Sunday, July 24, 2016

Education is overrated - make up a degree and become a German MP

There are success stories in German education. Take for example the man in the recent article in The Atlantic: How a guy from a Montana trailer park overturned 150 years of biology.

Tuition free university education in Germany made this headline possible.

But the German system has a dark side, especially with respect to the academic achievements of politicians. Every couple of years or so, a high ranking politician gets outed as having plagiarized most of his or her PhD thesis.

And many a doctoral degree in Germany is not worth much, and you can find a howTo in our older post EasyPhD - the German way.
Fluffing up a resume, like the current defense minister's interlude at Stanford (The two resumes of the German Defense Minister (official vs. Wikipedia)), may not be a testament to rigor, but it is not a huge deal.
 These episodes, however, pale in comparison to the political career of Ms. Petra Hinz, a long term member of parliament for the Social Democrats (SPD). Having been been in the Berlin federal parliament since 2005, last week saw the revelation that the K-12 degree "Abitur" and the subsequent law degrees as well as a professional career as a lawyer, neatly set out on her official resume, were completely made up.

When the news broke, the blogster wondered: Is it possible to make up what basically is your highschool degree plus both college and the subsequent lawyer training, have a public career in politics, and have this not noticed for 30 years? In Germany, mind you, a country famous for its paperwork?

This sounded improbable, and new articles shine a light on how she pulled it off. The most detailed one, thus far, is in Frankfurter Allgemeine.

It tells a story of quiet complicity, of nepotism, of protection by the party elders and of a "don't ask, don't tell" mentality within the ranks of the SPD. Ms. Hinz was, according to the article, a backbencher who knew when to follow orders and how to advance without making waves.

Once the silence was broken, more disturbing news about her followed. She went through some 50 office aides during her tenure in Berlin, with some lasting just a day, and with the last one resigning effective 1 July, several weeks before the scandal broke.

Reader comments to various articles showed anger and incredulity. One person asked "How can this happen when you cannot get even a vocational training contract without submitting graduation papers?"
Another, with more insight into the procedures of parliamentary work said: "Every parliamentary aide undergoes a background check. What was going on?"

No high ranking politicians of either party in the Berlin parliament has publicly commented on the revelation, as sign that the full background will not come to light.

[Update 8/5/2016] This new article describes the various ways German politicians spice up their resumes or turn an interesting personal history into an asset.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

German 4 Dummies: "Elite"

If you know the English word "elite", you also know the German. German elites always come with a capital "E", and the plural form has an "n" instead of the Anglo "s". The grammatical gender of "Elite" is feminine, so it is "die Elite" (pl. die Eliten).  Most members of the German elites are male.

The term Elite has several meanings in either language, and both Merriam Webster and the corresponding German Duden define the term. Webster says the people who have the most wealth and status in a society : the most successful or powerful group of people. 

The German definition emphasizes that an elite is a select group of people of extraordinary abilities and qualities

The blogster is not certain but this is not the first time that it* found a very different approach to dictionary making between Merriam Webster on one hand and Duden and the Oxford English Dictionary on the other. Both of the latter European dictionaries are somewhat judgemental, assigning superior moral and intellectual qualities, where Webster's seems to be more more neutral. The French Larousse falls a little bit in-between, defining elite as top dogs due to certain qualities valued by society, hence acknowledging a slightly arbitrary selection: Groupe minoritaire de personnes ayant, dans une société, une place éminente due à certaines qualités valorisées socialement.

Maybe some up and coming linguist could write a thesis on the subject?

So, the British and German elites come decked out with moral and/or intellectual or otherwise superior qualities.

And their opinions matter a whole lot more than yours or mine, for example, as members of the "Elite Panel" of the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the magazine Capital.
By the way, both "Panel" and "Capital" are accepted terms in German, so today, you get a three for one learning experience.

That specific panel is high powered, consisting of 346 company CEOs and board members, 114 leading politicians (ministers or deputies, presidents or vice presidents of parliaments) and 46 chiefs of federal or state agencies and public institutions.

