Encounter Zone Maaßenstraße

Berlin is rebuilding the Maaßenstraße into the first Begegnungszone (‘Encounter Zone’) of its kind in the city. Works are underway now after a public consultation was finished last year or the year before. I looked around a bit but I couldn’t find the plans for what they are actually building there. A quick e-mail to the senate solved that problem and I got a PDF of the plan.

Redesigning Maaßenstraße

The most important bit of that plan is the layout of the new street which is dramatically different from what we have right now. Maaßenstraße is a street in Berlin saturated with cafes and restaurants where people from far West Berlin will go to go out on weekend nights. It also touches on Motzstraße which is a popular gay going out area and there are tons more bars and restaurants littered about. On Saturdays the market on Winterfeldtplatz is brimful of people and blocks most of the traffic on the South side.

The quantity of establishment is deceiving since the gastronomy on Maaßenstraße is of such a low quality that I wouldn’t regularly visit any of the places there except the two Turkish kebab places Hasir and the Keb’up House (for the late night döner box).

Traffic wise there used to be bike paths on the pavement but because of the heavy use by pedestrians and the fact that the bike path was level with the walking area, these caused dangerous situations. The road itself wasn’t a great alternative as it was used mostly for parking, double parking and the ostentatious display of muscle cars at night. All in all the usage of the street was thoroughly out of whack with how space was distributed between the various groups.

The new plan removes parking altogether which may or may not work depending on the enforcement level. Cars can park anywhere they want in Berlin and receive a fine that is so low nobody really cares about it. Cycling and driving are integrated on the remaining piece of road that is a lot more narrow than it was and lots of space is allotted to pedestrians walking and hanging out on the street. I have no idea what that is going to do to the noise levels in the street but I don’t live on a popular party street for a reason.

I’ve annotated what I think is noteworthy about the plan below (in a 13MB image file, click for big). All in all the plan looks solid and is bolder than I could have hoped for. It remains to be seen how it will be received by drivers and whether the police enforces the zones that are on there with vigour.

06-Flyer_Begegnungszone_maassenstr

Evgeny Morozov discovers actor-network theory

With some trepidation did I read Evgeny Morozov’s latest piece “The Taming of Tech Criticism” but thankfully the firebrand has matured and this piece is both readable and relevant.

A critical or oppositional attitude toward Silicon Valley is no guarantee of the critic’s progressive agenda; modern technology criticism, going back to its roots in Germany at the turn of the twentieth century, has often embraced conservative causes.

It treats something that I had been struggling with over the past week after the umpteenth debate here about Silicon Valley and venture funded technology. I share the qualms of my friends but at the same time I hink that criticisms of startup culture are deeply reactionary. Whatever argument you make against them is going to be boring, non-productive and unsuccessful. Morozov signals a similar trend that technology criticism which is startup criticism by another name is conservative and futile.

“By offering to reduce the amount of work we have to do, by promising to imbue our lives with greater ease, comfort, and convenience, computers and other labor-saving technologies appeal to our eager but misguided desire for release from what we perceive as toil,” notes Carr in an unashamedly elitist tone.

The fact that Nicholas Carr is patronizing, elitist, stupid and wrong is nothing new but it is good to read it exposed clearly. What does this say about people who still read Carr?

In fact, what distinguishes radical critics from their faux-radical counterparts is the lens they use for understanding Silicon Valley: the former group sees such firms as economic actors and situates them in the historical and economic context, while the latter sees them as a cultural force, an aggregation of bad ideas about society and politics.

What it comes down to and what Morozov considers to be a radical—I’m sure this is radical in America—is that we need better things as well as better ways to pay for them. That is something that should still be eminently feasible in the parts of Europe that have not fallen prey to neoliberalism.

By the end I found out that all of Morozov’s writing—much of it mistaken by his own admission—was so difficult because he hadn’t come around to the speculative turn yet. With this piece it sounds as if he might have, though his omission of sources makes it hard to tell.

By slicing the world into two distinct spheres—the technological and the non-technological—it quickly regresses into the worst kind of solipsistic idealism, paying far more attention to drummed-up, theoretical ideas about technology than to real struggles in the here and now.

Even a cursory reading of Bruno Latour and friends would have told you long ago that divisions between technology and non-technology—society and nature— are a lie (“We Have Never Been Modern”), that there is no technology per se (actor-network theory), and that you cannot take short-cuts when talking about anything (object-realism).

In fact, the very edifice of contemporary technology criticism rests on the critic’s reluctance to acknowledge that every gadget or app is simply the end point of a much broader matrix of social, cultural, and economic relations.

This is actor-network theory if ever I read it.

