A Response to – 10 Things Most Americans Don’t Know About America

Mark Manson has written an article titled  10 Things Most Americans Don’t Know About America, which seems to have caused a stir in the internet. It’s making the rounds in Facebook and Google and the website containing the article has apparantly been overwhelmed. I needed several attempts before it would load into my browser. I’ve had similar experiences to Mark and his insights unleashed a wave of thoughts in me. I considered making a simple FB response to friends but realized I needed more space. So here goes, my perspective on the 10 Things Most Americans Don’t Know About America plus a few tangential topics.

I too have spent a long time living outside of the US and have had a similar eye opening experience like Mark. I’ve lived in Germany for the past twenty years. Prior to that I lived in the UK for over a year and spent a fair amount of time working on a project in South Africa. I’ve spent roughly 40% of my life outside the US.

I think his family analogy is quite accurate. We don’t know what we really are until we get an outside perspective. And the things we learn about ourselves may not always be agreeable. A similar thing takes place with languages. I learned the most about English grammar when I started learning German.

Before I address the main points a minor digression: Many people around the world take exception to the fact that as citizens of the United States we refer to ourselves as Americans. America is a continent (two depending on how you count it). The assumption is that we view ourselves as being so important that we’ve in arrogance chosen a moniker which actually refers to several nations and we simultaneously ignore the others. This relates to a few of the points the Manson addresses.
Sports broadcasters in Germany often make pains to make this distinction and refer to U.S. athletes as U.S.-Americans. It’s not widespread but it does exist. I don’t give to much credence to this objection. The problem arises partly from the fact that the name of our country contains a reference to the continent where it is located. There are only a few nations where this is the case. The only other continent that comes to mind where this is the case is Africa. Maybe there are more. I think the context of the topic at hand is enough to allow one to distinguish between America referring to the United States and America referring to the continent(s). After all, the same sports broadcasters who use the term U.S.-American never refer to Canadian-Americans, Brazilian-American or Mexican-Americans as if there were some confusion.

As a result I will assume the liberty of using the term American in this post to refer to the citizens and culture of the United States.

1. Few People Are Impressed By Us

I would pretty much agree with this. Mark states “As Americans, we’re brought up our entire lives being taught that we’re the best, we did everything first and that the rest of the world follows our lead.” This is definitely part of the American mindset. When, as a child, our family visited Niagara Falls, I was distraught that the American falls were so much smaller then the Canadian. My father quickly made it clear to me that not everything American is ten times bigger and better than everything else in the world.

One caveat. In the nineties in Germany is was quite pleasant to be known as an American in Germany. The cold war was over, Germany was reunited things were generally positive. To say Germans were impressed by American would be a major overstatement. Let’s just say there was a slightly positive aura associated with this status. In the post 9-11 world this has changed. Disagreements with American foreign policy have had a severely detrimental effect on people’s view of Americans.

2. Few People Hate Us

This is probably also true. Although I would add that I think Mark may be understating the situation in the Arab and Muslim world. He writes that there are “20 angry Arab men” being repeatedly shown on the news, who hate America. Of course his statement is an exaggeration to make a point but I still question its thrust. I can’t say much about this, since I’ve never visited these regions.

3. We Know Nothing About The Rest Of The World

YES, very true. When visiting the US the current batch of television shows is often a topic of conversation. Many people assume that the rest of the world has the same diet of programming that the US has. It takes a little explaining to help them realize that other countries have their own set of programs and many US shows are simply not available. Another experience I had while getting my hair cut in the US was also telling. It came up in conversation that I live in Germany. The barber didn’t seem to realize that in Germany one speaks a completely different language. She spoke as if in her understanding German was simply an English dialect that is difficult to understand.

But a word of defense for the Americans. The US is geographically a large country. It is difficult to escape American culture. One could drive for days on end and still be exposed to same uniform strip mall existence that seems to be swallowing up the country. In Europe if one drives the same distance, one would be confronted with several different countries and their corresponding cultures and architecture. Also, the American entertainment industry, which has become ever present global monster, extends the American cultural experience well beyond its geographic borders. Even though television in Germany is not a duplicate of the US scene, American TV, Movies and Music play a dominant role.

4. We Are Poor At Expressing Gratitude And Affection

Not so sure about this one. I wonder how much time Mark has spent in Germany. However, instead of addressing “gratitude and Affection” I’d like to go off on a tangent and write about the differences in developing friendships, that I’ve observed.

