Monthly Archives: April 2012

Literary Playlist: ‘We are more than our headscarves and our hymens’

America does austerity bigger than those European pussies.

Just when we all agreed that political candidates don’t matter, Mitt Romney had to come along and fuck everything up.

Chronically underfunded government institutions mean that for anything to happen, you have to wait for a hero to come along.

Latin American presidents want to end the drug war!

‘Facebook is the biggest social phenomenon since the telephone’

While economists and policymakers desperately search for ways to ‘upscale’ poverty alleviation, the academics are increasingly discovering that it can’t be done.

Every generation devises a narrative for why it suffers from depression.

Juveniles shouldn’t be held to the same moral standard for criminal behavior as adults. Unless, of course, a governor decides they should.

Now that the US has de facto lost the ability to raise taxes, states are courting casinos so they can suck on that sin-tax teet.

What it’s like to be a woman in the Middle East.

Leave a comment

Filed under Journalism

I found an R. Crumb sketchbook in a used bookstore and read it on a train

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Books

Cologne Promotes Health and Wellness, One Cigarette Machine at a Time

 

Did these used to be everywhere in Germany?

3 Comments

Filed under Germany, Pictures, Travel

Germany’s Boringest City

Before I went to Cologne, everyone was all, 'There's nothing to do there!' 'Go to a real place instead!' ''It's super lame!'

And they were absolutely fucking correct.

Grapeseed?! Even their fucking crops are uncool.

You said it, street sign.

All of my photos are overly zoomed-in, to crop out as much of the surroundings as possible.

Once you get downtown, it's even worse.

Vertical strip malls punctuated by obsolete technology like horse-cops and cobblestones.

Deliberately narrow streets so you don't have to see it all at the same time.

See? Zooming again just to kill time. It's a citywide solitary confinement sentence.

Cologne's one claim to fame is this fucking upward sprawl. Old, check. Dirty, check. One photo is enough, but I took four. Out of sympathy.

Someone in Cologne told me that if humans disappeared tomorrow, this church would be one of the only structures left standing on earth in 1,000 years.

Maybe in Cologne, it just feels that long.

4 Comments

Filed under Germany, Pictures, Travel

From The Bottom of My Art

Through a chain of serendipities, last week I ended up at Art Cologne, a trade fair for the art industry.

It's an opportunity for galleries to show off their artists, bag new clients and reach their yearly quota for the word ‘zeitgeist’.

I was wearing collared shirt and carrying a notebook, so people thought I was there to buy. As opposed to gawk and finagle, which was closer to the truth.

The art industry is the last true alchemy left in the modern economy.

Like most developed-world business models, it doesn’t really make anything.

It takes equal parts gossip, expectation and propaganda and turns them into revenue.

Collecting art is either an expression of self, the promotion of an idea or an investment in a commodity, depending on which two people are conversing.

Art galleries work like this: You rent a space, you give it a name, you find an artist. You put their stuff on the wall until someone buys it. You take a percentage and move on to the next wall.

It’s like running a mini-mart, except you don’t actually own anything you’re selling.

Creating art may be philosophy, but selling it is pure capitalism.

After the fair, I asked a gallery owner how he decides how much a particular piece will cost.

Why does this diorama, for example, cost $45,000?

Why not $10,000? Or $200,000?

‘Darling,’ he said.

‘It costs whatever they’ll pay.’

I asked him whether the artists attended.

‘You don’t see cows at a cattle rancher convention,’ he said.

After the show, I met a British performance artist

who had a job teaching English to factory workers in The Netherlands.

Instead of teaching them terms like ‘value chain’ and ‘synergy’, she replaced all the course materials with the works of Marx and explanations of labor rights.

‘If the school finds out, they’ll fire me,’ she said. ‘But it’s not a job, goddammit, it’s art.’

After last week I still agree with her sentiment.

But maybe not her italics.

