Monday, September 28, 2015

Hewlett Packard printer ink Region Code a national security feature?

The blogster has let go of many people and many things in life, friends, family, lovers, haters, pets, books and more.

Hewlett Packard (HP) printer ink is not one of those things.

Here's what happened.

The blogster bought a new HP printer before moving to Europe. Having had fun with HP printers for years, this seemed like a good idea. The machine has international features, it handles the different paper formats, the power supply does both 110 and 240 V, so all was taken care of.

Settled in Germany, papers were printed - until the spare ink was out, too.

With the cartridge numbers in hand, a quick trip to the electronics store would get fresh ink.

Well, no.

They didn't have cartridges with my numbers. But they had cartridges for the same printer model.

Bought, replaced, printer ON - and the message "illegal cartridges" appeared.

To make a long story short: HP uses "Region codes" for ink cartridges. The cartridges are identical except for a chip on the underside. At the time, this HP support page did not exist.

But the HP corporate site had a nice contact form to get in touch with the chief.

A piece of advice from the blogster's farming days of growing food in dirt and raising adorable baby animals for slaughter has come in handy in the corporate world.
The advice is this:

When you deal with a heap of steaming manure, there is only one place you want to be  - on top.

24 hours later, a German HP support person calls and sends instructions for changing the Region Code, warning that it can be done only once. Well, it didn't work, which is okay because we simply make any visitor from the U.S. bring ink and explain at customs as needed.

Until yesterday, the blogster considered the Region Code feature modeled after movies and audio DVDs a total rip-off, yet another example of hyper capitalist greed. Especially because in the old days, printer ink was like car tires. Once used up, you'd go and buy new ones from a maker of your choice.

What changed between yesterday and today, you ask?

The blogster had totally overlooked the patriotism of current GOP presidential candidate and former HP CEO Carly Fiorina. The deep involvement of many leading American tech companies in keeping the country safe from threats must be the explanation for using Region Codes.

If an American ink cartridge falls into hands of mid-East bad guys, it is useless to the badies without HP support! If the bad guys can't print their newsletters, they are stuck.

What an elegant move.

Don't ask me why this is not done with guns. Maybe it is because upsetting printer users is a lot less dangerous than upsetting someone who has a gun? Greater minds will need to solve this question.

The blogster is still waiting for HP to chip its printer paper, thus forcing users to use only overpriced HP branded bleached wood pulp. RFID chip sizes have shrunk drastically, prices are down to next to nothing, making chipping individual sheets of paper feasible. **

One more thing:
In case you happen to be an HP employee working in a country where all buildings' glass doors are adorned with big orange adhesive dots, the blogster has a fun story about those, too.

** The blogster put this idea forward almost three years ago.

[Update] Added for clarification "The cartridges are identical except for a chip on the underside."
Added note on RFID.

[Update 10/27/2015] The joys of software updates. The printer just said a cartridge was "refilled or depleted". Nice one.

Another language barrier - the one to the past

This post owes its existence to yet another call for amending the German constitution with some blurb expressly making German the national language of the country.

As said in Let no good crisis go to waste: the German refugee influx version, the piece proclaimed that we are all "equal before the law of the language" and was all warm and fuzzy about this "bond". Needless to say, the author is a linguist, which implies added credibility, right?

What may seem like a nice, almost self evident demand, is - to the blogster - fundamentally useless at best and pathetically nationalist at worst.

Let's recall for the record that every immigrant to Germany is already required by law to learn the language. Being Germans, they test this knowledge, and if you happen to be from a developing country and apply for a visa to move to Germany with your freshly minted German spouse, that visa is routinely denied until you pass the test.

If you are a European Union citizen, you can move here and take your time to learn German. Incidentally, it is always easier to learn a language in country.

We assume to the credit of the "equal before the law of the language" author that he makes a distinction between the law of the language and the law regulating the acquisition of the language.

But there are other issues with the claimed equality: if you speak the wrong kind of German (social or geographical variant), there is no equality either. The expression of inequality in this case can take the form of benign jokes, of unexplained job loss, of careless ignorance, or of outright discrimination.

It can be so deep seated that we engage in discriminating behavior without noticing it at all. While questions around gender and language as well as "political correctness" have been hotly debated for some time, other areas do not normally get the same attention.

The blogster simply calls these issues of education and specialist expertise. We all know how important learning the specialized language of any field is in order to function reasonably well in this area. If you learn how to sail, you will have to use port and starboard instead of left and right, if you study chemistry, failure to use the correct nomenclature may result in a world changing discovery or another headline about some blown up lab, and so forth.

The specialist lingo also has an awful tradition of being used in hazing or bullying of rookies. For example, your motorpool sergeant sends you off on the first day to grab a "gut wrench" and you are met with laughter by the inventory PFC as well as on your return. 
Literature and the workplace are full of examples of impostors who do well by knowing the lingo without having the skills to match.

The inverse is true, too. You'll find plenty of software engineers who will be overlooked because of inadequate English until their skills show their expertise.

If you interact with any specialist outside of your area of expertise, you may not be given good information unless you know enough of the expert language. A perennial episode showing this is one by a German friend at a German university medical center. The German, accompanied by a French friend, tried to talk to a doctor about the prognosis of a patient after major cancer surgery.

The doctor made one dismissive comment and turned around to leave, when the French friend asked a follow up question. The doctor became friendly and provided an in depth explanation of the cancer, the surgery and the prognosis.

The German and the French person had both asked in German, so what was the difference?

The French friend used standard Latin terms, normal in French but considered part of the specialist medical lingo in German.

And, finally, there is the past. There is little doubt Mr. Goethe spoke German, but that's not the German they teach at the Goethe Institut language centers around the world. Go back another century or two, and what is still "German" is extremely hard to read and understand for most modern Germans.

If that difference is greater than the language barrier between, say, a modern American in Germany and a German, what does that tell us?

To the blogster, it says that we are looking at a set of constructs, a snapshot of a language at a given moment in time, a more or less well defined label of what is "German".

In fact, while much of modern man's widespread feeling of superiority over our ancestors is obviously rooted in progress in science and comfort of life, some of it stems from a largely unacknowledged effect of the linguistic distance reflected in strange grammatical rules and "odd" verbiage of our ancestors. It is the same effect you experience when encountering a person whose English exhibits all the characteristics of English as a second language.

So, fine, add something about German to the constitution if it makes you feel better.

But if you attach practical actions and consequences to it, the blogster will make you read Oswald von Wolkenstein's songs and poems to prove you understand German and appreciate the cultural bond it represents.

One more thing:
On top of all of that, there is the minor issue of "High German".

Sunday, September 27, 2015

U Maximegalon: This blog & Twitter account are unnecessary

When the K-Landnews Random Research (RR) team discontinued its random contributions, the team left a wrinkled post-it note in the trash, which indicated that most of their insights had come from MISPWOSO, the University of Maximegalon Institute of Slowly and Painfully Working Out the Surprisingly Obvious.

The note also had the cryptic, hasty scribble "MISPWOSO = Wikipedia?", which confused and upset the blogster until a series of celebrity tweets needed urgent attention, thus predictable and reliably crushing the budding curiosity.

Months later, gathering up dusty piles of papers, the blogster noticed a manila envelope under the pot of petunias on the basement interior window sill. The RR team had left the petunia behind, and the presence of the manila envelope had been assumed to be purely practical, to soak up water spills.

Peeking into the envelope, the blogster found a couple of sheets of paper, heavily damaged by water stains, sticking together over about half the surface, the ink smudged. Having carefully separated the two sheets, the letterhead was barely decipherable as MISPWOSO under a seal which looked a bit like a Stealie, but with the red, white, and blue replaced with a petunia. The lower part got torn off during the separation, so it might just have been a plain old oval with a pot of petunia in the center. Stealie sounds better, though.

What was left of the text made it clear that the RR team had asked MISPWOSO for an analysis of the K-Landnews blog and Twitter account.

A paragraph with the title Executive Summary at the beginning of the analysis read:
Both publishing [unreadable] vastly [unreadable]. We therefore recommend you to [unreadable] and bail [unreadable]. We have yet to see another set of accounts as superfluous as this [unreadable]. The [unreadable] responsible has no idea of modern communications branding requirements and appears to [unreadable] no effort to cater to the two most important educational segments, the JDs and MBAs, who obviously [unreadable]. Mixing nuggets of journalism with [unreadable].

