Research Happens in English

I’m working on a big post about European higher education, but frankly, my opinions on the subject are so complex that I’m going to have to wait a while to do it justice.  In the meantime, here’s what a German thinks about his specialty.

As part of its retrospective of 2007, the Year of Liberal Arts (Geisteswissenschaften) in Germany, DeutschlandRadio Kultur interviews Thomas Metzinger, a philosopher of consciousness from the University of Mainz here (G) (interview can be heard here (G)).  Metzinger praises some aspects of German higher education and critiques many others.  He is reassured, for instance, by the fact that philosophers can have an impact on public discussion (unlike in the United States), and believes that lots of excellent work is being done in Germany, a view I’d second.  However, Metzinger also has some criticisms.

First up is academic hiring.  Here’s a little background from me, to put Metzinger’s remarks in context. In many specialties, you still have to write a Habilitation to be considered for a professorship at a German university.  You write your Habil after getting your "Dr." degree (which is generally slightly easier to get in Germany than in the U.S.).  The Habil often takes 7 or 8 years to write, and by the time you’ve finished it, you will usually be be in your late 30s.  After that, your chances of getting a job are about 50-60%, depending on region and specialty.  If you don’t get a job, you face the unpleasant prospect of having spent 15 years of your life carefully preparing for an academic career that will now never materialize.  Your knowledge will be too specialized to be of any use getting you an ordinary job.  Further, you will never often never have have had an ordinary full-time job.  In former times, the options for those who spend a decade of their lives failing to write their Habil would have been "a bullet, or the colonies," to quote Sibylle Bedford.  Now, you may become a high-school teacher, or, if you’re really unlucky, a massively overeducated cab driver.

So the uncertainty is one major drawback.  But that’s not all.  During these 15 years, you will be at the mercy of the other older professor who supervises your doctoral dissertation and the another who supervises your Habil.  Many of these senior colleagues are enlightened, reasonable people who encourage dissent and independent thinking.  Others are — not to put too fine a point on it — despots.  So the system  as a whole combines an enormous front-loaded commitment of time and energy (including lots of moving around and living in humble student quarters) with an unpredictable outcome.  For instance, if you notice in the 3rd year of writing your Habil that your supervisor (Habilvater) has started behaving very coolly to you after you made a remark that seemed to offend him, you may be in deep trouble.  Without the active support of your Habilvater, you may have a difficult time finding a decent job.

There are some advantages to this system, but it’s criticized by German reformers as being too rigid and taking too long.  It discourages interdisciplinary work and transfers into academia by gifted people from practice.  Further, it’s especially problematic for women, since it keeps most aspiring academics in a state of uncertainty and penury until well into their late 30s.  (This may help explain why only 15% (G) of German professors are women). 

Metzinger notes that young German academics he knows who have a chance to make their career in other countries often do so.  Most of the people he trains, for instance, leave to take posts in foreign countries — not only because the academic hiring system is much more flexible and transparent there, but also because of the difficulty in finding academic positions in Germany that allow, or acknowledge, interdisciplinary research. 

Metzinger also chides his colleagues continue to refuse to publish in English.  Some of them, he suggests, may fear the "stricter and better-operating" peer-review system which prevails at most English-speaking academic journals.  Many German-language journals, Metzinger notes, have become completely "irrelevant," and serve only as "archives" for written work that will have no impact on the broader debate.  International academic debate takes place these days in English, Metzinger says, and those who refuse to recognize this will remain ignorant of the latest ideas discoveries.  "Research happens in English," Metzinger states.  (For what it’s worth, I agree.)

Metzinger also has interesting things to say about the relationship between humanities — in particular philosophy — and the natural sciences.  Metzinger believes that philosophy has much to gain from closer collaboration with neuroscientists, and that neuroscientists are quite interested in interdisciplinary collaboration.  Some of Metzinger’s colleagues, however, react to any attempt to apply empirical research to "humanities" questions with ideologically-driven fear and suspicion.  The fact that the public seems to pay much more attention these days to neurological explanations for human behavior than philosophical ones helps spur accusations of selling out.

So there’s a summary of the interview for non-German speakers.  Believe it or not, I’m writing this post in real-time on December 31st, so to everyone out there, Happy New Year!

