All posts by Roger Terry

Oldie with a young family, retired from business and teaching/coaching/writing in English

Letter to a German politician

Dear Jens Spahn,
First let me apologies for writing to you in English. I fully understand your concerns regarding the use of English. In my defence I can only say that, as a 71 year old resident of Vienna I find that every time I attempt to speak German I am responded to in English. Even when I asked “Haben Sie Kohlsprossen” the response from the Gemüsehändler was, in English ” I think it is too early in the season”.

The problem, which, as a well educated German mother tongue speaker you have, is that you just don’t recognise the complexity of your native language. You also fail to realise that English is fundamentally a German dialect, as is Dutch and other derivatives including local forms where, in spoken form, all nouns take the masculine.

Languages are not prisons, they are a method of communication and the easier that is, the better for everybody. People adopt words which they find useful, hence the appearance of “Zeitgeist” and “Schadenfreude” in English. These German words are better than the English equivalent, shorter and more precise and so the language adapts and incorporates them.

I could write more and in fact have done so within my blog but may I close with this. It is not the strong which survive, but the most adaptable. That goes for languages just as with species.
ps. Why is so much of the worlds economy in the hands of the USA? One market, 350million people, one language. That is a great place to start a business.

A new form of warfare.

Asymmetric Warfare is the name given to a military conflict in which one side is big and the other side is small. Rather like the David and Goliath fight which features in the Bible. I have a new spin on this which came to mind when reading a BBC story about Israel using a $3.2 million missile to shoot down a $500 dollar drone. Pursued to its logical conclusion, a poor country could soon bankrupt a rich one, a real example of “asymmetry”.  But this story has made me reconsider the whole concept of modern warfare. For a very long time now “stealth” has been a buzz word in military circles. Stealth fighters, stealth bombers and even stealth ships (in the 1997 James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies) seem to have become an essential component of every new aerial vehicle, manned or unmanned. Clearly, evading enemy radar is a good thing since invisibility is a kind of superpower which give a very big advantage. But encouraging the enemy to use up all its missiles before your planes arrive could be, I would suggest, a much better plan. How can this be achieved, you ask? The answer is simple. Take a look at the latest FURY drone from Lockheed Martin. It looks like a miniature fighter jet and of course Lockheed sell it as being stealthy, with a minimal visual signature, which of course means it is hard to see. Now with all the surveillance bits added, this is not going to be cheap, but actually, the only electronic bit it really needs as an “image enhancer”, a device which will make it look huge on a radar, in fact make it look like a real fighter. Then the enemy under attack can fire all its missiles at a swarm of these “targets” leaving it defenceless against the wave of stealth machines which will follow along soon after.

Actually the plan is a bit like the “doodlebug” VI flying bombs used by German in the later stages of World War II which was an unmanned flying machine with a very simple jet engine and basic navigation controls. Modern production techniques would make the thing a cheaper to produce. Even with a basic “pulse jet” engine it would probably cost less than $10,000, and that includes an auto-pilot. Now $10,000 might seem like a lot, but up against a $3.5 million it is clearly just a drop in the ocean. Now that is really asymmetrical!

Memories of Wine

Last week we were in the UK and visited an old friend. 17 years ago, on the occasion of his 60th birthday, I had given him a bottle of quite expensive vintage port and this year, on the basis that we might not have another dinner together, he decided to drink it. Opening it was a struggle. Despite storage on its side, the cork had hardened and broke upon attempted extraction. This was not really a problem as we had a muslin filter to hand as part of the decanting process though it proved vexatious to my friend who had become somewhat irascible in his later years. On sampling the wine, I can say it was good, but how good, and what defines good in this context? Thinking about this cast me into a pool of wine reminiscence.

I can remember at some time in the late 1970’s, taking a woman to a well reputed restaurant and, in order to impress, ordering a bottle of expensive Pouilly Fuissé. Frankly it blew me away. My drinking habits had, until that time, been confined to the lower end of red wine spectrum with a penchant for those from the Rhone valley, though my wine drinking experience had been initiated by the Sunday consumption of a “cheap” white from communist Yugoslavia, from a region now know as Slovenia, the first region of that country to gain independence after the fall of communism in 1991. At that time I would have been about 20 years old, the price of a bottle was 11 UK shillings (55pence in today’s currency) and its name was Lutomer Riesling. 20 years later it went on to become the UK’s most popular wine though I suspect it was more to do with the price than the quality as was the case with its later rival, Blue Nunn , a semi sweet white wine from the Mosel region of Germany which has a very low alcohol content, a significant factor keeping the price low as the tax on wine was directly related to its alcoholic content.

