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English as a foreign language

Living as a German in an increasingly English-speaking world

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.

2010-10-27: We’re not all like that!

I am aware that, just by following the press coverage of leading German “politicians” and their “thoughts” over the last few weeks, you may think that Germany has turned into a racist Nazi state again.

Let me assure you that many ordinary Germans, like myself, don’t think along those lines at all, but see the facts on the ground.

“Multikulti”, the German model of a multicultural society, has not failed as our chancelor has said, quite to the contrary. It is alive and kicking all over the country. German society would not be anywhere near the same were it not for the influences we have enjoyed from outside our narrow cultural sphere. And, by and large, we like it that way.

Germany has a society that relies on immigration for survival. More people pack up and leave than come to stay, every year; we need to change that trend, and urgently. It’s clear that is in our own best self-interest to control immigration, like any immigration-dependent nation does. But first we need to make Germany an attractive country to come to and settle in. Racist comments are not the way to achieve this. Not having English as an official language puts us at an disadvantage already – no, I don’t want to change that, but you need to take this into account to keep things in perspective.

I’m not saying that there are no problems with migrants refusing integration. There are. But hey, there are Germans with no migration background who refuse to integrate into mainstream society. There are specific problems as well, like honour killings or forced marriages. Those are intolerable, no two ways about it. But they need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis rather than by lashing out at immigrant communities in general. That is counter-productive.

We need to be welcoming towards everyone who wants to come and live and work together with us, and accept minimal standards of civility. Wherever they may come from. Please feel welcome to Germany.

2010-10-22: Flying out of London

Flying from Gatwick this time, but the same applies to Heathrow as well.

They won’t tell you your gate at check-in, like at a decent airport. (Hey, in Berlin-Tegel I can look up my gate on the web before I leave home, so I can tell the taxi driver to let me off directly in front of it!) They probably don’t know yet, either. So you are shooed into a “lounge” area with lots of very expensive shops, restaurants and bars, but not always enough seats, much less seats with a view to one of the screens on which the gate info is displayed at some point, without an announcement.

My boarding pass tells me that the gate closes at 19:25 – if I’m not at the gate at that time, I can be denied transportation. The info screen tells me the gate for my flight opens at 19:15, but it doesn’t tell me which one. It also helpfully informs me that it takes approximately twenty minutes to reach the gates farthest away from the lounge. Hmm. This isn’t going to turn out well.

Well, I have been through this procedure at Heathrow often enough to know that there is no real reason to worry. In Heathrow, sometimes the announced “Gate opens” time passes without any further information. Yesterday, in Gatwick, the screen switched to “Go to Gate 22” at about 19:10. Guess what – Gate 22 is one of the gates farthest from the lounge. But any reasonably able-bodied person like myself can reach Gate 22 in less than ten minutes. And the gate doesn’t close at 19:25, it’s probably more like 19:45. But you are still reduced to stare at the info screen around the announced time waiting for it to change silently. Standing.

Somehow I, as a passenger, don’t feel taken seriously. I am just a “pax”, countable like sheep in a herd, a piece of cargo that is even expected to move itself on board and off. No attempt is made to make me feel comfortable and cared for, I am expected to do my very best to make things go smoothly.

It’s not that I don’t like London. But I don’t like its airports very much, I’m afraid.

2010-10-02: Staying out of harm’s way

Stuttgart, the capital of the German federal state of Baden-W├╝rttemberg, is currently one of the hot spots of German politics. The planned demolition (partly underway) of the historic central railway station to make room for a new, underground station, with the associated destruction in the city centre (which is where central railway stations tend to be located in Germany) and the few green areas located there, brought hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters to the streets. Police responded in the only way the know: physical violence, water cannons, tear gas.

I will be attending a conference and exhibition that is billed as being “in Stuttgart” next week. Boy, am I relieved it is not really in Stuttgart, but in a hotel near Stuttgart Airport, quite distant from the city centre.

My heart goes out to all the victims of senseless police violence, be it protesters, be it people from the area caught between the lines of a fight that should never have happened.

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