Tuesday, October 27, 2009

War, warst, warum?

Greetings, Agent Handler. You'll have to forgive me if I'm hard to understand, as I'm talking through a cold, one of the real drippy ones where one side of your head or the other feels heavier in the morning for having been the side you slept on, and until you get into the shower and just stand under water as hot and for as long as you can tolerate, it doesn't feel like your head is made of different tissues like bone and blood and cartilage, and certainly doesn't feel like you have discrete structures like sinus cavities in there, so much as it's all just one mess of coextensive jellied goo, harder on the outside surface for having crusted over perhaps, but essentially all the same stuff, your cheekbones crammed full of snot, what you thought was your brain just a three-pound booger having achieved a dim self-awareness since you last rousted yourself to use the toilets. Or in other words: I have nothing of real interest to report, really, or at least nothing you'd want to read more about. Language school proceeds. For the first time since before college I'm reading what I suppose qualifies as a "text" despite having more square meterage photos or cartoon illustrations than printed words. And those printed words ain't much to write home about, neither. The authors know that they're writing for an audience with exceedingly limited vocab and grammatical abilities and who accordingly can understand only basic sentences. It results in this weird Ray Carver-esque tone in a context where that dark tone seems a bit eerie.

A young man stands outside the gates to a school. If you were to see him, you'd think he were waiting for someone. But for whom; no one comes out of the gate. He watches a car as it passes. He sees his reflection in a window, pulls a comb from his pocket, and runs it through his hair. It's nice hair, shiny and thick still. He probably won't notice it thinning until he's nearly to forty. At least, it's nice to think so. A blond in winter clothes walks by. A pretty girl. He winks at her and grins, but she just walks by, the kind of girl that won't talk to you unless she knows you already. Well, how are you ever going to get to know someone if you won't say hi, he asks out loud, but low, growling to himself, really, and anyways she has walked on by already. He refuses to watch as she turns the corner and is gone. He waits more. The gates open, and a mousy little girl, dark hair tucked up underneath her an unfashionable hat comes out. She sees him before he turns to see her. She walks up to him and touches his arm. He turns and smiles. A polished smile; a convincing one. It's as though nothing of the in-between had happened.

There's also the revelation of the class fault lines within the class. Our instructor, I think, is genuinely sympathetic, but there's just a difference of experience that results in someone like her (someone like, say, me) not really getting it, not understanding just how different people's lives can be for the simple reason of them coming from, you know, like China or someplace. The Continentals and the residents of the former Commonwealth (just this Yank and an Aussie so far; I'm hoping for a Rhodesian soon, but I'll take a Canuck) take full advantage of the new vocabulary for frequency and durations of time, but the questions about how often someone goes out to dinner, on vacation, or to the spa turn one half of the class into the auslaenders who say ,,Nie." (Yeah, I know. Sorry.) It strikes me that this is a movie I've seen before. And how often do you eat candy bars? And how many do you eat? Oh, no, it's just that there's a funny---do you guys know "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" in Eritrea? No? Oh, well, it's a long story. Similarly, a exercise on the past tense that I'm quite sure was intended, at least, to be self-evident turns out instead as some combination of bizarre, hilarious, and vaguely cruel, as the Chinese and Koreans become puzzled what contrast there could be against a past where grandparents, parents, and children all live in the same dwelling, and one of the Middle Easterners insist that women don't really work outside the home today, do they? (Our Lehrerin insisted: Yes, we do. No doubt thinking: Some of us even teach German to clueless chauvinists.)

I still feel somewhat interstitial, though; I feel bad not really having down the technical points about which pronouns take which case (mit, dative; für, accusative, und so weiter), and don't think I'd feel right asking into the next class up, nor am I entirely sure I could hack it. At the same time, I suspect I'm not really being challenged sufficiently at this level, amusing as the malapropisms frequently become. During a bit of open dialogue on Sehenswerdigkeiten that tourists in our home country find berühmte, we learned that in Korea there is a place of indeterminate location where one can find many women, numerous rocks, and a lot of wind. I'm pretty sure that was the result of a mispronunciation, but under cross-examination the blushing witness just nodded in order to get the whole thing over with.

