Archive for December, 2008

A Year in Cities, 2008

Others in the blogosphere have done this, and I thought I’d follow suit. Following is a list of cities I visited in the last calendar year, excluding smaller places and short stops en route somewhere else. Asterisks indicate a city I had not visited before:

  1. Antwerp, BE*
  2. Berlin, DE
  3. Bolzano, IT*
  4. Brussels, BE
  5. Copenhagen, DK*
  6. Düsseldorf, DE
  7. Frankfurt, DE*
  8. Hamburg, DE
  9. Innsbruck, AT*
  10. Malmö, SE*
  11. Munich, DE
  12. New York, NY
  13. Rostock, DE
  14. Schwerin, DE*

Writing this list brought into relief just how much of my travels were to smaller towns or countryside. Meck-Pomm has no major cities besides Rostock, so a week spent traveling around there with a business delegation is not reflected in the list. Similarly, my nearly three weeks of travel in June/July were spent mostly driving through German hinterlands and hiking in the Italian Alps. Still, I did visit three new countries in the past year (if superficially).

Also of note is that I did  hardly any American travel. This will likely remain largely unchanged for 2009, though I have one brief trip scheduled to Pennsylvania at the end of January. Despite my earlier yearning, it seems my upcoming journeys will again send me to faraway lands.

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Paul Krugman, who I thought honored me by calling me an economist, has in fact cursed me to exclusion! From a letter written by Hamilton to famous South Carolinian John Laurens outlining Hamilton’s criteria for a suitable wife  (excerpted from the biography I’m reading):

She must be young, handsome (I lay most stress upon a good shape), sensible (a little learning will do), well-bred (but she must have an aversion to the word ton), chaste and tender (I am an enthusiast in my notions of fidelity and fondness), of some good nature, a great deal of generosity (she must neither love money nor scolding, for I dislike equally a termagant and an economist). (pp. 126-127)


My sex might have also been a problem–but maybe not if you read some of Hamilton’s other letters to Laurens:

Cold in my professions, warm in friendships, I wish, my dear Laurens, it m[ight] be in my power by action rather than words [to] convince you that I love you. I shall only tell you that till you bade us adieu, I hardly knew the value you had taught my heart to set upon you. Indeed, my friend, it was not well done.You know the opinion I entertain of mankind and how much it is my desire to preserve myself free from particular attachments and to keep my happiness independent of the caprice of others. You s[hould] not have taken advantage of my sensibility to ste[al] into my affections without my consent. (p. 123)


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Best Analogy I Read Today

Not far from where I live, a concrete village attracts suburbanites to its trendy eateries and fine clothiers.   It is in many respects no different from the ubiquitous outdoor malls of America, though slightly more upscale and coherent. What sets it apart, however, is the attempt to make the mall a community by stacking condos on top of stores, evidently an increasingly popular ploy.

As a big fan of the mixed-use density that is a hallmark of urbanity, I’m puzzled to find myself resistant and even haughtily condescending of this American attempt. The reason why, I think, is that these “metroburbia” have the ethos of a cruise ship. There’s much to do, sure, but ultimately it is all commercial, contrived, and contained within a tiny speck surrounded by a vast expanse of nothingness.

Felix Salmon, market mover, draws a more neutral comparison:

The history of the wine market in America (bear with me here) has a central role for merlot: a relatively sweet and easily-drinkable varietal which got Americans — who had been more accustomed to beer and sweet white wine — comfortable with the idea of red wine. Nowadays, merlot has something of a bad name, but it’s still hugely popular.

I think of these mall condos as the urbanist equivalent of merlot: a gateway, if you will, to the urban lifestyle, without the tannic downside. I’m not sure they’ll ever become quite as ubiquitous as merlot. But they’re clearly part of America’s real-estate future.

Clearly part of America’s real estate future, eh? Well, a condo in a mall may be quite continental, but a loft downtown is a guy’s best friend.

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Paul Krugman, Nobel Laureate, says that I am an economist. From Peddling Prosperity, which I finished shortly before Christmas:

But where do ideas about economics come from? They come, of course, from economists — where by an “economist” I mean someone who thinks and writes regularly about economic issues. (p. 7)


In the past year, I’ve become increasingly known as an economist in my social sphere, with some colleagues even going so far as to seek my learned opinion on tax policy and the financial mess. Even if I rarely have the expertise I’m thought to have, my vanity luxuriates in the title, and I consider it a great compliment. Nonetheless, my view is that it is better to have some advanced training in the discipline (or at the very least in something rigorous) before dubbing oneself an economist.

Krugman’s definition is not bad, though it may need updating since he wrote it in the mid-90s–well before Web 2.0. My qualifier would be that an economist should be paid for his pontifications. So honorable a title should not be bestowed merely because some freak–like me!–has a blog and some spare time

In any event, regardless of whether you’re an economist or not, Peddling Prosperity is the best book you’ll find for discerning sense from nonsense in economic policy, and I recommend it heartily.

