The Art of Asking Questions

I haven't been writing much lately because I've been doing a lot of writing in other places, over at test IO and for Democrats Abroad. After spending the weekend moderating (and facilitating workshops that I designed) the annual general meeting of Democrats Abroad, I've been thinking a lot what it means to ask good questions.

Some questions are so insightful and present a special perspective on the issue. It's immediately clear that the question-asker has thought deeply and engaged with the subject. Sometimes questions are an attempt to seem smart in front of a group. Sometimes questions aren't even questions, but long-winded statements that end with "I'd like to know what you think about that."

Lately, I've been interviewing people inside companies in order to put together some case studies on how they're using a product. One of my predecessors put together a long list of questions that they would send to the contacts. Many of these were pretty banal, like "how many people are on your team?"

I don't think it's wrong to ask these questions. Sometimes you need to lay some groundwork before you can get to the really interesting topics. But my goal is to get a sense of the company on a high level and then go into more detail on the parts of their work process that I'm interested in, so a few easy questions to start off with help warm the interviewee up.

What I did notice though, is that a lot of the questions are too easy. It felt more like the checklist in a doctor's office (Where does it hurt? How long? What medications are you taking?) than an invitation to have a conversation and for the respondent to share. By asking questions that show you're engaging and thinking about what someone has told you, you're showing them that you're really listening and that you care about what they have to say.

Usually people talk about how we get in trouble if we are content with easy answers. In this case, it's the easy questions that we shouldn't settle for.

Art Auction in Berlin for ACLU on Sunday

The last few weeks have been a political whirlwind of astonishing news coming out of the U.S., followed by outrage, disbelief, but also amazing displays of protests & solidarity by people not only in the U.S. but around the world. Still, it's been hard to know what to do, to figure out what is actually effective and make an impact.

That's why I think my friend Rachel's decision to hold a fundraiser for the American Civil Liberties Union is amazing. She's gotten together over 20 artists in Berlin to donate works which will be up for auction this Sunday at Decad, and pulled together a few people to help make it happen (me included).

If you've wanted to take a stand against the gross violations of civil rights that have been happening in the U.S., this is a way you can do it -- and get some art to decorate your apartment. I know mine could use some! Even if you don't think you can bid, come and get some coffee and cake (I'll be baking) or wine & beer, those small donations help too.

Details:

Silent Art Auction for ACLU (More details on Facebook, please share!)
Sunday, February 26th, 2017 3-6pm
Decad, Gneisenaustraße 52, 10961 Berlin (U7 Südstern)

UPDATE (March 1, 2017):

There are still a few works available. If you couldn't make it and regrets not bidding on the art, you can still make a donation (50 euro or higher) and receive a work on paper. There are images of the available works via Dropbox here. Some excerpted below for your perusal! Leave a comment below with contact info or DM me on Twitter.


Weekend in Sofia

It's hard to remember all the nice parts of a trip when it's bookended by Ryanair flights and extremely backed up German border crossings, but setting that aside, I had a wonderful time in Sofia this weekend. After months of incompatible schedules, my friend Owen (yes, really) and I finally found somewhere we could meet, with him coming from Düsseldorf and me from Berlin.

I did not know a lot, or really anything about Sofia. I still don't. I remember from elementary school that the capital of Bulgaria had a nice and easy-to-remember name. I've met some Bulgarians at different points in my life, but I would be hard-pressed to recall anything about country or people. Are there any famous fictional Bulgarians? In fact, a new friend in Berlin is Bulgarian but I didn't realize it until I ran into him at a party a week before the trip. So suffice it to say, I went in pretty blind.

The City

I don't think Sofia sticks out as having particularly beautiful or interesting architecture or urban design. There do seem to be large number of parks and public spaces, though in winter everything's covered in snow and ice anyway. Buildings tend to look (to my untrained eye) basically socialist blocks or 70s concrete. What's actually the difference? There are two subway lines, one which goes to the airport, so points for convenience, especially compared to Berlin. There are lots of buses and trams, but I couldn't figure out how to use them and we mostly walked places anyway. Someone should make an app with a trip planner for Sofia!

Food

This was one area where Sofia really surprised me. We got a few tips for restaurants to check out and even went on a free food tour. Almost everything we ate was really good! It was interesting, experimental, well-cooked. I didn't expect there to be a forward-thinking food scene, but there was and we were lucky enough to experience a bit of it!

