Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Devil You Know

My friend Derek was visiting this weekend

He's a professional photographer, these are all his

I like seeing the results of his approach to photography.

I'm used to thinking of photographs as a way of capturing the world out there.

You see something beautiful, you take a beautiful picture, you take the beautiful home with you.

A photograph is just a way of saving a view or an experience for later.

Watching Derek, though, I was struck by how little straight-up capturing he did.

We biked right past sunsets and churches without stopping.

I think good photographers are probably more interested in creating.

Rather than finding.

In the last two years, I've almost completely given up on reading fiction.

As I get more interested in abstract representations in images, I've almost completely given up on them in books.

Film is truth 24 times a second, says the old cliche.

But that's exactly false. Every photo is a lie. You're taking a tiny slice of an experience, then inviting the viewer to blow it back up to reality size.

There could be a fucking stegosaurus just outside the frame of this photo, and the viewer would never know.

Literature is a lie too, but at least it's more obvious.

The stegosaurus is still there, but you can't take it home with you.

Derek’s Photostream

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An Abandoned American Listening Station On Top of a Pile of Rubble in West Berlin

This slight bump in the horizon is the highest point in Berlin

It's called The Devil's Mountain, and it's made of rubble cleared from the city after World War II

It's also the site of an old American listening station that has been abandoned since the end of the Cold War

This is where the Yanks eavesdropped on military dispatches from Moscow, Warsaw and Prague

After a few aborted attempts to preserve or develop it, it's now just sort of there

It's technically closed to the public, but there are holes in the fence the size of Volkswagens, and dozens of people milling about inside.

All the domes are accessible

The acoustics are incredible. There's no such thing as whispering in these things.

It's been denuded of all of its equipment and Cold War-iphernalia years ago, but the structures are the same as they always were.

If this was America, someone would have twisted an ankle and sued the city by now.

But here, there's evidence of people picnicing and camping

Between 1961 and 1989, this would have been one of the few places you could have see 360 degrees of East Germany from within West Berlin.

And it was only open to American military personnel anyway.

It's funny how a major component of the fun of visiting site is the fact that it's officially forbidden.

If this had been developed as a tourist site, you would be there as a guest, rather than an interloper.

I wonder how many other things I enjoy primarily because they're off-limits

 

Derek's a professional photographer, so he knows what he's doing. That lens!

Here's the Corbusier building that I'm supposed to, like, fall on my knees worshipping because it's so significant and so pomo and the trim and the balconies and the mmmmnnnnnn god it's so amazing

But I'll take the view from the other side any day.

 

Derek has a wide-angle lens!

From on top of the pile of rubble, you can see Potsdam. And a few hills that are supposed to be there.

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Exploring an Abandoned Iraqi Embassy in East Berlin

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Blaming Architecture for America’s Failings

The Pruitt-Igoe housing project consisted of 33 eleven-story buildings in inner St. Louis. Its residents were exclusively black and low-income, the remnants of a major slum-clearance effort after World War II. The project was built quickly, with a relatively small budget, and included some architectural innovations like elevators that only stopped every three floors and ‘galleries’ where residents could hang out and get to know each other.

The rest of the story is familiar to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with American urban policy in the last four decades. As inner-city residents increasingly moved out to the suburbs, demand for project-housing plummeted, and the tower blocks steadily emptied until only the poorest, least mobile and unemployed-est residents remained.  

Since its demolition in 1972, Pruitt-Igoe has become shorthand for socially pioneering architects building public housing totally out of sync with the needs of residents. Pruitt-Igoe’s long corridors and forced-hangout spaces became mugging spots. The ‘open plan’ lobbies allowed people to enter the buildings who didn’t live there, which lessened residents’ feeling of ownership over the buildings.

That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. This article is a fascinating unpacking of this myth, and shos that the architects, far from being social crusaders or blind to residents’ needs, were simply so constrained by the site, necessities and budget of the project that they had no ability to construct decent living spaces. 

It was the city’s decision to concentrate its poorest residents in tower blocks, the city’s decision to underfund construction materials and consultation, the city’s decision to neglect maintenance, the city’s decision to fail to implement education or jobs programs for Pruitt-Igoe residents.

In other words, the Pruitt-Igoe projects didn’t fail because they were poorly designed, they failed because they were poorly conceived.

Pruitt-Igoe was shaped by the strategies of ghetto containment and inner-city revitalization—strategies that did not emanate from the architects, but rather from the system in which they practice. The Pruitt-Igoe myth therefore not only inflates the power of the architect to effect social change, but it masks the extent to which the profession is implicated, inextricably, in structures and practices that it is powerless to change.

