Thursday, March 31, 2016

Germany, where the structure of database is a critical security matter

German police are more data hungry than meets the eye. And they want to keep it that way.

Without the hard work of "all things digital rights" web site, residents of the quaint country in the heart of Europe would remain unaware of the proclivities of their lads and ladies in blue (mostly blue, other colors may apply).

For example, last October we wrote about the odd "force protection" databases many of the country's agencies are quietly feeding.

Just yesterday, netzpolitik reported on the investigation by an intrepid German reporter into another set of databases: on soccer fans. As it turns out, a database that came to light in Berlin a year ago is far from unique.

Police across the country access not just a known nation wide database but have additional repositories of their own.

Violence does happen at soccer matches, so nobody is surprised that police collect related data. To ensure the public understands this, the databases are called "Sports Violence Databases".

But they are not limited to persons sentenced for violence or investigated for suspicion of violent behavior at sports events. When state politicians made formal inquires - after police refused journalists' FOIA requests - it became clear that people who have never had a run in with police end up in these databases, too.

And, just as with the "force protection" databases, getting in is easy, getting out is hard. Not least because the majority of the databases have been unknown even to the state data protection commissioners, whose mandate includes keeping an eye on government databases.

Oversight powers are so weak that it is already considered a success when the retention period is shortened from five years to three years.

To the blogster, the best indication of pervasive disregard for transparency it that agencies routinely refuse to disclose the structure of a database, declaring that publishing it would endanger security.

Anybody who has ever dealt professionally with databases will confirm that such a statement by police may be true under one condition: if the designers of a database are utterly incompetent.

At the state level, this might not even be very far off the truth.

We do know that Germany has true nerds, the main programmer of a widely used pgp encryption software hails from near Cologne Germany. And in an article on Germany's federal IT security agency, the blogster saw one employee described as a young man wearing glasses held together by tape - if this doesn't say nerd, nothing does.

In reality, German governments have always been big on "security through obscurity", and this won't change anytime soon.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Casual racism New York cab driver style

This post was initiated by the misfiring of a few synapses after finding out that the NYPD has at least five undercover "Cop Cabs".

Boys will be boys.

And that brought back the memories of the blogster's last cab ride in fabulously diverse and welcoming New York City, New York. Well, Manhattan.

Having successfully hailed and boarded with its* company, we enjoyed a leisurely, if somewhat bumpy ride through Gotham's numbered streets. Always curious, at time noticeably perceived as obnoxious by the other party, we asked the driver where he was from.

The question is well intentioned and also kind of a game to see if an assumption holds true. The assumption in this case was Pakistan.

Pakistan, was the single word answer.

That was the extent of the conversation. The driver checked in with the dispatcher over the radio as we took in the sights and smells.

Getting close to our destination, the Port Authority, on this early evening, we started counting our cash as the driver talked to dispatch.

I'm almost at the Port Authority. Yes, I'm available. I'll take a break at nine.

He stopped, told us how much we owed him, and we paid and gave him a tip. We got out and walked around the back of the car, then turned towards the front to head to the entrance.

A tall black man in his late thirties, early forties, dressed exceedingly well in a good business suit - unlike us jeans and such peeps -  told the driver his destination through the open car window.

We heard: I'm not in service as the roof light turned forbidding red.

The black males shook his head.

He knew the drill.

* Gender neutral editing, folks, it's a thing.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Bend common and uncommon file formats for camouflaging/hiding data

If you have not been living under a rock or a bricked computer, tablet, or smartphone, you have heard and read about data encryption more than you may have wanted.

So, the blogster decided to come back to a different favorite: how to hide data and some psychological aspects that can improve hiding data.

No, the topic is not new at all. This is just one of many articles that says it: Data hiding has been with us as long as there have been digital computers and networks. The author of the 2007 article considers the practice as a threat, saying In a sense, we've been living in a fool's paradise because today's crooks and criminals seldom take extraordinary measures to conceal data. Most of the forensics work in law enforcement that I'm aware of involves very basic data recovery techniques with a few popular forensics tools.

Others have a different view and study the subject with the aim of improving network processing and security, for example this one from the University of Toronto.

This post describes practical ways and tools to hide data at rest, in other words, data that sit on a device. Things like banking details, passwords, or files you want to keep private.

It is called steganography, and is literally the oldest trick in the book. Here is a list of great free tools. They hide data in image files or audio files, some tools come with added encryption.

They are all you need if you are a normal computer user.

For the more adventurous among you, another tool out of the basement of the K-Landnews is available here as an executable package and with the full source code. It supports the standard image file storage as well as homemade .wav audio.

More interesting, though, are other formats. Some are "beta" or somewhat experimental, others stable. See the section of supported output file formats at the end of the post.

Psychological aspects of hiding data:
1) Playing with cultural stereotypes and taboos, a light hearted description is in the older post Staganography -- hiding text in nudie pics
On a more serious note, childrens' drawings are likely to score high on the "not interesting" index, unless your kid is a prodigy.

2) Scare a snooper
The output file list at the end of the post has an entry "Java .jar file". To a snooper, this looks like an executable file, a program. Our implementation is simplistic, it merely replaces the content of a standard main.class file of Java executable jar with the scrambled message. But, to a snooper, a Java executable won't look as interesting as a text file and he or she will initially treat it as an unknown executable. Other executable formats would even be more formidable, say you wrote a C/C++ program with pernicious code to crash the operating system and hide your message somewhere in the executable.

3) Use formats from your work or something related to your hobbies. Yes, Item 1 can be a hobby, but that's not what we mean.
The sample formats "DNA sequence" and "empty xml file" are meant as examples for work/hobby related steganography. If you are a biologist, some "DNA txt files" on your device will look perfectly natural.
If you are an English teacher, put the data into the "empty xml" and add a public domain book or poem  from Project Gutenberg. Again, a folder with "nothing" but Mark Twain books or some random English romantic poet's deeds provide good cover.

Suggestions for other professions:
If you are an engineer, extend the tool, write some output files based on standard formats from your daily work. How about a fake electronics component wiring diagram or some ChemDoodle Web drawings with a custom reader?
If you are a musician, use "note xml" or use standard musical notation with a customized optical character recognition module - similar to but more elaborate than the sample "hieroglyphs .png" implementation of the K-Landnews stego tool.

Computer games should be a fun container, too. You can make people play a game in order to reassemble data.

    The following formats are supported
     "binary or executable file": Using the File menu entries "Make binary double" 
    and "Combine binary double", you can now process binary files or
    executable (program) files. Similar to the Double Strand text feature,
    two output files will be created. The first one contains the scrambled 
    bytes of the binary file, the second the scrambled byte positions. To combine
    the two and recreate the original binary file, select the two files (bin1) and 
    "numbers" bin. Cuttlefish will write out a file ending in "redone" as the
    fully functional binary file. 

    "Double Strand": the text is saved into two files, one containing the characters,
    the other named "filename_nubers.txt" containing the positions of
    the characters in the original text. The order of the characters is 
    randomized, so you need both files (in the same directory) to extract the
    message text. 

    ".avi movie": the text is saved as a .avi movie and is displayed as a pink
    bouncy ball in case you play the movie in a movie player.
    WARNING: The format of avi rendering changed with v. 1.1. Previous avis
    will not be decoded correctly.
    Configure the bouncy image to "pacman"  by changing the aviBlip "star" to
    Configure a footer image by replacing the existing footer.png. The new footer
    image should be at least 500 pixels wide and 200 high. If it is higher, it
    will automatically scroll upwards.
    "PDF .pdf": a file in portable document (pdf) format.
    "QR code .png": a Quick Response code .png file. Limit of 4200 characters.
    ".wav audio": a Wave audio file. Use CuttleFish to open a .wav message file.

    "empty .xml file": saves the message in "metadata" of an .xml file. The file
    is filled with unrelated text from a default template. Anybody reading the
    text will only see the adventures of Huck Finn. You can replace this file,
    which is an equivalent of "packing peanuts".
    "plain .png image": the message is saved in a plain image file.    
    "javascript .html": saves the message in the javascript section of an html file. 
    You can replace the default file with any file that has a javascript section.
    ".asp vb html": saves the message in an html file that has a Microsoft asp 
    vb script section.  You can replace the default file with any file that has such a section.

