Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Inevitable Collisions Between State and Religion

Inevitable Collisions Between State and Religion

In terms of religion v. state, contemporary political science offers generally two approaches towards concepts of states: EITHER the dominating neutral state has to create room for the religious beliefs of its citizens OR a dominantly religious state employs subordinated state institutions. Examples for the first concept are pretty much all modern western nations, with separation of powers and neutral state institutions. Examples for the latter include Saudi Arabia or the Iran, where religion is the dominant source and origin of the state. These state’s institutions are often merely means to facilitate the state’s function on an administrative level. So depending on whether or not religion or state neutrality is the dominant pattern, the other is second to the above named principle.


Now what’s interesting to observe are the frictions in this concept, i.e. the intersecting parts.
Problems usually arise where the spheres tend to overlap. For instance, in Germany, if you work for the church, employees need to have a “special” loyalty towards their employers. This “special” loyalty has been subject of disputes before the courts time and again. One of many noteworthy rulings deals with Germany’s policy of treating all religious communities in Germany equally and, if suitable, to grant the status of being a public corporation (“K√∂rperschaft des √∂ffentlichen Rechts”). Being officially recognized as a public corporation by the German state entails tax exempt status and numerous other privileges for religious groups, which is why it is generally aspired by religious groups, for instance by Germany’s Jehovah's Witnesses.

Leipzig’s very own Federal Administrative Court has been central to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ attempts to gain said status (official ruling by Germany’s Federal Administrative Court on February 1, 2006, notified under the document number Az. BVerwG 7 B 80.05). The City of Berlin had thwarted previous attempts by the Jehovah's Witnesses to gain the precious status of a public corporation (a process that had been going on since the mid-90s). The Jehovah's Witnesses refuse to participate in political elections, which was interpreted by Berlin as a lack of loyalty to the state and thus as lacking a prerequisite to obtaining the status of a public corporation. The decision by Leipzig’s judges, however, rejected Berlin’s accusation and ended the more than twelve year long legal dispute in the favor of Jehovah's Witnesses.

The state granting religious groups as public corporations is particularly interesting, since maintaining the principle of equal treatment and secularity towards all religious groups is virtually impossible to achieve. Like political parties in Germany, the big churches either receive direct financial resources from the state for charities and occupational health care or indirect financial advantages by being exempt (partially) from taxes and other duties. I wonder how atheists feel about this…

So in one way or another, the German state is financing religion.
Another common field of dispute is the education of children that are member of a particular religion (think of the back-then controversy of Amish children being taught at home). Here, again, different interests collide and usually there is no amicable solution.

The paradigm of an ideally secular state meets the reality of an everyday life impacted by religious penetration. Now, a third sphere – the respective culture – becomes a negotiator between these two spheres and their untainted concepts. In addition, this perpetual negotiation between the two ideal spheres is supplemented by a particularly interesting second layer: the two extreme poles on the spectrum “private” and “public.”
Ideally, religious aspects are a private matter and the neutral state is of public concern. But of course, in reality, both ends of the spectrum mix.

Here is the list of requirements by the City of Berlin to gain the status of a public corporation: http://www.berlin.de/sen/kultur/bkrw/koerperschaften.html

Here you can take a closer look at the financial entanglement between state and religion: KORSO (coordinating secular organizations in Germany) http://www.korso-deutschland.de

Vegetarians Save the World…

Vegetarians Save the World…

…because meat production wastes a lot of natural resources.

The security of future resources like food is being increased by vegetarians because they usually employ a long-term approach in their nutrition. So by eating ecologically-sound food, vegetarians increase the security of future resources such as food and water.

Here’s the outline:
Vegetarian lifestyle --> saves resources --> increases future (food) security

The question is: do YOU eat meat? In China and India, for instance, eating meat has become a status symbol of an emerging middle class and affluent consumers in these markets now (rightfully) demand access to meat products. While meat is but one high quality protein source indispensable for human nutrition, there are other outstanding protein suppliers that put less heavy strains on the environment (soy or seaweed for instance). It may astonish you to learn that “about 100,000 liters [of water are] required to produce 1 kg of beef” – in addition, the necessary cattle feed is usually fructose-based feed such as corn (which by the way soaks your body with way too much cornstarch)! This is an almost criminally inefficient trade-off if you think of your personal health, the “footprint” on the environment, and global problems like world hunger.