We'll spare ourselves the Detailed Analysis part, which, obviously, corroborated the findings of the executive summary in a rather painful manner.

The harsh assessment aside, Maximegalon appears to be doing great on Earth, with a t-shirt franchise, an honorable mention in a book by Douglas Adams, and lots of web pages about the institute.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Let no good crisis go to waste: the German refugee influx version

There hasn't been anything really new since the Romans. Probably since long before, but the Romans get all the credit because they were such prolific writers and record keepers.

Yes, if any of those brilliant minds out there working hard on robo-journalists feel like applying this to the new generation of journalists (the AI version, not the ehhh ayyyy one), you are welcome.

Here is a quick, incomplete list of demands and policy proposals made in Germany in response to the arrival of a record number of refugees.

Most of the demands are totally obvious. So, robo-journalist developers can set up easy templates matching an observed phenomenon with a grand proposal.
More police
Write an article about the need for more police. The blogster was reluctant to include this under the "waste no good crisis" label because you can basically make this demand at any time and find a large enough audience. But we include it here nonetheless because it has been made with the refugee influx as justification.

German language into the constitution
Take for example, today's OpEd piece in Frankfurter Allgemeine (FAZ) that calls for amending the German constitution to say that the German language is the country's official national language.

A usable robo-journalist algorithm could check the German statistics office for data on arriving foreigners and write a piece like the one in the FAZ in no time.

This topic is particularly easy and pleasant because you need just one variable, the number of new arrivals. The "justification" part of the piece is a 100% autonomous template with some warm and fuzzy stuff about cultural bond between newcomers and natives and the importance of German as their shared language. Make sure to use "German" explicitly in case some readers misinterpret "shared language" as one they already share, like English.

Lower minimum wage
Since January 2015, Germany has a minimum wage. You don't have to discard the original template "no minimum wage" because it might come in handy in the future. Just make a copy and modify the copy to call for a lower minimum wage. You do not have to do complex calculations for this either, simply emphasize that "x number of new arrivals" creates a strain on the employment market and is very costly for business.

Don't be shy. Everything is always "very costly for business".

More civil servants in general
For Germany, what you really want is more of the higher "caste" of civil servants they call "Beamte". Nearly impossible to fire, zero Euros payroll taxes, a minimum pension of twice that of manual laborers after 45 years of work, that kind of civil servant.
You don't want to overdo it, though. So, call for "regular" and "temporary" employees with the "option" to replace retiring "Cadillac" employees.

More teachers, more childcare workers
While you may be tempted to lump them into a general "more civil servants" template, doing this will result in the loss of valuable screen and/or print columns.
Even more importantly, more teachers and childcare workers can be really necessary.
Some basic math (classroom size/teacher and school type in relation to incoming children/age group) will get you something that looks like a well researched article.

And it'll get you grateful parents.

Higher taxes
You don't have to mean it. Remember, writing and publishing something is not about whether you get what you ask for. It's about freshness of content and thinking outside of "the box", i.e. showing you as a robo-journalist still got it.

Get it?

Germans already pay lots of taxes, they do not want to pay more and will be upset. However, the subject of higher taxes ensures broad readership and can be used for multiple spin-offs on cutting services.

The sky is the limit when you combine the two. One ingenious combo has been the call for relaxation of tight rules on government debt.

Media self promotion
Another one as easy as pie. Take the crisis by the horns, make or - cheaper and better - steal a logo, offer support.
This can be used for both honest human kindness and utter bullshit self congratulation. It can also help erase years or decades of incendiary nonsense published by your outfit, of course not by you, the present day executives, but by those long retired who lived "in a different era".

Terrorists & National Security
Duh. The blogster won't "dignify" this. BTW, the meaning of "dignify" in this context is the same as used in The Guardian re a certain UK PM and a "pig".
Watch some Fox News on this vast subject, you'll get the hang of it in no time.

It also teaches you in a few easy steps how to make up a crisis in the rare event that there is no suitable one.

Feel free to send us articles about other topics to include in the list. Remember, the list can be easily adapted for use in any other crisis, and you can do versions for each of the other countries of the European Union.

Simply make "German" a variable.

[Update 10/9] A few days ago, Frankfurter Allgemeine ran an article stating that government and other agencies are calling for creating of 100 000 new posts in the fields described above to deal with the refugee influx. Even if we assume 1 million newcomers this year (up from projected 800 000) that is 1 new worker for every 10 refugees.

[Update 1/16/2016] As reported here by zeitonline, German Finance Minister Schaeuble is said to consider an EU wide gas tax, which would come on top of the existing national gas tax taxes, to pay for the costs of the refugee crisis.
This report comes only days after the German federal government proudly announced a 12 billion Euro federal budget surplus for FY 2015.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

About risk and why you want to use the word "threat" very sparingly.

From our I don't know series.

Paradoxically, the more often your users are forced to change their passwords, the less secure they – and you – become.

Lazy as we are, we let the Institute of Risk Management introduce risk:
Risk is part of all our lives. As a society, we need to take risks to grow and develop. From  energy to infrastructure, supply chains to airport security, hospitals to housing, effectively managed risks help societies achieve. In our fast paced world, the risks we have to manage evolve quickly. We need to make sure we manage risks so that we minimise their threats and maximise their potential.

Not surprisingly, there are international standards (ISO standards) relating to risk management, and Wikipedia quotes risk as the effect of uncertainty on objectives. 

There are many specialist publications, such as Risk Management Magazine, and you can study risk management at universities and colleges worldwide. Risk management professionals even write about a strategy for transgender workers under a photo of a Unisex toilette.

On the evening news and in the media, at least 90% of what you see and hear (or 150% if you watch Fox News) is about some kind of risk. If someone wants to make a risk sound really scary, they call it a threat, of course.

As much as the blogster loves the world of IT, the profusion of its use of "threat" and "threat model" isn't helping anyone besides fear mongers.

As funny as it may sound, the extensive glossary of insurance and risk management terms of Dallas, Texas, based International Risk Management Institute does not have the term "threat" as an entry under T. It does have tail and twisting, though.

Threat is an emotionally loaded and, in terms of quantifiable risk, awfully imprecise term - ideal for media use and politics. Add the qualifier "imminent" to it, and you can make a lot of people pull out their rosaries, other praying utensils or guns almost at will.

While the practitioners of risk management have accomplished a lot in making the world safer, they have also either actively brought us - or let themselves be pushed into supporting - some strange regulations.

The elimination of radium paint from clock faces, the demise of the strike-anywhere match, or the electric blanket that no longer is a fire hazard are success stories.

In Germany, on the other hand, our preferred household cleaner and laundry additive H2O is more regulated than "high octane" alcohol and even costs twice as much as a bottle of 80 proof liquor. Aspirin can only be bought at a pharmacy and will get you a friendly product safety talk unless the pharmacist remembers you have acquired several pounds of the stuff spread out over a decade and you look still pretty much alive.

And who doesn't hate having to take off their shoes at the airport?

That's because "threat" was, and still is, used to overrule "risk".

At the end of the day, most of the actual events that determine whether an individual gets to go home after work to his or her loved ones, whether a trip ends safely, whether preparing a meal lands you in a wheelchair for the rest of your life, whether your life savings disappear for good - this and more depends on the willingness of other individuals to do the right thing.

And when people are treated badly by superiors or customers, risk increases - which means you make the world less safe when you yell at a customer support rep or when you don't say something as you witness an employee being treated unfairly by his or her boss.

Selling tainted peanut butter or not refusing to write software that cheats may be some of the outcomes.

Here are just a few people from real life situations you should thank every day for keeping you safe and secure:
The low paid auto mechanic who makes sure the tires are mounted and the wheels bolted on correctly, the food worker who washes his hands every time, the construction worker who destroys an unsafe scaffolding board because he knows the company owner would sell it on to someone else.

We'll end this post with a telling and ultimately scary perception of you and me being risks in everyday life. Here is what the current chief of the federal German domestic intelligence service said at a conference on civil liberties.

It may well be that the politicians say: it is important to us that people can wander around the streets unobserved and uncontrolled, we accept this risk. Then so be it.

