Incompetence is not an excuse

I’ve been reading Bob Woodward’s new book Fear, and it got me thinking about competence, and culpability. The book gives us a glimpse into a White House that’s not running with any sort of grand strategy, but is a viper’s nest of incompetence and backstabbing, with various people and factions with agendas working to get Trump’s ear. All of this is being done without any modicum of competence, or grand strategy, and Trump comes across not as a leader, but someone who is easily manipulated. I suspect that this lack of competence will be used as an excuse. The excuses will become that there can’t be collusion if you’re too dumb to know you’re being manipulated. This will be accepted by some, but incompetence is not an excuse.

When you’re driving a car, you accept certain responsibilities that you have to take for the privilege of driving a car on roads with other people. If I end up driving 55 miles per hour in a residential area with a 35 mile per hour speed limit, my ignorance of that speed limit will not prevent me from getting a ticket. Most reasonable people will conclude that as the driver of the car it’s my responsibility to understand the laws that apply to me, and that not being aware of the speed limit isn’t an excuse to break the law.

If you are the CEO of a public company, and your policies cause the company to take actions that are illegal, you are responsible. Your ignorance of the laws you violated is not an excuse for the behavior there either. As the CEO of a public company, you are aware that you have certain responsibilities and legal restrictions that may not apply to other people. Since you have accepted the position, it is your responsibility to understand what legal liabilities you might have, and to behave in a legal manner. If you tell your employees that “You don’t want to know and don’t care how the objectives are achieved”, and reward behavior that could be illegal (like the Enron corporation), then you are liable for those actions.

If you are a mafia boss, and you’re caught on tape saying “Make sure Jimmy disappears”, you will still be prosecuted for murder if Jimmy is found to be murdered. You don’t get to escape culpability because you plead ignorance of Jimmy’s fate, or how Jimmy’s fate came about.

If someone becomes President, there isn’t some sort of outside force that made this happen without any action on your part. You campaigned and lobbied for the position, and in doing so, declared that you think you would be competent in the job. There are lots of laws, responsibilities, and restrictions that lie with the President that don’t apply to normal people. It is President’s job to understand those rules and regulations, at least broadly, and to make sure to hire a competent staff to help you navigate those rules and regulations. If you fail to hire the staff, or ignore them, then your ignorance of those rules and responsibilities is not excuse for violating them. It is your responsibility to obey those rules and regulations, and to not be cavalier about the obligations you have to your country.

All of the above being said, it seems to me that a great part of the arguments from the right, excusing the behavior of President Trump, is framed around the argument that he’s too naive to be responsible. Even the question of collusion is framed around this argument in a way. Whether making a statement on Twitter encouraging the Russians to release information on your opponent and then having that information get released is collusion is irrelevant. If you encourage behavior in your supporters and your staff that is illegal, if you make statements encouraging things that you wish would happen, knowing full well that there’s a reasonable likelihood that your encouragement will make those things happen, makes you culpable. Nonetheless, mark my words, that as information comes out around the illegal behavior of the people around President Trump, his defenders will nonetheless make statements saying that Trump himself didn’t do X, Y, or Z, and so its not him. As a society we don’t accept that excuse in traffic laws, its not something we even debate. I don’t think its worth debating around the actions of the President of the United States either.

On luck

I’m a programmer, and I think I’ve worked hard to get to where I am today. I think that my decisions have played a large role in the outcomes of things that have happened in my life. I have spent a lot of time on learning to do what I do, and in improving my ability in doing it. You could say, in some ways, I’m a study in self-determination.

I’m also hugely empathetic towards the struggles of others and the difficulties people face in their lives. I think a large part of what happens to you throughout your life is independent of your own actions, and that we’re all products of our environment. I’m a proponent of strong social safety nets, and of low-cost health care, and high inheritance taxes. I try very hard to forgive the mistakes people have made in their lives, and not to make pariahs out them. I’m against strict criminal sentencing laws, and generally think the US is far too punitive in how it punishes people. I believe that humans are constrained by environmental factors outside of their control, and that those things have a much larger effect on everyone’s outcomes than they’d like to believe.

This two things might seem incongruous to some. How can I be someone who’s worked so hard for my achievements, yet say that I think we’re all largely shaped by factors outside of our control? Do I not feel that I’ve earned what I’ve achieved?

Your ability to take the risk in starting a business, or to even have the luxury of time enough to think of a business idea, is predicated on you having a certain amount of economic security. I feel like I have lots of things to do, and I never have time to do things like even write this blog. I can’t imagine how little time I would have if I had to work more than job, or got paid minimum wage, and had to worry about where my next paycheck or meal was going to come from.

I’ve worked hard to learn to program computers, to read all the books I’ve read, and generally to become the person I am today. I also know what played an even larger role in my ability to program is pure luck. I was blessed with a family that was middle-class enough that we had computers when I was young, and I was lucky in having been born right at the time computers were invented. If I had been born 100 years earlier, all of the skills I have, and all my tendencies towards intellectual capabilities, may have been far less useful. I also had no choice in being born a male, or in being white, or in being born in a first world country. I could go on, there’s an infinite list of things completely outside of my control that played just as large a part in defining me today.  I’m certainly not minimizing the hard work I put in to achieve these things, but I also recognize that the hard work was far from enough to make it happen on its own. I have no confidence in the belief that I could have been born in any time, as any race, as any particular gender, and with parents of any particular economic status, and have had things turn out as well as they did.

How can I can be a supporter of things that seem, on a personal level, to be against my own interests? Why do I support higher taxes, strong social safety nets, free education, and affirmative action, as just a few examples? I support those things because I try to remind myself, on a regular basis, how different my life could have been with just a few small tweaks, with the roll of the die turning out slightly different. I try, in the same way that some religious people try to remember to thank God for what they’ve been given, to remember all the things that I have been given. I hope that you, if you’re reading this, spend a few minutes thinking about all of the things that are out of your control, that you were lucky to receive, and that made you who you are.

Misc. links 9/9/2018

I read, a lot, and I often read interesting things that I tend to bookmark for various reasons. I want to get back to it, write an article about it, etc. Given the vast amount of information I read, my ability to find things interesting and worthy of comment vastly outweighs my ability to do anything with the information. Partly, to give myself a better place to organize the information, and partly out of the hope that someone else finds it interesting or comment-worthy, I’m going to start regularly posting a list of links I found interesting.