   "Java .jar file": saves the message in a Java (tm) .jar file. A template jar is 
    included in the package. You can replace it with any other .jar, but your
    replacement must have a manifest file with a "Main-class" entry.

   "DNA sequence .txt": turns your message into a "DNA sequence" using only the four
    basic building blocks ACGT. Mimicking of one or more common scientific formats 
    will be added.

    [BETA] "hieroglyphs .png": turns a message into an image file with hieroglyphs. 
    You need the font "Gardiner.ttf" (free download from
    Limitations of the BETA module: Only a couple of hundred of characters (need to add
    page handling).
    FONT DEPENDENCY: This module may fail if the graphics capabilities on the machines
    of sender and recipient are too different. Please TELL us about issues!

    [experimental] "CSS stylesheet .css": saves in a cascading stylesheet. This is a very rudimentray 
    implementation, really a proof of concept. You should change the source code CSSHandling
    class to get a good implementation.

Monday, March 28, 2016

A successful Freedom of Information request for - vintage German porn

The blogster didn't intend to write about this piece of weird news.* It was mentioned in the German press almost two years ago and was shrugged off by the K-Landnews.

Until today.

A podcast episode of 99% Invisible about the German "Giftschrank" system led to some chit chat and the remark: Have you heard about the guy who filed a freedom of information request for vintage German porn?

First a brief summary of the "Giftschrank" system, the poison cabinet. Giftschrank is the traditional nickname of locations, usually part of institutional libraries, where governments historically stored banned literature. The effort started shortly after the printing press became popular, the press allowing all sorts of subversive, revolutionary or otherwise dangerous literature to be produced in large numbers.

The episode talks about the history of Giftschranks from the 1600s through modern times in Germany and includes some funny anecdotes about their use in East Germany.

You should listen to the podcast.

Now, to the episode of German vintage porn and a freedom of information request: An unknown porn aficionado was looking for a certain reel from 1983 but could not find a copy for sale anywhere.

His quest (assuming this was a male venture) eventually took him to the German office of youth protection's media products evaluation unit. The office looks at media products (books, mags, movies, video games, etc), and any items deemed potentially distressing or dangerous to young minds are put on an "index", which severely limits the sales channels and bans commercials for the wares.

Since the censors need to look at the potentially offending material, they keep a copy - another Giftschrank.

So, the porn fan figured that any product stored by this government agency is a government record and thus a legitimate target for a freedom of information request.

The office of youth protection did not agree and refused to send a copy of the requested porn movie.

Undeterred, the requester sued in administrative court.

And won.

According to the article from 2014, the office intended to appeal the decision. However, we could not find any further information about any appeal and assume they may have dropped it.

* Or we did and forgot already.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Forget political "left" and "right", it's about power, empathy, and a few other things

When the blogster uses the terms left or right in the context of politics, it* feels a bit sad.

Originating from an 18th century legislature seating arrangement in France, they have come to dominate much of the political discourse. Ayn Rand even embraces the "welcome historic accident" of the meaning of "right" in the English language: "A notable advantage of embracing the political right as our own is that the term right happens to integrate seamlessly with the philosophical and conceptual hierarchy that supports freedom." 

The idea of an "extreme left" and an "extreme right" being polar opposites while, at the same time, being just two sides of the same coin is deeply ingrained in the modern West and is expressed in daily politics, for example, in Germany, as described in the previous post German officials and extremism: always mention right and left together.

Even historians get seriously confused, especially when they try to make sense of the terms over time, for example, in this Twitter sequence:

To the blogster, "left" and "right" are borderline useful stereotypes for participation in standard discussions which involve a larger audience, or an unknown audience such as the readers of this blog post.

But they run against the way the blogster sees the world. The most important effect of this deep discrepancy is that many articles, OpEds, or commentaries on political issues seem boring, outright vapid, a waste of time.

There are earnest attempts to break through the fog. Take the article The Left-Right Political Spectrum is Bogus, from The Atlantic, as an example.
"It might be a division between social identities based on class or region or race or gender, but it is certainly not a clash between different ideas."

After this, we get the familiar arguments, the old cliches, with the admonition that they are bogus. But I agreed with the premise in the first place, otherwise I wouldn't have clicked the link at all.

Only towards the end does the blogster finally get something that feels right: We should arrange political positions according to whether they propose to increase hierarchy or to dismantle it. Instead of left and right, we should be thinking about vertical versus horizontal arrangements of power and wealth.

This may very well be one of the best foundations for moving beyond the confused "left" and "right" in this complex world with its communications with total strangers from across the planet.

Applying the concept laid out in The Atlantic, it becomes easier to understand how old authoritarian Soviet style "left" and fascist and modern "right" exhibit similar behaviors and patterns: power and hierarchy were used in a similar manner.

So, when the blogster heard a German police commander say that a "right wing" group of demonstrators used to follow orders by the police, the blogster was not surprised at all because right-leaning anti-immigrant, authoritarian movements should - according to the power/wealth/empathy paradigm - be generally happy with authority exercised by that universal representative of authority and power, the police force.

The news that German police treated Turkish "Grey Wolves" (authoritarian, nationalist, fascist) better than opposing Kurds at a demonstration in the city of Duisburg on March 26 fits into the same pattern.

As does the behavior of police in Cuba, or - more importantly and to the consternation of many political scientists - the situation in China, where a Communist party has been presiding over a starkly "Western looking" economy.

In looking at and analyzing news, the blogster goes beyond what the article in The Atlantic calls political positions and takes into account the wider psychological aspects addressed very succinctly in Philip Zimbardo's TED Talk: The psychology of evil.

The reason why the blogster does this?

I am not sure if this makes sense, but let's try: to the blogster, political positions, as expressed in discourse and programs, are a layer on top of an even more basic, underlying human condition.

Again, it makes much of what humans do and say unsurprising and in some ways irrelevant. But it is not a case of "we all die, so why do anything". You may not want to, or be able to, enjoy the finer points of upgrading your iPhone by one number and one letter as much as some people appear to, you may be poorer than your peers who read and believe a ton of career advice books.

It is fun to learn, to see where we go wrong, to embrace the uncertainty of it all. And it is fun to take down pompous egos (yes, we should start right here with this post, but we'll publish it first).

Life is a story, fiction. The pretty eggs and the plastic Easter bunnies someone took from the non-believers front porch decoration are now part of that person's fiction.

[Update 4/29/2016]  Germans have seen their social security system slashed by what has been traditionally considered a "left" government of Social Democrats and Greens. Just this week, the current Social Democrat labor minister announced a bill that will prevent EU foreigners from receiving basic means tested social assistance for the first five years of their residence in Germany: that's one year more than the "populist right" AfD demands in its new political program.

* The K-Landnews went gender neutral years ago.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Next terror target is your fridge: German agriculture minister fights "best before/sell by" date labels

From our Science is for pussies series, sub category Not a sexy topic, so we put terror in the title.

Some in the European Union (EU) want to ban "best before/sell by" dates on packaged food.

The fight against these labels has been going on for several years and has been waged under two banners:
1) Some foods last almost forever, so there is not need for a date label.
2) Millions of tons of food are thrown away every year because of date labels.

The first argument is reasonable enough, and the EU has indeed loosened labeling requirements for salt, vinegar, and sugar. The Dutch agriculture minister also says "like rice, noodles, and coffee have nearly indefinite shelf life and the best before date only regards to quality instead of food security".

This means, the EU won't regulate quality any more, at least for these food groups.


Maybe the blogster was too trusting assuming the EU would deregulate without going over board. An article in today's zeitonline makes it clear that the attack on sell by/best before labels is an all out push justified by food waste statistics and choice.

The German agriculture minister, whose portfolio includes food and food safety, said "Customers can decide the point until which they want to use a food". The statement was made in connection with the grand design of "smart packages", for example a chip in a yogurt package that could measure the amount of bacteria and signal if the yogurt is still good.

In short, poor people should be able to poison themselves without being hampered by date labels.

