Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Monday, December 26, 2011

On Free-Riders and Tax Cheats

A recent article in the NYTimes introduces the free-rider problem as follows:

“You can watch PBS without making a donation; you can enjoy clean air even if you drive a car that pollutes. Such goods, however, give rise to the so-called free-rider problem: acting selfishly makes sense for each individual (why sacrifice if you don’t have to?) but as more and more people choose to act selfishly, the good disappears and everyone loses.”

The article struck a chord with me because I had just met an accountant who stated proudly that he knew how rich people could manage their money in ways that allowed their heirs never to pay any taxes. I was taken aback and remarked, “But will they use the roads built with other people’s taxes?”, to which he answered, gleefully, “Well, the roads will not be built with their taxes!” And when I pointed out that we were currently watching a whole country, Greece, going down the tubes because, among other things, cheating on taxes is endemic there, he replied that everything he would suggest would be legal.

In other words, I had encountered a form of the free-rider problem before I even knew that it had a name. Now, I find it perfectly legitimate to try not to pay more taxes than necessary, and that’s why we employ our own tax planner. But I do consider attempts to avoid paying any taxes while fully using the goods and services created by the taxes paid by others (roads, police protection, food safety supervision, to name a few) a form of sociopathology.

I knew that “cheating the government” was an attitude prevalent in the underground economy of tradespeople, which I deal with frequently. My conversation with the accountant showed me, however, that the attitude goes all the way up to people with the highest income. This is very different in the country I come from, where people are willing to pay taxes as long as they see them used in beneficial ways. In fact, conversations with friends and what I read in online magazines suggest to me that plans of the current German government for tax relief are meeting a less than enthusiastic response. People know that as a result, the public debt would have to increase or some social services be cut, and that’s considered worse by many than having 200 Euros or so more in their pockets.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Euro 2012 (no, not that Euro!)

Today was the drawing to determine the initial 4 groups of four teams to start competition in next year's European Championship tournament in Poland and the Ukraine. These are the groups that were drawn:

A: Poland, Greece, Russia, Czech Republic (31.5)
B: Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Portugal (5.75)
C: Spain, Italy, Ireland, Croatia (9.75)
D: Ukraine, Sweden, France, England. (23.25)

The numbers in brackets indicate the average team ranking for each group according to the current FIFA rankings (overall, not restricted to Europe, which exaggerates the differences somewhat). The extraordinary spread results from the fact that Poland and the Ukraine, the two lowest-ranked teams in the competition, qualified as host nations and were seated ahead of powerhouses such as Germany and England. Result: We have the mother of all groups of death in group B, where the lowest-ranked team is ranked higher than the highest-ranked team in group A.

Some implications in my comment...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Word of the Month: Kadavergehorsam

Word of the Month: Index

A Kadaver is a cadaver or corpse, and Gehorsam means "obedience." Kadavergehorsam refers to an unquestioning, blind obedience or a total abandonment of one's free will to a higher authority. The term entered German via the constitution of the Jesuit order as written by its founder, St. Ignace of Loyola. It demands from every member that he obey his superiors "as if he were a cadaver that lets itself be carried anywhere and treated in any which way." The term was used in Germany in the 19th century first as an anti-Jesuit catchphrase and later also in polemics against the Prussian military. It serves nowadays as a general reference to a blind obedience that's no longer desired, not in the army, not in civilian life, not anywhere. [My source]

According to the Wikipedia article I referenced, the comparison that St. Ignace uses goes back to a formulation by St. Francis of Assissi, who wrote several centuries earlier and, in turn, relied on an even earlier scholastic tradition. But it's the Germans who distilled the underlying image into the compound noun that's our current Word of the Month. This illustrates again how easy it is in German to succinctly express shaded meanings by hitching seemingly unrelated words together. I must also confess that until I did research for this month's word, I thought Kadavergehorsam simply meant obedience till you're dead. The history of the term that I discovered, though, shows that it has a much more interesting pedigree.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

'Bout them Germans...

Posted by reader Heika:

Hi Ulrich, I just finished reading a review of Michael Lewis's book "Boomerang," which discusses the current financial crisis country to country. The reviewer made this comment, which for me rang very true, admittedly based on my very short stay of two years in the country:

“There was no credit boom in Germany,” an official told Lewis. “Real estate prices were completely flat. There was no borrowing for consumption. Because this behavior is totally unacceptable in Germany.”

