Archive for February, 2008


After Cute Knut and Flocke, Germany on Friday got a new cub to ooh and aah over — and this time one which hasn’t been rejected or eaten by its mother.

Two thoughts occur to me:

  • The article is notable not only for its dry humor but also for its very, very unpolished feel. I can’t help but wondering if it was somehow slipped passed the editor.
  • As my fellow South Carolinian Stephen Colbert dutifully reminds us so often, bears are nothing more than godless killing machines. Don’t be fooled by the cute and cuddly image–this button-eyed killer would rip you apart in a heartbeat.
The number one threat in Germany

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Chain of a Fool

Last Friday as I was jubilantly riding home from a haircut, the chain on my bike abruptly snapped off, leaving me sans bicycle for the rest of the journey home and indeed the past week. A brisk walking pace will luckily deliver me to work in ten minutes, but the lack of wheels proved most inconvenient whenever I needed to travel to the city proper. I was thus resolved to fix my bike post-haste. My boss told me I should just drop it off and let the shop handle it, but I said nay, for I am a man of thrift and vigor and would surely be able to replace a simple bike chain.

Full of undaunted courage I went to the bike store, sauntered to the counter and purchased the three essential pieces of equipment for any chain-replacement therapy: the chain, the chain tool, and, perhaps most importantly, lubrication. After three hours of toil, however, all I had to show for my labors was a bike as useless as before and hands as dirty as a coal miner’s. For whatever reason, I simply could not adjust the chain to the proper length. I went to bed dejected, but after a night a fitful rest I had figured out exactly how I was going that chain on with no problem at all.

The bike shop called me this evening to tell me bike will be ready for pick-up in the morning.

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A Central Problem

Suppose for a moment that the federal government of some rich, free Western democracy called Upper Slobovia recently instituted a policy that drastically altered the way its citizens received news. Instead of private broadcasters, the main source of news would now come directly from the Upper Slobovian News Service, a department of the government. The anchors of this news service would receive their broadcast scripts directly from a committee of news experts within the department, and very few changes to the script would be tolerated. The private news broadcasts would still be available, but they would cost substantially more to view and would not be available at all in some areas of the country. Consequently, the vast majority of Upper Slobovians would now receive only the news as approved by the government.

What would your reaction be to Upper Slobovia’s policy? Even if Upper Slobovia were a liberal democracy with very little corruption, you’d still have doubts about the policy, wouldn’t you?

Now suppose instead that Upper Slobovia’s policy was about the provision of education and not news. Curricula would be set by a committee in the Upper Slobovian Department of Education, even down to individual lesson plans. Teachers would receive these plans and have little freedom to customize them. Because private schools become costly and are not universally available, the only realistic choice for most students is to receive only the education as approved by the government.

How do you feel about that?

I was reminded of this little thought experiment as I watched a news story on the German educational system a night or two ago. In one part, a teacher explained her frustration in not being able to alter the content in her lesson plans–no matter how irrelevant she thought the information was–because the law required her to teach it. Perhaps worse, she was not able to teach other things that she did think relevant because what the law required took up all of her time.

My point here is not to call for the end of public education, but rather to show one of the costs that centralization inevitably brings. The reason things are so strict in Germany is partly because of the “PISA-Schock” in 2001, when Germany placed in the bottom third of international countries in both math and science. As a result, German policymakers have been trying relentlessly to push Germany up in the rankings. There’s arguably nothing wrong with this goal, but since it has become the goal of German bureaucrats, it has necessarily become the goal of every teacher and student within the system–no matter what they might otherwise prefer.

Currently, Germany is suffering from what The Economist calls “the worst of both centralisation and devolution.” Individual Germans states have a broad prerogative in terms of education policy, but changes must be unanimously approved by a national body. Reform is thus understandably difficult as entrenched interests that benefit from the status-quo fight tenaciously to keep it, with ostensibly nary a thought as to what would actually benefit students.

Some cringe at the thought of education as a private for-profit enterprise, but I wonder how much they reflect on the disdainfulness of education as a political enterprise.

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Sweet & Sour

ARTIFICIAL sweeteners have long been touted as being good for the calorie-conscious. Unfortunately, a study just published in Behavioral Neuroscience by Susan Swithers and Terry Davidson of Purdue University in Indiana suggests that such compounds may actually end up making people fatter than they otherwise would be.

And how can this be, pray tell?

The cause, Dr Swithers and Dr Davidson think, is a disruption in the connection that the brain makes between sweetness and calories. Past research suggests that the brain thinks that sweetness is a sign of highly calorific food. Dr Swithers and Dr Davidson argue that artificial sweeteners confuse things. After repeated exposure to sweeteners, the brain forgets the connection and thus fails to stop the animal eating at an appropriate point…

It therefore looks possible that low-calorie artificial sweeteners are a contributory factor to the rising number of people who are obese. What an irony.

I like the results of this study because it serves as a nice reminder of how ignorant humanity can be, and how unintended consequences are endemic to the activity of tampering with complex systems. Most of all, I like it because it gives evidence that good ol’ fashioned Aristotelian moderation is probably the better strategy for good health rather than following the well-marketed guidelines of the latest celebrity doctor.

Alternatively, one might content oneself with a more Platonic philosophy, which maintains that “attention to health is life’s greatest hindrance.”

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Basket Adjustment

My diet and eating habits have changed significantly since arriving in Germany. Some changes are linked to the different basket of goods available, while others have resulted from financial decisions:

  1. I eat far more bread, and it is both of better quality and more nutritious
  2. Sweet iced tea has been replaced by juice as my beverage of choice
  3. I eat a lot of margarine
  4. Besides the occasional wurst, I consume only deli meats
  5. My meals are simpler and my portions smaller
  6. I drink much more coffee and hot tea
  7. I eat breakfast
  8. Two different dishes comprise about 70-80 percent of my meals
  9. Dark chocolate is consumed regularly as a snack

What hasn’t changed is that I only rarely eat out, which is probably the biggest reason I’m able to survive on a food budget of less than 4 € per day. I look forward to the time when my income affords me feasts of roast duck and suckled pig, but it will be a while yet.

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A Day Late…

…but almost certainly worth the missing dollar:

Gentleman suitors probably need be reminded, however, that correlation≠ causation.


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Wohnung Drei

Here’s a short tour of my quaint basement apartment in Schwerin, where I will be finishing my current stay in Germany:

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