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English as a foreign language

Living as a German in an increasingly English-speaking world

2021-01-05: Data on trucks

You probably know the old quote attributed to Andrew S. Tanenbaum that you should “never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway”. The thought has been spun further before (for example by Randall Munroe of XKCD fame), but Amazon Web Services has taken the idea and run with it: forget your puny station wagon full of tapes, how about a big-arse 18-wheeler semi rig full of hard disks and networking gear?

So that’s exactly what they came up with: the Snowmobile. If you order one, a semi will pull up to your data centre, you can plug your power and network into it, and copy 100 Petabytes of data onto it, via NFS. With all stars aligned, this will take about ten days. It will then be driven to an AWS facility, guarded by a guy with a gun, and the data copied into AWS storage of your choice.

The only catch? You cannot get your data back this way. Snowmobiles are a one-way street into the ultimate vendor lock-in.

Update in 2024: the Snowmobile is dead. Amazon is discontinuing the service.

2020-07-10: Why Germany has so far fared rather well in the COVID-19 crisis

Why has Germany so far handled the COVID-19 crisis rather well? A team of experts lead by the Johns Hopkins University (yes, that one) has been assessing countries’ readiness for a pandemic for years. High scores went to the US and the UK (which have obviously bungled the crisis pretty badly), with Germany only getting middling scores.

What went wrong? The panel looked at the wrong parameters. The number and degree of education of doctors, how much hospital and test lab capacity there is, that was ranked highly. All important, of course, but those may not be the deciding factors, after all.

Italy had it bad – they were ransacked early on. Other countries watched and took notice. And action. (Or not.) Back in January, German labs worked with their Chinese counterparts to develop test kits. And when the shit finally hit the fan really hard in March, they were prepared. The UK and the US didn’t think much of the crisis at first, losing valuable time. The US had test capacity, but no tests. They had slept through the alarm really, really badly.

Another very important factor: the welfare state. Germany has a working infrastructure to support people in need. Health insurance, unemployment insurance, government subsidies for furloughed or short-timed workers: all in place and ready to go at a moment’s notice. The UK doesn’t even have a concept of “short-time work”, much less government subsidies for it.

That’s one reason why lockdown measures were so much more successful in Germany than elsewhere. People weren’t so afraid.

Also, no special legal infrastructure was necessary to put lockdown measures in place. Germany already had an “infection protection law” in place; it only needed to be applied. And Germany has a decentralized government. There are local authorities that can coordinate measures locally. Some countries don’t have that luxury. England, for example, doesn’t have local government structures the way Germany has. France, even worse.

This is excerpted from this.

I personally would add: strong and credible leadership is also key. Sadly lacking in some parts of the world. And it shows.

2020-06-27: Wear a mask, people

Listen people. I’ll let you in on a secret.

Now of course I know there are those of you that don’t give a rat’s arse about other people and refuse to wear a mask in public because it interferes with your right to breathe (it doesn’t, you can breathe just fine wearing one), and it fogs up your glasses (it does, I know, I wear glasses myself), and is generally a royal pain in your behind (it is).

But there may be a little-known benefit to wearing a mask: It may, just possibly, save you from dying a real miserable premature death. How so? Well, you know, this mask that irks you so much may limit your exposure to SARS-CoV-2 just enough to save you from a severe case of COVID-19. Maybe you will not be infected at all; maybe you will be spared hostitalization, being put on a respirator and ultimately dying.

This is your public service announcement for today: wearing a mask in public is not a perfect protection from being infected, but it may contribute to protect you. The exact degree of that protection is unknown, but it is very likely significant.

Wear a mask. For your own benefit, and for the benefit of others. That will be all for today. Thank you.

2020-06-18: Paid sick leave is essential.

I mean what the fuck is wrong with people? This time it is German meat-processing plants but it doesn’t really matter. If you feel sick, you must have the liberty to stay home, and/or seek medical attention, without fear of losing out on pay, being out of a job, or being bankrupted by medical costs. This is so obvious that that German enterprises are trying to wiggle out of it is a shame.
I feel ashamed that this bullshit is going on in Germany today. We really should know better than this.

2020-06-16: Tracing apps galore!

So I see normally sane people boasting that they have installed their country’s tracing app; ours came out today. Why is that, I wonder?

Be sure not to misunderstand; I am not a tin-foil hat wearer that tells you that tracing apps are the devil, and that you should not use them no matter what. You can install and use one if you want; you just need to know that they are, by design, almost completely pointless.

You need to know a few things. First, the likelihood that any random encounter between two people will be even registered is the square of the rate of people (not smartphone users) who have the app installed. So if we do hit the target of 60% of people (which is almost 100% of smartphone users, the maximum possible), the likelihood of any random encounter being registered is a bit above a third (36%). The highest numbers of actual adoption of a tracing app is from Iceland, where it is about 38% of the population. That means that the encounter of two random people will be recorded with a probability of a whopping 14.4%, or about one in seven. (Do the math.)

