WEBMU 2014 Location Proposals

We seem to be getting an earlier start on the Whiny Expat Blogger MeetUp planning this year. Matter of fact, there have already been several proposed locations in the Gathering Ideas thread. So far, the following places have been discussed:

  • Wine-regions (Rhine/Mosel area – click the squiggle on the map)
  • Hamburg (repeat?)
  • Nürnberg
  • Flensburg
  • Würzburg
  • Regensburg

Not all of the suggestions have local hosts, so if you know one of those places and feel like showing it off, let us know. We’re entertaining suggestions until March 15. Stop by the forums and tell us what you think!

Who else is reading my messages to you?

I have never been a Facebook user. I think that surprises a lot of people, but it’s true. I heard about Facebook around 10 years ago in the midst of an intercontinental move and a big career change. It sounded too much like the high school snobs invading my refuge of online communities, and so I didn’t pay any attention. When it caught on among pre-teen and post-fifties users, and everyone in between, we took a look and decide it was way too ugly to spend any time with. Then privacy concerns started to arise:

  • intensely personal stuff leaking out onto advertisers’ radar, or into public view
  • drastic revamps of data collection policies in quick succession
  • user-unfriendly opt-out mechanisms

A lot has changed, of course. Facebook hold-outs are the exception now, not the norm. Just so we’re clear: I’m not judging anyone. 1 It’s got broad appeal and usefulness for a lot of people, and I miss out on a fair amount of social info by staying away from it.

I am not TedMy Facebook abstinence may seem on the surface like just one step down the kooky road to technology paranoia. I’m interested in the technology of communication primarily, but secondarily uncertain about the implications of big companies and their privacy policies. And the recent purchase of WhatsApp by Facebook doesn’t leave me with a warm fuzzy feeling of trust that you and I are the only ones reading the messages we exchange.

What have I got to hide?

I am sure I don’t have any need to hide my communication from any foreign or domestic government agency. I’m not running a spy ring or acting as a go-between for any freedom fighters resistance movements, terrorist cells … um, dubious third parties. But I’m not sure I trust those big companies (Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple) and also smaller ones (Dropbox, LinkedIn, Xing, perhaps Twitter)

  1. to handle my data with MY best interests in mind, and
  2. to keep my stuff2 safe from external prying eyes

What’s in it for me?

Who benefits when their machines read my stuff? They suggest new professional contacts or funny tweeters to follow or car rental agencies for that next vacation we’re thinking about. To a rather limited extent, Clippy letterI guess that’s a perk for me. More often though, when I want more, I seek it out myself. I tend to get annoyed when a real, live person pigeon-holes me directly — I find such behavior by a machine intensely disturbing. But I think they stand to gain a lot a lot more than I do. Maybe that’s the cost of using those otherwise-free services. I read somewhere that when a profit-oriented company offers you a free product or service, YOU are the commodity being exchanged. At least Clippy gave you the option to tell him to take a hike. Buying a license to use that software resolves any qualms I might have about that.

What am I going to do about it?

I’m not turning into a recluse or a vigilante or an rms-accolyte (despite my choice of selfie above and the recent beard). But I am considering my choices of technology providers perhaps more carefully than I or others have in the past. Using Threema instead of WhatsApp is part of that.

I read a couple of good articles on this topic recently:

Threema keeps your short messages encrypted all the way from your mobile device (Android or iOS) to the recipient. It’s a tiny company making smart choices about the technology they use to ensure that. They can’t turn over your message contents to any other party (governmental or hacker), because they can’t.

  1. They don’t log them.
  2. Even though the messages temporarily reside on of their servers while awaiting retrieval by the recipient, they are in an encrypted state, and only the recipient can decrypt them.

Yeah, but what about email?

Another part of that security-conscious electronic communication is using email in an encrypted way. That’s much harder to implement: effective security is not simple, and vice versa. 4 While you can use Threema to send short text messages or videos or pictures from your phone (or iPod touch, though I haven’t tried that yet) à la WhatsApp, you can’t use it to send just any file securely. Encrypted email is a really good choice for that.

Other apps and services?

Skype (owned by Microsoft), Facetime (owned by Apple), Google Talk (owned by…you know), LinkedIn, Last.fm, Spotify also potentially capture stuff about me. And I have explicitly signed up for that. Do I mind? Yes, but not enough to not use their services. When it’s pure text, written by/to me, I see a bigger risk of invasion of my privacy than what could come of

“We noticed you like Led Zeppelin. How about this Allman Brothers Band playlist?”

