Iceland is a Prosperous American Suburb

If there is one thing the world has enough of, it's "why can't we all be like Iceland?" articles. Here's the latest:

I wanted to know about the kind of society Iceland had cultivated and- what its outlooks were. How did women and men see each other and themselves? What was their character like compared to other countries I had lived in? Were women more confident, men more open-minded, children better cared for? Was life there, in any way, more balanced?

I suspected I would find enlightened ideas that benefit society, not just business, although I found that the two weren’t mutually exclusive. I spoke to innovators across genders in education, health, industry, science and the arts whose ideas exceeded my imagination.

And guess what? The author's gee-whiz tour of Iceland finds all sorts of wonderfully progressive policies. Paid family leave for daddies! Mandatory quotas for women! The world's first openly gay female head of state! Great schools filled with sensitive, caring social-pedagogues! And so on, and so on.

Many will remember probably the most stomach-turning piece of virtue-signaling the world has ever seen -- the Facebook campaign in which 11,000 Icelanders volunteered their homes to Syrian refugees, under the founder's motto: "They are our future spouses, best friends, the next soul mate, a drummer for our children's band, the next colleague, Miss Iceland in 2022, the carpenter who finally finishes the bathroom, the cook in the cafeteria, a fireman, a television host. People of whom we'll never be able to say in the future: 'Your life is worth less than my life.'"

Are you dabbing the second tear of kitsch from your eyes yet?

But guess what? None of those 11,000 virtue-signalers ever had to make good on their promise, and of course they knew that full well, since the government has a cap of a whopping 500 refugees a year.

Whoops! Did I just write 500? Sorry, the actual number is 50. Fifty. Per year.

But the empty promises of all those smug Icelanders earned Iceland yet another round of fawning publicity. The article continues the typical litany of the nauseatingly goody-two-shoes oh-so-gentle progressive paradise:

Icelandic society is proactively striving for gender equality, which sits at the centre of progress, and there are policies in place to promote gender equality in all spheres of society. Many stepping stones have led to the current gender equality legislation, including the use of gender quotas. As proven by the need for affirmative action policies in the USA, we are not yet evolved enough to choose fairly of our own volition.

After this rather sinister aside, the author does point to some of the more gloomy facts about Iceland, including this: "Iceland recently outranked the US in adult obesity (67.1 percent of Icelandic adults are overweight or obese compared to 66.3 percent of US adults)." Ha! Take that, Icelandic self-image!

You know what Iceland is? Iceland is a rich American suburb. (Or a German suburb, for that matter.) The population of Iceland is a laughably miniscule 330,000 people. And Iceland is 93% Icelandic, and 98% Northern European. Further, Iceland's median national IQ is 101, placing it 6th in the world. If you go to any large well-off suburb of the United States, you will see Icelandic living conditions: orderly homes, quiet evenings, honest officials, clean schools, smart students, modern gender roles, almost no violence, nice people, organic food, wooden toys, recycling, wine importers, futuristic espresso machines, tasteful earth-toned natural-fiber clothing, clean-lined architecture, yoga studios, women earning more than men, soccer, the whole nine yards. The one difference will be that the American suburb, although majority white, will still be more ethnically diverse than the Nordic purist's fantasy of Iceland.

Iceland is a fine place. I plan to visit one day, and I'm sure I'll be as enchanted as everyone else seems to be. But the world should stop looking at Iceland for lessons, because Iceland is a suburb, not a model society than can be replicated at will anywhere else.

Goodbye, Nice Thing: German Train Personnel to be Given Pepper Spray, Attack Dogs

Attacks on German train personnel (g) have risen 28% over last year, with 1100 such incidents reported in the first six months of 2016. Both Deutsche Bahn and the train conductors' union are now reviewing plans to equip conductors with pepper spray and give them self-defense training. Security personnel will be provided with police dogs.

Does this mean that German pensioners are turning violent in their old age? Or that middle-class commuters have decided to save their Excel spreadsheets, close their laptops, and go in for a spot of ultra-violence?