Shiny Happy People Boarding Trains

Here’s an advertisement for the German national rail company (Deutsche Bahn) that flashes on a ticket automat when it’s not in use:


They’re prancing about gaily on a train platform, wearing bright pastels. Smiling confidently into the middle distance.

You will never see this on a German train platform.

O Magnum Mysterium

When it comes to organized religions, my motto is ‘if I get a good pitch, I’ll swing’.  I do spend a lot of time in churches, though, because that’s where the sublimity is. 

So, in honor of Christmas day, I offer you two choral settings of the medieval poem O Magnum Mysterium.  The first is by Tomas Luis de Victoria (huge .mp3), and the second by the American composer Morten Lauridsen (even huger .mp3).

And to make this post even more multimedia, here’s a 14th-century nativity from an anonymous Cologne painter:


Berlin Now Suitable for Foreign Tourists

And now, a meandering travelogue from Berlin.  I will be boarding a jet plane and flying to Big Sky Country on Sunday, so posting will be intermittent until January 7.

Berlin looks more prosperous and bourgeois everytime I visit; the days of the urban frontier seem to be as long gone as the days when cattle were kept inside the rear courtyards.  No more intentionally-created social burning points, only the old-fashioned kind.  But there’s still the occasional strolling madwoman screaming something about the minimum wage to leaven the mix of foreign tourists on their way to the next Blue Man Group performance:


Also pretty suitable is Tacheles (G), a gigantic building in Mitte which has been a shopping arcade, a "House of Technology," a National Socialist party complex devoted to fostering "work-culture" through such programs as the "Beauty of Work" office, and a prison for French POWs.  After the fall of the Berlin Wall, artists colonized the decrepit structure and turned into a graffiti-covered Gesamtkunstwerk which was, inevitably, eventually officially recognized by city authorities.  There are some nice views inside, such as down the dizzying stairwell:


A harrowing story of feline abuse has been painted on the bottom of one of these flights:


An unsettling evocation of an urban legend that has become a staple of German mythologizing about lawsuit abuse (the spoilsport in me just has to point out that it never happened).  The poem would appear to be a parody of some famous German poem I should probably recognize, but don’t.

Then it was on to the Polish Losers’ Club (Club der polnischen Versager (G)).  This was the subject of a loving evocation by sometime GJ contributor Ed Philp some months back.  It lived up to its reputation — full of losers like us!  As we nursed our Tyskie beers, one of the owners, Adam, engaged us in conversation.  At one point, for some delightful reason, he donned a gas mask.  It was nice, probably almost as nice as December 1st, when Piotr, another Club personality, promised to be the "perfect host" and engage everyone who wandered into the club in a conversation that would last "at least 20 minutes."

The decor includes a gigantic clam-shell for the DJ which, like all the other furnishings, was rescued from some trash-pile somewhere:


To the left of the clamshell, barely visible, you see a poetess sprawled on a chair.  No, she’s not sleeping — she’s waiting for an afflatus, which came every 10 minutes or so, and resulted in another line being scrawled hastily into her notebook.  Writers, who thrive where it’s cheap, are still a decorative feature of Berlin life.  In the bar of the Tilsiter Lichtspiele (Lichtspiele = "light-plays," an antique term for movie theater), one of them pulled a mouldering volume out of his Crumpler bag and made notes about it, while we more social types chatted about matters that surely struck him as irritatingly superficial. 

The Tilsiter Lichtspiele, by the way, is a movie theater in Friedrichshain that’s been there since the 1920s.  During East German times, the Tilsiter was a Volkseigener Betrieb, an untranslatable German phrase that means, roughly, an independent concern owned, in some mysterious way, by the people of the East German state.  Perhaps according to Section 223(a) of the Collective Ownership Provisions of the Third Law Governing Socialist Property Relations of February 23, 1958, as interpreted by Section 24(f) of the Regulation Ordinance of 1959 promulagated by the Friedrichshain Undersecretariat for Fulfillment of Planning Objectives.  A homely but gemuetlich bar in front leads to the theater.  Once inside, you walk carefully down a creaking flight of wooden steps beside the aisles.  The steps seem to each be of slightly different lengths, which makes the whole thing look like a movie theater your daddy built in his workshop on weekends.  The most prized seats are halfway back, in front of tables where you can set your drinks and slowly fill the ashtrays.

