The big surprise from the German elections was how bad Merkel and the ruling CDU did, and how well the deplorable far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party did.

Berlin is a lovely city, very optimistic and international. It also has little patience for AfD bullshit; I saw no AfD signs anywhere until two days before the election, and those only way up high out of reach on poles. There was a big demonstration last night in Alexanderplatz after the election; the AfD were having their party there so a few thousand Berliners turned up to, um, help them celebrate.

Some links that may be of interest

Now for the coalition negotiations. It's not clear to me if the SPD saying they won't join one with the CDU a negotiating tactic or if they mean it.

culturetravelberlin2017
  2017-09-25 17:26 Z

Ken and I are in Berlin for a few weeks, sort of working vacation. Been here about ten days now and have some impressions.

I’m really liking daily life in Berlin. We have an apartment in Prenzlauer Berg near Kollwitzplatz, a bougie neighborhood in former East Berlin. It’s all leafy streets and 1920s buildings and is totally charming. The nearby streets are full of cafés and restaurants and Kollwitzplatz itself is home to a terrific weekly farmer’s market. It feels worlds away from the inhuman scale 1960+s architecture you see in so much of central Berlin.

One thing I particularly enjoy in Prenzl’berg is how international it is. New York bagels, French cheese shops, English laundry, Vietnamese restaurants, Russian cafés, yesterday I had an Argentinian empanada in a repurposed 19th century brewery. I mean it’s still Germany, there’s a 100 year old kneipe just across the street from us serving Rinderouladen and Pils. But it’s also global and progressive. Which not only makes it easy for an American to get by but also makes it fun and not a historical museum like sometimes Paris can feel like.

I also appreciate being in a city with working public transit. And without thousands of dangerously insane people living on the streets. Having a bit of insulation from Trumpism helps calm the nerves. Big parts of life function better in Europe.

I’m also feeling a little unsettled, a phase I go through every time we do these long visits. A struggle between the feeling I should go out and be a tourist every day, consume the city in the short time I have. Against my desire to sit at home on my comfortable laptop and do my regular daily routine just like I would at home. Of course the happy medium is in the middle, some of each.

One goal I set myself for this time in Berlin was to learn more about older history. So much of Berlin is dominated by 20th century history, the Nazis and the Soviets. And that stuff is important and well represented. But I feel like I understand it from previous visits, so this time I’m looking for traces of 19th century Germany, of Prussia’s great gay king from the 18th century, of the very old city back when Cölln was a separate town. Learning the city from the time the waterways were the travel routes, not the U-bahn lines.

culturetravelberlin2017
  2017-09-18 08:34 Z

A new “urban art” museum just opened in Berlin: Urban Nation. Judging by their opening weekend show it is a fantastic collection of modern street art. I put a few photos of the works I saw on Flickr.

The event had an “art mile” with some temporary sculpture installations. Also some magnificent large scale street art works on Bülowstrasse itself, hopefully those will last awhile. I particularly liked Zezão’s alien calligraphy forms. Also liked some of the wildcat street art, I think a few lesser-known artists got some unauthorized paint up.

The museum show had a really thoughtfully selected overview of the best of modern streetart. C215, Deih XLF, Dalek, the obligatory representations by Banksy and Invader and Fairey. It’s terrific a museum is collecting these from all over the world; whoever is curating seems very plugged in. I wonder who’s funding the building and collection; the website only mentions some city of Berlin funding.

culturetravelberlin2017
  2017-09-17 18:20 Z

I strongly support removing Confederate monuments but I have some sympathy to the “you’re removing history” argument. I have no wish to forget the Civil War or the legacy of slavery. I’m a Texan and a descendant of slavers, my own skin is in this.

The disingenous thing about the “but our history!” argument is that the monuments being torn down aren’t informative representations. They’re mostly Lost Cause statues made to create a narrative of heroism, the brave Stonewall Jackson and the noble Jefferson Davis. They don’t inform, just glorify. Most of them were erected 50-100 years after the war for sinister purposes, reinforcing Jim Crow laws and resisting school integration. (Seriously, who names an elementary school after Robert E. Lee just after the courts rule Black kids get to go to that school too?)

Germany has a much better model for honoring World War II. I’ve written before about the impact the concentration camps and monuments in Germany have had on me. The forthright documentation of history without glorifying it. There are no monuments to Hitler or Himmler that need tearing down, such a thing is unimagineable there. But there is a huge amount of history on display; the Topography of Terror center is particularly good.

Japan has a more awkward relationship with its World War II history. The official line most citizens follow is the war was a terrible mistake and Japan is forevermore committed to pacifism. But there’a strong nationalist movement in Japan who pushes back on that. The Yasukuni Shrine is the central lightning rod for the nationalists. I’ve visited the museum there, it’s fascinating. When the Japanese Prime Minister visited it was a major international scandal. Japan also has a huge debate about its textbooks that leave out some of the uglier bits of war history. It reminds me a bit of how American kids are still taught the revisionist lie that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery or that the Southerners were innocent victims of the War of Northern Aggression.

