Australia versus big tech

This month, Australia made headlines for its decision to make Google and Facebook pay for news.

The move was widely hailed as a triumph for journalism. In my column for DW this month, I outlined why I think this narrative is too simplistic.

You can read it here:

https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-australias-big-tech-crackdown-is-no-model-to-emulate/a-56681636

If life seems endlessly gray, it’s because it is

First published here

There is a Twitter account which posts thrice hourly updates on the color of the Berlin sky. The updates are affirming, in a bleak way.   

If life seems endlessly gray, it’s because it is. In the past hour, Berlin has oscillated between ‘slate gray,’ ‘battleship gray’ and ‘taupe gray.’ Before that it was ‘manatee’ and for a brief, brighter moment ‘platinum.’

Earlier, as I lay watching a silent television mounted on the ceiling of my dentist’s surgery, I wondered when I last had such unapologetically close contact to two other humans. As the dentist bored into the molar that needed filling, he discovered a larger-than-expected cavity. ‘I’m glad we went for the anesthetic,’ he said. The dental nurse sprayed something into my mouth and I felt nothing.

In this phase of the pandemic, numbness has become a familiar sensation. There is little sourdough bread or clapping for health care workers this time around. The thrill of vaccine discoveries has been replaced by squabbles over supply and distribution. This week, German media outlets reported on the possibility that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was only ‘eight percent effective’ in the over 65s. The reports appear to have been based on a fundamental misinterpretation, with the eight percent probably referring to the proportion of trial participants in an older age bracket. But the headlines were out and they spread around the world, serving more fears to an already uneasy populace.

The question of when this pandemic is going to end is not the only source of perpetual disquiet. There are also the other worrying, wearying areas of gray, like what role big tech companies should play in upholding democracy. In January, the world witnessed two approaches.

 In Uganda, the government banned social media ahead of the general election, justifying its decision on the basis that Facebook had taken down accounts linked to the ruling National Resistance Movement party. Facebook says it removed the accounts because they were being used to manipulate voters.

Meanwhile in the dying days of the Trump administration, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube suspended the former president for inciting deadly riots on the Capitol. This move provoked a surprise rebuke from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose spokesman called the ban “problematic” and stressed the “fundamental importance” of free speech. The response by Merkel, who herself does not have a Twitter account, highlights a debate that has been building for well over a decade: whom do we have more faith in: our elected leaders or the platforms we entrust with our personal information?

As if these questions aren’t existential enough, there is the immediate threat of climate change to contend with too. Earlier this week, ProPublica published a profile of a couple for whom this particular peril shapes every moment. How, the writer asks, “do you confront the truth of climate change when the very act of letting it in risked toppling your sanity?”

The same question could be asked about the pandemic, and for the millions of Covid deniers around the world, believing in conspiracy theories or trivializing the extent of suffering that the disease has caused is an easy antidote to the messy truth that in this most horrifying of situations, there are no simple answers.

I cannot help but feel however that if there is one thread that unites such questions as the future of big tech or the causes of the pandemic and of climate change, it is that we have become interconnected beyond our natures and our means. I think of this now, as I observe the gray sky above me through a screen.

A brief treatise on the unmatched joy of a bad holiday movie, watched in Pyjamas

“I am not enjoying this ironically,” I tell LSH.

We are on the couch, watching A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding, the second instalment in a Netflix trilogy set in the fictional country of Aldovia.

“I am enjoying it unironically,” I elaborate, unprompted. “I am legitimately, genuinely, authentically enjoying it.”

“Yeah,” he replies. “It’s cracking.” He reaches for another cocoa-covered almond.

LSH does not have the same instinct to analyze his joy until it becomes excreted in a blog post.

The plot follows a New York journalist named Amber who is sent to the Kingdom of Aldovia in search of a scoop on a playboy prince who is soon to become King.