The rallying cry of the technology critic—and I confess to shouting it more than once—is: “If only consumers and companies knew better!”

It is my conviction as a designer that consumers and companies usually do know better. They are as well informed as they can be for the things they value and they take the best possible decisions considering their personal value functions. Claims to the contrary gloss over realities that these actors are faced with and more than anything else stem from a patronizing difference of opinion.

Jumping to the end by Matt Jones

Matt Jones: Jumping to the End — Practical Design Fiction from Interaction Design Association on Vimeo.

Matt Jones gives an overview of the kind of work he used to do at BERG and then talks about the process of his creative work at Google. It’s refreshing to see that practice is shifting towards media that is readily consumable and deliverables that actually do something.

Matt_Jones_Jumping_to_the_End_--_Practical_Design_Fiction_on_Vimeo_2015-03-11_16-52-01

Terry Pratchett

Though I didn’t read him for very long, Terry Pratchett’s books in the local library translated to Dutch were my introduction to both fantasy and a certain kind of critical way of looking at the world. Only now I’m finding out how many other people were deeply influenced by Pratchett. I’m also glad to see how a literary establishment that had studiously ignored him and all genre fiction for all that time now has no other choice but to admit that they were wrong.

DOTA night at Meltdown Esports Bar

Dota night at Meltdown

Yesterday I attended the weekly Dota2 night at Meltdown esports bar for the first time. I’m looking for people who I can play with regularly because going out into solo queue is becoming a bit tedious and unpredictable. There is a small crowd of people there who play 5v5’s in a private lobby against the Meltdown London cafe. It’s a lot of shouting and mostly fun.

What strikes me when I go to these get togethers is that however different the people are, there is a shared culture because everybody reads /r/dota2 and watches the same streams and tournaments. It is fairly homogenized everywhere with the exception of China which is insular with its own client, servers and a slew of native language media.

I was also happy to see that the gender balance wasn’t as one-sided as I had feared. There’s still a long way to go but what I saw at the bar makes me optimistic.

The second victorious team

Session of the traffic commission of the Berlin borough of Neukölln

Neukölln committee for traffic meeting

I heard about the session of the traffic commission of Berlin-Neukölln through the great Urbanist Magazine who wrote that cities get the bike paths they deserve and that being present at political sessions is a prerequisite to change things.

So I made my way over to Rathaus Neukölln during rush hour yesterday to listen in on the session. Even though these things are deadly boring, they are at the same time extremely revealing of the workings and attitudes of our governments and just for that fact worthwhile to occasionally visit. At the same time I think it is a civic duty to attend these sessions for the things that you are interested in. If you don’t, others will.

Berlin.de on an iPhone

The website Berlin.de lists the proceedings of the session but it is unfortunately totally unusable on a mobile device (see the screenshot above) so I went by ear and noted what I could understand of the proceedings. The meeting protocol was I may add a bit chaotic and unclear. Part of it may be because I was ten minutes late (thank BVG) but I would expect local political sessions to at least have signs to show who’s who (like they do in Amsterdam).

Points two to five of the agenda were about improvements for cycling in Neukölln and after some debate all of these points were summarily rejected by the SPD/CDU who have a majority in this part of the city and I gather also chair the commission. For some proposals the chairs took offence and for the others they declared that what was proposed would be of no use. During the vote for each of these points they were rejected.

The debate about point 3 was especially illuminating.

Point 3 was a proposal to research how to keep the bike path on Karl-Marx-Straße free of parked cars. The chair of the committee said that this problem simply cannot be solved. The representative of the police said that they don’t have the capacity to enforce the law when it comes to this matter and that doing so would jeopardize their ability to stop violent crime. Somebody present requested that these people be fined to which the chair replied that that wouldn’t help either because people don’t care about the fines.

The chair cited examples to the contrary from around Schloßstraße and Savignyplatz. These don’t really seem relevant to me. Fines for parking on a bike lane are nearly trivial but not so trivial that they wouldn’t be felt in Neukölln at all.

A couple of people attending protested and said that this was a selective application of the law meant to fuck cyclists. These people were not taken seriously at all by the committee.

It seems that the governing parties in Berlin reject any proposal submitted by the opposition. An opposition who I may add do not seem to be the sharpest knives. Some of the proposed solutions were not realistic in the slightest. One example: replacing the DHL trucks with cargo bikes is batshit crazy. To add to that: DHL trucks parking on the bike lanes are not the biggest problem at all and something that can be solved fairly easily.

I went to this meeting to see why cycling in Berlin is so bad as it is and most of what I thought was confirmed. Berlin does not take cyclists seriously and the governing bodies are populated by people who say they care but who really don’t give a shit.

