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  Edition # 102  
San Francisco, 07-14-2013

Figure [1]: A pot of cucumber yogurt dip. How many calories total is this?

Michael Every shrink-wrapped food item for sale in the U.S., ranging from a box of serial to a candy bar, from a can of beans to a packed sliced salami, prominently displays its "Nutrition Facts" (Figure 2). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been requiring this information since 1990, and it lists in detail, how many calories, how much fat, sugar, salt or vitamins are contained in a product. This way, the consumer can make an informed choice before buying or eating a product and knows if it will be contributing to their waistline or raise their cholesterol.

Figure [2]: According to the label, this spread only has 30 calories.

But take a look at the pack of yoghurt-cucumber spread in Figure 1: Doesn't the 30 calories count (20 from fat) sound suspiciously low? Indeed, because it doesn't refer to the complete package content, but only to an amount defined by the manufacturer as "serving size", as explained further down on the label. This is the tiny amount the customer is supposed to consume from the package. If you eat the entire thing, much more than 30 calories will go straight to your bulgy problem areas, because according to the label, the package contains no less than 31 serving sizes. I presume that if the label said "this cucumber yoghurt contains 900 calories", the yoghurt would collect dust on the supermarket shelves. For this reason, the manufacturers manipulate the serving sizes, until the calorie count drops to a reasonable amount, although hardly anyone will just take a teaspon of yoghurt, apply it on a cracker and then return the entire package to the refrigerator.

Figure [3]: A delicious, low-calorie spread. Or is it?

What other information is printed on the label? It says that the serving size of 20 grams of yoghurt (less than one ounce) contains 2 grams of fat, which consists of 1 gram saturated fat and 0 trans-fat, which has been pretty much banned from restaurants in San Francisco anyway. The missing gram to arrive at a total of 2 grams of fat apparently got lost in a rounding error. The serving size also includes 5 milligrams of cholesterol (a completely useless measure as it's unrelated to the body's cholesterol level) and 95 milligrams of sodium which is mostly contained in table salt and covers about 4% of the daily intake, according to the label. If you can't help but eat the entire pack, that would be 120% of your recommended daily salt intake, so pace yourself!

The Supreme Court's Gay Marriage Ruling

Figure [4]: Protesters opposing proposition 8 in San Francisco, in front of City Hall. Photo: Frank Farm

Angelika In June, the Supreme Court, the highest and final legal instance in the United States, ruled on two important issues regarding gay marriage. A private citizen named Edith Windsor had filed a lawsuit against the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" (short: DOMA). DOMA was signed into law in 1996 by then-president Bill Clinton, and said that individual states were no longer required to acknowledge legally granted same-sex marriages (e.g. by other states). DOMA determined a marriage to be valid only between a man and a woman and explicitly did not recognize same-sex marriages in the same way.

This put legally married same-sex partners at a disadvantage, because they were denied federal benefits like jointly-filed income tax reports, higher exemptions on inheritance tax, health insurance for family members, or surviving spouse social security. Also, U.S. immigration didn't recognize same-sex marriages, which means that same-sex spouses of legal immigrants weren't automatically granted a visa or Green Card.

Edith Windsor had married her partner Thea Spyer in 2007 in Canada. Both of them were living in New York state. When Thea died, she bequeathed all of her assets to Edith, but the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) didn't recognize their marriage, which was legally granted in Canada, and Edith faced $360,000 in inheritance taxes, because she couldn't claim the spouse exemption.

Figure [5]: The well-known insurance "Allstate" is running ads pro same-sex marriage in San Francisco.

The United States Supreme Court now ruled in her favor. The judges argued that DOMA violates the "due process clause" of the 5th amendment of the Constitution. The ruling is historical and groundbreaking. However, the Supreme Court emphasized that it's now up to the individual states to legalize same-sex marriages or pass legislation against them. This is bound to lead to considerable confusion, because individual government offices apply different rules when it comes to providing benefits at the federal level.