Then again, I've lingered with this cold for a week and a half and still don't know what I'm going to do for money in the future. I could just be grumpy.

Currently listening, watching, and obsessed with: This. (Downloadable here.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Pat blogging! less-special-than-you'd-hope American news edition!

[Ugh---updates from Deutschland are forthcoming but taking longer... I know, regular readers have been on this train before and know it takes a while, but I'm trying, really. In the meantime, here's more stuff from my latest foray into the Internets.]

Rush Limbaugh a victim of a left-wing smear campaign, you say? I had no idea thirty-two fat white billionaires now constituted the Left. A good rule of thumb is that when your political argument entails this guy or this one wearing a Che t-shirt and putting up ANSWER posters, you probably need to rethink that explanation. Liberals are making a mistake when they rush to defend one side of what is not their fight. Limbaugh versus the NFL owners is new money versus old; it's a story older than the sport, but that's what you get when half of the electorate proudly advertises they don't read books---you can't analogize to Tom and Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker. Limbaugh wasn't kept out of the league because of some fabricated quote attributed to him praising Martin Luther King's assassin; he was kept out because he's not their kind of people. And that's disgusting snobbery, and he's a horrible person, and I feel no need to take any side in it.

Mike Huckabee... what to say. I actually like Huckabee (the Colbert bump, what can I say), or at least find him personable enough. And it's worth noting that he's straight-up a die-hard on two of the three legs of the GOP platform: a former Baptist minister, he's got the evangelicals and the cultural conservatives down with Huck-a-bee[fn1], and while he's not particularly noted by the foreign policy establishment as a particularly comprehensive conservative, his views are no less confused on that score than anyone else the party's thrown up. But there it is, that third leg, the part of the party that demands its nominees recite the Club for Growth Pledge of Allegiance, and Huckabee's said things in the past that terrify those people. Like, you know, working people need a fairer shake from Big Business. (Yeah, they get terrified by some downright decent shit, these guys.) He's from Arkansas, represents people who shop and work at WalMart, and unlike a lot of supposed Christian conservatives seems to have taken some of that shit about the meek to heart. That, as you know, makes someone a crazy populist in today's Republican party, where straight-up anti-populism is officially a Traditional American ValueTM. (Don't sneer, Democrats. You remember the only one of your candidates who did so much as talk a good game about poverty? Right, John Edwards. How'd that work out for him?)
fn1: Yea you know me!
In unrelated news, a Times reporter who authored an unbearably entitled pity-fest for the now-merely-super-rich and their struggles in the present economic climate (example: it's harder to give $100 million to the Met when your trust fund dwindles from $500 million to $350 million. No, really.) predictably got a lot of resentful letters from the unwashed not-rich-at-all set. What strikes me as most interesting is that nearly all of the letters were about the reporter falling down on the job---yet he was incapable of viewing them other than as a psychologically unhealthy bit of jealousy at the rich people portrayed in his article. I've been thinking about this for a while---I think a lot of what you see in the Washington Post online chats, for example, makes more sense when you realize that establishment reporters are incapable of conceiving that their judgment has ever been in error. It just does not compute. So they ascribe criticism to foulmouthed lefty bloggers who just have a political ax to grind, or else poor hicks in flyover states obviously in need of a good 5th Avenue psychotherapist (that they can't afford).

Okay, hopefully in the next few days a real update. Sorry folks.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A word from die Heimat

Well, awards season wraps up---no, you trivial tart, not that awards season, the one that matters---with the Rijksbank Prize in Economics Sciences (commonly misnominated the Economics Nobel) going to Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson, the former the first woman to win the award.  (Unlike the other five awards, which've been around since 1901 if memory serves, the foundation for the economics award dates back only until 1969, so it's not quite as bad as if say the Medicine or Literature prizes hadn't yet been awarded to a woman.)  

