Friday, May 31, 2013

1.5 million Germans missing over night

German media report that even the statisticians were baffled by the results of the German census of 2011 made public this week.

1.5 million fewer people live in the country than expected.

This is going to be a cute headline all over the world but we want to know how it happens and what it means.

The how is easy.

They had not done a census in 20 years, and just adding and subtracting people over that period resulted in bad numbers. So, it was not that the rapture has started and Germans just happen to be the first set called up...

What does it mean?

Record keeping
To us, it makes us question the record keeping ability of the Germans. They have been justly both famous and infamous for keeping records in the past.

And now, where did that go?  How can it be that the Nazis and the East German commies with nothing but pencils and slide rulers out-record a modern computer based society?

Is it the school system? Are the doomsday prophets here right after all? Search this blog for "school" and "education" to find out more.

Frightening economic power
With 80,2 million people, Germany is an economic powerhouse right there next to China and the U.S. in many areas.
And they did all of this with 1.5 million people LESS than everybody thought!

With supposedly comically short working hours to boot, something does not tally.

More research needed
Mere minutes after the survey became public, the K-landnews team grabbed their clipboards and pens and fanned out over the town to investigate.
But we failed to find enough people to interview -- we suspect that this is due to 1.5 million Germans going missing over night.

We will not give up until we have found at least a few of them.

What are the chances?

The book with the title "What are the chances?"  was sitting smack dab in the middle of the train seat, the title invitingly visible.

Inside the jacket was a business size card stating it was a review copy.

It is a book about "chance", about statistics and probability.

The location of the find probably tells us two things: the reviewer may have worked at Stanford University, and the book was meant to be found.

So, let's test the chances. What's the probability of the reviewer of this specific copy reading this post?

About as good or bad as winning the Powerball jackpot?

TheEditor admits to a certain fascination with unlikely events. The following story ends with one such event.

It starts probably sometime in the 1980s.

Some rich idiot has parked his shiny Mercedes roadster in one of our parking spots. That's what one of the servers at a Los Angeles area restaurant said when she arrived for her shift. Not long afterwards, a young woman we call Donna resigned to get married to the much older man who was a customer at the restaurant. The car had been a present.

Further north, in San Francisco, a firefighter we'll call Ray handed his wife tickets for a Pacific cruise to celebrate their ten year anniversary.

They became friends with Donna and her husband during the cruise and visited them a couple of times afterwards.

Several years later, the firefighter's wife came home from work to a chili simmering on the stove as so often before. To this day, firefighters cook during their long shifts, you can even find cookbooks by firefighters. The 12 noon pizza run with the sirens bawling does exist, though.
There was no letter on the table - the divorce papers would arrive in the mail and confirm her fears. One of her sons will tell her that dad left after Donna's husband died.

Two decades later, in the first week of June, a young couple camping at Camp Richardson in South Lake Tahoe, CA, wakes up to several inches of snow on the tent and on the ground, and bear tracks lead to the overturned garbage can someone else had left out near the main gate.
The couple had been one of the few holdouts at the camp, nearly everybody else had fled the snow and the cold at least a day earlier.
Let me treat you to a good hotel, the male said, let's go to Incline Village.

That night, they are having a drink in the bar and barely notice the much older couple at the bar. Though, to the young man, "barely" does not have the same meaning as for most people. The older couple, in their late sixties or early seventies are tanned, the man shows the composure that often indicates a retired solder, policeman, or firefighter. Just as the young couple are getting up to leave, a group of five or six people enters and heads for the couple at the bar. Smiles, animated greetings, hugs and introductions suddenly fill the quiet room. This is Donna, this is Ray, says one of the newcomers to the rest of the group. Did you arrive from Palm Springs today?

Passing the group, the young man catches Ray's eye for a fleeting moment, knowing that Ray could not place him. As the couple steos into the empty hallway leading to the elevator, the male turns to the female with a little smile. I can not believe that, what are the chances?

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Exploding train ticket machines

German police warns of exploding train ticket machines.

Seeing this headline, TheEditor rubbed his eyes, then checked the date. Satisfied that today is not 1 April, the next check was the website address.

Reassuringly, it was respected Der Spiegel online.

The full story is that thieves have been getting creative at breaking into train station ticket machines in the greater Frankfurt, K-land, area.

They tape all openings of the machines shut, then fill them with gas, which they make explode.

Open sesame, grab what little money is in there, run.

Apparently, this has been going on for a couple of months, the cops say there are machines taped shut which could explode any time.

2 months and no public safety warning?

In the US, they'd sue Amtrack into oblivion if they sat on information like Deutsche Bahn does.

What, Amtrack is already.....? Sorry, abort the joke.

Which brings us to riding that train in Germany. The trains are fine, mostly, but the ticket machines are a dream.

The binary thinking we love about the folks here is materialized in ticket machines. There are machines that take only cash, others take only cards.

Cash machines take only the smallest bills around. Anything over 10 euros is a no go on most machines.
If a bill has undergone one (1) folding during its time in circulation, most machines will reject it.

Current ticket machines reflect the dress code of 1950s Germany: do not stand out by any means!

In other words, many are train station camo colored, a grey that matches the concrete floor, with a little yellow or red stripe. Even if you find a machine, you have a 50% chance that it is out of order.

Human employees have disappeared from the small stations, and there is no help button. In the UK, at least, you have a help station, and that friendly real person in the call center in India will help you, really. If the button works.

Cats hiding in plain sight

Okay, we have to credit Der Spiegel for giving us some numbers on nuclear transports in Germany: 16 000.

If that looks like a lot, the period of time covered is also a lot: 1990 to 2012.

The listing by type indicates we are looking at civilian material, unless the category "other" includes weaponry. Which, from experience, seems very unlikely, and we could not care less.

Germany has been famous for big protests against the trains bringing spent fuel rod waste from the French re-processing facility.

It's photos like this or like in the photo gallery at the bottom of this page that fire up the imagination. The routine transports to the enrichment plant, to the fuel rod plant, to nuclear power plants, they were just that: routine.

Not announced but not hidden away either.

Called "obfuscation through obscurity" in large software packages, called "hiding in plain sight" by other thieves, the strategy is simple and highly effective.

The K-landnews may create a working group to evaluate if this principle can be used in everyday life.

The cats, thanks to their supreme intuition, have been a step ahead of the humans. Having been chased off the dining room table many times, they have taken to hiding when scolded.

Where they hide?

Correct, right on the table.

Through some additional magic, which may or may not involve bending of waves of light, they manage to reduce their "visible mass" by 10 to 20 times. The 20 pound tomcat, once on the table, looks like the one pound kitten he was many years ago.

We will let you know if we find something cool in plain sight.

"Loose Lucy" Bob Weir & Sammy Hagar

For a real good time check out this video from the eclectic video gallery of Tri Studios in San Rafael, CA.

Nine minutes of "Loose Lucy" with Bob Weir, Sammy Hagar, Lukas Nelson, Jay Lane, Jerry Harrison & Robin Sylvester.

Tri Studios is a working studio, and the gallery features many other artists and different styles. For no particular reason, we like Scaring The Children w/ Jackie Green "Sugaree".

Messy German zip codes

How dare we call the German postcode/zipcode system messed up?

But they have a system of five digit zip codes just like the U.S.!
In a country as small as Germany, isn't a 5 digit zip code enough to give every pothole its very own unique code?

Let's re-phrase it and illustrate it.

Shortly after we said goodbye to everybody stateside, a friend tried to  send a letter via USPS Global Express.

He called, exasperated and said Your address does not exist!


That's what they said at the Post Office. Your town is not in their computer.

He told us that the USPS computer had the entry 12345 ATown, where we were in 12345 ToyTown.

And that is where the problem lies. Once outside the big cities, the Germans have carefully lumped bunches of small towns under the same zip code.

The Germans obviously don't have a caveat with the data when a foreign country asks. The problem is that all these little towns have tons of duplicate street names. Each has its German equivalent of Main Street, giving ten or more possible addresses for 1, Main Street, Zip Without Town Name.

But the computer is never wrong.

These days, the darn machines are never wrong, so the USPS folks could not do the correct Zip+Town printed label needed for Global Express because they cannot edit the Zip+Town popping up on the screen.

But wait. While they could not change the 12345 ATown, the street part of the address is not controlled by the computer, you can put anything you want there.

Even a "happy new year, postmaster", if you wanted to.

So, we told the friend to add the name ToyTown to the street part and let the human at our end figure things out.

Which worked.

That was several years ago, over a decade after the Germans switched from a 4 digit to a 5 digit system.

Kind of reassuring in this oh so controlled and efficient world, in'it?

As to the rest of the system, we are getting to know more neighbors because we give them the mail that lands in our letter box whenever the merrily privatized postal service sends out a new guy with a GPS and box of envelopes.