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Moments ago a high school student rang my doorbell and sold me a weekend subscription to the local paper. As I understood it, by signing me up for three months he would receive half the subscription amount towards a college scholarship.

The thing is, I value the subscription at close to zero, so my giving was inefficient. Much better would have been simply to give the student the entire amount in cash and forget about a crummy newspaper I can read online anyway. No money would have been wasted, and both parties would have been happier.

Discussion Topic 1 : How might this viewpoint affect my stance on Christmas gift exchange?

Discussion Topic 2: How might this viewpoint affect my stance on fair trade?

Discussion Topic 3: The peanut is neither a pea nor a nut.


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Do You Hear What I Hear?

About the time I arrived in Germany in August of last year, The Economist began releasing an audio edition which contains word-for-word recordings of each article from the paper. Since my print edition was still being sent to an address in the US, and one can only read so many articles online before eyeballs protest, I availed myself of the service immediately.  At first I mimicked my US reading habit by listening only to articles of interest, but within a few weeks I decided I would make it a goal to read or listen to every article in each week’s paper. Well over a year later my goal has become something of an obsessive compulsion, and I’d estimate I’ve missed less than a few percent of the thousands of articles run since I started.

The means by which I have accomplished this have changed as I moved about Germany and back to the United States. A typical edition of The Economist has 70-80 articles and the audio edition will run somewhere between 7-8 hours.  A typical article will run maybe 5 or 6 minutes, and the ironically-named “briefings” will usually last 15-20 minutes. My reading pace is a good deal faster than the newsreaders can talk, however, so I started by saving the longer articles for online reading and listening to the shorter ones while sitting idly on public transportation or walking to class.

After I moved to Schwerin, however, I did not have internet access in my flat and had a very short bike ride to work.  Luckily I soon started a jogging habit, which gave me a new way to knock out several articles a day (laugh if you must, but I found listening to the news better than any music). Soon I was reading just 20 percent or so of the articles and listening to the rest.

With my knee out of commission as I returned to America (perhaps now healing–I ran two miles this morning with no pain), I needed to figure out a new way to do things. Listening to the articles on my 25-minute walk/drive to work was a no-brainer, and I also have begun listening while in the shower as my desktop speaker can easily be placed on the bathroom sink.  With this setup, I read less than 5 articles per week and let my iPod handle the rest.

Nonetheless, I still get exasperated by the handful of longer articles each week. The longer the article, the more inefficient it is for me to listen to it, but it is arduous trying to avoid having a clump of giant articles to read at the end of the week.  My dismay is thus palpable as I start on the Christmas double issue:

The double issue is really just a regular edition with about 15 jumbo-sized articles on various topics.  The average length is north of 20 minutes, and one article examining how Darwinism could improve policy is nearly 40 minutes long (!), almost certainly the longest I’ve yet encountered.

To be fair, I have two weeks to tackle this behemoth, but it looks like I may have to pencil in an inordinately long shower to do the job.

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Thanks to Drudge, I come across two articles today and  laugh in bewilderment as I keep up this blog’s recent tradition of covering topics in unplanned couplets.

The first article is short and sweet…well, short anyway:

Berlin city officials, summoned by complaints over the noise, found a 60-year-old man sharing his two-room flat with 1,700 budgerigars.

Apparently the man adopted two birds out of loneliness, and when the extended family showed up, he was loath to ruffle any feathers. The article’s author gracefully omits from the story the obvious implication that getting old really, really sucks.

The second article has to do with a creative proposal from the head of the Free Democratic Party (fairly analogous to America’s Libertarian Party, but with more sway):

A Berlin politician has come under fire for suggesting that poor people should be encouraged to catch rats by offering them €1 per dead rodent. The intriguing idea entails some gnawing practical problems and has been called “inhuman and cynical”.

The idea seems to have been inspired by the success of the Pfand in Germany, which has reduced litter by paying out cash for empty plastic bottles. It may well be the case that cash for corpses would not work similarly well, but this doesn’t appear to be the focus of the criticism. Instead, critics complain that it would be inhuman to pay (poor) people to kill rats.

Now, I would not enjoy killing rats for money. Nor would  I want to be an owl vomit collector or a septic tank technician (both real jobs). I doubt you’ll find many people who take great joy in unpleasant tasks such as these, but nonetheless do them after having made a calculation that the pay made it worth their while. It may be distasteful that for some some killing rats might be a viable source of income, just like it’s distasteful that some sell blood to make ends meet. But isn’t it rather inhuman to deny them a way to improve their lot just because it’s distasteful to someone in power? You can believe that it’s unjust for people to have to make these decisions in such wealthy societies, but denying people a choice to mask a disagreeable reality helps no one.

If those birds adopted by the lonely pensioner had been bountied rats, after all, he might have been left with something other than a flat covered in poo.

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