Germans extend tech help to refugees

If you are looking for good news about the refugee crisis, you can’t do much better than a story about ordinary people using their skills to help others.  I particularly enjoyed working on this article for and talking to the people involved in the Refugee Hackathon and at Refugees Online. If you’d like to help, please visit their sites to find out more.


As more refugees reach Germany, here’s how its tech community has responded

by Sara Zaske on, 11/20/15

refugeesmIn the fallout from the Paris attacks, the longer-running controversy over refugees has taken on a new significance. But the fact remains that this summer, Germans surprised the world by opening their borders to a wave of asylum seekers.

Now, with more than 800,000 having already arrived, the country’s IT community is getting down to the practical issues of devising ways to help refugees through technology… (Read full story on

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The non-pushy parent: how to be a German mum

I wrote another piece about my experiences as an American parent in Berlin. It appeared in The Times newspaper in the U.K. Here’s a short sample. (Sorry you have to go to The Times site to read the whole thing but it’s behind a paywall. If you can’t get there try this PDF of the article).


The non-pushy parent: how to be a German mum

When Sara Zaske moved to Berlin with her family, she was shocked at how much freedom German children were allowed

In her school notebook, my daughter Sophia has set two goals: to write better letters and to walk home alone. Unfortunately, she’s probably not going to reach that second goal — because I won’t let her.

My daughter is only eight, and I’m an American mother. Despite living in Germany for the past six years, I have a deep and slightly irrational fear that some kidnapper will pluck her off the streets of Berlin during the 500m walk between her school and our apartment.

I realise the irony. The US is supposedly “the land of the free”, but we Americans tend to treat our children like little prisoners, monitoring their every move in public and restricting what they can be taught in school.

In contrast, German parents are much more relaxed . . .  Read more on Times website   or this PDF.

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How to Parent Like a German

Here’s a recent article I wrote for (Also, check out the new article section on the site!)


The first time I went to a playground in Berlin, I freaked. All the German parents were huddled together, drinking coffee, not paying attention to their children who were hanging off a wooden4 dragon 20 feet above a sand pit. Where were the piles of soft padded foam? The liability notices? The personal injury lawyers?

Achtung! Nein!” I cried in my bad German. Both kids and parents ignored me.

Contrary to stereotypes, most German parents I’ve met are the opposite of strict. They place a high value on independence and responsibility. Those parents at the park weren’t ignoring their children; they were trusting them. Berlin doesn’t need a “free range parenting” movement because free range is the norm.

Here are a few surprising things Berlin parents do:

Don’t push reading. Berlin’s kindergartens or “kitas” don’t emphasize academics. In fact, teachers and other parents discouraged me from teaching my…

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Four great books for writers

In honor of my return to the blog, I’m putting a post for my fellow writers. Because that’s why I’ve been away. I’ve been writing the whole time, working on a new novel. I swear.

Writers must read. It’s the first requirement. We should all read widely in genre and out, and this includes so-called “craft books.” Some writers balk at this advice. There’s an old belief that writing is somehow innate: either know how to do it or you don’t.

Truth is, none of us were born knowing how to write. If it’s a talent, it’s a learned one. And here are a few great books to help you keep learning:

writing_breakoutWriting the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. Maas is an agent and a writer. (He has a pseudonym. If anyone knows it—send me an email. I hate not knowing things.) Anyway, Maas spent some time analyzing the novels that break out of the pack and take off. The result: excellent, not-so-obvious observations that can help tip your novel in the right direction.


on_writingOn Writing by Steven King. I would read this just for the awesome storytelling. King tells the story of how he became a writer, which is really entertaining—and he gives some solid practical advice. Like kill your adverbs. Really Kill them dead.



save_the_catSave the Cat by Blake Snyder. This is a screenwriters book, but the patterns Snyder identifies are pretty universal to storytelling. The book has been criticized for over-emphasizing formulas–and I am not an advocate formula fiction (snore). Still, every writer should be aware of readers’ expectations in story lines, and Snyder lays that framework bare, so you can learn how to set it up yourself—then you can twist it, subvert or tear it all down if you want to.



Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Has any writer not read this one yet? If you haven’t go out and get it, Lamott knows the writer’s mind. She has great ideas to help you get past all those hangups and get writing!



What are your favorite writing craft books?

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A believable dystopia: review of Feed


Feed by M.T. Anderson

If you found the Hunger Games and Divergent far-fetched (and they are), Feed shows a dystopian novel that seems possible. In Feed, everyone is hooked up to a network that tracks their interests and purchases. It also allows them to chat and keep tabs on trends and memes. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? The only difference from our current internet hookups (be it smartphone, tablet, or PC) is that this “feed” is hardwired directly into people’s brains. Talk about data mining.