Interesting questions to ask companies/employees you are interviewing with:

The Holloway guide to equity compensation:

Compilation of 100+ 3D graphics academic papers:

Why investing in poor neighborhoods is a better deal than investing in rich neighborhoods:

Renewing America’s economic promise through older industrial cities:

How to make your own sourdough bread:



My Name is the GOP, and… I’m a Trumpaholic

Backlash from the Anonymous NYT Op-Ed

An article came out from an insider of the Trump administration, and it was posted in the NY times anonymously. There’s a bunch of a legitimate hand-wringing and concern about an anonymous op-ed discussing the administration, and I think it’s correct to worry about whether it’s just sour grapes, or whether there is legitimate value in publishing an anonymous opened from a supposed insider.

Trump supporters of course responded to this headline like this (this is an actual quote, from a friend’s Facebook feed):

“… think the article was manufactured by our friends at the New York Times. It is so convenient that it was published anonymously by someone ‘known’ to the NYT staff, but who still works inside the White House. Notice, also, how the writer refers to the Republican Party as ‘his’ (i.e., Trump’s) party, rather than ‘our’ party. So is this anonymous author a Democrat or something other than a Republican? And he or she still works in the White House?”

People like to think it’s something insidious, that some how Trump isn’t the problem. But could it be exactly as stated? Given the evidence of his behavior, I’m going to argue that this is not a big democratic conspiracy to make the Republicans look bad. No my friends, I hate to be the one to tell you, but Trump is indeed a Twitter happy moron. His best qualities combine the steely focus of a gnat, with the temperament of an inept asshole that’s in way over his head. What you hear about the Woodward book isn’t bullshit. It’s an administration off the rails.

The media may be left-wing. I don’t doubt that, but think about Occam’s Razor. Why would they lie about it? Do you think that anyone in DC would have to look for longer than five minutes to find someone from the Trump administration to talk shit? Thanks to Omarosa, we’ve already heard a small fraction of the disorganization that exists within the administration. Even with her gone, it’s still full of leaks and back stabbing. It has been from the start. Why make up a story when there are so many sources at your feet?

The whole premise doesn’t make any sense.

If you truly believe that the Trump administration is a well-oiled machine, and ALL of the media is lying to make this incredibly efficient and trustworthy administration look bad, then that’s your problem. I know we all like conspiracy theories, and distrust the media, but come on. The whole premise is ridiculous on its face.

The real danger I see is that we have a large portion of the populace that has a world view that bears little to no resemblance to reality, and it’s pretty scary. Now, the way I see the world, is not that everyone else is 100% objective, of course not, none of us are.  We all have biases built in to the way we see the world, and as new events, people, and experiences enter our lives, we incorporate those things into a new map of how we see the world. We use these maps to make sense of what we experience, and to help predict what the future will bring us. Let’s go with a more concrete, real-life example consuming the news now. The changes being inflicted in society as new tech becomes mainstream like Facebook and Twitter. Executives from these companies have been repeatedly called to testify to the government on how they handle these sorts of issues.

People who are experienced in technical matters have a very different view of technology, and a different understanding of how people interact and experience the technology they create. That view doesn’t match how people actually experience and interact with the technology, and that creates many of the problems you see with social media. Facebook, Twitter and company are minimizing the effect of the technology on the behavior of the people to fit their world view, which is that there is some sort of meritocratic, technically clean implementation, where algorithms rule the world and no one is filtered  unnecessarily. It’s a bit utopian, but other than Jack Dorsey (who finally banned Alex Jones, now that’s he’s met Alex Jones and ilk, which makes the willful ignorance part of it totally clear), they all realize they’ve caused problems, and are now trying to reconcile their world view with the real world.

These are all issues that the various groups are starting to recognize and are attempting to change course and reconcile with their own world view. That involves changing your perspective, moving towards the viewpoint of the other party, and creating a new world view that encompasses the experiences of both parties. It’s a system that recognizes (far too slowly, but recognizes nonetheless) that the experiences of others are valid, and real, and that maybe you have bias, too. There may be things you don’t see, and you have to make the difficult decision to do some inward reflection and change your worldview. In the end, hopefully, you move towards a better place.

Fox News, Trump, and the right wing don’t operate by the same set of rules, despite claiming to, and they do it in way that is disingenuous, and they know it.  On the surface, you can say, “Oh, they have a world view that the liberals don’t see, and therefore it’s the liberals who have overlooked the right-wing, etc.”. Maybe. The honest position however, is you have to open to trying to figure out a world view that encompasses both your view, and those of whom you disagree.

The starting premise of any successful negotiation can’t be that the other side is fundamentally wrong, and you’re 100% correct. That is not a negotiation, it clearly won’t result in any sort of agreement or progress. That has to be the basic premise of all discussions, debates, and disagreements, or there can be no progress.  This isn’t always true, and people lie on different ends of the spectrum, sure, but that’s the common understanding that is shared between all groups who are open to change. That means men, the left, mathematicians, programmers, economists, etc. Basically every realm in every world in every interest but one. The right-wing establishment.

The right-wing is making a fundamentally different argument.  Instead of trying to paint a world where the interests of all groups are taken into consideration, and that it’s possible that their world views may differ from theirs, they start with the premise that the their own view is 100% the correct one. Instead of listening to the words, views, and paying attention to the actions of others as potential competing interests, they see their own view as 100% factual and is obvious to all, and then back into a view to explain the behaviors and claims of everyone else given that view.  Everyone must see that Trump is a god and can do no wrong, and any counter example is a malicious attempt by the other side to lie about Trump, to further their own evil interests. It assumes that the left-wing media also knows Trump is infallible, he can’t possibly actually be incompetent, they just don’t like him, so the media is lying to make him look bad. This results in increasingly paranoid and conspiratorial explanations about what the other side is doing and believes. There’s a massive left-wing media conspiracy to paint Trump in a bad light, yet at the same time, is completely incapable of getting a politician elected. It makes no sense.