Leave a comment

Filed under Germany, Personal, Pictures, Travel

German Honesty, Bookstore Edition

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Germany

Literary Playlist: ‘This was the very last thing I could do for her’

Journalism, by definition, uses the experiences of individuals as fodder for narratives written by others. It’s nice to see a journalist openly collaborating with a source.

With all my recent talk of obesity, it’s important to realize that world includes food challenges beyond eating too much of it.

Fuck the social commentary, more feature articles with gay one-liners please.

Airport security remains the world’s most pressing First World Problem.

Smoothies are a nutritional holocaust.

America: Our national sporting events have built-in barfights.

Leave a comment

Filed under America, Journalism

Germany’s Only Natural Resource Is a Bunch of Whiny Nerds. And That’s a Good Thing.

This week I’m reading Michael Porter’s The Competitive Advantage of Nations. It’s an investigation of why countries are good at certain businesses but crappy at others. Why is Switzerland  good at making chocolates, South Korea good at making TVs and the United States good at making laptops in China?

There’s a whole chapter on Germany. We’re gonna need a bigger highlighter.

In Germany, the engineering and technical background of many senior executives produces a strong inclination toward methodical product and process improvement. […] These characteristics lead to the greatest success in industries with high technical or engineering content (for example, optics, chemicals, complicated machinery), especially where intricate and complex products demand precision manufacturing, a careful development process, after-sale service, and hence a highly disciplined management structure. 

Porter says Germany is a rock star at high-grade manufacturing (think BMW, Bayer and Merck) because as far back as the 1890s, German labor was expensive, so companies had to train workers and automate production to get the most productivity for their money. Germany still has years-long apprenticeship programs, and factory floors are apparently more likely to resemble a Bjork video  than a Dickens novel.

Another reason for Germany’s tech-nerd prowess is its lack of natural resources. Without an infinite spigot of oil, minerals or farmland, German companies got good at wringing every last mark out of their imports. When the rest of the world began to demand conservation and efficiency, German companies were there to meet it.

So Germany is a world leader in high-level exports not because it had natural advantages but precisely because it didn’t:

Disadvantages, […] such as high labor costs or resource disadvantages, have created further beneficial pressure. […] A good example is in the agricultural field, where farmland is scarce and labor expensive. The result is a pressing need for high productivity, and Germany had the greatest number of combines per harvestable hectare in the European Community in 1983. German agriculture also placed a very early emphasis on fertilizers as far back as the nineteenth century.

So where does Germany suck?

[…] An area where Germany has serious weaknesses […] is in the consumer sector. The historical lack of television and radio advertising (the major television channels can show advertising only about 20 minutes per day, with commercials all bunched together, and not on Sunday), coupled with the technical orientation of most German managers, means that image marketing skills are poorly developed.

[…] It is rare that a German firm succeeds in an industry in which intangible brand images and mass communication are important to competitive success. This is in stark contract to the case in America, Italy, or even Japan.

Porter’s book was published in 1992, so the specifics are out of date, but the general point still stands. Germans are visibly less image-oriented than their Italian, French, Scandinavian or British counterparts.

My personal theory on this is that the total eradication of social structures after World War II basically took the class system with it. The primary reason people are interested in fancy clothes, reflective shoes and asymmetrical haircuts is to demonstrate their class status, and in Germany that concept doesn’t really exist anymore. In France and Britain all of your consumption, from your clothes to your groceries, is class-coded. In Germany everyone pushes a cart around the dollar store in their sweatpants on a Saturday afternoon regardless of their income.

I think this still holds true too:

German buyers, both in households and in industry, are sophisticated and extremely demanding. Quality is insisted upon, and no one is bashful about complaining if it is not delivered. Buyers in the United States are often early buyers of new products or services but are not particularly demanding by international standards. German buyers may be somewhat later, but are among the toughest in the world.

‘Early adopters’ in present-day Germany are the people with two-way pagers.

