A possible agenda for a tech workers solidarity movement

The USA example of resistance against Trump in the form of Tech Solidarity quickly gained a following in the Netherlands with TechSolidarity.nl and here in Berlin with some Tech-Solidarity-Berlin. I’ve had a small role in both of those groups’ creation but I’m currently not an active participant.

Tech Solidarity’s success is of course unique to the local environment and Pinboard’s prior activism in tech. That said there are a lot of similarities that make similar movements over here possible and necessary. The Netherlands and Germany have elections this year and are faced with similar populist disruptions. The technology industries here are also very heavily dependent on expat workers who have specific issues and interests. The time seems ripe for people in technology to organize themselves.

The idea of the Berlin organization is not to duplicate efforts. There are already lots of initiatives in Berlin that address most parts of this agenda. What tech solidarity should do here is 1. posit an encompassing vision of what we want to achieve and that it is possible to achieve that together 2. function as a switching board to match people who want to do things with things that need people.

I’m associated with the Berlin meetup but I haven’t attended any of the American events so we had to piece together what we thought would be an agenda for our local context. I suggested these five points that I personally think are relevant and critical right now.

  1. Maintain the freedom of movement and other liberal values that make Berlin and Europe an amazing place to live and work.
    Europe is an unique place in the world—increasingly so, though not as unique as we might like to think. The high standard of living and freedom enjoyed here attract people from all over the world.
    Those positive qualities and the new people they attract are not seen as positive by all Europeans alike. Populist movements want to close borders, go back in time and tear down the institutions of our liberal open societies. These measures will affect foreign workers and immigrants much more than they will local residents.
    What can we do to maintain and strengthen our local social democracies, the institutions that make up Europe and how can we scale out these values?
  2. Make it so that foreigners in Berlin can and do participate in local civil society.
    This is not just a problem for foreigners but they suffer from much higher hurdles when it comes to this. Foreigners are often here temporarily, usually do not speak German and do not get to vote. It is harmful to both residents and to society as a whole for people to be disenfranchised.
    What can be done right now to circumvent those limitations and what needs to be done in the future to create a more vibrant and inclusive civil society?
  3. Support diversity initiatives of all kinds in the workplace.
    In most tech companies in Berlin diversity is neither valued or practiced. Diversity has proven benefits to everybody involved. Also by not starting to practice this now the industry is putting themselves on the back foot when it comes to the future.
    What can we do to increase the awareness and practice of diversity?
  4. Use our skills and resources to help local immigrants and refugees.
    People working in technology have access to an immense amount of economic and social opportunities. People who are new to Berlin or who have already lived here for a while should have access to the same opportunities and be able to contribute their efforts and perspectives.
    How can we educate and include people without traditional paths into technology and make the sector as a whole more open and inclusive?
  5. Formulate actionable positions on professional ethics (data retention, car exhausts etc.).
    We need to formulate ethical standards for people working in technology and back them up when they need to abide by them. The potential to do things that are unethical and harmful is increasing just as quickly as technology’s influence but not everything that is possible should be economically determined. Laws are not a sufficient protection since they can be weakened or removed due to changing political circumstances.
    What are ethical red lines that we can agree upon and what is practical support we can offer people?

Welt am Draht

I strolled through the massive exhibition ‘Welt am Draht’ at Leipziger Strasse this weekend. This is a selection of video art from the massive Julia Stoschek Collection exhibited in the former Czech Cultural center.

Like everybody says the quality of video art in general is extremely inconsistent. That is true in this exhibit as well. There are a bunch of works where it is not at all obvious why somebody finished it, somebody approved it and somebody paid money for it.

The works that were most interesting in this exhibition consistently were not the video ones but those created with a game engine. That may be my own novelty bias at work, but a fully digital workflow like that allows: 1. more and faster iteration 2. fully dynamic products, the combination of which leads to totally new kinds of things that can be produced.

Some examples:

I forget what this was, but despite the concept being more or less ridiculous it has a compelling internal consistency.

RMB City by Cao Fei is a rich and spectacular playground of randomness.

I can’t really argue with any of Ed Atkins’s work which stands out for the pure skill of the renderings combined with spoken word that is not trite (so rare).

Ian Cheng’s Emissary Forks at Perfection is an ongoing collage of elements in a dynamic simulation that looks like an edgy version of the large scale installations Theo Watson makes.

Why Käthe Kollwitz is one of Germany’s most important figurative artists

Today I got a tour of the Käthe Kollwitz museum in Berlin. I had wanted to visit this museum for a while but this proved the concrete reason to finally go (though the café next door makes some mean pancakes if you find yourself in the area).