Now, I’m sure you can sit there and cherry pick some shit that happened in past administrations where the left did the same thing. Everyone does it, but the scale is very different. Let’s take the failure of the ACA sign up process during the Obama years as an example. The right said, “Look, Obamacare is failing! You can’t even sign up, and these are supposed to be the tech guys, and they can’t even make the sign up process work. It’s a failure”. And the left said, “No, it’s a technical glitch, and everything will be fine”. What they did not say is, “It’s not failing during the sign up process for any reason other than right-wing people are intentionally crashing it”.  Instead, they said, “The sign up failed, we’re extending the sign in period, we’re working to fix it, and it won’t happen again”.  Of course this was also followed up with a defensive, “Just because the sign-in thing doesn’t work doesn’t say anything about ACA more broadly”.  It’s being defensive, and doesn’t help your cause.  In the end, the sign-up shit got fixed, people got healthcare, the implementers got pie on their face, and everyone moved on.

When Trump fails, it’s the left-wing’s fault. It’s evil left-wingers working at the evil left-wing media.  They double down on their worldview that the world is out to get them. Not because their ideas are failing and they backed an idiot, but because it’s a vast conspiracy.

I don’t know how to change that world view. It’s like an alcoholic who insists he doesn’t have a problem. His drinking isn’t the problem, everyone else should just mind their own business! He’s just trying to relax and let off some steam, but everyone else keeps picking fights with him, and he was just defending himself.  Then he goes home and his wife gets angry, “What a bitch”, and after his hard day, he just can’t control himself, she deserved to be punched.

Because I have no hope of fixing the alcoholic, I did exactly what any battered wife should do. I got the fuck out.

Observations leaving the US for Germany – Socialized health care

This is part 4 of multi part series, and I’m talking about my experiences with the health care system in this post. Here are the links to all the entries:

Part 1: The buildings & streets

Part 2: The food

Part 3: The quiet

Well, it’s official, I have left the US for Berlin, Germany. This is part four of a series of observations I’m making comparing my life in the US to the one here. This post is being written a few weeks after having moved, and I’ve now moved into my own apartment rather crashing with family. One of the things that is required to stay here is health insurance, and so I had to sign up for German health insurance. I’ve written about the US health insurance system before, and those articles were based on my experiences with it in the US. The German health insurance system is, to some degree, what the ACA was ostensibly aiming to be, with the addition of a public option. I think it serves as a good model for what is possible, and how it works.

First, let’s do a quick summary of the health care I was able to get in the US. In the US, for both my wife and I, we were paying roughly $900 a month total for the both of us. Many years ago, I was in a particularly bad car wreck, and had some extensive injuries. There weren’t any long-lasting effects, I haven’t had any issues since then other than some nasty scars, but my injuries were extensive enough that most of my body was a pre-existing condition. I’m caucasian, my wife is asian, and other than that, we are in good health. We see a doctor, other than for the usual checkups, less than once a year.  Nonetheless, pre-ACA, I was essentially non insurable without a group policy. Being an independent contractor, with my own corporation, this wasn’t generally a problem, but is just about what it cost to cover myself and my wife pre-ACA. After the ACA, my insurance costs rose by about $50 a month, but I no longer had to have a group policy, so it was much easier to deal with, and I became insurable, but I could see how there would be a bunch of people in similar circumstances to mine, without the resources or resourcefulness to get it done, and were for all intents and purposes uninsurable without getting it through work. Picking an insurance plan, both before and after the ACA, was always a joy. I’d spend hours trying to figure out the various caveats, deductibles, networks, and what is covered between various plans, and then hope I made the right choice when I had to use the insurance.

My deductibles ranged between $4000-$8000 per individual, depending on the year and what coverage is available. Many things aren’t covered, or are poorly covered. If I tried to make an appointment with my primary care doctor, I generally couldn’t get an appointment in under a month. If I had anything more urgent, I’d have to go to the urgent care or emergency room, even for things that weren’t quite an emergency. For example, I was sick and feverish for over a week. I had no need to go to the emergency room, but it was clear that I needed to be put on anti-biotics, but the appointment I tried to schedule was 3 weeks out, so urgent care it was. It generally felt incredibly wasteful, but at least the rise of urgent cares meant no more emergency rooms, which was what I would have had to do in the 1990s or 2000s.

Getting treated generally consisted of waiting for several hours, being seen by an RN, getting bandaged or my vitals taken, 5 minutes answering questions, maybe a prescription, paying a $50-$100 deductible on-site, and then waiting several weeks for the bills to arrive. I’d generally receive a single bill from the insurer, with a bunch of things on it, and a stamp saying “Do not Pay, this is not a bill”. Then I’d get a bill from the facility itself, a second bill from the doctor, and if I got an x-ray, then a 3rd and 4th bill for the radiology department and a separate one for the radiologist. The sums in these bills inevitably didn’t line up with what the insurer said, what I thought I would pay with my deductible, and often got sent multiple times, with different amounts each time. If the bill went up, I would be able to call whatever billing department was shown on the letter, spend an hour on hold, argue with them for a bit, and then have to pay only the lower amount of several received bills. When I had the car accident I spoke about earlier, my bill came out to around $250k. The insurance company refused to pay, I hired a lawyer, spoke to him once or twice, and then everything got paid (including the lawyer).

So far, here’s been my experience with the German system. I logged onto a website called Check24, which is a private company and helps you manage the health care offerings. They don’t charge you, the end consumer, but they get their money from either the health care providers or the government. I don’t know, and honestly, don’t really care, since I don’t have to pay. They also speak English, which helps, despite the fact that I speak German. I don’t read legalese and medical terms in German well, so trying to decipher it was difficult. Anyhow, I signed up for Check24, and they said they would handle everything between myself and the insurance companies on my behalf, and they spoke to me in English. They said I could choose between a public plan or a private one, and all the private plans were required to cover everything the public plan would cover, but the coverage for families works a bit different, and they can offer more than the public plan. Every resident is required to have insurance, it is mandatory, and instead of fining you, things like residency applications require the proof of insurance. If you want to live 100% off the grid, I suppose you can do so, but for all practical purposes, its mandatory and everyone will do it, since avoiding it is prohibitively difficult.

The public plan cost a percentage of your income, half of which is generally paid by your employer, and half by the person. It costs about 15% of your gross annual income, with half being paid by the employer, and caps out at €59400 annual income. That means that the highest you’ll ever pay is roughly €750 a month. The public plan covers your entire household, so any significant other, kids, etc. Emergency care and medically necessary care is free, and preventative care is generally not.  You can visit any public hospital, but not private ones, with this insurance.  You are not covered if you to a private doctor. If you are not self-employed or you make less than the annual cap, then you purchasing the public insurance is mandatory, however, you can purchase a supplemental insurance that provides you additional coverage with private doctors and facilities.