What these deciders have to say is not necessarily very nice, for example, 62% support the recent more restrictive refugee policies.
Other questions they were asked, such as whether they support visa free travel to the EU by Turkish citizens, or whether they are afraid refugee numbers might rise again after the steep drop that resulted from closing the route via the Balkans, really do not require any of the superior moral or intellectual qualities stipulated by Duden.
To find solid reason to doubt the prevalence of these positive qualities of mind and character, simply check the news. 

When it comes to elite and character, the blogster believes that "elite" and "character" should only be used in one sentence when you describe the "Elite" font type, which has 12 characters to the linear inch.

* Gender neutral, friends.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Knowing what your neighbor pays in taxes: good for your soul & no more Scrooge McTrumps

Sweden has an interesting set of transparency rules around taxes and income: every citizen can check what a neighbor, the boss, or a friend earned and what he or she paid in taxes. The only exception: the king's finances.

If you think this is an intrusion into your private life, there is a good chance that you are making more money than the median income - or that you think you do.

At least that's the result of the blogster's informal, non representative, poll of Germans on the subject. This is supported by the fact that German news mentions on the subject tend to use very strong dismissive language when the mentions appear in publications that cater to above average earners. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the 'centrist' or center right keystone publication out of Germany's big banking city, calls looking up a fellow citizens income voyeurism.

Other publications, like this example in Zeitonline from 2008, are more balanced.

Americans tend to talk more about money than Germans - too much so at times - and the German reluctance might contribute to the sad state of affairs of many lower income earners in the country.

Given that people do go hungry in Germany in 2016 and that the country's social security retirement system has been "reformed" into a pretty sad state, Germans would really benefit from a system like Sweden.

Instead, the main news outlets provide a steady diet of articles by you, wealthy, neo-liberal upstarts who accuse the older generation of living high on the hog to the detriment of young people. Every now and then, someone with hard numbers contradicts the myth, but not a single one of the major parties, including the Green party, get their act together to tackle the egregious differences between workers who contribute to social security all their life and government employees who don't pay a penny but get a base retirement pension twice as high as the average worker.

The best argument, though, for transparency are the likes of Donal Trump: if their tax returns were public as a matter of course, people might be spared hours of bragging.


Friday, July 15, 2016

Germany: Nationwide police raids for internet hate speech & another comedian in hot water

It was a first of its kind, a highly publicized nationwide series of police raids on internet hate speech suspects in thirteen out of the sixteen German states. A necessary symbol, some reports said. Residences of some sixty suspects were searched, with the apparent focus being a private Facebook group. No report the blogster has seen elaborated on the fact that the group was private. How did it catch the eye of prosecutors?

On this occasion, the Federal Justice Minister, Mr. Maas, stated that radicalized speech (for the new German term "Verbalradikalisierung") on the internet is "often a precursor to violations on the streets". He did not give any actual examples for the claim, although there have been murder sprees in the U.S. that were announced on social media.

The action was also designed to raise awareness for responsible handling of extreme right speech on the net, said the chief of the Federal Crime Office (BKA).

That lofty statement rings a bit hollow, given that articles on and reports of hate speech have been grabbing German headlines for years. Not long ago, even the awful tabloid BILD started an anti-hate speech campaign by naming and shaming people in the paper and on its website. This action is quite unusual in a country in which average people's faces are pixelated and their names not spelled out when they make the news.

Even Germany's famous consumer testing foundation, Stiftung Warentest, chimed in in May with a "test" of sorts: it listed several internet hate speech postings with the penalties courts had handed out for them.

Nerves in Germany are seriously frayed with regard to what constitutes hate speech and what does not. On the same day as the raids, an article in ZEIT online accused national public TV broadcaster ZDF of ridiculing the fight against hate on the net.

In a three minute piece from July 8, a ZDF comedian spent just over one (1) minute on the subject with short clips of interviews and mentioning the charity Amadeu Antonio as an example of the fight against hate speech. The comedian poked fun a statement from the charity's flyer Hate Speech Against Refugees (in English) as too nebulous and too vague.

