Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Travel – FAQs

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.  

Here are some of the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) I've received about my many years of business and personal travel.

Have you ever had an emergency landing or any in-flight trouble?

My first unscheduled landing was weather related. Even though it happened 30 years ago, I remember it well. I left Chicago's O'Hare International Airport (ORD) in a 20-seat commuter propeller plane. [Imagine if you will two adult elephants walking one behind the other, trunk to tail, with a newborn baby elephant way down below and between them. That's how my plane looked taxiing out to the runway between two wide-bodied jets!] I was headed for Bloomington, Indiana, a short hop to the south. Soon after takeoff, we ran into a serious electrical storm with lightening cracking around the wings. Well, in that little plane, we definitely were at the mercy of the elements, and we sure learned what turbulence was. Seconds later, the woman next to me was hanging on to my arm for dear life as though I had the power to save her. After what seemed like ages (but was probably no more than 5 minutes), we put down in Terra Haute, Indiana. There, we waited out the storm and then continued on to our scheduled destination. I can't say, however, that I "saw my life flash before my eyes" indicating I was going to die soon.

My second unscheduled landing was to refuel. I was on a Boeing 747 Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Washington DC and, as usual, the route for that flight went over the Atlantic Provinces of Canada and down over the New England states of the US. There was a widespread power failure in the greater New York City area over which we had to fly, and air traffic control was operating on a severely reduced basis. So we flew "figure eights" over Massachusetts to kill time. Eventually, we put down in Boston to refuel. Unfortunately, as no one was expecting us, it took a while for anyone to come out to where we were parked. And then it took another hour for a fuel truck with all the right attachments to service a 747, to arrive. And as Lufthansa had only one flight in/out of Boston each day, and that was nowhere near the time we arrived, they had no staff on site to help things along. As it happened, more than a few people were ticketed to fly on to Boston once they landed in Washington DC. Of course, they started making noises about wanting to get off and go straight home, but customs and immigration refused to allow it. Eventually, they did relent, but deplaning passengers could take only their carry-on luggage. Any checked luggage had to continue on the flight to Washington and be flown back later.

On a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Bangkok, Thailand, which followed along a mountain range, we'd just been served a meal with hot drinks when we hit some sort of air pocket. Well, we lost some altitude in double-quick time and the food and drinks went up in the air, but no one was hurt. I don't even recall the oxygen masks dropping down. [Each time I watch the animated safety video on a plane, it shows how calm everyone is when the masks drop down. I'm thinking that is highly unlikely for most people in a real emergency.]

Another time, I was taking off from Calgary in Alberta, Canada, in a Boeing 727. That plane has three engines, one on the top at the back, and one on each side of the body at the rear. There was a very strong crosswind and when we were about halfway down the runway there was a loud bang as the compressor on the top engine stalled. Well, that certainly got the passenger's attention. The pilot said there was nothing to worry about and that he'd simply taxi to the end of the runway and try again in the other direction. [From the reactions of some of the passengers near me, it seemed that they would rather have changed planes instead.]

Once on approach to Boston's Logan International (BOS) we came down through very heavy and low clouds, but all I could see below us was the sea. The pilot announced that, unfortunately, we'd missed the airport, so he was going to "go around and try that again".

In November 2009, I was on a Boeing 747 coming into the Ben-Gurion airport (TLV) of Tel Aviv, Israel. We were lower than 1,000 feet when the pilot decided to abort the landing. With a great roar, the four mighty engines sucked up at least a day's pay in fuel, and the giant plane climbed steeply. Whatever the reason, we circled back around the airport and landed on the second attempt. No explanation was given. However, I have to admit that it crossed my mind that the airport might be under a rocket attack.

Occasionally, when I'm half way across the Atlantic or Pacific I think about how far we are from the nearest emergency landing place. In a real emergency, I think the answer is "too far", so it's best not to dwell on that and/or to have a(nother) stiff drink.

During the volcanic eruption in Iceland in 2010, stories surfaced about past aircraft problems with volcanic ash. I was pleased to hear that some years ago a Boeing 747 managed to glide for quite some time and distance after all four engines died after taking in ash, and that the pilots managed to get them restarted.

In your travels, have you run into any serious political or other unrest?

No, but I've been close enough to the fringes to have had my curiosity satisfied.

When I landed in Bangkok in June of 1979, there had been a military coup, and the airport was full of very short soldiers with very large automatic weapons. It was a little unnerving for a young lad from the bush, but I didn't feel at all unsafe. Outside the airport, there was no evidence of any security concerns.

A couple of years later, I departed from Frankfurt, Germany, where I experienced some very thorough security. This was back when the Baader-Meinhof Group (Red Army Faction) was active in Germany. Heavily armed soldiers were all over the terminal, and German Shepherd dogs sniffed my luggage and me. Apparently, that was normal!

My first adventure trip was to the Amazon River in northern Peru. To outfit myself I went to a military surplus store and spent about $25 on some khaki shirts, trousers, and a webbing belt, and the shirts even came with some rank and insignia. At the end of my jungle trip we were taken to the airport by bus where we waited by a hanger. Several military helicopters swooped in and landed near us and a whole bunch of armed soldiers jumped out. There I was looking every bit like a mercenary or gunrunner, except for one standout feature, the bright red laces in my hiking boots! It turns out they weren't after me, they were headed out on "pirate patrol" on the Amazon. [While on the river, I also saw evidence of that in the form of navy patrol vessels.]

On my first full day in Santiago, Chile, I went to an afternoon movie and when I came out it was dusk. As I walked down a street, I could see a large group off in the distance chanting and coming towards me. So I went off to get a closer look. Apparently, something panicked them and they started running towards me. Unfortunately, the quickest way out of the street for me was to run towards them and then to a side street, so I did that, and they and I turned off at the same time. Safe, I thought! 30 seconds later, an armored car entered the intersection we'd just vacated and directed very high-pressure water cannons at many of the protesters knocking some of them over. Interesting thought I, and then I heard the sound of something metal rolling along the paved road and saw a teargas canister coming my way. Let's just say that I moved quite quickly down the side street. 200 meters down, I ran into a whole squad of riot police in full gear quietly smoking and talking. Back at my hotel, I was told that students protested regularly over the disappearance of people who had been arrested by the government, and that the whole episode was carefully choreographed. The next morning, I was awakened by a public address system right outside my hotel window where a speaker for some freedom political party was addressing a rally. I was sure that a SWAT team would be rappelling through my window any minute, but after 30 minutes, the protesters packed up and left.

Have you ever run afoul at security screenings?

When I moved from Australia to the US, my port-of-entry in Europe was Rome, Italy. In Hong Kong, I'd bought a new attaché case and it had an expandable bottom. The very arrogant customs agent in Rome was convinced it had some sort of hidden compartment. He tipped everything out on a desk and was disgusted not to find anything and he threw up his hands and walked away. I waited for some time not knowing what to do, but when he didn't come back, I packed up and left.

In July 1992, I'd been in Russia for a 2-week lecture tour. Coming back from Saint Petersburg on the train, I sent my main case onto Helsinki to be stored while I traveled around Finland by train for a week. I recovered my bag on the way to the airport and admitted that it had not been in my possession for the previous week while it was in storage. In normally tranquil Finland, that week security was "over the top" because the leaders of some 10 countries (including the US) were coming to town for a summit. So I was taken to a small cubicle. I had to take everything out of the case and it was X-rayed empty to make sure nothing was hidden in the frame.

Once, I flew into Frankfurt from Berlin where I'd already cleared security. Although I was still in a secure area when I arrived in Frankfurt, I had to go through another security checkpoint, and it was operated by a woman who had all the charm of an East German border guard. She gave me such a hard time I thought she didn't like me for some reason, but it appeared that she didn't like anybody that day (or perhaps any day)! And 200 meters along from that checkpoint, I was stopped at another one. Don't you just hate that when that happens?

Several times, I've been chosen at random just prior to boarding for a thorough check of my hand luggage, even when I've been ticketed in Business Class.

September 11, 2001, was a Tuesday, and my wife and I were ticketed to fly from Washington DC to Kona, Hawaii, on the following Saturday. We actually got out via a different airport on the Monday, flew to Chicago, Los Angeles (where we made a last minute change), and then Honolulu, Oahu, without our luggage. The next day we flew to the Big Island with only carry-on bags and our luggage arrived that afternoon. A week later, we departed from Kona airport, which is a sleepy place with palm-thatched roofs on small cabins, one of which houses security. They discovered a pair of stainless steel folding scissors in my wife's carry-on bag, after she's been through at least three lots of security the week before without their being detected.

Have you flown around the world?

I have flown around the world twice, but only once during the same trip. In the first case, I went from Australia to the US via Asia and Europe, but did not complete the circle until several years later when I flew across the Pacific from the US to Australia. My only around-the-world trip was flown in two weeks in 2008; it ranked only 11th by distance on my personal flight log as it was done in the upper half of the northern hemisphere. It was 18,692 miles (29,907 kms) and involved 57:45 hours travel time with 32:30 hours in the air. The route was Washington DC; Frankfurt, Germany; Milan, Italy; Frankfurt; Seoul, South Korea; Jeju Island, South Korea; Seoul; San Francisco; and Washington DC. It was a business trip and I wanted only two stopovers (Milan and Jeju), but to get a special fare, I needed at least three, so I stayed overnight at a hotel near Seoul airport. The good news is that I was in Business Class. [As a "practice run" for that trip, six days prior to starting it, I returned from a trip to Japan, 12 time zones in the opposite direction.] If one were planning to enjoy an around-the-world trip, one would take much longer, and one would almost certainly do it going west, to handle better the time changes.

In late 2011, I will do a similar trip, stopping off in Copenhagen, Denmark; Busan, South Korea; and Tokyo, Japan. However, I hope to spread out the flying over four weeks.

[In 2009, I visited the historic site of Petra in Jordan. While walking around the ruins I struck up a conversation with a retired man from Canada. He and a party of "well-heeled" tourists were on an all-First-Class National Geographic charter Boeing 757 that was going around the world in 30 days stopping off at major tourist attractions. The ticket price was around US$65,000/person, meals and accommodation included! How many tickets would you like?]

Is there anywhere you haven't been that you really want to go?

Yes. To start with, Slovenia and Croatia, the Pyramids of Egypt, Southern Spain and Morocco, Greece, Turkey, Bolivia, and New Zealand.

What's your favorite place?

I don't have one, really! I enjoy every place that I visit. You can have a bad time in some exotic location and a good time in a third-world slum; it all comes down to the attitude you have and the people that you meet.

What's it like in Business and First Class?

If I told you, I'd have to kill you! Well okay, as long as you promise not to tell anyone else.

As you might expect, it's much better than being in Economy Class especially if you need as much legroom as I do. Besides, the seats don't lay back far enough in Economy Class for me to get any reasonable sleep.

Being a frequent flyer, I get free domestic upgrades. Most domestic flights nowadays have only two classes of service, Economy and First, so I generally get to fly First Class without extra charge. (The domestic wide-body jet flights still have three classes.) Meals and drinks are sold up the back, but are complimentary up the front.

When flying international, the service is a significant step up from domestic, and most of my air travel now is international. My favorite plane used to be the Boeing 777, but now that United Airlines has converted its old fleet of 767s to lay-flat beds in Business Class, that is much nicer even though I'm still a bit long at one end to completely fit. You get a small suite with a large digital screen on a wall fixed in front of you, with movies, music, games, and language lessons all on-demand. Meals involve at least three main choices and are always excellent. You also get a bowl of warm nuts and a drink on takeoff and a hot towel before the meal. On one Airbus flight, my seat/bed had seven separate moving parts, so it took a while for me to get it "just right". Then I saved those positions in memory in case I sat up again to eat and wanted to restore that position again.

I intentionally flew international First Class just once, and it was a memorable experience. And I'm happy to say that no one paid for it; I cashed in many frequent flyer miles. It was a Boeing 777 non-stop from Chicago to Buenos Aires, Argentina. There were 12 First-Class suites each of which ran the length of four side windows. I was one of only two passengers and we each had a flight attendant dedicated to us the whole trip. On arrival, I was met by a personal escort and taken to the First-Class lounge to await my on-going flight to Montevideo, Uruguay. When that flight was called, First-Class passengers were asked to stay behind until the last moment when we went down a private ramp to a limousine that drove us the 200 meters to the plane, arriving just as the last passenger disappeared up the stairway. The plane door was closed as we sat down, and we were off. I guess, if you are paying for a First-Class ticket, time really is money! Needless to say that on the return trip I was infinitely wiser as I knew what to expect.

In 2010, I rode First Class from Frankfurt to Washington DC, and then in both directions from Washington DC to Tokyo. First Class passengers have their own airport lounge separate from Business Class passengers. In the Tokyo lounge, the first person I saw on entering was a former US Federal Senator who served as Secretary of Defense. Fortunately, he followed strict First-Class lounge protocol, and didn't make a fuss on seeing me!

By the way, on average, an international Business-Class ticket costs about four times that for Economy, while that for a First Class runs 10–12 times. Start saving your pennies (or frequent-flyer miles)!

Have you had any unusual flying experiences?

Several come to mind. The first took place while I was at a primitive jungle camp on the Amazon in Peru. We were about to board a boat for the 6-hour trip back to base camp when an oil-company floatplane touched down on the river next to us. After some discussion with the pilot, our guide announced that the pilot was flying to the same place we were headed and that he could take several people with him if we wanted to go, for about $30 each. The trip would take less than an hour. I volunteered as did one other guy, and we were off bouncing along the water trying to get enough takeoff speed. All the controls were in English, which the pilot didn't speak, and a few things seemed to be tied together with string, but, hey, it was an adventure. Being in a floatplane, we had to follow the waterways so we could land in an emergency. It was only when the pilot took short cuts over the jungle that I worried a bit.

I flew from Caracas, Venezuela, in a Boeing 727-100, which is like a VW Beetle with a V8 engine! I was headed for Canaima near the base of Angel Falls, the world's tallest waterfall. However, instead of stopping at the airport the pilot raced up the valley giving the passengers—first on the one side and then on the other—a bird's eye view of the 1,000-meter falls "just out the window". It was not your typical jet flight and most tourist destinations would charge you $100+ to do that in a small plane.

In central Maine, I went out in a small plane on a snow survey; that is, to measure how much snow was on the ground. We took off on wheels, but lowered skis to land on frozen lakes. At least one of the lakes had frozen during high winds resulting in ice that was far from flat, which made for a very rough landing. Note that you have no brakes when landing on skis.

Going the Extra Mile (or Not)

Sometimes things don't go right despite the best planning. I have been fortunate in my travels and hosting experiences; few bad trips or guests come to mind, and those that do were often the result of poor communication or over-optimistic expectations. I can recall four situations although none of them was a problem for me. In three of the cases, I had the means to solve the problem and I did. In the fourth case, the guest annoyed me to the point I no longer wanted to help her and was happy when she departed.

The first involved two young German students. They planned to go to Florida by driving a car there for a moving company that was relocating someone. There, they would buy a car and travel around the US. What they didn't know was that they might have to wait a week or more in Washington DC before a "moving job" came along. As they couldn't afford to hang around—and no job was forthcoming—they didn't know what to do. I suggested that they buy a car locally and drive that to Florida. So, I spent a day with them locating a dealer that sold cars for less than $2,000, getting them insurance, registration, emergency roadside service membership, and travel maps. They had made no provision for insurance—which for single men under the age of 25 cost them 45% as much again as they'd paid for the car! On the 4th day, we waved goodbye and they drove right across country (via Mexico despite my warning that they not go that way) and back again, all in 3 months. They had one roadside emergency (for which they got free service) and one repair in Mexico, and at the end of their trip, they sold the car for the same price they'd paid.

The second case involved a nice woman from Sweden. She'd been in the US for 4 months attending some training program during which she'd decided to extend her stay afterwards for personal travel. She'd made the change with the airline over the phone, but had not understood that the change was tentative and that if she didn't go to a local agent's office to present the ticket and get the change authorized the change would be voided. Several months later, when she got to my place and we called to confirm her ticket we learned that with her special fare the change she thought she had would now cost a lot of money as it was high season. Not only was that a shock to her, but she didn't have the money. Anyway, I took her to the airport during a slow time of the day. We got a very nice and understanding agent who went off to speak to her (also understanding) manager. While they couldn't waive the whole fee, they did offer to reduce it significantly. I spoke to my guest and explained to her that the ticketing endorsement process that she's failed to do was a common requirement and that they were being more than reasonable, so she should take the offer. When she raised the issue of the remaining money needed, I asked her if she was an honest and honorable person and she replied that she was. Then I offered to lend her the money. Some four months later, she sent me a bank draft for the full amount. The vast majority of people can be trusted!

The third case involved a Dutch woman at the Montevideo international airport in Uruguay. She had no traveler's checks or cash, just a cash machine card. Unfortunately, she couldn't get the cash machine to work, and its being entirely in Spanish didn't help. As I arrived, she was in tears with no Plan B and feeling very sorry for herself after a long flight from Europe. I too failed to get money from the machine, but I did have US$100 in $20 bills, so I went to the airport bank. Unfortunately, the bills had been printed/cut off-center, and the bank said they looked like forgeries and refused to change them. I pleaded for a bit and, finally, they relented and changed $20. With the proceeds, I bought two bus tickets to the city center, and took my newly acquired Dutch friend with me. There, I found a cheap hotel and paid for two rooms. I found a moneychanger who happily changed the remainder of my "funny looking" bills and my friend found a cash machine that worked. With that, she was able to pay me back, along with 50% interest! (I'm joking of course; I only charged her 30%.)