Anybody up for some database schema normalization?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The European basket case

European Commissioner Oettinger, a German from the center-right conservative party, had his Mitt Romney moment at a speech in Brussels, reports the tabloid Bild Zeitung.

The European Union is a basket case, says he.

He lashed out against the Gutmenschentum in the EU. Which kind of means "demonstrating being good people with a side of bigotry", or in a more American friendly way "the kumbaya brigade".

He called some European Union states "virtually ungovernable", smacking down the EU Mediterranean Rim countries in one Thor-worthy blow, told the French that they had no idea of how to handle their debt and competitiveness problems, and he called the Germans bigots for importing Russian gas but refusing to go full bore on fracking at home.

For his fellow Germans, he had the stern warning that Germany was at the height of its economic power and that it would not get any higher.

His reason was, of course, that wages, benefits, costs mantra. Where he really should have pointed out the declining population and the weird lip service in many places (there are exceptions) to integration of foreigners.

The man is the European Energy Commissioner and a career politician of the first order.

The K-landnews team very much enjoyed the meltdown of a man so much part of the buddy system over here, yet frustrated by the very institutions and processes he helped shape.

Does it sound evil when we say we enjoy the meltdown?

It probably does sound a little evil but it is meant in a supportive way: the value of a crisis is that it opens up new mental spaces. Isn't that what it says in Homegrown Psychology 101?

The kumbaya brigade wishes the European Energy Commissioner a speedy recovery from the meltdown and hopes he will soon regain the energy needed for the valuable work done by the Commission.

In the unlikely case that he wants to give up this unrewarding post, TheEditor is willing and capable, just drop us an email. If you want me to interview, please send your chauffeur to pick me up at your convenience.

One more thing:
Please wait a couple of weeks until we have received our tax return. TheEditor is pretty sure that the German taxman is finally checking how we can live on so little money. No worries, it's all cool, remember, when in Rome do not do as the Romans

Not too big to jail

The K-Land media are abuzz with the shutdown of money transfer operation 'Liberty Reserve', hailing a huge blow against money laundering.

Tabloid Bild Zeitung calls it "Gangster Bank", a moniker used by many in the past five, six years for the likes of HSBC, Goldman, and very other Swiss bank.

Apparently, moving money through Liberty Reserve was pretty easy, so they would have had this coming.

The total allegedly transferred over six years or so is stated as 6 billion dollars, which at 55 million transactions by one million users ends up at some 6000 per user. Compared to the sums moved by HSBC and other banks, we are talking peanuts. Compared to official estimates of laundered and otherwise illegal money out there, the Reserve handled not even a drop in the bucket.

Given that Liberty Reserve was also used for legitimate transfer in countries where services like PayPal do not operate, the grand total is even lower.

But that's not the point.

The point is that there were illegal transactions and that the operations was sufficiently low hanging to prosecute and make into a pretty PR piece, maps and all.

Once again, the reader comments to the articles were more enlightening than the pretty world map shown by proud prosecutors.
The bad red states on the take-down map showed the usual suspects, Germany was not marked red, just like Mongolia.

In the reader comments, two distinct camps of "freedom advocates" and "crime fighters" exist, illustrating where the fault lines are.

A hilarious crime fighter accuses the "online generation" of being naive, a freedom advocate accuses the powers that be of wanting control just for the sake of control.

That just about sums it all up.

Nothing to see here folks, move on, move on, please!

Welcome to a world of CRAP

We miss the snappy happy American acronyms over here.

The comfy safety blanket TARP, more Peanuts style than anyone ever imagined with former Treasury head Hank Paulson in the role of Charlie Brown. Just look at the size of their heads.

Or the PATRIOT Act and all the others.

And when acronyms fail us, we enshrine the names of the valiant lawmakers in the name of the bill.

Of course, since Mark Twain or even earlier, no one who speaks German has expected the Germans to devise a snappy happy title for any law. At best, their abbreviations are a random collection of consonants.

Even the British have failed us in this regard.

Most of their museums are still free, though.

Driven by the fear of early onset depression under so much rain that the Evergreen State (Washington state) would be classified as a desert, the K-landnews team ran an acronym competition.

The winner is CRAP.

CRAP is everywhere around us. Do a 180 degree scan of your room. What do you see?

Crap is also inside us.

Crap stands for something, it has meaning.

It is the acronym of Consumer Recovery Assistance Program.  Crap has been embraced by people from all walks of life, by the rich and the poor alike.

Former president Bush's cheerful message to us then Americans to go out and spend was a heartfelt expression of CRAP.

Our single unemployed mother's less cheerful question to her son unpacking his latest shopping trophy shows awareness of the program: "What's that CRAP now?"

The soaring event ticket prices in Spain, a country bled as dry as the arid La Mancha region,  are CRAP.  Rumors have it that the  mayor of the small town in Valencia Province famous for its annual ripe tomato fight wanted to call the fee introduced this year a "German fee" but then accepted the umbrella CRAP.

Some forward thinking Europeans have introduced another CRAP idea: consumers should be paid some money for their personal data. After all, if online outfits collect your data, why not make them pay you for the privilege?

That would never fly in the U.S.

Personal data exchanges would pop up instantly. They would offer swap services, for example, hey, I live in Seattle and want a new address so I can charge Google for my new data. Anybody in the Pheonix, AZ, area interested in an exchange?

The latest claim of German social media expert Sasha, the rooster, Lobo that Google's aim is world domination? CRAP.

As we said, CRAP is all around us, and it is here to stay.

This post? Sure.

How to hide from infrared cameras

Yet look perfectly normal, that's how the tutorial on this website touts the baseball hat that turns you into a blob of infrared light.

You can buy infrared LEDs with various wavelengths, and your preference for hiding from infrared camera would be the range around 850nm, which is the one closest to the color red. The 940-950nm is too long of a wavelength to be picked up well by IR cameras. It would probably not hurt to add a couple of 870s and 950s.

When you are done, you want to test the hat. Since infrared light is not visible to the eye, one way to have an indication of the correct functioning of your hide-a-head is to have a weak 'indicator' LED in the array, preferably on the inside of the hat.

Better would be an infrared camera.

You may already own a device for this, for example, an unused cell phone or an old webcam. Instructions are readily available on the same website, or on YouTube, or on this website.

Mini drones are finding their way to a location near you, and we do not like being on camera all the time.

Only days ago, the railroad folks of Deutsche Bahn announced they would be using small drones to find graffiti artists or vandals at night on larger rail yards.
The drones are supposed to take pictures good enough for identification of the vandals. Their math as to the damages caused by vandals are as doubtful as you would expect from any company their size. It is claimed that they book damage figures for locations they never clean up, such as overpasses. And when existing graffiti in such a place is graffitied over, they book damages again.

The K-landnews team is not worried about this use of drones. If spray painters do not wear a full mask to protect themselves against the fumes, capturing them on camera might be good for their health later in life.

But if you drive by the fence of a yard because this is the only road home at night, why should you leave an imprint on some camera?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Bashing Paul Krugmann

Economist Paul Krugmann is generally labeled  a leftist liberal over here in the K-land because he writes a lot in the New York Times.

Poor guy.

In his blog of 28 May 2013, he writes "We have a competitiveness gap between the periphery and the core that must be closed through some combination of falling wages in Portugal, Spain, etc. and rising wages in Germany. The idea is to shift the balance of that adjustment somewhat away from the deflationary countries — overheating in Germany isn’t a bug, it’s a feature, and indeed the crucial feature."

Falling wages don't make him seem very liberal, maybe rising wages in Germany do. Or maybe his own use of "liberal" does it.

We don't know, but we have to extend some protection to the man.

After all, he did provide a counterpoint to the austerity freaks and the famous Rogoff study much of it was based on.

TheEditor at this here newsy blog hates debt and has gone through an admittedly short life without debts. Except for a small student loan, paid back in full before the first interest payment was due.

The German media, with their constant eye on all things American -- the good, the bad, as well as the ugly -- seem to fall into the trap of using "leftist liberal" in its European sense, which is some way off to the left compared to America.

Any economist of Paul Krugmann's caliber knows how to work with numbers and concepts and more numbers.

Instead of using the label liberal, we at the news decided to call him "a nice economist" because, despite being a nobel prize winner, he had not written off the fate of the 99 or so percent.

Unlike some German economists, who claim that basic welfare recipients here are not that poor because welfare payment to a family over 20 years adds up to around 134 000 euros, or who ignore that even welfare recipients here pay VAT tax (a sales tax on 'roids).


Calling the kettle Hitler

This one is from our old standby controversy mongers of the Huffingtion Post, who got it from the twitterati and the redditi.

To make sure the kettle looks more like that guy, they blurred the image.


When will they do a funny post about bad food names?