The list of frequent forms of racism on page 5 of the flyer has many examples that are obviously racist or hate speech. The single statement the comedian singled out as too nebulous was the first on the list: Contrasting "us" and "them", or "we" and "they". He proclaimed "we need more women in leadership positions" and then did a fake double take playing on "we" and "they" in this context.
A couple of the other examples listed by the charity make for an interesting read, in particular Pejorative designations like “economic migrant"....

The blogster wholeheartedly agrees that calling refugees economic migrants is pejorative and deeply xenophobic, but economic migrant has been a staple of the arguments of resolutely 'democratic and welcoming' leaders of the big mainstream conservative parties (Christian Democrat & Christian Social Union). And some Social Democrats, too.

Can you call the parties who put up the 'Refugees Welcome' shingle for a few months in 2015 xenophobic or racist? According to this flyer, probably yes.

The statement that concludes the list of examples, printed in bold in the flyer reads: Often, racist hate speech is also disguised as satire or humor, or subsequently the ex­cuse is proffered that it was only meant as a joke.

Here, the complaint filed by the charity against the maker of the ZDF show comes full circle.

Given that free speech enjoys less protection in Germany than in the US, a degree of unease about this may not be too silly.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

On the road again: "Bus therapy" for jailhouse lawyers and political activists

It began, innocently enough, with watching the TV show Orange is the New Black, then led to some reading, and ended with learning about 'Bus Therapy'.

Wikipedia, once again beating a somewhat naive blogster to it, has a short entry on the phenomenon under the title 'Diesel Therapy', a form of punishment in which prisoners are shackled and then transported for days or weeks.

Wikipedia mentions a couple of lawsuits in which allegations of this were raised and has links to several publications. Which all cost money. But you can find all you really need to know by searching some more.

On the website Prison Planet, several stories by or about inmates do not mince words and call some aspects of transport 'torture'. The following quote could well be from the treatment of suspected terrorists shipped to Guantanamo but it is from the prisonplanet page describing what awaited US Congressman George Hansen during "bus therapy": A prisoner is shackled at the feet and handcuffed at the wrists, reinforced with a box-like structure which stiffens the chains and locks the wrists at a 90-degree angle. The handcuffs are connected to a waist chain that is connected to another chain which connects the shackles. Once this shackling is complete, a prisoner can barely move. The tightened manacles pinch the nerves and restrict the flow of blood causing severe pain and swelling. Legs swelling with blood are particularly damaging to the feet, as toenails under pressure from blood-blisters press up against shoes for long periods of time and soon become infected and deformed, causing such excruciating pain that they require surgery or the pulling of the toenails out by the roots.

The story of Congressman Hansen is interesting in itself, and you can find details of what happened to the man who launched the Congressional Accountability Project here.

But "bus therapy" rarely makes news like it did for Mr. Hansen. The vast majority of people living through it never finds a mention even though cases of individuals "traveling" for a month or longer are not rare. In the US prison system, transporting inmates over large distances is extremely common, especially in the federal system. Someone who committed a crime in, say, Hawaii may find himself or herself being held in a prison hours away on the mainland despite there being a small federal facility in Hawaii. It is easy to see what this does for family visits.

Try to imagine one of the few relatable issues: what it is like to wear the exact same clothes for a month without being able to wash them. This does happen.

As a means of punishment - though never called punishment by officials because of that would have legal implications - bus therapy is not only used for gang members. In the federal system, it has been a cherished means of retaliating against inmates called "jailhouse lawyers", inmates who spend their free time at the prison library and study laws and legal texts so thoroughly that they are often asked by fellow inmates to write up complaints or petitions for them.
A second group of people traditionally sent around the country were political prisoners - which the US officially does not have. The latter is true in the traditional sense of the term, meaning someone is thrown into jail simply for holding a certain set of beliefs. But the laws of any country the blogster knows in some detail all have provisions that can be easily used to target activists, and if such laws don't exist or are not "tough" enough, that can be fixed quite easily, as labeling animal rights activists as "terrorists" post 2001 in the US has shown.

