Friday, December 6, 2013

Health Care and Apartheid: Basically the Same Thing

As Republican politicians fight their never-ending battle to out-stupid one another, one of the more consistent front-runners is Rick Santorum. Santorum's regularly demonstrated ability to combine right-wing dogma, pseudo-Christian hypocrisy and general tone-deafness is nothing short of breathtaking. That someone with multiple university degrees is capable of saying so many profoundly dumb things (as reported previously) just goes to show that book-larnin' ain't everything, I guess.

Today's award-winning demonstration of Santorum's ignorance took place on Bill O'Reilly's show (an appropriate forum for that sort of thing). Discussing the passing of Nelson Mandela, Santorum told O'Reilly, "Nelson Mandela stood up against a great injustice and was willing to pay a huge price for that, and that's the reason he is mourned today, because of that struggle that he performed… And I would make the argument that we have a great injustice going on right now in this country with an ever increasing size of government that is taking over and controlling people's lives, and Obamacare is front and center in that."

Wow! I'm impressed. And he said all that with a straight face, no less. Yes, Rick believes that a law enacted to extend the benefits of affordable health care to tens of millions of Americans, and to keep millions more from getting screwed over by their health insurance providers, is pretty much the same as a brutal government-mandated system of racial discrimination that regulated where you could live, where you could work, where you could go, whom you could associate with. The similarities are pretty obvious, no?

You're right, this does remind me of Obamacare

I think that with this pronouncement, Santorum has secured himself a comfortable lead in the stupid sweepstakes, ahead of perpetual challengers Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. Not that they aren't putting up a fight, mind you. Palin's recent statement about the federal debt and slavery come to mind (helpful hint: when someone prefaces a statement with, "and this isn't racist, but…", you can safely assume that whatever comes next will be pretty offensive). Bachmann has since countered with claims that Barack Obama "has rewritten the Constitution for himself as a part of his effort to fundamentally transform the United States of America"—golly, I didn't learn in my high school civics class—the one in which I scored 100% on every test but only got a "B" because the teacher said I "had a bad attitude"—that the president gets to rewrite the Constitution. But I think Santorum, with his "ACA=apartheid" equation, once again leaves Sarah and Michele in the dust.

What is it about these right-wing Republicans that enables them to make these pronouncements that attain an almost magical level of stupid? I am simultaneously fascinated and repulsed; I guess it's the same thing some people get out of watching those "Saw" movies. I don't need to watch that stuff—I can just watch Republicans being interviewed on Fox News to get the same kind of sick thrill.

Turn that thing off! It's frightening the children.

Nelson Mandela was, and I'm sure will remain, an inspirational figure to people the world over. He was a man who fought against outrageous injustice, suffered his punishment for that with dignity and ultimately emerged triumphant. Where others might have sought retribution, he worked for reconciliation. He was a respected statesman who was elected to lead his country and, unlike so many of his peers among African leaders, when his term was up, he went. I cannot for the life of me imagine a Santorum or a Palin or a Bachmann (or a Cruz or a Paul or practically any of the more vocal Republicans) ever rising to even a small fraction of that level of moral authority. That Rick Santorum, the supposed champion of Catholic teachingswould somehow link this figure, who for the good of his country truly turned the other cheek to seek rapprochement with his former tormentors, to his own immoral crusade to deprive America's least privileged citizens of a little bit of progress toward health care security tells me everything about him (and his fan base) that I would ever care to know.

Wait… Jesus said what??!!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013 DOA

The President came up to Boston last week to tell us that his ACA (Affordable Care Act, aka "Obamacare") really is going to work. Maybe the eyes of the rest of America were upon him, but I think that greater Boston was more preoccupied with the impending game six of the World Series, in which the Red Sox might win the series in Fenway Park for the first time since 1918 (which did in fact come to pass). Giving a speech at the historic but unpronounceable Faneuil Hall ("FAN-ee-ull" in case you were wondering), on roughly the same spot where Mitt Romney (remember him?) signed the Massachusetts health care act into law in 2006, Mr. Obama apologized for the botched rollout of and assured us all that things will get better soon, reminding us that the debut of Massachusetts' own revamped health insurance framework was also pretty shaky, although it has ultimately worked out well.

Of all the things I pontificate about in these (electronic) pages, here, at last, is something I actually feel professionally qualified to ramble on and on about. I make my living as a project manager for information technology (IT) projects. I've been doing this now for 20+ years as my primary or secondary role in a number of different companies. I have run a lot of projects, many that were big successes, and a few that, well, gave me an opportunity to learn from my mistakes. When I first heard about the problems at the launch of the web site, the words that immediately sprang to mind were the ones that no project manager ever wants to hear from the users of the system of which he or she has just led the delivery: Didn't anybody test this thing?

Well, sort of open. And sort of not.

IT projects generally follow about the same lifecycle, or sequence of activities. First you define requirements: what exactly is this system supposed to do, what technical and organizational constraints need to be addressed and so forth. Then you create the design that will deliver on those requirements. Then you actually build the system and test it to make sure that what you built follows the design and meets the requirements. If testing shows that things aren't working right, you fix those things and then test again, and keep doing that until testing confirms that the system performs as it is supposed to. Then you roll out the finished product by training the people who will operate the system, maybe training end users as well, making sure that you have some kind of helpdesk function in place to field any user issues, loading the system with whatever data is needed to initialize it, making any other logistical preparations that are needed and then finally turning users loose on it ("going live", in IT jargon).

Variants of the "classical" project execution approach (the "waterfall approach") may devote months to each of these major steps, and there are rigid rules about when you can exit each phase and enter the next. Some projects follow approaches such as the "Agile" method in which you define a basic framework of intended capabilities and then develop the details by rapidly iterating through requirements, design etc. in multiple cycles. There's a lot more to either approach than what I've hinted at here, but I won't bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that the different approaches each work best for different kinds of IT projects, although as in any profession, there are adherents to each approach who will argue with religious fervor that one or the other is the only true path to IT nirvana. Here, for example, is a writer who blames the problems with on the use of the waterfall approach instead of Agile. To this I say only, beware of anyone who preaches the one-size-fits-all solution. I have seen Agile projects that were quite successful, and others that devolved into complete chaos and wasted a lot of time and money delivering a Frankenstein-like whatchamacallit that was rejected by users. You have to match the methodology to the circumstances of the project, and consider that often the problem is less in the methodology than in its execution.

Standard IT Project Lifecycle

Whatever the methodology, things can go wrong at any step in an IT project. If requirements are incomplete, or vague, or weren't reviewed and approved by whomever is the sponsor of the project and/or the ultimate owner of the system that will be delivered, you run a very high risk of expending a lot of effort, only to be told, "this isn't what we wanted; go back and build what we wanted, and don't expect us to pay for this other thing you built." If the design is poorly thought out, the final product won't deliver the intended functionality, or it will deliver it in a way that is incomplete, or runs too slowly, or is confusing to users, or crashes frequently, or otherwise renders it essentially unusable. If the individual components and the overall system aren't properly tested at each stage of development, you are pretty much closing your eyes and hoping for a miracle when you put it in front of end users as a supposedly finished product. And if the necessary preparations are not made as part of rollout, taking the system live with actual users can be pretty stressful.

Of all of these parts of the process, in my experience at least, testing is probably the most neglected. Requirements gathering is interesting because you get to talk to a lot of people and drink a lot of coffee and then write everything up in professional-looking documents. In design you produce cool-looking diagrams and have more meetings in which you can show off all of your technical knowledge and tell your war stories about how you cleverly solved this same problem back when you worked for General Electric or Sears or Bank of America. In development you do all the coding and configuration work and experience the satisfaction of having made some conglomeration of hard- and software bend to your will.

But testing is anything but glamorous; on the contrary, it can be mind-numbingly tedious. Testing consists of poring over all of the requirements and design documentation and boiling the intended functionality of the entire system down to a mass of test cases, each of which basically consists of this: If I do A, B is supposed to happen. Now I will do A. Did B happen? Yes? Test passed, move on to the next one. Did B not happen? Test failed, give it back to the developers and let them figure out how to fix it, then run the same test again when they claim it's fixed.