[Update 9/24] Last two paragraphs, starting with "We'll end this post".

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Life in Britain: Do drugs - you are a criminal. Don't do them - you are a freako

The biography of the current British PM turn out to be a gift that keeps on giving. In the previous post we hinted at leaving smartphones behind during whatever lurid initiation rites or hazings are required to demonstrate that you are a "normal young man".

Assuming we know what it is like to be a normal young man, we expect this hint to be largely ignored, as various frat and sports team reports continue to prove.

There remain important unanswered questions about the pig, the one of the genus Sus, such as, was it roasted, was it dressed, and why is everybody using the term pig when we were taught in school that a departed specimen of the genus is referred to as pork.

Honestly, we don't want to know.

Statistically, the number of perfectly normal young men who will ever perform with a pig is negligible, while the number of normal young people who do drugs is not.

The Guardian reports No 10’s strategy has been not to "dignify" the allegations, and we are certain they had fun with the quotation marks but an old friend of the PM has come to his rescue.

The rescue attempt, made in The Spectator, is quoted in the Guardian as follows: "No one is hurt because, let’s face it, smoking drugs at university is a healthy expression of youthful curiosity. It’s all those freako, career-safe politicians who have never done drugs who should really worry us."

Nothing could illustrate the utterly schizophrenic nature of - depending on your views - the debate over or the war on drugs better than this. The fact aside that the party and the government of the PM in question are fighting tooth and nail to decriminalize weed, the quote is just wonderful.

"Smoking drugs at university" nicely frames the social and economic status which makes it fine. For members of the group, the temporary situational stamp "youthful curiosity" applies.

Late onset adulthood for better educated and higher socio-economic status citizens.

No doubt the best part of the quote is the last sentence which turns those who stay away from drugs into freaks and career-safe politicians, well done.

Surely, this was not intended as a dig against some members of the cabinet, or was it? If so, can we have some names, please.

So, if you read only the Guardian piece, you may think the simple lesson is don't get caught, have a career and a family, and nobody cares.

But there is an unexpected surprise at the end of the Spectator article: "Make it legal, make it safe, say I: you owe it to your vanished youth."

Did #piggate drive home the value of privacy?

From our There are no good people or bad people series.

The story of the Right Honourable Mr. Cameron and the pig didn't seem particularly interesting. Re-tweeting photos of M.C. Escher artwork, or sharing some Hunter/Garcia lyrics is always more important. But curiosity won after we had worked our way through the self-imposed daily reading list and the inevitable meandering generated by it.

So, the PM and hazing involving a pig.

As usual with stories like this, there were lots of jokes, and there was lots of talk about the role of hazing in general and within "the elites" in particular. Discussions went on about being bought and groomed, being dropped by powerful peers, etc.

We didn't see any press coverage that took up the question of privacy, even privacy advocates - at least the ones we follow - stuck with the hazing and the power aspects.

Since these privacy advocates are smart people, we cannot exclude that they asked themselves a variant of the post's title Did #piggate drive home the value of privacy? and came up with no.

The notion that Mr. Cameron might, for a second, rethink the policies of his government relating to the privacy of citizens must be too romantic, too fundamentally naive.

If you have no problem burning a 50 pound note in front of a homeless man and performing the alleged pig related act, why would you not spy on the most private communication of your citizens if you have the technology to do it and can invoke some grave danger?

So, in the absence of an epiphany by the PM, or unwilling to risk a career for the privacy of others, piggate will not change anything.

Since the episode likely happened before 1990 - it's a guess, mind you - it is extremely unlikely that the alleged photographic evidence ever made it onto the internet to be sucked up by some patient data hoover.

Which means the blogster won't have to follow through with the bragging "hey, I'll show you my data if you show me yours" in the post Another age-old custom rebranded: Leading by Example.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The keys to the the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART) - the illusion of security

Those readers who actual read this blog may recall a short version of the story in an old post.

Given that photos of the TSA master keys recently caused a stir, followed by the supposed keys to New York City, I'll give you more detailed version of what it is like to find the keys to one of the largest mass transit systems in the U.S., the Bay Area Rapid Transit system that connects San Francisco, California, with a vast network of cities and towns on the Eastern shores of the bay and the airport to the south.

The area around our house seemed to attract trash, both from small trucks that went around the curve too fast and from people who were too lazy to take chairs, metal, and various trash to the dump.

So, the pile looked like another annoyance requiring a call to the city to get them to pick it up as well as a lengthy explanation as to why we would - counter to existing regulations - not pay for them to do this.

What was different this time, though, was the amount of paper. Jumbled stacks of paper shared the curb with some broken tools and some torn clothes. The first item that caught my attention was a bright read binder with the letters BART and the logo of the transport agency.

I picked it up, opened it and was stunned to see it contained the whole wiring system of the electrical power supply for BART, including switching stations, signal posts, the whole deal.
There was a large number of fold-out pages, densely packed with everything from Concord in the East Bay to Fremont in the South, from Oakland to Colma - with the transbay tunnel in between.

Rummaging, a train manual (in blue, if you need to know) was next. Okay, I really considered keeping this one for laughs, but didn't.

The keys were last. Two metal key rings, each about three inches in diameter, packed with keys, a pound and a half to two in weight. Small triangular and square box keys, larger old fashioned keys, security keys, including DO NOT DUPLICATE. One key ring seemed to be for trains - you can get an idea of keys used for a train if you ride for as many years as I had.
The other presumably was for the infrastructure documented in the red (landscape format) manual.

This was getting ridiculous.

Once satisfied there were no more keys or manuals, I ignored the rest and headed into the house.

After some more nosing around in the manuals to see if they were up to date - they were - I took the keys to the nearest BART station. The manuals went into the paper recycling bin. I know, not very nice, but hey.

I walked up to the grey haired white male in his fifties who manned the both at the fair gates and said: Hi, I think this belongs to you, stretching out my hands with the key rings.

He became a shade whiter, really, and stuttered: Where, where'd you get this?

From burst trash bags on the curb at XXXXX.

He took the keys in silence, as I turned around, wishing him a nice day. He remained silent, never asked for my name.

Lessons learned from this
Security is mostly an illusion, a story we tell ourselves.

Document any find. In the unlikely event, anybody at BART reads this, they have the easy option of mumbling something about unproven or not up to date.

This was before a white dude killed Oscar Grant. After the Grant killing, I decided, for any future finds of significance, the local TV station would be the destination.

One more thing:
I'd love to make a Matrix joke about the blue & the red of the manuals. Any objections?

[Update] Unfriendly reference replaced.

[Update 2: Reasons for keeping mum at the time]
Some poor BART worker might have lost his or her job. The London and Madrid terrorist attacks still made the news often enough to make low key handling [pardon the pun] of the find the reasonable thing to do.
Neither talking to the transit cops nor their more professional incarnations seemed worthwhile, and seeing the keys and the manuals accompanied by some hysterical "OMG, what if" headlines, well...

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Interesting college tuition and fees model out of Germany

Free college/university education for everybody?

Germany still has it, or rather has it again after a brief and disastrous flirt with tuition fees. Right now, you are good with just a low registration fee.

Compare that to the U.S., where even community college - and we do not mean Greendale - can easily set you back a couple of thousand each semester, and two questions arise, how do they do it, and can it last?

How do the Germans do it?
Government money, which is raised through taxes. One easily identifiable issue with this system are that money is very tight, especially in these times of big bailouts and small school budgets. Another argument raised repeatedly claims that working class families, with only about 25% of their kids going to college, subsidize the education of kids from wealthier college educated families, 75% of whose offspring goes to college, too. While this second argument looks seductive, there are many underlying variables, so the blogster has to rely on the "experts" who made it.

Can it last?
Since they already experimented with a tuition fee system, probably not.  This article in ZEIT Online predicts a return of tuition fees by 2020.

Private colleges/universities
Traditionally, private higher education hasn't turned out so well in Germany. Founded, with a couple of exceptions, out of a mix of Ivy League and Oxbridge envy and neoliberal "elite" thinking, they struggled until the well founded respected state institutions began to suffer under budget cuts. Whatever their merits, they can and do ask for lots of tuition and are expanding.