As you can imagine, there is quite a dispute over how much feed and water really is required to “grow” one pound or kilogram of meat in a live-cattle. Figures vary depending on various conditions, but in general we can assess that the meat industry likes to convince consumers to believe the feeding process is an efficient endeavor, while David Pimentel (professor of ecology and agricultural science at Cornell University) comes up with the following table:

Gallons of water required per pound of yield

Potatoes             060 gallons per pound
Wheat                108 gallons per pound
Corn                   168 gallons per pound
Rice                    229 gallons per pound
Soybeans            240 gallons per pound
Beef                   12,009 gallons per pound

(The yield of life-stock will generally need more resources than crops, which is why you might criticize this table for unfairly comparing animals with plants).

It’s no secret that meat is an ineffective commodity compared to seaweed or soy beans (tofu) and not sustainable in the contemporary form of production. Every year, millions of tons of soybeans are being fed to cattle in the US and these perfectly good crops could be used instead to bake normal bread by which world hunger could be solved overnight.

But wait: right now massive forests are cleared around the world in order to grow soy beans (e.g. in Brazil). So do vegetarians ultimately hurt the planet with their focus on non-meat groceries like tofu? Yes, in a way, because everything you do has an ecological footprint: all human beings on this planet need to eat, sleep, drink, study, etc. Overall, this costs an immense amount of resources our planet has to provide (one more reason to decisively reduce global human overpopulation in time). So while soy beans, too, have a negative impact on the environment, it is still much more efficient to let go of meat products. Next to meat, other contenders in the field of inefficient agricultural goods would be cotton, which need an immense amount of water (just take a look at the dire consequences for the Aral Sea in Central Asia).

Whatever efficient or inefficient agricultural good we talk about, it’s the multiplication by the 7-bn-coefficient that ultimately causes problems because even the most efficient product cannot bear up against such a huge accumulation.

We’re already 7 billion people on this globe, 9.3 bn by 2050 (estimate by the United Nations and current population projection by the U.S. Bureau of the Census). Meat will become an even more scarce and expensive commodity. So, in the end, the way I see it, we all have two options: EITHER we enjoy your steaks while we can OR we better make the switch to a more sustainable source for proteins today. As a matter of fact, the entire agricultural production system needs to be fundamentally reformed. So one could argue that by abstaining from meet, vegetarians shed some light on the way food is produced today around the world – but that’s another story.

What do you think? Are you willing to let go of your beloved steak? What contributions do you make to a more sustainable way of living?

Further reading:

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Classic Cultures of Security and the Increasing Problem of Intangible Assets

Classic Cultures of Security and the Increasing Problem of Intangible Assets

Today’s world holds an increasing amount of virtual values. Classical cultures of security have shifted significantly into a more virtual sphere, where physical goods are accompanied by increasingly virtual goods.

This shift into the immaterial world represents an important development that hints at two fundamental tendencies of security today: the first aspect of security today is the classical form of security we all know. It is the physical type of security that has to accommodate to the real physical security of goods (principles like personal property, access to food, the physical integrity of the human body, etc.). At the same time, a second aspect of today’s notions on security has developed steadily and it has to cater to the rise in the amount of virtual goods (think of credit cards, money in general, the “value” or reputation you Facebook-profile can generate, or Blizzard's Diabolo3 real money online auction house, etc.).

Most of the time, those virtual resources are merely backed by a mutual convention by the society of the respective culture itself. What is considered rare and desirable usually has value; in contrast, plentiful things tend to be considered ordinary and not that valuable.

When it comes to the cultures of security we have to understand the difference between these two important tendencies of security and their respective implications.
In the so-called western civilized world we have seen a rise in economic strength, followed by a relative rise of the standard of living. One could argue that with an increase in the standard of living, a shift occurs from a priority in formerly direct physical security towards a focus on now rather indirect virtual security. To put it in another way: intangible assets become more important once the basic needs are satisfied (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: food, shelter, etc.). Therefore, the degree of relevance of these intangible assets is rather high in post-industrial regions like Europe or North America. This often stands in stark contrast to other parts of the globe, where there are existence-threatening conditions, and thus the need to secure physical goods dominates the day-to-day life. Another example is the different functions of soldiers today: no longer do solders simply “shoot and run,” instead fighting the physical war alone has been augmented by a high degree of cultural training and diplomacy skills. Once basic security in an area is restored the next element in the hierarchy of needs has to be catered to. Therefore, soldiers also have to deal with administrative issues in their field of operation. German soldiers in Afghanistan, for instance, are not 24/7 on patrol, but they also try to reach out to the Afghan population by talking to them directly on a regular basis.
As a result, cultures of security can have fundamentally different priorities, depending on the parameters described above.