The final case involved a teacher from France who was with us for 10 days as part of a teacher-hosting program. The basic program had them in country for 30 days, but gave them an option of arriving earlier and/or staying afterwards for an extended trip. However, to do so they must declare that up-front; being high season, they would not be able to change the trip once it started. Well little Miss Know-it-All claimed to be very well traveled, knew the airline policies, and was certain she could change her ticket at any time without penalty. However, when she tried to do from my house she was quoted a change fee of more than $1,000 and from that point on everything and anything American was associated with the Devil and she was the victim of discrimination (she was a black African originally from Senegal). As it happened, she couldn't afford the fee or didn't want to pay it and had to leave several days earlier than she'd planned. We'd organized a reception party for her with a group of our friends. As it turned out, she couldn't attend as she'd already departed and I must say her presence was not missed one bit.


In conclusion, let me say that I have never lost any luggage for more than a few days. When I think of the huge numbers of planes, routes, and passengers all "in play" around the world at any one time, I truly am amazed that anything gets delivered to the right place at all let alone on time. It really is a logistics problem to be appreciated; yet most people only notice it when it breaks down. As such, I always say "Thanks" to agents and crew as I board or deplane. The vast majority of them really are doing the best they possibly can, and a kind word gets more assistance than does abuse.

What is Normal - Part 3: Money

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

When I was eight or nine, based on an ad in a kids magazine I sent off for a starter set of coins for a collection. Some of them were rather exotic and they all came from faraway places. Although I have only a few of those original coins now, I do have a large set of coins and banknotes that I have collected during the past 30+ years on my visits to 50-odd regions of the world. In more than a few cases, the country I was visiting was in the process of changing its currency, in which case, I often got a set of the old and the new. In the case of banknotes—sometimes called bills or notes—I limit them to amounts worth less than US$10. I also have a habit of looking at my change and I often spot an uncommon special-issue coin or banknote. After many years of having my collection stored in plastic bags and boxes, I finally got around to mounting it into sheets of plastic holders and 3-ring binders.

As we shall see below, not all monetary systems are created equal. Remember, normal is relative—things can and do vary dramatically from one country to the next.

How Well do You Know Your Money?

Most people take money for granted; they work, they earn money, and they save and/or spend it. [I've heard two theories regarding spending vs. saving: "Money is made round to go 'round", and "Money is made flat to put in a stack."] Many people don't notice or know the names of the people and scenes depicted on the currency that they use every day. [Attention Americans: Which US banknotes feature people who were not presidents? On the penny, does Lincoln face left or right? No peeking now!]

Here are some questions for you regarding your own currency system, and money, in general:

  • Who are the faces on each of your coins?
  • Who are the faces, or what are the scenes, on each of your banknotes?
  • Some coins contain Latin inscriptions. If you have any such coins, what do the inscriptions mean? (For example, US coins have e pluribus unum.)
  • Why does my name (Rex) appear in some (typically older British Commonwealth) coins? And when might it start appearing again on new coins?
  • Are living people ever shown on coins or banknotes?
  • In some cultures, coins have heads and tails sides. What are the formal names for those?
  • Do different denominations of banknotes have different colors and/or sizes?
  • What anti-counterfeiting measures, if any, do your banknotes contain?
  • Why is the same person on contemporary coins from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Fiji?
  • Where in North America is the Euro legal tender?

See later below for some answers and comments.

Currencies and Their Symbols

Most of us deal with one currency, our own local one, be it $, £, ¥, or €, for example. However, if we read articles that involve multiple currencies we might need more than local currency symbols. Let's take the case of Australia, Bahamas, Bermuda, Canada, Hong Kong, and the US, all of which use their own local dollar currency. How can we distinguish between them? Each currency has a 3-letter code of which the first two letters ordinarily correspond to the host country's code. The third letter denotes the currency. Together, they make up the 3-letter international currency code standard, ISO 4217. For example, the dollar currencies mentioned above have the following respective 3-letter names: AUD, BSD, BMD, CAD, HKD, and USD. Non-dollar currencies use the same naming scheme; for example, Chinese Yuan (CNY), Danish kroner (DKK), Japanese yen (JPY), South African rand (ZAR), Swiss franc (CHF), and UK pound (GBP). [Yes, the GB designation ignores Northern Ireland.] One exception to this naming scheme is the Euro, which has the 3-letter name EUR; it is not associated with any one country. Of course, if we read historic information about countries that have since adopted the Euro we'll see their previous currency codes; for example, Austrian shilling (ATS), French franc (FRF), German deutschmark (DEM), and Spanish peseta (ESP).

The most commonly traded currencies all have symbols, most of which are readily recognizable. However, if you have to write an amount in an electronic document and you have no way to enter the corresponding symbol, you can use the generic currency sign ¤, assuming your software supports it. It's a small circle with four short lines radiating out at 90-degree angles, as shown. Computer keyboards for some European languages actually have a key for this symbol.

Currency symbols can be misleading. For example, "When is a $ not a dollar?" Not only is that symbol used for dollar currencies, it is also used by peso currencies in numerous Latin American countries. [When Mexico issued its New Peso 20-odd years ago, it used the local notation N$.] The Japanese yen and Chinese Yuan share the ¥ symbol. The UK pound and some other pound currencies share the symbol £ with some lira currencies.

Currency Divisions and Denominations

To many people, currency is made up of two different units of which one larger unit is made up of 100 smaller units. The UK decimal pound, dollar currencies, and the Euro are examples. However, some currencies have three units.

Before decimal currency was introduced in numerous British Commonwealth countries (including my own, Australia), they used a pound, which was made up of 20 shillings, each of which was made up of 12 pence. This pounds, shillings, and pence system was often written as £sd, or lsd, from the Latin words librae, solidi, and denarii. Although many countries used a dollar for their decimal currency, the UK kept the pound, but instead of its having 20 shillings, or 240 old pence, it had 100 new pence.

In 2009, I visited Jordan, whose currency is the dinar (JOD), which is divided into 100 qirsh (or piastres) or 1,000 fils. It's a decimal system, but it has three units. However, it appears that fils are fading from use, as one cannot buy anything with such small-valued coins.

The currency of China is the Yuan, which, domestically, is referred to as Renminbi. 1 Yuan is 10 Jiao, and 1 Jiao is 10 Fen. Again, it appears that the smallest unit is fading from use.

So are there any currencies that have only one unit. Yes, and probably the best known is the Japanese Yen (JPY). Prior to the Euro, Italy had a single-unit currency, the Italian lira (ITL). Italy was my first port of call in Europe, and I remember well buying a pair of shoes there for 30,000 lira, which sounded like a lot of money.

For the most part, coin denominations are unsurprising, such as 1, 5, 10, and 50; however, a few things warrant a mention:

  • Dollar currencies in North America and the Caribbean use a 25-cent coin while those in Asia and Australasia use a 20-cent coin.
  • Some dollar (and other decimal) currencies have a 2-cent coin.
  • Various old-time pound currencies, in which the third unit was the penny, had a halfpenny (pronounced ha'penny), and a quarter penny (called a farthing).
  • Some coins have their own names separate from their value; for example, in the US, a 1-cent coin is called a penny, a 5-cent coin is a nickel, a 10-cent coin is a dime, and a 25-cent coin is a quarter. To some old-timers, a quarter is also 2 bits. Some old British Commonwealth currencies had quid, crown, half-crown, sovereign, guinea, and florin.

Millionaire for a Day

According to Wikipedia, inflation "is a rise in the general level of prices of goods and services in an economy over a period of time Inflation". As we have seen—and some of you might have experienced first-hand—there is inflation and there is INFLATION! While in western countries we talk about annual inflation in the order of 2–5% per year, the inflation rate in Zimbabwe in 2008 was 98% per day, which meant that prices doubled every 24.7 hours! [I'm reminded of a cartoon I once saw in which a shopper recalled how she used to take a purse full of cash to buy a cart full of groceries, but, these days, she spends a cart full of cash on a purse full of groceries!]

As inflation ramped up in Argentina in the 1980's, the government introduced the austral, which was equal to 10,000 pesos. But then came hyperinflation, during which prices climbed more than 100% some months, and 10,000; 50,000; and 500,000 australes banknotes were issued. I happened to be there in 1991, just before they introduced the new peso at a rate of 10,000 australes. When I changed money at the land border with Chile after having crossed the Patagonia, I got a bunch of those "big bills". For a day, I was a millionaire, although the buying power of my stake was pretty low. One interesting byproduct of that was there were no coins. To use a pay phone, I had to go to a kiosk to buy a metal slug that I then inserted into the phone.

I was also in Mexico when they divided their peso currency ($) by 100 to get the new peso (N$).

Another well-known inflationary event took place in the Germany's Weimar Republic between 1921 and 1923. I have a 10 million Mark banknote from 1923.

The Euro

If you have traveled to Europe in recent years, you'll almost certainly have encountered the Euro. At a glance, the banknotes from each country look the same, and they are, except that the series number prefix does indicate the country in which each one was printed. The coins are another matter altogether. The design on the front of each coin is the same across all countries, although there are now two different sets. (A quick look at the older set shows that Norway is missing from Scandinavia leaving a suggestive image of manhood formed by Sweden and Finland.) Those countries that adopted the Euro after the second design was introduced only use that new one while the early adopters have both. The backside of each country's coins was chosen by various means within each country. For example, Ireland chose the harp for all eight denominations, Greece chose eight different images, and some other countries chose one image for the 1-, 2-, and 5-cent, another for the 10-, 20-, and 50-cent, and a third for the 1- and 2-Euro. (See the European Central Bank's web site for the details of each coin and banknote set.)

In 2009, I was at the Vatican City [preparing for sainthood, as you might expect!], which has its own set of Euro coins; however, they are not in circulation. Like stamps, they make for a big money spinner from the tourists. When I went to a souvenir store to ask about getting a set, I was politely informed that sets started at €130, which for eight coins having a face value of €3.88 seemed like a sin! Needless to say, I do not have any of those.

As inflation has eroded the value of many small coins, some countries round all financial amounts to the nearest multiple of 5. [In the case of Australia, this resulted in its removing its 1- and 2-cent coins from circulation.] In the case of Finland, although 1- and 2-cent coins were minted [you can buy them from coin shops] they are not in circulation. Now, the 1- and 2-cent coins are legal tender in all countries that support the Euro. So, must a Finnish merchant accept five 1-cent coins from Germany or France, for example, as payment for a 5-cent bill? I don't know.

France has several overseas departments all of which are formally part of that country. As such, they use the Euro. These include Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, French Guiana in South America, and Réunion in the Indian Ocean. Although numerous former French colonies used a franc currency that was tied to the French Franc (FRF), they do not now use the Euro. Instead, they use the Central African CFA franc (XAF), the West African CFA franc (XOF), or the French Pacific Franc (XPF), among others, which are tied to the Euro.

Uncommon but Valid Denominations

When I arrived in the US in 1979, a dollar coin had been introduced and there was a big promotion to get people to use it. However, as the new coin was almost the same size and thickness as the quarter (25 cents), this Susan B. Anthony coin never took off. A few years ago, a larger and different colored dollar coin featuring Sacajawea was introduced, but it too languishes. [In my humble opinion, so long as the $1 bill is kept in circulation no dollar coin will become mainstream in the US. Note that a US$1 bill wears out—and gets shredded—in less than a year while an equivalent coin will last many years.]

The US also has a 50-cent coin and a $2 bill; however, they are almost "as rare as hen's teeth". In fact, many Americans don't even know they exist. The main problem is that cash drawers do not have extra places to put these two denominations, so when they are received in payment, the cashier puts them in the space under the cash drawer.

More than 25 years ago, when I made my first trip to Disneyland I got Disney dollars, $1 bills with Mickey's face on them. Interestingly, in recent years here in the US, there has been a surge in the creation and use of private currency that is only accepted within some small geographical area only. Apparently, this was to encourage inhabitants to spend locally.

Privately Issued Currency

The first time I came across an instance of a non-governmental name on currency was in 1979 in Hong Kong. Back then, equivalent sets of banknotes were issued containing the names The Chartered Bank and The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. [The latter's abbreviated name is HSBC, which is now a well-known worldwide bank.] When I went back to Hong Kong in 2005, it had become a Special Administrative Region of China, and an extra set of banknotes labeled Bank of China (Hong Kong) was in circulation.

The next instance was in Scotland where I found banknotes issued by The Royal Bank of Scotland Limited, Bank of Scotland, and Clydesdale Bank PLC. According to Wikipedia, there have been eight issuers of banknotes in Northern Ireland.

Just Where Can I Use a Given Currency?

Except for the Eurozone, for the most part, each country has its own currency, which is accepted throughout its territories. However, some currencies are used legally (and sometimes not so legally) outside their home country. The US$ is probably the most common. It is legal tender in Bermuda, the Dutch Antilles, East Timor, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Panama, among others.

Numerous towns in countries bordering the Eurozone also take Euros.

In 1992, I went to Russia. During my two weeks there, I never did change money legally. Given the steady increase in inflation back then, everyone was eager to change Rubles into hard currency (GBP, USD, or DEM) as a hedge. So whenever I needed Rubles, I didn't have to look far.

Special, Unusual, and Interesting Coins and Banknotes

Just when you thought you'd seen everything, along comes some new style of coin or banknote. Here are a few I've encountered:

  • 50-cent banknote (BSD)
  • $3 banknote (BSD)
  • 3 Ruble coin (RUR)
  • Square coins with rounded corners (ANG, BSD)
  • Coins with holes (DKK, JPY, NOK)
  • A 12-edged coin (the current 50-cent piece from Australia; believe it or not there is a World Record for the number of these that can be stood on edge one on top of another)
  • Coins having two pieces each made from a different metal (EUR, GBP, MXP)
  • Aluminum money so light coins can blow away out of one's hand (INR)
  • Bi-lingual banknotes (CAD, CHF, FIM)
  • Plastic banknotes (AUD). Yes, they do shrink when ironed!

And, of course, there are plenty of special-issue coins.

Overseas travel and currency exchange

How much is my currency worth abroad? There are many web sites that can give you up-to-the-minute rates of exchange for all the mainstream currencies. However, there are some things to understand before you lock in on a rate:

  • Traveler's checks are bought at a lower rate than that at which they are sold.
  • If you buy traveler's checks a long time in advance of your trip, the exchange rate could become more or less favorable before you use them.
  • Credit card companies often charge a 3% currency transaction fee when you are traveling abroad and using a currency different to that from home. This fee appears on your statement separate from the item bought, and might even be posted days later. Watch out!
  • Some hotels give you the option of paying your bill with your credit card in the local currency or in your home currency (at least for EUR, GBP, and USD). Understand what charges you credit card company tacks on before you do the comparison. (It's probably a moneymaking racket for the hotel.)
  • Too many people tell themselves that foreign money is confusing, thereby making it a self-fulfilling prophesy. Come up with a reasonable approximation of the local currency unit and don't hold out wads of cash to vendors and tell them to take what they need. Their needs might be quite a bit more than the transaction price.

Why do rates change? From time to time, national banks revalue their currency based on a number of factors that I won't go into here. Suffice it to say that a big swing can make your vacation abroad significantly cheaper or more expensive. (In recent years, I've stopping thinking about the cost when I use the EUR, GBP, and JPY.) In the 31 years I've been gone from Australia, the AUD went from USD 1.25 down to USD 0.65, and back up to USD 1.02.

Can I have a bank account in another country? Check with your tax agency. Most require you to declare foreign accounts, the account country might also need you to file a tax return in its country, and it might withhold taxes on any interest earned.

Can I have a bank account in the US recorded using another currency? I don't believe so. However, some countries do allow such accounts.

Based on personal experience, I have one warning to Americans in particular about using cash machines abroad, if they use a PIN containing letters instead of digits. US phones have had letters on them as well as numbers for a long time, and this trend naturally moved to keypads. However, this is not the case in many (most?) other countries. So, there I was in Alsace, France, wanting to get money from a cash machine; my PIN was alphanumeric, but the machine had only digits. As a result, I now have a list of the translation from letters to digits stored in my pocket computer. I can attest that it is very frustrating to have all the things that you need to get your cash, yet not be able to get at your cash!

Formatting Currency Amounts

Give 10 different cultures the task of developing a system of formatting numbers and currency amounts, and you may well get 10 different results. As part of my work in developing international standards for computer programming languages, here are some of the formatting differences I've had to deal with:

  • The radix point for some is the period (.) while that for others is the comma (,), as in USD 1.56 vs. EUR 1,56.
  • The "thousands" separator for some is the period (.) while that for others is the comma (,), as in USD 1,234 vs. EUR 1.234. The Swiss actually use a single quote, and, I believe, the French sometimes use non-breaking spaces. Now, I ask you, is that normal?
  • Note the quotes in "thousands" above. Some currencies group digits in other than blocks of three.
  • For some, the local currency symbol or international currency name is written as a prefix, while for others, it's written as a suffix.
  • As to how positive and negative signs/amounts or Debit/Credit indicators are printed varies widely.

