Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Scammers Inc. - con artists put warning labels on unsolicited mail and still make money

We have all been receiving unsolicited phone call offers and letters in the mail, we have seen spam email and popups on dodgy websites telling us our computer is about to be shut down by Microsoft (even if the machine was an Apple) unless we call the number on the screen NOW.

But these scams and the many similar ones are not what the blogster wants to write about today.

There is another kind of scam, and legally speaking it is not even a scam because the senders put several disclaimers on the envelope and the content.

In many ways, these mailing are like cigarette packs in Europe: big warning labels and graphic images of damage to your health, but enough people continue to smoke to keep the business profitable.

The senders use company names that might hint at an official institution if you just glance at the envelope, of example, if the blogster told you something came from Local Records Office, would you immediately think 'local government' or 'a company named Local Records Office'?

And the warning that tampering with postal mail is a crime, subject to assorted fines or even jail time? That applies to every single item of mail sent with the US postal service.

Yes, even the Christmas cheers by your favorite aunt are protected under US federal law.

Plus, the senders tell you right underneath the statute reminder that this letter is not from any government office or an entity affiliated with the government.

You still open the letter, right?

Of course, you do.

What is inside? You may find the company offers you a copy of the deed of your house (the document that proves you are the legal owner), or they may offer you additional information about your property, for example, how much the taxes are, or how many other houses in your neighborhood have the same value as your home.

All of this information is either free (look on real estate websites like Zillow, Truila, Refin) or available from your city or county at a nominal fee.

How does the blogster know it* can obtain the information or a copy of the deed from the local authorities at a nominal fee?

The friendly senders of the unsolicited mail tell it so right in the letter.

They also have a disclaimer that the letter is not an invoice/a bill, just an offer of service. Helpful as they are, they do have a detachable slip with their address and the amount they charge at the bottom of the letter.

You will also get a refund if they can not provide the information/papers offered.

How much do they expect you to pay for the data/paper?

It looks like the going rate is between 80 and 90 dollars, nicely and objectively calculated, of course, so $ 89.90, for example.

The question is: who would fall this something like this?

The blogster is afraid that there might be two main susceptible groups: poor owners (in other words, mostly the mobile home owner population) as well as recent immigrants.

We'll probably never know because the service if completely legal and - there is some irony here - goes well beyond informing the receiver of cheaper alternatives.

Unlike, for example, some credit card or cell phone companies with contract fine print that requires an electron microscope to read.
 
* Gender neutral blogsters rock.

Monday, December 24, 2018

The Walmart parking lot - a home away from home

If you followed the news during the disastrous wildfire in Northern California last month, you saw the fire refugees in the parking lot of the Chico Walmart.

This was unusual as to the extent of the encampment and the number of people who took refugee in a parking lot of America's biggest retailer. Regularly chastized for low wages, skimpy benefits, and super rich shareholders, Walmart is also an unlikely champion of those out of luck or out of money (generally both).

Seeking refuge next to a Walmart is something that takes place every day all across the vast country where trespassing can quickly land you in jail. The phenomenon is quintessentially American, and very much unknown outside of the States.

Spending a night or two in a Walmart parking lot is an accepted travel feature among young people, among people who live in their RVs, as well as among the local homeless.

Nobody the blogster spoke to knew how sleeping in a Walmart parking lot became an accepted way of avoiding Motel 6 or the Thunder Lounge. The common explanation is Walmart's long store opening hours of generally 18 to 24 hours a day combined with a laisser faire attitude of the company. And their bathrooms are clean and not locked for non customers.

Given the round o'clock presence of security guards at Walmart locations, it is hard to believe that there is no company policy regarding people who stay much longer than you would even for a Walmart shopping trip.

Another aspect is that some stores have actually banned parking lot sleepovers in cities where large numbers of homeless became a permanent fixture and gave rise to complaints by shoppers.

The other day, the blogster availed itself* of the unadvertised hospitality of a smaller town Walmart and, on the coffee run to an adjacent fast food restaurant, met a small group of "speed freaks" who had hunkered down in that corner of the lot. After a suitably lengthy chat and buying them a couple of coffees, the blogster & company continued their journey.

The blogster can not claim true expertise in parking lot hopping, but it can provide a few pointers of etiquette, basically common sense rules also applicable for a visit to you aunt or your parents.

