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

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

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