We also dropped by Henne (G),  a restaurant in Kreuzberg that serves one dish: chickens fried in milk batter.  The outside crust is smooth and crackly, with lots of delectable batter-only peninsulas.  The meat was so juicy and tender that I felt almost guilty about crushing it between my hard, cold teeth.  But I did.  On the walls hung deer antlers, a letter from John F. Kennedy announcing his regret at having to cancel a planned visit, and oil paintings almost completely obscured by the smoke of millions of cigarettes.  Plus, "Die letzte Mark."  Lots of bars in Germany have things like this.  It’s usually a wooden box with slits in the front.  Sometimes, the slits are numbered after the days of the month, some have the names of pub regulars on them.  They seem to be part of some sort of lottery system whereby every so often, one of the days or pub regulars is chosen, and gets all the money in the machine.  I wish I knew more about this, but everytime I’ve asked someone about ones of these boxes in a bar here, he’s been too drunk to explain it coherently (commenters, a little help here?). 

And then off to the Berlin Philharmonic.  We got the cheap seats on the podium, where the choir usually sits.  Dimitry Kitaenko conducted an all-Russian program with verve and precision.  Given the cloud of billowing white hair that crowns his 67-year-old head, you’d expect Kitaenko to have gesticulated himself into a lather.  In fact, he was all business, flipping his baton only when absolutely necessary, and often with clinical, almost robotic precision. I know because I saw him from the front, like the members of the orchestra.  22-year-old Armenian violinist Sergey Khachatryan played a blistering Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto, a bit too earnestly for this reviewer (G), but not for me.  Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonic building (G), which has never impressed me much from the outside, offers dozens of playfully crooked perspectives during each traverse of the foyer, and (after a little help) succulent acoustics.  A nice picture-panorama can be seen here.

I’ll leave you with a picture of the dome of the restored Neue Synagoge in the Oranienburger Strasse.  If you look closely, you can see the pigeons sitting on the Star of David.  My friend said "They should electrify it."


Another Book Bites the Dust

Yet another German book has been withdrawn from the market after someone portrayed (or perhaps allegedly portrayed) in it threatened to sue.  In this case, the book is Havemann, a family chronicle by Florian Havemann.  The publisher signed an agreement to withdraw the book, and has asked booksellers to send back unsold copies.

In addition to the legal questions all this raises, what about the environmental ones?  The book was almost 1,000 pages long, after all.  What happens to all that paper?

Peacekeeperettes Unman Swedish Lions

As a friend related last night to general amusement, the Swedish peacekeeping forces wear a patch that looks like this:

It shows a lion with a sword and an olive branch.  The lion is a traditional Swedish symbol of state authority.  But usually, it is potrayed with a clearly visible male member.  But the penis is, as they say, not pictured.  Female Swedish penis peace-keepers [that’s enough — ed.] threatened a lawsuit before the European Court of Human Rights, whereupon the Swedish military caved in (G) and ordered all lion penis patches changed.

The result is the patch you see above.  I’ve tried to find a picture of the patch before the penis-removal procedure, but have so far been unsuccessful.  Can anyone help me out here?  You realize, of course, that this search is being conducted in the name of science.   

The Dangerously Non-Dangerous Book for Boys

In 2006, a British father and son wrote The Dangerous Book for Boys.  It’s supposed to evoke those long-past days when, instead of vegetating for hours in front of glimmering consoles, young boys dreamed of adventure, played outside, and sometimes got hurt.  It had information on Antarctic explorers, famous historical battles, building catapults, tying knots, navigating in the woods.  Plus anecdotes about bone-crushing sports and their heroes.  And some sections on history and honor and loyalty and other old-fashioned virtues. It sounds like a kind of updated Boy Scout manual.  I should note that I haven’t read the book.  As will shortly become clear, this post isn’t really about the book’s contents.

The book was a success in Britain, and soon an American version came out.  Some changes were made — mainly removing Britain-specific themes like rugby, and adding in more references to American history. 

