Sunday, August 31, 2014

The best three words of all time: "I don't know"

From our Homemade Philosophy Department.

Technically, you could make this The 4 best words of all time: "I do not know". Or, in another language, maybe two, maybe five - I don't know.

The short statement I don't know separates the men from the boys, the women from the men.

We bet you our Susan B. Anthony dollar coin that you would find women use I don't know more often than men do. Not the main point of the post, but think about it for a minute.
Now think about how often you made up an answer when the most honest answer would have been a simple I don't know?

The blogster has used I don't know liberally and with un-nerving nerve, sometimes watered down into a phrase like I'm not sure, or well, there are different aspects...

Several lessons from using this small phrase:
1. It drives most managers crazy.
2. It is a more serious career obstacle than lying your way up.
3. The few people who "get it" should be cherished, they are the best friends you could ever have.

If you made it this far into the post, it says something about you.


I'm not sure.

Scientists are the people who come to mind first when I think of folks who use the phrase most often. Other groups include some of the more precarious fellow humans.

Unsurprisingly, the most averse to the phrase seem to be business people, politicians and religious believers.

What about engineers?

I'm not sure. There certainly are many, probably a majority who don't like the phrase. But not liking it does not mean not acknowledging the fundamental truth of it.
They just spend their lives working towards chipping away at the I don't know.

We should cut this short. The Doctor is waiting.

So, what happens when you realize it does not matter whether you know?

Then it's only you and your sense of morality, your sense of humanity.

Scary. Liberating.

There must be a long established philosophical term for that. But I don't know.

[Update: cancelled as of Sept. 2016] "Sounds crazy and absurd" -- the lifelong return policy goes German

The bad news: The world is going to hell in a handbasket!

The good news: You can return the handbasket for life, no questions asked.
At least in Germany, if you bought your accessory for hell from IKEA. 

Famous for the flat pack, our Swedish born friends have introduced the flat guarantee to Germany. Save the receipt, enjoy your IKEA kitchen, and bring it back in ten years.

Our regional newspaper introduced its readers to the concept like this: "It sounds crazy and absurd, but..."

You see, in Germany, the lifelong return policy is big news indeed because it widens Germans' idea of customer service.

Having gone from an indifferent "ah", or "what you want" to "lifelong return" within little more than one generation is interesting indeed, because it raises a few questions.

1. Will IKEA bought stuff become a standard item in German prenups and divorce settlements?

Can German lawyers, courts, legal translators, paralegals be trusted to recognize that "Billy" or "Bjorn" may be a book shelf and a lamp and not two children for which visitation rights and child support need to be set?

2. Have IKEA and the others considered German trash collection and recycling issues?

Light bulbs a German customer might simply chuck into the trash despite a bit of mercury in the bulb might warrant a note by the retailer: remove all of this hazardous stuff  before you show up at the store in a brand new Beamer  to return the five Euro clip-on lamp.

3. Will IKEA become the darling of Germany's social benefits officials?

The mean tested [sic] minuscule benefits a German may find himself on after just a year of unemployment looks like a wet dream for the government folks.
Sure, we'll take some 20 Euros a month out of your meager check, but you need to give us the receipt. We'll then go to IKEA in 20 years and get them to give us a new one.

But, dear retailers, thank you for trying to introduce the concept to Germany.

Land's End, we love you.

[Update August 2015]
Saw a newspaper article a few days ago that said customers are not taking advantage of the policy. The article then went on to say that Ikea's lifelong return policy has been in effect for a little over six months in Germany.
That's half the standard one year warranty time around here, no time at all. Don't even quality paper journos understand the "lifelong" in lifelong return policy?
[End of Update]

[Update 8/17/2016] This is a sad day for the blogster. It* had hoped to read examples of astute German welfare bureaucrats telling their "customers" to shop at Ikea and provide proof by submitting scanned receipts with their basic furniture allowance applications.

Instead, Ikea just cancelled the lifetime warranty, effective September 1. In the future, Ikea shoppers will have one year to return unwanted goods for a refund or an exchange. The linked article in Der Spiegel happily quotes company officials saying that "far over 90% of returns occur within two to three months after purchase".

Had anybody bothered to ask, say, the Land's End people, they would have told you that this has been true forever.

They might also have told you that this is not the point of a lifetime warranty.

* The blogster decided to go full on gender neutral years ago.  

Friday, August 29, 2014

Let's do some Putin bashing, shall we

The favorite sport of German media after the summer of soccer is Putin bashing.

Which is easy and makes you look good, after all you can show how important supporting the newly minted democracies in Eastern Europe is.

From a Russian perspective, you could sum up most of what has happened since the fall of the Iron Curtain in one sentence: no good deed goes unpunished.

Supported the unification of Germany and pulled out all troops, let much of the Soviet Union go and become their own countries, even areas that had been Russian for many centuries.

Of course, there is the bad stuff, several invasions, shutting down gas supply in winter, and too many shirtless romps.

But the Putin bashing propaganda of the past weeks, come on, FAZ and others. Are we not better than that?

The opinion piece in FAZ on 29 August under "Putinomes - when language becomes a weapon" is useless, and the title alone should prove it.
The formidable Russian propaganda machine turns out to be pretty quaint and underdeveloped, because simply calling opponents of the separatists "fascists"  does not cut it. Even though the German press largely stayed away from reporting on the Wolfsangel banner you can indeed find in Ukraine.

Towards the end of the opinion piece, there is a paragraph that starts with But in the West, too, in such situations, language is used in a way that does not reflect reality but merely an illusion of reality.

Apart from the fact that language creates reality, which you should know if you want to be taken seriously in a discussion of propaganda, the clincher comes in the parts after this nice lead-in. Because the West is criticized for:

Calling Russia a "democracy" sounds comforting. [...] Recommending Ukraine "decentralize" the country sounds federal and like a solution to prevent splitting up the country...

What sucks most about Germans commenting on territorial issues? I had expected they know better. It took two World Wars plus half a century for most German politicians to let go of old territorial claims. And even then, some still hang on.

The Russians, of course, are expected to resolve theirs without two world wars plus 50 years. Negotiations and a referendum that cannot be tampered with should do the trick.

Our Canadian friends at NATO who did the funny map "Russia" - "Not Russia" made me laugh.

But I'll laugh even more once the Canadian NATO mission does a map "Denmak" - "Not Denmark". You know, somewhere around Greenland.

The summer of double standards...

Thursday, August 28, 2014

German 4 Dummies: "Ih-Mähl"

Where to find some examples of contemporary German dialect, that was the question. The self-imposed exclusion of Bavarian (to be linguistically exact: one of the variants from modern day Bavaria) meant we had to extend our search. But we found a useful example which included the compound from the title, "Ih-Mähl".

For your entertainment, here are two sentences which represent German in use today, in 2014: Dä hot´s jo mit usha Muddasproch. Do durer sisch rischdisch gut ouskenne, kimmt int Fännseh un int Radio un duht do schwätze wie ihm de Schnawel gewachs is.

Would you recognize this as German, aside from just guessing because of the Umlauts (ä)? The web does help when you search for Muddasproch (3 results) or Fännseh (4 results).

We forgo translating the sample sentences, they are merely the backdrop for "Ih-Mähl", which means email.

In the German language class for foreigners, you will, however, learn that email in German is Email**. Teachers may accept the spoken "Ih-Mähl" because they think you are trying to say Email, but they'll reject the written "Ih-Mähl.

We have heard of people writing everyday personal emails in a German dialect, happily keeping local culture alive. It only takes a few emails to get used to the built-in spell-checkers underlining pretty much every single word.

New technology and concepts will seep into a language, no matter what. The added "no matter what" is meant to encourage French officials to stay vigilant in their struggle against anglo words.

Other interesting variants of German can be found on the web, for instance, at the small German publishing house Edition Tintenfass. How about The Little Prince in Old High German?
The observation that languages mix merrily despite censorship efforts is by no means new, and if you would like to read more, check out Uriel Weinreich's Languages in Contact.

** Of course, there is an awfully long German term, something like elektronische Post, but even people who rant about too many "foreign" words in the German language will say "email".

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

100 000 combat dead - 1 war, 1 country, 1 day

Having fun with German daily FAZ's modern reporting was the goal of a recent post.
Nevertheless, we do appreciate the paper's work and would like to direct you once more to their WWI historic articles section.

We also checked out some of the French papers, made so wonderfully easy to access by the internet [the thing every self respecting intellectual right now professes to hate].

