I've said it before and I'll say it again: the Düsseldorf Volksgarten (g) is one of the world's great parks. One of its many charms is a 600-meter long 'Garden Axis' combining 2 sections of the park. The axis contains 16 different themed gardens, including large plantations of irises and dahlias, and an artificial moor-landscape which you can explore on brick and wooden platforms. Here are some early fall views, including a parakeet feasting on an apple and shitloads of dahlias, which I consider one of the eerier flowers:
Any inquiry into privacy in Germany would be incomplete without a look at the West German census of 1987 and the huge backlash against data collection it provoked. Opponents of the census challenged the very right of the West German state to know so much about what went on inside its borders, and argued that the census rules would permit personal information to be shared too widely among state agencies. A nationwide boycott movement went mainstream, a bitter debate about its propriety divided West Germans, and the Green Party made opposition a core issue. Even today, asking Germans about the subject, I noticed several repeating the same talking point: that a pre-WWII census in the Netherlands permitted Nazis to more easily round up Jews and other condemned classes when they invaded. This was intended to illustrate that even information collected with good intentions can be unexpectedly abused.
What a lot of foreigners in Berlin couldn't understand, and that confuses me too, is why the 1987 census, as well as Google Street View, caused such a fuss in the country, yet there seems to me no controversy about a longstanding requirement for everyone to register their address with authorities* when they move to a new city or apartment. Germans don't seem to be bothered by that policy, which would provoke widespread controversy even in some less privacy-conscious nations.
The immediate tu quoque riposte most Germans would think of: 'If Americans are so privacy-conscious that they would reject a registration law or government ID card, why is it they allow private companies such as Facebook, Google Street View, credit-rating agencies, etc. so much power over their lives?' Another thing that shocks Europeans is that there are no protections for your reputation if you become involved with the criminal justice system. Suspects are identified by name and address as soon as they're booked. In fact, as the New York Times recently noted, there are websites whose sole purpose is to collect mugshots (like the one above), publish them online, and charge victims hundreds of dollars to remove them later. Even if all charges against you are later dropped, the fact that you were once arrested can remain public knowledge to anyone, anywhere for the rest of your life. This could never happen to an ordinary citizen in Germany.
But on to the German privacy paradox. Why are Germans so nonchalant about informing the authorities where they live? A few hypotheses:
Path-dependency. It's been going on for all of living memory, so nobody thinks to question it. The U.S. census is similar -- the Constitution has required one every 10 years for all of American history, so everyone except a tiny radical fringe just accepts it.
Neighborhood. Almost all European countries have a similar policy, so Germany would stand out if it didn't keep these records.
Staatsvertrauen. Germans have a high level of trust in their civil servants and public officials, so they simply don't envision that these data will be abused. They are much more concerned about private companies collecting information on them, which explains the controversy when some German local governments considered giving private firms access (g) to registry data. The odd thing, though, is that during the Nazi era and in East Germany the citizen residence registries (as well as the 1933 census) were abused (for instance, registry data was one of the sources for the 'Jew registry' (g) that enabled the Nazis to track down almost all Jewish citizens), but somehow that hasn't tainted residence registries in the German historical consciousness.
Citizens benefit. Germany showers its citizens with cash and benefits. Parents get money for having children, the state subsidizes mortages, there's a meagre but still substantial permanent welfare scheme, etc. Although these benefits are now done mostly by bank transfer, the government still wants your address, since some of the benefits are calculated based on, e.g., how large your apartment is or what the living expenses in your area are.
City planning. Germany is one of the global leaders in urban planning, and many of its cities are some of the best-planned in the world. Having a good base of information about what sort of people live where helps in this.
Those are a few reasons I can think of off the top of my head, but none of these explains why Germans would accept mandatory registration but fear a census. That, I think, is just a partially irrational distinction based on the fact that registration has always been a fact of life, but the census has not.
I have it on good authority that Grand Theft Auto is extremely popular among senior European Commission officials.
Because it's magical! Why just yesterday I was ordered to pick up a hoodlum near a park and drive him to meet other hoodlums. To pick up a pedestrian, you have to honk, otherwise they don't respond. After blazing through several red lights and vehicularly murdering a few pedestrians, I finally arrived at the park, jumped up onto the sidewalk, and accidentally struck the guy I was supposed to give a ride to, dragging him under my car for a dozen meters or so. He yelled at me: 'Hey, watch where you're going, [expletive deleted]'. Despite leaving a long blood trail on the sidewalk, he got up after a few seconds and stood up, patiently waiting for the honk. Just for fun I backed up, accelerated, and smashed directly into the wall behind him, pinning him between my car and the wall crushing his spine and pureeing his internal organs. He groaned in agony and collapsed to the ground.