Simultaneously with its function of promoting the power of the architect, the myth serves to disguise the actual purpose and implication of public housing by diverting the debate to the question of design. By continuing to promote architectural solutions to what are fundamentally problems of class and race, the myth conceals the complete inadequacy of contemporary public housing policy. It has quite usefully shifted the blame from the sources of housing policy and placed it on the design professions.

By furthering this misconception, the myth disguises the causes of the failure of public housing, and also ensures the continued participation of the architecture profession in token and palliative efforts to address the problem of poverty inAmerica. The myth is a mystification that benefits everyone involved, except those to whom public housing programs are supposedly directed.

There’s a movie coming out about it!

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Does Anyone Else Constantly Pause Movies to Check Things on Wikipedia?

Last night during All The President’s Men, I found this out:

Woodward wrote that he first met Felt by chance in 1970, when Woodward was a Navy lieutenant in his mid-twenties who was dispatched to deliver a package to the White House’s West Wing. Felt arrived soon after, for a separate appointment, and sat next to Woodward in the waiting room. Woodward struck up a conversation, eventually learning of Felt’s position in the upper echelon of the FBI. Woodward, who was about to get out of the Navy at the time and was unsure about his future direction in life, became determined to use Felt as a mentor and career advisor, and so he got Felt’s phone number and kept in touch with him.

This is the best argument in favor of chitchat I’ve ever heard.

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German Parents Are Irredeemable Perverts

My mother told me that the positions they do are all just for show,” he says. Rückert explained to her son that he shouldn’t worry if his first girlfriend didn’t moan loudly during sex and that the actors in porn movies use lots of lubrication.

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Camera Tricks in Albania

When you travel by yourself, you quickly run out of ways to amuse yourself.

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Albania Loves George W. Bush

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Fair Game

Last week in Albania I stumbled across a street fair sponsored by the US government.

There were a bunch of stalls, each displaying activities by a different department.

And an Albanian band doing covers of Adele songs

It was weird. Doesn't America has better things to do with its largesse than serve hotdogs? And doesn't Albania have bigger problems than recreational drug use?

Either way, if USAID wants to have any impact, it should probably try making some signs in Albanian.

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The Other Foot

I went to the doctor as soon as I got back from Albania.

Me: I think I need a cast of some kind.
Doctor: What’s the problem?
Me: I have pretty bad foot pain. I’m pretty sure I have a metatarsal stress fracture. I can barely walk.
Doctor: Who diagnosed you with the metatarsal stress fracture?
Me: I’ve just been looking around on the internet, and that’s what it most sounds like.
Doctor: Well, I don’t think you have a stress fracture. So, who are you going to trust? Me, or Doctor Internet?
Me: What do you think I have?
Doctor: Foot pain.
Me: … Wait, is that the diagnosis? That’s my symptom. Are you allowed to do that?

I’m getting orthopedic shoe inserts today. And buying the URL for doctor-internet.com.

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‘He was the only man I have ever known incapable of a political thought or of a humanitarian purpose.’

Yeats’s Nobel Lecture is hella boring, but I did like that one line.

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The Other Day, For No Reason, I Biked To Potsdam

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Junk Food Is Only Cheaper Than Healthy Food If You Don’t Know How To Cook

The “fact” that junk food is cheaper than real food has become a reflexive part of how we explain why so many Americans are overweight, particularly those with lower incomes. […]

This is just plain wrong. In fact it isn’t cheaper to eat highly processed food: a typical order for a family of four — for example, two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas — costs, at the McDonald’s a hundred steps from where I write, about $28. […]

You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people.

I’ve been thinking about that the past few days as I’ve been trying to recreate the food I ate in Albania. It’s heavy as a red dwarf, but pleasingly simple and surprisingly cheap.

This recipe, for example, (which I unrepentantly stole from a great restaurant in Tirana) cost about $2. And there’s even leftovers!

I’m amazed there isn’t more emphasis from the foodies that healthy food doesn’t have to be difficult to make or expensive. For this, all I did was  chop some peppers and onions into little strips, drizzle them with olive oil and put them in my oven at the highest temperature it has.  Half an hour later, I cracked eggs overtop and they were ready in five minutes.

In Albania they do this in a clay pot, on a bed of shredded cheese (oh my god it’s Alpine Eggs!), which makes it less healthy, but still cheap, and still significantly better than a Big Mac or a kebab, which would have cost the same thing.