Yuk Chuck.

Come on, you don't think yuk chuck is funny?

Well, neither does my chinese grocery store. They only put the "yuk chuck" underneath the pictogram (which is really what many chinese symbols started out as) to help me find some way to talk about the product.

Do you have squiggles? is not the best question to ask the clerk.

Do you have yuk chuck is more precise.

It was an unpleasant day for the software developer colleague of mine when I told him he should not use all the funny Asian food names, penis and otherwise, he had collected on company time and which he wanted to incorporate in a presentation of a new enterprise software module.

I understand why you enjoy them, I told him, but you have no idea who will be attending the presentation. It needs only one remote participant without your sense of humor, and you have a situation.

And while we are calling the kettle Hitler, UPS has no problem dressing their German employees in brown uniforms.

When Germans talk of "brown shirts" they still mean Nazis.

We do not know if the neo-Nazi preference for black is in part due to UPS having taken their brown.

There is also about the story of the green bearded middle aged man who called his six feral cats Hitler. Next time, maybe.

[Update 29 May 2013] We beat German online Der Spiegel by 24 hours! To be fair, they had to do a write-up in German, and that takes time.

The Wizard of Oz Marathon

The Wonderful Internet of Oz saved our spirits on this chilly weekend.

We used this contraption made out pipes* (as pointed out by a U.S. Senator some years ago) to do a Wizard of Oz marathon.

Instead of starting with the now iconic 1939 movie, we found ourselves the prequel Oz the Great and Powerful (on blu-ray).

Not bad. And the special effects have become so much better.

Someone then decided to search the web, and the results were wicked. Not only did a Salman Rushdie edited Wizard of Oz book show up, no, the sheer number of search hits could make you think we live in a world populated by good and wicked witches. A world where the neighbor you sometimes call a scarecrow is having the same grand old time as all the tin men politicians you see on the magic television screen every day.

You, of course, being the munchkins.

We skip the millions of references to Oz in TV shows and all the aborted projects like Dakota Fanning in a Dark Oz.

The next stop in the saga of the wizard was a stage production turned movie from 1978 as The Wiz. The Diana Ross Dorothy starts out in a modern Ghetto Oz, or Oz in the Hood, and the movie turned out to be a good occasion to make peace with a younger Michael Jackson. The stage version keeps popping up in various places around the world, so check your local listings.

Exploration of more Oz adaptations took us from this website that lists 15 you didn't know you need to a number of adult versions. Search for those yourself if you feel like it, and note that Google search is understanding and forgiving -- if you mistakenly search for yellow prick road, they'll fix that typo for you. It's okay if that typo makes you think of your boss - nobody will ever find out. In the adult versions, the wicked witches are at their wicked best, of course, and Dorothy does a few things wicked herself.

You are not done, though, until you have found the Muppet's Wizard of Oz. It is a blast. If you do not laugh out loud when you see that Toto is a shrimp in this one, well, maybe that Prozac from the online pharmacy was not the real deal.
The most powerful puppets in Hollywood (their words) borrow from everywhere, so you encounter the Flying Monkey's motorcycle gang from The Wiz again in a furry getup. The ride of the Flying Monkeys being accompanied by the music of The Ride of the Valkyries certifies Richard Wagner's status as the wicked composer. And Quentin the Tarantino is in there, too!

Watching more than one Wizard of Oz in a row may have a compounding effect, you may glance out of the window expecting a tornado any time now, and you may feel a little sorry for the wicked witches being crushed and doused over and over, with the marvelous bottled water vs. tap water in the Muppet's version stealing the thunder.

* The senator from Alaska was ridiculed for the "pipes" comment. But, really, he was misunderstood, he was talking about the pipes we all know and love in our favorite flavor of Unix operating systems.

Monday, May 27, 2013

German law students get F in German

They don't use letter grades here but numbers, but the results are the same.

For the "the world is going to hell in a hand basket" crowd, the last week in the German media has a couple of welcome bleak observations about the young generation.

The first one we saw was an article by some returning German ex-pat waxing lyrically about how his growing up with a local dialect had made it so much easier for him to learn Danish.
Now that he is back in Germany, he deplores that dialects are being used less and that current German kids speak a sort of bland, homogenized German interspersed with lots of English.

Which is similar to complaints by various philosophers about the youth of their day a few thousand years ago.

Then there is the law professor who felt that her students were increasingly showing insufficient language skills. She put them to the test and was stunned, she said, to find that the situation was even worse than she thought.

To be honest, the examples given in the article are not encouraging.

On the other hand, that's what learning is for. The last time we checked, the education levels of your average five year old in all major countries do not leave much room for optimism. None of the five year olds we know has an inkling of what the basic legal textbooks say.

Something almost miraculous seems to happen between age 5 and age 25. Of course, for some people, not much happens.

But, a problem identified is a problem solved.

Apparently they managed to do it for med students who used to flood patients with Latin and Greek words before telling them to take two aspirins a day with lots of water.

The use of Greek and Latin medical terms makes it a joy for French people to see a doctor in Germany. Lots of German doctors forget at some point that everyday French uses these terms, elevating your average Frenchman in the eyes of a German medico.

We have witnessed it, it is such fun to see.

It really does not matter that much how great the German skills of your average German law student are. Average folks forming a team can do pretty well.

We are still so attached to the image of the Renaissance man from the days when all you had to do is get on a boat, and there were new lands to discover no matter how abject your navigation was.
The days when knowledge came in books and you had to keep lots of facts in your head. What good is knowing German really well when it is used by, say, lawyers fixated on describing Jews as inferior or declaring the end of the family if women get the vote?
Go check it out. Those guys knew German really well.

Egghead alert: can somebody point us to studies that research to what extent personal self esteem and social esteem is tied to education and jobs in different cultures?

Deep frozen green tomatoes

It's Memorial Day weekend in the U.S., and over here the tomatoes froze.

The grass was covered by white frost, plants that were not inside their tiny soda bottle green houses were dead. The potato plants showed the tell tale brown freeze damage but they have survived.

The amount of rain in May this year feels so disproportionate, and mushrooms, big and brown and inedible, have taken over in a couple of places where the ground is too dense for the water to run off.

In the Black Forest, people had to get their snow shovels out in the higher elevations.

While we are trying to save the planet one insulation panel at a time, stepmother nature demonstrates how easy a crop failure is. But we can report that we fulfilled our obligations under the Kyoto Protocol by reducing CO2 emissions by 60 plus percent compared to 1990.

With a mix of desperation and determination, we did put more tomato seeds in pots inside the house and within the next week or so, they'll go out to replace the Memorial Day weekend casualties.

One Memorial Day weekend not long ago, we were hanging out at Angel's Camp, in the middle of the county made famous by Mark Twain's jumping frog of Calaveras County.

The kids, anybody under 30, were having fun, and so did the local sheriffs. We were walking along the road when we saw a group of youngsters fifteen feet ahead. One of them was obviously rolling a joint. A group of sheriff's deputies overtook us at a brisk speed, and we saw the kid drop the joint and grind it into the ground with his boot just as the sheriffs passed them. One of the deputies stopped, looked at the youth, then at the ground and said "Why d'you do that?" with a smile. Then he followed the other deputies.

Nonsensical little episodes like this make chilly late May Germany more bearable.


Did you read the post "What makes us human?"

We tried to keep it light by leaving out the regrets.

Regrets are one of the things that make us human. At least as long as we are unable to find manifestations of regret in our fellow animals.

The ethical question in the K-land newsroom then became "does that mean we strip people who have never had regrets of the attribute human"?
No, to us it is a rhetorical question. We ask it to see where our boundaries are.

If you have not experienced some serious regret in your life, you are either very young, or we invite you to look again. If you still don't find anything, lucky you.

It was NPR that led us there. On the tenth anniversary of the war nobody wants to remember (a way to avoid regrets), they had an interview with a military police woman. She had served in Iraq and asked her superiors to leave her out of "novel" interrogation methods. These methods, destined for later fame through photos of Abu Ghraib prison were tried out in her unit, whose commander was later praised as a visionary hero until his pants got in the way.

We blinked when we heard the part of these methods being first tried out under the hero man, but that's for history to deal with.

Our interest in the police woman was in how she expressed the experience and how it had transformed her. Her regret in simply stepping aside and not trying to do more struck a chord. Her integration of all of this into her life and her view of herself is quite moving. We find the world outside of the cookie-cutter images so much more interesting and worthwhile inhabiting.

Now would be a good time for the blogster to share his regret with you, wouldn't it?

It's not going to happen, despite the odd personal reference dotting the 500 or so posts of the blog.
We want to be able to make fun of ourselves and the world without the benefit of
an 'oh, they are so human', or 'how sweet they are not perfect' moment.
But we have unnamed friends who share as long as we promise to not name them. A local friend of the K-landnews gave us this.