And we stopped in our tracks at an article about 22 August 1914.

According to the historical record, France suffered 100 000 combat dead on that one day.

France alone.

In 24 hours.

Compare that to the roughly 60 000 the U.S. suffered in the whole Vietnam War.

And less than a generation after the 'great war' ended, the Nazis - with more than a little help from the German establishment - started the next one.
As a historian on British TV series Time Team put it: the same thing throughout history, you have some megalomaniacs, and everybody falls in behind them.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Spies welcome - and that was a Cold War?

Born out of the Cold War, the OSCE started an interesting process and is still around today, as you can see on its web site, and read in the news.

If you are old enough to remember some of the Cold War, or if you know how to do a web search*, you have come across reports of military observers. News anchors of old never failed to mention NATO military observers traveling to the East to observe Warsaw Pact exercises, and vice versa. Sounds straight forward, right?

How, then, did it work?

Personnel selected to go and see what the other guys were up to was not selected willy-nilly. This was a bit more important than, say, getting together with the Germans to discuss the issue of fighting a war with inches and centimeters: Can you order some wood from the Germans and put 2x4 on the requisition form?

Access to information was a much bigger prize, and details seem to be few and far between in the public record.

So, for the record: there was vodka for those who went East, and great beer for those who came West (as well as the shopping trips).

And they did what at any other time of the year would have been called spying.

We did sneak a brief reference to "the camera under the clipboard" into a previous post, but left out a other bits of information. One being that the camera under the clipboard was tolerated, short of adding "and don't forget to smile for the camera" to the briefing telling you about the presence of observers.

Russian translators were provided to help the guests understand whatever NATO language they were not comfortable in, mostly English.

Feedback by the Eastern friends was encouraged and given freely. NATO did not set up a 1-800-How's-My-Explanation hotline but did the feedback thing up close and personal.

Imagine the face of a NATO newbie, when, after a presentation involving lots of fat arrows on maps, a fellow NATO man would come around to tell him that Soviet officers had been unhappy with this and that aspect of the presentation. Knowing that the presentation would be given again the following day, NATO Man would insist these mistakes be avoided the next day.

What you make of such criticism?

You have a wide range of options, from telling yourself they are were concerned about starting a war nobody** wanted to the old soldier's "underneath that uniform they are all the same".

* [two mutually exclusive things according to internet hype]
** [almost nobody]

Note: This is another post for fun loving historians, contact welcome, but encrypted emails only, please.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Supported by benevolent powers throughout life

From our education series Rhetorics 101 for the Condescending Journalist

The main reason why this post about the very German benefits system Hartz-IV is not in German: The tone of the article we will quote merits wider distribution because it shows what folks in "middle Germany" can read about other residents stuck on basic social benefits.

Sometimes it needs a slip of the tongue to get an insight into the thinking of public figures, sometimes the feeling of being in a protected space. Both statements may show up on the internet.

Sometimes people get paid to let loose. Like Rush Limbaugh, or the author of an article in German daily FAZ, Von guten Mächten lebenslang gestützt [Supported by benevolent powers throughout life]*.

We read this one because we thought it would tell us how friends, churches, or charities were supporting Germany's most needy. The start of the article is fine, it asks the question why one million German's have never been able to get off the basic restricted benefits system Hartz-IV since its introduction about ten years ago. 

The article goes on to tell us about some 12 or so common issues found among this group, many struggling with multiple issues.

After this, the author lets loose, and we rubbed our eyes as the journalist moves to a real life example of living under the protection of a benevolent system. 

A 41 year old woman, divorced, one child. Apartment costs of 771 a month (rent, heating, power), no child support payments from the ex-husband and father of the kid.

So, the author picked a working woman who receives supplementary benefits, not full benefits. The claim "supported throughout life" is based on her unfortunate upbringing, which can be interpreted as blaming a child for the failings of the parents.

He goes on to say "Derzeit verdient Nazli etwa 900 Euro netto im Monat. Glaubt sie zumindest" [At present, Nazli makes about 900 Euros after taxes a month. At least, that's what she thinks.]

The first sentence is a statement of fact, the second is gratuitously condescending, as in see, she does not know her exact income. Add that she just changed jobs and the new boss offered her around 1100 before taxes, which make about 900 take home. Add that she looked up the after taxes pay on the internet. 

Point to take away: Plant doubt through casual writing "At least, that's what she thinks.", than recover with the changed jobs, etc. You can easily defend this as factually correct, despite "she thinks" and "she looked it up on the internet" adding nothing beneficial to the story. You simply wanted to add a human touch and show that she knows how to use the internet.

It gets better: Die Schwachstellen des deutschen Sozialrechts kennt auch Nazli freilich ganz gut. [Nazli is quite familiar with the weak points of the German social benefits system]. 

If you expect an illustration of how people can fall through the cracks, you are wrong. The author elaborates on what he sees as a weak point. The lady had a boyfriend for years but never moved in with him. He quotes her: „Wenn du Hartz IV beziehst, kannst du da nicht zusammen wohnen.“[If you get Hartz-IV, you cannot live together.]

Next, he explains that the boyfriend had a sufficient income and, had they moved together, she would have received less money from the Jobcenter. The gentle author has more: Dann doch lieber eine eigene Wohnung und volle Bezüge. Man ist ja nicht blöd. [So, better to have your own place and full benefits. One is not stupid.]

Points to take away: How to go negative using a positive "One is not stupid." Do not mention that some young German military widows received super pensions of 100% of their spouses salaries and failed to marry their next partners because the pension would have gone away.

She makes a few Euros on the side now and then by cutting hair, she somehow has enough money for new cell phone contract when her current mobile goes kaput in the rain. He cites the store price of the phone as 300 to 500 Euros, but says it is less with contract. The cat she bought on eBay for 80 Euros is mentioned, as is the fact that she smokes a packet of cigarettes a day. The author tells her that's 150 Euros a month she could save by quitting cigs. 

[A truth Nazli does not want to hear. Her otherwise friendly voice takes on some undertones of irritation. "Hey, it's my only vice." Shouldn't that be allowed.]

Points to take away: She cheats by making a few Euros on the side. Make point that new phone in store costs 300 to 500 Euros, then mention she does not pay that because she has a two year contract. Do not use "fact" for potential saving of 150 a month on cigs, use "truth". Do not mention that the benefits include child support, which the government will at least try to claw back from the delinquent ex-hubby. Leaving out the right details, adding emphasis in other places is a skill.

We do think that the author of the article is a good writer, maybe not an excellent one, but who are we to judge?

When the blogster wrote this training piece, the FAZ article had not garnered any reader comments yet. 

We went back and checked. Predictably, there are those who hail the journalist's work as spot on, as revealing how people live well without much effort supported by those who work. But other comments show that nuanced thinking is alive and well among the readers. 

* [brackets denote translated text, our translation, feel free to critique]

Sunday, August 24, 2014

German 4 Dummies: "Quereinsteiger"

Have we got a good one for you today!

Hm, hold on, did we just use a Jon Stewart Daily Show meme? We did, sorry. We'll leave it there in the hope it is not trademarked.

Quereinsteiger is a compound noun made up of "quer" (lateral) and "einsteiger" (beginner, novice). In case you thought quer looks similar to queer, they do share common roots.

The meaning of Quereinsteiger according to the website is lateral entry employee, lateral recruit, newcomer.


You should be puzzled because, in the context of U.S. culture, Quereinsteiger is at best useless, at worst a lead weight big enough to sink a resume.

The Germans have a word, a compound noun at that, for the simple fact that you work in a job which you did not go to school to learn, or for which you did not undergo a multi-year training program.

So, if a friend asks you how you say Quereinsteiger in English, respond you don't. Well, you could use "career change" but it is more factual, you do one thing, then another for a sufficiently long time. It does not have the "you do not belong here newbie connotation".

We, wordy narcissists we are, would say Quereinsteiger is a much better example for something that does not translate than the old standby Gemütlichkeit. To the blogster, the latter is simply comfort or coziness with a strong flavor of Germans on drugs (pipe tobacco and beer).

As a concept, however, Quereinsteiger is a window into the German soul. It means you are quite different from the rest of the cohort, your path in life is so different it merits a new conceptual tag (a "word").

When and how do you use the term?

Never use it to describe a higher status, higher skill transition to lower status, lower skill - unless you are doing satire or want to insult someone. Calling a move from lawyer to supermarket shelf stacker Quereinsteiger, well...good fun, though.

