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English as a foreign language

Living as a German in an increasingly English-speaking world

2011-06-25: Berlin celebrates being … what? queer? weird? or just liveable?

Today is the day that Berlin celebrates its CSD parade. Maybe I can be just a little bit proud about my native city that the celebration of “not being the same as everyone else” (for Austinites: “being weird”) is held in such high regard around here. Gay or straight, flush or broke, it doesn’t matter so much around here.

Berlin (and other German cities, notably Cologne) has embraced Christopher Street Day or CSD rather early, to the point that many party people out on the streets will not know what the original phrase meant, or where it came from. It goes back to the Stonewall Riots in NYC on June 28th, 1969.

While I myself am heterosexual, I actively support the freedom of people to live their lives unmolested, whatever their sexual orientation or preference. And from what I have seen today (and over and over again throughout the years), Berlin as a whole feels the same way. That, to me, is “Berlin Pride” – the pride of being part of a city that lets people be happy with what they are.

2011-06-24: Apple totally loses it.

I know it’s only a patent application at this point. I know there is no guarantee there will be a marketable product at the end of this. But to even think about this kind of thing proves yet again in which low regard Apple holds the interests of their customers.

It’s not the first time either. Hardly alone in this, Apple has always been at the forefront of denying their customers the right to make full use of the hardware they have bought from them. This, at the moment, is primarily true of iOS devices, but with the Mac App Store it will increasingly be true for the Macintosh platform too. (The only Apple device I own, an iPod Nano 4g, continues to be unaffected as long as iTunes continues to import any MP3 file, whatever its origins, and upload it to the iPod. Not something to be taken for granted though. Maybe I should save a copy of the current version of iTunes.)

In case you are wondering what I am talking about: reportedly, Apple has applied for a patent for an encoded infra-red signal that would cause any digital camera so equipped to refuse to record images if so told by said infra-red signal. The stated use case would be cinemas but it is only natural that it would mainly be employed by abusive police forces, like we get to see so often these days in Germany. Or Libya. Or Syria. Or the US.

Let’s consider the hypothetical fact that I owned a device that has been enabled in the way the patent – as widely reported – describes. A third party which is not under any control from anyone, like a theatre owner or an abusive police force, can set up a signal to a device that I own, that I have paid for with my own money, so that said device will disobey the commands of its rightful owner to activate the “Record” function. This is so outrageous it actually defies belief. I can, to a point, see why fanbois will happily turn over control of their devices to Apple Inc. – I still find it revolting, but why not, it’s a religion, so to a point reason is suspended. But to enable third parties to do that, and such a sensitive function – think “Arab Spring”?

I hope they receive their just reward. I can’t see how anyone could spend a dollar (or even a Eurocent) on an Apple product again after this.

2011-05-03: So Osama bin Laden is dead. So what?

So an US-american commando unit has killed Osama bin Laden.

Do I rejoice? Definitely not. I would have preferred him to be hauled before the International Criminal Court in the Hague, but that wasn’t an option as the United States are not a party to the treaty (which in itself is completely indefensible), or before a criminal court in Pakistan (I am pretty sure he has broken Pakistani law on more than one occasion).

I am also not happy with the German Chancellor endorsing the targeted killing. I would have preferred her to simply endorse him being captured without making mention of the fact that he was killed in the process. That omission would have sent a strong enough signal.

But let’s face it: This is one individual who declared war on the West (and on the US, in particular), and showed himself and his organization, Al Qaida, as being capable of following up that declaration with facts, and as the Supreme Commander of a self-declared party in this war, he was killed by a commando unit of an adversary in that war. Tough luck, dude.

2011-04-28: So somebody is going to get married tomorrow.

Why would I care? It’s not someone I know. It is not someone of any extraordinary accomplishment. The only thing that makes this person special (beyond the fact that everyone is special, of course, in their own way), or let’s say different from the not-so-different rest of us, is his ancestry. His ancestors were people who, in times long gone, conspired with the church to form a kind of clerical-noble complex to keep poor people poor and miserable and enrich themselves by telling them that nobility comes from God, and God wants everybody to be miserable during their worldly lives so they can be happy after death. (Guess what, the joke’s on the poor people, as all you’ll ever going to be after your death is dead.)

Or maybe not so long gone, come to think of it.

And German public television totally upends their programming schedule because of this? Incredible. All with my user fees.