It's worth a petulant mention that the two new laureates are---well, they're not exactly nowhere on the list Mankiw disseminated earlier, but it's fair to describe them thus, them each being 50-to-1 shots.  That list appears to have been generated by the London equivalent of Vegas oddsmakers---ah, the English, so adorable... they with their tea to our coffee, cricket to our baseball, international awards for advancement in economic theory to our college hoops and horse races----so one should note that it's not entirely fair to hold up that list of an actual estimation of real likelihood, or indeed anything more than a diversion for fun and profit.  Yet this morning, I think, an awful lot of people were looking at the list as an actual estimation of real likelihood.  (By the way, read some of the comment threads these stories generated.  I'm convinced from reading a few of the Planet Money comment threads that economics, more than any other topic, inspires those who know the least to shout the loudest.  As a comparison to the rest of the Internet, that's saying something."

It's also worth noting that Eugene Fama was listed as the most likely winner on that gambling pink-sheet.  Like, Gene Fama?  The award previously seems to have been given to an interesting mix of scholars---for the really titanic works (Paul Samuelson, Ken Arrow, Akerlof, Ronald Coase, Friedman), the odd innovation in finance (Scholes) or behavioral insight (Nash, Kahneman) or cross-disciplinary genius (Sen).  There's the occasional crank thrown in, too---Lucas, Becker, Hayek---so there would have been some precedent.  Still, it seems (with the luxury of hindsight, of course) preposterous to think the committee could have chosen, in the context of the present economic situation, a theorist whose major contribution has always been employed in the defense of the proposition that less economic regulation is necessary.  (And I mean always has so been employed.)  The committees are supposed to be insulated from fits of populist sentiment (umm... heh, funny story about the peace prize this year...), but for them to have endorsed the efficient markets' hypothesis now, you'd be talking about levels of insulation not so much on the "domestic residence in Nome, Alaska" level and more on the one of "personal apparatus appropriate for extravehicular space walk" variety.  

And indeed it seems the committee did pick, at least in Ostrom, a scholar whose work shines a little brighter in the present situation, looks a little more prescient.  Prof. Ostrom is, in addition to the first woman, also not an economist but a political scientist, although her work on commons' theory fits into what is sometimes called political economy.  Now, I have a fair bit of training in some of these areas and I'd never heard her name, nor do I recognize any of what Wikipedia calls her notable works; one expects that had they thought to do this a decade ago, or were there no rule against posthumous awards, it'd be Garrett Hardin receiving the honor.  

But I'm sure it's well deserved, and congrats to both the new laureates.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this breaking news....

Okay, so this is supposed to be about my new home, but damn, I do miss New York.  This article about the dwindling existence of Jewish delicatessens in Newark is like a Philip Roth novel.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Part of the cover story for my being in Berlin is that I'm here to learn German. "Cover story" referring to how I justify my rather absolute departure to my parents, not in the sense of obscuring my true purpose here of espionage. Well, that and the formal reason required for requesting a visa, I suppose, but I don't think anyone expects you to fill that out in unlimited candor. Long story short: I'm not a spy.

Although my discoveries about the city would make an ... interesting chapter in the history of the American intelligence apparatus. "Dear CIA Handler, Although I understand the need for secrecy I feel odd not addressing you by name. May I call you the obviously pseudonymic 'Agent Handler'? I have discovered that beer here is very cheap. Also, they talk very fast and make unsuccessful attempts to be polite when they ask if you wouldn't rather speak English instead. The game is afoot, Agent Handler."

Back to learning German: It's actually something I'd like to do, as I'm getting embarrassed at my limited language skills. So I've enrolled in a language school, the one that The Roommate enrolled in for her own courses. As she speaks much better German than I do, it seemed a useful enough place to start. They gave me a quick interview, let me sit through a practice session of level A2, where it seemed I was probably best suited, and I paid my money and got ready to start the next day.

I have only the most obvious observations to make, but starting a new course in a language you already somewhat speak has this mildly schizophrenic feel to it, invariably---the chance that a new entrant knows exactly as much as the rest of the class is roughly zero, so there's bound to be some material the new kid is the only one not to know yet and also some drop he has on the rest of them. For me in this class, the rest of the class all know a ton of words from last week's lessons that I don't remember from sophomore year, yet the more advanced grammatical concepts and a handful of useful phrases that I know already perfectly well are still to-come, and get me nothing but blank stares when I answer the instructor's Kann mann seinem Vater Parfum schenken? that It's not impossible to give one's father a bottle of perfume, yet still it might come as something of a surprise. Yet my vocabulary's still limited, and my ability to understand spoken German still woefully below average, so moving up a level is, I fear, for the moment a foreclosed option. So I endure grammatical lessons I don't need, trying to amass vocabulary and remember the gender of all these damn words.

