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A Million Johns Can't be Wrong

First, a general note: there will be only light blogging as I visit friends in Berlin this weekend.  Lucky me!  Further, to echo something Atrios said, "I do request that people occasionally pause for a minute before they post a comment."  So far, I think the pretty-much-unmoderated comments policy here works pretty well, but the occasional trolling comment, gratuitous insult or ad hominem attack always makes me reconsider. 

With that friendly request, onto today's topic.  It's a little blue, so send the kiddies to bed. 

According to figures released by the former German government, there are approximately 400,000 prostitutes plying their trade more or less legally in Germany, servicing around 1.2 million men per year day.  I'd say the 1.2 million is an understatement, but that's probably as close as we're going to get to official numbers on this subject. 

My local public-radio station just interviewed some of the men and women (G) in this trade.  Of course, you never know how reliable these informants are, but none struck me as totally implausible.  Some of their voices seemed to have been disguised.  The johns ranged from a divorced father of three who liked to visit conventional bordellos to a younger single man who frequented a street in the Rhineland known for street prostitution.  The men gave the usual reasons for prostitution: not enough sex from their wives or girlfriends, or not the kind they want (there still seems to be a taboo against oral sex in Europe), inability to start relationships with women (too shy/too busy), or a decision, after several failed relationships, that paid sex is better than no sex at all.  One of the men said that he knew full well that sex was supposed to be best when it was experienced as a "whole" along with love and companionship, but that paid sex was still worthwhile because it created at least an echo of the "whole" experience.  (Isn't that basically what television does?).

Only one prostitute was interviewed, 'Elvira'.  She said she began working to finance a heroin habit, but has since gone clean and gotten a traineeship in a "reputable" firm.  She still nevertheless goes out on the street once a week for adventure -- to "dive in" to another world -- and to supplement her pay so that she and her child can afford some luxuries once in a while.  Most of the men don't want anything particularly adventurous; many want nothing but oral sex ("french style", in German slang), because they can't get it from their significant other. (This, by the way, is probably the number one complaint about German women in the masculine world.  Ladies Respected female colleagues, don't flame me in comments, I'm just passing it on.)  When asked whether she was turning tricks voluntarily, she thought for a minute, and said yes.  She feels sorry for the women who are obviously drug-addicted, and thinks the men who hire them are creeps.  She also finds the language the johns use to desrcibe the women in online forums degrading.

The largely legal status of prostitution in Germany is one of the most interesting points of cultural comparison (I say "largely" because not all aspects of the trade are legal; the details are complex, and I don't want to bore you with them here).  The political polarities surrounding prostitution are very different from those in the U.S.; the recent left-wing Red-Green government, far from trying to eliminate prostitution as inherently degrading and dangerous to women, instead passed a "prostitution law" to give working women some rights.  The new grand coalition government has not sought to repeal the law; the consensus you find in Germany is that prostitution is an inevitable part of all human societies, so trying to wipe it out would be fultile and probably counterproductive.  Besides, prostitution has a long, storied, and more-or-less open history in Europe.  Just because you may not like the Catholic Church doesn't mean you're going to go around tearing down cathedrals.

However, I wonder how long this will last.  Just look at all the public-policy initiatives Germany and/or Europe has taken over from the U.S. in recent years.  (Note that I'm not endorsing any/all of these.  Once again, just passing it on).  Fifteen years ago, Germans were snickering at the puritanical Americans who had outlawed smoking inside public buildings.  Couldn't happen here, they said.  Five years ago, they were chortling at the politically-correct Americans who had destroyed private contractual autonomy by making racial and gender discrimination between private persons illegal.  Couldn't happen here, they said.  They're still amazed to find out that you cannot drink alcohol in public places in the U.S., but the voices are growing ever louder to limit public drinking in Germany as well.  And let's not even mention speed limits on the autobahn...

Is largely-legal prostitution going to be next?  I personally doubt it, but I'm not sure exactly why I doubt it.  Perhaps someone can help me clarify what I think in comments.

UPDATE: A commenter spotted my mistake, it's 1.2 million men per day.  I've corrected the post accordingly.

Meditation Improves Concentration

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have shown that meditation improves your concentration (.pdf).  The minds of us Westerners suffer from something called "attentional blink," which makes our minds to "blink" after perceiving some important fact, causing us to miss other pieces of information presented directly after it. 

Attentional blink can be operationalized and tested pretty effectively.  Heleen Slagter and her colleagues at the Center for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin tested subjects before and after three months of training in Vipassana meditation, and found that their attentional blink was significantly reduced after they had begun meditating.  That is, they were able to concentrate more evenly, not in little spikes, and were therefore able to perceive and retain more information from their environment.

