Wondering, wandering, and making sense of the world.


The Seven Wonders of Germans/Germany

- Hours worked, work accomplished
Typically, the French have been stereotyped as the vacation taking, strike holding, life loving but definitely not hard working people of Europe. However, according to the OECD, a Germans worker work nearly 80 hours less per year than a French worker. Unlike the French, Germans usually don’t take a month long holiday in the summer and especially not all at the same time in the month of July, which is probably why it’s not as noticeable. Nevertheless, Germans value their time away from work, and Fridays often feel like a half day. What’s even more amazing is that while working so little (1406 hours per year, only behind the Dutch at 1382), Germans accomplish a lot, having one of the highest GDP per capita in the world. Work is work, play is play, no bullshit and get stuff done is the German mentality and they really do get things done efficiency.

Few reference points on hours worked per year: France 1482; United Kingdom 1625; Japan 1728; OECD average 1765; United States 1728; Greece 2039 (!!!); Korea 2090; Mexico 2250.

Yes, the Greeks are the hardest working people in Europe, and no one but the Greeks believe it:


Ask any German and they’ll tell you, it’s not how long you work, it’s how efficiently you work, and it’s very true.

- Deutsche Bahn

Deutsche Bahn is the national railway of Germany which was privatized in the 90s but still owned by the Federal Republic (so you know something didn’t go right with the privatization). What’s so mysterious about Deutsche Bahn is how stereotypically German it is, except for one very un-German fatal flaw. The ticket machines for Deutsche Bahn is one of the best I’ve seen in Europe, although slightly complicated, and it comes in multiple languages. The website with the route searching capabilities are so comprehensive that you can search for connections from Beijing to London. The website is so good that many travel guides suggest using the Deutsche Bahn website to look up trains in other European countries (like France, the SNCF website is horrible). The Deutsche Bahn staff are not the friendliest but almost always helpful and professional.

So what’s the fatal flaw? They simply can’t stay on time. Whatever stereotype you have of German punctuality, you can forget. Deutsche Bahn is consistently late, and any weather adversity (even simply “cold”) will cause further delays. Furthermore, they often announce that their trains are running late but end up showing up on time, rendering their online delay announcement useless. This is even more surprising when the adjoining country, Switzerland, has more challenging weather conditions and run their trains flawlessly.

- Products amazing / Services horrible


Everyone knows about German cars, but Germany produces some of the best products in the world, both industrial and consumer. Siemens is Europe’s largest electronics company and employs almost as many people as Luxembourg. Bosch is the world’s largest automotive supplier and is amazingly owned by a charity (instead of the normal shareholders). Miele, while less known outside of Europe, is THE premium appliance company and makes some fascinating products (like the 1000+ Euro ironing system). BASF, Bayer, SAP, Adidas, and the list continues.

What’s amazing is that in contrast to the great products Germany offers, the services are absolutely horrible. Almost every expat I know who’s been with T-mobile (the largest mobile operator here) has had some horror stories. Getting an internet connection at home requires the patience of a snail. Deliveries and other home appointments (like a technician visit) is usually given a four hour window… that’s often missed. Tourists often talk about how terrible services are in Parisian restaurants but Germany is no better. The only shining star, in my opinion, is Lufthansa which I’ve found to be always professional and reasonable (and it easily beats Air France or British Airways). What’s even more surprising is that many Germans will tell you that the services in the country actually improved over the last decade.

- Sundays
Go out to a shopping district on a Saturday afternoon and it’s a boomtown. Go on a Sunday afternoon and it’s the Great Depression. Any expat living in Germany have had the rough realization that nothing is open on Sundays in Germany (except, luckily, restaurants and public transport). Planning to have a picnic on Sunday? Be sure to buy your food on Saturday.

On the surface, it’s a major nuisance but at another level, Germans believe that Sundays are for resting and the laws are there to protect this value. It would be pretty easy to change the law to allow for Sunday shopping. Retailers would love the extra day for more sales, politicians would love the economic benefit, and people would like the extra convenience. Nevertheless this country sticks to its values, and there something respectable about that.

- Dinner for One

The Dinner for One phenomenon is well documented in the Spiegel’s Germany Survival Bible so I won’t expand on it, but why the Germans en masse have come to adopt an obscure piece of foreign comedy sketch as a New Year’s Eve ritual is one of greatest mysteries in the world.