As a result of a series of farfetched mishaps, she ends up masquerading as a tutor to his little sister, Princess Emily. Her closeness to palace affairs does indeed land her a career-transforming scoop. But feelings get in the way…

Oh, don’t they always? The action takes place in a snowy castle in Romania, which may or may not have inspired the fictional Aldovia. The country’s inhabitants speak with stiff British accents, except for the chef, who sounds eastern European.

The first film in the series is the love story. The second is about the wedding, with a fascinating subplot about economic irregularities in the Kingdom. The third, which we will watch tomorrow morning in our Pyjamas, is called A Christmas Prince: A Royal Baby. I have no idea what it will be about.

It is ridiculous, on all levels. An exercise in cliched box ticking. Not quite Emily in Paris standard but nonetheless, as LSH pointed out, deeply offensive to the people of Aldovia, if there were any.

It is exactly what we needed in the twilight days of this wretched year. Two glorious hours of predictable nonsense, in a beautiful, snowy setting. Far away from grey Berlin. Far away from the flattened atmosphere of Zoom catchups that were supposed to feel festive but don’t really.

Far away from the Berliner Morgenpost alerts about the number of people the virus has killed or hospitalized today.

Far away from the daily train journeys to work that I used to love to spend people-watching but that now fill me with anxiety as I scan my fellow passengers for mask compliance.

Far away from the existential threats posed by the pandemic, by climate change, by the creeping sense that the absences induced by the virus will have a longer, lasting impact. That a small part of our identity is at stake. That the pints and mince pies we had in Mulligans last year on the way home from Dublin airport were profound somehow. That the nostalgia of walking past my old school in the rain was a one-off. That my nephew and niece are growing up between video calls. That the scone and latte I enjoy, religiously, every year with a friend in Howard’s Way in Rathgar, were timestamped without my knowledge.

In Aldovia, where princes ride black beauties in snowy landscapes and economic crises are easily resolved, things are different.

Tomorrow morning, we watch the final film. As today and yesterday, we will move directly from bed to couch. There will be tealights, and coffee laced with amaretto.

And for a few hours, life will be as simple, and as beautiful as it is in Aldovia.

LSH and I sojourning in Aldovia

How to write a novel

This post first appeared here.

The first thing to do is take a walk. The road ahead is long and hard and paved with self-doubt. Might as well get some fresh air.    

The overwhelming odds are the world won’t take any notice. There’s a pandemic to think about. Also ironing, Instagram, climate change and Netflix. 

Accept this as the likeliest outcome and do it anyway. You cannot fall in love with a person while being obsessed with how to sell them. The same applies to your novel.

What you should think about is that kernel in your head. That impulse you feel to write. Where does it come from? Maybe you saw a rat crawling through an upturned trashcan on your way to work. Maybe there’s a fully formed alternate universe floating around in your head. Maybe you have always wondered what it would be like to have been born a different person in a different time. Whatever it is, interrogate it. Dig deeper. 

For me, it was Frau P. We met shortly after I moved from Ireland to Germany in 2012 and until her death in 2018, we saw each other once a week. We were seventy years apart but that didn’t stop us from being besties. If anything, it strengthened our bond.  

My novel is not about her. But it is informed and inspired by how it made me feel to sit with her in her nursing home room. Chatting about the price of pears. Her upcoming death. Germany’s political landscape. The care-workers’ private lives. Meandering between the quotidian and the profound.

This was the space I wanted to occupy. But it was not yet a story. 

I began writing my novel in 2016 and most of the time, I was miserable. I was miserable because I was overwhelmed. Because I was overwhelmed, I became masochistic. If I had a day off work, I would tell myself that I must sit in front of my computer as if I were in the office. I would spend eight and a half hours staring at a blank screen. The only word that came to me was failure. 

I have since learned that this is the worst thing you can do. Guilt and shame do not produce powerful writing. Curiosity does. 

Different novels have different driving forces. Mine is character. I needed a plot that would take my protagonist on an emotional journey. Figuring the course out became my preoccupation. I would think about it at night. In the shower. On the train to work.   

