Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The dark side of Germany's love of international news

Why would anybody in their right mind claim there is a dark side of Germany's love of international news?

First of all, who says the author of this blog possesses if in "a right mind"?

See, that was easy. Now, the claim, or the hypothesis - using 'hypothesis' here to be able to backpedal in case the argument doesn't pan out further down - is based on spending too much time at the computer, reading at least five big German daily news websites a day plus the odd extra news site, some Bild Zeitung, some Brit news, some US news, some RT, a bunch of specialized online media sites on a whim...but no (zero, zilch, nada) German television. German TV is at least 100 times as big as, say RTE, but with less news value. The one exception in 2014 might have been "the Snowden interview" but that's a separate story.

Please don't be overwhelmed by the enumeration because the amount of news we gobble up has, I'm afraid, nothing to do with our ability to analyze what we take in.

German news has a huge proportion of international news. The big national sites/papers like Frankfurter Allgemeine, Der Spiegel, Die Zeit, Die Welt, Sueddeutsche Zeitung come across much like the old International Herald Tribune or the BBC World Service than a "national" paper.

Germany's economy is tremendously export oriented, and the country's citizens were the vacation travel champions of the world until the Chinese overtook them.Walk up to any stranger in any corner of the world and ask: are you German or Chinese?** If the answer is neither, they are likely Canadian.***

It is natural that German news reflects this interest, no?

Yes, it is, but if you look deeper, you can, we believe, tease out a couple of things. Accidents, disaster news, and lifestyle news - including politics, lifestyle news in pinstripes and/or with guns - seem to come easier when they happen in a foreign country.

Things as simple as the crash of a small plane (one or two people) tend to get very wide coverage if that plane goes down, say in the US. A flight training accident in Germany, similar in nature, got very little coverage.
Full names of suspects of crimes are reported when the event is outside of Germany, where in Germany, privacy laws call for their abbreviation unless it is a public figure.

Like in other countries, many important initial news come from online media and are picked up by the big ones but generally not deepened. You can say the same is true in other countries, and it is. But German online publications in economic and complex socio-political issues appear to often be alone on a topic, the bulk of big journalism focusing rather on anti police riots in the US than digging deeper into important German issues.

Don't get us wrong. You get a lot of domestic news, but is often remains disjointed and someone often wants to make money off of them. Consumer protection in Germany is not bad, but there is oddly less of it - for free - than in the US. Some areas of importance, like legal advice, have been cordoned off, so to speak, and there is a cease & desist industry that is frightful to say the least.

Information around here often appears to be "siloed", packaged by specialist area, and carefully watched over by lawyers prepared to go after publishers.

In the recent debate around the Pegida "anti-islamization" movement, demonstrators habitually called the German mainstream media "liars". And they used an old term "Lügenpresse" (lying papers) for it, which was used widely in the early 1900s around WWI and then by the Nazis on their way up.

Of course, protesters got slapped with "Nazi speech", and some of their slogans make this more understandable. Yet, there can be no doubt that German TV is very much influenced by politics -- they have politicians on their boards, their funds must be signed off on by state legislatures, the committee establishing funding recommendations is nominated unanimously by the state governors -- and that freedom of opinion does not necessarily mean freedom of speech.

To their credit, some mainstream media workers said, well, there is a point there, we are doing a lot of OpEd, commentary style stuff, maybe that is to the detriment of factual reporting.

So, if you will, this post simply extends this criticism from within by suggesting that the easy, carefree, lawsuit free international reporting might contribute to the lower emphasis on in depth, connect dots and stand up for you opinion domestic reporting.

An outstanding example of "easy reading" on a foreign subject while the same one is hardly ever mentioned in a domestic setting is that of political dynasties. German media write a lot about the Bush and Clinton "dynasties" and hardly ever mention the many children of high ranking German officials in elected office or the "lifetime" jobs in the German civil service.
As we write this, there are two children of former (less than a generation ago) federal secretaries/state governors in Ms. Merkels federal government. There are many more at the state level, yet no mention of dynasties.

The times when international news came almost exclusively via national media are over, demonstrated in part by vociferous attacks on foreign media outlets like Russian RT. RT may not be a stalwart of independent journalism, but - seriously - that label does not apply to Germany's Bild Zeitung or others either.

Follow the herd seems, to us, a big part of it. In the pack of reporters, you are fairly safe. The lock step reporting on many topics in the German media on recent topics like Russia, the Ukraine, the Middle East has been criticized as one sided. It may be a good expression of that pack mentality, which we tend to see on many subjects in the US media, too.
Too much celeb news, too much random lifestyle news, too many royals, well...

Exceptions confirm the rule, of course.

** Physical appearance no longer counts.
*** Northern Canadians (Canadians) as well as southern Canadians (US and Mexican).

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Abstract thinking in cats?

Of course!

Wait, you can't ask the question without a definition.

True, are you thinking Cat Einstein, or just thinking cat?

Okay then, here it is from Stedman's Medical Dictionary:

abstract thinking n.
Thinking characterized by the ability to use concepts and to make and understand generalizations, such as of the properties or pattern shared by a variety of specific items or events.

Well, now we need definitions for concept and generalization.

F***** you.

That's a generalization.

And a concept.

Can we just get on with it? What do you mean by abstract thinking in cats, a cat calling 911 when there is a fire?

For instance, when Mo had her accident and we needed to see the vet once a week for a while. One day, I was running late, and as I rushed past her into the bathroom to pee before leaving, I said "Mo, we are late, get in the pet taxi". When I came out of the bathroom, she was in the pet taxi.

How do you know there is a cause and effect connection? Was the pet taxi always sitting there, open, accessible? I mean, did she go in and out of the pet taxi on her own at other times.


Nnnnooo, or no?

No, she was in her small cage all the time at that point.

Okay, well, you might have something there. Anything else?

Eenie, the Cowboy cat, meowed at an empty chair to get food the other day. He likes to try human food and he know he cannot ask me. If he asks me, I tell him no, and he won't get any leftovers.


Firm.  So, he figured out he can ask J. when I am eating. J. tells him to be quiet, but the cat knows I hear it, too, so he asks without asking directly.

Not necessarily convincing.

But the other day, he asked the empty chair. J. wasn't here. The cat sat there and asked the empty chair.

Now, that is pretty cool.

Maybe it is just a habit, not an expression of abstract thinking.

You mean like politicians talking, or Clint Eastwood's empty chair speech? 


Monday, December 29, 2014

German 4 Dummies: Prebake

It is the end of 2014, and the K-Landnews TheEditor awoke from sugar and fat induced stupor and proclaimed: I am changing my monicker of the year!

After a very un-TheEditor like pause for effect, it* bellowed: From Year of Double Standards to Year of The Numbnut!

The invective laced explanation for the change is too much for any civilized reader, so we reworked it into a palatable form. We'll get to prebake, too.

The ire of the K-Landnews IT-person was very much directed at the two issues under the Twitter hashtags #YallaCSU and #Pegida.

#YallaCSU was the Twitterati reaction to the Bavarian conservative party convention call on foreigners to speak German at home. The Germans have enshrined the requirement for foreigners who move here to learn German. If you have any inkling of German culture, you know how that has panned out.
They make you do it. There was even a high profile court case, where a court upheld a mandate to a 60 year old woman to learn German. A higher court threw out the government case, but not because of her age or because she had raised two well rounded German speaking children. The case was thrown out because she was Turkish and an agreement signed in the good old days of easy immigration between Turkey and Germany nixed the bureaucratic interpretation of the law.
What passes for logic in Bavarian conservative minds made to call for German at home seem very reasonable.
So, after pushback, they changed the wording of the resolution from "demand" to "suggest", mirroring all the sincerity of the "Thank you for not smoking" signs.

If you feel suicidal, stand next to one, light up, and then explain that you agree people who don't smoke deserve a heartfelt thank you. You have been warned.

#Pegida was the second movemen which riled TheEditor. A movement against the islamization of the occident, started in the East German city of Dresden a few months ago, gathered enough steam to worry the media and politicians. With around 5 million muslims in a country of 82 million, any threat of islamization beggars credibility but the major political panic attack named ISIS plus some boneheaded youngsters putting on vests saying Sharia Police and marching through a German city had their effect.
There is more than enough blame to go around regarding who kindled the beliefs expressed by the demonstrators. Media articles with screeching headlines from stalwarts like Bild Zeitung to Der Spiegel deserve some. Politicians deserve more.
What took TheEditor out of its ranting comfort zone, however, was the description of the movement as "non-radical middle class".
What does a radical German middle class look like, TheEditor mused.

