Monthly Archives: October 2012

In Defense of Hipsters

So I saw this dude perform the other night:

His songs have no verse-chorus-verse structure, barely a melody, and his only accompaniment was a guy on a sampler and a guy on a real live violin. It’s like a hipster perfect storm.

And sure enough, the audience was feloniously on-trend. Unisex jeans, chunky glasses, scraggly beards: As the venue filled up, I swear it started to smell like a thrift store.

I know I’m supposed to hate these people or whatever, but you know what? Everyone looked great. Lots of dudes and ladies look superlovely in skinny jeans! If you’re a bit of a bigger guy, a beard, a ski cap and flannel works for you. Sure, everyone looked sort of glazed over, but it was Monday! They’ve been at work all day!

I want to know if early ’00s hipster culture is unique in being defined by all of its members hating each other. In the 1950s, was there a guy with a pompadour and a cigarette pack rolled up in his sleeve, sitting on the hood of a Thunderbird going ‘what’s the deal with these fucking greasers’?

I think if you’re gonna choose an aesthetic to define your generation, we’ve done pretty well. Hipster culture is characterized by striving for authenticity, rejecting corporate values and searching for meaning in life and work. We’re more responsible than the hippies of the 1970s, less amoral than the yuppies of the 1980s and more distinct than whatever the fuck Generation X was. Every generation duplicates and broadcasts a set of values to those previous, and we’ve chosen diversity, sensitivity and irony. It could be worse!

So I spent most of the show silently admiring how great everybody looked, and hoped they were as appealing and fastidious on the inside. I’m sure they were all looking at me going ‘what’s the deal with this fucking hipster?’

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Filed under America, Music, Personal, Serious

Book Publishers Can Prevent the Next Jonah Lehrer

From New York Magazine’s writeup of Jonah Lehrer’s rise (blogger, writer, TED talker) and fall (fabulist, fraud, quote-maker-upper), and what it means for journalism:

Then it got so much worse. Four excruciating months later, Jonah Lehrer is known as a fabricator, a plagiarist, a reckless recycler. He’s cut-and-pasted not just his own stories but at least one from another journalist; he’s invented or conflated quotes; and he’s reproduced big errors even after sources pointed them out. His publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, will soon conclude a fact-check of his three books, the last of which, Imagine, was recalled from bookstores—a great expense for a company that, like all publishing houses, can’t afford to fact-check most books in the first place. In the meantime, he’s been completely ostracized. It’s unclear if he’ll ever write for a living again.

Lehrer was the poster boy of the recent rise of ‘academia lite’ publishing, where journalists aggregate and retell a body of scientific knowledge for a popular audience. For better (Daniel Kahneman) or worse (David Brooks), readers need narratives, publishers need content, academics need publicity, these aren’t going anywhere.

The process of fact-checking these books has come under scrutiny lately, and Lehrer is just the most recent case of a journalist misinterpreting (deliberately, accidentally, who cares) the results of academic studies to fit their own manufactured narrative.

My understanding of the publishing industry is that publishers lose money on basically 99 percent of the books they publish every year, and get into the black on just a few blockbusters. Publishers say they can’t fact-check all the books they print. I’m not all that sympathetic to this (‘it would be super hard’ is rarely a convincing defense for a multinational corporation), but more books rather than fewer is a good thing, and the reality is that publishers aren’t gonna put a New Yorker-style confirmation apparatus in place overnight.

I feel like a first step toward more accuracy in publishing is for authors to be much more accountable to their sources. Lehrer is basically accused of coming up with a conclusion first, then arranging his quotes and sources to confirm it. From what I know from my (brief) experience as an actual journalist, this is pretty standard practice. You hear about a story, you read a bit, you write it up, and you leave spaces with tags like quote from Yankees fan goes here or need Census data for this paragraph to fill in later. Good journalists will, obviously, change the story if their facts contradict their conclusions, but the actual methodology is fairly widespread.

The problem with this approach is that it conceives of sources as Mad Libs generators. You need a quote from someone, you call them up, you get them to talk til they say something that will fill the hole, you hang up. In journalism school you’re told a million times that sources aren’t allowed to see the final story before it’s published, and don’t get to amend their quotes.

This maybe makes sense for political journalism, where sources have an incentive to make themselves look good. If you’re interviewing them about some aspect of their job performance as a public official, they might try to spin you in a particular way if they know what you’re writing. Fine.

But science journalism is different. In the kinds of books and articles Lehrer was writing, his sources’ incentives were aligned with his own. Scientists want their work to reach a mass audience, and for articles to portray their results accurately.

I mean, check this out:

If Lehrer was misusing science, why didn’t more scientists speak up? When I reached out to them, a couple did complain to me, but many responded with shrugs. They didn’t expect anything better. Mark Beeman, who questioned that “needle in the haystack” quote, was fairly typical: Lehrer’s simplifications were “nothing that hasn’t happened to me in many other newspaper stories.”

Maybe book publishers can’t independently verify every single fact in every single book. But they can certainly call five or ten of their authors’ main sources, show them some chapters, and ask them if their work is being fairly represented. If Lehrer knew that his work would be shown to people he interviewed and the authors of studies he cited, he would have  been much less likely to distort their findings.

Yes, this approach has problems. Maybe the sources are dicks, and they don’t want a journalist broadcasting their results. Maybe they’re crazy-academic, and they don’t want their work published unless it’s drowning in jargon and caveats.

But maybe they’re not. Maybe they want to help make sure their work is fairly represented. Maybe they want to contribute additional information that could clarify it.

Either way, I fail to see how contacting an author’s sources—and being transparent with readers about it—would be worse than the current model, in which sources are interviewed and then discarded, and play no instrumental role in how their words and their work is represented. Sources shouldn’t necessarily have the right to approve everything that’s written about their work, but they should at least be consulted.

Authors and journalists that see true stories and correct information, rather than dazzling writing, as their primary constituents, should be arguing for this themselves.

Ultimately, I think Lehrer’s real sin was not believing in his own skill as a writer. If his work had focused on how there isn’t a simple explanation for complex phenomena, how much we don’t know about intuition, how evidence doesn’t clarify the world around us, he might still have ended up famous. And maybe, he could even have ended up right.