The breakthrough came while reading Story Genius by Lisa Cron. Her theory is that every story is about a character confronting their misbelief. In order to have a misbelief, they must have experienced situations that strengthened their flawed perception of the world. Her tip was to write scenes that did just that. 

This exercise, more than any other writing advice I have ever got, injected life into my story. What are my characters wrong about? How did they come to that conclusion? What can I do to challenge their perception of the world? Some of the scenes I wrote in response to those questions became key moments in my novel. Others are no longer on the page but have added nuance to my characters. 

Writing fiction, more than any other craft I can think of, is an extraordinary balancing act between the conscious and unconscious. First of all, there are the logistics of time and place and character to think about. One of the things I did was print out a calendar of 2016, the year in which much of my novel takes place, and mark the events of the story as if they were real. 

This wasn’t strictly necessary. One of the great gifts of fiction is that time can fly. But verisimilitude and plausibility are important. Even if you are writing the most outlandish fantasy story, the reader must be able to trust the world you have created. All of this is the domain of your conscious mind.  

The unconscious, on the other hand, is the repository of ideas and sensations. I ignored mine for too long, focusing instead on my calendar and plot outline. They have their place. But they are no replacement for the stuff that lies deep within you. The things you don’t know are there until the words come out. 

Annoyingly, your unconscious cannot be summoned. But I have found that it can be beckoned. A film that moves you to tears. An injustice that fires you up. A good conversation with a close friend. A poignant passage in a book. Certain music. You need to feel something. Anything, almost. 

A year ago, when I was 38,000 words into my novel, promising feedback from someone who knows her stuff gave me a boost when I needed it. She had many nice things to say about my work but it was the way she articulated what was wrong with it that made me giddy with joy. The only way to improve your novel is to be able to define the gap between the actual and the ideal. A person who can do this kindly and with conviction, is a gift. 

Earlier this month, fueled by the solitude enforced by the pandemic, I wrote the final words of my novel. I can barely believe I got there. There were so many times I didn’t think I would. 

For the next few weeks, I am giving the manuscript some time to breathe and handing it over to others to read. After that the work will begin again. To write is to sculpt. The marriage of vision and precision. When all that can be has been done, it will be time to offer it to the world. 

How a staycation changed my view of Germany

This article first appeared here

China had been the plan. A two-week whirlwind tour. A quick taste of the people and places shaping the rise of an economic behemoth. This was back in early January. Do you remember? A time when we were still making medium to long-term plans.

Well, I didn’t make it to Beijing this year. But I did explore Bad Schandau, Neuruppin, Goslar, Wernigerode and Quedlinburg. Places that were about as familiar to me as R numbers were before the pandemic. All of them on my doorstep. A mere train journey from Berlin.

“Together against corona” a disembodied voice on the platform proclaimed. “Keep distance. Cover mouth and nose.” In the years to come, these three paroles will remind me of traveling through Germany in 2020.

Discovering my adopted country during the coronavirus has been enlightening. The stunning sandstone rock formations in the eastern state of Saxony gave the impression of a faraway land. The lack of mobile internet and insistence on cash grounded me. 

Having managed to rent a bike — demand was so high you had to reserve a day in advance — I rode cheerfully along the River Elbe and into the Czech Republic, more grateful than ever for the European Union’s freedom of movement.  

Even in the small Czech border village of Hrensko, visitors cannot escape the effects of globalized markets.

In the border town of Hrensko, Chinese vendors sold TikTok-branded hoodies. Global travel may have ground to a standstill, but videos can still cross the world in the blink of an eye.

On another trip — this time to the town of Wernigerode — I traveled to the top of the Brocken mountain by steam train. The soot got stuck in my hair and I had to shield my eyes from the smoke. Once upon a time, the wall that divided Germany in two cut right across the peak of the mountain, depriving hikers from both sides from enjoying the view. The area is now under protection and home to — trigger alert — a rare species of bat.  Dead trees are being allowed to rot. Nature is reclaiming the space that humans once divided.