The statistics for wasted food quoted in various reports don't tell us much. For Germany, the estimated total is 11 million tons wasted, of which 6.7 million are due to private households. The article, again reflecting the low level of detail in the whole debate, goes on to say that the FAO estimates that around one third of the world's food is wasted. 

Ironically, the only people who seem to have any idea of the issue are folks like the Danish Stop Food Waste, who pointed out “The EU says that most of the consumer food waste happens with bread, fruits, vegetables, and diary products, not the long shelf products with best before dates, so this EU proposition … will not tackle the larger problem.”

Once again, the reader comments section of an article does the heavy lifting. It's the readers who point out the issues with the huge processed food industry, who describe the loss of vitamins and nutrients in food over time, or who actually know what happens to milk when it goes bad.

A complete ban on sell by/best before labels in a grocery store landscape where much of the "fresh" food is industrial or comes in packages you cannot inspect will kill some people.

[Update] Watch John Oliver's episode on Food Waste for a stomach churning overview.

Inconsistencies in government are plentiful, and Food safety is no exception. One of the favorite examples at the K-Landnews is the EU Novel Foods directive, which is a blanket ban on the distribution of food not widely sold in the EU before a certain date. The scope of the directive is incredibly vast, treating 100% synthetic items in the same way as fruit or vegetables consumed for thousands of years in other parts of the world. No one will mind that ferrous ammonium phosphate as a novel food ingredient requires authorization by the EU, but why it would take a directive in 2010 "authorising the placing on the market of puree and concentrate of the fruits of Morinda citrifolia as novel food ingredient" is less clear to those of us who grew up eating Mulberry fruit fresh off the tree.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Hidden Germany: Hedgehog Underground

From our Not a band name series.

There is a largely unknown, thriving hedgehog underground in Germany. This realization came to the blogster in the course of caring for Valentine, the handful of prickly critter found in the freezing days of early February.

Several websites with information, while helpful, did not give a comprehensive picture of the prevalence of the hedgehog rescue phenomenon. You can think of it in terms of underground music venues, free outside movie screenings in summer, or any other pastime.

People don't advertise their hedgehog rescue activities like they do for cats, or dogs.

Taking a member of the protected Great Prickly species home is allowed only to save the animal, and that might be one reason why Germans keep it on the down low. But then, Germans in general are more reserved, even regarding things as mundane as the best time to plant lettuce.

But they will talk about hedgehogs freely once the subject comes up. It's not something requiring the use of code, like, for example, when your parents tell you they are going to visit friends over night on a weekend, which may really mean they are off to a swinger's party.

In our rural German hills, it seems that every other person you talk to has a hedgehog in their basement or barn over the winter.

The customer service person at the farming co-op store lit up on "hedgehog". Oh, yeah, we have a whole bunch, she said as she launched into dietary needs and general care of the Great Pricklies.

As it turns out, hedgehogs are big eaters with a consequently very active and voluminous output of digested food. This fact will make you go and talk to a lot of strangers. 
The question to a reclusive hill country farmer: can I have a bag or so of straw normally brings at least some slightly inquisitorial sounding question by way of an answer. But add "for a hedgehog", and you are spared not only a frowning "what for exactly" - the kind the blogster imagines you'd get if you asked for an ingredient for a homemade IED - but you'll get a garbage bag full of crisp, nice smelling straw. For free, and with a smiling just let me know of you need more.

Even the tax preparer outed herself as very knowledgeable regarding the bedding needs of hedgehogs when asked for as much shredded paper as car could hold. We spent almost the whole time talking about the well loved solitary rambler and barely about income and taxes. Not that that requires a lot of time anyway.

So, as Valentine is nearing its release, we can summarize that the hedgehog, too, has brought us new friends, just like the lost cat in the early days in Germany.

[Update 5/5/2016] The second rescue hedgehog of last winter has been out in the wild again for a week. The blogster still chuckles every now and then about how different the personalities of the two were. Valentine turned out to be such a ham, an extrovert without fear, unrolling while on his back, leisurely stretching. Attica was much more reserved, she was in worse health and needed several trips to the vet. He bathroom habits almost rivaled that out our super clean cats. Her favorite game was to topple the plastic bucket that contained the blogster's gloves and then hide the gloves.

The fact that the vet treated the hedgehogs pro bono was a nice surprise in a country where pro bono work of any kind is extremely rare.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A tall tale of a toad named Donald and the role of ritual in public speech

From our Calaveras County Mark Twain series.

Here is how the blogster came to nickname a toad Donald, after Donald Trump.

In the dark, wet early morning hours, a big toad, half up on its hind legs, was sitting in the middle of the country road, facing the oncoming car. The driver saw the toad and evaded it.

Donald, I'm nicknaming the toad Donald, after Trump!

Can't you see, the Donald is exactly like the toad, all puffed up facing the eighteen wheeler of StopTrump barreling towards him, yelling: Come on, come on, I challenge you. I bet you are being driven by a Muslim, better, a Muslim woman. It's gonna be a fight, a beautiful fight. All those cars before you...I made them miss through my sheer beautiful willpower, my intelligence...come on, it's gonna be a beautiful fight.


The blogster continues to be bored by all the air time and ink/black bytes spent on the toad after a couple of folks already said what needed to be said.

Bring up all the left, right, and middle-ish arguments you want, they are mere decoration.

The point of The Donald is that he has broken the rituals of presidential candidate public speech.

All the crap, the dumb things that our rituals of discourse generally and successfully prevent people from saying, he just says them.

That, my friends, is what infuriates the righteous and not so righteous alike. "We" know we are looking at a ritual - or at least we should realize that by now - but ignoring a strong ritual, or a taboo, is what gets you run over by the proverbial eighteen wheeler.

Somehow, humans don't seem to take well to deep seated rituals being challenged, even if it is all theater.

Have you forgotten the sitting president's remark that politics involves a lot of theater?

The story is really about us: we don't elect a pacifist into office (sorry, Bernie), we are busy making enough money to live or to rake in more, we don't want to let go of the notion of dirty work that needs to be done - but we don't want to be responsible.

No, please, don't come up with that Hitler again, because that one would never have made it without a decade or more of support from "conservative" Germans. Heck, in the last free elections in the early 1930s, "the Germans" did not vote Hitler into office - he was heaved into the job by the other conservative parties.

The story of The Donald is a tall tale, nothing more, nothing less.

How Breaking Bad saved two German kids from the Teutonic Drug War

Cultural stereotypes can keep people out of prison. Yes, most of what we read and hear about stereotypes indicates it normally works the other way round, with stereotypes making lives harder or simply destroying lives.

The innocents abroad face many a stereotype. To name but a few: cars and cowboys, hyper militarized torture crazies and peacenik hippies, some of the planets worst beers and some of the world's best drugs.

While we continuously hear how hard it is for native English speakers to learn German because you are instantly drafted as an involuntary tutor or, even worse, face a German or other ethnicity who spells English better than you, there is a less talked about role.

That of involuntary, unaccredited drug war consultant.

TV series revolving around drugs, like Breaking Bad, or a plethora of other series and Hollywood stoner movies since, at least, Cheech and Chong have deeply ingrained in almost all Europeans that any American knows drugs better than the locals.

The fact is that this is largely true for Americans who grew up during the Drug war, and thus no longer a stereotype in the dismissive sense of the term.

Here is a practical tip: If a German gets the impression you know more than him or her about drugs, do not tell him or her you do not use drugs. The blogster once told a German friend how easy going and non-judgemental American pot smokers are when you simply say "no, thanks", how that stoner friend of yours remains a friend despite you never touching a proffered joint. The smile and the head movement of that German friend translated approximately into "sure, whatever, I won't believe you, but hey".

So, if you don't actively dispel the notion created by these TV series and movies, you may be drafted as happened to the blogster. The blogster may not have been the consultant of choice but a victim of its* work schedule, which so happened to show ample free time in the morning.

Imagine an agitated phone call by a German parent, almost begging you to come over to the house because something relating to the teen kids happened.  Since you feel like having another cup of coffee, you try to determine the urgency of the request. The parent launches into a sentence starting with "we searched the room", at which point you cut off the poor adult and tell him or her to not say another word.

The situation at the parents' home was characterized by panic.

