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August 2008

Smoking Ban: The 75-Square-Meter Solution

kneipe.jpg

Yesterday, the First Senate of the Federal Constitutional Court voted 7-2 to overturn the strict smoking bans (press release here, decision here, both in German) that had been passed by the German states of Berlin and Baden-Wuerttemburg. The Court held that a 100% smoking ban in all enclosed public spaces violated the rights of owners of small local pubs (Eckkneipen), who specialize in what the Court -- pricelessly -- called "drink-oriented minor gastronomy" (getrankegepraegte Kleingastronomie). The Court recognized local authorities' right to protect public health, but held that banning smoking in local pubs -- whose clientele are fag-friendly blue-collar types -- violated pub owners' rights to practice their chosen profession, found in Article 12 of the German Constitution, or "Basic Law." 

Like most modern constitutions -- and unlike the U.S. Constitution -- the German Constitution not only specifies what the state cannot do to citizens, it also specifies what the state must do for citizens. The government must ensure that everyone has the right to practice his or her chosen profession, and thus cannot pass laws that would make it practically impossible to do so, unless some urgent public good is involved. The Court held that protecting non-smokers was an important public interest, but it wasn't compelling enough to forbid smoking even in small pubs frequented by adult smokers, where the risk of someone being exposed unwillingly to cigarette smoke was at a minimum.

The Court decided to allow the smoking ban to stay in effect until the December 31, 2009, when the legislatures in both states have to come up with a new set of regulations. In what is perhaps the most amusing part of the decision, the Court decided to issue its own carve-out regulations in the meantime, so that small pub owners wouldn't have to suffer. According the Germany's highest court, then, if you're a pub owner in Berlin or Baden-Wuerttemburg (and probably elsewhere), you can continue to allow smoking if your pub has the following characteristics:

  1. You don't serve "prepared dishes." (remember, your menu must be, ahem, "drink-oriented").
  2. The space for guests is less than 75 square meters.
  3. There is no separate side-room.
  4. You don't allow visitors under 18.
  5. You clearly post that this is an over-18 smokers' pub on the front door.

I can imagine plenty of 80-square-meter corner pub owners who are fuming right now. But they tend to be a resourceful lot: I bet they're hastily erecting curtains and storing mops and buckets in a 5-square-meter corner of their pub right now...


24-Song Party People

Nothing for Ungood has a very amusing -- and, in my experience, harrowingly accurate -- post on how to throw a party in Germany: "In America you often want to impress your friends by playing music from bands that they haven’t heard of before, the opposite is true in Germany, you want to only play music that they know by heart."  Among many Germans, playing music by relatively unknown bands -- like almost any sign of marked individuality or unusual taste -- will cause you to be thought of as "arrogant" by those of your guests who display the common, disastrous, symbiotic character-trait combination: insecure and sourly judgmental. 

Thus, unless you're in a very hip part of Germany, your guests, sad to say, actually aren't interested in broadening their horizons, will not respond to your attempts to convey your enthusiasm for the music you like, and, will have no practice commenting on or asking questions about music that is unfamiliar to them, for the very good reason that they have never had to do so, having heard the same music at every party they've ever gone to or thrown. 

In short, they will feel insecure, a state of mind that most Germans experience about 93% of their waking existence, and which they most certainly do not want to experience at a party. To them, the purpose of getting together is (a) to get hammered (which reduces insecurity); while (b) listening to music everyone has already heard a thousand times, and singing and dancing along with everyone else, which produces the warm, soma-like sensation of group solidarity. Which, of course, also reduces insecurity. (Noticing a theme here?)