2011-04-22: Dancing among the Taliban

Imagine a country where, out of respect for a religion that little more than half of the population follow (many in a perfunctory way), public dancing was banned during some of the most sacred holidays of said religion.

Think you are in a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan? No! Welcome to present-day Germany, where public dancing is banned on Good Friday. Like typically in the US, the exact regulations vary by state, but even in Berlin, the most liberal state when it comes to banning public dancing, it’s banned from 4am until 9pm.

If your religious feelings bar you from going out to dance on Good Friday, then don’t, that’s fine with me. But why, oh why, do we allow religious extremism to curtail our freedom to dance on any day at any hour of our choosing?

2011-03-13: Nuclear energy isn’t safe. Stop fooling yourself and others.

The events currently unfolding in Japan should, once again, teach us one very simple, yet powerful, lesson: nuclear energy isn’t safe, never was and probably never will be.

Boing Boing has published a good basic overview of how that mysterious thing called “nuclear energy” works, and it tells us this: in order to be safe, there needs to be a way of cooling the reactor core at all times, come hell, earthquake or high water, or the whole thing will blow up.

Well, even if hell didn’t come (this is a Christian concept and doesn’t necessarily apply to largely non-Christian Japan, anyway), earthquake and high water did come, and at roughly the same time, too.

Guess what? The quake took out the primary energy source necessary for cooling the core in this type of reactor, and the tsunami took out the secondary source, and the tertiary – batteries – lasted for only eight hours, not enough to re-establish either the primary or secondary one.

Yes, I know this reactor design dates back to the seventies, and later designs are improved in this area. But the core fact still remains: in order to be safe, nuclear power requires more infrastructure to be available at all times than even a highly-industrialized country like Japan can provide.

So our common aims needs to be to phase out nuclear power over the next one or two decades; the sooner the better.

2011-02-25: Free Libya!

Future Libyan Flag

The probable flag of the Libyan nation after having rid itself of dictatorship.

2011-01-29: Coping with jet lag

As many of you will know I returned to Germany after spending about a week in Austin, Texas, USA, only at the beginning of the week.

And I have coped quite well with jet lag. Much better than I had anticipated.

Here is what obviously works for me. It will not necessarily work for anyone else, but here we go.

The first basic rule is: Make sure you are tired when it’s time to go to sleep in the location you are in at that time – assuming you can stay there for the night.

So if you go west, from Europe to the US, ideally you’ll want to fly off in the morning. Spend the flight reading or enjoying the in-flight entertainment. If you have a connecting flight, you will probably arrive at your destination in the early evening, which is ideal. Shove your suitcases into the hotel room and head for the next bar. I find that I can make it to a decent time-to-sleep time with no effort at all. Get to sleep, wake up in the morning, and you are good to go.

Coming back is a different story, much harder – as I used to think. But not necessarily.

I got up on Sunday at about six in the morning, Austin time (which is seven hours behind Berlin time). I went through the usual morning rituals and hit the road in my rental car at about a quarter to seven, drove out to Austin Bergstrom International Airport. Then followed domestic flights to Houston, Texas, and onwards to Newark, New Jersey.

Next comes the overnight flight to Berlin. Ideally you’d want to sleep through that, but in Economy, that’s not likely to happen – not least because it’s only early evening, according to your body clock. Having a couple of beers helps, but only so much (and you don’t want to over-do it). So don your headphones (I got myself a pair of noice-cancelling ones, not the super-luxury ones from Bose, but a decent pair from Able Planet), doze to your favourite music, or sleep if you can, until you arrive at your destination in Europe.

I arrived home at about half past eight on Monday morning, tired as hell. Now here’s the second basic rule: If you are too tired to keep your eyes open, go to sleep!

So I did; I hit the sack at about a quarter to nine, having set the alarm clock to a quarter to twelve. I even woke up and replied to a couple of e-mails in between. When I got back up when the alarm went off, I wasn’t exactly completely awake, but that was intentional.

I had caught just enough sleep to make it through the rest of the day (German time) and go to bed at about 11 at night, waking up the next morning and feeling reasonably awake.

I have been suffering from mild after-effects all week, but I basically had the jet lag out of the way as of Monday afternoon.

Which I think is pretty darn good.

2010-12-09: It’s not about WikiLeaks!

The witchhunt on WikiLeaks is in full swing, and rage and desperation make the assailants completely oblivious to something that is really obvious once you step back and look at the big picture:

WikiLeaks is not at the core of the matter! And Julian Assange is an even less important part of the picture.