Filed under America, Books, Journalism

How to Become a Gay Prostitute in Denmark

Originally posted at The Billfold

Henrik was in debt.

Not crushing or ruinous or inescapable debt, the kind that makes you ignore letters in your mailbox and private incomings on your mobile. Just irritating debt. In June he had taken a five-week trip to New York, where he had spent money like a 33-year-old gay man who hadn’t bought new clothes in two years—which he was. He left his home in Copenhagen with one suitcase and came back with two.

‘I needed an auxiliary,’ he told his friends, ‘just for the shoes.’

A month before the trip, he had remodelled his kitchen. This decision was about as prudent as a suitcase full of shoes, but whatever. At least he could finally cook properly.

Six weeks after returning from New York, he took a look at his spreadsheets. He has one for his band rehearsals, one for his freelance piano-playing gigs, one for his internet hook-ups, one for his photo collection. Those are just the ones he’s told me about.

He fills each spreadsheet not only with quantitative whats and wheres, but expository whys and hows. That’s how he can tell you not only the time and location of a wedding he played in 2004, but that he played ‘The Greatest Love of All’, got paid 1,500 kroner ($260) and cycled home in the rain.

On the night when he first began his transition from IT administrator to freelance prostitute, Henrik opened the Excel file called ‘personal economy’. He had taken out a loan of 50,000 kroner ($8,500) to pay for the kitchen remodel, and had overdrafted his credit cards in New York. He was paying them off, but not fast enough. He was still 40,000 kroner ($7,000) in debt.

Ordinarily this wouldn’t have been a big deal. Henrik had lived through self-imposed lean times before, scheduling extra wedding gigs, quitting alcohol, spending weekends in sweatpants and Blockbuster. But this time he couldn’t inch his way back into solvency. He was going to be a father in six months.

He and his ex-wife had been trying to have a baby for two years. The divorce had been literally as amicable as humanly possible, and they still slept over at each other’s apartments once or twice a month. They had divorced when they were both 25 and now, eight years later, she was a partnered lesbian and he was a single gay man.

‘What, did you guys just look at each other one day, say “let’s have a baby” and high-five?’ I asked him when he told me they were pregnant.

‘Basically,’ he said.

Henrik didn’t want to be in debt when the baby was born. ‘The way I figured it, I had six months to get into the black,’ he says.

Prostitution only occurred to him after he pursued other options. Bartending, nightclub work, baristing, these are not only poorly paid, but require regular shifts, which his day job wouldn’t accommodate. He looked into freelance work—translations, proofreading, various musical transcription stuff I don’t really understand—but those come from contacts and networking, something he didn’t have time for.

‘I needed work that was part-time, well paid, required little preparation and no professional skills,’ he says. ‘What else is there?’

Over the next six months, Henrik earned more than $4,000 having sex with men for money. He reported all of this to the tax authorities, and even deducted expenses for things like his SIM card and classified ads. In total he had 32 clients, some of whom now, between daycare pickups and vaccine appointments, he still meets, fucks and charges.

Because Henrik is Henrik, he entered every transaction into an Excel spreadsheet. Even before that, when he first started to seriously consider prostitution, he sat down and wrote a to-do list. The following is what he wrote, and what he did.


1. Call Tax Authorities

The first thing on Henrik’s list was to make sure he wasn’t breaking the law.

Denmark has a complicated relationship with taxes. According to the OECD, it is the world’s 4th most taxed country. The top tax rate, which applies to whatever you earn above 389,900 kroner ($70,000), is 56.1 percent. The word for taxes (‘skat’) is also the word for ‘honey,’ as in ‘honey, I’m a socialist.’

In Denmark, you can call up the tax authorities, tell them your problem and they’ll give you on-the-spot advice to help you solve it. The concept of paying a private company to do your taxes is as foreign to Danes as students getting a salary to attend college is to Americans.

So in keeping with his nationality, Henrik called up Skat and told them he was going to be earning a ‘B-income’ giving piano lessons, and what did he need to do, paperwork-wise, to make sure he was following the law?

No problem, Skat told him, just keep track of all your income and your expenditures. At the end of the year, let us know both numbers, we’ll calculate your tax and send you a bill.

‘That’s it?’ I said when he told me this. ‘They told you to track everything? It’s like telling a dog it’s legally obligated to chase a tennis ball.’

‘I know right!’ Henrik said.

Henrik needn’t have been coy on the phone. Prostitution is legal in Denmark. You just have to report your income, stay under 50,000 kroner ($8,500) per year and only sell your own body (selling other people’s is technically pimping, and prohibited). As far as the authorities are concerned, you might as well be having a bake sale.

2. Get New Bank Account and Mobile Phone

‘I need to stress how not that major of a transition this was for me,’ Henrik says. ‘The only real difference between prostitution and what I was already doing was the logistics.’

Henrik’s only slightly exaggerating. Even before he was a prostitute, he had been conducting semi-anonymous hookups for years. He had profiles on all the major, and some of the minor, promiscu-net apps and websites. Grindr, Gaydar, GayRomeo, Adam4Adam, ManHunt: Henrik had a bouquet of identities and marketing pitches tailored to each one.

‘I took a long time having sex—I was 26 or 27,’ Henrik says. ‘But since then I went straight into a sort of belated teenage thing, making up for all the sex I’d missed.’

Somewhere around 30, Henrik realized that one of the most efficient ways to hook up a few times a month was to deliberately seek out business travellers who were only in Copenhagen for a night or two.

‘One, it’s an untapped market,’ he says. ‘All the Danes are pecking each others’ eyes out over the same, like, 200 eligible gay men. Two, travellers are uncomplicated. The sex is honest. You both know it’s not leading to anything. And you get to have hotel breakfast the next day.’

I met Henrik in 2008, when he was doing these hotel-room one night stands once or twice a month, and I was always amazed at how he talked about them like miniature friendships rather than anonymous transactions. He never dove right into bed with these guys. He insisted on chitchat before the sex and cuddles—‘which is what these guys really want anyway’—afterward, marvelling at the things they told him.

‘It actually made me feel really good,’ he says about them now. ‘I liked that bubble of instant intimacy with these guys. It felt unique every time. Anyway, I had a good time and I like to think they did too.’

These encounters were basically an invoice away from prostitution anyway, and were the primary reason Henrik knew not only that he could be a prostitute, but that he’d be good at it.

