Monthly Archives: September 2011

‘I regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than my regular human world. For me, there is no difference between Ripley from “Alien” and any Katherine Heigl character. They are equally implausible.’ —

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‘I am charismatic. I am just the only person aware of it.’ — Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council

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‘What if sending an e-mail is an excuse to not think through a problem — a hope that we can grab a bite of someone else’s attention and make them do our thinking for us? What if we send a half-baked note when what we need is to risk personal contact via phone, through setting up a lunch or just by walking to the other side of the office? Maybe we send an e-mail when we want to pretend, to ourselves or someone else, that we’re being productive.’

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‘Rather than thoughtfully discussing race, Americans love to reduce racial politics to feelings and etiquette. Racial debate, in public and private, is trapped in the sinkhole of therapeutics.’

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I wonder if people in other countries watch American sitcoms and think we’re all constantly visiting each other at work.

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Tobacco Companies Are Good For You

I started reading Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco last night. It’s the story of how one bad-apple CEO almost single-handedly liquidated a 150-year-old company. I didn’t think stuff like leveraged buyouts and C-suite coups could be the stuff of thrillers, but I was up til 2 am last night devouring it.

Anyway, even the background reading of this case is interesting. Take RJR Tobacco, the inventor of Camels cigarettes and one of the south’s biggest and most successful companies:

Reynolds took special care of its workers. The company loaned employees up to two-thirds of the value of their property, operated lunchrooms at cost, and always had ice water on hand in the steamy tobacco factories. It provided day care for the children of women workers–one for the whites, of course, and one ofor the blacks. Reynolds even ran a supervised rooming house for country girls who came to Winston-Salem to work, and provided housing for another 180 families at cost.

All this was in the first half of the 1900s, when things like job security, benefits and even an 8-hour day were considered unspeakable luxuries. The book reports that RJ Reynolds banned child labour decades before it was ever a national law.

But still, this is fundamentally a company that was selling cancerous, addictive, unfiltered products to American consumers at a vast profit margin. How do assess the morality of an institution like this?

In a way, the RJ Reynolds of the early 1900s is something like the opposite of a lot of companies today. RJR sold a harmful product, but took great stewardship of its workers and the community it was operating in–at least by the standards of the time.

A company like Wal-Mart, on the other hand, treats its employees with Dickensian exploitation, yet sells products at prices that allow poor people (in many cases its own workers) to access a higher quality of life than they would have without it. Oil companies produce a product which–like it or not–is essential for our lifestyles, but often significantly degrade the communities and even countries where they operate. How do we weigh all of these things against each other?

Like I said last time I agonized about this exact same issue, I have no tools for reconciling this. I don’t know how to morally differentiate between what a company is and what it does. If a corporation want to be treated like a person, though, a good start would be acting like one.

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The Next Tech Fad: Self-Monitoring

Last year for my birthday my brother got me a speedometer for my bike. It’s super-easy: You attach a sensor to your front-wheel spoke and a meter to your handlebars and presto, you can see how fast you’re going and how far you’ve gone. It even does automatic averages and times your rides. I’m such a fucking rocking chair, I didn’t even know this technology existed.

It’s a great gift because I never would have bought it for myself. I’m not constitutionally a gadget-guy, and my kneejerk reaction is to roll my eyes at technology that meets a need I never explicitly articulated. I got my first cellphone in 2006. 

Now that I have the speedometer, it’s startling how much harder I work when I’m biking. I have an objective, blinking, real-time report on how fast I’m going and how far I’ve gone, and I want to beat it with every pedal. No matter how tired I am or how raining it is, I’ll get off and walk before I let my speed dip below 24 kilometers an hour. Even when I’m biking uphill. It’s a sickness.

In the past few months of doing this, I’ve come to see it as a metaphor. As soon as you start monitoring something, you want to improve it. Before I had the speedometer, if I was tired or it was windy, I simply biked slower. Now that I have constant feedback on my performance, I strain myself harder to reach a target, no matter how self-generated or arbitrary it is.

I wonder if the next wave of technology will be an extension of this concept: Quantitative monitoring of things that you used to only estimate.

A few years ago we were all smitten with pedometers, which measure how many steps you take per day:

In a review of more than two dozen studies, researchers at Stanford University found that people who used pedometers to monitor their daily activity walked about 2,000 more steps every day, or about one extra mile, compared to those who weren’t counting steps. People who used pedometers also showed statistically meaningful drops in body mass index and blood pressure.