It should come to no surprise that the sphere of the indirect virtual security probably can be best described as a house of cards that falls like Dominos once eruptions occur or the second the underlying chain of dependencies is interrupted.
We have all experienced minor interruptions in the chain of dependencies. Remember the last blackout when your electric appliances did not work? Or that time Facebook was offline (did that ever happen?). For more and more people, the internet becomes one of the fundamental necessities, a new absolute essential of today’s world (perhaps an updated version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). That is the dependence on virtual goods is rising.
The real trouble begins once intangible assets are permanently out of reach – when real physical war threatens one’s life, like in parts of Syria right now. There, people have other things to worry about than their Facebook status (although during the Arab Spring, social media continues to help in organizing the resistance). So what we can observe is a collapse of the now no longer important intangible goods and a reduction to the bare necessities – no matter the reason for the particular conflict zone (political, military, economic, environmental, etc.).

It is within these two broad dimensions of security (the one based on reality, the other based on reality as well as the virtual sphere) that we have to reflect upon issues like cyber war on the internet, the lack of access to resources (think of the Berlin Blockade) or real physical warfare.
Physical values need physical security whereas virtual values need both physical AND virtual security: a bank note is just a promise on a piece of paper that needs to be backed not only by a certain amount of gold at Fort Knox but also by the public’s general trust in the currency.
What we can conclude so far is that these two spheres become more closely aligned by the hour. Hence, corresponding strategies are required that secure both types of goods.

License to Hack! White Hat Hacking – Good Intentions that can get you in a Lot of Trouble!

License to Hack! White Hat Hacking – Good Intentions that can get you in a Lot of Trouble!

Exploiting computer vulnerabilities in order to improve the IT infrastructure’s security afterwards is called white hat hacking. Like a white knight, exploits are not used to elicit credit card numbers or employ other matters of personal gain. White hat hacking is a kind of preemptive strike, a beneficial hacking of all sorts of computer systems. After a successful white hack, the operator of the infested website or computer is usually warned with a full disclosure of the exact security flaw exploited and enough time is given to implement necessary changes before, say, a malicious black hat hacker can compromise the entire system and create an irreversible data havoc. Numerous security companies have officially challenged hackers to deliberately compromise their systems – in return for a reward and, if necessary, by helping to fix the flaws. Like a magician, the hacker is supposed to reveal the trick afterwards and depending on the individual philosophy of the respective hacker, he or she will either help you or exploit the security flaws in the computer system for own personal gains.

This method of “inviting trouble” into one’s house in order to test one’s security is not new and has proven time and again to be mutually beneficial. Think of former thieves that are now working for the government in order to improve security (remember Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale in Catch me if you can?).

While those official hack challenges are perfectly legal (after all, the owner of a website or computer invites you to hack), things are slightly more complicated when it comes to unsolicited hacks. Unfortunately, neither US criminal law nor German Strafgesetzbuch are able or willing to differentiate between the “good” kind of hackers (white hat) and “bad” kind of hackers (black hat). And how could they even distinguish between a friendly attack and the ones when malice is actually intended? I say unfortunately, because I believe a lot of potential is put off by that lag of differentiation (for instance, NATO recently declared an attack on their IT infrastructure as an act of war, and with the Patriot Act in the U.S., white hat hackers can much easier be accidentally classified as black hat hackers or even terrorists, etc.). Especially in the Linux community, it's make or break for most community projects depending on how many people participate and contribute by reviewing, fixing, probing, and hacking the source code.