Porter blithely notes that Germany’s dominance in high-end printing presses as far back as 1900 was partly due to the tendency of German consumers to complain to newspapers if they got ink on their hands. American readers didn’t put pressure on the periodicals, who never put pressure on the printers.

So in conclusion, according to Porter, if other countries want to emulate Germany’s success, all they have to do is torch their farmland, dismantle their oil pumps, overpay their workers and start complaining. Maybe Europe has a future after all.

Leave a comment

Filed under Germany, Serious

Literary Playlist: ‘We have a visa for their country, and yet they are not permitted into ours’

Ex-gay therapy‘ is an oxymoron of a magnitude equal to ‘morning person’

The more I learn about the fundraising-industrial complex, the more smug I feel about spending all my money on myself.

How do you write an epic feature on the history of bodybuilding and not mention the phrase ‘male beauty pageant’?

When you think about it, there’s only one reason romance novels  enjoy a lesser literary status than Westerns, spy novels or sci-fi: Their primary readership contains vaginas.

Seattle’s got 99 problems, but a ditch ain’t one.

It’s about time someone applied cold, hard economic truth to the human struggle to find a good panini.

Maybe we’re all living alone into our 30s because it’s fucking awesome. Did you ever think of that, New Yorker, huh?

KFC is basically a tobacco company.

Leave a comment

Filed under America, Journalism

The Obesity Epidemic Is Over (If You Want It)

So I’ve listened to another 25 hours or so of Rudd Center podcasts, and I’ve come to two conclusions about what America needs to do to end the obesity epidemic:

1. Make prevention the only objective
If you’re already fat, you’re screwed. Diets and exercise are so unlikely to work in the long run that you might as well say they don’t. Habits are hard to break, the food environment is a persistent siren and keeping weight off basically means you’re hungry for the rest of your life. Government investment in weight-loss programs for adults are unlikely to have large effects.

Which is why the government should aim its entire obesity effort at preventing childhood obesity. Food industry arguments about personal responsibility, consumer choice and free speech break down when it comes to minors. Children cannot meaningfully understand marketing messages or give consent. They are profoundly subject to their environment and significantly less capable of long-term thinking than adults.

As obesity researcher Yoni Freedhof puts it:

Try to imagine childhood obesity as a flooding river with no end in sight. While teaching children how to swim might help temporarily in keeping them afloat, given that the flood isn’t abating, chances are, even with the best swimming instructions, the kids are going to get tired and sink. So while swimming lessons certainly can’t hurt, what we really need to be shouting about doing is actually changing their environment and building them a levee.

Big Government is perfectly placed to take drastic efforts to prevent childhood obesity. You can’t accuse the government of being a ‘nanny state’ when it comes to children: Protecting children is what nannies do. The government has a clear responsibility–and a profound obligation– to manipulate the economy, environment, infrastructure and legal framework to protect children from companies that lie to them and an environment that manipulates them.

The government needs to lay it out for food companies: When Americans turn 18, you can have them. Until then, they’re ours.

2. Hold companies responsible for obesity outcomes
One of the best ideas I heard on the Rudd Center podcasts was a dude who said that food companies should be given responsibility for quantitative indicators of children’s well-being. So Coca-Cola wants to control all the vending machines in a school district? Fine, but over the next five years the obesity of children in all of those schools has to go down by 5 percent. If obesity goes up during that time, you lose access to them.

This principle could be applied at a city, state or nationwide scale. The best program the government could undertake would be to gather together the major associations of food manufacturers, beverage companies and restaurants and tell them the following:

‘Look, 30 percent of the kids in this country are overweight or obese. We will reduce that to 15 percent, and we’ll do whatever it takes to get there. You can either help us in this goal voluntarily or we will force you through legislation. For the next five years, we’ll work with you to develop voluntary marketing codes, reduce the fat and sugar in your products and promote physical activity. If childhood obesity hasn’t gone down in five years, we’ll legally restrict your ability to sell food in schools. If it hasn’t gone down in 10 years, we’ll ban all marketing to children nationwide. If it hasn’t gone down in 15 years, we’ll tax the shit out of any product that has added sugar.’ And so on.