[Note: a number of facts and events have been left out of the following description, names are not the real names.]
Can I have a coffee? always helps, it breaks up what sounds like a Dada-esque automatic stream of consciousness flow of colliding utterances, and it gets you a coffee.

The found objects sat on the living room table. They included a small amount of pot in a half empty bay, several unused dime bags, and a scale.

Even without knowing details about the Teutonic Drug War, this looked bad.

Do you know how local police and courts typically handle possession of marijuana? was one of the many questions of the blogster trying to get a feeling of the threat to the kids.

The best the parents could do was cite some TV news and the story of a young woman a few blocks away. The young woman had been caught with a couple of grams of pot several years earlier, she had been sent to counseling, and she had struggled socially ever since she had returned.

Not because of the drug, but because of the stigma.

We will send her to group therapy, like Anna. If we do this before the police find out, she will have a second chance.

Oh, so you want her to get to know more people who have friends with better pot than this and maybe hard drugs?

The involuntary drug war consultant managed to calm the frayed nerves and suggested to call the other parents involved. And don't forget to get rid of the stuff.

A few years have since passed, and everybody is doing fine.

If you want to know a couple of reasons why the blogster finds the drug war evil, see this post.

* Gender neutrality at the K-Landnews as mandated by TheEditor.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Continued desertification of the German internet - "ancillary copyright"

From our The German internet is a desert series.

A few years ago, Germany passed an "ancillary copyright" law (Leistungsschutzrecht) designed to enable rights holders to claim payment for the use of "snippets" of content from their web sites when these showed up in news aggregations or internet news sites.

All things digital site finally managed to get a couple of FOIA requests through, and now we have the machinations that went on in the making of the law.

If you are not interested in the law itself, we recommend the K-Landnews take on money for nothing in German gardener to sue beekeeper over pollen profits?

First, a quick overview of the law as it stands:
The nickname "Google law" illustrated that the law was not about ensuring "creative professionals" received a "fair share" for published work but a simple "money for nothing" scheme to get at some of Google's ad revenue.

Problems with the law were fully known before it passed:
1) Google and many other aggregators didn't show ads on aggregation sites, so there was no income from the aggregation itself.
2) The length of snippets was ill defined.
3) Publishers could opt out.
4) Aggregators could drop publishers.

Items 3 and 4 put together took care of the law. Even the most vociferous supporters quietly signed the "no revenue and we won't delist you" contracts with the big players, leaving some small aggregators in their crosshairs. The large publishers, like Bild or Burda, did not want to loose millions of search engine referrals each month for uncertain snippets revenue. Court challenges of the opt out model failed.

Although most legal experts have called for the law to be rescinded, it is still on the books.

What Netzpolitik found about the deliberation.
The main government officials working on the bill distorted the views of the "internet community", stating that the community wanted all copyrighted content to be free, gratis.

The main official fully supported the stance of the "Content Alliance" (composed of public TV, music rights enforcer GEMA, a publishing lobbyist (who took a government job soon after), a print publisher association. 

In a letter to Chancellor Merkel, published in full by Netzpolitik, the official goes out of his way to dissuade the Chancellor from meeting representatives of the "net community" before meeting members of the Content Alliance. He wrote that such a meeting would be "perceived with criticism" by the Content Alliance.

A minor problem: the meeting of the Chancellor with community representatives had already been scheduled.

His solution: The Chancellor should cancel her participation for "scheduling reasons", which would "easily pass as credible".

The documents published by Netzpolitik on the issue show without doubt that any public talk of "cooperation" and "inclusion" of the arguments of the net community was a smoke screen. The law was going ahead as planned and "suggested" by the Content Alliance.

[Update 6/28/2016] A court in the capital, Berlin, handed the association of publishers VGMedia a resounding defeat four months ago when the organization sued to force Google to pay for "snippets". The court stated that Google was acting in within the law by asking only VGMedia associated publishers for a free license if they wanted to see their offering listed in the search engine's aggregated news. VGMedia is now changing its strategy by suing Google for alleged abuse of its market power in requiring a free license for snippets (Google has over 90% of search market share in Germany).
At the same time, the association is trying to push for an EU regulation to mandate German style "ancillary copyright" for all European Union countries.

[Update 12/8/2016] Based on an earlier European Court of Justice decision regarding potential liability for links to web pages, a superior court in Hamburg, Germany, decided a case in which the operator of a site was accused of having linked to a page which contained an image that was used by the destination (target) page without permission of the photographer.
The court held that the operator of the site setting the link was liable for copyright infringement. Website operators/authors who use a simple text link to another web page are thus liable, even if they do not know and can not determine whether the destination page infringes on any intellectual property rights.
Initial comments on the web say that this provision applies to "commercial sites". The court, however, uses a much vaguer term of "sites intending to gain financially".

The blogster is willing to bet one Susan B. Anthony dollar that having any ads on a site will be considered proof of this intention.

After all, this is Germany.

The blogster has, surprise, some personal experience with working on television series that ran in Germany. Royalties never made to the blogster. Members of the "Content Alliance" have a number of, let's say, interesting hurdles in place for "creative professionals" who do not work for the big publishers.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Small numbers do a number on economists: German basic means tested HARTZ IV is "good income" in other EU countries

Just leave it at the headline, grumbled the famously cynical K-Landnews TheEditor. It says all you need to say about people who have no idea of suffering from poverty and exclusion.

We did not want to do that.

It would be unfair to macro economists to dismiss them in this manner. Their work is like every other job, and they do try to put numbers together and make sense of the world in this manner.

Have you ever actually seen the complex formulas one my CEOs proudly proclaimed to have managed to write on the palm of his hands before his finals?

So, give economists some credit.

But not too much.

Because, as they are the first to tell you, too much easy credit takes away some of the hamster wheel motivation and might make you slack off, thus dragging the whole economy down with you.

We do want to thank the economists of German KfW for honest work in their new study that shows that a huge proportion of income growth in Germany between 2000 and 2014 went to the upper incomes.

They also point out that 40% of German households saw their incomes rise less than the rate of inflation during that period, reducing their purchasing power, making them effectively poorer.

The inequality coefficient Gini was at an all time low for Germany in 2000, at 0.25, and has increased to 0.31, according to the study. The study authors point out that government transfers have softened the rise and that it would be much higher without redistribution of wealth.

But then they manage to spoil a good impression by adding this:
German basic means tested HARTZ IV is considered a good income in many other EU countries. The median income in Romania, for example, is less than half that.

Without context, these two sentences are next to meaningless, but they do seem to tell readers, hey, you are doing pretty good compared to others, even if you go hungry every now and then.

How high is the cost of living in Romania? According to this website, the cost of living in Bucharest, Romania, is about half of that of Munich or Frankfurt, Germany.

HARTZ IV doesn't look at great anymore, right?

Even so, the fact of the matter is that you cannot receive HARTZ IV while living in Romania. You have to be present in Germany, willing to work (if able to), and willing to spend time and money on job hunting.

In the words of TheEditor: A good part of the benefits should really be considered work income, for job hunting.

But that is only the superficial easy dig, there is another issue with the whole "social transfers" business.

The study, or maybe just the article, uses "social benefits" (Sozialleistungen) to encompass both government benefits and employer benefits, and states that the proportion of those has remained unchanged at 29% of GDP between 2000 and 2014.

The study's author then goes and says that "monetary social benefits like unemployment benefits, pensions, and child allowance" are the primary means to reduce income inequality.
Which is true but fails to account for the fact that unemployment benefits as well as pensions are insurance type benefits, paid for - at least to a substantial degree - from premiums.

The child allowance - no premiums here - comes in two distinct forms, a monthly cash payout and a tax exemption. The tax exemption becomes advantageous if the family income is over 60 000 Euros a year and effectively means wealthy earners get more for their children than average and low income families.

Of course, this does not negate the fact that even the low monthly allowance increases income, but it does point at the heart of Germany's "social benefits" debate.

The "social benefits" debate in Germany is bound to remain skewed because conservatives tend to focus on "free" social services/benefits when they talk about immigrants coming to Germany to supposedly enjoy the lavish benefits, i.e. those funded out of government tax revenue, meaning the basic means tested HARTZ IV, disability as well as benefits for pensioners having pensions less than the HARTZ IV threshold.