Still, he wanted to make sure his new hobby wouldn’t bleed into his old. He opened a new bank account and got a new mobile number he would only give to potential clients.

He also didn’t want his clients to know his real name. This is easy when you’re visiting hotel rooms, but in Denmark, apartment buildings list the name of every resident on the door. Visitors don’t buzz your apartment number, they buzz your full name, in black and white.

‘This was going to be an issue,’ Henrik says. ‘I came up with this system where I put a piece of red tape over my name on the door.  I told them I had just moved in, and hadn’t put the nameplate up yet. My apartment’s so messy, no one ever questioned it.’

He then, obviously, began a new spreadsheet.


3. Place Advertisement

You’re not officially a gay prostitute until you let the rest of the world know. In Denmark, the primary gay dating website,, doesn’t allow escort ads. GayRomeo, the most popular site in the rest of Europe, allows escorts, but it’s barely used in Denmark.

Henrik used to volunteer for an AIDS charity, and he remembered a master’s dissertation about gay prostitution in Denmark that had made the NGO rounds a few years previous. He pulled it out of the hard-drive equivalent of his sock drawer and read it cover to cover. Buried in the methodology was the name of the website where the researcher had gathered her contacts:

‘It’s just the absolute shittiest website on the planet,’ he says. ‘But for some reason, that’s the only place where you can feasibly sell gay sex in Copenhagen.’

Even by the standards of gay hookup websites, is pretty dire. There are no private profiles or direct communication between users. All of the interaction is simply spit out into a common chatroom. If is a 747 and Grindr is an F-16, is strapping feathers to your arms and flapping.

‘The worst thing about this whole experiment wasn’t the lonely old men, or the people who didn’t answer their buzzer after I biked to their place in the rain,’ Henrik says. ‘It’s that goddamn chatroom. It only shows 25 lines of text and then it disappears forever. You have to sit there and watch it like it’s a pet.’

Henrik had a friend take some pictures of him in various stages of undress and engorgement (‘Always with a big, empty room behind me. Nobody wants to commission a prostitute who looks like he needs to be doing this’), and chose a username that gave a fair representation of who he was: SellingCopenhagen33.

‘I wasn’t going to pretend I was some 18-year-old gymnast, or hung like the Empire State Building,’ he says. ‘I wanted to lower tricks’ expectations of me before we met, not raise them.’

4. Decide a Price

By scanning the profiles of both buyers and sellers on Homospot, Henrik found that there were essentially two tiers of gay prostitutes: Young and expensive (up to 5000 kroner, or $850, per hookup), and old and cheap (around 600 kroner, or $105, per hookup). For buyers, it’s like being given the option of a Honda Civic, a Bentley, or nothing.

By the standards of gay Danish prostitutes, Henrik was firmly a Honda. He’s good-looking, but more like a cool math teacher than a stalking sex god. He stays in shape (‘swimmer’s build’ is how a few of his customers would later describe him), but more like a floppy, flustered Hugh Grant than a dense, strutting Tom Hardy.

‘The first time I started talking price with guys online, I was amazed at how much haggling goes on,’ he says. ‘Everyone wants to fucking haggle, it’s infuriating. Some dudes were asking if they could get, like, a 10-blowjob clipcard.’

Henrik decided to charge his first client 700 kroner ($120). They exchanged pictures in the chatroom, then negotiated price and activities by mobile. An hour and 20 minutes later, a 49-year-old man from Malmo, Sweden, arrived at Henrik’s apartment. Then they had sex, then he gave Henrik a fresh-from-the-ATM stack of 100 kroner notes and then he left.

‘It was really mundane,’ Henrik says. ‘It was sex with an old guy. It only felt different afterwards. I think I tried to kiss him, and he said, “I don’t think that’s so hot after sex.” He just wanted to get the hell out.’

So how is sex different when the two people having it aren’t lovers, partners, friends or even strangers, but customer and merchant?

‘I actually thought about this a lot before I started,’ Henrik says. ‘No matter how much I was fucking around, I always had this little motto that I reserve the right to be lousy in bed. That’s kind of problematic when they pay you money.’

I assumed that Henrik’s clients would take a kind of ‘customer is always right’ approach, acting entitled to get exactly what they wanted and complain if they didn’t.

‘If anything, it was the opposite,’ Henrik says. ‘You both sort of forget about the money as soon as you start fooling around. It’s more common for them to confuse it with real intimacy than to confuse it with, like, a haircut.’

Henrik’s spreadsheet lists what he did and what he earned for each of his clients. In six months of freelance prostitution, Henrik charged an average of 624 kroner, or $110, per encounter, with a maximum of 1,066 kroner, or $185 (‘I slept over at his hotel and he paid in euros’), and a minimum of 400 kroner, or $70 (‘this fucking guy and his fucking clipcard’).

Some of them he slept with more than once, but most were one-timers. In all, he earned just over 24,000 kroner, or $4,150.

Henrik only paid 6,300 kroner ($1,090) in taxes, or 24.2 percent, because he was able to deduct 11,000 kroner ($1,900) for expenses, including his Macbook. He had sex with a client in Croatia when he was there on vacation, and when he returned, he called the tax authorities to ask if he could deduct the cost of the holiday. Flights yes, came the answer, hotel no.

I asked Henrik why his spreadsheet listed the distance he cycled to each client.

‘Bike rides,’ he says, ‘are reimbursed half a kroner per kilometer.’

5. Make Policy Regarding Customers

In his to-do list, Henrik wrote ‘Is there anyone I wouldn’t sleep with? Do I need to validate their identity? What information should I get from them beforehand?

And, right at the end:  ‘… Viagra?

‘Already back then I felt pretty sure that the world of paid-for sex isn’t filled with weirdos,’ Henrik says. ‘It’s filled with overweight old guys. And pretty much, that’s what happened.’

Henrik kept notes on each client in his spreadsheet. It reads like some kind of gay Xanadu as imagined by an Alabama talk radio host: ‘Porn playing on TV in bedroom…. Blindfolded, wanted dirty talk… Ends in doggy … Loves nipples … Chat while he sits on a buttplug … Wasn’t expecting second prostitute… Way too old, impotent … Met in the park…’

‘But what were they like?I keep asking whenever I see him now.