There are lots of different kinds of testing that need to be performed in a typical IT project. At the most basic level, you need to test each individual component of the system to verify that it functions correctly. Then you need to verify that components that interact with other components in some way do that as intended. Then you need to verify that the overall system functions the way it is supposed to in an "end-to-end" test wherein you simulate each of the intended "use cases", that is, specific scenarios or operations that the system is supposed to perform, expecting to see all of its individual components working together in harmony. 

At each of these levels you need to do not only "positive testing", in which you simulate ideal conditions to see how the system behaves, but also "negative testing" in which you verify that errors and unexpected events of whatever kind are properly handled. For instance, if a user enters his or her name in the field that is meant for a driver's license number, does the system return a message like "this is not a valid license number—please correct your entry"? Or does it just fill the user's screen with incomprehensible warnings, or crash the user's web browser, or maybe just do nothing, leaving the user wondering what to do next?

As already noted, if tests fail, the offending component needs to be fixed, and then the fix needs to be tested. However, it's usually not enough to just test the one item that was fixed; in principle, you need to retest the whole system. The reason for this is that fixes to software can introduce "regression errors", which is a fancy way of saying that you may have fixed one thing, but in a way that broke some other part of the system; you do "regression testing" to verify that you didn't fix one defect and inadvertently introduce a new one in the process. In principle, the system should not be declared ready for users until every individual test case has been performed on the final version of the system (i.e., after all fixes are deployed) and no test case has failed.

Other things need to be tested besides the pure "when I do A, I want B to happen" functionality of the system. Among other things, there is usability testing, in which you basically put test users in front of the system and verify that things like the way screens are laid out or the way you progress from one step of some process to the next makes sense to them. There's also performance testing, in which you verify that your system can meet the volumes of users and transactions that it is likely to encounter in real life; if you expect to have a thousand users accessing the system at any given point in time, you want to simulate that in testing before you turn users loose on the system and discover that it bogs down to the point of being unusable beyond fifty concurrent users.

Am I boring you yet? I guess not, if you've read this far. I did warn you that testing is about the dullest part of any IT project. But unfortunately, it's inescapable if you hope to deliver a reliable, working system. No shortcuts allowed! Something I see again and again is that some IT project is progressing toward the end of the testing stage, at which point the prospective owners think of a half dozen new features they want to add, and maybe a few things they want to change. When this happens, you really need to redo the testing of the whole system (remember the risk of regression errors we talked about). But more often than not, these changes get bolted on toward the end of a project; nobody feels like going back and redoing all that tedious testing, everybody just wants to finish the project and let it go live. So in the end, any defects introduced by those last-minute changes get discovered not by the project's testing team, but by the system's (increasingly irate) end users., and there's a mad scramble by the project team to fix everything under massive time and cost pressure.

So, why am I telling you all this? Well, as I read all the news reports about the mess that is, it appears to me that practically every one of the principles I've outlined above has been largely ignored. I'm exaggerating a little for effect here, but I think the thing speaks for itself. Reading the various analyses that have come out recently, experts who have looked at the technical design of the system think some pretty poor design decisions were made. Among other things, you can't just go onto the site to answer the simple question, "what kind of insurance is available and what does it cost?", like you would if you were shopping for, say, car insurance or a home loan or just a pair of pants of a certain size and color. Before you can get an answer to that question, you have to provide a large quantity of personal information that will be verified by the web site through a series of data look-ups in other systems. Besides giving a crappy user experience, the convoluted process requires a lot of communications between systems, and if any of these don't execute perfectly, the user is left sitting and wondering what's happening. 

Shortcomings in the design of the system no doubt are partly a function of just plain poor design decisions, but also a result of the underlying system requirements being changed repeatedly, as recently as a month before the system was to go live (as reported here, among other places). And as for testing? Testimony in the recent congressional hearings on's rocky rollout imply that testing was at best an afterthought. Hey, let's build a massively complex IT system that's going to provide a vital service for millions of users and only spend two weeks testing before we shove it out the door—what could possibly go wrong?

So… let me finally come to my point, which was… oh, yes: IT projects are hard. Lots of them fail abysmally and the bigger they are, the more spectacularly they fail. But this is not some new revelation, it's an established phenomenon you can read about here or here or here, or many other places. The President himself has tried to make the point that the ACA is more than a web site, but that's really missing the point. For those people who want to, or have to, sign up for insurance, is the ACA, or at least the primary manifestation of it in their own lives. It's also the most visible part of the ACA for the media; surely the Obama administration understood that if this web site was not working smoothly from day one, the administration was going to be pilloried in the press and it would be—fairly or unfairly—a major I-told-you-so moment for the Republicans. From what I'm reading now, for anyone on the inside of this project it must have been pretty clear, for a pretty long time, that it wasn't going to end well, and yet there are few or no indications that any sort of measures were taken to address that. This is not a technical failure so much as a management failure of the first order.

The administration's attempts at damage control have also been fairly laughable. First they tried to downplay the problems as "glitches", a cute word that sort of implies this is just a temporary and minor inconvenience; but it's not a "glitch" when the only reliable thing about the system is that the damned thing won't work when you try to use it. And trying to put things in perspective by talking about how the Massachusetts healthcare program got off to a slow and rocky start, or about how IT projects in general often have problems, is just making excuses—if you knew about these potential pitfalls, why didn't you take measures to keep from getting tripped up by them instead of just making the same mistakes as everyone else?

Then there were apologies and expressions of frustration from on high, and assurances that the whole thing will be working fine by the end of November—we shall see, but I'm not holding my breath because I think it will take a few months to do all the testing and rework that should have been done before the thing went live. We also heard that even if the web site isn't working, one can sign up by phone or mail, but what goes unmentioned is that the people who then do the processing  for you use basically the same unreliable system to do so.

Compounding the trouble with are the many reports that people who were repeatedly assured by the President that "if you like your insurance, you can keep it" are finding out that isn't true. It is true that most of the people affected are getting their coverage dropped because that coverage doesn't meet ACA standards, and what they can get to replace it is probably going to be a far better plan than the one they lost. But strictly speaking, what the President said simply wasn't true and so that becomes one more unnecessary black mark against the program in the eyes of so many.

I really want to see the ACA succeed. I suspect, or at least hope, that a year or two from now, things will be running reasonably smoothly, people who could not previously get decent, affordable health insurance will be quite happy, and like Social Security or Medicare, the ACA will be just another part of the social services landscape that nobody seriously questions. But for now, I'm just appalled at the amateurish way this thing was rolled out.

Friday, October 18, 2013

A Lose-Lose Proposition

So, we're back from the brink. At least for another three months, then the whole cycle of madness starts again. I am, of course, talking about the debacle that was the Republican attempt to destroy the Affordable Care Act and threatening to wreck the economy if they didn't get their way. I don't know what I can say about it that hasn't already been said by someone somewhere, but I just have to vent because keeping all that impotent rage bottled up always messes up my digestive system, which can prove embarrassing to everyone around me.

I don't know that I should expect any better of them, but I can't help but be utterly repulsed by things like John Boehner, shortly after the vote, going on some stupid radio program to babble nonsense about how Republicans fought the good fight but didn't win, then going on to say, "We did everything we could to get them to the table to negotiate… They just kept saying no. No, no, no.

Of course the Democrats said no! Is Boehner too stupid to understand why? Actually, he probably isn't. But he clearly thinks you are. And he may be right. I went to get my hair cut today, and one of the barbers was going on and on about how bad it's going to be for everyone when the ACA kicks in fully on Jan. 1, though he wasn't able to articulate any specifics. Ironically, this is a guy who had a quadruple bypass a couple years ago and might be facing a cap on benefits and an inability to get different insurance elsewhere, were it not for the provisions of ACA that now prohibit such insurance company practices. But that's just the way we think in this country, especially if we rely on sources like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News for "information". (As an example of the latter, see this article exposing Sean Hannity's extremely misleading "reporting" on the ACA on Fox News.)