Prebake, finally. Go to any German super market these days, and you will find a bakery section advertising freshly baked bread, rolls, and croissants.
It is anybody's guess why they call it prebake when there are more than enough words for freshly baked goods to choose from. Not only do you have standard German terms but every local dialect has its own set of words for exactly the same thing.
You have about ten words for the simplest of plain rolls, yet you go out of your way to call the things prebake, growled TheEditor.

We hope to have succeeded in explaining why TheEditor switched to Year of the Numbnut. If not, accept our apology.

We'll retire from the computer with a latte (German word) to munch a prebake with crushed peanuts on top (peanut butter is an illegal label here) and wish you a happy new Year.

* TheEditor insists on gender neutral treatment and will only go by it.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Dances with Bytes: abusing common file formats for improved privacy

Why should an abused woman have to learn about encryption to send a help request to a friend?

Why should  you store passwords in a Password Manager program that is now specifically targeted by criminals?

Why can't privacy be fun?

These were just some of the questions we asked ourselves before we sat down to write "message envelopes" that either look nothing like a message or text, or put the message somewhere where is is not designed to go.
We took some "common" file formats and wrote Project CuttleFish, re-purposing these formats to improve the privacy of communications on the web.

The result:
  • An XML document that is empty, but it contains a text message.
  • An audio file that plays "rain sounds" in an audio player, but it contains a text message.
  • A cascading stylesheet (CSS) meant for styling a web page, but it contains a text message.

The CuttleFish source code is also available
CuttleFish can benefit from extra eyes and from contributions to enhance the output formats. For instance, the cascading stylesheet (CSS) implementation is rudimentary, so make it better.

Put CuttleFish on a USB stick for improved security, remove the stick when you are done using CuttleFish for the day.

German cuisine in Germany?

After feeding largely on homemade American cookies in the figurative middle of Germany, we decided to find some German cuisine eatery within reasonable driving range from our hilltop hideout.

The resulting list had two very funny entries.

The Chinese/Thai takeout is run by a Vietnamese couple
Seeing an opening for Vietnamese food, we asked if they planned to offer some Vietnamese dishes.

No plans.

Don't you think it would be nice to have fried noodles?

No plans.

We gave up and resigned to the fact that it is the German version of the U.S. sushi bars run by Koreans.

The Italian restaurant is run by an Indian guy named Singh
We decided to count this as a sign of integration of the German Italian community into the larger German society. Second or third generation German Italians do not have to work in the restaurant biz any longer, they have moved on to highly trained and much better paid office jobs.

We have not been able to talk to Mr. Singh but we suspect that his children, if he has any, are also on the white collar track.

Another Italian place nearby is run by a young German and Italian couple. Their restaurant is more upmarket than the Indo-Italo pizza & pasta place but not much more expensive -- remember, we are out in the country.

So, what is the restaurant situation in general?

Kebab houses, burger chains, and pizzerias are ubiquitous, dwarfing other types of cuisine.

"German cuisine", in our area, is relegated to truck stops and small hotels. The truck stop version is awful. A pre-packaged micro-wavable disaster of food.

It does beat the premium cat food bags Canadian bush pilots used to carry as emergency chow. The small advantage of the semi plasticized German curry sausages is due to only one thing: sauce. Unlike cat kibbles, the sausages come with a sauce.

The two other German cuisine places nearby are in hotels, the prices start at about twice the pizzeria level, and we have yet to try them.

So, for a few years in Germany, our best German food ever was at a German restaurant in Alameda, California.

But there are other German cooking eateries dotted around the hilltops, and they cover a variety of foods. 

For example, there is an all you can eat "kettle meat" place popular with groups and a single menu item "kettle meat with seasonal sides". Kettle meat is a term from the old days of home butchering, and represents the embodiment of the "waste not" way of life, which ended in these hills only a few decades ago.

Any and all pieces of the animal that could not be used for sausage, roast or cutlet and other meat cuts would be thrown into a huge vat of boiling water and cooked to the point of disintegration. Bones came out of the kettle as clean as the forensic specimen on the TV series Bones.

The restaurant uses the old concept of kettle meat but since they don't collect only the leftovers, they basically put the whole animal in there. Whole as in all the parts, not as in the animal in one or two big pieces.

It is a very social and very greasy affair, we have been told.

Another hidden example of German cooking is in the same village as the kettle meat place but offers modernized German dishes. Run by a TV chef who managed to keep his ego in check, it is a lovely place.

Not easy to find but great.

Just like some other aspects of German culture. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Dr. Who - the world's most subversive hero

The adventures of Brit SciFi series Dr. Who are so delightfully subversive that even the K-Landnews TheEditor forgets its* animosity and rambling ways for forty five minutes when the blue telephone box begins to swirl.

Compared to The Doctor, Star Wars is nothing but one big NRA and military industrial complex PR reel.
The only redeeming quality of Star Wars is unrelated to the plot, it is that we finally had one got one common metaphor for Dick Cheney.

Princesses less slick than the most minor of Dr. Who ladies, without getting anywhere close to the Dr's sidekicks, and guys packaged in white plastic, the Wars franchise should never have left the comic books. At least there, they could slug it out with the other ultra forgettable Battleship Galactica.

Even Trekkies watching Dr Who must have their moments of man, I wish Kirk had been more like that. But do give Star Trek credit for some much needed racial integration work at the time.

Then there is a void, kind of much vaster than the empty space where Galifrey  once was, until the guy with blue phone box enters the social space of our times.

It speaks to the power of Dr Who that even the Tories are not touching this one. For now? Until re-financing the BBC comes up?

Who knows, and who cares.

The Dream Crabs may be back.

In the meantime, let's be sad for a second that we feel compelled to call Dr Who subversive, because this term only illustrates how odd we have become.

Why in the world should we have to call out a series that is so full of humanity for upholding a handful of human values?

Of course, you can things to criticize about the Doctor. Read up on them, but remember the Dr is not about perfection.

Someone who does not discriminate against lizards, who sneaks in a gay kiss but fully supports Elizabeth II and who shows up on Christmas with the regularity of Santa Claus, is an epic character.

Who else, yes Who else, could be on the screen on Christmas with a parable about mind sucking Dream Crabs and garner praise for it?

Don't think the writers don't know what they are doing, no, no, they know full well. They called on Santa, who gladly obliged and made the feat possible.

Ol' Chucky Dickens would be a big fan of the Dr, guaranteed.

* TheEditor insists on ruthless gender neutrality, hence the it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

German 4 Dummies triple XMas special: Hochzeit, Durchfallquote & Schöne Bescherung

Each and every human language on this little planet in a galaxy whose alien name we simply do not know is a gem.

Language is a window on reality and, at the same time, it creates that reality in the first place.

If that's too heavy for you on Christmas, go check out or think  about the languages of other animals. We don't understand much of them yet, but listening to the two cats chatting on the window sill while another one sings her Chinese opera surely means they, too, have something to say.

While the struggle over who owns the definition of words and expressions takes a back seat on Christmas, largely because the sugar rush from the various foods and the exhaustion of getting Christmas just right take their toll, we have three German terms you don't need to know.

But a few paragraphs down, you'll be glad we told you.

It began with Weihnachten, die Hochzeit des Zanks, a headline from a couple of weeks ago. It means Christmas, peak time for dispute. If you have ever done a Christian Christmas, you have experienced it, or you know someone who has.

But the fun in the German phrase lies in the word Hochzeit, which just so happens to also be the German word for wedding.
In linguistic terms, both meanings are derived from hoch (high, peak") and Zeit (time, event). Germany's infallible equivalent to Webster, the Duden, fails to list the first of those meanings, giving only the wedding and a totally obscure one from the days of movable type printing.
Just to show of our encyclopedic knowledge, Hochzeit is also used in auto manufacturing as the act of putting the engine into the vehicle.

The next headline today is Durchfallquote an deutschen Hochschulen sinkt. Course and exam failure rates at German colleges down is our translation, good news. However, you are allowed to have fun with this and point out that the incidence of diarrhea at German colleges is down. Cafeteria food must be getting better, it seems.

Since it is/was Christmas Day, we would like to wish you a Schöne Bescherung. This one comes from the latest Coca Cola Germany ad campaign. The local gas station has been adorned with a poster of rolly polly Santa holding a Coca Cola bottle under a Schöne Bescherung headline.

This one has to do with the act of giving and receiving Christmas presents. Schön means good, pretty, etc. and Bescherung is an old term for giving of gifts.

So, if your loved one gives you a gift wrapped brand new BMW, schöne Bescherung is very appropriate.

If you then get into the car, back out of the driveway into a passing truck, you can repeat schöne Bescherung because schöne Bescherung also means "pretty mess", "what a mess".

Not just on Christmas.

If someone steps on and crushes the carefully hidden Easter eggs, schöne Bescherung. If the puppy you got for Christmas doesn't....ah, well.