Well, I am happy to announce that Germany for one no longer needs these white Don Quixotes of the internet, because now Germany has its very own cyber-warfare unit.
That’s right: a subdivision of Germany’s official army, the Bundeswehr, is hacking in the name of love. Is that something good or something to be proud of?
For now the main job of this unit is to play the role of white hat hackers – that is testing the existing IT infrastructures against hub overloads, structural defects, and other vulnerabilities. They are also supposed to find out how a malicious hacker attack would probably proceed in real-life, and, of course prepare for that exact scenario by armoring up respective parts of the system.
Don’t get me wrong: there are real computer threats out there. Stuxnet was crafted by in the name of government(s) and successfully put an added burden on Iran’s nuclear IT infrastructure. The so-called Bundestrojaner or predecessors of Stuxnet like Flame can lie dormant for months before anti-virus companies pick up on traces by discovery unusual behavior. Allegedly, a water power plant has been hacked in the USA (turns out it was not hacked, but still you get the idea).
Defending and responding to existing threats is one thing. But we all know that in the world of military the golden strategy is to be able to strike down the aggressor before damage is done.

Therefore it is a safe bet that the rather defensive skill set of the Bundeswehr’s white hat solders will soon be, how should I say, “expand.” (“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”)

In the future, defending existing infrastructure will be merely one part, while attacking external structures will complete the deal. With this first military hacking unit, Germany has successfully outsourced hacking as a government subdivision, officially sanctioned white hat hack soldiers (much like in the USA).
The real problem with the affiliation with the government with cyber war like that is: what constitutes an attack? NATO recently added assaults on their infrastructure as an official attack, triggering the collective defense clause of article 5. This opens up a whole new dimension if problems. What happens with so called false positives (a term from the anti-virus industry, when an alleged detection of malicious patterns later turns out to be legit after all)? The biggest problem here probably is human error.

What are your thoughts on that matter? I'm eager to read your comments! Can the internet really afford to lose the never-ending armadas of volunteers hacking out of good motivations?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Why Open Source Software is Better – and More Secure

Why Open Source Software is Better – and More Secure!

The general idea of open source software vs. proprietary (“locked”) software has already been discussed here by Gerald (see here). What I would like to do is shed some light on certain aspects of open source software that I think shows the superiority of the underlying software concept – the philosophy of the software if you will.

I myself am a long-time user of the Ubuntu GNU/Linux operating system. I have also used many other Linux distributions such as Debian, Mandriva, LinuxMint, Fedora, and all of the *buntu flavors. And I do have a lot of sympathy for the OpenSource project in general and Ubuntu Linux in particular (which is why I am probably a little bit biased, just FYI).

One of the most important advantages of open source software over proprietary software is that open source usually goes hand in hand with free. That is free as in free of charge ($) but also free as in freedom to do whatever you please to do with the software (modification, for example). Proprietary software is often protected from unauthorized modification (the code is compiled and there is something called the BlackBox principle). In addition, the single files required to run a proprietary program can be digitally signed, certified, or have check-sums that reveal if the files have been (intentionally) tempered with, say, by a virus (MD5 or SHA1 hash, etc.).

Still, people find easy ways to hack portions of proprietary software (e.g. through reverse engineering), but you’re usually not allowed to do that, because before you can install the software you most likely have to accepted an End User License Agreement. (And have you ever read the entire EULA for a single iTunes-update? If not, here's what could happen to you...)

We understand now that OpenSource software enables people to take control of their computers – provided they have the time and knowledge to read one of the many computer languages available (some are really very easy to lean like HTML, other computer languages are more difficult like C++ or Assembler). Being able to read such a computer language allows you to understand how a particular program works (the so-called source code). The recipe of the cake is disclosed if you will. You can add some spices and have your own delicious creation. With proprietary software, you can only guess and try to emulate the cake. Both sides have pros and cons, and your position will differ between consumers and producers of software.
One of the biggest problems of OpenSource is that it is chronically underfunded and, in addition, there are too many competing projects at the same time (a fragmented market that needs some consolidation). Yes, there are some benevolent billionaires like astronaut Mark Shuttleworth who pours in millions of dollars of his private funds to support projects like Ubuntu, but this is petty cash compared with what the big software corporations make.

When you stop being exclusively on the consumer side of software, you start thinking about what approach you should take as a creator of software.
It all boils down to the question of whether you are an idealist that thinks there are equal chances in an fair and open market, where people are altruistic and produce goods for little to no financial compensation,
whether you are more of a realist, that sees an unfair market with dominance and advantages for monopolies, with software developers that rightfully want to get paid for their work and where software is a product that needs marketing for consumption.

