Tuesday, June 30, 2015

German officials and extremism: always mention right and left together

German officialdom displays a deeply ingrained habit when talking about extremism: if at all possible, they will talk about right wing and left wing extremism in the same speech, interview, article or whatever form of discourse they use.

Of course, there are many contexts when this is perfectly acceptable, for instance when the annual report on extremist activities in Germany is unveiled by the domestic intelligence service.

In West German school books, you would find the extremes handled in a supposedly balanced fashion, especially when dealing with the crucial period from the end of World War I to the beginning of World War II.

East German schools went in a different way, of course, with some very interesting consequences for civic education teachers in East Germany after re-unification: they might be employed in the newly formed schools (every teacher had to re-apply for a teaching job), but only if they taught another subject.
The same did not hold true for East German politicians or members of the socialist youth organization FDJ. You may know one of the latter as Germany's current chancellor Angela Merkel.

Only in recent years have German educational institutions started to state the obvious: right wing violence is directed at individuals to a much greater extent than left wing violence.

To make a long story short, here are figures about the number of people killed in Germany by right wing extremists, left wing extremists since 1990, and Islamist terrorists since 1993. These numbers do not include German nationals killed during terror attacks in foreign countries.

Number of people killed by right wing extremists: 156 according to new media research
(according to official government figures: 73)

Number of people killed by left wing extremists: 5
(1 since 2001 according to this report)

Number of people killed by Islamist terrorists: 2
(the victims were two American soldiers, Wikipedia confirms this as the only known Islamist terror attack with fatalities in Germany to date)

As we all know, a major attack could change future numbers within hours or minutes, but in the past two decades, the risk was clearly coming from the extreme right.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Germans & Information: FOIA without the F

Information is the one and only primary fuel that drives the world, that's the thinking here in the basement newsroom of the K-Landnews with its imaginary lava lamp and the stress release computer mouse (an old roller mouse with the cord clipped to a few inches so no one gets smacked by a PS2 plug when it sails past the lava lamp).

We won't delve into the finer points of bored nerds, the difference between data and information and so on, and just call it information for this post. The sophisticated bit that goes data must be interpreted to become information is true on the rational cognitive level for humans but trees and bacteria do well without any recognizable way of making that rational distinction.

Without information, we would not exist, we would not have central heating or have been able to send humans to the moon.

So, we think it important to look at how different cultures handle information, in particular the bit about sharing of information. To limit the scope of the post as well as our ability to mess up the argument beyond redemption, we'll just have a dig at how Germans do it, primarily with regard to their Freedom of Information (FOIA) laws.

These laws are basically copies of the U.S. FOIA, with very similar exemptions and cost reimbursement provisions, and ensuing legal battles.

Where it gets interesting on the German side is how copyright law and "company proprietary information" are being used very widely and very successfully to block the release of documents.

Restriction based on copyright law is the main tool to deny the public access to scientific publications produced for government agencies. We would violate rights of the authors, the government says, claiming it cannot do anything even when the project was 100% financed with public funds.
Private publishing houses can and do make authors sign comprehensive releases but German government officials merely shrug when you bring up this option.
A notable break with this required a long legal battle that saw the highest court finally come down on the side of FOIA in the case of federal parliamentary research office reports.
This body produces research on any conceivable subject, from UFO sightings to family benefits, for members of the federal parliament. Parliament administration claimed a FOIA exception because the research was used by members of parliament in policy planning.
The court said, sure, but although ordered by one or more members, the resulting research papers are made available to all members and, hence, cannot be regarded as "personal".
As it stands, Germans should not feel too confident that the court decision settles the matter.
The current government recently passed a midnight amendment to a bill that removed one of the essential group of documents from FOIA in a single stroke: reports by the federal budget oversight agency are no longer accessible via FOIA requests.

Company proprietary information is the single most widely used tool to hide the names of government suppliers and consultants and the cost of products or services. Sorry, proprietary, the government says when citizens ask which law firms had a consulting contract on policy X or bill Y.
Sorry, proprietary, officials write when a newspaper wants to know who got the latest gig to improve the government presence in social media.

Not all is bleak, of course. Many government agencies do provide some information at no cost in electronic form as .pdf documents.

But Open Data won't be one of the first things that comes to mind when you think of Germany for some time to come.