A tuition model for state schools
The first, failed attempt at tuition was the simple model used in other countries. A standard fee is set, students pay as they go or get loans.
Of course, German policy makers knew from the U.S. experience of students crushed by loans how bad such a system can get but they felt safe enough because they only asked for 1000 Euros per semester. Much less than most U.S. community colleges, and peanuts compared to the Ivy League.
Backlash was fierce, the fees were dropped in state after state.

Enter the model described in detail in the Zeit article.

The basic proposal is given here. For the complete picture, read the article - via Google Translate, or pay an underemployed English major to tell you what's in it.

The basic suggestion is: the government advances the fees, students pay is back after graduation is their income is above a certain threshold. The charm of this is that predatory loans do not enter the picture, that unemployed philosophers or art grads don't suffer, that high-cost courses of study, such as medical studies or some engineering fields, can ask higher tuition to cover the higher outlays and because of superior income of graduates in these fields.

Polls contrasting various existing models with this deferred payment based on workplace success approach show, according to the article, a very high acceptance rate.

So, if anybody asked the blogster (not that this will happen), this model does seem promising.

One aspect not mentioned in the article but obvious to the country hopping blogster is a mechanism to address repayment by grads who pursue a career outside of the country afterwards.

Trust me, you don't want that most gruesome of German tabloids, BILD, spew hateful crap about some rich doctor on a tropical island having stiffed the German taxpayer.

But you also want to avoid the largely unknown provision of the U.S. where student loan debt can be taken out of your social security check in old age.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Yes, the bad* guys at Microsoft are still fixing some Windows XP issues

WARNING: Despite what you read in this post, you should get rid of Windows XP as soon as possible. Get Linux. If you cannot, do all work in a free Virtual Box virtual machine. 
If you do not understand the previous sentence, well, run Win 8.1 or Apple.

Microsoft Windows XP has had tons of issues over its lifetime, which ended in April 2014.

But perhaps the biggest complaint you can rightly make about Microsoft Windows XP in the fall of 2015 is this: Microsoft's own statement that there will no longer be security updates or technical support.

About that technical support:
Nobody misses the absence of it because not much of it was around when XP was alive and kicking like a stubborn mule.

About those security updates:
The thing about the statement on Microsoft's web page is that it is both totally correct and totally wrong at the same time.
That's because the company has great lawyers who try to do their best, or worst, to avoid or defeat law suits.

For folks like you and me, this means there are no patch WhateverWeekday security updates for Windows XP as defined in some other lawyer approved formal management document.

Yes, you can be sure many folks at MS would rather not work on XP any more.

But fixes to WinXP are being made as of this writing.

How Microsoft patches discontinued software:
This is for the historical record. It is no secret. Hackers who do not know this by now should stop calling themselves hackers.

Technical support is provided by MS for a subset of discontinued products. Most discontinued products simply disappear in a bit bucket whose size befits a big company like MS.

Products that have a large paying user base are governed by a thing called a contract.
[If you hate MS and are addicted to the road rage equivalent byte rage, insert a gratuitous reference including the words "mafia" and "contract" here.]

In short, if a big customer wants patches after a product is no longer supported, the customer will get patches.

No, besides XP, I am not going to list discontinued products which I assume must be being actively patched right now for MS customers. You can guess some if you have been around IT for a while. I worked on some patches for discontinued MS products myself.

Windows XP is special in this regard because there is a near astronomical number of existing users out there in 2015. The last estimates I saw claim that about 15% of users are still hanging on to XP.
Not long ago, XP was running, for example, on the entry terminals of the United Kingdom Border Control.** 

Of course, IT security folks see this as a nightmare.

But they see everything as a nightmare if you give them more than a page to write or more than five minutes to talk about it.

Unlike the systems I worked on, individual home users of XP do benefit from the occasional security patch.

To MS, pushing out XP patches to registered individual users creates basically no additional cost once a patch has been written and tested for some big name customer.
At the same time, MS gets all the benefits from these low key updates because the policy substantially reduces the likelihood of more big screaming international headlines.

The Siemens Corporate IT Security chief is quoted in today's ZEIT ONLINE as saying that there are no more security updates for Windows XP.

TheEditor of the K-Landnews recommended this comment on the statement of the IT SEC chief: Look, to me as the nasty, grumpy old editor, this would deserve a strong dissing, but I'd suggest we give the man credit. So, we assume he only quoted from the Microsoft web page, and we assume - highly skilled as a Siemens IT SEC person must be - that he understands the lawyered phrasing on said page. You good with that?

Sure, boss.

Okay, then.

If you are broke and cannot get rid of Windows XP, some simple steps will keep you fairly safe for a while longer:
1. Put your user self into a non-administrator group to avoid being continuously exposed as "admininstrator" to the world.
2. Run a good anti-virus religiously.
3. Do not open each and every email attachment. Phone calls cost next to nothing, so call up that friend, and stay away from "delivery" notices and steamy attachments.
4. Check the web for more tips on staying secure.

* Bad as in good.
** That's not a secret, all you need to do is turn around after passing passport checks to see where your travel mate is in the line - or queue, as they call it.

Thursday, September 17, 2015


A shadow bounced off the wall and slowly passed in front of the painting. Grief, the old shape shifter, the last remaining childhood friend.

Nice painting, great restoration job - the Ruby Lee you bought off of that homeless dude in front of the Warfield, right? I noticed, I was there on some business, a lot to do, but this was such a funny thing, I couldn't help catching a peek. and it 'll be mine one day.

Good Grief!

Got distracted there for a second by the cat on your lap, buddy?

How did you get in?

Through the computer, like last time.

Another memory leak?

Hehe, that was just BS. I tell that to everybody, in case you wonder, and sometimes I add that I have to keep up with technology. Which makes some people laugh out loud. The machine works fine, I can get in any way I choose, you know that.

It' been what, years, since you last visited. I'm always surprised to see you look different when Death is not involved.

Yes, years, I couldn't believe it myself. Death insists on his protocol, weird as he is, and I have tried to reason with him, told him he makes me look bad in the eyes of people, argued he should just be less formal about it, to no avail. I took to giving him nicknames behind his back, passive aggressive, but hey. You have become pretty good at keeping me out, with a bit of luck, too. Don't make that sad face, you knew I was on the way.

Sure, but...

You wanted to hang on to this one a bit longer, I get it. This dream is quite a prize. I remember how happy you were.

You must have been salivating when you realized I could not hang on to it.

Ah, some drama tonight, eh? You know full well I always get them in the end. I do appreciate that you were aware from the beginning, it almost makes we want to let you continue to have it.

No thanks, then I would need to re-learn how to let go. 

I understand, it's fine, a good choice if I may say so, and sorry again about what happened when you were just a year old. I repeat myself, but that was all the fault of Death, I really hate it when he does that to people so early, or even earlier to some.

So you said. Can I ask you a couple of questions while I wrap up the dream?

Sure, that's one, means you have one left. I'm joking, I'm taking my time, ask whatever you want.

Is there a reason for this format, this dialogue, are there other ways you interact with people?

Plenty, in some human cultures, for example, this one-one-style interaction is strongly discouraged, whenever I announce myself they'll huddle until I leave. In others, they have set rituals that allow me to talk to a person alone while they encourage asking people for assistance outside of the context of these rituals.

Man, you must love vision quests.

They are overrated with regard to me, I'd say. The youngsters are so busy out in the wild, there is generally little time for me, not discounting exceptional cases, of course, for example, you, with your history, would have had me hang around if you had ever done a vision quest. That could have been frighteningly cool, and...

Did you just glance at the envelope?


Do you want a drink? Some fresh homemade apple juice?

No, thanks, I don't want to get all sugared up like a three year old. Nice of you, but thanks, and I appreciate you never tried to numb yourself with alcohol or drugs when I'm around. I'm not judgmental, mind you, it just never works, and if you had seen the sheer amount of vomit and worse I've had to deal with, makes me shudder just thinking about it. Other animals never do that.

It's true that other animals know you, that's cool.

I don't talk much about it, lots of you humans don't get it, for a variety of reasons, and some feel less special and get all bent out of shape. But yes, some other animals know me as well as you humans, you are not much different, except, well, they don't go make movies about it or write fancy convoluted crap of the kind Death loves.  

That's hilarious...