The biggest problem for the OpenSource community, from my point of view is, – please feel free to disagree – that people simply don’t care! And I say rightfully so! A computer is supposed to work! A “normal” end-user rightfully has only limited interest of how the software works. If I want to take the train from Leipzig to Berlin, I just want to get there, and not spend 5 hours on a presentation on how trains work. Just like that most people just want to use their computers to get things done in a user-friendly, easy, and effective way. Those of you who have used one of Apples MacBooks before will probably agree that Apple’s operating system is rightfully considered to be very user-friendly. Ubuntu Linux and Windows have conquered a lot of ground in the field of user friendliness lately. But there are still a lot of things that would need to be discussed here (like hardware support, Windows-only applications like Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft Office Suite, etc.).

One last thing: SAFTY.
Linux is considered to be one of the most secure operating systems. Three factors have contributed to that:

1st Linux has a relatively small market share. With less than 1% of all computers in the world running Linux, hackers simply would make a bad economic decision if they’d focused on exploiting that minority. Costs and benefits of such an undertaking would be completely disproportionate - in the bad sense. Instead the exploits of a Trojan horse written for a Windows computer yields much higher profit margins.

2nd Two heads are better than one. Since everyone is able to review the source code, flaws in the system can be spotted much easier. But hackers are also able to scan directly for vulnerabilities. This is a tradeoff. You allow your enemies to see your secrets, and hope that all your friends will help you spot those flaws before a malicious hacker can exploit them. It’s a race against time. It has proven, however, that this strategy of letting one’s guard down works much better than the secrecy over a closed code that is employed by most proprietary software companies (here only a “few experts” can check the code and offer security fixes).

3rd Linux has had a smart security hierarchy right from the beginning, where critical user actions have to be manually approved by the user. The user of an operating system is its biggest security vulnerability. Each and every one of us can fall prey to phishing websites, which can steal our private information. Windows has adopted this security model with the so-called User Account Control (UAC) – little warning boxes that ask whether a certain program is allowed to perform actions like installing, updating, or uninstalling.
There are also many other security features available for Windows, MacOSX, and Linux.
I’d like to conclude by saying that I had my fair share of ups and downs with Ubuntu Linux. My advice: If you want to use Linux as your primary operating system, check online forums for compatible hardware before you buy a laptop or PC. Dell for instance, has good support for Linux. Research like that can save you a lot of trouble later. But then again, you can always trade in that freedom for the herd-like convenience of Windows or Mac - where things supposedly work out of the box… ;)

For additional information you can get acquainted with FOSS – that's free and open-source software.

Please, feel free to comment. I'm looking forward to your feedback and maybe you can share some of your Linux experiences.

Energy Security and a New Oil Gold Rush in North Dakota

Energy Security and a New Oil Gold Rush in North Dakota

Will the discovery of large oil fields in North Dakota slow down the US’s switch towards renewable energy? For the struggling US Economy it’s just what the doctor ordered! Large amounts of oil are currently being discovered and harvested off the Peace Garden State’s shale ground. It’s exactly what the US economy has been yearning for and this could easily represent a huge catalyst for incredible change in the US’s approach towards oil dependency from the Middle East. To Obama, this could also ignite the much needed boost in the US economy (a problem that so far has been reducing his chances for a second term).

America has been dependent on foreign oil for the longest time. In a couple of decades, dependence on this high level would have come to an end in one way or another (either because oil fields are depleted or it has become too expensive for an economy of the size of the US). Knowing that, most oil-exporting nations in the Middle East have long prepared for a post-oil world: in this region, renewable energy in is in high demand. The US very own “Saudi-America” in North Dakota could very well turn out to become the Middle Eastern oil sheik’s worst nightmare.

Because what consequences could arise from America’s newly found geopolitical lag of interest in the Middle East now that oil is no longer such a crucial part of the equation?
Europe, for instance, still suffers very much from the necessary sanctions against Syria and Iran – even though there are alternative oil prospects in the North Sea. For America, another big step towards independence from oil has another positive notion because this automatically means a weakening of oil-exporters like Russia and the OPEC in general.

Speaking from a short-term perspective, North Dakota’s oil might sever the US’s perpetual connection to the oil drip. In the long run, however, North Dakota represents nothing more than the US buying a bit more time. Because the shift towards renewable energy is inevitable, North Dakota might even tend to slow down implementing the necessary political measures (see Keystone XL pipeline). Plus the environmental atrocities that go hand in hand with winning the precious dark gold can be best observed just on the other side of the border: the Canadian province Alberta is a true battlefield of competing interests where oil is separated from the soil in an incredibly hazardous way (that is nature’s interest vs. humankind's interests; even though both should align and not be in opposition to each other).