Monday, June 22, 2015

How to repair German appliances: find an English web site

We have called the German corner of the worldwide web a desert before, an easy metaphor with information being water, the dispersed oases being really useful web sites, the creepy crawly things that come out at night being the trolls, and so forth. Well, maybe not trolls, are there trolls in the desert?

Not sure how to get camels into this imagery without insulting either Germans or camels. So our German web desert has no camels, okay.

We frequently have a hard time finding good information in German. There are simple and complex reasons. Simple ones include the fact that German is not widely used on a global scale, or that many sites out of Germany use English. Then there is the joy of German compounds and the difficulties associated with them:

a) How do you handle them in search code? As a full word, split, stemming, if so how?
b) Technical language is tough in German in many older specialist areas and in law and government.

And finally, there is a cultural aspect of "sparse information" despite a flourishing German language version of Wikipedia, tons of YouTube videos in German and innumerable blogs. Many Germans don't give out good information freely, it seems.

Now would be a good time to give you some hard figures, right? Sorry for not providing any, feel free to gather data and see if we have a point or if we are just too narrow minded or too dumb to do get it right.

We believe, we have one area where our assertion holds true: the repair of household goods, for example, a washer and a dryer. The first is used by the blogster despite a proud tradition of Amish style washing, and the latter sees most action in the winter when hanging up the laundry outside is not an option.

German household appliances, of course, come with operating instructions and a checklist of common failures and potential fixes. Turn on the water, clean the the lint screens, and so on.

What our manuals did not tell us, though, is the meaning of error codes. It would have been easy to explain that E14 means a clogged drain, or to enlighten us on the meaning of x number of blinks of the error LED.
Out of warranty can mean out of luck, especially in the rural reaches of the country because repair folks already charge for the drive.

That's were the English language web is a godsend. You are almost guaranteed to find good information fast. German sites will generally say something along the lines of "if it is not the lint or the water call the repair folks".

English language sites will generally start with a warning like "unplug the appliance, and don't try any of this unless you know what you are doing", followed by nice and detailed information. Much of which applies to most German appliances, too.

If the dryer stops working
Unscrew the back of the dryer, inspect the heating elements, check if the temperature sensor wire is not loose, no wires have come off and no plugs have melted, and finally press the tiny red circuit breaker. Make a test run, then reassemble the back, and you just saved 75 or more Euros.

A mechanic half way around the world just saved us money and - even more important to the author of this post - taught us what a healthy heating element looks like and where to find the internal circuit breaker.

Dear unknown mechanic, thank you.

On your behalf, I delivered just under 1000 trillion flops worth of computer power to one of my favorite volunteer projects at BOINC, the network for distributed grind computing.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Welcome to Bavaria - Germany's NIMBY state

German states don't have uplifting, funny or otherwise quotable state mottos. Every now and then, we mourn this absence of comedy material.

The southern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg would probably use Home of the Automobile to celebrate Mercedes Benz. From a cultural perspective, we'd suggest something like We Sweep the Common Areas, much older than autos and a reference to the mandatory, rotating duty of renters to sweep and mop common areas in rental buildings.

It is a fiercely enforced tradition, only mitigated for rich renters by the fact that they will hire cheap immigrants to do the job for them.

The neighboring state of Bavaria, home of the Disney inspired Neuschwanstein castle and the Octoberfest, might have gone with Give me Beer or Give me Death.

Some Bavarians love to see their state as the Texas of Germany, but we never mention that this may not be a compliment. Just recently, their state government put up a grand new web site called Welcome dahoam (Welcome home), featuring the castle on its home page.

The page Future showcases old and new inventions, presenting Bavaria as an innovative state that welcomes bright minds. Hey, they even have a pair of Jeans on the page and proudly mention the inventor as Levi Strauss, born in Bavaria.

The page does not mention that Levi hightailed it out of Bavaria as soon as he could, becoming famous elsewhere.

This sums up the official Bavaria better than the web site designers intended. 

In recent years, Bavaria has turned out to be less of the laid back, interesting mix of high tech and rural life and have become more of Germany's NIMBY state.

When hundreds of miles of new high voltage power lines were being planned to take power from northern states that produced it to the industrial south, Bavaria wanted nothing of it. They need lots of power, but they wanted the lines to be re-routed through the neighboring state, creating a detour.