I don't know if you can address the prices of real estate to verify the unnamed official's accuracy, but what do you think about the claim that "borrowing for consumption" is totally "unacceptable." My personal experience is that Lewis got this right, and this is one very good reason the Germans continue to do well while all around them are in despair.

Loved your latest drawing. Heika

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Words of the Month: Hausdrachen, Pantoffelheld


So far, I have resisted posting WoMs that could be viewed as sexist—I briefly alluded to this when, in a discussion about maulfaul, I was asked about an antonym, i.e. a word referring to someone who can't shut up, and I had to answer that these words do exist, but tend to be clearly aimed at women and therefore could be considered sexist. I do not intend to feature such words, but today, I'm making an exception. It was simply too tempting to illustrate the word in question, sexist as it may be. But in order to be an equal-opportunity sexist, I paired it, upon the suggestion of Laraine, with a word that's sexist w.r.t. the opposite gender.

So, here goes: Haus means "house" or "home", and a Drachen is a dragon. A Hausdrachen is a woman who tyrannizes her family, especially her husband—she's a shrew. A Pantoffel is a bedroom slipper, and a Held is a hero (as in Heldentenor). A Pantoffelheld is a guy who talks tough, but takes to his heels at the first sign of danger—he's a hero only in the safety of his own home, unless, of course, he meets a Hausdrachen there. One could say that a Hausdrachen and a Pantoffelheld are a perfectly matched pair, in more than one respect.

[Source: Wild Things in the German Language: Kindle version | iBook version]

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

We dodged a bullet

Snowfall on Friday caused more damage to our trees than hurricane Irene did in August—it also left us without electricity for 75 hrs, which meant no water from the well, which meant the toilets stopped working once the water in the tank was used up. But things could have been worse: A white oak behind our house split and one half fell on our roof, but didn't damage the roof itself as far as we can see without the tree being removed.

Why am I reporting all of this? Because the word of the month will be delayed by a few days—I'm too busy dealing with the aftermath of all of the above.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Six Days in Vermont


My latest opus. If the pictures are not as spectacular as those in the Death Valley or Adriatic books, it's because the scenery was not as spectacular (or because I couldn't make more of it). I'm showing the book here anyway because I believe my German friends, in particular, may be interested. Vermont is not on the beaten path, and this was indeed my first visit there ever. But it's only the second continental state I visited in the US (after New Mexico) where I spontaneously thought, "I could live here." (I'm talking about states, not cities!) I hope the images manage to suggest why I thought so.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Word of the month: Lebenslüge

Word of the Month: Index

Here's another addition to Leben ("life") that creates a special meaning: A Lüge is a lie, and a Lebenslüge is a lie people tell themselves in order to be able to live with a clear conscience in spite of the fact that some actions in the past should give them anything but a clear conscience. It appears to be a particular manifestation of cognitive dissonance, which we talked about a while ago. According to the Wikipedia article I consulted, the term goes back to Henrik Ibsen's "The Wild Duck", which means there has to be an initial coinage in Norwegian—I wonder what that would be.

It is interesting to note that in German political discourse, the term has been applied to nations or countries; for example, to countries that go to great lengths to suppress the memory of and references to atrocities that have been committed in the past in the name of the country or were sanctioned by its leaders, or to countries whose self-image or policies are based on false assumptions about events that happened in the past.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Word of the Month: Spaßvogel

Here’s yet another addition to the KrautBlog aviary. Spaß can mean “fun”, as in “Wir haben Spaß gehabt”(“We’ve had fun”), or “joke”, as in “Es war doch nur Spaß” (“It was only a joke”). A Spaßvogel is a droll or humorous person, one always ready to crack a joke, a wag.

Note on pronounciation. The “v” is pronounced like English “f”, not like English “v”.

[Source: Wild Things in the German Language: Kindle version | iBook version]

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Sailing in the Adriatic 2011


Back from one of the greatest trips I ever took (the preview shows about half of the photo book I created afterwards)--I will open a post soon about the specific allure of the Mediterranean, which becomes even more irresistible when experienced from a sailing boat

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Word of the Month: Lebenskünstler

Word of the Month: Index

Leben means "life" and a Künstler is an artist. Lebenskünstler refers not so much to people who turn their life into a piece of art than to people able to face whatever life throws at them with equanimity and a minimum of fuss. It's not so much that they see something positive in every situation (a form of self-delusion); rather, they always seem to find a way out of problems they encounter without kvetching and self-dramatization. It's also not a matter of "grace under pressure"—Lebenskünstler don't let pressure get to them in the first place.