So how is the oil race going to end? Is the discovery of new oil and gas prospects actually taking off the pressure to switch towards cleaner forms of energy? Or is it the much needed break from a disproportionate interdependence on oil?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

When Walls Have Eyes - Windy City & Operation Virtual Shield

Its name sounds like the title of the latest  video game by Tom Clancy. Although its developers might really have taken the idea from a video game, Operation Virtual Shield is very real. A 2004 article in the New York Times announced Chicago's latest plan to install an intelligent public surveillance system. The article revealed that the city was planning to build a central hub that would collect all the data that public surveillance systems all over the city had collected. One feature of this centralized system are video cameras that work without human interference. The cameras can autonomously spot and identify suspicious individuals and behavior and independently send out a warning to the Chicago Police Department. What the cameras are programmed to report was directly influenced by what experts regarded as the typical behavior of terror suspects. Therefore, suspicious acts that are reported include "wander[ing] aimlessly in circles, linger[ing] outside a public building, pull[ing] a car onto the shoulder of a highway, or leav[ing] a package and walks away from it." 

The gloomy headquarters of Operation Virtual Shield © World Under Watch
In 2010, Natasha Yetman reported for Public Safety Communications that Operation Virtual Shield was finally in place and produced the first positive results. $217 million had been spent to get this project going. So be careful how you behave next time when you are participating in Chicago's famous St. Patrick's Day parade! The city now has the largest public surveillance system in place in the United States and you surely being caught on tape. Chicago has changed. A 2009 article in the Wall Street Journal aptly remarked that the "City of Big Shoulders is becoming the City of Big Brother." 

What is interesting about Operation Virtual Shield is that the project had been informed by experts from another public surveillance hub I wrote about earlier. To get the latest expertise on the topic, Chicago's security guardians talked to their colleagues in London. What we see is that a transatlantic dialog on public surveillance has directly influenced Windy City's new system. Relying on the credible information from London, Chicago officials could improve public surveillance in their city by avoiding some of the weaknesses of the London model. The greatest of those weaknesses is, that London has to many scattered places where surveillance data is sent to. Therefore, it often takes a while for the city's security experts to find what they are looking for in the jumble of scattered data. Chicago tries to avoid this situation. By connecting public and even private surveillance systems with each other and bringing them all together in one place, data can be accessed faster and much more easily.

This doesn't mean that it makes the process of collecting massive amounts of personal data less controversial. As the ACLU has pointed out in the nice overview What's Wrong With Public Video Surveillance there are many things that can be criticized when talking about Operation Virtual Shield. One element could be seen in the systems ability to do face scans in real time. You are thus almost immediately detectable wherever you go in the city. Moreover, imagining that all the data runs together in only one place is just too picturesque. In fact, it reminds one of movies like The Matrix where in a room full of monitors one person can follow every individual in his or her daily proceedings. Despite the fact that Operation Virtual Shield may have really improved the security situation in Chicago, the idea of a gloomy monitor room remains a bleak one.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Skin Cancer Epidemic in Germany and The U.S.

Picture retrieved from:

Why risk dying to be tan? This is one question many dermatologists are trying to figure out and despite their efforts in campaigning about the risks involved with indoor tanning, young female adults ages 15-29 are flocking to the salons here in the United States.  The obsession with being tan is not a new phenomenon here in the U.S. and the fascination could have everything to do with how celebrities are praised in our society for their beautiful, flawless, bronze skin.   Young adults are tanning so much that the word tanorexic is now being used to describe an unhealthy condition.  Tanorexic people are like those who suffer from the eating disorder anorexia.  Anorexia is a disorder in which one is not happy with their weight no matter how much they lose and those who suffer from tanorexia are never satisfied with their skin complexion so they tan more.  According to the American Academy of Dermatology, Melanoma is the worse form of skin cancer and is the most common for adults ages 25-29 and the second most common form of cancer for adolescents 15-29 years old.  These statistics are no surprise to The World Health Organization because the sunbeds people use are artificial tanning devices that emit a great deal of ultraviolet radiation (UV) very harmful to the skin.  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that skin cancer is the seventh most common cancer in women and there are expectations for this number to increase because young adults are ignoring proper tanning procedures and symptoms of skin cancer.   Despite the danger to one’s health, tanning is becoming prevalent across the Atlantic which worries The World Health Organization who considers tanning to be carcinogenic and an international problem on the rise.