The Envelope Please

Answers to the quiz:

  • Who are the faces on each of your coins? That depends on your currency, but they probably are past presidents, royalty, or national heroes.
  • Who are the faces, or what are the scenes, on each of your banknotes? Again, that depends on your currency, but they probably are past presidents, royalty, or national heroes. In many cases, they look like they suffered from constipation or very much needed to pass gas to release some pressure. In the case of the "politically correct" Euro, they were deliberately chosen to be abstract and not actual places.
  • Some coins contain Latin inscriptions. If you have any such coins, what do the inscriptions mean? (For example, US coins have e pluribus unum), which means, "Give us your poor, your tired, and your hungry", or in Chicago, "Give us your money, all of it!" (Actually, it means, "Out of many, one".)
  • Why does my name (Rex) appear in some (typically older British Commonwealth) coins? And when might it start appearing again on new coins? Rex is the Latin word for king (hence the name of this blog). In Latin and romance languages, adjectives follow the nouns to which they apply, so King George is written George Rex. As the Latin word for queen is Regina, contemporary British Commonwealth coins carry Elizabeth Regina. Standby for Charles Rex (maybe) and William Rex (fur shur dude).
  • Are living people ever shown on coins or banknotes? Yes. Usually they are reigning monarchs or not-so-benevolent dictators.
  • In some cultures, coins have heads and tails sides. What are the formal names for those? For coins, the front/heads side is the obverse, and the back/tails side is the reverse. These terms can also be used with banknotes, flags, and medals, among other things.
  • Do different denominations of banknotes have different colors and/or sizes? That depends on your currency. US banknotes used to all be the same size and color; however, now other colors are being added with each new re-design. Australian dollar (and numerous other currency) banknotes increase in width and/or length with each increasing denomination. Most currencies use different colors on different denominations
  • What anti-counterfeiting measures, if any, do your banknotes contain? They probably have one of more of the following: special paper, ink, serial numbers, watermarks, metallic threads, and holograms.
  • Why is the same person on contemporary coins from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Fiji? Because she's the Queen of England (and the British Commonwealth) and you're not!
  • Where in North America is the Euro legal tender? Formerly an overseas department of France, the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon—that are just off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada—are now an overseas collectivity.


On average, I make 4–6 international trips a year. As a result, I often have leftover currency from a previous trip. In fact, for emergency purposes, in my computer bag I keep about USD 20-worth of banknotes in each of the following currencies: US dollars, UK pounds, Japanese yen, Swiss francs, and Euros.

From 1999–2008, the US stopped making "standard" quarters. Instead, it issued 50 state quarters, 10 per year, in the order of each state's joining the union. Now if you have all 50 (I'm still missing a couple), you may think you have a full set, but quarters were also issued for each of the federal territories. And to make it more challenging, US coins are branded P or D depending on whether they were made at the Philadelphia or Denver mints, respectively. So a full set is 50 Ps and 50 Ds! And now we've got special-issue nickels and dollars.

If you are looking for a unique gift for that hard-to-shop-for friend, see if your national mint (or private coin shop) sells packets of shredded banknotes that have been taken out of circulation. You might also be able to buy uncut sheets of banknotes. (For example, the US Mint sells sheets of sixteen $1 bills. Hmm, I wonder what my creditors would say if I tried to pay them with such sheets?)

People around the world know that the US Secret Service is charged with protecting current and former US leaders and their families. You know, those men and women always talking into their lapel in movies! Nowadays, this service is part of the Department of Homeland Security; however, when the service was created in 1865, it was part of the Treasury Department, where its initial responsibility was to deal with crimes relating to that department, such as counterfeiting. It still plays that role today. It wasn't until 1901 that the service started protecting presidents (by which time three presidents had been assassinated).


Talk is Cheap. Write it Down

© 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

How many times have you heard people say something like, "I'd really like to travel more", "I've always dreamed of being a writer, actor, …", or "I'd like to learn to play an instrument, learn a language, paint, …, but I really don't have the time". Maybe you've heard yourself say it, or at least you've thought it.

In this essay, I'll explore what I perceive to be the four stages of turning a dream into reality and why many people don't have what it takes to go beyond the first one or two stages.

Interestingly, this essay is an instance of what it preaches. I've been thinking about this topic for a long while, and I've been talking about it and promoting it for a couple of years. Now, I've decided to follow my own advice and to write it down.

For the past two years, I've been mentoring high school seniors at a non-traditional school. Their ages have ranged from 18 to 22. One recurring event in which I participate is a Careers Day at which I talk about being self-employed. [A future essay will address that topic.] One of the things I ask students to take away from my presentation is the subject of this essay. By following my own suggestions, not only am I producing something that future students can access readily, and read and digest beyond our meeting, I also get to test and refine the process along the way.

Stage 1: Dreaming the Dream

While talk certainly is cheap, daydreaming is free! Daydreaming really has no boundaries except those of your imagination. And if you are lacking in imagination, you are likely to be lacking in stimulation. Of course, there is no way to know what others daydream about, but I suspect that even the most outwardly conservative people can and do have vivid imaginations. The safest thing about daydreaming is that you can't embarrass yourself.

One thing that keeps us dreaming about a particular topic is what I call the Romantic Factor. We see or hear of something that interests us and we fall in love with the idea of doing it ourselves. Note carefully that I said, "… fall in love with the idea", which is not the same as actually doing something. For example, more than a few teachers of writing have said that most people who claim to want to be published are more in love with the idea of being published than they are with actually being published.

Let me provide a tangible example of a high Romantic Factor, speaking a foreign language. Perhaps you've seen some movies, read books, or spoken to people about travel abroad to a country whose language you don't speak. Wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to go there and bargain in the local markets, order food and drink at an off-the-beaten-track restaurant, shop in a supermarket, and walk the backstreets and chat to the locals about everyday life? [My view is that it definitely is wonderful even though my foreign language skills are basic.]

Here's another case, which involves the perceived glamor of being self-employed. Wouldn't it be great to be your own boss? You could work whatever hours you liked, take long vacations, lease a luxury car for business purposes, travel on business in style, and rub shoulders with the movers and shakers.

Dreaming is fine, but only up to a point. I'm sure than more than a few of us have dreamed about winning the lottery. However, that turns out not to be a good thing on which to base one's financial planning. [I once had a tenant who got so far behind in his rent that I evicted him. He left almost all of his belongings behind (including $125 in loose change scattered around the apartment). As I was cleaning out his kitchen drawers, I found dozens and dozens of lottery tickets, which he'd apparently bought in the hopes of solving his financial problems. Not only did he not win the lottery, he'd spent a lot of money trying.]

Sooner or later, for all but your admitted fantasies [for suggestions, see Austin Powers' list of "10 things to do before I die"] you should try to figure out if the dream can be made real, and if so, how. And if it really isn't going to happen, you can put more effort into other endeavors. If you don't get beyond the dreaming stage, you won't make any progress at all towards your supposed goal. That is not to say that dreaming about seemingly unreachable goals is wasted time. A little fantasy can help relieve the drudgery of everyday life, and it can challenge you to strive for higher goals.

In my own case, for years I had two significant things on my dream list: learning to play a musical instrument, and improving one or more of my foreign languages or learning a new language. After years of dreaming about playing a number of instruments, composing, writing lyrics, and producing, several years ago I admitted to myself that it was never going to happen. As I saw it, the main obstacle was simple: I wanted to be better than just okay at any musical pursuit, but I didn't have the discipline or want to give up the time it would take to practice to get to the level I wanted. It seemed to me that with music I'd have to put in a lot of effort before I could reap much reward whereas with a foreign language, every hour I spent on it could be useful immediately. [I expect to get comments on this especially from musicians who might respond that one can play quite a bit on a guitar, for example, after learning just a few chords. If they argue well enough, maybe I'll be convinced to put some form of music-related activity back on my dream list!]

In summary then, daydreaming is free, it's easy, it's temporary, and it carries little or no risk. It also requires absolutely no commitment, and therein is its limitation.

Stage 2: Talking the Talk

When talking, you generally get to choose your audience, the two main types of which involve friends and strangers. In the first case, there is little risk. In many instances, you are "preaching to the choir"; you and your audience mostly agree on the issue at hand, and your words need not be polished or even thought through. Many of your lines are throwaway. On the other hand, with strangers there can be a lot of risk. First impressions can often be lasting impressions, and unpolished words or half-baked opinions can and will count against you especially if you have to get along with the same people in the future.

Regarding commitment to what you say, consider the case in which your words are being recorded and could be played back by anyone at any time in the future (such as when you are running for public office). In such circumstances, you very likely will take much more care with what you say and how you say it.

If you have an idea about which you want constructive feedback, then choose your audience accordingly. For example, ask questions of others who are in the business of interest or might otherwise be qualified to comment. Speaking only with those who agree with you is unlikely to allow you to develop your idea fully. Also, start out with just one other person, and as your idea gathers support and you gain confidence, increase your audience. Be sure to acknowledge others' contributions and note that conceding points can enhance your credibility. The more flexible you are the easier and quicker you'll be able to move your idea along. Be ready to modify your idea as you get constructive feedback, and don't insist that your exact original idea be retained at all costs.

In summary, talking takes at least a little bit of effort, it can be easy or hard, it's as permanent as the listeners' memory, and it can carry little-to-lots of risk. It requires at least some short-term commitment, but you can do it with a different audience each time. And talking about a topic can help you determine whether you are serious about it.

Oh, by the way, when talking never miss a good opportunity to shut up! [Author makes note to follow this advice!]

Stage 3: Writing it Down

Of those ideas that make it through Stage 2, the vast majority doesn't make it through Stage 3. This stage pretty much weeds out the pretenders because it requires much more discipline than most people have. (Yes, dear reader, you may well fall in that category.)

It is most important to understand that what you write down in this stage is intended initially for an audience of one, you! The idea here is first to write down enough information to allow you to decide whether the idea really is viable and makes sense, and if so, then to write down sufficient detail on how to implement it. (These two activities might be iterative.) If you can't specify in writing what it is you intend to do and how you intend to do it, how can you reasonably expect to be able to implement completely and efficiently anything other than the simplest task?

While Stages 1 and 2 involve transient actions, Stage 3 is all about permanence, and this is your chance to eliminate the Romantic Factor I mentioned earlier. When we dream or talk about an idea we often dwell primarily—if not only—on the positive aspects. People are very good at putting from their minds the downsides of things. The challenge in this stage is to write down all your thoughts, both positive and negative. That way, when you next start to think about the topic in question, you have the cumulative knowledge you've written as a starting point. There is absolutely no point in omitting anything from the written log that might be relevant. If you find yourself doing that, you are being dishonest with yourself and you very likely will be headed for unpleasant surprises if not failure.

Let's revisit the perceived glamor of being self-employed mentioned in Stage 2. You could work whatever hours you liked and take long vacations: Ok, so who will cover for you when you are not on the job? Will you have a business partner? Will you have a key employee who you can trust to make decisions in your absence? If you have a key employee then you have employees, which implies a whole other set of issues with respect to payroll, benefits, and such. Who will sign the paychecks in your absence?

Ok, so you don't have a partner or any employees, then what happens if you get sick for an extended period? Who covers for you on projects that you are contractually committed to deliver by a certain date?

To write-off expenses such as a luxury car or traveling in style, first you have to make enough money to cover those expenses. And as far as rubbing shoulders with the movers and shakers, how will you get introduced to that crowd and how will you sustain your membership?

It has been my experience that newly self-employed people who have not done their homework seriously underestimate the cost of doing business. (Such things include the need for and subsequent cost of business licenses and retirement/health taxes, insurance, and benefits). They simply are way too focused on the Romantic Factor and almost certainly haven't completed Stage 3.

Note that it is okay to share your written work with others, and indeed, there are advantages to doing so. Just chose your reviewers wisely and ask for, and be ready to receive, constructive criticism. For big decisions, you definitely should share your written plan with others, and in some cases, you'll have to if you want their support. Better to identify any flaws during a walkthrough than to find them during actual implementation. The good news is that the process of writing it down quite often exposes any weaknesses it contains.

In summary then, if dreaming is raw and talking is half-baked, writing down an idea gives it a chance to get it baked enough that it can actually be achieved. Because of the effort needed to complete this stage, those ideas that make it through have a high probability of success.

It is important to recognize that, together, Stages 2 and 3 might need to be repeated as you get more and/or better information.

Stage 4: Walking the Walk

Assuming that you now have a viable plan for success, there still can remain some serious obstacles. For example, implementation might require spending a non-trivial amount of money. Do you have it? If not, can you get it at a reasonable interest rate? Can you bring yourself to write out that large check? Implementation might require the support of a friend, parent, or partner. Now that you are "down to the wire" are they really on-board with the plan?

While a theoretical plan might look good, are all your assumptions realistic? Although you may be a great technical person for the task at hand, are you willing and able to handle the supporting administration needed to make it successful long term? That becomes especially relevant if you consider hiring employees.

Consider a phased approach if possible; that is, see if there is a way to "test the waters" before committing to the whole project. Note, however, that a danger of this is that you will under-commit to the test implementation such that it doesn't have what it needs to succeed. [In my own case, I went into business for myself, I bought a house, and my first child was born, all in the same couple of months. I certainly had some incentive to succeed.]

It is worth noting the following saying from US President Calvin "Silent Cal" Coolidge: "Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent; Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb; Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."


It is possible that by the end of Stage 3, you have convinced yourself not to go down a certain path, and that's okay! It is far better to be going or not going in a particular direction by design rather than by accident. [In the words of "The Quiet Beatle" (George Harrison): "If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there."]

Now, go forth and turn one or more of your dreams into reality by "writing it down!"

[Thanks much to Shawn for his careful review.]

Waiting My Turn

© 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

Recently, I was sitting in the waiting room of an embassy in order to get a visa, and I started thinking about all those times I'd stood in line or taken a number and waited my turn. After 15 minutes, I had recalled quite a number of such occasions, and I decided to describe some of them in this essay.

Travel Visas

In 1979, after seven weeks of travel through Asia and Europe, I arrived in London. The next day, I fronted up at the US Embassy to get my 1-year work visa with the very naïve attitude that I would be "in and out" in double-quick time. [Measured in geological time, I was!] After a considerable wait in line, I got to the end of a corridor, which opened out into a huge room populated by many hundreds of people waiting in lines that snaked back and forth across the wide room. I discovered that my little line was now at the very end of another very long line. Hours later, my paperwork was accepted and I was told to come back in four days, which was about three days longer than I'd expected. [That was my very first time getting a visa in person; 31 years and a million and a half air miles later, I'm much wiser.]

In 1991, I received an invitation from a professor at a university in St. Petersburg, Russia, inviting me to go there and present a series of lectures over a 2-week period. After some dialog via email, I accepted his kind offer and decided to combine it with a holiday and to take my wife and son the following summer. I contacted the Russian embassy in Washington DC to see how to go about getting visas. They said I needed a letter of invitation on letterhead from the sponsoring organization. Less than a week after I conveyed that information to the university by email, I received a letter in the post from New York (where it had been hand-carried by someone on a flight from Russia) written in both Russian and English. I went to the embassy with my filled-out application form, photo, and letter. There were quite a few counters, but only one was open, so I got in the long line. When it was my turn, the officer took my papers and told me to sit and wait while the papers were examined. Sometime later, I was informed that everything regarding my application was okay, but where were the invitations for my wife and son? I explained that while I wanted a business visa, my wife and son would be going as tourists, but the officer insisted they still needed invitations. Two weeks later, I returned with said invitations, and was promptly issued three business visas. Yes, my 8-year-old son was apparently going there on business.

[By the way, I had to pay my own way to get to Russia, but the university provided me with housing and a translator/guide, and paid me an honorarium (which turned out to be 9 Rubles, less than US$10 at the then rate of exchange). Also, like the then just-passed Soviet days, we were issued loose-leaf visas that were handed in when we left the country, which meant that we had no permanent record of having been there. I was actually in country a day or two when I noticed on the visa, text that said I had to report to my local area authorities to let them know my movements; however, that was another Soviet-era holdover, and I ignored it.]

I've traveled to South Korea twice now, and both times, I got a visa from the Washington DC embassy after the usual waiting in line and having them send me my passport by mail a week later. The Korean embassy on-line website rules are clear; I needed to have a visa, yet few of my colleagues got one and they were admitted. And when I went through immigration each time in Seoul, no one seemed interested in checking if I had one. It was all quite odd.

My most recent experience was at the Chinese Embassy. On arrival, I took a number and sat, and to pass the time I made notes about this blog essay. Rather than come back and go through the whole process later in the week (the embassy required in-person pickup) I decided to pay for same-day service. I had arrived at 10 am, to discover than only those applicants with a number issued by 12:30 pm could get their visa on the same day. An hour went by then two, and I feared I'd been waiting for nothing when all of a sudden, a whole series of numbers that were called went unanswered, and I was at the counter lodging my application. I was told to be back at 2:30 pm sharp, and I was, to find a shiny new visa.

Waiting in Airports

Almost all of my flights have run pretty close to schedule and I've never lost permanently any checked luggage. However, I have had some delays at airports. Fortunately, none had any truly serious implications and all have made me appreciate the success that occurs most often. You know, if you don't have bad times, you really can't appreciate the good times either!

I was flying from Linate, the old airport near downtown Milan, Italy. It's located in a low-lying area prone to fog, which contributes significantly to flight delays. And I fell victim. I was connecting in Frankfurt, Germany, and soon after we touched down at FRA, we taxied past the very plane on which I was to go home to the US. However, FRA truly is a huge airport, and by the time we got to our gate in a completely separate terminal and I then got to my departure gate, my connecting flight had been gone 20 minutes. After a long wait in line, the airline took responsibility and checked me into the airport hotel. [I didn't mind getting home a day late, but my next trip was to Australia—in three days—so I didn't want to miss more than one day. As it happened, I slept through my alarm the following morning and nearly missed my make-up flight. Don't you hate that when that happens?]