- Festivals festivals festivals

Wine Festival

Germans love organized fun, and festivals are the perfect example. During a summer time weekend, it’s physically impossible to be in Germany and be more than 50km from a festival. In a city like Frankfurt, every weekend there is some kind of festival in some part of the city, although many of them are disturbingly similar (the few that aren’t are the better ones, like the Museumsuferfest). Winter brings another kind of festival in the form of Christmas markets which are perfect excuses to go outside and drink glühwein (mulled wine, and now that I think about it, Christmas market is a great excuse to add sugar to barely drinkable red wine).

Then there is the mother of all German festivals, an event that could easily qualify for the “Seven Wonders of Modern Human Activity” if such a list existed, Oktoberfest. Some might think of Oktoberfest as just another festival, slightly kitsch and touristy, but on the other hand, it represents the greatest industrial drinking session known to mankind. More than six million people attend the two week festival consuming close to seven million litters of beer. That’s enough to fill three Olympic size pools or a cube 20m on each side, and of course most of what goes in has to come out through one of the 965 toilets and 1 km of urinal troughs. With beers costing close to 10 EUR per liter, just the beer sales account for 70 million euros. The entire economic effect of the Oktoberfest is calculated at around one bullion euro or roughly what Panama makes in two weeks. Yes, Germans throw a party the scale of Panama.

Talking to Germans outside of Bavaria (the region of Munich) may surprise you however. Many of them are… indifferent towards Oktoberfest and feel no allegiance to it. Like many tourists, they think it’s slightly kitsch and treat it the same way: “I’ll try it once in my lifetime.” There is also a slight undertone of resentment at how popular Oktoberfest has gotten because there are many other fantastic festivals in Germany that gets overlooked. It’s like traveling to France and never making it beyond Paris.

- Nakedness
I’ve seen more live naked people in my two years in Germany than in my previous 29 years of living, and I’m from Japan, the country of public baths. This is partially due to the fact that I play the ever so progressive Ultimate Frisbee on a coed team, but Germans are more comfortable with their nudity than any other people I’ve met. Coed locker rooms are a norm here (at least for Ultimate), and as a result, I’ve probably seen more naked woman than most guys will in a lifetime.

It’s not just sports. Saunas and thermal baths are pretty common here and they would almost always have a naked tanning area. Also, wearing any clothing (even wrapping yourself in a towel) is forbidden in saunas and old German men/women will make sure you abide. Most Germans will tell you that the naked thing is more of an Eastern German thing, but to the rest of the world, Germany is pretty naked… comfortable.


Indian customer service

Well, that’s different.

My Indian friend once told me the saying: “India is not a country, it’s a continent.”

Slowly getting a feel for the culture and reading more about India, I’m starting to understand this sentiment. One clear example I came across is when my prepaid 3G connection stopped working once I crossed the border from Kerala to Karnataka. I read online that mobile contracts in India work from state to state, and leaving your home state is like putting your phone on roaming even if you are on the same network.

So naturally I asked what I could do on the event wall for the Ultimate Frisbee tournament I’m going to be playing in, and sure enough, the telecom company representative found it somehow and messaged me on Facebook. They asked for my number, I responded, then they called me to try solve the issue! When was the last time the telecom company called you regarding something besides an overdue bill?

The problem actually isn’t solved yet, I’m waiting for Mumbai where they should have a better connection than in Hampi where I am now. If it doesn’t work there, I’ll message the telecom company again… via Facebook.


明けましておめでとうございます – Happy New Year

Happy New Year 2014




平成二十六年 元旦



10 years without McDonald’s


10 years ago, in late 2003, I travelled from Houston to Turkey to meet up with a friend who was studying there on school year abroad. The morning before I boarded the flight, I got some McDonald’s with a friend who was taking me to the airport. On my flight to Ankara, connecting in Munich, I became terribly sick that the Indian businessmen sitting next to me thought I was going to die. Luckily I recovered relatively quickly that it didn’t ruin my travels in Turkey, but I swore off McDonald’s since that day.