History

My final thoughts on Sofia and Bulgaria are that I'd like to understand their history better. While on the walking tours, our guides tended to gloss over the thousands of years of history, explaining that there were Thracians, then Slavs and proto-Bulgarians who came to occupy the land that is now Bulgaria. I'm sure it was bloodier and messier, and a country that has 3 kingdoms and was conquered by the Ottoman empire surely has a complex history. But I always feel this way after I go on trips, so please recommend any good (interesting) histories of Bulgaria that you might have! Even fairytales would be an interesting place to start.

When you go to a concert and belatedly realize you've seen the band before

Sunday night I went with my friends Thomas, Kristian, and Jens to see a German singer-songwriter called clickclickdecker. There were actually 3 people on stage, does that make it a band?

Despite listening to their albums a lot on Spotify the past week, it wasn't until I was standing in Lido (the venue), when I had a vague feeling that I might have seen clickclickdecker play before. What's the best way to find out? Since I can't trust my memory, I turned to my external brain archive, Gmail, and turned up this blog post from January 2009. Mystery solved! I have seen clickclickdecker before, almost exactly 8 years ago and in Hamburg.

Warning: shaky phone video clip but having walked down nostalgia lane already for this post, I'm preserving it here for posterity... in 2025 when Kamala Harris is sworn in for her second term as president of the United States and I go to another clickclickdecker concert 

Also, the whole night I had this sensation of people I should know being behind me. Turned out it was a poster for my friends Laura & Andreya's band Gurr. They're playing there on Feb 20, everyone should go see them!

Searching for signs of extraterrestrials in Brandenburg

A little over a week ago, I made a new friend who was very excited about going to take a look at some crop circles nearby. I don't think about outer space aliens very much, but I love seeing new things, and I've been meaning to get out of Berlin more often. What better way to start than to take the regional rail (S-Bahn) almost to the very end of the line?

Our motley crew assembled at S-Bahn Lichtenrade, which is not quite the southern end of the S2 line.

We took a bus (I can't figure out the exact number, which is a testament to Berlin's suburban transit system) and then started walking along the side of road, passing by "Zum Ponyhof" which I hoped we would be able to stop by on the way back for a nice, cold beer. But alas, das Leben ist kein Ponyhof and we never saw it again. Instead, we neared our first crop circle.

Did I mention it was an incredibly beautiful day to be out in the Brandenburg farmland? The sky was blue and full of fluffy white clouds, there was a gentle breeze to cool our (my) sweaty urban brows.

We wandered around the first circle. I thought it was pretty amazing how evenly the wheat was pressed down, sometimes in quite pretty patterns.

Whatever you think of crop circles and the mystery surrounding them, I realized I liked them most because they're in the middle of a wheat field. There's something about being confronted by a huge swath of golden grain as high as my shoulder, and walking down a tiny little path that leads to a beautiful pattern of flattened wheat.

The second one was much smaller, but we stuck around and had a little picnic before walking back to civilization. Human civilization, that is.

Berlin Restaurant Week 2015 Map

The great folks at Berlin Restaurant Week have kicked off their first year with 18 restaurants in Mitte, Wedding, Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, and Neukölln. This week (June 1 - 7, 2015) you can get a 3-course meal for 20 Euros. Not that these places aren't usually a good deal, but as with past restaurant weeks I've eaten at (San FranciscoPhiladelphia), it's a great excuse to go out and try some place new. 

Julian & Moritz put together a really beautiful website, but I was missing a map of all the restaurants that are participating. With some help from Google Maps, here it is for the geographically-inclined gourmands among you. Click on the pins for a link back to the specific Berlin restaurant week page.


What I've been up to lately

For someone who lives (and makes a living) on the Internet, I've been surprisingly delinquent in posting here regularly. Months ago, I started collecting topics on Wunderlist that I want to write up. Instead of actually getting them out there, the list just keeps getting longer! In lieu of all those, here's a not-so-brief update on what's going on with me.

Personal

The biggest news first (and probably pretty obvious): I got my visa to stay in Berlin: a freelance work permit!

In the middle of January I moved into an apartment in Kreuzberg, not too far from Cocolo, one of my favorite ramen places in Berlin, and coincidentally down the street from Feli, a San Francisco, Hamburg, and now Berlin friend.

My friend David and I are thinking about finding a place together though not in a rush, so if you happen to hear of any great 3-4 room apartments with a balcony in Berlin with good transit connections, keep us in mind!

The good folks at Democrats Abroad Berlin elected me to the board, where I'm serving as the Communications and Media Coordinator. I'm really looking forward to planning working together with the new board and getting some of our ideas off the ground to engage Americans and people interested in U.S. politics over the next two years. If that sounds like fun to you, drop me a line.