The immigration department, for instance, will grant visas or Greencards to spouses or family members, i.e. children, regardless whether the marriage license was issued in the U.S. or in a foreign country. From previous editions of this publication, you might remember that Michael obtained his Greencard through his employer, and I received one as well, simply because I'm married to him. This benefit now extends to all legal same-sex marriages.

However, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Social Security Administration are operating by different rules. Tax or social benefits are determined by the individuals' residence, which means that same-sex couples will only receive benefits in states where same-sex marriages are legal. You can easily see that there's a lot more work to be done and looming litigation until finally everyone enjoys equal rights.

The second case decided by the Supreme Court ruled over California Proposition 8 (Rundbrief 11/2008). The latter put same-sex marriages on hold in California in 2008, by defining marriage to be legal only between a man and a woman. In return, opponents immediately challenged Proposition 8 in the US District Court and judge Vaughn Walker ruled in their favor, arguing that Proposition 8 was discriminatory and hence violated the constitution of the State of California.

Alas, this did not render same-sex marriages legal in California, since government agencies and courts were waiting dutifully until the case had made its way through the higher courts. Then, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California agreed in February 2012 that Proposition 8 was violating constitutional rights, and the case went on to the highest federal court in the US, the Supreme Court. The judges there, however, dismissed the case because it wasn't the State of California filing the suit, but merely proponents of Proposition 8. The US Supreme Court decided that a lawsuit regarding the constitution of the State of California can only be filed by the State of California itself and not by a private party not officially representing the state. It thereby also voided the decision of the lower Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, because it wasn't the State of California filing that lawsuit either. What remained was the first decision at the lowest court (Perry vs. Schwarzenegger), where the court had ruled Proposition unconstitutional, and that's the reason why since end of June there's been a flurry of legal same-sex marriages throughout California. The first one of course was held in San Francisco.

German Tagesschau Won't Broadcast Certain Segments

Figure [6]: The little Roku device (bottom left) fetches the German news show "Tagesschau" via the Internet onto our TV at the push of the remote control button.

Michael As you probably already know, we've gotten into the habit of watching the daily German news show "Tagesschau" by help of a small streaming device called Roku in our living room. It's really easy to do, since the sandwich-sized box supports not only Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and about a dozen other content providers, but also this most famous German news show. Three clicks with the remote, and within 10 seconds, it starts running on our TV in San Francisco. Thanks to the time difference, on the weekends, we often watch the 8:00pm show already in the early afternoon.

Figure [7]: The German news show "Tagesschau" is prohibited from broadcasting the sports segment on the Internet.

I find that the "Tagesschau" with its 15 minutes of pure daily news really fits my needs. Their reporting is neutral, without much filler material, the only complaint I have is that they always announce some political figurehead visiting a disaster area with the phrase "to get an impression on the situation", on which the editor in chief should ring the alarm bells and cut it out of the manuscript immediately. It's really getting old, Tagesschau, have you realized that yet?

But the reason why I'm talking about this topic today is that towards the end of the show, on weekends, there's almost always a sports segment with some footage on the current league soccer games. Unfortunately, it is always blocked in its entirety by the ugly censor screen in Figure 7. I can imagine that it is greedy content peddlers strong-arming the public German TV station to suppress this information. The same annoyance occurs with Formula One car races. Only exotic sports like women's soccer or tennis are being broadcasted freely. And earlier today, I've witnessed a new low: At the end of the newscast, there was a report on a newly erected historical site to commemorate Nazi euthanasia crimes, and while airing some historical footage in black-and-white the same censor screen came on: "For legal reasons, this content cannot be shown on the Internet". Really, Tagesschau? Sometimes I think some of the content regulators need to get their heads examined.

Our Subway, BART, is on strike

Figure [8]: BART: The Bay Area's subway system

Angelika By American standards, San Francisco and the Bay Area are exemplary when it comes to public transportation offerings. There's buses, street cars, and a subway. The subway system BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) features a single line within the limits of the city of San Francisco, extending all the way south to SFO airport, but also also connects the East Bay (Oakland, Richmond, Berkeley, Pleasanton) with San Francisco, crossing the Bay waters via an underwater tunnel.