It’s been ten years since I started avoiding the world’s largest fast-food chain. It hasn’t been difficult, but it hasn’t been easy either. The closest food dispensary that is open all night near my apartment in Frankfurt is a McDonald’s (I’ve wished many times that it was something else). Every so often when I’m traveling, I get curious about how the local McDonald’s is different from the global standard, and when I’m tired of the local food, there is always a McDonald’s around.

Now that I’ve hit that nice round number that matches the number of fingers we have on our hands, I’ve been thinking about what to do. Do I go back to eating McDonald’s every so often when the cravings hit me? Do I keep boycotting what has become a cultural icon of global capitalism? Do I eat one meal and swear off of it for another ten years?

My dislike for McDonald’s is irrational, I’ve eaten plenty of food since then that has made me sick, and I’m sure McDonald’s is safer than many restaurant chains or local food, especially in developing countries. At the same time, there is something slightly new age hipster about avoiding a culturally dominant icon, and I’m not trying to be new age hipster.

So, now that I’ve hit such a crossroad in my life, any advice?


“Can you help me out my friend?”

Tourist gift shop rackets are common place in developing countries, often with taxi drivers getting kickbacks for taking tourists to designated stores. They often exploit the gullibility of the tourist, using such phrases as “my friend’s store is having a sale” or “the store you want to go to burned down, I know a better place.”

India is no different. Drivers and touts on the street will try to drag you into different gift shops in hopes of getting commission for your presence. However, in few cases, I found auto rickshaw drivers trying to reach my sense of sympathy instead of gullibility. These drivers simply drove up to me (as I was walking) and asked if I could help them out by entering a near by store for them. I declined but it’s interesting to see that touts are adjusting to take advantage of different emotions that people may have.

Oh did I tell you that I am traveling in India currently? I’m here from 12/27 to 1/13, traveling and playing in the Ahmedabad Ultimate Open.

Hopefully this means more time to post.


Lessons learned from DJing

Two weekends ago, I had the task of organizing a party for an Ultimate Frisbee tournament with about 70 people. Part of my task was to pick the music for the evening, which to my friends must be eyebrow-raising as my taste in music is eclectic (put nicely) and bizarre (put not so nicely). I was in no way a “real” DJ as my tools were my laptop and iTunes, and I pre-created a playlist (which I had to adjust throughout the night). Nevertheless, this was my first time selecting music for a large party where I didn’t know many of the people.

DJing is hard
The art of DJing, like design, underrated. Because everyone knows what good looks like, everyone thinks they can do it, especially DJing as DJs don’t necessarily create anything new but simply play music made by other people. However, creating a harmonious flow of music, while reading and adjusting to people’s preferences and considering the context, is difficult. I have new found respect for DJs now.

I am really out of touch with the music world
This is probably something the music industry knows all too well, but have you ever wondered why music is so heavily marketed towards young people? My theory is that when people are young, they are much more open to new music and adopting new preferences. However, once you get past your twenties, you aren’t as eager to look for new music. You’re content with what you’ve discovered already.

(Just for reference, I am 31)

A bulk of the music I selected were from the 90s as I found a good list online and, well, that’s what I know best. I also asked my teammates to send me some suggestions so I don’t entirely recreate my prom, but they didn’t send me so many. I didn’t realize how little I knew about recent music until people came up and asked if I had X, Y, and Z. At some point, we ended up playing music off of YouTube. Having a song you never heard of come on and everyone start cheering and singing along is an experience that makes you feel very very old. You really should not have someone over 30 DJing for people in their twenties (as most of the players were).

Here is an example of a song I had no idea about:

Modern Music is Weird

Enough said.

Germans really like electronica
When creating the playlist, I was wary of sequencing too many fast paced music as it might become “too much.” Wow was I wrong. Germans love their electronica and really fast paced dancing music. When I was going to school (more than a decade ago), a lot of the dancing music were slower tempo hip hop and rap. In creating the playlist, I really got the general pace of the music wrong for this audience.

Germans don’t like Latin music
In trying to be international, I had a decent amount of Latin dance music. Those did not resonate at all.