If Facetime or Skype starts parsing my phone calls with my parents (is that even possible? Let’s ask Siri.), you can be sure I’ll find another way. I don’t use the other social networking services much. I peek in there every now and then to see if I’m missing something. So far, so good.

And the Regensblog? Twitter?

Those are intended for public consumption, but the content is supplied by the end user. 5 We’re conscientious about not revealing more about ourselves via those services than our comfort levels allow. So extra layers of technical security seem pretty useless there.

Does this mean I’m not going to use WhatsApp anymore?

Not really. It means I’m going to prefer other means — Threema for now, but if something better comes along, I’d consider that, too — but I’m not ready to cut myself off from the majority of WhatsApp users. The bottom line is that this topic doesn’t stick in everyone’s craw, but that doesn’t mean I want to lose touch with them. If you have my mobile phone number, you can still reach me on WhatsApp, but be prepared for me to suggest we keep it just between you and me.

What’s your take on all this?

Am I way off-base here? Idealistic beyond any realistic expectation? How have you managed to reconcile your own sense of privacy with the desire to stay in touch with friends and family? I would love to hear another perspective. Let’s chat. Right here, out in the open.

  1. Except Facebook, and similar companies with too much interest in my details, I guess. []
  2. What kind of stuff? Travel plans, insurance policies, bank statements — super boring stuff, unless you’re perpetrating identity fraud, right? []
  3. German for “Threema: an app to annoy the NSA” []
  4. Still, if you would like to exhange email with me and guarantee that no one else can read it — neither a governmental agency nor a hacker infiltrating a mail server — let me know that I am happy to help you set it up. It can work nearly seamlessly in email programs on Windows, Mac OS or Linux alongside plain old email traffic. For a lot of people, the big catch is that encryption is hard or impossible to implement on top of webmail systems like Gmail or Yahoo! mail, but the barrier to entry is much lower on stand-alone mail clients like Apple Mail, Microsoft Outlook or Mozilla Thunderbird. []
  5. It stings when you accidentally confuse a public tweet and a direct message, but an ID-10T error can happen to anyone. []

Bridge Work Update February 2014

Finally had nice weather today in Regensburg. I can’t remember the last time I needed sunglasses. I was glad to have them today while out grocery shopping.

Regensburg Stone Bridge Update 2014-02-22

The bridge work appears to have stalled again — there is nothing new to report since last time, except that that new segment of auxiliary bridge is in operation now. You can see it in the picture above; there are only three unused trestles left now. Once those are supporting walkers1 as well, the whole stretch of bridge from the South shore to the North shore will be closed off.

I wonder, since the rampy part leading down to what we call Tammy‘s Island has been completed since around the time the Christmas markets closed up shop for the year. If you can walk up the ramp adjoining the West side of the original bridge, how will they let you cross its width, ostensibly under construction, to get to the wood-and-steel auxiliary bridge stretched out parallel to its East side?

Oh well, a mystery to be revealed, I guess.

  1. And not bikers, right? No ever rides a bike on the Fußgängerbrücke, right? []

India, Part 2: Agra

We flew to India on a package tour in January 2014. It was our first time in that country; we hope it won’t be our last. This is Part 2 of the story. Catch up with Part 1 if you missed the start.

The next leg of our journey took us from Delhi to Agra. Praveen picked us up from the hotel in the morning and we got on a nearly deserted toll highway, heading south towards Agra. Continue reading India, Part 2: Agra

Undercover Police (?) on ICE

I saw something weird on Wednesday as I was traveling home to Regensburg from a business trip to Nuremberg and Frankfurt — at least, it was weird to me. It was the first time I ever saw plain-clothes law enforcement officials in Germany.