If you are self-employed, make more than the annual cap, or are purchasing a supplemental insurance, you can get private coverage. I myself opted for private coverage. The private coverage is per individual and not per household like the public plan. For individuals with disposable income, or smaller households, this means that the private insurance is often a better deal than the public insurance. For just my wife and I, private insurance costs just about what the public insurance costs, which is roughly equivalent to what I paid on the US. So far, at first glance, everything seems to more or less match what we get in the US, but here’s where the resemblance ends.

In getting the private coverage, the first step was choosing a plan. I had several offers, and here’s what my German private insurance covers. It covers everything that is an emergency or medically necessary. I can see whatever doctor I want, and they’ll pay for it, if its an emergency. If I want to see a specialist, I first have to get a general care physician to recommend it, otherwise only 80% is covered. I don’t have a primary care physician the way I do in the US, I can see *any* general physician first, and as long as I’m referred, specialists are 100% covered. My deductible is €500 a year, total. I will never pay more than that. If I travel, I’m covered, unless I play to be outside Germany for longer than 30 days, in which case I have to pay a supplemental travel insurance cost. I get vision care, dental care, and regular health care. If I’m hospitalized, I get a per-diem. If I have to stay in a hospital, for any length of time, I’m guaranteed a 1 patient private room. Preventative care is mostly covered (I think roughly 80%, up to the deductible, otherwise I’m covered).

To get the health care, I had to get an exam from a general care physician.  I went onto Google Maps, found a general care physician who was nearby who’s office was open. I walked there, and told the nice lady at the front desk that I needed to get a physical for my insurance. She asked if I had an appointment, and I said no, so she said I might have to wait a while, and to take a seat. After an agonizing wait of… 20 minutes, the doctor was ready to see myself and my wife. He took our heart rate, our blood pressure, etc., listened to our lungs, and then asked us a series of questions about any conditions we have (about 20 or so). When he listened to my lungs, he saw my scars from the car accident, and asked me about them. I explained the accident, he asked if I had any issues since, and then explained that the insurance company would probably have some more questions for us. He signed the form, stamped it, and we paid €50 for the both of us. That was it.

A couple days later, as the doctor had warned us, the insurance company stated that they needed a supplemental examination because of my scar. They sent a form, I walked back over the doctor, explained what happened, and they told me to take a seat. I waited about 10 minutes, and the same doctor called me in. He asked me if I had any blood in my urine or stool, I said no, he stamped the form, and I was on my way. I didn’t pay anything the second time. I sent the form in, and I got an email saying I was insured. That was it.

Since then, I haven’t had to use the doctor for anything yet, but I’ve spoken to several Germans about their experiences using the system. One person I spoke to talked about a business trip to Florida, where he got very sick. He ended up going to the emergency room in the US, waited for several hours, and then they saw him. They took his pulse, heart rate, etc., told him he was just sick, gave him a Tylenol and some anti-biotics. He received a bill directly from the US hospital for $4500 (which is low for an emergency room visit), and he gave it to his insurance company in Germany, and they paid it. Some time after, he got knee surgery here in Germany. He got the surgery, and didn’t pay anything out of pocket, but by mistake, the bill got sent to him instead of the insurance company. The insurance company paid around $2000 for his knee surgery here in Germany. The stories I’ve heard from others are similar. It sucks if you’re in the public health care system, as you have to go relatively noisy hospitals that have lots of people, but they take good care of you, and you don’t have to pay anything. If you have the money, you can upgrade to private doctors, still get the public coverage, and just have a better experience.

As for the mandatory things, with the government telling me what I have to do? Yes, I have to go buy the insurance here, and they’re pretty strict about it. Everyone has to do it, and you can whine and complain all you want, and you don’t have a choice. On the upside, health care is something you largely don’t have to think or worry about, and it will bankrupt you. If you need to see a doctor, you just go see one, and that’s it. You show your information, and you walk out. You don’t pay anything, you don’t really worry about. I haven’t had to see a specialist, but my impression from the doctor so far is that if I did need to see a specialist, as long as you have a credible story, you’ll more or less get a referral within a couple hours from walking into any general care physician. I’ve spent less time and money here, so far, researching plans, getting insurance, paying for it, getting a physical, and getting signed up for both my wife and I than I did even trying to figure out the coverage on my US plan. The total time spent on it so far, around 8 hours, including waiting to be seen the doctor’s office.  If my coverage in the US was only twice as difficult as the German system, it would still be an unrealistic dream.

So when people on the news and in the media talk about the horrors of the European socialist system, they don’t know what they’re talking about. For every cherry picked horror story of someone here not getting covered, I can find 100 examples in the US of even worse. The exceptions here are the norm in the US. Health care in the US was something that consumed hours, days, and weeks, plus many thousands of dollars for coverage that I dreaded using. Actual having health issues would cost thousands more. It consumed the voting public and the media, and was a huge issue with seemingly enormous consequences, and it felt monumental every time I had to make a decision. It’s gone from that, to something with about the weight of trying to choose a phone provider. If I make the worst decision possible, it nonetheless won’t have a huge impact on my life. I can spend a few hours on it to try and optimize my decision for the best outcome, and other than that, I honestly don’t have to think about it anymore. From my first visit to the doctor, within minutes, I trusted the system enough to realize that if I had any sort of emergency, I wouldn’t have to think about it much, and it would be taken care of. Sure, there’s probably some thing that I could get in the US if I pushed hard enough that won’t be covered here, and I could find aggravating. But I don’t care, because that seems like a small price to pay for the peace of mind in knowing that, for most of my day to day health care needs, and any dire emergency, it’s just not something I need to think or worry about anymore.

That’s the health care system that I would hope that the US, supposedly the most capable, strongest, and richest nation in the world be able to build, but is a far cry from it actually got. I still hope that there’s a way that the US can still build that system, but not until it realizes what is possible and what the reality is actually like.


Observations leaving the US for Germany – The quiet

This is part 3 of multi part series, and I’m focusing on the quiet in this post. Here are the links to all the entries:

Part 1: The buildings & streets

Part 2: The food

Well, it’s official, I have left the US for Berlin, Germany. This is part three of a series of observations I’m making comparing my life in the US to the one here. These posts are being made in more or less real-time, within just a few days of arriving, and so encompass my first impressions of it.  This is my third post, and it’s about what I notice about general volume levels for a big city.