Let's replay what happened here. In a nutshell: Obama put his Affordable Care Act before Congress. Congress approved it. Obama signed it into law. The Supreme Court confirmed it, with a few exceptions. A minority of House Republicans, egged on by the idiot Senator Ted Cruz, demanded that the ACA be defunded before the House would approve a continuing resolution on the budget and approve an increase in the debt ceiling. Boehner, fearing that it would cost him his job as Speaker if he did, refused to let the CR come to a vote, even though it was clear that enough Republicans would vote with the Democrats to pass it without any problem. The Democrats, following the principle that one should not negotiate with terrorists, refused to budge, and Boehner & Co. ultimately had to back down. So what do the Republicans have to show for this whole circus?

Well, they got a couple of very small face-saving concessions, like a requirement that the Department of Health and Human Services report to Congress on procedures to verify income of people who would get subsidies for health insurance. There was a guarantee to pay back pay to federal employees who were forced to work without pay while the government was partially shut down. Oh, and some pork. Who doesn't like pork? The Republicans can be glad they got anything, since at some point they themselves apparently didn't even know what they wanted any more, as illustrated by Representative Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind., with Tea Party backing), who famously told the Washington Examiner, “We’re not going to be disrespected… We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

And what did the rest of us get? Well, we eventually got the government reopened. Also, according to Standard & Poors we got a reduction in GDP equivalent to around a $24 billion cost to the US economy—exactly the sort of thing we need right now. Remember when Boehner said this?

“Helping Americans get back to work is our number one priority, and we’re going to do everything we can to help create jobs and to boost our economy."

That was back in May, 2011. It's good to know that Boehner's job creation plan includes temporarily putting thousands of people out of work, threatening all the small businesses that depend on their patronage, creating the threat of a global financial crisis, and generally shoring up international investors' faith in US Treasury Bonds by demonstrating to the rest of the world that our government is capable of financial management on par with the governments of Greece or Cypress. It's a novel strategy. Good work, John.

Why didn't you just smack him with that thing while you had the chance?

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Man Who Says, "No Shoes!"

The Heiress is beginning her second year at The Big U down in Washington, DC. It was also her birthday this week. Thus did I find myself spending the Labor Day weekend in Our Nation's Capital™.

We've been there a few times now. We spend part of the time visiting with her, and the rest of the time seeing the sights, of which there are many to be seen in DC. The National Mall is a great place for anyone who likes museums. We've now been to many of them, but there are still several we haven't visited. This past weekend we visited a few more. We hadn't been in any of the art museums yet, so that ended up being a kind of focal point of this particular visit.

I wouldn't classify myself as a total philistine, but I'm hardly an expert when it comes to painting and sculpting and such. All I can say is that I know what I like, and I know what I don't like.

For many years I worked in the headquarters of a leading European bank that, at least during the era in which I worked there, made a big deal out of being a major patron of the arts. On every floor of every one of its major buildings there hung whole collections of different artists' work. Most of what was on display was of the modern, abstract variety. There was a lot of stuff I really liked, and there was plenty I didn't.

I developed a particular distaste for a large collection in one of the buildings I frequently visited that consisted of pencil scribbles on a piece of white paper that, were it not for the quality of the paper and the fancy frames in which the individual pieces were mounted,could easily have been mistaken for something produced by The Heiress, or The Young Master, both of whom were small children at the time. How much had the bank paid for this nonsense? Who was the guy who produced this stuff? Did he genuinely feel that this was some profound expression of his inner soul, or was this just some kind of elaborate practical joke?

Looking at stuff like that always makes me think of the book Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (one of the heroes of my youth, but that's a story for another day). One of the characters in the book is the minimalist painter Rabo Karabekian, creator of a painting called The Temptation of Saint Anthony, an enormous canvas painted green, with a single vertical stripe of day-glo orange tape near one end, which is purchased by a wealthy industrialist for an outrageous sum of money. Reflecting on Karabekian's masterpiece, Vonnegut's narrator pretty much sums up my own feelings about that pencil-scribble stuff:

I thought Karabekian with his meaningless pictures had entered into a conspiracy with millionaires to make poor people feel stupid.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony (Reproduction)

The basic criterion I have evolved for judging what I myself like or dislike in modern art is pretty simple: If I could do it myself, it's not art. Whatever the artist may have been trying to express, whatever the medium may be, however abstract, there has to be some combination of originality and craftsmanship for me to be able to appreciate it. 

One of the places we visited on this latest trip was the Hirshhorn Museum, which houses a large collection of modern art. I had lots of opportunities to apply my simple criterion there. And to be sure, I found plenty to hate, plenty to like, and a certain amount of stuff to just leave me scratching my head.

My favorite thing in the Hirshhorn was an installation by the artist Ann Hamilton, in collaboration with Kathryn Clark, called "Palimpsest". Picture a room the size of a medium-sized bedroom, the walls of which are covered with identically-sized sheets of newsprint about four inches square. Each sheet of paper is affixed to the wall by a single push-pin, and on each is handwritten a brief vignette from someone's life. I assume each sheet was written out by a different person, since the handwriting on the ones I examined closely looked different in each case. I'll further assume that each sheet was previously written on and then erased, in accordance with the definition of a palimpsest. In the middle of the room is a glass case the size of a fairly large aquarium that contains two cabbages and a number of snails. There's also an oscillating electric fan that causes the paper sheets to periodically flutter in the breeze. The floor consists of tiles that are actually large slabs of beeswax.

What does it mean? I have no idea. Yet somehow I found it intriguing. I think that more than anything I was impressed by the sheer determination and perseverance it must have taken to collect all those individual stories on small sheets of paper and then arrange them perfectly on the walls. Or maybe it's because despite my conscious disdain, I really am impressed by the cleverness of someone who can get a private collector or a museum to pay a very large sum of money for someone to engage in such a colossal waste of time.

Ann Hamilton, Palimpsest

What intrigued me the most, however, was what was going on just outside the entrance to the installation. Because of the material from which the floor is constructed, you can't just walk into the installation; you have to put on little nylon booties over your shoes before you enter. The nylon booties are available from a bin next to a bench, on which you can sit while pulling them over your shoes, but there's no sign actually explaining this.

Instead, there's a security guard standing outside the room. There are security guards posted throughout the museum to keep people from fingering the items on display; what makes this guard stand out is that about every 15–20 seconds he repeats his perpetual refrain of, "No shoes!" He says this in a loud staccato tone, though not quite shouting, each time someone starts to step into the installation without the little nylon booties, which is essentially every time anyone walks up to look at it since, as noted above, it's not immediately obvious that supplemental footwear is required. Watching this tiny little drama play out in the same predictable cycle, again and again, I had to wonder whether this was also an integral part of the artist's statement.

I asked him if he spends his entire shift standing in that one spot, saying, "No shoes!" He answered that he does. Does he like his job? "Well, sometimes it's kind of funny how people jump when I say it," he explained, "but I'm really glad when I can go home every day."

Monday, August 19, 2013

Meet The New Box, Same As The Old Box

Slowly but surely, I came to hate the refrigerator.

I was a renter for a good many years. The nice thing about being a renter, at least in America, is that you have all of your appliances provided by your landlord. If one of them breaks, the landlord deals with it. You're not going to get anything luxurious, at least not in any of the places in which I was ever a tenant, but it's going to work, more or less.

Most of the refrigerators I knew as a renter looked like they were manufactured sometime in the 1950's. They were always white, with rounded corners and a lot of chrome trim. What they lacked in charm, they made up for in reliability. What is a refrigerator, after all? It's just a box. An insulated box, with a motor that pumps the coolant around the cooling circuit and a thermostat that turns the motor on and off. Oh, and a light, with a switch that turns it on when you open the door.

I never had a refrigerator of my own until I lived in Germany. There, even as a renter it's up to you to provide your own kitchen and laundry appliances. Still, what I ended up with was… a box. Nothing exciting about that.

Then I moved back to America and after renting a house for a couple of years, bought a house of my own. The appliances that were left by the previous owner were in a pretty sorry state, so off we went to shop for a new refrigerator. America, land of plenty! So much to choose from! Freezer on top or below? Side-by-side? French doors? Mais oui, monsieur! Which finish—white, black, beige, stainless steel? Ice and cold water right in the door? We settled on a black Maytag side-by-side model.

For a year and a half or so, we got along well, the fridge and I. Then summer came, and we started noticing little puddles on the floor. I figured out that in our humid summer weather, water was condensing on the cold inside walls of the refrigerator and then running down the sides and out the bottom. I assumed the door seal must not be working right, and called someone out to the house to repair it.