And now to the Schlager list. You can play Schlager at a German party, and in fact you must play Schlager at a German party. But only at the end, after everyone's drunk and has had a nice time dancing. Nothing for Ungood proposes picking from the following list of songs:

  • Schön ist es auf der Welt zu sein
  • Moskau
  • Ein Bisschen Spass muss sein
  • Griechischer Wein
  • The complete works of Dieter Thomas Kuhn
  • Ti Amo
  • Major Tom
  • Er hat ein knallrotes Gummibot
  • Die Hände zum Himmel
  • Marmor, Stein und Eisen bricht
  • Flieger grüß mir die Sonne
  • Auf der Reeperbahn (only required north of the Weisswurstäquator)
  • Er gehört zu mir
  • Westerland

    A pretty good list (there's more in the original post). I'd only add "Rocky Mountain High" for a hand-holding sing-along opportunity.  Further, many Manu Chao songs are on the way to almost Schlager-like levels of familiarity. Which is a very, very good thing.  Because most of the songs on this list are, not to put too fine a point on it, unlistenable, whereas Manu Chao is actually pretty cool.


  • Degenerate Fonts

    Crooked Timber does us all a service by praising the stripped-down modernism of Barack Obama's Berlin speech poster and informing us of yet another victim of Nazism -- the Futura font:

    After the Nazi’s rise to power in 1933, however, when the Dessau Bauhaus was closed (the school had moved from its original home in Weimar in 1925), it was forbidden to use modern design or sans-serif typefaces such as Futura, which Goebbels called a “Jewish invention.” Rigid, central balanced composition returned and traditional (and often illegible) Fraktur type was touted as symbolic of the glories of the nation.






    The Smarter They Come...

    I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Obama's obvious smarts are a bug, not a feature in the U.S.  This newspaper column gets it right, in appropriate plain-guy prose: 

    The charge of elitism isn't about people flaunting income; it's about people flaunting IQ. Americans, as a rule, don't resent people who have more money than them — particularly if the wealth is seen as earned. Envy, maybe, but not resent. You don't resent people whom you hope to emulate. And most Americans dream easily about having much more dough than they do.

    What Americans more readily resent is someone who is smarter than them, who knows it, who shows it, and who seems to think being smart makes you better than everyone else.

    A gap in income, you can always dream of closing. A gap in IQ, not so much. It's more personal, thus easier to resent.


    Plenty of Europeans would have no problem with the assertion that "being smart makes you better than everyone else" (as long as you didn't imply smart people should have more rights or more money).  And -- mirabile dictu -- it wouldn't just be the smart ones agreeing. Not so stateside. As horrid but occasionally right reactionary John Derbyshire puts it: "The ignorant condescension of the overclass was exactly what was causing Barack Obama so much trouble back in May — not a mistake he will repeat, I think. He doesnt seem the type to repeat mistakes. There you have one of the advantages of a high I.Q.: You learn fast." 

    Derbyshire notes America's increasing stratification by intelligence, and muses: "Our cognitive elites are not lovable. Every so often their arrogance and condescension will come breaking through the surface. Its a pity there isnt some way to forcibly mix them with their fellow citizens at some point in their cosseted young adulthood, so that they might at least have a shot at learning how to talk across the I.Q. gap; but in a free society, there is no way to do that."

    And here we come to one of the most interesting differences between the U.S. and continental Europe: In Europe, smart people do "mix" with less intelligent people regularly. In the streetcar, during mandatory military service or civil-service jobs (where you might get detailed to a nursing home or teen center), in your thriving urban neighborhood, at festivals and circuses, during "public-viewings," and even at universities, which are much less stratified than in the U.S., and where there is no standardized admissions test. You can wall yourself off in Europe, of course, but you simply can't do it as completely as in a country in which so many people live in their own houses, drive their own cars, and spend lots of their free time with relatives or chosen companions in front of a computer console or TV screen.

    Europeans live much more public, social lives than most Americans, and public resources such as day-care spots and transport tends to be shared among lots of very different people. Of course, this doesn't mean that rich and poor, smart and not-so-smart end up joining hands and singing Kumbayah.  But it means that smart people will routinely have some contact with people of more modest cognitive gifts.  Everyone's life will be much easier if the smart people can figure out how to talk to others and perhaps find some common ground.  People who can do this well (i.e., easily converse with people from different social backgrounds in a way that puts them at their ease) are called sympathisch in German,  And no, in case you're wondering, I'm not considered particularly sympathisch, a fate I share with quite a few Americans. (But I'm working on it!). 