Leaving the youthful city of Berlin also provided a more representative view of German demographics. Everywhere I went, the buses and trains were full of leisurely pensioners wearing their masks on their chins. Walkers and fancy wheelchairs peppered market squares. One in five Germans is over 65. By 2060, it’s expected to be one in three. The country is getting old. The internet is still slow. But the buses are on time and the elderly are spending their money. In Wernigerode, I spent an hour wandering around looking for a restaurant with a free table. In the end I settled for a falafel kiosk.

When I did manage to get a table in restaurants, it struck me that I tended to be served by either a middle-aged German woman or a young man of Middle Eastern descent. The latter group could well be part of the more than a million refugees that came to the country during the migration crisis of 2015.  Hundreds of thousands of them have found jobs. Those who choose to stay will play a crucial role in propping up Germany’s ageing population.

After Germany’s controversial decision in 2015 to let about a million refugees into the country, the far-right AfD party has gained a foothold even in remote towns

The politics of the past few years has left its marks in messages scrawled in train tunnels and old town walls. Far-right slogans have been painted over by Antifa. In the quaint town of Quedlinburg, a charming timber-fronted building houses the office of the far-right Alternative for Germany party. A sticker on the door reads “Hol dir dein Land zurück” (Take your country back). Another sign reminds passersby that the property is video monitored.

As winter edges closer and the coronavirus shows no sign of going away, my trip to China may be indefinitely delayed. But if this pandemic has taught us anything, it is of the dangers of a sweeping narrative. Often, it’s the microscopic that presents the clearest view.

August

There’s always so little time to savor your break after the fact. But I’m taking five minutes today to share some images of a recent trip to Germany’s Sächsische Schweiz, or “Saxon Switzerland” where LSH and I  had a delightful time whizzing across the German-Czech border on our rented bikes, experiencing some eccentric local characters and discovering our new favorite place: the tiny town of Schmilka which enticed us off our bikes with the overpoweringly beautiful smell of fresh sourdough bread from the mill and beer from the brewery.

Also: the first draft of my novel is done. Well, you know, as much as anything like that is ever done. Will be sending it out to volunteer readers next month. If you’re interested in reading it it in its roughness, just get in touch!

Germany’s chocolate wars

Originally posted here.

This month, Germany’s highest court delivered a ruling that ended a decade-long dispute between two of the nation’s favorite brands of chocolate: Ritter Sport and Milka.

At the core of the case was a question that seems better placed in a philosophy textbook than in a court of law: What is the value of a square?

In 1996, Ritter Sport placed a patent on its square-shaped packaging. The move angered competitors, who considered themselves unfairly restricted to rectangles. Mondelez-owned Milka stepped up for the fight.

Under German consumer law, companies can patent shapes. But there is an important yet fuzzy caveat attached: the form in question cannot, itself, confer value on the product. In other words, the squareness of a Ritter Sport bar cannot be the reason people buy it.

Milka maintained that Ritter Sport’s squareness was inherent to its worth. After all, its slogan: “Quadratisch, Praktisch, Gut” (Square, Practical, Good) explicitly celebrates its form.

The square also forms an important part of Ritter Sports’s corporate story. When I first visited the company’s cafe and museum in central Berlin, the story of how Clara Ritter came up with the idea of creating a chocolate bar that would fit neatly into the coat pockets of sports enthusiasts was proudly displayed on a panel on the wall.

But is the square shape the reason you pick up the bar and take it to the till? German lawyers spent 10 years debating the question.

At this juncture I should say that I don’t have a horse in the race. There are days when nothing but a bar of Ritter Sport’s rum and raisin will satiate me and others when only a bar of Milka’s noisette will hit the spot.

The German people overall show a preference for Milka. Last year, 36% of Germans surveyed had eaten a bar of Milka in the past four weeks. That compared to 28% for Ritter Sport. While the difference may seem slight, in a country with the highest chocolate consumption rate in Europe — the average German eats 11 kilograms (24 pounds) a year — even a relatively small difference in market share has a major impact on revenue.

