14 October 2012

Escupimos en su alimento

It's been almost a year since I came to Germany. At this point I'm already used to the way of living, the language is getting better and better, the habits of the Germans are no longer strange to me. There's just one thing, one little thing that I haven't quite got used to yet. The concept of tipping.

As a Portuguese, I'm not used to giving tips. With the exception of fancy restaurants, we almost never give anything more than what's on the bill, and when we do, it's only some spare change. If we pay by credit card, it's almost certain we won't leave any tip. In cafés and bars we wouldn't think of leaving a tip. And why would we? We're already paying for the whole service. We assume they raised the prices of food and drinks a little bit to account for the service, so the service is in the bill. Why would they expect us to pay more than that?

Well things are different here. Apparently the service is not included. So if you sit at a table and someone comes to serve you, you have to tip them. You have to. You see, my problem is not the fact of you wanting to leave a tip, that's perfectly fine, you feel overly satisfied about the food and the service and want to reward them that way. The problem is that they expect you to leave one, and probably will hold it against you if you don't. Germans will tell you about the three reasons why you should tip waiters and waitresses:

  • Waiters make money mostly on tips - OK but, why is that my problem? Why can't they just raise the prices to account for the service like we do? Or why don't they include the tip on the bill? (Italians do this, it's called the coperto.) By doing this, the owners of bars and restaurants are just telling is it's not their burden to pay the waiters, it's ours. If we don't pay them, it will be on our conscience. And they are artificially lowering the prices because you always end up paying more than what's in the bill (for example, the bill is 25€ but you actually pay 28€).
  • Tipping is a way to evaluate the service - but really, how hard can it be? It's bringing food and drinks to people! Of course most of them will do an average job. Some of them will earn some extra tip money for being extra nice, but that's OK by me as I've said. And if the service was that terrible, wouldn't it be better to tell them what happened or file a complain rather than just getting out without leaving a tip?
  • If you never give tips, they will start spitting on your food - or doing other equally nasty thing to it. This sounds a lot like a Mafia style of thing, where you have to pay them to protect you from themselves. I have to treat them like mobsters because they brought me food and drinks, really?!
At least we're nowhere near the United States, there the tip is mandatory and it's almost 20% of your bill. And what about those places where they have an included tip but expect an extra tip on top of that? Mr. Larry David puts it better than me:

You see, I am also protesting the math. The Germans have a system here, you're expected to give 10% of your bill as tip. The waiter will tell you how much it is, you add 10% to it, round the result up to an acceptable number and tell him that's what you want to pay. A friend of mine spends almost 10 seconds with the money bills on his hand doing all the math mentally before he tells the result to the waiter. What is the purpose of this? If they expect us to pay an additional 10% every time, why don't they include those 10% in the bill? For me it's that simple: they tell me this is what I have to pay, and I pay this.

Anyway, it's their society, their rules, and when you live in society you don't get to make your own rules and expect them to be easily accepted by others. You either play by their rules or you're gonna have a bad time. For a while I skipped most of the tips because of my problem with German numbers (since I didn't understand exactly how much it costed, when it came to tell them how much I wanted to pay I didn't say anything, which they interpret as not wanting to give a tip), but I started taking it seriously after a first date went terribly wrong because I didn't tip the waitress. My date was shocked at my lack of manners, she gave me a whole lecture on how to give tips, didn't accept any of my excuses, and hasn't spoken to me ever since.

So now I'm behaving properly but always thinking whether I should tip this or that person. Like, should I tip waitresses that bring me just coffee? Taxi drivers? Hairdressers? And why don't I tip the cashier in the supermarket? The mailman for giving my that package I was waiting for? The bus driver for transporting me? The girl in the shop that helps me choose my clothes? The guy in the kiosk for selling me the newspaper? The guy that puts gas on my car in the gas station? Why do I tip the waiter but not the cook? Hell, why don't I get a tip for the work I do? If you're gonna start giving tips, who says waiters are the only ones that deserve them?