Now, the German version is here (G).  But wait — we wouldn’t want to make Germany a dangerous place, would we?  No, we wouldn’t.  So the entire chapter on historical battles has been removed, as has the "Brief History of Artillery."  The Ten Commandments has been replaced by — wait for it — an essay on international human rights.  Any mention of rabbit hunting is also gone.  The first reviewer (G) on the page is disgusted: "[T]he English version was so successful because, among other reasons, it addressed subjects that run contrary to the gobbeldygook of ‘peace education’, and which boys would actually find interesting, at least in secret."

I’m with him.  These changes do at least two impermissible things.  First of all, they alter the contents of the book.  This is the capital crime, the cardinal sin, of the translator’s art. It would be equivalent to me translating a German novel and substituting all the sex scenes with uplifting homilies to chastity, because I personally believed that people like the ones portrayed in the novel shouldn’t be having sex.  Second, the ‘opinion elite’ sense of privilege seems to have struck again.  The changes were not made because the original references would not be understood in Germany (which would be a legitimate reason, given authorial consent), but simply to ‘disappear’ aspects of the book which might make the average German literary professional uneasy.  The chapter on human rights is especially ludicrous.  What, a reasonable 12-year-old boy might ask, is so bloody dangerous about human rights?

These changes reflect almost unimaginable self-aggrandizement, I would say.  Whatever German literary professional made these changes expressed the unmistakable belief that his values and his sensibilities are more legitimate than those of his audience.  The fact that many people may have bought this book precisely because it’s the kind of book that might have information about battles seems to be irrelevant.  The changes also reflect a fundamental distrust of the public — boys are being denied information about battles presumably because they might end up wanting to fight them.  I rather doubt that would happen, but who am I to question the immortal wisdom of a German editor?

I don’t want to be too hasty assigning blame here.  I don’t know whether the translator himself was responsible for any or all of these changes.  And if the authors approved them or instigated them, then I suppose we’ve just got to grit our teeth and accept it.  I have send off an email to the authors to see whether they know of these changes. I’ll let you know what I find out.

UPDATE: I got a nice response from one of the authors of the book.  He said that he understood there would be some changes to the book to make it more suitable for a German audience, but that he was not aware of the extent of the changes and did not approve them.  He said he would be complaining to the publishers. 

I should note that negotiating translation rights is a complex business.  It’s always good to keep in mind that authors may have less control over translations than the lay public might think.

Italian Aspirin Extortion

From a New York Times article about Italy’s malaise:

Small proposals bring protesters to the streets, one hurdle to making changes as protected interests seek to preserve themselves. Pharmacists shut their doors this year when the government threatened to allow supermarkets to sell aspirin. The cost for just 20 aspirin tablets at a pharmacy is $5.75.

It’s not just Italy — this is a European phenomenon.  It seems more than outrageous for Italy’s pharmacists to insist on extorting such sums from their customers — especially in a country that, as the rest of the article makes clear, is sliding into poverty. There’s no real reason for pharmacists to exist anymore, except to control the distribution of genuinely dangerous or specialized drugs.  Yet European countries have all sorts of loopholes and subsidies that keep specialty pharmacist shops alive, and that give them monopolies on the distribution of harmless things everyone needs, such as aspirin. 

Now, I’m pretty sympathetic to the goal of these regulations, which seems to be to keep lots of small independent pharmacists in business.  A small businessman who runs a pharmacy likely has more pride and independence than some minimum-wage cashier in an anonymous drugstore chain.  But there has to be a much better way of achieving this goal than giving them a license to gouge their customers…

A Million Johns Can’t be Wrong

First, a general note: there will be only light blogging as I visit friends in Berlin this weekend.  Lucky me!  Further, to echo something Atrios said, "I do request that people occasionally pause for a minute before they post a comment."  So far, I think the pretty-much-unmoderated comments policy here works pretty well, but the occasional trolling comment, gratuitous insult or ad hominem attack always makes me reconsider. 

With that friendly request, onto today’s topic.  It’s a little blue, so send the kiddies to bed. 

According to figures released by the former German government, there are approximately 400,000 prostitutes plying their trade more or less legally in Germany, servicing around 1.2 million men per year day.  I’d say the 1.2 million is an understatement, but that’s probably as close as we’re going to get to official numbers on this subject. 