Schöne Bescherung as an ad campaign is not quite as salacious as #DontJerkAndDrive -- but really only because the Coca Cola Santa has both hands clearly out in the open.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Christmas Hierarchy Tale

This post comes with a rare dedication:  To Ana, the singer, the software engineer, the bright one, the Spanish Lady.

'nugh christmessy emotions, here's the post.

Once upon a time, there was an odd fellow.

He was bouncing around Europe as an elf in nerds' toy factories. They made dreams of a better world and called them software.

He once told me all his belongings fit into two sports bags: what more do you need?

The lanky, adolescent appearance was deceptive, as each and every one of us found out when we played foozball against him. The long, dangling, seemingly uncoordinated arms tightened up like steel cables, the ever present smile gave way to a focused, earnest expression, and even the bottle glasses lost their cliche appearance for the duration of the game.
He wouldn't trash talk, like others did, you could tell he was just happy about a game well played, about tiny adjustments of the little plastic men on the bars, about a perfect forward of the ball to his team mate when we played in teams of two.

A couple of us got slightly fed up losing very time at foozball, so we invited him over to the air hockey table. And got just as thoroughly trashed.

It was fun, though.

And then there was the Christmas party, and we did Secret Santa. You could exchange gifts twice, and you could not refuse when someone asked.

We were all milling about, laughing, commenting on each other's gifts and any exchange, poking fun at people for not wanting the chocolate, for wanting too much chocolate, or for trading something they could give to their children.

And then he walked straight up the business unit director and asked to exchange gifts.

I don't recall what the presents were.

But I do recall that the people who witnessed this fell silent for a few seconds as we stood there and watched the hierarchy melt away for a short moment. The director did well and played by the Secret Santa rules without hesitation. What seemed a potentially awkward if not outright perilous social situation -- even a flat hierarchy is a hierarchy, you know -- was, well, nothing. Just an exchange between two people. It was so smooth and natural that not everybody noticed, though once the word spread, people did talk about it.

What happened to the odd fellow?

I have no idea.

CuttleFish text envelopes: .avi format, DNA sequence .txt & more

CuttleFish - "envelopes" for text messages

Click here to download. Get the latest version of Java (tm), unzip CuttleFish, double-click the .jar file, and you are good to go.
    What is CuttleFish?
    CuttleFish is a simple program that makes text messages unreadable to humans.
    CuttleFish does not use encryption. All it does is turn your messages into
    what looks like gibberish. It then puts this gibberish into a common file
    format, which serves as an "envelope" if you will. If a human opens such a 
    file in a standard program, he or she will see "garbage".
    This works also for many automated message scanners. Simple-minded scanners
    will "think" you made a mistake and created a bad file. 
    If you need strong privacy, encrypt your messages.

    CuttleFish is the text message equivalent of a birthday clown's magic trick.
    Distract people - and computers - while you do your clown thing.

    How to:
    Enter or paste message text into this editor.
    Select a File Format from the drop-down. Saving or opening a file will always use the currently
    selected File Format.

    Save the contents of the editor window into one of the "envelope file" formats.
    Open an envelope file and read the contents into the editor window. If the window remains empty, check the File Format

    Tell the recipient
    Recipients of any of these files need CuttleFish to extract the message. There is no "marker" in the CuttleFish
    output files because you would not want a bad guy to look for a marker and go "ah, easy". If you share files
    with others, you need to tell them about it.
    The following formats are supported

    (BETA) ".avi movie": the text is saved as a .avi movie and is displayed as a pink
    bouncy ball in case you play the movie in a movie player.
    "PDF .pdf": a file in portable document (pdf) format.
    "QR code .png": a Quick Response code .png file. Limit of 4200 characters.
    ".wav audio": a Wave audio file. Use CuttleFish to open a .wav message file.

    "empty .xml file": saves the message in "metadata" of an .xml file. The file
    is filled with unrelated text from a default template. Anybody reading the
    text will only see the adventures of Huck Finn. You can replace this file,
    which is an equivalent of "packing peanuts".
    "plain .png image": the message is saved in a plain image file.    
    "javascript .html": saves the message in the javascript section of an html file. 
    You can replace the default file with any file that has a javascript section.
    ".asp vb html": saves the message in an html file that has a Microsoft asp 
    vb script section.  You can replace the default file with any file that has such a section.

   "Java .jar file": saves the message in a Java (tm) .jar file. A template jar is 
    included in the package. You can replace it with any other .jar, but your
    replacement must have a manifest file with a "Main-class" entry.

   "DNA sequence .txt": turns your message into a "DNA sequence" using only the four
    basic building blocks ACGT. Mimicking of one or more common scientific formats 
    will be added.

Monday, December 22, 2014

[Update] 47% of Germans feel media is biased - media blames Internet

This is one for the Wisdom of the Kraut.*

An astounding 47% of Germans feel that media reporting is biased and guided by politics, reports German weekly DIE ZEIT. The article is in German, but well worth a read.

Of course, as an American, you can say wow, some 40% still think that the media is "generally" independent and objective. Who are these Germans, why would they think that?

And why is the subject of objectivity by and trust in the media worth a poll now, not half a year ago, not six months down the road but now?

The debate has been going on for some time, at times heated, at times barely simmering. So, in our minds, the question of why the poll was done now is beside the point.

If we take a long view, the debate even looks a bit stale because the "lying media" has been an epithet for as long as we dared to check, which includes the time before the internet.

Which brings us to the blame game, the game where a culprit must be found so we can all sleep better, or all watch Youtube. The German pundits have pretty much designated the internet and its resulting economic upheaval as the cause. And, in typical German fashion, they also blame the fact that everybody can call themselves a journalist.

And while it has raised serious challenges, as, for example, Columbia University professor Jay Rosen has illustrated, your friends here at the K-Landnews would like to emphasize the control aspect.

Or the loss of said control.

Forty odd years ago, publishing our own stories required either lots of money or a hand cranked mimeograph machine. You had to research in a library far far away, you did your own spell checking, and - with the mimeograph - you needed a drafty room so as not to succumb to the fumes which would cloud your brains and fuck up your judgement.

But the focus on the mechanics of printing and the mechanics of making money (if that is your aim) leaves out the biggest area: an abundance of great information.
As you are reading this, you have more information freely available than you had in all of the Library of Congress four decades ago.

More so, we have experts from all walks of life at our fingertips, making it harder to take any dreary subject and write something useful about it without being challenged when you get your facts wrong.

Even with blatant partisan reporting, your chances of spotting it today are out of this world compared to, say 100 years ago. Read the "today 100 years ago" series in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and you will understand.

The other elephant in the room is our acceptance of obviously dumb and lying journalists while we uphold the banner of "independent and objective". Reporting in at least some media has become a he said she said affair, independent only of one thing: facts.

The best figure in the poll?

Trust in "independent and objective" reporting is lowest among the higher educated citizenry. If you know how the sausage of debate and selecting facts is made...go vegetarian.

But don't dismiss those whose rhetoric and logic is not considered up to the task. Even avid readers of trash journalism flagship Bild Zeitung are not easily abused.

Recounted a friend: when I grew up, my dad would always send me to buy the daily Bild Zeitung with the words go, get me the Lie of the Day.

Maybe it is a good thing that in today's world a single newspaper cannot start a war within a few days like the old Hearst press did.

* Yes, it is a bad pun. No, I'm not sorry.

[Update 5/2/2016] A new study is out! It says that only 34% of Germans think their media is independent. Only 49% of respondents say media reports issues correctly.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Lamenting the good old times: surrogacy in Germany

Germany's high court affirmed that a child born by a surrogate mother in a foreign country is the child of the German parents who arranged the surrogacy agreement and adopted the baby after birth.

Big deal?

It is because surrogacy is illegal in Germany.

In the case, the high court accepted that the process is legal in California, where a German couple had the arranged the surrogacy. Hence, being parents in California meant they were parents in Germany, too.

Why not, if other legal considerations of what makes a family are recognized? For example, marry someone in California, or - Lord - Las Vegas, and go to Germany, you continue to be married.

Personally, the blogster has reservations about surrogacy: there are enough perfectly good orphans, for example. And if you have ever had a glimpse into an American orphanage and seen the children, especially the small girls, work incredibly hard for that one day of picture taking for the "hard to place" book, you might agree. There are other issues, as recently seen in the case of a handicapped child row involving an Australian couple and a Thai surrogate mother.

But this is not about that. It is about how conservative Germans lament the end of traditional motherhood.

Didn't German law institute the surrogacy ban for a good reason, asks this opEd piece in FAZ. The development of the child in the womb of the mother and its effect for the future well being of the child was the reason for the ban in Germany. The court should enforce German laws, laws that were made by a democratic sovereign, says the writer.