P.S.: The title of this post is a reference to the movie Anchorman. In the middle of this movie a Mexican restaurant appears, with the words "Escupimos en su alimento" on its signboard. It literally means "We spit on your food".

(versão portuguesa)

30 September 2012

Trust me, you can wait

Hello everyone! After spending some vacation time (a.k.a. writers block phase, a.k.a. lazyness phase) from this blog, I'm ready to come back and write some more, and this time with a J.log 2 (English) exclusive! (which means you won't find this post translated to Portuguese.)

It's been a while since I had my rants about weird and irritating language expressions, so I'm gonna kickstart with one of these. Today's rant is about: people who cannot wait.

At a first glance, when you put it this way, there's no much sense in not being able to wait. If you think of the easiest, laziest thing that a person can do, it's waiting. I mean, you just stand there and do nothing! How hard can it be?

And yet, people have this strange idea that they can't possibly wait for something that they really, really want. They see that new taller, lighter smartphone coming up in a month, and they're already starting screaming "Omygod I can't wait to get it! Omygod I can't wait to see it! Omygod I can't wait! Omygod I can't wait!What do you mean, you can't wait? You have to wait! It's only coming next month! What other choice do you have?!!!

You know, the reason this is an English exclusive is that the Portuguese language doesn't have the can't wait expression. Instead we use "Mal posso esperar" which translates to I can hardly wait. And I personally think there's nothing wrong with this. I can hardly wait, but I can wait. It will be painful, but I can wait. There is literally nothing preventing me from waiting.

Other than that, the can't wait expression is perfectly acceptable when it's meant to say that you lost all interest in the thing you were waiting for, and you're not gonna wait for it anymore. Let's give you some examples where a person could rightfully use I can't wait:

- You arrive to some government office of bureaucracy and take a number. Your number is 545. You then look at the number on the display panel and it's 389. You say "I can't wait for this." and go away.
- You plan on visiting your sister next month, but she says she will be unavailable next month and you'll have to wait another two months to see her. You say "I can't wait that long. I'm going right this week!"
- You drank a lot of beer and you're walking home. Suddenly a wild urge to urinate appears. You say "I'm gonna go there behind the bushes". Your embarrassed girlfriend asks "Can't you wait until we get home?" You answer desperately "No! I can't wait!!!"

and a list of things people think they can't wait for:

- the launch of the next smartphone / tablet / videogame console;
- the next concert of their favorite band (even if they've seen the last one the past week);
- the premiere of the typical superhero action movie (even though they'll probably see the movie a few days later);
- Christmas (!!!!!);
- next Summer (oh, man, you're gonna have a hard time);
- the weekend.

And I don't know what's gonna happen to you guys after you read this post, but for me, each time I now hear someone saying Omygod I can't wait it gets more and more irritating. It makes me want to grab their heads with both hands and say Listen to me. You don't understand. You can wait. If you really want it, you have to wait. You don't have a choice. Even if you say you can't wait, you're gonna end up waiting anyway. Look at me. LOOK AT ME! YOU CAN WAIT! Trust me on this one.

Here's one last short story to lighten up the mood. A guy's on the line to buy the latest iPhone. The line is already 1,5 km long and it's not moving forward at all. Filled with Apple fanboys screaming "Omygod I can't wait! Omygod I can't wait!"  like if they were dying of starvation. The guy breaks the line, gets in the shop, walks out of the shop with a Samsung. The guys in the line are shocked, they ask the guy "What the hell happened to you?" The guy turns to them and says: "Well... I couldn't wait."

26 June 2012

George's Wallet

This is the current look of my wallet:

My wallet is just one step from becoming George's wallet, from the Seinfeld series, a wallet so thick that prevented George himself from sitting straight when he put it in the back pocket of his pants.

It is worth saying, however, that my problem is not exactly like George's. He had the wallet in that state because he collected all kinds of small papers, receipts, business cards, phone numbers written in napkins, because you never knew when one of these papers would be needed. As for me, although I have the same habit of collecting every little paper, I clear my wallet of those papers from time to time, leaving only the two or three that are really important. No, my wallet's problem is another one: too many coins.