To end this post about another horrible feature of the justice system on a lighter note:
The shortcomings of official transport do, of course, not mean that you should pick up a hitchhiker by the side of the freeway after you have passed a big sign that tells you not to pick up hitchhikers.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The power of math wielded by economists: Germans just doubled their wealth/net worth

Germans have seen their wealth grow rapidly a couple of times over the last century. The blogster remembers a story about a poor German child aged eight or ten rushing into the living room waving a banknote that said 50 million Reichsmark and proclaiming "look, we are rich".

Yes, that was fake wealth, a reminder of hyperinflation that did a number on Germany in the 1920s, and after World War II, the situation was deteriorating quite rapidly, too.

But with an official inflation rate near zero percent, 2016 is so different. The good news just keeps piling on.

The German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin) has released a study showing the wealth of Germans doubles if you factor in future pension/social security entitlements, says this article in Frankfurter Allgemeine (FAZ). Future entitlements.

How did that 100% increase happen?

It has to do with how you define wealth. Which is not clear cut - unless you have nothing at all. In which case we can all agree: your wealth is zero.

Statistics generally defines wealth, or net worth, as the value of property and investments plus cash.

But every now and then, some boneheaded economist comes and says this is not comprehensive, not the full picture, or - ideological trigger - not the truth. The DIW folks must have felt the same and set out to calculate how much richer Germans get if you factor future pension/social security benefits into the wealth equations.

The results are wonderful. Average wealth goes up from 85,348 Euros to 176,789 Euros. The median shows an increase otherwise seen only in Ponzi schemes before collapse from 18,000 Euros to 107,392 Euros.

Now, you could pause and ask: the median net worth of Germans is only 18,000 Euros? And that's the fourth largest economy in the world? 

Luckily, neither the authors of the study nor the newspaper ask this question.

The problem with including future pension/social security income into the net worth calculation is simple: you die, it is gone. Poof. Real wealth, barring hyperinflation, nuclear war and the presidency of <insert name of your most vilified candidate here>, continues to exist.
The other stuff, barring hyperinflation, nuclear war and the presidency of <insert name of your most vilified candidate here>, continues to exist.

The flimsy justification for including pension/social security benefits in the net worth is that "you can see contributions as a kind of savings".
This argument is advanced by the same economists who point out that social security is not a savings system but one in which current contributions pay for the benefits of current retirees. While some countries make an effort to have a certain amount of reserves for pay out over the next decade or two, others - like Germany - boast privileged groups that contribute zero to their future pension.
Based on the "a kind of savings" argument, why not call everyone who plays the lotto a millionaire? I know, the TV ads already do, but that's not my point.
The odds for the jackpot are a little bit higher than surviving to 67, but for three correct numbers, they are not all that different. At least for black Americans.

The advantage of adding future pension/social security income to your current net worth is that the inequality coefficient, the Gini coefficient drops nicely from awfully bad 0.79 to plain awful 0.59.

A couple of years ago, another economist used the same funky maths to prove once and for all that German recipients of basic means tested social benefits were not poor at all. That guy said that a recipient would receive some 200 000 Euros of benefits over a period of 20 years.

How could you dare to call this person poor?

To which the blogster replied: in reality, basic means tested benefits are a subsidy for businesses and the public sector because all the money paid to the benefit recipient is spent within the following month.

If you disagree with this view, we refer you to the standards applied in defining "financing terrorism" or money laundering, where the first hop retains none or very little of the money, and the law considers the second hop the real beneficiary.

Sorry for the digression.

Be it as it may, adding potential future pension/social security benefits to your net worth is unacceptable.

If you own the median 18.000 Euros and die before pension kicks in, you are still worth only 18.000 Euros.

[Update] Clarified "future" entitlements, i.e. not current social security or retirement income. Added text "The flimsy justification..." to "for black Americans".

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

A German newspaper nastygram about Sarah Koenig's podcast "Serial"

That was a bit of a surprise.

German center-right daily Frankfurter Allgemeine has a hit piece "Murder as a spectacle" on the podcast "Serial".

The article is a two pager, with the lede: "Journalist Sarah Koenig has turned a real murder into a spectacle with her podcast "Serial". Now, the murderer is getting a new trial. The victim's family has great difficulty to understand this." *

The actual content of the article is an utterly forgettable compilation of basic facts coupled with outrage about such things as "Team Adnan" stickers going on sale as a result of the publicity of the case framed within a few statements on the family of Hae Min.