We have not seen it used in the context of <some job> to <career politician>, and will have to think about what that means.

Moving from one professional track to a different one is the basic usage scenario. Theology graduate turned software developer, for instance. Or English major to management consultant.

The positive meaning of Quereinsteiger increases the higher up you go in the perceived ranking of jobs. At the very top, though, it gets fuzzy again, less cool. We surmise this may be because those at the very top of the pile often think of themselves in terms of being so special and in a super category that regular HR talk no longer applies -- but just a guess.

Quereinsteiger may be losing some of its less savory meaning (that of being a misfit, really) with better permeability of educational hierarchies and more immigrants in Germany, but deciding whether to apply for a job that says Quereinsteiger welcome, it is a difficult call.

If a job posting says Superhero degree or equivalent experience, go for it. How about Superhero degree, Quereinsteiger considered?

If you are a superhero, go for it, but be aware that the daily routine will have some very un-superhero activities, for example, erecting a scaffolding instead of leaping over a tall building in a single bound.

One more thing: The blogster has done the Quereinsteiger thing so often, the best derogatory term would be zig-zagging through life.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

German media privacy: pixels and no last names

Our title today indicates one aspect of reporting that we really like about German media. They do not publish non-pixelated photos and full names of average people as a matter of routine.

If you get hit by a reckless driver, your door won't be beaten down by an ambulance chaser lawyer.
If you complain about graffiti, you won't bring down the Wrath of the Paint Can on your family.
If a juvenile gets caught shoplifting a 50 cent bag of candy, no photo or full name will be made public, thus allowing the kid to get a job and leave the incident behind.
Even more serious events, such as the arrest of an abusive husband, with a photographer in attendance, get the same treatment.

Confusing one John Smith with another John Smith can easily ruin your life if you make headlines in the U.S.-- the German policy makes it much less likely. Though not impossible, as a sports reporter realized when German domestic intelligence confused him with a right wing extremist of the same name.

When you are deemed a figure of public interest, your face is not pixelated, your last name is stated. This is, of course, a job opening for lawyers, which can become the subject of debate in its own right.

Recently, the ex wife of a former German president was featured in an article of a German celebrity magazine. Notwithstanding pixelated face and upper body, she or a lawyer felt the need to write a threatening nastygram to the magazine.

One major area where these generous protections are not applied is foreign reporting. Faces and delightful other areas of minor nobility are fair game, so are the photos and full names of everybody whose personal details have been published in the U.S. media.

There is one current series of events, though, in which we saw the courtesy of not publishing the full name extended to a U.S. person: that would be the officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.
While most German media gave his last name once the name was made public, we saw an article in Der Spiegel where the officer is called "W."

Maybe not newsworthy but an opportunity to describe media reporting differences between Germany and the U.S.

The name and photo policy at the K-Landnews goes even further than that. We use no real first names of average folks - ever. The names are made up. We even use the names of major public figures much less frequently than other publications, but not necessarily for the same reason. Our odd TheEditor believes that over-use of a name can distract and that it makes posts too ad hominem. You can often do decent satire, maybe not great satire, without name slinging, it* maintains.

* TheEditor insists on neutral gender quotes. Certainly one aspect justifying the adjective "odd".

Friday, August 22, 2014

Windland - news from the Open Air Power Plant

If you happened upon a hotspot of German wind power generation, you'd recognize some of the wheeling and dealing.

Visible activities include:
Elderly ladies going door to door to collect signatures under a petition against yet more wind turbines in the once unspoilt, rugged forest.
Wind power developers going farm to farm to sign up land.
Engineers with canary yellow hard hats poking around in the woods or in the fields.
Scientists conducting an inventory of protected species, measurements of water tables, soil density and type.
Kilometers of over sized load trucks with dazzling amber flashies on the freeways in the middle of the night bringing the huge pick-up-sticks set to the site [for the paranoid: that's not under cover of darkness, it is the only way to prevent terminal clogging of transportation arteries during the day].

All very ordinary, you find all of these in the context of any major project of public importance. 

Our hilltop county produces more electricity than its inhabitants and its industry consume, prompting us to call our new way of life "living in an open air power plant".

The voices saying 'enough now' have been getting support in recent years, and all major candidates in the upcoming regional elections are assuring the electorate they 'share this view'. Which means there will be more turbines...

Conflicts between towns as a result of land ownership decisions made hundreds of years ago by some bishop or feudal lord are at the heart of many lawsuits against wind parks. Some towns found that the few acres of worthless brush land they somehow owned, squeezed between two hamlets on a remote hill were ideal for a wind park and pressed ahead with planning. While there are several levels of authorization before a wind mill goes up, the most important one is approval by the town, an attractive proposition if the town owns the land. Unlucky hamlets do at times end up with 200 m high windmills just a foot over the legal minimum distance away -- they get the night time swosh swosh of the blades, the hypnotizing blink blink of red aircraft warning lights and not a single cent from the operation.

Other towns find they have the perfect real estate but it is protected as a nature reserve or water catchment area, and their neighbors do not share the wind fall.

Yet others have become so desperate for tax revenue that they seem willing to bend the rules.

Recently, two such cases made headlines here, and both involved endangered birds nesting near proposed wind farms. Endangered species have the same effect on wind farm planners as a holy cross on vampires: some wailing, then it's over.

In both cases, the official surveyors failed to find nests of an endangered hawk species, large birds, not some sparrow sized flapper.

Environmental non-profits did find them, and permits were denied.

In a rare display of emotions, which some interpret as a sign of the thoroughness of the official survey of endangered species, the mayor of one of the towns blurted out: It's a pair of birds! Without the wind mills, the town is not able to get some of the public works done.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Better freeways - more burglaries

Here is a fun fact from German crime reporting: the number of burglaries has been going up in some areas of the country.

U.S. style home invasions are extremely rare around here, so don't get overly alarmed. Some areas that have seen an increase are rural areas with very little police presence, which can be fixed by more patrols and by setting up neighborhood watches.

One other explanation given by law enforcement every year is that towns with good freeway access are a preferred target of burglars.

Even to someone like the blogster, who has never felt the need for a great getaway possibility, this makes sense. B&E, hop on the freeway, and off you go.

The warning to residents near freeways is accompanied by suggestions on how to protect yourself. Make sure to have a modern front door, install lights with movement sensors, use timers to turn on lights when nobody is home, etc.

Again, the recommendations make perfect sense but there was the feeling that something was out of the ordinary.

Slowly, commensurate with the advanced age that is marked by the 30th birthday, a light went off after years of reading the annual newspaper blitz when the reports came out.

There was no suggestion to do something about the freeway access.

Usually, when there is a public order problem, many officials fall back on the "prohibit it" position. To this day, nobody has put forward suggestions aimed at making the quick getaway to the freeway harder.

Understandably, you cannot propose narrowing a freeway in Germany, or most other countries. Freeways can only go in one direction: wider.
The only known exceptions are in the U.S., but there it must be an earthquake that collapses a freeway. That's the only accepted solution. And then they build a new one, which soon suffers from type one traffic obesity, expressed as lane widening.

Surely, Germans must have some kind of plan to tackle the getaway problem?

They do not. There are hardly any speed bumps, and the few you can find are gently sloped so as not to damage the car if you go over 50 in a 30 zone.

The one street modification, if we can call it that, which may actually lead to some burglars not making it to the freeway or not being able to outrun the police, is not even recognized as an advantage!


The German road transportation associations have been keeping the government under pressure for more infrastructure funding. The industry may even get the government to introduce a nationwide toll on cars, in addition to the existing one on heavy trucks.

So, they whine about old roads and potholes like crazy, which you could call them from an American perspective.

And nobody, except the K-Landnews, of course, seems to realize the potential deterrent effect of a sufficient number and size of potholes vis a vis burglars.

After this praise of benign neglect of roads, we will sit back and wait for that one crucial news report in German tabloid BILD: Burglars caught as getaway car smashed up by pothole! Politicians want more potholes!

In the meantime, we will see if we can put hard numbers together on the sales increase of lighting fixtures and movement sensors. Given the astonishing amount of shelf space for these devices at our local home improvement store, most houses will soon have at least one of them.

We will do a scientific test by walking through one of the tiny nearby towns that have no street lighting at night, take notes of how many houses light up, then do the same walk next year.

