The Politics of Museum-Locker Psycho-Experiments

There are two entrances to the National Art Museum of Estonia (called KUMU for Kunstimuuseum) which is built into a hill. One entrance leads you straight into the main ground-floor ticket and reception area.

But if you approach the museum from the nearby park, you enter one level below the ground floor, a basement level where the cafe and auditorium are located. If you enter from the lower level, you must walk up an inclined pathway to reach the ground floor and buy your ticket. However, even before you go up to buy your ticket, you have a chance to stow your bags and coats in storage lockers on the lower level.

This is what I decided to do. As I was stashing my stuff, I noticed a sign on the lockers which read (from memory): “There are also storage lockers at the main entrance one floor above which are free.” I chuckled and thought to myself: “Why would a museum have two sets of identical storage lockers, one of which doesn’t require a coin, and one of which does?”

You see, I took “free” to mean “you don’t need a coin to operate them.” At least half of the museums I visited in Finland had storage lockers which were totally free: you just turned the key and put it in your pocket, no need to deposit any coins. “Very civilized,” I mused, “another benefit of a high-trust society.”

As it turned out, I had a 1-euro coin handy, so I decided to just use the bottom lockers. “What’s the difference?” I thought, “I’ll just get the coin back anyway. These lockers are ‘free’ too, unless you count the opportunity cost incurred by not investing that 1 euro in an interest-bearing account for 3 hours, which I calculate at €-.00000043. I can afford that.”

So in goes the 1-euro coin. I then go off to enjoy some art. When I return, I insert the key in the lock, open the door, and reach down underneath the lock mechanism to retrieve my one-euro piece from the little plastic tray.

But there was no 1-euro piece.

There was no little plastic tray.

There was only a sealed box underneath the coin slot. The locker had taken my coin. Forever. It had been designed to take my coin. Forever. The locker wasn’t free, it actually cost 1 euro.

I have never seen this before in any European country. Museum storage lockers which permanently eat your money! What a bunch of stinking chiselers! I had to fight off a strong urge to whip out the old pocketknife and get that goddamned 1-euro back, by hook or by crook. Damned if I’m going to let a bunch of Estonian aesthetes fuck me over! But then I decided that might not be such a hot idea, Estonian prisons being what they are.

Here is a handy illustration of the KUMU system:

Finland - 3

But my mind-shredding rage was soon replaced by mind-shredding curiosity: What on earth was going on here?

First I checked to see whether I’d been a dummy. Granted, the sign did try to warn me that these lockers weren’t “free like the ones upstairs. Shouldn’t that have warned me? After a period of searching and fearless introspection, I concluded: no.

Here’s my train of thought:

  1. Ordinarily, “free” and implicit “not free” would normally imply a contrast between something which costs something, and something which does not.
  2. However, this was not an ordinary context. This was the specific, narrow context of museum storage lockers.
  3. In the context of museum storage lockers, the word “free” is ambiguous for several reasons:
    1. First, nobody expects museum storage lockers to cost something. After racking my brain, I was unable to think of even one museum I’d been to which charged a non-refundable fee for merely using a locker for a few hours. I mean, this isn’t a bus station.
    2. Second, the word “free” had an obvious alternate meaning in this context: “You can use the lockers on the upper floor without a coin.” Not everyone is going to have a 1-euro coin on them, and there was no place on the bottom floor to get change. So the sign was saying: “If you have no 1-euro coin handy, no sweat! Just go upstairs!”
    3. Finally, and most compellingly from a logical perspective, the ordinary museum visitor, confronted with the reality of how this museum operates, would say to himself: “Wait, what? There are lockers on one level which cost a non-refundable fee of €1, but the exact same kind of locker on the higher level cost nothing? Why? Who in their right mind is would ever use the €1 lockers? Nobody could have created such a stupid system.” As the old German saying goes, was nicht sein darf, kann nicht sein: that which cannot be, must not be.

So I concluded no, I hadn’t been a dummy. It’s point 3.3 that really gets me: Who thought up this system, and why? Did somebody just check off the wrong box on a “museum locker” order form during construction? Is there some at least hypothetically logical reason for this?