These benefits are meant to stave off poverty, and they ran at less than 30 billion Euros  in 2014 (28.5 billion if you must know).

German GDP in 2014 was 2 974.8 billion Euros. If we use the "social benefits" definition of the study (which appears to be "all transfers") of 29% of GDP, we get a - rounded - figure of about 900 billion.


That's why you should never mention HARTZ IV in terms of social benefits in relation to GDP.

Given that HARTZ IV comes out of tax revenues, we should look at those. The 2014 revenues (excluding local government tax revenues) stood at about 600 billion Euros. While no longer peanuts, the 30 billion for HARTZ IV are still only 1/20th of tax revenues.

Compare these expenditures to other tax revenue spending, for example, 23 billion for child daycare (in 2013, the latest free stats we found). In states with free day care, these funds go to different income families without regard to needs, in others, lower income families receive subsidies.

My favorite comparison, though, is the revenue generated by the "broadcast fee" (radio and TV) for German "public' broadcasters, which stands at about 8 billion Euros per year.

Keeping over 4 million residents out of abject poverty costs just three times the money spent on Germany's most expensive sedative, broadcasting. 

[Update] Typos.

[Update 3/19/2016] The chief of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) was interviewed by zeitonline for his new book, and had a few very interesting things to say about German society.

The blogster likes what he had to say for one specific reason: He is able to accept what data tell him and to be surprised by data.

Here is a supporting snippet from the interview:

Zeit: What surprised you most during the research for your book?

Fratzscher: The very marked lack of equality of opportunity.

Zeit: Why?

Fratzscher: I had always believed we lived in a socially responsible free market economy. If you exert yourself, you will be rewarded. But, if you look closely at the data, that is an illusion. We have been living in a class society for some time, maybe even a caste society.

The blogster has used the argument "caste society" in several posts for two specific phenomena: the fact that the often vaunted and envied vocational training system had very much the effect of keeping people in their place in society, and for the small group of civil servants who enjoy the status of "Beamte".

[Update 3/21/2016] Right on the heels of all of this, the German federal reserve bank Bundesbank comes out with its 2015 report on the wealth of the country. Here are the numbers:

Top 10% own 59.8% of net wealth
Folks between 50% and 90%: collectively own 37.7%
Bottom 50% own 2.5%

Not included in this are the super rich worth more than 100 million Euros. Their wealth is estimated because they don't like participating in surveys.

Also not included are future pensions.

Neither the "conservative" nor the "liberal" media outlets dispute the figures themselves but conservatives like FAZ try to lessen the impact by pointing out that excluding future retirement income makes the figures for the bottom 50% look worse than they really are.

That's an interesting distortion:
a) The report measures currently available wealth (not past wealth, not projected future wealth)."Future wealth" is not relevant, be it in the form or real estate, stocks, or pensions.
b) Once you hit retirement age, the pension becomes part of the surveyed data set.
c) Poor folks tend to die younger, so, if anything, you'd need to adjust downwards because many of the poor will lose 100% of payroll social security deductions as a result of early demise.

[Update 3/24/2016] German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine has been pushing a generic "equality is dangerous" type of argument pretty consistently after inequality has been highlighted in the past few weeks.
The really interesting line of argument in these articles is centered around the unverified claim that equality means everybody earns the same amount of money. This simple definition does not appear anywhere near the intro of these articles for reasons the blogster can only guess. Is it because providing that conceptual base at the outset would render these articles moot?
Not a single economist who criticizes real or perceived inequality makes that claim. No one who advocates a universal basic income (UBI) makes it either.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Politicians set to change rules for German radio and TV because they don't like the newcomers

With a budget to rival that of the American NSA, give or take a billion depending on Euro-Dollar exchange rates, German "public broadcasting" is a behemoth that easily dwarfs the country's private broadcasters.

Originally chaperoned by the Allies after World War II, West German politicians managed to get a tight grip on the nominally independent state broadcasters, and the old political parties are not in the mood to relinquish any of this power.

There was a very brief window around the early 2000s, when several state prime ministers got together and hashed out a plan to prune back the sprawling networks to the original charter of providing basic coverage. As soon as these prime ministers were out of office, the backlash began, and it was spectacularly successful. A new broadcasting "fee" structure introduced a few years ago removed all doubt by forcing every resident to pay for the service despite a majority of Germans opposing mandatory fees.

We won't bore you with the fine points of political influence exercised at all levels but stick to one that is making the news after the substantial gains of the new party AfD in last Sunday's state elections.

All public broadcasters have a "broadcasting council" charged with electing the CEO of the broadcaster, advising the CEO on programming matters, ensuring legal compliance, signing off on the budget. etc.  The council is supposed to reflect the composition of civil society.

What this means is that representatives of the churches, major sports associations, the trade unions, the music teachers, charities, and so forth share the council with politicians from the state parliaments.

State parliaments across Germany have found ways to exclude members of small parties of the legislature from getting even one seat on these councils:
1) By only allowing legislators from the top three parties in the state to be elected to a council.
2) By setting council membership periods to six years as opposed to the four year legislature cycle, making it so that no new members are elected in one or more states depending on the legislative election cycle. If a small party turns out to be a "one hit wonder", it never gets a council seat.
3) By not setting a quota for the legislature parties and requiring a full majority of votes, which the small parties can never muster.
4) The latest proposition from the northern city states is even more refined: allowing only legislators to stand for a vote whose party has an official "legislative caucus". The instrument of "legislative caucus" means that a certain number of seats are needed to enjoy the full benefits of the legislature, thus depriving independents or small parties of certain privileges. It's a two class legislature - and completely legal under German law.

Very conveniently, these rules exclude new parties almost all the time because it takes a cycle or more to grow in popularity.

With the entrance of the "populist right" AfD, outspoken critics of the "tax like" fee to boot, more efforts to exclude small parties of all political persuasions seem inevitable.

Don't expect to see this topic discussed on German television.

Of course, there is no representative for the social segment "agnostics" on any council either.

Minorities, except for a handful specifically protected as a result of World War II, do not fare very well in Germany.

[Update 3/17/2016] Many of the "organizations of civil society" are to some extent led by sitting politicians or members of state government and receive government funding. The German music council receives funding from three government agencies and from several government affiliated organizations. The board of its commercial arm features several government officials as well as a Mr. Mayer, a representative of Bavaria's "public broadcaster".

Monday, March 14, 2016

A leading German IT security expert accuses Apple of profiteering in "Apple vs. FBI" and gets it wrong

Disclaimer: It gets very messy in this post. The blogster is taking on Dr. Sandro Gaycken, according to Frankfurter Allgemeine (FAZ), "among the leading IT security experts". So, if you are easily upset, we suggest as an alternative reading experience.

Mr. Gaycken has struck again, this time in an FAZ guest article, "Profit is Apple's only motivation", accusing Apple of double standards because "the Chinese government already has access to the iPhone".

The big statement is "It has long been known in security circles that Apple is willing to cooperate with repressive regimes in pursuit of profit". [Our translation of "Denn Apple ist in Sicherheitskreisen schon lange dafür bekannt, für seinen Profit eben doch mit repressiven Regimen zu kooperieren."] **

Let's have a look at the arguments, there are few, luckily, because the article is short.

Gaycken claim: Apple has always claimed it could not undo its own encryption. [Apple hat nämlich immer behauptet, selbst sie könnten nicht die eigene Verschlüsselung aufheben.]

True (Apple)And we can’t unlock your device for anyone because you hold the key — your unique password. 
Apple acknowledged it can write code to unlock the phone in question.

For iCloud: This means that your data is protected from unauthorized access both while it is being transmitted to your devices and when it is stored in the cloud...never provides encryption keys to any third parties.
In short: Right now, although iCloud backups are encrypted, the keys for the encryption are also stored with Apple. This means that law enforcement can ask for this data to be provided from Apple’s servers. 

Gaycken uses the German word "aufheben", a smart choice because it does not commit to either "decrypt" or "unlock". This claim does not differentiate between the device and iCloud. His article does not acknowledge that Apple has the iCloud keys and can and will use them if lawfully requested. Yes, by, for example, the FBI.