Since San Francisco is surrounded by water, you'll run into a bridge to be crossed sooner or later, which during rush hour inevitably leads to hopelessly clogged roads. On the Bay Bridge, connecting San Francisco and Oakland on the East Bay side, there's often bumper-to-bumper traffic and disgruntled drivers are stuck in traffic for hours. For this reason, the BART subway system is an indispensable transportation alternative. About 400,000 commuters are using BART every day. In my personal opinion, that's still too few, but the rider numbers have doubled in the last fifteen years. In recent weeks, we've found out the hard way how important BART has become: BART workers went on strike between July 1st and 4th.

Figure [9]: BART customers were locked out for four consecutive days during the strike.

Labor protests are relatively rare in the US, as unions have been weakened over the years. The last time BART workers went on strike was sixteen years ago, for example. But it still happens. BART employees are, to put it simply, public servants of the State of California. On top of ticket sales, BART is supported by the tax payers, it's not a private company.

What were the striking BART workers looking for? No doubt for higher compensation, but also for better social benefits. As a non-resident, you're probably surprised to hear that in the U.S., many social benefits, like vacation, aren't regulated by law. Instead, there are significant differences in what individual companies offer their employees. BART management wants, for example, that their employees increase their montly payments for their health benefits and raise the contributions for the corporate pension fund, of which the employer is currently paying the entire amount. Also, every BART employee pays $92 per month for health insurance, regardless of how many family members (e.g. children) are covered.

Figure [10]: This usually busy station is now shut down because of the BART strike.

It's quite the norm in the U.S. that affluent tech companies pay their employee's health insurance premiums in full, requesting only a small contribution from employees in most cases. Companies like Apple, Google, Yahoo have been doing that for years to be able to attract qualified and happy software specialists. My employer's health plan, on the other hand, requires employees to foot a much larger amount, although our salaries are tiny in comparison. For this reason, I prefer to be insured with Michael, although I'm working full time.

BART workers take home surprisingly high salaries, compared to other positions in the industry only requiring a high school diploma. Depending on who you ask, employees or BART management, a BART worker's yearly base salary runs somewhere between $60,000 and $80,000, and on top of that, there's an obscure system of overtime payments and social benefits.

Figure [11]: Only a few pigeons have been seen today at the usually busy Glen Park BART station.

This inevitably led to some resentment expressed by Bay Area citizens, although they are known for their liberal views. Many felt that the strike wasn't justified. I think it's about time to establish better working condition for all workers across the entire U.S., like statutory requirements for sick days and maternity leave. But that's probably a pipe dream, in light of how elected officials quarreled with each other to get the national health insurance in place. In any case, since July 5th, BART has been operating normally again, since the old labor agreement was extended by 30 days. But this means that there's a chance that the trains will stop running again next month, if the two parties can't get to an agreement.

Top Product: The Peeramid pyramid for reading on your iPad

Figure [12]: Simple, but very handy: The reading pyramid for the E-book Reader

Michael If you like reading on your iPad while sitting in your favorite recliner or lying in bed, you're familiar with how heavy the device gets all of a sudden. Wham-bam, and you're snoozing off, but you really wanted to keep reading! To combat this problem, I recently bought a pyramid-shaped pillow named Peeramid from Amazon, after getting curious by the raving reviews the item had received. It sits on your lap or on the blanket and keeps the iPad upright at an angle for reading without having to hold it upright.

Figure [13]: Michael with his iPad in the reclining chair.

This device is the best innovation since sliced bread! It looks pretty funny, like a diploma hat with a tassel attached to it at the end of a 2-foot rope. Its velvet cover is pleasant to the touch, and it holds the iPad securely in place, even when I'm so tired that I'm about to doze off. If it's lying somewhere near, just grab the tassel and pull it towards you. It's about $25 on Amazon.com, which is an outragious amount of money for an item that's probably been made for not more than $5 in China, but it's really nicely sewn and the high-quality cover will even satisfy demanding customers. And it's well-known that I have no problem paying a premium for quirky new products. Top product!