After a grueling pair of flights from Washington DC to Sydney, Australia, via Los Angeles, I spent eight not-so-wonderful hours in an airport business lounge waiting for a flight to Singapore. And although that flight departed on time, the audio and video equipment was not working, which was a major embarrassment to the Asian airline staff. As a small token of appreciation for our understanding, they handed each boarding passenger a box of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. I thanked them for the nuts and then promptly crashed for four hours of sleep. I awoke to find a flight attendant hovering near me waiting to get my attention. Using her flight manifest, she confirmed I was who she thought I was, and then asked me to follow her to the galley for a private chat. There, she apologized for the lack of facilities en-route and that as a distinguished Star Alliance customer I was entitled to more compensation than a box of chocolates, and she gave me a $75 voucher to spend in-flight from the duty-free catalog. [On the return flight, I remembered the voucher and looked in the catalog to find something I might actually use, a 4GB computer memory stick, and for exactly $75, don't you know! However, when I ordered that the flight attendant came to apologize that due to currency exchange rate fluctuations the price had increased. It was would now cost $76 instead! I cheerfully paid the dollar difference.]

Many years ago, when my son was still quite small, we had an unexpected 8-hour delay, due to fog and low clouds. Being regular travelers, we always had a Plan B (even for Plan B), and we put that into action. We took out our Uno card game and started playing on a large table in the waiting area. Soon after, kids started noticing us having fun and they wandered over to take a look. Now the game requires no knowledge of any particular language, and soon, I was like the Pied Piper of Hamlyn, leading a whole bevy of kids from different countries, cultures, and languages enthusiastically calling out "Reverse", "Skip You", and "Draw Four". [To this day, I continue to be astounded by the high percentage of parents who don't take activities for their kids when a wait of any kind is possible, be it at an airport, a train station, on a flight or train trip, waiting at the Doctor's office, and so on.]

Probably the worse delay-related event I witnessed at an airport happened on the way home from Puerto Rico one Christmas. We had to change planes in Orlando, Florida, and our airline—which had gone bankrupt some months earlier—had been taken over by a cruise line, which, it appeared, knew nothing about running an airline. Everything about the process from start to finish was quite chaotic. There is nothing like a disenchanted crowd to increase the stupidity level of some people. Once a series of delays and extended delays was announced, the natives got very restless, and policemen riding mountain bikes around the terminal arrived to "deal" with the situation. A super-aggressive woman traveling with several kids was arrested in front of us and her kids were taken away and placed in protective custody. Right about then, I steered my family out of the boarding gate area to the main check-in desk where we could reschedule our flight for the next day. Although we were second in line, the woman in front of us (who was stranded for the same reason) was so abusive to the gate agent that when her business was completed the agent went into the back room and didn't come out again for 15 minutes. The passenger's husband (who was minding their three kids nearby) was so embarrassed by his wife's actions that he apologized profusely. My son could not believe his eyes and ears that night.

At this point, I'm reminded of the story about the self-important person whose flight was cancelled as he waited in the boarding area. A gate agent announced if everyone would form several lines at the counter they would be placed on the next available flight. This insecure VIP-wannabe pushed his way to the front demanding he get special treatment, but the woman agent asked him politely to "Please get in line". He responding by saying, "Do you know who I am?" The agent calmly picked up the PA microphone and announced to the waiting throng, "There is a man up front here who doesn't know who he is. If anyone can identify him, please come to the counter." The angry passenger replied, "F**k you lady!" to which she calmly replied, "Sir, you'll have to get in line for that too!"

Security Checkpoints

In the late 70's, I landed at Bangkok's international airport. As martial law was in force, there were uniformed and heavily armed soldiers throughout the terminal. While I cannot honestly say there were lines, I'm pretty sure that if there were, I was quietly lining up in them with all the other also-very-quiet international tourists.

Several years later, I had my first trip to Germany at the height of the activities of the Baader-Meinhof Group, an offshoot of the Red Army Faction, which according to Wikipedia was "one of Germany's most violent left wing groups". On my departure, I had to put my checked luggage through a full X-ray scanner, which was a rather new idea at that time. German shepherd guard dogs also gave me a good sniffing over while heavily armed Federal Police scanned the crowd with watchful eyes. It certainly was no time for levity.

Perhaps the most extreme case I've experienced with airport security was at Helsinki International in 1992. My family and I had been in Russia for two weeks, and when we got back into Finland on the train, we sent one large case on to Helsinki to be stored at the main train station while we toured the country on a 1-week rail pass. On our day of departure from Helsinki, we retrieved our case from storage and went to the airport. When asked if our luggage had been out of our control since it was packed, I answered in the affirmative and explained it had been in storage at the train station. That triggered the Mother of all Searches. The three of us were herded to a cubicle big enough for one person, and were directed to empty the large case, which was then X-rayed empty several times. The staff was not at all friendly, and seemed disappointed not to find anything suspicious. Sometime later, we re-packed that case, and checked it in. We then settled in to the lounge at the check-in gate; however, when the in-bound flight arrived we were removed from the boarding area to an imaginary separate area, so we could have no contact with the passengers deplaning. It really was quite silly. The reason for all this was there was a G7 (or some such number) summit about to start in Helsinki, and world leaders were flying in to attend.

Customs and Immigration

My first memorable experience was in Bombay (now called Mumbai), India, at about 1 am, which is when many international flights arrive. [As a result, they depart again around 3am.] After we deplaned, we seemed to go from one line to another exchanging a token of one color for one of another as we moved. At the end, we finally got our luggage, but not before one customs agent came across a nice pen I had and, clearly, he wanted it. When I played dumb, he offered me a drippy cheap Indian ballpoint pen in exchange, and in the interest of getting processed sooner rather than later I accepted reluctantly. As best as we could tell, the whole multi-line thing was simply to give people employment. There certainly was no obvious practical value to it.

At the very next stop, Rome, Italy, we had the most arrogant customs inspector. I had purchased a new briefcase in Hong Kong, and it had straps that allowed it to be expanded several inches, and the inspector figured it had some sort of false bottom. So rather roughly, he tipped out the contents on a table and searched the case for a secret compartment. When he found none, he threw up his hands in disgust and walked away. We didn't know where he was going, but after waiting a while and his not returning, we simply packed up and left.

I wrote in the April 2010 installment (The Road to US Citizenship), 'I flew back to the US [from Peru] with a Peruvian airline, and came in through Miami, Florida, at around 6 am. There were three immigration agents, two handling American citizens and one handling the 150+ foreigners, me included. Once the handful of Americans had been processed, the two agents started chatting to each other. Eventually, they decided to help their colleague with his long line. But instead of taking the next person in line, one of them waved to me, where I stood about 50 people back in the line, and beckoned me to approach his desk. I told him that I was neither a citizen nor a permanent resident and he leaned over and spoke quietly in my ear saying, "I didn't think you looked like you belonged in that line!" Welcome to the US of A, the land of equality. Apparently, some people are more equal than are others!'

US Citizenship

Thirty days after I applied for US citizenship, I fronted up to a Federal Government facility to be fingerprinted. There were several hundred of us in line, and we were seated. As people were served off one of the lines of chairs, the rest of the line shuffled down to the end of their row or around to the next row. It was the only time I ever recall being in a seated line, and it worked remarkably well. The really amazing thing is that we all knew in advance that we'd have a 1–2-hour wait, yet very few people brought anything to do. And to top it off, mobile phones were banned. You had either to lock them in your car, or leave them at the desk when checking in. It was a very sorry looking, bored, fidgety group.

The White Man Cometh

My son was born in Washington DC, a federal territory of the Unites States. [For the purposes of this story, it is important to know that the majority of DC's population is black, and that my family is white.] Three months later, to get him a passport, we had to go to the District's "Births, Deaths, Marriages, etc." agency for a birth certificate. As he was born in the US of parents who were Australian citizens living legally in the US, he was entitled to dual citizenship, so we planned to apply for both US and Australian passports. As it happened, the Australian application required something special, a birth certificate that stated explicitly that it had been a live birth.

I recall clearly the day we went to get the two certificates, one for the US State Department, and one for the Australian embassy. It was a typical hot and humid summer's day and there was no air conditioning in the waiting room. There were a number of counters, but only one was open. And it looked like people had been waiting "forever" to get served. (As is often the case, you turn in your paperwork, then sit, and wait to get the results some time later.) We got to the front of the line without much of a wait, and expected to have to sit for a good while afterwards while the paperwork was processed. However, the person at the counter had never seen a request for a live-birth certificate before, so she called her supervisor. Well, the supervisor knew exactly what was needed and promptly opened up a second counter, processed our application completely in double-quick time, and then closed the counter again. For about 10 milliseconds, we were very happy, until we turned around to see the faces on the room full of black people who had not heard anything about our "special circumstance". As far as they were concerned, once again the white man had gotten special treatment. It was a very humbling experience.

Foreign Languages and Customs

I was in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1992, only a couple of years after things there had opened up. Although most things could be bought at free markets or on the street, the government controlled some staple things like bread and sugar. To buy these, one needed to go to one of a number of special outlets. So off we went, but we had our guide and translator, which was absolutely necessary. First, one had to get in a line to pay and get a chit for the purchased item. Then one had to get in a line at a counter to get the item. To try and avoid the cashiers selling things the store had run out of the cashiers were constantly calling out what they were selling, so the servers could keep track of what was popular. A similar thing occurred when I went to a department store to spend my 9-Rouble speaking fee on fine chocolates for the administrative staff that had supported my lecture series. Being an up-scale store, there were no lines, and I could go to the chocolate counter and see the items I wanted and their price, but I didn't know the Russian to go to the cashier way over on the other side of the floor to buy them. It's the only time in my international travels that I couldn't simply point at an item, hold out some cash, and have the salesperson take what they needed. Of course, the way they were doing it made no sense whatsoever; it simply was a holdover from the old Soviet days.

In the spring of 2009, I was at the main post office in Prague, Czech Republic, wanting to buy some postcard stamps. I waited for some time trying to figure out the line system when a helpful local took pity on me and led me to a machine that dispensed numbered tickets. It really is easy when you know how. So don't you know, I was in a train station in Tokyo, Japan, and there were two quite separate lines both needing tickets to enter. However, as I couldn't read the writing that explained the difference between the lines, I stood there with a puzzled look. And it worked; very soon, a young Japanese man approached me, bowed, and asked in heavily accented English if he could help me. And help me he did.

Bypassing the Lines

If you are a regular traveler, you might have enjoyed the perks of frequent travelership. In my case, my airline gives me a priority line at check in and at boarding. And my local airport gives me priority security processing (as do many others for First-and Business-Class Passengers). And having membership of the airline's business lounge, I get to wait in comfort, only going to the gate at the last possible minute. My rental car company provides express delivery where the airport bus drops me at my car, which is running with air conditioner or heater on, as appropriate. The US Immigration service even has express lanes for passengers re-entering the country from abroad. But, of course, all things come at some sort of price, be it an annual fee or membership in a travel club.

One facility that has been around now in my area for several years is self-service checkout at some supermarkets and a large hardware chain. Basically, it's an honor system. The customer swipes each item's barcode over a reader, pays by credit card, gets a printed receipt, and bags the purchases, all without staff intervention. Although the process is wide open to theft, it's encouraging that companies are willing to take that risk, and it must be paying off or they wouldn't continue with it. As for me, I try not to be in a hurry when I'm shopping, and I prefer the social dialog with the staff.

Unusual Lines

One such line comes to mind, people waiting to visit a toilet. Now this was no ordinary toilet, and the people were lined up to look at it, not use it. After a day of meetings in the beautiful city of Montreux, Switzerland, at the eastern end of Lake Geneva, a group of us took the funicular railway high up a mountain to a café for some drinks. Someone used the toilet there and, soon, the word spread about this state-of-the-art potty, so the techies amongst us just had to go and take a look. Well, it was quite a performance. At the end of one's business one pushed a button and watched the system go through its paces. The seat retracted into the body where it was washed and sterilized. The bowl flushed, it was washed, and the seat slid back out for the next person. Although my story might lose something in the translation, I must say it was worth the wait to see.

There's a famous Monty Python sketch in which a department store's customer service/complaints counter has a long line of people waiting to return or exchange things. One man has a defective flamethrower, which, from time to time, shoots flames all over the place. I'd say that was definitely an unusual line.

The Shortest lines

If you have to have a line, better it be shorter than not. Two kinds of short-line scenarios come to mind: using a small airport and flying international First Class. And I have had the privilege of doing both on a number of occasions. The international airports on the Dutch Caribbean islands of Saba and St. Eustacius are 1-room huts. They take informality to a whole new level. You know, the guy who loads your baggage, stamps your passport, and issues your ticket, well he also gets in and flies your plane!

I flew in a jet aircraft from Helsinki, Finland, to Ivalo 200 kms north of the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland. Only a couple flights a day departed and arrived and the terminal was a small log cabin. The plane carried its own retracting stairs, which were lowered as the cabin door opened. We were on the ground and reunited with our luggage within minutes. And to top it off a reindeer with a full rack of antlers wandered out of the woods to welcome us to Lapland. He sniffed around a bit and then went back into the trees.

As for the international First Class experience, my first time with that truly was outstanding and has yet to be repeated even though I've travelled First Class a number of times since. I was one of only two First Class passengers in an overnight flight from Chicago to Buenos Aires, Argentina. On arrival, I was met by a customer service agent who greeted me by name and took me to the First Class lounge to wait for my connecting flight to Montevideo, Uruguay. Sometime later, they announced Economy Class boarding and then Business Class boarding. Just when I thought the plane was going to leave without me (I could see it boarding 200 yards out on the tarmac), they collected us First Class passengers, took us down a ramp to a waiting limousine, which drove us to the stairs leading to the plane. The chauffer was careful to arrive only when all the other passengers had boarded, so we could go straight up the stairs without delay. As soon as we were seated, the doors were closed, and the plane took off. Now that's what I call not waiting! [And, don't tell anyone, but I was flying on a free ticket.]

If I understand correctly, when one has one's own private jet the lines are non-existent; however, I have yet to have that experience.


If you have never seen Mel Brooks' wild-west movie, "Blazing Saddles", I highly recommend it. The scene that is relevant to this essay is the one in which a gang of crooks is riding across the desert and they came across a tollbooth and have to form a line to pay and then pass through. As to why they simply didn't ride around the booth—there was no fence either side—is beyond me, but it was wickedly funny to watch.

I am also reminded of a joke about the Australian Prime Minister in the early 70s. He claimed to have a solution to shortening the unemployment lines. When asked what it was he said that the people should all just stand closer together.

Finally, I don't understand all the fuss with respect to lining up for services; my recommendation is simple, tallest-to-shortest is fine with me. And I'm not just saying that because I'm 6'4" tall either (although that does help). Happy waiting now, y'hear, and for Heaven's sake take something along for you and your family members to do.

Technology, Unplugged – Part 2

© 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

In Part 1, we looked at the telephone, television, the internet, and recorded music. In this Part, we'll cover automobiles, still and video cameras, the written word, a digital data preservation strategy, and my right-hand gadget.

My Mid-Life Crisis

When more than a few men reach middle age, they splash out by buying a bright red sports car, some other expensive toy, or by finding a "hot babe" many years their junior. In my case, it was a 3-year-old 2-door subcompact Toyota Echo automobile with manual transmission, for which I paid $7,000. Not sexy, you say. Ok, you got me there. My car doesn't even warrant a name. It's a liability not an asset, and when I've driven it into the ground, I'll donate it to charity and buy another used one.

I work from home much of the time, and my clients are out in the internet-o-sphere, so I don't need a car for work. When I do travel for work or play, it's a short taxi ride to the airport and a plane from there on. I rarely rent cars these days; I stay close to my destination workplace or I use public transportation. I probably drive fewer than 1,000 miles in my own car each year. And as I have no garage, my car spends most of its life submitting to the elements. [My previous car, which was the only new car I've ever owned, lasted 16 years. And if it had have been stored in a garage it would have still appeared quite new. But bits kept on breaking mainly due to the extremes in temperature and humidity. It simply wore out from non-use!]

I love maps, of all kinds. I know which way is north and that the sun rises in the east [I just like learned that from Wikipedia. Who knew?], and before I get on the freeway in familiar or unfamiliar territory I make a point of knowing where I'm going, so I can pay attention to driving safely. [Now there's a novel idea.] So I don't need no stinking GPS, thank you very much! "Oh, I see you've missed the turn; bother! Let me compute an alternative route."

A year ago, I rented a car in Lexington, Kentucky, although the location is unimportant. On arrival at the airport, the car rental company upgraded me to some fancy model "at no extra charge", don't you know. One night I was driving back to my hotel and I reached up to try and find the rearview mirror control that would reduce the glare of lights from behind. My fingers found a button and I pressed it. The next thing I knew was that the sound of a phone dialing was coming from the audio speakers. My car was "phoning home"! After several rings, a woman came on the line and asked, "What is your emergency please?" Apparently, there was a microphone hidden somewhere in the vehicle—Was there a video camera as well? Was I on some reality TV show?—and I responded that my "emergency" consisted of my not being able to find the mirror dimmer switch and that I was sorry for having troubled her. For the rest of the trip I kept my hands to myself lest there be other devices nearby plotting against me.

So, how do I plan a trip if I don't use GPS? Well, I pull out one of my paper-thingy-type maps, which I get free through my membership in the American Automobile Association (AAA) or I go to Mapquest on the internet and I print the relevant pages. That said, I must say that in some sort of consolidation of its map printing system AAA has combined maps and made them way too big. If you've ever tried to open and close a road map having a scale that approaches 1:1, while sitting in your car you'll understand.

For years, I have marveled at the TripTick service AAA offers its member. You tell them the starting and ending point of your trip, and they print off a whole series of maplets and bind them together. They indicate the locations of gas stations and possible accommodations, when to pass gas, stop for a potty break, and when to breathe in and out. Now I know there are people who are directionally challenged, but coddling them won't improve their skills. How hard can it be to read a road atlas? [But of course, I'm forgetting that the heart of my country's economy is selling people things they don't need or can't afford.] I guess the main problem I see with such a detailed plan is that it hand feeds the motorist keeping them to the freeways when real life might be on the local roads nearby. Remember, it's the journey, not the destination.