I was listening to my podcasts or reading emails on my phone or something, sitting across from a colleague when I saw three guys in their mid-to-late forties in what looked like winter camping gear (jeans or cargo pants, poofy coats, long-sleeve tees or turtlenecks, 3 or 4 days of stubble, hiking boots) making conversation with the passenger in the next group of four seats behind us. I didn’t catch the beginning of the conversation, but my ears perked up when I heard the talker ask the passenger (whom I never saw)

Sprechen Sie dann andere Sprachen? Englisch? Französisch? Oh, Deutsch geht doch? OK, das ist mir viel lieber, vielen Dank.1

They positioned themselves so that the speaker was facing him directly, and the other two campers were blocking the aisle in both directions. They started off with several mundane questions, like

Wo kommen Sie her? Finnland! Mensch, das ist ganz weit oben. 2

Wohnen Sie in Deutschland? Seit wann? Und wo?3

Was ist Ihr Reiseziel? Darf ich mal in Ihren Rucksack blicken bitte? Ja, das ist mir aufgefallen. Ich dachte da war was drin. Was machen dann mit diesen Kennzeichen? Ach, sie kaufen ein Auto in Österreich. Welche Marke denn? Volvo! Kaum zu glauben! Der nordische Herr reist quer durch Deutschland um ein schwedisches Auto in Österreich zu kaufen! Jungs, ist das nicht der Hammer!?4

They pulled on some rubber gloves, took some photographs the stuff in his backpack, continuing the banter, and then moved along to the next clump of seats. This time a Polish woman caught their attention. I heard the beginning part of this interview. The speaker showed all four people sitting around the table his Ausweis5 and asked to see hers. Many of the same pleasantries ensued.

Mensch, gut dass Sie Deutsch können — mein Polnisch ist nämlich so klein!6

Und welcher Koffer gehört Ihnen? Der rote? Ist er schwer? Keine Sorge, dass schaffen wir doch locker. Vielen Dank. Nun, kommen Sie bitte mit uns, damit wir ein Paar Fragen stellen können, ohne die anderen Passagiere zu stören…7

Then the three officers and the Polish woman stepped away from her seat and out to towards the door where the carriage connects to the Bordbistro8 and they had a little more room to inspect her belongings. A few minutes later, she came back, with her stuff and ID and apparently alles paletti9. I had my hand on my passport, ready to show it and my Aufenthaltstitel10 upon request, because I was pretty sure they must have had some kind of foreigner detection mechanism at work, and I would surely be the next interviewee. Aber nein.11 They exited our carriage completely and shortly thereafter I alighted in Regensburg.

I had never seen anything like that, and when I asked my native German colleague (who has traveled via train on business trips back and forth across Germany many more times than I have), neither had she. I made extra sure to murmur geheime Polizei12 in the long form, and under no circumstances let a Gestapo slip out. I was pretty nervous, though I had absolutely no rational reason to be. Monday night at the hotel in Nuremberg I’d watched Transsiberian — a kind of creepy movie about an American couple who gets mixed up with drug smugglers and a crooked plain-clothes narcotics detective on a train in the middle of nowhere.

Have you ever seen something like that before? Or come into contact with plain-clothes officials?

  1. So do you speak any other languages? English? French? Oh, German’s OK after all? Great, I much prefer it. Thanks a lot. []
  2. Where are you from? Finland! Dude, that’s way up there! []
  3. Do you live in Germany? Since when? And where? []
  4. What is your destination? May I take a look inside your backpack please? Yeah, I noticed it. I thought there must be something inside. What are you doing with these license plates? Oh, you’re buying a car in Austria. So which brand? Volvo! Who’da thunk it? The nordic gentlemen traveling all the way across Germany to buy a Swedish car in Austria! Guys, ain’t that something!? []
  5. ID []
  6. Hoo, good thing you speak German. My Polish is just about this much. []
  7. And which of these suitcases is yours? The red one? Is it heavy? No problem, we got it, no sweat. Thanks a lot. Now, please come with us, so we can ask a few questions without disturbing your fellow passengers… []
  8. Dining car []
  9. everything A-OK []
  10. residence permit []
  11. Mais non. []
  12. secret police []

India, Part 1: Arrival and Delhi

We flew to India on a package tour in January 2014. It was our first time in that country; we hope it won’t be our last. This is Part 1 of the story.

Stepping off the plane in Delhi, we were a little disoriented by the overnight flight and 5.5 hour timezone difference between Indian Stretchable Time (as we were to learn some call it in jest) and CEST. Fortunately our travel agency’s rep was there right when he said he’d be, with our names on a sign just past customs, waiting for us.

We got into our ride for the week — part of the package — and groggily arrived at the hotel in Mayur Vihar, attempting to acclimate our bodily clocks. We immediately noticed Continue reading India, Part 1: Arrival and Delhi