I was recently attended to her existence by MacGregor’s series on German history (episode). I now believe that she is one of the most important German artists of the past couple of centuries. If there are any other significant candidates, I would like to hear about them.

What makes her stand out as an artist are:

  • Her mastery of both drawing and sculpture.
  • That she depicts ‘common’ people and social themes prominently. She thought these people were beautiful in their own way and that their plight was one that merited attention. For me this is a stark contrast with how current (artistic) elites try to ignore the ‘common and stupid’ people (like Trump voters).
  • The loss of her son and how that permeates her later work.

Our tour guide didn’t make the connection but I find it more than fitting that on May 1st we would be looking at for instance the Weavers cycle (one of which I have pasted below).

Kollwitz_Riot_Best

Sleep by Max Richter

Kevin posted yesterday that he had an extra ticket for Max Richter’s Sleep at Kraftwerk Berlin yesterday. Without a moment’s hesitation I packed my sleeping bag and cycled there with him.

Kraftwerk Mitte is a disused power plant in the middle (Mitte) of the city that is now a club venue and host to a variety of events. The most striking features of it are large open spaces and lots of exposed concrete everywhere.

Max Richter I didn’t know before but I quickly confirmed that I would agree with his music. It had been one of my desires to attend a classical music concert while lying down being able to doze in and out of sleep as your mind and body dictate. Classical concerts tend to be long and uncomfortable affairs.

I hadn’t imagined I would get the chance to do this during an 8 hour overnight concert.

Preparing to spend the night here listening to music by Max Richter

The music is very smooth to listen to and it is a kind of music that Richter is known for (read this interview). I’m listening to From Sleep now as I write this. I listened to the first couple of hours and then fell into a fitful sleep until I woke up again at 07:30 to catch the end.

Sleeping on stretcher beds at a power station 15 minutes cycling away from home with a couple of hundred other people was a strange experience. It was for one one of the lowest key camping trips I have ever undertaken. Though I’m used to the occasional communal sleeping arrangement, those are totally different situations. Berlin’s club spaces facilitate experiences in between the intimate and transgressive but even then this is an odd one out.

I probably also wasn’t the only person in the room who considered it wry that we would pay €48 to sleep in circumstances similar to thousands of others in Germany right now.

I’m still not sure what to make of the event but it is a memorable experience that will stay with me for a while like a dream but more powerful.

New beginnings

At the end of 2015 personal and professional changes made it clear to us that we would not continue Hubbub in its current form. That realization made me reorient myself in Berlin and refocus on my core skills as an engineer.

I set myself the goal to work on a significant product as part of a larger team. I thought it would be useful to change up my professional life which thusfar had consisted only of freelance and client work. A long story short, as of this week I’m employed as a software engineer at ResearchGate.

Mann/Frau

The idea that German television is necessarily terrible has to be reconsidered. I’ve recently started watching Deutschland ’83 which is amazing (more on that later) and yesterday I finished season two of the web series Mann/Frau by BR PULS.

Mann/Frau is a mirror format byte-sized episodic where each installment details the interactions of a man and a woman their relations and lives. It treats most of the themes occupying people around my age living in Berlin but manages to do so drawing more from slapstick than from cliché.

The series is helped enormously by the fact that each episode concludes somewhere under five minutes. Brevity unfortunately is a rare commodity in Germany. The benefits of it here are that it forces them to get to the point quickly, cut rapidly and finish. Episodes of this length also greatly facilitate binge watching. I had never considered you could make a traditional format series with episodes this short, but it works fine.

Halfway through I did develop an intense distaste for the man (Mirko Lang) and the man episodes. This isn’t just because the man character is a huge doofus, but also because it turns out that the man and woman episodes are written and directed by a brother and sister respectively. The woman episodes are more punchy, contain less whining and more action.

In this interview with the brother and sister directors the problem becomes painfully obvious. During the entire interview the brother does most of the talking but doesn’t say anything of substance.

I will keep watching when the next season comes out but I might just fast forward through most of the man’s episodes.

These series may have a catalytic effect on the German television landscape. By their very existence they educate the tastes of an audience that might not have known or expected something like this to be possible. And actually creating something good in turn makes it so that other tv makers can’t hide behind the excuse that the whole landscape is mediocre. Who knows what more may be possible.

Les Contes d’Hoffmann

I went to “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” yesterday in one of Berlin’s three operas thanks to this piece in the Guardian. Yes, I have to rely on a British paper for reliable cultural advice about Berlin.

The Komische Oper is a ten minute bike ride from my house and you can get a discounted ticket with some mild visual obstruction for €18. This makes it a fairly ideal way to spend a Sunday in Berlin which otherwise can be fairly quiet (stores aren’t open, most places close at five or six).