Maybe we'll go to the mayor and offer the town a once or twice a night free neighborhood watch style walkabout! If accepted, we'll head for the electrical utility and get them to sign us up as freelance power consultants at 50% of the extra money they will make when we set off the movement sensor lights.

[Update Sep. 12] Just to be very clear: Overall crime is down in Germany. A trend seen in most if not all Western countries.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

German gardener to sue beekeeper over pollen profits?

An unsubstantiated rumor, which is what defines a rumor in the first place, has it that a German gardener is allegedly planning to sue a local beekeeper for a share of the profits he made from a bee hive.

Flora D., the gardener, has everything ready to file a complaint in court as soon as the latest weirdness in German copyright law is upheld by the legal system.

For those readers not familiar with wingnut nature of the so called ancillary copyright, known to lay people like us as the Google law, here is a summary.

Google presents small snippets of text from news websites in the Google News overview. German publishers managed to convince the conservative government that they should get a share of the profit Google makes from this aggregation of news.

The fact that Google does not display ads on these news pages and drives traffic to the publishers websites is ignored as irrelevant by German law makers. We speculate the thinking is that Google is making so much money, there should be some left over of the ailing German print publishers.

The German internet being the "me too" web and courts easily duped into going after imaginary rights violations, various companies are suing Google to get their money snippets.

This is the backdrop for the model law suit envisaged by Flora D. and her lawyer H. P. Graph, famously nicknamed Paragraph by fellow graduates of a law school we have never heard of.

The complaint against the beekeeper states that his bees essentially function as a aggregators of pollen from surrounding gardens and fields, very much the same way Google, or Bing collect snippets of news articles.

Individual tiny clumps of pollen are snippets of the flower, and the beekeeper, said Graph, maintains hives for the purpose of producing honey, a marketable and valuable commodity. We will present to the court a strong case for bees being nothing but natural bots scurrying the web of organic life, gathering and centralizing pollen. Presenting bees as natural bots should convince a generation of legal professionals who grew up on video games.
Planting ornamental flowers or managing fruit trees like my client, Ms. Flora D., has been recognized as a valuable skill since the early days of mankind, long before even rudimentary writing was introduced.
Making money off of her skills without fair compensation is a glaring injustice, especially so if you consider that the print publishers who have been around for a few centuries are enjoying protection under the law. As to those who claim that the bees perform a service to the plant through pollination, this is nothing but the equivalent of Google driving traffic to publisher sites. The bees enabling Ms. D. to sell a few apples is very much equivalent to Google enabling publishers to sell more periodicals.
Our case against the beekeeper furthermore has one compelling argument in favor of my client. That argument is the life of the bees in commercial hives depends on my client and others like her raising flowers and trees for the bees.
This is in stark and material contrast to the importance of German publishers for the health and well-being of Google. If German publishers stopped producing letters and sentences today, Google or Bing or others like them would not suffer any setback.

Asked if he is trying to organize German farmers to join the Flora lawsuit, Mr. Graph declined to confirm, stating only that residual income has gained popularity with farmers leasing land for wind turbines.

[satire] -- the tag du jour on the web.

The alleged "missing" program 4 spy keyword search

Strolling around the Twitter landscape, we stumbled upon an argument regarding mass keyword searches on data hoovered up by spies.

The tweet in question says:
I have not come across a US program for massive keyword search.

We would have overlooked the sentence, were it not for the person who wrote it. The man is somewhat of a massive surveillance denier following the narrative that collection is not surveillance and that spies spy, period.

Before this background, the tweet takes on real meaning. First, the tweet author has a good sense of limits: I have not come across clearly leaves open the possibility such a program might exist. Avoiding a statement of utter certainty one way or the other deserves credit, especially when it comes from an engineer.

Now, we can infer that he really means to say a "US program name or description".

What reasons might exist for not having come across a US program [name or description] for massive keyword search?

The easy one: It exists but we do not have a name, no confirmation of its existence.

The other one: There is no such program despite the fact that the activity (massive search for keywords) is performed millions of times an hour.

Keyword search is as fundamental as, say, inserting a record into a database, and no engineer on the planet will try to sell "insert into table" as an activity that merits its own program name. Well, except maybe in North Korea.

Keyword search is so fundamental that commands like grep have been part of the operating system since the iron age* of computing. You can safely assume that the first "keyword search" was nothing but a glorified grep.

So, this covers "plain text", what about more complex documents? Their text content gets extracted into more or less "plain text", then searched. No "program" needed, it is an integral part of processing. This applies to more complex "new" formats like html and xml as well.
Optical character recognition has been used for decades to extract text from paper documents after scanning.
Audio captures (telephone conversations, for instance) follow the same pattern: "speech to text" is a consumer level technology today, not worth a program name.

Advanced language processing beyond keywords would include recognizing common spelling errors, handling misplaced punctuation, dealing with language specific constructs, for example, vowel harmony in Hungarian or the six cases of Russian, the different writing systems of Japanese, and more.
There are certainly efforts under way to gauge the sentiment of text and speech, and just as certainly they don't work as well as you would want them to when you try to be funny and write an email saying "on va exploser la conference", as one Canadian famously did recently.

It is anybody's guess if there is a program for advanced linguistic analysis with a name as catching as BLOCKBUSTER or YODEL.

Who knows what the North Koreans or the Japanese are up to in this regard, but our best guess for most Western services would be: no separate program deemed worthy of CATCHY NAME TO IMPRESS BOSSES**.

* Iron age of computing as used in this post refers to the days when you took a hammer to your computer after it failed to boot for the tenth time in a row.

** Because spies are subject to the needs of marketing to their hierarchy and to the intelligence community.

[parsing note] We took great care in formulating the first sentence of the post and expect any parsing algorithm to acknowledge this. The finesse of "strolling" is derived by "strolling" containg "trolling". "Hoovered up" is a straightforward description of the technique, but the discerning algorithm might detect a slight note of cross dressing, which may or may not be intentional - we cannot ask the writer of the sentence, sorry.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Mr. Davidoff and the other "Cuban missile crisis"

The most heinous aspect of secrets, in our opinion, is that they steal your future by withholding information to base choices on. But at least, we can give you back a tiny bit of your past.

Let me show you my missile silo, the gray haired German said with a big smile. He reached into a cabinet and brought out a cigar box. He opened it, took out a cigar, closed the box and put it back. It's not a hide-a-key, another smile.

NATO nicknamed the issue the Davidoff effect, after Davidoff cigars. Some insiders joked it was the second Cuban missile crisis. Kept secret, and eventually closed, it is another episode of why did we never think of that, gosh, we need to keep this hushed up.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was feared for its many thousand battle tanks and armored vehicles, outnumbering those of NATO by a huge margin. NATO came up with various missile systems, some mounted on vehicles, others as portable configurations, as formidable weapons against tanks.

A missile was guided toward the target by following the infra-red radiation visible in the sight as a dot at the rear of the missile. The operator keeps the aiming mark of the launcher sight on the target and the Semi Automatic Command to Line of Sight (SACLOS) guidance system does the rest.

In other words, the soldier looks into a sight and simply keeps it trained on the red dot.

This was fine for over ten years until someone asked: what if there is another red dot nearby and the electronics locks on to it? Infra red radiation is heat, create enough heat, and your swanky missile veers off toward a two dollar road flare?

In the technical lingo of military experts at the time, the question was put as: If the enemy lights up a Davidoff, won't the missile go for that instead of the armored vehicle?

Minor panic ensued, tests were conducted, reports stamped very secret. The issue was deemed real enough to warrant a re-design. It was not deemed world changing because the Soviet leadership was unlikely to buy enough Davidoffs for their enslaved masses. Don't tell your population or the press, we do not want to be ridiculed by cartoonists drawing an invading army of Davidoff smoking Soviets.

Not long after that, a modified guiding light, usually a flash or strobe type device was put into missiles, the guidance electronics was taught to latch onto that and ignore cigars, and the West was safe once more.

We can now give a nod to Mr. Davidoff for establishing a brand so perfect, it lent itself to illustrating a difficult problem in a single word. What he would have thought about it?

But, hey, you can still ask Dolly Parton what she thinks of a certain type of tank turret having been nicknamed a Dolly Parton turret.

Inquiries by historians are welcome. Encrypted emails only, please.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Guardian angel saves "Arrogant & Lazy" German

Once upon a time, i.e. about a year and a half ago, we wrote about a young German eager to get some more education and advance his career by becoming a "Meister", a master craftsman.