As time passed my wine drinking became more diverse. For a time I favoured a Christian Brothers Zinfandel from Northern California which was reasonably priced in the local Safeways. Subsequently I discovered that an almost direct comparison of Californian wines with those from Chile gave the prize to Chile both in terms of quality and price. From this I learned the significance of phylloxera a disease affecting the vines of which Chile is free.

My earliest wine experience came in 1963 when I found myself in Hungary on a visit to a pen friend. At that time, Hungary was in the very tight grip of communists and there was little of excitement to be found. We went to a summer vacation spot on the South Eastern shore of Lake Balaton and there was introduced to wine made illegally in bathrooms. It was white, tasted pretty good to me, a mere novice, and got me drunk. At 17 years old, that was I that was required. Lake Balaton remains a significant wine producing area with excellent wines found particularly in the Tihany peninsular.

I remember a day, some time in the 1990’s when I found myself together with my friend Guy, in a “booze” warehouse in Calais, which was, (an probably still is) an essential stopover for UK citizens returning the UK from the continent, given that the importation of alcohol for personal consumption incurs no additional UK taxes. We were both attracted to a Fitou which I recall, was popular at that time and both bought a case. Upon sampling the next day, I had another “socks blown off” moment and immediately telephoned to Guy who answered with “have you tried the wine?” With both of us so enthused is became obligatory for one of us to immediately return to Calais and purchase all that was available. The task fell to Guy who set of immediately. Five hours later he called. It had all been sold. Actually Fitou comes from the Languedoc, a region of the South of France bordering the Pyrenees and running towards the Riviera. it was the target of a Roman Catholic Crusade against the heretics of the region which continued for over 100 years.

At some time in the 1990’s I again found myself in Hungary though this time I was staying at the Hilton Hotel. I had dinner with another Hungarian friend, Balazs, at a restaurant within the Budapest Castle area. Again, a truly memorable wine from within the country though the only memory I actually have is of saying to myself, “this red is great!”

And so it goes on. In Shanghai I met an Australian who was trying to launch a wine brand in partnership with an Aussi producer. I can’t remember the name, but I managed to drink a bottle so it must have been reasonable. During the early 1980’s I went annually to Munich and whilst there always visited a Swiss restaurant to drink a Swiss red of outstanding quality. Switzerland? Red? Outstanding Quality? Yes, all true, though again, of name or specific origin I have no memory.

One wine always sticks in my memory, Gewurztraminer, from the Alsace, that German speaking part of France. Tending to sweetness, it is, for me, the quintessential summer wine. I call it liquid sunshine.

Given my extensive, though amateur, wine drinking history it is perhaps no coincidence that I now find myself living in one of the most wine aware countries in the world, Austria, the son-in-law of a wine producer and brother in law of Leo, one of that country’s most famous wine makers. Austria is a very good example of bad things ultimately producing good results. In 1985 a lot of Austrian wine was found to be adulterated with a sweetener and as a result, 90% of the country’s exports were wiped out. With purity laws introduced and an emphasis on quality over volume, the result has been remarkable. I would venture that it is hard to find a bad Austrian wine and much is really excellent. This could well be a precedent for the situation in the USA where Donald Trump is so unpopular, it could well produce a backlash which will end the Republican dominance and in the EU where Brexit looks to be such a disaster for the UK that the rest of the EU will realise just how lucky they are to be in such a Union, despite the populist campaign against it.

My father-in-law produced about 5000 litres of annually, mostly of the Gruener Vietliner variety but with some Riesling also. As a member of the wine co-operative he sold the bulk to them retaining about 500 litres for family consumption. One day I was there with Leo, the real expert, and sampled his family production. Turning to my brother-in-law I said, “this is brilliant, how can it be so good?” He didn’t know but speculated that it was the comparatively slow and low temperature fermentation.  Another possible explanation lies in the position of the vineyards. Set in terraces below forests, the sun of summer is mitigated by the nightly decent of cool air from the trees. Not being an expert of course, I am unable to speculate.