    Finally, and this never ceases to amaze me, Europeans tend to remain loyal to their childhood friends, even when their abilities differ and their paths in life later diverge radically.  Naturally, they won't meet these friends very often, and the encounters may become increasingly superficial, but they still take place.  One of the functions of European conversational codes is, I'm convinced, to make these meetings between unequals possible without too much friction and resentment.  Ergo, talking about yourself too much is frowned upon, lest your achievements, your income, or your eloquence make less fortunate conversation participants uncomfortable. To quote Greg Nees yet again:

    The American penchant for personalizing the discussion is looked upon by Germans with both distaste and envy. On the one hand, they find it quite amazing that Americans can talk about themselves so much, so openly, and so naturally and may find themselves wishing they could do the same. On the other hand, they often view this focus on the self as unfounded bragging.

    We seem to have ended up rather far from where we began, and possibly making a contradictory point, but the day-job calls, so I'll have to leave it there.

    P.S. Hold on, what if smart people actually are better than everyone else? (pdf)

    [There is a] possibility that a third variable caused both better [moral] reasoning and better [moral] behavior: intelligence. Blasi found that IQ was consistently related to honesty, and he concluded that future investigators must do a better job of controlling for IQ. Kohlberg (1969) reported that scores on his moral judgment interviews correlated with measures of IQ in the .30 to .50 range. Rest (1979) reports correlations of .20...

    Th[e] theory [that intelligence leads to better self-control, which leads to more 'moral' behavior] was proposed in part to explain the astonishing finding that the number of seconds pre-schoolers were able to delay choosing an immediate small reward (one marshmallow) in favor of a later, bigger reward (two marshmallows) was a powerful predictor of adolescent social and cognitive competence, including SAT scores and ability to exert self control in frustrating situations, measured about 13 years later (Shoda, Mischel, & Peake, 1990).


    Obama in Berlin

    I took the ICE to Berlin on Thursday. I met a group of friends at the Brandenburg Gate at about 3:00.  There were already thousands of people milling about the place, including many gathered outside the Hotel Adlon, where they hoped to see Obama entering or leaving. You could walk freely up and down the Street of the 17th of June, the broad avenue between the Brandenburg Gate and the Victory Column, the actual location of the speech. About 2/3 of the way toward the Victory Column, right in the middle of the Tiergarten Park, there was the first barrier. This was opened about 3:30, and what was by now a fairly large crowd began migrating down closer to the Victory Column. It is surrounded by a massive traffic circle, which was blocked-off for the speech. To get into the traffic circle, visitors had to pass through a metal detector, show that all their electronic devices worked, and take a sip of whatever drink they had brought along. Pocket-knives and other suspicious objects were confiscated and chucked into large orange garbage bins. Most of the people who had things confiscated decided to lump it and go to the speech anyway.

    After a seemingly endless wait at the security checkpoint, our group finally got settled in about 15 yards in front of the podium.  This means that you can see us in many news coverage photos of the event. Behind us to the right was a platform for press coverage and lighting, where television correspondents interviewed speechgoers and local politcians. To the left, a reggae band entertained the waiting crowd. Strangers rooted to the same spot for three hours will find plenty of things to talk about, so I got to know some of my neighbors. One of them was a paratrooper named Florian, who was intrigued by Obama, but didn't have a clear understanding of what policies he was likely to follow. Florian will be shipped out to Afghanistan if Germany decides to increase NATO troop levels. He reported that he's eager to go and thinks German troops, despite rumors to the contrary, are indeed ready for tough combat assignments. A lawyer standing to my left had read The Audacity of Hope in German translation.