Finding the key is key
There are music that instantaneously hits the chord with almost everyone at the party, and finding those songs are essential to getting the party going. For this party, this was one of them:

Drunk people will dance to anything
Another way of saying parties have their own organic rhythm. At first when people arrive, they mostly order drinks and talk to each other. It takes few very courageous people to start the dance floor and even then, it takes time because there are those who are “too cool” to dance (or they just don’t like it) and hold back those who are shy and/or on the fence. At this point, the music can’t make too much difference as the party dynamic is stronger.

Over time, as more drinks flow, more and more people become “less shy” and join in on the dance floor. At the same time, the “too cool to dance” people start leaving and tip the balance towards the dancers. This is where the selection of the music is critical as good music will keep people on the floor longer.

Near the end of the night, most people are drunk, and the ones remaining are mostly hardcore dancers so again the music starts to matter less. Drunk people will dance to anything.


Overall party was a success despite some music gaffes and even bigger technical problems with the sound system (took 30-45 minutes to diagnose). The theme was fun, games were well planned, but most importantly, when you get that many Ultimate Frisbee players in a bar, there is no way they won’t have fun.

For me it was a really interesting experience being the (sort of) DJ and getting an empathy for the science behind the art of selecting the right music. I don’t think this is something I will be doing on a regular basis though, I’ll leave that to the younger kids.


Beyond the end of the road

As I was leaving the hostel in Copenhagen, the Aussie staff asked me where I was going. He was also a traveler, working in Denmark for a few months before taking off to his next European destination. I told him that I was going back to Frankfurt, holiday is over and back into the office tomorrow. His response and last words to me were “keep living the dream.”

I am living the dream.

I have a well paying and interesting job working with good people, I live in a comfortable city with great friends, I have an awesome apartment in a very convenient part of town, and I live in the greatest continent in the world for travel and culture.

But dreams scare me sometimes, because they might come true.

Don’t worry, I have more dreams, but it’s probably best to keep some of them as dreams, because what happens when you reach the end of the road?


Beyond the end of story

(If you have not watched Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, I recommend not reading this post)

There is a reason why we don’t write stories beyond the end of the movies. We like to think that the hero, having been (re)united with the love of his life after overcoming incredible circumstances, will get married and merrily remain so. We like to think that the world saved from the brink of destruction will forever be in peace and prosperity. We want to believe in happily ever after.

I love Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. I actually came across Before Sunset first when I was living in Paris three years ago. I didn’t expect much from the movie description but fell in love with the movie quickly. In the age of high budget movies with large casts, extensive special effects, and overcomplicated stories with oversimplified realities, Before Sunset was an incredibly welcome change.

After discovering Before Sunset, I of course watched Before Sunrise as soon as possible. It may be that as a single expat living in Europe, the subject matter resonated with me. Who wouldn’t want an evening/afternoon to change how they see the rest of their lives?

Besides the elegant execution of creating a movie with mostly dialogue between two characters set in a short timespan, I love the fact that the movies are set in real time, spaced nine years apart (why they didn’t bother to wait ten years is a mystery to me).

So when Before Midnight came out in the theaters, I saw it as soon as possible. The movie had the same qualities as the previous two movies: beautifully crafted dialogue with few rich characters. I liked the movie. I want to love the movie but there is something that’s eating me away, both with what the movie represents and how it ends.

Because I watched Before Sunset before Before Sunrise, I never enjoyed the suspense of wondering if Jesse and Céline will ever reunite as they promised in the movie. While I know a lot of people did not like the unresolved ending, I loved how Before Sunset ended with Jesse listening to Céline as the camera faded to black. When so many movies end positively and conclusively, it was a beautifully ambiguous ending.

It’s not that I let my imagination go wild and started envisioning what happened to the two protagonists after the credit roll. In both movies, there was comfort in knowing that there was a future, that there is a story in which their lives could unfold in so many ways.

In the first fifteen minutes of Before Midnight, that beautiful ambiguity was destroyed (I avoided any previews or film descriptions before watching the movie). To be fair, Before Sunset did the same to Before Sunrise as well, but this felt different. It was the story after the happily ever after: marriage, kids, holiday in Greece, etc. The beginning of Before Midnight is already what we wanted to happen after Before Sunset.

To be honest, this all caught me by surprise. I thought the movie was going to be about meeting nine years later with their lives having progressed independently, but then I realized that would be too similar to Before Sunset. I’m pretty sure my expression actually looked like the emoticon :o during the scene when Jesse enters the car and the camera pans to the back seat to show the twins.