All I could think is that maybe the museum wants to profit from high visitor numbers: if all 100 lockers on the upper floor are used, then we get to charge all the poor saps who have to use the ones on the lower floor. But then again, why? This is a huge, brand-new art museum, with tons of lockers. If they want to make money from the lockers, why not charge for all of them? Why, instead, create a two-class system of the privileged elite who get free lockers, and the downtrodden masses who must pay? That only increases the risk of civil unrest, which is not what you want in a museum.

I can only think that the lockers at the KUMU must be some sort of psychological experiment. Some behavioral economist at the University of Tallinn conceived of this experiment, and has been running it since 2006, when the museum opened. You know, like those experiments where you can split a cash payment with a stranger, but only if you choose to share it, or where you can have one cookie now or 5 tomorrow.

But what could this experiment be designed to prove? This question has been torturing me now for a month. Can anyone help?

Estonia is Culture-Mad and Who Can Blame Them?

Estonia seems to enjoy being perched between the Baltic countries and Finland. Its language is Finnic, but not mutually intelligible with any other of the other odd languages in that dysfunctional family. I got the distinct impression that Estonians prefer to compare themselves with Finns rather than their Baltic neighbors. Esties enjoy a high level of education, a reputation for being reserved, a good school system, a much higher GDP per capita than Latvia and Lithuania, and a thriving cultural scene eagerly supported by state policy, to the extent that funds permit. All that’s missing, a few of them joked with me, was an Estonian Nokia.

The ferry trip from Helsinki to Tallinn is splendid. You begin with this amazing panorama at the Helsinki Ferry Terminal:

helsinki ferry port terminal

And then get on an Estonian-flagged ship. The Estonian flag is blue, black and white, cool Nordic colors:

hel leaving helsinki on estonian ferry

Finland taxes hard alcohol at a high rate, so plenty of Finns take booze cruises to Estonia, where prices are much lower. This means that ferries are basically floating malls and complexes of bars, but you can still fight your way outside to see some of the dramatic scenery.

There are a few distinct bits of Tallin. First, the Old Town, which is compact and built on two distinct layers, with the Parliament house on top of a hill called Toomea. It’s a nice old town with narrow, winding streets climbing up and down hills, but it has the sort of artificiality you associate with these places: There’s not much there except for souvenir shops, restaurants, and kiosks. I got the distinct impression that it fills up with drunken Finnish tourists during the summer. Estonians don’t like being the cheap-booze getaway destination of choice for Finns, but they grit their teeth and accept it, since it brings in significant cash.

The area around the Old Town has a number of streets with charismatic crumbling old wooden houses:

est house on endla.JPG

The other beauty spot is the Kadriorg Park, site of a Baroque castle and gardens:

Also in this park is the Estonian national art museum, called KUMU for KUnstiMUuseum. It’s in a fine modern building by Pekka Vapaavuori, opened in 2006, with the long walkways and slice-shaped architecture that are getting to be clichés for contemporary-art museums these days. Cliché or not, it’s a spectacularly successful and inviting building. It cost $50 million, which would seem to be a staggering sum for a nation of only 1.3 million people. This shows you how dedicated Estonians are to culture.

You won’t find many masterpieces of European art here, but the curators have done an outstanding job presenting Estonian art and culture. The permanent exhibition devoted to art during the Soviet Occupation is particularly interesting, since it’s basically also a history lesson in adaptation and resistance. It introduced me to the term “Soviet Pop”, which is just what it sounds like. There were also interesting photorealist works, and a number of moody, slightly eldritch paintings and sculptures. A selection:

There’s a strong German influence in Estonia; the word for ‘artist’ in Estonian is ‘Kunstnik’, which never failed to crack me up. Estonia is nominally mostly Lutheran, although only 14% of Estonians go to church regularly. Like all the Baltic countries, Estonia has a sizable Russian minority, mostly of people who were moved there to “Sovietize” the Baltic SSRs and their descendants.

The official description Estonians give of this problem to outsiders is carefully and diplomatically framed. The occupation of Estonia by the Soviets is portrayed as illegal and unjust, but Estonians seem to not want to look like they’re obsessed by historical grievance (unlike certain nearby nations who will remain nameless), and discussion of the occupation and the current status of the Russian minority is couched in euphemisms, at least among the class of Estonians who speak fluent English. Of course, this careful reticence is also driven by the fact that Russia, which has 378 times the land mass of Estonia, is highly concerned about the treatment of the Russian minority (to put it diplomatically), and the EU also monitors Baltic countries’ treatment of the Russian minority.

