Mr. German man loves insurance

An American woman. Married to a German man. About how her husband, and his friends, are enthusiastic about insurance. And about how shocked they were to hear that she, and her American friends, never even heard of such kinds of insurance.

Warning ! This woman is a youtuber. And an American on top. So, she is more than a bit animated. And frankly, she could have made her points in about two minutes instead of seven and a half.

Begin watching at minute 5:00.

American Optimism

Mark Shields is a long-time political journalist. He has had a nationally-sydicated column for decades, and is well known from his weekly analysis with David Brooks – a New York Times columnist – on the PBS NewsHour. Listen to minutes 7:28 to 9:25.

Tiled Stoves

Tiled Stoves: in apartments and homes, to burn coal, in order to produce heat.

Use resources respectfully, protect the environment. I recall the debates in Germany years ago about recycling. At that time the Social Democrats and the Greens were in power. Jürgen Trittin was Umweltminister, literally Secretary of the Environment. 

German business was against any recycling laws. It’s been reality for years now, though. How could there have been a debate at all? Quite the contrary. Protecting the environment should be foundational to the politics of the Christian Democratic Party in Germany (CDU). They and their sister party in Bavaria (CSU – Christian Social Union) were clearly on the wrong side of that debate.

I’ll never forget the smell of coal back then in West Berlin. Late Fall of 1988. I live in a boathouse in Konradshöhe, on the Havel River, on the other side the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, German Democratic Republic). No wall between, just the river. On the other side a strange stillness. Just a road along the bank and streetlights giving off a weak, halfhearted yellow-orange glow. Evenings and mornings the smell was strong. A weird feel to it, somehow historical.

My girlfriend then lived in the Schöneberg section of West Berlin. On the fifth or sixth floor of an apartment house built in the early 1900s. Back then I was reading Sebastian Haffner’s Deutsche Revolution 1918. Dry cold days in Berlin, the smell of coal smoke from the houses ever-present, Rosa Luxemburg murdered and thrown into the Spree River, Stahlhelm, Rätherrepublik in Munich. I think of my grandmother who back then was eighteen years old and living in Cincinnati.

I imagine what Berlin was like in 1918 and 1919. I, the grandson and great-grandson of coal merchants in Philadelphia. Our great-grandfather, Alexander Magee, started out with a horse-pulled wagon, going from house to house. Years later his sons, Frank and Alex, would join the business. I see the images in my mind’s eye. The coalyard in the Kensington section of Philadelphia located right next to the train line.

The coal was delivered from Northeast Pennsylvania. The Allegheny Mountains cut through the state from the northeast to the southwest, continuing into West Virginia. The business grows a bit, two trucks, a handful of employees. They’re not wealthy, will never become so. They pay the bills and have more than enough left over.

After the Second World War they convert to oil. Magee Coal & Oil. During my father’s freshman year at Amherst College in Massachusetts his father dies of a heart attack. His younger brother, Ken, uncle to my father, takes over the business. My father does not go into the heating fuel business, instead becoming a business consultant.

We six children of Frank and Laura Magee growing up in suburban Philadelphia have no connection to Magee Coal & Oil. But the constant coal odor in Berlin during those winter months of 1988-89, the dirt in my nose, cleaning it out a few times a day, brought me back into contact with the days when my recent ancestors lived from coal. And today? I, management consultant, put food on the table by supporting those who build coal-fired power plants.

Use resources respectfully, protect the environment, yes, the Germans do that better than the Americans. The war ended more than seventy years ago, but those experiences continue to inform and form us. During a long walk through Bonn with my son I try to describe to him what the town looked like in 1945. I repeat the stories of his German great-grandmother – my ex-wife’s grandmother. And why we are taking a walking and not driving tour by car or bus. Besides, walking is healthy.