Such an impostor, with his ridiculous cloak-and-scythe routine in Western culture and having forever poisoned some beautiful plants and animals associated with His Grim Reapiness, the bastard even managed to usurp my quiet one-one-one chat as his invention and get it into literature and film. I have to work alongside him, but it's only a small part of my job, time wise, I mean, yet I get all the blame.

Really, in what sense?

He deals only with the dear departed, a once in a lifetime deal. He refused from the very beginning to have anything to do with those left behind. He got himself written into a bunch of religions as guide to a happy afterlife, while I am stuck with bawling children and old widowers who can't eat a bite of food "because of Grief". It's not because of Grief, it's because of Death. He swoops in for however long it takes to dispatch someone, me, I have to hang around to pick up the pieces. Some people, I visit them for decades after His Grim Reapiness has appropriately starred in a bunch more movies and most nightly TV news. Ah, but don't show too much of Grief, let people be, humbug. Am I getting a bit carried away here?

You could say that, yes.

I'm sorry, I like your company ever since that early visit. You don't get depressed much, well, since you figured out the unfortunate early event. So, it's...

Can we do the envelope?

Sure, sure, back to business. You know, after all this time, I marvel at how the biggest dreams sometimes fit into a small envelope, okay, with lots of wear and tear it seems logical but it really isn't, isn't it? A dream as big as a life, and voila, it's in a standard letter envelope, what a magic trick.

Here you go.

Thank you, it was a pleasure, as always. What are you up to next? Can I leave you a token of appreciation?

More wrinkles and grey hair, pleeeeze. 

There's color, and creams, Botox if you must.

How about something great to share, for example, you gave Hem the "nada y nada, y pues nada".

Not implying we are like Hem, are we?

Get out of here.

Okay, okay, you take care, and I'll see you when I see you.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The challenging way ahead for Germany in the refugee crisis

Please, do not expect a detailed analysis, the situation is extremely complex and may change dramatically within hours.

The flood of news from across Europe and the Middle East matches the size of the problem, and it does not help that Western reporting has once again turned out to be pretty superficial with regard to deeper aspects of the Middle East power struggle.

Only now are we being told that the Russians offered to make Assad go away in 2012, an offer turned down by the West, specifically the US and the two old Mid-East colonial powers France and Britain. Of course, this offer did not fit into the neat "New Cold War" narrative and the opaque developments in the Ukraine as well as the wider Eurasian region.

The occupants of the K-Landnews basement newsroom, being way suspicious - or independent, if you want to phrase it politely - looked at the six or seven daily papers/websites and the Twitter, and went: we are not being told half of what's going on.
So, we spent some time on This hybrid war and information war babble is deeply offensive and tried to explain the German investigation of a couple of journalists for alleged treason in terms of the mechanics of power in hierarchies.

The mess in Syria was not only predictable, it had been predicted loud and clear but largely drowned out in the sloshing repetitive dumb ISIL came from nowhere and OMG Putin is sooo bad, and it's all Obama's fault anyway pieces that pass for news these days.

Having a lot of time on our hands, we started digging and came up with interesting notes about the various actors in the Middle East, including some allegations about the US passing up on going after ISIL in broad daylight. The protracted wait before the "anti ISIL" coalition began last minute air support for the Kurdish defenders of the border city of Kobani and the reluctance of the Turkish government to let reinforcements into the beleaguered enclave raised alarm bells but until yesterday, such allegations were in our "uncorroborated" folder. Then we read an interview in the German ZEIT Online with Syria expert J. Landis, who said with regard to the siege and invasion of the Syrian city of Palmyra by ISIL: "the Americans stood down because they are in a dilemma: to them, Assad is the enemy, they cannot assist him. That's why the US military left the ISIL fighters alone, neither bombing them nor attacking their supply routes."
The interview with Mr. Landis did not cause a stir in the rest of our daily media bucket. Is everybody too busy with the refugee crisis, gossip about the revolutionary new Facebook "Dislike" button, or hate speech on the platform?

This does not bode well for the near future and the story about Russia's involvement in Syria.

So, what is up next for Germany, the still oft maligned country that expects some 800 000 refugees this year?

The generically pro war Munich security conference chief called for military engagement while - this is Germany after all - also squeezing "negotiations" into the publicity stunt. Border controls have been re-instated at the Austrian border, and there are reports of them being extended to Saxony in the East. Deployment of several thousand federal police went without a hitch and without more public worries by German police union on registering refugees: extremely stressful.

Germany continues to handle its greatest refugee crisis since World War II pretty well under the circumstances and despite administrative and social concerns, some of which we outlined in Refugee crisis in Germany: bursting shelters and empty houses.

Cautious optimists - we count ourselves among them - claim that the crisis can be good for the economy.

Germany will likely face some security challenges related to the crisis, and we are somewhat concerned that arson attacks on refugee shelters may lead to fatalities. Up until now, "only" injuries have been seen. Occasional clashes between groups of refugees might not end well, and the conflict between Kurds and Turks in Germany did get bloody in the past.
We are much less worried about the paranoid specter of Islamist terrorists sneaking into the country among the refugees than we are about some marginalized second generation kid going postal.

The German security establishment has been sounding the alarm about people returning from Syria and the danger those guys pose. While several attacks in France and Belgium have had a connection to "jihad tourists", not enough is really known, in our opinion, to justify fear.

While the media are happy to tell us that over one hundred Germans have returned from Syria and some have ended up in court, we are not being told how many of the returnees have been recruited by German domestic intelligence to keep an eye on the more radical elements in the country. Our bet: a substantial number.

While ISIL in the Middle East has been financed by nations we call "allies" and has been raising big money through selling black market oil and looted antiquities, we have not seen any reports hat indicate that German Islamist radicals have major financial backing that would allow many to be more than part-time extremists.

The  major threats to mastering the crisis seem to be internal, be it existing xenophobia or the results of decades of over hyped nasty press about refugees and migrants, be it the fact that convenient non-thruths by successive governments are now exposed as easy cop outs. For example, Germans have been told for many years that there is not enough money for cash strapped schools and for more teachers. Yet, one of the first things politicians announced was: we will hire more teachers to ensure refugee children can go to school.

So, let's hope the German economy continues to to well, and that Germans keep their smartphones fully charged to record anything that looks like a "terrorist attack". Peace in the Middle East won't happen any time soon if the main actors don't work together.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The mystery of the severed hand at the Munich Oktoberfest

Don't worry, this happened in 1980.

So, if you plan to go this year or in the future, all you will encounter is several thousand drunks, puddles of puke, and general merriment.

Since Bavarian politicians have publicly expressed worries about how starved Muslim refugees arriving in Munich would react to the melee of friendly drunks, we figured this is a good time to talk about the 1980 bombing of the Oktoberfest and the still unresolved mystery of the severed hand.

The biggest terrorist attack in post War Germany to date, the 1980 bombing which killed 13 and injured 211 was quickly attributed to a single right wing student who was also killed in the attack. The student was known to the authorities as a sympathizer of a right wing "military sports group". The investigation into the bombing was complicated by the fact that the alleged lone bomber was literally blown to pieces in what police would call a premature detonation.

Oddities, such as the absence of traces of explosives in the student's apartment and his car as well as eyewitness reports claiming that the alleged bomber and been struggling with another man over a bag at the time of the explosion, remained unresolved.

The biggest mystery, though, was a severed hand found at the scene.

The hand was so badly damaged that no reliable blood tests could be performed. And with DNA diagnostics not available in 1980, investigators were left with the one test the state of the hand still allowed: fingerprinting.

No fingerprints of the suspect were available, but investigators found prints from the hand on some study materials in the suspect's apartment. To the investigation team, this meant the hand belonged to the bomber.

Speculation about the hand continued to fester in the subsequent decades, compounded by the fact that it has disappeared from evidence storage at some unknown point, preventing modern DNA analysis.

A tenacious journalist raised a new angle in a 2015 documentation. In this, a nurse from the northern city of Hannover recounts that a young man whose lower arm had been blown off by an explosion appeared at the hospital a short time  after the bombing. The man remained in the hospital for five days, he did not explain the explosion, and the hospital did not inform the police. According to the nurse, the man was visited during that time by obviously right wing acquaintances and disappeared at the end of five days.

