Wednesday, December 28, 2016

In the German construction industry, wrecking balls can take on a life of their own

A recent long article about the trials, in and out of court, and tribulations of a renter in the city of Mannheim fed the blogster's suspicion that something may be wrong with German wrecking balls or with the training of machine operators.

In this instance,, a home improvement chain wanted to build a new superstore in downtown Mannheim and tried to evict renters of an apartment building it had acquired for the store extension.

Most renters left, but one remained a hold out despite the chain offering 10 000 Euros and then twenty thousand to terminate the lease. That second offer was made after the gentleman had won a court case for wrongful termination of the contract.

Several months later, he received a letter from the attorneys of the chain at his other apartment a few towns over, informing him that a communication mishap had occurred at the site in Mannheim, causing the apartment block, and with it his fourth floor rental to be demolished.

The firm was very sorry for the communication failure that caused the construction company to tear down the building. Another court case followed. The company tried to get the case dismissed because the apartment no longer existed - the court again found in favor of the renter.

But the project went ahead.

A criminal complaint against the errant wrecking ball of the construction company was rejected by the DA due to lack of evidence.

Chatting with a friend about the stubborn German, the friend only smiled: oh, that happens quite a lot around here. He then proceeded to tell a story about another shopping center in a small nearby town. A historical landmark building along the perimeter of the permitted area was inadvertently damaged beyond repair when the developer himself took the seat of the bulldozer one late Saturday.

It just so happened that the developer had bought the building earlier but had been denied a permit for using the space for the shopping center.

Did he get prosecuted?

Of course not. He was so sorry that he had overestimated his bulldozer skills after years of doing only office work.

So, if you plan any building projects in Germany and there are building in your way, the law firm mentioned in the above article might be able to help.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Surveillance art: somebody please build a robot that pees near CCTV cams

TheGuardian had a special kind of Christmas present for its readers on 25 December, reporting that British councils (local administration) used the famed Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to spy on the public: Councils were given permission to carry out more than 55,000 days of covert surveillance over five years, including spying on people walking dogs, feeding pigeons and fly-tipping.

The original RIPA was, of course, designed to protect British society from the worst of the worst, i.e. the famed trifecta of terrorists, drug dealers and child molesters. Its most recent incarnation became law in November 2016 under the apt label 'Snoopers' Charta', doing away with any pretense of online privacy and legalizing previously illegal practices.

Nobody should be surprised about the Guardian revelations, grumbled the K-Landnews TheEditor from the downstairs basement, refusing to leave its* den even for Christmas.

To be honest, the blogster is not surprised it happened, but the extent of the zealous hunt for turds and pigeon feeding grannies does make it* a little sad.

You may recall, the blogster described 'CLASS REUNION INT' in earlier posts, recounting how a police officer used police databases to track class mates for a reunion.

The blogster has also been called 'ever the optimist', and has been reminded that it has 'una faccia mobile' (Italian for 'expressive mimics' or a face 'like an open book').

So, it comes as no surprise that the first thought when mass surveillance comes up is 'art'. Surveillance art is not new, even Andy Warhol did it, if we can believe Wikipedia.

Accordingly, the second time the blogster saw a tweet referencing the Guardian article, it went "somebody should build a robot that pees near surveillance cameras". (The first time, nothing happened.)

Why a robot?

Because that's art, whereas the same act performed by a human is a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on where you live. Also, it can get you killed, like a man in Germany a few months ago, beaten to death by others for the act of urinating near a church.

At least in Western countries, public urination by a statue is considered cute, with just enough frisson or gross factor to be art.

If you let your robot wander during dusk or in other low light conditions, you may just get the desired effect of upsetting a human CCTV operator or fooling a program scanning a stream for weirdness.

You could also buy a robot dog and hack it to do some "fouling" in order to get a UK council to go after a robot dog.

A headline in one of the UK's trash tabloids would be guaranteed.

If you were given a drone for Christmas, you may be able to do a flying version, wouldn't that be fun?

For a more provocative experience, consider some more church inspired designs, like the gargoyle above a church entrance shown in a recent edition of Atlas Obscura.

If any of that fails to impress, the K-Landnews TheEditor claims to have an 'outrage guaranteed or I'll give you my last Susan B. Anthony dollar coin' sort of idea: 
Buy one of those 31' or 48 inch Star Wars storm troopers, add a dick and some servos to make it look like the storm trooper is jerking off. 

You are welcome.

* TheEditor insists on strict gender neutrality.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Despite lower share of income: relative tax burden on poor Germans is about the same as for wealthy ones

From our Merry F****ing Christmas series.

It turns out that the blogster's off the cuff statement "if a family receives, say, 1000 euros a month in the form of this benefit, at least 100 euros (actually more like 200) of this money goes back to the state in the form of indirect taxes" in the 2013 post Hilda the Hairdresser was not far off the mark.

A new study that looked at the effective tax burden of Germans, not just the well rehashed theoretical burden listed in the various tax tables, deals a serious blow to the most beloved statement of centrists, free market liberals, and conservatives.

We'll get to the meaning of "new study" a bit later.

The gist of the statement is that the wealthy and the middle class contribute much more to the country's tax revenue than the poorer Germans.

Of course, there are different permutations of the claim, ranging from the superficially correct absolute numbers to the classist "the wealthy are carrying the burden of keeping the poor alive", with various shades of hate in between.

The Germans even have a word for those highly taxed members of the working population (middle class and up) that keep the tax coffers full: Leistungsträger (lit. those who carry the performance burden). The existing English translations are inadequate - neither "key personnel" nor "top performer" quite captures the bitterness and the condescending vibe of the term.

So, let's get the oft quoted absolute numbers out of the way.

The argument, the Leistungsträgers are paying the price of the welfare state

The top 10% of earners pay some 60% of the government's income tax revenue, and they pay some 20% of indirect taxes.
Also, income tax is progressive, the percentage paid automatically increases with income. If a pay raise is small and crosses a tax bracket, that increase can eat up the increase.
And the very poor pay no income tax at all.

Slam dunk?

Indirect taxes & how to tax a tax (not a typo)
This is where we get to indirect taxes (sales taxes, consumption taxes, various specialty taxes) combined with the many ways for better earners to lower their effective tax rates.

Lo and behold, the study says that the overall relative tax burden is very similar, or, as the centrist-conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine phrases it: more evenly distributed.

The relative effect of indirect taxes it that lower incomes are affected more severely in relative terms. If all your worldly possession for the month is 100 dollars and the government takes 10 in  taxes, you hurt more than someone who has 1000 and needs to give the government 100.

German indirect taxes are much higher than US indirect taxes, skewing the German tax revenues to the detriment of the poor and the middle class.

Take sales tax (called VAT around here). The main rate on almost all goods and services is 19%, with a lower 7% rate for basic necessities, such as food.
Add too this various other taxes that make up the prices of goods and services, for example the gasoline tax that makes gas prices here some three to four times higher than in the US, and you begin to understand how even the poorest Germans end up paying more than 20% in taxes.

The blogster has marveled time and again at the brazen system of double dipping by the German government. Take electricity prices, for example. There are levies and fees (not called a tax thought they function like one) that are used to subsidize companies and (mostly) wealthy folks who can afford to add solar panels to their abodes. On top of the price consisting of base plus levies and fees, an "electricity tax" it added. On top of this, sales tax is added.

There you go, this is how you make people pay tax on another tax.

It happens a lot.

In other words: The poorest 10% of Germans contribute 5% of all indirect taxes to the government coffers, yet their share of the country's income/wages is only 3%.
The top 10% pay 20% of all indirect taxes but make 30% of all income/wages.

The picture gets even worse when you add some (not all) of the payments into the social system (healthcare, contributions to social security).

So, across all economic categories from the very poor to the wealthy, the total tax burden is between 20% and 25%.

The historical development in Germany since the late 1990s is - surprise - not mentioned in the article in Frankfurter Allgemeine, but it is in this one.

Successive German governments, "liberal" as well as "conservative", have lowered income tax rates and increased the rates of indirect taxes.