You may be asking yourself: "Is there a clear, accessible, jargon-free book that can explain Vipassana meditation?"  Why it just so happens that Bhante Henepola Gunaratana has written it.  It's called Mindfulness in Plain English.  The author is a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk who's also extensively trained in Western philosophy, and introduces beginners to Vipassana meditation in clear, lively prose.  No knowledge of Buddhism required, although if you become curious about it after meditating for a while, Bhante G. has got you covered there as well.

Peppy Ballads from Ludwig

Software designer Matthias Wüllenweber has already given us Fritz (G), the chess software that beat world champion Vladimir Kramnik 4:2. 

Now comes Ludwig (G), a program that composes entire songs on its own.  Wüllenweber stuffed Ludwig full of thousands of facts about harmony and theory from publications down through the ages.  Now, all you need to do is enter a few adjectives (Type: "Rock Hymn"; mood "Sad"), and Ludwig, named after you-know-who, will compose an entire song for you.  You can hear some examples in this radio interview (G).  To my ears, sounds just like Elton John.  If you need lyrics, go here.

Update from Bouphonia

Once in a very long while, I stumble across a blog that's so well-written and original that I feel compelled to browse through its archives. 

The latest example is Bouphonia, (the name is explained here) an anonymous effort by someone who seems to have a natural-science background and writes crisp, amusing prose.  Every Friday is Nudibranch blogging day, plus a review of environmentally-friendly innovation from around the planet.  Lots of lefty politics, but with value added (i.e., cleverly done, not just bitching).

Here's an interesting post about San Francisco's 2005 decision to begin doing what most European stores have done for years -- charging shoppers for plastic bags (thus giving everyone an incentive to use cloth).  Europeans may find this hard to fathom, but this policy is controversial in the United States, a land in which bring-your-own-bag is still regarded as faintly Communistical, and in which even the smallest routine purchase will be lovingly swaddled in unnecessary paper and plastic. 

Bouphonia's post begins:

I wanted to say a couple of things about San Francisco's proposal to charge consumers 17 cents for shopping bags.

It's provoking the usual hysterical outbursts from right-wing scaremongers, who see the plan as the End of Civilization...but those people are stupid or corrupt, and their bad-faith arguments are not worth addressing. However, there are some rational concerns about the proposal.

Right-wing scaremongers, scarified by a left-wing whipmonger!  What follows this introduction is intelligent discussion of this proposal by someone who knows what she's talking about.  A pleasure to see on the Internets.  So hats off to Bouphonia -- il miglior fabbro.  I'll add it to my blogroll the next time I get around to revising it (probably around mid-2009).

Pearl-Diving Still Legal

In Germany, most of the articles in the Feuilleton (arts & culture) sections of major newspapers are not posted on the newspapers' websites, for reasons I've never really understood.  This means if you want to read reviews of books and movies from major German newspapers online, you're pretty much out of luck.

That's why the website Perlentaucher (G) ("pearl-diver") is so useful -- it collects and indexes short summaries of the major-paper book reviews, so you can get an idea what the papers are saying about various new books and films.  Call it a culture aggregator.  Perlentaucher then sells its abstracts to online book-sellers such as  Two major German newspapers sued Perlentaucher a few years ago, claiming that the website was appropriating their intellectual property without compensation.  Perlentaucher, for its part, claimed it had a right to quote and summarize already-printed material, and then do what it wished with the end result. 

Perlentaucher won about a year ago in the District Court of Frankfurt, and the newspapers appealed.  Now, early today, the higher court (the Frankfurt Regional Court) has also announced a verdict for Perlentaucher (G).  The newspapers are going to appeal, so the story is -- ludicrously enough -- not yet over.  Yet the interim judgment would seem to reassure bloggers that they can quote or summarize printed matter without fearing a lawsuit.

I heard an interview with DeutschlandRadio Kultur this morning with the editor of the feuilleton of the Frankfurter Rundschau.  Her newspaper's actually grateful for the extra publicity Perlentaucher brings to its culture pages, so it's not a part of the lawsuit.  She noted that most of the people who write for the Feuilleton are freelancers who maintain some rights to their work, so the legal situation's a bit more complex.

However, the moderator asked her a good question: why don't the newspapers and perlentaucher get together and simply arrange some sort of equitable agreement about the rights to use the abstracts?  Aren't the newspapers behaving here like the music industry -- desperately fighting a futile rear-guard action to stop a new medium, instead of thinking of innovative ways to profit from it?  The Rundschau woman was sympathetic to this argument, but noted that relations between the print and the internet camps are apparently so rocky now that there's no chance of a settlement.  (You'd be amazed how much doesn't get done in Germany because people in key positions decide they can't stand each other, but that's another story).