A newly formed group of investigators of the 1980 bombing maintains that the patient in Hannover (six or seven hours by car north of Munich) is unlikely to have been involved. They say no one would survive this kind of injury without treatment long enough and point to the absence of other injuries, which would be expected in a bomb blast.

The journalist and others, though, provide a possible scenario: the man could have received local emergency care enabling him to travel, and the absence of injuries to other areas of his body could be explained by being shielded in the crowd.

How is this related to the current refugee crisis?

An OpEd in one of Germany's major papers claimed that people warning of right wing extremism in the 1980s were lone warners whose call would only become relevant in the 1990s and later. This follows a pattern of casting current German neo-Nazi activities as more of a "former East German states" problem than the historical record shows.

The fact remains: the most deadly terrorist attack on German soil after World War II was perpetrated by at least one neo-Nazi sympathizer, and authorities refused to call it a terrorist attack, going with the easy "lone wolf" version of events.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Refugee crisis in Germany: bursting shelters and empty houses

The Bavarian city of Munich is experiencing another record weekend of refugee arrivals, with around 13 000 by midnight on Saturday, Sep 12, and a busy Sunday ahead.
Officials have taken to social media and asked for donation of blankets and mats, and preparation of shelter space in the Olympic stadium of Munich is under way.

Government fatigue?

The German federal government has acted surprisingly fast, allocating billions of additional funds for the states, preparing changes to the asylum laws, and even raising the question of mandating that landlords rent empty buildings to house refugees. Talks about a European wide distribution quota made the rounds, more efficient processing was debated, too. Someone apparently asked officials to do a brainstorming session, at least that's the only conceivable explanation for floated simplifications to the German building code. There is a joke at the K-Landnews that Germans will put a man on the moon before they simplify their building code - and this is only a mild exaggeration.

Serious criticism erupted early in the week within the Siamese twins party of Christian Democrats (CDU) and Bavaria's Christian Social Union (CSU). Note: Ms. Merkel's CDU is active in all states except Bavaria, while the CSU is active only in Bavaria, and both have been joined at the hip at the federal level since after World War II. With the CSU typically more brazenly populist, at time looking like a Tea Party in government, fissures were to be expected.

In fact, we were somewhat surprised that a whole week of refugee arrivals went by without the Bavarian CSU reps bitching about the end of Germany as we know it.

They made up for the temporary onset of rationality and sanity, though.

Even the bellweather tabloid BILD, recently converted to using the #refugeeswelcome hashtag ad nauseam after decades of rambling anti-migrant pieces has taken to criticizing Ms. Merkel in person for letting refugees stranded in Hungary into the country. Those blaming the current welcome for "attracting" more people are becoming a lot more vocal again.

And, of course, there are the paranoid "security experts" harping about potential Islamist sleepers.

At the same time, the governments of the other states began to slow down the intake of refuges from Bavaria, with the Social Democrat - Greens coalition in neighboring Baden-Wuerttemberg the first to announce a stop in new intakes.

The issue we at the K-Landnews are vexed about is the bottleneck at the intersection of intake shelters and accommodation "in the communities".

Government and the large charities handling refugee intake and distribution simply do not have a low overhead process for getting people out of shelters and into homes.

The barriers to renting out a house or just a room or two are substantial, and it is left to recent initiatives like this one, dedicated to getting people out of shelters, to try and relieve the bottleneck.

In our hills, there is not a single small town without one or more empty residential houses or empty farms - after all, lots of young Germans move to cities, and the rural population is on the decline.

Why is it next to impossible for the authorities to let people out of shelters quickly? In theory, once the intake process is finished, there shouldn't be any reason to make them hang around mass shelters, shouldn't there?

It seems to be a combination of administrative inertia and the traditional need to control the whereabouts of "the Other".

If you think we are making too much out of the argument "traditional need to control the Other", there is something you should know about the treatment of Germans by Germans.

Jobless Germans who receive benefits under the means tested Hartz IV regime are subject to restriction of their freedom of movement within their own country.

Here's how it works. As a recipient of Hartz IV benefits, you must be available for placement by the jobcenter and are therefore allowed to be away from your residence for a maximum of 21 days a year - after prior approval of an application for "leave". Not filing an application or leaving for more than three weeks ends entitlement to benefits.

Regarding life of refugees in the community, we can expect all of the usual everyday native-on-native conflicts to be cast as "problems with refugees", and despite some optimism, there will be nasty headlines.

Just yesterday, we heard a story of conflict cast in this manner. In a small nearby town, a house has been rented out to refugees. Some 11 young men in their twenties moved in. A week or two later, the town held one of the typical small town fests, and the refugees attended, as you'd expect.

As the evening progressed, we were told that the youngsters began to show interest in the local young women and tensions flared up. We have no report of violence, but the tone of the story was: see, that's what happens.

But that's the same as native on native!


Yes, if some strangers from out of town show up at a bar in Smalltown USA, they are generally treated okay until they cast an eye on the women. Some locals, even though they may not be involved with the ladies at all, will become slightly hostile.

We'll soon find out if the Munich Oktoberfest will be marred by similar scenes. As of this post, the countdown on this website reports just over 6 days until the start of the "World's Booze Bonanza".

[Updated 10/27/2015] We have some real life examples of building code requirements in Germany, thanks to Der Spiegel.
If water or electricity service is disconnected for just a day, landlords may have to remodel to the latest water/electricity codes - remember, this is Germany, so no "yes, we grandfather this in" sor so.
Another landlord's house was declared unfit because the two story building had a wooden staircase.
A container village in Cologne had to be postponed because of nearby nesting birds - any birds, it's Germany!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Inheritance chain letters - debt for the German middle class

In case you haven't heard, Germans are dying in record numbers, with population projections saying there will be about 67 million of them in 2050, down from the current 81 million.

That's great news for heirs, with 3 or so trillion Euros worth of money and stuff coming down the pipeline. Okay, make that "for some heirs" because many Germans won't inherit anything, while others receive a lot. None of this is surprising in the European country with the greatest wealth disparity.

What was surprising to us, though, is the relentless avalanche of chain letters sent to people who stand to inherit nothing but debt.

We had a hard time believing a typical lower middle class inheritance story told by some of "our" Germans, starting with a small but critical aspect of inheriting. Unless you decline an inheritance within six weeks, you are deemed to have accepted the inheritance. This includes any debt the dear departed has piled on during his or her lifetime.

What if the inheritance consists of more debt than assets?

The debt is yours, too. And if there is more than one heir, each of them becomes liable for the full debt despite being entitled to only part of the assets.

That may sound scary but German law has provisions that allow heirs to avoid being saddled with debt. The problem with these, though, is that they are tied to filing deadlines and require legal expert help. Lawyers and notaries around here are expensive, so even if you manage to avoid paying off the debts of a distant relative, you will easily run up several thousand Euros in expenses to accomplish this after "acceptance".

Declining an inheritance turns out to be not trivial.

While the letter notifying you of the passing of, say, great grandaunt Marge is a standard unregistered letter, you have to send a notarized statement to the probate court to decline the honor.

The German family currently in the "loop of death" received a notification a few weeks ago and read the fine print, which told them they could decline by a certain deadline and get their statement notarized for a small fee at town hall. The notification was not a surprise because several relatives had received and declined the very inheritance before. The aunt in question had been living in a retirement home for the last twenty years and was poor to being with, which means the inheritance consists of the accumulated cost of care for at least a decade. They estimate it at about 60 000 Euros.

Living on a small disability retirement income, saving money is important to the family, so they got their letter notarized at town hall and sent it back. Two weeks later the court sent a letter informing them that their request to decline the inheritance had been denied because their statement was invalid.

They sought the assistance of a notary (not to be confused with an American notary, German notaries have wider powers and are fully trained lawyers).

Why did the probate court decline our rejection?, they asked. It was certified by town hall, there is the seal and the signature! The notary explained that the clerk of the town had used the wrong stamp.

Kafka anybody? Unless a specific stamp is used, you may own huge debts.

After a week of extra stress and for a couple of hundred Euros, the notary sent the correct letter to the probate court.

Are your children over 18, the notary asked.


Your children are next in line, and the court will contact them. We need to do a separate rejection letter for each one of them and they need to come in an sign in person.