When he showed up at the local jobcenter to register as not fully employed during the six week trimester break, a mini job contract in hand, the supremely courteous and qualified employment specialist called him "arrogant and lazy".*

We also told the world once he had successfully finished the one year master school.

Having wondered how someone as obviously arrogant and lazy like this young man can make it in this world, the explanation manifested itself recently.

He has a guardian angel.

Of several job offers, he decided to accept the shop chief position at a company not too far from home and showed up as agreed.

For three days, he worked at different workstations of the shop to familiarize himself with the activities and tasks he would then oversee.

Towards the end of day 3, he went to the owner and told him: I quit.  This should not surprise you, since we have told you over and over how arrogant and lazy he is.

What he told the company owner was: This place is chaotic, incompetent, a total mess.

A week later, a young man at one of the workstations where Mr. Arrogant & Lazy had been working at during his stint, was hit by a two hundred pound machine part that fell off of an overhead crane, and died.

We inquired with some people who know the company about how this happened.  Way too much work and a boss everybody fears, was the answer.

Which means the death will likely be ruled an accident.

* When we heard about the "arrogant and lazy episode, we inquired with the job agency whether "arrogant and lazy" was a standard label for a person who came in with all forms filled out and a temp contract that saved the agency at least 50% of benefits. We are still waiting for a response two years later.

Hiding text in pictures, part II

In the recent post "Hiding text and pictures in pictures", we described the use of steganography, which allows to make text or photos invisible to the human eye by putting them into photos or images.

We were overwhelmed by the audience response and should have seen it coming. While we were thinking of cat photos or flower pictures, others would, of course, think of other pets. Yet others would prefer inanimate objects or architecture.

What we hadn't taken into account was nekid pictures, and not just any nudes but outright porn.

It makes so much sense, said our TheEditor, no wonder I didn't see that. If you are not doing an art project or talking to grandma via steganography, dirty pictures could well be it.

Remember who social media lit up when Mr. Snowden told the world that the guys were sharing naked pics? added TheEditor. The whole surveillance thing is wildly overblown, as Mr. Snowden confirmed and we all know by now, but just imagine you use a nudie pic from the web, put the date of the next pub crawl in, then mail it to your buddies. If the pic gets picked over by someone who is not supposed to see it...what a riot.

It made sense, we thought. If the spooks of a country with a strict ban on nudie pics intercept your email between two liberal countries, how cool would that be. If their software throws a stego alert and the pic is displayed on the 10 foot by 10 foot big

If you can assume some homophobia in spooks offices, how about a wiener pic? There are lots of wiener pics of politicians, professors, etc. out there.

Any reasonable person would likely say the use of nude pics to send hidden messages is adolescent, and we'd agree. But it doesn't mean it is not effective. 

Even in an environment that is not 100% male, the distractive power of the body is immense. Some services would probably have to form same sex teams, all male or all female. If you are a male analyst in Backward Country A staring at a screen of gorgeousness and your supervisor stops behind you? That supervisor, depending on its sex, might get you fired for looking at a lewd pic, might proposition you, or might resign in shame.

You really should not do this. Stick to cats or other nice pics.

Copyright notice: We are not sure of the copyright situation of various wiener pics or other photos, and it is your responsibility to ensure you do not violate their copyright. Some of these folks have lost everything, copyright may be all they have left. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A very nice Prince

The day would have started with a simple line item like this:

10:00 Arrival, helipad

It was a small group, a couple of men wearing traditional Arab dress, other males in regular suits, yet others in dress uniforms. There was no press, no TV, no official government photographer.

The diplomatic chaperone was very busy making sure that the locals, unfamiliar with political visitors from this culture, understood the basics of protocol. Although none of the locals would have walked up the visitors, extended a hand and said "hi" anyway. If you address the Prince when he inquires after something or addressed you, you need to address him as Your Royal Highness, the chaperone emphasized.

The visitors were Western educated, and in another setting a friendly "hi" would have been perfectly fine, but here it might have given the chaperone a heart attack.
The Prince smiled, listened to a presentation introducing him to the topic of the visit. Afterwards, they headed out to get close to the gear.

The Germans knew how to put on a good show. The ground shook as the star of the day headed straight for the group. The driver slammed on the brakes, the vehicle tracks threw up dirt as they dug into the ground.
The performance elicited a smile from the group, only the diplomatic chaperone seemed briefly worried: when 50 or so tons of steel come to a halt less than 10 yards in front of your diplomatic charge, a second of concern seems reasonable.

Follow my lead, the chaperone had advised. Lunch started with an unfamiliar Allahu Akbar, the subsequent conversation was pleasant and relaxed.

The Prince waved briefly by way of saying good bye, the chaperone thanked the locals, and a few minutes later the large transport helicopter was airborne.

The day would have ended with a line item like this:

14:00 Departure, helipad

Note: Inquiries by historians researching arms exports will be considered. Encrypted emails only, please.

A complete history of spying in 200 words

From our series A Sunday Talk Show equivalent post.

Adam & Eve**
The unmarried couple was kicked out of paradise for grabbing an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. It is unclear whether the snake snitched or the Lord was watching.
Christians use "apple" but the actual type of fruit has been debated. Some say this is because of redactions.
Nobody has answered the question how this episode got into the bible. It seems, God leaked the story.

Cave Man - Mid 20th Century
Same deal, including Santa Claus, various demons, kings, pirates, revolutionaries, you name it. Spies were important because well into the 20th century there was no telephone for most people on earth, no internet, no citizens having neat camera phones.

This period is commonly cited when we are told how useful and important the trade is.
Includes most metaphors in current language use and public discourse today, such as Trojan Horse, or virus, as well as well as a whole slew of warrior imagery.

Mid 20th Century - future
The Hoover approach, both in scope and in techniques.

** Sorry if your religion does not include the bible. This makes it a bit more likely that you are being spied on, but Western governments are trying hard to spy on their own people too in order to avoid discrimination based on religion or nationality.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A German bestagers invitation (sad & hilarious)

We will explain "bestagers" below, you will see why we could not make sense of the word.

Tut, tut, the German government is fudging unemployment statistics, who would have thought.

The German economy has been doing better than many others, so much better that Germany has been called the economic engine of the Euro zone. Despite this, someone appears to have been unhappy with the already low unemployment numbers and went ahead to improve things.

It turns out that anyone 58 years or older who has been out of work for more than one year is not included in the unemployment rate. This group is about 150 000 strong and has been growing as ageism continues in the K-Land.

It is illegal to discriminate because of age, but, hey, you have to do it to remain competitive, right. How would I react if an employer told me "you are too old"?

I would write them a thank you note.

Yes, a letter expressing gratitude for either being:
1) so open that they merit my best wishes for the future
2) not smart enough to be my employer because they can't keep a secret

What happens if you are out of work long enough to be taken off the regular unemployment benefits roll and be stuck on the means tested benefits regime they call Hartz-IV?
Contrary to the thoughtful statement by the German vice-chancellor "like Hartz-IV, not working but making money", obtaining benefits and maintaining eligibility is equivalent to a couple of days a month, or more if you perform a job search as expected.

Which takes us to the word "bestagers". The official spelling is "best!agers" but because of the vagaries of website addresses and email usernames, it is regularly turned into bestagers and has its own German site bestagers. 

The Germans are using this term for unemployed folks age "50plus". The European Union, on the other hand, feels the appropriate age is 55, with a program of that name targeted at the Baltic region.

Possibly in an effort to try and convince themselves that bestagers is not an insult, the jobcenter of Darmstadt, south of Frankfurt, Germany, sends out invitations to interviews, such as this pretty example of helpful officials (in German).

Einladung (invitation) is rendered in bold type, after all it is an invitation.

The body of the letter has administrative details, such as dress code, address, time, a reminder to bring a print-out of the resume, etc.

Towards the end of the first page, it says "This is an invitation pursuant to paragraph 59, second book of the German social benefits code..."

Next we see a clarification of the invitation, saying "If you fail to follow this invitation without an important reason, your benefits will be cut by 10% for the duration of three months according to paragraph..."

That kind of invitation. 

In our blogging basement -- think of it as the poor man's version of the internet start-up garage -- we call this type of invitation a Tony Soprano Invite.

It fills us with joy to see that German officials have a sense of humor and are up to speed on modern PR and old fashioned wordsmithing. 
We found the letter on the website of a trade union initiative for the unemployed. The post about the 50plus "bestagers" program describes it as a chaperoned job interview, where several candidates are invited to an interview and a staffer from takes good care of his charges, ensuring everything runs smoothly.