Well, it turned out that the door was in fact not properly sealing, but not because the seal had a problem. There was some plastic component of the door hinge that was worn down and causing the door to sag slightly and not close properly. A known design flaw with this model, the appliance repairman told me. Great, and of course the thing was out of warranty by then. The repairman replaced the part and admonished me not to put any heavy items in the door, as this could cause the part to fail again prematurely (which I guess meant within 18 months rather than the expected two years).

But wait, I said, behold: the door has shelves that are actually made to hold multiple gallon jugs of milk, or juice, or water or whatever; surely it can handle some weight. The repairman, affecting the kind of soothing voice and saccharine facial expression that one uses when explaining complicated principles to small children or feeble-minded adults, repeated his admonition to heed his words and spare myself from the curse of Maytag.

I did my best to follow that advice. My Favorite Wife and I were careful to put only the lightest of items in the door shelves. And lo, it came to pass that another year and a half or so later, the door was again not fully sealing. But worse: as summer came, bringing with it the usual humidity, instead of dribbling out onto the floor, the condensation began to freeze in one cold spot on the inside of the refrigerator. Over the summer, the chunk of ice grew to a diameter of about twelve inches. As summer turned to fall, and fall to winter, the air became drier and the ice receded, until by about late December it was all gone. The following summer, and the summer after that, and in every summer since, we observed the natural cycle of growth and recession of our own private glacier. Until this summer, that is, when instead of the glacier we were back to the water just condensing on the inside walls and running out the bottom.

The thing has had other problems, too. The little plastic connectors that hold the produce compartments in place have slowly broken off, one by one, to be replaced with whatever contraption I could rig up as a replacement. But why? It's not like those things are subject to the kind of weight, or sudden stress, that would cause them to snap in half for no obvious reason. The cold water dispenser became entirely useless; the flow of cold water, once a mighty stream, gradually slowed to a tiny trickle, as if the refrigerator was suffering from prostate problems. The ice maker developed a problem in which the little paddles that kick the finished cubes (or wedges, more like) out of the ice form into the holding receptacle began to stick, causing the freezer to emit an alarming clicking noise accompanied by the hum of a straining motor until I finally stuck my finger in to unstick the thing. More recently it developed a leak or condensation problem or something else that caused the ice maker to commit suicide by gradually encasing itself in a thick layer of ice that ultimately rendered the whole thing useless.

It's worth mentioning (or maybe not, but I'll do it anyway), that I bought a Maytag dishwasher at the same time as the refrigerator. It turned out to be noisy enough just during the wash cycle, but it also had this sort of built-in garbage disposal unit that ran as the water was pumped out, and that thing was so loud that it was like living in a sawmill every time we ran a load. Despite its avowed mission to ensure that anything stuck to your dishes would not clog the drain, the thing itself would clog, requiring me to perpetually clear the gunk out of it with my fingers. After the second or third visit from the repairman in five or so years, I replaced it with a Bosch unit that reliably runs whisper-quiet. So much for buying American. Built to last… about three years, if you're lucky. Don't even get me started on my Ford Windstar.

Time to meet your maker.

MFW and I have toyed with the idea of replacing the accursed icebox for some time now. It's been a long time coming, because neither of us can get really jazzed about looking at appliances, nor are we especially enthusiastic about shelling out big bucks for something that performs such a simple function. We recently made one abortive attempt to go out and shop for a new one. I did some research online beforehand, but practically every model that had good reviews overall still had a pretty significant number of one-star reviews by people attesting to how that particular one had more or less wrecked their lives. What kind of decision do I make with this information? Then we went to Sears, where we stared at fridge after fridge before deciding that we just couldn't deal with it.

In the week or so after that, I stopped at a couple of specialty appliance stores near where I live. I spent about five minutes in each, just long enough to ascertain that they carried only the high-end models. There is no way I am going to pay $3,000 or more for a stupid refrigerator, no matter how beautiful it may be.

The weekend before last was tax-free weekend in Massachusetts, meaning that no sales tax is charged on purchases under, if I recall correctly, $2500. I suggested to MFW that we go look at refrigerators again, reasoning that the writing was on the wall that we should think of replacing ours while we can at least shop around, rather than waiting until the thing just up and dies and we have to just go out and buy something, anything, so why not do it when we could save 50 or 60 bucks off of what we might otherwise spend. We went to a couple of home improvement stores, the orange one and the blue one; both had a fairly large selection of only the most expensive models, so before we knew it, we were back at Sears. 

To our mutual surprise, we actually found a model that we could agree on. It was on sale too, but then it seems like the appliances are always "on sale" at Sears, so I didn't  pay much attention to that. However, they were also having a special "friends and family" event in which you could take 15% off the price of any appliance, or 20% if you paid with a Sears credit card. So in the end, we ended up actually spending a fair amount less than we had expected to spend.

Yesterday was to be the big day when the new box would be arriving. We spent the evening before getting ready. You have no idea how much ridiculous stuff you've accumulated until you have to take it all out of the fridge. For one thing, there are the forgotten leftovers that have gotten shoved into a far corner, out of sight and no doubt spawning the next generation of mutant killer bacteria that will one day threaten the entire planet. Then there are the exotic ingredients bought for one recipe that called for it, but which will never be used again. What did we even buy this huge jar of ground caraway seed paste for? Nobody remembers.

The tendency of my refrigerator to be home to container after container of items that expired sometime during the Clinton administration is probably a legacy of my days as an (almost literally) starving student. I was in college at a time when you could actually still go to a state school and work your way through, although it meant barely scraping by, with periods in which I found myself with just enough cash on hand to buy enough potatoes and onions to eat for a week or more, until the next paycheck came in. Decades later, I still struggle to suppress a semi-hysterical reaction when someone tries to throw food away. The neighbors tell amusing tales of how I terrorized their picky-eater children into finishing everything they had loaded onto their plates when they came to our house to eat, something that their kids had never before done at home.

Anyway… We moved all the frozen food we wanted to keep into our big freezer, discarding things like the cartons of ice cream containing half an inch of something no longer really recognizable as ice cream, so that was easy enough. We removed all the things like beer or soda or other items that were in the refrigerator more for the pleasure of having them cold than because they really needed to be in there. What remained would be easy to throw into an ice chest long enough for the delivery guys to extract the old box and deposit the new one.

Then it was time to start on the outside. We removed about ten years worth of accumulated stuff stuck to the front of the thing with magnets. Photos, newspaper clippings recounting track and field exploits of The Heiress, the skeleton of a mouse extracted by The Young Master from an owl pellet in first or second grade and glued to a piece of construction paper, an amazing number of long-expired coupons and various other bits of flotsam.

Then at last we got the call from the delivery guys saying they would arrive shortly. Milk and lunch meat and other stuff like that went into the ice chest. I pulled the wretched box out from the little alcove that has hosted it for all these years, disconnected the water hose and vacuumed up all the dust bunnies and other accumulated gunk. Then we awaited the Blessed Event.

Two guys showed up shortly afterward. One of them unpacked the new refrigerator at the truck, while the other one measured door clearances and sized up other potential obstructions. He was actually kind of amazed that we had a moderately easy way to get the old one out and the new one in. MFW asked him if it ever happens that they can't fit somebody's new refrigerator through the door, and he said it happens on a pretty regular basis. Thankfully, with us they were in and out the door in relatively short order.

Finally life is worth living again.

Oh, what a difference! Twenty-four hours later, everything in the new box seems colder and fresher than in the old one. There is ice to be had. No puddles, no unsettling noises. The stuff stuck to the front of it is only the most important of useless items, although for some reason MFW has failed to put up the aforementioned mouse skeleton; I must have a word with her about that. And as for the old Maytag, it's now just a bad memory; since it's in bad taste to speak ill of the departed, I'll just say it's comforting to think that it's with Jesus now.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Back to Berlin

I took a little trip to Berlin this summer. I've been there a couple of times, but the last time was over two decades ago. My Favorite Wife and I wanted to see all the changes that have happened since then, and it was a good opportunity for a little history lesson for The Young Master as well. I have ancestors who emigrated from Berlin around the turn of the last century, so there's even a distant personal connection there.