My local public-radio station just interviewed some of the men and women (G) in this trade.  Of course, you never know how reliable these informants are, but none struck me as totally implausible.  Some of their voices seemed to have been disguised.  The johns ranged from a divorced father of three who liked to visit conventional bordellos to a younger single man who frequented a street in the Rhineland known for street prostitution.  The men gave the usual reasons for prostitution: not enough sex from their wives or girlfriends, or not the kind they want (there still seems to be a taboo against oral sex in Europe), inability to start relationships with women (too shy/too busy), or a decision, after several failed relationships, that paid sex is better than no sex at all.  One of the men said that he knew full well that sex was supposed to be best when it was experienced as a "whole" along with love and companionship, but that paid sex was still worthwhile because it created at least an echo of the "whole" experience.  (Isn’t that basically what television does?).

Only one prostitute was interviewed, ‘Elvira’.  She said she began working to finance a heroin habit, but has since gone clean and gotten a traineeship in a "reputable" firm.  She still nevertheless goes out on the street once a week for adventure — to "dive in" to another world — and to supplement her pay so that she and her child can afford some luxuries once in a while.  Most of the men don’t want anything particularly adventurous; many want nothing but oral sex ("french style", in German slang), because they can’t get it from their significant other. (This, by the way, is probably the number one complaint about German women in the masculine world.  Ladies Respected female colleagues, don’t flame me in comments, I’m just passing it on.)  When asked whether she was turning tricks voluntarily, she thought for a minute, and said yes.  She feels sorry for the women who are obviously drug-addicted, and thinks the men who hire them are creeps.  She also finds the language the johns use to desrcibe the women in online forums degrading.

The largely legal status of prostitution in Germany is one of the most interesting points of cultural comparison (I say "largely" because not all aspects of the trade are legal; the details are complex, and I don’t want to bore you with them here).  The political polarities surrounding prostitution are very different from those in the U.S.; the recent left-wing Red-Green government, far from trying to eliminate prostitution as inherently degrading and dangerous to women, instead passed a "prostitution law" to give working women some rights.  The new grand coalition government has not sought to repeal the law; the consensus you find in Germany is that prostitution is an inevitable part of all human societies, so trying to wipe it out would be fultile and probably counterproductive.  Besides, prostitution has a long, storied, and more-or-less open history in Europe.  Just because you may not like the Catholic Church doesn’t mean you’re going to go around tearing down cathedrals.

However, I wonder how long this will last.  Just look at all the public-policy initiatives Germany and/or Europe has taken over from the U.S. in recent years.  (Note that I’m not endorsing any/all of these.  Once again, just passing it on).  Fifteen years ago, Germans were snickering at the puritanical Americans who had outlawed smoking inside public buildings.  Couldn’t happen here, they said.  Five years ago, they were chortling at the politically-correct Americans who had destroyed private contractual autonomy by making racial and gender discrimination between private persons illegal.  Couldn’t happen here, they said.  They’re still amazed to find out that you cannot drink alcohol in public places in the U.S., but the voices are growing ever louder to limit public drinking in Germany as well.  And let’s not even mention speed limits on the autobahn…

Is largely-legal prostitution going to be next?  I personally doubt it, but I’m not sure exactly why I doubt it.  Perhaps someone can help me clarify what I think in comments.

UPDATE: A commenter spotted my mistake, it’s 1.2 million men per day.  I’ve corrected the post accordingly.

Meditation Improves Concentration

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have shown that meditation improves your concentration (.pdf).  The minds of us Westerners suffer from something called "attentional blink," which makes our minds to "blink" after perceiving some important fact, causing us to miss other pieces of information presented directly after it. 

Attentional blink can be operationalized and tested pretty effectively.  Heleen Slagter and her colleagues at the Center for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin tested subjects before and after three months of training in Vipassana meditation, and found that their attentional blink was significantly reduced after they had begun meditating.  That is, they were able to concentrate more evenly, not in little spikes, and were therefore able to perceive and retain more information from their environment.

You may be asking yourself: "Is there a clear, accessible, jargon-free book that can explain Vipassana meditation?"  Why it just so happens that Bhante Henepola Gunaratana has written it.  It’s called Mindfulness in Plain English.  The author is a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk who’s also extensively trained in Western philosophy, and introduces beginners to Vipassana meditation in clear, lively prose.  No knowledge of Buddhism required, although if you become curious about it after meditating for a while, Bhante G. has got you covered there as well.