The world of Feed is a logical extension of what’s already happening with smartphones tracking your every keystroke and transforming it in to data to be sold to marketers (or given to a spy agency.) Sure, the part about hooking into your cerebral cortex is a bit over the top. But that’s what really good dystopian fiction does, it takes something that’s already present and pushes it to the extreme.

At the start of the novel, Titus and a group of friends are going to the moon to party. And the guys are being. . . well pretty typical dumb teenage guys. Titus is trying to have fun even though he’s actually bored until he sees a girl who is different than anyone he’s met before. Violet hasn’t had the feed as long, and she’s a resister to the current system in some ways. Then, the group’s feed is hacked, and they are disconnected from the feed for a while, and then Violet’s feed starts to malfunction.

My biggest criticism of Feed is that the story between Titus and Violet is a bit simple even predictable, and I left the book feeling that a chance a true greatness had been missed. Still, I highly recommend Feed. I would read this novel for Anderson’s imagined world alone. The premise is fantastic and disturbing, and it’s incredible that he thought of it about ten years ago—and yet it’s still relevant and very disturbing today, perhaps even more so.


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Four things Germans do better than Americans (or not)

As an American living in Berlin, I’ve noticed a few cultural differences.

by Markburger83 at English Wikipedia

by Markburger83 at English Wikipedia

It’s clear that Germans do some things better than Americans: free preschool, public transportation, beer festivals. . .

by astronaut David R. Scott, Apollo 15 commander via Wikimedia Commons

by astronaut David R. Scott, Apollo 15 commander via Wikimedia Commons

And some things Americans do better: fast Internet, customer service–oh and landing on the moon. . . (which some Germans don’t believe happened. . . that’s another story.)

But there are a few things about German culture that I’m totally ambivalent about. I really don’t know if I love them or hate them:

1. You can drink beer everywhere!

Good: There are no open container laws in Germany like there are in the U.S. Tell me again which one is the land of the free? You can bring a bottle of wine (or three) to a picnic in the park and not have to hide it. You can drink a beer on the train ride home from work or just walking down the street. But,

Bad: Wait, why are there so many drunk people all over the place?

2. Germans are less lawsuit-happy than Americans.

Good: There’s a greater sense of personal responsibility. Everyone is expected to obey the rules and watch out for themselves.

Bad: The sidewalks are super bumpy, and some playgrounds are downright terrifying. Then there’s that time a friend had a potential employer tell him that he was too old for a job–in writing. Don’t see that happening in the good ol’ litigious U.S. of A.

3. The Germans let it all hang out.

Good: They have less body shame, so you can change your clothes right on the beach, no biggie. You can sunbathe in the park al fresco if you want. On hot days, little kids are free to run around naked like the wild little animals they are.

Bad: For some reason, old, out-of-shape people seem to really love the whole nudity thing. I’ve seen enough naked elderly men to last me a lifetime. Sometimes, I could use a little less “all” hanging out, Danke.

4. Many Germans are bilingual.

Good: Almost every German knows a little English, which makes it pretty easy to get around, shop, eat out, ask people for directions, visit the doctor’s office, etc.

Bad: I haven’t been forced to learn German. (I’m trying. I really am! German is just so dang hard!) Many Germans are sympathetic to my American monolingual handicap. But not all. I was once lectured by a homeless person telling me I should learn German because I’m in Germany. He was speaking, of course, in English.

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Worth the tears: review of A Monster Calls

monster_callsA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

I don’t normally go for tear jerkers, but this one is well worth the crying. A Monster Calls is simply a stunning book. It doesn’t just aim for sadness; it tackles a difficult subject the death of a parent in a magical way without being maudlin, and it’s fabulously written and surprisingly entertaining.

Thirteen-year-old Conor lives alone with his mother who is dying of cancer. That setup alone made me afraid to pick up this book. But what makes A Monster Calls truly wonderful are the nightmares and the monster. (Yes, you read that right). A monster comes visiting Conor at key moments in his life, telling him odd stories and giving him odd powers. Conor is not afraid of the monster, like you might expect; he’s dealing with worse things. And the novel is about his journey to face those things.

Ness’ writing really draws you in, and doesn’t let go. If you have any doubts about picking up this book, read the first chapter and you’ll see what I mean. Ness’ talent is also obvious in his book, The Knife of Never Letting Go, but that story had some other issues.

A Monster Calls, on the other hand, is elegantly written and incredibly moving. The idea for the story was actually developed by Siobhan Dowd who was too ill with cancer herself to write it. That real life story is tragic enough. And the fictional story she came up with, and that Ness executes, will shake you.

It’s a hard fact of life that many children have to deal with the death of a parent, but this fictional story has some really powerful things to say about death and grief. You’ll be surprised and delighted by A Monster Calls even as it breaks your heart. I highly recommend it for adults as well as young adults.


What sad books have you read that were worth the tears?

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