As you may guess, I have great admiration für Lebenskünstler and wish I myself had more of one in me. I'm surprised that there does not seem to exist an English equivalent with exactly the same shade of meaning.

Note: Attentive readers will have noticed that I have been using Lebenskünstler also as a plural. This is correct: It's one of the German -er nouns whose plural is the same as the singular.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Word of the month: Neidhammel

Neid means "envy", one of the deadly sins (it's also the last name of the coach of the German national women's soccer team that is competing right now for the World Cup). A Hammel is a (castrated) male sheep or a mutton, if it's dead on the table. A Neidhammel is a person of a rather disagreeable kind, one that habitually feels envy towards anybody who seems to have any advantage. I found it very hard to express this feeling graphically, and impossible without providing some context.

By way of explanation, one may observe that if Hammel is combined with a trait or habit, it can connote a person who makes this habit a defining characteristic. Thus, a Streithammel is a person who loves a Streit ("fight"). But I can't explain why a Hammel is considered a particularly obsessive creature. And yes, the "ei" in Neid (and Streit) rhymes with "eye".

[Source: Wild Things in the German Language: Kindle version | iBook version]

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Word of the month: Putzfimmel

Word of the Month: Index

Putzen means "to clean" and a Fimmel is a craze for or an obsession with something. Putzflimmel denotes an obsession with keeping things, especially your house, not just clean, but entirely spotless. A person thus afflicted keeps cleaning utensils always in easy reach so that any trace of dirt or dust can be attacked as soon as it is discovered. This kind of person is also know as a Putzteufel (cleaning devil), the opposite of a slob.

...and speaking of slobs: I have found that it is just about impossible to live with someone who has a Putzfimmel.

Note on pronunciation: The "u" in Putz is a short "oo" as in "foot".

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance

I drew the cartoon on the right for a page on Laraine's website, in which she introduces "cognitive dissonance" to readers of her books (as part of a larger effort to "build background knowledge bit-by-bit"). I'm picking up her thread because ever since I learned about this concept from psychology, it has been indispensable in my understanding of how a part of the population functions. All through my life, I have observed with wonderment people who are seemingly able to entertain simultaneously two conflicting opinions about themselves and to do this over extended periods of time. Cognitive dissonance gives a name to this phenomenon, and studies dealing with it investigate the mechanisms people employ to neutralize its effects.

A particular common one is "it's not my fault." This is very popular, for example, with obese people who know they eat too much, but are nevertheless unwilling to change their eating habits. A popular it's-not-my-fault ploy in this case is to blame one's genes—I actually have seen this used explicitly in a food ad! Of course, if genes were to blame for the obesity epidemic hitting the Western countries (the US is not alone in this), we would have to assume that some mega-sized mutations happened over the last two generations—but people looking for an excuse will never question its underlying premises (another common ploy is to dismiss the simple arithmetic underlying the relation between calories burned and units of physical exercise as "useless" or "questionable" math).

More of my musings on this topic (I mean cognitive dissonance, not obese people!) in the comments...

Monday, May 2, 2011

Word of the month: Schluckspecht

SchluckspechtOur Schnapsdrossel (WoM for March) needs a drinking companion, and here he is. A Schluck is a gulp or swig (from schlucken - "to swallow"), and a Specht is a woodpecker. Put the two together and you have another moniker for a boozer or drunk. Again, I do not know how the word originated—perhaps the alliteration of the two components (the S in Specht is pronounced like English "sh") played a role.

Addendum (4/9/2012): According to this theory, the term goes back to certain woodpecker species that hammer holes into tree trunks in order to get to the sap.

Anyway, we have a word that may look daunting to foreigners: 11 consonants and only 2 vowels! Things appear easier when you realize that the "sch", "ck", and "ch" indicate but one phoneme each, which reduces the number of effective consonants in the word to 7. Still, for speakers of languages that avoid consonant clusters (like Japanese) the word is a challenge.