The food industry always argues that voluntary marketing standards and product guidelines are preferable to legislation. If those standards don’t have any impact on the rise in childhood obesity, however, they’re as useless as day-old French fries.

Holding companies responsible for outcomes instead of processes gives them the freedom to develop their own approaches and an incentive to police each other. Under this plan, industry confederations like the American Grocery Manufacturers and the American Restaurant Association could set industry-wide standards for, say, portion sizes or added sugar that all their members would have to abide by. An objective benchmark allows the government to say ‘you guys figure it out. Or we’ll do it for you’.

Other government agencies already take this approach. The Fed, for example, has committed to keeping inflation around 2 percent, and has said it will do whatever it takes to hit that target (including allowing unemployment to spike above 10 percent). It’s time the rest of the government took the same approach.

Every OECD country has committed to a free-market model that provides food companies unlimited access to consumers, and fuels a cycle of overconsumption, obesity and morbidity. I wonder if any of them will commit to ending it.

1 Comment

Filed under America, Food

You See The Weirdest Things In Small-Town Germany

Schulzendorf, Germany, March 23

Leave a comment

Filed under Berlin, Germany

Literary Playlist: ‘My Life Was a Pretense The Whole Time’

In the same way that smart people are most compelling when they’re talking about something stupid, comedians are best when they’re serious.

The democratization of any art form brings out the snobs.

In 30 years maybe we’ll be ready to understand the profound damage that  Don’t Ask Don’t Tell inflicted on our soldiers, both gay and straight.

When you think about it, it’s a little bit amazing that the United States has these giant areas of itself where we’ve put Native Americans and forgotten about them.

A number of profoundly unjust systems are still vastly preferable to America’s current prison-industrial system.

In a factory entirely run by robots, do they turn the lights on?

Leave a comment

Filed under America, Journalism

Do I Look Fat In These Genes?

By now everyone knows about the studies showing that how much you eat is significantly affected by how food is presented to you. You eat 28 percent more from a 12-oz. plate than from a 10-oz. plate. You consider a serving of cereal to be about 2/3 of a bowl, regardless of how big the bowl is.

The guy who’s responsible for a lot of this research, Brian Wansink, gives good interview:

“Most of us don’t overeat because we’re hungry. We overeat because of family and friends, packages and plates, names and numbers, labels and lights, colors and candles, shapes and smells, distractions and distances, cupboards and containers.” […]

“What I find most surprising is that across the hundreds of studies we’ve done across thousands of people, almost nobody is willing to believe that they are influenced by their environment,” Wansink said. “We all want to believe we are too smart to be influenced by the lighting in a room, or what the person across the table is doing. That’s why these cues are so dangerous to our diet.”

This is both remarkable and unsurprising. More than 90 percent of the population believes they’re an ‘above-average’ driver. Everyone else is affected by marketing ploys, social cues and environmental triggers. Me, I eat exclusively when I’m hungry and stop the moment I reach satiety.

One of the most powerful drivers of human behaviour is that we like to be told what to do. One of Francis Fukuyama’s core insights in The Origins of Political Order is that there is basically no such thing as a pre-rules society. From the first hunter-gatherer tribes, humans developed norms and structures to guide individual behaviour.

Humans have a strong desire to do the right thing, but it’s not as strong as the desire to do what you’re ‘supposed’ to. Religion, parenting and politics are just near and far ways of giving you guidance for how to behave in a given situation. You say ‘excuse me’ when you bump into someone on the bus because you’ve been told that’s the appropriate thing to do. You shake hands with people when you meet them because someone somewhere told you that’s what one does.

The anxiety we feel in unfamiliar situations doesn’t come from the situations themselves but from the ambiguity about which rules apply. This is why we talk about each other all the time: Someone else didn’t follow a rule. No other species, to my knowledge, writes or reads advice columns.