The American “chummy” approach: Americans value an open and informal approach and when developing friendships. When meeting someone new we act interested and enthused, names are quickly reduced to one syllable (Joe, Bob, Bill, Sue etc.). With frequent acquaintances we try to maintain a positive and optimistic image, we frequently offer some kind of help and express interest in the other person albeit often with questionable sincerity. At another level discussions about common interests and doing common activities are added in. This level of “friendship” can hover in this state for a long time. A progression to a deeper friendship where gratitude and affection can take place is not a given.

The German “formal” approach: Germans in general are much more careful and keep a certain distance when developing relationships. Much time is taken in developing friendships and this only between selected individuals. Anything resembling the American chumminess may never take place between many people. Personal topics are not addressed as openly.

Both of these approaches can linger on without people ever developing a deeper friendship.  The American stays in a loose, goofy and informal froth and the German remains in a distanced formality. A typical German view of Americans is that they are superficial and there is some truth to this. A typical American view of Germans is that they are cold and unfriendly. This may be true in some cases. Both views, however, are misguided. We have different ways of going about developing friendships and we should be more sensitive in our assessments of another’s culture. I do much better with the American process. When things go well I can obtain a degree of friendship with other Americans in weeks, which may take years with the German approach. It can be a difficult task to asses other cultures fairly, given that each of us usually has only one reference point of our own culture to go by. I can’t say this for certain but it would not surprise me if the development of deep friendships takes a similar amount of time in all cultures. We just have different ways of getting there.

But what does this have to do with “Gratitude and Affection?” Certainly other cultures express these feelings of gratitude and affection more openly than Americans in General. However, I think it would be a fair question to ask, how genuine are these expressions. Maybe it is the case that in a culture, which values this type of expression, it is simply another way of progressing toward a true friendship. Maybe such expressions are being used in the same way as Americans, trying to present a culturally acceptable facade to others. I don’t know.

5. The Quality of Life For The Average American Is Not That Great

Difficult to say. In my experience in western Europe this is probably true. But, when I think about eastern Europe, Africa and other places, which I’m unfamiliar with, I think there is cause to doubt this. It depends on what is meant by the average American: an urban resident, a suburbanite or a rural person. One thing that is definitely the case when comparing Germany and the US is the general size of houses and plots of land (I’m thinking about suburbia here). Americans enjoy much larger dwellings and land than Germans. There’s simply more of it to go around. Does this not contribute to a quality of life?

Another area where I think the US has it better than Germany is the general amount of freedom to do what one wants. In Germany one needs official approval and licenses to do many things which are not required in the US. German culture values order and this permeates many facets of life. Cars must be inspected every couple of years. There are no rust-bucket cars on German roads. Depending on your perspective this may be good or bad. In Germany the quality and safety of cars is assured. But on the other hand in America one would have to spend more money to repair or buy new cars and some may not be able to afford this. I know inspections have increased in the US but it’s still not at the level of Germany. And then there’s golf. In the US if I want to go golfing, I simply get the equipment and go. No questions asked. In Germany I have to pay a large sum of money to take a course and get a golfing license. The prices for golfing are so high that I’ve basically given up the sport. Add to that hunting and fishing as well as many other hobbies and I would say that Americans enjoy more general freedom to pursue what they want. These, of course, are specific issues comparing only these two countries. I can’t say much about the rest of the world.

But I agree with what Manson says about wealth and time. In Germany everyone (with some exceptions) has six weeks of vacation time every year. It fascinates me that the German economy is able to be so productive and keep step with other nations that have less vacation time.

6. The Rest Of The World Is Not A Slum-Ridden Shithole Compared To Us

OK, I’ll take his word for it. Maybe not the REST of the world but what about third world and developing countries. Is this not the reason that there are so many humanitarian efforts and accusations about wealth distribution. Without delving into politics, greed and the like, is this not at least true in a limited sense?

7. We’re Paranoid

Yes, in fact this was one of the benefits I saw when I decided to move to Europe. An air of fear seems to be perpetuated through the news media, at least this was the case in the early nineties. When I got to Europe this feeling lessened considerably. In the post 9-11 world  this tendency has probably increased dramatically. I’ve been out of the loop so I don’t know this first hand other than going travelling through airports.

8. We’re Status-Obsessed And Seek Attention

Yes.