Guess what? Even if WikiLeaks should end up dead by the wayside (which, even though I’m not necessarily a fan of WikiLeaks, and even less of Julian, will not happen any time soon), others will spring up in its place. Anyone who is sufficiently tech-savvy and wants to spread data publicly over the Internet will find a way to do so. Anything that’s out there on the Internet for any period of time has escaped for good and can never be controlled completely again. The only way you can change that fact is to put the genie back into the bottle, i. e. switch off the Internet. And that could prove to be difficult even for the US government (not least because the corporate US would not like it very much).

The core of the problem is that too much information that is supposed to be secret has been collected, stored in digital form in too many places, and made accessible to too many people. Data security policies from the age of carbon paper and typewriters are being applied to interoperable networks and USB drives.

And the lesson to learn from this is: If in doubt, don’t create data, don’t collect it, don’t store it, much less digitally. Throw out the perv scanners. Switch off the surveillance cameras. Forget about telecommunications data retention.

And forget about fighting WikiLeaks, it’s futile – information society is a hydra, for every head chopped off two new ones grow.

2010-12-01: There is going to be a terrorist attack in Germany.

How do I know that? Well, actually I don’t. It’s just that I think it is inevitable. There have been attacks in the US, in the UK, in France, in Spain. Why not here? It is going to happen. And it’s not such a big deal as some people think.

People die premature deaths. That’s not nice, but it’s a fact of life. People die of preventable diseases, they are murdered or run over by a car while crossing the street. They die in accidents in the home, in house fires, air crashes. They drown, suffocate, starve to death or die of thirst. According to some estimates, in Germany alone, up to a 100,000 people die prematurely each and every year in hospitals from infectious diseases they hadn’t even contracted when they went in!

Money and effort are dedicated to try and prevent these premature deaths from happening. Which, of course, is good. But there is the law of diminishing returns, which makes it advisable to spend some money of effort to prevent the bulk of easily preventable premature deaths, accept the rest as a regrettable fact of life, and move on to spend the rest of the available money and effort on a different kind of easily preventable premature death. “Effort” in this case includes inconvenience and hassle caused to people.

As an example: about 40,000 people die in car crashes in the US every year. Could all of these premature deaths be prevented? Maybe not. But many of them? Absolutely. Easily even. Outlaw driving.

So why isn’t driving outlawed if it could save so many lives? Because the effort involved isn’t worth it. Outlawing driving would so severely disrupt our daily lives that we accept a certain number of victims to be able to carry on with our present lifestyle. Which is absolutely fine.

Interestingly enough, the same approach is taken even in the light of the recent terrorist attacks (or attempts at such attacks) with air cargo. The TSA (the government aviation safety people in the US) has concluded that requiring all carriers bringing air cargo into the US to screen all their cargo for bombs would “unduly impede the flow of commerce”. It’s the law of diminishing returns again – the disruption would be unacceptable in relation to the risk incurred, so we’ll live with the risk.

Unfortunately, such level-headedness does not prevail when it comes to screening airline passengers. There is a simple reason for this – humans react with irrational panic to extremely rare incidents with massive negative consequences such as loss of life, like a terrorist attack or the crash of a passenger aircraft or train, while numbly accepting the much more common tragedy incurred in everyday events like in-hospital infections or highway deaths, with a much higher death toll overall. So in order to be seen doing something to counter the – if considered rationally, rather insignificant – terrorist threat, massive security theatre is enacted, with tremendous inconvenience and material loss to passengers, not to mention their dignity when given the choice of being virtually stripped naked in a perv scanner or fondled in the genital area by a TSA agent.

The sinister side to this: because we act this way, the terrorists have won. The primary aim of terrorism is not to kill people. It’s to instil terror. And that has worked remarkably well, even if the attacks themselves have mostly failed. All of this is helped by the fact that a general feeling of panic and anxiety in the population is advantageous for the incumbent government, so governments like to foment this feeling. (This, I think, applies to Germany as well as to the US and other countries.)

With this, I’d like you to refer you to an article by David Foster Wallace, which I found on Bruce Schneier’s outstandingly level-headed blog which I suggest you all read. My hope is that you are not blown up in mid-air by a bomb in a package that couldn’t be screened because that would unduly impede the flow of commerce right after you were made to dump your $100 bottle of champagne because it just might have been the missing part of a bomb.

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