Here is the promised definition of "new study". The media really should have called it "recent". Because - as so often in the short history of this blog - the blogster is indebted to the reader comments.

One reader of Frankfurter Allgemeine said: When I studied tax law in 1972, my teacher said 'at the end of the day, everyone pays around 25%'. Ergo, nothing new under the sun.

Remember, we have not even touched other structural  hurdles that affect only the poor. There is, for instance, the well studied fact that low income earners cannot take full advantage of store sales because they simply don't have the cash to buy extra supplies when stuff goes on sale. Another one is that German welfare beneficiaries who have to replace, say a broken washer, have to rely on small loans to pay off the appliance, thus paying even more indirect taxes. Though, to the credit of the German system, interest rates are not as usury as those of US payday lenders.

So, be cheerful: Merry F****ing Christmas!

[Update 12/23/2016] Fixed typos.

Monday, December 19, 2016

German anti-UBI economist: we already have a basic income, with just a few conditions

It surely feels good to have the chief of a German economics research institute say what we said before: future social security retirement benefits should not be included in calculating a person's "wealth".

This being said, the two aspects this post is about are:
1) The corporate conservative German claim we already have a basic income, with just a few conditions.
2) The statement some jobs will only be done if you have a financial incentive.

Those claims are routinely being made by the German think tank Ifo and almost verbatim by most company executives. Linking to the article in Zeit online is merely a convenience. There are plenty of other examples out there.

The blogster personally regards both arguments as disingenuous, hence worth a rant.

To understand the first argument better, it might help to clarify the German term, which is "bedingungsloses Grundeinkommen", "unconditional universal income". Germans could also call it "universelles Grundeinkommen", but they don't. In purely psycho-linguistic terms, the argument "with just a few conditions" would be pretty much impossible if the German term were "universelles Grundeinkommen", in other words, you cannot modify it and still be credible.

It is a completely different situation with "we already have a universal basic income, with just a few conditions" if you can add a good reason for the existence of these "few" conditions. This is exactly what opponents of UBI are doing.*

In the article referenced above, the claims above take this specific form:
We have a basic income. The welfare state secures people. But it is not without conditions. Only when you have used up your own means and still cannot make it, then the state intervenes. I find this is a marvelous achievement. Universal basic income cannot be financed. Also, masses of people would quit working. This is incompatible with a social free market.

The sequence of claims is interesting.
He drops the "universal" from the get go. Note that the condition is separated from a short, matter of fact like "we have a basic income" by a full sentence. That sentence "the welfare state secures people" bridges the conceptual gap between "basic income" and the nature of what the welfare state provides, which is not a "basic income". The abstract collective term in German for the different benefits is Grundsicherung (basic safety), the various components all use the respective German for "assistance" and "benefits". The most common scheme, Hartz-IV, is a means tested benefits scheme designed under the concept of "assist and assert", and comes with a wide variety of administrative sanctions that can and do reduce the benefits by various amounts down to zero in continued violation of the constitutional court's mandated minimum needs for pure survival.

So, once the opponent has planted the notion that "basic income" is equivalent to welfare benefits, he adds "used up your own means", which other opponents often couch in explicit terms of fairness, such as it is only fair to ask people to use up their own means before asking for help. He reinforces this with I find this is a marvelous achievement. The next two statements are the blanket statements Universal basic income cannot be financed. Also, masses of people would quit working.

Neither of these have been proven true.

Then he comes back to the German concept of the "social free market", aka. capitalism tempered by social programs, without elaborating the claim.

Interestingly, neither the two interviewers of Zeit online nor the "opposing" expert challenge him on equating "basic income" with welfare benefits.

The closing argument that many jobs will only get done if there is a monetary incentive seems to be viewed as so fundamental that nobody ever questions it.
His version even includes the modifier "important", "there are many important jobs that will only get done when there is a financial incentive".

While some less careful CEO gave away the game by citing trash collection as an example, the pros don't do that.

So, the anti-UBI person does not provide any example of "important jobs", leaving it up to the reader to figure things out.

So, let's do this:
a) Universal basic income is given to everybody to cover the basic needs of life in such a way that it alleviates constant worries about food, shelter, whether to buy a cup of coffee or two.
b) Recipients can and will often work to earn more money, as demonstrated by small scale field tests over time.
c) The jobs that, according to him, would not get done, are therefore jobs where you make so little money above the UBI that they are not worth doing.
d) This leaves, hey, trash collection and other minimum wage jobs, or jobs so gross nobody would want to do them.

Which makes the term "incentive" utterly ridiculous.

Since he equates "basic income" and current welfare benefits, we should have tons of jobs that are not getting done right now.
And once people have used up their means and get that "basic income", shouldn't there be many who kick back and enjoy it for the rest of their days?

Or are we counting on the social and financial pressures associated with access to that "basic income" to be the incentive that gets many important jobs done?

So, when in Germany, never let anybody drop the "universal" in UBI.

Equating a system designed to punish people who are out of work to one that respects people is a rather marvelous achievement.

* The critical passage in German is this:
Fuest: Wir haben ja schon ein Grundeinkommen. Der Sozialstaat sichert die Menschen ab. Es ist allerdings nicht bedingungslos. Nur wenn man seine eigenen Mittel ausgeschöpft hat und es trotzdem nicht reicht, greift der Staat ein. Ich halte das für eine Riesenerrungenschaft. Ein bedingungsloses Grundeinkommen ist nicht bezahlbar. Außerdem würden die Menschen massenhaft aufhören zu arbeiten. Mit einer sozialen Marktwirtschaft ist das unvereinbar.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Germans discover that policies favor the rich when government "edits" draft report on poverty

From our Quaint Germany series.

To be honest, almost every post about things German could run under the snarky "Quaint Germany" teaser.

The blogster often relishes comparing the German media to their Irish (Republic of) counterparts. In this view of the world, German public broadcasters are nothing more than an over bloated version of RTE, and the German print/online press a bad copy of the Irish Times plus the inevitably crazy Sun - only a lot less funny and with more very long words.

At some very recent point in German history, aka. a few years ago, the German government decided to do a regular official poverty report. This decision did not come easy to a country that has a hard time even acknowledging that poverty exists within its borders.

Somewhat similar to the introduction of a minimum wage over a decade after every other less hypes EU state had done so.

Good job, Germany!

The first news from the upcoming report have come and gone, like the news that the low wage sector in the country is expanding, or - as the blogster gloated - German taxpayers are subsidizing your Porsche.

Since that early piece of news, some journalists have done their work and found some creative editing of the initial draft. The current version no longer has several long passages about the results of a study that looked into the influence of the rich on policies.

According to this article in Zeit Online, the very explicit findings of the study have been largely removed. Instead of the initial dire warning that policies clearly favor the rich and we can thus talk of a 'crisis of representation', the new version only acknowledges that political change is more likely when favored by a majority of the richer citizens. The new government draft warns that the study has not found hard evidence for why this phenomenon has been observed.

The study is lauded as the first study of the influence of the elites and the wealthy on political decision making, which is somewhat funny because we have a US study published in 2014 that comes to the same conclusions.

There are differences in the political systems, so doing a study for Germany is prudent, but fundamentally different study results would be a huge surprise in light of German economic and social policies over the past generation or so.

After all, the big social and labor law changes under the label of "Agenda 2010" are really nothing more than an adaptation of long standing US provisions with some British style sanctions plus health insurance.

We'll keep an eye on any additional changes of the report before its final publication in early 2017.

Since the German government won't include the good stuff in its report, we'll give you this 2014 Huffingtion Post piece on the US study: “Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all,” the researchers write in the article titled, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.”

Friday, December 16, 2016

German government opens pathway to internet censorship: lumping together Fake News and hate speech

When the Fake News craze started with unproven claims that fake news on Facebook had swayed the US presidential election, the blogster was worried it would be exploited as a means to discredit unwanted opinions and maybe even for censorship.

Tweeting about a German article that cited calls by politicians for improved measures against fake news, the blogster added "censorship", and promptly lost several Twitter followers.