Pick your spot in a far corner of the parking lot. You do not want to interfere with the shoppers.

Don't play loud music, don't yell, don't litter. If a security guard car rolls by, be friendly - a nod and a smile go a long way.

We'll end this post with the words of the lady who likes speed too much: Thank you for not wishing me Merry Christmas.

* Yes, gender neutrality rocks.

Friday, August 3, 2018

English buzzwords as a power tool for German managers

One of the more insidious uses of language is not treated with the seriousness the blogster would like to see around the subject: management lingo in other languages peppered with English phrases.

You may think of Denglish, which brings up images of bumbling folks - regular everyday use or professional context - as well as voices warning of sinister Anglo-American cultural imperialism.

But there is a phenomenon that looks like standard Denglish but reflects an intra cultural struggle for power. When the topic comes up, it is dealt with in a humorous manner, dismissive and tongue in cheek, for example in this article by German daily WELT.

The language of management and its primary servants, the consultants, can be difficult enough to understand in its original English language and cultural setting but gains an additional dimension of complexity when bits and pieces are inserted into another culture.

The common uses, such as hype, pompousness, euphemism of the original can change in the new setting. the change can be as small as conveying "I speak a language you don't" or achieve new levels of obfuscation beyond what the phrase can do in a native environment.

Some of the 19 examples of phrase injection in the Welt piece do emphasize use of English as a means to ask for more power, to exert or demand compliance while softening the harshness by using a semi-English turn of phrase.

That gross and demeaning feature of English in a non-native setting is less tongue in cheek and more thong in cheek.

You are welcome.



Thursday, August 2, 2018

Where have all the fruit trees gone...people cut them one by one

The blogster has always been fond of fruit trees, the incredible gift of food spanning generations. Sure almost all of the fruit and vegetables we eat today are the result of many generations tinkering with the plants, but fruit trees are about delayed gratification, something it* finds sublimely attractive.

Of the many posts about fruit and veggies on this blog, you might like the UBER for plums, apples, and berries one best because it brings together a new tech buzzword and traditional harvesting.

This post, though, is about loss - the loss of fruit trees, of the joy they brought, of the way they created and nourished the social bond of a community with its administration via the public works department's care of the trees and the fruit.

The blogster's city has a park at city hall like many other American cities. What distinguished this park from others around the nation was the kind of trees the city decided to plant in addition to the uninspiring elms, maples and the like: orange trees.

City workers not only maintained the orange trees, after all they maintain many other trees on public property. No, they took care of the harvest. As the oranges began to ripen late in the year, city workers would pick ripe oranges and place them in crates at the feet of the trees.

Residents and the errant tourist - there were few tourists around here in these days - would take as many oranges as they wanted. When the season was over, the workers would put the empty crates back into storage for the next year.

You don't have to be an overly sensitive or hyper romantic tree hugger to understand the bond between the residents, the orange trees, and city hall. The sense of ownership and care, of serving the community was obvious.

Then the 1980s or 1990s happened. City leaders decided the time had come to redevelop city plaza and its surroundings. You can imagine the fate of the orange trees. Planning documents of the time mention that many of the orange trees had outgrown their spaces, making the park crowded. There was also adjacent parking, which - as the planners phrased it - had 'impacted' the trees.

To make the story short, the orange trees lost the fight. The whole plaza was re-planted with more convenient trees, nothing that bears fruit and thus become a nuisance, a health hazard, or a public safety concern.

In the many decade the residents had enjoyed the orange trees and the annual free fruit no one had ever sued the city over the orange menace, but you never knew, you could not be careful enough. Don't ask the blogster if this  cautious approach also applied to hiring in the city police department.

Decades since the plaza redevelopment, the scars of the works have healed, and very few of the younger residents know about the orange trees.

* We are gender neutral around here. It is healthy.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Loving President Trump and paying for the house of the children are not mutually exclusive

So much perfectly good ink has gone into "understanding" Trump voters, and the blogster feels most of that has been wasted. So it* decided to add one more anecdotal write up to the many produced by the pros.

As always, the blogster has no good or comprehensive answer. Today, it wants to share a couple of thoughts contrasting what a few traditional Republicans gone Trump say with their actions.

