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Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris, Chapel Hill, Boston, Istanbul, Calgary, Washington DC, Austin, Tunis, Warszawa and counting

Monday, August 31, 2009

The economics of my job

Let's strip away for a second the morality issue of lying and try to look only at the underlying economics of doing business in the Middle East versus western, industrialized countries. In a capitalist market system constant competition is supposed to regulate supply and demand and assure that neither the seller nor the buyers accrue rents (aka make more money than they should based on the economic fundamentals. That is the theory, in practice this of course means that rents accrue to both sides in different deals in order to arrive at equilibrium position. Perfect information, a condition of that model, is nothing but a chimera of course, but in a competitive market prices should be decently close to equilibrium.

Now, in most countries in the Middle East (and outside the West in general (this is a geographic simplification of course, sorry)) this is not the case. Information is even more asymmetric and there is a powerful governmental actor that needs to be catered to (in a truly capitalist system he should only be acknowledged and taken into consideration), that results in rents being accrued to those on the good side of information and the governmental actor (both being the same most of the time). Looking at countries exporting a valuable good in high demand, companies within those countries are the ones benefiting from these rents since the governmental actor will not be swayed by a massive group of individualistic buyers abroad.

It is these rents that the company I work for targets. They allow higher advertisement prices and the interest in them allow to increase pressure on companies to advertise through references made to the governmental actor. It is the reason why this kind of system works better in developing countries than in more competitive (capitalist if you want) market regimes. To be harsh, it is the reason why this works better in countries with an autocratic regime not controlled by an attentive public running the place.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

My Job

I've been working for a publishing company for the last few weeks and felt I should share the insight into the industry this has given me. The company that I work for publishes interview-based business books concentrating on and presenting one particular economic sector in a variety of countries. A book consists of eight chapters each filled with maybe eight interviews as well as chapter-opening editorials and a variety of interactive features (fora, maps and the such). We are part of a whole industry focusing on this kind of work and on the face of it the idea doesn't sound that bad. A bit boring maybe because of the heavy concentration on companies' fate, but nothing out of the ordinary. In reality we are part of an industry of leeches, supposedly with us being the good guys, but still living off of others achievements.

Basically, what we do is we go to a country and try to do interviews with all relevant CEOs in the sector which we cover there. These interviews we collect in a book format. The book is sold, but we make our money on advertisement that we try to sell those same executives. Now, this might be something I personally find boring (and it is) and unattractive, but it is not per se bad or distasteful to provide a forum for advertisement and make your living like that. The moral problem for me lies in the fact that we lie and cheat the whole time to achieve our goals. We pretend to be journalists in order to get the interview (which is not true, we create content in order to sell advertisement, not the other way around). We lie about our distribution numbers (I suspect that the number of executives supposedly reading our books is a fourth of what we claim it to be). We sell a product (an ad) that most people in this industry don't need and if they did I have serious doubts about its effectiveness.

The book we sell and the advertisement in it is pointless for two maybe three reasons. Firstly, the distribution numbers we cite are wrong, there are simply not enough readers. Secondly, even the executives receiving our book are unlikely to actually read through it carefully or even handle it longer than a few minutes (I might be wrong about this and am willing to concede this point). Thirdly, our publication is useless as an analytical tool, it is a number of interviews which the executives are allowed to edit themselves. Obviously no one talks about his companies' weaknesses. Anyone basing their business decision on this has himself to blame only. That is also the reason why advertising is pointless for these companies. They are not dealing with individual customers deciding between an expensive Coke and a cheap same-product no-brand-name soft drink, they are trying to attract companies handling millions not willing to invest based on an ad they saw somewhere at some point.

The funny (or ironic) thing is that we are the good guys in this industry. Others pretend to work for Fox or CNN or The Economist and charge astronomical figures to run features on those platforms (which is then surprisingly called or something like that). We charge less (even if still a lot) and produce a book that is of significantly higher quality than our competitors' products. Still, that doesn't change the underlying morality issues of this industry. I don't have a problem with a hard-fought capitalist system (I might not necessarily take part in it all that much, but that's a different story), this is different. Historically (the last few years in any case) my company has focused on publishing these kind of books in the Middle East. There they try to obtain a partnership with someone in the government (or pretend to have that kind of agreement) and because of the autocratic, non-transparent nature of these countries they succeed in making everyone buy expensive ads (basically everyone wants to please the big guy who is on board or at least supposedly on board). This whole industry then is not an outgrowth of a highly capitalistic system, but rather the result of an unjust, government-centered economy which deprives the biggest parts of their population of the benefits of that sector on the economy which we focus on (and which I will not name here in case you were wondering).