A Picture is Worth a 1,000 Words

Although I've owned several still cameras over the years, I am definitely not "into photography". For sure, digital cameras make it cheap and easy with no film wasted on bad shots. It's a great application of technology. However, I find that still cameras—even cheap ones—have way too many controls and soft options. If my video camera can take near-perfect video in all sorts of conditions without my intervention then why can't my still camera do likewise?

I bought my first video camera 23 years ago, and in the 16 years that followed, I shot 80-odd hours of video, which is all recorded on high-quality VHS tape. [I've made more than few attempts to convert them to DVD using several approaches, but have always ended up with a result that has lower quality that the 20-year-old original tapes!] In 2003, I bought a Sony digital video recorder, and once I got used to not having such a big and heavy thing in my hand, I used it with enthusiasm, to the point at which the result hardly needs editing. In the seven years since, I've shot and edited 60 one-hour DVDs. [Some people will offer to show you photos of their grandchildren. I'll offer to show you my home movies.]

For the most part now, I only use the still camera to take the shots I use to open each chapter when I edit my video.

I've learned some things from my camera use:

  • Always carry a spare battery with you and make sure that it is charged.
  • Always carry a spare memory stick or blank tape/disk.
  • Buy your blank tapes/disks at home where they will be much cheaper than in a gift shop in the middle of your trip.
  • Take enough memory sticks or tapes/disks for your whole trip.
  • Don't be shy about deleting all those truly crappy shots. (You know the ones I mean.)
  • Avoid having to keep those crappy shots "because they are the only ones I have of Fifi before she was squashed by that big nasty 18-wheeler in front of my house", by learning how to use your equipment. I am constantly amazed by the number of people who return from a major trip only to find a lot of crappy photos or to see things go by so fast on their home video because they moved the camera too quickly. Plan for success! If you are going to spend serious money on a trip, why not invest a few hours in mastering your recording equipment before you leave?
  • Having your photos named Sony0001.Jpeg, Sony0002.Jpeg, and so on, isn't useful. If you don't give them sensible names (an art in itself, apparently) within one week of returning from your trip, they will likely never get them. By then, the trip is a fading memory and you are back into your regular life. "I'll get to that later." Yeah, right!
  • A big promise of video is the ability to edit out the silly bits and those minutes of film of the ground as you walk along thinking you had switched off the camera, but hadn't. Plus, you can add from those thousands of transitions and special effects that came with the editing software. [For example, mine allows me to transition from one scene to the next by folding the final image into a paper airplane and then having it fly off into the next scene. Watching movies with such transitions would be like watching TV just for the commercials!] However, editing video requires some idea of how to make a movie, and no training comes with the camera. Be prepared to spend time figuring out what you'll need to do to be successful.
  • If you thought you could get by with only a few blank video tapes/disks because you can reuse them, you'd better be ready to edit your video and burn it to DVD within one week of returning from your trip. (See earlier bullets for details.)
  • Understand that if your VCR flashed the time 12:00 for several years because you never did figure out how to configure it then you are unlikely to assign sensible names to your digital photos, and you are unlikely to ever edit any of your video.

The "Printed" Word

I LOVE books and I LOVE reading, but I'm in no hurry to do it with a digital device. I love the feel and smell of books and I like books of large maps and pictures, and these don't view so well on a small screen, and certainly not on one that is black and white.

As for e-Readers, I can imagine downloading a bunch of e-novels and using the reader at the airport, on a plane, or in a hammock under the palm trees, provided, that is, the contrast was easy on my eyes [I never use a laptop computer outdoors, for that very reason] and the battery life was decent. But then I would only want to rent the e-books, not buy them.

In my 31 years of living in the US, I've never subscribed to a newspaper, although I often get the national daily when I'm on the road, as part of my hotel room rate. Occasionally, I go to a newspaper website, but generally not to read the news, just to do some puzzles and to get sports results.

Let's Backup a Bit

So, now that you have sold your soul to a bunch of silicon chips what insurance do you have that they won't lose all your data or that some malicious worm or virus won't eat your only copy? Sadly, for most people I've encountered the answer is, "None whatsoever". All those photos you took and painstakingly named, gone! All those hours of video you shot and edited, gone! All those songs you bought, gone! All those financial records entered and reconciled, gone! All your email addresses and contact info, gone!

I say, "If it's worth doing, it's worth protecting". If you disagree then you are admitting that you can afford to lose any and all of your electronic files. That is, what you have been buying, collecting, creating, and refining has no real worth, which begs the question, "Why are you even doing it to begin with?"

So what is my backup strategy? Call me anal, but when I am creating or editing files for work or play, about every 30 minutes, I make copies to three different places, and I don't just mean by their original file names. I add a numbered suffix that goes up by 1 each time, so I have a complete audit trail of the file's evolution. (Simply saving a copy every 30 minutes by the same name means you'll only ever have the most recent backup. And no, making a copy of files on the same physical disk as the master set isn't a good backup strategy.) Historically, I stored these copies on floppies and later removable Iomega Zip disks, then disks on other computers on my network. With the advent of cheap and high-capacity memory sticks, I now use those instead. They have no moving parts, they need no external power supply, they are portable, and I can move them easily from one computer to another.

At the end of each month, I perform a backup of all my data. [I do not backup any of my system files, as they can be recreated or reinstalled.] Initially, I stored that on magnetic tape, then CD-ROM and DVD, and now on the mother of all backup devices, a 2 Terabyte disk [that's 2,000 Gigabytes!], which at $175 cost a pittance. In fact, I have three such disks. One sits by my computer for easy access, one sits in my fireproof safe stored in my office, and the third goes in my bank's safe-deposit box. "Overkill", you say? Ok then, if you lost all your electronic files, what would you be willing to pay to get them back?

Oh, by the way, I use MS Windows-based systems, but I never store any of my data on drive C:. Instead, I create a separate drive (usually E), so that on the off chance I need to reformat my system disk (C:) and reinstall the operating system, all my data remains intact. It also makes it trivially easy to backup everything on drive E without having to select some files but not others.

All too often, purchasers of technology don't see—or don't want to see—beyond the initial purchase price. However, as us old timers have learned repeatedly, the real cost of owning a car, for example, is its operation and maintenance. And so it is with digital technology. If you don't invest in a preservation strategy, you run the risk of wasting a lot of your time and money. And don't forget that the cost of technology is more often time rather than money. (Managing backup and editing video are good examples.)

My Right-Hand Gadget

My one constant companion when I leave the house is my Compaq Personal Digital Assistant (PDA), for which I paid much more than my netbook computer! When I'm at my desk, this little pocket computer is linked to my desktop computer so their calendar and contacts databases are synchronized. The PDA has a removable 4MB SD memory card to which I backup all my new and changed work and personal computer files. [See my backup strategy above.] That way, when I leave the house and take the PDA and its memory card I have my electronic work and life with me for use and as an offsite backup. That backup combined with all the historical files stored on the big disk in my bank's safe allows me to "hit the ground running" should my house be destroyed by some natural disaster or be the object of a burglary. And because I have this insurance, I'll probably never need it. But, for sure, if I didn't have it, I'd need it. I know full well that without a safe copy of my electronic records my business would be totally screwed!

Although I can surf the internet and do email from my PDA I choose not to, primarily because of the small screen and keyboard size, and the problem of synchronizing it with my desktop or laptop. And I don't use it to listen to music. I mostly use the calendar and contacts database, I use MS Word to write a variety of documents including all my travel diaries, and I view PDF files containing information useful to my trip, especially maps. I also use it to view photos. Thus far, I have been unable to get Skype working on it satisfactory, but if I do that, it will give me cheap international phone access at any wifi hotspot.


I use technology to help me in my work and play. I don't need everything "on-demand" and I don't want to be inundated with information or advertising. I prefer my social networking to be in person. That said, in recent weeks, the Apple IPad has gotten onto my radar. Rumor has it that a new, improved version will debut early in the 2011, and I expect to get some hands-on time with one to see if/how it might fit into my life.

There are days when I truly wonder how the human race made it this far without distractions to fill every available moment and without countless "must-have" toys. I guess that's marketing at work; sell the consumer on the idea, push the impulse buy, and have them feel they must "keep up with the Jones". Sense be damned!

I spend a lot of time on planes [See my blog post, "Travel - Fly Me to the Moon", from May 2010] and sometimes on long-distance trains. In recent years, I've seen many of my fellow passengers playing games on their mobile phones or texting [more international flights now provide internet access], all while listening to their favorite 1,000 tunes. As for me, I look at travel time as disconnected time. I look out the window, I follow the route on a map, I daydream, I read an actual magazine or book, I daydream, I plan, I daydream, I write notes, I daydream, and I often write a trip diary. And sometimes I watch a movie or two.

By the way, if you add up the cost of all those "must have" services and toys you might have, it could very well equal a monthly mortgage payment. And making an extra one of those each year will reduce your total interest payment by an astonishing amount. I know, 'cos I made more than one of those each year. Now that is a good feeling, almost as good as driving my 2002 subcompact stick shift!

So, what's next in my quest for less-is-more? Downsizing my house. Hey, maybe I could live in my car. Now that would be like totally awesome!

Technology, Unplugged – Part 1

© 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

I've been involved in the computing industry for 36 years. As a result, more than a few people who know that assume I'm a gadget guy who has the newest technology. And while I do like to play with electronic toys, I have shown great restraint in not rushing in to new technologies. In fact, I'm very often a latecomer, preferring to wait until a fad shows signs of lasting, and if so, to see if I can justify making the move at all; and that justification often has little to do with price. The question I ask is, "Given my situation, does it make sense?" [I have often said, "This is America. We do things because we can, not because it makes sense! Here, we spell need 'w-a-n-t'."]

In recent years, it seemed to me that everyday life was getting way too complicated. However, on closer inspection, I decided that the problems were pretty much the same, yet the tools available to deal with them were numerous and complicated. Now that every gadget has a computer chip onboard, it is capable of being programmed, and, of course, every toy has a different interface to learn. For example, a typical household has a TV, a CD/DVD player, an audio receiver, and a Cable TV box, all with their own remote controls. You need a coffee table just for the controllers! Of course, there are supposedly universal controllers, but they don't subsume completely all the functionality of the individual controllers they are intended to replace. [For many years, I've had a theory that I adapted from my buddy Al (Einstein, that is): "Problems are neither created nor destroyed; they are merely transformed." And technology seems to bear that out. Each new solution we invent seems to create a completely new set of problems.]

A watershed moment came earlier this year when I started evaluating my whole lifestyle. Just what did I really need to live comfortably, what could I do with the extra time I'd have if I gave up certain "necessary pleasures", and just how much money was I spending on those pleasures anyway? As a result, I set about simplifying things. It's an on-going experiment that I'm refining as I go.

In the late 18th Century, an Englishman called Ned Ludd supposedly broke some manufacturing equipment in a factory. His actions were inspirational to those whose livelihoods were threatened by the Industrial Revolution. Those Luddites started a social revolution that opposed modernization because of its supposed negative impact on society. Now I'm no Luddite, and I don't own a buggy whip either; however, on some issues, one simply has to move with the times or be left behind. My moves just happen to be deliberate and slower.

By the way, it's been 15 years since I've worn a watch. One day, the band on my $10 watch broke, and as it was built-in to the watch, it couldn't be replaced. Then after carrying it around in my pocket for several months, I stopped taking it at all. I've found that people will tell you if you are late, and that when asked the time/date, "October" or "autumn" often are adequate replies.

The purpose of this essay is to tell you how I have dealt or am dealing with technology. I have no wish to be a missionary for any particular electronic faith. Make up your own mind, but beware of snobs and zealots.

Mr. Watson. Come Here. I need you.

Borrowing from Wikipedia, this "first demonstration of electronic transmission of speech by Alexander Graham Bell" ushered in a completely new era of communications, and one that—to my way of thinking—now has way too many options, most of which are solutions looking for problems. If you've tried to compare two phone companies' services lately, you'll know what I mean.

Ok, let's get it right out there. I do not have a mobile phone and I have no plan to get one anytime soon. If I had one, I expect I would find uses for it, but I'm pretty sure I'd have it primarily for outgoing/emergency calls and would keep it switched off most of the time. And I'm certain its ring tone would not be a 100-decibel version of Beethoven's 5th, and that I'd have some manners when using it among other people.

Once mobile phones became mainstream, all kinds of people simply assumed I had one and when I said that I did not, I sensed that they felt sorry for me. I realized I needed an offensive (as in, going on the offense) reply. And that reply now is, "You cannot simply call and interrupt me any damned time you feel like it. Call me on my landline and if I'm not there, leave a message. Or, send me an email. And if I believe either warrants a response, I'll make one in a timely fashion. As far as I can tell, you and I don't have any business that is so important that it needs an immediate response any time night or day."

The mobile phone scenario that sticks most in my mind occurred several years ago in my local supermarket. In the first aisle, a woman saw some item and called her partner. "Hi Honey, it's me. So-and-so is on sale. Would you like that for supper tonight?" Two aisles later, she spied something else, and called Honey again. And this happened several more times, in subsequent aisles. All I could think was, "It's called planning, damn-it! You make a shopping list before you leave for the store. It's called Making an Executive Decision. Presumably you know Honey's eating preferences." Unfortunately, we're living in a time of "instant-on" and "gotta-have-it-now". The marginally disciplined are becoming poorly disciplined and the poorly disciplined are becoming undisciplined.

So what do I use for phone calls? Two cans and some string, of course! It's very cheap, it's low maintenance, I don't get any unwanted solicitations, and I don't need Caller ID; I always know who has the other can. But seriously, I have a landline with various extensions throughout the house (I work from home). And I even an old-style phone that gets its power from the phone line. If the power goes out, I still have phone service! Back in the old days of dial-up internet access, I had a second line installed, and I shared that with a computer-based fax program. As part of my recent simplification, I discontinued that line and my fax support (almost all those I received were junk anyway). I also had call waiting on my primary line to alert me if another call was coming in while I was on the line. I found that I rarely used it, and as my good friend, John told me, some people consider it rude being put on hold while you take another—apparently more important—call. (And that applies in spades to mobile phone users and text message proponents who think nothing of interrupting a serious conversation to take a call or read a newly arrived message.)

My one surviving landline includes 50 local calls per month and has no long-distance or international call package. It's a bare bones system and it suits my needs. Now, each month, I do make quite a few international calls for pleasure and, occasionally, for business, as well as a few calls around the US, but I don't use my phone service (see later below).

My business model involves working mostly from home where I have ready access to a landline. And if I am teaching seminars, that's an all-day job, so I can't be interrupted then. Likewise for when I'm traveling and when I'm sitting in daylong conferences and meetings, especially in time zones far-removed from home. I was an early adopter and fan of Skype, and for $3/month I get an unlimited number of minutes within North America. And for around 2 cents/minute, I can call landlines in most countries using Skype-Out. (Calls to mobiles are often 10 times that price, so I rarely make them.) And whenever my account goes below $2, my Skype account is automatically topped-up from my bank account. That lets me make any call from my desk using my computer or from on the road using my laptop or netbook from my hotel or public wifi hotspot. For people like my wife who don't spend their days tethered to their desk/computer, I have another option. Via Skype, at no charge, I have a local phone number that can be called from any phone and used to place calls using Skype. I currently use a Bluetooth earpiece for Skype, and for the most part that works well. My netbook has a built-in microphone, and that always works, plus it comes with a webcam, which Skype supports.

I can count on one hand the number of times I could really have benefited by having a mobile phone. One that comes to mind was on a ferry from Helsinki, Finland, to Tallinn, Estonia. I'd tried to call my host family from the ferry terminal before departing, but was unable to figure out how to use the Finnish public phone system. Then once onboard, I discovered there were no pay phones. However, that being Nokia's backyard, everyone (literally) had a mobile, so I asked a businessman if I could pay him to use his mobile to make a call, and he said, "Go right ahead, and as I have an unlimited plan, there is no charge." The down side of mobile-phone mania is there is a growing shortage of public pay phones available, and I avoid using the phone in my hotel room due to the ridiculous fees they charge.

Answering machines are worth a mention. I have come to rely on them on my phone and on others'. Yet it is interesting to note just how many people hate talking to them. Of all the people I phone on a regular basis only one does not have an answering machine, and that took some getting used to on my part.

One question I like to ask mobile phone aficionados is, "Just how much time is 1,000 minutes?" They generally reply, "What do you mean?" To which I reply, "Just how many hours is that each month that you can talk? And what were you doing with that time before you had that mobile plan? Or did you not have a life previously?" [FYI, 1,000 minutes is 16 and 2/3 hours.]

Television: Is it Still the Idiot Box?

For years, I've subscribed to a Cable TV service, each month paying for the service as well as one or more converter boxes and remote controls. And each year it seemed that the price increased. At some point, I moved payment to an automatic debit from my checking account. However, that meant that the cost was somewhat hidden as the monthly bill no longer received any scrutiny.

Of the 100-odd channels I had, I probably watched programs on 10 of them, at most, and more likely five of them, on average. [All attempts to legislate a la carte cable TV programming in the US have failed, so one is stuck with an all-or-nothing program selection. Only premium channels are unbundled.] My service provided no way for me to limit the channels in the selection list to only those I watched. What's more, that program list included all the channels available, including those for which I had no subscription!

More than 10 years ago, I was watching five hour-long series each week, but then I went abroad for six weeks without access to my regular programs. On my return, I simply stopped watching them, and I haven't watched any show on a regular basis since. I have to say that I don't miss them one bit. [Perhaps I don't need the escapism many of them provide.]