My forming regret happened in my late teens, I think I was around 18 or 19. I was coming home from some trip and found myself inside a train station late, with maybe one train every hour, really late. At the other end of the ticket hall, there were two older men, arguing. Then, without warning, something slammed. I turned around and saw how one guy had grabbed the other by the shoulder and slammed him against a shop window. The window held, it was thick, then the attacker started to punch the other. There were few words, it was surprisingly quiet. I wanted to run over and intervene. Instead, I did not. I was afraid and left the station. A few minutes later, I went back in, but they were gone. I walked over to the location of the fight. There was no blood anywhere. It's been more than two decades ago, yet, my memory holds on to the event. I have been trying hard to not stand by like this ever again. It changed my perception of myself, it turned out I was not the courageous man from books and movies after all.

As long as we can learn, it will be fine.

Or are we just trying to convince ourselves to lessen the impact?

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The building code mafia

Not our words but one of the most common descriptors used by our German neighbors and friends.

We do not disagree, though.

Obtaining a building permit here in Germany provides another one of these small windows into the functioning of a state that you cannot get by just looking from a distance.

The process for our project involved the complete replacement of the roof, hence a permit was needed.

A friendly architect made the drawings and provided to up to date load calculations, then the application went to town hall.

It was approved in no time at a cost of zero euros.

The next agency was the county where the code inspectors are. Approval was smooth and cost a whooping 80 Euros. The invoice detailed 2 hours of government time.

The county basically refused to make a big profit off of this.

Next, and this is the interesting part, came the notifications. The county's approval was expected.

The five page form from the semi public agency that insures all construction worker and construction companies was not. Because we had not told them...well, the county had, as it turned out.

They wanted a detailed -- we said 5 pages -- list of all the different work items as well as all companies hired plus all subcontractors and friends and family who would help us.
The two final paragraphs told us that we needed to insure friends and family at a rate of around 7 Euros per person per hour. And they listed the insurance premium for the owner if he intended to perform some of the work himself.

The owner premium was several thousand euros per year, somewhere around 5 grand. And it could not be pro-rated.


We learned that the Germans frequently do not bother with any explanation of "if you fail to provide this information, here is what's gonna happen". Very strange, and we are still not used to this.

The blogster has come a long way from being one of these ever helpful, pro-active, socially responsible nerdy types to being that average citizen of today. The kind that lives and breathes the wait and see approach to life.

So, feeling bad about leaving 4 and a half of the 5 pages blank, the blogster gave them name and address and the type of project. Which they requested again in the form despite already listing them in the cover letter.

No friends, no family, no owners insurance -- and send.

Nothing happened.

Until months later, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.

A few weeks later, the chimney sweep showed up for the annual boiler check. That should surprise any American.

Over a cup of coffee after the check, the man said "so, your chimney replacement is all taken care of, I assume".
How did he know about this part of the building permit application?
Yes, the county cc'd him too.

We are now three months down the road. The roof is up and looks great. One lone roofer is here to paint the eves in the Scandinavian blue we chose when we realized that color is permitted these days. That Scandinavian blue is so bright, you could see it from space or from a drone - were it not for the detail that the eaves are covered by the roof tiles.

The only other worker is the blogster, gussied up in old jeans with shredded jeans legs, the whole randomly covered in blobs of white stucco. Yes, including his hair.
The blogster is taking a break, standing in the middle of the street talking to someone when a policeman, a single cop on foot, ambles by, coming from the eastern end of the street, with a brief "hello" and heads to the spot next to the roofer and his paint brush.

They talk for maybe five to ten minutes. The blogster cannot follow the conversation but picks up fragments about the building project, who's working on it as well as something that sounds like a soccer match critique.

The cop then continues down the road to the intersection that forms the western end. A patrolcar pulls up, he gets in, and they disappear.

Thinking "was that what I think it was", the blogster shuffles over to the worker. Who smiles and confirms that the cop had asked all sorts of questions, mainly trying to find who had been working on the project. Having been told that only the roofing company and the owner, that one over there covered in stucco, had done work, he wandered off.

Nothing under the table, folks. Which seems to be what Germans out in the country do: under the table construction.

One more proof that the blogster's long standing motto: when in Rome, DO NOT do as the Romans, is really the best way to run things.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Esoteric Germans

The Germans are flocking to esoteric beliefs and practices in droves.

That's big news this weekend.

One of the few remaining trustworthy news papers, Die Zeit, has a long article and talks of a boom. As a note on the "trustworthy", the K-landnews has recently removed Der Spiegel from its A list. The spiced up, entertainyness of Der Spiegel comes way too close to the blog you are reading now.

The problem with this is that we do not even pretend we have something useful to say, whereas Der Spiegel really has moved into the same corner as the Fake Hitler diaries honey pot Der Stern.

Back to the esoterics craze in Krautland. For an American, that's old news.

An American reaction would be a shrug, and - if you feel like making an effort - a mumbled "so what".

But since researchers here take it very seriously, a couple of unsolicited reminders to our German friends might be just what the guru has not ordered.

The Zeit article lists a litany of practices like "energized water" in the bread of your favorite bakery in addition to our old stateside favorites like Feng Shui.

The gross disregard of the K-landnews team for the laborious distinctions made by most begs the question: what the f*** is so different between energized water and bottled holy water?

The bottle?

We can only talk about esoterics because enough dominant thinkers have convinced the rest of us that there is a difference between our mainstream beliefs and religions and esoteric thought and practice.

If you do not accept this conceptual fence, if the frankincense in church seems much like the herb cigar used to make that foetus turn into the correct birthing position, why should you bother following the debate about the boom of esoterism?

One of the K-landnews reasons is, of course, to make fun of those getting all worried about negative effects of esoteric thinking and practices on people.

Someone giving away all their possessions to follow a spiritual guide, people developing mental health issues -- are you kidding me?

May we remind you that the Church with the capital C has had the exact same effects? Until very recently, meaning in living memory.

The story told to us less than two weeks ago, waiting to be sausaged into a blog post goes like this. It happened right here in Western Europe, not on one of the phantom islands from Apple Maps.

The aunt of the storyteller was a widow and owned the farm the family were living on. As the health of the aunt deteriorated, the town priest began to show up at the house regularly. He was a very nice elderly chap, he prayed with the aunt, he was very supportive of her.
And he suggested to the old lady to include the Church in her will so as to bequeath the farm to the Lord.
As his visits and his reminders to the old lady, who was very pious, multiplied, the family eventually saw no other solution but to block his visits.
The front door no longer opened when the priest came.
So, the good shepherd would make sure to catch the head of the family after Sunday mass.
And when that was thwarted by the head of the family heading straight to the pub before the mass (as opposed to the customary post-mass drink), he tried the kids.
The aunt eventually passed away, and to the relief of the family, she had not given the farm to the Church.

Yes, we know, so don't go there, please.

Nostalgia and gentrification in London

Not only in London but in plenty of other places, too, like Barcelona, for example.

TheEditor has a deep, thoughtful, congenial, and awfully obvious observation for you.

The grit, the beggars, the non-tourists and non-bankers have been all but banned from the famous parts of Western Europe's big cities. We will have to check if that's still true for La Barca because the last time we were there was pre-fuckup but we are sure about London, UK, and Frankfurt, Germany.

Take the north London borough of Camden, the area around King's Cross and St. Pancras -- the latter called St. Pancreas a couple of times by our slightly dyslexic but nonetheless bright and brave K-landers.

The one time hangout of those with no other place to go has been cleaned up, as they call it. The run-down hostels with handwritten signs are being transformed into Best Westerns or Comfort Inns charging ten times the money.

Camden Town with its world famous markets has gone from fringe to tourist trap. Sure, the food is still varied and inexpensive but the chaotic little stalls and vintage shops are now organized into neat little huts with often identical, modern mass produced ware. Steampunk garb made somewhere in Asia is everywhere, next to mugs and LED flashy stuff.

Banksy art style t-shirts alternate with shoe shops.

And nobody in these markets sells socks.


It appears to us that we are seeing country-level gentrification at least in some places in Europe. A gentrification we still only talk about with regard to individual districts, like Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg, or Barcelona's Barrio Chino.
And in the big inner cities, the next step, global gentrification is already being expressed in steel and glass high-rises.

Nostalgia is not easily avoided, and in London, you can't help but wonder what a Victorian person dropped in the middle of the city would feel and say. But it is telling if you, as a tourist, stop for a long chat with the only homeless person left at the Underground Station.

If you have not lost yourself in the frenzy of modern life where two people yards away from each other "talk" via text messages, you'll have to admit that you felt it wouldn't last. That the barrio and the fringe would lose the grit that attracted you to it.  And if you are that young foreigner who played 'donde esta el rey' with the ripoff artists, you will not miss the grin of the immigration officer when you showed up, leaving the country with the clothes on your back, your passport, and a bottle of water in your hand.