‘Honestly? The only thing they have in common is that they’re unattractive,’ Henrik says. ‘There’s a guy I still see once a month, he’s like 100-kilo plus. He works at PWC. There’s nothing wrong with him on the inside, just nobody wants to fuck a fat guy.

‘The funniest thing is that the sex is phenomenal. There’s this great big fat guy and I feel like I’m the only one who knows he’s great in bed.’

On a few occasions, Henrik texted his client’s address to a friend before they met, in case something went wrong. In the end, he never had to turn anyone down. He never used Viagra.

‘I did fake a lot of the orgasms though,’ he says.

‘Shut the fuck up,’ I say.

‘Seriously. Nobody ever notices unless it’s a facial situation.’

Like any other professional experience, though, Henrik remembers the people more than the tasks.

‘It’s really obvious that they just want conversation,’ he says. ‘They want a whiff of romance.’

It became a kind of competitive advantage. When potential clients asked Henrik what was included in the price, he said ‘we’ll have enough time’ to signal that some spooning, some conversation, some channel-surfing wasn’t out of the question. One guy invited him to a family gathering as his date, clock running the whole time. Another, a married guy in Norway, recommended Henrik to a friend.

Between the prostitution, his day job and extra piano gigs, Henrik got himself out of debt just before his son was born. He still sees some of his old clients, but doesn’t log on to Homospot anymore. He’s told only a handful of friends. Henrik, obviously, isn’t his real name.

‘My reason for paying taxes wasn’t because I’m a socialist, or a philanthropist,’ he says. ‘When someone confronts me with this, I want to be able to say, in so many words, “It was work, nothing else. I worked, I paid taxes. What do you care?”’


Filed under Denmark, Essays, Personal

Mind Over Manners: Why Not Being An Asshole is Really Hard

Here’s Elizabeth Bernstein in the Wall St. Journal:

Dr. Leary at Duke decided to study people’s overreactions to inconsequential events several years ago, after he witnessed the Pickle Incident.

He was at a fast-food restaurant and saw a man in a business suit march up to the counter, throw his hamburger down and yell: “Why is there a pickle on my sandwich?” Loudly, he said he would have the counter clerk fired because she was “too stupid” to work there. The clerk looked as if she would cry. Another employee handed the customer a new hamburger, and he left.

The scene made Dr. Leary think there must be something critically important about unwritten social rules if we feel so deeply violated that we need to let the world know when someone breaks one. “It’s not the pickle,” says Dr. Leary. “It’s that you are doing something that makes me not trust you, that you may harm or disadvantage me because you are not playing by the rules.”

Last week I was in line at the supermarket buying a bottle of water. The guy in front of me was buying a whole cart full of stuff, and didn’t offer to let me go ahead of him. I fumed, bleep-by-bleep, as the checker rang up all 275,000 of his items. When his total came up and he started digging in his pockets for exact change, I stared at the ceiling and let out a deep, audible sigh.

How useless and childish my reaction was! In all, this guy probably wasted two minutes of my time—tops!—and it’s not like I was late for something or in a hurry. I huffed and grumbled throughout this entire episode like a princess in a children’s story, then, as soon as it was over, biked home and wasted time on my laptop til bedtime.

This episode was utterly inconsequential. So why didn’t it feel like that at the time?

Researchers at Duke University, in a yet-to-be-published study, looked for explanations of why people melt down over small things. Their findings suggest we are reacting to a perceived violation of an unwritten yet fundamental rule. It’s the old, childhood wail: “It’s not fair!”

Researchers call these unwritten laws of behavior “social exchange rules.” We’re not supposed to be rude or inconsiderate; we are supposed to be polite, fair, honest and caring. Don’t cut in line. Drive safely. Clean up after yourself.

“We can’t have successful interactions in relationships, mutually beneficial to both people involved, if one person violates these rules,” says Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke and lead author of the study. “And we can’t have a beneficial society if we can’t trust each other not to lie, not to be unethical, not to watch out for our general well-being.”

I constantly struggle not to turn violations of social exchange rules into internal tantrums. It’s hard work to tell myself He probably just doesn’t see you behind him in line. If he did, he’d obviously let you go ahead. It’s so much easier to just think this fucking asshole and stand there rolling my eyes.

I think the best advice I ever got was ‘Don’t argue anything on principle alone.’ As the article points out, these episodes escalate from minor infraction to major altercation because people perceive them in terms of principles like fairness and equality—this guy thinks his time is more valuable than mine!—rather than concrete impacts—I’m gonna get home from work 120 seconds later than I planned!

On the bus to the airport last Friday, a woman had her bag on the seat next to her as the bus filled, then nearly overflowed, with people. This gremlin, I thought, thinks her bag is more important than all these people.

‘Excuse me,’ someone finally said. ‘Did you know your bag is taking up this seat?’
‘Oh I’m so sorry,’ the woman said. ‘I was reading my book and totally forgot. Please sit down, forgive me.’
‘Not at all,’ the other traveller said. ‘These things happen.’

I think that’s a good way to put it: These things happen. Distracted, forgetful, short-termy, oblivious, that’s what makes us human. By doing the hard thing when we relate to each other, we have the opportunity to be a little bit more.


Filed under Serious

How to Take Irritating Pictures of Your Vacation

Jesus the rest of my pictures from Tbilisi turned out really annoying.

The city has beautiful buildings, a fascinating language and a kind, history-weathered population.

Of which I managed to capture exactly none.

Instead, I came home with a bunch of pictures of an empty, vaguely European diorama.

It’s like a master-class in how to ignore the characteristics of your subject and resort to sub-Instagram photo trickery.

Like this one: The Ferris Wheel Atop The Mountain. It’s auditioning to be the headline of a Malcolm Gladwell article.

Or this one, with that movie-star lighting. What’s the appropriate hashtag to describe it in detail?!

Awwwwww shit, chain links and religiosity. They give Pulitzers for cropping, right?

Notice the electrical lines in the foreground. You can tell I was ducking sniper fire as I took this.

Oooh, this one’s ugly! It must be real!

Oh no, this church is hella nondescript! What to do?

Zoom in on the flag, for a little metaphorical significance?

Or kneel in the dirt and finagle this rose for the foreground?

Naw, son. Just zoom in until it looks like a stock photo on the cover of a Vote For Bachmann direct mailing.