Additionally, the tactic of our sale is quite simply repugnant. We go in, chat with the guy (there are no women), try to make friends, then I interview him (I could never do the sales part) trying to give us credibility as a serious publication, finally my colleague goes in for the kill. Name-dropping everyone who is big in that particular sector, claiming we have talked to all of them and implying they have all bought ads (both of which is not true). The idea is to make the guy bend to an onslaught of words and ideas. Did I mention that the sales person (always a girl) evidently is attractive, laughs at every joke and eats up avidly everything the CEO says as if she were watching the pre-Civil War Republican Lincoln-Douglas debates (ok, bad comparison, but you know what I mean)?

What is amusing is that this concept does not work as well in industrialized, Western countries. The capitalist system is more built-up here. People don't fall for glossy publications, an attractive sales girl and the apparent support of some high government official would make them laugh. Working in these countries drives home the point that what this industry usually does is living off of others livelihood.

Yeah, this is what I do. Funny how some as me could end up in a job like that. Well, I quit last week. Just couldn't do it anymore. The money is real good, but I have other priorities in life and quite honestly I hated every second of doing this (or was only bored at the best of times).

Just as a disclaimer. I am aware that some people might be of other opinions regarding the effectiveness of advertisement. Please keep in mind the aforementioned difference in advertising to a mass of people for an individual product and doing the same thing with a target of more successful than average group of specialists in their sector. I believe we would agree that the effects are not the same. Apart from that, even granted this whole advertisement thing works great, that still makes us liars and cheaters even if the word leeches might not be accurate anymore. The striking thing for me was that that was how I thought about ourselves and then found out that some of the companies call us that too.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Ein Geburtstagsgeschenk aus naheliegenden Gründen, Terra! von Stefano Benni ist eines dieser leicht zugänglich, super vergnüglichen Werken, welche man in wenigen Stunden verschlingt. Der Stil erinnerte mich sehr stark an Douglas Adams oder Terry Pratchett, was sehr als Kompliment zu verstehen ist. Benni beschreibt eine apokalyptische Zukunft der Erde, welche nach drei weiteren Weltkriegen die Sonne nicht mehr als Energiequelle hat und dementsprechend kalt ist. Der regierende Kapitalismus, die dominierende Technolosigierung ist auf den Kopf getrieben, dasgleiche gilt für den herrschenden Zynismus und die Irrelevanz niederer Lebensformen.

Ohne Abstrich empfehlenswert.

Don Quixote von la Mancha

Don Quixote von la Mancha von Miguel de Cervantes gehört wohl zu den bekanntesten Geschichten der (westlichen) Welt. Der Klassiker der spanischen Literatur. Das Buch ist sehr episodenhaft aufgebaut (und auch eigentlich mehr als ein Buch, es wurde in zwei Teilen veröffentlicht) und kann im Prinzip an jeder Stelle angefangen werden, ohne dass Kenntnisse der vorherigen Ereignisse notwendig sind. Mir machte dieser unabhängige Aufbau das Lesen ein wenig schwer, weil man in einem solchen Buch nie richtig versinken kann. Nichtsdestotrotz ist es eine faszinierende Lektüre. Cervantes zeigt wenig Respekt und seine Zeichnung des verrückten Ritters der traurigen Gestalt und seinem Stallmeister Sancho Panso ist unglaublich witzig. Interessant ist, dass der dargestellte Humor in einer gewissen Weise fast schon modern ist, da er unglaublich gewaltätig und sexuell ist ja sich gar auf Fäkalien bezieht.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Life in Calgary II

Me not knowing anyone in Calgary I spent my late Saturday evening riding around town and looking at places and people a bit. At some point when I was sitting on my bike while leaning on a lamp post, I was approached by an Aborigine asking me whether I'd have 67 cents I was not emotionally attached to. Apart from that being a pretty decent line of course I have been intrigued by the Aborigines (or Indians, Native Americans or whatever you might call them) living in Calgary ever since I got here. The few Natives you see running around here are a rather sad sight, quite clearly drunks, quite evidently without any kind of decent home. The impression of Canada as a better (because socially and environmentally more responsible) USA fades away when you see these figures tumbling along the street in downtown Calgary while the new (white) rulers of the place pass them in their massive trucks and SUVs.