I’m not an expert on opera but I enjoyed the staging and the performances a lot. The Komische Oper’s productions can look a bit kitschy but this was all fairly in line. I can’t share anything from the play thanks to an extremely stringent copyright policy, so below is a recording of one of the major songs by the Met.

After having severed my relation with theater, opera is something that is still fun and interesting to me. What is especially interesting about opera is that despite it fielding some of the biggest budget stage productions we have, it allows a lot of space for weird things. That is not just the case for this opéra fantastique but reading the plot of any opera will leave you amazed at how cheesy it is.

The fact that opera is so open to even the dumbest of stories and at the same times is a spectacular confluence of the multimedia arts would indicate that it has a grand future. Unfortunately the average age of the attendees indicates that that is not the case yet.

The redesign of Moritzplatz roundabout

This is turning into a traffic blog more than anything else. After taking stock of the plans for the new Maaßenstraße which is very slowly nearing completion, now let’s take a look at another place close to my heart: Moritzplatz. The square is right underneath my office and as such I cross it several times daily both on foot and by bike.

Cyclist get hits on MoritzplatzA couple of weeks ago week an accident took place there where a cyclist was touched by a car. No big deal in his case, but it could have been worse considering the way motorists behave here. I have to pay close attention every time I cross this roundabout otherwise this could happen to me as well.

Redesign

Two weeks ago they started marking what is to be the revamped Moritzplatz. I had my hopes up that it would be a serious improvement but judging from the plans it is mostly going to be a new paint job.

New lines on MoritzplatzThe paint job will separate the bicycle lane with stripes from the car lane narrowing the space the cars get and widening the space the bicycles get. The cycle lane itself will be painted bright red. New lines on Moritzplatz

Cycling on the new markings and adhering to the new situation is a bit weird but it does feel like it’s going to be an improvement. It is however not going to fix the most important problem with the square.

Redesign Moritzplatz

The new situation for cyclists

Cyclists get their lane doubled in width and protected by markings. Whether that protection will mean anything in reality remains to be seen. Cars in Berlin will drive anywhere they please. What is a bigger problem on this roundabout and what will remain so in the new situation is that it is unclear who has precedence on the points where cyclists and cars have to cross each other. The angle with which the two cross has also remained the same so you really have to pay attention not to hit a cyclist and not to get hit by a car. A real solution would have been to mark the roundabout with Sharks’ teeth and maybe even to elevate the cycle path. That way cars entering and leaving the roundabout notice that they do so physically. Physical separations on the road make the power dynamic a little less unbalanced like you can see in this example from California. They are of course also expensive. There are roundabouts in the Netherlands that are laid out this defensively even though that usually is not necessary. Schermafbeelding-2012-07-03-om-13.52.56-480x309

The new situation for pedestrians

Pedestrians around Moritzplatz have really been shafted and they are getting a tiny improvement in the new situation. For a pedestrian there is no safe way to cross the square. The underground crossing through the U-Bahn station does not count. Going down and up stairs isn’t an option for disabled people and it’s too much effort for most people in general. Traffic should be safe for its weakest participants so that it benefits everybody. Let’s take a look at the various options to cross Moritzplatz. Keep in mind that you will often have to cross at least one arm of the roundabout to get anywhere. West – There is no way to cross the road here except for the traffic light at Stallschreiberstraße. This traffic light feels broken for pedestrians because during rush hour it gives you about 12 seconds to make the crossing. Almost nobody makes it across during the green phase and everybody knows that the red phase takes forever so people also cross when it’s already red. The traffic light is not an option for crossing Moritzplatz since it is 50m away. That is too far. North – On this side there is an island in the road where pedestrians are relatively safe so at least they don’t have to make the entire crossing in one go. It is still unsafe because there isn’t a zebra crossing but it’s better than nothing. East – There is no way to cross here except for the pedestrian crossing 50m down Oranienstraße. South – A new pedestrian island is planned here. Unfortunately it is 15m off the main arm but that is better than 50m. Just like at the other islands, there won’t be a zebra crossing there which makes any pedestrian trying to cross still a potential victim. Redesign Moritzplatz

It doesn’t matter if there is no way to cross the road, people still do of course. Even if you pay attention and cross the road when there is no traffic, incoming cars expect to be able to push you off the road. At which point you are forced to run across or be killed.

The main flaw here is that people shouldn’t be forced to walk ten or fifty meters more to make things more convenient for motorized traffic. People are more important than cars.

Update: The work is nearing completion and actually the new markings do not seem to make that much of a difference except to cause everybody on the square to be fairly stressed out.

I guess this adequately describes all of us.