Shouldn't logic say that adoption should be banned, too, if this is your justification?

The mythical concept of motherhood humans have invented, yes, invented, is just that: a myth.

So, we need to burst a bubble: German family law, well, West German family law, was a stronghold of reformed Nazis, and caution about the latest pregnancy tech are still being exploited in the name of the myth of motherhood.

The other beef of conservative commentators on this phenomenon: if you can simply go abroad to circumvent German laws, where will that end?

We don't have an answer on that, but as to surrogates, you need to be well off to do this, so the pattern fits seamlessly into world in which wealth has had its privileges for a long time.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Un-wasting a life: an amazing retiree

If you look at all the self-help and self-improvement literature, if you listen to gushing politicians declaring their support for continued education and life-long learning, you might think that we waste fewer lives than before.

Add social media and the self expression movement with its iconic festivals and meets, and you might not even we all wrong.

Go to the garage, find a big empty bucket, or two if your shoe size is bigger than 7 1/2. Half fill the buckets with cold water, distribute all the ice from the fridge equally between the buckets, remove your socks, stick both feet into the water, and think.

The problem with our "wasted" lives is, of course, the absence of a good definition. Which makes it a philosophical issue: he who manages to make his definition the one that sticks, wins. A German friend added another aspect to the general philosophy approach, adding that his brother in law is just finishing his philosophy major.

It's not that his arguments prevail through clear logic and facts, I simply can never understand what the hell he has said after hours of discussion.

This post, therefore, skirts the question of the big definition in favor of  the example of a recent German retiree. The man is only in his early fifties, with about 40 years of continued work behind him. Hard work, involving wading in rushing swollen streams in the middle of winter, balancing on 25 inch wide boards up at 100 feet and more. Stressful work, involving fishing dead people out of water, and dangerous work with the marvels of modern agriculture.

The pesticides got him.

His hands never stand still, not a second in his waking hours. The meds work, he says, but they mess up sleep patterns, too. And if you wanted to kill me, he adds, just spray some orange or lemon scented air freshener within half a mile and hide my inhaler.

The government officials who decided on his early retirement from their cozy armchairs fought the doctors tooth and nail. Doctors have to pick their battles with the officials, and they fought for this one. In the Casino Government, the odds are stacked in favor of the house, but they did let him go with an adjusted pension. 40 years of contributions for social security benefits barely above what you get if you never work a day in your life sounds cruel to the blogster.

But he smiles: Let me show you what I did in past six months, he says and leads the way to a former pig sty. I got myself some good LED lighting, he flicks the switch and explains as the room with tiny windows is flooded in white light. 

In front of us is a three mast sailing vessel, over a yard long. He points at the rigging, a trembling finger almost touching the top of the main mast: see, only the last few lines at the crow's nest are still missing. It's what I do when I wake up after three or four hours of sleep in the middle of the night.

He waves at a heap of thin, broken narrow wooden strips: I go through more planking than a healthy man. But I have the tools, I just made some more when I ran out of ones from the model kit.

That is just awesome, is all the blogster can say. It is honest but inadequate, hollow.

At my last doctor's appointment, the doctor asked how I spent my time these days. They are worried about people like me, I guess. So I explained what I had done so far. The doctor frowned for a split second, then laughed out loud and was extra nice to me when he explained that I will never get better.

Only when the unsteady hand takes just a tiny bit longer than you'd expect to hit the switch on the way out, does the blogster realize that he himself had - for a brief few minutes - looked beyond the illness.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The gorgeous, impeccable female back and DER STERN

A few weeks back, standing in line at the cash register of the local gas station, the blogsters eyes wandered over the glossy rack, the weeklies and monthlies laid out as tiles on the magazines shelves.

That's what the rack is for.

There was our old easy confusion country living mag Landlust, good for a title chuckle very time, and there were all the others catering to different tastes and different wallets.

That time around, the cover of the weekly DER STERN stood out like a sore back. All 11 by 8 inches square showed a gorgeous, flawless female back, from just a few pixels below the waist up to a neck to die for.

Big medical doctor white block letters said BACK PAIN (the German word is a bit longer and with and "sch", nice and harsh). A slow procession of thoughts - that 30+ old brain again - filtered in through the banter of the station attendant with the customer in front.

DER STERN, ah, just recently we had seen a note about their most stellar moment in the 1980s when they published Hitler's diaries. A starry eyed STERN meteored into the public arena with the diaries of the monster. Except, they were fake.
The expert who had vouched for the diaries' authenticity became the butt of jokes, like a bad astrologer, his findings did not hold up for more than a day.

Nowadays, they are making their money with back pain?

The blogster found himself imitating a quipping TheEditor and banished the thought.

The back pain edition reflects the everyday sexism of the press.

How many pretty, late 20ths max females suffer from magazine cover worthy back pain? Probably zero, if you don't count a handful of professional athletes with bad coaches and bad luck,

Yet, there it is.


Buy me.

It didn't work with the blogster but it must be working well enough for them to use the old trope.

Did you click the link above? It takes you the the web version of the article, complete with a super slender, sexy dressed lady.

She obviously does not suffer from debilitating back pain.

Note to self: put back pain on the list of "easy to recycle topics" for the sad days when inspiration fails us.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The nice arsonist neighbor

For months, I would look at every woman and ask myself if she was one of the arsonists, the German friend who told us the story said.

The story is one of those people do not talk about to strangers. It is part of the fabric of the community, and everybody has an idea of who was involved, or they themselves were part of it.

The police investigates these events, as do the insurance companies, yet both get nowhere.

On trips around the area, we had seen the building in the narrow canyon. It must have been pretty once, a three level art deco house with corner turrets and hints of elaborate facade decorations. Sitting halfway up the hillside, a spacious porch ran along the whole width on both the second and the third floors, elevating the inhabitants above the damp bottom of the canyon, giving them a view across the top of an outcrop that cast an almost permanent shade on the small creek at the foot of the hill.

There were no neighbors for some two miles in any direction, which is as close to solitude as you can get in this part of Germany.

Like a handful of other houses outside of town in this region, it had been built as a summer home by a newly rich company owner around the turn of the 20th century, late eighteen hundreds is when they started, the friend said.

When we passed on the nearby narrow country road, half of it was a charred ruin, with roof timbers exposed to the elements. On one end, the fire had not done as much damage, and someone obviously lived there, as the thin puffs of smoke of a chimney on a cool spring day indicated.

In its one hundred year or so history, the house had changed owners several times, starting in the 1950s. Some found it too out of the way, some too claustrophobic when they retired and lived there year round. You will get sea legs if you live there full time, there's no flat ground really, except for the driveway.

One day, a middle aged couple bought the place and opened a weekend escape house. Well,  a party house, a place for swingers.

Really?  Around here?

Yes, and growing up, none of the adults would mention a word. Then, one day, it was on fire, and the adult would simply say, - I don't recall their name - oh, yeah, the Miller's house burned down last night. There was not much talk about the cause of the fire. The damage was nothing like its present state, and they were back in business after a few months.

Less than a year later, though, a blaze almost completely gutted the establishment. This time, there was lots of talk, the police investigated the arson, and an insurance agent was knocking on doors in the two nearest small towns.

Who do you think did it? That's were get to the women. There is a persistent rumor that some women from one of neighboring towns banded together to set the place on fire. Allegedly, some found out that their husbands made up part of the "single males" contingent which provided extra, shall we say manpower at the club.

A few people say the owners themselves set the fire, but the other version beats this one hands down in local folklore.

What can be said for certain it that it was arson, and that the insurance did not pay up. The owners continue to live in the still habitable part of the house.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Project CuttleFish - driving censors nuts one broken file at a time

Personally, I don't like the idea that every Tom, Dick, and Harry can just scan my emails and read everything. Especially every Dick. Our everything is generally boring and mundane, but some of it is not nice. And none of it is anybody's business.

While we are waiting for the big boys to simply encrypt all communication in such a way that even governments can not grab them along the way, we played with encryption and did some thinking.

We found Big Brother a catchy but insufficient metaphor of what's happening.
This is in no way meant to belittle the great Mr. Orwell, also known as a Blair we like.

We are dealing with machines programmed by humans. Some of these humans are good guys, and some bad. Some are good guys during the day, and bad guys after the sun goes down.

So, we learned encryption from the good guys.  What can we learn from the bad guys?

Malware writers and cyber criminals are good at disguising malicious program code and at make believe.

The make believe part has a name: social engineering. That email with an attachment you just cannot resist to click is a prime example. There is not much practical use in this for average users, unless we reverse it: nothing for me to see here.

And what better way to achieve this than disguising stuff?