When you eat, the size of a bowl is the world’s way of telling you how much cereal you’re ‘supposed’ to have. The cakes next to the cash register are telling you that it’s appropriate to have dessert with your meal. All of these cues are permission slips to consume more. And about 30 years ago, we started following rules from companies that want to sell us food rather than signals from our own bodies.

It’s great that Wansink is working with elementary schools to make sure the environment is encouraging better choices. I shudder to think, however, of all the other areas of our lives where it isn’t.

1 Comment

Filed under America, Books, Food

The Obesity Epidemic Will End, But Not How You Think

I think the reason I’m so interested in obesity as a public policy issue is that its basically unsolvable. Its cause is multifactoral (rising incomes, falling physical activity, fewer family meals, etc.) and its solution is basically a list of things we as a society are not willing to do (restrict marketing, raise taxes on sugar, end subsidies, etc.). So we circle the problem like neanderthals hunting mammoths, poking at it with little sticks, hoping to hit a tendon.

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. They bring on authors and researchers in areas related to food, and ask them what they’re working on and what they’ve found. The conversations cover a wide range of topics including history, politics, economics, marketing and education. Most of them are fascinating. Here’s a couple tidbits I’ve picked up listening to these podcasts on my commute for the past few weeks.

  • Obesity began to rise in earnest in the early ’80s, right about the time when the Farm Bill stopped paying farmers to not-grow crops and started paying them to grow as much as they could. As the number of calories available to every man, woman and child in America grew from 3,200 per day to 3,900 per day, the food companies ensured that it all got processed, marketed and consumed. The more I learn about economics, the more convinced I am that this, above anything else, is why we’re all fat.
  • Everyone compares Big Food to Big Tobacco, but there are a number of other industries that might make interesting corollaries. Car companies, for example, resisted seat belts for decades before they accepted, then actively marketed, them. Same with air bags.
  • The most interesting comparison I heard related the ongoing food fight to the battle for gun control. If you think of the life cycle of each gun from design to manufacture to marketing to final sale, most government interventions have been exclusively aimed at the final point. Instead of regulating the relatively small number of gun manufacturers and sellers, the US aimed regulation at the huge number of gun owners and users. It’s not a fair comparison to food, obviously, but it demonstrates that there are a number of legal interventions that may be much more impactful than aiming at end users.
  • In spite of all the research and experience on obesity, it’s surprising how little is still known about it. Performing nutrition experiments on humans is an ethical minefield (‘Yeah, we’re gonna need you to live in a lab, gain 40 pounds and fill out a bunch of questionnaires. Aight?’), not to mention prohibitively expensive, so basically all we know about obesity is from fattening and starving a bunch of rats.
  • Weight stigma is a large and growing issue in workplaces (and courtrooms) across America. Both men and women report being discriminated against because of their weight. Women report constant verbal harassment, whereas men report being passed over for promotions.
  • Weight loss pills, for reasons as corrupt as they are disappointing, are regulated as food, not drugs. Therefore anyone can manufacture pills, put them in a bottle and tell you that they’ll help you lose weight. Most of the ones currently on the market are slightly modified speed. Maybe we should be thankful they have any content at all.
  • Food companies are becoming increasingly sophisticated in marketing to children without their parents’ knowledge. They’re already designing online games websites that include marketing, and they get the kids’ cellphone numbers so they can text them with ads. This is some Blade Runner shit.

Personally, I think the obesity epidemic isn’t going to be solved by academics, public health advocates or politicians. It will be solved by pharmacists. The first company to release a pill that reliably suppresses appetite, speeds metabolism or makes broccoli taste like marzipan will make billions. For a problem that encompasses as wide a range of issues as obesity, sometimes all you need to know is one thing.