In Germany, 144,000 people contract skin cancer every year and 20,000 have the most serious form.  According to the environment ministry, these numbers are rising because of the increasing amount of Germans who like to go tanning but why?  According to COSMOS, a study conducted at Southern Germany’s Stuttgart Media University found that out of 900 tanning bed visitors, 84% said that lightly tanned skin makes them look healthier and 90% said it makes them feel alive. In 2008, 2,500 people died of melanoma in Germany of the 17,800 cases reported.  These numbers are fairly good compared to the United States where melanoma accounts for almost 9,000 deaths of year and over 1.7 billion dollars in treatment a year. 
With all of these statistics, I am not sure why people are not following the proper procedures in regards to indoor tanning and why indoor tanning is on a rise.  There are so many other ways to get bronze skin such as creams and spray tans but people refrain from these alternatives.  The question is when will people recognize the dangers in indoor tanning and how will the Center for Disease Control and Prevention try to limit the usage of tanning salons? Should they intervene? Will a tax decrease the trend?

Too Much Public Lovin'?

Every person has witnessed and many have participated in this, whether in public, from a friend or significant other, seen in the media or advertisements, it's the infamous kiss. At the age of 70, a person on average spends 110,000 minutes or 76.4 days kissing. While in high school, one of my favorite math teachers, always stated 'kissing leads to babies' and would scold students holding hands or kissing in the hallways to break it up since PDA or public display of affection was not allowed in our high school. When is public display of affection okay socially, if ever?

The United States and Germany have similar agreements in that PDA or public display of affection should be minimized at all costs. Some cultural norms Americans have instilled over time are that a simple kiss are accepted as well as holding hands. However, in terms of social etiquette extensive 'making out' and groping makes others in public uncomfortable and is frowned upon.

Other issues that have arisen are FPDA's or Facebook public displays of affection. This is where social media has played into effect. Facebook is viewed as a public domain and those who post 'intimate' pictures or say intimate things are considered participating in public displays of affection whether in or not in a relationship, which is also frowned upon. Although there are certain laws restricting inappropriateness and give the users the freedom to send a message to the person partaking in display or even to corporate asking them to re-evaluate their profile.

People not only have problems with committed heterosexual couples partaking in PDA, but some people view those who have strong religious values, homosexuals, military, and youth who participated in this display as universally repulsive when exaggerated.

Kissing in Germany has been around since the 1950s and is still a social taboo. In Germany recently, there has been activist groups suggesting the government make the social greeting of kissing in the work place illegal. As opposed to other countries were a kiss is an acceptable and expected cultural norm like France and Italy. BBC has reported that the Knigge Society, which discusses social behavior and etiquette stated "the practice of greeting colleagues and business partners with a kiss on the cheek is uncomfortable for many Germans, and is even a form of terrorism." This group believes that it is in the best interest to "protect people who don't want to be kissed" and should stick to the traditional handshake. This group also believes there may some erotic underlaying component to kissing.

In December of 2007, the German parliament discussed passing a law banning PDA of all those under the age of 18. The purpose of this potential bill was to protect children against sexual predators. However, "critics fear that it will deprive teenagers of natural experiences and the fun of adolescent relationships."

Communicating through a kiss can mean various things. Stereotypically kissing is associated with intimacy, love, and eroticism. In more of celebratory form, kissing also symbolizes happiness and love like in Wedding Ceremonies. But a kiss can also mean humility or submission. Historically in various countries, to show a sign of respect, one will lower one's head and kiss the hand or rings of the one higher than themselves. According to dw.de  kisses can also send political messages, such as the 1989 kiss between Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and East German Leader Erich Honecker, "it symbolized their political bond and affiliation- just one month before the Berlin Wall came down."

During the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s many attitudes towards affections have changed over time as inappropriate. Americans do not demonstrate their affections as much as Latin Americans or Southern Europeans but more so than the Northern Europeans. 