That's how Project CuttleFish started. Who says that an email has to be plain text or html?

Why not use a .wav audio file as an "envelope" for a text message? After all, the letters, spaces, and emojis you see on the screen are nothing but 1s and 0s.

So, CuttleFish takes the 1s and 0s and sticks them into a .wav file. Sounds like rain if you play it in your favorite media player.

Or it makes a .png image. Not a very pretty one, more one that looks broken. It even creates a zen like QR code, which is really just an image file with a very specific structure.
Since we have never really liked PDFs much, CuttleFish also produces and reads a nice broken looking .pdf.

For the QR code and the pdf, CuttleFish turns your text into gibberish. Not encrypted text, mind you, just gibberish used in other contexts to save or transmit data safely.

So, your army of underpaid Chinese censors will mostly think you are an incompetent user.

Cannot even produce a good .pdf file.

And the automated censors have to work a bit harder. Someone has to add code for them to now look at every darn .wav file in order to see if it might contain text.

CuttleFish will also get "executable" envelopes for fun. Both human and machine censors hate unknown executables. Again, these exes will not "work" but in order to figure that out, the machines will have to work a few seconds longer, and the humans will stay away from them without much thought.

When a government retires people

Germans have been debating retirement age like the rest of the industrial world. They are having a hard time squaring higher life expectancy with the patriarchcal ways of old Europe.

The world's first universal social security system has seen interesting an unexpected twists in its 150 year history. For starters, it was instituted by a deeply conservative chancellor. Having survived two world wars and made the transition into the 21st century, it was conservatives who started cutting back on future entitlements as early as the 1980s and social democrats and Greens who put the axe to the system in the early 2000s.

The debate in Germany has seen the same arguments as everywhere, but there are a few aspects worth highlighting.

Governments are bad at managing money!

Not quite true. Here is why.

There is a pension fund system for German government employees who are not "Beamte", i.e. for employees who have not sold their lives and their souls to the government. They are treated like workers in private businesses but do get a supplementary pension. That pension has been managed by a pension fund, unlike general social security.
The fund gets very little media attention but has been doing astoundingly well through all the ups and downs of the economy.

The fund is run by professional fund managers. Unlike general social security, politicians have not been able to use it as a slush fund cum piggy bank to fill holes in the general budget.  So, we should probably say that politicians are bad at managing money.

The other aspect we want to highlight is the rigidity of the retirement age. For the longest time, retirement age meant that you had to retire, no matter what. And once retired, you were not allowed to continue to work for money.

The 80 something U.S. worker happily contributing to society in a job was an outlandish concept to Germans.

While Germans have loosened this strict rule once they started treating social security pensions as taxable income, they still won't allow you to "just continue" to work beyond retirement age. Even if you feel like working to 80 and claim benefits only at that age, no dice.

What the government can do, however, is retire you against your will. This is gone regularly if you become unemployed in your late fifties or early sixties, or if you become disabled. At this point, you receive a reduced pension. The maximum reduction currently stands at about 14% and applies for the rest of your life.

The most recent change to the contribution scheme was dropping the equal share of contributions paid by workers and employers. Up until this year, half of the social security contributions came out of people's pay check, the other half was paid by employers.
Starting now, the employer share is capped at the existing rate, while the share of the employees is not.

Of course, the government made sure that there is no rate increase next year.

The option of becoming Walmart greeters does not exist in Germany, after the retail giant quietly pulled out. Rumor has it that the Germans were not into the whole Hail to Sam thing in the morning. Unlike the Chinese by the way, who happily replaced Mao with Sam.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Balls, Butts, Heroes, Traffic Accidents & Torture

The title of this post might well be the best one line description of German tabloid Bild Zeitung, if we re-did it in all caps, like so BALLS, BUTTS... you get the picture.

To clarify, BALLS includes soccer balls, but despite lots of soccer reporting, the balls kicked around in that game make up only a small percentage, and the balls fulfilling FIFA regulations an even smaller percentage.

The BUTTS are of such variety and diversity that you could be forgiven the belief Germany is a nation of immigrants. Not only that - but [hey, c'mon] prominent families around the world who, for reasons better left to historians don't emphasize the heritage, will invariably see some of their family behinds in this paper.

When it comes to BUTTS, BILD can be surprisingly free of social stigma. This should not be seen as betrayal of their family value editorial policy. BILD will print means tested HARTZ IV social security behinds next to upper class boobies, but make no mistake, this is only a nod, a long one sure, to some of their regular readers from this demographic.
The same appears to be true for young immigrant ladies. It's not voyeurism if you ditch the niqab and everything underneath! It shows you successfully assimilated.

Traffic accidents & torture. Do you really want to read about these? Go to the BILD Zeitung web site. Today, their mainliner is about a gruesome traffic accident, yesterday it was about the American torture architects.

Oh, and right now, they switched to a full on Dick Cheney lambasting the torture report. And they added an inset about TV show Homeland next to the Dick. The inset says: nobody likes the CIA but everybody loves Homeland.

Underneath the article about death and destruction? Have a look:

See, not a single word of German needed to understand the lady part.

Even though it may look dumb, BILD is run by professionals who know that the average sentence length in their paper should be somewhere around or under 10 words. Don't say, ah, German words, that's not so serious then!
BILD also uses shorter words than less colorful publications.

BILD has mastered the art of taking a stance without sticking to most. It is a policy that can infuriate lesser minds like those of us at the K-Landnews, because they can go and disprove any statement you might level at their prose.

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of BILD is that they are the one mass circulation paper any German government goes to if it wants to get news out.

If BILD wasn't printed on paper, the best choice of medium might be Teflon. But, luckily for some poor old folks and hermits, this would seriously limit recycling options.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Vandalized Christmas lighting

Serves you right, grumbled TheEditor when we told it** about the destroyed Christmas lighting out front. Atheists are not supposed to like Christmas anyway.

That's not fair, you know that. Hindu friends of mine get a Christmas tree every year, and man, do they deck it out. So, stop bitching about a string of LEDs.

Well, it is based on the old Nordic festival of lights, and the Roman Saturnalia, and those folks were not Christian either.

Thank you.

Only because it is Christmas time. And I won't hold it against you that you made fun of the war on Christmas.

Yesterday, not even twenty four hours after we put up a nice, long string of LED lighting out front, someone cut the power cord. The light is one of those solar deals, a panel charges a battery, so no danger of getting electrocuted.

The weird thing about it is that the cord was cut a few inches from the panel, so the perp had to climb on top of the garage make his way halfway across and snip. He could easily have stolen the installation, it weighs next to nothing, and the panel is just stuck into a hole in the center of a stone.

It appears, the perp has some sort of justification for the act, it looks like a sort of message sending thing.

What that could be?

No idea. We don't have any enemies around here that we know of. Except for an elderly woman whose impeccable German cleaning standards we have not been able to meet recently, nothing comes to mind. She certainly cannot climb safely.

Could it be that someone does not like "the Americans" in town and felt that the release of the torture report was an opportunity to send a message? No, we are not that important, and we think we are "good" Americans anyway.

It is much more likely that some drunk or stoned kids were attracted to the shiny object and were in the mood to mess with people.

The cord can be mended, but we do not feel like putting it up again. That should please TheEditor because of its anti-atheist-Christmas stance.

We will not contribute to accurate German crime statistics by reporting the incident.

** TheEditor insists on full gender neutrality, hence the it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Project CuttleFish - "virtual envelopes" for data

The small text encryption for grandma project Hide-a-KeyText has been a great learning experience **.

For easy but decent protection without messy passwords or the danger of sending your private PGP key to the world, Hide-a-KeyText is a neat option. The old timey Beale or Running Cipher is still there but only as a first pass, supplemented by a second using AES-128 encryption.

Your garden variety criminals won't get through.

The most interesting factoid about Beale/Running Ciphers is that n-grams are bad ass. At the same time, the known efforts to crack these ciphers with n-grams and lots of hot chips are weirdly linear.

A sentence has a beginning and an end.

So, they start reading at the beginning of a message and finish at the end. This means that there can be some more life in these old ciphers if you shuffle the original text with the aim of upsetting the n-grams. Try a virtual paper shredder before the encryption.

But today, we announce Project CuttleFish. Known for its amazing ability to blend in with their surroundings, the cuttlefish seems an okay simile for the new project's name. 

Project CuttleFish will not be about encryption but about making data look different. In the industry, an approach called obfuscation is well known, but Project CuttleFish will bring the joys of looking different to end users.

It is not a new idea. Have a look at the Free Online Barcode Generator for some fishy text camouflage.

Hide-a-KeyText uses the principle by making a message appear to be a .png image or a .wav audio file.

But there are many more suitable formats out there. The first CuttleFish piece will be an executable program that only runs on a specific computer. Run it on a different one, and it will delete its message.