Compared to the US, Berlin is extraordinarily quiet, especially for a big city, and despite all the celebrations and activity that goes on throughout the night. The first thing I noticed is the absolute lack of Muzak, which I love. American commercial establishments, whether they a store or a restaurant, have a pervasive need for some sort of music playing constantly. It is everywhere, and you can’t escape it. Its not the style of music that I find so objectionable (although I do generally absolute despise the type of music being played), but that having the constant drone going on in the background requires everything else to be at a higher volume to overcome it. People talk louder, whether they are discussing things face-to-face or just on their mobile phone. That constant chatter carries much further than the Muzak that they are trying to drown out.

In German culture (or basically any culture outside of the US), if you are at an establishment that isn’t an establishment intended for playing music, doesn’t do so. There isn’t music playing at restaurants, for example, so all the people in the restaurant can speak at a normal volume. The same applies for your mobile phone, you’ll find yourself speaking at a dramatically lower volume because you’re not yelling into the phone to overcome the background noise.  Most of the time, you won’t hear people outside when you are inside somewhere. The people themselves tend to be a bit more considerate of their volume levels (or they’re just used to being quieter), so you’ll hear people yell to a friend down the street during the day, but at night this behavior is rather rare. The end result of this is that you can have a relatively busy street with lots of people walking around at midnight, yet it’s nonetheless relatively quiet.

Cars here are built in a way that they tend to shut off while idling, and because the society is a bit rigid when it comes to following rules, people will wait patiently for lights to change, even with no traffic, and cars will yield consistently to pedestrians. This means that they only honk at each other to get someone’s specific attention, or if someone is violating rules. Overall, the traffic can be quite heavy, yet still remain quiet.

I also learned that they have strict noise regulations here. For example, lawn mowers are only allowed to be used between 9am-5pm, and broadly speaking, you’re forbidden from making noise before 7am and after 8pm, and never on Sundays. There’s actual complaint lines and enforcement of said regulations, so although I find the city to be significantly more active at night than most American cities (many restaurants are open until midnight, and people will be walking around with their children at 11pm in the Summer), it’s also dramatically quieter. I’ve spent most of my life trying to drown out noise when I sleep, I tend towards later hours, and even with earplugs and sealed windows, I’d still consistently get woken up. I’m quite enjoying the silence here.

The lower volumes stretch to other areas as well. I spent some time at a club, and in the US, I’ve consistently worn earplugs at any music venue for the last decade because the volume tends to be loud enough to give me tinnitus. Here, I went to an event with DJs playing techno, and for the first time in many years didn’t feel the need to wear earplugs, and left the event without any adverse side effects. The music was plenty loud enough to hear, but you were able to have a conversation with the people next to you without having to yell at full volume.

A nice, unintended side effect of the lower volumes everywhere is that I find myself speaking at a much lower volume as well. Whether its on the phone or in person, I haven’t had to yell to overcome the background noise since I got here, and it is extraordinarily refreshing. I’m afraid that coming back to the US to visit the constant noise will be even more noticeable, and I’m hoping I’m able to find it tolerable. I’ve only been here a couple days, and I can’t imagine having to deal with the constant noise pollution again.

That’s it for part three of this series of observations of Berlin as an ex-pat. There’s more coming, and it’s not all a panacea. I’ve been trying to limit each of these posts to a single topic, and so haven’t hit on some the other less positive things I’ve noticed. Stay tuned for more observations, I’ve got some thoughts on the people, the graffiti and garbage, and even my impressions of German sex culture.

Part 1: The buildings & streets

Part 2: The food

Observations leaving the US for Germany – The food

This is part 2 of multi part series, and I’m focusing on the food in this post. Here are the links to all the entries:

Part 1: The buildings & streets

Part 3: The quiet

Well, it’s official, I have left the US for Berlin, Germany. This is part two of a series of observations I’m making comparing my life in the US to the one here. These posts are being made in more or less real-time, within just a few days of arriving, and so encompass my first impressions of it.  This is my second post, and it’s about what I notice about food.

Going out to eat at a restaurant is just about comparable to US prices, maybe slightly cheaper, but not dramatically so. However, the street food, or casual meals, seems dramatically cheaper. For me, this is most apparent when I go get coffee in the morning. A cup of coffee in the US would cost me about $5 or $6 for an espresso drink, and just a cup of coffee would probably be on the order of $3. This morning, I bought a regular coffee with steamed milk, a latte macchiato, and cinnamon pastry. The total was 4 euros. Now, the coffee was a smaller cup than what I might drink in the US, but for that price, I honestly don’t care. If I go to get a hot dog, or slice of pizza for lunch, I can get the entire meal, with a drink, for around 3 or 4 euros.

When it comes to food that is grocery food, the price difference is far more dramatic. Generally, it costs me less than 20 euros to go shopping. To give you a comparison basis, I bought a half kilo of strawberries (a bit more than a pound) for 1 euro. I drink a soda called Club Mate, which is made in Germany, so may not be a fair comparison. In the US, a 0.5 liter bottle costs $3.99. Here? 1 euro. I bought a 1.5 liter sparkling water here for 0.44 euros. On top of that, I can return the bottles to the store (and I’m expected to), which sounds tedious, but since the store is 3 minute walk from the apartment, isn’t hugely onerous. Doing so gives me about 0.2 euros per bottle. I can go to the store with a bag of empty bottles (both plastic and glass, plastic actually gives me more back) and I can pay for half or more of my groceries with it.

From a taste perspective, another thing I’ve noticed is that the fruits and vegetables are much more flavorful than what I would get in the US. The strawberries I mentioned above are smaller, significantly darker than any strawberries I’ve had in the US, and have a ton more flavor. I also purchased some apricots, and I had the same experience. They were smaller, darker, and much more flavor. I’ve noticed the same effect with tomatoes, cucumbers, and bananas as well. I’ve only been here a few days, so I haven’t bought many groceries, and it isn’t true in all areas. For example, cheeses seem to me to be similar, although they are significantly lower cost. Here in Germany, I had a much wider selection of salami and other dried deli meats than I would get in the US, and they are far cheaper. At the local store near me, they had 6 or 7 different types of salami alone, and that doesn’t include any of the soppressata, proscuitto, etc. that are different cuts or preparations of dried meats. Comparing the food that I see, it’s clear that US food is optimized for visual appeal instead of taste. That isn’t to say that the food here doesn’t look good, I don’t want to give the impression that there’s anything wrong with it. The tomatoes don’t look different from a quality perspective (as in overripe, etc.), they’re just smaller and darker with more flavor. When you see it, it becomes obvious that US produce is optimized for visuals.