So, it* proudly brings you these headlines:
Fake News: Coalition wants to force faster deletion by Facebook  and Internet Hate Speech: Justice Minister threatens Facebook with fines.

While one article highlights fake news in the headline, the other emphasizes hate speech, but both report along the same lines.

The German government plans to add a new law to the statute after the Christmas break, so that it will be in force before the 2017 federal elections.

Unlike the US, Germany already has laws against hate speech, and these laws are being used. Just "not fast enough", complains the justice minister. Adding an additional enforcement process to deal with hate speech is not drawing much criticism.

What does draw ire is the inclusion of "fake news".
Specifically including "fake news" in the new law that calls for a 365 24/7 staffed complaints organization makes the project a vehicle for censorship - period.

Remember, this is a German law.

Which means that flagging something as potentially fake news, as Facebook is currently trialing in the US, won't fly in this detail obsessed country.

[Update 12/17/2016] Today, The Guardian runs a short article on the topic, mentioning out "fake news" only in one sentence. Like the German reports, it mentions "Facebook also could be compelled to distribute corrections that reach the same number of people as the original post, Oppermann suggested, something traditional media companies in Germany are already required to do."

This indicates that the German government will try to give Facebook and other sites the legal status of a "media organization", as opposed to the generic "telecommunications company" status. A telco is never liable for what people say over the phone, media orgs fall under the press laws.

German law makers proposed to distribute corrections to every user who viewed a hate speech post or fake news instance, saying that Facebook collects the data that make this possible.

The blogster doubts such targeted notification will be included in the law because it would demonstrate how far reaching data collection is and raise awareness of surveillance. Governments generally don't like citizens to think much about surveillance - but maybe the disgust of German politicians for Facebook will overcome this. Which would be a great, if unintended benefit.

Sadly, The Guardian mentions only the right wing AfD as a critic of the plan. Many associations and companies far removed from right wing politics are very critical of the government.

Defining what constitutes "fake news" will definitely haunt German law makers because use of the term in the German press and by politicians is worrying: it is primarily used for ambiguous news, to describe reports that don't correct earlier reporting fast enough when new facts emerge, or "propaganda".

[Update 12/18/2016] In a new article today, Frankfurter Allgemeine also switches headlines and goes with Fake News instead of its earlier focus on hate speech.

[Update 12/18/2016] Martin Schulz, the president of the EU Parliament, chimes in with a call for an EU wide law against 'Fake News'. "It shouldn't be much of a technical challenge to mark or delete 'Fake News'", says Mr. Schulz.

[Update 12/20/2016] Today, German digital rights and policies platform  published an analysis of the proposals from various politicians of the governing Berlin coalition, coming to the same conclusions the blogster condensed into its* post above. The article is in German.

[Update 12/24/2016] Yesterday, German media reported that the government is preparing to set up a "Center for Defense against Disinformation" under control of the government's press office in  Berlin. The German journalist union DJV came out strongly against the plan: No censorship agency!
According to the planning paper by the Interior Ministry, ethnic Turks and Russians are the groups most susceptible to "Fake News".

[Update 12/26/2016] Existing German laws work: Renate Kuenast, a prominent politician of the German Green party had Facebook delete a post that contained a made-up quote by her about the alleged murderer of a student in the southern city of Freiburg, and the DA investigates the FB page that published the post. The politician, however, is unhappy that it took Facebook "almost three days" to remove the post.

[Update 4/9/2017] Told you so.

The German government recently drafted new hate speech legislation mandating deletion of hate speech and with steep penalties for platforms that fail to "pull their weight". German all things digital site netzpolitik has a nice English version of the proposals and their dangers.

The bill, as bad as it was, relied on platform operators to delete entries in a civil law context.

But calls for a government agency have now surfaced. For instance, a member of parliament of the governing Christian Democrats wants a state agency to decide on content.

We used to call that censorship. 

* Because the blogster likes to be gender neutral, just because.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Fake news, deniable fake news (misdirection), and coincidences that can look like fake news

The blogster loves the current Fake News debate because it brings out the best and the worst in journalists and pundits.

It* does not feel like restating what more astute minds have already said.  Instead, the blogster will try to show how easily the lines become blurred between 'fake news', 'misdirection creating a deniable fake news effect', and 'coincidence potentially misinterpreted as fake news'.

1968 - Invasion of Czechoslovakia
A recent German and Czech study on the events of the Prague Spring and the way these were handled by the then West German foreign intelligence agency BND can be found on the website of the BND itself here. [Update 4/13/2018: golly, the document was disappeared and you get a 404, praise the power of screenshots!]

One of the historic documents in the study deals with press coverage of the events showing the BND in a good light, in a not so good one - and how the BND fixed the negative coverage.

For those of you who do not know German, the first part tells us which publications covered BND activities favorably. Then the letter goes: The negative comments in [redacted] of 23 and 24 August 1968 are explained by the fact that our [redacted] is currently on vacation. [redacted] was informed of this unpleasant publication and has since managed to get a positive piece on the work of the BND published in the [redacted]. Clippings will be provided later.

The blogster would call this fake news because influence was used to manage public perception, not to correct factual errors.

2015 - Shootdown of a Russian jet in the vicinity of the Turkey-Syria border
We simply link to Wikipedia for a description. The website of German tabloid BILD ran with this propaganda-like news headline:

It is a brilliant piece of misdirection. The text, the imagery, and the large "Putin attacks Turkey" all steer the reader to expect a military attack on Turkey while - at the same time - allowing BILD to proclaim innocently 'no, we mean verbally attacks Turkey, which he did, right'.

John Le Carre's description of a modern British spy and the coincidental resume of the Syrian White Helmets founder
Der Spiegel ran an interview recently with famous British ex-spy and spy novel author John Le Carre. The very nice interview contains one sentence in which Le Carre describes the hypothetical modern British spy. That person "would speak Arabic, have had training in the military special forces and be a former mercenary".
According to Wikipedia and this website, the founder of the Syrian 'White Helmets', James Le Mesurier, was a British Army Officer and a security consultant.
It would be easy to present what appears to be a coincidence as 'news'. As it is, all we have are a few unrelated factoids. All that's needed to turn this into a piece of 'fake news' would be to remove the "coincidental" from the paragraph headline.

Let's take another example, not from such a high profile, emotionally charged series of events. We know that missionaries have sometimes been spies, too. The blogster personally knows a former officer who became a missionary in New Guinea.
Juxtaposition is powerful, isn't it?

And no, the officer turned missionary did not moonlight as a spy.

* Gender neutral. 
** Der britische Spion der Gegenwart, gäbe es ihn denn, spreche Arabisch, habe in Sondereinheiten des Militärs trainiert, sei ehemaliger Söldner.

More Germans in the low wage sector - or how the taxpayer subsidizes your Porsche

Economic news in Germany tend to be even more fragmented than political reporting - in other words, the blogster calls German economic news a s****show.

Only three weeks ago, the press was exited about an increase in government tax revenue of 8.2% compared to October 2015.

One reason given was the good state of the labor market.

This week, the labor department report on the country's low wage sector flashed by briefly: roughly one out of five Germans are employed in the low wage sector. This means, about 20% of the workforce make less than 10 Euros an hour before taxes. To put this in perspective, the current national minimum wage stands at 8.50 Euros per hour. In terms of approximate purchasing power (not in terms of currency exchange rates), one Euro in Germany buys you approximately what a dollar will get you in the U.S. 

What did the reporting of such an important benchmark look like?

Zeit Online was typical, with a slightly rewritten agency report with a photo of nearly the same size as the text. According to the article, the numbers are up from 2006 (16.4%) and 2014 (18.4%).

That was about it.

Once again, you have to leave it to the readers to add context and to try and make some sort of sense of this news.

For example, one reader added a link to the German version of a phenomenon we know well in the U.S.: profitable companies paying workers so little that the government has to step in with social benefits.