After this, various data packaging formats will be explored. A nice, utterly bogus spreadsheet is likely to be the first in the series.

For sheer fun, because it is fashionable, we'll do a "virtual DNA" packaging piece, using only the letters ACGT. Making up visually appealing fake folded proteins would be a challenge but is beyond ability and scope.

The explicit aim of Project CuttleFish is create a library of "envelopes" for online data. Very much like real life postal envelopes, they will come in different sizes, and their content will be utterly up to you.

** We are happy to see that Java (tm) is doing fine, and we are not blaming it on Oracle.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Make some random Unicode text with this Java class

Our search for randomness brought us to play with Java's "SecureRandom" class. As you would expect, it delivers more randomness than the old "Random". Just saying.

If you need the best randomness currently available, visit RANDOM.ORG. You can get some cool super random bytes, ints, strings, for free. If you need lots, they have a subscription model too.

 * This class uses Java SecureRandom to generate a file of "secure random"
 * Unicode characters. After cleanup for xml 1.0, we save it as a simple properties file.
 * Do whatever you want with this.
 * Really  * 
import java.util.Properties;

public class GenerateRandomText {

     * @param args
    public static void main(String[] args) {

        int codepoint;
        StringBuilder sb = new StringBuilder();
        int line = 0;
        String newline = "\n";

        try {
            // Initialize a secure random number generator
            SecureRandom secureRandom = SecureRandom.getInstance("SHA1PRNG");
            // we want 40 000 characters
            for (int x = 0; x < 40000; x++) {

            // get chars up to U 40 000, don't get ASCII, so just do + 255
                codepoint = secureRandom.nextInt(40000) + 255;
            // System.out.println("codepoint> "+codepoint);


                // make it pretty by adding a newline
                 if (line > 100) {
                    line = 0;
                } else // cleanup
                     if ((codepoint == 0x9)
                        || (codepoint == 0xA)
                        || (codepoint == 0xD)
                        || ((codepoint >= 0x20) && (codepoint <= 0xD7FF))
                        || ((codepoint >= 0xE000) && (codepoint <= 0xFFFD))
                        || ((codepoint >= 0x10000) && (codepoint <= 0x10FFFF))) {


            File outputfile = new File(new File(".").getCanonicalPath() + "randomText.xml");
            Properties props = new Properties();
            props.put("page", sb.toString());

            FileOutputStream outf = new FileOutputStream(outputfile);
            props.storeToXML(outf, "-- random generated Unicode --");

        } catch (Exception e) {



Sunday, December 7, 2014

Don't accuse politicians of lying

You lie!

Do you remember when an upset U.S. republican hurled this at the president?

The clip was played over and over, it was debated, classified as rude, unfair, as an affront to the office. The question we really wanted to ask was: why would one politician accuse another of lying?

It's part of the job description, cynics would say.

The only good reason for accusing a politician of lying is, in the opinion of the blogster, the emotional release you may get out of it.

Other than that, it is useless and self defeating. It is a moral statement, and an ill defined one at that. And we are all guilty of the act. If not in our own eyes, then in the eyes of others.

It does not mean you have to give up on truth, nor do you have to tolerate serial lying. Vote for someone else, just don't expect too much.

Just like the worst serial killer does not kill every person he meets, even the worst politician does not lie all the time. For example, a friend of the K-Landnews survived an encounter with Jeffrey Dahmer. That same friend also survived an encounter with a widely known politician.

It is impractical to get all worked up all the time about leaders someone voted into office. It is exhausting, too. Instead, make fun of them when they they cross the line into the territory reserved to that cousin of yours, you know which one.

Don't forget, they too live paycheck to paycheck.

Theirs is just bigger.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Is Artificial Intelligence dangerous - or are its Makers?

Before history moves on and artificial intelligence (AI) erases any trace of this blog as part of the destruction of the human race, here are the figures you need to know.

Humans killed by "independent" artificial intelligence: 0, as of 2014

Humans killed by humans:  see the Wikipedia list of wars and anthropogenic disasters by death toll.

The death toll so far is clear, but the famous warners of AI are looking into the future. The rash of headlines this year may in fact worry you. The warners are respected people like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawkins.

I don't know about you, but if a guy who knows his way around black holes or another one who built a fully electric sports car in his spare time while leading a team of kids to replace NASA tell me they are afraid of AI, gosh, I listen.

The timing of the reports is pretty fucked, though. It made us interrupt an experiment designed to figure out the impact of the dumb German "ancillary" copyright law requiring search firms to pay money if they want to list anything beyond the smallest of text snippets from online content.

For a time, we stuck to just reading headlines, ignoring anything beyond it. A disaster.

The dire warnings of AI exterminating humanity erupted while people who think yellow pages denotes a book that hasn't aged well, or that a shopping portal without inventory, or warehouses, or without entering into a contract with the online user, is a legit online vendor are trying to break up Google. Bad timing for AI warnings, when we humans are still lacking the I ourselves.

We ended the experiment and read the AI warnings. They were much more balanced than the headlines suggested, great.

They were also quite clear, though Business Insider is not something to recommend as your only source of information: They're concerned that robots could grow so intelligent that they could independently decide to exterminate humans.

The blogster's simple mind zoomed in on two things in the discussion. The first one is that AI is not happening by itself. Humans, we the people, are developing it. It's not like rain or foxes, or fungi. If you turn off the power, AI doesn't go anywhere. For the moment at least.
The self-sustaining robot feeding off of grass or solar power is yet to come.

If AI turns dangerous, the first events of such nature will be within human power to stop. 
It's called ethics, and it will probably not work too well, say cynics.

There is another aspect to the warning "AI may exterminate the human race", something not a single one of the many articles we read mentions.

If the threat becomes real, tangible, humans will finally know what it is like to be an elephant hunted without mercy for ivory, or a whale hunted not out of necessity but just because we can.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if the remorseless exploiters of the planet were afforded this ultimate view of the monkey facing the human in a face mask, holding a syringe?

Have a little faith, humans.

Truly intelligent robots won't wipe out the human race completely. Trust them to be good enough scientists. As such, they will either tolerate us or keep us in comfortable, animal friendly zoos - not some extraordinarily dumb cages of the Plant of the Apes.

Even if not a single human survives, we will have created the new guys. What's so bad about that? Looking around the hood, lots of humans like to play god.

Isn't the fear of AI really the fear that those guys will be just as predatory and unrelenting as us, only even more efficient?

[update 6/12] Just in time, here is an article about the BBC robot cameras going rogue....

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A centerfold of the beer industry: 80 Million - one Team

80 Million - one Team

A centerfold of the beer industry, guys with exposed legs and balls, TheEditor had hissed with as much vigor as a decade of cynicism still allowed. Don't become a cynic, kids, it** said. Drains your energy, it added, the short utterance underlining the advice.

The poster was indeed a centerfold, from one of the free newspaper specials stuck into every German mailbox before the start of the 2014 soccer world cup. It showed a soccer stadium full of happy fans, in soft, warm colors. What looked like a series of printing flaws along the bottom of the broadsheet size foldout were, upon closer inspection, signatures of the German world cup team. Emblazoned with the logo of a large brewer, the thing went straight...onto a door.

Why are you putting this up if you don't like soccer?

Because I don't like soccer!


As a reminder of how ugly the world can be. 

You must hate sports.

No, sports are cool in many ways. They are good for your health if you don't overdo it, like so many middle aged guys who strap on a wooden plank and hurl themselves down the side of a mountain right into a ravine or into a tree. Sports can wear out young males who have too much energy. Even pro sports are not all bad, they are a path out of poverty for some.

So, you recognize social benefits.

Of course, but that's because I see the Hunger Games as a documentary, not as fiction. More glamor and fewer weapons, and you couldn't tell the difference between the movie and big money sports. Look, the poster said 80 million, so they left out two million, since the population total is 82 by official counts. I'm not alone.

Would you mind if I take the poster, since you probably don't want it?

Oh, sorry, it's gone, it went into the blue recycling bin and should be in some paper recycling yard right now.

Well, there 'll be another one exactly like it in four years time.

** TheEditor insists on gender neutrality. What could be more neutral than sharing the  gender of a rock, it says.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Milano cathedral, pigeons, and ultrasound

The cathedral in the northern Italian city of Milano is worth a visit.

Both tourists and pigeons agree.

With the huge, ornate gates of the building open all day during the height of the tourist season, both kinds of visitors had unfettered access. Which caused problems because tourists, despite what seems like efforts to the contrary are generally cleaner than pigeons.

Plus - but thanks only to the failure of jet pack mass production - tourists don't dump excrement in flight like pigeons, or other birds.