Now we have the FitBit and Philips’ DirectLife, which monitor daily activity, sleep patterns and link you to online reports and IM-dates with fitness coaches.

Imagine a gadget that could quantify how many calories you take in every day, and of what nutrients. Having a real-time meter of, say, carb intake that leapt up with each bite at Applebee’s could be a ferocious motivator of cutting portion sizes (OK, so I have no idea how such a gadget would work without being surgically installed, but still, it would be really cool).

A real-time meter of, say, how many kilowatts of energy you consumed or how many particles of pollutants you breathed in could also be a powerful driver of behavior change and political activism.

You could easily do this with other areas too. Imagine a little microphone that counted and recorded all the words you use all day and gave you a summary report on your average number of syllables and daily functional vocabulary. Or a word-cloud! Or a graph of your average swears!

OK, I’m getting carried away. And again, I have no remote inkling of how such gadgets would actually work, but self-monitoring culminates the two most fundamental things we use technology for: Self-improvement and narcissism. Anything that gives us a new way to watch ourselves is bound to be gangbusters.

As soon as you start measuring something, you want to improve it. Maybe the best way for us to use technology isn’t to make our lives easier, but to give us a reason to make it a little harder.


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Berlin Becomes International City, Whines About It

Titled ‘A Victim of Its Own Success: Berlin Drowns in Tourist Hordes and Rising Rents‘, this Der Spiegel article is a distillation of a lot of the bitching you hear from Berliners.

This new city could soon become the actual city. If that happens, Berlin will no longer be primarily a home for Berliners, but a stage for an international audience. Some ugly terms to describe this new city have been making the rounds in Berlin, with some calling it a “giant Ballermann,” a reference to a notoriously rowdy beach bar on the Mediterranean resort island of Mallorca. Others call it a giant Disneyland, because of a growing sense of artificiality and absence of authenticity.

The ‘tourist hordes’, goes the argument, are gentrifying Berlin into an expat playground at the expense of the locals. They push up rents and genericize neighborhoods, pushing out the artists and layabouts that made these neighborhoods vibrant in the first place.

There’s something kneejerkically appealing about this argument. If you’ve lived in a neighborhood for 20 years through thick and thin (and Berlin has seen some thin, son), then it must be irritating to see a bunch of rookies show up the minute the place becomes livable. Hearing people rave about ‘low cost of living’ when you’ve barely been getting by in a 300-euro-a-month apartment has got to sting.

But if you think about it any harder than that, tourists and expats moving here is a sign of progress, not destruction.

First, Berlin doesn’t actually have all that that many interlopers. In Berlin, 13.5 percent of the population was born somewhere other than Germany. In London it’s 33 percent.  In Paris, 19.5 percent. London has significantly more tourists, expats and short-termers than Berlin. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who lives there who considers this a bad thing.

Second, tourists and expats contribute disproportionately to quality-of-life services like restaurants, cafes, nightclubs and art galleries. They support citywide events like the Berlin Festival, and incentivize city leaders to organize more of them. Think of how much Munich gets out of the annual Octoberfest, both in terms of easy income and city branding. Smart Berlin politicians should start coming up with Berlin equivalents.

Last I read, unemployment in Berlin was 13 percent. According to this irritating brochure, tourism employs 300,000 people in Berlin and Brandenburg, and contributes 17 billion euros to the economy. Every fanny-packed tourist taking pictures of the Brandenburg Gate represents a string of businesses that might not have a chance in Berlin without his dollars, rubles or yen.

It’s understandable that Berliners are wary of how their city is changing, and miss the Berlinier Berlin of yore. But all of this is a symptom of the fact that Berlin is finally becoming a place that people want to live. That brings rising rents, yes, but it also brings jobs and quality-of-life upgrades. Legitimate concerns about the impact of rising tourism should acknowledge the broader context of the city and its economy. A lot of what makes Berlin so terrific wouldn’t be sustainable without the tourists.

Der Spiegel paints a dystopian future for Berlin: ‘Perhaps the day will come when the budget tourists will realize that they aren’t experiencing a Berlin party, but a party in Berlin.’

Not unlike, in other words, a party in New York, London or Hong Kong. Berlin is the 4th largest city on the world’s most economically and culturally important continent.  Eventually it will have to get used to that.

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‘Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.’
– Oscar Wilde

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‘The U.S. government needs to realize that smaller government is a meaningless goal, but efficient, effective government—one that uses cost-effective methods to perform tasks appropriate to its mission—is something worth striving for.’ —

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