[Source: Wild Things in the German Language: Kindle version | iBook version]

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Death Valley 2011

Another photo book I just completed (viewed best with the Fullscreen option). I included pictures I shot from the plane that took me from New York to Las Vegas—I find the images of the varying patterns and landscape formations on the ground mesmerizing [Photoshop makes it all possible bec. it allows me to get rid of the haze that always intervenes when pictures are taken from great distances and through rather dirty airplane windows].

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Snows of 2011

I just finished a photo diary of the extraordinary snow falls we've had this winter. This preview shows about half of the pages.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Word of the month: Prinzipienreiter

Prinzip is German for “principle” and a Reiter is a “rider” (of horses). Hitch the two words together, and you have a person who acts on principle, as a matter of principle, in the most inflexible, even bone-headed way no matter what the consequences are. I’ve found, both in Germany and in the US, Prinzipienreiter (singular and plural are the same for both nominative and accusative!) especially among the ranks of low-level officials who get their authority not from their expertise or charisma, but solely through their position, and are willing to use what little power they have to the max by following procedures to the tee.

Here’s an incident during this year’s mardi-gras in Cologne that shows beautifully Prinzipienreiter at work (I’ll summarize the incident in my first comment for people who don’t speak German).

Note on pronunciation: Prin·TSEE·pee·en·RYE·ter.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Word of the month: Schnapsdrossel

Schnapsdrossel Word of the Month: Index

Another addition to the KrautBlog aviary: Schnaps (one p!) should be known to English speakers—it's a generic term for any hard liquor; a Drossel is a thrush; and Schnapsdrossel is a colloquial moniker for a boozer. I do not know how the term originated, but it remains a fact, in Germany and elsewhere, that alcohol leads some people to song.*

*Addendum: I learned today (3/14/2012) that the Drossel in Schnapsdrossel has nothing to do with birds. It's an old name for "throat", which survives in modern German only in the verb erdrosseln (to strangle)—must have the same Germanic root as "throttle". So, a Schnapsdrossel is really a throat through which liquor flows freely.

[Source: Wild Things in the German Language: Kindle version | iBook version]

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Word of the month: Wutbürger

The Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (Society for the German Language) made Wutbürger its word of the year for 2010. The term combines Wut (an intense anger that is ready to swing into action at the slightest provocation) and Bürger (citizen). I selected this term for several reasons: It picks up on issues I already introduced in my posts on the current German funk and the Leitkultur discussion. Furthermore, the circumstances in which it is used have parallels in the US. And it demonstrates, again, the ease with which words can be combined in German to create concise expressions for rather nuanced phenomena.

The term was popularized by an essay in the magazine Der Spiegel, whose author used it to describe conservative, if not reactionary, members of the middle class who are deeply dissatisfied with the direction Germany is taking. Specifically, they are disturbed by the fact that it is becoming an immigration country, and they do not see their point of view sufficiently championed by elected officials. However, the term is also applied to groups that do not fit this profile, like the people of Stuttgart who staged massive protests against plans to tear down their old train station and replace it with a more modern structure. As is usual in Germany, this created a debate—more in my first comment...

Chickadee Desperado

I shot a frontal portrait of a chickadee yesterday that just had to be enhanced as shown.

To my German friends: A chickadee is a Kohlmeise.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Words of the month: Bücherwurm, Leseratte

Bücher is the plural of Buch (book), and a Bücherwurm is the German equivalent of the English "bookworm"—a person who has no life outside of books. Since the German and English terms are so close both linguistically and semantically, there would be no reason to make Bücherwurm a word of the month.

However, there is also the Leseratte. In German, you can attach certain words to Ratte ("rat") to coin a term for someone who likes something: A Wasserratte (Wasser means "water") is a person who loves to be in the water, while a Landratte is a person who doesn't, or at least doesn't like to set foot on a ship. Lesen means "to read", and a Leseratte is a person who loves to read. In distinction to a Bücherwurm, though, there is no implication that this person has no life outside of books—an "avid reader" comes close in English, but doesn't conjure up the image of a voraciously reading rat, which I find very appealing (and I'm a person who suffers from muriphobia!). Anyway, I think a Leseratte and a Bücherwurm make a nicely contrasting pair.

[Source: Wild Things in the German Language: Kindle version | iBook version]