Then I finally honked, whereupon he stood up, brushed some dust (and presumably spine fragments) from his jacket, climbed into the passenger seat, and said: 'Hey friend, thanks for the ride!'
Nothing about the election results, Andrew? I don't blame you, it was a somnolent campaign and we can expect more of the same from the Iron Chancelloress, regardless of who becomes her junior partner in the new government.
With advances in life extension technology she might stay in office until the end of the century. Amazing how one by one, her rivals in the CDU have fallen by the wayside. She makes it look easy but the disaster zone that is the FDP leadership shows how hard it is to stay on top.
I was going to write an impassioned screed about how Merkel's "nicht hilfreich" and "alternativlos" have gently smothered dissent beneath a fluffy bedspread, but I feel my eyelids drooping and zzzzZ...
I couldn't have said it better myself, at least the zzzzz part. I have become a convert to Rolf Dobelli's point of view: following the news is a waste of time. The entire argument -- and it's a long one -- can be read here in German, here in English. A shorter English version appeared recently in the Guardian here. Some of the main points:
News is irrelevant. Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business. The point is: the consumption of news is irrelevant to you. But people find it very difficult to recognise what's relevant. It's much easier to recognise what's new. The relevant versus the new is the fundamental battle of the current age. Media organisations want you to believe that news offers you some sort of a competitive advantage. Many fall for that. We get anxious when we're cut off from the flow of news. In reality, news consumption is a competitive disadvantage. The less news you consume, the bigger the advantage you have.
News is toxic to your body. It constantly triggers the limbic system. Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid (cortisol). This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones. In other words, your body finds itself in a state of chronic stress. High glucocorticoid levels cause impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections. The other potential side-effects include fear, aggression, tunnel-vision and desensitisation.
News increases cognitive errors. News feeds the mother of all cognitive errors: confirmation bias. In the words of Warren Buffett: "What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact." News exacerbates this flaw. We become prone to overconfidence, take stupid risks and misjudge opportunities. It also exacerbates another cognitive error: the story bias. Our brains crave stories that "make sense" – even if they don't correspond to reality. Any journalist who writes, "The market moved because of X" or "the company went bankrupt because of Y" is an idiot. I am fed up with this cheap way of "explaining" the world.
News inhibits thinking. Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like viruses that steal attention for their own purposes. News makes us shallow thinkers. But it's worse than that. News severely affects memory. There are two types of memory. Long-range memory's capacity is nearly infinite, but working memory is limited to a certain amount of slippery data. The path from short-term to long-term memory is a choke-point in the brain, but anything you want to understand must pass through it. If this passageway is disrupted, nothing gets through. Because news disrupts concentration, it weakens comprehension. Online news has an even worse impact. In a 2001 study two scholars in Canada showed that comprehension declines as the number of hyperlinks in a document increases. Why? Because whenever a link appears, your brain has to at least make the choice not to click, which in itself is distracting. News is an intentional interruption system.
News wastes time. If you read the newspaper for 15 minutes each morning, then check the news for 15 minutes during lunch and 15 minutes before you go to bed, then add five minutes here and there when you're at work, then count distraction and refocusing time, you will lose at least half a day every week. Information is no longer a scarce commodity. But attention is. You are not that irresponsible with your money, reputation or health. Why give away your mind?
News makes us passive. News stories are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence. The daily repetition of news about things we can't act upon makes us passive. It grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitised, sarcastic and fatalistic. The scientific term is "learned helplessness". It's a bit of a stretch, but I would not be surprised if news consumption, at least partially contributes to the widespread disease of depression.
News kills creativity. Finally, things we already know limit our creativity. This is one reason that mathematicians, novelists, composers and entrepreneurs often produce their most creative works at a young age. Their brains enjoy a wide, uninhabited space that emboldens them to come up with and pursue novel ideas. I don't know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie – not a writer, not a composer, mathematician, physician, scientist, musician, designer, architect or painter. On the other hand, I know a bunch of viciously uncreative minds who consume news like drugs. If you want to come up with old solutions, read news. If you are looking for new solutions, don't.
Some of these arguments are more convincing than others, but they add up to a watertight case. Local news may be relevant, but following national-level political developments is a complete waste of time. I have no influence over who runs Germany, and who runs Germany has almost no effect on my life. Therefore, I don't care who runs Germany. Same goes for the U.S. And that all goes triple for countries I have even fewer links to. As for seeming 'well-informed' at cocktail parties, I don't go to cocktail parties, and I find talking about day-to-day horse-race politics a pointless bore. (Broader historical developments or theoretical insights are another thing).