The movie itself was wonderful with elegant dialogue, especially the scene where the group is eating dinner under the setting sun. However, The fight that ensues with it’s gritty execution was too real. At points, it was painful to watch. This was the love that developed over eighteen years, from that chance meeting on the train to Vienna in 1995. Do we really want to taint it with what is all too real? Can’t we at least keep our imaginations purer?

The ambiguous ending, like the previous films didn’t help either. In the previous films we were left to question if the two will ever get together. Now we are left to question if the two will split up.

I hope they will make another sequel in the series. It’s not that I’m hoping for something more conclusive, but something more hopeful. I have no idea how a sequel would be set, reconciliation? (After nine years?) Peace of old age? (Probably too early?) Death of either character? (Too extreme?) Reminiscence? (Set in Vienna again?)

The series have surprised many times in the past, so I have faith that I will be surprised again. I just hope that Before Midnight won’t be the last of the series.


Have you left the world a better place than you found it?

One day while traveling in Belfast with my mother back in August, we took a full day tour with Paddy Campbell’s Black Cab Tours where the man himself showed us around Belfast and the North Antrim coastline. It was definitely not a cheap tour, not something I can afford if I was traveling alone.

The tour was split in two parts, the first through West Belfast which was the epicenter and hotbed of the Irish conflict, better known as “The Troubles.” The second part of the tour was outside of Belfast to some of the more touristic and famous sites such as the Giant’s Causeway and Bushmills Distillery.

While the second part of the tour was my original intended destination, the first part of the tour turned out to be much more interesting. Paddy, a man somewhere between his mid-fifties and mid-sixties, has been driving his cab for over twenty-eight years, through The Troubles years. He took us to both the Protestant (Loyalists, loyal to Britain) and Catholic (Republicans, wants a united Ireland) neighborhoods stopping at the different murals painted on the side of houses and walls.

Mural 1

Mural 2

Mural 3

This may seem like one of those tours where the tour guide shares his personal experiences through troubled times, but it’s not. Paddy’s goal is to present the conflict as neutral as possible since he believes that the uninitiated mind can easily be persuaded to believe in one good and one evil. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” he said.

Paddy didn’t share his origins until the tour was nearly over and he kept the tour as factual as possible, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t emotional. The conflict is very much part of his identity as it is with the city. With the way he carried himself and the tattoos on his arms, I also got the sense that at some point in the past, he was more involved in The Troubles than the average bystander, but I could be very wrong about this point.

If you imagine Belfast to be a war-torn city with derelict buildings and other scars of conflict, imagine again. While I’m sure there’s been plenty of repairs and improvements since the 1998 peace treaty, this is no ghetto. Walking around the city is perfectly safe during daylight hours and outside of few out of place walls and gates, this city is like anywhere else in Europe. You wouldn’t believe that the generic looking and fully functioning Europa Hotel is the most bombed hotel in the world or that car bombs regularly lined the sides of the downtown streets. Places like Rio de Janeiro and Lima felt much more dangerous than Belfast.

Back to Paddy.

At some points in the tour the conversations seemed less like talking to a tour guide and more like listening to an old man reminiscing back on his life. He talked about why the conflict inevitably started (organized discrimination) and what could be done to prevent more future violence (better integration and impartial education), all of course his own opinions. While reflecting upon the changes that happened, he stated something very memorable to me: “I think my kids have had a better starting point in life than I did” (this is not the exact quote as I don’t remember it verbatim).

Have you left the world a better place than you found it?

Of course most of you, like myself, are nowhere near the end of your lives to answer this question, but maybe it’s something we want to think about as we carry on.

Throughout most of human history, very little changed, and we affected very little. Generations after generations lived very similarly. We now live in a world of rapid change and unparalleled capabilities. We can now leave permanent effects on the global environment. We’ve built increasingly complex financial institutions to borrow from our future selves. Never have we had so much power to affect the starting point of generations of people that will follow us.

While asking this question to an individual is interesting, the real difference is when we ask the question to generations of people of a certain country, ethnicity, or the world. Have the people who come before us left the world a better place for us? Will we leave the world a better place for those that follow?