Their latest NIMBY venture relates to nuclear power waste. Bavaria embraced civil nuclear power early and happily shipped processed waste to an intermediate storage facility in the north. With the first storage facility flooded and the temporary one closed down, Germany needs a new long term facility. So, the federal government said, we'll store new waste containers at nuclear facilities in several states, one of which was to be Bavaria.

Oh, the outcry from the state government! We don't want no nuclear waste!

But you have been running plants for half a century and not been asked to store any waste!

So, if German states decide to come up with crafty mottoes, we will be the first to suggest one for Bavaria.

Germany's NIMBY state

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Pope on climate and muted criticism by German industry

Unlike the GOP's unconvincing impression of Atlas Shrugged - even congressman Sixpack Paul can't come to the rescue because is is a Catholic - many conservative German politicians have come forward in support of the Pope's overall message, if not all the details.

A very nifty line of attack in the US media has been that economists stay away from moral issues, preferring "efficiency" instead. 
This argument is hilarious because if comes from the same folks who point to Adam Smith as the founding father of modern economics.

Of course, German Catholic business people don't warm up to a philosophy of "less" and insist on the "necessity for growth" but they did state that unfettered profit making is undesirable.

You can argue that Germany is an eco friendly country and point to the subsidized alternative energy initiatives for which it is known around the world. You can argue Germany has had a Green party in a federal government in the early 2000s and currently in various state governments. If you feel particularly uncharitable, you can regurgitate the oft heard statement that Germany pours billions of subsidies into renewables only to have some of the highest electricity rates of the Western World.

And we'd say, no, none of this is as simple as it is made out to be.

After all, German demand for solar panels helped bring down production costs for you, too. Your panels in California or Texas would probably still cost more than you pay, were it not for the Germans. The standard consumer electricity rate of about 30 cents/KWh only contains 5 cents that go into subsidies. These 5 cents are caused mostly by the fact that huge power users like aluminum and steel plants are exempt from the "eco surcharge". One summer day in 2014, renewables provided a total of 75% of Germany's electricity supply. Most of the price hikes in recent years are due to straight up taxes and fees for grid use and such.
Wholesale prices were down by 12% in 2014, making Germany's wholesale prices the lowest in Europe according to this study.
The German Green party is not your anti everything blockaders - any more at least - and competed with conservative tree huggers and social democratic coal aficionados.

Despite some free market laisser faire gains, most people still remember that is was "liberal conservative" or "conservative liberal" chancellor Bismarck who ushered in the world's first social security system in part because the Catholic Church was siding with socialists to organize the industrial masses.

By size, Germany is small, so you cannot build huge power stations in the middle of nowhere and truck the ash another 500 miles to some more nowhere. Open pit mining even the tiniest deposit of coal means moving whole towns out of the way. And if people earn enough money to be able to afford double or triple pane windows, guess what, they buy them.

No, Germany is not eco heaven. Just look at the car industry that is only now catching on to hybrids or all electrics. Stagnating wages mean many individual house owners forgo energy efficiency measures or - like us - do them ourselves. The latter comes with an unbeatable return on investment, by the way - if you stay in the same house for five years or so.

We should probably point out there is one other reason for the muted criticism: some of it will blow over. It has in the past.

For our hippie readers out there: isn't is great how many hippie concepts have been shown by science to be correct?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Family Guy game Clams went missing again! Oh, thank you for that!

Readers of this online publication, may wonder what we do when we are not outrageously busy with ideas on how to fix the world in one or two posts.

In other words, what are we doing 95% of the time?

We spend a lot of time [redacted], doing [redacted] as well as [redacted], immersed in [redacted], joyfully [redacted], studying calculus, and playing the Family Guy game.

If you want your family to stay together and live a happy life, the game may not be for you. The fact that there is a web site called Family Guy Addicts is more than a subtle hint.
On the other, hand, if you want to drive other family members crazy....well....

In the Family Gut game, those players unwilling to spend real money to purchase colorful bytes can earn Clams and purchase goodies with them.

Recently, the clams accumulated over the course of many months disappeared for the second time.

They were simply gone.

The first time was kinda bad, but this time was an utter disaster. We needed only a handful more clams to acquire Consuela.

This explanation should bring tears to the eyes of true Family Guy fans, or aficionados.