I first visited Berlin in November of 1984. I had come to Germany ostensibly as an exchange student, having been accepted to the same program that previously brought MFW (at the time still My Future Wife) to a rendezvous with destiny at the small Northern California university I attended. At the time I got onto the exchange program I had actually already graduated, so I'm not sure why I was still qualified, but I wasn't asking any questions. If the objective of the program was to further intercultural understanding, I'd say they got their money's worth.

Once at the university in Mainz that was on the receiving end of the exchange, I was strongly advised to sign up for the Berlin tour offered every year by the DAAD (the German Academic Exchange Service). For the equivalent of something like $50, you got travel and lodging and a week of tours and other activities. So sign up I did.

I explained a little of the history of divided Germany in another recent post. But to briefly recap, at the end of WWII, a big chunk of Germany's eastern provinces was ceded to Poland and the Soviet Union, and the rest was divided into British, American, French and Soviet occupation zones. Berlin, the capital, located roughly in the middle of the Soviet zone, was similarly divided into four sectors. The Soviet occupation zone became the German Democratic Republic (GDR), aka East Germany, ruled by the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED, Socialist German Unity Party) in the Soviet style. The British, American and French zones became the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), aka West Germany, a parliamentary democracy.

Berlin had a complicated special status. Officially, it remained an entity distinct from either West or East Germany. But in practice, the Soviet sector (East Berlin) became the capital of East Germany. The rest, West Berlin, became a kind of island that was sort of part of West Germany and sort of not. Among other things, West Germany's restrictive laws regulating opening hours of different kinds of businesses didn't apply in West Berlin, something that pubs in particular took advantage of, so West Berlin was well known for its night life. West Berlin residents were not eligible to serve in the West German army, making it a popular place for West German draft dodgers to establish residence and contributing to its status as a kind of counterculture mecca.

West Berlin was connected to West Germany by road, rail and air. In 1948, the Soviets instituted a blockade of the land connections to West Berlin in an effort to get the western allies to give it up entirely. In principle, they were within their rights to do this, because there was no written agreement allowing the western allies road or rail access to Berlin via the Soviet occupation zone. There was, however, a written agreement specifying air corridors to Berlin. The result was the famous "air bridge", in which the western allies supplied the city by air for around a year, until the blockade was given up and West Berlin's special status was left intact, with specific road and rail connections specified for transit between West Germany and West Berlin.

Throughout the subsequent decade and a half, the problem remained for the East German government that their best and brightest were taking advantage of the possibility to leave the country via West Berlin, causing a fairly critical brain drain. The result was the Berlin wall, erected starting in 1961, that turned West Berlin's political separation from East Berlin and East Germany into a very tangible physical one. By the time I got there, the wall and the associated political balance of power had been in place for more than two decades and were pretty much accepted as the status quo. I was visiting the front lines of the cold war.

I really wasn't sure what to expect. More than anything else I was curious to get a glimpse of East Berlin. As a child of the Cold War, I had grown up with all kinds of horror stories about life behind the Iron Curtain; here was a chance to get a look at that up close, however brief and superficial it might be. My expectations were colored by MFW's own tales of an earlier visit to Berlin as part of a school trip that was pretty much de rigeur for West German kids. She recounted how she and a friend waited to get their passports stamped for entry to East Berlin in an endless line in a hot stuffy building at a border crossing; her friend, feeling faint, sat down on the floor, whereupon an East German soldier, obviously a conscript no older than the two of them, immediately planted himself in front of them, screaming, "Get up! This isn't a campground! This is the territory of the German Democratic Republic!" To this day MFW still talks about how much she would like to find that guy and give him a good sound smack on the side of the head.

The first day of my own visit on the DAAD program we were put on buses and carted around to see the sites, both East and West. I don't remember much about the tour of West Berlin. West Berlin actually isn't all that interesting; for whatever reason, most of the interesting historical sites ended up in East Berlin, so maybe it's for that reason that I only really remember was the East Berlin portion of the tour.

Our tour bus drove to one of the designated crossings for the East Berlin portion of the tour. Our West German guide exited, we drove to the East German side and a different tour guide got on. We cruised around the eastern part of the city, with a lot of time spent at the Soviet war memorial in Treptower Park. As we drove around, the East German tour guide described the sights and fielded questions, most of which were some variant on, "Don't you think your whole system is kind of nutty?" She responded patiently to each one of these questions. Not with a wink and a nod, mind you; she sounded perfectly reasonable and sincere as she gave us the party line.

The final stop on our East Berlin tour was at an "Intershop" store. This was a government-run establishment sort of like a duty-free shop where you could buy western cigarettes, liquor and other such items, the catch being that you had to pay in hard currency (read: non-Eastern Bloc), something the East German government was very eager to get its hands on. On the way out, the bus was thoroughly and carefully inspected, much more so than on the way in, to ensure that we weren't smuggling anyone out of the Socialist Paradise on Earth. The inspection tools included big mirrors mounted face-up on little rollers with a long handle, which they used to inspect the underside of the bus, presumably to make sure nobody was trying to smuggle himself out that way.

The most interesting thing about West Berlin was just the overall sensation of being in this island surrounded by a giant concrete wall, guarded with guns and mines and watchtowers, not so much to keep you on the island as to keep anyone from the outside from joining you there. Whatever direction you walked in, sooner or later you would come upon the wall, seemingly randomly placed, bringing an abrupt end to whatever street you happened to be walking down.

End Of The Line

The wall that was visible from the West Berlin side was only one part of the overall border complex or "Antifaschistischer Schutzwall" (Anti-Fascist Protective Wall), as it was referred to in official East German parlance. There was a separate wall running more or less in parallel on the East Berlin side. The "death strip" between the two walls, which was any where from about 100 to 1500 feet wide, contained anti-vehicle barriers, watchtowers, searchlights and plenty of armed guards with shoot-to-kill orders, which were exercised a hundred or so times during the roughly three decades that the wall stood (most of the shooting incidents occurred early on; thereafter it was fairly clear to East Germans that the guards weren't just carrying guns for ceremonial purposes). The West Berlin side was covered with graffiti; the East Berlin side was of course kept scrupulously blank.

In a few places in West Berlin there were viewing platforms erected over the years that enabled you to peer over the wall into the eastern side. Standing on one of these at the Potsdamer Platz, the soundtrack playing in my head was the Sex Pistols song Holidays in the Sun.

I'm Looking Over The Wall… And They're Looking At Me

In the 1930's, the Potsdamer Platz was a huge, bustling metropolitan crossroad. Now it was just a vast empty space with a wall on either side and scary-looking guard towers in between. To look at it, you wouldn't have suspected that it was once full of life. The fact that I was looking at it on a gray November day added to the sense of desolation.

Potsdamer Platz, November 1984

One of the weirder sections of the wall was the spot where one of Berlin's major landmarks, the Brandenburg Gate, stood. You may remember it as the site of Ronald Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" speech in 1987. The structure had been severely damaged during WWII. After the war the ruins of the adjacent buildings were torn down and it was somewhat restored, only to end up frozen in time in the middle of the "death strip" when the wall went up. You could view it from a distance, but you couldn't actually walk up to it for a look.

Brandenburg Gate, November 1984

Wandering around the Kreuzberg neighborhood of West Berlin I came upon one spot where it wasn't possible to put up a wall on the Western side, because the border was the Spree River, with the river itself belonging to East Berlin but the river bank belonging to West Berlin. A somewhat ominous-looking sign warned in German and Turkish (Kreuzberg being heavily populated by Turkish "guest-workers") that a dip in the river could cost you your life.

Oberbaum Bridge, November 1984

There was one day of the Berlin trip that was free of planned activities. Like most of our group, I used the free day for an unguided trip to East Berlin. To do this, you had to go to Checkpoint Charlie, which was the designated crossing point for all non-(West) Germans, and get a one-day visa. You got in line and waited. And waited, and waited. When you finally got up to the head of the line, you paid a visa fee of something like 7 or 8 DM (West German Marks), around $4 at the time, plus you had to change an additional 25 DM into 25 East German marks. That 1:1 exchange rate was a pretty good deal for the East German government; a fair exchange rate based on the actual value of their currency would have gotten you six or seven times as many East German marks for your DM.