Systematic Thinkers

Systematic thinking is the foundation of all research. Germany has produced many great thinkers in the natural and social sciences. They are best known for their systematic approach.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) was the daughter of German nobility, but decided at an early age to join the Benedictine nuns. She went on to become one of the best educated and wisest of her era, advising secular and religious leaders throughout Europe. Hildegard’s fields of expertise ranged from theology to medicine, music, ethics and cosmology. Her discoveries and insights in the area of plant-based medicines are referred to today.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was one of the leading philosophers of the Enlightenment Age. His Kritik der reinen Vernunft is considered to be the starting point of modern philosophy, creating a new, systematic approach to inquiry. Kant addressed not only the theory of knowledge, but also ethics and aesthetics, the philosophy of religion, law and history, as well as astronomy and the geosciences.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is considered to this day to be the greatest of all German writers. His work encompassed, however, also the natural sciences including botany, optics and the philosophy of color – Farbenlehre.

Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) was a Prussian General and military theorist. His Vom Kriege (On War) a systematic approach to strategy, tactics and the philosophy of war, became the foundation of military thinking in all Western nations. Clausewitz’ writings went beyond how wars are won to address the overall nature and meaning of war in the modern world.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) is renowned as a philosopher, political economist and social critic. Together with Friedrich Engels, Marx analyzed during the height of the industrial revolution the mutual influences and interactions between a society‘s consciousness and its economic system. Although Marxism has proven to fail in practice, it led to what many would consider significant social progress in public education, health care, social legislation. Marx’ writings contributed to the creation of labor unions.

Max Weber (1864-1920) was a German sociologist, legal scholar, and political economist. He is considered a founding father of modern sociology. Weber’s theories influenced greatly the so-called specialty areas of sociology: economics, religion, political power structures.

Karl Rahner (1904-1984) is considered to be the most influential Catholic theologian since Thomas Aquinas. His work opened up Catholic theology to a new and deeper understanding of faith. Rahner’s thinking influenced greatly the Second Vatical Council. Inspired by his studies under Martin Heidegger, Rahner synthesized Catholic theology with the philosophies of the modern era.

When German engineers are bored

Engineering in Germany is prestigious. As a field of study it ranks among the most respected. Germany‘s economy, its sophisticated technical products, rely on an abundance of first-class engineers. More than 20% of all first-year university students major in a technical field.

No other European country has a higher percentage of engineers among the workforce than Germany. Nonetheless, industry and the media constantly warn of decreasing numbers of Germans willing to enter the engineering profession.

In order to attract more women to the engineering sciences, German schools and universities organize so-called Girls Day, hoping to fascinate young women with the prospects of a technical career. Engineers begin their careers with a yearly salary of roughly 45,000 Euros. Graduates in the humanities, in contrast, earn about 31,000 Euros per year.

Revisiting a Decision

Revisiting: A term used by Americans to describe the act of questioning a decision made by senior-level management after much time and effort had been invested. Such decisions are typically of strategic nature.

Americans consider „revisiting as decision“ as hindering, slowing down or blocking their implementation, and thus a threat to overall success. There is low tolerance in the American business for the tactical level revisiting decisions made at the strategic level.

Empowerment: To give official authority or legal power to; to enable; to promote the self-actualization or influence. First known use 1648.

The term empowerment has become popular in the American business context, signaling a desire, perhaps also need, for management to be less involved in the tactical execution of their decisions.

If you get killed, at least you won’t know it.

In some cases, Americans are willing to take risks even if no corrective measures are possible. This has been particularly evident in Americans’ willingness to risk death during air and spacecraft testing and early use.

Apollo engineer Jerry Woodfill once said “Among the early space missions, I’ve always believed that the greatest courage was needed by their first crews. Whether it was Al Shepard, the Apollo 1 crew, or shuttle astronauts John Young or Bob Crippen, the most likely danger would be the first time any new space craft was launched into space. Flaws in design or manufacture could very well be fatal during maiden missions.”

American Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier, once said “It’s your duty to fly the airplane. If you get killed in it, you don’t know anything anyway.”

Some examples of Americans who knew they were risking death to go into space include:

On April 13, 1970, two days after its launch, an oxygen tank aboard the Apollo 13 spacecraft exploded. 