So: What is the value of a square?

It has none, Germany’s highest court in Karlsruhe decided. Consumers buy Ritter Sport for its content, not its form. Clothes may make the man, but squares do not make the chocolate. The quadrilateral monopoly can continue.

Naturally, it’s a blow for Milka. But the company may have some empathy. In 2004, it successfully defended its patent of the particular blend of purple that has graced its wrapper since 1901. More than a century on and with the German appetite for chocolate showing no sign of abating, there could be more bitter disputes ahead.

How I learned to appreciate the value of nothing

Originally published  here:

A few years ago, my husband, brother-in-law and I were on our way to the pub. It was a balmy evening. The last of the summer light was beginning to fade. The air was humid. Our spirits were high. We could practically taste the Weissbier.

We were meters away from the pub when we spotted them. Two middle-aged women loitering outside a house. One giant sofa between them. They were waving us down.

It was one of those sleeper couches that folds into a double bed. A monstrosity. On it was a handwritten sign familiar to anyone who has ever lived in Germany. Zu verschenken – to give away!

For bulky items that are no longer sparking joy, these two words offer an instant solution. Some Berliners furnish their entire apartments with castoffs of this kind.

“Do you guys have a minute?” asked the first woman. She was smiling very sweetly.

My husband is a gallant man. He said he had several. His brother agreed. We were, after all, only on the way to the pub.

They had fallen for the couch. “I don’t have a guest bed, you see,” said the second woman. “This would be perfect.”

Who has not experienced love at first sight? We agreed to help. “We just live up the road,” said the first woman. “It won’t take long.”

It was a two-person job. In this particular instance and set of circumstances, a two-man job. The two women and I offered moral support and commentary on technique.

“Would you try grabbing the legs from behind maybe?”

“Would it work better if you balanced it on your shoulder?”

“You’re doing great! Do take a break, if you need one!”

The brothers’ faces hardened in resolve. You never know when in life you will be called upon to serve.

It was a long road. The heat of the day had not yet abated. The street lamps went on. In the glow they cast, I saw my husband’s cheeks had reddened. Both brothers were now panting.

“Not too long now,” one of the women said sheepishly.

‘Up the road,’ is an inexact metric at the best of times. When lugging a sofa through the heat, it can appear endless.

My husband’s arms were quivering. My brother-in-law wore an expression that suggested he had not expected his visit to Berlin to turn out this way.

“How far left?” my husband hissed at me when the women were distracted.

I inquired. “Nearly there,” they agreed.

This too, is a relative concept.

Darkness had well and truly fallen by the time we reached the destination.

“Thank you so much!” said the first woman.

“It was nothing,” said my husband.

The other woman dug into her pocket.

“Here,” she said, approaching my brother-in-law.

He put his arms up as in horror.

She grabbed his hand, and slipped a note into it. “For the pub!”

“Oh, really there’s no need,” I said.

“You shouldn’t have,” said my husband.

“We insist!” they said.

My husband put his hand to his heart in gratitude.

After we parted, we counted to ten in our heads before any one of us spoke.

“Nearby, yeah right!”

“How heavy was that thing?”

“That took half an hour!”

“My arms are killing me!”

“How much did she give you?” I asked.

My brother-in-law stopped in his tracks for dramatic effect. “€5.”

“You’re kidding!” He brandished the note.

“That’s €1.66 recurring each,” said my husband.

I found myself transported back to the behavioral economics module I took in college and to an experiment called the ultimatum game.

In the ultimatum game, one person gets a sum of money and has to propose how to divide it up with another player. The other player can accept or reject the offer. If they reject, both players leave with nothing.

A hyper rational view of economics predicts that the second player should accept any offer. After all, even a small amount of money is better than none, right?

No. Experiments conducted in several different settings and cultures suggest that offers of under 30 percent tend to be rejected. People would rather leave empty-handed than with an insultingly small amount.