If you're one of the dwindling band of belligerently naive Germans, you will insist this must somehow be the case. If, on the other hand, you're a sentient homo sapiens capable of Noticing Things, you will understand that this increase in violence against authority figures may have something to do with the influx of over 700,000 uneducated foreign males from the most chaotic countries on earth. A lot of them fit into most of the categories below:

  • speak neither English nor German
  • have mental problems
  • have no means of private transportation
  • no money to buy train tickets
  • no understanding of how to buy train tickets
  • no understanding of train etiquette in a modern society
  • no respect for authority figures

In fact, a lot of them fit into all of the above categories. I personally have witnessed more detentions and shouting matches on German trains (4) in the past year or so than I had in the previous decade. And yes, with heavy heart and bowed head, I am constrained to report that every one featured a young male migrant.

So now there will be pepper spray and police attack dogs on German trains. I can't wait to see the fun that ensues the first time a conductor uses pepper spray in a sealed train compartment traveling 300 km/hr.

This is why we can't have nice things. 

To be more precise, one of the Nice Things we are losing in Northwestern Europe is the existence of very safe and orderly public spaces in which members of all social classes can mingle freely with minimal risk of a threat, disagreeable spectacle, or bodily injury. Parks, public swimming pools, trains, plazas, outdoor festivals, sidewalks, etc.

They're still safe, of course -- stories about Germany descending into general chaos are silly hyperbole. However, the probability of encountering a weird, disagreeable, or dangerous situation on any random long train ride or long walk in the park has increased. Everyone senses this, and lots of people are talking about it. Lots of people. And definitely not just ethnic Germans. Experience and studies show that it takes only a small increase in perceived danger and lawlessness to drive large changes in individuals' risk-perception and behavior.

If nothing's done to intervene, what will happen is the creeping privatization of German life. Your neighborhood park will become too nasty, so you'll chip in with your middle-class neighbors to create a private one, or just get a Schrebergarten. After seeing your Xth unsettling confrontation in a German train, you'll finally say "screw this" and get a car. Certain neighborhoods will go from being the kind of place where you might not want to live to the kind of place you definitely would never want to live, increasing residential segregation to Parisian or Chicagoan levels.

It'll all happen gradually to us frogs in the warming water. But before long, Germans will start prizing (and paying for) insulation from the lower orders just as much as Americans do. An they'll know whom to thank.

Every European Tourist Should See This Map

Before any visit to the United States, Europeans should be shown the map below, which accurately shows the relative position of the US and Europe on the earth:

Where the US is latitude

This is why it will be much hotter than you expected. This is why there will be air-conditioning everywhere. It's because just about everywhere in the US is a hell of a lot hotter than where you come from, for a much longer during the year. And because the US is rich enough to afford air-conditioning.

Simply accept these facts, and you'll have a fine old time!

The Grotesque Mystery of Train Masturbators

Here's a recent police press release from Erfurt (g, my translation):

Yesterday, shortly before midnight, a 21-year-old female traveler spoke to a member of the federal police in the Erfurt central station. She seemed frightened, and told the officer that she had been harassed by a man in the train from Kassel. After he had stared at her for long time, she moved to a different seat. The man followed her, sat on the seat opposite, and began manipulating his penis. He did not open his pants.

After she got out in Erfurt to change trains, the man followed her. For this reason, she approached the police officer, who located the suspect in the train station. The suspect is a 31-year-old Iranian national. Because he could not prove his identity, the officer detained him. It is also suspected that the Iranian is in the country illegally.

And here's a picture of another alleged train masturbator from Cologne, whom the police are actively seeking: 


This guy is suspected of staring at, and masturbating in front of (g), a group of children from 6 to 8 years old in a Cologne streetcar. The children were engaged in Sternsingen ('star-singing') the German version of Christmas caroling. This involves dressing up as the Three Wise Men, singing traditional tunes, and collecting for charity. This guy apparently found this activity sexually stimulating, so he began touching himself in full view of the children, their minders, everyone else on the train, and the apparently the surveillance camera (actually, this probably isn't a picture of him in the act of jerking off in front of small children. But then again, given the facial expression, I'm not so sure).

No word on whether he unzipped his pants. I assume I speak for everyone when I say I hope he didn't.