Outside of the beauty spots, Tallinn looks like the somewhat-more-prosperous-than-usual Eastern European country it is. Shopping centers are cheap, warehouse-like buildings thrown up in the early 1990s. The typical pattern holds: public areas and building exteriors are often shabby-looking, because Eastern European countries never really developed an economic infrastructure for keeping these places tidy and modern-looking; there wasn’t enough money for that. The flat I Airbnb’d in was pristine and newly-remodeled, but the apartment block it was located in wasn’t, and the entry way was an obstacle course of crude, dangerous concrete blocks and crumbling stairs erected by some state contractor in 1974 who obviously didn’t give a shit.

Unlike in many Eastern European countries, though, you get the sense that Estonians are quite aware that some bits of their country still needs a bit of sprucing-up, and they’ll be getting around to it once their economy begins generating enough surplus wealth to support an nationwide infrastructure of architects, landscape designers, building renovators, park-management specialists, and urban planners. The talent and the love of culture is there; the money will soon follow.

Estonian bookstores are as interesting as you’d expect. and feature a surprising number of English-language books on Estonian culture, folklore, and history, written by Estonians in nearly-flawless English. My favorite find was a small pamphlet on Estonian folklore and traditions, which are as interesting as you might think. I plan on scanning it in and posting excerpts later. For now, here is the text from the back:

2018-05-06 12.31.24

How and Why Countries Reconstruct

The example of Finland recovering after World War II without any Marshall Plan funding and under an obligation to make massive war “reparations” to the Soviets reminds me of a statement by the economist George Horwich:

Destroy any amount of physical capital, but leave behind a critical number of knowledgeable human beings whose brains still house the culture and technology of a dynamic economy, and the physical capital will tend to reemerge almost spontaneously.

The more I read about other countries and travel within them, the more convinced I am of something which sounds like a truism, and would be one, if there weren’t so many people who dispute it: Countries are the way they are because the people who live in them are the way they are.

Finlandization

I just traveled through Finland (well, Helsinki) and the Baltic states and enjoyed it enormously. Here are a few impressions about Finland, interspersed with random pics:

  • Finnish women have excellent skin (not much sun), and tend to wear a lot of makeup, but do it pretty well. I.e. no Cleopatra eye-smears like you see in some countries (Balkans, I’m lookin’ at you).

HEL Iced marina with bike

  • Young Finnish men may well have good skin too, but you can’t see it. They like beards, man-buns, and knit hats. They dress in a proudly slovenly fashion.
  • You see a fair amount of blue or green hair, and shiny sweatpants covered with stickers seem to be pretty popular.
  • There are more fat Finns than you might think.

DSC03765

  • Like all European countries too small to be able to afford dubbing movies, many people speak surprisingly good English.
  • Finns have a ironical, self-deprecating sense of humor about being Finnish.
  • Finland had its own prohibition at the same time as America. It hugely increased the popularity of hard liquor, which was much easier to smuggle. After prohibition was ended by referendum, the state created a nationwide monopoly on hard alcohol sold through chain stores called “Alko”, which survive to this day. Prices are twice as high as they are in Germany owing to import duties, sales tax, and special alcohol taxes. Finns go on booze cruises to Estonia.

hel young romantic couple on parkbench

  • Finnish museums are world-class, and Finnish art is interesting. Lots of euro-periphery art tends toward the “plakativ” (German for on-the-nose), Finnish stuff is less afflicted by this tendency, but some pieces are still pretty: “Oh, I get it, this is social commentary. What else you got for me?”. Still, many other pieces are queerly evocative in a Euro-periphery way.

