Germans, or at least German journalists, are obsessed with nuclear energy. Any list of the themes on which the German press is the most openly biased campaigning coverage, nuclear energy has to be in the top 10, if not the top 5.
So it's not surprising that the nuclear accident in Fukushima prompted an flood of hyperventilating scare stories in the German media, which were enough to actually prompt a major change in policy -- the so-called Energiewende. And this isn't just my impression: a study of Fukushima coverage in Germany concluded that coverage of the earthquake in Germany was dramatically different than in other countries: the German-language media focused more on the reactor catastrophe, provided more dramatic pictures, explicitly linked the reactor disaster to the question of German nuclear reactors, and included more direct journalistic editorializing against nuclear energy and demands that Germany shut down its reactors.
I don't have time to look up the views of ordinary Germans on nuclear energy, but it's hard to imagine the wall-to-wall indoctrination hasn't had its effects. I was thinking of this because of a recent post from Razib Khan's excellent Gene Expression blog. The subject is what Americans think about the dangers and potential of nuclear energy, broken down by political views and education:
Selection filter(s): year(2010-*)
|Views on nuclear energy N ~ 400|
|Nuclear power dangerous to the environment N ~ 1300|
|Not very dangerous||14||13||22|
As you can see liberals do tend to be more skeptical of nuclear energy, but it is not stark. In fact, attitudes toward nuclear power seem to be as strongly, if not more so, variant on a populist vs. elite axis than conventional ideology. Here’s the second question replicated for education:
|Nuclear power dangerous to the environment N ~ 1300|
|Not very dangerous||11||28|
But, when you look only at college educated individuals the ideology divide doesn’t go away. In fact, it seems more extreme.
|Nuclear power dangerous to the environment N ~ 370|
|College educated only|
|Not very dangerous||15||24||42|
That’s strong circumstantial evidence that the gap here is one of cultural norms and values, and not facts.
Note that many people favor nuclear energy while at the same time conceding that it's dangerous or harmful to the environment. It's also interesting to note that college-educated people think it's less dangerous than those who didn't attend college.
One thing foreigners notice about ordinary German pop music is its march-like (oom-pa) character and lack of syncopation. Invariably, the thought springs to the foreigner's mind that the music practically invites you to goose-step.
But that's not the response among Germans, at least not the ones you're likely to be hanging out with. Their pop sings are designed to allow simple, salt-of-the-earth people to sing along, lock arms, and rhythmically sway to the music -- a process called schunkeln. Schunkeln is fun after 7 or so beers, but like most German amusements it can last a very long time and involves strict social control and coordination. If you added syncopation to the mix, nobody would know exactly when to sway, and before long there will be howls of 'Scheiße Negermusik!' and perhaps some good-natured bloodshed.
And it seems that Germans have always distrusted syncopated pop music (classical is another story, of course). From Open Culture, a list of rules imposed on a Czech saxophonist under Nazi occupation:
An aspiring tenor saxophone player living in Third Reich-occupied Czechoslovakia, Skvorecky had ample opportunity to experience the Nazis’ “control-freak hatred of jazz.” In the intro to his short novel The Bass Saxophone, he recounts from memory a set of ten bizarre regulations issued by a Gauleiter, a regional Nazi official, that bound local dance orchestras during the Czech occupation.
Berlin, they say, is being overrun by Swabians. 'Swabian', one of the most amusing words in English, denotes people from Swabia, a region in South Germany. According to native Berliners, the Swabians are industrious, conformist yuppies. Above, you see the work of extremist Swabians, who have changed street signs into their (IMHO totally awesome) regional dialect. Under their baleful influence, Berlin is rapidly changing from a place where cafes serve breakfast until 4 PM to unwashed, still-hungover 'creative types' into yet another safe, sanitized, mind-shatteringly expensive, tourist-friendly playground for the upper-middle classes and above (you know, like New York, Paris, and London).
Those parts of Berlin which have suffered an unusually heavy infestation of Swabians are often referred to as Schwabylon, derived from the short-a German word for Swabians. Which brings me to the subject of this post. There once was an actual Schwabylon! The Voices of East Anglia describes it thus:
The colourful Schwabylon shopping and leisure centre had one hundred shops, a cinema, twelve restaurants, a beer garden, sports facilities, Roman spa, sauna, solarium, swimming pool and a skating rink. Located next door was a Holiday Inn which contained a three-story nightclub named after The Beatles song Yellow Submarine, which was surrounded by a 600,000 litre water tank with more than 30 sharks – What could possibly go wrong?