When leaving East Berlin you also had to surrender all of your East German currency, because it was illegal to take it out of the country. Not that it was useful as anything other than a memento anyway; outside of East Germany (perhaps with the exception of the other Soviet bloc countries), it was entirely worthless anyway. The sense that their money had essentially no value had a tactile dimension, as the coins were made of aluminum. Holding a pile of coins (referred to by East Germans themselves as "Alu-Chips") weighing next to nothing in your hand didn't exactly leave you with a feeling that you were carrying around anything of substance or value.

Being a starving student, for whom 25 DM was not an insubstantial amount of money at the time, I felt an obligation to use the 25 M ("M" being the designation for the East German Mark) into which it had been converted on something useful. The problem was, there really wasn't anything even marginally useful to buy. I spent a few M on a sausage and a beer and wondered what to do with the rest.

Eventually I found my way to the Alexanderplatz, one of the few areas I encountered in East Berlin that seemed slightly (emphasis on slightly) more colorful and consumer-oriented. It was a big open square that featured the huge Weltuhr (world clock) that showed you the current time in different world cities, and a big open square with a decorative fountain. There I found a department store in which I spent most of my remaining M on an LP of classical music and, since I had studied business and economics, a few paperbacks with titles like "Money Circulation in the Socialist Economy" that sounded moderately interesting (and turned out not to be).

World Clock, Alexanderplatz, November 1984

Fountain, Alexanderplatz, November 1984

In the course of my wanderings I also happened across the Neue Synagoge (New Synagogue), built in 1866, damaged in 1938 during the Reichskristallnacht and then further damaged during the allied bombing of Berlin. The remaining ruins were left as a monument during the years of East Germany's existence. I wondered if maybe some of my own ancestors had gone in and out of there before they left for America.

Neue Synagoge, November 1984

I also went to have a look at the Palast der Republik (Palace of the Republic), the seat of the East German "parliament". The facade of the building was covered with windows that had a sort of bronze-colored reflective coating that caused it to reflect the Berlin Cathedral (in the midst of a multi-year restoration effort at the time of my visit), which stood directly across from it. The building stood on the site of the former "City Palace", of the ruling Prussian royal family. The building was referred to by East Germans as "Erich's lamp store" for the blinding array of ceiling lamps in the foyer of the building. Another of its architectural features was the enormous quantity of asbestos used in its construction.

Palast der Republik, November 1984

Berlin Cathedral, November 1984

One thing that I was told I had to see while in Berlin was the changing of the guard at the Neue Wache (New Guard House). Originally constructed as a guard house for a nearby palace used by the Prussian crown prince, after WWII the Neue Wache was rebuilt and re-purposed as East Germany's central "Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism". Inside, it was a huge empty room with an eternal flame burning in the middle of it. Outside there was a military honor guard consisting of a couple of soldiers standing stoically at attention.

Sentinels Of Freedom

Every day at 1:00 PM (if I recall correctly) there was an elaborately choreographed ceremony for the changing of the guard that involved hundreds of soldiers marching up and down Unter den Linden, the wide boulevard running in front of the Neue Wache, which was cordoned off for the duration of the ceremony along a length of several hundred. The marching featured a fair amount of goose-stepping, which invited associations that seemed pretty ironic in view of the fact that this was ostensibly taking place in commemoration of the Victims of Fascism and Militarism.

I Thought We Finished With This In 1945

My second trip to Berlin, East and West, didn't happen until November of 1990, roughly six years after the first visit. MFW, however, had been there a year previously, to do some thesis-related research on an obscure German author in an East Berlin archive. She got very little done on that trip, though, because she happened to arrive on the evening of November 9, 1989: the night the wall came down.

The build-up to that event had been going on for much of the previous year. Actually, it had been going on since the beginning of the 1980's, when the Solidarity movement began to challenge communist rule in Poland, and began to accelerate as Gorbachev came into power in the USSR and instituted various reform policies. In May of 1989 the Hungarian government began taking down its border fences with Austria, and tens of thousands of East Germans, who were able to travel to other Hungary and other Eastern Bloc countries, took advantage of this to head westward. After their government prohibited travel to Hungary, East Germans began occupying West German diplomatic facilities elsewhere in Eastern Europe, from which they were eventually allowed to exit to the west.

As summer turned to fall, the weekly "Monday demonstrations" began in the East German city of Leipzig, with first thousands and then tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to demand freedom of movement and democratic elections (as opposed to the biannual "elections" in which the SED and its coalition of smaller puppet parties consistently was confirmed in office with 99-plus percent of the votes). Though ordered to shoot to kill, police refused to follow the order, with the result that the demonstrations continued to snowball. Amidst all this, the SED was attempting to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the founding of the GDR, which made for something of a bizarre spectacle. It was during this period, in early October, that Gorbachev came to attend the anniversary celebrations in East Berlin. He urged Erich Honecker, the SED party leader and head of state, to accept reforms, but Honecker refused.

I watched all of this unfold from Mainz, in West Germany, to which I had returned after finishing graduate school in 1988. I had grown up as a child of the Cold War, inured to the idea that the world was roughly divided into two opposing camps who might push the buttons that would incinerate each other at pretty much any moment. The US military presence all around me in Germany served to remind me that I was living directly on the fault line of that conflict, and I had grown accustomed to that as well. To see this status quo now unraveling so rapidly before my eyes seemed nothing short of supernatural. The whole situation had kind of a surreal quality.

With the situation rapidly spiraling out of control, the SED fired Honecker and put Egon Krenz, Honecker's deputy, in charge. Krenz and his circle decided that they had no choice but to allow reforms, including the right to travel to the west. In a press conference on the evening of November 9, 1989, the SED spokesman Günter Schabowski announced this, and was asked by an Italian journalist when this would take effect. Schabowski, caught off guard by the question, answered, "As far as I know, effective immediately, without delay." He continued to ad lib, mentioning that this applied to the border crossings into West Berlin. The West German evening news, which could be received by East Germans (with the exception of those in the far eastern part of the country, known colloquially as the Tal der Ahnungslosen, or  "valley of the clueless") broadcast excerpts of the press conference, causing East Berliners to surge to the border crossings at the wall, demanding to be let across. The confused and overwhelmed border guards, who were not getting any useful guidance from their superiors, finally just began letting people cross at will from East to West and back again. The rest, as they say, is history.

Be Careful What You Wish For

For the first days after Schabowski's announcement, confusion more or less reigned. At the Brandenburg Gate, where the wall was fairly wide, East German border guards stood on top of the wall. Presumably they were supposed to keep people from climbing up there, for whatever reason. I'm not sure the guards themselves even knew why they were up there, other than that those were their orders.

Brandenburg Gate, November 10, 1989

A common site all over the city were the so-called Mauerspechte ("wallpeckers"), people with hammers and chisels and other such tools who were hammering chunks out of the wall, partly as souvenirs (pieces with paint from graffiti being particularly prized) and partly just for the symbolic value.

Goodbye Wall

MFW, as you might imagine, did not get a whole lot of work done during her visit. She did make her way to the archive in East Berlin that she had been given special permission to visit, but much of the staff had disappeared for spontaneous visits to West Berlin. Back in Mainz, I envied her for having managed to turn up there exactly at the moment history was being made. Unfortunately, I had work obligations that made it pretty much impractical for me to just drop everything and go there to join her, something I'll always regret.

Potsdamer Platz, November 1989

So while I didn't get to go see history being made in East Germany, its residents were coming to see me. Within a day or two of the opening of the borders, the streets of Mainz, like those of pretty much every other West German city, were full of East Germans in their hilariously obsolete Trabant and Wartburg cars. These were little four-seater subcompact cars with a plastic body that were powered by a 26-horsepower, two-cycle engine (as opposed to the four-cycle engine used in just about any other car you will have ever encountered). Prospective owners signed a purchase contract and then waited approximately ten years for delivery. They were noisy as hell and left a trail of foul-smelling blue smoke wherever they went, since the two-cycle engine was lubricated by motor oil that was mixed directly into the gasoline it consumed.

The East Germans were driven to head West by any number of factors. Some were striking out to seek their fortune, but most just wanted to see what the land of the capitalist class enemy, which they had heard so much about but had been forbidden to visit for so long, actually looked like, and had no plans to stay for any longer amount of time.