These are all the coins that I found in my wallet today. Notice the exorbitant amount of the so called "small" coins, of 5, 2 and 1 cents, especially the latter. There's an explanation for that. In fact, there are two explanations. The first is that I don't just throw money away (like some of my german colleagues do). The second is that I cannot seem to give them as change.

I wouldn't have problems with that in my home country. Aside from the trouble of finding the coins inside the wallet (especially the smaller ones, which are the most difficult to grab), it's not hard for me to do it in order to give the exact change. In Germany it's different, however. They tell me that the total bill is dreizehn, drei und fünfzig and I get totally confused, even knowing that the literal translation of that is thirteen, three and fifty. Result: one 20 euro bill to pay 13,53. Which results in: even more coins. Repeat that for each transaction that I make and you'll easily understand why my wallet is in this state.

It's not that I don't already know how to count in German. It's that, with the way they spell the numbers (switching the units with the tens, leaving the hundreds and thousands), each time they say sieben und neunzig I have to ask them to repeat and think thrice to understand if they mean 79 or 97. Even worse is when they add the hundreds, hundert neun und vierzig (149) and then the euro cents, hundert neun und vierzig, neun und neunzig (149,99). It's a mess!

And to add more to the confusion, I was told not too long ago that the Germans are so used to switch the tens with the units that sometimes they even switch them while translating to English! So be aware and don't be surprised if at some time you expect to pay 25 euros for your lunch and they demand you fifty two euros instead of twenty five. Because the Germans could get it wrong while trying to translate fünf und zwanzig to five and twenty.

Bonus. The number 6 is spelled sechs in German but read zex and not sex. I realized that just a bit too late; the consequence was that I wanted to ask for the menu 6 in the restaurant and instead of saying ich will sechs (I want the six) I ended up telling the waitress ich will sex (I want sex). Don't know why, but even today my german colleagues make a point of reminding me of that story and laughing out loud at my expenses...

06 June 2012

Ducks and House assistants

It's not usual for me to talk about work in this blog, but that's what I'm going to do today. Although this kind of situation is equally likely to happen outside of work. It's something we can experience often in our daily routine. And, although I learned it from programming blogs, it can also be found in any kind of profession.

Assume you have a brilliant mind. Nah, just kidding, you don't have to assume. You already have a brilliant mind. But we all know how our brilliant minds get distracted sometimes, or too much concentrated, and more often than not we suddenly find that we don't seem to be able to solve the easiest problem. Remember how mad it drives you?

The easy fix for this is finding out a mind that is more brilliant than yours and ask for their help. Problem solved. Except that, sometimes it's not that easy to find that person. The person may not exist (if you're the most brilliant mind in your field of expertise); they may exist but be unreachable; they may be reachable but also a total asshole who doesn't like to help others; they may not be an asshole but be tired of total assholes like you who waste their time with kindergarten questions. Whatever the case is, you cannot immediately ask for help. But you're not completely screwed yet. There are two other things you can try that I will show next.

1. Ask the duck

"Asking the duck" is the term I chose to describe this solution. Others may call it Rubber Duck Debugging or Rubber Duck Problem Solving. The method has been around at least since 2002, but it was a recent story that made me understand it and praise it as a great problem solver. In this story, a young designer's boss who is tired of being always asked the same simple questions finds an original way to get rid of them:
Bob pointed into a corner of the office. "Over there," he said, "is a stuffed duck. I want you to ask that duck your question."

I looked at the duck. It was, in fact, stuffed, and very dead. Even if it had not been dead, it probably would not have been a good source of design information. I looked at Bob. Bob was dead serious. He was also my superior, and I wanted to keep my job.

I awkwardly went to stand next to the duck and bent my head, as if in prayer, to commune with this duck. "What," Bob demanded, "are you doing?"