But there was more to our indignation than that. As my husband and his brother exerted themselves, they could bask in the warm feeling that comes with doing a good deed.

When the woman slipped over a fiver, their altruistic act was instantly downgraded to a common transaction, inviting comparisons with regular forms of labor and depriving them of the satisfaction that comes with doing a good thing. In this context, giving nothing would have been a far more generous act.

“It’s not even minimum wage!” my husband said, sinking into his seat at the bar.

“Not even close!” his brother agreed.

“I’ll get this round,” I said.

 

The Rise of Base Instinct

A colleague captured a crazy video yesterday. Irate crows on the road outside our office attacking a fox who had one of them in its mouth. Murder is the collective noun, we established in the Whatsapp group. Makes sense. They looked terrifying. Murder of crows. The fox got away.

I need to write that piece, I thought. The half-baked idea I have about how base instinct is the defining feature of our political age.

It occurred to me first when I was watching Tiger King in the early weeks of lockdown. Why, I asked myself, are psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists so drawn to big cats?

Kindred spirits, I concluded, munching on a homemade oatcake. Joe Exotic, the mulleted zookeeper protagonist, had political aspirations before his ambitions were thwarted by a 22-year prison sentence for plotting to kill fellow big cat afficionado Carole Baskin. In the end, they got him on a technicality.

Damn intellectuals.

But as others destined for high office have done in the past, Joe Exotic capitalized on his reality TV star credentials. On the back of the program’s runaway success, US President Donald Trump said he was looking into the possibility of a pardon.

Yes, he may have been joking. But in an era where strongmen like Putin, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Xi and Orban are cheerfully eroding the institutions designed to keep them in check, anything seems possible. All the more so during a global pandemic with effects far-reaching enough to be worthy of dystopian fiction.

To make sense of how base instinct continues to triumph over cool reason, it’s worth considering the work of philosopher Alain de Botton, who has written extensively on how Romanticism took over from Classical thought in Western societies.

In an especially illuminating passage in “The School of Life” he writes:

“The Romantic rebels against the ordinary. They are keen on the exotic and the rare. They like things which the mass of the population won’t yet know about. The fact that something is popular will always be a mark against it.”

Not long ago, the idea of a casino operator with no political experience leading the most powerful country in the world seemed comically absurd. “President Trump,” my father said ironically on the phone once. “Oh, would you stop,” I said. The very thought.

Those who did believe in such a possibility were at one time as rare and exotic as Joe’s big cats. Unlike the masses, these mavericks seized upon a notion so radical that is has changed the global political landscape, perhaps forever.

RANTHAMBORE_TIGER_RESERVE

Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution: Harsh.kabra.98 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

 

What if, they growled to anyone who would listen, the assumption held by the establishment – that a leader should be dignified, truthful and well-informed – could be treated as a mark against it?

What if, they asked – roaring now – a man whose sole credential was a basic instinct for self-enrichment could mobilize the masses?

What if – they tweeted – we returned to the wild?

Instinct has a lot to recommend it. It is the impulse we have to protect our own. What drives us to eat. The prowess we display in a fight.

It is uncomplicated, unfiltered and immune to the possibilities of education.

In short, it has all the hallmarks of Donald Trump.

As Alain de Botton writes:

“The Romantic is dismayed by compromise. They are drawn to either wholehearted endorsement or total rejection. Ideally partners should love everything about each other. A political party should be admirable at every turn. A philanthropist should draw no personal benefit from the acts of charity.”

Romanticism, is for better or for worse, totalitarian in nature. It is the dizzy highs and crushing lows of Marianne and Connell’s relationship in Normal People, which like Tiger King, has proven to be another essential shared viewing experience during the pandemic.

We need these extremes to escape from the boredom of everyday life. A series of achingly dull compromises doesn’t make good TV.

But it does characterize a well-functioning democracy, which like the fox outside of my office, currently finds itself under attack.

An attack orchestrated by those united in the romantic belief that they are the victims of a cunning elite.