Another major draw for East Germans was the Begrüßungsgeld, or "welcome money". Because the few East Germans who were allowed to visit West Germany were highly restricted in the amount of money they could take out of the country and therefore showed up more or less penniless, since 1970 the West German government had a policy of handing out DM 100 to anyone who showed up at a West German bank or town hall with an East German passport. The East German tourists were more than happy to take advantage of this generosity, forming long lines outside of banks in West Berlin and West Germany. You were supposed to be able to do this once a year, but within around a month or so the West German government, which had never reckoned with having to pay out DM 100 each to millions of people, ended the program.

We've Come To Collect

A lot of West Germans spontaneously took in East German tourists, feeling an urge to extend hospitality to their deprived cousins from the East. A number of cities and towns added a few DM extra to the Begrüßungsgeld being paid out within their jurisdictions. It didn't take long for this wave of generosity to ebb, though. A guy I worked with told me a story about how he had offered to take in a family from East Germany who had come to have a look at the West for a week. At some point they mentioned that they would be taking a trip that day to visit their relatives who lived in a neighboring town. My somewhat dumbfounded colleague asked them why they weren't just staying with their relatives if they were that close. They explained that they had considered that, but decided to camp out in my colleague's living room instead because they could get DM 20 extra in Begrüßungsgeld each if they stayed in his town and collected their payment there. Needless to say, his feelings of solidarity were not especially enhanced upon being told this. In general, within a few weeks the novelty had worn off and I don't think that anyone in the West particularly regretted that the number of East Germans putting around in their noisy, stinky little cars had declined considerably.

My own return to Berlin didn't occur until November of 1990. I was working for a Big Eight consulting company (which has since merged with another to become one of the Big Four—I guess eventually they will all become the Big One) and was asked on fairly short notice to travel to Berlin to help out with a project to prepare a state-owned East German company for privatization, of which there were many going on. MFW was free to travel at the time and so we both jumped in the car and headed east.

As recounted earlier, I had of course wandered around East Berlin six years previously, and had heard all of MFW's stories from the immediate aftermath of the end of the wall, and read countless articles and watched numerous TV programs about life in East Germany as the country sought to transition to life in a reunited Germany without the "East" and "West" prefixes. Reunification had officially happened a month previously, in October 1990, but as I was soon to learn, culturally things were still very much the same as they had been while the wall was intact. The initial euphoria of the end of the SED regime had given way to a more sober realization that integrating this country that in many ways seemed closer to the 1950's than the 1990's was going to be massively difficult.

I had been given some briefings on what awaited me, and arrived at the company in East Berlin around 3:30 PM, ready to get in at least a few hours of work. It being winter, the air was thick with the pungent smell of the lignite, or brown coal, that powered much of East Germany. The building in which I was to spend the next week or so was stiflingly hot, despite the fact that windows were standing open all over the place. I was reminded of something a friend who had previously visited East Germany multiple times once told me, which was that because nobody explicitly paid for heating, nobody paid much attention to how much energy was being consumed to generate it; if the room got too warm, rather than attempting to adjust the central heating system you just opened some windows. It was a classic example of how what belongs to everyone belongs to no one, and so no one feels any obligation to maintain it or make sure it's being used in a non-wasteful manner.

There were a few introductions, and I mentioned that I hoped we could meet until around 6 or 6:30 to map out a plan for the coming days. This was met with murmurs of a negative sort, and it was explained to me that it was actually shortly before quitting time; East German workers were accustomed to start their day around 7 AM or so but expected to be out the door by about 4 PM. OK, fine, go home then, we'll start tomorrow, I told them. We were off to a great start.

The ensuing days left me pretty much throwing up my hands as far as the future of the company was concerned. I was dealing with the company management, but the level of planning skills (not to mention the level of motivation) was pretty low. They didn't have any real idea of what it cost to produce whatever it was they were producing (I've long since forgotten), who their customers were and what prices they were paying, and any number of other things that are pretty much fundamental to running a business. They were used to getting their materials and their marching orders from some central planning board and then just following instructions to produce whatever types and quantities they were told to produce. It seemed pretty obvious that this operation was going to have to radically transform itself if it was going to survive in even a greatly stripped down form.

As it turned out, this particular company was pretty typical of state-owned East German enterprises. The East German economy had relied to a considerable extent on exports to the Eastern Bloc countries, where its products were fairly well respected. The East German technology was old and the production was not very efficient, but in competition with other economies in which the same or worse conditions prevailed, they did okay. But when in the run-up to reunification East Germany adopted the DM, exchanging East German Marks for West German ones on a 1:1 basis for purely political reasons, East German exports were suddenly rendered far too expensive for their former customers in the Soviet Union, Hungary, Czechoslovakia etc. Without customers for their industrial products, the East German economy rapidly went from bad to desperate, and twenty-plus years on, fairly little remains of those enterprises.

One of the main things I observed in all this was a huge generational divide that was going to play a role in how the East Germans were going to do in the new system. The older ones—the ones who at the time were about the same age I am now—made kind of a shell-shocked, disoriented impression. They didn't believe in or want the old system, yet it was familiar and safe. Now they were being expected to adapt to a new system that they didn't really understand and that seemed full of pitfalls and risks and dangers. They had grown up with a system that tolerated very little in the way of freedom of thought or expression; on the other hand, as long as they more or less followed the rules, they also more or less automatically had a job and an income and a place to live that while not particularly generous, was adequate, but also secure and predictable. Now they were basically being expected to be creative and fend for themselves and take risks and do all sorts of things for which their life up to that point had never prepared them, and it seemed way too late to learn how to do those things. I couldn't see them as candidates for anything other than early retirement.

The younger people I talked to in the company I visited were much more confident and forward-looking and wanted to take advantage of everything the new system would offer them. If things didn't work out there, they would not waste their time and start looking for something better. With most of their lives still ahead of them, I was optimistic that they would mostly do allright.

I managed to find the time for MFW and me to wander around East Berlin and compare impressions then with impressions from earlier visits. We also managed to connect with a few people that MFW had met during her somewhat abortive research trip the previous year, which helped us to get more of an insider's view of life in the East.

One of the people MFW had re-established contact with lived in Marzahn, a section of Berlin known for its vast tracts of drearily uniform high-rise apartments constructed out of prefabricated concrete slabs (Plattenbau). We went to visit B. there, where she lived with her husband U. and their two little daughters. B., who worked in the archive that MFW had visited the previous year, was apprehensive about the future. U., on the other hand, embodied the excitement and optimism I saw in many people his age (mid-thirties). He had studied to be an architect, but after graduation the SED-led government, whose infinite wisdom one of course dared not question, determined that his credentials now qualified him for a job as a meat inspector. The day after the Berlin Wall opened up, he was in West Berlin distributing his resume and hustling for job interviews, and in the intervening year had worked his way into a supervisory position in a a West Berlin construction firm.

B. and U. gave us a tour of their apartment, which took about five minutes because it consisted only of a few tiny rooms, furnished with the same mass-produced furniture that you could expect to see in just about any other East German apartment of similar vintage. One of the things that caught my eye was the vinyl floor covering imprinted with a fake wood grain pattern, which was the same floor covering I saw in the entryway of the building, as well as throughout the building where I was doing my little consulting gig. I guess that was someone in some central planning department's idea of efficiency.

Besides that omnipresent vinyl flooring, another thing I saw a number of times as we drove around East Berlin was the burnt-out shells of wrecked cars along the side of the road. It was explained to me by an East Berliner that there was a huge demand for western cars, now that they were suddenly available. Some of that demand was satisfied by cheap used cars that were brought in from the west in barely roadworthy condition and then rapidly transformed into scrap metal by young East Berliners who failed to adapt their Trabant-based driving skills to the western cars, and therefore had an unfortunate tendency to lose control and drive into lampposts, walls, or each other.

I wish I had had a little more free time to look around the city, but we did get a chance to see some of the sights. One of the places we were able to visit was the Potsdamer Platz. What a difference from when I was there in 1984! The wall and all its accompanying paraphernalia had been removed, and what was once the "death strip" was now just a vast open field smack in the middle of the city.