That native reservation stateside where people just recently, once again, refused the installation of running water and TV cable lines, you think about it too much.
The first time you went there, the tree branch ten feet away snapped and then the sound of the shot echoed through the hills.

You should not think about this when you look at the price list for the viewing platform of The Shard.

Do you really prefer being shot at to the amenities of London, even if have to pay in "pounds"?  Incidentally, the one pound coin is so heavy that you are 100% certain the designers manifested a dose of British humor in the coin.

One day, we will accept that our kind is not so different from the bumblebee, our habitat is shrinking but at least the bees should become a protected species.

eCigarettes here and there

A bill having eCigarettes treated the same as their tobacco predecessors as far as where smoking is allowed is being proposed in California.

The days of nibbling on a "pen" in a boring meeting may soon be over. The small knowing frown of the flight attendant will give way to a "sir, please do not smoke".

The K-landnews famous anticipation of future problems includes a man getting tasered because he did not drop that pen fast enough. The newspaper will report that it was a real pen. The police will justify the tasering with a statement including "the officer had to assume this was an eCigarette because nobody uses pens in public any more, they just type notes into their smartphone or WPads".
What none of them will say is that the officer in question was suffering from nicotine withdrawal himself, making this usually even tempered public servant edgy and short tempered.

Let us know if any of this happens.

We still have the Susan B. dollar and will hand it out as a reward (minus shipping and handling). In this specific instance, it will go the the officer.

Before you complain about how hard life is going to be for eCigarette users in the U.S., please take note of the fact that is is already much harder here.

German customs have the custom of raiding stores that sell these contraptions.

We use the word "custom" not only because we love cheap word play but because the patterns and reasons are like any good custom: different from place to place, any real reason that may have existed for the behavior has been lost in the fog of time and now they just do it because they can.

This post has been approved by the little black cat, her head resting comfortably on both the left Shift and Ctrl keys.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Heavy Metal is Bad

A Mind The Gap post.

An explanation of the title is necessary.  Heavy metal means the musical genre, not one of the metals from the periodic table of elements. And bad means detrimental, not good.

This post has its roots in a stroll through blogging site tumblr's gratefuldead tagged posts and a press article about the German stuck in Guantanamo for a five year heavy metal concert, interrupted only by  some differently themed  torture sessions. Did the government pay royalties for that or just stamp the CDs "secret"?

The blogster, like everybody, has read many reports about the dirty war on terror and the use of heavy metal music, but it needed the imagery of tumblr to coax out the obvious: there is no way you could torture someone with Grateful Dead tunes.

Any experienced torturer, from the 3-year old screeching madly over a toy to the interrogation specialist at Gitmo (who would trade Gitmo for his 3-year old at home any time if he had the courage or could be sure that his successor was not a sadist) knows that you should not completely destroy the hearing of your subject.

Just in case one of the world's would be torturers ever thinks about trying the Dead for torture, either because they never heard the music or think that "The Dead" sounds sinister enough to try: here is why you should not.

Insults scribbled on a post-it note just don't have the same punch as a gorilla yell at a quarter inch of someone's ear. 

Decibel-wise that means you should not try to compensate for the friendliness and the thoughtfulness of the Dead tunes by adding a few dbs.

Let's face it, the lyrics of the Dead, even when out of tune, can be understood and many of the lyrics have that ghastly message of hope that precludes their use in torture.

Imagine the speakers at Gitmo blasting "We will survive", or "Something's got to give".  Even when the lyrics go dark, they overlay such happy rhythms and melodies that you smile like mad when "going down the road feeling bad".
All you would achieve with the stomping Iko-Iko is have a bunch of bearded guys interrupt their hunger strike and dance themselves to death.

By the way, that "German Taliban" has been living a pretty normal life after the German government let go of its refusal to take him back.

And if you ever manage to return Gitmo to the little backwater military base even your close Allies did not know or care about, maybe, just maybe, someone could sneak in a tape of Ripple for those you send home.

Or something from "Blues for Allah"?

The first page after the last page of the Internet

This was the first line on the website of a friend of the K-Landnews more than ten years ago.

It was meant to be a joke but there really is more internet out there than you can normally see. We do not mean the projects that make your use more private, like TOR.

More domains, like .pirate or .free.

But none of your search engines will find websites in these domains.

The reason for this is that the "internet you know" is based on the structure of ICANN, and they don't like that other people run their own equivalent to the "address books" that allow you to run around the web. We use the words web and internet as meaning the same thing. Good enough for everyday purposes.

While ICANN not long ago ran a media blitz about "new top level domains" in order to sell some for huge amounts of money, such domains have been out there for a decade or more.

And virtually nobody - we had to get in a "virtually" somewhere - in the media has reported on any of these other internet areas.

The internet we all know, love and hate does have some information about the "other internet", for example, at the site of OpenNIC

The site illustrates one difficulty: if you, as most users, do not understand what a DNS provider is, you will be tempted to simply move on, waste time on facebook or twitter, tumblr or myspace.

Some of the things these alternatives can do may surprise you. For instance, we get swamped by big media announcements about some takedown of a bad, bad piracy site, and then we go have a look and see the cute logo of some government agency.

Hardly anybody talks about what happens when a site is "taken down".  There are two fundamental ways to do it.

Impound the physical hardware
Some government suits or a swat team walk into a big room, grab the machines, and do away with the site. Like the repo man coming for your car. An easily understood time-tested process. And that is what we assume happens, that is what the government wants you to believe happens.
It does happen but not as much as you think.

Change the address to make a site disappear
Since the "old" internet has a hierarchical address lookup structure, it is a lot easier to change the address than find and remove servers in a bunch of different countries and a bunch of different bunkers. Imagine ICANN as the post office that holds the official record of the address of your house. The government goes there and changes your address to a government dead letter office.
Everybody thinks you or your house are gone.
But just as in this image, the site is still there, and there are a few people out there who know how to pick up the letter from your friend and divert it away from the dead letter office to your house.

Those who want to keep the internet neatly fenced in and make you use the gate with the wrought iron slogan "money will set you free" have their funds and our inertia on their side. 

Still, the next time you hit the web, spend just a few seconds to think about the other, the free internet out there.
If you do this often enough, you may overcome the hesitation and start looking around.

And if you take the leap, you will find friends waiting on the other side of the internet.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Aryans are back

They were never completely gone, they cycle through their life like political cicadas - we know they form a brood. We are trying to find a catchy name for the brood, maybe an acronym with lots of Ss. Where "S" stands for students.

Some German and Austrian fraternities are having another go at membership requirements.

Do not confuse these fraternities with American fraternities -- the booze and the hazing are similar but that is where it ends.

Fraternities in Krautland are called Burschenschaften, and this Wikipedia article in English gives some background.

Over the course of their history, many fraternities here have become right wing, and TheEditor of the K-landnews regards these people as the most serious danger to democracy in Germany and in Little Germany (Austria). Pen-wielding students can do more damage than skinheads with marginal education.

But that's not our subject today. Today, we point out how a large umbrella organization of these folks is trying to establish membership criteria.

Some frats do accept foreigners, even some of the traditionally conservative ones where sword or knife fighting until blood is drawn is still part of the rituals in the 21st century.

The umbrella organization in focus today wants to limit regular membership acceptance to German nationals or "Western nationals with a comparable background". Others can apply and will be evaluated on an individual basis.

They will be notified in writing if they are not accepted, but - crucially - no reason for denial of membership will be provided. And, in the tradition of the guy with the square mustache, they are debating about when you are regarded as German -- is it good enough if your grandfather was German? One of the frats is going all out progressive and wants naturalized immigrants to count as Germans, yeehaa!

The final decision on this may or may not be taken at the annual convention currently under way in the city of Eisenach in eastern Germany.

We will keep an eye on them and let you know if they offer us and the rest of the world an opportunity to throw around that German capital N word again.

If you have not read our post "Homo teutonicus simplex II", now would be the perfect opportunity to get an overview of the accomplishments of German fraternities and their less educated cohorts in the last 100 years.

[Update 24 May] The only German N word we can throw around is "nein" (no). Der Spiegel reports that the motion regarding acceptance criteria was withdrawn. So, the cicadas are gone for a while, and unlike for the flying kind, none of the males died -- no students were harmed in the writing of the post.

We are getting dumber!

A Mind The Gap article.

Our resident cynical pessimist blogster found this cute Huffington Post article about how research suggests that humans are getting dumber while our technology is getting smarter.

Read the Huff Post article and then come back here.

Just a few weeks back, the K-landnews railed against the "Useless IQ", and we stick with it.