And these are not isolated incidents. Well, in one sense they are. We have to keep a sense of proportion here, your chance of being the object of some horny foreign man's intense staring and jerking off on your next train voyage is probably very small. But there have been literally thousands of these incidents by now in Germany. Almost without exception, they involve foreign males.*

When it comes to train masturbators, I am genuinely puzzled. I have taken trains in lots of developing countries, and have never seen this behavior there. Nor have I ever seen German males doing this in Germany. I've seen them get drunk and be rowdy, but never masturbate in public. 

Another puzzling thing is that these foreign train masturbators often don't seem to worry about getting caught. Most of the time, the woman who was the focus complains to police, and they often find the guy sitting in the train seat, as if nothing had happened. Many of these train masturbators seem unaware that anything they were doing was wrong, or that the woman they were jacking off in front of would complain about that. I am sure another factor is that Germans are a confrontation-avoiding lot who would rather complain to cops than confront train masturbators. I doubt a train masturbator who jacked off in front of a girl in Egypt would reach his destination uninjured.

I surmise there's often alcohol involved here. Most of our new fellow citizens come from countries in which alcohol is hard to come by. And then they land in Germany, where you can buy a bottle of rotgut which will get you pie-eyed for 5 Euros. I sometimes see them tottering along the streets of my own neighborhood, clutching half-empty bottles of cheap 80-proof booze, talking to themselves. But then again, I see Germans doing that, too.

Yet many of these incident reports don't mention alcohol (which police reports usually do when it's in play). Which implies that these men, while completely sober, decided to take their erect penises out of their pants in public and jack off while staring at females. Sometimes while staring at children

This is why I am convinced that there are an unusually high number of young males with mental problems among the recent migrants. Public masturbation is the quintessential sign of what psychologists call disinhibition and hypersexuality. I worked for almost 4 years in a public mental hospital, and one of the things we had to teach our acutely schizophrenic clients was the necessity of not masturbating in public (they were obviously allowed to masturbate, but in private only).

We don't have reliable stats yet, but I will be happy to bet any amount of money that if we ever get them, we will find very high rates of mental illness among these young lads.  

Continue reading "The Grotesque Mystery of Train Masturbators" »

Why Are People Leaving Kosovo? (With Pictures)

So, thousands of Kosovars are getting on buses to Germany, filing claims for political asylum, and being accommodated in German shelters. The trend started in 2014, and has skyrocketed in 2015. Tens of thousands of Kosovars have applied for political asylum in Germany in the past two years. Considering Kosovo has a population of only 1.83 million people total -- half the size of Berlin -- these are gigantic numbers.

So, what has happened in Kosovo to prompt this wave of emigration? Has there been a recent crisis?

The answer is no. Kosovo is classified by the World Bank as a lower middle income country. According to the World Bank (which keeps good numbers regardless of what you think of its policies) Kosovo's Gross National Income per capital has increased 60% in the last decade. Average life expectancy has risen by 2 years over the last decade, to 70.8. That is close to the average for developing countries in Europe, and four years longer than the entire group of lower-middle income countries. Its poverty rate is 29.2%, down from 45% in 2006. Kosovo receives millions of dollars in development aid from a number of sources.

I visited Kosovo for over a week in 2010. A friend of mine was a development worker there, and gave me plenty of tips. Kosovo is easy to get around in because it's so small, but has some dramatic mountain scenery. It was very easy to chat with people, because Kosovars love Americans because of the role the US played in achieving independence. Main streets in Prishtina are named after George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and there is a massive sculpture of Bill Clinton downtown. Most younger Kosovars are trying to learn English, and many have learned it pretty well. Kosovo was the only country in Europe I've ever visited where being an American earned me spontaneous hugs, handshakes, and free gifts in stores. Like everyone in that part of the world, Kosovars are generally extremely friendly and hospitable.

Kosovo is quite safe. I like to wander around alone in cities, and I could do this everywhere I went without any problem. The only place that felt a bit sketchy were in the north, where I went to visit Gracanica, a monastery whose magnificent Orthodox cathedral whose interior is covered with 14th-century frescoes. There were a few UN or OSCE security guards there to prevent intercommunal violence, but they looked bored. If you wander into one of the few remaining Serbian enclaves in Kosovo, you'll know it, because the colors of the Serbian flag are everywhere, and you can buy pork. Serbs stared at me a bit in Gracanica, but only with curiosity. Needless to say, I didn't go around telling everyone I was an American up there. Kosovar politics are corrupt, just as they are in virtually all countries in that general region. Many political parties are based around shady millionaires or former paramilitary captains from the liberation war. Some parts of the country are still mined.