Wanna make something seem mysterious and far away? Hold your camera behind some branches til you get the desired Escape From Witch Mountain effect.

Who needs PhotoShop when you can fake your photos at the source?

Backlighting is the black sweater of my photographic repertoire: Appropriate for all occasions.

Another favorite: If the bottom half of a church is littered with dumpsters and unsymmetrical bushes, just aim upwards til it’s unblemished.

That way, instead of looking like your photos were taken in a specific place by a specific person, they could be anywhere, depicting anything. That’s the point, right?

This picture is trying so hard it’s practically doping.

Thank god there’s nothing here to actually look at, that would have been confusing.

Nighttime! That’s an iPhone app, right?

Aaaaand… I’m out. I may not have come home with any amazing photos, but at least I have some nice memories.

They don’t last as long, but they’re easier to edit.

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Filed under Pictures, Serious, Travel

If 10,000 Hours of Practice Makes You More Creative, What Does 20,000 Do?

The idea that talent isn’t inborn, that you have to practice something constantly and deliberately for 10,000 hours before you master it, makes intuitive sense. It’s especially appealing for the arts. Mozart wasn’t a prodigy, the theory goes, he just crammed in 10,000 hours of practice before his 19th birthday. Nearly every filmmaker, artist and writer talks about having a passion for their medium astonishingly early in life (M. Night Shyamalan and PT Anderson, for example, were both making  movies when they were still eating peanut butter out of the jar).

Again, this makes sense. The arts have technical and craft-like aspects, and you gotta master the tools before you use them to make something that’s never existed before.

But I’m interested in what happens after you’ve done your 10,000 hours, and you keep practicing. Why do artists peak and decline?

I can see how physical or technical skills (sports, surgery) would continue to develop until they are hindered by the body’s decreasing ability to put them to use. Michael Jordan may have decades more skill than LeBron James, but the 49-year-old body simply won’t collaborate with the brain the same way as a 27-year-old’s will.

But creativity is different. You don’t need physical skill to be a writer, painter, composer or singer. So why do so many of our best examples of the 10,000 hour rule show such marked decline in the quality of their output as they get older?

Last week I read a couple reviews of Tom Wolfe’s new book, ‘Back to Blood’:

Wolfe isn’t interested in ordinary life. Ordinary life is complex, contradictory, prismatic. Wolfe’s characters are never contradictory, because they have only one big emotion, and it is lust—for sex, money, power, status. His own prose is monotonous in the same way. It confuses the depiction of strength with the energy of verisimilitude.

Wolfe is 81, and an absolute skyscraper in the world of journalism. He invented, or at least perfected, the art of longform feature reporting, and every month GQ and Vanity Fair print ripples of his voice and perspective. Yet as he’s gotten older,  his output has (OK, arguably) become repetitive and extravagant, less a man examining the world around him than a man staring at his own infinite reflection in a bathroom mirror.

This week I’ve also been listening to Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ basically on repeat, since it just got rereleased. It’s self-evidently the best thing ever, and Simon has (again, arguably) never made anything that holds up so well since.

Across the creative spectrum, artists generally produce works of decreasing interest as they get older. From Bob Dylan to Clint Eastwood to Claude Monet, artistic output tends to peak—sometimes early, sometimes late—then steadily decline. It’s as if, like an aging body, an aging brain no longer has the strength to throw as many spears through the fog.

I wonder if creativity, perhaps distinctly from sports or technical skills, is a kind of multiplication. It only manifests when talent breeds with inspiration, desire for risk, engagement with the outside world. Maybe it’s not the talent that diminishes, but the appetite for novelty.

Or maybe it doesn’t diminish at all. Maybe Tom Wolfe and Paul Simon are actually producing better and better work, they’re just becoming increasingly nuanced and complex as their talent develops, and are no longer embraced by the ‘tl;dr’ heathen mainstream. Their best years weren’t a creative peak so much as an extended overlap with the tastes and desires of the masses, and now they’ve diverged.

Or maybe—I hate this option—aging simply wears out the mind as profoundly as it does the body. The brain becomes so unmalleable as it ages that it can’t make intellectual jump shots anymore. Tom Wolfe today is unable to write a great novel just like Sandy Koufax is unable to pitch a no-hitter. The brain and the body are both exhausted, just one is more visible than the other.

Or maybe I’m full of shit! And thousands of works have come screaming forth from their creators’ autumnal decades, I just haven’t noticed. Maybe Mozart and Cobain and Hendrix, had they lived, would have produced peak after peak, their talent aging like Italian cheese.

Like all broad human phenomena, though, I’m firstly interested in how it applies to me. I don’t think I’ve done anything for 10,000 hours, much less 20,000. I’d better get started! As my body begins its earthward descent, I want to make sure I reach a few highs in case it takes my brain with it.


Filed under Books, Journalism, Personal, Serious

Education and Development Don’t Need Great Ideas, They Need Great People

Here’s a crackerjack story about how a school in New Jersey improved student performance by teaching the basics of grammar, vocabulary and composition:

One teacher noted that the best-written paragraphs contained complex sentences that relied on dependent clauses like although and despite, which signal a shifting idea within the same sentence. Curious, Fran Simmons devised a little test of her own. She asked her freshman English students to read Of Mice and Men and, using information from the novel, answer the following prompt in a single sentence:

“Although George …”

She was looking for a sentence like: Although George worked very hard, he could not attain the American Dream.

Some of Simmons’s students wrote a solid sentence, but many were stumped. More than a few wrote the following: “Although George and Lenny were friends.”


By fall 2009, nearly every instructional hour except for math class was dedicated to teaching essay writing along with a particular subject. So in chemistry class in the winter of 2010, Monica DiBella’s lesson on the properties of hydrogen and oxygen was followed by a worksheet that required her to describe the elements with subordinating clauses—for instance, she had to begin one sentence with the word although.


By sophomore year, Monica’s class was learning how to map out an introductory paragraph, then how to form body paragraphs. “There are phrases—specificallyfor instancefor example—that help you add detail to a paragraph,” Monica explains. She reflects for a moment. “Who could have known that, unless someone taught them?”

Homework got a lot harder. Teachers stopped giving fluffy assignments such as “Write a postcard to a friend describing life in the trenches of World War I” and instead demanded that students fashion an expository essay describing three major causes of the conflict.