Schwabylon is a portmanteau word that blended together the name of the district in Munich, Germany and the word Babylon. The pyramid shaped shopping centre with it’s bright red, yellow and orange rising sun paint work was designed by architect Justus Dahinde and opened for business on November 9th in 1973.
Although the centre had many attractions it was (almost) windowless and had ramps instead of stairs, and just fourteen months later the retailers “shut up shop” and the Schwabylon closed. Parts of the building were demolished in 1979, however the Holiday Inn and night club remained – Minus the sharks.
Kevin Drum has an insightful piece predicting that artifical intelligence will be here before you think and will radically change the economy:
We've moved from computers with a trillionth of the power of a human brain to computers with a billionth of the power. Then a millionth. And now a thousandth. Along the way, computers progressed from ballistics to accounting to word processing to speech recognition, and none of that really seemed like progress toward artificial intelligence. That's because even a thousandth of the power of a human brain is—let's be honest—a bit of a joke. Sure, it's a billion times more than the first computer had, but it's still not much more than the computing power of a hamster.
This is why, even with the IT industry barreling forward relentlessly, it has never seemed like we were making any real progress on the AI front. But there's another reason as well: Every time computers break some new barrier, we decide—or maybe just finally get it through our thick skulls—that we set the bar too low. At one point, for example, we thought that playing chess at a high level would be a mark of human-level intelligence. Then, in 1997, IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer beat world champion Garry Kasparov, and suddenly we decided that playing grandmaster-level chess didn't imply high intelligence after all.
So maybe translating human languages would be a fair test? Google Translate does a passable job of that these days. Recognizing human voices and responding appropriately? Siri mostly does that, and better systems are on the near horizon. Understanding the world well enough to win a round of Jeopardy! against human competition? A few years ago IBM's Watson supercomputer beat the two best human Jeopardy! champions of all time. Driving a car? Google has already logged more than 300,000 miles in its driverless cars, and in another decade they may be commercially available.
... True artificial intelligence will very likely be here within a couple of decades. Making it small, cheap, and ubiquitous might take a decade more.
In other words, by about 2040 our robot paradise awaits.
...This isn't something that will happen overnight. It will happen slowly, as machines grow increasingly capable. We've already seen it in factories, where robots do work that used to be done by semiskilled assembly line workers. In a decade, driverless cars will start to put taxi hacks and truck drivers out of a job. And while it's easy to believe that some jobs can never be done by machines—do the elderly really want to be tended by robots?—that may not be true. Nearly 50 years ago, when MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum created a therapy simulation program named Eliza, he was astonished to discover just how addictive it was. Even though Eliza was almost laughably crude, it was endlessly patient and seemed interested in your problems. People liked talking to Eliza.
...Increasingly, then, robots will take over more and more jobs. And guess who will own all these robots? People with money, of course. As this happens, capital will become ever more powerful and labor will become ever more worthless. Those without money—most of us—will live on whatever crumbs the owners of capital allow us.
This is a grim prediction. But it's not nearly as far-fetched as it sounds. Economist Paul Krugman recently remarked that our long-standing belief in skills and education as the keys to financial success may well be outdated. In a blog post titled "Rise of the Robots," he reviewed some recent economic data and predicted that we're entering an era where the prime cause of income inequality will be something else entirely: capital vs. labor.
So, by 2040, we will have robots intelligent enough to perform hundreds of tasks that used to be performed by humans. Let me put on my heavy, black-framed armchair-sociologist glasses and predict how these developments will be received in Germany [snark]:
Unlike most YouTube comment threads, the one to this video is sort of interesting -- people discuss whether the person who made this video could have been punished by East German authorities.
It seems appropriate now and then to remind everyone that the leaders of Germany-- land of the gentle, caring social state (g)! protectress of human rights (g)! denouncer (g) of 'anglo-american' style turbo-capitalism! -- continues to demand policies that have led to mass human suffering in countries in Southern Europe:
The Greek economy is in free fall, having shrunk by 20 percent in the past five years. The unemployment rate is more than 27 percent, the highest in Europe, and 6 of 10 job seekers say they have not worked in more than a year. Those dry statistics are reshaping the lives of Greek families with children, more of whom are arriving at schools hungry or underfed, even malnourished, according to private groups and the government itself.