On another occasion Leo offered me a red to try and asked me if I knew the provenance. I had the strongest feeling it was from New Zealand but declined to guess. It was from New Zealand and I lost a lot of brownie points for not saying it.

We drink wine almost every day, moderately, with food. With red meat or strong flavours is it always red, with chicken or fish, white. This is pretty conservative I will admit but it works for me. And the choice? Our every day red is the blend know as Flat Lake, produced by my brother in law (without his name) for one of Europe’s biggest chain of grocers. At €4.49 it is outstanding value. For a more upmarket experience we might take the other iterations of the brand though on those Sundays when I cook roast lamb in the traditional UK Sunday Lunch style, I will reach out to a French red which I purchase from a specialist local importer.

For white wines we push the boat out to €9.90 for a local Riesling though last week I had an interesting wine experience. My next door neighbour has a wine garden with 350 vines. The “heavy” work is undertaken by a local farmer whist my neighbour is responsible for pruning and harvesting, which is usually undertaken on a co-operative basis with friends of which I am occasionally one. The 2016 seems to have been particularly good not only in terms of quantity, 1050 litres, but also quality. It is an excellent Chardonnay vintage and one which I look forward to drinking.

So, what makes a great wine? One thing is clear. The difference between good and bad is readily apparent but to really get to grips with the shades of difference, blind tasting from a selection is vital. I discovered this one day when drinking Scotch. Looking into the cupboard I saw five different kinds and decided to do my own blind tasting test. The clear winner to me was Bell’s so, on the basis that year of production is of no consequence, it is my Scotch of choice. But of course the same thing does not apply to wine which, in comparison to Scotch, is subject to grape, soil, climate, producer and blend and, sorry to say, fashion. Todays “outstanding” can easily become tomorrow’s “indifferent” yet when I am at a restaurant I invariably leave it to the waiter to choose. Frankly I can drink almost anything but sometime the proffered wine is great, and all the better for it being a surprise. I like surprises!

Farewell Lloyds Bank.

I am the stupid type of person who maintains loyalty in the face of indifference. For over 30 years I have banked with Lloyds and, in that time, have seen over £13,000,000 go through my various accounts. The measure of my stupidity can be judged by various incidents which have occurred. The first was the manager who did a deal with a liquidator to close a company of which I was a shareholder. We wanted to close the company. We owed £750,000 and had assets of 800,000. After the liquidator mismanaged the affair, there was just over £100,000 left to settle with the creditors. Surprisingly, the fee the liquidator awarded himself was just over £100,000 and so there was no money for the creditors. And still I persisted.

When I offered Lloyds £500,000 in assets against loan of £200,000 for a building project the computer said no. In mitigation I would say that it was 2009 and they probably didn’t have any money to lend,  and so I stayed.

Move on to 2017 and a call to them to enquire about an account for a small company I own. After 20 minutes waiting on phone I gave up. I tried again. This time the call was answered after 12 minutes but I needed to be transferred twice so it took almost 30 minutes before I was finally connected to the right person, who then told me that, because I was on a speaker phone, they couldn’t speak to me.

On the recommendation of my accountant I called a different bank, a comparative newcomer to the UK. The call was answered in just over 1 minute. I was immediately given the details of my closest branch with name and phone number. I called him, immediately was answered, and arranged an appointment. This is looking good and I will report further when I meet him next week.

And did I mention NatWest? My little company banked with them handling a £ and a € account. What they didn’t tell me was that when I wanted to make a payment from the € account, I had to write a letter to them, put it in the post and wait for them to act on it. Just like it was in the 1970’s!

The good news in Brexit

It is not all doom and gloom on Brexit front.  First consider the stress under which Theresa May and he fellow Brixit favouring MP are under. Stress is bad and could take years from their lives. So that’s the first good news. Then the end game. Clearly leaving the EU instead of leading it into reform is rapidly turning into a joke. As a market, the EU has 741,100,000 citizens. The UK has 64,100,000. As modern capitalism tells us, economies of scale mean lower prices. The bigger the market, the lower the costs so long term the UK is a little island with higher costs, dreaming of an empire lost 100 years ago. Of course it will survive. But, as will soon become apparent, it will be poorer. Where, you ask, is the good news in that? Well when the population finally wake up, which they will because, as we all know, you can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, the Tories will be finally finished. And that really could be good news. But wait, there is more. Nigel Farage has stated that if Brexit is a disaster he will leave the UK (nice to have the money to do it Nigel, but of course you have millionaire backing don’t you).