9. We Are Very Unhealthy

Yes. However, in certain cases I think this image may be overplayed. The image of Americans being overweight for instance. I see reports on German television about this problem and one gets the impression the majority of Americans are extremely overweight and ride around town on little buggies. When I visit the US I don’t see a dramatic difference in the general population.

Also, when I lived in England I was astounded at how much of their diet is laden with fat. A full English breakfast is a sight to behold. A few cereals, some deep fried toast and then greasy eggs, sausage and bacon, yummy. In Scotland there are shops that will deep fry just about anything, a snickers bar for instance.

Yet at the same time, in my experience the English do not have many overweight people wandering the streets and on average are fairly slim. When I lived there there I saw a local television move, where Sigourney Weaver played the role of an american woman visiting an friend in London. She poked her head in his refrigerator and uttered the phrase “I don’t know how your entire nation doesn’t just keel over and have a heart attack.” I don’t know either, I wonder if it has to do with their genes.

10. We Mistake Comfort For Happiness

Is this different elsewhere? We may be leading the way but I think other nations are on the same path. Also, much of this has to do with the incursion of electronic communication (Cell phones, twitter and the like) in our lives. But yes, this trend cannot be denied. We increasingly seek security behind various shelters, live a virtual life and experience less of reality. Yet, this is not necessarily something new. Didn’t we get the ball rolling with inventions in the past like the telephone, automobile, radio and television. The internet age has simply continued this with trend.

 

 

As to Manson’s assessment where America as a culture and nation is headed, I think he has mentioned some real dangers. The rise and fall of cultures and the destiny of America is a huge topic. His concerns reminded me of a book that I read in the late nineties which is related to this topic. It talks about how the US has gone through periods of crisis and renewal in a cyclical fashion. It talks about how the psyche of successive generations has played a role in this. I found the book fascinating. It traced american history back to colonial times demonstrating the repeating pattern. It also explains how the various generational types (WWII, Baby-Boomer, Gen-X etc.) came into being and what there strengths and weakness are. If you’re are interested, I can highly recommend it: Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069


Ich habe ein schlechtes Gefühl

Ich habe ein schlechtes Gefühl bei der EM, wenn es um die Deutsche Mannschaft geht. Keine wissenschaftliche Prognose, keine Erkenntnisse von einem Sportguru, nur ein schlechtes Gefühl.

Ich vermisse bei der DFB Auswahl und die Stimmung in Deutschland das sog. „Eye of the Tiger.“ Das ist ein Spruch aus Rocky III. Was damit gemeint ist, ist ein sportliche Hunger, die Bereitschaft alles einzusetzen, um erfolgreich zu sein.

Stattdessen, bekomme ich das Gefühl, dass alle davon ausgehen, dass Deutschland die EM gewinnt. Es ist schon eine beschlossene Sache. Jogi’s Jungs haben so viele tolle Sachen in den letzten Jahren geleistet, dass sie sich diesmal gar nicht anstrengen müssen.

Die zwei Test-Spiele waren sehr dürftig. Alle fragen sich, ob die Bayern Spieler die verkorkste vize-Saison rechtzeitig abhaken können. Es wird gemeckert, dass die Dortmunder nicht repräsentativ vertreten sind. Die Presse fragt sich, wieso Schweini am Pool mit Cocktails sitzt. Jogi’s Fernseh-Werbungsauftritte werden immer besser aber was macht das Team? Es gibt viele Nebenschauplätze. Ein Zirkus sogar, aber das „Eye of the tiger“ ist fehl am Platz ist. So scheint es mir.

Also, aus meinem Gefühl kann zwei Dinge geschehen:

  1. Es wird bestätigt. Die DFB Mannschaft überlebt die Gruppenphase nicht und die Ära Jogi Löw kommt bald zu Ende. Stattdessen eine andere hungrigere Mannschaft besitzt das „Eye of the Tiger“ und überrascht viele Zuschauer.
  2. Hoffentlich liege ich falsch und Jogi und die Jungs zeigen uns, dass sie doch alles im Griff haben. Sie kommen dann nach Hauser nicht nur mit Kielbasa und Krakauer zwischen den Zähnen sondern auch mit einem Titel in den Händen.