 

  • I was a bit surprised to find out that Finland was basically a rural backwater of Sweden, then Russia, until the 20th century. As of 1917, literacy was only 70%.
  • Finns fought a civil war after 1918 and the Whites won and ruthlessly suppressed the Reds.
  • Finns fought on the side of Germany during WWII, but had little choice and refused to deport their Jews, so they don’t get the same stigma as, say, Lithuania.
  • Finns dislike the term “Finlandization”. What Cold Warriors interpreted as truckling to the Soviets, Finns think of as masterful diplomacy which saved them from the sad fate of the Baltic nations.
  • Finns declined Marshall Plan money to avoid irritating the Soviets. Further, they had to provide $226 million in “war reparations” to the Soviet Union, which involved shipping 340,000 railcars full of goods and gold to Russia in the immediate post-war years. Building the massive organization to provide these reparations is credited with Finland’s post-war economic recovery. Another data point showing that economic development is more influenced by a nation’s cognitive capital (Finns are smart) than by natural resources or even historical exploitation.
  • Finns are 70+ percent officially Lutheran, but highly secular like all Scandi countries. Finnish churches are very spare, they really took the Lutheran disapproval of images to heart.
  • The old-fashioned national hero is Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, who I’d never heard of, an adventurous and long-lived general (helped the Whites win the civil war) who made his name in the Imperial Russian armed forces. Sixth President, from 1944-46.
  • The more modern one is the man who shaped modern Finland, 8th Prez Urho Kekkonen, who ruled for a whopping 26 years (1956-82). He developed a reputation as the only man who could handle the Russians, so especially during the late 60s and 70s, his re-election was often supported by Finnish political parties across the spectrum.
  • Finnish is notoriously hard for outsiders to grasp, one reason being that Finns don’t use most “international” words like buro, sport, park, elektrizität, Stomatologia (dentistry), universitet, etc. Instead, they have their own words, which look noting like what you’d expect. “University”, for instance, is “Yliopisto”. One language, though, is universal:

 

That’s about all for now. Next up, in a few days: Estonia!

Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, Part XXVI: Scorched Earth and Car Batteries in Your Local Park

nice things

On May 7, a bunch of cars pulled up to the Volkspark Freidrichshain in Berlin. Men dragged 12 whole, skinned sheep carcasses out of the autos. Then they dumped a bunch of charcoal briquets directly on the grass and set them on fire. Then they set up impromptu rotisseries driven by car batteries.

Car batteries. Right next to open flame.

The police tweet naturally didn’t identify the ethnicity of the offenders, but people have noted that May 6 is an important day in some Orthodox (hint hint) calendars.

To repeat the tiresome but necessary disclaimer: Does this mean that all Slavs are hillbillies who think nothing of destroying public property? Of course not; I know plenty of immigrants from Slavic countries who love Germany’s wonderful parks, and would no more think of littering in them than they would of congratulating America for winning World War II.

That is because they are educated, civilized, responsible people. The sort of immigrants which create a positive win-win effect anywhere.

Yet for every conscientious, employable immigrant (who can come from any country in the world) whom Germany welcomes, it seems to welcome at least one, how shall I put this, dumb hillbilly (who also exist in every country in the world). And when you get a critical mass of dumb hillbillies, they start doing the kinds of things in Germany that they do at home. Including incinerating large patches of grass on public property. Because, of course, dumb hillbillies are too poor to afford to buy their own private property, on which they can do what they please.

This is why it’s important to make sure there is a widespread, unspoken social consensus on what you can and can’t do in parks. Parks are free and open to the public. Anyone can use them. Which also means anyone can trash them. Dumb hillbillies trash parks the world over, because they are too dumb, selfish, and short-sighted to understand the long-term, collective benefit of keeping public spaces green and clean.

These statements are self-evident truths understood by all reasonably intelligent and worldly people. Germany’s ruling elites have, for some reason (probably having to do with “our dark history”), persuaded themselves to pretend these self-evident truths no longer apply.

And people who just want to enjoy a nice walk in the park pay the price.

Drip, drip, drip…

Migrants and the ‘Pious Language of Victimhood’

A few weeks ago, the Atlantic published an excellent article by Graeme Wood about migrants in Germany.

Entirely avoiding the usual sentimental cliches which clog many German reports, Wood straightforwardly observed that many of the stories of the migrants he examined for the article were implausible or far-fetched. He also probed deeply into the system employed by the German refugee agency BAMF for cross-checking and verifying the identity and stories of migrants entering Germany, which includes things such as facial recognition software, dialect and accent recognition, special questioning techniques, and other procedures which the BAMF would not disclose.

