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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Carpathian Rhapsody

I spent last week in Sibiu, Romania

My reasons for being there are the most boring possible (conference), but the country is anything but.

Sibiu's in southern Transylvania, and was originally founded by German settlers under the name Hermannstadt.

Transylvania wasn't even Romania until after World War I, and most of the population here were true, Deutsche-speaking, froth-drinking Germans for hundreds of years.

It's a reminder that Europe's cultural monogamy is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Continental Europe used to be full of these little ethnic enclaves. It was divided into kingdoms and territories, not really countries.

And you could basically only tell where you were by the language people were speaking.

Unifying these these territories into countries (Italy! Germany! France!) in the second half of the 1800s resulted in a lot of minority tensions that only got addressed with the outbreak of World War I.

In 'Postwar', Tony Judt says that Europe resolved WWI by moving the borders to accomodate ethnicities, and solved WWII by moving ethnicities to accommodate the borders.

Sibiu only had a few German families left after 1950, and they apparently number in the single digits now.

Ethnic unity and great scenery didn't exactly solve Romania's problems though.

With the country chafing behind the Iron Curtain, Ceausescu came to power in the 1960s by opening Romania up to the west.

And then, rather predictably, went dictator-crazy within a few years.

In Bucharest, he built the world's second-biggest building. He illegalized abortion and, later, birth control.

When 1989 caught up with him, he was tried and executed live on TV.

Since then, the country's continued its westward march unabated.

The Germans may have left, but at least they left it as they found it.

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Germany Has Weird Magazines

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Found in Translation

It’s sort of sick that this actually makes me nostalgic for the year I lived in London:

‘London [in 1900] was the capital of a worldwide empire, but you couldn’t tell that by looking at the city itself. Paris, well, now — there was a capital. A number of other European cities had modernised themselves in similar fashion. But London was an affront to the self-esteem of many Britons.

Their capital was almost devoid of beautiful squares or elegant boulevards, the traffic snarled, the streets were split by puffing steam trains on viaducts, one neighborhood after another was destroyed for the construction of railway stations and Underground lines, the city’s centre was encircled by endless slums.’

Geert Mak, ‘In Europe’

Mak is Dutch, and one of the pleasures of reading this book is getting a non-Anglo perspective on European history. Something I never really contemplated before is that all the history of the European continent I’ve read has been written by native English speakers. It’s a giant shame that more nonfiction doesn’t get translated out of other countries.

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Stir, Scoop, Tap: Why Don’t Companies Tell Their Real Histories?

This article about the factory-ness of the average Taco Bell drive-thru is brilliant:

Every Taco Bell has two food production lines, one dedicated to the drive-thru and the other to servicing the walk-up counter. Working those lines is no easier than wearing the headset. The back of the restaurant has been engineered so that the Steamers, Stuffers, and Expeditors, the names given to the Food Champions who work the pans, take as few footsteps as possible during a shift.

There are three prep areas: the hot holding area, the cold holding area, and the wrapping expediting area. The Stuffer in the hot holding area stuffs the meat into the tortillas, ladling beef with Taco Bell’s proprietary tool, the BPT, or beef portioning tool. The steps for scooping the beef have been broken down into another acronym, SST, for stir, scoop, and tap. Flour tortillas must be cooked on one side for 15 seconds and the other for five.

Last year when I was in Johannesburg I went to the World of Beer, a kind of Disney World that tells the story — animatronically! — of SAB Miller, Africa’s largest beer company. Like most self-told company histories, it basically follows the lines of ‘our product was invented, it was great, and slowly the world came to agree’.

It’s a shame that company biographies often leave out the technocratic aspects of their success. McDonald’s isn’t the world’s largest fast food brand because Big Macs are the best hamburger available. McDonald’s is the world’s largest fast food brand because the company was better at mass-producing food service and national franchising than their rivals, and could profitably sell burgers for unheard-of prices for the time.

Another company success story, Starbucks, didn’t begin from humble origins in Seattle and expand one cafe at a time. Howard Schultz got  a huge chunk of venture capital from investors, bought an obscure coffee shop and opened hundreds of clones simultaneously throughout the country. Like McDonald’s, Starbucks thrived by offering the exact same experience no matter where it was.

The history of the private sector in the last 100 years is basically this same story over and over again. The guy who devises the product isn’t the one who gets rich. It’s the guy who finds a way to produce it so cheaply that everybody can have one.

And this stuff is actually really interesting! The little sweatshop behind a Taco Bell drive-thru window is totally fascinating, and I’m sure there’s great material from Howard Schultz’s multimillion-dollar caffeinated blitzkreig. Increased productivity through industrialization is the story of how our country came to be here, even if it’s not always the story we want to hear.

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Signs of a Struggle

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Michel Gondry Meets German Fairy Tales

I bought this at an antiques market in Dresden for €4. It’s a collection of German fables, each with a really nice little illustration.



I’m cutting these out and putting them on my wall.

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If You Like It Then You Shoulda Put A Perimeter Around It

My friend Michael also says that anything involving Jewish culture in Germany is heavily guarded. Violence or extreme vandalism of a synagogue or Jewish historical site in Germany would be disastrous. This makes sense, but in a city where you don’t see all that many cops, three of them together makes a pretty visible statement.

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