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English as a foreign language

Living as a German in an increasingly English-speaking world

2011-10-23: Random ramblings of a New England traveller

We have spent the last three weeks travelling in New York and New England. I have been visiting the US five times in the last two years, but this has been the longest time I have ever continuously spent in the United States, and so here are some random ramblings of a New England traveller. Comments are welcome, as always.

Food:
While there is very good and tasty food available, there is also a lot of terrible food, especially on chain-hotel breakfast buffets. The food processing industry screws up everything. They take out fat and put in sugar; they take out sugar and put in high-fructose corn syrup; they take out the syrup and put in artificial sweeteners. Nearly every processed food item you can buy in a regular supermarket has something taken out that belongs in (like fat in milk and yoghurt) or something put in that does not (like extra vitamins into a fruit mix), or both. I tried one of these fat-free yoghurts from a breakfast buffet once; it tasted as obnoxiously chemical as bubble gum and had a texture like some kind of building material. On the other hand, a freshly boiled soft-shell Maine lobster with drawn butter is to die for. And even a home-made half-pound burger with fries in a country store somewhere in Vermont can be really really good.
Soft drinks:
Forget it. There is no sparkling water (and if there is, it has been brought over from Italy), and the sweet stuff is undrinkable because it is either sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup (see above), which tastes awful, or artifical sweeteners, which are bad for you. Tap water is chlorinated and therefore also tastes kind of funny, even if it is available for free everywhere. So you end up drinking a lot of bottled, uncarbonated water.
Beer:
I can happily report that New England is home to a number of excellent microbreweries that make really good beer, like the Long Trail Brewing Company in Vermont, and that their products are readily available in restaurants, bars, and shops.
Wine:
Wine is expensive. Eight dollars plus tax and tip for a 6-ounce glass of house wine? Three dollars buys you a bottle of drinkable red in a German supermarket. We mostly abstained. See “Beer” above.
Rubbish:
The amount of rubbish you generate is mind-boggling. Even in middle-priced hotels, the only plates, cups and cutlery available at breakfast time are discardable plastic. The Wal-Mart (and other) plastic bags are now very thin, but they are dispensed as liberally as ever.
Driving:
The existence of speed limits everywhere, and the fact that it usally applies to trucks as well as cars, makes for a very relaxed driving experience, even on Interstates. Plus everything has tons of parking space. Or nearly everything.
Road signs:
I really love the way highways are marked as going north, south, east or west. Much better than the German system of listing intermediate destinations which makes it necessary to have a rough idea of the geography around you to figure out which way you need to go.
Prices:
Most of the time, but not always, there is some form of sales tax added to the prices you pay, which sucks. Not because of the rate, which is ridiculously low at well below 10 per cent even in New York City, but because it means you can’t easily predict how much anything is really going to cost. Plus, you often end up with some amount just above an full-dollar amount which leaves you with a lot of bulky change if you just fork over a banknote.
Dollars:
Dollars suck really badly. The banknotes suck because they are all the same size and practically the same colour, even the latest editions of some denominations that have a hint of a different hue on them. The coins suck because they are so few one-dollar and half-dollar coins (we went through the whole holiday without seeing a single specimen of either) that you always get single dollar notes, and quarters as change, which are quite big, bulging up the coin compartment of your wallet. For a fun effect, try giving exact change to the person at the supermarket check-out. They will look at the coins in disbelief and start counting them as if they do it for the first time in their lives. They are obviously not used to handling coins, except to hand them out as change.
Customs and Border Protection:
Ugh. Nuff said.

All in all, we had a wonderful holiday and really enjoyed our time over there. But I do know that I am happy to be back home here on this side of the pond.

2011-08-29: Apple is out of innovation

Look at Apple today; it’s a sorry sight. No, I am not referring to Steve Jobs retiring as CEO of Apple. Clearly, I personally wish him all the luck in the world so that he can enjoy many more years in good or at least acceptable health, with his family; it is the sorry carcass of a company I am concerned about.

To me, Apple has never been a highly innovative company; their play has always been to take what others have found, combine it in new ways, make it pretty, and sell it. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but they should acknowlege their origins as the original copycat company and leave others alone.

Now, along comes Samsung with their 10.1 Galaxy Tab. I have such a thing so I know what it’s like from first-hand experience. The problem for Apple: their gear is a sorry piece of obsolete junk next to it. Apple: obsolete 1024 by 768; Samsung: 1280 by 800. Apple: no Flash (will they ever learn?); Samsung: Flash works fine. Apple: 4:3 grandma-TV aspect ratio; Samsung: 16:10.

So what does Apple do? Instead of innovating themselves out of a tight corner (which they obviously cannot) they try to throw photoshopped evidence at a German court to try and subdue a clearly superior product.

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.

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