Gaycken claim:  When the iPhone 4S was introduced in China, it had to be equipped with the Chinese WAPI WiFi chip. [Als das iPhone 4S in den chinesischen Markt kam, musste es mit einem chinesischen Wifi-Chip, dem WAPI, ausgestattet werden"

True: This is correct for the iPhone 4S. What he fails to say is that Apple sold an iPhone without WiFi capability in China before the 4S, presumably because Apple did not want to use the Chinese designed WAPI chip. Critically, Gaycken fails to mention that millions of unlocked foreign bought iPhones flooded China - no WAPI chip in these. At the time of this article from 2009, the estimate was two million unlocked, no-WAPI chip iPhones.
Gaycken also fails to state that the WAPI chip was dropped in later models.

Gaycken claim: Since 2014, the data of Chinese iCloud users are stored exclusively in China. Presumably, this was part of a deal between Apple and Bejing to allow the sale of the iPhone 6, which was introduced shortly afterwards. [ Seit 2014 werden die Daten chinesischer iCloud-Nutzer nur noch in China gelagert. Ein Deal zwischen Apple und Peking, vermutlich um das iPhone 6 verkaufen zu dürfen, das kurz danach freigegeben wurde.] China Telekom may not be able or allowed to access the data. But the authorities for sure can. The laws are unambiguous. [China Telecom mag nicht auf die Daten zugreifen dürfen oder können. Aber die Behörden dürfen dies ganz sicher. Die Gesetze sind da mehr als eindeutig.]

True: That's correct. But U.S. laws are also very clear on iCloud access. There is no difference in principle. The argument only works by omitting the legal situation in the U.S. and other countries.

Gaycken claim: Shortly after the launch of the iPhone 6, there was a massive attack on the data paths between the iPhones and the iCloud, in which the attackers - indications point to the Chinese government - used counterfeit Apple certificates to obtain all user names and passwords of Chinese iPhone users. All Chinese iPhone users.
[So kam es dort bereits kurz nach dem Verkauf des iPhone 6 zu einem massiven Angriff auf die Datenwege zwischen iPhones und iCloud, bei dem der Angreifer – Hinweise verdichteten sich um die chinesische Regierung – mittels gefälschter Apple-Zertifikate alle Nutzernamen und Passwörter der chinesischen iPhone-Nutzer abgefischt hat. Aller chinesischen iPhone-Nutzer.]

True: The man in the middle attack did occur. However, the claim "all user names and passwords of Chinese iPhone users" were obtained in the attack cannot be verified. Already at the time, both Firefox and Chrome prevented users from accessing iCloud in a man in the middle attack scenario.
Gaycken is just making up the "all".

He leverages somewhat understandable criticism against Apple as far as Apple not being explicit about the exact nature of the theft as well as those presumably responsible. But that's nothing compared to, say, German IT security communication.
He also fails to mention that an attack on Microsoft happened at the same time.

One point Gaycken could have made but didn't is that Apple has repeatedly removed apps from is AppStore on request of the Chinese authorities.

Conclusion: Despite the fact that Gaycken conflates iCloud and the iPhone, he makes no attempt to differentiate the current abilities of authorities to access the distinct repositories.
As one of Germany's leading IT security people, he should know - or google a few minutes and check the ample Twitter references.
If China has such great access to "the iPhone", why do they need to run a huge man in the middle attack in the first place?
He also fails to address the millions of unlocked non-WAPI phones, which would have taken some bite out of the double standard argument because Chinese users benefited from a double standard.****

Thanks for reading. Oh, and Mr. Gaycken has also advised NATO on cyber security.***

Hey NATO, offer me that job, will ya?

** As a NATO advisor, Mr. Gaycken might be familiar with cooperation with repressive regimes. Or one would hope that his view of, say, Turkey is realistic. And show me any major company that does cooperate with repressive regimes.
Shucks, I think, I just killed any chance of a job offer.

*** NPR on experts.

**** Assuming WAPI was backdoored, and accepting the generic flaws of contemporary standard WiFi.

Populist AfD success in German state elections: what not to worry about - and what to worry about

From our It's not a tectonic shift series.

You will hear and read a lot about the success of Germany's Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) in the three state elections of 13 March 2016.

Many of the comments will attribute the success of the "populist right" AfD to the refugee crisis and the handling, or mishandling, of the influx of refugees by Chancellor Merkel. While dissatisfaction with the alleged "open border" policies of the chancellor in 2015 did play a role in voters' decisions, it is not that straightforward.
In the eastern state of Sachsen-Anhalt, AfD received 24.2% of the vote but the number of voters who said refugee policies were important to their decision stood at 62%, which is the lowest value among all three states.
In Rhineland-Palatinate, AfD received 12.6% but 62% of voters said refugee policies were an important factor, and in Baden-Wuerttemberg, AfD has 15.1% (65% of voters said refugee policies were an important factor).

How much of the AfD success comes as a "protest vote"? Around 75% of eligible voters attributed the AfD success to the "protest" factor in this 2015 poll.
Some 45% of AfD voters themselves stated "protest" was their decisive factor, while 53% said the political program of the party was.

History, and state vs. federal elections
Historically, "grand coalitions" of the Christian democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Social democrats (SPD) have always seen an increase in "protest voting", for example, in 1969, the neo-Nazi NPD received 4.3% of the national votes in West Germany. While not enough for seats in the federal parliament, the NPD did get enough votes in recent elections to win seats in some former East German states.
Using the only long term data, for the NPD, we can see that in the vast majority of federal elections their share of the vote went down by at least 30%, generally by 50% or more, which correlates quite nicely with the "protest vote" figures above.

The strength of the AfD
The long term observation for the NPD may or may not hold true for the AfD, largely because the AfD obtained significantly higher shares of the vote than the outright neo-Nazi NPD. Most importantly, though, the AfD managed to obtain two "direct" seats in Baden-Wuerttemberg. This means, AfD candidates beat candidates of the long established parties in head on majority decision contests in two electoral districts.
Only detailed investigation of the reasons and the demographics in those districts will indicate how dangerous the AfD might be in the 2017 federal election.

Losses of the CDU and the SPD
The conservative CDU lost its position as the largest party to the Greens in Baden-Wuerttemberg, the SPD lost big in Baden-Wurttemberg (12.7%) and Sachsen-Anhalt (10.6%) but had a strong showing in Rhineland-Palatinate (36.2%).
Prior to the AfD success, the CDU/CSU has been extremely good at playing a "good cop - bad cop" game that ensured even seriously right-wing voters felt at home in the party. While this has not worked very well in the current elections, the "bad cop" faction of Bavaria is already trying to make hay by attacking chancellor Merkel.
The SPD is called a lost cause by some for good reasons. First, the moderate German left is split between SPD and Die Linke. Yes, the blogster calls Die Linke "moderate left" - if you want a detailed explanation, send an email. Second, "grand coalitions" have not been good for the SPD, and third, the savage welfare cuts leading to the basic means tested Hartz IV and cuts to retirement and other services, have alienated enough voters to have a lasting effect. The recently introduced SPD supported minimum wage did not change that. People go hungry in Germany, too.

Age and sex
AfD voters are much more often male than female, and the age distribution is different from that of CDU and SPD voters. The latter have their highest share of voters among older people (60+), while the AfD is strong in the 30-40 and 40-50 age groups.
Correction of a decades long "shift to the left"?
Some have argued that Germany had moved towards the left for a couple of decades, and that it is currently seeing a sort of compensation represented by the AfD.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Inequality has gone up for at least two decades, basic means tested Hartz IV is - "radical trigger warning" - a demeaning, discouraging deterrent to seeking assistance. 

Should you be worried?
The "social climate" in Germany has become colder, but compared to many of its neighbors, it is not that bad. Much will depend on how the incumbent parties and their officials handle the new landscape. The blogster is looking forward to reports of some AfD officials getting into hot water, taking the shine off the new party. Analysis of the two "direct" seats should tell us how worried we should be. Given that violence still is largely male and young, the age and sex distribution is somewhat of a concern. The main worry should be a shift of the CDU/CSU to AfD positions.