We asked the family to go through the list of known eligible distant relatives of the old lady, and they came up with a tally of about ten of so third degree relatives. Assuming that some town halls know how to do a correct certification, our estimate of the total cost of not taking on the debt of the departed is around 2000 Euros if everybody manages to avoid the default "acceptance" and subsequent court costs to fight a tricky fight.

The next three or four decades look bright for German notaries and lawyers.

To sum it up: when it comes to private inheritance, the defaults are stacked against individuals. You can even move to another country for a few years and find you owe debt upon return if the statute of limitations has not expired.

Conversely, when companies "die", assets are distributed and any remaining debts are wiped out.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Bambi ripped to pieces on German roads - and nobody reported it

The police at the small rural station seem to know the blogster by now, if the friendly tone of voice of the early morning duty officer is any indication.

Plus, they received two calls this week during the commute in the hours before sunrise. Both calls followed the same pattern after the introduction.

Has anybody reported a dead deer on road xyz this morning?


Okay, there is a dead deer on the road between A town and B town, in the lane towards A town,  about x hundred meters from....<and so forth>

The blogster figured that asking if somebody has already reported a mangled, bloody, disemboweled Bambi serves two purposes. First, it does not imply who ran over Bambi, second, it does give credit to other drivers who may have reported the hazard already.

But nobody did.

Why not, remains a mystery at a time when everyone has a cellphone, and with insurance companies requiring a police report before they pay for wildlife damage to a vehicle.

It may be a stretch, but we asked ourselves whether we are seeing a motor vehicle version of the birdstrike phenomenon described by airforce personnel: bird strikes are most frequently reported on the return leg of a jet and near its home base. The reason?
Protocol requires to land after a bird strike, and pilots don't want to have to go down halfway across the country, so they phone it in a few miles from home if they can.

Judging by the mess and the visible results of the physics of impact, this week's deer victims of technology were likely hit by a pickup or a larger truck. These deer fatalities occurred on two of the larger roads, not on some winding one-lane country road where you cannot safely go more than 25 mph even during the day.

Commute traffic in hill country is fast and hazardous during roadkill season, with anywhere between 10 and 20 collisions per week between motor vehicles and deer or wild boar reported in the local paper. No one counts the smaller animals, the rabbits, hedgehogs, martens, or foxes you may see playing or foraging near the road one day and as a lifeless lump on the blacktop the next day.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Cats: a study and its newspaper misrepresentation

Do cat owners exhibit strong reflexive defensive or aggressive behavior when strangers voice substantial negative effects about felines in general?

No, this was not the subject of the cats study that caught the blogster's attention. We wouldn't need a study for that question anyway because the answer is yes, the vast majority of cat owners do.

So, why is the writer of these lines furiously punching an innocent keyboard?

An article in today's Frankfurter Allgemeine baits readers with the title Cats really don't give a hoot about humans [our translation]. Written by a journalist of the paper's Nature and Science department, it is decent craftsmanship as far as the composition and the introduction to the field of attachment studies go. It then takes the main points of a study from PLOS One, summarizes them and rephrases the study's 'Conclusion', including the all important standard CYOB "further study is needed". Voila, we have an article.

All would be well, if the journalist hadn't taken to the click-bait type headline and toned down the presentation.

We won't know who is responsible for the click bait, maybe an overzealous department chief. Likewise, the big photo near the top of the piece of a yawning cat with the caption that this others obviously doesn't give a damn about humans, may be this week's creative freebie for an otherwise bored photo editor.

The blogster does understand that yet another article whose title accurately reflects the study, Cats are more independent than dogs, can't make it in today's general news world, so, you do what you can.

The underlying study itself is not helpful but okay. It acknowledges prior research indicating instances of stronger attachment, it describes the sample size reasonably well, and it is indeed all about showing the study authors understand the Ainsworth Strange Situation Test (ASST) and know how to apply it. 

Human scientists to this day tend to grossly underestimate both intelligence and social behavior, including attachment, of non-humans. Until less than fifty years ago, scientific officialdom basically remained clueless about humans' closest wild relatives, and we are only slowly understanding other mammals better - despite overwhelming evidence of intricate advanced behavior.

But you have to see how cats stay outside of a house they have never seen before with only a few clothes of their owners to tell the felines what to do. And you have to see the behavior of a cat when an owner returns after several months of absence to appreciate the wide variety of behavior felines show in real life.

The study might as well originate from the University of Maximegalon, famous for painstakingly working out the glaringly obvious, but the blogster knows the value of tools and procedures and is certain the researchers will put them to great use in the future.

One more thing: *
Who knows, maybe the true objective of he study is not to add to our knowledge of cats but to extricate more knowledge about cat owners and cat haters. Or about how the media runs with any study - remember the famed chocolate diet one?

* Yes, that paragraph is a joke.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

German minimum wage is working, thank you

After much hoping, wailing, and warning, the world's 4th largest economy - Germany - introduced a minimum wage on January 1, 2015.
That's some four decades after the United States, some 65 years after France, and still 15 years after Britain.

While other nations began to debate the "living wage" question, #4 was stuck talking about any minimum at all.

Why it took so long is nobody's guess, the arguments are right there on the web for your to savor, except, of course, the unspeakable one. The one that goes I don't f****ing care if you earn 2 Euros an hour, it's your own fault if you have no skills and no drive.

To be fair to everybody, the argument does bubble up every now and then in heated debates about entitlement programs and the joys of greed according to Mr. Johnson.
Bringing it up in the discussion about minimum wage must have appeared so potentially toxic that nobody would venture any closer than "freedom of contract", "entry level positions", "easy extra income for retirees" or any other euphemism you can think of.

The most recent incarnation of that German governmental construct "grand coalition", in which the two big parties CDU and SPD form a super majority administration finally signed a minimum wage of 8.50 Euros into law with exemptions for - guess - the most vulnerable earners plus all those workers currently under a union contract below the magic number.
For all these, a transition period until 2017 was written into the law.
Small time self employed citizens are not covered by the law, meaning large numbers work for less.

The wailing and warning frenzy culminated in 2014, and we are sad to point it out, came mostly from members of one of the two "Christian" parties (Christian Democrats and Christian Social Union) as well as the "Free Democrats". The latter party has been the traditional home of lawyers, architects, self employed pharmacists and medical doctors - all of which happen to enjoy government income guarantees through binding fee schedules and ordinances. The blogster finds it only logical that folks on "minimum wages" starting at ten times the funky 8.50 Euros were among the most vocal group claiming "we don't need a minimum wage".

Another group of opponents were the "great worriers": there will be massive layoffs because employers cannot afford to pay the minimum wage, or they will have to raise prices so much that the low income earners will be no better off than before.

The massive layoffs as a result of 8.50 E didn't happen, except for two highly publicized instances, a large scale taxi driver layoff and one factory in the former East Germany. As it turned out, the taxi mogul had to admit to having done the layoffs "as a precaution", and the East German plant had been really running on government subsidies anyway.

The big price increases did not occur or turned out to be blamed on the wage increase without true attribution.
The reasons again?
The overall number of people affected by the raise to 8.50 was quite low as a percentage of the country's total workforce and because of the exemptions. In fact, we saw a stark price hike for the daily paper despite the low paid workers in the sector being on the transition schedule.

Another large group was the "over regulation and administrative burdens" chorus. They complained that employers had to record the exact hours worked.
Funny enough, when asked: wait a moment, German employers don't have to record the exact work hours right now, the answer went a bit like this: we are talking about the minijob folks who can only make 450 Euros a month, it doesn't make sense to do detailed recording for those.
As has become obvious since 2015, fudging the number of hours worked to the detriment of workers is not uncommon at all.
Of course, you can argue that having to pay amateur soccer players and coaches the minimum wage is over regulation. 
The trade union association set up a hotline to coincide with the new regulations and found that many employers showed distinct creativity in lessening or circumventing the minimum wage.

Two new approaches against the minimum wage have surfaced recently. One is that it is an incentive towards rationalization and automation. A recent article in Frankfurter Allgemeine told the story of an American restaurant owner who sold a chain of 30 eateries because he was unhappy with New York's minimum wage policy as an example.
The fact of the matter is that fast food chains have been automating and reducing staff numbers without regard to the minimum wage anyway.

In Germany, the record influx of refugees has been a welcome opportunity for the opponents of a minimum wage. Letting refugees work for less than the minimum wage is the great Trojan horse out of the conservative camp, masked as trying to help refugees and as a measure to promote integration into German society.