    The crowd skewed young and diverse. There were many black faces in the audience -- many of them seemed to be students or workers from African countries. There were also many American blacks as well. Placards and posters weren't allowed into the front area, so people improvised: a group of Angolans held up a banner that you can see in many press photos. Another woman held up a picture of Obama riding a bicycle for what seemed like hours at a time -- why is anybody's guess. Yet another attached her homemade "Obamaniac" hat to a stick and held it up for all to see.

    Obama wandered onto the base of the column about 20 minutes late, smiling and waving to the crowd.  There were no introductory speeches or remarks, just an off-stage voice welcoming him. From up close, he looked somewhat tired, but still gave an effective speech, with only one or two minor slips. The lines that seemed to get the most applause were, predictably enough, appeals for more transatlantic cooperation. The call for more NATO troops in Afghanistan was greeted with scattered applause. The line about increasing security in Afghanistan to hinder drug sales on Berlin's streets brought bemusement, since Berliners are more likely to see drug use as a fun way to spend Saturday night than as a pressing social problem.

    The references to Berlin's history and the airlift were appreciated, but didn't leave much of an impression. Berliners are a fairly jaded lot, and are much more likely to regard such references as sentimental mythmaking than are Americans. As Susan Neiman put it in a recent editorial (colored with typically American exasperation at German press culture's sneering cynicism, call it the "timidity of hopelessness"):

    Berlin, in particular, is in the middle of a very post-heroic moment. Its former bravado about its history now approaches indifference.... So when Mr. Obama reminded Berliners of their greater moments — the airlift, the destruction of the wall — he risked more scoffing. There was plenty of speculation about which German sentence he would memorize to one-up John F. Kennedy’s famous speech.

    After the speech, most of the German observers I talked to found it short and superficial, a judgment I share. Germans tend to have a much longer attention span than Americans, and political speeches can get long and detailed. Few Germans in the audience, though, seemed to really understand the constraints Obama was operating under. He couldn't attack Bush, couldn't appear too presumptuous, and had to ingratiate Europeans without alienating Americans. For some interesting in-depth video interviews of speechgoers (in English), check out Atlantic Intitiative here. Obama called for more NATO troops to be sent to Afghanistan, but I don't see how any President is going to get traction on this issue before withdrawing significant numbers of U.S. troops from Iraq. He also endorsed the long-term goal of a world without nuclear weapons, but your guess is as good as mine how that's going to be achieved.

    After the speech, 215,000 people had to walk back up the Street of 17th June and out the Brandenburg Gate. That was too slow for many people, who tore down the flimsy barriers and filtered out through the Tiergarten. We followed them, and eventually ended up to the Schleusen Krug Biergarten, where we drank beer by the liter and enjoyed a piece of "Obama-cake,"' which is dark-brown on the outside, but cream-colored on the inside. With a tangy strawberry filling.


    Germany's Bloggy Backwardness

    The Spiegel has a piece (g) called the "The Beta Bloggers" [h/t FJM] on why Germany doesn't have as many good blogs as it should. Few Germans read blogs on a daily basis, and of Germany's roughly 500,000 blogs, only about 200,000 are active.

    And many of the ones that are are crap. The Spiegel writers, drawing on both German and American sources, point out a number of problems in the German blogosphere. First, there are relatively few political blogs. Second, the ones that do exist don't do any original reporting or convey new insights; they're generally just platforms for disgruntled Social Democrats/Christians/environmentalists to bitch about some policy or politician they dislike. Third, the German-language blogosphere is filled with thin-skinned malcontents who think that an audience of millions dozens is interested in their childish, invective-fueled online feuds. Fourth, there are relatively few "expert" bloggers -- that is, people who in real life actually have some advantage in knowledge over their readers. There are exceptions of course (you'll find some of them on my sidebar). Overall, though, most of the German blogosphere can  be safely ignored.