Overall, the portrait of BAMF is quite different from in most German sources, where the agents are described either as heartless bureaucrats or incompetent softies. Wood — portraying mostly the Berlin office — was impressed by their efficiency. Wood paraphrases the head of the Berlin BAMF, Andreas Jödecke:

Within minutes of an asylum-seeker’s arrival at a BAMF reception center, long before a complete interview is conducted, little details can be telling, like the style of baggage they had chosen to lug from Syria. “I once saw a whole family get off a bus—several girls with clean black hair. They had hard-shell suitcases,” he told me, a curious choice. “When [real refugees] get off the buses, you can sometimes smell which ones have been on the west Balkans route for 40 days.”

He had lived through the stages of the crisis—new asylum-seekers, with new strategies and new plans. “In 2016, we started to see a wave of unaccompanied minors,” he told me. “It was because every clan chief in Afghanistan decided to send his son to Germany at once, as an anchor child.” Opportunists, he said, have been nimble in their efforts to evade detection and make the best of their chances. If an Afghan asylum-seeker notices that BAMF  took special interest when he mentioned mistreatment by Afghan police—a claim that would help his case—other applicants will begin to arrive with stories of just such mistreatment at the ready, whether or not they are true. Word of what gets claimants in circulates, Jödecke said, and “within about four days,” news makes its way “down the west Balkans route,” forcing BAMF to react and adjust.

Wood’s article was light-years beyond the kind of stuff you get in German newspapers, in which reporters usually do nothing more than recycle statements from a government agency press spokesman before spouting their own irrelevant opinions.

As you might imagine, Wood’s piece, by daring to mention that some asylum-seekers were lying, prompted outrage from pro-immigration advocates and migration researchers (two categories which overlap 98%, in my experience). The Atlantic published responses from three people. The first was a private citizen from Maryland: “The tone of the article struck me as deeply suspicious and mean-spirited about migrants’ motives, creating a false dichotomy between those who flee persecution and those who flee more prosaic but just as extreme conditions…. Someone who reads this article without understanding the larger context that Mr. Wood is addressing would derive a mistaken impression of what a lie means and what truth means in these contexts, where categories like refugee and migrant often blur.”

The second letter is from Hannah Winnick the head of the Heinrich Böll (i.e., German Green Party) foundation’s American office. She chimes in with a predictable barrage of cliches: “It is troubling that the editorial process did not question Wood’s overarching argument, which employs, deliberately or not, a right-wing, anti-immigrant trope of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ migrants. Wood describes migrants who do not qualify for asylum as ‘cheap costume jewelry passing itself off as the real thing.’ This language is dehumanizing. The men, women, and children who do not qualify for refugee status are often economic migrants fleeing desperate poverty. Yet people fleeing lack of opportunity, starvation, or chronic unemployment should be no less deserving of reporting that highlights their humanity than those fleeing war and persecution.”

Betsy Fisher, the leader of an American refugee group then chimes in: “In ‘The Refugee Detectives,’ Graeme Wood, after a cursory review of résumés belonging to refugees resettled to the U.S., arrives at the conclusion that most of them were lying. In doing so, he betrays ignorance of the obstacles faced by America’s refugee population—and their resilience….”

Fisher person then notes something I’ve pointed out on this blog a number of times: “Wood presumes equivalence between the United States’ resettlement program the Germany’s asylum proceedings—not only a different country, but also a distinct process. The United States resettles refugees after a years-long vetting process, involving several interviews and intensive background checks. They are also encouraged to begin working immediately to pay back their travel fees and take almost any job that is offered to them—including cleaning the home of a journalist.”

(What’s that about intensive background checks and a years-long vetting process before you let people into your country?)

How does Wood react to these criticisms? With refreshing brio, I find. Here he is right out of the gate: “My article was written to infuriate exactly the class of letter-writer that has responded in tedious triplicate here.”

Thump!

Wood goes on:

They consider it “mean-spirited” or “dehumanizing” to describe the asylum process in anything but the pious language of victimhood. They pretend, feebly, that the distinction between refugees and economic migrants—one enshrined in international law for the protection of the most vulnerable—is morally irrelevant. Refugees’ fates depend on our caring about these distinctions, and it is curious that people claiming to be their champions are most eager to cheapen the categories that protect them….