Sure, the favorite American example is Walmart, and you can dismiss this with a cynical, 'well, they sell cheap crap. so what do you expect as salaries'.
This still misses the point, of course, but humans go to great lengths to not look stupid.

Would reading that German luxury car maker Porsche does the same to some of its temporary workers make you feel different?

Whether Walmart or Porsche, the effect of wages not high enough to make a living is the same: the government steps in an uses taxes to help. 

If you feel like reading more about the way German media have reported on the budget and taxes in the past two or so years, the updated post Germany's stealthy budget surplus, the "black zero", is upsetting many could be a starting point.

Monday, December 12, 2016

German country life: cheap local firewood and the very Geerman hurdles to get it

The flyer from town hall read:
For town residents only. One cubic meter of wood for 20 Euros, limit 5 cubic meters per household.

The town treats its residents well, the blogster thought. If you find a local firewood dealer, the lowest price will be 65 Euros/cubic meter. If you purchase at the co-op during the summer months, budget 100. And it is up from there.

Borrow a tractor and a trailer from a friend, and off we go, the blogster figured. Until it* saw the notes under the order section.

Oh, right, there are the conditions listed in the old post German chainsaw massacre, the equipment required and the chainsaw permit.

Well, if I buy the equipment and take the course, we'll see a return on investment in two years. Not bad.

Bio-oil for the chainsaw seems not unreasonable as a requirement.

Wait, for the vehicle, too?

Any tractor entering a forest must use bio-oil only.

In most countries, the forest service person who supervises the pickup of your lot would not ask the oily question when you show up. If he or she did, you'd be safe simply claiming that, of course, your vehicle uses only bio-oil and grease.

In Germany, you cannot assume a wink and a nod will get you the wood, even though you pay the town before pickup.

The blogster has lived here long enough to know that 10 or 20 Euros can earn a small favor from the trash collectors or take someone by surprise, making him or her forget to write a receipt, or things like that.

But this is for locals, for folks who often have known each other since before kindergarten.

So, the blogster will figure out just how badly it wants the cheap firewood.

* Gender neutral.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Feel like calling population 'deplorables' without using the term - Gemany's 'Christian Democrats' can help

German Chancellor Merkel recently decided to run again for the post of Chancellor in the 2017 national election, so she continues to be the headliner at the annual party convention this week.

As such, she gave a speech, which you can watch in all its glory on Youtube. The normally taciturn physicist and former member of the East German socialist Free German Youth has weathered many a crisis and has many admirers and detractors.

The blogster has not followed her path closely and won't claim expertise on all things Merkel. It* would like to say a few things about the convention speech, though.

Historical ignorance
Just after minute 5:30 in the speech, she refers to events after "the dissolution of the two blocks" following the collapse of the Iron Curtain.
Whoever wrote the speech seems to embrace the post-truth paradigm we have been hearing so much about.
This is so patently false that the blogster repeated the sequence several times to make sure it had heard correctly.

The speech contains many other "lego blocks" of conservative German politics, for example the claim of Christian values, the "socially tempered" market economy, criticism of Russia, and more. Obligatory support for a burqa ban and opposition to "Sharia" were included, too.

The Deplorables
The speech contains two nice examples of ways to attack your citizens without calling them deplorables. The first one has riled up people because of its simplicity: "Some who have been living here forever could also use an integration course".
Integration courses are, of course, the German way to integrate foreigners, especially refugees, into society.
The statement is gorgeous in its condescending simplicity straight out of a stand-up comedy routine. Note that she does not specify the nationality or the ethnicity of those "some".

While this dig takes aim at anti-refugee views, Ms. Merkel can do better. She manages to accuse opponents of the trade agreement TTIP of cynicism, selfishness, and callousness without using any of these labels. 

Here is how it is done: To be honest, when a free trade agreement with the United States gets hundreds of thousands to protest in the streets but the cruel bombing
of Aleppo stirs hardly any protest, then something is wrong with the political standards.

See, nothing is wrong with the opponents - only with their political standards. Her audience understands this very well because they reward the statement with sustained applause.

And so does a commentator in Frankfurter Allgemeine, who calls it "Merkel's most important sentence". The gentleman continues: The chancellor gave an important lesson in cynicism.***

The blogster agrees!

It is utterly cynical to conflate opposition to TTIP with Aleppo.

As in so many other cases, some reader comments under this supremely stupid little OpEd are as mature and as insightful as it gets.

No, it is no consolation that the speech is not really addressing you or me but a venue full of party heads.

* Gender neutral the blogster writes.
** Our translation of the segment following the 5:30 intro.
*** Die Kanzlerin hat eine wichtige Lektion in Zynismus erteilt.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Add a little more hay to the haystack: fine tune your social media profile and connections

With the sweeping UK surveillance law nicknamed "Snooper's Charter" entering in force on 29 November 2016, the blogster figured this would be a good time to talk about your social media presence.

Privacy and security on the internet are big, complicated issues. This post is not about the latest and greatest in VPN tools, encryption and the like. If you use restricted groups or invitation only accounts, your real or perceived needs are already quite different from the rest of us, and this reminder is not for you.

This post is about a couple of very simple basic things that require very little effort and are about one thing only.

About making you just a little less interesting to some of the many companies and entities that collect data on you.

Make yourself a little more bland.

Or think of it as dressing for work, or as putting on make-up.
What to do:
Add "fluff" to your profile and connections. Become "friends" with celebrities you don't particularly like.
If you are a political conservative, add some lefties to the list of people you follow on Twitter.
If you identify with some sort of leftish world view, add some conservatives. 
As an atheist, add some religious accounts.
Find some comedy, add.
Find some science, add.
Baking, cycling, sports you never watch or perform, go for them.
You are in China? Follow that great communist party - it makes them feel important and secure.
In Turkey? Pick lots of government news outlets.

Then go and mute folks or hide them or their posts.

At the end of the day, obviously, what you post, re-post, tweet or blog is much more likely to get you into trouble than a list of "friends" or "follows".

There may even be an added bonus for the more curious users: you might get out of that dreaded filter bubble and discover something new.

Friday, December 2, 2016

German TV: "Imperial attitude - the long arm of US law"

Now that the US Congress has extended Iran sanctions for another 10 years, here is a timely story on how sanctions work or don't work.

On 1 December 2016, German investigative TV series Panorama had a segment on German citizens getting caught up in US Iran sanctions and ending up on the US list of "Specially Designated Nationals" (SDN).   

On the same day, Frankfurter Allgemeine published a long read based on the Panorama investigation.

The main subject of the report is a German business man who worked at a Cologne company that dealt with recovering payments by Iranian entities for goods and services.

In 2014, accused by the U.S. Treasury of having violated sanctions under both the terror financing (IFSR) and non-proliferation (NPWMD) regimes, he and the company he worked for asked for the reasons for the inclusion on the SDN. At the same time, they asked the German Central Bank (Bundesbank) for an audit of all Iran transactions. Mind you, the company had already applied for and being granted permission for each Iran transaction for years.

The audit turned up no wrong doing.

With the company heading for bankruptcy, it laid of Mr. W and was taken off the SDN in return. W. was not told why he ended up on the list. A letter from a Frankfurt, Germany, based law office on behalf of the Treasury had all relevant information redacted.

Mr. W. remained on the SDN under "Subject to Secondary Sanctions (individual) [NPWMD]

This is somewhat boring, but what happened next is probably the best illustration of the long reach of U.S. law, as the TV show calls it.

To recap, Mr. W. is a German citizen living in Germany, and the German authorities had certified all dealings with Iran were legal under the overall sanctions regime which Germany enforces, too.

Now unemployed, this is what happened to W.:
1) German banks cancelled his bank accounts and his credit cards - because of him being on the American list.
2) Deutsche Telekom refused to honor a cell phone contract for a Apple phone. They offered to let him out of his contract before expiration or send him a Samsung or Sony replacement phone. Reason: no American product for someone on the SDN.
3) Mr. W.'s mother bought a set of garden furniture in the German town where she lives and asked German company Schenker to ship the set to her son as a present. Schenker refused because of - you guessed it - him being on the American list.