Updating German

Once upon a time I jokingly said that if Germans spoke English they would take over the world. I now suspect that this may not be such a joke after all. With the UK out of the EU, there is little to challenge the German leadership of the block and as they increasingly embrace English as an (almost) gender neutral, easy to learn, language, the possibility that Europe can move forward towards a united continent, draws closer. Reasons for the rapid spread of this offshoot dialect of German, seasoned with French and Latin and spiced with words stolen from around the world may, at first, be difficult to understand. After all, we all have a mother tongue, absorbed along with mothers’ milk. Why do we need more? The answer is of course business, the driver of our lives and supplier of all the material things we hold dear. How much easier it is to do business with somebody you can actually speak to.

It is the relative ease with which a little bit of English can be learnt that gives it the edge over alternatives. You can go a long way with a little bit of English, not so German. And though Spanish might be equally easy to pick up, it doesn’t (apart from South American) have the global connections which English has developed over the past 200 years, first with the British Empire, then with the USA.

With eight years of teaching English in a German speaking country, let me predict the way both the German and English languages will change over the coming years. First, efficiency. It is clear that, for what ever reason, language changes are being driven by a desire to be efficient. The need now is to express ideas with precise words with clear meanings. As an example I give you zeitgeist. Count the syllables. There are two. Now look at the English translation and you get, yes its true, zeitgeist. Now if you ban this, clearly German, word from English you would need to write “spirit of the times”. Count the syllables and you get five. Zeitgeist is clearly more efficient. Similarly iceberg is more efficient than the English word for berg, mountain. The Titanic may have hit an ice mountain, but they called it an iceberg.

The second motivator for the “Anglicisation of German” is actually the size of the language. German has many compound words, words made by adding nouns together. For example, luftkissenboot. You don’t need to be an expert in German to figure out that this is a boat which kisses air or, in English, a hovercraft. So I would contend that English has more discrete words and as another example offer sicherheit, a German word which can mean either safety or security. In English they have separate meanings. Now of course, German speakers can understand the difference in meaning because they can compare the context in which it is used. Unfortunately, there is a whole industry based on context free words. I mean of course the advertising industry. Advertisers need to catch the audience with one or two words. They have no time for context. So German marketeers default to English for a snappy headline and, due to the spread of English pop songs, they are understood.

Yet the biggest problem which is hitting the German language, particularly in Austria, is its gender bias, and the struggle to overcome it. Formerly the word “Österreicher” meant Austrian people. The drive to eliminate gender bias now dictates that “Österreicher und Österreicherin” is used. Clearly this is a bit of a mouthful. We may yet come to a time when “Austrians” is adopted as the simplest solution!

PS, actually, the German word for kiss is küssen not kissen, kissen is a pillow. In my mind the hovercraft “air kisses” the sea but for Germans, the air is a pillow on which the hovercraft rests. As they say, “the devil is in the detail”!

My vision for 2030

Walk down any street and it soon becomes clear that people are not equal. They come in all shapes, sizes and opinions. Is there any single idea to which, if not all, then a substantial majority can ascribe? Governments now would have you believe that there is, that money and cash value fit the bill perfectly.

And so everything is monetised, everything privatised, with profit only as the yardstick by which everything is measured.

It might appear that this is the greed factor in action yet I believe that the reason goes beyond this. In an increasingly complex world it provides a simple and understandable measure with which to judge. The happiness index is totally subjective. Money however is easy to count and everybody can understand it. It is with this seductive simplicity that neocons and their fellow travellers have managed to capture political power.

There is however a even simpler concept which not only most people can understand but is the cornerstone of a Liberal Democratic society in 2030. It should be fair. The simple concept of fairness appears to be almost innate in European society and this is the message that must be shouted from the rooftops. We want a fair society where the only real equality, that of opportunity, is offered to all.

So say it proud and say it loud. A fair society where merit, not nepotism, rules. A fair society where the income disparity between the rich and poor is embarrassing. A fair society in which honest work is lauded, a fair society which we can all be proud of.