Climbing at Planet Granite

Figure [14]: One of the USArundbrief editors climbs up the wall at the climbing gym "Planet Granite". Foto: Bettina Oswald

Michael If I'm not mistaken, the obsession of climbing indoors on artificial walls must have originated in Germany, or how else would you explain that I've been doing that since the 90ies, back then at the Thalkirchen climbing center in Munich? In the U.S., the sport is called "indoor climbing" and there's a micro-chain gym called "Planet Granite" in San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area that offers several fitness clubs with rock climbing walls. After a hard day's work, it's quite common to meet fellow techies there, and ironically also often German-speaking immigrants. Almost every Wednesday, I've been hanging out there with our friends Bettina, Miguel, Chris and Tranquilla for quite some time.

I remember that back in Munich, we just showed up at the outdoor climbing facility in Thalkirchen with climbing shoes, a rope and a couple of hooks, and off we went up the climbing walls. In the U.S., with its litigious society, it's more strictly regulated. When I showed up at Planet Granite many years ago for the first time, the staff there wanted to talk me into pay for a beginner's climbing class to learn belay techniques, which I already had on auto-pilot because I had been using them successfully for many years. Luckily, I convinced them to start their certification process for free with me, by me showing them how to tighten knots and using their belay device safely.

Figure [15]: I'll manage even overhanging walls if they're not too steep (this one has a rating of 5.10a) Photo: Bettina Oswald

Belaying isn't hard and an average person can learn the knots and rope techniques within a couple of minutes. But I demonstrated the procedure slightly differently to them, boldly deviating from the climbing gym's holy scripture, and they failed me the first time! The second time, I did it exactly as they wanted and passed. Ever since, my climbing belt has a red card hanging from it, which authorizes me to belay other climbers. It is only applicable to the so-called top rope technique, which uses a fixed rope already installed on the route. With this, the belayer constantly keeps tightening the rope, so that the climber will never fall more than a foot or two, even if they slip badly. But with the red card license, I'm not permitted to bring my own rope and lead, or belay someone leading, for that matter. For this, they require another, more advanced certification, and upon passing, you'll proudly display a green laminated card bouncing from your belt. Clearly ridiculous, but, hey, who am I to complain. Every installed rope comes with a rope-stopping device called a Grigri, which is dead-simple to use and allegedly provides better safety than the half-mast knots we used instead in Munich. Patrolling staff members make sure everyone using the Grigri holds the outcoming rope tighly in their hand and downwards, to make sure the Grigri's safety is enabled, and if they spot someone who doesn't, they'll approach them quickly and remind them in no uncertain terms of the correct procedure.

What's surprising is that the American grading system for climbing routes differs significantly from the "UIAA" system used in Germany. From way back when, I remembered that a "4" is a route with handles so generous that you can just walk up there like you're climbing a ladder. A "5" offers less obvious ways to hold on and climbing a "6" actually requires knowing some climbing technique, or there's no way to proceed. The American grading system is quite different, as documented in Klettergradvergleichstabelle auf Wikipedia, and its grades 5.4 to 5.6 correspond to the UIAA rating of 4, the slightly higher 5.7 to 5.9 to the UIAA 5, and more advanced 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c, 5.10d and 5.11a to the UIAA 6.

There's more highly graded routes, but according to my experience, those walls can only be scaled by Spiderman-like creatures. What's also interesting is that climbing as a hobby in the US also seems to serve as a way to meet new people, the climbing gym even has special events for singles to hook up with new prospective mates!

Lagavulin Whiskey

Figure [16]: One of the best Whiskeys on earth: Lagavulin 16.

Michael Whiskey, oder "whisky", as people from the UK say, is a distilled liquid, mostly made from malted grains. The basis for American Bourbon whiskeys is usually corn, whereas Scottish whiskeys ("Scotch") typically use malted barley. As you can find out by watching the unlisted Youtube video Whisky. The Islay Edition, it is first and foremost the small Scottish Island of Islay, which specializes in producing so-called "peat" whiskeys by malting barely over peat-fueled fire, which adds the typical marshy, smoky scent and flavor. Coincidentally, if you open up your desktop computer and hold your nose close to the motherboard, you'll likely pick up similar scents.