The question isn’t just environmental or economical. It’s also political, cultural, philosophical, and ideological too. For example, multiple generations of Europeans have left their societies in wreckages after devastating wars, but they’ve also left a culture of resilience and an appreciation for peace that have become the ground work for where Europe stands today. Generations of Americans have left the notion of the American dream and the unparalleled optimism that results from it, but the hypercompetitiveness and the lack of appreciation for social security/solidarity may actually be harmful these days.

Sometimes I feel that our generation in the developed world are at a handicap. We will be dealing with the environmental and financial damages that’s becoming more apparent while living with the unreasonable expectation of continual economic growth in an increasingly competitive global world. Simultaneously, we are burdened with nostalgic messages of how the past used to be better than the present, something I would argue is a fairly new phenomenon. Someday I may write more on this matter as the idea of intergenerational conflict has been looming in my mind as I read about youth unemployment in Europe and the increasing cost and burden of healthcare.

We don’t have to leave a better world than we found it. Unless you believe in karma and reincarnation, once we are gone, we are gone for good and the problems will be someone else’s. We can be selfish all we want, but somewhere in human history we developed the ability to be selfless and have empathy for each other, even amidst the bloody conflict of The Troubles. Let’s not just live by each other, but also by those that are following us.

Thanks for the food for though Paddy.

Paddy: If you somehow managed to find your way to my little blog and this post, and I got it completely wrong, let me know and I’ll make changes.


Context versus Ratings

What if the success of restaurants really depended on the context in which people come?

When I travel, I use TripAdvisor to look for restaurants and things to do. I am also a Yelper, reviewing restaurants and whatever else I feel. I’ve recently been noticing a rating discrepancy between Yelp and TripAdvisor. There are restaurants that are ranked highly on TripAdvisor that aren’t well reviewed on Yelp, and the vice versa.

What determines the success of restaurants anyway? The obvious answers is the quality of food and service, but according to cartoonist and restauranteur Scott Adams, that’s not the case at all:

Many people pointed out that the quality of your food and service determine the size of your restaurant business. I used to think that too. To my surprise, those two factors are surprisingly far down the list, at least in my local area.

Obviously the food and service have to be good enough to support the price you charge. But most places achieve that goal. Around here, the restaurants with the best food, or even the best value, don’t have more business because of it. You think they do, but they don’t.

Locally, familiarity is the biggest predictor of success. Italian and Mexican themed restaurants are typically packed regardless of food or service. Everyone knows they can find something on the menu they will understand and enjoy. Indian and Thai restaurants are less familiar and they struggle no matter what they do right. My two favorite restaurants locally (Indian and Thai) are typically 75% empty.

The knee jerk response to the Yelp TripAdvisor discrepancy is to simply say “well, they are different kinds of people reviewing on each of the sites (locals vs travelers).” Are they really different people though? It wouldn’t be a surprise that the kind of people Yelping would be similar to the kind of people reviewing on TripAdvisor. Many people probably do both. So what’s different?

The context in which they arrive at the restaurant.

You can imagine that how you would rate a restaurant would be different if you’re traveling versus if you’re living right next to it. A boring ordinary French food may captivate the Minnesotans on holiday but would disappoint the Frenchman living down the street. Equally a family owned Spanish restaurant with really friendly owners would delight the locals while the Bostonians who don’t speak the language won’t think much of it. A restaurant for special occasions (e.g. table cloth and wine) would most likely garner extreme responses (love it or hate it) rather than the neighborhood diner. Date spots? Dive bars? Neighborhood mom&pop store? We all go to places under different contexts that vary significantly from occasion to occasion. Can we really say we can be impartial under such circumstances?

What does this mean for restaurants? Well, beyond controlling the quality of the food and service, restaurants also need to control the context in which people come and be able to match the expectations for it. Is going to be kind of restaurant where people come to celebrate? go for an adventure to discover something new? simply to just get food? (probably the most difficult context to deal with?)

To be able to control how people come to a restaurant can be a huge advantage for restaurants, because by the time someone walks through the front door, it’s possible that more than half his/her mind is made up.

(I’m sure one could semantically and statistically analyze Yelp or TripAdvisor to find evidence for this theory, and I wouldn’t be surprised if people are already doing it to start new restaurants)