Once the stream of tears had let up, something miraculous happened. Without so much as a peep or a curse, our inveterate gamer uninstalled Family Guy.

It's now been a week or so, and the game remains uninstalled.


Before the gamer sees this post, a quick word to whoever it was, God, a bug, a bug of God: thank you for making the Clams disappear.

Life can be so wonderful.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Germany's BND intelligence agency: like Get Smart without the shoe phone?

There are times when the K-Landnews team wonders about the utility of the German language. Granted, the language makes for smooth everyday interactions with the natives and enables some sort of social life but other than that?

What good does it do if you can actually understand some xenophobic German rant on Twitter or facebook?

Where is the fun in trying to parse a ten page statement from their social security administration only to find out that a full retirement point for the year is tied to the average income, not mean income, of the working population? Average income distorts the future for lower wage people, effectively reducing further their already shrinking retirement benefit prospects.

But there is one reason to learn German, and this is the parliamentary committee known as NSAUA.

In the wake of what is commonly known as the Snowden revelations, the German Bundestag (their federal parliament) set up a committee to investigate the relationship between the NSA and the German foreign intelligence service BND.

The committee members are trying, and sometimes succeed, to do a good job. While the government does its best - or worst - to give the committee as little information as possible while claiming they, too, want a full and open investigation, the intelligence agency itself sometimes comes across as a mix of the cast of Get Smart and Yes, Minister.

This web site introduces the TV series Get Smart as follows: In 1965 the cold war was made a little warmer and a lot funnier due in part to the efforts of an inept, underpaid, overzealous spy: Maxwell Smart, Agent 86. 

If you read the English language page of the BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst) on Wikipeadia, you'll find some successes and minimal critical stuff. On the German page, things look rather different. The number of scandals this small, by US standards, agency has racked up is impressive.

Though, as far as we know, they have blundered without the use of shoe phones.

Before anybody accuses the K-Landnews of dissing the valiant employees of the BND, let's just say that those we personally know are good people. Most of them probably are, but they work within what looks like a thoroughly messed up system.

How bad this system really is shines through in some statements by witnesses before the committee. The agency is subordinate to a policy office reporting to the German Chancellor, Ms. Merkel, and witness statements show a revolving door between this office and the agency itself.
In one session, when confronted with letters sent by the BND to him, informing him of matters relevant to the current investigation, a director level witnesses said he had not been given the letters at the time because he did not have a high enough security clearance.

I have only seen them now that the committee is investigating.
How come, if you still don't have that clearance?
Correct, but I was granted a waiver this time.

Along the same lines, the previous president of the agency, Mr. Uhrlau, apparently worked with his U.S. counterparts like Gen. Hayden on a Memorandum of Understanding (MoA) first mentioned in Snowden docs, without apparently being unable to read the final document because of its classification level. **

Much of the crucial reporting of and within the agency somehow either did not happen (never heard of that operation before, told the supervising office verbally only) or continues to be under lock and key.

So, yes, learning German can be fun, and the multiple versions of "I don't remember", "what?", and "I'm sorry, it's been such a long time ago" may one day come in handy.

On the bright side, the BND has probably not tortured people.

** Yes, that's extremely odd, so we quote the German minutes from the only currently public source here:
Mittag: Schnittstelle Bundeskanzleramt und BND. Sie haben MoA mit erarbeitet. Sie konnten es nicht lesen, weil geheim.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Mystery shoppers check minimum wage earners in rural German stores

Quality, customer service, compliance, off-loading unpleasant activities to a third party - these are some motives for the use of mystery shoppers.

We knew the store chain that runs one of the markets we frequent uses mystery shoppers. The manager once told us as a way of saying sorry I need to do this when we first showed up and she checked the bags and the cart.

But we had never seen one in action until recently.

Outside of commute hours and after school lets out are the best times to do minimum stress grocery shopping.  

As we made our way through the isles, past jams, chocolates & cookies, bread and booze, we noticed her

She was a young lady in her late twenties or early thirties, and there was something different about her. Nothing that would make most people notice her and pay attention, but then we are not quite like most people. If you have been in a line of work where you deal with strangers a lot, you understand.

She was very methodical about filling her cart, much more so than other shoppers. At the same time, she took in her surroundings in a manner only trained people do.

She was two customers ahead at the cash register, and we paid attention to the checkout process. The young man at the register did not notice anything out of the ordinary as she placed the items into the cart, not into a shopping bag, she asked a question about a loose avocado, he typed the price code and so on.

He was so oblivious, it almost became contagious - maybe we are just seeing things?

The moment he had moved the last item over the scanner and hit the finalize button, she calmly told him he had missed several items and asked for the manager. That's when his expression changed from neutral bored to stressed and alarmed, his cheek flushed.

The manager appeared from the back of the store, and she put out a hand and introduced herself by name. They took the cart, moved to the side, then to the back of the store.

None of the other five or six shoppers in line commented on what had just happened, and the checkout routine proceeded.

Leaving, we wondered about consequences for the cashier and talked about life in a minimum wage job.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

German 4 Dummies: Staatswohl

Compound of Staat (state) and Wohl (well-being), the well-being of the state or the nation, the greater good or the common good (Gemeinwohl).

There are days when the blogster finds solace in Mark Twain's musings about "that awful German language" in order to alleviate a feeling of language induced nausea.

If you interpret this statement as an insult or as insensitive, you may not have read the web page behind the link. The one important quote from this collection is at the very bottom of the page: How charmed I am when I overhear a German word which I understand!

If you look up Staatswohl in the standard German dictionary Duden, you will find the definition section extremely interesting because it is circular and contains a single usage example of inconclusive value.

The definition is:
Wohl des Staates, which is nothing other than the long form before formation of the more convenient (to Germans) compound.
As as circular definitions go in linguistics, this is as circular as it can possibly be.  If you try a definition like this in school, an F is all but assured. 

The example says "set aside party interests in favor of the well-being of the state".
Also conspicuously absent from the Duden entry are synonyms and antonyms. 

A search for current use of Staatswohl in German public discourse reveals that it overwhelmingly appears in contexts in which the English speaking world uses the term "national security" or "reason of state" although the Germans have their own matching version "nationale Sicherheit" and "Staatsräson". 

That's because some argue that Staatswohl as used these days can be interpreted as having nothing to do with the well-being of the nation and everything to do with obfuscation. 

How do the Duden editors get away with the nonsensical definition? 

It's probably best for the well-being of the nation.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Better than a Swiss army knife: A Swiss email account, and it is free

Note: If you believe anybody except you and the receiver should be able to read the contents of email or other electronic communications at will, please skip the body of this post. Either read the very last paragraph or go straight to say www.pointless.com.

Email providers with some degree of privacy have been around for much longer than average users know.

One of the first was Canadian based Hushmail. Which you do not want to use for anything except sending birthday greetings to your grandmother if we believe this WIRED article.
Since this happened ages ago, you may have never heard of it.

Another one that you may have heard of is Lavabit, also known as Edward Snowden's email provider. Founded in 2004, Lavabit functioned quietly for many years but having been Snowden's email provider turned out to be really bad.

The resident bytepusher at the K-Landnews long relished in comparing the steps needed to encrypt documents and email to the early years of cars:
This encryption business is like having to start cars with a hand crank in the old days, and you needed to carry oil and tools or - even better - have some mechanics training to travel safely.

While some hard core security folks will tell people to not use email at all, others had a more realistic view and tackled email content privacy in a healthy way.

That's the team of Protonmail.ch. Your outgoing email is encrypted before it leaves your browser. Incoming mail is decrypted once it has reached your browser. They don't store connection information on their servers, and you don't need to provide a verified email address for signup.

Right now, an invite is needed to obtain a Protonmail account. You can ask for an invite on their web site, and you will have to provide an email address to receive their "your account is ready" notification.

We still think crypto parties are a good idea but maybe there can be a little bit more emphasis on party.

In case you did not notice, our contact email address has changed to protonmail.ch.

Came for the Note?
The supposed dangers of encryption are a red herring. Please read up on the relevance of metadata.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Hard-drinking, cigarette-smoking lesbians - meet the national champions

From our Reality Body Check series.

This post requires a caveat, a fancy word for disclaimer: The story is based on a single, but extremely trustworthy source close to the team. The country of the team is Germany but if anyone feels like criticizing team members' attitudes and behavior, check your local teams first. You'll probably learn a few things.

Once upon a time, there was a German women sports team. To set the record of partner preferences straight, not all of them were lesbians. After all, there are hard-charging hetero ladies, too, who have no issue playing closely with team members who sport different preferences. This is still in marked contrast to male team sports.

Our source tells of a close-knit team that knew how to play hard and how to party hard. Alcohol by the keg and that most evil of poisons, cigarettes, were ever present and, strange enough for outsiders, did not prevent the team from becoming national champions.

Their parties were a blast, the source tells us. Drunken champs, sometimes vomiting in the bathroom, loud music into the small hours of the morning, some - let's say - body checks, not the violent kind, though. And the next day they be in training for hours, or in a game.

Through generations of players.

Everybody close to them knew.

It's very much like any tight group, said the source. Or affairs of politicians, a bunch of people know, nobody talks, often over decades.

In case you wonder, this was before smartphones with cameras became ubiquitous, and we don't know what the present generation of the team is up to. They probably smoke fewer cigarettes, we'd assume.

The German nobles who won't go away

To write this post, we enlisted an author who descends from a long line of kings - just because.

It has been almost one hundred years since Germany abolished the monarchy and its nobility with it. To soften the blow, German nobility was allowed to keep their former titles as part of the rebranded "civil" names.

This, obviously, meant that some individual nobles would encourage use of the "title" part in everyday life. As laziness, tradition, and deference would have it, even 100 years later, you can find oddly noble sounding headlines in the German press outside of the royal watching old ladies magazines.

Similar to the royal baby waves which sweep the US every few years - depending on the libido of the royals and the current need for mindless entertainment - segments of the German population follow royals faithfully.

This can explain the latest mainstream headline "Is the Prince a fraudster?" about a German man who happens to come from a family that sported a "Prince" at the time of the dissolution of the monarchy.

To be fair, many of the remaining German nobles (the particles "von" or "zu" tend to give away the game) don't make a fuss about their heritage. Some have dropped the noble paraphernalia altogether, others don't use them in everyday life.

A "von" or "zu" still opens doors in 21st century Germany, and we are not talking about dungeon doors - well, some dungeons maybe, but describing these in detail is better left to some adult site.

The German military after WW II boasted a higher proportion of former nobility than the rest of society, and some big companies had "reserved positions" that were given only to von/zu particle carriers as late a decade ago.

It appears German reunification may have boosted the standing of the tenacious local nobles, if you take articles in major papers like DIE WELT about the wedding of the Prince of Prussia in 2011 as one measure.

And for those of you who love to be creeped out, we posted about one of the craziest conspiracy theories ever: an alleged underground movement of nobility plotting for the return of monarchy in the country. Read The weirdest German Kaiser conspiracy theory ever if you need to know.

At the end of the day, though, maybe it is more about cherishing roots than clinging to power a century after you lost it.

Even avid republicans sometimes can't help watching.

That's it for today, time to check on how the princess is doing.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Go Jesus, go! - the Corpus Christi procession is not a parade

It is that Sunday again, 60 days after Easter, and German Catholics perform their biggest procession of the year.

Here is a website with some basic information in English.

To us, the crucial thing about  the Corpus Christi procession is: it is not a parade. So, in rural or small town Germany, it is very uncool to stand on the sidewalk and watch.

It is even worse if you wave at the participants.

And never do the American thing and cheer.

Go Jesus, go! would be considered extremely offensive.

For the record, we did not commit any of these blunders. But barely.

The thing is, imagine you are not Catholic and new to a place like our rural hills (mountains for Brits and flatlanders), and one seemingly random Saturday a bunch of guys slowly drive by and dump a five or six foot birch branch every thirty feet on the sidewalk or onto your lawn.

You check on the web or with neighbors and do as implied by the birch, which is you put them upright, either against your fence, or into a small hole you dig for the purpose.
The next morning, on Sunday, the procession passes, and you are done.

The procession is a prayer and song procession, generally without music but they do have a PA system, a loudspeaker, these days. Germans probably understand the prayers, or at least they won't frown like we did on one occasion.

Did he just say "we are going to the airport?"


I don't understand a thing.

Me neither.

Locals told us that, in the old days, the procession was a marvelous event. A week or so prior, you'd see children out in the meadows collecting flowerheads, big buckets full. The flowers would be put in the cellar until the day before the holiday. Late Saturday, the towns and villages would come alive with preparations. The birch branches would go up, and much denser than today, every four feet or so. The kids would come out with their flowerheads and create a path of flowers along the middle of the street. Every house would build a shrine, a table with the best table cloth with a Jesus or Mary statue flanked by vases of flowers.
The whole place would be brimming with flags or all sizes in simple patterns, like yellow and white, red and white, green and white.
A traditional procession could easily take two hours. The priest under a large canopy, the German word which which is Himmel (heaven) would carry a vessel like this and they'd stop at certain bigger shrines for some more prayer and song.
Once they arrived back at the church, there 'd be even more song and prayer.

These days, they say, nobody goes to these lengths, the procession is much quicker.

Stop insulting and bashing Greece

So, the blogster feels bad for the Greek people and the debt woes that make the mythical intractable Gordian knot look like your average kindergarten knitting project. The commonly known version of how Alexander the Great solved undoing the knot is that he simply sliced through it with his sword.

In modern parlance, you could say, well, sometimes violence does solve a problem.

The less well known version of the story is "he unfastened it quite easily by removing the pin which secured the yoke to the pole of the chariot, then pulling out the yoke itself."

If you look at media coverage of what is commonly called "the Greek debt crisis", you might think Greece is a big country as critical to the world economy as Japan or China. In reality, Greek is a small country with a population of about 11 million and a GDP of less than 200 billion Euros. Greece's government debt in relation to its GDP is 175 % in 2015, which is less then 400 billion total.

Japan's ratio is 245% of a GDP coming in at 4901 billion, so around 12 000 billion, and you never hear about it. Presumably, that's because everybody thinks Japan will repay it one day.

Even the German ratio of about 67% of a GDP of about 3600 billion means a debt of about 2500 billion. Germany will, of course, repay. Except, repaying the principal has not happened there either. No "new debt" is as good as it gets.

German million print copies a day tabloid Bild Zeitung has a track record of producing headlines about Greece that could be considered hate speech, such as 'No further billions for the greedy Greek', and ignores history.
When the desperate new Greek government,  a socialist one at that, pointed out that Germany had never repaid some World War II loans, German "fiscal conservatives" became apoplectic.

Even the somewhat more reasonable German media generally point out that Greece has not had good governance since it regained its independence in 1830.

Reading this, the blogster felt the urge to ask which Western country had good governance in 1830 and the subsequent decades.

Other than maybe Iceland?

[Update 6/15/15] Fixed a typo as a courtesy to readers, not because it mattered but because it distracted.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

EU judges teabaggers by their raspberries

From our Everybody-is-full-of-crap series.

European consumers were handed a big win by the courts over German tea company Teekanne when the highest EU court decided the company's "Felix Himbeer-Vanille Abenteuer" (Felix Raspberry Vanilla Adventure) mislead buyers by showing raspberry and vanilla on the package.

The tea did not contain raspberry or vanilla. Nobody asked whether the tea contained Felix, but then cannibalism or eating cats does not happen often these days. An adventure, though, it turns out to be.

The tea contained natural flavors not made from vanilla or raspberry but from wood chips. The company held that the list of ingredients did not claim that raspberries or vanilla were used and that the picture on the container was marked "serving suggestion", hence not making false claims either.

The case made its way through the German court system and was eventually referred to the EU court by Germany's high court.

Teekanne, of course, now joins other companies on our private "feck if I buy from those guys again" list. That's very sad because the K-Landnews has a long history with both tea and raspberries.

We survived England in the days when the only drinkable coffee was to be found at Paddington and Kings X rail stations in tiny shops run by Italian immigrants, hidden behind bookstores. The irony in all of this is that England was the bastion of coffee before the continental cities we think of as coffee pioneers caught on. Then the teatotalers ruled Britannia for centuries until Starbucks came to the rescue.

As a forgiving bunch, we don't judge Teekanne too harshly because we can imagine worse ingredients than wood chip extracts.

Or, as one reader comment in a German paper said: I have a chemistry degree but the ingredients lists on food are a challenge even for me.

[Update 6/5/15] Links to German articles:


Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Investigative journalism 101: Check the website

The intrepid basement newsroom crew of the K-Landnews will not claim that our more than 2000 posts are free of errors. Even our resident perfectionist acknowledges that the many spelling and grammar errors we have produced over the years hide factual errors, too.

Of course, life in the basement is easy if you don't have a big staff to feed and keep happy, no advertisers to satisfy, and no reputation to maintain - because you don't have one in the first place.

Still, some reporting in the paid for, professional media is so sloppy that our "let off steam mouse" is more battered than planned. In case you don't know, we have an old computer mouse, its cord trimmed to a few inches to prevent workplace injuries when hurled across the room towards an imaginary lava lamp. When news become too upsetting, the mouse flies and calm returns.

One such occasion was the German uptake of the latest Bellingcat report on Ukraine: the Russians faked satellite images, the news said on Monday, 1 June 2015.
To be perfectly clear, Bellingcat is an interesting venture, and they have produced some verifiable results before.

What should worry you as a German news consumer is not the fact that Bellingcat says their of report: "These claims, representing the majority of information publicly presented by the Russian government since the downing of Flight MH17, are a clear attempt by the Russian government to deceive the public, global community, and the families of the Flight MH17 victims, only days after Flight MH17 was shot down."

What should worry you it that the major German outlets Der Spiegel, Die Zeit, Frankfurter Allgemeine gave the Bellingcat report top billing without even a modicum of verification by their own journalists.

Der Spiegel was gung ho about the Bellingcat piece, calling Bellingcat  "an independent investigative platform" and their contributors "experts".

This elevated level of credibility is not - yet - substantiated by facts. As a semi-pseudonymous blog, the K-Landnews understands reluctance on the part of contributors, but Bellingcat could alleviate issues though one simple measure:
Write a report that acknowledges the assumptions, processing and limits.

Not acknowledging even the most basic issues described on the Fotoforensics site used to create the ELA images, is a negative point for Bellingcat but inexcusable for Der Spiegel. If you cannot send an intern to read a few web pages, you have a problem.
The Spiegel title, by the way, included "How Russia manipulated MH17-proofs".

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung did modestly better while professing the same conclusions as Der Spiegel. The Frankfurter headline "Russia allegedly faked satellite images" is stronger than "manipulated" but adds "allegedly" to cover their behinds. In the article, they make abundant use of quotes and point to the internet roots of Bellingcat while pointing out "good reputation" in previous instances.
But just as Der Spiegel, they did not find it necessary to do any further research.

Finally, Die Zeit went Kremlin with their headline "Kremlin manipulated with Photoshop" on the Bellingcat report. While they write "An independent analysis now shows: The images were faked", they make sure that enough quotes and "should", "could", "allegedly" (or rather their German equivalents) are used to maintain a minimum of integrity.
But - but, just as Der Spiegel and Frankfurter Allgemeine, they did not find it necessary to do any further research.

On June 3, Der Spiegel demonstrated how to get the best of both worlds by publishing an interview with a professional photo forensics person, appropriately entitled: "Bellingcat reads tea leaves" (in German that's coffee grounds).

We will see if ZEIT and Frankfurter Allgemeine will follow through.

One more thing:
We do not generally tout credentials but will lift the veil a little for this post. Let's just say we have impeccable academic credentials, specialist journal publications, an odd software patent and coding skills down to messing with individual pixels of images/videos.

Monday, June 1, 2015

US TV show Veep and the German defense secretary

US TV series Veep (on HBO) is neither The West Wing nor House of Cards, nor...

Veep (short for Vice President) is a quirky 20 minute political comedy that hits home too often for our comfort. It is a world of intrigue, of soundbites, of ego and the resulting complications.

A few days ago, we read an article in ZEIT online on the allegedly sad state of the German military and felt instantly transported into a recent episode of Veep where former Veep and current President Meyer points out a painting in the Whitehouse, which incorrectly makes her personal aide believe she hates the painting. The aide removes it, only to set off a scandal about a native American painting being removed from the Whitehouse.

According to the German article, here is what happened when the German defense secretary, incidentally also a lady, walks the halls of her department after one morning briefing: she reportedly pointed at a painting in passing, asking her entourage "Do you like this?"

The next morning, the painting was gone.

Unfortunately, the article remains silent on details. Was the painting removed without being replaced? Not likely because this creates a blank spot which arouses curiosity. What was the motif, the scene that the entourage took as possibly not pleasing the boss? Abstract art like the painting in Veep, some boring nature scene, some historic uniformed Germans?

We may never know.

But thing seems clear, though. If you want to understand your government's inner workings, watch Veep.