Here's one thing we failed to understand, though.

The Initiative's author is all upset about the fact that the group of eight or so jobseekers had to assemble at the loading ramp** and selection was done by skilled personnel who did not even look at the resumes.

** Antreten an der Laderampe

Friday, August 15, 2014

A simple misleading headline: Half of Germans don't know when Berlin Wall went up

Last week, a scary headline appeared in the five or six German online and paper publications we check out each day.

The headline was: Half of Germans do not know when the Berlin Wall was built.

Quick check of our own knowledge: August 1961? Verification on Wikipedia, yes, August 1961, the 13th to be exact.

Only then did we work through the articles, which were based on the results of a poll, and were stunned to read sentences like this, with minimal variations between publications:

Only about half of all Germans know the exact date on which construction of the Berlin Wall began, 13 August 1961.

Not one of the articles had a positive wording of the fact that roughly half of Germans know the exact date of the Wall's beginnings.

As ardent amateur philosophers, we came up with some end of the world German philosophical thinking, some bleak Schoperhauer-Nietzsche construct supported by heavy Wagnerian badda bing in the background and a brief recollection of American expat Hanson admonishing Germans to be more optimistic.

But it's not that at all.

To the reader comments in the online publications we went, and we found some reasonable people. Well, in addition to the usual crowd lamenting the lack of knowledge of history in this country.

Why is the exact day so important? one reader asked.

We had asked that question and found the articles wanting. Of course, the writers said this was a very important date in recent German history, and there is no arguing about that. The exact date may matter to the people who were there, those who saw the concertina wire go up, those who realized their family was being torn apart right then and there.

As a polling question half a century later?

No newspaper in this country felt the need to ask how many Germans remembered the exact date of the beginning of World War I, which had been receiving coverage for over a year by last week.

The artificial outrage about German ignorance was a short lived affair, yet one fitting a pattern of unquestioning reporting combined with almost tabloid style headlines.

This, to us, is the disquieting aspect of it.

Can you imagine a full broadsheet page about the Vietnam War without any mention of the lies about the incident in the Gulf of Tonkin? Got that one, too, this year.

Fortunately, the old guy in the bar who'd invariably comment on the Berlin Wall article with a straight faced "well, under Adolf, they would have known the exact date of the Berlin Wall", has moved on.

Our last thought on the Half of Germans do not know when the Berlin Wall was built is that the newsrooms copied and pasted the 'executive summary' of the poll because the editors were busy writing about other events.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Here Bot, Bot, Bot - of site links and stuff

A few months ago, this utterly obscure blog began to attract links from external sites and now boasts several thousand of them.

We have not been able to find a word or term in English to adequately express this rise in popularity, so we can only describe it as "the blog went from utterly obscure to utterly obscure", which matches our modest expectations.

Jokes aside, while several thousand links to the K-Landnews are several thousand more than to our most recent artsy venture lost or found attracts, we did want to know what the figure says.

Not much.

There are, we are told, about 5000 bots out there that have nothing better to do than go around and collect links and content on the web.

Assuming some of the links to the blog were established by humans who like what they read or who need a good example of how not to do an internet presence, the math is clear. The number of bots exceeds the number of links to our site.

This called for an unscientific exploration of the reach of the K-Landnews, which we decided to finish with yesterday's swastika post. The initial exploration of "reach" was done with the lost or found blog, where we saw the following "page views" a split second after hitting the publish button on Twitter: 3 from the U.S., 1 from Germany.
The swastika post about what we would call a f###-up by some overly eager German officials confirmed the numbers, 3 and 1.

Our human readers come in later during the day, as expected, and comments by humans via Twitter are always welcome.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Swastikas at an official West German military event in 1986?

Every once in a while, German media report on a swastika adorned flag in an official setting, for instance this one at the German army officer school. In this case, the explanation provided was that the flag was borrowed from the state domestic spy folks and was for training purposes.

Our story today is about flags from the German infantry training collection, more commonly called Infanteriemusem (infantry museum).

What is so special about their flag collection?

Dating before the end of World War II, almost all of the flags sported small swastikas in the metal flag points. Large swastikas on the cloth were later replaced with oak leaf decorations. You can see the type of metal tip of on the leftmost flag in the image. It gives you an appreciation of the potential size of a swastika. We are talking a few centimeters, maybe  two inches across.
Having the same color as the body of the tips, black on black, those swastikas are not easy to see from more than a maybe five or six yards away.

On 31 October 1986, a camp on the training area adjoining the German infantry school in Hammelburg, Germany, was officially dedicated to former General Heusinger.

Present at the event were approximately one thousand soldiers and guests, including personnel from other NATO forces, the local press, Germany defense department personnel and photographers.

Both the local press and the German defense department published photos of the event which show the presence of "traditional" flags.

Flags from the museum.

Of the four or five flags from the museum, most* had the swastika tip at the time. We do not know if their swastikas have been removed since.

Were there any consequences?

We do not know, nor care. The Germans have a long tradition of promoting higher ranking problem officers to a certain category of desk jobs where they can do no further damage, as they with the colonel responsible for the atrocious Kunduz air strike.

* Our source was quite adamant that all of them had the swastikas. While we think that even one is one too many, we decided to make a "recollection allowance" in case anybody other than bots reads this post and dislikes it.

Historical context: The 1980s were a strange time in the West German armed forces. The very last handful of World War II veterans retired. When a full colonel wearing the name tag "von Stauffenberg" walked by, some officers would go "oh, he made colonel only because he is a Stauffenberg" - slander that was patently untrue. Some officials were keen to draw on the wisdom of supposed military hero General Rommel. The booklet introducing the German army infantry school was gussied up with a quote from from Rommel's book as a preface. The proof-reading copy of the booklet and a small initial run still had his rank of 938, Lieutenant Colonel, but the production copy dropped the rank - for easily understood reasons.

Editor's Note: Elaborating on Hogan's Heroes in this context would be a distraction. And yes, the information in this post is provided by someone who was there at the time and was intimately familiar with the museum exhibits. 

[Update 17 August] Inquiries by researchers will be accepted. Encrypted email only, please.

German Radio & TV fee protecting journos from working as spies?

We have had our share of trouble with the revamped German Radio & TV fee.

We have pointed out that German "public" media has a budget to rival that of the NSA (give or take a little, depending on the exchange rate).

We even put the amount into a graphic showing the budgets of the German federal departments and saw that the fee tops the majority of the budgets of government departments.

We have been smitten by the fact that trash collection has an opt-out for people who compost their veggie scraps. No questions asked, just tick a box. For the broadcast fee, no such option exists. The states and the courts claim: it is not possible to check whether you are watching public TV.
The trash collection folks shrug, yes, we cannot really check if you compost, but that's okay, a little bit of trust goes a long way.

We were riveted to Twitter and the internet when a couple of state supreme courts took the case of "tax versus fee" (a fee was legal, a tax would not have been legal).
They declared it a fee.
Amazingly, all the court decisions we have seen so far are so similar that only the use of MS Word text blocs can account for so much judicial harmony. Well, we may be soooo wrong on that, accept our preemptive apologies if we incorrectly blamed MS Word.

The end result is that you can be dirt poor and still be made to pay, because any exemption for normal working or non-working people is tied to social subsistence benefits.

Benefits you are not entitled to as a foreigner, except under very narrow circumstances. And, of course, if you receive such benefits, you won't get full permanent resident status in Germany.*

Why would an enlightened country like Germany be so unforgiving towards people who do not watch television or listen to German radio?

The penny (or cent) finally dropped, after a year of frustration. The slow motion drop of the penny was facilitated by a story written by Bob Woodward, of Watergate reporting fame. Mr. Woodward described how American media helped out the intelligence community either by sending faux reporters or by enlisting real ones to moonlight for the intelligence community.

It is easy to see the temptation for other countries to do the same, isn't it?

So, there we had the reason for the high license fee: the Germans do not want to tempt their public tv and radio folks to moonlight for the German foreign spy service! To eliminate this sort of temptation, they would treat their journalists exceedingly well. Which may cost a little more.

The German foreign intelligence service BND is not allowed to perform surveillance inside the country but it did in fact do some, hm, how to call this, work (?) covering some journalists. This newspaper article (in German)  gives an overview of activities from 1993 to the mid 2000s, and this other article (also in German) describes activities by the organization/its predecessor all the way back to the late 1940s.