History is never simple. But a mass produced generic statue erected 60 years after the war isn’t even trying to be historical. Its purpose is symbolic. And to many Southerners it’s a symbol of enslavement and racist discrimination. There are better ways to honor and explain our history.

culture
  2017-08-17 21:27 Z

One crucial political aim for 2018 and 2020 is making sure the vote is fair and representative. The GOP has a clear strategy for voter suppression. They also will try to further cement their control of the House starting in 2020 with gerrymandering. Here are some people working to protect voters’ rights.

Jason Kander is leading the fight against voter suppression with the organization Let America Vote. Right now that’s mostly agitation against Trump’s voter suppression committee but it’s backed by legal and political action. (Kander is hilarious on Twitter, I enjoy following his personal account.) The ACLU is also very active in protecting voting rights.

I’ve been spending a lot of time educating myself about gerrymandering. The #1 thing I’d recommend is the book Ratf**ked; the New Yorker review gives a summary. That book is mostly a report on REDMAP, the GOP districting effort in 2010 (and now 2020). The DNC’s districting effort in 2020 is the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led by Eric Holder. They’ve been relatively quiet but that may be because it’s mostly a technical and per-state issue.

The big news in gerrymandering this fall is the Wisconsin case, to be heard in the Supreme Court in October. It is considering the question about whether an explicitly partisan gerrymander is legal. There’s a lot of excitement about a measure called the efficiency gap which quantifies partisan bias. I’m doing a little work in this area myself, there’s a fun statistics + maps problem there.

I’ve left out a third topic, protecting the vote from foreign influence. I’m not as up to date on that topic. Also it’s a bit different in that voting security should be a bipartisan issue. Unfortunately a bunch of Republicans are ignoring obvious evidence of Russian election tampering as a misguided attempt to protect Trump. Secure voting machines and easy auditability are important themes.

politics
  2017-07-30 16:47 Z

Ken and I went to Europe a couple of months ago. I spent a few days alone in London, then we spent a couple of weeks together in Portugal. So really two trips, but here in one blog post. As always Twitter has my memories and photos: here’s a Storify collection from London and another from Portugal.

My first time in London and I enjoyed it, would love to go back. I spent two full days at the British Museum. The part I remember best is the Enlightenment Room, a collection of miscellany presented as if you were in an 18th century library. It perfectly captures the optimistic spirit of the Enlightenment. The best part of Empire, when British scientists felt they could understand everything but collecting objects from all over the world and studying them. A good place to start a visit before seeing the grander “transported” treasures in the galleries. (My favorites of those: the Assyrian galleries and the Aztec masks.)

Portugal was great. We spent a week in Lisbon and Porto and another week poking around the countryside. Porto was my favorite place; a small city with beautiful topography and a lot of youthful optimism. I becamse fascinated with azulejo, the painted tile that’s a centuries-long tradition. Our visit to the smaller towns wasn’t as successful; Portugal still is a relatively poor country and the vernacular of food and accomodation is variable. But I’m glad we go to see some of the more remote monuments and the countryside was quite pleasant.

culturetravel
  2017-07-29 14:20 Z

Prescription drugs: they save your life but have completely crazy pricing in the United States. I take a slightly uncommon medication daily. I have insurance with Anthem CA. The medicine costs me $4/day at Walgreen’s. That seemed expensive so I shopped around and found my way to GoodRx, which gave me a coupon for $1/day at the same Walgreen’s. 75% off WTF?

GoodRx has an article explaining how it works. They are a marketing middle-man, a comparison shopping site. They work with several Pharmacy Benefit Managers to get pricing for drugs. Then they pick the PBM with the best price and you use their RxGroup pricing code at the pharmacy. Presumably GoodRx gets a kickback. My Anthem insurance has a PBM that should be getting me good pricing, but GoodRx did better. The drawback is my insurance didn’t even see the purchase, so it does not apply to my deductible. I might be able to fix that with a letter.

A key part of this is that the drug I take is available as a generic. There’s a lot less price flexibility for drugs still under patent. OTOH this exact same generic I take is available from a Canadian or Indian pharmacy for $0.50/day, so US pricing is still unusually high.

Blink Health is a competitor to GoodRx, I have a friend who works there. I think they operate similarly and they have similar pricing for my drug of interest. They really want you to log in though; as near as I can tell my usage of GoodRx was an anonymous coupon with no identifying code.

This post isn’t exactly an endorsement; the whole prescription drug market is so spooky I don’t trust anyone. The real problem is the US’ insane health market, where we pay more for worse outcomes than civilized countries.

life
  2017-07-19 22:52 Z

I got an Oculus Rift on a whim this week when they dropped the price of the bundle down to $400. This is my first experience with VR in a few years and 10+ since I last used a high quality rig. I’m impressed, the sense of being present in virtual space is incredibly compelling. But as everyone says the problem is there’s no great VR-specific content yet.