Hannah Winnick is right to point out that many asylum-seekers are still engaged in language- and skill-training three years later. That this process takes more than three years is, however, the whole point. And the rate of employment of refugees after their extended period of education isn’t encouraging: In Sweden, where better statistics are available, only half of the refugees who have been in the country for nine years have a job. About everything else Winnick is wrong. The résumés I judged to be suspicious included more details than I could ethically include in my article, and I subjected them to the scrutiny of area experts who found them even more suspicious than I did. “Nuance and accuracy” can cover many lies, but claiming a false ethnicity or country of origin is not among them….

Betsy Fisher is equally obtuse on these issues. An uneducated Afghan peasant might, of course, learn a language not spoken in Afghanistan or a bordering country. Similarly, a Canadian of French descent might learn near-fluent Nahuatl. The point, I wrote, was that these were “irregularities” that would very reasonably provoke an asylum caseworker to investigate further. Similarly, she doesn’t know the full employment and educational history of the refugee who was a doctor and now works a cash register. But I do, and his case is no less irregular. (The resolution of those irregularities could be, as I wrote, either damning or exculpatory.)

Fisher ends by calling for treatment of refugees with dignity and respect. One indignity to which refugees are exposed routinely is being treated as if their situation is no more precarious than that of others who face no persecution whatsoever. The detectives at BAMF seem to get this. Others, it seems, do not.

I have little to add, except that the German refugee debate could have used, and could still use, this sort of honesty.

Persecution is not Genocide

‘Genocide’ is one of the most-abused words in political discourse. Black Americans are suffering an ongoing genocide. So did American Indians. And the number of ethnic groups supposedly undergoing “cultural genocide” is endless. I found an example of this in a surprising place, Lithuania (where I’m now on holiday). I visited the exhibition on the victims of the Holocaust in Lithuania, housed in a small green house just outside the Old Town. It’s compact but extremely thorough; almost all the visitors seem to be foreigners.

Lithuanian Jews had nowhere to escape to, and 95% were killed during the Holocaust. A grim coincidence was that during the short-lived initial Soviet occupation of Lithuania in 1940-41 under the Secret Protocol to the Molotov-von Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviets started building massive underground fuel containers. This was cut short when the Nazis invaded, and the Nazis found massive 9-meter-deep pits in the Ponary Forest just sitting there. They promptly started shooting people and dumping them in these ready-made murder pits, which eventually contained up to 100,000 victims.

A tiny fraction of Lithuania’s Jews were saved by a Dutch and a Japanese consular official, who gave them export visas, and some were saved by Lithuanians. A German Wehrmacht soldier, Karl Plagge, was even inducted into the Righteous of the Nations for inflating the numbers of “skilled” Jews required to run a vehicle-repair garage. He smuggled food, allowed them to construct hiding places, and warned them of SS raids. After the war, during ‘de-nazification’, the tribunal going to classify him as free of guilt, but he insisted on being called an accomplice (Mitläufer) because he could have done more.

The interns managing one part of the museum, oddly enough, were two Austrians doing mandatory civil service instead of military conscription, which made me wonder why they had to bring Austrians in to do this. But let’s put that aside. The Austrian blokes were friendly, and we bonded on the basis of shared Holocaust knowledge. I mentioned that I was later going to visit the Lithuanian Museum of Genocide Victims, which is really the KGB museum. The Austrian guy chuckled grimly and said, “Yeah, that’s a pretty funny name, because it wasn’t a genocide.” “This,” he said, gesturing to the museum, “was a genocide.”

“Yep,” I responded, “I sort of noticed that Lithuanians weren’t subjected to genocide, because Lithuanians are, you know, still here.”

The “‘”Museum of Genocide Victims“‘” was fascinating and chilling, but what it depicted was deportations, repression, brutally unjust punishments, and widespread espionage. But not genocide.

It turns out Lithuania, along with other Baltic states, has tried to use an expanded definition of genocide to punish people retroactively. A Lithuanian court convicted a man of genocide for killing anti-Soviet partisans in Lithuania in 1953. The European Court of Justice ruled the judgment illegal, because there was no generally-recognized definition of “genocide” at the time the crime was committed, and, in any event, collaborating with Soviet occupiers to root out and kill anti-Soviet partisans may have been many things, but it wasn’t genocide.

There’s no such thing as “cultural genocide”. Genocide should properly be reserved exclusively for the killing of large numbers of people solely on the basis of their ethnic or religious identity, with the avowed purpose of extinguishing them completely.