Needless to say, the podcast "Undisclosed" gets a mention with regard to the cell phone tower issue, but the main complaint is not about dysfunctional law enforcement and the many other failures of a system that produces more Adnans than you can count.

Instead, the German writer takes a swipe at various other "True Crime" shows, even daring to declare a long running German show along the concept of "America's most wanted" to be a reasonable way of enlisting the public's help. Which is something of a joke, if you have ever watched it.

You wouldn't expect a German to understand much of American culture, and even less the law enforcement and justice system of the U.S., but there is a problem.

The writer lived and worked as a journalist in new York for some time.

The blogster for one, will probably be tempted to simply skip future pieces by the honorable journalist, no matter how enticing the lede. Not least because the blogster doubts that the German author actually listened to "Serial" and "Undisclosed". Because both series show profund respect for Hae Min and her family.

* [Our translation of Die Journalistin Sarah Koenig hat mit ihrem Podcast „Serial“ einen realen Mord zum Spektakel gemacht. Nun bekommt der Mörder einen neuen Prozess. Für die Familie des Opfers ist das nur schwer zu begreifen.]

It would be good if the Russians had the rest of Hillary's emails

Note: If you viscerally disagree with the title of the post,  you might be better off visiting FoxNews or - recommended for people with blood pressure or rage issues - Disney.

The private email server of former Secretary of State and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has given us many hours of debate and kept some FBI agents busy. At least, this way they couldn't do any real damage, the K-Landnews TheEditor grumbled, the Russians have the 30 000+ on Wikileaks anyway. And look, there are 1 300 only with REUTERS stories, neither classified nor classy.

As with any activity or discussion around "national security", there is an unlimited supply of real and faux experts, a limitless source of propaganda and fearmongering virtually drowning out reasonable voices.

The big problem with "national security" discussions, with the exception of a narrow sliver of technical data and know-how, is that most claims are unfalsifiable. They cannot be proven wrong, and they cannot be proven right. Add to this the system of making information classified, and the field is wide open for the most outrageous claims and "experts". 

Not only do we have a field where political games can be played, we also see that the classification system is abused to silence whistleblowers (Jeffrey Sterling, Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou, Manning, and others) and activists at the same time as more powerful citizens get away with a slap (Petraeus) or a wag of the finger (Mrs. Clinton).

Abuse of the system is not limited to the U.S., far from it. A bogus treason complaint against German journalists by the chief of the country's domestic intelligence service made international headlines, while the case of an old man fed up with lax security at the NATO job he had held for decades did not register outside of the country.

And these are not even the big (or as Donald Trump might say, yuge) cases, like the Pentagon Papers under a Democratic President, or a criminal Republican successor of your choosing.

If you, unlike the rest of us, gets to see documents classified anywhere from confidential to top secret and beyond, at least admit that there is a fun aspect to this power. Who would not enjoy the curious looks of the other workers on the same floor when two burly, 6 foot 5 marines escort an officer holding a briefcase to his or her important office? **
And, if you do this long enough, you inevitably get to see a news report or a talk show on one of the topics and realize: they don't know.
Depending on your character, you may get hooked for the rest of your days, or you decide to get out.
But the knowledge that much of what you see and read is nowhere near the full picture will never leave you.

So, the Russians should get all of Mrs. Clinton's emails, and the president's too if the Russians hand over Mr. Putin's.

Why do we make information classified and then invite Russians to take a close look at our wargames and exercises? By the way, they reciprocate the favor.
The answer to this is simple. At some point during the Cold War, politicians made NATO and the Warsaw Pact militaries agree to this. Because they saw the danger.

American inspectors, by definition, would not pass a Russian background check, and vice versa. Yet, they got to see secrets of the other party. They had cameras, too. Very rarely do the media mention any of this.

So, yes, dear Western citizens. Russian officials get to see secrets you would go to prison for. Same applies to you, dear Russian nationalists.