Unfortunately I can't go on a complete news blackout, since my profession sort of requires me to remain vaguely aware of 'current events'. But I try to consume as little news as possible. I'd rather go to a garden and take pictures, or just look at a beautiful tree.
Sorry for the blog hiatus. I was visiting folks in Texas for a few weeks, but now I'm back in Germany, enjoying the glorious weather.
Let me give you the idea of the shit people deal with in Texas, and why I'm glad to be back in Germany.
First, a German insect problem. A parcel deliveryman in Krefeld, Germany recently had to be hospitalized after he stepped in an underground wasps' nest and was stung fifteen (15) times. They actually cordoned off the area (!) and called the city 'pest control' team out:
Before they could let the pest control guy into the Danger Zone™ to kill the beasts, they called up the Krefeld City Environmental Office to make sure the wasps weren't endangered (!). They weren't, so they died.
A North Texas woman is recovering following an attack from a swarm of bees that killed her two horses....
Kristen Beauregard told NBC 5 she was working with Chip, her prize miniature horse, in the backyard when -- unprovoked -- thousands of bees swarmed her and the horse. The insects are suspected to be Africanized bees.
The pain from the stings was like being stabbed with hundreds of knives and torched with a flamethrower at the same time, she said. She still has some visible welts on her eyelids from the attack.
Chip quickly became covered with bees and began thrashing wildly around the yard in pain, she said.
She and the horse both jumped into the backyard swimming pool in an effort to escape the bees, but even that provided little relief. The bees hovered above the water and stung Beauregard's face when she would come up for air, she said.... Both horses died.
Beauregard, whom paramedics estimate was stung approximately 200 times, praised the efforts of the emergency crews who risked their lives in an effort to save her and her animals.
A beekeeper removed on Thursday the approximately 6-foot-tall beehive that was home to an estimated 30,000 bees. It was located in a shed about 30 yards from the scene of the initial attack.
It's a shame for the poor delivery guy, but the average Texan gets stung 15 times every trip to the outhouse.
My safe, pleasant, boring, beautiful Germany -- thank you for taking me back into your passionless arms!
When Americans were asked if they think the United States is the greatest country in the world, there were sharp differences in the responses across generations. In total, 48% of Americans believe the United States is the greatest country in the world and 42% believe it is one of the greatest countries in the world, but a significant portion of the Millennial generation responded differently.
Just 32% of Millennials believe the U.S. is the greatest country in the world. That number progressively increases among the Gen X (48%), Boomer (50%) and Silent generations (64%). Millennials were also the most likely generation to say America is not the greatest country in the world (11%).
Millennials also are less likely than their elders to express patriotism. A majority of Millennials (70%) agreed with the statement “I am very patriotic.” But even larger percentages of Gen Xers (86%), Boomers (91%) and Silents (90%) said the same. This generational gap is consistent and has been identified in surveys dating back to 2003.
The annoying 'generation' names can be ignored -- the key thing is that the younger an American you are, the less likely you are to call yourself 'patriotic', which (if you'll pardon a bit of snark) describes the mental state Americans denounce as 'nationalistic' whenever non-Americans display it. In related news, the number of non-religious Americans is on the increase -- about 20% of Americans now fits this category.
Sociologists have long puzzled over the U.S.: given its levels of prosperity, technological advancement, and education, it should be a lot less religious and nationalistic than it is. Put crudely, the richer a country gets, the less religion it needs, and the the more educated its citizenry, the less prevalent the cruder forms of nationalism and tribalism. We seem to be seeing a gradual end to this aspect of American exceptionalism: in 20 years, the psychological profile of the average American will probably be much closer to the average European, Canadian, or Japanese.
I would be willing to wager the Internet has had something to do with this, but that's pure speculation. So here goes: If you seek critiques of religious faith, all manner of them -- from the ridiculous to the cogent to the sublime -- are no more than a mouseclick away. It's hard to enforce conservative sexual mores in the age of Internet porn, where any anyone can see people having loads of fun with their genitals, and afterward suffering no disease, ostracism, or scorn at all. As for the nationalism angle, you can hardly swing a dead cat in cyberspace without hitting a website that shows you that many people (1) distrust the U.S., and have legitimate reasons for doing so (yet who aren't anti-American cranks); and (2) don't consider the U.S. paradise on earth, and think the quality of life they enjoy in their own country superior to that of the U.S. It's a bit hard to maintain the fantasies of your country's superiority and innocence in the face of these competing narratives.