate ignorance ('all the Jews must have left Berlin because of the weather!')

Most people, I imagine, had an understanding that *something* was going on, but the specifics would have sounded like science fiction.

Anyway, that's what these paintings made me think of.

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Some Drawings from The Way to Dictatorship

Some of these were produced in the 1930s and some of these are about the 1930s.


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Way to Dictator!

I bought a book called ‘The Way to Dictatorship’ at a flea market last weekend. My German’s still clunky, but it’s apparently an exhibition that ran in a museum in Berlin in the early 1980s. It collects art, photos and propaganda from 1933, just as Hitler was coming to power and the opposition was being stomped invisible.

The book is like 400 pages long and weighs as much as a Dutch bicycle, so I hope to be posting a few photos at a time for the next few weeks. I might even translate some captions.

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I Can Tell I’ve Lived in Europe Too Long

because I find myself increasingly sitting knee-over-knee, rather than figure-four. Sometimes I fold my hands on my upper knee! Socialism!

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German History and the Sopranos Problem

I listened to a podcast this morning about the dilemma of making textbooks in postwar Germany. Education of the population was obviously a priority for reconstruction, but the only textbooks were either a) Nazi as hell or b) written before the Nazis came to power, i.e. old as hell. It took years for the administrators to create new textbooks, and in the meantime they simply blacked out the inconvenient parts of the existing textbooks.

According to the podcast, it was only in the 1960s that education materials started including atrocities committed by the Germans. Before then, it was fine to talk about Dresden, or the Allies shelling refugee ships in the Baltic (which I wasn’t aware of before I moved here) or the terrible shit the Russians did as they bulldozed from Stalingrad toBerlin.

You could talk about Hitler as a sort of Pied Piper, entrancing the German people into nemesis without their full consent or understanding. But you couldn’t stretch the blanket of responsibility over the whole country until much later.

It seems to me that the fundamental dilemma for educators is that it’s impossible to educate a population without propagandizing it. You can’t teach people about their country without making them proud.

We think of subjects like history and sociology as somehow neutral, that the methodology is simply 1) find out what happened and 2) tell the story without bias. But evenbeyond the impossibility of ‘objective’ research, there’s no such thing as neutrally telling a story. Here, lemme try something:

  1. A man walks into a store and buys a litre of milk.
  2. A store sits on a street corner. A man enters. Five minutes later, he exits with a litre of milk in his hand.
  3. A jug of milk stands in a refrigerator. A man removes it from the fridge, lays it on the counter, pays and carries it out of the store.

Even to describe an incredibly simple event, you have to decide whose perspective you’re going to tell it from.

Country histories tend to be told by the Washingtons, the Lincolns, the Rockefellers. This is totally understandable. These are people that made stuff happen, and stuff happening is basically a synonym for history.

But the story of America would be significantly different if you told it from the perspective of women, blacks, immigrants, Native Americans, Iowans, deaf people, baristas or bus drivers.

And that’s the dilemma. Whoever’s story you tell, they get to be the main character. Following a protagonist by definition allows them to explain their actions. No matter how hard you try, hearing the full story of what led Hitler to the Final Solution, or what led Mao to the Cultural Revolution, is going to make readers identify with them. However many times we saw Tony Soprano murder, cheat and shittily parent his way through north Jersey, our contempt for him was always tempered with the knowledge of what drove him to his actions.

This is exactly the problem German educators were struggling with in the ‘50s and ‘60s: How do you tell a country’s history without making citizens proud of it?

I know this is all terribly obvious. I’m just in awe of how hard it must have been to write history in Germany for the 30 years after WWII. Before you could even debate which story to tell, you had to decide who got to tell it.

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Defending Strauss-Kahn: ‘He’s Too Weak to Rape a Hotel Maid!’

I know these lawyers are just doing their jobs, but I found this article on Strauss-Kahn’s defense really disturbing.

“You really have to attack the witness’s credibility” in sexual assault cases, a Manhattan defense lawyer, Jeffrey Lichtman, said. “While it may seem morally unseemly to the public, it’s legally appropriate and we have to do the best we can for our clients.”

He added: “You have to make this into a money thing at the end. Has she defaulted on loans or bounced checks?”

It’s useful to know that bouncing a check forever immunizes you against being sexually assaulted.

I also paused at this bit:

Some details of a potential defense are already coming into focus, a person close to Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s defense team said. The defense is expected to pursue the issue of whether it is even physically possible for an unarmed man, who is not particularly physically imposing, to force a person to engage in oral sex.

That high-priced lawyers are resting their defense on ‘he’s too weak to rape!’ and ‘she’s a gold-digging skank!’ demonstrate the dysfunctionality of American discourse around sexual assault.

In America, we want our victims to be hella victimy. Rape is something that happens exclusively to women, exclusively at the hands of strangers, and exclusively as they are walking home late at night in parking lots or college campuses. Women are not raped by people they know, or people they once wanted sexual contact with, or on nights when they wanted to get laid. It especially doesn’t happen to the kinds of people who default on loans. 

More pernicious, though, is the idea that a man like Strauss-Kahn is incapable of forcing a woman to do something she doesn’t want to do because he’s so weak! And frail! And unimposing!

Rape doesn’t have to happen through the use of physical force alone. Someone in Strauss-Kahn’s position could easily augment a weak threat of force with other kinds of violence.

In the scenario he’s accused of, all he would have to do is grab the victim’s wrists and say something like ‘I’m the president of an international organization. You’re an immigrant hotel maid. If you scream, I’ll tell your boss that you stole my watch. Who are they going to believe?’ Not all rape takes place with the rapist’s hand over the victim’s mouth.

On the specific case of Strauss-Kahn, I’m completely Switzerland. Reading newspaper articles to determine someone’s guilt is like sorting someone’s trash to determine their astrological sign. Maybe he did it, maybe he didn’t. But over and over, when we lack the information required find the truth between he-said and she-said, we fall back on our ugliest arguments.

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Germany Has Weird Airport Food

Ew, Munich, seriously

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