The hardware is good. Lag-free head and hand tracking. Sensor calibration is a hassle. Windows setup was remarkably painless. The touch controllers are essential. It allows you to have virtual hands. Definitely want “full room VR”: several tracking sensors and a 5x7’ clear space to walk around in. Sitting still and having the view pan is instant nausea but walking around a stationary virtual room is better. Even with the calmest software I get tired and headachy after about 30 minutes. Eyestrain maybe? VR sickness makes for a viscerally negative experience.

As for software, I’ve only played around for a few hours, so no deep opinions. Oculus’ own tutorials / demos are very good, the intro Dreamdeck demo had me shouting for joy. The best game I’ve played so far is Superhot VR; I’ve not played the normal version but the VR variant is really compelling. Subnautica made me sick in about five minutes, although it is very pretty. Thumper is pretty in 3d but I’d rather have a flat screen and excellent speakers. Google Earth VR was surprisingly disappointing; the imagery isn’t quite good enough. I haven’t tried Job Simulator 2050 yet, it’s quite popular. I’m also curious to try The Climb.

I took a quick look at the porn industry; all they’re offering is 3d videos and some minimal “fondle boobs with your glowing virtual hands” interaction, so they haven’t figured out VR apps either. The fact that "Waifu Sex Simulator" is one of the most popular apps gives you an idea of the target market.

So it’s a fun toy, but given the fatigue and lack of compelling content I’m not sure how long I’ll be using my Oculus Rift. We’ll see. What I really want is some easy way to build data visualizations in 3D, maybe using WebGL or something. I haven’t looked hard but my impression is that’s not fully baked yet.

culturegames
  2017-07-15 22:32 Z

My grandmother’s great-grandparents owned a slave. The slave schedules record that they owned a 13 year old girl in 1860.

Leonard and Melvina Ward were born in central Tennessee and early in life moved to East Texas. They had six children. They lived to old age, here is their sweetly romantic gravestone. I think they were farmers and lived pretty well. At least well enough to own a person.

Here is what I know about the person they enslaved. She was 13. She was Black (as opposed to “mulatto”). She was not a fugitive, she had not been freed, and she was not deaf, dumb, blind, insane, or idiotic. That’s all Wm P Cornelius recorded in his census. I don’t know her name, where she was born, have no easy way to research her further. All I know is she was 13 and was enslaved by my 3rd great-grandparents.

I like to imagine she’s what my grandmother called “a domestic”, cooking and doing housework. The census records no slave houses, so maybe she even lived in the family house. I’d like to think she lived another 5 years to see her emancipation, then got far away from her captors and lived a happy and comfortable life. That would be about the best outcome for a 13 year old slave girl in Texas in 1860. More realistically she was probably impoverished and lived with little freedom in rural Texas.

Today is Juneteenth, a day of national celebration for the end of slavery. Emancipation was a complicated process that took several years to be enforced. Followed by decades of indentured servitude, poverty, and deprivation for many African Americans. The legacy of slavery lives on, it is one of America’s original sins. I own a piece of that legacy.

life
  2017-06-19 18:13 Z

I got my first new car in 12 years, a 2017 Audi A3. Happily I was able to find one of the few A3s that has Driver Assistance, the fancy adaptive cruise control and lane holding system. Love it, so glad I got it. The feature is more common on the high end Audis, but for the A3 you have to get the “Prestige” trim level which is not commonly stocked by California dealers.

The simple part of the system is adaptive cruise control. I set my speed to the nearest 2.5mph, then it paces the car in front of me using radar sensors. You can select how close it wants to follow. It will bring the car to a full stop if it has to. It’s great in heavy traffic on I-80, the only drawback is I’m now less aggressive about switching lanes to get around someone slow. If only every car had this feature, we could smooth out a lot of traffic jams as everyone drives a constant speed.

The other fancy feature is active lane assist. The car detects highway lanes with cameras. If I start to drift out of the lane it gives a bit of a nudge to the wheel. Ostensibly it’s to remind me to hold my lane, but the nudge is strong enough it actually sends the car back in the lane by itself. It’s very much not an autopilot though, the car complains after ~10 seconds of nudges. And the sensor isn’t reliable in the face of bad paint or unusually wide lanes, you really can’t rely on it all the time.

I like how both technologies are like little daemons helping me drive. I’ve written before about the dangers of full autopilots that expect a driver to take over if something fails. The A3 systems aren’t full autopilots, I’m still engaged in the task of driving at all times. Although it does require less attention. I’m still learning to trust the daemons, sometimes when the lane holding feature moves the wheel I instinctively try to countersteer away, the exact wrong thing.

All the other electronics in the A3 are very nice too. The virtual cockpit display is beautiful. The maps are good. The stereo plays plenty of audio formats, although the 10,000 file limit on SD cards is awfully dumb. I’m even liking Apple CarPlay.

I’m hoping the next car I buy will have a full autopilot. Although once that tech reaches mainstream it may no longer make sense to buy a car.

techgood
  2017-03-08 00:52 Z