So, to get back to my story, I gave the guy a two-dollar piece which prompted him to call me a good person. I replied that I wasn't as sure of that as him and we struck up a conversation as he took for a lack of confidence my sense of realism and felt he should help me with that. I sat on a bench for maybe 30 minutes with him, while he sipped from a bottle of mouthwash (the cheapest alcohol to be had apparently). The guy obviously was completely fucked up. He kept on telling me that he works for the Aboriginal Secret Service and that these guys were better and bigger than the CIA. He insisted that Russia was going to invade Iran and wanted to know whether Germany was going to help them. He sincerely asked me whether I would kill a Jew if given the chance.

All of that really seems besides the point though, since he is such a prime example of how society destroys those that do not fit into its mold. His alcoholic father and mother abandoned him (or the government took him away from them, not quite sure which). He was raised with 'your folks' as he put it, meaning white people, but spent part of his youth with the Blackfeet as well. He hates Natives because they believe him white, he hates whites because he is a no-good drunk Indian with them. No, he doesn't hate either one of them, he just hates how both make him feel. He drinks with abandon, going for mouthwash not only because it's cheap but also because you can get it at eight in the morning, liquor stores only open at ten.

Yet, he also is a warm-hearted, genuinely nice human being (or he was towards me in any case). He is not dumb (loads of more 'successful' people believe in conspiracy theories) and has a broad knowledge of (pop)-culture. Human tragedy. Of course. But is it more than that? Does the post-national Canada I praised in my previous post even exist? Maybe it does, but only exists for well-educated people of high social standing. I have yet to see one Native American in any of the numerous downtown luncheons I've frequented this past week. The only thing I've read in the paper about them ever since I got here, was that they are labeled as a threat to national security because of a couple of pipeline bombings in the north of Alberta.

Is something rotten in the state of Denmark?

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Life in Calgary

The funny thing about Calgary (in this particular case, read: Canada) is that it is very much like the United States. Except that it's not. Yeah, I know that makes a lot of sense. I've been here about a week now, I've been very busy with work, so I haven't managed to get around and explore a lot, but I just bought a used bike off some hobo for $10 yesterday and will be discovering the city on that in the weeks to come, especially as work becomes more of a routine job and I'll have more time on the side.

I had already spent some time in Calgary when I was about 14 and came here with my parents (and sister), but most of what I remember from that time is related to trips we undertook outside of Calgary (Banff, the Big Horn River) and the suburban life style that I had had never experienced before. This time around what struck me the most so far has been the niceness of people. In the States people are super friendly, but one is never sure how much of that is put on (if not say hypocrisy). Here I constantly get the impression that people are genuinely nice. The woman in the store where I got a sandwich yesterday was positively charmed by the fact that I was from Europe (placing me in England upfront) and it didn't seem fake at all. Maybe Canadians just act better than most Americans, I've been falling for it in any case.

Calgary is very much dominated by the oil and gas industry which in turn is very, very male-dominated. If you go for lunch downtown during the week most places are filled almost exclusively by (white) men in suits being served by scantily clad (hot pants or really short mini skirts while they bring me lunch? really?), tall and rather attractive women. Disgusting, if you ask me.

Apart from that the town is sprinkled with little parks and very much accessible by bike, if a little too spread out to walk. Especially when you live downtown. Also Canada, even more so than the USA maybe, represents a post-racial society. I played ball on an outside court yesterday, with two little Asian guys, two French-speaking African-Canadian teenagers, some tall white dude and a Latino-looking guy. And everyone got along really well. At the same time all of these guys were pretty bad ballers and there seems to be a clear negative correlation between people's niceness and their ball-playing skills. Me being only semi-nice on the court, I am also semi-good, which let's me dominate a court like the one yesterday, but is not sufficient for really tough ones.

A word on that tough court too. I found a gym where I believe the best game in town is run. I (as usual, talk about being a skinny, white guy with longish hair and not enough of a cocky bastard) have a hard time getting on the court there, but I do manage and it's been good. I definitely will enjoy getting intro proper playing shape again. Anyway, from a sociological point of view this court is really interesting because it is dominated by Sudanese guys (some of which are really good ballers, tall, skinny, fast, aggressive). When I was in Boston last year I kept on running into guys from Cap Verde there, here it's the Sudanese. In both cases they must be living on the continent for a while (their English is impeccable), but still talk in their mother tongue amongst each other. How these immigration patterns come about is fascinating even if I cannot offer any kind of explanation for them.


Faulkner once more. I am not sure how many books of him I haven't actually read yet. Maybe 3, 4 even 5. In any case, I am not too worried about having gone through all of them relatively soon, simply because most of them have as many layers of understanding that rereading them will be a pleasure.