Restaurant food, while quite similar to US food, does seem to have somewhat smaller portions, although tends to include multiple courses, such as salads or a small desert. The food is different, but I can’t place my finger on exactly why. It’s a bit… simpler in preparation? I can’t put my finger on exactly what is different about it, it comes across more like someone who’s a chef serving you food at home, rather than normal restaurant food. It doesn’t feel as heavy somehow. As I mentioned before, the portions are a bit smaller, and don’t include the fluff that comes with US restaurant food. If I order a burger here, it doesn’t automatically have a side of fries, much less include a salad on top of that. This isn’t entirely true, they have “plates”, but the default isn’t to include all the various sides that you’ll get in the US. Although I’m eating somewhat less than I did in the US, because the food tastes richer, I’m not finding myself as hungry. I feel like a bit like this is a manifestation of the empty calories that are often written about, but I can’t be sure, it could all just be in my mind or a symptom of jet-lag.

Those are my immediate observations on food and cost of living style issues. I’m splitting my observations into multiple posts, I’m planning on writing a bit more about transportation, the people, and the nightlife here.

Check out the next article in the series here, or jump directly to other entries.

Part 1: The buildings & streets

Part 3: The quiet

Observations leaving the US for Germany – The buildings and streets

This is part 1 of multi part series, and I’m focusing on the buildings, streets, and general layout of the city in this post. Here are the links to all the entries:

Part 2: The food

Part 3: The quiet

Well, it’s official, I have left the US for Berlin, Germany. Its been a while since I’ve updated this blog, and for that I apologize. As you can imagine, things have been pretty hectic leaving the country I’ve lived in most of my life. I’ve only been in Berlin for a few days at this point, but I wanted to write about some of my observations while they were still fresh in my mind, before they become normalized, and no longer stand out as much as they do.

I landed in Berlin on July 19th, 2018, and have a relative with whom we are staying. He’s been generous enough to give us a bedroom in his very nice home, and given that he travels often for work, we’ve been left to make our way in Berlin by ourselves. We’ve only been here a few days, and the contrast to the US (specifically, Chicago) is striking. Broadly speaking, they have similar populations as cities. Chicago clocks in at 2.7 million people, while Berlin has 3.5 million, however, there’s a large density difference, especially when it comes to the suburbs. The Chicago metropolitan area is much larger, with a population of 9.5 million people, while the Berlin area (more or less the entire county) clocks in at 5 million people. From a practical perspective, in Chicago, I can drive away from the Chicago downtown area for quite a distance and still be surrounded by housing and stores. Its density certainly changes, but I’m not in what I would call “nature” by any stretch of the imagination. I find that this is not true in Europe generally, and not in Berlin specifically. Most of the population is inside the city proper, and it drops out very quickly into what you would consider a rural area when you drive outside the city. This has the advantage of letting you escape the hustle and bustle of the metropolitan area much faster than you would in any American city.

A car isn’t required in Chicago, and in fact, we’d been living comfortably without one for many years in Chicago. To some degree, there seems to be quite a large number of cars here in Berlin, but the makeup and layout of the city makes it work differently. Many apartment buildings have parking in the center or behind the building, with a narrow gate/path from the front. So you have buildings that are very dense, with very little street parking, and very narrow driveways (Eingang und Ausgang) that go through the building frontage to either an interior courtyard or space for cars behind the building. The buildings themselves tend to be shaped as squares or rectangular, with an open interior, and no real alleyways, the buildings are pressed together. Because of the open interiors, all the apartments have windows to an open area, many buildings have a nice garden or common space for the residents in the middle, and it helps enormously by bringing in light to all the units and making sure they have windows to an open area. I’ve often noticed this layout (there’s a similar layout in Helsinki, for example) when I travel, and its once I’ve been quite jealous of for many years.

The other interesting thing is that the building frontage often doesn’t match how the interiors look, in that the buildings are much older than what you’d find in the US, and given that they’re packed together, doing new construction is often quite expensive. Building interiors are updated independently, so in the apartment we’re staying in, the frontage of the building, the hallways and common areas seem quite old, like something out of the 1920s. The apartment we’re staying in looks quite modern and updated, so the contrast can be striking when you open the front door.

Besides the buildings themselves, the way the roads are laid out is quite different. There are major avenues of traffic, where most of the cars drive, with smaller streets that break off from the main ones. The smaller streets are only wide enough for 2 cars, and these then break off further into even smaller streets, what we’d consider an alleyway in Chicago. These smaller streets tend to not be through streets, with barriers preventing you from driving through, and are only wide enough for one car, so for cars to pass each other, one car has to pull over into an empty parking space (which are numerous, because of the driveways that lead to building parking). This results in a dramatically different traffic pattern. If you are driving through the city, you’re more or less required to stay on the major roads until you get near your destination, and only then do you drive on the smaller roads. Because of how they’re laid out, there’s no incentive to, or it’s impossible to try and avoid traffic by taking a different route and winding through the small streets. This sounds horrible for commuters, and I can’t testify to that (I don’t consider Chicago or Los Angeles traffic particularly beneficial to commuters either), but it is nice for pedestrians and walking around. Cars drive slowly on the smaller streets, and are friendly to pedestrian traffic. I can always walk around the barriers, so not having through-traffic doesn’t apply to pedestrians.

A pedestrian path off the main street, running through a building.

Rent here is calculated slightly differently as well. The rent is somewhat cheaper than I expected from a direct price comparison, although broadly speaking, the units are smaller. The price shown is the bare price, and there’s generally a second price listed, which is the all-inclusive price. The units here aren’t metered separately, so the all-inclusive price includes water, power, garbage, etc., and I assume money for the common areas of the building. The security deposits tend to be a bit high, generally costing about 3x the rent, but given that the rent is cheaper, it doesn’t factor in significantly. Once you factor in the utilities included in the rent price, the cost of living becomes dramatically cheaper than what I paid in Chicago, which is considered a “cheap” city to live as far as cost of living. If I compared it to Los Angeles, where I used to live, I could live in a unit twice the size of what I could get in LA at half the cost, and I could do it without looking for a bargain. I could pick the most expensive unit here, and it would still work out that way.