In that post, we said that society is by the average and for the average. The evolutionary concept encapsulated in this, on the surface, comedic statement is  that we believe that good old darwinism works on the human intelligence bell curve by chopping off some of the ends -- both ends.

Which leaves the average firmly in charge of the world.

Not being totally devoid of optimism, we think that we may slowly, very slowly, and possibly too slowly to avoid the new dark ages, move a bit towards the "higher", generally "better" end of the bell curve.

There is one aspect sorely missing in the Huff Post article: sheer numbers.

Even if we assume that the quoted research is not a bunch of baloney, the huge increase in the human population over the time period advanced by the boffins means that the absolute number of very intelligent people has become very big indeed.

Which is why we have readers for this blog. Pander, pander.

And even most of the oh so intelligent Victorian era smart people were still a bunch of racist, exploiting, socially retarded fellow humans.


Wednesday, May 22, 2013


What is the most dreadful job interview comment? Other than the usual centered around women and a family (still legal in Germany, believe it or not), age, and where do you see yourself five years from now.

The modern job interview in all its strange forms is a never ending source of wonderment for this blogster. We have all these books and guidelines that would easily make the support structure for a space elevator if you stack them, and glue them together, of course. Yet, most of the time it seems to be a dating excercise, a sales pitch, a sausage factory deal or a sausage fest.

Then there is the dreadful "overqualified". It comes in a fairly nice form, such as, "don't you think you might be somewhat overqualified for this position" and a nasty one, despite the obligatory sorry: "sorry, you are overqualified".

True, there is a small chance that you have the wrong impression of a job. Which usually happens when an excited manager fluffs up a job description into something TheEditor calls workplace porn, tantalizing, elusive, obviously unrealistic and airbrushed.

If I am underqualified, I really do want you to tell me because it is very likely that blame is all be mine. If I do not have the skills and knowledge, please tell me so I can improve my judgement for the next job opening.

If I am overqualified, on the other hand, I know it. I appreciate that you ask or let me know how you feel. But if I don't get a job because I am overqualified, what comes to mind is: you are lying or just fishing for an excuse, or you are overstepping.

Since this may sound harsh, let us put some nuance into it. There are some understandable reasons for rejecting that dreamboat candidate. If the person has better qualifications than the future manager, for instance. Or maybe some fear that the new hire will get bored quickly and move on after a few months. But at the end of the day, the blogster regards the "you are overqualified" as mostly condescending.

Next time you sit across from someone overqualified, try to ask the nice form of the  question if you can muster the courage.

That's the least you can do before you end the conversation with a friendly don't call us anyway. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Warwickshire country folks

DNA, the tiny library of life, has confirmed that all humans are related to each other anyway, but some have more interesting recent relatives than others.

We took our daughter of the revolution to the birthplace of one of the many people who makes up that American DNA.

To our surprise, the ancestor was from a hamlet less than a mile away from the home of Mary Arden, Shakespeare's mother.

At the time of old Will, these villages were small places, hence hamlets, with a handful of farms each.

They knew each other.

Were they really related? We don't know. For all we know, Will Shakespeare's grain hoarding might have hit our relative hard and constitute the reason why the latter got the hell out.

We made our typically American pilgrimage to the ancestral hamlet, took a picture of the farm that bears the name to this day, then walked over to the Mary Arden trust, a farming complex with people dressed up Tudor style.

Mary Arden's (Will's mom) farm was actually the small place next to what was previously believed to be her farm. It all came to light around the year 2000 when the trust bought up the smaller adjacent property - not because anybody thought it was worth having but to prevent a developer from putting up brand new apartments on the lot.

The expert hired to show once and for all that the little house had no historical value was stunned to discover it had been the real Mary Arden's farm. The "official" previous one belonged to a more wealthy neighbor of the Shakespeares.

We bid farewell to Uncle Will I Was after a visit to old Stratford-upon-Avon.

Send in the cavalry or the nazis?

The German political elite is outraged over a comment by Hungarian Prime Minister Orban who said that the Germans "have sent in tanks in the past".

German media, accordingly called it a "Nazi comparison" and politicians in unison condemned the statement, some calling for sanctions against the somewhat right-leaning Hungarian government.

Only in the fine print of the reports will you find mention of an interview in which German chancellor Merkel, when asked about some undemocratic measures in Hungary, said that there was no need "to send in the cavalry" yet.

As it turns out, German social democrat Steinbrueck used the cavalry image earlier in the debate about a tax treaty with Switzerland.

The K-landnews team has only one recommendation for the Germans: grow a pair.

It is very understandable you may feel hurt when someone pulls out the old nazi comparison, but why would you act surprised that a politician seized upon the cavalry image to get back at you?

The slow news period with all those national holidays in May really does no good. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

World Food UK

Krispy Creme donuts, Whole Foods grocery, Starbucks coffee -- all you need as an American to survive in London is right there in London.

These are just the ones we noticed, there probably are others.

One item you must buy with care is toilet paper. The humble wipes are surprisingly tricky. We found what is best called narrow gauge toilet paper, which may pose a problem to the, let's say, standard gauge American rear.

You can use the narrow gauge but it requires paper folding skills, TP origami if you will.

The changes in London food are nothing short of incredible. Have you ever encountered real British Fish & Chips?

The kind with wide potato wedges, not the whimpy shoestring like French fries served today? The original fish & chips, right out of the grease, plonked on several layers of the daily newspaper, wetted down with extra vinegar?

If you have never had them, you never ever will. They are gone.

The number of fish & chips vendors in all of London is down by 99%, replaced with an assortment of good to excellent world foods, from the Doners via the Italians to whatever fresh goodness you might enjoy. If the plethora of fruit stands doesn't do it for you, there's always the Burger King/McDonald's patty.

Traditional British cuisine, all your food cooked into a mush of a generic grey color, with salt as the only known seasoning?

No more.

And only one British born food service worker in all of London, at the Museum of Childhood. Everybody else hails from some non-UK place, mostly Eastern Europe.

Other than the lone food worker, we met two real Londoners, a few "misc." English folks and nothing but immigrants. Which makes it more understandable that the food changes too.

No need to worry, though, the street cleaners are still almost exclusively black.

Glowing Plants (glow gene added)

Every once in a while, the Blogster goes "oh", and this is one of those times.

We were browsing Kickstarter, the best known of the crowd funding web sites, and stumbled on the Glowing Plants project.

Yes, we know a thing or two about basic genetics from way back when and from Introduction to Molecular Biology around the time everybody woke up to it.

Yes, we have our reservations about messing with everything just because we can.

Yes, despite all of it, we would love to get our hands on seeds of these glowing plants.

Which won't happen because the guys who run the project did their due diligence and won't export seeds from the U.S.

There are plenty of other cool projects in crowd funding land, and we need to save money anyway, so it's alright.

A glow gene for the coat of the cats would be nice, especially the black one.
No more tripping over it in the dark...

Will the liability insurance companies one day insure only glow in the dark pets?

And no, we will not share the story of the English professor who cut open one of the very first glow sticks and spread it....

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The London Coffee House is back

And it is not just a Starbucks.

Before tea came to symbolize a civilization on a group of islands off the coast of France, there was coffee.

Tea did such a thorough mind wipe on the world that the proud British coffee houses were forgotten, some lonely flyers in museums being the last witnesses of the coffee craze on the isles before tea.

If you tried to get a coffee in London as recent as fifteen or twenty years ago, you had three choices: find that ten square foot Italian coffee bar tucked away in one of the mainline railway stations next to the barber and the public toilets, drink a very strange liquid made in percolators, or drink instant coffee.

Instant coffee was what your average citizen understood to be coffee. Well, there was the percolator stuff, thick like liquid asphalt after a day of boiling and with a taste to match, but the brown crystals of instant coffee ruled the day.

Today, there are bright and bustling coffee shops everywhere. Enough of them to make TheEditor believe that exports of Italian espresso machines to the UK must have kept the southern European economy afloat for a decade.

There is hope for humankind.

Outside of London, you may still encounter some of the more familiar bad coffee places but they are doomed, their nice old lady owners glancing with nostalgia at the picture of the Queen in the corner whenever someone tries to order a latte.

The K-Landnews team does not have a good understanding of any effects of the coffee surge on British society, but we do suspect that even some of the euroscepticism ravaging the nation is fueled by real espressos and damn tasty lattes.

50 Shades of Bricks

London is getting a skyline!

The most surprising physical change of the cityscape is that London is finally building a skyline for itself.

The tallest buildings in town used to be the TV tower and apartment blocks.
Blocks meant blocks!

Rectangular monstrosities like those East Germany ones.

That has been changing for a few years. and the city now boasts the most overhyped structure in all of Europe: The Shard. Not worth a link despite a recent PR dump in the new Dr. Who series.