Most Kosovars are Muslim, but not at all fanatical about it. Many will say they were forced to convert by the Ottomans, and so their heart really isn't in it. Kosovo has its own kind of rakia, just like every other country in that region. And just like every other country in that region, they insist theirs is the only drinkable version and the others are horse piss. You see very few headscarves, and women in summer wear skimpy clothing. If you make the mistake of thinking that means they're available for a one-night stand, you will be immediately corrected by a brother or cousin. Bridal boutiques are literally everywhere; you get the very strong impression this is a country in which young people's only chance at regular sex is getting married.

Overall, Kosovo is about in the middle in terms of developing countries I've visited. It has all the problems developing countries have -- and there are a lot of those -- but it's not falling apart or in crisis. Starvation and malnutrition is rare, and there is an educational system that functions at a primitive level. If you can possibly afford it, you try to send your kids to private school -- just like in other countries in the region. Nevertheless, illiteracy is disappearing among younger generations, as is the literacy gap between men and women.

So, to sum up: Kosovars are not leaving their country because of war, starvation, epidemics, ethnic cleansing, or other similar issues. There is simmering low-level ethnic conflict between Albanian and Serbian ethnicities, and minorities such as Sinti and Roma do very poorly compared to the majority, which is the case in all socieities. Kosovar is not poor, it's lower-middle-income and making slow but steady progress. It is also received hundreds of millions of dollars in development aid, although there's a lively debate about whether that's done much good.

The reason Kosovars are traveling to Germany and claiming asylum is that (1) their country is relatively poor, compared to wealthier Western European neighbors; (2) Western Europe is incredibly easy to reach by plane, bus, or even informal taxi (g); (3) they have been told they will get 'welcome money' from Germany (false) and a monthly stipend of €140 while they're here (true). They have nothing to lose. If their asylum claim is rejected, as it will be, they may be able to escape repatriation any number of ways, either legally or through concealment. Odd jobs or petty crime may well earn them more money here than they could get at home. And there's always the one-in-a-million shot (almost literally one-in-a-million) that they will actually get asylum or another grant of legal status. If they are repatriated, they will simply return to whatever high-rise they lived in with their families before. I don't blame them for trying to get to Germany. I might even try this in their situation. But, in my view, that doesn't mean Germany has any moral, ethical, or legal obligation to grant them permanent legal residency status.

Here are some pictures I took on my trip to Kosovo. Interesting place! Info in hover text.

027 - Prizren - Barber in Hut
027 - Prizren - Barber in Hut

028 - Prizren - Election Posters on Wall
028 - Prizren - Election Posters on Wall
028 - Prizren - Election Posters on Wall
028 - Prizren - Election Posters on Wall
028 - Prizren - Election Posters on Wall
028 - Prizren - Election Posters on Wall
028 - Prizren - Election Posters on Wall


072 - Recycled German Bus in Prishtina 1
072 - Recycled German Bus in Prishtina 1
072 - Recycled German Bus in Prishtina 1
072 - Recycled German Bus in Prishtina 1
072 - Recycled German Bus in Prishtina 1

069 - Prishtina Memorial Fence 2

Ginger Bookstore Bag
Ginger Bookstore Bag
Ginger Bookstore Bag
Ginger Bookstore Bag
Ginger Bookstore Bag
Ginger Bookstore Bag
Ginger Bookstore Bag
Ginger Bookstore Bag

Begin Japanology with Peter Barakan

I went to Japan last Christmas and loved it. Everywhere is clean, the people are courteous, street life is lively and safe, free public restrooms everywhere, spectacular shrines temples and gardens, handmade things made of natural materials. The entire country seems to be curated by people with discreetly minimalist good taste mixed with a bit of wabi-sabi aesthetic. I just scratched the surface, but it's quite a surface. 