"I'm asking my question of the duck," I said.

One of Bob's superintendants was in his office. He was grinning like a bastard around his toothpick. "Andy," Bob said, "I don't want you to pray to the duck. I want you to ASK THE DUCK YOUR QUESTION."

I licked my lips. "Out loud?" I said.

"Out loud," Bob said firmly.

I cleared my throat. "Duck," I began.

"Its name is Bob Junior," Bob's superintendant supplied. I shot him a dirty look.

"Duck," I continued, "I want to know, when you use a strap hanger, what keeps the sprinkler pipe from jumping out of the strap when the head discharges, causing the pipe to..."

In the middle of asking the duck my question, the answer hit me. The strap hanger is suspended from the structure above by a length of all-thread rod. If the pipe-fitter cuts the all-thread rod such that it butts up against the top of the pipe, it essentially will hold the pipe in the hanger and keep it from bucking. 

I turned to look at Bob. Bob was nodding. "You know, don't you," he said.

"You run the all-thread rod to the top of the pipe," I said.

"That's right," said Bob. "Next time you have a question, I want you to come in here and ask the duck, not me. Ask it out loud. If you still don't know the answer, then you can ask me."
Be sure to check the original post for the whole story.

The whole idea here was that putting your problem in form of a question helps you solve it. Until you pose your problem to someone, the problem makes sense in your head. However, when you try to structure it in form of a question you might find it more difficult to do so than you thought. You try to work around it to make the question more clear, and suddenly, you realize that you are looking at the problem the wrong way. The solution comes easily afterwards.

I have dealt with the "ask the duck" solution countless times. Not that I have a rubber duck per se, but you can do this with virtually anything. The original poster of the story later used a photograph of Newt Gingrich. And you can use your own favorite mascot, or none at all. I, personally, prefer using emails to ask my questions instead of chat (and sometimes even instead of talking face to face). 40% of the times I end up discarding the email because I found the solution in the middle of writing it. And for people that ask me questions on chat, sometimes I tell them to wait 5 minutes before I answer. After 2 minutes I get another message saying "Never mind, I solved the problem myself." (and at that point, I reply "See? I made you ask the duck!")

2. Ask a House assistant

Ducks can alone solve some of your problems. But sometimes asking the duck is not enough. They seem so... quiet. Sometimes you need some kind of feedback, and if you need feedback, you need a House assistant.

I coined the term "House assistant" after the Dr. House / House, M.D. series. If you have seen the show more than a couple of times, you probably know by now that it's always House himself who finds out what disease the sick guy has at the end of the episode. So what does he need three assistants for?

Well House, the character, said it a number of times, he needs his assistants. He needs the brainstorming sessions that they make to try to solve the patient's problem. He needs to have someone talk back to him, because it's in the middle of the conversation that the solution appears suddenly.

One of my favorite House episodes happens when he is stuck on a plane with a guy having a potential contagious disease. Since he doesn't have access to his assistants, he select three random passengers to talk back to him. Even if they don't know anything about medicine, they help him figure out what the guy has.

So if you need help with your problem, just ask a House assistant. Your House assistant can be anyone else: they don't need to know anything about what your working on; it's probably even better that they don't know. Explain your problem to them in a way that they would understand (a form of asking the duck), and then just let them talk back to you and suggest things. A House assistant gives you a new perspective of the problem, even though it seems to them that they are just saying random stuff. You will be amazed with how fast the solution has come to you after speaking to a House assistance, especially if you previously spent hours dwelling alone on the subject.

I personally don't have much experience in using House assistants, but I am asked to become one sometimes. In the end, my colleague thanks me enthusiastically for solving his problem, even though I feel like I didn't do anything, really. I just blabbered some random stuff and suddenly the problem was solved without me even knowing. So if you are ever asked to be a House assistant, you should know that it feels a little weird, but that's the way it is.

Problem solved.