Esports spectating in the U-Bahn

DAC Grand Final in the U-Bahn

So it turns out that 3G over Blau in Berlin is good enough to watch a Twitch stream of the DAC finals between Evil Geniuses and Vici Gaming and allowed me to watch the amazing Storm Spirit performance by SumaiL in the last match.

The finals started at around 8AM (China Standard Time) and unfortunately were a clean sweep for EG so they were over pretty quickly. Most impressive was the fact that SumaiL, a fifteen year old kid from Pakistan, stole the show. Watch a summary below.

Counter Strike: Global Offensive

GeForce GTX AllStar Tournament

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to attend a NVIDIA sponsored Counter Strike: Global Offensive tournament in association with 99 damage at the Berlin Game Science Center.

CS:GO is an amazing team based sport where five terrorists try to set and explode a bomb on a bomb site (you can see sites A and B marked on the maps) while counter-terrorists try to prevent the bomb placement or defuse it. Players need to have a combination of mechanical aim/shoot skills combined with tactical insight at an incredibly high tempo. The difference between life or death in any of these games rests in a fraction of a second combined with an awareness of what is happening around the entire map. Esports are sports that are just as demanding mentally and physically as any other.

You don’t have to watch the entire video of the Dreamhack finale below but it can’t hurt to watch a couple of matches with the commentary (The walls are transparent for spectators. They aren’t for players.):

The culture around this particular game is its own and somewhat different from people who for instance play SC2 or MOBAs. Attending this tournament was a lot of fun and I got to see some high level play as well as a demonstration of case modding by a company with its own branded energy drink.

Panamax

Panamax time

This week I got to play the board game Panamax at a game night here in Berlin. Though it is slightly complicated I was struck by how good an adaptation of container shipping this game is.

The game is about getting contracts to move your cargo from one side of the canal to the other using either your own ships or the ships of other companies. The core mechanic of the game is the fact that canal locks can only contain 4 units of ships and if there is a ship behind you that won’t fit, it will push you out when it moves. This will cost the pushing ship a movement action but it will not cost the ship that is being pushed.

An interesting element in the game is that you as a player have private money and you are managing a shipping company with money of its own. The shipping company uses its money as working capital to perform actions. As a player you start out with one share in your own company and you can use your private money to buy shares in companies including your own.

The cost of a share is paid to the company in effect raising capital and the price of the stock is increased by one. At the end of each turn a company pays out dividends to all players who own a share in it if it can pay out to all of them. If the company does not have enough money to pay out dividends, nobody gets anything and the company share price drops by two. Shares are liquidated at the end of the game at their current vue to add to the capital of players (which are victory points).

This way of interweaving player interests with each other is incredibly interesting and has been executed really elegantly compared to the complexity it adds to the gameplay. Besides combining destinies using the shares, you can also load your cargo on somebody else’s ship. This way figuring out which actions benefit whom exactly quickly becomes intractable.

What’s also funny is that cargo that is stuck in the canal incurs costs at the end of each turn. If a company cannot pay all of these costs from its own capital, it will get it from the player managing it. This means that companies are not limited liability or that managing directors are fined for mismanagement both of which are interesting.

All in all Panamax is a very successful eurogame that actually fits fairly nicely with its theme. At each step it feels like you are taking important decisions for the company you manage.

Kış Uykusu (Winter Sleep) by Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Kis-Uykusu-7

I watched Winter Sleep in the train back to Berlin and Ceylan is indulging himself with his movies becoming ever longer. Winter Sleep clocks in at three hours and fifteen minutes so by the time it was over I found myself well past Hannover.

The movie is about freedom—the bit with the horse and the guy on the motorcycle sort of gave it away—and in particularly the fact that however much apparent physical freedom people may have, they will not take advantage of it because their effective freedom is the product of complex social negotiation. At some point people become trapped both within themselves and by each other.

The script is based on writing by Chekhov which is apparent in the self-contained rustic scenes interspersed by the conversations of a family with deep seated issues. Maybe it’s just geographical proximity but Russian writers seem to be more accessible and prevalent in Turkey than I’ve found them to be in the Netherlands.

To close off the key scene with Ismail translated (mild spoilers):

Let’s see if we made a correct calculation.

If this much were for little Ilyas who put his life on the line to restore his father’s hurt pride.

If this much were for the self-sacrificing brother Hamdi forced to go kiss somebody’s hand by himself to restore his reputation.

If this much were for the drunk father Ismail who took a beating in front of his son disgracing himself and his family.

There would be a bit left.

And if that were for the heroic Ms. Nihal who by giving alms to people more unfortunate than herself tries to ease her conscience.

This would be exactly the right amount of money.