While surfing around for things Japanese, I came across the oddly-named TV series Begin Japanology, produced by Japan's national television channel. The understated host, longtime Japan resident and fluent English speaker Peter Barakan (apparently he's half Burmese and half English) presents half-hour shows dedicated to everything from Kyudo to festivals to incense to fireworks to shopping streets to sake to masks to swords to folding fans to Western Japanophiles to pickles, plums, sushi, and calligraphy. Here's one on incense, which, it turns out, has its own highly formalized ceremony: 

By now there seem to be hundreds of episodes -- a long but not exhaustive Youtube playlist is here.  The production values are reasonably high, without being ostentatious. There's often a slight twist: the episode on kendo features an in-depth profile of a young kendo master with one arm who routinely beats two-armed opponents without being given any advantages. Barakan profiles many fascinating Japanese, from retired managers who carve masks in their spare time to famous tea masters, actors, puppeteers and architects. Barakan, a congenial, low-key host, also has a weakness for ordinary Japanese who are trying to maintain some of the many traditions which teeter on the verge of extinction. As with many Japanese shows, there's a lot of pleasantly burbling background music, some of it a bit incongruous.

The shows focus on traditional, non-controversial topics, so I don't think we're going to see a episode on soaplands anytime soon. But within their limited scope, these shows are well-done, with thoughtful scripts, interesting subject choices, and a few modest surprises here and there. Highly recommended.

Kosovars Fleeing for Germany

Thousands of Kosovars want to flee their crumbling country and come to Germany, the Times reports:

In a region plagued by aging demographics, it is Europe’s youngest territory, with 27 the average age of its two million citizens. Kosovo would need an impossible 7 percent annual economic growth to offer work to the 25,000 to 30,000 youths the government says finish school each year. Direct investment from foreign sources is about $270 million a year, half what it was in 2007, said Lumir Abdixhiku, executive director of Riinvest, an independent research group.

Austria registered 1,901 asylum applications from Kosovo citizens in 2014, but saw 1,029 in January alone, said Karl-Heinz Grundböck of the Interior Ministry in Vienna. By mid-February, Germany had some 18,000 applications from Kosovars since Jan. 1.

Within Kosovo, the Education Ministry counts some 5,600 absent pupils.

But Western Europe is already swamped with refugees from war and turbulence in the Middle East and Africa, and is struggling to integrate Muslim immigrants. Accommodation is so scarce that some Kosovo arrivals were housed in old United States Army barracks in Heidelberg, Germany.

In Germany, the flood from Kosovo has now slowed to about 200 arrivals a day, from 1,400 a day in early February.

I visited Kosovo in 2010, where a friend of mine was doing development work. The Kosovars I met were friendly and very excited to meet an American, but it was hard to avoid the impression that the country was going down the tubes. The guy who drove me to the airport at the end of the visit had once worked in Stuttgart as a machinist, but had returned to Kosovo to fight for its independence and basically got stuck there. He politely asked to see my passport, and when he saw my German green card allowing me indefinite residency, he ran his fingers over it reverentially, and almost started crying.

I won't even tell you how many millions of Euros in development aid Germany alone has pumped into Kosovo in the past 16 years, to little visible effect. It would make your eyes water.

Here are some pictures of Kosovo.

011 - Prizren - Hillside with Houses in Various States of Repair 028 - Prizren - Election Posters on Wall060 - Prishtina - Ulpiana - Cafe032 - Prishtina - Loni's Bar007 - Prizren - Man with Handcart079 - Prishtina View of Jewish Cemetery with Velania in Background088 - Prishtina National Library Card Catalog080 - Prishtina Man Walking Up Martyr's Hill Carrying Window Frames100 - Gracanica Monastery Church077 - Prishtina Auto Repair Shop SefaliaGinger Bookstore Bag105 - Prishtina Airport Security Kitten 1040 - Youth and Sport Palace Disused Props015 - Prizren - Mutilated Doll in Courtyard of Abandoned Serbian House030 - Prizren - Man Trimming Traditional White Felt Hat055 - Prishtina Dardania Self-Determination Mvt. Graffito 026 - Prizren - Statues of Famous Kosovars in Museum009 - Prizren - View with Stone Bridge086 - Prishtina National and University Library025 - Prizren - Interior of Gazi Mehmet Pasha Mosque053 - Prishtina Hat Salesman051 - Prishtina Statue of Bill Clinton 2

More Peppy/Doom-Drenched Japanese Signage

First of all, a huge thank-you to all the people who responded to the last post. Whenever I think 'blogging is so 2007, why bother anymore?', something like that last comment thread happens. Although I have to say, I do a lot more on Facebook than I do here. You can always sign up with a fake name and follow me without becoming my 'friend'.