No tectonic shift or political earthquake has occurred.

[Update 3/14/2016] The Bavarian state government (run by the conservative CSU) is well on its way to "AfD light", if you consider this report. The Bavarian state government demanded to cut the 143 Euros/month cash allowance for refugees when their shelter offers free WiFi. Since the government asked to reduce the allowance by 36 Euros/month for all residents, including those who do not have a smart phone, the volunteer operators of the service shut it down last Friday.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The fight against cannabis legalization - German style

The blogster loves patterns so much that it* is overjoyed when another pattern seems to take shape. Some patterns make good sense, nothing nefarious about them, except when there are outliers in some publications and not in others.

Today's case in point is the annual report on the number of drug deaths by Germany's federal bureau of criminal investigation BKA. 

The reporting ritual involves stating the number of drug deaths (1226 in 2015), any increase or decrease from last year's number, a breakdown by the kind of drugs that caused the deaths, and a blurb on noteworthy developments, for example, drug contamination or changes in supply routes or organizations. Then you get the huge numbers of deaths caused by alcohol and tobacco.
The reader comments sections of the major papers remain open for this topic, which means you get the usual slug fest between legalization advocates and hard core prohibitionists.

Two days later, everybody has moved on, and the same pattern will repeat next year.

Except that hard core prohibitionists have been facing waning support by the population and, as a result, seem to be upping the danger game.

Nationwide poll trends for cannabis in Germany continue to shift towards decriminalization (56% supported continued criminalization four years ago, down to 38% today). Half of Germany's criminal law experts signed a petition calling for decriminalization of pot. The Green party has drafted a cannabis control and decriminalization bill. Add to this the news of state level legalization in the U.S., and you can clearly see that prohibitionists are searching for new arguments to maintain the ban.

What's left against the demon?
1) Protection of teens and young adults
2) Increased potency (much higher THC content)
3) Gateway drug (yes, still using this), traffic accidents

Before we continue, here is a fun observation on the side: this list exactly matches the Russian media ( reporting on cannabis. Yet, in the same edition of Frankfurter Allgemeine (FAZ) used below, the FAZ Kremlin watchers complained bitterly about the Russian propaganda machine and its effort to undermine Germany and the EU. **

The FAZ article "Call of the 'soft' drug" combines the laundry list into an article framed by the tragic suicides of two brothers, claiming cannabis was responsible.
The article starts out with the suicides of C., at age 30, and his brother F. at age 34 ten months later, from an upper middle class family.

After that intro, it goes on to describe the suffering of the father, a top exec, and the mother, a physician, and then provides the statistics and some medical research findings on the danger of cannabis to teens and young adults. Only later does the newspaper reader get more information, such as the use of multiple drugs, Ritalin, stints in closed psych wards. Much of the tragic history of the two young men remains unresolved, and any role of the father's strict anti-drug stance and the mother's more lenient views is not clarified.

Of course, the FAZ article does not mention that all proposed legalization initiatives place tremendous emphasis on protecting teens and young adults and instead simply reiterates the gateway drug argument when bringing up the use of mushrooms, speed and crystal meth by the brothers.

Since prohibition failed to save the lives of the brothers, the appeal is "it could happen to your promising, bright children, too".

The blogster has lost someone to drugs, has volunteered in helping people through "harm reduction", and eventually arrived at the exact opposite conclusion of the prohibition advocates: you save people through decriminalization, and even the "illness" solution has its problems when you medicate and put people into closed psych wards. 

* We follow a strict policy of gender neutrality at the K-Landnews. To eliminate temper tantrums of TheEditor.
** No, we don't know if the FAZ russophobes were high when they wrote their piece.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The German resistance movement White Rose and the hierarchy of commemorated resistance

Next to the well known failed 20 July 1944 plot (Operation Valkyrie), the German anti-Nazi resistance group Weisse Rose is the most commemorated German WWII resistance group. While members of Operation Valkyrie were still openly called traitors by some as late as the 1980s, the non-violent, idealistic students were embraced across party lines. Some officers in the ever so democratic West German military would whisper "he only got that far because of his name" when a colonel with the name tag "von Stauffenberg" walked past. Non violent resistance by church officials is also very well liked.

The Holocaust Education and Archive Research Team introduces the Weisse Rose as follows:

The White Rose (weisserose), named after a Spanish novel (Rosa Blanco). The Group coordinated efforts on Campus for Civil Rights and Opposition to Nazi policies. Among their efforts on campus were weekly discussion groups, painting 'freedom' on brick walls at the entrance into campus, and distributing leaflets opposing the Reich on moral and political grounds, encouraging students to think for themselves. 

The two most widely known individuals are siblings Sophie and Hans Scholl, so here are the other members, from the same website: Kurt Huber, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf, Christoph Probst. Wikipedia has the names of several others, Traute Lafrenz, Katharina Schüddekopf, Lieselotte (Lilo) Berndl, Jürgen Wittenstein, Marie-Luise Jahn, Falk Harnack, Hubert Furtwängler, Wilhelm Geyer, Manfred Eickemeyer, Josef Söhngen, Heinrich Guter, Heinrich Bollinger, Helmut Bauer, Harald Dohrn, Hans Conrad Leipelt, Gisela Schertling, Rudi Alt and Wolfgang Jaeger.

Founded in the summer of 1942 by students and their professor at the university of Munich,
the group wrote and distributed anti-Nazi leaflets, and the text of their last one, leaflet #6, was smuggled out of Germany after their arrest and air-dropped later in the war as "The Manifesto of the Students of Munich".

Arrests and trials staring in February 1943 marked the end of the White Rose.

And here is where the janitor and the executioner come into the picture. The janitor witnessed a drop of leaflets at the university and called the police.

The man who executed the Scholl siblings and others was Johann Reichhart. His career continued after the end of World War II, when he worked in the same capacity for the Allied military justice system, executing 156 Nazis and war criminals sentenced to death by the Allies. He quit his job in 1946, and spoke up against the death penalty in 1964, when some German politicians called for reinstatement of capital punishment - which had been banned by the West German federal constitution. It remains "on the book" in at least one 21st century German state, the state of Hessen, but the federal law supercedes it.

In both West and East Germany, the White Rose soon became a symbol of anti-Nazi resistance. Schools, streets, and squares were named after individual members, several TV films and movies followed, mainly from the 1970s onward.

The communist resistance was only commemorated in East Germany, and is largely relegated to the political education center (Bundeszentrale for Politische Bildung) website these days. Social democrats fared slightly better, but Chancellor Willy Brandt, who fought in the resistance in Norway, continued to be called a traitor in private by some upstanding members of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU).

Even further down the hierarchy of celebrated resistance are individuals like Georg Elser.

At the very bottom of the hierarchy were the many thousand sentenced to death by the German military justice system (an estimated 23 000 were executed). Their rehabilitation, incomplete as it is, came only in 1991, after the reunification of Germany.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

German poverty: yes, people do go hungry

One statement you will invariably get to hear when you talk about poverty in Germany is this:

At least, no one goes hungry.

The problem is, that's not true.

Defining and describing poverty, except for the very down and out, is not all that easy. Parks and sidewalks filled with homeless people, large tent cities - those U.S. fixtures don't exist in Germany or are not as visible.

Also, Germany has a social welfare system and tirelessly promotes its values as a capitalist country with strong protections for the poor. Conservative politicians love to warn that generous benefits attract migrants.

But Germany does not have official homeless statistics. You read this right, the fourth largest economy in the world is unable to collect reliable homelessness numbers. Charities say that around 300 000 residents did not have a home in 2012, and that about 24 000 lived rough.

The 2014 estimate is 335 000, and by 2018 an estimated 536 000 would not have their own residence. While increased net migration plays a role, the charity says the combination of high rents, insufficient housing, more poverty and lack of political action drive the numbers.

Germany's conservative quality media (see previous post) tend to go to great lengths to question the validity of the standard measurement of 60% or less than the median after tax income as the poverty threshold. The more restrained arguments range from comparing the absolute figures to those of dirty poor countries to the financial value of all the free services of the Googles and Facebooks of the world. The most extreme one we found so far comes from an economist who used math very nicely: A person on means testes Hartz IV will collect some 200 000 Euros over 20 years of benefits, the man said. Concluding: this is not poverty.
The essential fact, that nothing remains of the monthly payout? Not mentioned.