The rooms are also calculated differently, instead of having “bedrooms” being counted, with other rooms being glossed over, here they are just “rooms”. So a 3 room unit is a unit with 3 actual rooms, and it’s up to you how you want to divide it up. The room count generally doesn’t include bathrooms. When you have multiple bathrooms, they’re also not generally full bathrooms (meaning shower and/or tub), but are what we could consider half-baths, with just a toilet and sink. In my opinion, this makes quite a bit more sense. I used to live in a 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath house. My wife and I lived in the “master” bedroom, which had a “master bath”. We had another full bathroom with a shower, and 2 bedrooms which we used as offices. In the 8 years that we owned the house, the second shower was used probably a handful of times. In our case, it would have been convenient to not have the second full bath, since we used them as offices/workspaces, and the master bath sufficed. Here in Europe, it would have been setup as follows. The master bath would have become a half bath, with just a toilet and a sink, and the shower/tub would have moved into the second full bath (which was located in a common area, so could be used by the all the bedrooms without walking through another bedroom, unlike the master bath). If our house had been laid out that way, we would gained additional usable space in the house itself, which would have been preferred, at the cost of being slightly inconvenienced when we had guests staying at the house (in that I would, as a polite host, have gotten dressed before taking a shower).

Those are my immediate observations on the kinds of homes people live in, and what you can expect from a living situation, as well as a bit about how the streets are laid out. I’m splitting my observations into multiple posts, I’m planning on writing a bit more about food, transportation, the people, and the nightlife here. Check out the next article in the series here, or jump directly to other entries.

Part 2: The food

Part 3: The quiet

The Bitcoin Bubble

There’s a lot of talk and hand-wringing about Bitcoin in the last few days/week and a half, as the price climbed from around $10k per bitcoin to $17k at its peak. A lot of this climb in price is expected, as trading on Bitcoin futures begins on Monday, December 18th. I’ve been surprised at the increase in Bitcoin’s value, but generally speaking, the price of bitcoin has been closely coupled to the price of electricity and the number of people mining it, and this has held true for quite a while, but no longer seems exactly true. This last statement might be a little bit confusing if you don’t know much about Bitcoin. If you want a quick introduction to it, read my article where I explain the process before moving on.

Since there is a fixed number of bitcoins in the bitcoin economy, there is a deflationary effect on the price of Bitcoin. Like gold, which we don’t have a way to create more of, the more people that want gold, the more expensive it gets. This is very different than, say, Coca-Cola. If more people want Coke, then the price might go up briefly, but the Coca-Cola company just makes more of it to keep it affordable. In the past, the only way to make money on Bitcoin is to buy Bitcoin, and hope that the price goes up (which it usually does, since its deflationary). If, instead of thinking that the price of Bitcoin was going to go up, you thought it was going to go down? Well, there hasn’t really been a way for you to make money with Bitcoin, so you just ignore it.

The end result of this is that the people who are participating in the Bitcoin economy are (generally speaking) people who think the price of Bitcoin is going to go up. Up to this point, it has also generally been people using their own money to speculate on Bitcoin. This results in a strong bias towards people who are not professional investors (since they are using their own money) *and* people who think Bitcoin is going to go up. This, not surprisingly, has born out to be true. You have a number of people who think the price of Bitcoin will go up, a limited supply, and surprise surprise, it’s relatively easy to sell any amount of Bitcoin at a price higher than what you bought it for, because there’s a large group of potential buyers who think it will go up, and are not quants doing the math. As long as most of those people are not selling their bitcoin, and are instead watching the value of their wallets climb, then the price of bitcoin will continue to rise.

So how does the futures market change the price of Bitcoin? Well, you’re now going to have a group of professional investors, who are not using their own money, and will be able to bet on both the price of bitcoin going up, but also on the price of bitcoin going down. Couple that with a large group of people (let’s call them, I don’t know… maybe… suckers? Yeah, that’s the word I’m looking for) who think the price is going to go up endlessly, but are also somewhat risk-averse, emotional, and using their own money. History has shown time and time again how this is going to play out, and who’s going to make money on it. I can guarantee there will be tons of stories about individual investors (or, more accurately, speculators) who made a bunch of money on the increase of Bitcoin, and it will be completely in the interests of professional investors to pump up as many of those stories as possible. A number of those professional investors will simultaneously be making investments betting on the price of bitcoin crashing at some point. Now, you’ll hear a lot of hand-waving about how those investors aren’t really buying Bitcoin, and that they’re only buying Bitcoin futures, which means they’ll be betting on the price of Bitcoin going up and down without owning any Bitcoin itself, so they won’t have an effect on the price. This misses two very important parts of the equation. One, amateur investors are generally pretty skittish, and if you can manipulate the press, you can probably start a run in one direction or the other. Two, professional investors are going to be using a *lot* more money, and they can buy and sell large enough amounts of bitcoin directly that they can probably manipulate the price of it rather easily.

Now, you’ll hear a lot of explanations on why that won’t be true. A common one is that if you look at the total size of the Bitcoin market, it’s large enough (in monetary terms) that individual investors won’t be able to manipulate the price. There are a couple holes in this theory.

The first, is that the total size of the market is not nearly as relevant as the total monetary value of the transactions that can occur, also known as the liquidity. There can be 100 billion dollars of bitcoin, but if the total amount that can be bought and sold at any moment was only $100k, and you saw $200k of bitcoin being sold in a relatively short period of time, then there’s going to be a perception (and risk) that the price is declining, and a bunch of people will move to cash out. Those people moving moving to cash out put downward pressure on the price of Bitcoin, which just feeds the beast, and you end up with plummeting prices rather quickly, with a much smaller outlay in cash than what people suspected based on the price of the market.

The second thing you’ll hear is that because this is on the CBOE and CME, they’ll be regulated. This is true in the sense that Bitcoin futures will be regulated, and if you buy and sell a future of Bitcoin, that there will be rules enforced on that futures contract. What is *not* true is that it would in any way regulate the Bitcoin economy itself. Bitcoin will continue to be unregulated, and lots of people will now be incentivized to manipulate that market. Even if the CBOE or CME says that such market manipulation won’t be tolerated, what is to prevent my rich derivative trader friends from telling me to buy or sell some large amount of bitcoin. Since I don’t trade on the CBOE or CME, there isn’t anything to prevent me from doing that.