In case you wonder if the German "almost implemented" minimum wage is a living wage: no, it is not.

We now have hard numbers of the negative economic impact of the minimum wage: Germany expected an additional 21 billion Euros in tax revenues in 2015.

Geschäftsbericht Rundfunkbeitragsservice 2014 - Premium oder kostenlos

Mögliche Ungleichbehandlung im Level 2 Service des Beitragsservice für Festnetzanrufer gegenüber Handy-Anrufen in der Zeit vor Umstellung der Premiumnummern des
Beitragsservice von "pro Minute" auf "pro Anruf".

Laut Darstellung einer Rundfunkanstalt sind die Premiumnummern des Beitragsservice sowie ggf. der Anstalt selbst notwendig aufgrund der "erforderlichen Durchleitungskapazität" sowie des "Anrufvolumens". 

Zitat der Rechtsabteiling: "Leider kann eine solche Nummer nicht kostenfrei angeboten werden."

Kürzlich wurde der Preis für Anrufe an den Beitragsservice von pro Minute auf pro Anruf umgestellt, aus dem Festnetz auf 20 ct pro Anruf und 60 ct für Mobilnetzanrufe umgestellt.
Anrufe an andere Nummern bei einer Reihe von Sendern werden noch immer als Premium-Nummer pro Minute ( 9 ct./Min. aus dt. Festnetz, Mobil max. 42 ct./Min.oder ähnlich) angeboten.

Warum das interessant ist?
1. Für Anrufer der Gruppen „Beitragszahler“ oder „Hörer/Nutzerwerden bei manchen Sendern oft Zusatzkosten fällig.
Anrufer „sonstiger“ Gruppen, insbesondere Geschäftskunden, stehen bei bestimmten Sendern günstiger da, das heisst, wenn man etwa anruft, um Lizenzen zu erwerben oder Werbung zu schalten, steht eine normale Festnetznummer zur Verfügung.

2. Der Geschäftsbericht 2014 des Beitragsservice besagt auf Seite 13, dass die Novellierung des Telekommunikationsgesetzes mit Wirkung vom Juni 2013 die Situation im Second Level des Beitragsservice „beeinflusste“. 

Auf Seite 14 steht, dass Mobilfunkanrufer benachteiligt wurden, da die Warteschleife zum Second Level aus technischen Gründen nicht unberechnet bleiben kann. Dies wurde durch Rückrufe seitens des Beitragsservice „kostenneutral“ gehalten.

Wurden auch Festnetzteilnehmer zurückgerufen oder mussten diese – mit Ausnahme der Warteschleife – das ganze Gespräch mit dem Second Level in Minuten bezahlen?

Ist Letzteres der Fall, wären Festnetzanrufer verfahrenstechnisch mindestens 2 Jahre benachteiligt und manche „relativ“ geschädigt worden.

3. Dieses Problem des Beitragsservice ist mit der Umstellung auf pro Anruf behoben.
Der Grund für Premiumnummern ist offiziell die erforderliche hohe „Durchleitungskapazität“ und das „Anrufvolumen“.
Beides scheint bei den gegenwärtigen pro-Minute-Angeboten der Sender kaum haltbar.

Beispiele für derzeitige pro-Minute-Premiumnummern sind:
NDR Ticketshop im Levantehaus
Telefon: 01801 78 79 80
Telefax: 01801 78 79 81 
3,9 ct./Min. aus dt. Festnetz, Mobil max. 42 ct./Min
SWR1 Baden-Württemberg Hörerservice  
Telefon: 01803 92 91 11 (9 ct./Min. aus dt. Festnetz, Mobil max. 42 ct./Min.)

MDR1 Radio Sachsen
Hörer-Servicetelefon: 01375 800 800
Der Anruf kostet 14 Cent aus dem deutschen Festnetz, Mobilfunk abweichend.*

* Dieser Hinweis auf der MDR-Webseite vom 8.9.2015 ist fehlerhaft, "abweichend" ist ungenügend, es ist der exakte Betrag erforderlich.

[Update 4/12/2016] Unterschiedliche Preise für Telefonanrufe, mal kostenlos, mal normale Ortsnummer, mal 14 Cent pro Minute. Das sieht nach Inkompetenz und möglicherweise Untreue aus?

Kürzlich wurde der Preis für Anrufe an den Beitragsservice von pro Minute auf pro Anruf umgestellt, aus dem Festnetz auf 20 ct pro Anruf und 60 ct für Mobilnetzanrufe umgestellt.
Anrufe an andere Nummern des SWR werden noch immer als Premium-Nummer pro Minute ( 9 ct./Min. aus dt. Festnetz, Mobil max. 42 ct./Min.oder ähnlich) angeboten.

Wie passen die Argumente „Durchleitungskapazität“ und „Anrufvolumen“ zu folgenden Nummern:
Die Telefonnummer des SWR1 Rheinland-Pfalz Hörerservice ist laut SWR-Webseite eine normale Ortsnetznummer 06131-929-3-1111.
Die Telefonnummer des SWR1 Baden-Württemberg Hörerservice ist laut SWR-Webseite die Mehrwertdienstnummer 0 180 3 92 91 11 (9 ct./Min. aus dt. Festnetz, Mobil max. 42 ct./Min.)
Sogar kostenlos ist laut SWR-Webseite ein Anruf an die normale Ortsnetznummer der Stauhotline 0 72 21 / 92 81.

Im Telefonverzeichnis existiert der Eintrag „Südwestrundfunk Stuttgart, Rundfunkgebühren, Telefon: (07 11) 92 9-46.
Wird diese Nummer für Beitragsfragen benutzt? Gibt es derzeit eine andere Ortsnetznummer, die Beitragsfragen dient?

Bereits ein Blick auf die Wikipedia-Seite „Service-Dienste“ ( lässt die Einstufung als „Mehrwertdienst“ erkennen. Ein Mehrwert liegt nicht vor. Der dortige Abschnitt „Fehlentwicklungen“ ist ein guter Einstieg in die Problematik.

Der SWR benutzt auch weitere Mehrwertdienstnummern, wobei die Liste keinen Anspruch auf Vollständigkeit erhebt.
Beispiele abgerufen am 24. 6. 2015 von der Webseite sofern ohne Quellenangabe und SWR-Webseite (in der Tabelle vermerkt; mit Stand vom 28. 6. 2015).
Wo und die Webseite sich widersprechen, wäre die Webseite maßgebend.

SWR1 Rheinland-Pfalz Hörerhotline

Laut SWR-Webseite
SWR1 Rheinland-Pfalz Hörerservice Mainz
01803 7 97-111
9 ct./Min. aus dt. Festnetz, Mobil max. 42 ct./Min.
SWR4 Rheinland-Pfalz Hörerservice Mainz
01803 92 94 56
9 ct./Min. aus dt. Festnetz, Mobil max. 42 ct./Min.
SWR1 Baden-Württemberg Hörerservice
01803 92 91 11
Nummer auf SWR Webseite
9 ct./Min. aus dt. Festnetz, Mobil max. 42 ct./Min.
SWR1 Baden-Württemberg Ticketservice
0 180 6 92 92 11
Nummer auf SWR Webseite
20 Cent/Anruf aus dem deutschen Festnetz. Abweichende Preise für Anrufer aus Mobilfunknetzen möglich, max. 60 Cent/ Anruf.
SWR4 Baden-Württemberg Hörerservice
01803 92 94 44
9 ct./Min. aus dt. Festnetz, Mobil max. 42 ct./Min.
SWR Fernsehen – Unser Drittes Zuschauerservice
01803 92 93 33
9 ct./Min. aus dt. Festnetz, Mobil max. 42 ct./Min.
SWR1 Stauhotline
0 72 21 / 92 81 (kostenlos)
Laut SWR-Webseite – sogar normale Ortsnetznummer kostenlos

SWR Shop
07953 - 7189 000
Nummer auf SWR-Webseite
SWR Shop
01805 15 02 00
Nummer laut dasoertliche:
14 ct./Min. aus dt. Festnetz,
Mobil max. 42 ct./Min.

Niemand kann m.E. glaubwürdig behaupten, es gäbe hier durchweg besondere technische Hürden und Anrufvolumen.