There’s a tendency to read specific stories and try to wring generics out of them. Maybe all of America’s students are deficient in basic grammar! Maybe a nationwide curriculum on prepositions, argumentation and sentence structure would make up our education gap!

I don’t know anything about education, but after spending most of my career working in NGOs, I’ve realized that in development, the hard part isn’t coming up with a great idea, or even implementing that idea in a specific place. The hard part, every single time, is making that idea work in more than one place at a time.

Whenever we face this problem at work, I can’t help thinking about the Hawthorne effect:

This effect was first discovered and named by researchers at Harvard University who were studying the relationship between productivity and work environment. Researchers conducted these experiments at the Hawthorne Works plant of Western Electric. The study was originally commissioned to determine if increasing or decreasing the amount of light workers received increased or decreased worker productivity. The researchers found that productivity increased due to attention from the research team and not because of changes to the experimental variable.

In other words, people don’t work harder because the bosses change the environment, they work harder because the bosses are watching them, and care what they’re doing. It’s like a group placebo.

This has societal implications. As William Baumol’s new book points out, the story of the last 50 years is steadily increasing productivity in farms, factories, computers, all the hard stuff. Efficiency gains in the soft stuff—healthcare, education, hair salons—haven’t kept up because in the service sector, someone fundamentally has to pay attention to someone else.

Some sectors of the economy, like manufacturing, have rising productivity—they regularly produce more with less, which leads to higher wages and rising living standards. But other sectors, like education, have a harder time increasing productivity. Ford, after all, can make more cars with fewer workers and in less time than it did in 1980. But the average student-teacher ratio in college is sixteen to one, just about what it was thirty years ago. In other words, teachers today aren’t any more productive than they were in 1980.

Growing 10 acres of corn doesn’t take 10 times as much effort as growing one acre. The more land you have, the more you benefit from irrigation, tractors, etc. But giving two haircuts takes exactly twice the effort of giving one haircut. There’s no way (now, anyway) for a doctor to examine 100 patients, or a teacher to pay attention to 100 students, the same way a factory makes 100 iPods.

And this is the hard part. Every time we come up with a new paradigm for education (Sentence structure! Standardized testing! STEM programs!) or development (Microcredit! Millennium goals! Mosquito nets!), we’re trying to get around the fundamental nature of the activity: Someone has to be there. They need to watch. They have to care.

I don’t want to take anything away from this school, its students or its achievement. What this principal has done is remarkable, and teachers and administrators everywhere should be given the freedom to try approaches that respond to the specific challenges of their students.

But every time an anecdote becomes a paradigm, and a paradigm becomes a rule, we risk forgetting that education and development aren’t always driven by great ideas or great methodologies. Sometimes they’re just great individuals. Standing there, turning the lights up and down, and paying attention to what happens.

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Antidepressants, Cialis and Dating: How We’ve Outsourced Our Lives to Corporations

After I posted this article on Facebook (‘Probably the best thing I’ve ever read on depression and the pharmaceutical industry’), an American friend wrote me:

Basically, I stopped being able to ‘squeeze one out’ without a lot of work about a month after I started taking [antidepressants] at age 15. I remember noticing a marked difference, and I told my doctor about it. She said ‘you are awfully young to be making those kind of observations’ and that’s all that came of that conversation.

For the last two years, I’ve lost the desire for sex. I can’t remember the last time I was ‘in the mood’ and my dating has come from loneliness and feeling like I should more than from sexual chemistry. […]

Then, I went on a date with a guy with whom I ended up being totally incompatible, but somehow we got talking about antidepressants. (I feel like the question ‘so what pills are you on?’ isn’t entirely unheard of in Seattle) turns out he experienced the same thing with the loss of sexual appetite. Fucked up a bunch of his relationships. Now he’s on some kind of cocktail to mitigate that and takes Cialis when he needs to be in the mood. […]

The next morning I talked myself down. It’s not that bad, I’m just reading into it too much, etc. Never mind the the last guy I dated (whom I still have feelings for) was depressed and started taking pills while we were dating. Turns out he wasn’t ever in the mood for sex and didn’t really feel like doing anything other than work and gardening at his house in Federal Way. So that didn’t work because he couldn’t be bothered.

Then, the guy I’ve been seeing for the last few weeks calls today. We were supposed to have a date tonight and I call him at 8 or so. Turns out he is in a clinical trial for one of those pills listed in the article, so he gets them for free, plus free healthcare while he is on the trial, which was a big factor for him when he decided to participate. (he’s a ‘permanent’ contractor with the pharmaceutical company he works for, which means he’s an employee who they don’t have to provide health insurance to. Oh the irony) he was feeling depressed this weekend and so he and his doctor decided to up his dose, and now he’s sleepy and all he wants to do is sleep. So much for the date.

Reading stuff like this, I can’t help but wonder when this century will get its shit together and begin the work of clawing back some of the pieces of our lives we’ve outsourced to the private sector.

Since World War II, we’ve given companies responsibility for an ever-widening pie slice of our lives, from our wars (Blackwater) to our food (Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart) to our social lives (‘thanks for the poke, Mom!’). Meanwhile, as employees of these same corporations, we get ever-fewer collective bargaining rights, labor law protections and access to redress. And furtherly meanwhile, our politicians are being funded by the same entities they’re supposed to be building fences around. This courtroom is out of order, dammit.

I’m sure we’re all generally glad that we went the private-sector route instead of the empty-grocery-shelves way of the planned economy. But did we have to give the companies everything?

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Small Talk Is Horrible. And Everyone Should Know How To Do It.

Small talk is one of the rare social activities we perform where both people involved a) aren’t enjoying themselves and b) know the other person isn’t either. I know you hate talking about the weather, you know I hate listening to you talk about the weather, I know you know, you know I know, yet on and on we go, la la la.

Like a chess game, we play out the initial, routine moves like a sort of ritual (‘What do you do for a living?’ ‘How was your weekend?’) until we get somewhere neither of us has been before. Then we start paying attention.

Yet small talk is weirdly important. Most of your best friends began as people with whom you made inane, obligatory chitchat (‘So, how do you know Steve?’) in a bar, a classroom or a workplace somewhere. It’s like our entire species has decided, hivelike, that before we ask about things we like hearing, or talk about things we like saying, we want to make sure you’re capable of engaging in content-free pleasantries for at least 2 minutes.