4 Comments

Filed under America, Food

Newspapers Are Terrible

This week I’m reading Andrew Marr’s ‘My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism’. I should have known better than to read anything with the author’s giant face displayed on the cover, but here we are.

News is a relatively recent, made-up human commodity. It is designed, copied and passed on in a tradition that goes back only a few hundred years. Almost all reporters are imprinted after a while with the sense of how news stories read, but they didn’t get this from their DNA. There may be inquisitive and persistent people, but there are no ‘born reporters’.

Charles Reiss, former political editor of the London Evening Standard, told me he was struck how, sitting at the back of some interminable, tedious committee of MPs he and rival hacks suddenly found their pens moving across their notepads, all at the same time. Barely conscious of why they were doing so, they had restarted a shorthand note of what someone was saying. Why? Years of listening to political language and being able to spot the unexpected nuance.

This is one of the unremarked-upon structural weaknesses of our current media landscape. Have you ever read a speech, watched a debate or seen an event in full, before it was chopped up, interpreted and re-packaged as news? Your impressions about what is notable about it are inevitably different than the groupthinky interpretations of the press corps.

Try watching a presidential debate this year without watching CNN or reading the newspaper afterwards. For you, a citizen, the news will be the things the candidates said that will impact your life. Higher taxes, fewer buses, a war with a faroff country in which a relative or friend might participate. To the journalists watching, news is simply where a candidate deviated from the script. Marr’s journalists aren’t furiously writing legislative changes in their notebooks, they’re counting gaffes.

Here’s where Marr completely misses the point of his own book:

Because of its problems, one could simply try to opt out of the news culture. I know people who barely read a paper and who think most broadcast news is mindless nonsense. I think, however, they are wrong. They might go through their weekly round, taking kids to school, shipping, praying, doing some voluntary work, phoning elderly relatives, and do more good than harm as they go. But they have disconnected themselves from the wider world. Rather like secular monks, they have cloistered themselves in the local. And this is not good enough. We are either players in open, democratic societies, all playing a tiny part in their ultimate direction, or we are deserters.

Notice how he never answers the question of whether newspapers, as they currently exist, are the shimmering informers of democracy that they could be. It’s objectively the case that a populace needs accurate information to vote and participate in a true democracy. But the media landscape that we have fails consistently to provide us with the information and tools we need.

Check out Marr’s own example of how newspapers distort the news:

Take the great British paedophilia panic. The number of child sex murders in Britain carried out by a stranger is roughly static, about five to seven a year. The number of convictions or cautions for sex crimes involving children has fallen in recent years. An exhaustive study of the statistics on the abuse of children reveals only that we have no knowledge at all of how widespread it is: ‘The number of children sexually abused each year in England and Wales lies somewhere between 3,500 and 72,600. In other words, a detailed analysis of the statistics produces such a wide margin of possible error that no published figures can provide the basis for reliable assumptions, let alone sensible policy-making.’

Yet the number of stories about pedophiles has rocketed since the mind-1990s, particularly in the tabloid press. The effect has been enormous, not only on the government legislation on sex crimes, and onl the treatment (or lack of it) for pedophiles, but onl the way families live their lives–How much children are allowed out by themselves, how worried parents are about the internet, how suspicious society in general has become about men who work as Scout leaders, in youth groups, for swimming clubs and so on.

In other words, our chimpanzee brains like to be fed grisly anecdotes in which children are kidnapped and murdered. If there aren’t enough real ones to go around, we’ll settle for panic about ones that have already happened.

Apply this principle across all of the challenges we as a polity confront—economics, crime, abortion, hunger games, global warming—and you have a severe distortion of what’s actually happening ‘out there’ and what we think is happening. The institutions we’ve entrusted to inform us have ceased interpreting their mandate beyond entertaining us.

Journalists like Marr will always tell you that journalism is the first draft of history. Unfortunately, the journalists we’ve got never pause to write a second one.

1 Comment

Filed under America, Books, Journalism, Serious, United Kingdom