(versão portuguesa)

25 May 2012

To bidet or not to bidet

Society nowadays is often debating various divisive issues, that generate controversy, lead to radical positions and heated tempers, incite hatred and even violence among people. Gay couples, should they be allowed to get married? Euthanasia, should it be permitted? Drug use, should it be unsanctioned? Football, is it the one you play with your feet or the one you play with your hands? Issues like these divide the population in half with each half hating the other, and that's how the world goes forward. Well it's about time someone puts one more divisive subject on top of the table: the Bidet, is it really necessary in our bathrooms?

Photo: Chell Hill
Is there a referendum about this? Well there should certainly be one, in my opinion. But before that, a bit of history so we can properly frame this subject. First of all, the word bidet comes from the French and means pony. And nobody talks about this, gentlemen. People should talk about this. Because what really happens is that people don't simply sit on the bidet, they actually mount the bidet. With one leg at each side, like mounting a horse. It is said that the first bidet was ordered by the queen of France, circa 1710, which was troubled by not having a place to wash her private parts. Since then its use has proliferated, with more and more women rejoicing themselves for being able to mount the vessel.

Over time the bidets went from the rooms to the bathrooms, were changed to match the toilet style, started having mild warm water and, more recently, little vertical jets of water that hit you right in the area that you pretend to... aaaa... wash. I mean, I don't know if you can see the course that this story's taking, it is true that officially the bidet is only for the hygiene of the lower parts of the body, but to me it's starting to seem more an instrument of pleasure than hygiene! This is outrageous!

There are two important questions to raise here. The first question is if the bidet is really necessary. I live in a house without a bidet and I don't miss it. Some of my colleagues, both male and female, that I consulted on the matter, also say that they don't use it very often. Besides that, my sources tell that bidets are not used in the north of Europe that much, although they are present in most Portuguese and Italian households. The second question is why does the bidet appear to be an instrument used exclusively by women. I mean, if the container already exists, it can be equally useful to us men, in certain circumstances! I grew up thinking that the bidet was a unisex device, that served both men and women with equal rights. And yet, all the tiny details, the small inovations like the little vertical jets or adjustable faucet sprays, have little to no use to men. Is this really something that women need so badly? 

It is certainly a highly essential device according to the greatest authority in bidets that I know, which is: my father. I don't know exactly how he knows, but my father knows for sure that any house with women inside has to have a bidet. And for that he gave me two pieces of evidence:

Exhibit number 1: my father had a bidet installed in one of the office bathrooms at his company. One day he asked me if I was using the women's room.

- What do you mean, the women's room? - I asked, surprised.
- Haven't you been using the bathroom on the right?
- Yes...
- So, that's the women's room.
- But there isn't any sign saying that it's the women's room.
- But there's a bidet on that one.
- Whaaaaat?

Why the hell does the bathroom become exclusive to women just because it has a bidet inside? Why exactly aren't men allowed to use it? And why do women need that bidet thing so desperately? Besides, I've asked some women if they would ever use the bidet in the office and everyone told me they wouldn't, so I don't know what that thing is doing there.

Exhibit number 2: my father decided to remodel a warehouse that he uses to throw lunch and dinner parties, and part of the remodeling was done in the bathroom, which was very simple before and became a fully featured bathroom, with shower and everything. And as part of that, he decided to take out the urinol and put on a bidet.

And this really gets me angry. He took off the urinol, that one a useful and frequently used device, that one a hygienic device that allows rapid bladder relief without splashing the entire area surrounding the toilet, that one a device that should exist in every bathroom, to place a bidet?! A bidet in a space used only for parties? If the bidet is used twice in a year it's too many times already!

Therefore, my friends, it is time we all make a stand. Let's admit that we are no longer in the XVI century, and that this atrocity that pollutes our bathrooms is already completely outdated. I dream of the day when each and every bidet in our bathroom is replaced with an urinol, those would be beautiful times. The subject needs to be discussed at once. The debate on the bidet must be put on the table! To bidet or not to bidet, that is the question!

(versão portuguesa)