In any case, like most travelers to Japan, I found the omnipresent signs more than amusing. Of course, Germany is also full of signs telling you what to do and not do, but they're always generic and uniform. Japan boasts an artisanal underground of graphic designers hired to make instruction of the populace as amusing as possible, generally by creating yet another animated mascot (yuru-chara). They often come with poetic English translations: 'An Important Thing is Protected.' 'No! Drug!' 'Water Can Not Drink'.

So here's a whole contingent of other signs, slogans and mascots from Japan. My attempts at an explanation are in the hover text, but feel free to correct me. The first is actually a poem, posted at Saisho-in temple. Anyone know who wrote and/or translated it?

Saisho in summer poem Woman on tracks signGinza Woman Holding Christian Repent PlacardHardened Japanese CriminalsKyoto main station sign with terrified salarymanMr Funtime and Mr BadassNanzen ji warning sign someone stole my fucking bikeNanzenji fire control yuru-chara (animal mascots)
Nara sign with deer and disabled childrenNo Depositing Carefully Wrapped Packages on StreetShelter for People Who Cannot Go Back HomeShibuya an important thing is protectedShibuya drunken salarymen about to dieShibuya italian slow food lifeShibuya whale meat restaurantTokyo rainbow kitchen special night for boozeYanaka cemetery dog with tiny shovelYanaka no smoking gingko leavesYanaka no smoking signYanaka no! drug! sign
Yanaka cemetery dog with tiny shovel Arashiyama water can not drink Harajuku maple lake vfw girl Kyoto main station what you cannot store in lockers Shibuya donky boulange-001 Shibuya twits the americana hat Yanaka body identification poster outside police station Yanaka stagecoach western 'pub' yeehaw

Blegs: Japanese Readers, I Want Your Help

Over Christmas I visited Japan. Highly recommended and, thanks to the weak Yen, not at all expensive. I've posted some travel shots on my Flickr account for those who are into that sort of thing.

I thought I'd ask the cultured, worldly readers of this blog to help me with a translation or two. First, I bought a ceramic plate at a Nitten shop. Nitten is a nationwide arts and crafts exhibition that, as far as I can gather, is mainly aimed at lesser-known or amateur artists working in traditional Japanese pursuits such as ceramics, calligraphy, etc. People from all over Japan can submit works to be judged by the notoriously conservative panels, and winners are exhibited and some of their works sold in shops.

I bought this dish:

Ceramic Dish

The two women in the rather dusty shop were really excited that I'd chosen this dish, and pressed a piece of paper with the artists' biography into my hands. The only English they could speak was to point at a row of symbols and say 'famous Japanese art school!'

This is the piece of paper, first an overall view, then a detail of what appears to be the artists' biography. If anybody could give me the gist of it -- especially a transliteration of the artist's name -- I would be grateful.

Ceramic Artist Description Page

Ceramic Artist Description Page Detail

Baffling Signs and Posters

1. Schoolchildrens' Superhero or Demon? Japan is also renowned for its amusing/terrifying warning signs. Most of them are pretty self-explanatory because of the pictures, but this one still baffles me. I found it posted outside a school:

Yanaka poster with odd supervillian outside school

Yanaka poster with odd supervillian outside school detail

2. Uniformed People Kicking Ordinary Japanese For Some Reason. This was on the side of a nondescript building. My secret hope is that it's Japanese Communist Party propaganda:

Kyoto poster uniformed men kicking civilians

 3. Red Sash Women Marching. Finally, here is large poster on a wall near a florists' shop that depicts a large number of middle-aged women wearing red sashes marching. First a general view, then a closeup. Pardon the crappy quality, the poster was pretty soiled.

Tokyo red sash women marching-001

Tokyo red sash women marching detail

Any help interpreting these signs is gratefully accepted. I also have less-baffling Japanese signs which I will post in the next couple of days.