When he petitioned the Treasury for removal from the SDN, they instead asked him for details on travel and meetings and - get this - a resume.

For more on this case as well another one, see Frankfurter Allgemeine (ask a friend or use Google translate) or check out the Panorama episode.

As for Mr. W., the blogster checked the SDN in the archives and found that the gentleman was removed from the SDN in January of 2016.

Don't ask whether he received an apology or damages for losing his job.

He takes the optimistic view: better this than Gitmo.

The blogster is known for poking Germans with this provocative statement: you are aware that even the most incompetent and dumbest American congressman has more power than Angela Merkel, are you not?

In case you wonder, experts in international law say this kind of extension of US law not legal.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

How LED lights saved German outdoor Christmas decorations

It's that time of the year again.

Which means, photos of American homes decked out for Christmas will soon be seen in photospreads on German websites and newspapers.

Or, thanks to Youtube, you can watch XMas drive-bys by Germans all year round, for example this one.

In contrast, Germany has looked dark and forbidding despite the fact that the Christmas tree as we know it was popularized here, then made its way to England and the rest of the world.

Even the year-round Christmas shop in the town of Rothenburg - an attraction visited by probably 80% of American soldiers stationed in Germany over the past 40 years - had no effect on the gloom of outdoor decorations in a country at 50 degrees north.

But it has not always been this way, and it is changing again.

It was the lady of the Turkish Kebab Shop who pointed out that Germans used to do outdoor decorations when she was a child. She loved these lights, she explained with a smile. Oh, and she is still a Muslim.

She also told us that the natives stopped putting garlands of light on shrubs and small trees.

We wondered why that was.

Had there been a war on Christmas, which the natives lost? Did the continued exodus from Churches manifest in dying lights?

As it turns out, the explanation was much simpler: the power bill. Electricity costs tripled in Germany over the last twenty years and stand at about 29 Euro cents per Kilowatt-hour.

How can we be sure?

Well, we cannot be certain but LEDs have taken off in the last two or three years, and so have outdoor Christmas lights.

By our non-representative count, the number of outdoor installations has approximately doubled compared to last year.

They are not as garish and involved as some American ones, but we have seen LED reindeer and multicolored LED strands.

Another reason might be that the local adolescent vandals have moved away or grown up. After all, someone cut our LED lights a couple of years back.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The world really needs an International Burn That Flag Day

Trigger Warning & Disclaimer: If you are deeply patriotic and get very emotional about the national flag or a state or regional one, this post may upset you. Please go to a safe space, preferably something like our old standby Disney. The same applies if your country has laws against "flag desecration". So, if you are from any of the countries on this somewhat outdated Wikipedia list, again, Disney it is. Furthermore, the blogster has never desecrated a flag, nor does it* intend to do so. It also continues to own a U.S. flag made out of American cotton and Made in USA.

So, you are still here.

Are you sure you want to read this?


If you feel like burning a flag but do not have access to the real thing, or are afraid to do so in public, the internet can help. The website Flag Burning World takes you as close to the real thing as is possible from the comfort of your home/basement.

There appears to be a good demand for it, too. If we believe the site statistics, some 57 million online burns have been performed.

While "the flag" plays a huge role in the US - literally, I mean, after 9/11 you could see one on the side of a building from the air as your plane approached SFO from the South - initiatives to criminalize its "desecration" have ultimately failed repeatedly. Until now, the Supreme Court has stepped in.
Pre-PEOTUS Trump was pro flag burning, unlike PEOTUS Trump, who never fails to hang his flag in the wind.
Expect another big push to criminalize burning the American flag, and this time, the Supreme Court may not save you. Heck, even people quaintly descried as leftist liberals, such as pre-PEOTUS Hillary Clinton, have not been shy when it comes to sponsoring legislation to criminalize desecration of the flag. (Thanks to Twitter user @downgerd for the link.)

The blogster finds existing laws in many countries more worrisome than a change in the U.S. because the nationalist background of such laws in garden variety democracies such as France or Germany is rather insidious.
In France, they actually try and convict people for "outrage au drapeau". The incident quoted here happened in 2010, before the latest surge of nationalists in the country's political system.

The problem with many of the existing laws is that they are incredibly wide ranging, opening the door for arbitrary trials as soon as some nationalist wingnut comes to power again. Because many of these laws were passed under a nationalist government and simply not repealed later.
As an example, take the Wikipedia entry for Portugal: Who publicly, by means of words, gestures or print publication, or by other means of public communication, insults the Republic, the Flag or the National Anthem, the coats of arms or the symbols of Portuguese sovereignty, or fails to show the respect they are entitled to, shall be punished with up to two years imprisonment or a fine of up to 240 days". In the case of the regional symbols, the person shall be punished with up to one year imprisonment or a fine of up to 120 days (fines are calculated based on the defendant's income).

In the blogster's opinion, the best way to counter the world's nationalists is to institute an International Burn That Flag Day.

Laws against desecration could remain on the books, only an exception for the holiday would need to be added. While there is reason to doubt that hardcore flaggers would readily agree to such a measure, the media could help get the world in a festive mood.

Like on New Year's Eve, they could broadcast flag burning events starting at the date line and work their way West.

This would avoid the generic nationalist circle jerk squabble "you first, no, you - you go first" and citizens of every country would thus demonstrate to the rest of the world that we are all just humans who like a transgression every now and then.

* We are gender neutral here. Which, to some, is just as bad as defiling the flag. But certainly not a crime.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

That 5 Euros per month hike in German Hartz IV benefits in 2017 is already eaten up

German officialdom does not like to be reminded that there is hunger in one of the premier economies of the world.

So, the blogster decided to do a tiny study when it* read that the announcement that basic means tested social benefits (HARTZ IV) will go up by five Euros to 409 Euros per month for adults.

Serendipity - or German efficiency - timed the press release for the month of August, giving a notoriously disorganized blogster ample time for a non-representative study of prices.

The blogster broke the study down into food and non-food basic living costs.

Non-food basic living costs:
1) Another increase in power prices is coming. Assuming that only the levy components (renewables subsidy, grid maintenance levy) are going up, the blogster calculated that more than 1 Euro per month will go into the electricity bill.
2) Car insurance up by about 25 Euros per year, 2 a month. The funniest thing about German car insurance is that it never seems to go down. The boring and cautious blogster gets all the "good driver" bonus points that reduce part of insurance but a general premium hike or a reclassification of the make and model of the car just never makes it cheaper. If you don't have a car, regular annual increases in public transportation costs have the same effect.
3) A general liability insurance may be something basic benefits recipients tend to forego. The blogster doesn't know if they do. Five Euros more for next year on the cheap on the blogster has.

Prices of some staple foods have risen sharply over the past couple of months. Butter went up by 25% across stores and brands, milk by about 15%. Most basic cheeses did, too, by about 15%, although for the stores the blogster checked, benefits recipients can switch from Swiss to Gouda to compensate.

The hike in these food prices alone exceeds the 5 Euros a month.

So, Merry Christmas.

* Gender neutral is it at the K-Landnews.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Walter Mitty reloaded: the fantasies of bureaucratic resistance

If you don't know James Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", your friends of The New Yorker magazine have it here.

In case you prefer a movie version, please go with the 1947 reel, the 2013 remake is crap.

Also, in the extremely unlikely event that any Breitbart readers find this here post, this special note is for you: Don't get confused by the section header "Fiction". This short story really is a propaganda piece by the far left designed to show meek liberals as heroes and foment resistance against white Christians. And yes, the date stamp 'March 1939' proves the internet has been around for all that time, kept hidden, first by the Socialist Harry Truman after WW II, then by 'I don't remember where I was on the day of the JFK assassination' Daddy Shrub.

So, why talk about Walter Mitty today?

Because some might have missed the clue in the post title?

The daydreaming hero reminds the blogster of the fantasies about bureaucratic resistance to the potential assaults by the new Trump administration on civil liberties and freedoms.

No, the blogster is not trying to say all resistance it futile. Hey, we even give you a link to a "HowTo" for interested government workers.