Erneuerbare Geistliche Kraft

Eine stillgelegte Tankstelle

In meiner Gemeinde höre ich oft den Begriff „auftanken“. Die Idee dahinter ist, Kraft von Gott zu empfangen, damit man die Arbeit des Lebens bewältigen kann. Es gibt sogar einen Wochenplan. Man kommt in den Gottesdienst am Sonntag, um geistliche Energie zu bekommen, um aufzutanken. Die am Sonntag gewonnene Kraft wird dazu verwendet, die Woche hoffentlich ohne großen Schaden durchzustehen, damit man am nächsten Sonntag alles noch einmal von vorn wiederholen kann.

Ich bin nie ganz zufrieden mit dieser Betrachtungsweise gewesen. Einiges dabei finde ich richtig, z.B. der Gedanke, dass wir ohne Gott nichts tun können (Johannes 15,5). Allerdings, andere Fragen haben sich in meine Gedanken oft eingedrängt. Ist es nicht möglich, unter der Woche aufzutanken? Sollen wir nicht in der Lage sein, selber aufzutanken? Braucht man dafür den Pastor und den Gottesdienst?

Heute ist ein anderer Gedanke durch meinen Kopf gegangen, was das ganze Konzept des Auftanken-Modells sprengen könnte. In Johannes 4,34 sagt Jesus „Meine Speise ist, dass ich den Willen dessen tue, der mich gesandt hat, und sein Werk vollbringe“. Mein Gedanke ist folgendes. Das „Auftanken“ Konzept stellt ein System dar, das uns sehr vertraut ist. Man isst etwas und gewinnt dadurch Kraft. Die Kraft wird wiederum ausgegeben, um Arbeit zu leisten. Der Zyklus wiederholt sich bis zum Lebensende.

Was Jesus sagt, stellt dieses Konzept in Frage. Er differenziert nicht zwischen Arbeit einerseits und Speisen andererseits. Für ihn sind beide das gleiche. Während wir Essen und Arbeit als zwei verschiedene Dinge betrachten sah sie Jesus als eine. Ich habe keine detaillierte theologische Ausarbeitung anzubieten nur einen simplen Gedanken. Kann es sein, dass die Arbeit, die wir für Gott tun, wenn richtig gemacht, eine Art erneuerbare geistliche Energie ist?


Sucked into the technology vortex

For many of you this is probably not news. For me it’s life changing.

Is this our destiny?

During the past few days I’ve been getting acquainted with my new Android tablet (Motorola Xoom). I notice already that another technological advance is altering the way I live. It’s making me less capable of doing basic things and making me more dependent upon technology.

When I was a kid, at the time when hand held calculators were first becoming commonplace, my father was capable of doing square root calculations in his head. I never learned that skill. I didn’t need to, there were calculators.

Since then a series of technological advances have taken place. Each one changes the way we behave and weakens our ability to perform certain tasks natively.

It used to be normal for me to stand up to change the TV channel …

I used to be confined to a radius of about three feet when making a telephone call …

I used to be able to type a document and get it right the first time through (although it took a little longer)  …

I used to read a physical newspaper in the morning …

I used to go to the store to buy books and magazines …

I used to be able to find my way around town without a device telling me where I am …

AND NOW with the latest device to come into my life I’m certain many more modifications to my native skill set will take place
This is a good thing, is it not ?


My OpenSuse Update Experience

I recently updated my home computer from openSuse 11.4 to version 12.1. In this post I’d like to recount the steps, pitfalls and successes I had in the process. Maybe someone will find this helpful.

Prelude

I’ve been with Suse Linux since version 5.x. In the past an installation would usually take me a week to get everything setup the way I wanted. Ethernet, graphics, printer and many other things required a lot of searching and this took a lot of time in the pre-google era. In the meantime the install process goes very smoothly. However, the last few updates I did were always from scratch. That is, I would reformat my root partition where the system files were located and leave my home partition the way it was (with a backup of course). This time I wanted to do a straight upgrade without cleaning up. Since the last few installations and upgrades went so smoothly I assumed this one would be a piece of cake. I had kept my 11.4 distribution up to date and was pretty much one leap away from the new 12.1 distribution.