If you want to play games like the gentlemen did, here is a thought that you give you pause.
The benefit money goes to landlords, telephone companies, utilities, grocery shops, gas stations within one month of the transfer to the claimant. The claimant retains nothing, well maybe a handful of Euros one month, only to spend it the next.

To the blogster, this looks more like a business subsidy which has the added benefit of keeping people alive.

Drawing "unearned" basic Hartz IV benefits, i.e. anything outside of unemployment insurance benefits, in Germany has never been the fun experience awfully divisive tabloid BILD or many "Christian conservatives" made it out to be.

For decades, there has been a social stigma to living on benefits in Germany. Germans tend to hide the fact they are poor.

Calling the afternoon shows on television "Hartz IV TV" or the cheap discount shop clothes Hartz IV fashion are the least of the taunts.

Lazy moochers is more like it, social parasites is another good one.

The government jobcenters run the Hartz IV program under the motto "Fördern und Fordern". A cute alliteration cooked up by brilliant PR folks, the first part is "assist", the second can be translated as "assert" for an enjoyable English "Assist and assert".

And it is the "assert" part that hurts. You refuse to sign a "reintegration agreement": benefits cut.
You miss an appointment without a doctor's slip: cut.
You refuse to accept a 1 Euro per hour job: cut.
Your apartment exceeds the 50 sqm allowed: move at your own expense or pay the rent for everything above the 50 sqm out of the benefits.
You reach age 62 as a HARTZ IV receiver: either stop claiming benefits, or the government will automatically retire you, making you permanently lose some 14% of your pension. Yes, the German government can retire any Hartz IV recipient like an old car.
Your benefits are delayed and you have 0 Euros on a Friday at noon: you may go hungry.

Food insecurity is not well documented in Germany. In general, you will find something generic, like on this site, where they say it is not about going hungry but about balanced and healthy nourishment. Even food bank network Die Tafel follows this line.

When you do find figures like this 2011 article saying that 500 000 children in Germany are affected by hunger, they tend to point at the low Hartz IV benefits but still put some blame on parents who do not handle money well.

This article in Der Spiegel from 2006 reports that every 6th child in Germany, 2.5. million in all, suffer from hunger. At the same time, the fairly recent introduction of school meals does not reach the most needy because the meals are not free, so parents withdraw their kids from the program.

A friend recently had seen her benefits delayed and got a food voucher at the jobcenter. The voucher is only a loan, they'll grab the money back once benefits clear.

Yet, at the grocery store, they make you feel like a beggar, she said. Unless the cashier knows the system, they think you got yourself a freebie.

She only went hungry for a day until she made it to the jobcenter.

[Update 3/13/2016] This article in Der Spiegel quotes the chief of German economics institute DIW as saying in an upcoming book: The balanced "socially responsible market economy" (Germany's brand of "well regulated capitalism") is gone and has made Germany into one of the most unequal countries among the world's leading economies.

[Update 4/23/2016] In 2014, just under 9 000 Germans saw their basic HARTZ IV benefits cut completely to 0 Euros. Since eligibility for the benefits mandates you have next to no money, it is inconceivable that none of these people go hungry. The stop gap measure of food vouchers to prevent people from starving is capped at just above 200 Euros per month.
Around 1 million sanctions are handed out by the social services agencies each year. And if you ask a single mother how she feeds a teenage boy, the answer will be: by eating less myself.
Since Germany does not keep homeless statistics and no one knows how many illegals live in the country without access to services, hunger is real.

[Update 5/4/2016] Single parents (41% of all single parents receive Hartz IV, an outrageous number) will be hit by a rule change. If a child spends part of the time with the other parent under a joint custody agreement, the benefits for the child will be prorated per day. In other words, the benefits will be reduced for the time the child spends at the other parent.

[Update 8/22/2016] A new federal civil defense initiative made headlines with the call of the government that every household stock about two weeks worth of food, water and supplies for emergencies. It is bad enough that terrorism fear is used as one of the arguments for a renewed focus on civil defense.

What is even nicer, though, is the blissful ignorance of the situation of many of the most marginalized recipients of the SSI like basic means tested Hartz IV social benefits scheme.

Stocking up to two weeks worth of food and supplies is actually a big deal for the poorest of the poor, who get extra food at the charity "Die Tafel" (the table) to make ends meet.

German 4 Dummies: Qualitätsjournalismus

We haven't done a "German 4 Dummies" or a "German bad words" post in a while because nothing captured the easily distracted blogster's attention.

It's very nice to see, though, that some posts in these series continue to find readers, for example, German bad words: Gutmensch, German 4 Dummies: Primat, German 4 Dummies: Deutungshoheit.

Today, we'll spend a few brain cycles on Qualitätsjournalismus. Congratulations if you recognize this as a compound. As a rule, long German words tend to be coompounds, so well done.

The structure of the word is easy: Qualitätsjournalismus is composed of Qualität (quality) and Journalismus (journalism).

But what is it?

Historically, German journalists have been privileged, and the traditional unions and professional organizations continue to grant membership only to those writers or broadcasters who earn their livelihood in journalism. Older journalists have lots of anecdotes, for example, all company cars of the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) had license plates that said F-AZ-1234 (or whatever four digit number), and police would wave you through at drunk driving checkpoints.*

One definition used by media experts, according to this source, is "professional journalism".
A laundry list includes: "strict journalistic standards, i.e. clear sources, checked facts, balanced and non-partisan reporting and news".

A teacher at a Swiss journalism school goes as far as saying: "I'm fed up with the term. Journalism is either good, or it doesn't deserve being called journalism."

Others complain about devaluation that comes as a combination of mergers, smaller newsrooms and more less trained "amateurish" people involved in producing journalism.

Throw tabloid journalism into the mix, and what do we get?

Not much, really.

If we look at how the term is commonly used in everyday publishing, as opposed to scholarly articles and debates summarized above, we find two interesting uses:
1) as a defensive term
2) for fund raising

When a mainstream publication is called out on incorrect facts, or bias to the point of propaganda, "pressures" of the online world and the "rapid change" are widely used to explain how they manage to provide an overall "quality journalism" in the face of adversity.

That's partly true, but it ignores the fact that technology has made it easier for small publications or individuals to find distortions and biases.

Distortions and biases in "quality media" have always existed. But they were much harder to prove quickly.

German "public" broadcasters are very adept at bringing up "quality journalism" every few years when they ask for more license money. Private broadcasters are free but we bring you quality. Unlike cash strapped PBS/PRI in the United States, German broadcasters spend huge amounts of their money on sports and vapid entertainment so similar to the derided fare of the private competition, you need to logo on screen to figure out where you are.

A variety of decisions goes into journalism, beyond physically writing a piece, for example,
To report or not to report - the line between 'decision' and 'censorship'. Which of these matter for "quality"?

Take the example of reporting on suicides or not discussed in that post: The blogster argues that "not reporting" has less impact today than prior to the internet, because you can find information so much more easily.

So, save yourself some typing, don't use the term Qualitätsjournalismus, and - while we are at it - ignore German tabloid BILD.**

Much of hard work of bringing you news is done at the agencies, Reuters, AFP, and others. Since much of their reporting is only rephrased or "gift wrapped" by newspapers, why not get most of your international news from there plus a few good journalists on Twitter?

[Addendum 3/6/2016]
Right on time before publication of this post we can now add "Qualitätsmedien" (quality media) as a related term. The article revolves around the sudden "realization" that the German quality media (aka. the main print outlets and the public broadcasters) supposedly let themselves get carried away with an overly optimistic stance on the refugee influx in 2015, following Ms. Merkel's "We can do this". The article claims the quality media "suspended" the system of checks and balances in favor of the government narrative.

The blogster considers this sudden soul searching disingenuous because it follows the modified government line of "We can do this, but...".

It would be nice if the quality media took to the wonderful phrase "We don't know", but that's probably unrealistic.

* Ulfkotte
** Unless you get a free copy and need toilet paper. Older Germans have confirmed that BILD has always been great for that latter use.