    Compare that to the USA, the Spiegel authors suggest. Of course, there's all sorts of invective and ignorance in the American blogosphere, but it's also given rise to blogs whose original reporting, thoughtful analysis, or expert insight genuinely contribute to debates over important issues. There are also blogs that serve as potent online rallying-points and fund-raising conduits. Because these blogs are consistently worth reading, they eventually increase in influence to the point where they rival more "official" news sources.  Germany is still light-years behind the USA in this respect, and, the Spiegel suggests, may never catch up.

    Do I have theories about Germany's bloggy weaknesses? Did you have to ask?

    Continue reading "Germany's Bloggy Backwardness" »


    Two Kinds of Control

    First, you'll notice that the blog's format has changed.  A while back, I switched to the "Advanced Templates" option to insert some widget into the sidebar, but then realized that switching to advanced templates requires you to actually mess with HTML code, which I don't fancy.  So back to the default templates, and away with the stupid widgets that nobody used anyway. To those of you who loved the widgets, my deepest condolences.

    A few weeks ago, a commenter mentioned the 2003 Hungarian movie Kontroll.  I decided to pick it up, and while there, noticed another movie with the same-ish name, Control.  Why not have a Kontroll/Control evening? I thought to myself.

    Kontroll, made by a young Hungarian director in 2003, portrays a team of ticket inspectors who ride the Budapest underground, flipping out their badges and accosting travelers. They have two nemeses -- the Roadrunner, a young hipster wearing reference headphones who always manages to outrun them, and Bootsy, a black-clad psychopath who pushes people onto the tracks in front of oncoming trains. But perhaps their most frequent enemy is subway riders, who curse and abuse the inspectors to no end. The inspectors themselves are a motley band, nominally led by Bulcsu, a morose loner in black leather who never leaves the subway. Together, they fight not only their quasi-mythical enemies, but also subway management and their own demons.

    Unfortunately, Kontroll, although filled with inventive images of the ethereal flourescent underworld in which the characters live, is a confused mess. All the signature weaknesses of European moviemaking are here: hammered-home symbolism (including people who wear angel and bear costumes for no reason), overdone "magical" moments, spotty and slack pacing, clumsy irony (such as when emergency workers discuss goulash recipes while scraping an unfortunate victim off the tracks), and scenes and subplots that simply trail off for no reason. It's still intermittently interesting, but needed more discipline and skillful editing.

    Control is no less gloomy than Kontroll, but worlds better. It's based on a book by Deborah Curtis, the ex-wife of Joy Division's troubled lead singer, Ian Curtis. The director is Anton Corbijn, perhaps best-known for his delightfully eccentric music videos for acts such as Mercury Rev and Nirvana. But there are no tricks here -- Control is filmed entirely in black-and-white, with sober pacing and elegant, minimalistic compositions. Curtis, a thin, hypersensitive introvert plagued by depression and epilepsy, marries much too young and has a child he's not prepared for. Meanwhile, the band he sings for after work, Joy Division, rockets to fame as one of the first identifiable "post-punk" acts. They married enervated, crystalline, volatile proto-goth-rock to Curtis' eerily gruff, half-groaning singing. A combination that galvanized many young listeners, yours truly included.

    Curtis' song lyrics, which tell of isolation and alienation, are all too reflective of his mental state, which only worsens as fate burdens him with many simultaneous tasks -- being a rock star, husband, father, epilepsy sufferer and adulterer -- which burst his fragile ego at the seams. The only relief he has is Joy Division's live performances, which are expertly reproduced by Corbijn. Without obtrusive tricks, Corbijn convey the band's funereally mesmerizing live charisma. (Unfortunately, the movie provides little insight into the band's creative process, which is really my only criticism).  Sam Riley as Curtis delivers a staggeringly soulful performance, and Samantha Morton, playing his luckless wife, is no less moving.

    Given that Control's main characters are all in their twenties, it manages to invest their story with more dignity and universality than you'd expect. But for those readers who don't know what happened to Ian Curtis, I warn you that Control does not have a happy end. Still, it's beautiful, somber, and elegant.