So, we can safely assume that the BND prefers spying on reporters to employing German public radio and TV personnel working as foreign correspondents as sources or spies.  

If German journalists worked as spies, we would know about it, because German public radio and TV would definitely report on it as early as 30 or 40 years after the fact.

* The exact legal situation is in flux, there may be a widening of eligibility in the near future at least for EU citizens.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Eagle Has Landed

The true story of a train ride in Cold War West Germany. The identities of the riders have been changed to protect the kids. The route has been changed because we figured we could change it. The culprits are enjoying their retirement. This is the story as told by the male rider, one of the kids. We only made minor edits for flow and consistency.*

It was in October of 1982, I was traveling with my German girlfriend from Hannover to Frankfurt in what was then West Germany. We took an Intercity fast train via Cologne instead of the shorter direct route because we wanted to go along the Rhine river, through the gorge with the steep hills and castles.

That Sunday afternoon, the train from Hamburg, Germany, to Basel, Switzerland, was well booked, so we trecked through several cars towards the front. Our backpacks were pretty big, and we wanted a bit of space. Eventually, we arrived at one compartment that had only two seat reservation slips for the window seats, with only one person in the compartment at the time.
Perfect. We opened the door, said hi, got a very brief "Tag" instead of a full "Guten Tag" back and made ourselves at home.
The only occupant at the window was reading a copy of the German weekly Der Spiegel, and we chatted, held hands and enjoyed the passing countryside and towns. At first, there were lots of  Dutch lookalike brick houses, and meadows with black and white cows, then came the darker Ruhr industrial area.
We caught a glimpse of the cathedral in Cologne, a magnificent structure right next to the main train station, then came Bonn, the quaint German capital at the time, and soon we were in the narrow river valley heading south.

The next stop was Koblenz, and the thing that struck us was how many soldiers were at the station, at least every other person was in uniform and many in civilian clothes were schlepping military duffle bags. Koblenz was a major German military town then, some 100 000 residents and 60 000 military in and around town. 

When we had been deciding on the compartment, I had checked the reservation slips. One said Hamburg to Basel, that was presumably the middle aged, heavy set man at the window. The other said Koblenz to Basel, so I began to wonder who'd show up, kind of hoping for someone, let's say, easy on the eyes.

The person who took that seat was a male in his early to mid thirties, slender, blue jeans, shirt, a jeans jacket, military haircut and military composure. He had a plain dark blue canvas gym bag and an older imitation leather suitcase. He put the suitcase in the overhead baggage rack across from me, next to my big backpack. Then he sat down in the seat reserved Koblenz to Basel and took a book out of the canvas bag.

It was a German edition of the 1975 book "The Eagle Has Landed", the publishing house in big letters on the spine told me it was a German edition. The river was now just a two lane road away from the train, and it was pretty, even on this overcast day.

The compartment door opened and a conductor appeared, "tickets please". Since we were closest to the door, we handed him ours first. "ID please", the conductor said.
That's when I noticed the Koblenz arrival flinch. It was over in the blink of an eye, but I was on it. 
As we handed our IDs to the conductor so he could check, because we were traveling on this special discount pass requiring ID if requested, the officer relaxed and got his regular style ticket out, as did the older man in the other window seat.

The conductor closed the compartment door and removed the paper reservation slips from the braces near the top of the door. Removing the two slips meant he was satisfied the people who had reserved the seats were now occupying them. As I turned back toward my girlfriend, I noticed a short shoe lace wrapped carefully and tied in a knot around the handle of the imitation leather suitcase in the baggage rack.

We had about an hour to Frankfurt, and I was getting busy checking out the two men, now that my curiosity was in overdrive. The older one was wearing a suit, not too formal, not too casual, well used, just a little behind the times. Since it was a rather cool October, he had a coat too. And once I scrutinized the coat, it looked East German, the pattern, the cut, nothing big, but the whole thing said made in East Germany to me.

I did my scrutinizing under the guise of checking out the scenery and made sure to keep a conversation about castles and hills going with my girlfriend.

A few minutes later, the military male got up, put his book into the canvas bag, put on his jacket, slung the bag over his shoulder, and left the compartment. The suitcase stayed in the overhead rack. At that moment, I was sure he would not be back. There was no reason to take the gym bag if he needed a bathroom break, and the restaurant car was in the opposite direction in which he headed.

Almost an hour later, as we pulled into Frankfurt main station, his seat was still empty, it was just use three, two kids and the Der Spiegel reader with the East German air about him.

On the light rail leading away from the train station, I was all excited and bubbly. I was so sure I had witnessed a drop, that exchange of stuff between spies.

My girlfriend, of course, told be that my imagination was running wild. So, I was a good boy, and shut up.

Three years later, my girlfriend had moved on, and I had, too. On a sunny day in the Spring of 1985, I was at a conference. It was a NATO military event that took place on a German military installation. At the meet and greet, a German colonel took as around to introduce us to the German attendants. At some point, the colonel pointed at a German captain and said: "And this is Captain Mueller**, our S2, who joined us from Koblenz a few months ago." You know, the S2 is the intelligence guy.

I shook hands with the man I had seen on the Intercity train a few years earlier. I was so tempted to slip a reference to The Eagle Has Landed into our brief exchange of greetings, but decided against it.

Are you sure of this?

Yes, I learned a lot about myself that moment, and I could give you numerous later events, all different, yet confirming this very odd side of me.

Did he recognize you?

Not really. It was much harder for him because I looked quite different. Though, in the military, good face recognition is more widespread than in civilian lives, because we look so similar in uniform. I do believe to this day, I saw a little flicker in his eyes, a reflection of the feeling you may have met someone before but you have no idea where or when.

I never read The Eagle Has Landed, by the way.

* The style of this introduction is courtesy of the Cohen brothers.
** Not his real name.

In the news 100 years ago today

The news from 100 years ago are back!

Some time ago, years ago, decades ago, well, when print media were paper, some publications had a regular section of news from 100 years ago, or 150 years ago. You may not have seen any of these publications - we recall one German monthly, one French monthly.

The look back was limited to one page or so, hand picked, yet interesting as f###.

For example, from 150 years ago: Open car passenger train going at 30 miles per hour, and everybody survived! Nobody was crushed by the air pressure at this speed, yeah.

At some point, these sections were abandoned, because they took up space better utilized for ads - but now they are back on the internet.

All the war commemorations this summer were as useless as always. A hug and a flag, and not a word about the most destructive sentence in human history: I was following orders.

That's when we discovered several German papers had created a 100 years ago today section on their web sites, for example, FAZ and SZ both have them. The modern marvel of optical character recognition makes digitizing the old microfiche archives incredibly cheap.

Amazingly, both papers must have editors who still believe in intelligent readers, as opposed to tabloids like Bild. But then, full frontal or side boobs were not printed in the daily papers 100 years ago.

Reading unfiltered news from 100 years ago is exhilarating and scary, sometimes within a couple of paragraphs of each other.

Let's hope they keep this rediscovered tradition going!

Monday, August 11, 2014

German 4 Dummies: Märchenstunde

This noun composed of "Märchen" (fairy tale, or tall tale) and "Stunde" (hour) is not found in the German classes foreigners are invited to take but it should be in the corpus.

The common translation of Märchenstunde into English is (children's) story time, or bedtime story. French has conte {m} de fées for Märchen.

Its traditional use as story time for children is reflected in the list of web search results for "Märchenstunde". In Germany, the stories used to be mostly fairy tales, hence the name. In English speaking countries, the term reflects the audience, not the topics of narration.

That's a common feature of languages, sometimes a German term denotes the use of an instrument while the English will denote the shape or form of that instrument.
Sometimes, one language uses the name of the inventor, for instance German says Roentgenstrahlen for x-rays because Germans wanted to celebrate the name of the person who discovered them. Students of both languages often hate the fact that the English x-rays matches the name Mr. R. originally used for his discovery, X-Strahlen.

Another lovely example is McPherson strut. It is neither a type of gait nor walk named after a Mr. McPherson but an automotive assembly item called something totally different in German.

Märchenstunde in German has a second, rather remarkable use. In the parlance of government employees, it means a meeting with the higher ups, a hearing, or statement before a committee, or deliberations during the writing of a report.

In an article about the introduction of surveillance technologies in modern Germany, specifically a device called IMSI catcher for mobile phones, the researcher quotes a source who declined to be named saying: when we want a technology, we fall back on telling politicians that we need it to catch child molesters.