Pylon most definitely is not one of Faulkner prime novels. He apparently wrote it while taking a break from Absalom, Absalom, in order to relax in a sense then. It is the first novel of his I read that does not take place in Yoknapatawpha County.

Pylon is based on a very simple story line. A journalist working in a fictionalized New Orleans (New Valois) is sent to cover an air fair outside of town. This introduces us, the reader, and him, the journalist, to the world of barnstorming pilots. Men who live from their planes, who risk their lives for a little prize money and who never earn enough to know where they will be sleeping that night or tomorrow. In this specific case the journalist (who does not have a name in the novel) stumbles over a family of sorts, that battles out this kind of life together. A pilot, a parachute jumper, a woman who is married to one but sleeps with both and her son whose father might be the one or the other and a mechanic with a penchant for alcohol. The journalist becomes deeply involved with this menage à trois ultimately leading to disaster.

Faulkner hurried this novel through. Some of his sentences lack in logic and sometimes words simply are misspelled, but the novel still offers glimpses of his wonderful, convoluted writing style. I can only recommend reading him, maybe not starting out with this book.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Life in Berlin

Coming home for a weekend and jumping right back into life there seems so easy. I carried my sister's and her boyfriend's crap up the stairs for three hours. I had drinks with my ol-timey friends, coffee in the Bergmannstr with more recent ones. Yet, having spent so much time away changes one's perceptions, makes one have a stranger's point of view more than that of an inhabitant at various points.

Case in point. I went swimming Sunday, left Berlin and spent the afternoon at a lake, drinking beers, lying in the sun, discussing life and the such. Good times. The point isn't that I hadn't been at the Sacrower See in ages, nor that things seemingly hadn't changed with the old east-German Datschas still standing, but rather that I was shocked, well not not shocked, surprised would be more appropriate, at the number of naked kids, bare-breasted women and nude adults in general that were hanging out there. A few years ago I probably would have not even noticed this, but yesterday it struck me as a rather specific German cultural element. In France or Spain women might go topless at times, in the US, Turkey or Italia (talking about countries I decently know thus) this virtually never happens and even in the aforementioned countries full nudity is rather rare.

The popular explanation for this peculiar German trait relates it to the oppressive East-German regime which led people to some kind of inner emigration (to the beach) and liberation (by taking off their clothes). While there undoubtedly is some truth to this theory, FKK (Freikörperkultur - free body culture) apparently was far more popular in Eastern Germany than the rest of the country, it does not seem to offer a sufficient explanation as it discounts the Austrian and West German FKKs. Can I offer a better explanation then? No, sorry. I will pass it along if I come across something though.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Life in Istanbul IV

What really confounded me about Istanbul was the astounding disconnect between various parts of the population. As self-confessed post-nationalist I am convinced of that the nation state is nothing but a artificial construct without any true meaning. My relationship with young, educated tweensters from France, England, or the USA is far closer than my connection with fellow countrymen of mine who lack said education and engage in professional activities that are more closely tied to the traditional industrial sector or the low-skilled service industry. To realize that these fault lines within one nation as that much stronger in a country as nationalistic as Turkey provides with some food for thought (and is quite ironic really).

I have no idea whether what I am describing is a completely normal situation for emerging countries to be in. They struck me as odd, but that might simply be due to a lack of experience concerning non-Western countries. Basically, in Turkey, two main groups seem to have virtually no contact with one another. Those would be on the one hand the Kemalists, the young upper middle class who follow in the footsteps of Atatürk's Westernization in the 20s and 30s and in a sense glorify Western culture and capitalism. Concretely this results in their seemingly tring (if not consciously) being über-Western. This results in girls wearing skirts, shorts and tops that you would rarely see in the streets of Berlin or Paris. You might see these kind of revealing clothes in clubs and discos but not in every day life, the way they are used in Turkey. It means that the restaurants and bars these people frequent rarely serves Turkish food anymore, but instead the kind of internationalized uniform world food one finds every else as well (wraps, pizza, fries, you know the deal). It means that people are surprised to hear me order a Turkish coffee not a European one. It means that my trips into less sanguine parts are met with incomprehensive looks and a comment on the massive presence of head scarves in those neighborhoods.

I have not really met anyone from the other side as the religious, Western-Turkish and economic divide to a large extent seems to be an educational one as well. Basically, most of these more traditional people's forte are not foreign languages. But, I was struck by the differences and by how this separation is emphasized by most of my colleagues.