I’m fascinated by how this differs across cultures. As anyone who has ever traveled, lived abroad or hosted an exchange student knows, chit-chat is as culturally loaded as manners, dating, sex or food. Some cultures talk to each other everywhere. Riding the bus, waiting in line, sitting in a cafe—everything’s an opportunity to engage with the people around you.

In other countries, starting a conversation with someone you don’t know is an event that provokes stunned silence and stricken glares. The fuck, their tone of voice says as they answer monosyllabically, is this dude talking to me for?

I grew up in America, which is somewhere between these extremes, and I’ve now experienced small talk in London (chatty but aloof), Berlin (chatty when drunk or homosexual) and Copenhagen (excuse me, do I know you?).

It’s not like these countries are genetically distinct from each other. Sometime growing up, someone taught you when to engage with people around you and, if necessary, how to continue upward into actually knowing them.

It’s interesting that, with all of the talk (OK maybe just TED talks) about ‘gross national happiness‘ and how countries should contribute to the overall well-being of their citizens, how little attention small talk receives as a public policy issue.

A population that is systematically equipped to engage new people and form sustainable, mutually beneficial relationships will be happier, healthier and more productive than one without. Social support reduces stress, increases lifespan and seems to prevent everything from nervous breakdowns to cancer. Not having friends is as bad for you as smoking.

And it all comes down to small talk. The better you are at performing these introductory catechisms (‘what neighborhood do you live in?’), the more efficient you are at identifying potential friends and, ultimately, obtaining social support.

Small talk isn’t any more complicated than touch-typing, or long division, or anything else you learned in middle school. You take turns, you listen closely, you stay on topic. Like most forms of human interaction, once you look at it closely, it’s formulaic enough that it can be learned—and taught.

So why don’t countries deliberately promote conversation skills? I’m legitimately curious about this. If schools teach financial literacy and cultural literacy, why don’t they teach social literacy? Making conversation, like sending a resume or acing a job interview, is something everyone should know how to do.

Happy populations don’t just happen. Our countries taught us to add and subtract, collect and analyze, read and think. Maybe it’s time they taught us to meet each other.


Filed under America, Berlin, Denmark, Germany, Personal, Serious

Ugly Pictures Of A Beautiful City

I wanted to take nice pictures of Tbilisi, I really did.

It’s such a fascinating place:

The food is amazing,

the people are nice

and this week Georgia had a free, fair election

that filled the storefronts with huddles of people watching the news, pointing at it for me so I know it’s important.

But I’m not a good enough photographer to capture Tbilisi’s inner beauty.

So I biked around her for three days,

looking for signs of it on her outsides.

My friend who lives here says many of these apartments are in a lot better shape than they look.

No one is officially responsible for maintaining building exteriors and shared spaces.

And there’s no property tax, so many people own more than one apartment and leave it empty for years.

I like the thought of a vast, polished ballroom waiting behind each of these awnings:

Immaculate innards protected by this cracking, pockmarked skin.

Like people, cities’ insides show on their outsides,

whether they want them to or not.

And in Tbilisi, ‘good looking’ isn’t what you see, it’s what you owe.

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Filed under Pictures, Travel

How To Reduce Corruption — And Lose an Election

Imagine it’s 2003, and you’ve just been elected the president of a failed state. Its name is Georgia, a little wedge of forest nestled between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains. It has spent the last 900 years as a trinket passed back and forth between Russia, Turkey and Iran. If it ever comes up in conversation, which is rarely, people are likely to think you’re talking about the land of peachtrees and Ted Turner, not eggplants and Joseph Stalin.

Nevertheless, it’s 2003, and you’ve got a job to do. Your country has 4.5 million people, an unemployment rate of 50 percent, a median income of about $10 a month and, in its most fortunate cities and regions, two hours of electricity per day.

This was the situation Mikheil Saakashvili found himself in nine years ago. His country had declared independence from Russia in 1991, and the ensuing 12 years had been a countrywide game of Hungry Hungry Hippo. The police force was neither police nor a force, but a mobile fraternity of bribe-extractors. Politicians and civil servants performed the routine functions of governance—issuing licenses, allotting budgets, delivering services—with reluctance so severe the World Bank referred to them as ‘criminalized’. Getting a business license required approval from 29 government agencies. Who even knows how many bribes you had to pay.

Saakashvili studied at Columbia and George Washington University. He had a fellowship at the US State Department in the early ‘90s, and studied human rights in France. It’s sort of surprising he hasn’t given a Ted talk. He was pulled away, his political biography tells us, from a gig at a US law firm and general international awesomeness in 1995, and convinced to come back to his humble homeland, stand for elections and rescue his wedge of Caucasan forest from Russia, Turkey, international donors and, possibly, itself.

Tbilisi, the capital, from above.

Saakashvili got 95 percent of the vote in something called the Rose Revolution, something we all skimmed articles about in the New York Times in 2003 and then immediately began confusing for all the other ones (velvet, orange, etc) we mix up at pub quizzes.

As the spotlight of the world’s attention dimmed, Saakashvili began the impossible, invisible task of making a country work. The way he did this was by giving the entire country the Alec Baldwin speech from Glengarry Glen Ross:

First prize is, your salary goes up by a factor of 20. Second prize is, you get to keep your job. Third prize is, you’re fired.

First up: The cops. Overnight, he fired all 16,000 of them. He replaced them with applicants trained in community policing, crime reduction and citizen services. Salaries increased 23-fold between 2004 and 2011.

‘Wasn’t there a period when no one was policing the country at all?’ I asked my friend who works at an NGO here. ‘Wasn’t it just chaos in the streets?’
‘You’re assuming there was policing going on at all,’ he said. ‘Georgia was basically Somalia in 2003. Crime went down after all the cops were fired.’

It didn’t stop there. Police officers were given new uniforms, glass-fronted police stations (transparent, get it?) and—without their knowledge—squad cars equipped with listening devices. The first cops found to be taking bribes, plotting against their superiors or otherwise fucking with their new mandate to protect and serve were accused of such on national television, and sent to prison for up to 10 years. No, seriously, these measures said, we mean this.

One of Georgia’s new police stations.