In the small mind of the blogster, one thing you need to understand about "good middle class Republicans" and their support of Mr. Trump is that these now retired folks had a relatively good financial life. While there have been millions of American workers who lost their pensions, their health care, their houses, many more made it through the 50s, 60s, and so on, basically fine.

The ones who bought a home in the late 50s or in the 60s for anywhere between 15 000 and 30 000 dollars and sold it before the Great Recession for ten or twenty times what they paid for it and had a government sponsored pension on top of Social Security number in the dozens of millions. 

And many now live in nice communities around their peers somewhere near a balmy beach or on a hilltop with a view.

Their mantra is "we did it, so can you with enough work and grit".

Some of their children have succeeded. Never mind that these are mostly the ones who got a government job while holding on to the belief that government is pretty evil, or that they are the ones who benefited from the networks that come with a good education.

Then there are the other children. The ones who did not get to live the American dream for a variety of reasons.

There is the daughter who works two jobs in one of the large urban areas of the US and who cannot make rent despite working 12 hours six days a week.

There is the grandson who works as a security guard and gets most of his calories from soda because it is half the price of a bottle of plain water. He now weighs 300 pounds and counting.

The old folks bought their offspring a house so they don't join the ranks of the homeless camping out along the freeways, creeks, and under the bridges a few miles away.

The media are not reporting fairly on Donald Trump, one of the retirees says. Yes, they actually change the meaning of what he says by airing only short clips out of context, adds the other. He never said all Mexicans who come here are criminals or rapists, the first adds, all he said was that some are, and we need to protect our borders against those. Other countries charge large tariffs on US goods, much more than we charge on theirs, a third says, take their auto industry for example, the Europeans are very protective of that, and we should just get a level playing field, preferably without any tariffs at all, so all countries could do what they are best at, and we would all benefit.

Do you now understand what Fox News and gibberish can do when you live in a sub urban neighborhood with next to no crime and a steady diet of Fox?

In case you have been wondering whether they like Donald Trump as a person - the answer is no. They see him as uncouth, as immoral, and they do not mind because in their opinion, he has done so much more than the last five or so presidents combined.



* We are gender neutral at the K-Landnews. If you cannot understand why, there is a body of research out there you might want to google or bing or duckduck.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Food insecurity: food prices in the United States are a lot higher than in Germany

Comparing consumer prices between countries is not easy and often seriously flawed, especially if done through casual observation by an individual.

But your favorite blogster is not casual and uses backup information from the web, for example, the cost of living comparison site numbeo.

So the confirmation of recent observations, condensed into joyful "food is fucking expensive here", is borne out by the numbeo figures. They say that groceries are over 26% more expensive in the US than in Germany.

The blogster regards the overall 26% as being on the low side and estimated basic grocery needs often are closer to 100% more expensive around here. If they are affordable, they can often require long trips to a less pricey store. The most extreme manifestation of this phenomenon is called a food desert and even recognized by the Centers for Disease Control as having potential adverse health effects.

Stating the cost of living is obviously not helpful without a look at the purchasing power or disposable income of the population.

And this is where is gets outright frightening: according to numbeo, local purchasing power in the United States is about 4.5% higher than in Germany.

This means, the higher grocery costs take - pardon the pun - a big bite out of Americans' income, explaining in part why food insecurity, in other words hunger, is a huge issue in this country.
Despite a booming economy, this article in The Nation from October 2017 gives the number of people affected as 41 million.

While going to a US food bank for help does not come with the still significant stigma attached to visiting their most prevalent German counterpart Die Tafel, American food prices remain, in the eyes of the blogster, an under reported and odd phenomenon. Even more so
because American farmers export huge amounts of grain and other foodstuffs.

But hey, you can shop 24 hours a day.

[Update 6/22/2018] The conservatives just passed a bill discussed for months with the effect that existing work requirements for "able bodied adults" under 49 years will be extended to those under 59 years of age.
Government estimates say that this change would kick another 1.2 million recipients off the list of those eligible for SNAP (formerly food stamps) benefits.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

When is the public "f*****ed"? When the owner of German tabloid Bild & intellectualoid Welt call new public broadcasting agreement an 'everybody wins' deal

Regarding funding, Germany's public broadcasters have an easy life - they get about 20 dollars per household as a mandatory fee. On top of that, every business has to pay in accordance with the number of employees. Nothing says watching television or listening to the radio at work like the many environments where hearing protection is needed or where enjoying moving or still images will get you fired on the spot, even in a place where the laws require some form of cause for layoffs.