Cleaning up after pigeons is a hideous job, and their feces are corrosive, too. After much ado about droppings, technology rescued the cathedral.

Wire spikes atop of marvelous columns and along ledges were supplemented with ultrasound devices to keep the birds out. Ultrasound is painful to pigeons, annoying enough to motivate them to find a better place.
It works. The flying city dwellers pass by the inviting open doors for less stressing accommodation. Funny how they have no issues with the din of the place, the screeching of trolleys, the honking of horns - this is Italy, my friends.

Every now and then, a bird makes a dash straight for the doors, only to stall and flutter as it reaches the gate, then it will turn away and leave the monument alone. A few droppings at the first set of columns on the inside indicate that some pigeons might be hard of hearing or suffer hearing loss like humans as they get old.

We did not research the maker of the ultrasound gadget, but the socio-economic status of the folks who make it is not in dispute: middle aged males.


Because the device works also on young humans. Or on humans who, for no particular reason, have a more acute hearing outlasting even the ear shattering techno, rocko, hip hoppo late teens.

What is it like to hear ultrasound, and don't you think it's hilarious that Mrs. A. can call her husband using a dog whistle?

First of, this is only low end ultrasound. The really cool ranges are beyond even super acute human hearing. It feels pretty awful, as the pigeons would tell you. The closest thing we can use to explain it is tinnitus, the so called ringing sound people "hear". Think tinnitus, only a lot worse.

The Wikipedia article on ultrasound also mentions a device called the Mosquito, designed to prevent teens from loitering.

That sums up the Western view of their offspring better than even the sharp tongues TheEditor of the K-landnews could.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The death of Tugce - a preventable tragedy in Offenbach, Germany?

You may have heard about the student who intervened when two younger girls were harassed outside a McDonald's in the city of Offenbach, Germany.

The young woman was beaten so viciously that she died.

Public praise for the courage of a migrant daughter swept the country, young and old came together in an outpouring of sympathy for her and her family.

You can read up on the events on this English language news web site.

Could this tragedy have been prevented?

It is an easy question to ask, a staple in so much of reporting that it can be almost meaningless.

We didn't ask the question, but then a friend launched into the subject in a telephone conversation right after the initial how are you.

I grew up there, I know that exact location, it is a bad place. This location has been a trouble spot for as long as I can think. Forty years ago, it was Germans, then Italians, now whoever did that. Talk to the taxi drivers.

Has bad city planning, bad policing, a case of horrid Feng Shui in an industrial city nobody neglected for the last half century or so contributed to the tragedy?

Other than the friend, no one has asked. We don't know, and Germany's answer to a literate population, the tabloid BILD is too busy hawking footage of the incident from the McDonald's parking lot surveillance tape to ask.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

My computer is "thinking about it"

Would it be asking too much to dampen the AI (artificial intelligence) craze for a few months or years?

Sure, artificial intelligence will come, and sure, the Turing movie is cool, what with the acting, which also shows that people with odd surnames can make it in this world.

It's just, please, don't go down the road outlined in this Guardian/Observer piece: Today, it is not uncommon to hear people talking about their computers being “confused”, or taking a long time to do something because they’re “thinking about it”. 

There is a quote: “the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted”.

The great man was certainly right but in a different way: what he describes in this statement was already true at the time.

No computers needed.

The quote made the blogster say: without knowing his biography, I'd venture to say that Mr. Turing did not work in the underbelly of industrial society, or on a ship, or anywhere where machinery dominated. He probably never owned a temperamental, unpredictable car that needed a name so we could reason with it, coax it, threaten it into starting up in morning - after all, we needed to go to work to pay for parts and labor for it. He may not have been welcomed into the army with the smirk "this is your bride", which was a frigging rifle.

People have anthropomorphized the world since the dawn of time. So, doing this with regard to computers is merely more of the same.

Where does this leave us with defining artificial intelligence?

Because knowing or not knowing whether we are dealing with a machine does not seem very valid when people behave like they are dealing with an intelligent, living being despite knowing it is not.

Artificial intelligence is often framed in terms of loss of control over the world, loss of  deterministic human steering power. That power is shaky at best for most of us anyway, and it seems hilarious that we talk about robot ethics in a world where humans are the scourge of humans.

Does it matter whether you are killed by an intelligent drone or by an intelligent human? Old fashioned me finds the latter much more worrying.

Abuse of the term artificial intelligence by commercial interests does not help either. To name only one, selling a computer named Watson - anthropomorphized - as intelligent is a disservice. Oh, Siri, is this correct?

Artificial intelligence has been around for thousands of years: it is called God.

Just as with this one, the believers will recognize it when they see it.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Robbing your own bank

Hit and run accidents, speeding, and burglaries seem to be the most common crimes in the hills we call home.

Nothing as interesting as any random story from the police blotter of a large US city ever happens here. Over at the freeway not too far away, they have the usual mix of traffic snarls and mangled flesh, but from our vantage point, that's TV land.

In the minds of the hill folks, the land beyond the freeway might as well be called Ukraine, or Syria. It's where the others live.

The other day, we were hanging out for a few minutes with the old lady for whom we run the odd errant every once in a while. She asked: have you heard about the robbery?

We had not.

The post office was robbed again. 


Post office and gas station robberies are the two big ones in the countryside. These shops don't come with all the bullet proof glass you'd expect from the US. Nor do they have the tiny tubes Italian banks use. Down there, on the other side of the Alpes, banks tend to have glass locks between the entrance and the tellers. You come in, you find yourself in a tube narrower than an economy class plane seat. A pane slides into place behind you, and for a few seconds, you have nowhere to go. Then, a pane in front of you slides to the side with a sad hissing sound, and you are inside the bank.

This contraption must be the real reason for the low obesity rates in Italy. The Mediterranean diet might help, but the air locks at the banks are the real reason for staying slender.

Obese Italian people simply cannot get at their money.

Anyhow, the old lady explained that the post office had been robbed twice during the last twelve months, and now it had happened again.

The woman did it, she laughed.

The woman?

The young woman who runs it.

All three robberies had taken place when the clerk opened the shop. The first time, she had been held up by a masked bandit with a gun, the second time, by and individual with a knife.
This time around, there had been two men, who had apparently waited outside her apartment, grabbed her as she walked out to open the post office, forced her to open the safe, taken her with them as a hostage to their car and let her go as they sped off.

None of it was true.

After the second robbery, the owners of the 1 Euro store that doubled as the small twon post office had moved the store into an empty grocery store not far from the original, somewhat isolated, location.
The former grocery store was deemed a safer location, although it struggled to stay open.

Every six months or so, some new entrepreneur restarted the grocery store, only to shut down because they could not compete with the two supermarkets on the outskirts of town.

The post office was the only tenant for a while, until a new owner decided to give it another go as a grocery store.

That's how the young lady tripped up.

On the morning of the third robbery, some workers had shown up early to stack shelves for the grand opening of what we assume will be called Another Doomed Grocery Store. Be that as it may, the police talked to the workers, explained our old lady, and they all said that the young woman postal worker had been alone all morning.

This time, the police had not called in the friendly folks from Victim Support, and the twenty something young adult had confessed.

The intriguing aspect of all of this was not gall, greed, or motives though.

It was the laugh of the old lady.

It felt neither malicious nor condescending but -- well -- wise.

Like an acknowledgement of the sheer hilarity of life itself by a woman just shy of her 100th birthday.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The unwitting East German millionaire

From our People are People series.

During the recent German celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the melting of the Iron Curtain, we saw the power of memory, and many "Then and Now" comparisons flooded the media.

Every story of then and now had its own rationale, of course. Some were blatantly partisan along the lines of bad then - good now. Others seemed to seek to reassure readers that their memories were indeed correct, that there had been a huge wall with guard towers, mines, razor wire, and that you would be shot if you crossed into the plowed fire zone.

To us, the stories of everyday life were more interesting than the iconic imagery.

The ever present reports of East Germans not owning much, of having to wait 20 years for a car, had left such a deep impression that the term privately owned business seemed odd in the context of East Germany.

Didn't people work in these huge firms that were all state owned? Turns out, they did not. Most of them but not all. Many small business owners were allowed to keep their companies, so that when the Wall came down, this country of about 14 million people still had around 90 000 small businesses, out of some 300 000 in 1949.

Mind you, they were strapped into the tight bureaucracy of the land. They couldn't set their own prices, they couldn't freely pick and choose their customers.  As tolerated but certainly not loved holdovers of an old system, these companies were under greater scrutiny than the collectives and mega farms.

When it was all over, the generous, rich West sent in armies of advisers to help in the transition of these small cash strapped outfits.

So, one day, a Western chamber of commerce person arrived at a private window making and glazing company and was baffled after the owner had showed him the premises with a huge stockpile of supplies.