The Shard, right next to London Bridge (the new one, the old one is now in Arizona, really) is the prettiest tourist trap TheEditor found in the city.

Office space there is too expensive even for swanky city businesses, so they are having trouble getting the building filled.

But no trouble fleecing tourists who want to visit the viewing platform. Booking several days in advance sets you back 25 pounds, booking the same day is 30, showing up and asking to be let in is 100 pounds.

Yes, one hundred.

Which makes the EDF London Eye ferris wheel right across from Westminster a bargain. They are friendlier, too.

More new skyscrapers include the dildo and a building that is a bit squashed at the top, as if it had served as a stool for a giant to sit on and gotten compressed and tilted a little.

Outside of the brick and concrete craze sweeping the city and the south bank, London is still the same as it was, say, 40 years ago. Towards the west and southwest, the richer detached homes have their Lamborghinis, top range beemers and custom Mercedes sports cars parked on the gravel driveway just behind the black Victorian iron fences.

To the north and the east, row houses have not changed much since the days of Dickens, and rental blocks bear witness to the times when council houses were built to provide a decent roof for the working people.

In almost all residential buildings, the windows are resolutely single pane wood windows of the type that must have inspired the French to invent the gulliotine.

If you are tempted to export exterior wall color paint to the UK because you saw sales figures so low that there must be a market for them, just don't.

Bricks of at least 50 shades plus a little bit of white and black for the wood frame houses is all you find there.

No wonder, they are running a big depression awareness campaign right now.

On a sunny day, the bricks are kind of cute but in any other kind of weather, the atmosphere of the place becomes soul quenching. 

High rents may add to a depressive feeling for the locals when a studio apartment, or flat as they call it here, starts at around 300 pounds per week. Almost all rents in London are on a per week basis, which adds up over the year compared to a per month lease.

A few trees with blue and white LED light garlands cannot change that either.

The case against empathy

Wow, the New Yorker is blitzing against empathy. Paul Bloom's The Baby in the Well, is a very interesting article on empathy, the research around it, and - ultimately, the supposed dangers of relying too much on empathy.

And it is a crappy article.

Why do we use a word as strong as "crappy'?

First, because Mr. Bloom is a smart man who knows how to write well, with an easy, flowing and eventually misdirecting prose.

The article hinges on an opposition of empathy on one side and reason on the other. Without empathy vs. reason, it is hardly worth writing it. Empathy is fundamentally an emotional, pretty general phenomenon. Reason depends on the cultural framework of society to a far greater extent than empathy does. Reason has undergone tremendous changes in the Western world in the last few hundred years. Empathy has not.
The sensationalized public display of what may be empathy is also a very culturally typed behavior.
"This enthusiasm may be misplaced, however. Empathy has some unfortunate features—it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate."
These are claims out of the air -- at least not supported by quotes like some of the arguments in the article.
Another claim that appears out of thin air: "Our best hope for the future is not to get people to think of all humanity as family—that’s impossible. It lies, instead, in an appreciation of the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love."

Why exactly is it impossible to think of all humans as a family?  How can you arrive at that "same value" through reason when you are basing that reason on the emotional state of love, "those we love"?

Second, because empathy and retribution are being strongly linked. We won't dispute that you may find a bit of that but here is the example: "On many issues, empathy can pull us in the wrong direction. The outrage that comes from adopting the perspective of a victim can drive an appetite for retribution. (Think of those statutes named for dead children: Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, Caylee’s Law.)"
Note that he does not say "the empathy that comes from" but "the outrage". Outrage is not equal to empathy nor necessarily caused by it. The laws mentioned have a lot more to do with politicians' fears and the willingness of people to aggressively attack others under the guise of "show some empathy".

The article quotes this study: "In one study, conducted by Jonathan Baron and Ilana Ritov, people were asked how best to punish a company for producing a vaccine that caused the death of a child. Some were told that a higher fine would make the company work harder to manufacture a safer product; others were told that a higher fine would discourage the company from making the vaccine, and since there were no acceptable alternatives on the market the punishment would lead to more deaths. Most people didn’t care; they wanted the company fined heavily, whatever the consequence."

The problem there is the fundamental problem of such a what if scenario. We find them highly questionable and of very little value compared to actual observed behavior.

The K-Landnews team has serious doubts about many of the examples from the article, for instance, the "identifiable victim" thing, where the sick child gets lots of donations and this is put in opposition to the sales tax increase required to stave off problems for hospitals in Massachusetts. For some donors, sure, there is an identifiable victim effect, but for many more - we would say - the sums needed to fix the issue are so vastly different that the whole example is really  comparing apples to oranges.

As a logical conclusion of an article based on the artificial opposition of reason vs. empathy and the linking of empathy to outrage and retribution, Mr. Bloom concludes: "But empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future."

As a "case against empathy", we proclaim the article a well written failure.

Please try again.

To Infinity and Beyond [photo]

Photo (c) 2013 K-landnews

The infinite loop temporary installation at Bethnal Green, London, England

London Calling

Another installment in our "Mind The Gap" series. 

The high-minded "ah, one post will do" about the UK gave way to the realization that more bytes are needed to explain the current state of our British friends.

The exact moment of this realization was the immigration desk at the airport.

Terrorist threats and cyber threats are vastly exaggerated
The K-Landnews security expert knew this, but the proof of the pudding is British immigration.

They use Windows XP professional to run their terminals.

Any further questions?

Where did all the Bobbies go?
The London Underground (the subway) experienced a savage terrorist attack a few years ago.

What would the U.S. do? You know the answer if you have been to New York since 9/11. A highly visible police presence and highly annoying purse checks on the New York subway. Both achieving nothing more than catching the dumbest of wannabe terrorists while reassuring the dumbest citizens and really pissing off everybody else.

None of this in London. As a matter of fact, a street police presence that is almost negligible compared to the days of a persistent real threat out of Ireland.

The adverse impact on foreign school kids doing treasure hunts that include asking every available bobby for directions to every red telephone booth has not been studied well, worrying TheEditor just enough to include the observation in this post.

In practice, we must assume that the omnipresent CCTV cameras do a slightly better job than commonly believed.

The other practical point is that there are probably more non-uniformed police out there than you would expect.

And, the third point is that, of course, we might be wrong on the first two.

But not completely wrong.

The private coppers are a weird bunch
The one brand new Mercedes van of private coppers G4S sported a yellow sticker on the rear panel "Police Follow Me" and two even weirder "Convictions that Stick" stickers on the side. Which of these were meant to be funny eluded us. The only logical conclusion is that even British humor has developed into something more foreign than the shared language would indicate.

Centsless in Europe

We have a perfect topic for trying out our new rallying cry Mind The Gap.

When the dofus analyst of BofA called for an abolition of the 500 Euro note, we straightened him out in our post "Attempted theft: my 500 Euro note".

Neither the European Central Bank nor the German Central Bank deigned to tell the analyst to f*** off.

A week or so ago, the other version of "money we don't need" was pulled out of someone's behind, the authors of that suggestion probably need a promotion or were bored.

That other money is, of course, the one cent coin. The arguments have been the same for decades: too expensive to make, does not buy you anything, the only reason to price at 0.01 is to make you believe you are paying 9 euros instead of 10. 

It ruins your wallet, too.

For good measure, they included the 2 cent coin, proving to the rest of us that inflation is real.

The reaction of the German Central Bank?

They issued a strong statement refuting any calls to abandon the one and two cents coins! 

It goes to show that these little pieces of ever cheaper alloy have a symbolic value far beyond their purchasing power and it goes to show that logic has little to no influence on us.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Mind the gap

Mind the gap between your reality and the reality of others.

The safety warning "Mind the Gap" heard in many London Underground stations is well worth a post all by itself.

The blogster noticed that the announcements all have a friendly "please", either as "Please, mind the gap" or "Mind the gap, please".

The first question is: has the "please" always been part of the announcement?

The blogster would swear no, but the vagaries of memory can play ugly tricks. And wouldn't it be more stereotypically English if the phrase had been like this from its inception?

The next question is: does the underground rider get so imprinted with the phrase that it works its way out of the narrow context of train and platform into the general world view, thought and behavior?

Unlikely, but we are trying to put a bit of philosophical varnish on this post to try and understand some of the inner workings of the odd New Yorker journalist who cooked up an article subtitled as "The case against empathy". A case we will, without a hint of empathy for the author, thoroughly demolish in a future post.

Even if the English, or the British, collective subconscious has not absorbed  "mind the gap", we at the K-Landnews will try to use it in a wider sense.

Much like we learned at the V&A Museum of Childhood: starting at around age five, children try out grown up things.

Please, mind the gap.

What makes us human

A topic way too heavy for us intellectual lightweights, but isn't this part of the charm of blogging?