To show our good faith, we go one further and provide a link to the CIA's release of that old standby, the OSS Simple Sabotage Field Manual. You really want to read the latter because it has sections that you will recognize from daily working life in any modern large organization.

Should the release disappear - things happen, you know - you can always email us for a copy.

We have even seen a powerful law expert write about 'should I stay, or should I go' for lawyers in government.

This being said, the blogster would like you to exercise some caution with the piece you can find behind this tweet: What happens when a government employee doesn't do what they're told to do? Sometime they become a hero.

It is in the New Yorker, almost 80 years after Thurber, bless their hearts.

The tweet does have that most crucial caveat of all 'sometime' in front of our modern day Walter Mitty reference.

The blogster would like to point out, though, that the vast majority of us will never attain that coveted hero status.

Because it is hard.

Because we may have a family to feed.

Because a work slowdown may be all nice and dandy as long as we blame it on laziness or a "need for more training" but will unleash vicious retribution when we come out as motivated by "the constitution" or "freedom".

Hanging out by the watercooler or the coffee machine and exchanging witty remarks with co-workers is as far removed from throwing a spanner into some evil gears as Planet X is from the sun.

'We are all in this together' generally means, we sound off but continue to comply.

If it were not that way, none of the big dictatorships some of us can still remember would  have happened in the first place.

If you enter 'resistance mode', you will probably become somewhat lonely - not necessarily from the perspective of an outside view. Your friends and family will still be there, at least as long as you don't tell them.

The loneliness is mental.

And it is powerful.

By all means, do follow your conscience. As you get older, you may realize that this is all you have. Although the people you are up against are remarkably different in their mental wiring.

Read or watch the Walter Mitty tale, sit back, smile.

And make sure you understand that the operative word is 'sometimes'.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Be careful with numbers in the media and in politics

The blogster likes numbers. It* enjoys the relative comfort of measurements and predictions using numbers. Despite people's best efforts, we do get numbers wrong - just look at the polls that did not accurately predict the British EU referendum or the US presidential race.

While getting numbers wrong is simply a fact of life, the blogster still tends to get upset every now and then when numbers are used in a biased, misleading, or outright lying manner.

So, here is a short compilation, in no particular order and by no means complete, of the use of numbers that should make readers question the purpose and prompt more research.

We'll start with the absence of solid numbers.

No figures are collected
A time tested way to get around solid debate is to not collect figures at all. In Germany, this has worked for the number of homeless or the number of illegal aliens. Estimates is all they have.

It is too difficult to get good numbers
In Germany, this argument has been made for both the homeless and the illegal aliens figure. It holds true for illegal aliens - no country has really reliable numbers on those, but in the case of German homeless, the media have noted utter disinterest by successive governments to even try and get reliable figures.
In general, the more illegal something is, the harder it is to get good numbers.

Zombie numbers
There are numbers out there that we take for granted because they have been around for so long. Yet, there is no firm base for them. How can you spot them?

You cannot.

Unless you happen to know the provenance of, say, the "3000 deadheads in prison", you may never know that this was an estimate by someone not exactly qualified to make that estimate.

The real origin and meaning of some popular figures can be found with a little bit of research, for example, the claim that it needs two years before an employee is productive in a new job. Taught by such luminaries as French economics teacher and ex president Sarkozy, it is based on the claim that it takes 10 000 hours to learn a new skill. The TEDx presentation The first 20 hours -- how to learn anything tells you how the number 10 000 came about and how its meaning changed over time, basically from "become a chess champion" to "learn a new skill".

Complete omission of existing solid figures
In speeches and statements, one popular device is to provide no figures at all. This has been a staple in speeches on crime by "law and order" politicians and their media helpers.
It very likely contributes to the perception in the US as well as in Germany that crime is up despite statistics showing it has been down.

Partial omission
One current area of reporting in which we see this frequently is the Syria conflict. Numbers of civilians killed or injured by the Syrian government forces and Russian planes are everywhere. Civilian victims of "rebels" or Western forces are rare. Obtaining figures is not easy but the gap seems to indicate either neglect or intent.

Easily spotted bias
Sometimes, the way numbers are provided shows fairly easily detectable bias. You can find a small example in the post Even short news articles are biased: the 2017 hike of German basic social HARTZ IV benefits.

Compounded figures
One outstanding example of compounded figures was the early reporting on the German social security retirement benefits reform in 2014.
Almost all outlets had headlines like "Reform to cost 160 billion Euros". Only when you read the whole article would you find - in most cases - the added information on the time frame: until the year 2030.
Ten billion a year sounds a lot less scary. Given that the loss to the German economy caused by sanctions on Russia was reported as "6 billion Euros a year" at more or less the same time, one can wonder why the compounded 160 billion was so prominent.

No base figures are provided
Not providing base figures is so common that laziness is really the only sane explanation. For example, a recent article in one German paper reported 500 terror dead in "the OECD" countries.  Another article reported that Twitter had deleted 100 000  hate speech accounts in the past year. The number of total accounts on the platform was not provided.

Percent values should set off a warning
Percentages deserve a special note because they are less intuitive than absolute numbers. Few people think about what a small inflation rate means, but percentage values without base figures are truly evil.

The most egregious example the blogster has seen in recent months was an article in the big German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine. The article reported "an increase in online child abuse by 1000%".
No base figure at all was given.

Don't believe the effect of percentages? Try for yourself. Sit down and work out some percentage values, then try them on friends and family.

Let the blogster know what you found.

And remember, we didn't even get started on really huge and really tiny figures and logarithmic numbers.

* Gender neutrality is a thing at the K-Landnews. 
[Update 11/20/2016] Changed sentence structure of "Don't believe the effect of percentages" for clarity. 
[Update 11/22/2016] Added  the example paragraph "The real origin and meaning of some popular figures..."

Friday, November 18, 2016

[Updated] 100% javascript translation memory tool for bilingual XLIFF w/ a read-only TM + TBX

Nerd alert: Software stuff ahead. 

[Update 25/11/2016]
1. Now supports a multilingual .tbx in addition to bilingual xliff and tmx.
2. Search in tmx now starts when a target cell (including empty) is clicked.
3. Use of full or partial tm matches via copy and paste from a new results sidebar.
4. Fixed the nasty "empty cell" bug.
[End Update]

Someone just wrote a simple translation memory (TMM) tool in 100% javascript. Called xliffEdit. Its size is all of 10 KB, which might qualify it for the title of world's smallest.

It bills itself as a "proof of concept", with the concept being that modern web browser features and power can replace some of the more common standalone programs with ease.

Here is what the tool does:
1) It provides a translation workbench for bilingual XLIFF source files.
2) It allows using one bilingual TMX file as a read-only translation memory.

This screenshot shows a test with a translation memory. The user has clicked on a target segment, and the tool found a 100% match (existing translation) in the TM. The user can confirm or cancel use of the existing translation.

Here are some notes and caveats:
1) The "Store in browser" button will store the translation (upper table contents) in a local temporary location. Once you clicked this button, you can close the tab. If you then open the xliffEdit.html again, the translation will be reloaded automatically.
But you should not close the browser and expect the same behavior. The local storage behaves differently depending on the browser, some specific browser settings, and on the operating system.
Before closing the browser, always save the translation using the "Export" button. If it is not automatically reloaded when you start xliffEdit next time, load this exported.xml to continue.

2) The current version has only been tested with Xliffs and TMX files produced by Memsource Cloud (tm).

3) The current version has only been tested with Firefox.

4) The only changes the tool makes to the XLIFF base file is adding or modifying translations, i.e. the contents of "target" elements. No other xml elements or attributes are modified.

5) Existing context information or alternative translations are not shown.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Digital self-defense: transfer your social media accounts to your cat, dog, parrot, or weasel

From our There is no Mass Surveillance series

The blogster is very privacy oriented, continuously coming up with new suggestions, for example in the post Privacy for Germans: rename all to Haensel & Gretel Mueller?