You guys are....millionaires, the Western man finally said.

25 years later, the company still does business. Asked if there was anything he missed, the old owner told the reporter: We were so used to doing business by just shaking hands, we were ripped off to the tune of more than 100 000 marks before we rigorously stuck to written contracts.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

We are all getting older! No, we are not!

The cheerful headline We are all getting older or the slightly less exuberant versions mentioning rising life expectancy would be really good news, were it not for a couple of downers.

The big one, of course, is that some experts and non-experts rush to announce the end of the world one or two paragraphs into the feel good story. The more informed will call for adjusting retirement age, the more idiotic ones will ask for a retirement age of 80 years.

Invariably, the idiots calling for an 80 year retirement age at this point in the 21st Century come from two groups of people: those who could easily have retired at age 30 or 35 and those who spend their lives in protected government or quasi government jobs with no physical or mental hazards other than putting a staple into a finger out of sheer boredom.

The preceding paragraph may sound a bit harsh, but don't be upset. The blogster values jobs without life shortening qualities as much as everybody. Going overboard on a lobster boat, getting electrocuted by 100kV power line, getting burnt to the consistency and crispness of a Thanksgiving turkey, or simply falling of a building - none of these seem desirable.

But do think about those folks next time you hear a bright eyed motivational speaker ask for a general retirement age of 80.

There is this sad word "average", used casually with regard to life expectancy. It really means that with an average life expectancy of, say, 70 years, a hell of a lot of people die before they get there.

This is well known, you say? Maybe it is, maybe it isn't.

Knowledge never matters if it is not acknowledged. You may say, well, stay off of the lobster boat, and leave that power line alone. We can disagree, but at least you have shown some thought.

The blogster is not that old, yet many people from the cohort -- a fancy word for saying many people out of that age group -- have already died. Their life expectancy didn't help them one bit.

So, no, we are not all getting older.

In one of the more personal moments on this blog, there is also the fact that the blogster has family lines in which a 60 year old would have been called an adolescent. Seriously, with a bunch of 90 plus and a few 100 year olds, don't tell me I'm going to live longer. That was before antibiotics, too. No envy please, either, the blogster is unlikely to make it that far.

At least, we beat the average life expectancy of a turkey.

Emotions should be allowed in politics, too

Emotions should be allowed in politics, too.

That sentence has been hanging around in some part of TheEditor's cerebral cortex since it popped up on the computer screen as a regularly shaped composition of adjacent pixel values.

The light emitted by the region of the LCD display traveled through about one yard of a breathable gas mixture (about 78% nitrogen, around 20% oxygen, trace amounts of other gases, some dispersed dust and biological material), then through a silica based, metal enclosed material, some more "air" into the layered biological light sensor assembly of the homo sapiens entity we call TheEditor, finally via a wide nerve into the brain.

Emotions should be allowed in politics, too.

The statement was the headline of an OpEd piece in a major German paper in the context of the Scottish independence vote. 

In the piece, the OpEd'er acknowledged that individuals would, at the end of the day, decide based on their feelings.

Okay, so they have to write something to justify their paychecks, TheEditor had fumed, we all recall it. But why is this even worth mentioning?

Because it exposes the carefully constructed world of "rational" thinking as a mirage, an artificial edifice we all pretend to accept.

For convenience.

To justify behaviors and actions we would otherwise suffer from.  To make us feel good if we buy something for a buck at a garage sale and keep the millions it turns out to be worth all to ourselves. To kill humans and other animals for the greater good. Or take the upcoming German road toll - it was born out of sheer spite, but we cannot say we make politics out of spite. So it becomes an infrastructure fund, necessary in times of tight budgets.

To treat life as a poker game or a chess match. Everybody makes fun of a player who hurls a chessboard or who throws the cards at an opponent - that's what gets the youtube hits.

Yet, even the most rational conversation is all about emotions. In public discourse, we tend to treat aspects like the emotional aspects of shopping as a big discovery or something we'd rather not mention.

Or as theater, as a show, to explain away the sheer travesty and indignity of a person exercising a supposedly logical and rational job.

If even folks like judges, trained for almost a decade in reason and logic can't keep it together, who dangerous must the rest of us be?

To make it worse, "the rest of us" often do manual labor, using tools that any surge of emotion turns into deadly weapons. So, we select for those who don't cry, we select for those who - even though they have to work on that straight face like the young Ms. Rice - deny emotions, yet play politics with them all the time.

Psychologists know, preachers should know, and those who suffer from PTSD not only know but live it.

It's all about emotions.

If we did not get biochemical satisfaction out of a mathematical equation, there would be not math.  If we did not feel bad about losing a business deal, there would be no PR, no backstabbing in the sales office.

Should someone who writes Emotions should be allowed in politics, too be hired as a political journalist?

Of course, because it won't matter much.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Tie-dyes and guns - meet the redneck hippies

From our People are People series.

Young women in Indian or Himalayan dresses, dancing wherever they want, hugging random strangers. Young men with long hair and some non-tobacco smokables getting lost in whatever train of thought they thought they were. And all of them Buddha quoting peaceniks talking to their flowers and prone to skinny dipping.

Then the redneck, gun toting, squirrel skinning, linguistically challenged, sun burnt mountain log cabin dwellers. 

These are just of the stereotypical images almost all of us know and love, or love to hate. And while Americans know the lines are far from clear, folks over here in Europe are constantly surprised when they hear of redneck hippies or hippie rednecks.

Blame Cheech and Chong and the Woodstock movie, mainly.

Woodstock was not a free concert.

Again, Woodstock was not a free concert.

It became one after the concert had sold out of tickets and thousands more folks showed up. That's when the organizers showed their hippie colors and decided to roll with it. That's how the account told the story.

Hitching a ride in a pickup truck with a Confederate flag covering most of the vehicle may be interesting, but in the parking lot after a show of a prototypical hippie band?

Much of this permeability has to do with libertarian views, a concept not handled well by the German language, with the term "libertär" not a good equivalent.
It is just as well that both "redneck" and "hippie" denote these groups in German, with the requisite capitalization of the nouns, of course.

Holding some redneck views works because of that hippie tolerance, because even those who are in touch with their inner redneck are....people.

Monday, November 24, 2014

German 4 Dummies: Professx

Please call me Professx.

The spelling you are seeing is neither another minor episode of dyslexia nor sloppiness but the answer by a German gender studies professor when asked how to address her. Frau Professorin would be standard, Frau Professor another option.

Germans have been struggling for several decades with the he/she classifications that come with their language. Unsurprisingly, the generic plural for members of a group that comprised both males and females used to be the male form. For instance Studenten was the plural for a a group of all male students as well as a mixed gender group. Only an all female group would be said to be Studentinnen.  

The solution to the issue remained largely confined to academia and feminist media: StudentInnen. Capital I.

However, as the K-Landnews TheEditor often said: it is too unwieldy and doesn't do a thing when you are dealing with the singular.

Singular forms have proven singularly resistant to easily accepted gender neutral ways.

TheEditor has, we would like to stress, taken the pronoun it. Seriously, there is a trail of *s in this publication explaining TheEditors neutrality stance.

Professx goes a little further, pushing the envelope of the thang. The German language does have a grammatical "neutral" form, recognizable by the article "das". Your American Volkswagen commcercial "Das Auto" is an easy example.

Professx is bending the ending of neighboring words, too. She suggests that the German equivalent to "dear professor" should be Liebx Professx since "liebe/lieber" suffers from the same shortcoming as the noun it precedes.

That linguistic XX apparently symbolizes to old, conservative Germans** what 5XL represents to snotty, privileged size zero white kids in other countries.

Deliberate evil.

An onslaught on culture by people who lack self control and respect for the sore eyes of those around them.

When you look at a 5XL, that person takes up at least double the retina space of a size zero. Presumptuously occupying my valuable visual receptors. You know, those cells that have space for at least two naked size zero ladies at the same time - quashed by one 5XL.

Enough with feminism, is the battle cry of the marginalized and ridiculed teutonic males who have been suffering under the rise of the Valkyries, or so they say while loudly proclaiming they are not misogynists because they like Angela, and she's a lady, isn't she.

Teutonicus simplexis so blinded by her self confidence that he does not see the obvious. Pronouce Professx a wee bit lowly, and you get Professex. Which would be all any non-blind male ever needs to be happ.

We are wishing Professx luck, because she will need a lot of it in order to survive the hatred. Tabloid rag BILD Zeitung may have found a new love to hate figure, time will tell.

** Old, conservative Germans have also been called Nazis in German and foreign media. The K-Landnews coined the term Homo Teutonicus Simplex for them, which is more inclusive because it brings younger versions of same into the fold.