I think the ‘junk food is cheaper!’ argument for the West’s growing obesity problem is a bit of an excuse. Sure, calorie-for-calorie an Extra Value Meal is cheaper than my Albanian food, but the goal isn’t to keep people eating the same number of calories at a lower cost. It’s to steady the costs, but lower the calories.

Eating cheaply and healthily isn’t all that difficult if you have a kitchen and don’t mind doing some chopping. Publicizing recipes for people as lazy as I am is a step in the right direction.

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German on the Mount

There's a mountain just outside of Tirana where you can gondola up to the top.

Like everything else in Albania, it was basically deserted. I had my own gondola!

You see these bunkers all over Albania. The former dictator, Enver Hoxha, built thousands of them for the inevitable (ha) Western invasion.

There were some abandoned ... radio sheds? I have no idea what these are.

There was no one manning them, or telling me not to poke around.

I don't know why Tirana is where it is. It's not on the water or near any resources, it's just sort of plopped in the knuckles of a bunch of mountains.

Apparently Albania has oodles of regional diversity, which is impressive considering it's basically the size of Rhode Island.

I imagine it was easier to get lost up here before there was a gondola.

Though the way down was probably faster.

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The Forgottenest Corner of Europe

I think the thing that most struck me about Albania is the sheer degree to which it’s forgotten by the rest of the world.

This is a country that is next door to Greece. It’s a two-hour flight from Berlin. The only way its remote is in the popular consciousness.

I’m reading a history of communism at the moment. In an 800-page biography of an ideology, there are literally four mentions of Albania. Albania was hardcore communist from 1941 to 1990. Four mentions! Even the former Yugoslavian countries must be like ‘damn, Albania is invisible.

It’s even more surprising when you consider that Albania has all the features that make a country interesting:

Compelling History
Until 1990, Albania was ruled by one of the world’s purest, weirdest communist-dictator footnotes. Enver Hoxha was such a diehard Stalinist that be broke off relations with the Soviet Union and then China because they weren’t communist enough.

As they were Albania’s only source of foreign investment or aid, the country then languished in complete isolation for 30 years. Foreign emigration, immigration and investment were banned until 1990. To this day, Albania is one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in Europe.

Complex Demographics
Albania has a population of 3.5 million—about the same as Berlin. The tricky part is that its national borders were drawn such that there are another 3.5 million Albanians living in bordering countries. Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia and Greece all have significant Albanian minorities.

To add to the complexity, Albania is majority-Muslim (it took me a few days to figure out why many of the taxi drivers have Malcolm X car fresheners hanging from the rearview mirror). But there’s also a sizable Christian population, and the neighboring countries with big Albanian minorities are Orthodox. As you can imagine, Albania’s foreign relations have been nonstop tense since independence in 1912.

Migration
Half of Albania’s labor force at any given time lives and works in other countries, mostly Italy and Greece. These people send home enough money to account for 15% of Albania’s GDP, but have denuded the country of its educated, healthy working males. The fact that most of these emigrants are illegal adds yet another challenge to Albania’s foreign relations.

Economic Potential
Basically all of the consumer goods in Albania are imported. Even stuff like tomatoes and squash, which you could easily grow in Albania’s climate, are boated in from Italy. According to Oxfam, Albania has the lowest agricultural productivity in Europe. All it would take is an injection of EU money to bring Albanian farming up to Italian (ok, maybe just Greek) levels. Albania’s the only country in Europe that had a rise in GDP in 2009.

Albania also has rampant organized crime, a thriving women’s civil rights movement and significant internal migration. It had a major financial crash in 1997 when the entire country got involved in a giant pyramid scheme.

Seriously, everywhere you look, you find something fascinating about this country. Why isn’t anyone paying attention?

That said, I have no right to talk shit. I decided to go to Albania by literally opening Google Maps and following a warm-looking latitude. What’s that country there next to Greece? Oooo, it’s on the water! It has mountains!

That was all I knew about Albania before I went there. Next time I go, I feel like I should bring an EU delegation with me.

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‘The brilliant dark governing insight of social media is that most people prefer socializing alone.’

Walter Kirn is awesome.

The throughly ornamental frigidity of the Kardashians represents the sterile terminus of contemporary commercialized femininity.