The word schenken, to give (as a gift), proved useful in demonstrating the difference between the Akkusativ and Dativ cases, or what we term in English that between direct and indirect objects. In grammar lessons the example was dissected "Jenna gave me a rash." Jenna: subject. Rash: direct object. Me: indirect object, and possibly projecting. It's not truly remedial school, but it's still pretty basic. I succeeded in containing my groan at being softballed through concepts I learned literally a decade and a half ago.

I was less successful with the groan that came when I realized how old that makes me.

When the mind isn't sufficiently challenged it tends to wander, to find avenues of amusement for the excess capacity not being required for the task at hand. So my suggestions to complete the model sentences tended not to resemble the offerings of the rest of the class. My brother gives me the same gift I gave him for his last birthday, in a resealed box. I give my parents heartache. I give Seth Rogan two more top billings to put it all together, tops.

I'm not relying solely upon German-for-Third-Graders to get me up to fluency. The classes are merely serving as the center of a makeshift language-immersion program. The plan for the next month is to spend as much time as possible in classes, or listening to my German tapes and podcasts, or reading the second-hand German novels I've purchased, or consuming German-language TV, movies, and radio. (I'm not sure how to fit in this blog without writing it in German, which the English-only readers won't like and the German-speaking readers will like even less.)

No time like the present to start, I supposed as I left the schoolroom, and on my way to the library to sit down with Schmidt's Bewährung, I slipped on my headphones and listened to DW's slowly spoken German news podcast. The first story was, to my still imprecise ear, about John Yoo, former Bush administration torture-enabler (big ups to Boalt Law School! by the way! great hire, fucknutz). However, as the word "Hollywood" and phrases that I gathered were the German translations for Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Home Alone came out, I realized it must have been John Hughes instead.

Holy shit, John Hughes died? I really don't know if I had heard and then forgotten that, or else if it was still news to me when I heard it. Much more than Farrah Fawcett, Hughes seems to me the third iconic corner of the triangle that passed this summer, along with Michael Jackson and Ted Kennedy, figureheads who got their rise in the 1970s, when I was born (albeit more of a resurrection in the case of the 1960s' Kennedy), became megastars in the 80s, when I was growing up, and started if not a decline than an extended phase of middling-through in the 90s, when I was officially entering adulthood and one starts to realize that the beautiful illusions of youth are invariably complicated, that heroic stories are all myths or else lies, that the real nemeses of adulthood are compromises rather than villains. That these deaths came during the summer as it turned to fall, as the days shorten and memories of winters past return, I'm sure, already has been remarked upon by abler chroniclers of the culture than I.

It wouldn't be so troubling if the Hughes obit were merely another of the headstones one sees when reviewing the landscape of youth. But his death itself had been news to me It's not that it's unusual---it's precisely that so much of this is news to me; I used to be a regular consumer of perhaps a dozen news blogs, the New York Times in physical format, and the New Yorker and Atlantic and Foreign Affairs. Now it's a handful of commentary sites that keep me vaguely apprised of the general tenor of news, but hardly in-touch. It were as if my connection to America were disappearing not only from the past forward, but also from the present back into the past, a candle burning at both ends, dwindling twice as fast toward a vanishing center. Is my identity as an American necessarily the casualty of seeking a new home in Berlin? Do the forces of History simply always work like that, erasing like some overeager villain in a clumsy spy thriller of crime caper the traces that bear witness to the past?

The plot thickens, Agent Handler.
[Update: More than merely clumsily, I inserted several egregious grammatical errors directly into the part where I was talking big about how all the grammatical rules are so easy for me; my face is quite red, and thanks for the correction, "beyondo98"... if that is your real name.]
Off-topic: If all the playoff games are like last night's one-game play-in, it'll do more to make me resent being in Germany rather than New York more than a thousand visa worries, bureaucratic snafus, and linguistic frustrations combined. Of course, if they're all like last night's game... buy stock in the suppliers of cardiac medication and devices, I guess.