Last year, an estimated 10 percent of Greek elementary and middle school students suffered from what public health professionals call “food insecurity,” meaning they faced hunger or the risk of it, said Dr. Athena Linos, a professor at the University of Athens Medical School who also heads a food assistance program at Prolepsis, a nongovernmental public health group that has studied the situation. “When it comes to food insecurity, Greece has now fallen to the level of some African countries,” she said.Oh, and the economic theory that German policymakers conveniently invoked as a fig leaf for their pursuit of Germany's economic interests cited as intellectual support has been largely debunked:
To see their enormous influence on the European debate, it is worth quoting an extract from a speech by Olli Rehn, the European Commission’s economic chief, to the Council on Foreign Relations in June 2011. “Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have coined the ‘90 per cent rule’,” he said. “That is, countries with public debt exceeding 90 per cent of annual economic output grow more slowly. High debt levels can crowd out economic activity and entrepreneurial dynamism, and thus hamper growth. This conclusion is particularly relevant at a time when debt levels in Europe are now approaching the 90 per cent threshold, which the US has already passed.”
Mr Rehn presumably did not read the original papers, which were more ambivalent in their conclusions, as academic papers tend to be. Policy makers, such as Mr Rehn, are always on the lookout for economic theories that seem plausible and accord with their deep beliefs. In Europe, most of them have little exposure to macroeconomists who think out of the box. Clearly, most policy makers find it counter-intuitive that governments should spend money in a recession. It is against their own experience, especially if they come from northern European countries. They may have read the history of the Great Depression, and yet they find that a Keynesian response is less plausible than pro-cyclical austerity. If two of the world’s most respected economists then come along and tell them that their gut instincts have been right all along, this is the conservative policy maker’s equivalent of birthday and Christmas coinciding. At last, the message they always wanted to hear.
And, of course, is not even resulting in significantly lower debts, since austerity-driven economic contraction increases sovereign debt:
Though the cumulative level of government deficits fell last year, mainly because of Germany swinging into a budget surplus, many countries have continued to reel from the costs associated with recession.
Spending cuts and tax increases have helped to reduce deficits across the 17 EU countries that use the euro, but the region's debt burden rose after economic growth flatlined and fewer companies and households paid taxes.
Of the four countries that accepted financial assistance, Portugal and Spain saw their deficits swell in value terms and in proportion to the size of their economies. Portugal's deficit increased to 6.4% of GDP in 2012, from 4.4% the year before; Spain's jumped to 10.6% from 9.4%.
Greece managed to make further inroads in cutting its borrowings, but the deficit rose to 10% of its annual GDP from 9.5% as the country remained mired in a deep recession. Only Ireland, widely viewed as the poster child of austerity, saw its deficit fall under both criteria – it stood at 7.6% of GDP against 13.4% the year before.
Of course, only those ranting, irresponsible...populists* (pronounce with scorn) feel the need to continuously draw attention to these facts.
History is not going to be kind to Angela Merkel. Wait, let me qualify that: Non-German historians are not going to be kind to Angela Merkel. But then again, hypocrisy is only human:
A Moral Principle met a Material Interest on a bridge wide enough for but one.
‘Down, you base thing!’ thundered the Moral Principle, ‘and let me pass over you!’
The Material Interest merely looked in the other’s eyes without saying anything.
‘Ah,’ said the Moral Principle, hesitatingly, ‘let us draw lots to see which shall retire till the other has crossed.’
The Material Interest maintained an unbroken silence and an unwavering stare.
‘In order to avoid a conflict,’ the Moral Principle resumed, somewhat uneasily, ‘I shall myself lie down and let you walk over me.’
Then the Material Interest found a tongue, and by a strange coincidence it was its own tongue. ‘I don’t think you are very good walking,’ it said. ‘I am a little particular about what I have underfoot. Suppose you get off into the water.’
It occurred that way.
— Ambrose Bierce, Fantastic Fables, 1898
(Via Futility Closet.)
Poem, a 2004 movie by Ralf Schmerberg that I watched for the first time last night on DVD, consists of dramatized recitations of 19 German poems from Goethe onward. Some of the poems are quite famous, others moderately so, and some slightly obscure. The dramatizations aren't connected in any way, save for the framing device of a Tibetan man carrying another man on a handmade back-chair through the mountains, which intervenes every 30 minutes or so and culminates in a poem-accompanied religious ceremony. The poems are presented in utterly different ways: some as direct dramatic declamations; some as accompaniments to documentary-like records of child-rearing, weddings, or religious processions; some as theatrical mini-spectacles; some as accompaniment to scenes which involve no humans at all.
This is a very German movie, in the best way. The poems which are recited by characters on-screen (including David Bennent, Carmen Birk, and Klaus-Maria Brandauer), are recited with whacking great dollops of dramatic flair, in the tradition of German-speaking lands. Some English-speakers, who are accustomed to less stylized poetry recitation in which the 'words are supposed to do all the work', may find this a bit off-putting at first. Yet when this sort of dramatic declamation is done right (as with Brandauer above, rendering every other reading of this Heine poem -- perhaps any Heine poem -- superfluous), it is enthralling. (It's also worth keeping in mind that these poets wrote in a culture in which they would expect their poems to be dramatically declaimed by actors.)