A meeting in which this argument is put forward as described by the researcher would very likely be called Märchenstunde by the officials who want this toy.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Of fallen apples and busy priests

When the owner of a handful of fruit trees asked who was willing to cut them down, we adopted them.

We'll take care of the trees in return for fruit.

The offer was accepted, and today we filled the first two buckets with fruit from our trees, one with fresh picked mirabeilles (prunus domestica subsp. syriaca), the second with apples picked up from the ground, slightly bruised, some a bit rotten.

Soft bruises are where yeast and bacteria thrive, producing rotten apples.

Oh, the priests!

See, the apple tree is on a piece of land that belonged to a German lady, specifically one the local priest tried to coax out of some land.

The old lady was dying, and the village priest stopped by to provide spiritual support and pray with her. And then he asked: "My dear, have you provided for the church of the Lord in your will?"

The lady had been extremely pious all her life, the priest's question rightly alarmed the relative sitting at the back of the room. The old lady's condition had deteriorated during prayer, and she did not acknowledge the question. The holy man was ushered out promptly and wrapped into small talk in the kitchen while another family member checked on the lady.

She did not hear the question, the caretaker reported as the priest was walking out of the farm yard.

Well, I guess, the Lord had other plans than His servant.

This story, verified true, took place some fifty years ago in rural Germany.

Here is a contemporary one, nobody dies in this.

Division of agricultural land through inheritance was a huge problem in many places in Europe, leading to what can best be described as beach towel sized plots within the time of just a few centuries.

One such plot, 18 feet by 25 feet, is right in the middle of a 20 acre field a couple of towns over. That tiny plot is owned by the church. It has no road access, no right of way over the big field, and with current German building codes you cannot build s structure larger than a doghouse, a smallish doghouse, on the plot.

The farmer offered the church triple the price of the plot's value, but the church refuses to sell.

You never know, says the church property manager.

Well, maybe that is the plot where Jesus will land when he shows up again, says the farmer when no church official is around.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The role of journalists - a weird German debate

H. L. Mencken is quoted as having said: "The final test of truth is ridicule. Very few dogmas have ever faced it and survived."

We figured this quote was a fitting introduction to the debate on the role of journalists sparked by an act of benign comedy: an episode of German "public" TV satire series "Die Anstalt" (the institution) caught the wrath of two journalists who then went to court and came back with a preliminary injunction forcing the broadcaster to remove the episode from its web site.

The two gentlemen are very well known journalists in Germany and felt their reputation was damaged by the episode of Die Anstalt. It appears that Die Anstalt claimed both were members of various transatlantic organizations and that one of them moonlighted as speech writer for the current German president.

See for a concise, yet detailed, write-up on the affair (in German).

Regarding the use of "member", we will simply state that "member" can be interpreted in different ways.

Our interest in this affair is twofold: how much satire is too much in Germany, and what does it say about the role of journalists in this country?

How much satire is too much?
It would seem: very little, if the satirized do not like what they see. Compared to the daily fare on U.S. television and radio, German satire is tame.
Now, if you have been to one of the big carnival parades in cities like Mainz or Cologne, you might beg to differ. Aren't there floats that satirize events or people? Yes, quite a large number.
In the not so humble opinion of the K-Landnews, carnival floats and carnival speeches do not really matter. Carnival is, after all, a time where normal rules are suspended.

At other times of the year, German satire plays a role more like that of a court jester, says the K-Landnews TheEditor. You can get away with things but you are at the mercy of your rulers.

Come on, there is a deeper reason, maybe unintended but there to see if you look at the fact that our concept of freedom of speech has freedom of opinion as its equivalent in the German language.

Note to self: maybe there is a reason why a show we'd call satire or comedy is often called "Kabarett" in German.

This is not to say that satire is impossible in Germany, not at all. Oftentimes, those officials or celebrities at the receiving end of satire are gracious enough or smart enough (or not smart enough) to take it in stride. Even if, for instance, "member" is ambiguous.

Others may pounce on such an ambiguity, go to court, get lucky, and come back with a happy "suck on this!" smile on their faces.

The role of journalists in Germany?
Oh, my, it is the neutral observer and reporter banner flying high, according to the latest out of the main professional body.
Wielding the popular and abused notion from quantum physics that the presence of an observer changes that which is being observed, we'll claim that journalism cannot be completely neutral, and that's fine as long as it is being acknowledged.  You do not watch FoxNews to get glowing praise of socialized health care, and you will not watch MSNBC expecting a full day of praise for the Tea Party.

If you ask about German newspapers, you will be told of where they tend to be on the political spectrum or what role they play in the circus of politics.

Yet, when you ask about the role of the individual journalist, you get the neutral observer dish.

Not a one of the folks having the debate seems to be familiar with an episode of The Moth, in which a famous American editor talks about his formative years as a junior journalist in Oakland, CA.

Friday, August 8, 2014

George Carlin and a fascination with language

Hopping around the web, or snorkeling, the late comedian George Carlin popped up the other day.

It must be the fascination with language and what people do with language that makes Carlin appealing to us. Every once in a while, when looking at some event, there is a brief 'wonder what Carlin would make out of that', not in the sense of attempting to emulate his style but in the sense of "I am sure he'd have something hilarious to say, as opposed to us with our the true and tried, our bland Google and Twitter filter safe".

Although we did upset a filter algorithm a couple of times in almost two years of shenanigans.

To celebrate our rediscovery of George Carlin, here are two quips for the filters:

Have you ever wondered about the invisible hand of the market, the hand that fixes everything that can go wrong in the free market? It's invisible but that doesn't mean you can't see its effect - when the stock index reaches a new high, that's the invisible hand of the market j###king off.

Politicians in Washington are between a rock and a hard place right now about the release of the report investigating 'harsh interrogation'. That term was spoiled by the Germans, so you can understand the conundrum. Does finding yourself between a rock and a hard place count as torture? The answer is simple: [redacted].

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A tale of two lakes: Erie (U.S.) & Constance (Germany)

Lake Erie (25,667 km2 ) made headlines last week because of toxins in the water and its effects on the drinking water supply of Toledo, Ohio.
Erie is deemed too dirty.

Lake Constance, (536 km2), shared between Germany, Switzerland and Austria made headlines last week because of water quality, too.
Constance is deemed too clean.

The difference in size of the two lakes should not bother you too much, because the scale of the problem as "deemed" are commensurate. Erie gets tremendous amounts of run-off from the adjoining states. Constance gets its share.

The view that Lake Erie is too dirty is being described in this New York Times article, The Wikipedia entry at the beginning of the post helps if you don't want the NYT.

The view that Lake Constance is too clean, however, is not shared by most people yet. It is a subject brought up mostly by some of the local farmers and fishermen.
The fishermen argue that yields of fish have dropped as the lake underwent a massive cleanup effort over the past twenty to thirty years. Lake Constance is fed largely from the Alpine mountains to the south, resulting is a body of water with fewer nutrients, much like Lake Tahoe in California.

The fishermen's friends argue that less agricultural run-off and better sewage treatment starve the algae, hence the plankton, and consequently the fish.

Press coverage of the report on the quality of Lake Constance water shows some startling headlines. Many publications went with "Lake Constance too clean for fish", for example the Austrian paper behind this link.

The German FAZ was moderate saying the lake was as clean as 60 years ago.
The too clean for fish headlines have one disquieting common aspect, they all appeared in newspapers which call themselves conservative or moderately conservative.

All of them give a voice to advocates of relaxing the influx of phosphorous and nitrates to promote growth of the main commercial fish stock. Of course, this is plain geo-engineering but you don't find the term in these articles.

Not a single one of the articles mentions fish species that went extinct in the heyday of uncontrolled pollution, none of them mentions that other fish stock recovered under the cleanup regime.

There is some mention of swimmers no longer bumping into dead fish, but that's about it.

A few extra tons of fish would be appreciated by the 150 or so local fishermen, the prospect of getting rid of a few hundred thousand tons of phosphates and nitrates a year under the guise of helping the fishermen.

In the meantime, microplastics and all the unprocessed anti-depressants the treatment plants cannot eliminate continue to go into the lake.

Next time you sit in one of the fancier restaurants along the esplanades of Lake Constance, with a plate of local fish in front of you, why not pause for a second and marvel at the fish on anti-depressants.

As for Lake Erie, get yourself some anti-depressants.