Figure [17]: Actor Brian Cox tastes various Scotch whiskeys and demonstrates their correct pronunciation.

I recently found out about a Scotch Whiskey named "Lagavulin". Strangely, it surfaced on several of my radar screens around the same time. First, someone sent me a link to a website featuring actor Brian Cox who pronounces Scotch Whiskey names. Which is not as easy as you might think, because if you apply the pronunciation rules of the English language on Scottish names, usually nothing sensible comes out of it, or did you wisenheimers know how to pronounce "Bruichladdich"?

In one of the short videos, Brian Cox calls Lagavulin the "cognac of whiskeys" and assures that the beverage works like a depth charge, used to get submarines into trouble.

Figure [18]: In the TV series "Parks and Recreation" Ron Swanson loves his Lagavulin.

And finally, Lagavulin appeared in one of the very few American TV series that I'm watching frequently: "Parks and Recreation". The head of the bureaucrats of the parks department in the series is an excentric individual named Ron Swanson, who only eats meat and washes it down with whiskey. Lagavulin whiskey, of course. Why anyone in his right mind would pair a steak with peaty whiskey instead of a California Cabernet Saugvignon, boldly developed in oak barrels, is a question that I suspect can only be answered by the "Parks and Rec" product placement sales goons.

Figure [19]: Lagavulin 16 at Costco is 13 Dollars off today, now it's only 54.99 Dollar per bottle.

Figure [20]: Lagavulin is on sale at the local supermarket.

Then, the mega supermarket chain Costco caused the next blip on my radar screen. It had Lagavulin on sale and lowered the price from $67.99 per bottle to "only" $54.99, which is why I bought two (Figure 19). The "Lagavulin 16" single malt ages for 16 years and has an extremely strong peat taste. It is to be consumed at room temperature, and I've heard stories of colleagues at work who showed American visitors the door after they had asked if they could get Lagavulin served on the rocks. Unbelievable!

Summer vacation

Figure [21]: During the summer vacation, some parents drop off their kids at summer camp.

Angelika In the U.S., just like anywhere else, school kids are eagerly awaiting their summer vacation. With two to three months of school being closed during the summer, depending on the school district, school kids here have more time off than in Germany. In San Francisco, the last school day was May 31st, and children are returning to their classrooms on August 19th. Typical months for summer vacation are June, July, and August. Rumor has it that the reason for this choice is that formerly in rural areas, children had to help with the harvest. Others claim that it's due to the unbearable heat during the sommer months in major metropolitan areas that schools are closed during this time. Be it as it may, the fact is that long summer vacations enjoyed by U.S. school kids are here to stay.

But what are children supposed to do with their free time during the long summer vacation, when, as in many families in the U.S., both parents are working and often are granted only two weeks off? One option is the so-called summer school, where children can catch up on school matters, to get their grades up. However, this is usually only offered for children in high school. Also, many universities are offering sommer classes which many students take advantage of to speed up getting their degree. Children with special needs, even if they're usually integrated in regular classrooms, usually receive four weeks of extra lessons and therapy (speech therapy, ergo therapy, etc.), because the long time off school can lead to a loss of skills they've already acquired. This is called "extended school year", and the children I work with mostly get four weeks of extra classes.

And then there's the so-called "summer camps". I used to believe that every American child gets dropped off at a scout camp during summer, where they learn how to start bonfires and carve wooden figurines. Imagine a group of distressed teachers who have to spend the night in wooden cottages next to oodles of children! But while such overnight stay camps still exist, there's lots more choices nowadays, like surf camps, trips where children learn foreign languages, adventure tours or camps that teach how to make movies, believe it or not, in the streets of New York or Paris. Younger children often attend "day camps" and sleep at home at night. There's lots of different choices there was well. During the summer months, I'm often accompanying a child with autism I work with to a summer camp, to help him integrate into the camp group. In San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area, Camp Galileo has a good reputation. I just went there last week with one of the children I work with. Every week, they're teaching a different subject, like space travel, tropical safaris, or medieval times. Children at the camp are playing games, tinker with materials, and run small scientific experiments. Their parents sign them up for one week, or sometimes even for several weeks in a row. It is not exactly cheap, though, one week at the Galileo Camp, which runs from 9am till 3pm daily, clocks in at about $360 to $380, but they offer discounts for additional weeks.