Germany's public broadcasters currently take in around 8 billion Euros a year in fees and hundreds of millions more in ad revenue and revenue from other services.

And they have web sites.

Really.

It's a big deal because the sites come with their own 'media libraries'. The proper sounding name hides the fact that the stations are allowed under current agreements to only keep archived broadcasts available for seven days on the website after the first airing the radio or TV episode.

This hard limit will soon go away.

That's the win for the broadcasters if you will.

The win for the traditional print media, represented in the blog title and the press comments on the agreement by none other than the chief of the company that owns one of the country's truly awful tabloids is this:

Internet presence of German public broadcasters to focus on moving image and audio.

Criticism by the powerful, largely 'conservative' media industry group representing the paper based sector against the public broadcasters has recently targeted the broadcaster's use of the written word on their websites.

Writing something that vaguely resembles an article is decried as unfair competition and will now be officially banned. What this means is a loss of accessibility because the provision can easily be read as prohibiting full text publication of interviews and commentary.

The egregious bit is that no such prohibition exists for forays of the paper folks into audio and video. Not only does DER SPIEGEL, for example, boast a TV like site called spiegeltv but the Axel Springer group of incendiary tabloid BILD fame owns real TV station N-TV and proudly features its content on 'print' sites, such as Welt.

In short, the German public is, well, read the blog title again. 

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The old man and the hills

Out here in the American West, men like him blend into the fabric of the landscape. When he goes into town, he puts on freshly washed clothes and looks like any other retiree from one of the small single family houses or an apartment complex in the sprawling former agricultural population center.

But he is not. His home up in the mountains, an hour or more outside of town - depending on the weather - has none of the amenities even modern Americans out West have become used to.

He has no running water, no other electricity than from his small Japanese made generator, which he runs just two or three hours a day, and no structure in the shape of a house. It is probably better not to describe the physical details of the man's home and surroundings in too much detail. The county building inspectors and the zoning board discovered Google Maps and Google Earth a few years ago. With their newfound technical skills, zoning boards all over the American West went on an enforcement binge.

This did not affect the man in the hills because his only structure is an outhouse with a luxurious square footage double that of a traditional outhouse. What did affect him was the spike in real estate prices, driven up by unlimited speculation and mortgage tricks, made worse by increasing demand for marijuana, before the Great Depression of 2007/2008.
Chainsaws and industrial size generators moved in next door and throughout the patchwork of valleys in the region.

With denser population and - he and others believe - climate change, he spent more time away from the home in the hills in recent years fighting fires across the West. It means good money and maybe a chance at retirement.

The story of the man's life is yet another one of those that really should have been made into a book or a movie.

A good title would be "The kind American".

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

In the 21st Century, the German military still provides honor guards for decorated WWII personnel

The other day, the blogster had a chat with OMG (old mustached German, you may remember him from earlier posts) and found out that the German military, including the happily reunified one, has quietly provided honor guards at the funerals of highly decorated World War II Wehrmacht folks through the decades. These honors were extended to former WWII personnel, irrespective of whether they later joined the newly formed democratic Bundeswehr or not.

According to Wikipedia, the number of honor guards between 2000 and 2011 was just over 100, adding up the three different flavors of honor guards.

Of course, high ranking later politicians, like former Chancellor Kohl get one too, said OMG.

Oh, I thought they were Kohl's funeral to make sure he was safely boxed up, the blogster quipped in a fit of reverence.

OMG raised an eyebrow but continued to talk.

Turns out, he once served as a community outreach officer at a large Bundeswehr installation. Part of the job was coordinating honor guards for funerals of highly decorated Wehrmacht and Bundeswehr veterans.

To qualify, a WWII man had to have been awarded a "knight's cross" or equivalent, such as the 'Deutscher Orden'. Being the military, the different versions of honor guards are well regulated and usually go smoothly, except for, well, possible issues with the pesky swastika the Nazis stuck on every medal.

In Germany, it is a felony to display a swastika in public (unless you are a museum). Of course, violations of the policy have occurred, sometimes reported, more often unreported like one incident in which a West German general pulled a bunch of flags from a museum and various Germans and Allies saluted those flags.