What does the similarities in attitudes mean for Germany and the US? What does the International kissing day symbolize on July 6th, contradicting the social norms? Adults, children, teenagers when does the line need to be drawn legally or socially? What is it teaching our youth?  Should the government be able to regulate our personal lives for the safety of those who want to be protected from these vulgar actions?

The Reality of The 8 Hour Work-Day

When we first started this blog one of the things we discussed the most were perceptions that Germans and Americans have of each other and how some of them might be wrong.  One stereotype that is often perpetuated in our thoughts of one another is that of the hard working, diligent German and the lazy American, perpetuated in pop culture in instances such as the video clip below.

While I think this perception is beginning to fade, it is safe to say that it still remains as prevalent as other stereotypes such as the "stoic German" or the "dumb American".  In fact, they kind of go hand in hand with these notions.  For this weeks post, I decided to look into the realities behind these cultural stigmas and as usual, the facts are very different from what we might expect.

When contrasting national averages of German and American workdays, it is apparent that Americans are actually burdened with a more stressful week.  According to the United Nations International Labor Organization, workers in the United States are putting in more hours than anywhere else in the industrialized world.  Americans have almost completely done away with the forty hour work week as a limit, whereas in Germany the average worker works less than forty hours a week.  According to the Center for American Progress, 85.8% of males and 66.5% of females are working over forty hours per week in the U.S..  This is very different from in Germany, where all sources report the average work week as well under forty hours.  Taking a look at this chart reveals not only that Americans work longer hours than Germans, but also most of the industrialized world.

Numbers can vary depending on the time at which the survey was taken over the last ten years, whether part time workers were included, and what is defined as a work day.  However, the average hourly difference was usually consistent with the above chart, which estimates Americans and Germans working thirsty-five and twenty-seven hours per week respectively.  Another interesting aspect of this comparison is that it is well known that many Americans work multiple jobs or work full time while attending school.  Working multiple jobs is unheard of in Germany, mainly because there are laws preventing people from working too much.  In Germany, it is a law that the work day must not last longer than ten hours and must average no more than eight hours over the course of the week.  Say what you will about American work ethic, it is clear that we are not afraid to put in the hours when compared to our European counterparts.

The American government also seems to drive its workers harder than is the standard in other countries.  Here is a look at a few of the differences:

  • The United States is the only country in the Americas that does not have a paid parental leave benefit, countries in Europe enjoy over twenty weeks.  That includes the legal requirement for new parents to take a leave, which the United States does not have.
  • The United States has no law limiting the length of a work week, 134 other countries including Germany do.  
  • The United States is also the only industrialized nation that has no legally mandated annual leave.

This graph compares the average amount of paid vacation times in industrialized nations:

Taken from 20somethingfinance.com

All I can say is that this chart is extremely depressing if you are an American, and it seems as though that sentiment is affecting how well we work.

It is clear that the perception of Americans as lazy holds no weight when looking at hours worked, but what about the quality of that work?  This is where all those long hours start to cause some problems for Americans as The Sleep Foundation reports that almost 30% of workers in the United States actually fell asleep of became very sleepy at work over the last month as a direct result of being overworked.  Firms looking to drive their workers harder will also find it disturbing that Germans are reported to have roughly the same productivity as Americans even while working less hours.  This hints at the idea that even though Americans work longer, the added hours are a hinderance to performance not a bonus.

A quick look at these statistics is enough to prove that Americans are not lazy, and if there should be any stereotype it should be that the opposite is true.  However, to do more than debunk this notion is to look at why there is such a difference in the working styles of Germans and Americans.  I think this is mostly a cultural difference, one that has also been somewhat cultivated by our modern societies.  One of the major influences has to be our traditional American spirit and the belief that long, hard work is the only thing that pays dividends.  This stems from our history as a country of pioneers and immigrants, something we don't share with Germany.  I think it also has to do with our capitalist mentality and the American quest to acquire more money.  The idea of individual economic success is more of a driving force in our culture, and several of the blogs I looked into support this subjective perception.  I know that when reading in other posts that Germans surrender roughly 50% of their incomes to taxes many Americans were shocked, and maybe this also has something to do with it.  From my own perspective, I am much more motivated to work knowing that most of that money is going directly into my pocket.  Is it possible that Germans don't feel the need to chase extra hours since they pay much higher taxes?  At any rate, it doesn't seem to be hurting German productivity, so maybe workers in the United States should ease up a little.