Fast Forward to the era of Digital/Hi-Definition TVs. I love watching movies, documentaries, and various other programs, and I like a big screen experience as much as does the next person. However, I don't view it as essential. As poor as the NTSC [sometimes pooh-poohed as "Not the Same Color Twice"] analog system used here in the US (and elsewhere) might be, it's been adequate for me. Recently, 18 months after I started looking at digital/HiDef TV, I stuck my toe in the water with a 40" screen that cost less than $500. Then I did several heretical things: I experimented with a digital antenna and I looked at recording to DVD and, yes, even to VHS tape!

The cost of my cable service had gotten out of control, and I didn't even have any premium channel packages. It was time to re-evaluate the whole "being connected" thing, so I started preparing for the scenario of not having a Cable TV connection at all. In the process, I was pleasantly surprised at the range of (the more than 30) channels being broadcast over-the-air in my area; almost all of the ones I watched regularly via cable were available free of charge. Don't you just love that when that happens? [Interestingly, neither my TV tuner nor my converter box pulled in all of the local channels, and the sets of channels that they did find were not the same. One got some the other didn't, and vice versa.]

I have a big investment in prerecorded VHS tapes (which I continue to buy from thrift shops for 25–50 cents each), home movies on VHS, and I have several players and recorders, so I wanted to preserve that investment. The obvious argument against that is that the analog quality is lower, so why not simply record to disk using a Digital Video Recorder? As it happens, my Cable TV company would be happy to let me do that, but at a cost of $13/month, and I'm trying to reduce my bill. Alternate services ran the same cost, and while there is software to allow this sort of thing to be done in conjunction with a computer, I'm not quite ready to go that route.

I am very happy to report that there is life outside of subscription TV. And in the case of my 90-year-old very vital friend, Jim, life can be full without having a TV at all! [Hmm, Jim might still own a buggy whip; I'll have to ask.]

The Omnipresent Internet

I live by email, and as I travel away from my home time zone at regular intervals, email is the best way to reach me. No matter where I am in the world, I deal with important email in a timely manner, typically within 12 hours. I also use Instant Messaging (IM) with a few colleagues and friends. As such, I have a tethered version of text messaging, which is adequate for my needs. However, I never did learn to type with more than a few fingers, so it's not my preferred medium.

As for browsing the web, I do very little of that. From time to time, my work requires me to upload or download (often-large) files. On occasion, I play a few puzzles at the USA Today newspaper site, I look at the headlines and sports scores in several Australian newspapers several times a week, and I visit Wikipedia and Wiktionary from time to time. (And, yes, I know that Wikipedia is full of lies!)

I was paying for some really fast internet service that came through my Cable TV connection, but, recently, it occurred to me that the extra speed was totally wasted. My in-house network uses an 802.11g protocol router, which is limited to wire connections of 100 Mbps with wifi at 64 Mbps. Unless I upgrade to an 802.11n router and matching receivers on all my computers, the extra speed means nothing. Yet, it is hard to get a slower service. After all, everyone must need the fastest speed possible, right? Yes, there are times where I really need throughput, but they are few and far between. All I really care about is not having to wait for web pages to refresh. Recently, I downgraded my service from 6MB to 1MB, and I'll try that for a month or so to see if it is adequate. I also recommended a friend use a DSL service instead of a much higher speed (and more expensive) cable connection.

I love the fact that I can get affordable, if not free, broadband internet access in all sorts of seemingly unlikely places. Running my business certainly became easier once I could do it while on vacation or business travel in some remote spot.

Play Me a Song, Mr. Piano Man

I love music, so much so that in my next life (yes, dear reader, I'm planning on coming back for another round), I plan on being a songwriter, composer, and musician. I probably own only 100 CDs and another 100 cassette tapes, mostly recorded from albums and radio. I've also ripped 10–12 CDs to my computers, primarily so I can play them when I'm on the road. And when working from home, I have one favorite radio station I listen to for my regular music fix.

I don't download music and I don't have a portable digital music player. (Are my Luddite tendencies showing, again?) I look at the various music-player ads and I hear that a certain device allows storage for 5,000 songs. Even assuming I had 5,000 favorites, and I wanted to spent $1 each to buy them—you aren't copying them illegally are you?—when would I have time to listen to all of them? 5,000 songs at 2½ minutes each runs 208 hours, or twenty-eight 8-hour days. That means that if I had no life, I could hear each of them once a month. Hold me back! Where can I buy such a useful device?

Much has been written about how more and more people are retreating into their own private world, and I believe it. That said if I had to sit on a train for 2–3 hours each business day getting to/from work, I could imagine having a music player, but I think 100 songs would suffice. I'd be more likely to load it up with podcasts of current affairs and entertainment programs from the radio, or perhaps listen to books being read. As for those who are using such devices to avoid contact with their fellow man, well that's their choice, but we already suffer considerably from the inability of many people to express themselves clearly, and becoming even more disconnected from the real world won't help. [In the US, the level of business English is 6th Grade, and fewer and fewer of us can say a phrase—let along a whole sentence—without using the word "like" inappropriately. Right? Like, yeah; that is really like true!]

Stay Tuned

In Part 2, I cover automobiles and GPS, still and video cameras, the written word, a digital data preservation strategy, and my right-hand gadget.

By the way, by dropping my subscription TV service and lowering my internet speed I'm saving $73/month.

Books by My Bed

© 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.


Ok, I admit it. I'm a non-recovering bookaholic! They say that admission is the first step to recovery, but, frankly, I'm not at all interested in recovering. I hope I'll be addicted to books until I die. And after that, I may well be a librarian in one of those places that starts with 'H'.

The Road to Addiction

So how did it all start? Well, first there was the casual, innocent browse at the newsagent's comic book stand. That was followed by annual book gifts from various sources. That led to a library card. Sure, I told myself, these books were only for recreational use, and I could stop reading anytime I liked. But whom was I kidding? I needed a chapter, sometimes two, on a daily basis. Eventually, I found bigger libraries and others who loved books as much as I did, maybe even more! There was a big wide world of addicts out there; there were others just like me. I was not alone. I moved on to harder stuff like history, geography, biographies, and, yes, animal husbandry, which contained lurid descriptions of the form and purpose of the naughty bits of the various farm animals that I studied in Agricultural Science. I knew it was wrong, but I was spiraling out of control. But what to do? [To all you fans of the Prairie Home Companion radio show, wouldn't this be a good time for some Be-Bop-A-Re-Bop rhubarb pie?]

My First Library

From age 7–12, I lived on a 4,000-acre wheat and sheep farm. The stone farmhouse was quite large, the walls were thick, and the ceilings were very high. Each bedroom has its own fireplace, and each fireplace had a long, high mantelpiece. I had a large bedroom all to myself.

Up to age 11, I attended two different rural schools. The first was three miles from my house and was run in the village hall. Besides that building, the village consisted of a general store with post office and house attached, a public tennis court, and a railway siding with storage sheds for bags of cereal grain. When we got down to four students, the school closed, and we were bused to the next town, a booming metropolis with not one, but two stores, a post office, a school and schoolhouse, a church, 10 houses, and a larger railway siding. That school had 25 students, in seven grades, all in the same room with the same teacher.

Each month, a wooden crate of books arrived at the local railway siding from the state lending library. In effect, they were being lent to the school, which, in turn, lent them to its students. Although the school had a few reference books of its own, half of the books available for borrowing were replaced each month. That is, the school library contents almost completely rotated every two months.

At the end of each school year, we students put on a concert involving acting and singing. [Due to their extreme lack of ability to carry a tune, certain students—no including moi—were told to "just move your lips" without actually making a noise!] And each student was given a book of fiction bought from money raised by the School Welfare Club. Similarly, each year at Sunday School, each kid got a book of fiction.

By the time I was 10, my collection of books totaled 20. [The only other books in the house were a set of encyclopedias and some penny-dreadful novels, of the western and detective persuasion.] Of course, with such a large number of books, how would I ever be able to keep track of them? What I needed was an organized system.

After a long period of serious thought (that must have lasted at least 60 seconds) I had "a plan more cunning that the plan devised by the Professor of Cunning at Oxford University". [There you go Black Adder fans!] I would create a library, complete with catalog. Undaunted by the magnitude of the task at hand and having no knowledge whatsoever of the Dewey Decimal System of Classification, I soon came up with a stunningly simple scheme. I would number my 20 books starting at 1 and going all the way up to 20! It was brilliant, and it worked. I arranged them on the mantelpiece of my bedroom.

[Some 45 years later, as I peruse my bookcases I see four books from that original collection. They are:

  • Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • Bishop Jim by Joyce Reason
  • The Racketty Street Gang by L.H. Evers
  • Hanna-Barbera's Huckleberry Hound Giant Story Book]

Mr. Dewey Goes to Work

At some point during my high-school years, I had an epiphany: the gateway to everything and anything was through books. No matter what one's circumstances were, one could always go to a library and borrow a book. And the only limits to what one could learn by reading were the selection of books available and the extent of one's own imagination. [With the ubiquitous internet, the selection limit has been removed completely. And libraries have become places to get free internet access, so access to information is no longer a problem for those who truly are looking.]

My parents had no interest in what I was studying at high school, and so they never questioned my requests for education-related books or supplies. As a result, I always bought new copies, and to this very day, I have all my high school textbooks from Year 10 (1967) onwards and all those from my nine years as a part-time university student.

By the age of 21, I was well and truly addicted to books, and I owned more than 750 of them. My pride and joy was a spanking new Encyclopedia Britannica set. During the next few years, my collection increased to about 1,000.

I'd long ago abandoned my 1–20 numbering system, but having spent a lot of time in libraries and bookstores I was acquainted with several cataloging systems. As a result, I purchased the 10th Abridged Edition of the Dewey Decimal Classification handbook (1971). From among the various author-cataloging systems, I chose the Cutter-Sanborn Three-Figure Author Table invented by Richard A. Cutter. I set about figuring out each book's abridged catalog and author codes, and I typed them on small labels, which I affixed to the spine of each book. It took several months part-time for me to catalog the whole collection. Along the way, I built a 9 foot-by-9 foot bookcase set for my treasures.

Early in 1976, I started Computing Science classes at the then South Australian Institute of Technology, which gave me access to a card-punching facility. Eventually, I got all the book records "punched up" and I wrote some COBOL programs to print my catalog in different orders. [Later on, I moved the data to a DEC PDP-11 system and rewrote the programs in Fortran. Much later, with the advent of PCs, I moved the data to my own computer and rewrote the programs in C.]

A Long Separation and a Joyous Reunion

In June 1979, I left Australia for an open-ended period to take up an initial 1-year work contract in the US. As you might imagine, it's hard enough to decide what basics to pack in two suitcases for a one-way trip abroad without having to think about any books I might want. In the end, I did pack several work-related books I thought might be useful. Finding a not-so-temporary home for 1,000 books was also an interesting challenge, but a friend came to the rescue. (Thanks very much Bill.)

A month before my departure—which was a totally planned 2-week trip across the Pacific via an Air New Zealand DC-10, through the US, and then on to Washington DC—an engine fell off the wing of an American Airlines DC-10 near Chicago. (Don't you just hate that when that happens?) In any event, all DC-10s around the world were grounded indefinitely, including my flights on Air New Zealand. Eventually, I traveled via Asia and across the Atlantic; however, that route limited luggage by weight rather than by size (or vice versa; I don't remember which), and I could take only one case. Fortunately, the ruthlessness of having to pack the important things from my life into two cases stood me in good stead when it came to halving them. Who needs pajamas, socks, and underwear anyway?

Five years later, I had settled permanently in the US and had bought a townhouse. It was time to bring my babies home. So, on my next trip to Australia, I packed all my books—and a few other things that had been in storage—and took them to a shipping office at Port Adelaide for the long sea voyage to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. [The port of Baltimore, Maryland, would have been more convenient, but that option was not available at that time.] Back home, I was notified when the container carrying my boxes had docked, and I rented a small covered truck to pick them up in Philadelphia, a 3-hour drive to the northeast. Within several days, I had all the books shelved in my large basement office, and I had installed a comfortable sofa and reading light where I could read, admire, and caress my beauties.

"Out of Sight" is "Out of Mind"

Some years later, I moved my office two flights up, primarily to get away from the very cold temperatures of the basement, most of which was underground. As my new office was much smaller than my old one, I could not take many of the books with me. Whereas I'd seen my collection every day for some years, I no longer saw it unless I went to visit it specifically. Eventually, I put a bookcase on the main living area and rotated selections of books through that, so I'd be reminded of their existence.

So What Books do I Really Have by my Bed?

Here they are in the order in which I picked them off the floor:

  • Historical Atlas of the 20th Century. Maps, maps, and more maps, with timelines.
  • Philip's Standard Reference Atlas [of the world].
  • Reader's Digest The Bible Through the Ages.
  • Canada's Incredible Coasts.
  • Atlas of World History.
  • The Atlas of North American Exploration.
  • Hammond Atlas of the 20th Century.
  • The White House: An Illustrated Tour.
  • America's National Parks.
  • The World: Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.
  • The American Presidents. A 2–3-page summary of each president from George Washington to Bill Clinton.
  • The Chronicle of World History, a 670-page tome that covers events from 3500 BC to 2008 AD. Most articles run half a page, and many have photos or maps. Each major period starts with a series of essays.
  • Countries and Continents, 320-page book in which each country has photos and a page of text in the form of questions and answers. Each country's summary contains the flag, currency, system of government, capital, main languages spoken, area, population, religion, and notable features.
  • Modern Mathematics. It's a great refresher course on things such as logic; sets, relations, and functions; whole numbers, rational numbers, real numbers; probability, statistics; and geometry.
  • The Old Farmer's 2010 Almanac. "The Original Farmer's Almanac, useful, with a pleasant degree of humor, including weather forecasts for 16 regions of the United States, planting tables, and Zodiac sheets."
  • The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures, by Nicholas Wade. I read a review of this in the Economist, and went and browsed a copy at a bookstore. Although I have yet to read it, it's one of the few books for which I paid nearly full price.
  • Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic. It's a collection of linguistic trivia [and a gift from recent houseguest Felicity].
  • Our American Government, 2000 Edition. A book of questions with answers and information, published by the US Government.
  • Paddington at Work, by Michael Bond. I must say that I do like Paddington Bear. [Before Paddington Railway Station in London was renovated, I made the pilgrimage there to see him in a large glass showcase complete with his labeled luggage "From Darkest Peru" and a note from Aunt Lucy. Now, there is a much smaller homage to him.]
  • Maps of The Caribbean, Central America, & South America and Fairfax County, Virginia.
  • The Constitution of the United States of America. The Constitution, unratified amendments, and an Analytical Index, published by the US Government.
  • How Our Laws Are Made. A book of questions with answers and information published by the US Government.
  • Earth: The Definitive Guide to Our Planet. This fine Smithsonian publications runs 500 pages and is chock full of pictures, charts, and short pieces.
  • The Complete History and Wars of Ancient Greece.
  • Life: Evolution Explained.
  • The Annotated Alice: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll.
  • The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People.
  • American Government: Everything You Need to Understand Our Democratic System. Part of the "Essential book" series.
  • Barack Obama: Words That Inspired a Nation. Book and DVD [gift from friend Phil].
  • Regional Cooking from the Southwest.
  • Economist, Special Holiday Double Issue, December 19, 2009. Contains a set of great essays.
  • Santa Fe Rules, a novel by Start Woods.
  • Portrait in Death, a novel by J.D. Robb.

As you can see, almost all of these books contain reference material. Most cost $3–10, and have many photos, drawings, and/or maps. Almost all have relatively short articles, making it easy to pick one up at random to learn or be challenged over a cup of coffee.


While most of my books are more than 30 years old they still have value. To be sure, a lot of new information has been discovered or developed in most fields since they were published, but the fundamental principles remain intact. In any event, most used bookstores wouldn't take them even as donations. And with the advent of the internet, most people under 30 seem to be little interested in books in general. But that's their problem.

So what do I think about the new electronic book readers? For novels, they seem like a fine idea, but most of my reading involves reference works with lots of color photos and maps printed on rather large pages. Besides, I like the smell of most books (although I must say that, occasionally, I do come across one that simply stinks). Besides, if I really want to browse on-line material, I can always fire up my 10-inch netbook computer.

You may well ask, "Don't all those books take up a lot of space?" Of course, but I still have room to get in and out of bed, and room for more books too. And if I really run low on space, I can always get rid of the some non-essential stuff like furniture, except for the bookcases, of course!

Making Allowances

© 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.


I was first introduced to the idea of an allowance through American kids' TV programs broadcast in Australia in the late 1960's. It seemed that every week each child in the family over some minimal age got spending money for the next week, and that some sort of "work" was expected of them in return. Certainly, the idea of pocket money was well known throughout parts of the British Commonwealth. However, as best as I can tell, the idea of a regular allowance for children was made popular in the US.

I love the concept of an allowance; however, rarely have I seen it implemented in what I would call a long-term coherent fashion.

My Own Experience

I spent almost all of my formative years living well outside any town, so I had no regular access to places to earn or to spend money. I had no on-going need for money, but got it from my parents as needed. For the five years that I lived on a 4,000-acre wheat and sheep farm I did, however, have a way to make some good money. I trapped rabbits, which were sold for both meat and skins.

At the time, all public schools in the state supported student banking, and except for remote schools each week an officer from the State Savings Bank would come to the school and take the money we'd brought for deposit. I believe our bankbooks were kept at the school. I distinctly remember leaving home on those days with a 2-shilling piece (equivalent to about 25 cents US) tied into one corner of my handkerchief. [My mother had opened that account on my birth with an initial deposit of £1, a lot of money back in 1953. When I finished school 16 years later, the account contained $400, which was £200. Australia converted from pounds, shillings, and pence to decimal currency in 1966.]