You also may want to keep this in mind during the media blitz covering the upcoming NATO summit in Poland.

What classifying information really does is this: it falsifies the present, as well as the past for a classification time of up to 100 years or so in some countries, and in doing so limits the options for decisions on our common future.

[Update 7/7/2016] As a lucky co-incidence, a link to a documentary about the crisis around Able Archer in 1983 popped up in the blogster's TL.
Say thank you to the "traitors" (a Soviet colonel and a NATO worker) who were instrumental in saving us from this one.

** [NSFW] Classified documents can actually give males a hard-on. Although that typically happens only a few times and disappears with routine handling.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Carbon cost blind spots - cheating on your partner, soccer fandom, the German language, and beyond

Crime sells, we know, and a series of news reports on the carbon footprint of crime makes for guaranteed headlines. The 2016 version of studies includes this one from Yale, and this one from the University of Surrey.

They are fine studies, but the blogster vastly prefers this one from 2009, an ACPO Secured by Design research project of the UK police.

It may say more about the blogster than it* wants to divulge, but it regards the summary of the study as pure comedy gold: The report documents the failure to assess the carbon footprint of crime and responses to crime, both nationally and globally and speculates on reasons for this omission.
It reviews relevant literatures and notes the absence of recognition of the nexus between crime and carbon - profligate lifestyles. The writers contend that such recognition would profoundly influence social and criminal justice policy

The report does not say that EU criminals should have to get carbon certificates to offset the environmental damage of their actions, but it offers some insight into what it calls the crime-carbon blind spot, neatly presented in four sections:

1. The  mental unavailability of alternatives which would be less carbon costly.
2. The  degree of contingency and  consequent mental accessibility of carbon reduction  techniques.  How direct is the perceived  link  between action and carbon?
3. The costing of remedies but not problems.In carrying out a recent study of the perceived tensions between security and sustainability (Armitage et al. 2008), it became clear that such tensions arose because, while the carbon costs of security precautions were considered, the carbon costs of preventable crime were not.
4. The belief that effective crime prevention tends to a police state.

Based on these deeply intellectual thought processes, we can now investigate other areas life to determine which, if any, are marked by a clear failure to assess a carbon footprint.

Surprisingly, science has failed to address the carbon footprint of cheating on your partner or spouse despite this being an activity more prevalent than crime. In some countries, it is considered a crime, we'll ignore this awful fact.

The prevalence of cheating is obviously not easy to document, but there are many estimates and statistics out there, for example, on this website, which says that between 30% and 60% of married individuals in the US will engage in infidelity.

This translates into a lot of car trips, untold numbers of phone calls, many hours on the internet, hotel stays and more - all activities that contribute to the human carbon footprint.

Just as with the crime footprint, companies which operate carbon neutral reduce the damage but there can hardly be any doubt that the sheer volume of activities related to infidelity is many times that of the crime footprint. The four basic statements of the crime study apply quite well, especially the mental unavailability of alternatives. 

Another, more intermittent carbon boosting activity stems from European soccer fans. In many countries, fans get into their cars and go on joyrides when their team wins in a major tournament. The ongoing European soccer cup is a perfect example. Every win of the German team is accompanied by between 20 and 40 minutes worth of joyrides.
The same is not true in other countries. For example, when the Argentinian national team plays, traffic tends to come to a stand still for the duration of the game, which should reduce carbon output - even if there is a short spike in traffic afterwards.

Other high carbon footprint activities tightly interwoven with the culture of a country can include something as invisible as the language of the country itself.
Take, for example, German. Already expensive in terms of carbon because of long and complicated sentences, the push for more gender equality has inadvertently added to the linguistic carbon load! For instance, when talking of male students and female students, Germans often use the long version "Studenten und Studentinnen", instead of, say, simply use the female form in a university syllabus.

Look around, dear reader, and you will easily find many more examples of hard to solve carbon footprint issues.

The blogster leaves you with a succinct insight from the authors of the crime study:  A comparison was made earlier between crime and breathing. While seen as inevitable, calculating the carbon costs of crime and breathing are equally futile.

* Gender neutrality, baby, gender neutrality.