A PBS show tried to give some answers to the question what makes us human.

As the show demonstrated, it has become much more difficult over time to provide a clear, simple answer. Culture and tool use, two old mainstays of "being human" are out of the equation when it comes to the difference between humans and the great apes. For so long, we studied the great apes in such a limited setting with few means, we had to get it wrong.

It's as if, say, an alien studied people at an out of control soccer match in Europe and concluded we were all hyper emotional violent booze fiends.

When the show looked for other answers, it became rather murky.

In the end, they settled for the "triangle" of interaction, showing a baby and a mother interacting over a thing. The argument was: the baby knows that the mother sees the object and interacts accordingly.

But what about a cat coming up to you, telling you there is something wrong with her brother? Basically asking you for help. We have seen it more than once - and did not get it the first time!

And then there was the pointing experiment in the show. Children soon understand what pointing at an object means. Apes do not, dogs do. Dogs have learned it in many years close to humans...would apes learn it in the same way and pass it on to their kids?

Another aspect that we find a little odd is that bonobos have been left out of the studies for so long. Obvious moral arguments meant chimps and gorillas plus the odd orangutang were looked at, but the "oversexed" bonobos, Lord, no.

The ability to control emotions better than our closest relatives is another argument in the quest to show the difference. But there is enough emotional volatility in humans to weaken the argument, just look at the soccer matches or any civil war.

What does make us human then?

The bonobo who knows 3 000 words of English is ahead of little humans for quite a few years.

Space flight?
Monkeys have been in space. They did not invent it, but neither did the businessman who got into the space station because he can sign a check.

Helping another fellow humans in danger?
Once you have seen the Idaho elk who seeks out an injured fellow elk threatened by wolves and stays with the injured elk through the night, many people do not look so brave any longer.

Drug use?
Look at the documentary in which wild animals, many normally enemies, gather to feast on fermented fruit and get drunk.

Having a job?
We make other animals have jobs, too. And some of them take it very serious and are taken seriously for it -- a police dog becomes an "officer", an attack on one is penalized much heavier than, say, beating up a homeless human. And having a "regular job" is very recent, too.

Killing for sport?
Including wiping out species, could be another real candidate. Although scientists say that some cats kill even when they are not hungry. Dumb humans, dumb cats? Nobody does genocide better than humans.

Sorry, Mr. Picasso, but those painting elephants, man, are they cool. Apes like heavy metal and techno, too. Whales do great songs.

Religion? Big science? Wasting money? Being one bad winter away from cannibalism?

We are somewhat confused, the big subject won't quite fit into this blogster's brain -- writing a post is really a means to banish it all.

In the end, the blogster settles for the label "human". We are human because we decided to create the label.

It has certain advantages to group animals, and we humans are good at that.

Seven days without Twitter

We had predicted a drop in pageview of more than half.

It happened.

With the twist that on the day we deactivated the twitter account our views shot up to over 200.

Someone obviously took note.

Now we are as non-existent to the twitterati and the facebookies as we were in the first six weeks of the blog.

Will we be able to resist the easy login to Twitter until the account is not just deactivated but deleted?

Time will tell.

As if that was not enough, Google Ads offered up Blood Pressure medication the day after we bowed out from the hypersocial part of the web.

Because the web is by definition social.

We all share a bit of the blame in letting some sites hijack the "social".

Anybody up for reclaiming the word social and offering them "hypersocial" instead?

[Update 24 May] TheEditor decided to make the Twitter account visible again and add one final tweet with the link to the post "Twitter: Is this goodbye". This removes any ambiguity as to the sequence of events and the nature of the tweets up to the suspension and its revocation. It would have been nice to have sailed past whatever lil' algorithms are watching. But the whole series of events is also reassuring.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

No German, no welfare?

A court in Germany, in the city of Wiesbaden, just upheld a 30% cut in the very basic "Hartz-IV" welfare payment to a Turkish woman who did not enroll in the famed German "integration course".

Germany has adopted the popular "got to do something if you want welfare" strategy which is so en vogue in many countries. We already stated what we think about bunk like this, see our post "Integrating Foreigners".

This time around, we noted that the court stated "spoken as well as written German" are mandated.

We could not help but ask ourselves:
Do German citizens ever get asked about their writing skills when they show up at the welfare folks?
What would happen if that illiterate German acquaintance of ours walked up to the counter and asked for help?

You did read that correctly, "illiterate German". The one we know is an older man, who actually held down a job throughout his life.

Is there any judge on the social welfare court who himself is an immigrant or has immigrant parents?

We found that the website of the court in the city of Wiesbaden does not list the judges! So we cannot even say that name looks Greek to me, or, well the name might indicate a German-American army brat, just nada. Mr. Kafka would nod.

Unthinkable for any superior court in the United States.

Being the facetious yankee, TheEditor pulled out the Susan B. Anthony dollar, waved it in the air with a grandiose gesture and said:
We bet there is at least one (1) judge or admin employee of the welfare court in the City of Wiesbaden who has been on vacation in San Francisco, CA, and strolled through SF's China Town and enjoyed what he or she saw --- well, if there is no such employee, the Susan B. (minus shipping and handling) goes to the welfare court in Wiesbaden, Germany.

And here is an announcement for our British friends: our departure to the UK to check for those bilingual train station signs in the Greater London area  is imminent.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The face of death

From the creepy files.

Please keep the DSM-4 on the book shelf. There is no disorder, just a couple of creepy episodes related to the blogster by a trusted friend.

We were at the funeral of the old neighbor, the one who would climb into his car at age 93 once a week and drive slowly to the nearest town to pick up a paper and do some shopping.
We were at the grave, forming the funeral U, the priest at the foot of the grave saying the things priests say on these occasions.
Then I turned around and flinched.
Manu, the wife of Bernard, was standing just a little to the side behind me. As I rotated and faced her, I saw something I had never seen before. For a split second, her face was not there -- there was a skull. And then it was gone. Manu was there.
I shook off the almost imperceptible moment of weirdness and completely forgot about it.
Then, about three months later, the phone rang in the evening. At the other end, a voice said, this is Michelle -- and I knew right then what would follow. I handed the phone over to my partner.
Manu had been killed in a car accident in the thick coastal fog.

Over a decade later, I came home from work, deep in thought, and I opened the garden door. There, in front of me, were four friends heading toward me. They had been visiting and were about to leave.
As I looked up from the ground, my gaze fell on Patrick, and I saw that skull I had seen once before.
I said to myself, I am crazy, work should not be getting at me like this.
That was that. 
And then, one bright Saturday morning about five months later, I was sitting in the yard talking to the cats, my friend Jack comes storming in, upset: Pat is dead, yesterday, an accident.

It has been several years, and I don't think of  Pat and Manu often but once in a while the events come back. I did compare the episodes and found only one common thing: both times, I was intensely focused on something else.  There were other events which did not have to do with someone's death but with danger to me, a four pound roof tile smashing a few inches in front of my feet, a truck losing cargo, and on both occasions I went into a sort of trance a few seconds before they occurred.And seconds later it was all over.

Oh, and it runs in the family.  A couple of years ago, I spoke to my mother and she talked about the death of an uncle in a traffic accident in the same terms. I was stunned.

No, I do not believe in anything supernatural. It may be coincidence, some short circuit in my brain. Or something else, but physical, maybe one day it can be measured.

The blogster had contemplated to make this a Halloween post, but we may not be writing any more when Halloween rolls around again.

Work, work, die

Humans are strange critters. No single comparison to yet another nature documentary describes humans adequately.

Yesterday would probably have been stress awareness day in Germany, if they indeed had such a day.

Over the weekend, two well known politicians keeled over and died, one at 53 years, the other at 66 years.

On Monday, tabloid Bild Zeitung had a screaming, itself stress-inducing headline: Germans sick through stress.

And so it is. We'll spare you the numbers to avoid adding to your stress level.

It is enough to know that more and more Germans suffer from stress related illnesses than ever before and that more and more are on some sort of happy pill.

Our comment: Told you so.

Science has established the effects of various kinds of stress under various conditions pretty well.

While we sympathize with those who suffer stress, not all is unavoidable. In Germany, people have been experiencing interesting man made changes in the past ten plus years, and the number of people working two jobs has been rising, just as the number of people who -- working full time -- take home less after taxes than the basic social welfare payment level.

When it comes to stress in general, the blogster has an idea what it feels like.  Not only did yours truly do a six months 7 days a week work "stress test", but we have hopped countries, so yes.

We hate so say this, but overstressed fellow citizens who have enough savings and pension to retire and still hang on to the treadmill should maybe try to do something about it.

The return of early industrial age working hours combined with a GPS tracker that tells your boss where you are at any moment of the working day...some people didn't see that one coming.

It will get worse before it gets better.

Look for a hockey stick curve.