But the Bundeswehr was well prepared for funerals of old WII folks and has maintained collections, throughout the country, of all the highest Nazi medals with their swastikas dutifully removed.

The standard 'small honor guard' of six soldiers plus a drummer and a trumpet player for decorated folks includes a medal and awards cushion, carried by an active soldier, displaying the medals during the funeral procession and at the grave site.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well. OMG explained, one day he kind of dropped the ball when some old geezer explained he was intimately familiar with the honor guard procedures and that he, the geezer, would take care of the cushion.

I arrived literally a couple of minutes before the ceremony, OMG explained, and checked the uniforms, the flag and the helmet on the casket and the medals cushion. Imagine my horror when I saw that a big Order of Germany was sitting in the center of the cushion with its swastika! I mean, we have had press and photographers at such funerals, imagine the uproar.

The blogster figured there was simple solution. Just remove the medal, and you are good.

OMG was  lot more creative. I checked my wallet, he elaborated, and found a 2 Euro coin. I took it out, put it on top of the swastika, and it fit. It covered it. I instructed the carrier to lift the cushion to be perfectly horizontal, not facing slightly down as usual. And I told him not f***ing move.

OMG was very pleased with his workaround.

So, folks, if you ever need to bury some old Nazis and show off their decorations, make sure to have a 2 Euro coin on you.

Even better, keep some chewing gum handy.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The myth of envy of the poor towards the rich and the rich folks' demand for gratitude

Germany just saw another storm in a beer mug about its poor. This is an annual ritual when charities and social service NGOs publish their annual reports, but the current episode was started by thoroughly average 'conservative rebel' Mr. Spahn when he claimed that people on the means tested basic social benefits program did not go hungry.

With great empathy, he added praise for food banks as "a great way to avoid that perfectly edible food gets thrown into the trash".

Faced with sarcasm and outrage, the gentleman decided to highlight the cost of social programs, declaring them highly desirable and adding that there are no unlimited funds, and that it is all about providing the right level of services without ignoring tax revenues.

Pointing out, as some did, that Mr. S. happily voted for an automatic increase of compensation of German federal MPs while insisting that any increase in benefits is subject to an annual review, would not sway anybody.

Neither would pointing out that the German poor, including those on the means tested bare bones benefit Hartz IV, have about the same tax burden as the very wealthy relative to their income.

The blogster finds two perennial aspects of the debate very revealing: alleged envy towards the wealthy and a more or less clearly stated demand of gratitude towards the "top earners of our well financed social state".

A commentary by one of the folks of conservative daily Die Welt can serve as a wonderfully phrased example of the mantra of envy. Declaring Germans to be "world champions of envy", the author bemoans that the recent arguments about Hartz IV and food banks on the one hand and upset about the compensation of the chief of automaker VW were being instrumentalized and clearly showed the alleged envy.

Nowhere in the debate has there been any question as to whether this envy is even real. The blogster cannot claim to be the ultimate authority, but it* has lived among poor Germans, and it has read up on the definition of envy: "painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage". 

And guess what?

It has not found "the desire to possess the same advantage". Ever. Also not among the poor in India. Or those in the United States.

What it has found, though, is the desire of the poorer folks to have enough money to get to the end of the month without skipping meals in order to feed their children, without fear of using too much electricity, without praying that the old car will make it into the next month.

Which is not the same as the desire to possess the same advantages as those who are well off.

In fact, resentment often goes in the other direction. Why do they need a smartphone, is an often heard question in the debate over benefits levels.

The commentary in Die Welt really shines in its use of impersonal statements to buffer increasing inequality. The gem is "modern capitalism accelerates the differentiation of society". 

In short, "modern" is the new modern, and we are not seeing inequality but "differentiation". It comes as no surprise that "there are more and more rich people in this economically successful country. Still not enough, but there is improvement in times of growth."

Lamentably, "it does not matter how much they pay in taxes, how comprehensive their contributions are for social security, how many jobs they create or secure: hardly anybody has any sympathy for the rich."

We all, the blogster included, use umbrella terms like "capitalism" and others, but we should be weary of turning to impersonal usage to nefarious ends.

On a positive note: the blogster would love to pay a million or more Euros or dollars in taxes every year, because it would mean a more than comfortable income. If you meet modern capitalism, ask him to help out a hard working blogster. 

* In praise of gender neutrality.