During the summer holidays of my high-school years, I worked cutting and picking apricots for drying. I was into slot car racing back then and managed to accumulate quite a track layout, set of cars, and accessories. During the school year, I bagged groceries at a supermarket after school and on Saturday mornings. [At that time, Saturday shopping hours were 9–11:30 am only.]

I did not get my driving license until after I left high school and had gone off to live in the state capital. I did not own my own vehicle for another three years. Instead, I used public transportation and a bicycle. I had no financial help from my family once I left home. My expenses just about equaled my income, and there were times were I had to dip into that savings account my dear Mother had created for me and encouraged me to augment.

My Son's Early Years

From very early on, my wife and I read to our son on a regular basis. He also had several series of "read-along" books with audio cassettes containing the narrative and directions of when to turn the page. As a family, we traveled quite a lot, mostly by plane, so I soon developed the idea of getting him a portable cassette player, so that he could keep himself entertained en-route without needing much adult intervention. That worked very well and he had the responsibility of taking care of and operating his own tape player. Of course, he needed batteries, so in return for small jobs he got enough money to pay for those. [I traveled away from home quite often, so was not able to read to him many nights. However, by recording my reading on tape he was able to hear me "on-demand". Likewise for his relatives who all lived abroad, but had visited and recorded stories.]

From time to time, he wanted some special toys and things, at which time he needed some income. However, he pretty much worked only when he needed money.

Something Borrowed

My son was about 11 years old and in 6th grade at elementary school when I started thinking seriously about a plan for his financial education. I talked to a number of other parents about how they handled allowances for their children, and much to my surprise, none of them had a plan. They simple gave their kids money "as needed". Eventually, I discovered that a colleague of mine had been in the same situation several years earlier. When his 11-year-old daughter was out shopping, she kept asking her mother, "Can I have that?" Very quickly, that got tiresome. Their solution was to put the daughter in charge of much of her own personal financial affairs.

The plan was quite simple, as are most good plans. Each week, the daughter got $1 per year of age, which at age 11 came to $11/week. From that, she had to pay her own personal expenses including clothing. The parents paid for large purchases such as a winter coat or shoes. If she spent all her money the first day of the new week, that was her problem, and soon she learned to save and plan her purchases, and to separate her needs from her wants.

The Jaeschke Plan

I found this approach very appealing, and I set about adapting it to my own situation. (Thanks much Tom, Pam, and Claire.) I asked my son to prepare an annual budget including everything from music CDs and computer games to haircuts. I agreed to pay for his music lessons and required sheet music, but he would pay for any extra fees or materials. I would pay for his martial arts lessons and required equipment and materials, but he would pay for any extras. He would buy from me reams of paper for his computer printer. I also asked him to include an average weekly savings contribution of $5.

After several revisions of his budget, we settled on $20/week. Each Sunday, he'd get $20. He wasn't required to save $5 every week, but he did have to save that much, on average. Initially, I opened a savings account for him at a local bank, and once a month he'd deposit his savings and any excess cash there. After some time, we discussed doing more with his money than just a savings account; besides, we'd been talking about a savings plan for college.

One of his godmothers was in the financial planning business, so she got together with my son to discuss his options. And they did that periodically for some years. While he was prepared to be more aggressive with some of this savings, he also wanted some safety for a good piece of it. We agreed on a combination of a mutual fund and Certificate of Deposits investment program and labeled it as his "college fund". I contributed a tidy sum to open the account, and each quarter my son would move most of his savings account balance to his investment account. I also gave him a financial reward for any A's he received on his report card. However, he understood that the investment account was for college, and that it was not available for him to withdraw for any other purpose.

The program worked very well, and he learned to plan and save. We reviewed it each year, but left it the same. There were no cost-of-living adjustments.

The High School Years

My son was 14 when he went off to High School. He attended a public Science and Technology school some distance from home and had to ride a bus 40 minutes each way. We continued the same allowance scheme through all four years.

In my state, Virginia, students can obtain a driving permit at 15½ years of age. In the year that they turn 16—the age at which one can obtain a full license—all schools in our public school system offer 10 weeks of Drivers' Education. At the end of that time, students take four weekends of driving lessons either from private instructors or from Drivers' Ed teachers. Then they take a practical driving test and get their license.

My son's high school probably had more than the usual percentage of students driving cars to school every day. And some of those cars were rather expensive models. Students had to pay an annual fee of $100 for the privilege of parking at the school. My son was never interested in having his own car, which was just fine with me. With all his studies and extra-curricular activities, he wouldn't have had time to use it much anyway outside commuting to school, and why pay to do that when the bus ride was free. In fact, two years into high school, he gave up his music and martial arts lessons, as he had no spare time. [At home, there were only two parking spaces per house, and those were already taken, so there wouldn't have been a place to park a third car. In any event, the most expensive car insurance in the US is that sold to cover single males younger than 25.]

When my son turned 16, I offered him his own credit card with me as a co-signer. The credit limit was $1,000. If he was going drive occasionally, he'd have to buy his own gas, and rather than buying a few dollars worth each time he would fill up the tank as needed, and at the end of the month we'd go over his statement and pro-rate costs he'd incurred that were shared with us. So he got used to managing a small line of credit, and he had a source of funds if he had an emergency or during his school camps and trips abroad. There was one big caveat, however; he had to pay his credit card bill in full at the end of each month, or the card would be cancelled.

Halfway through his Junior Year (Year 11, before his 17th birthday), he was left home alone for a week. [This happened five or six times before he graduated high school 16 months later.] He had cash, a credit card, a driver's license, the use of a car, and the house to himself. He had to get himself up and ready for school each day, manage his time, prepare his own meals, and make sure he got enough sleep to get him through the week. He was allowed to entertain guests, but no more than five at a time. Basically, he got to be "independent with a safety net".

Off to College

My son attended a Virginia State University for four years and lived on campus throughout. I paid for most of his tuition, room, full meal plan, and books. He used his college savings account to pay for several semesters of tuition fees. He did not own or operate a vehicle during his time on campus.

When it came time to figure out his allowance, we started where we'd left off in high school. (Once again, we spoke to other families about how they had handled it, and once again, we found no one with a plan.) We soon settled on $25/week, but rather than pay him weekly, $100 was deposited into his account at my local branch of his bank each month, and he could access that from the branch at his end. In later years, I simply gave him $400 at the start of each semester, and he managed it himself. He also had a checking account.

Once he got acquainted with life on campus, he decided to get a part-time job. When he had a regular and substantial income (as a front-desk assistant), we agreed to suspend his allowance. He didn't have to work, in which case, I'd give him spending money, but if he did work, he got no spending money from me. For most of his final two years, he was a Resident Advisor, for which he was on-call 24 hours a day. His payment for that was a free single room and full meal plan. As he got no cash, he went back on the $25/week plan.


I think the experiment worked very well. By the time my son got to university he'd been using a credit card for two years, he'd had to budget for at least six years, he'd been involved in decisions about where to invest his savings, and he'd been completely in charge of himself for some weeks—a week at a time—at home. [In contrast, during his second year, the university admitted the smartest lot of first-year students in its history, yet a large percentage of them went on academic probation after the first semester because they had no idea how to live responsibly away from home. And there is no doubt that many of them had been getting a weekly allowance of much more than $20. In fact, I've heard of numerous cases of high school kids being given $100–200/week plus access to a car! You reap what you sow.]

I'd like to hear from readers what has worked for them, and, of course, what didn't work. Remember, nothing is a complete waste; it can always serve as a bad example.

Confessions of an Obama Volunteer

© 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.


In 2008, I did something I'd never done before. No, I didn't start enjoying visits to the dentist. I didn't start wearing women's underwear either. [That began much earlier!] And I didn't stop dreaming about a date with Sigourney Weaver. What I did do, however, was to give money to a politician. Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, I admit it. I actually gave a significant chunk of change to someone who was running for election. No one held a gun to my head. I did it willingly. And not only did I do it once, in the Democratic Primary election for the US Presidency, I did it again in the general election. So what was in it for me? Well, in return I got a signed photograph of Candidate Obama and his wife, Michelle, which I promptly stuck on my office wall, after having torn off the half containing him and replacing it with a picture of me!

The Democratic Party's Primary

In the US, the final candidates for the main parties for many elections are chosen via a series of primary votes. In the case of the Presidential Primaries, these culminate in each party's National Convention. For the Democrats, this was held in late August 2008, at which time my main man, Yo'bama, defeated Queen Hillary to become the Democratic candidate.

To vote in the US, one must have US citizenship, and I got mine in May of that year. By then, it was too late for me to register to vote in the primaries for my home state of Virginia. However, I was registered in time for the general election in November. [Unlike some states, when one registers to vote in Virginia, one need not give a party (or independent) affiliation.]

The Russian Connection

As the presidential campaign progressed, I got more interested in being involved beyond contributing money. And then, possibly by divine intervention, I got an email from a fellow member of the international hosting organization CouchSurfing.

Mikhail was born in Russia and had emigrated to the US with his family some years earlier. He was attending the University of North Carolina where he was majoring in Political Science. He had taken a year off from school and had gotten a job with an organization that had been hired by the Obama campaign. He had been assigned to the northern Virginia area for two months; however, he couldn't find an affordable furnished apartment in the area and contacted me to see if I could give him a place to stay until he found his own place.

After a few emails and a phone call, I decided that apart from both of us being immigrants who had just gotten citizenship, he and I were on "the same page" regarding the Presidential candidates, so I invited him for a long-term stay. Most days, he left early and returned very late. However, on several occasions, we did get to talk at length over a meal about how the campaign was going. It was interesting to get an "inside" picture.

In the last months of the campaign, Obama was positively rolling in cash contributions. So much so that he could afford to send many representatives right into the Republican heartland causing the Republicans to expend resources they could ill afford, to defend their own territory. As a direct result, after five weeks, Mikhail was reassigned to another area and he moved out.

The Local Office

The Obama campaign had an area office about three miles from my house, so I went there to offer my services as a volunteer. What they mostly wanted were people to phone voters or to go house-to-house. I was adamantly opposed to both those roles, and said so repeatedly. The campaign had set up a national database website, which tracked all known supporters and potential supporters across the country. With all the money that was pouring in, they could afford—and had—a very sophisticated system. I settled on a job scanning into the database bar-coded information from questionnaires filled out by the phone callers and doorknockers. So for several afternoons each week I sat in a back room doing data entry.

Each day for the five days after I signed up, I got a phone call from the local office asking me when I could "come in and make phone calls". The first few times I politely informed them that I had declined to do that kind of work, and they "promised faithfully to update their list so it wouldn't happen again." From the fourth call onwards, my replies were short to the point of being rude, until finally I said that if they didn't get their act together I'd consider going over to the McCain campaign. That seemed to fix the problem.

The local office consisted of several suites of rooms the use of which had been donated by a local business. Other businesses donated all the food and drinks consumed by us worker bees.

There were Three Young Ladies from Princeton

In the weeks leading up to the general election, the Obama campaign juggernaut picked up a lot of support, and people were falling over each other to volunteer.

Princeton University had a Democratic Party chapter on campus, and members were enthusiastic Obama supporters. However, New Jersey—Princeton's home state—was very likely to "go Obama", so they were looking for a neighboring "swing" state to which they could go and "make a difference". As the state of Virginia was "in play", they came here. [Virginia had last voted for a Democratic President in 1968 when Lyndon Johnson won.]

The local campaign office asked workers to provide housing for the Princeton students. I put my name on the list and was assigned three young women. They arrived on a Friday night and stayed two nights, and they knocked on a lot of doors. Each morning, I got up early to cook them a breakfast that would tide them over for the day, and we also ate together one night.

It was an absolute joy to have them around. They were smart, they had opinions that they could defend, and they were articulate. Unlike many Americans their own age, they didn't use the word like in every sentence. After their visit, I had the distinct impression there might yet be hope for the next generation!

Vote Early and Vote Often!

My life in the US started in Chicago, a city well known for "interesting" political activities, especially during the time of its great Democratic Mayor, Richard J. Daley. I first heard of the slogan "Vote Early and Vote Often" there.

In Virginia, voters can request to vote before Election Day if they have any one of a number of "hardships". As I would be working more than eight hours on voting day, I was eligible to vote the week before, and I did. And I was very glad as that meant I did not have to stand in a long line for hours in the rain, as did many people on Election Day.

The Big Day

On November 4th, the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, as required by the Constitution, the big day came. I reported to my local office at 7:30 am and received my marching orders. Throughout the morning, I was to deliver bottled water and Obama-related promotional materials to volunteers staffing the desks at various voting places in my home county. If electronic equipment that relayed back exit-poll information malfunctioned, I was to bring back paper records. And if it started raining—which it did—I was to deliver rainproof ponchos to the volunteers.

For about five hours, I made numerous trips to different areas. However, as the day progressed, more and more volunteer drivers showed up and there was nowhere near enough work for all of them. So I gave up my slot and helped in the office instead. One of the main tasks we'd been told to prepare for was that of picking up people without transport and taking them to their local voting place. However, I heard of no such requests all day.

The polls closed at 8 pm. Everyone in the office was upbeat and talking about attending a big function nearby; however, I decided that a hot shower and an early night were in order. Besides, the Presidential election results wouldn't be known until the next morning. [Apart from the Presidency, Virginia was choosing a Federal Senator for a 6-year term. The very popular and eloquent former Democratic Governor, Mark Warner, won that race handily.]

I was in bed by 10 pm and asleep by 10:01. What a day!

The Glow in the Aftermath

Two days after the election, I headed off to Japan for an extended business trip with some vacation days added as well. I flew to Tokyo and spent the night there in my favorite ryokan (inn) in Ueno Park. The next day, I boarded the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto and got a window seat. Soon after, an older gentleman boarded and sat next to me. He had some English-language magazines including one with a photo of President-elect Obama on the cover. He was a university professor who still taught in Japan and who had studied and taught for some years in the US.

We started talking about the election and I told him of my activities as a volunteer. Well, his face lit up, he stood up in the aisle, bowed towards me, and shook my hand vigorously, all the while saying "thank you". Later that trip and during subsequent trips abroad I got a similar reaction as people "welcomed the US back into the international community of nations". The damage done by George W. Bush and his team, to US prestige around the world, was starting to be repaired. Yes!


At the time, I gave Obama my support and I even invented a slogan, GoBama! However, he seems to have forgotten about me. He doesn't call and he doesn't write. My guess though is that he hasn't forgotten my contact information, and that he'll come looking for me again in time for the 2012 Presidential election.

A byproduct of my efforts is that I seem to be permanently on the Virginia and national Democratic Party mailing lists despite the fact that I am not a member of the Democratic Party, or any other party for that matter. I'm one of those independent types who have the audacity to vote on the merits of the individual candidate.

The US has fixed-term elections, which means that we know the Presidential election will always be on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November every four years, and that the new President will be sworn in at noon, Eastern Standard Time, on the following January 20th. As such, the President-elect has about 10 weeks to put in place a transition team to get ready to take over the Executive Branch of Government. The President-elect and some of his team get to sit in on meetings at the White House and at various government agencies. They also start to vet and select their nominees for cabinet positions (which must be approved by the Senate). It seems to me that having 10 weeks to "get up to speed" before taking office in any country is not only useful, but also necessary. However, in many (most?) other countries it seems that the new leader is sworn in within days of winning the election. That is, they have next to no transition period, which I find very surprising.

So, now that President Obama's honeymoon is well and truly over, what do I think of his performance to date? I definitely think he was the right person for the job, and, frankly, I don't pay much attention to his ratings or the mainstream media. He certainly inherited some big messes and a few new crises have landed on his plate since the election. To be sure, he's made some missteps, but that's fine with me. No amount of preparation can get a President-elect completely ready for the job. He's a quick learner and he's not afraid to delegate to the good people with whom he's surrounded himself. And I am delighted that he can speak intelligently at length on any topic of substance. [When his predecessor was in office, I was constantly embarrassed by his lack of ability to talk "off the cuff". His supporters claimed that was fine with them because he spoke just like them. My response to that has always been that I think we should expect a lot more from a leader of the free world!]

Oh, by the way, as I was working for the campaign and "spreading the word", people kept asking me why I supported Obama. I looked them in the eye and very seriously said, "Because he and I have one very important thing in common. We're both in love with his wife!"

What is Normal? – Part 2: Writing Systems

© 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.


In the first installment, I introduced the general topic and posed some questions to get you in the "What is Normal" mindset. In this part, I'll deal with writing systems. These days, as most of my travel is international the most obvious deviation from my normal routine is being surrounded by written communication in a foreign language, and sometimes with a writing system quite different from my own. [Should that be "different to my own"? British and American English vary.]

I started writing this article in a hotel in Stockholm, Sweden. [And I proofread it in a hotel in Helsinki, Finland, three months later.] Prior to that time, I had been to Sweden once, for three hours one winter's afternoon in Helsingborg after a short ferry ride from Elsinore, Denmark. I know absolutely no Swedish, and have had very little exposure to Swedish people or culture. [I do have some CDs by ABBA and I'm familiar with the Swedish Chef from The Muppets TV show. So that probably qualifies me to be an armchair expert on Sweden on the talk-show circuit.]

From the moment I stepped off the plane at the airport, I saw Swedish writing all around me. Fortunately, some important signs were in English, but as Swedish is a Germanic language—and I have some basic competency in that—I could also understand or figure out some basics. And the fact that quite a few signs used international symbols for things like toilets, money changing, train station, luggage lockers, and such made it all straight forward (unlike when I arrived in Israel [Hebrew] and Jordan [Arabic] last November).