Recent developments have convinced it* to put forth the suggestion made in the title of this post. The list is not meant to be exhaustive, feel free to add other pets, maybe even your pet rock.

Social media is getting blamed for every ill of society. Good researchers have been trying to put social media into a historical context, but those folks are largely ignored for the juicy click bait narrative.

There is no doubt, however, that governments have become very interested in monitoring social media use by their citizenry. Policing the web is not new, for example, it is well known that German police have been trawling online dating sites for pedophiles by pretending to be underage children.

That's a good thing.

Wholesale monitoring of social media, to the blogster, crosses a line. The first official government forms asking for your social media user name are soon to hit desks in at least one Western country, so, you need to get rid of your social media presence.

Transfer it to a pet.

Don't dismiss the idea. If a space craft, or a potted plant can have a social media account, so can your pet.

Be sure to do the transfer in writing. At least if your are in Germany, because over here, nothing is considered real unless you have it in writing.

Once your pet is the owner of your account, you can post on behalf of the pet. Don't go overboard and start attacking dogs if you are a cat, or vice versa.

Also, be aware that you can still be held legally responsible for the content of a post or tweet.

Ask a lawyer before you tell a government official you do not have an account.

If push comes to shove, you can try (again, ask a lawyer beforehand) to point out that a cat co-authored a physics study in 1975, long before social media existed.

There appears to be one potential issue frequently ignored by people when they select a social media user name or "handle".

This overlooked aspect has to do with prison culture. Apparently, inmates often give nicknames to their fellow prisoners based on some characteristic of the crime they committed.

For example, in the U.S., a bank robber took a taxi to rob a bank.

The robber was caught and duly sent to prison. His nickname became "Taxi".

So, please, do yourself a favor and consider this: how would you feel if your Twitter handle became your prison nickname?

Would you be able to live quietly in a cell with a handle like, say, 'buttlover43', or 'ferrarixxx'?

Of course, this would never happen to you, right?

* Gender neutral, yeah. Also, does that help behind bars? 

Monday, November 14, 2016

The elites are roasting themselves (in the TV show sense, not the pitchfork sense)

Here's the good news: the blogster has found a place on the internet where many authors still have a sense of history and at least try to think: counterpunch.

The bad news: the publication has been described as "left-wing" and even "conspiracy-mongering". 

While the blogster finds the categories "left" and "right" outmoded and superficial and never tires to repeat it, this is not quite how public discourse in general works.

A general issue with sourcing facts and opinions that human love of groups extends to this, and "you are what you read" is the name of the game.

At the end of the day, most of the complaining about 'filter bubbles' or 'echo chambers' prove to be nothing but either hollow phrases, a means to attack people who hold different opinions, or a justification for censorship.

At best, you are given the "I read Playboy for the articles" treatment, at worst, you are shunned or advised by a prospective employer that you are not a good fit for the position.

So, read as much you can. Don't be afraid of social media bullies and trolls. There is no certainty that whatever you write or try to communicate will be understood.

Even a factual reminder to one of the more famous social media folks can get you a lecture or a smack down. The blogster's most recent one was being rebuffed with it is "an aspirational story" despite the original tweet presenting a myth as a fact.

Once good response to a troll who attacked a brilliant lady turned out to be "you can be better than that", followed by a "sorry you had a bad day" when said troll tried again.

The memory of many social media participants is pretty short, or they simply move on with their old positions, which makes the recent deluge of "what happened" in the US election as entertaining as a TV comedy roast.

German papers first did their Trump explanation without missing a beat by slipping in the perennial "everybody was wrong". We had the usual "trailer park folks with a six pack of beer" meme.

But, with emotions flying high and everybody wanting to be on top, there were some wonderful insights. The chief of conservative German paper Die Welt, for example, let us know that Bill Clinton was sure Hillary would follow baby Bush as president. The writer came out with "as he told me - and likely many others".

Die Welt now follows up with "Seven fatal misconceptions of the elites". We'll just go through them quickly.
1. The end of history
Well, the blogster found that awful from the get go. Die Welt found it great, and now disavows it.
2. The Brits remain in the EU
Why would anybody who looked at the earlier referendum assume that?
3. The Berlin Wall is a reality
Die Welt and most others accepted it as a reality. Yes, some saw fissures, but a hated reality it was. And no, Regan's "tear down this wall" had nothing to do with it.
4. The Arab spring will bring democracy
Hell no. There were ample warning voices.
5. The Germans show a friendly face
During the major refugee influx. Hell yes, they did. And racists showed their faces, too.
6. Germany is not an immigrant country
Conservatives claimed that. Anybody with half a knowledge of history knew it to be false.
7. They will go away
The refugees. Conservatives warned they'd basically all stay. Forgetting conveniently how it was conservatives who kicked out Bosnians, that it was mainstream conservatives and their tabloid rag "Bild" who fueled resentment for decades prior to the kumbaya moment of 2015.

So, it was "the elites" that got it all wrong. Says a mouthpiece of "the elites".

The slightly more liberal Die Zeit has some advice on "preventing a German Trump". They go after the effect and the dangers of Facebook and call for "regulation". And they do call for more transparency of government.

It is up to their readers in the comments to point out the consequences of deep cuts, privatization and calling people "scum".

In the meantime, the merchants of death, NATO and the military industrial complex keep ramming the need for NATO and more defense spending down our throats.

Since you were so nice to read to the end, here is one for the Trump-Hitler bucket.

Remember when American conservatives said Hitler would not have happened if the Jews had had guns?

It's not about guns. It is about phones with cameras. *

* Maybe. Once again, the blogster does not claim to know a whole lot about the world.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

What does Newsweek's "Madam President" really tell us?

The 2016 US presidential election brought us another example of print media getting it wrong.

At least, "getting it wrong" was how the responsible CEO of Topix Media, the British Telegraph, and numerous others phrased it. Newsweek distanced itself from the edition, telling the world the magazine was produced by Topix Media, not Newsweek.

The German Der Spiegel reported this as a "mistake" and added two additional bits of information, one explicit, the other not so much. They are worth our attention.

Der Spiegel printed a photo of a woman at a table or desk looking at a copy of the magazine. The caption under the photo simply says "Newsweek edition". They do not tell the reader who the person at the desk is. If you watch a lot of TV, you may guess that the lady may be Hillary. But no confirmation under the photo, nor in the article.

To get the full picture, the blogster went to Twitter and found this, posted by ABC reporter Cecilia Vega:

The Twitter time stamp says the tweet was posted at 5:25 AM on November 9, just after election results told us Trump won. The Tweet says the photo was taken on Monday and that is shows Hillary signing a copy.

Comparing the two photos makes it very clear that Der Spiegel was more charitable by not showing the autograph.  At the same time, they could not resist a "hint", it would seem.

Other German outlets went without any photo, for example, NTV.

The media outlets the blogster has seen printed very similar story lines. "Mistake" or "getting it wrong" with an exculpatory "like everyone else". They also mentioned "historic road to the White House" and "shattered glass ceiling".

The Telegraph added, like other English language outlets, a photo of the 1948 flub showing Harry Truman triumphantly holding the Chicago Tribune edition that incorrectly announced his opponent Dewey won.

So, the mainstream press (for lack of a better term) tried to keep it light. Other outlets were more vocal, for example, Truthfeed:

The Truthfeed piece launches into a full on "Idiots. Even more stupid, Hillary allowed herself to be photographed SIGNING the covers".

Truthfeed is somewhere on the right, clearly supporting Trump.

Compared to Truthfeed, Russian Sputnik News, frequently called "a Russian propaganda tool" or accused as being part of the Kremlin's "hybrid war" or "information war", was much more reserved than you would expect from an information war tool.

Sputnik gives ample room to the Topix chief and to a description of the situation but does call out Newsweek's Kurt Eichenwald - and rightly so, if I may add.
Sputnik does close with a strong, unvarnished dig, but not at Mrs. Clinton: Newsweek was so sure their efforts would pay off, they seem to have forgotten that it is the people who choose the president.