Phase One

This forum thread pointed me to two explanations of how to go forward with and upgrade: SDB:System upgrade and Chapter 15. Upgrading the System and System Changes. I chose to first try the SBD:System upgrade. I did the steps under Prepare your installation and Running the Upgrade. At the step issuing the command “zypper ref” things started to go bad. Sorry but I can’t remember the exact error message but I think it had something to do with the RPM library. I was hoping to do a pure internet upgrade (i.e. no need to burn an installation DVD) but that hope died with the errors coming from the zypper command. So I began doing the other approach (Chapter 15. Upgrading the System and System Changes) and started an ISO Download heeding the warning about Persistent Device Names by changing my fstab entries via Yast to mount using a label. The original 11.4 system was still working after this change so I thought everything was OK. After a few hours I gave the install DVD a try as per the instructions. I got to the point where I instructed the installer to do an update rather than a complete install. At this point the installer would go no further. And the error message was disturbingly windows like: something involving the RPM package library and continuing the message “unknown error.” :( :( :(

RPM Package Library

I discovered that my RPM package library file /var/lib/rpm/Packages was corrupted. I was unsure how and when this occurred but I strongly suspect that the aforementioned zypper command was the culprit. Somehow I’ve had better luck with Yast and am still a littler uneasy with the zypper command. Anyway, I was stuck trying to find a way to re-create the Packages file. After several unsuccessful attempts using rpm to rebuild the file, I discovered that openSuse makes backups of the rpm Package library. They can be found in /var/adm/backup/rpmdb. As I understand it the rebuild function is not a recreation but simply a reparation of a corrupted file. If I didn’t have a backup i’m not sure what I could have done. Probably do a clean installation instead of an update. Anyway, once I cleanup up my RPM package library the update via DVD worked just fine. Until it came time to reboot into the second phase.

Grub

When attempting the reboot GRUB was not able to boot the system. Due to my previous experiences installing Suse I knew that this was not a major problem, just bothersome. I had to figure out how to convince GRUB to boot into the system which I was confidant was properly installed. I dove into the GRUB command line editor and began playing around and reading the help. By a stroke of luck I happened to find an “easy” solution. The GRUB entries for the boot disk and the initrd referenced my hard-drive as (hd0). However, my hard drive has three paritions and the boot disk is in the second one. I manually changed the prefix to be (hd0,1) [1 indicates the second partition as the first is 0]. After this the newly installed system booted into its second round and every went without a hitch. All the vital components seemed to be working. I was glad I was able to get over two major hurdles. But things were not finished yet.

Graphics

I have an ATI-Radeon graphics card which runs quite well with the open source drivers, but I do notice the proprietary drivers do run a tad faster. I notice this when the mouse cursor moves over areas where a pop-up box is displayed. It works but it’s slow enough to be irritating. The native ATI driver can be installed easily and after a reboot things are working quite well. The downside of this is that using tumbleweed in this constellation is not recommended. I’m still debating this one.

Audio

Another irritating thing is that was quite irritating was the lack of audio. I spent several hours looking at pulse-audio and also settings to no avail.  In Yast my sound card was recognized and even played a test sound. But within KDE itself no sound. The pulse audio setup, kmix and so forth showed only a dummy sound sink. The solution was very simple. The user must be added to the audio group. After I did this everything worked like a charm. An easy solution but bothersome because this was not required before.

Kmail

The final problem was a real pain and caused me much anxiety. Kmail (now kmail2) is unable to migrate all my Kontact data: mail, contacs, calender etc. This was quite unnerving. I quickly found several forums on the openSuse site where frustrated users were ranting about the major KMAIL FAIL. I shared their concerns and was equally displeased. I have several hundred emails and rely heavily on my calender. I was not looking forward to digging through my old files and backups to restore my data to a usable state.  BTW, the kmail/kontact data locations can be found here.

I considered going to Thunderbird or even using Claws but I really wanted to stick with Kmail if it were possible. I spent a few days fiddling around trying to see if the other software could do what I need and most of all if they could import the mail data, which was still intact. What I eventually realized is that I had panicked. I just needed to get acquainted with the new setup, in particular how to manage the new akonadi, and kontact/kmail worked just fine. Akonadi just needs to know where the data is and it works just fine. Once i got that set up correctly, kmail2 was able to read my old mail directories without a problem. At first I saw my old mail directory tree but everything was empty. I though they had all been erased but it was simply a matter of telling kmail2 to do an update of the directories. After that everything was there. :)

The thing that helped me get that all cleaned up is to realize a few new tings about the kontact/akonadi architecture. Akonadi is a data layer between kontact and the hard-drive (I’m still using vcard and ical files). Once I got the data sources in akonadi cleared up kontact worked just fine. Because the initial migration failed and I tried several manual attempts akonadi was full of entries which pointed to nothing useful. After looking more closely I deleted all the extraneous entries and recreated those for my calendar, email directory and contacts list. That was a scary situation but in the end everything is working well. :)