So, in conclusion, my speculation is that there is going to a bunch of upward pressure on the price of Bitcoin as every amateur investor thinks the price of Bitcoin is going to keep going up,  are certain in their beliefs, and are willing to put their money where their mouth is. Meanwhile, there will be a bunch of professional investors who are not as easily phased by large amounts of money, who will not be spending their own money, who are looking for a bunch of marks and suckers that they can manipulate so that they can extract as much cash as possible. My guess as to how that’s going to play out is that the price of bitcoin will continue to climb leading up to the trading of Bitcoin futures, and that there will be a correction either immediately or soon after the futures trading begins, and the price will drop dramatically. There’s a chance that it goes the other way I suppose, but the one thing I’m sure of is that the marks and suckers will fare a lot worse than the professional investors. I’m not (and wasn’t) heavily invested in Bitcoin in the past, but I had a small amount of Bitcoin that I had bought a bit more than a year ago that I had virtually forgotten about that was worth considerably more than it was before. I’ve sold it, and cashed out when the going was good. In the worst case, I made 20x my original investment, and missed out on making more. In the best case, I cashed out at the peak, and made 20x my original investment. Don’t say I didn’t warn you….



Why does Bitcoin have value?

I started this explanation in the article where I talk about why I think the price of Bitcoin will decline in the near future, but the explanation ended up  in the weeds and was long enough that it warranted its own article.  It doesn’t have a point beyond trying to explain why the price of Bitcoin has been correlated to the price of electricity and the number of people mining.  As a warning, this article is also a simplification that isn’t entirely accurate, I’ve removed quite a bit of detail to make it a bit more accessible. My goal with it is less to explain the technical details of how Bitcoin works, instead its meant to convey the economic forces that play a role in determining its price.

Bitcoin doesn’t have a central bank, it’s an unregulated economy. What this would mean in a normal sense is that there isn’t someone determining how much money exists in the economy in total. Not having someone do that is normally a recipe for disaster, since more money can just be created out of thin air, which quickly makes the currency worthless. Traditionally, this has been solved by having a regulator, someone who determines how much money there is in the economy. If we trust that regulator, then everything works fine, and if we lose trust in that person (or institution), then bad things happen. Bitcoin avoids this problem by using mathematics to guarantee that more Bitcoins cannot be created out of thin air at a rate faster than a prescribed rate.

If you buy something from someone using a credit card, there is a bank that is assuring the person on the other end that they’ll get the money from the bank, regardless of whether you, as the consumer, actually ends up paying the bill in the end. If you didn’t have the bank doing this, then basically credit card transactions would just be an “I owe you” promise, and that wouldn’t work nearly as well in our global economy (they’d be unregulated).

Bitcoin transactions don’t have a “bank” that is validating the transaction, instead, the miners are doing that work (as part of the mathematics regulating the system that I spoke about above). They’re saying that they’ve had the opportunity to look at the consumer’s bank account, and yes, there is enough money in that account to pay the person selling. They don’t do this validation out of the goodness of their heart, what happens is that they get paid in Bitcoin for making those assurances, and the way they get paid is by “mining”.  I’m glossing over the details here, by avoiding transaction fees, but they’re not important for the purposes of this discussion. What is interesting about the mining is that the reward for doing so is fixed. There are 12.5 new Bitcoins created, and they are created every 10 minutes. Those new Bitcoins are divided up by the people doing the “mining”. The system itself is built in such a way that you are rewarded for the time spent mining, and not based on the volume transactions itself. In our simplified system, if there is 1 miner, then he can mine all day long (validating transactions). Every 10 minutes, that single miner would earn 12.5 Bitcoins. If you have 2 miners, you would think that would allow twice as many transactions to be validated. Instead, the difficulty of the mining is increased, so that the same number of transactions get mined, it’s just twice as difficult. Because you have 2 miners, they’re working twice as fast as a single one, and you still end up with 12.5 Bitcoins in 10 minutes. Since there’s 2 miners, they split the value of the reward to receive 6.25 Bitcoins a piece.

So how does this correlate to the price of electricity? To “mine” Bitcoins, you have a computer that has to do a bunch of work for 10 minutes, and then you get rewarded some piece of that 12.5 Bitcoins based on the work you’ve done. If you did 100% of the total work that occurred during that 10 minutes, you get the entire reward. If there are 2 people that did it, you each split it equally. Now let’s say that the computer required to run 10 minutes of mining costs me $0.10 every 10 minutes, and the price of Bitcoin is $1 per Bitcoin. That means that for $0.10 of electricity, I am earning $12.5. That’s quite the profitable business. Now, another miner comes into play, and there are 2 of us. It still costs me $0.10 of electricity every 10 minutes, but I only make $6.25. The other miner is the same. More miners will continue to come into the system as long as it remains profitable vs. the price of Bitcoin to do so. So at some point, we end up with 125 miners, each of us earning 1/125th of $12.5 (or $0.10), and it costs each of $0.10 in electricity to the mining. It wouldn’t make sense for any new miners to start mining, since they’d lose money if they did so, and it would become unprofitable for us to continue mining. Either the new entrant drops out, or someone else does, and then mining is profitable again.

The flip side of this coin is that price of a single Bitcoin goes up. It now sells for $2 per Bitcoin instead of $1, bringing up the value brought into the system to $25 every 10 minutes. Now there can be 250 miners paying $0.10 every 10 minutes for electricity while still making money on the rewards they receive. Roughly speaking, no matter how you try and influence this system, these things remain in balance. It’s a bit more complicated in the real world, since the price of electricity varies by country, and there are costs involved in setting up a Bitcoin miner, I could buy a more powerful computer (and do twice the mining as people with slower computers, therefore earning twice the reward. I glossed over that in my example), etc., but more or less, the price of Bitcoin tends to follow an equation based on the price of electricity & the total amount of computing power that is trying to earn Bitcoins. At times, the price of Bitcoin may go higher than this, as people speculate on the price and try and profit, but as they do so, they increase the financial reward for mining, and that brings in more computing power mining for Bitcoin. If the price of Bitcoin drops, then it becomes unprofitable for some miners, and they stop mining, which increases the reward for the miners left. This equation is a rough and simplified explanation, and doesn’t hold 100% of the time, but it does explain the strong correlation between mining/computing power, the price of electricity, and Bitcoin.