You can probably find less expensive offerings, but their programs often are lacking in quality. The camps are typically run by enthusiastic college students, who take the opportunity to make some money on the side during their summer vacation. I'm not sure, though, if they realize how exhausting this job can be, because they continually have to adapt to new rascals coming on board!

Vacation Rental By Owner

Figure [22]: Michael sitting on the patio of a vacation rental on Hawaii.

Angelika In March, we once again packed our bags and went on a trip to the Hawaiian island of Oahu. We've given up on hotels for quite some time already, and nowadays always rent vacation homes, not only because there's no hotels in our favorite spot, Kailua. Since we know exactly what we want and have become pretty familiar with the neighborhood, I always get a place to stay via "vrbo.com" ("Vacational Rental by Owner"). On the site, owners offer their vacation homes from around the world for rent.

If you're looking for a place on Oahu, click on the US map, then drill down to the state of Hawaii, then on the island of Oahu, and you'll see various offerings in different locations on the island. Filtering by the number of bedrooms required, whether ocean front is a must, or availability by a preset date narrows down the search. Inquiries to property owners are usually answered within one or two days.

Figure [23]: Typical vacation rental on Hawaii: wooden floors and rattan style furniture.

Renting a property requires a prepayment of a couple of hundred dollars and sending a signed contract to the owner. The entire rent then needs to be paid four weeks before the rental date. Most owners want it via check or money order, only few accept credit cards, as those require them to pay a processing fee.

Figure [24]: A charcoal grill is a must on Hawaii.

We're pretty amazed every time how flawlessly this process works. The landlords typically aren't on the island, but are living somewhere on the US mainland. Usually, they let a Hawaiian resident manage the property. In March, we rented a place in Lanikai, a small bordering neighborhood to Kailua. I only called the property manager once before we went there and we didn't see him even once during the entire time we were there. The house key was placed inside the house when we arrived, and we left it on the kitchen table when we left. For emergencies, we had the manager's and the cleaning lady's phone number. The place was great, as you can tell by the pictures.

Hawaii: Public Access to the Beaches

Figure [25]: Michael is probably one of the oldest surfers at the beach of Honolulu.

Angelika Even on Hawaii, not everything is like it should be in paradise. Cluttering the islands with new construction projects is an ongoing problem. The locals are understandably not happy that it's mostly wealthy individuals buying real estate that they then only use a few times a year as vacation homes. Those houses often have gigantic footprints and are located in close vicinity to the beach, but are uninhabited most of the time.

For this reason, I'm happy that the State of Hawaii passed legislation back in the year 1974 to ensure that all Hawaiian beaches must be accessible by the public.

Figure [26]: Public access trail to a beach on Oahu.

No hotel or property owner can declare a beach to be his private property. In Kailua and Lanikai, where we're usually staying when we're on Oahu, there are usually inconspicuous sandy trails leading from the main road to the beach, passing between privately owned land. A sign at the trail head points out that there is public beach access. People heading for the beach of course then park their cars all over the place next to these trail heads, which the home owners find somewhat annoying, especially when it's tourists parking there. Many property owners try to limit access to the beach for this reason. Some get the nearby streets converted to private roads, on which they prohibit non-residents from parking. That's the end of peaceful Aloha!

But on public streets, which you can discern by the lack of "Private Road" signs, even tourists are allowed to park their cars in good concience. This includes even the nicely trimmed grassy areas in front of fenced-in properties, unless there are official signs saying otherwise.

Greetings from heavily regulated paradise:

Angelika & Michael

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