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Redistributive Welfare Isn’t Always Redistributive

I’m amazed this isn’t known and discussed more broadly:

[In Australia] the poorest 20 per cent of the population receives nearly 42 per cent of all the money spent on social security; the richest 20 per cent receives only around 3 per cent. As a result, the poorest fifth receives twelve times as much in social benefits as the richest fifth, while in the United States the poorest get about one and a half times as much as the richest. At the furthest extreme are countries like Greece, where the rich are paid twice as much in benefits as the poorest 20 per cent, and Mexico and Turkey, where the rich receive five to ten times as much as the poor.

You can have arguments about whether the welfare state should exist, but if it does, it should be geared toward helping the poorest first (right?!).

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Yugo First

I had never been to Macedonia before, so after Albania, I popped over to Lake Ohrid for the day.

It's the deepest--and coldest--lake in the Balkans, so I never actually swam. I spent most of my time taking pictures of it.

And yeah feeling pretty park-benchy taking this, but the kid's dad said it was OK.

I still couldn't walk, so I biked up and down the lakeshore for 15 or 20 kilometers

Based on my limited experience, I've concluded that Macedonia is just like Switzerland, only interesting.

I mean, look at this shit! I'm barely trying, and it still looks like a fucking pre-installed Windows desktop

Alright, these are getting boring now.

Yep, once I start pretending I know what I'm doing with my camera, you know it's getting repetitive.

Jesus, this one's even worse. I was on my balcony watching the sunset and listening to a podcast. I had to do something with my hands, and my camera was the nearest victim.

Please. This is just too fucking easy now.

OK, this one looks the same, but it's actually 5.45 the next morning. I got up for the sunrise! Me and the fishermen were the only people to see this.

Finally, a photo without the lake in it. Geez.

Nope, there it is again.

Why am I standing next to a pitchfork?!

I was excited at the time about the sun finally clearing the mountains, but here it just looks Photoshopped.

People live in this country! Oh huh.

Macedonians are Orthodox right? Orthodox muslims? Wait.

This isn't a great photo, but I took this from a moving car, and I'm hella self-proud of timing it right with the sun.

OK, this one's obviously out the bus window. But there were lots of cute abandoned buildings out there.

Sigh. Meanwhile, back at the lake.

Aw shit, he went macro on that ass. I think I was just excited to have found some genuine flora. Everything else was basically just scrub.

The bike ride back. I'm obviously counting down to leaving now.

It's still riding off into the sunset if you're on a rented girls' bike, right?

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‘A village where the people had not eaten for three days, but they were still talking about books and how to get them’

Damn, Doris Lessing’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech is devastating.

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Tourism is Tourism, Not Research

In the documentary Casino Jack, they tell the story of Saipan, a US protectorate where a bunch of clothing companies set up sweatshops so they could keep the ‘Made in USA’ label. Terrible working conditions, long hours, third-world pay, blah blah blah.

According to the documentary, the primary strategy for keeping all of this legal was to fly senators out to the island itself for ‘fact-finding’ missions. The government of Saipan would stage-manage ‘impromptu’ tours of factories and meetings with fake workers’ representatives. When the senators got back to the US and were confronted with NGO reports about the terrible working conditions, their response was ‘that’s not true. I’ve been there and it’s not like that.’

Visiting Saipan didn’t give them any new information. It simply increased their confidence in their own expertise.

Sometimes I feel like this when I travel.

I was in Albania this week, and spent five days basically spectating it. I walked around the capital. I biked to some smaller cities. I bussed across the border to Macedonia. I trained to the Aegean coast.

Fine. I had a blast. But what I always struggle with on these trips is the urge to turn my incredibly limited experience into a generalization.

I walk around Tirana and I see hundreds of bustling cafes, filled with Ray Banned young people. The cars are new-looking. Construction workers are construction-working to fix potholes and repave sidewalks.

All of this means that Albania is not only a middle-income country, but firmly on its way to high-income status and EU membership, right? There’s a Gucci store, for Christ’s sake.

Albania’s per capita GDP is $6,000, one of the lowest in Europe. The unemployment rate is upwards of 15 percent, and the only reliable money coming into the country is from Albanians who have emigrated to Greece and Italy for low-skilled labour.

Aside from that specific splash of water, there’s the broader point that aimlessly walking around a country ‘s capital is a fucking terrible way to determine its level of development. I don’t speak Albanian. I can’t read Albanian newspapers or speak to people who know the country intimately. Basically, I have no ability to gather factual information. Experiencing the ‘feel’ of a foreign country is just another way of saying that you’re filtering your stereotypes through your observations.

This is obvious, of course, but it’s a hard impulse to resist. Just being someplace isn’t a remotely reliable way to gather systematic information about it. But it’s a great way to make you think you know what you’re talking about.

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