Potsdamer Platz, November 1990

The wall had been removed in most places by the time of this visit, but here and there you could still find the odd section standing, though without any of the guards etc.

The Scrapheap Of History

The wall at the Brandenburg Gate had been completely removed. It wasn't possible to walk through it at the time, as it was undergoing renovation and there was a fence around it. At least you could walk up to the fence without the risk of getting shot.

Brandenburg Gate (West Side), November 1990

On the eastern side of the Brandenburg Gate (the Pariser Platz) there were a number of tables set up by people who were hawking memorabilia of one kind or another. You could buy things like chunks of the wall of various sizes, East German and Soviet military uniform parts, or medals and banners and other trinkets bearing inscriptions like, "For Outstanding Achievements in Socialist Competition". It was like communism was having a yard sale to get rid of things that it no longer had any use for.

Brandenburg Gate (East Side), November 1990
We Won't Be Needing These Any More

So… fast-forward 23 years to July, 2013. It's hard for me to believe, but a generation has passed since the wall came down and the German Democratic Republic, the Soviet Union and all the rest of the Warsaw Pact essentially went out of business. For my own kids' generation, the Cold War and its artifacts such as the Berlin Wall, and the end of all that, are the stuff of history books, not something of which they have any kind of first-hand experience. It makes me feel like a relic in my own right. Gather round, my children, and let me recount the ancient tales of Reagan and Brezhnev… of Bush and Brandt and Gorbachev… of Honecker and Kohl and Krenz and Thatcher and Mitterrand… of Havel and Ceaușescu and Walesa and Yeltsin… let me tell you of a year in which pigs flew and hell froze over and the world I knew was completely remade… oh, sorry, no, I understand, you need to go update your Facebook status instead. I'll just sit here quietly in my rocking chair…

MFW and I have wanted for some time to make another trip to Berlin to see what has changed in the decades since German reunification. This month we finally made that trip. The Heiress has decided to grow up and go off to college and had other commitments that prevented her from accompanying us to Germany this year, but The Young Master, being still of high school age and thus consigned for at least another year to life with Mom and Dad, was dragged along for a rendezvous with history, forced to go stomping all over the city while listening to his parents lecture him about what it looked like the last time they were there.

As it turns out, the place has indeed changed a little. First and foremost, the wall is long gone, with the exception of a few pieces that have been retained for historical value. Nearly everything else has been renovated (or is still undergoing renovation, or is at least pending renovation), or torn down and replaced by something beautiful and modern. I imagine that our acquaintance U. from Marzahn, the architect to whom I introduced you earlier, must have "earned himself a golden nose", as the Germans say, by now.

Our visit started in earnest at the Alexanderplatz, which is where our hotel was located. We traveled to the main train station, and from there took the subway, or U-Bahn, to Alexanderplatz. I didn't realize it during my earlier visits, but back then it wasn't even possible to get to Alexanderplatz that way even though there was a station right there. How is that possible, you may ask. Well, during the wall years, the Alexanderplatz station was one of East Berlin's Geisterbahnhöfe, or "ghost stations". It sat on a line that started and terminated in West Berlin; where it passed through East Berlin, the entrances were sealed, and those stops weren't even shown on any standard map of East Berlin. Subway trains would slow a bit as they passed through one of these stations; if you were lucky (relatively speaking) you might catch a glimpse of one of the border guards watching over the dimly lit station from a dark corner.

World Clock, Alexanderplatz, July 2013
Fountain, Alexanderplatz, July 2013

Above ground, Alexanderplatz was kind of typical of East Berlin; all the old landmarks were more or less recognizable, but everything looked modernized and polished. With the exception of one new building, the buildings all around the square were the same ones, but they all seemed to have been given new facades in the post-reunification decades. Oh, and the U-Bahn has long since reopened.

From our base at the Alexanderplatz, we traveled all around the Berlin. It's a big city, and we knew that we weren't going to be able to see everything we might want to see, but my philosophy was that Berlin will be there next year too, and the year after that, so if we want to badly enough we can always go back and see some of the things we didn't manage to see on this trip.

One "must see" for us was the Potsdamer Platz. Having seen it as a no-man's land between the two sections of the wall, then as a vast open field smack in the middle of a sprawling city, we had to see it in its latest incarnation. After visiting there, I can report to you that if you knew nothing of its history, you would have no clues as to what it looked like 25 years ago. It is once again a vital, bustling crossroads. I tried to figure out where exactly it was that I once stood on a viewing stand to gaze at watchtowers and anti-tank ditches and let me tell you, it wasn't easy.

Potsdamer Platz, July 2013

A large part of our Berlin trip consisted of just traveling around the city to have a look at places either or both of us had been to years ago to compare the current state to past states. One of the more obvious of those, for us at least, was the Brandenburg gate.

Brandenburg Gate (West Side), July 2013

Brandenburg Gate (East Side), July 2013
Like the Potsdamer Platz, the Brandenburg Gate has also been returned to something approximating its pre-WWII state insofar as it is once again just part of the overall cityscape, no longer an artifact frozen in time, to be viewed from the other side of a wall. The only slightly odd aspect was the guys dressed as an East German border guard, or as the Berlin bear (the mascot of the city), waiting for you to take your picture with them (for a small fee, of course).

The Stalinist State, à la Disney

Another place I had to see was that spot on the bank of the Spree River where an ominous-looking sign admonished me that to touch the water would be to risk my life. I discovered that what was once kind of a dead spot at the edge of (former) West Berlin is now the site of a pleasant little cafe; the only sign there now was one that announced the day's menu specials. The Oberbaum Bridge which lies just beyond has had its decorative towers restored to their prewar glory in the "Brick Gothic" style, and the somewhat less than decorative watchtower that once monitored the border crossing there is long gone.

Oberbaum Bridge, July 2013

Across the river from that spot is the East Side Gallery, a fairly long section of the eastern side of the wall that has been preserved. In 1990, during the earliest part of the post-wall period, sections of the wall were parceled out to various artists for them to express their impressions of the end of the wall and the end of the division of the country. In the intervening years the paintings have been damaged by graffiti and weathering; an attempt to protect and restore the paintings has been undertaken, but based on what I saw when I was there, that attempt seems to have been less than successful. Like the wall itself, perhaps the paintings are just an ephemeral moment in history that is destined to eventually pass.

East Side Gallery, July 2013
My God, Help Me To Survive This Deadly Love

Another former ruin that I had visited long ago, the Neue Synagoge, has been similarly restored. It's now the Centrum Judaicum, a kind of community center where there are exhibitions and programs of various kinds, but not an actual synagogue.

Neue Synagoge, July 2013

I'd like to be able to show you what's become of the Palast der Republik, but all I can show you is the big hole where it once stood. In 2006 the Bundestag, the German Parliament, decided to tear the building down to rebuild the City Palace that originally stood on that spot. The demolition was completed in 2009, and now the spot is a massive construction site. The restored Berlin Cathedral, however, still stands across from the site.

Berlin Cathedral/Former Site of Palast der Republik, July 2013

A stone's throw away from the Cathedral and the site of former Palast der Republik is the Neue Wache, where I had once watched clean young men goose-stepping about in their crisp uniforms. The marching is over; the monument itself has been slightly remodeled and renamed the "Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Dictatorship". Where the eternal flame once stood is now a sculpture "Mother With Her Dead Son" by the artist  Käthe Kollwitz.

Neue Wache (Exterior), July 2013
Neue Wache (Interior), July 2013

When we weren't looking at buildings and monuments and such, we were in museums. On of those was the DDR Museum, whose mission it is to try and convey a sense of what life was like in the former East German state. In a word: it was weird. The museum did a pretty good job of making palpable a society in which everyone was at least publicly supposed to pretend to believe that they were living in a sort of paradise on earth, with dire consequences for anyone who dared to express any feelings to the contrary, despite the obvious chasm between the reality of people's lives and the fantasy world that the ruling party sought to project. If you want to get a sense of what life in this society was like, and don't have time to jog on over to Berlin for a quick museum visit, two films I would recommend are The Lives of Others and Good Bye Lenin.

I'd love to regale you with more tales of Berlin past and present, but this post has gotten stupendously long. I can see your eyes glazing over, and my fingers are also getting tired. And so to bed.