Finally, I've been tossing around the idea of starting a podcast (in English) about being all the exciting things going on in Berlin. Since it's about stuff that I like, it'll probably be a mix of cultural stuff, events, tech, and miscellanea. Suggestions, advice, ideas, and offers to come on the as-yet-undebuted show are welcome.

Work

Through a lucky confluence of events, I started off the year with an exciting project: organizing a trip in March to San Francisco and Seattle for a group of German media folks (editors and publishers). I got to work with Ulrike Langer and Annette Milz (Chefrunde, Medium Magazin), and we put together an eye-opening set of technology and media companies, focusing not only what they're changing/disrupting but also how they're doing it.

I just signed on for the New York version of the trip at the end of June / early July, so I welcome any suggestions for and introductions to New York-based startups.

I've also been working on a project for a documentary film, The Forecaster. We're putting together a crossmedia website to accompany the film, which covers a lot of historical and financial topics. I'm working on pulling together the editorial content and links to resources for people who want to know more about things like the Nikkei crash in 1990 or the role currency played in the fall of Rome, or even what caused the housing crisis (though Planet Money has done that better than just about anyone).

What's especially fun has been just being introduced to various startups in Berlin and getting to know the cool things that people are working on. They deserve their own blog posts, but most recently: Kitchen Stories (thanks Verena!), TestCloud (run by another SFer in exile, Frederik), and Resmio (I owe Yasha a coffee).

Travel

In December, I flew to Michigan and spent Christmas with my family there, which in addition to being a much needed visit, was calculated to put me right over the threshhold for United Premier Gold. If you didn't know that about me, I am a little obsessive about frequent flyer programs and collecting miles. So far all I've gotten out of it is picking Economy Plus seats early on United flights and some time in a lounge in Newark. 

One of my reasons for moving to Europe was to travel more and to do it spontaneously. That's how I ended up deciding a week or two before Mobile World Congress and 4 Years From Now to go to Barcelona. Many thanks to the friends who convinced me that it would be really fun and not stressful (Hendric, Feli, Malte) and to GfK for the extra conference pass.

With just a weekend back in Berlin, I flew off to San Francisco for about two weeks the above trip and also to catch up with all the friends and folks I didn't really say goodbye to when I left a year ago on my sabbatical (which then turned into staying in Berlin forever). I also took the time to clean out my old room in the Mission, which was the last big thing tying me to the city. Surprisingly, despite how striking San Francisco is, gorgeous views like this made me happy to be there, but not heartsick for what is probably one of the most beautiful places I have ever lived.

Seattle was a great way to round out my West coast return, I hadn't been there since I lived in Portland and my parents took us on a trip through the Pacific Northwest.

For the next few months, I'm planning on mostly staying put and enjoying the summer in Berlin, though I'll be in New York (and Philadelphia), and there's a part of me that wants to take a last minute trip to Pioneers Festival in Vienna.


Happy Chinese New Year and a beautiful video from PFLAG China

Tomorrow is the Chinese New Year, it's the year of the sheep. Right now in Berlin I haven't really made any plans to celebrate, but maybe some event will spontaneously present itself. I haven't celebrated the last few years except to go out to dim sum or dinner with friends -- I never even made it to a lunar new year parade or festival in San Francisco.

Regardless, it's a special time of year and an email from my mom with several emoji in the subject and a cute picture of a sheep reminded me of how lucky I am to have loving parents and family in my life, even though last year I moved from a city 2000 miles away from them to another city around 4000 miles (and an ocean) away.

Many people aren't as fortunate to have the acceptance and love of their families, especially many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans people. It's not often anymore than a video on the internet touches me (so jaded), but this short film "Coming Home" (回家) produced by PFLAG China is worth your time to watch. Grab some tissues, and reach out to your loved ones.

(You can also watch it on QQ where it has over 100 million views)

Now that you're all teary-eyed? Cheer up with the sheep my mom sent me!

 

25 Years after the Berlin Wall: Lichtgrenze

This past weekend, Berlin was full of people and events commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. November 9th is actually a pretty important date in German history, it's also the date of Kristallnacht when the Nazis attacked Jewish synagogues and businesses all over Germany (1938) as well as the end of the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the German Empire (1918). But these days most people think about it as the end of socialist East Germany (German Democratic Republic).

I went with some friends on November 8th and 9th to check out the balloons that were set up along the entire stretch of the Berlin Wall, an awesome art project called "Lichtgrenze" (Light Border). The balloons were released on the evening of November 9th, which I tried to catch on video but didn't really succeed very well. If I can somehow edit the footage into something watchable, I'll post it here. For now, here are my photos: