Wednesday, July 29, 2015

What you censor speaks about you - the UK and porn

Strong language advisory: Some people and their views are called dumb in this post. If this offends you, please do not continue.

We did a previous post about what censorship really says about those who do the censoring.

In virtually every case, censorship illuminates the fears, the prejudices, and a generally dumb view of the world by those who do the censoring.

When it comes to censorship, the friendly K-Landnews folks in their comfy basement love to point out that the political systems of censoring countries are irrelevant. While democracies have a stronger claim regarding the "legitimacy" of censorship, the underlying philosophies and views are really not different from those in authoritarian states that censor the same expressions or behaviors.

But then censorship is really never about a specific social, religious or societal problem, even though one or more of them are hyped up as serious and damaging, like the Russians and their gays, the Saudis and women, and so on.

What is the difference between, say, China and the UK censoring access to online porn?
Not much other than the UK focusing on protecting children, where China casts its protection claims a bit wider.

Maybe the UK should invest time and effort into protecting children from offline molestation and abuse for once.

Statistics and recent revelations about child abuse by influential people in the UK mean that there is a chance that a small number of those loudly advocating censoring online porn in the UK are your everyday garden variety of real life child molesters.

While we are talking statistics, isn't it funny that at least one generation of adults has grown up awash in porn and has turned out fine?

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Tree surgeon tip: quicklime against lichen and moss

The use of quicklime (CaO) to remove lichen and moss from trees is an almost forgotten art in the 21st century.

There are a number of reasons for this, such as easier and hence more frequent trimming of trees using machinery. This reduces the density of the tree canopy, letting air circulate better, which reduces the buildup of moss and lichen.

Another reason is that trees on commercial farms simply don't grow as old as in previous times. Once production declines, cutting old trees and planting new ones is more profitable than getting several more decades of life out of a fruit or nut tree.

And finally, there is the high pressure water cleaner you know from car washes or building contractors. Although not as efficient as the quicklime method and tricky because of the potential of serious damage to recent growth, it is fast and "good enough".

And don't underestimate the "crazy factor". If passers by or neighbors see you on a ladder painting the whole tree, including the smallest branches white - which is what the quicklime method looks like - you will get asked what the heck you are doing.

Chemistry note
It's Calcium, not only harmless but beneficial.

Types of trees treated
I have used this method on a wide range of trees, such as walnuts, apples, cherries, plums and elderberries and on many shrubs and not had any problems.

Here is how to restore a tree using quicklime and water
Find a building supplier or a farming co-op and buy quicklime. Make sure to get the right kind of lime, don't just ask for "lime". Most kinds are not usable at all or not as efficient.
The lime you want is the stuff that bubbles and gets hot, very hot, when you add water to it.

Lime is sold in bags, mostly 25 or 50 pounds. Ideally, you'd get the great 100% CaO stuff, totally white. These days, it may be hard to find, as most store sell lime with 75 to 85% CaO.
This makes for safer transport and handling because the inert "other" minerals reduce the volatility of the product.

But you do need protective goggles for your eyes and leather gardening gloves either way. An old pair of jeans - no large tears - and an old wool or cotton shirt as well as old leather shoes or boots complete the protective gear you must wear.

Tools needed: two sturdy buckets, one of which should be a 2 to 2.5 gallon (10 liter) bucket, which is a good size to schlepp up and down the ladder. The second bucket can be larger or smaller, it will contain only water.
Get a couple of paint brushes, one to two or so inches wide, for more efficient application of the lime.

A trowel would be perfect for getting lime out of the bag, a stick will do best for mixing.

Choosing the right brushes
It is perfectly fine to wonder about this paragraph header or to imagine a couple of small cartoon style question marks.
You are not embarking on a watercolor or a fine art work, so why does the choice of brushes matter?

Because of the heat of the lime & water mixture.

The cheap set of 5 or 10 brushes offered on sale at the hardware store are just fine, but you will go through several brushes as the heat eats away at them. Some old pig hair brush turned out to be the longest lasting one for me, but it really doesn't matter, and new ones are too expensive for tree painting.

Prepare the lime & water mixture
Start out small and cautious. Got your old clothes as well as the goggles on?  Gloves, too?
Find a dry place outside - you don't want the bottom of the bag get moist on grass or so.
Fill the water bucket, open the bag of lime. Transfer a pound or two of lime into the empty bucket, then pour in a pint or two (up to a liter) of water. If you have the all white, pure lime, it will throw bubbles the moment the water hits the lime. Mix with the stick. As the lime reacts with the water, the bucket will get hot, and the mixture with thicken. The thickness of the mixture once the reaction ends (no more bubbles, no increase in heat) determines how easy the paint job is.
My preferred thickness is somewhat like a thick Thanksgiving gravy. You want a good, thick coat on the branches - as opposed to painting, say, a wall or a piece of wood, for which you want thin coats.

The "safety lime" takes its sweet time to fully react with the water and does so much less violently. This product can easily take 10 or 15 minutes to dissolve, and you will need to loosen it with the trowel several times in the process and also add water more often. It will work, just be patient and feel the heat.

Start painting, be generous
Start from the ground on a low branch or even the trunk to get a feeling for the lime mix. Moss or lichen will try to repel it, so you go over those patches a couple of times in a back and forth motion, ensuring to cover them nicely.
Don't try to get only the larger patches of moss or lichen, paint the whole branch, also the underside.

Once you are comfortable with the feel of the mixture and the required motions, get that ladder and enjoy.

Passers by and neighbors
You will get comments and questions. Professional landscapers may be either the nicest or the worst audience, and there are only two things you can do about it:
Remain friendly, explain this is a traditional technique.
Don't tell them you read it on a blog - unless you have seen the results of your work and know we gave you great advice.

The results
The mixture will suck water out of moss and lichen while not harming the bark of the tree at all. It also changes the pH, the "acidity", of the branch to the detriment of moss and lichen, and it kills tiny pests that hide unseen in moss and lichen.
Once the coat as dried out, peel away a small piece from a lichen or moss patch. The killed off moss or lichen will be blackish, hard and crumbly.

Over the subsequent months, the coat will come off all by itself, taking the dead lichen and moss with it, just leave the tree alone. Assuming you did the work in fall, you should have a fairly clear bark the next spring.

Emergency restoration during the summer
It can be done. It is just very messy, and you won't get all of the offending parasites at that time.
However, if a tree has been neglected for a decade or longer and the parasites are causing bark to fall of in big chunks, an emergency paint job may be the only chance of saving the tree.
It is pretty impressive to see how quickly treated branches recover, especially if you have some branches that cannot be done at the same time. The difference in ark health, foliage and new growth is striking.

One more thing
If you decide to build a machine and become famous as a tree restorer, be so kind to drop us an email.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Grandma believed the moon landing was fake

The other day, grandma's belief that the moon landing was fake came up in a dinner conversation with a friend. There were smiles, a chuckle or two, after all, to us, grandma was a nice old lady, very grounded aside from being convinced that we had not put a man on the moon.

There was some disagreement among us as to whether people who believe the moon landing was not real should be qualified as conspiracy theorists. The main argument for this qualification was that this is what pretty much everybody calls them. It is one of the top two or three examples in every single book about conspiracy theories.

The main argument against the label is that the moon landing "conspiracy" is a scientific issue, unlike most other primary examples, which are very much "who dunnit" stories.

The conversation soon moved on to gardening, house maintenance and other subjects.

But the blogster thought, well, let's have a look at what the internet says, what does Youtube offer?

Oh my! There are tons of grainy old videos as well as new ones. Watching a few revealed several staples of the belief system, such as the moving flag and double shadows as well as a brief speech by Neil Armstrong in the 1990s in which he mentioned "protected layers of truth". The guy who posted this clip seized on Armstrong's known reluctance to do public appearances and these few words to substantiate his claim that it all was a hoax.
But, as for all science related hoax claims, there are abundant videos that debunk these, such as Michio Kaku on the moon landing "hoax".

However, the resilience of hoax claims related to early space exploration is remarkable. There are even people who are sure that more recent projects are a hoax, including the international space station.

This beggars belief because it shows such vast ignorance of science that you may well ask what our education system has accomplished.

We then went and had a look at some of the professional debunkers and  researchers in the field of conspiracy theories and found many to be - politely phrased - wanting.

One reason for this is outside of the control of experts: the sheer volume and the unbeatable diversity of such claims. This makes it look like a cousin to the well known Murphy's Law which is anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Anything that can be made into a conspiracy (hoax) story, will be made into one.

Psychologists have been studying the phenomenon, and you can find plenty of information in the media, for example, this New York Times Magazine piece Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories.

The NYT article provides some clues for the widespread unease that creeps into discussions of conspiracy theories. A biggie is the fact that it has traditionally been linked tightly to the concept of paranoia, as shown by the title of Hofstadter's book The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Given that being called paranoid is right at the top of psychologically and socially devastating labels, the author of the NYT piece uses versions of the word "surprising" rather surprisingly often for a short article (three times).

The first use brings believers in from the margins: What’s even more surprising is that this sort of theorizing isn’t limited to those on the margins.

The second use describes the attitude of believers: They found, perhaps surprisingly, that believers are more likely to be cynical about the world in general and politics in particular.

The third use aims at the political theories: Surprisingly, Swami’s work has also turned up a correlation between conspiracy theorizing and strong support of democratic principles.

The often used strategy to marginalize people who believe in a conspiracy theory is, at least in our opinion, not great when 63 percent of registered American voters believe in at least one political conspiracy theory. But making fun of such beliefs is common, remember that even we smiled about grandma - although that smile was an acknowledgement of the fact that her belief regarding the moon landing was of no practical consequence whatsoever.

We don't want to dissect the whole NYT article, though there is much more to say, so we should be glad that the all out accusation of paranoia has been abandoned, even if only by psychologists, in the face of the 63 percent, and replaced by the concept of powerlessness.

The article ends with Either way, the current scientific thinking suggests these beliefs are nothing more than an extreme form of cynicism, a turning away from politics and traditional media — which only perpetuates the problem.

Needless to say, we don't agree with the conclusion "which only perpetuates the problem" because we don't see the issue as a unified problem, as we indicated with the introduction of the idea of "practical consequences".

When talking to regular folks, it seems that lots of "conspiracy theories" are not much more than an adult version of the monster under the bed stories we make up as children, entertaining, of little of no consequence.

Since the article and the researchers follow our dictum Anything that can be made into a conspiracy (hoax) story, will be made into one, one simple step in approaching "the problem" is to try and separate the many stories into different categories. It seems unproductive to lump - as the article does - the Boston Bombing, the Death of Princess Diana, 9/11, Watergate, and the Tuskegee experiment into one and the same story.

We are almost certain that the number of 63 percent of people who believe in at least one political conspiracy is very much at the low end of reality and that you'd get an even higher percentage if you queried people on a vast array of theories.

Aren't at least some of the major religions conspiracy theories?

The best advice, after trying facts, is probably the perennial Don't believe everything you think.

It did work for grandma.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A ranking of German tweets that attack people as a***hole

Note: Yes, we could have obtained a couple of "big data" tools and done a full study.
No, there was no incentive for doing that.
Caution: We limited the search to a single term of abuse. If you do a more comprehensive investigation, your results may vary. We only looked at Twitter, ignoring potentially more vociferous (more than 140 characters) attacks on Facebook.

We did a post titled Germany: freedom of speech, digital Middle Ages a few days ago and mentioned we had looked at hundreds of tweets talking about German comedian Mr. Nuhr, who complained bitterly once again about how he was viciously attacked for a joke about Greece.

We pondered, for a minute, and figured we should do a simple, very limited count of Twitter insults since 1 January for a select number of individuals.

Big data and shrewd language analysis ruled out as too expensive and f***ing time consuming anyway, we decided to limit a) by language: German and b) by insult: Arschloch, German for asshole.

The choice for a) is easily explained. Since folks were complaining about alleged bullying of a sensitive liberal German comedian, we picked German as the tweet language.

The choice of b) was more difficult. We needed an insult that was serious to the point of the target of the insult being able to go after the tweeter in the German court system. We also wanted a term that has a neutral gender (das) to save us the effort of performing separate searches for male and female tweetees (target of a tweet). We also wanted the insult to be a noun without a derived adjective or adverb - in other words - we wanted it to be ad hominem. Lastly, we wanted a common term that was not overly frequent, again due to sheer laziness.

Applying these criteria, the most common Germanic insult "Idiot" was immediately tossed: not only does the same word exist in languages other than German, it also comes with the adjective "idiotisch".

We settled on Arschloch as a suitable term.

Next, we needed to pick individuals and decided on several well known figures as well as on lesser known but nationally sort of significant people. An additional category of public figures who claimed to have been bullied on Twitter as well as some of their most vocal defenders was then compiled for comparison. It turned out that German Chancellor Merkel was not well suited for the time frame of the "study" because almost all tweets that combined her name and Arschloch dealt with a recent production by another German comedian entitled "Merkel - the pragmatic asshole".  So, the chancellor gets a free pass.

Search was performed using the individual's Name + TheOffensive term.

Remember, the numbers below are tweets between 1 Jan and 21 July 2015, and we tried to ensure we only picked those which we believed were clearly "ad hominem" (personal attack). 

Internationally known leaders
Putin: 23
Tspiras, Greek prime minister: 17
Gauck, German president: 16
Varoufakis, former Greek finance minister: 10
Obama:  5
Netanyahu: 2

German politicians 
Edathy, former social democrat rising star, embroiled in child porn scandal: 38
Gabriel, German vice chancellor, social democrat: 17
Seehofer, governor of Bavaria, very conservative: 17
Söder, Bavarian finance minister, very conservative: 11
Kauder, CDU party secretary: 6
Gysi, Left party chairman: 3
Ströbele, Green party: 1

Actors/comedians claiming rampant bullying
Dieter Nuhr: 5
Till Schweiger: 2

Conservative journalists supporting Nuhr/Schweiger claims of rampant bullying
Julian Reichelt, tabloid Bild Zeitung: 1
Jasper von Altenbockum, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: 1

The initial reaction to these counts was how come there are so few among millions of tweets in the timeframe in question?
All out a***hole attacks are simply not that common, period. As a matter of fact, an overview of use of the term in the past two weeks shows that an easy 98% of occurrences are for porn, "self-incrimination" (I behaved like...) or much more generic (no personal attack).

The ranking of the internationally known leaders is hardly a surprise, Mr. Putin tops, next come the "greedy Greeks". No anti-American sentiment, and no rampant anti-Semitism either. Among the German politicians, the top ranked Mr. Edathy is self explanatory, given the highly emotional nature of the issue.

We would not call the actor/comedian results proof of rampant bullying since both of them did make strong. polarizing statements prior to these responses. For Mr. Schweiger, the last previous A****hole incident dates back to 2013.

The two journalists who led the recent outcry about vicious mob rule, it appears they must have more insight into the phenomenon than our Twitter figures let on.

Or, maybe, it is harder to pass up on a good social media bashing than we in the K-Landnews basement newsroom can imagine.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Oh, humans: break it, fix it badly, then claim genius status

Since science seems to have nothing better to do than come up with ever more ways to demonstrate to humans that we are not superior, it is becoming proportionally harder to find aspects that make us unique among animals.

At the K-Landnews we would like to point out this trait: break it, fix it (often badly), then claim genius status.

Think about this for a second, and you will come up with multiple examples from all walks of life.

The K-Landnews TheEditor, always its* grumpy contrarian self, objected: If a trait or behavior is as pervasive, as universal as this one, it is unwise to claim it as unique to humans. There's a good chance, for example, that a mama cat teaching a little one to hunt mice goes 'shucks, you killed that mouse and then shoved it under some leaf litter to pretend you let it get away so you could stalk it again later' - the only reason we can not prove it is because we don't speak cat yet.

The latest ingenious innovation showing this pattern in action: vegan wine.

Break it
Vegan wine is only news because we "broke it" in the first place, when the ancient method of wine making was no longer good enough. Demands on taste, look, and time-to-vinegar evolved, and modern chemistry happily sold a panoply of goods to wine makers.

Fix it
Having successfully poisoned several generations of vintners - not counting suicides of bankrupt vintners by drinking pesticide concentrate because that very technology made wine from the other side of the globe cheaper than the local produce - some people decided to resurrect the old ways of wine making. Many use the knowledge of modern chemistry and biology but not the poisons created from that knowledge.

Claim genius status
Not every organic or vegan vintner makes this claim. But marketing and PR people are less squeamish when it comes to the use of hyperbole, and we won't fault vintners for not speaking out against it.

If you feel like discussing the break it, fix it badly, then claim genius status paradigm with friends or family, why not go buy a bottle of vegan wine and talk over a glass?**

* TheEditor insists on gender neutral forms of address, hence "it".
** Not a product ad, not supported by, not endorsed by, but also not - yet - condemned by any wine makers or marketers.

A sports car, a knife, and a young woman on an LA freeway

School was out for the summer, the kids had lots of time.

And no parents.

That's how they had ended up living in a Home. If you see Home capitalized, it's either on a Walmart door mat or some hideous cliche wall decoration - also from Walmart - or it is a place without parents.

A substitute parent was the best society had for them, but the teen considered herself lucky because their house mother was good to them. Many of the children were orphans, others were the human equivalent to puppies dumped by the roadside by disappointed or overwhelmed humans.

The teenage girls had the afternoon off, and she had decided to head to Venice Beach. The Venice Beach Boardwalk was a fun place to hang out in the summer. She loved the skateboarders, buskers, t-shirt and jewelry vendors and lots of normal people enjoying themselves. The noise, the smells, and the people of the Boardwalk were a sort of anchor for her for a couple of years before she would turn eighteen. On her eighteenth birthday, she would have to pack her bag and leave the Home.

But she would make as much of the two summers left before being on her own again.

She had been waiting for no more than ten minutes with her thumb out to signal she was hitchhiking when a sports car stopped. The driver leaned over and opened the passenger door. Before she got in, she glanced into the back seat area to check how messy the car was. Too messy was not a good sign. Then she bent down a little, she was tall for her age, to give the driver a once over. He seemed to be in his thirties, had a big, friendly smile: Hey, where you headed?

Venice Beach.

I'm going to Santa Monica, I can drop you off on Lincoln Boulevard, if that's okay. I'll take the freeway from here.

Sure, she said and got in.

She settled in, and they chatted as he got onto the westbound freeway after a few minutes. He got into the fast lane and said: I want you to suck my dick. She had been looking forward and turned as he said that. He was steering with his left and held a hunting knife in his right.
I want you to suck my dick, he repeated. She was silent, her eyes wide from stress. She turned slowly toward him, putting her left arm on top of the seat for easier movement. An instant later, her right leg was up over the low center console, and her foot hit his foot on the gas pedal. The car lurched forward as she pressed down on his foot as hard as she possibly could. He dropped the knife, grabbing the steering wheel with both hands: You goddam crazy bitch, what the fuck are you doing, let go, you'll kill us both.

That's exactly the point, she replied.

She gotten as far up and out of her seat as she could, maintaining an unyielding hold on his foot and the pedal.

Fucking crazy bitch, look, let go, I'll drop you off right here, I don't want to fucking die just because you don't want to blow me. 

Okay, I'll let go a bit. If you try something, I'll hit it again and run us into the center divider.

Okay, okay, go easy, I'll let you out.

She released enough pressure for the car to slow down to the speed limit, and he complied, moving over into the right lane, putting on the blinker and stepping on the brake. After what seemed like an eternity, the car came to a complete stop on the dry dirt strip by the side of the freeway. Without a word, she grabbed her small purse and bolted. She slammed the car door, and he started to roll immediately.

As she stood there in the hot early afternoon sun, she felt cold, and began to cry and to shiver uncontrollably.

This was the first time she found herself at the point of a knife. She didn't know it would not be the last.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Germany: freedom of speech, digital Middle Ages

We have written several posts about freedom of speech in Germany and noted in one that the German counterpart of the legal term "freedom of speech" is "freedom of opinion".

Said a smirking German: That means we have absolute freedom of opinion, you can have whatever opinion you want - as long as you don't utter it. We shouldn't be too nit picking, though, because the US Supreme Court declared that money is speech, so we are even.

Today, we'll write once again about German comedian Mr. Nuhr who recently went to court to have the authorities forbid a citizen to call him a "hate preacher". Mr. Nuhr failed in his attempt.

Before you read on, the blogster would like to admit that the K-Landnews does not find Mr. Nuhr funny and tried to convey this in the post "Comedy by numbers and comedy with numbers".

A week or so ago, we were surprised to see an article in the 'business' section of Frankfurter Allgemeine on the Greek debt crisis entitled "Dieter Nuhr is right". A few quick searches found the reference. After the Greek referendum which saw a majority of voters say "No" to the proposed bailout package, meaning a majority of Greek citizens did not want to see austerity policies continued and comply with loan payback demands.

Mr. Nuhr went on Twitter to comment: My family and I had a vote with a majority against continuing to pay our mortgage. The people have spoken.

The tweet supposedly triggered  wave of outrage, or - to use the German word for it - a Shitstorm. The German translation of "shit storm" is Shitstorm, revealing a simple rule for creating new German words: make a compound and capitalize the first letter.

Then, on 17 July, Mr. Nuhr got to write a piece in the same paper: "Report from the Shitstorm - We live in the Digital Middle Ages". The lead-in says we are on the way back to the Middle Ages. Why? Let's begin with an example. What follows is first a repeat of his tweet, then a complaint about how Greece is breaking a contract by voting against the bailout, and next a long diatribe about how users on Twitter and Facebook insulted Mr. Nuhr.

At this point, the blogster thought, wait a second, this is all about him. We went back to he episode described in "Comedy by numbers", re-read articles and tweets. After this, the blogster slogged through hundreds and hundreds of tweets published in reaction to "the people have spoken" as well as an equally large number of tweets that appeared in reaction to the "digital Middle Ages" piece.

One paragraph in Mr. Nuhr's "middle ages" article is titled: I lack the power.
There are hundreds of millions of Twitter or Facebook users who do not have power but he is not one of them.
The number of social media users who can call up one of the big four or five newspapers in the country and get ample space to air their plight is likely to be on the order or one millionth of one percent.

The conclusion: it is all about him.

There were indeed some nasty tweets, but there was plenty of agreement, too. If someone out there feels like automating the responses, I'd love to see the results. Nothing we have seen is even remotely close to the kind of abuse hurled social media users who have no power.

Friday, July 17, 2015

How to become a cyber expert

This is a brief guide on how to become a cyber expert in non-English speaking countries.

If you want to become one in an English speaking country, the bar is pretty high, and competition from established experts is serious. Your best chance in one of these countries is to work for the government, with two major careers paths: either join an outfit that hires so many computer folks that chaos reigns supreme, or - recommended - go into an agency that has no track record of anything "cyber" and talk yourself up the ladder.

Either works, as you may have heard: a cyber expert of the US Interior Department worked in the field for five years with only a fake degree.

In the rest of the world, you can try these steps if you have no specialized training and experience:

Call yourself a cyber expert
It is not a regulated job title, and you need to take ownership of it. As in any other job, you'll be too old to enjoy the title if you wait for other people to start using it in reference to you.

Get a Twitter and Facebook account and start experting
Start you with re-tweets or simple statements of facts. You'll soon learn who can be made fun of and who needs to be respected. In order for you to be taken seriously, use your real name, or a close approximation.
If you go with a pseudonym, you may eventually find recognition, but you have to be very good - and few people achieve this. 

Stay away from coding
If you write software for a living, you will make mistakes, and you may have to spend lots of time to live down past software bugs if you worked on highly visible, critical projects. Instead, use existing tools and write about those.

Brush up on jargon 
Binge watch the US comedy series Silicon Valley to get a usable amount of jargon and an overview of the mores of the Valley of the Silicon Kings.
Your cyber job will involve both praising of and bitching about Silicon Valley. And since you can not work there or don't have the time to, the TV series will  give you all that you need.

Select a hand to feed you
Since you are learning, the title of the paragraph is a reference to the tag line of British IT site The Register. Twice daily visits to The Register, or El Reg as you should call it, are mandatory for your cyber career.
Selecting a hand to feed you is easy if you are willing to work with "structures of authority" and love a steady, good paycheck, then law enforcement or the military are where you should go.
Outside of government and big industry, life as a cyber expert is hard, and you may well live on the poverty line after deduction of hardware and software.

It takes a thief to catch a thief
Computing is one of the few areas in modern society where this idiom is still valid. It no longer is valid in its original field, mind you. But in IT, you can still morph from bad guy (black hat) to good guy (white hat) and be able to feed a family and raise kids. So, a benevolent background as a minor hacker willing and able to jettison your belief system at the drop of a hat (the black one) will ensure a decent life.

Adventures for sysadmins
I know, there are some sysadmins out there who believe they should get a crack at the glamorous life of the cyber expert. I understand this dream of people who live under artificial light, breathe artificial air, and see the packets of life fly by - indicated only by flickering LEDs. Sure, you can try.
First, ditch the sysadmin - call yourself Internet Engineer with cyber expertise, or go straight to cyber expert. Nobody in the world really respects people who know which way a byte points (big or little endian), but they do love to hear you say demilitarized zone.
Just don't quit your day job.

Get a degree in your native language
First off, "cyber" is talking and writing with as much complexity as you can contrive. Engineers may come to hate abstraction layers, but the new you, the cyber expert, will love them. Only you will be able to lay out an advanced insider threat strategy that will include "stimuli" to be "injected" into the work environment and keep a straight face presenting it to the guys who decide on the budget.
The blogster would call your fine strategy a "gussied up sting operation" or "automated stings" and fail to get a measly dollar for it, whereas you will walk away rich.

Learn English
Okay, that's a pet peeve, possibly not even a good one given my own limitations. But folks, I simply cannot stand it any more when someone writes "principle engineer" or "principle developer". My principal would say this goes against his principles.

Work for a huge, unwieldy or boring organization
Recently, the example of a UN CyberSecurity expert made the rounds because the gentleman sent out a few disastrously incorrect tweets about the anonymization tool TOR. Everybody made fun of him, but we at the K-Landnews believe he independently discovered some of the steps laid out above.
Alternatively, work for a boring institution like the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Until the recent great data breach, almost nobody outside of the federal government had ever heard of OPM. So, find a place where they are still discussing whether the spelling CyberSecurity or cyber security is the right one.

[Update 10/1] Added Work for a huge, unwieldy or boring organization

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Will you shoot us now, officer?

Somewhere in the greater LA area, not far from the Pacific, a black convertible with three women is making its way through traffic.

The ladies keep a conversation going as the driver, the oldest one, weaves to get ahead faster. A police car passes and flashes its lights. Time to pull over on the side of the road, onto the dirt of one of the many LA area cities that have no sidewalks whatsoever.

What both the cruiser and the black convertible come to a halt, two officers get out of the police car and approach the women.

The car didn't even have hub caps, one would later explain. We must have looked like a Latina girl gang, especially with Suzie's hair dyed pitch black and donned into a beehive.

As one of the officers gets close to the driver's side, the other pulls his gun, extends his arms and raises the firearm.

License and registration, please.

The driver hands both to the officer. He takes both and turns towards the cruiser to check the papers.

What's wrong, officer? the passenger in the front seat asks.

He is already a few yards away and does not respond. The second officer is standing still, gun raised.

The first officer comes back and hands the papers to the driver.

Two of your brake lights are out, I'll have to write you a citation.

The woman in the back seat says: Can I make a phone call?

The front passenger warns her: Don't move your hands, don't you see there's a gun pointed at us? She moves her head towards the officer with the firearm: Are you going to shoot us now, officer?

The officer shifts his weight slightly as the officer next to the driver asks: Where are you from, Mam?

What do you mean? Originally?

Yes, Mam.

From Germany.

I swear to God, she would later say, the gun came down as soon as I said from Germany. 

And where are you coming from now?

From the airport.

And that was the end of it, she explained later. The cop at the door finished the ticket for Suzie while the other one put away his gun and walked back to the car. You gotta see this with your own eyes, I don't know, maybe they didn't want to upset a foreigner. As soon as I had told him we came from the airport, I think he thought I came from Germany. She chuckled. With my accent, which I haven't managed to get rid of after twenty years in the States, he probably never thought I might have come from the East coast to visit Suzie.

We are not telling you the story is not because it is a cop story, or because we want to write about sitting in the LA sun at the business end of a gun. Although this most certainly helps to get the attention of an audience.

The reason for the story is that it is a perfect illustration of how people fill in the blanks in communication, of how we all glue what we see and hear into a coherent story. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Greek debt porn still going strong in German media

It's a figure of speech, folks, just a figure of speech, in case your mind is going places.

This said, the German media reporting on the Greek debt crisis in the past six months has shown all the hallmarks of bad porn, a bad BDSM flick, and the money shot for the established traditional outlets was Mr. Varoufakis riding off into the sunset on his motorcycle with his blonde wife. Not a single paper failed to emphasize her hair color.

Sure, you can argue that Greek cartoonists did not pull any punches when they decorated German politicians' attire with swastikas. But hey, history is what it is, and you cannot tell me that German right-wing extremists didn't relish seeing their beloved symbol in print because they themselves cannot use it without going to prison.
It is all part of the BDSM script, ask an unnamed British prince if you need more examples.

The blogster had hoped things would slow down a little once the "compromise" that Paul Watzlawick might have phrased as a choice of "potatoes or spuds" was signed.

Far from it, the fault lines are growing like welts, continuing to swell when the beating pauses or stops altogether. Maybe that hope simply betrayed the ignorance of the blogster.

Just yesterday, one major German paper ran a section on politicians as toy boys - In debt but sexy. Any takers for a new German show titled The Desperate Housewives of Berlin?

Another paper ran a piece "Rich, beautiful, leftist: social classes in Greece", but only really talked about the country's liberal elite until it got to its very own money shot in the second to last sentence: Instead, all Greeks somehow seemed to feel they are grandchildren of the philosopher Plato. hence, the rest of the world should lie at their feet.
Next is a dig on Mr. Varoufakis as "an example of this theory" and a benevolent nod to his apparently less flamboyant successor.
The paragraph that contains this incendiary statement starts with "if you ask in Greece about the successes of the professors" and subsequently creates the impression that the sentence in question comes from a "renowned Greek intellectual". The intellectual remains anonymous and does not elaborate if he (assuming male) also sees himself as a grandchild of Plato. No explanation as to why the chosen philosopher is Plato - we assume it is because of his work "The Republic".

There have been other views of Mr. V., less Hulk, more devil, such as this photo in a German paper a few days before the deal.

The German reads: Stattdessen fühlten sich alle Griechen irgendwie als Enkel des Philosophen Plato, denen der Rest der Welt zu Füßen liegen müsste.


Monday, July 13, 2015

The playbook for Greece? That of the dismantling of East Germany

It may come as a surprise to you that we claim the playbook for Greece is eerily similar to the set of policies that governed the dismantling of East Germany.

Why would anybody in their right mind make this comparison? Wasn't the fall of the Berlin Wall something utterly different, a wonderfully joyous affair that offered a glimpse of, for lack of a better word, hope - as opposed to Greece with its woes, no hope, or not much?

Many experts have talked about similarities between Greece and Argentina, largely because of the involvement of the IMF as well as shady hedge funds and investors in both crises, and also because of the chaos associated with both.

In contrast, the transition of East Germany seemed pretty boring, efficient in that German way we still believe exists. But that impression is only one part of the story, the part the world got to see while the cameras were still rolling.

What is planned to happen with Greece is very much a combination of Argentina and East Germany. The basic monetary issues and the involvement of international players look more like Argentina, the dismantling of the country and the "nation building" are a lot like East Germany.

The latter is in part explained by the fact that many of the German actors are the same as back in the time after 1989. The current German finance minister Mr. Schäuble was a leading member of the then - and now - ruling conservative party. Many other current German cabinet members were already influential in West Germany, many others received huge career boosts when they were parachuted into the eastern half to bring the Western system to the newly formed, or re-formed, states of the downed socialist state.

The single eye opener in the latest EU-Greece "agreement" lifted straight from the East Germany playbook is the "asset trust" that is to oversee and handle Greek privatization.
It is smaller, granted, but otherwise the exact same thing - even lead by Germans through a Luxembourg subsidiary of the West German bank that oversaw World War II reconstruction in the West and then rebuilding in the East.

Besides added complexity through involvement of international interests, there is one crucial difference on the level of practical policy: far less cash is going to Greece than to East Germany. Ironically, the initial West German estimates for the East Germany buy out were around 100 billion Deutschmarks, roughly the same in Euros adjusted for inflation. Not all that different from the initial figures for Greece.

German politicians have avoided to track the true expenditures closely guessed it, they were astronomical, standing at around 2 trillion according to the best figures scientists have put together.

German citizens paid for this through higher taxes and fees. A "solidarity tax" of 7,5% (now down to some 5,5%) on top of income tax that originally paid for the First Gulf War was extended to pay for East Germany. In case you didn't know that Germany put up lots of cash for the first Gulf War, they paid around 20 billion out of somewhere around 60 billion Deutschmarks. Anyhow, this rededicated tax plus subsequent hikes in sales tax and the introduction of other levies and taxes brought in a lot of cash for the East.

How did the asset trust work out?

Much of East German industry and infrastructure was sold off at bargain basement prices - which you will see more of in Greece.

There were a lot of shady deals and substantial corruption, too, some prosecuted, most not.
Going to happen with Greece, too. Corruption is a whole new topic, but let's just say that German corruption is alive and well, they simply do it differently than the Greeks, less envelopes of cash, more gentlemen's agreements. Although Mr. Schäuble himself was embroiled in a party donation scandal that involved envelopes of cash - but the party closed ranks, and he came out "clean".

At the political level, the current provisions regarding Greek laws and the neutering of the Greek parliament are almost identical to the East Germany playbook. When chancellor Merkel and the EU said they would want to undo laws passed by the Syriza government, they were echoing the East German playbook. Though, in the latter case, all laws of the German Democratic Republic were annulled.
The newly elected East German state parliaments were faced with the exact same situation planned for Greece: all planned legislation to be approved by the creditors. For East Germany, there was just one creditor, and that one didn't call itself creditor but bringer of democracy and freedom.
So, they passed the legislation they were told to pass.

And those East Germans who did not play ball?

They got the treatment of short term Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis or folded like the young Greek prime minister.

[Update 7/15/2015] German weekly Die Zeit website today has a short article on the German asset trust for East Germany.
The financial result of that venture? They expected a profit of 300 billion Euros (600 billion Deutschmark) and ended up with a loss of 120 billion Euros.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Higher rates of depression in wealthier German states

In between more or less, mostly less, good German media reporting on Greece, tucked away between summer reading suggestions and beach booze recipes, there was another article about the ravages of mental health problems in modern Germany.

Maybe our regional paper needed a filler? Maybe the editors believed they stood no chance trying to explain to us hillbillies the intricacies of the hacking of Italian "lawful surveillance software" company Hacking Team?

The article text is unremarkable, it brings up the common themes of high demands on workers, it provides indications that well compensated workers have lower rates of depression. One medical expert warns that a point of over diagnosing of depression has been reached because doctors might be tempted to assign the label of depression to collections of unclear symptoms.

In any case, they wrote a piece on depression in Germany and had a bar chart showing rates by state.

The chart is absolutely striking. The states with the highest percentage of diagnosed cases of depression are the wealthiest German states. The two southern economic powerhouses Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg take spots 1 and 4, with Berlin and Hamburg as numbers two and three. Other than Berlin, which consists of the former East German and the former West German parts and has the typical high concentration of f***d up power-amped government types of a national capital, these states belonged to the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) before re-unification after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

The final four states in the chart are four of the total of five states that make up the former country of East German. The fifth state, Saxony, is at number six from the bottom, with one formerly West German outlier on number five.

The article fails to mention this line-up, leaving readers to speculate what the reasons could be. A quarter of a century after re-unification, the former East German regions are still not as wealthy as the old West German states and have higher unemployment rates, but can this help explain the chart?

Is life in the richer West more stressful? Does more anxiety exist there after they lost much of the social safety net comforts West Germany was known for? Are doctors in the old West quicker to diagnose depression?

All the article tells us is that the group of people between the ages of 25 and 40 has seen a steep increase in depression rates, which just might be a sign that work or social pressure in general may be a contributing factor.

We will keep and eye on future reports to see if there is continuity in this startling difference.

Friday, July 10, 2015

How to always be right - and why Russian propaganda doesn't cut it

We have read a lot in recent times about how powerful Russian propaganda is, how dangerous to the Western public, how the Rooskies try to undermine Europe.

Researchers showed us a Twitter analysis of Russian propaganda accounts, all major newspapers and TV stations have reported abundantly on troll factories and the very real threats and harassment of activists who go in and then report on their experiences.

We, in the West, have personalized obvious and not so obvious Russian lies about Ukraine and designated one man, Mr. Putin, as our Lord Voldemort. Except, that is, the Daily Show, because they had assigned the Voldemort label to Dick Cheney and hence went with Vlad the Shirtless.

But, the internet being what it is, there was some pushback on this narrative, because in depth reports on the output of the troll factories not only showed harassment of former workers but ineptitude on the part of those previously presented to us as highly professional manipulators of minds.

As a result, some - very few - of our own media started to make a distinction between inept and laughable output designated for Russian internal consumption and some as yet not clearly identified elite propaganda aimed at the more "sophisticated" Western minds. Russian broadcaster RT has been designated as falling into this category, and we have seen and heard a couple of RT folks who threw in the towel and aired their legitimate grievances.


The K-Landnews verdict on Russian propaganda, both 'versions', is simple: It is as inept and as quaint as the old Soviet propaganda.

How can an unknown little blog dare make such a claim that flies in the face of many a Western expert?

Because we have as many years of experience** with this very subject as some of the loudest voices in the West. Actually, more than some.

Also, independent Western experts will largely agree with our statement. Where do you find Western experts who are not beholden to the NATO organization itself or to media and parties closely affiliated with it?

Some are, and that may surprise you, members of Western intelligence agencies. The chiefs, of course, may know but won't go public with their knowledge, at least not until they are safely retired and don't want to make more money. Look for independent minds at the analyst level, and you'll find some. Others are former career diplomats, and then there are academics.
By far the greatest number of people who know how inept Soviet propaganda really was is made up of ordinary people who lived under the system.

To be fair, Soviet propaganda, or Russian, or Chinese - that of any authoritarian government - doesn't have to be masterful, slick, or convincing as long as there is enough power in the system to make publication of diverging opinions sufficiently expensive to any would be dissenter.

The carrot and the stick.

A standard way of doing business in the Roman Empire and ever since, authoritarian governments tend to not have enough carrots (like North Korea) or just use the stick way too much, like unnamed German governments. Examining variations of the carrot and stick theme can help understand cultures and countries.
There are plenty of carrots to go around in the West, and we are using them liberally, plus, we have a big stick - which we also use freely.
Our propaganda is a lot better than that of the Russians, so we should all calm down a bit.

They are doing us lots of favors, like enshrining an anti-gay stance into law, or opening a military Disneyland. Their increase in military spending can be exploited as a new Cold War, or Cold War 2.0 in propaganda speak.

We should reign in our own smart ass generals, though, like the German four star commander who gave a long interview to German daily Die Welt recently. He started out fine, checking off all the right boxes until he got the end where he said that Russia cannot financially afford a large war.

It is nice to see he knows facts, too. But statements like that undermine our valiant effort to keep the world safe from an enemy we do not have. He needs to take a lesson from the politically sophisticated folks around here. They, at least, try to shame NATO countries into spending 2% of their GDP per year on the military without putting numbers side by side. Or, if they do, they will only cite the Russian GDP percentage, which just happens to be the only figure that's remotely disquieting enough.

How to be always right?

Read some Western papers, figure out where they are on the political spectrum, then go back and read as much as you can on a single hot button subject in any of these papers as you can.
The subject can be domestic or foreign policy or economy, it doesn't matter, the pattern will look very similar: for every ten to twenty strongly "core belief" articles, you will get one more enlightened, more fact based one. The bigger that ratio, the more tabloid the paper can be said to be.

The best about this approach is you are almost always right. You can, for example, let it rip about Greece, just insert one or two human interest pieces in a stream of hateful garbage, so that you can pull those out when some indignant leftie or Gutmensch calls you out on a pattern of hate.

That, dear Rooskies, is how you do propaganda.

While you are at it, rebrand your troll factories as think tanks, works well for us.

[Update 3/18/2016] A good example of the workings of Western propaganda can be found in the 2016 post  German 2016 Munich Security Conference coverage like early 80s Soviet papers.

** No, the blogster won't list them because nothing sways true believers anyway. You can send us an email if you really want to know.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Yellow grapefruit is not sour -- a perennial post

The weather has not been kind to our garden fruits this year. Too cold and dry for many months, then hot without rain, the red currants ripened more than two weeks later than in a normal year.

The peaches are the size of plums, who knows how they will turn out.

The thunderstorm that ended several months without precipitation started out with hail which ripped all grapes off the vine.

And tomatoes?

What tomatoes?

Instead of fresh fruit out of the garden, we are stuck with grocery store produce. Sure, it is not as gross as the "fresh fruit and vegetables" aisles in the UK or Ireland but that's not a good baseline.

To the blogster, not having to see the grapefruit at the store for a few months out of the year has become strangely important in Germany. Because grapefruit in this country are awfully sour.

As if someone took a bicycle tire pump to a lemon.

On a particularly bad day, this weird image comes to the blogster's mind: a huge, artificially lit warehouse somewhere in Southern Europe, trucks of lemons arrive at one end, incessant streams of small yellow fruit run down wide chutes into the building and onto conveyor belts. Poor migrants stand there twelve or sixteen hours a day, sticking bicycle pumps into lemons, pumping them up into round grapefruits. Migrant children peel tiny labels off of drums, stick them on the grapefruit, and more migrants pack them into crates that are then shipped to Northern Europe to be sold at just under a Euro a fruit.

Having picked ripe grapefruit off a tree in the Southern United States can do that to you.

The best places to pick your own are not farms, by the way. Incomparably juicy and sweet grapefruit can be found in retirement community trailer parks in the southern US deserts.

You see, when people move there, many plant grapefruit trees.

As the trees mature, folks get older, and many of them suddenly find themselves on medication that requires a strict "no citrus" diet.

Go there in November and December and ask nicely, and you can pick as much grapefruit as you want.

The side effect: it spoils you forever.

The last time we did that, we raided a paper bag bin at a Safeway cash register in town and filled bag after bag. The car smelled like fresh grapefruit for months afterwards.

We were just north of one of the unpleasant inland border control check points where everybody has to stop and answer the question: are you a US citizen?

Imagine showing up at a checkpoint with the back seat and the trunk filled with paper bags full of grapefruit, the passenger said. Sir, may I see the grapefruit. Well, more like, get out of the car, what's with the grapefruit? Maybe they'd have one of those unruly German shepherds all over the bags, ripping some of the bursting fruit, and you'd leave with a puddle of fresh chomped juice slowly running from the back seats towards the front, emerging from under the driver seat as if you'd have peed in the car.

If you travel for more than a day, make sure to offer the desk clerk at the motel a bag.

Should anybody feel like airlifting some trailer park grapefruit to Europe, let me know. I'll pick up a crate at any airport within a day's driving distance.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The world needs Deadheads

The final live show of the Grateful Dead has come to a close at Soldier Field in Chicago.

On their 50th anniversary, the band calls it quits.

The "followers of the Grateful Dead", as deadheads are typically called, have filled the stadium in Santa Clara, CA, last week and congregated in Chicago for the final run over the 4th of July weekend.

For those of you who don't know the band's music, go to Youtube and look at some clips from live shows. To deadheads, it is no secret that their live shows have always been what made the band special.

Deadheads, somewhat mistakenly called "fans", are an eclectic, wildly diverse crowd. Yes, there are the tie-dye t-shirts - and socks, and baby onesie's and hatbands and blankets and and ties, and pins and more pins, paintings, silk screens and 3D art...and cover bands...

Largely unnoticed by the mainstream, some Grateful Dead songs have become embedded in the wider music of the United States.

These days, you find Southern Bluegrass bands as well as symphonic orchestras play songs like the marvelous Ripple.

While the band was touring across the U.S. until we lost Jerry Garcia in 1995, the Grateful Dead had the equivalent of a touring circus of Deadheads in tow. Some towns embraced the thousands of travelers, other towns shunned them. The band itself went through periods when fans were seen more as a burden, at one point sending copyright goons out into the parking lot to confiscate rose t-shirts. Which were just rose t-shirts despite the rose being an icon of the band.

But in the last decades, the remaining band members embraced the small time Deadhead parking lot vendors, the bustle of Shakedown Street (named after one of the Dead's songs).
For many thousand youngsters in those days, the Tour was literally the only family they had.

Some of the most hilarious and some of the most heartbreaking events you can imagine played out in the Deadhead scene, Much of this heartbreak was caused by drugs --- not necessarily the drugs themselves but the inevitable crack down by local police and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Here is an archive of some of that heartbreak.

The non threatening, peaceful Deadheads were a lure the cops could not resist. Like fish in a barrel. No weapons, no meth head with a potential of exploding into violence, just hipppies.

They even wore Birkenstocks.

Hippie shackles - try running from a predator in Birks.

Politically, Deadheads are often seen as radical liberals, which is an over simplification. As a group, the Heads are very much community oriented, grass roots type folks.
And, yes, we hitched a ride once from a show to the airport with a group of white guys whose pickup truck sported a huge Confederate flag.

Feeling safe - that's one of the characteristics of being in a group of Deadheads. They tends to let people be who they are, no questions asked, including so many celebrities, you'd be surprised.

Sure, in the days of smartphones, there have been tweets with "oh, Bill Murray is here" or so. But Dead shows have been always been places where celebs who could not normally go anywhere without a body guard would simply hang out and be themselves.

Deadheads have been a very inclusive community, welcoming others in an often polarized world, and for that, we owe them if not gratitude, then at least a nod.

A big thank you to the Grateful Dead and to the Deadheads.

We are everywhere.

Summer recipe: Concentré de Ribes Rubrum

From our Everything-tastes-better-in-French series.

Can you feel a tiny uptick of saliva already?

If you expect a fancy recipe, close this window right now. This recipe won't even qualify as a recipe in the eyes of most chefs!

We are teasing you with the botanical name of red currants, Ribes Rubrum, to generate mystery (for non botanists) as well as slight bewilderment (for internet bots).

Paste of currants or cooked down currants simply don't sound cool.

Currants are mostly prized for their juice, because nobody wants to spend hours plucking the tiny berries off the stems. Although, just like shelling peas or beans by hand, the task can have a strong meditative feel. You will need to do at least one or two large buckets for that to kick in, though.

For this recipe you need: Red, black, or white currants, or any mix thereof.

Rinse and de-stem the currants, put them into a wide pot or pan for best evaporation of the water content, add half a cup of water to avoid them sticking on the bottom, bring to a boil, let simmer on very low heat for three to six hours. Stir occasionally.

Pour in clean jars.


After a minute or so of boiling, you can use a potato masher to crush the berries if you want. This only changes the texture of the product and is a mere matter of preference.

The process takes longer on very low heat but this seems to be key to maintaining as much flavor as possible, and, in the case of red currants, it won't totally oxidize the red color pigments.

By the time the blogster transfers the viscous concentrated currants into jars, the volume is around one fifth of the original volume. This simply is our preferred "point of taste", meaning the concentrate is sweet enough but not too sweet without any extra sugar. At this point, it also keeps for at least six months in a sterilized jar, which is about twice as long as it takes to finish off the yummy concentrate.

Yes, you can add sugar if you must. But you should do it only as your mixture gets close to the desired final volume. Chances are you will forgo added sugar if you taste the concentrate at that point.

Most other fruits give great results, too.

Try apples (peeled and cored) with the juice of ripe berries of Mountain Ash cooked down in the same manner.
Add a handful of very finely chopped lemon or mint. Fresh leaves of sage are another good one.

Wrap and give away to share the love.

You should keep enough for yourself if your tolerance of frustration is within average limits. Having to buy jams at the grocery store in Fall just as your friends and family rave about your preserves it not easy for everybody to handle with grace.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Pots and knives scammer working in 100+ (F) heat

100 degrees Fahrenheit today in the German hills, a handful of degrees below the 4th of July daytime high in the desert town of Palm Springs, California.

Having checked on the elderly neighbor, a real life demonstration of "90 is the new 60", it's time to go see the first Highland cattle a friend acquired over the last couple of months.

We pull into the driveway of the tiny hamlet and turn off the car.

There is another car right behind us, performing a half turn, coming to a stop at a ninety degree angle.

Boxed in between buildings on three sides and the mystery car on the fourth side.

Dripping with sweat, courtesy of what passes as motor vehicle air conditioning around here in any non-Mercedes, non-Beemer or the like, we get out of our vehicle and are faced by a male in his forties or so.

There is no shop in this village?


Oh, well, are you from here?

From the U.S.

His accent sounds Dutch, maybe northern Belgian.

Hm, I'm on the way to the airport and wanted to see if the local shop would buy the set of pots and a set of knives I can't take with me to Zurich. Would you like them for free?
I have no use for them and can't take them on the plane, the knives.


Thinking wtf is he trying to do, he can't be serious. Let's play along a bit, best case I get a set of pots and knives for free, worst case he'll try something weird. There is nobody else in sight. Could he try to mug us? Next thing you know, he is out of the car, opens the trunk and a large cardboard box to show us four nice looking pots and pans.

My boss told me not to bring them back, he says as he asks how much we think they sell for. A flyer appears in his hands, he points to the upper right hand corner and reads out one thousand five hundred Euros.

I paid less than 20 Euros for my last pot.

They are yours, gratis, he continues and reaches for a small wooden box. See these knives, they are Damascus steel. Yours for free, too. It would be great if you could give me the money I need to pay in taxes at the airport after I return this rental car.

Shall we cut him off right now and ask him to leave? Nah, if he wants to get money, let him work a bit harder for nothing. Cornering me in over a hundred degrees is not a good way to humor me. At this moment, our host steps out of the house. The scam artist produces a second box of Damascus knives.

That's worth fourteen hundred Euros. If you, he nods at our host then us, would pay me for this one, that would cover the taxes.

Our host looks at the four pattern welded knives: They are nice.

I step back to get a closer look at the car and tune out of their conversation. On the windshield, it sports a Swiss toll sticker for 2015. Time to call it quits, but as I turn to them, he is busy trying to get money out of our host.

So, how much money do you have?

Not enough.

If you split it, you could do it. You have money in the house, don't you?

Look, you just go towards the airport, I'm sure you'll find somebody there who can help you out.

Then everything happens very fast. The trunk closes, the guy gets into the car, utters what must be a curse, and is heading out of the driveway. The car has Dutch plates.

Good to see you, says our host. Come on in, this heat is unbearable. Someone called the cops on a guy trying to scam with pots and knives a few days ago. Maybe that was him.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Internet as an outrage machine & other media myths

German weekly Die Zeit just started another round of media soul searching with an article called "Who still trusts us?" (this is the English version). Remarkably, the piece has garnered over 1000 reader comments at the time we are writing this post.

While I do not share many of the views of this essay, it is worth reading, in particular for the stark, graphic examples of cruel and disgusting verbal attacks on journalists on social media.

They do provide some background to much of the bitterness that characterizes the rest of the article. How would I feel if almost everything I write can kick off a barrage of invectives?

Don't we all tend to develop a sort of tunnel vision over time, can this be a noxious conditioning hard to break out if? Trying to understand the impact of these attacks brought up an episode of NPR's This American Life about policing, specifically the impact of officers doing only night shifts in a problem neighborhood.
Some of the night shift officers developed, let's say, policing problems of their own, the kind that makes the misc. section of the local paper and, if they go horribly wrong, a national headline story.
Unsurprisingly, conditioning can contribute to this, and something as simple as putting the officers on day shifts already made a big difference. They got to see and realize their dark, strange workplace was where families lived, where businesses other than liquor stores were open, where people went to churches, and to work.

So, journalists get hammered. Bad.

Time for media outlets to pay for counseling.

Beyond this, the article brings us the usual complaints, the oft repeated combo argument: for the first time in history, people without any expertise in a matter or no education can reach the masses.
Only partly true: yes on "from the opposite end of the world", yes on "nearly instantaneously", yes on "many more people than ever, just have a computer", not so much true for everything else.
The world's most famous idiots, wingnuts and mad men have done well without Twitter or facebook and without expertise or education.

Sure, you can claim, as a German "media scientist" says according to the article, that social media and the reader comment sections of online news outfits have become veritable internet outrage machines. There is always somebody who yells "scandal, scandal", creating "an outrage frenzy out of nothing".

But that final sentence could used just as well to describe German tabloid Bild Zeitung, so why go after social media idiots? Because you can call them whatever you want without fear of lawsuits?

There are innumerable examples of "traditional media" latching on to and giving faux outrage a wider audience - only to turn around and bitch about the internet a few articles later.  Look at how, for instance, Der Spiegel covered a laundry detergent's promo of "88 washes". Pathetic.

In that context, the blight of anonymity is held high in the article. You won't see facebook quoted as an example of how to do the right thing often, but the article likes facebook's real name requirement. And fails to figure out that evil doers can easily subvert it.

The quality of bad behavior is not new, the quantity certainly is.

Papers like Die Zeit have made an honest effort to investigate the crisis of confidence. They do talk about the breathless reporting on the crash of the Germanwings plane in the French Alps a few months ago and on the credulity of the press in the run up to the Iraq War, even mentioning flawed reporting on the crisis in Ukraine.

What did papers do when they came under criticism for these, or when they publish articles on highly controversial subjects? Some say sorry, others censor reader comments, again others turn them off.

We all make mistakes!

Yes, we do. But when major media outlets make mistakes that can cause a war (Hearst) or facilitate one (2003 run up), we are talking about failures of a different magnitude than, say, a farmer who forgets fertilizer or even a surgeon who removes the wrong leg.

Many journalists may now feel like call center employees who have been living with "this call may be monitored for quality purposes" for decades.

Any high profile media outlet might as well tell their writers "This article may be monitored for quality purposes". Finally, a personal understanding of the juggernaut of progress, a mere two decades after the type setters went extinct.

Then there is the historic perspective, brought to you by Die Zeit in their soul searching series: pervasive distrust in early newspapers.

The glamorous 20 Century notion of the fourth estate never quite stood up to the reality of newsrooms, why not be honest and let it go?

Oh, one  more thing guys: unlike cobblers and many other workers, you can and do write about your fate at will. Spare us some, please.