Most importantly, Sputnik does not use a photo of Hillary with the Newsweek issue.

How you interpret the absence of the photo is up to you. Not that much of an information war going on? Are they truly evil masterminds just pretending to not kick someone who is down? Were they too stingy to pay for the pic?

We have talked about two aspects of coverage, the photo and the different tones (light to aggressive), but there is more, and for that we need to go back to Der Spiegel because no body else (it seems) bothered to cover it.

Two sentences from Der Spiegel are relevant for this: "What would the media have written if Hillary had won" and "Rather common media practice"**.

Common practice
As a media consumer, you should always keep this one in mind. A lot of what makes up news coverage is not written after an event. Opinions and stories around an event can and do exist prior to an event. Take something like a mass shooting or a terrorist attack as an example. There are facts, like the where, when, who, why - they are reported after an event occurs. But even there, the "who" and the "why" tend to be fluid or (that's what we call propaganda) pre-packaged in a biased way.
How serious this practice is depends on the event. For instance, in a 2014 post, the blogster asked Time Travel  by German National Parliament on 25 June?

What would the media have written
This is a bit disingenuous but can sort of slip through your critical analysis because of the unspecific term "the media" and the grammatical hypothetical question "shape" of the statement.

The article deals with something that was actually written!

Whatever analysis of the "historic" event we would expect after it occurs has already been put in writing before the event.

But we knew Hillary's positions, what with the debates and all the pros and cons laid out in detail before the vote count? That's all true, right?

There is a difference between these facts (so much as we can call them that) and presenting all of these events and narratives as making her the president.

In other words, had she won, then the Newsweek issue - and others that you do not know about - would have become the historic narrative, the "knowledge" and the "reasoning" other journalists and historians would build upon in their explanation of why the world is the way it is, in their explanation of the past and their prediction of the future.

Of course, TV folks have an easier life because they can change what they say without a long material production lead. But their notes were not different - just ask them.

To round out the story, a few words on the take of Snopes, a site dedicated to fact checking and debunking false stories and rumors. The Snopes piece was last updated on 7 November and deals only with the cover, labeled "Special Commemorative Edition", not with content. The Snopes entry is a direct and convincing debunking of claims by some that "the system is rigged".  Snopes points out that preparing obituaries is common and sometimes embarrassing, and that the same is true for sports memorabilia.

Neither obituaries, nor t-shirts of a winning team have the same impact as coverage of the presidential election.

The text of the Snopes image is hard to read, but you can make out a "went high" for Hillary as well as "as it turns out, the polls were wrong again" for Trump.

By now, the nicely positive "went high" has become "condescending", while the polls were indeed wrong. It would be nice to have the full content of both issues to see which parts of the narrative were merely political "legos", and what went beyond this.

* Was hätten die Medien geschrieben, wenn Hillary gewonnen hätte?
**  Eigentlich ganz normal in der Medienbranche.
[Update 11/13]   Added the Snopes photo and discussion of purpose of Snopes piece.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Screw the poor: German workers face automatic tie of retirement age to life expectancy

The blogster is fascinated by the German debates on social security and pensions. It shows in many posts, for example Germany's social security retirement system: 50% or recipients under poverty level by 2030?

Successive governments have chipped away at "entitlements", and politicians are talking about more "reforms", preferably soon enough to avoid the 2017 national elections being dominated exclusively by the subject.

The newest proposal coming out of the Cristian Social Union (CSU, the Bavarian counterpart to the CDU) is a fairly straightforward one.

Tie retirement age to life expectancy.

The logic is simple: when social security was introduced, life expectancy was lower, hence people received pensions for a shorter time, keeping payroll deductions at a low enough level. Life expectancy has been going up, the population is projected to shrink, so let's up the retirement age.

The law already makes these adjustments until 2030, with the social security retirement age slowly going up to 67 years and benefits falling further to about 43% (from 46% today).

The new proposal goes beyond this and calls for automatic adjustment, something like an increase of six months for every year of increase in life expectancy.

Average life expectancy is, indeed, going up. From about 65 years in 1950 to around 80 in 2015, projected to further increase to 85/89 in 2060.

The biggest problem with this is that workers in physically and mentally demanding jobs will suffer twofold.

They will have to work longer to accumulate the "points" needed for full benefits, damaging their health further. Alternatively, they can retire early with a smaller pension for the remainder of their life.

But automatic adjustment is more insidious than that and has to do with the difference in life expectancy of the poor and the wealthy.

Right now, males in economically depressed regions live on average 73 years, those in better off regions just over 81.

Based on the projected 2060 figures and assuming the current differences will not narrow down substantially, it is conceivable that full retirement age under an auto-adjustment formula as tight as the proposed 6 months for each year will catch up or surpass average life expectancy in poorer regions.

Should the life expectancy of lower wage workers decrease, as it has done in the U.S., Germany's poorer workers would be even worse off.

Exact figures won't be available for a couple of decades or more, but there is little prospect of the overall pictures changing to the benefit of the poor and of low wage workers.

Life expectancy of wealthy people has increased more than that of the poor - this effect alone will make it harder for the poor to achieve full social security benefits.

The 15-year study out of the U.S. says that life expectancy for the richest 5% increased by 2.34 years, and 0.32 years (a few months) for the poorest 5%.
Obviously, a raise of 6 months for every 12 of increased average life expectancy does not look good for the poor.

You could argue: This would merely be the way the system behaved for many decades after it was first introduced.

Given that Germany as a whole (in terms of real GDP) is so much wealthier that in the late 1900s, this would translate as follows: workers have not benefited much from the accumulation of wealth.

Given that workers paid only a small percentage of their wages into social security at that time but 18,7 % (worker share) now and over 20.4% in 2025, the relative benefits (in terms of ROI) are lower today.

What retirement benefits level have successive German governments considered a reasonable floor for government workers?

Today, career civil servants with high school plus vocational training skills receive about 1600 Euros a month without ever having had contributions deducted from their pay.

The average for a male worker in the private sector who retired in 2012: 898 Euros.

There is no statutory minimum. There is, however, a statutory maximum for social benefits of currently about 800 Euros a months.

[Update 11/10/2016] In a surprise move, both major parties (CDU and SPD) announced that there will not be a major overhaul of the German social security retirement system before the 2017 federal elections.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

German railway desperation: On time performance through early closing of doors

Almost identical news articles in Spiegel Online and Frankfurter Allgemeine  deal with the latest improvement Deutsche Bahn plans to roll out in order to improve its on time performance.

Closing train doors earlier!

The once "legendary" on time performance of German trains has lost its luster, says the press. These days, a train is counted as being on time if it is no more than six minutes late.

And the blogster still uses the old joke when an Italian co-worker says "in five minutes".

Blogster: Five German or five Italian minutes.

No more, RIP oddly dated joke.

Even with the six minutes, current on time performance is at 74.4% (as of 2015).

A pilot project will allow conductors to close, or rather lock, the doors one minute prior to departure. The CEO of Deutsche Bahn explained that he himself once arrived 30 seconds late and saw the train leave.

The operative word in his explanation was very likely "once".

In olden days in the US, train station clocks would be set to be one minute early. But that won't work in modern Germany because half the clocks are broken and the other half are wired to some atomic clock.

On time performance has not been the issue the blogster and other passengers have suffered under.

Our problem is the transfer schedules.

In older train stations, would be passengers who transfer from long distance to regional or local trains get, pardon the expression, screwed over by the combination of tight schedules and last minute platform changes.

The basic setup goes like this:
1) The train you are on is scheduled to arrive on a platform next to the train you need to catch.
2) The schedule gives you one minute to cross the platform.
3) The train you are on is re-routed to a different platform, within the six minute window of course. It is on time.
4) If you are physically fit, you try to run. If you are older or not in great shape...forget it.
5) The train you needed to catch leaves - on time.

Your next train is in one hour, if you are lucky and do not travel after say 8 pm.

This has happened every single time the blogster ventured out on a long distance - local connection in the past years.

The result: the blogster pays a friend to take it* to the international airport.

* Gender neutral.