But that’s only one side of the coin; the easy one. So we now know that almost all dangerous encounters will go undetected.

What about the ones that do get detected? Are they dangerous?

And that’s where things get dicy. The closeness of contact is estimated (at least for the German app) using the strength of the Bluetooth signal. Unfortunately, the relative strength of the Bluetooth signal is governed by very different factors from what governs the chances of infection. Imagine talking to someone separated from you by a plexiglass barrier. The chance of infection is small. Yet, your app will count it as a dangerous contact. Or maybe you are on a café’s terrace, seperated from someone on the inside by a full-height window. Chance of infection: zero. Closeness of contact according to the app: very close. And since (again, with the German app) you are not told exactly where and when you were in close proximity: maybe you left your phone in your car while going for a jog, or a swim, and someone parked their car with their phone next to you? Maybe it was on a charger at the time, and someone else’s came close? Maybe your phones got intimate with each other but you didn’t?

And that’s before we start talking about masks.

Oh, you are wearing your phone in your butt pocket? I see many young women do that. Your body (which is mostly water) shields your phone from detecting people breathing directly into your face from counting as close encounters while anyone rubbing their butt (and phone) against yours will be counted as very close, high-risk contacts. (Same goes for people carrying phones in backpacks.) And of course there is no calibration for the measurement of Bluetooth signals; measured values can be all over the place.

So what does it tell you if your app does not have any reasons for alerting you? It means “You may or may not be infected; remain cautious and considerate to those around you.” What if the app tells you you had a potentially dangerous encounter? It still means “You may or may not be infected; remain cautious and considerate to those around you.”

I don’t need an app for that.

Install it if you want; no harm done. (That is a simplification, I know. Not much harm done, anyway.) But not much gained either.

2020-06-12: How I view people

Maybe there are people that are sill unclear on how I view my fellow human beings. So let me get a few things straight.

To say that I don’t care about attributes of yourself that you have no control over would be an overstatement. If I personally take an interest in you, and you let me on to this kind of information, I will know if you are gay or straight (or any other flavour of Q), Caucasian, Mexican, Vietnamese, or whatever it may be, what your native language, your favourite imaginary friend or other background is and quite a few other things. To say that I don’t care about these things would be rude.

I do care. Because I do care about you.

The one thing I don’t do is judge you by these things. I judge you by what you say and what you do. Not by who you are.

That will be all for now. Judge your fellow humans by their personal words and actions, not by whatever properties they may have.

2020-04-30: Why the lockdown was a good idea

Imagine someone sitting in a warm and cozy house while there is a bad blizzard outside.

Imagine that person commenting that heating was totally unnecessary because it was warm and cozy.

You would tell that person that they are completely crazy, right?

Anyone who tells you that the lockdown was unnecessary: it’s exactly the same thing.

2020-04-17: Stay safe, safe healthy and stay sane!

Inside your home, you can act as if you were not infected. Unless you know or suspect you are, anyway. Because the people living with you have probably cought any SARS-CoV-2 you might have before you ever knew you had it.
But outside your home, please act as if you were infected, even if you think (like I do) that in all probabilty you are not.
Wear some form of mask when you go out. Okay, if you are going for a walk and you are not expecting to meet any other people, fine, don’t. Have one around your neck and draw it up if you are encountering other people. But if you are going out for provisions, definitely wear something to cover your nose and mouth. An improvised mask, a balaclava, a scarf, anything. Anything is better than nothing.
You are not doing it for yourself. You are doing it to protect everyone else. So stay 1.5 to 2 metres or more (5 to 7 feet for your metrically impaired people) away if you can. Yes, I know you can’t at all times; you might want to hold your breath while you can’t, like when you are passing people on a crowded track.
If you are outside, it will certainly not hurt getting more space between you and other people, especially people that are exercising. (Please don’t exercise in popular spaces. Try to limit your intensive exercising to non-scenic routes if you can. Even better, talk a leisurely walk outside and then exercise on your stationary bike inside your home if you can.)
Please stay safe, stay healthy and stay sane.
See you on the other side.

2020-04-08: Coronavirus tells us: health care and sick-leave pay need to be accessible to all, or at least most, people

What do you think happens if you have a pandemic going on, and people with symptoms shy away from seeking medical help? Yes, they go on with their daily lives and infect boatloads of other people.

This is dangerous. Societies need to be organised so that people who are sick can stay at home without losing pay, and seek medical attention and treatment without risking financial ruin for themselves and their families. Which is important. Not only for those at risk directly, but for societies at large.

2020-03-20: flatten the curve, and stay the fuck home

What is there more to say?

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