The settings and accompaniment for the poems are never predictable, and, at their best, create a touching, ironic, or bizarre field of interference with the words of the poem itself, as when Ernst Jandl's bleak Believe and Confess (g) (in which he bluntly states that he knows he will never see his dead loved ones again and confesses that he hasn't the 'slightest wish' for this to happen) is accompanied by tear-stained, boozy, unstaged scenes from a very ordinary German wedding, or when Trakl's frothingly mystical Morgenlied (g) is recited by David Bennent, in full knightly armor, wandering down the median of a German highway.
'Poem' is by turns mesmerizing, pretentious, funny, moving, witty, ironic, and preposterous. A few of the musical choices have gotten a bit stale (the music of Arvo Pärt, for all its charm, has become an art-house cliche), and a few of the settings are in questionable taste. But that's what makes 'Poem' so lively -- the filmmakers take risks, and sometimes the rewards are spectacular. Strongly recommended.
Everyone should go visit the Natürlich Natürlich organic food store at Brunnenstr. 22. Neighborhood fixture Werner runs the place, which oozes laid-back charm. My picks are the 'Essener Brot' -- Essene bread, allegedly made according to a recipe preserved by the Essenes. Ít's rather chewy in its raw state, but makes great toast. Natürlich Natürlich is also where I get my 'house wine' -- 1 liter bottles of tasty Spanish red wine for the ridiculously low price of 4 Euro.
There's also chocolates, pasta, fresh fruit and vegetables, oils, spreads, beer, juice, cosmetics, cleaning supplies, and plenty besides, all 100% organic.
Julie Colthorpe on the expat takeover of Berlin:
Don’t get me wrong: nobody’s expected to know the der-die-das of it all the moment they step off the plane. The problem is the blasé nonchalant attitude that some expats adopt when it comes to speaking the language of their adopted country: they don’t. It’s bad enough to hear these smug shirkers yapping away on the U8 every Friday night. What’s worse is when they start opening restaurants.
A year and a half ago, the Tagesspiegel published an article expressing the general outrage felt by Berliners at being forced to grapple with their rusty school English in American joints like The Bird and White Trash. Wally Potts, the American owner of White Trash, does in fact speak very good German – it’s just his staff that don’t, or won’t, or didn’t.
But that’s nothing compared to Neukölln – aka Little Melbourne.
Recently, my German boyfriend and I tried out a new Australian place in Reuterkiez. Not only was the food lousy and overpriced, not one of the staff could speak any German. Even the menus were English-only – I ended up translating practically the whole thing for my boyfriend. When the waitress came over, I asked for “zwei Kaffee, bitte”. She didn’t understand a word, and she wasn’t even embarrassed. So while waiting for our food (it took forever) we bitched about her in German. No one noticed.
Two observations. First, I've never seen a city lose its charm faster than Berlin. Rents are skyrocketing, boutiques are opening, tourists are everywhere, and places that used to be funky and/or quirky are being remorselessly auctioned to the highest bidder. Vast portions of Berlin are now identical to other German cities, and are quickly becoming as expensive if not more so. Soon, Berlin will be just another interchangeable enclave for the upper-middle class and above. The flow of expats is just a symptom of the increasing homogeneity of the city. It's not that I don't like the place -- I do! But the capital paradoxically has much less of an identity-preserving regional pride than many other parts of Germany, and large parts of it hardly seem German anymore.
Second, I sometimes wonder whether, in the course of the next few decades, German, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, etc. might begin to actually wither as viable languages. I can envision a future in which globalization has advanced to the point where ever-larger sections of commercial, academic and social interaction shift irreversibly into English, simply on grounds of efficiency. Poor people and those living in rural areas will still speak German much better than English, but that fact itself will become a subtle class identifier. German-language academic journals will die out in all but the most language-dependent fields. Corporations will simply transact all their business in English, even in German branches staffed entirely by Germans. Even expats who will be here for years will no longer be expected to learn German, since it will not be seen as a worthwhile investment of their time and energy. Dubbing movies and TV shows into German will be abandoned as a needless extra expense (this last I would rejoice at).
Obviously, this sort of thing is already happening, but it will be interesting to see how much farther it goes. Perhaps it will provoke a backlash! That would be something to see...
Books I've written or translated