So the legal battle goes on.  But in the meantime, Perlentaucher will keep finding those pearls for us.  I wish them the best of luck in their continuing legal odyssey...

Quote of the Day: Dividing Humanity

Continuing with the Prussian Virtues theme:

"The most radical division it is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort toward perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves."

-- Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (quotation found here).

German Joys Review: On the Other Side

Auf der anderen Seite (literally translated, "On the Other Side"; English title "The Edge of Heaven") is the new movie by Fatih Akin, who made Head-On in 2004.  It's one minute longer, less confrontational, and more reflective than his earlier effort.

46ad2228500deAkin's screenplay is a pretty routine variant of "seemingly unconnected strangers whose fates pass like ships in the night."  The debt owed to movies like Short Cuts and Amores Perros is in the five figures.  Here, the passing ships include Ayten Öztürk (Nurgül Yesilçay, pictured at left), a gun-wielding young member of a "resistance group" in Turkey.  We're never told the name of the group, and the word "Kurd" is never mentioned, but her group chants solidarity with Abdullah Öcalan during a demonstration in Istanbul.  Ayten is almost arrested during this demonstration and flees to Germany under a pseudonym.

There, she tries to locate her long-departed mother Yeter (Nursel Köse) who, unbeknownst to her, now works in Bremen's red-light district.  Yeter, for her part, meets Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz), a lonely old man seeking companionship and a bit more, and his son Nejat (Baki Davrak), a professor of German studies at a German university.  Ayten (remember her?), in turn, gets to know a young German student, Lotte Staub (Patrycia Ziolkowska), who's also looking for companionship and a bit more.  After a dispute with her underground comrades in Germany, Ayten is left homeless and moves in with Patrycia and her mother Susanne (Hanna Schygulla).

Lots of complications ensue.  About half the movie takes place in Germany and half in Turkey, and much of the dialogue is in either Turkish or English.*  Characters move back and forth between the two countries both willingly and unwillingly (deportation), and the transitions are managed well.  As in Amores Perros, the different strands of the story don't take place simultaneously, a fact which is made clear to the viewer in nicely-done, understated scenes that show characters whom we've already seen die or be deported in one time-phase pass directly by their own loved ones without making eye contact in another.  The coincidences don't feel contrived, and the performances -- especially from the smolderingly rebellious Yeşilçay and the forlorn Koese, are quite good. 

Now to the weak points.  First, the structure is hardly original.  That doesn't concern me too much, though -- genre movies can innovate and entertain even without being particularly original, and this one does.  The bigger problem is that it's tough to give the characters enough depth in these jam-packed, plot-driven, asynchronous movies.  Akin comes close, but doesn't quite pull it off, especially as to the university professor Nejat and the German student Lotte.  They make some dramatic and seemingly bizarre decisions during this movie, but we don't know enough about their motives to understand these decisions.  When the characters do explain themselves (later), it sounds forced because it doesn't fit into a recognizable character structure.  Akin tells us, for example, that Lotte felt constricted by her routine middle-class existence and needed a dramatic (and practically suicidal) existential wager to feel alive again, rather than showing us this.

This flaw, though, is redeemed by so much else: original conceits and interesting characters, heartfelt moments, some genuine suspense, amusing and harrowing moments of cultural misunderstanding, and a pleasantly inconclusive ending.  Akin is prodigiously talented, and I look forward to his next feature film.**

* I note gratefully that the English and Turkish in this movie is subtitled in German, not dubbed.

** Which will be shot in New York and called "New York, I Love You".  New York, by the way, is located in the USA, a country which, in Akin's youthfully exuberant opinion, is run by fascists.  "He who f**ks nuns..."

[picture from]

The Man in the Street on Kidnapping Foreigners

The Onion interviews ordinary Americans about the desirability of kidnapping Brits:

Friday, December 7, 2007

Kidnapping British People Legal

A lawyer for the U.S. government told the Court of Appeal in London that the United States could legally kidnap citizens of other countries because it was sanctioned by the Supreme Court. What do you think?

Old Woman

Linda Sai,
Systems Analyst
"People abroad must learn that America lives in our hearts, and that gives us the right to do whatever we want, wherever we want."

Old Man

Mark Solomon,
Video Editor
"I vote to kidnap those posh birds from Nuts Magazine. They've got a right set of baps on them."

Black Man

Ken Ralston,
Gas Station Attendant
"Look on the bright side. They'll get a fantastic exchange rate on legal fees."