This led to a desperate attempt for the astronauts to return to earth alive – one that nearly didn’t succeed. Less than a year later, despite having just witnessed an almost-fatal mission, the Apollo 14 spacecraft launched with three crewmembers on board.

On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after lift-off, killing all seven crew members on board. However, prior to the launch, the astronauts were warned that some of the engineers were worried about the effect of unusually low temperatures on the seals for the solid rocket boosters. 

Although they were not told the extent of the engineers’ concerns, they were warned that launching on January 28th would be more dangerous than waiting for the next available launch date, and asked if they wanted to postpone. All seven decided that their mission was worth the risk of launching on schedule.

Fail Fast, Fail Often

“Fail Fast, Fail Often, Fail Everywhere”. By John Donohue. The New Yorker. May 31, 2015.

“Discussions about failure may come more easily in America in part because our businesspeople are so good at it. The failure rate for startups, using a yardstick in which investors lose everything (i.e., all of the company’s assets are liquidated), is between thirty and forty per cent, according to Shikhar Ghosh, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School. 

The rate is seventy to eighty per cent if failure is defined as not meeting the projected return on investment, and ninety to ninety-five per cent if it is measured by failing to beat a declared projection.

Despite these statistics, Americans remain remarkably optimistic about the process—last year, venture-capital companies staked forty-eight billion dollars in pursuit of big returns. And the fact that these investments are concentrated in a relatively small number of companies has not seemed to inspire much fear in prospective entrepreneurs. 

According to a study done by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, a project run by Babson College and the London Business School, in 2014 among respondents between the ages of eighteen and sixty-four who were not already running their own businesses, just thirty per cent reported that fear of failure would stop them from starting one. 

And more than half of those Americans surveyed believed that there are good opportunities to strike out on one’s own.

“… make a comeback“

The New York Times online. May 3, 2015. An interview with Diane von Fürstenberg, Belgian-born American fashion designer best known for her iconic wrap dress. 

Interviewer:  You’ve had such a roller coaster life of great successes, as well as some pretty dark times. How did you manage through all that?

von Fürstenberg: I’m still managing through it. First of all, let’s talk about success. I lived an American dream. I was very lucky because I was very successful at 25 years old. Now it’s very common for that to happen in Silicon Valley. But at the time, it was not so common, and I was a woman and I was very young.

Now we go to failure. What does failure mean? You didn’t make it? So you didn’t make it. But by not making it, maybe you learned something else. America is a society where you always have a chance and where you can always make a comeback. So I would say that failure sometimes could be your biggest asset.

Ockham’s Razor

Isolate: To cause a person or place to be or remain alone or apart from others; to identify something and examine or deal with it separately.

Simplicity: The quality or condition of being easy to understand or do; the quality or condition of being plain or natural; a thing that is plain, natural, or easy to understand. Late Middle English. From Old French simplicite or Latin simplicitas, from simplex.

Sophistication: The quality of being sophisticated; development to a high degree of complexity; the quality of being aware or and able to interpret complex issues; the characteristic of having, revealing, or proceeding from a great deal or worldly experience and knowledge of fashion and culture. From medieval Latin sophisticatus, “tampered with”.

Elegance: The quality of being graceful and stylish in appearance or manner; the quality of being pleasingly ingenious and simple; neatness.

KISS: The acronym for “keep it simple, stupid” is attributed to Kelly Johnson, an engineer at the U.S. weapons company Lockheed. Although there are several other variations, the principle states that systems work best if they are kept simple. Complexity should be avoided. Johnson had given a team of design engineers a set of tools, then challenged them to design a jet aircraft which can be repaired by an average mechanic under war conditions with these tools only.

There is nothing original about KISS, however.  To Leonardo da Vinci is attributed “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. Mies van der Rohe, widely regarded as one of the masters of modern architecture, stated time and again that “less is more”. Antoine de Saint Exupéry, the French aristocrat, poet, writer (The Little Prince) and pioneering aviator has been quoted: “It seems that perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

William of Ockham (1288-1348), an English Franciscan friar and one of the major figures of Medieval thought, wrote that “among competing hypotheses, the one that makes the fewest assumptions should be selected”.