Next, politicians and civil servants. Saakashvili made sure every single one got the same message: I don’t care what you did yesterday, I don’t care what you do today, But starting tomorrow, you’re going to hep this country run smoothly, or you’re gone.

He fired 40,000 of them the first year. The rest were watched by cameras, tracked by spreadsheets and evaluated by superiors and customers alike. The better services worked, the more he raised their salaries.

Tbilisi’s Public Service Hall

And finally, everybody else. In 2003, tax revenue was only 12 percent of GDP (in the US, it’s 24 percent. In the UK, 39 percent.). Most retailers kept ‘official’ and ‘actual’ books to avoid reporting income.

The first thing Saakashvili did was ban informal vendors—those dudes who sell fruit while you wait at red lights, for example—from city streets. This is too harsh, they protested. Fine, came his response, but at least it’s consistent.

For the formal vendors—corner stores, restaurants, hair salons—It was Alec Baldwin again: You’re all going to install special cash registers that tell the government, in real time, what you’re selling and what you’re earning. If you don’t like it, you don’t stay in business. Oh, and you have to buy the cash registers yourselves. That’s too onerous, they protested. Fine, came his response, but it’s not unfair.

Within months, everything bought and sold was now tracked and reported. The new, policing-focused police force sent undercover officers to stores all over the country to check if vendors were using the cash registers. Saakashvili also worked on the demand side. The special cash registers spit out receipts that had built-in lottery tickets. Each had a barcode that, for a lucky few, could be redeemed for cash. All of a sudden, ‘where’s my receipt?’ became as common in Georgia as ‘have a nice day’ was in America.

Georgian receipt with ‘lottery barcode’

Next, he went after the bigwigs. For months after he came to power, the news was animated with raids on Georgia’s biggest businessmen, mafia, oligarchs and political fixers. He gave them all the same deal:  You’ve got two options: Go to jail for all the warlord-ass shit you’ve pulled over the last decade, or pay restitution and get a full amnesty. The restitution for some of them was as much as $14 million. There was no special receipt.

The bigwigs didn’t even protest. They knew the response before it came.

At the same time he made everyone pay their taxes, he made sure everyone knew what they owed. He threw out most of the old tax code and installed a flat tax: 12 percent on your income, 20 percent sales tax and 10 percent on any interest you earn. The rates were crazy-low, but everyone was paying them. Tax revenue went from $300 million to $3 billion between 2003 and 2008.

These reforms built a fence and fertilized the soil. All Saakashvili needed now was for the private sector to come and plant the seeds. And came they did: Between 2003 and 2007, foreign direct investment in Georgia rose from $330 million to $1.7 billion. In 2010, two years after the financial crisis, it was $810 million. Two new oil pipelines link Georgia with Asia and Europe. I hear the lines at Carrefour on Saturdays are brutal.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s rank on the Economic Freedom Index went from 93rd in 2005 to 34th in 2012. The World Bank says Georgia is the 16th easiest country in which to do business.

There was other stuff too. The education system got pegged to a nationwide standardized test, ending its reliance on the former ‘pay your teachers for grades’ model. Healthcare was privatized (I know, I know), which reduced corruption among doctors. Border guards and customs agents got their own version of the ‘you’re all fired; the new guys get new uniforms!’ program.The government posts all of its tenders and procurement contracts online.

Georgia doesn’t require a visa for most foreigners to work or start a business. Georgia doesn’t want your tired, your poor. It wants your rich and energetic.

Nine years ago, Georgia was basically Deadwood on the Black Sea. Nowadays it’s not exactly Blade Runner, but it’s not Mad Max either. The lights are on, trains and buses work, construction cranes provide shade for clinking outdoor cafes. Nearly 80 percent of the population reports that they’ve personally experienced a drop in corruption. Violent crime was cut in half, and the homicide rate is the same as the United States. Per capita GDP is $5,400. OK, that’s the same as Angola, but when you consider that a decade ago it was $400, you have to give a little whistle.

Georgia’s remaining challenges include updating its infrastructure

Last Monday, Saakashvili was voted out. If it all goes smoothly from here (Saakashvili has to voluntarily hand over power to the James Bond villain who defeated him, a mysterious billionaire named Bidzina Ivanishvili), it will be Georgia’s first democratic transition.

Saakashvili’s zeal for reform, for tearing down existing structures and installing new ones, left some holes in the plaster that he filled with his own power. Saakashvili’s towering achievement is that the state is no longer a vehicle for politicians, civil servants and police officers to enrich themselves. The problem is, it may have become a vehicle for Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement, to do so instead.

Crackdowns on journalists, political firings, restriction of free speech, and various backroom sketchiness have increased in recent years, and some of the post-revolution reforms (restitution and amnesty for organized-crime lords, seriously?) have left a bad taste in people’s mouths.

There’s also the prison rape video.

Over the last decade, all those no-tolerance sentences for petty criminals, crooked cops and corrupt bureaucrats swelled Georgia’s incarceration rate to the 4th highest in the world, above even Russia. In September, a video hit the news showing prison guards sodomizing prisoners with broomsticks. The media went to the citizens, citizens went to the streets, politicians went to the media. Saaksashvili’s party got 40 percent of the vote. The opposition, 55 percent.

I want to use the cliché that Georgia is a shadow of its former self. But more accurately, its former self is a shadow that refuses to disappear. Everything Saakashvili has done is fragile. The minute you turn off those cop-car microphones, delete those civil servant spreadsheets, hide those procurement documents, the cost-benefit analysis goes back to where it was, and behavior will adjust to fit.

I don’t know if Saakashvili deserved to lose the election. In a world full of leaders who get elected promising to reduce corruption, he’s one of the only ones who actually did. Georgia, for better or for worse, is a country where someone demonstrably wanted the government to work better, and wasn’t afraid to slap a few hands reaching for the cookie jar.

Mikheil Saakashvili made his country work. He made citizens safer, government more effective and businesses more profitable. And then he paid the cost.

Imagine yourself in his shoes again, this time in 2012. As you look down from the hills above Tbilisi, maybe you’re thinking that in the end, nothing is free, not even the market.

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This Could Be Anywhere in Europe

But it’s Berlin, so she’s on her way home from a sex club to cash her welfare check.

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Filed under Berlin, Pictures