I've been interested in natural languages for many years, and have made a stab at Spanish, German, and Japanese. And I've picked up some basic vocabulary in a few other languages as well. Then I got into formal computer languages, and that led me to formal grammars. Along the way, I worked on specifications for computing environments to support different linguistic and cultural customs. And some years after I started writing for publication, I even managed to get a decent grasp on my first language, English. So let's just say that I'm an occasionally enthusiastic self-taught amateur linguist.


To be literate one must be able to read, write, and comprehend what one has read or written. And in the general understanding, this is extended to include numeracy, the ability to understand numbers and basic arithmetic. So when you hear that a person is illiterate that typically means they lack these capabilities. However, they may well be able to speak and comprehend, and even have an extended vocabulary. In short, they aren't stupid! [Unfortunately, here in the US, we've had more than a few instances of professional athletes graduating from a 4-year university and still being illiterate. "How can that happen", you may well ask.]

Fluency has to do with one's command of a language. I've seen references to the idea that being fluent in a language means knowing the basic grammar and having a vocabulary of 2,000 root words. Over the years, I've done my share of learning word lists in several languages, and each time after having learned 10 new ones, I've felt pretty good, until I realized that that was just the tip of the iceberg. While I may know the words for bird and flower, for example, I'm quickly reminded that doesn't help me distinguish a crow from a sparrow, or a rose from a tulip. As a wag once said, "Those foreigners have different words for everything!"

When I started high school in 1965, only the students in the "A" stream (of which I was one) could take a foreign language, and we had to choose from Latin, Latin, or Latin. Yes my friends, Latin was the only choice, apparently because some Education Department bureaucrats had decided South Australia was most vulnerable to attack from the Romans! And boys like me who didn't care for Latin had to take Agricultural Science instead, while the girls' alternative was Drawing. Speaking of Latin, you may have heard of the famous quote attributed to Julius Caesar, Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered); well, the modern-day version is Veni, vidi, Visa (I came, I saw, I shopped).

Here in Fairfax County, Virginia, to graduate high school in the public school system students are required to take one foreign language for three years, or two languages each for two years. Most schools offer Spanish, French, and German. The high school my son attended also offered Japanese, Russian, and Latin. And most American Liberal Arts 4-year colleges require students to take two semesters of a foreign language or to show proof of fluency to get an exemption.

In 1986, an excellent TV series called The Story of English was aired here in the US. It showed the evolution and distribution of the language as the British Empire expanded around the world. One aspect that I found most amusing was that in more than a few interviews subtitles were added so viewers had a chance of actually understanding what was being said. They may have been speaking in their normal form of English, but it certainly wasn't mine.

Let's move on now to how the written word is actually written.

Alphabet Soup

Simply stated, an alphabet is a set of letters each of which is represented by a distinct symbol. [For the purpose of sorting words alphabetically, the set of letters can have one or more orders; that is, collating sequences.] As I'm writing this in English, I'll use that language to start my discussion. English has 26 letters, which come in two flavors, lower- and uppercase. [Follow the lowercase link to see why they have these names. In Australia, I learned them as small and capital letters, respectively.] Not all alphabets have more than one case. And not all letters in one case have a corresponding letter in the other case (the lowercase ß in German being one such example). And to make it a bit more interesting there is an artificial third case, title case (or letter case). This comes into play when typesetting headings and titles in publications.

For most people using an alphabet, they think of it as the alphabet, not as an alphabet. However, numerous alphabets are in use. For example, the Greek alphabet has 24 letters and two cases. The Classical Latin alphabet had 23 letters (that from modern English without J, V, and W, and with U written as V) and two cases. [Nowadays, Latin alphabet is used for any alphabet derived directly from Latin, so the English, Swedish, and Spanish alphabets, for example, are Latin alphabets.] The modern Cyrillic alphabet has 33 letters and two cases. [Initially, the EU had two official alphabets, Latin and Greek, and if you look at any Euro paper money, you will see the words "EURO" (Latin) and "ΕΥΡΩ" (Greek) printed on them. However, now that Bulgaria has been admitted, Cyrillic has been added as the third official alphabet.]

In English, each vowel and consonant has a different symbol; however, the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets have letters for consonants only. They use other devices to indicate vowel sounds.

Uppercase letters in English are used sparingly, such as at the start of the first word in a sentence, to start proper names, and to write acronyms. However, in German, every noun is written with a leading uppercase letter.

Some alphabets use what look like multiple letters to make a single letter. For example, Spanish has the letters ch and ll. And yes, they do occur in both cases, and if these letters start the first word of a sentence, only the first in each pair is capitalized. Spanish also has rr, but that is really two r's, not a single letter. In Dutch, ij is sometimes considered a single letter; I've certainly seen it as a separate key on a typewriter keyboard.

In the good old days, once we had mastered printing, we moved on to cursive writing. And we were told of the importance of penmanship. However, for many of us, as we grew older, our cursive needed no encryption to keep its meaning secret. Our handwriting bordered on the illegible. The interesting thing now is that with the proliferation of keyboards and keyboard-like interfaces, all electronic communication uses printed letters. As such, does the teaching of cursive still have a place in modern education?

Western European languages have mostly evolved from the Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian) or the Germanic languages. As I have a basic grasp of Spanish and German, and a smattering of words in French, I manage to read quite a few signs as I travel through Europe and its former colonies. And having also studied Japanese for a while, I tend not to get bothered by seemingly strange or arbitrary rules. After all, perhaps English is the strange language!

Now what about all those dots, bars, and squiggles that we see written above or below various letters in European alphabets? Take French (please!). It has the same 26 letters as English. However, it adds diacritical marks to aid in pronunciation. These are the acute (´), grave (`), circumflex (ˆ), dieresis (¨), and the cedilla (¸). The main combinations are: à, â, ç, é, è, ê, ë, î, ï, ô, û, ù, ü, and ÿ. The English word facade comes from the French façade; the cedilla clearly tells the reader to pronounce the letter c as an s, but as English has no such marks, that hint has been lost. You simply have to know that is how it's pronounced.

Spanish also uses the acute accent mark on its vowels, as in á, é, í, ó, and ú. Once again, these are not new letters, but marks to tell you where to put the emphasis when pronouncing them. In the absence of these marks, the stress goes on the penultimate syllable. These marks can also be used to give the same-spelled word different meanings. For example, sábana means bed sheet while sabana means savannah. Spanish also uses the dieresis, but only on ü. On the other hand, the word señor (meaning a formal version of mister) is widely known by speakers of other languages; however, ñ is a letter in its own right, not an n with a diacritic. Once again, when it was taken into English, the tilde atop it was lost. However, when English took on the word canyon from the Spanish cañon the letter y was added to retain the original pronunciation.

And what about them there umlauts in German, as in ä, ö, and ü? There is some dispute about whether they are separate letters or simply diacritical marks. In any event, they certainly indicate the pronunciation. My family name is Jaeschke, which when written in German is Jäschke, with the a-umlaut having the e sound in egg. [When I went to register the internet domain name www.Jaeschke.com, a German with the a-umlaut version of the name already owned it, so I went with www.RexJaeschke.com instead. Currently, domain names and email addresses have to be written using the English alphabet, so the German ä gets written as ae.]

Occasionally, in English-language typesetting you will see the dieresis (¨) used with English words. This mark is placed over the second of a pair of adjacent vowels to indicate that those vowels should be pronounced as separate sounds rather than as a diphthong. The most common word having this is naïve. Another one is the word Noël, which means Christmas.

The Norwegians and Danes have 29 letters in their alphabets, with the 26 English ones followed by Æ/æ, Ø/ø, and Å/å. [Two uses of these letters in English publications come to mind: Æsop's Fables and encyclopædia.] However, the Swedes like to be different, so their set of 29 letters ends in Å/å, Ä/ä, and Ö/ö. Finnish looks like Swedish with the W/w missing, but its roots are completely different, so the visual similarity is misleading.

Diacritical marks turn out to be very useful, and I can see why people have difficulty in pronouncing many words in English, which has no equivalent visual pronunciation guide. One letter pattern in English that has numerous sounds is ough. There is ow in bough, uu in through, oo in though, au in thought, u in enough, and o in cough (and probably others).

Regarding pronunciation in English, look at the front of a good dictionary to see the list of pronunciation symbols and their sounds. For example, man is pronounced măn and plane is pronounced plān. (The ˘ is a breve and the ˉ is a macron.) There is a whole phonetic alphabet used to describe how letters in other alphabets are pronounced.

Even the sounds of the same letter in the same language can vary from one country to the next. The classic example in English is the letter z, which in the US is pronounced zee while the rest of the world says zed. Of course, with the American version of Sesame Street being exported around the world, that is changing. [By the way, Big Bird is not always yellow. For example, in The Netherlands, he is blue.] Also, the way in which small children are taught their letter values varies between countries. For example, I first learned the short sounds a, b, c, etc. rather than the long names aye, bee, cee, and so on. That is, "the a and the t make at in bat"; not the "aye and the bee make at in bat", which would obviously be quite unhelpful.

Each time I travel to a country that uses an alphabet that is somewhat new to me, I look at a local computer keyboard. At a glance, everything is the same, but on closer inspection, quite a lot is different. As many European keyboards have more than 26 letters and/or keys for diacritical marks, the layout is different and some keys serve more than two purposes. The key sequence I have the most trouble finding and using is that to generate the @ symbol when sending email. And what's that ¤ key for?

At one time, I studied a world atlas in Greek for several hours trying to see what I could figure out about that language. Having taken math and physics classes for some years, I knew most of the Greek letters, but still it was a challenge. Legend has it that Saint Cyril—for whom the Cyrillic alphabet was named—and his brother developed that alphabet from Greek and took it into Bulgaria from where it spread through the eastern Slavic countries on up to Russia. So if you look at the history of those areas you can see where certain influences were made, by the alphabets used in those areas. One unusual example of this is the Serbo-Croatian language. The eastern practitioners wrote it using the Cyrillic alphabet while the western ones wrote it using a Latin alphabet. As a result, you have two groups of people speaking the same language, but neither can read it in the other's written form.

I freely admit to having had almost no interest in history during my school years. [After all, as someone once said, "History is nothing but one damned thing after another."] However, having traveled to some of the places I learned about (the Tower of London, Runnymede, and the Waterloo Battlefield, for example) I started to relate to more and more of it. And now I actually like the subject, and I see its influence on language evolution and distribution.

One thing about other languages that can be confusing is their use of a letter that you have in your own language, but with the two having completely different sounds. One example is the Russian letter C, which is pronounced like the English S (except on Wednesdays between 10 and 11 am, and in leap years). And to make it interesting, the Russian P is like the English R. If you look in photos or films covering the Cold War, the Soviet missiles and space rockets always have the letters CCCP painted on the side. These stand for "Союз Советских Социалистических Республик", which—as I'm sure you all know—in English means, "Soyuz Sovyetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik". Now "Soyuz" is Russian for "Union", so CCCP in Russian became "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" (USSR) in English. [Speaking of the Cold War, there is a story about how the US spent $1 million to develop a ballpoint pen that would write in space. The Soviets simply took a pencil!]

Putting the Em·PHA·sis on the Correct Syl·LA·ble

In Part 1, I wrote, "… my Japanese friend Misato would say that not only doesn't she have any lowercase letters—poor Misa—she doesn't have any letters at all or even an alphabet!" So what does she have? As well as Kanji (which we'll discuss later) she has two syllabarieshiragana and katakana—which together, are referred to as kana.

Where an alphabet has symbols for letters, a syllabary has symbols for syllables. Typically, a syllabary symbol has a vowel sound proceeded by an optional consonant. Some examples in Japanese are ah, kah, sah, go, zo, do, kyu, shu, and ryu. [Note that Tokyo really has only two syllables, to·kyo, not the three that Westerners insist on using, to·ki·yo.] Hiragana and katakana each have 100+ symbols with almost complete overlap. And just about any word can be written in either. Having two systems seems redundant to me, and students of Japanese must learn them both. Loan words from foreign languages are always written in katakana. Hiragana is used to write particles, a curious language element that does not exist in English.

Speaking of loan words, Japanese words all end in a vowel sound or n. So loan words have to fit this model and the syllabic pattern. For example, hotel becomes ho·te·ru, taxi becomes ta·ku·shi, and cheese become chi·zu. [While bread is also an imported idea, it came via the Portuguese, so it finished up as pan, which not only fits the Japanese model, but also comes from the Latin panis.] Rather than invent new words whose meaning is equivalent to foreign words, Japanese takes them literally with slight tweaks to "make them fit". My favorite is a·i·su·ku·ri·mu, icecream. Although these extra vowels allow the words to fit the spelling model when written in Romaji, they are unvoiced, so when spoken, the words sound very much like their English counterparts.

More than 10 years ago, one of my textbooks was translated to Japanese. As my first and last names were of foreign origin, they had to be written in katakana. However, there is no direct way to do that without adding some extra vowels to fit the required syllabic pattern. Here is the cover of that book:

[The same book was also translated to Russian, in which case, my name was written as Рекс Жешке.]

When one starts learning a language, one is told to learn to read and write as well as to speak and listen. In general, that makes sense, but when I started looking at Japanese, the idea of learning 200 kana seemed way too much work. [And that's without learning any of the thousands of Kanji characters!]

Other languages use a syllabary, but the Japanese ones are the most widely used.

Early versions of telex and telegram services were limited to as few as 32 symbols, which for most westerners was sufficient for a single-case version of their alphabets. So, did the Japanese have access to these services?

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words (Or is it?)

It turns out that alphabets and syllabaries are latecomers in the written language stakes. At the beginning of the written word, we had pictograms, which used symbols that resembled the physical object for which they stood. [Even today, the Chinese and Japanese symbol for entrance is a mouth.] Of course, we have since invented many words that have no obvious physical representation, although pain might be symbolized by a picture of a dentist! Ideograms were also developed and they are symbols representing an idea or concept.

The best known of these kinds of writing systems are the hieroglyphics from Ancient Egypt and the characters used in Chinese, and which were adapted by Japanese (Kanji).

When I was dabbling in Japanese, I did try to learn the Kanji for basic numbers, and I had some success. So even though I could tell how much I was paying when buying from street food stalls, I still had no idea what I was buying. And to make it interesting, many vendors used a combination of Arabic and Japanese digits. For example, 100 would be written with a Kanji 1 followed by two Arabic zeros.

Although I've asked numerous native speakers how they know how to pronounce what I affectionately call "chicken scratchings", I am still none the wiser. In fact, I think they simply have to remember each character. As to how they look up words in a dictionary is a complete mystery to me. And to make it a wee bit challenging, ideogram-based languages seem to have no concept of inter-word spacing, little or no punctuation, and no upper- or lowercase.

To survive in present-day Japan, a student must master the hiragana and katakana syllabaries, have a good grasp of the Kanji ideograms (some with multiple meanings or readings), and then be able to at least read and understand a good deal of English. Many advertising billboards and TV commercials use all four writing systems together! And as for how one enters these kinds of characters on a keyboard simply is fascinating.

Writing Direction

If you are old enough to remember typewriters, you'll recall that large arm on the right that you had to push to the left to return the carriage to the left side and down to start a new line. Of course, with computers this has come to be known as—surprise—a carriage return.

Standards for computer programming languages support the concept of one or more characters that cause a display cursor or printer to advance to the first position of the next line. Of course, for Westerners, that means, "go back to the left side and down". That is, their writing systems are written left-to-right, top-to-bottom. I have no idea why those languages are written that way, but I know of no superior property it provides, so it is no surprise that some writing systems (such as Hebrew and Arabic) go right-to-left, top-to-bottom, and others (such as Chinese and Japanese) go top-to-bottom, right-to-left. I am not aware of any that go bottom-to-top, although that could be perfectly normal, right?

Most writers of Western languages are right-handed, which allows them to read easily what they have written as they write. Not so for lefties, like my son. In many cases, this forces left-handers to hold the pen at a very strange angle. [Speaking of lefties, back in the good old days (the Middle Ages) many people believed that those who wrote with their left hand were possessed by the Devil, and so they were considered evil. The word sinister comes from the Latin word of the same name, and means left-handed. Dextrous comes from the Latin dexteritas, from dexter, which means on the right.]

A few years ago, I made my first visit to the new British Library in London where I discovered its treasure room. [Among other things, it contains the first folio of Shakespeare's complete works, some very ornate Korans, and the lyrics of a well-known Beatle's song scribbled on an airline napkin. I highly recommend a visit if you have the opportunity.] Off in one corner was a room with computer terminals that provided access to a digitized version of one of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks. Now Leonardo (or "Yo Leo", as his close friends addressed him) was never accused of being normal. In this notebook, he wrote left-handed, from right to left, and back to front. That is, you need to look at a mirror image of the writing to see it in its "normal" perspective.


We've barely scratched the surface of this topic. For example, we haven't talked about sorting order in word lists, punctuation, grammar, or even the spoken word, which is a completely new topic of its own. But, of course, we have to leave something for future installments.

I'll leave you with the following anecdote from my travels in South East Asia in July 1979. I was in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, and Superman: The Movie, starring Christopher Reeve, had just been released there. The Malaysians loved movies and the ticket price was cheap, so each showing was packed. However, Malaysia has four official languages: Bahasia Malay, Chinese, Indian, and English. Although the soundtrack was in English, that was not the first language of most patrons, so they read one of the three sets of subtitles that covered the bottom half of the screen. At the same time, they were talking loudly amongst themselves making it difficult for those few of us trying to listen. For them that was normal.