Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Even short news articles are biased: the 2017 hike of German basic social HARTZ IV benefits

An apology: The blogster apologizes to its* readers for painfully working out the obvious.**
The obvious being that even simple news is rarely neutral. 

Let's play a game with two headlines in today's German press. The blogster gives you two headlines and asks a question, okay?

Headline 1: Standard Hartz IV benefits to see partially significant increase in 2017***
Headline 2: Hartz IV - Younger children to receive 21 Euros more

The question:
Which of the two headlines would appear in a conservative paper?

If you said Headline 1, you got it right.

Headline 1 gives the impression - intended - that the residents who rely on the basic means tested government benefits are going to be better off in 2017. If you don't read the article, the headline is likely to leave the desired impression.

Headline 2 is about a single aspect of the change, and does not opine on the overall situation.

The reason for the unexpected increase of 21 Euros a month in benefits for children between ages 6 and 13 is stated, in both papers, as being the result of a new study by the federal statistics office, which found that children of this age group need more food and beverages than previously thought.

The blogster has anecdotal knowledge of a couple of German Hartz IV recipients and is in no way surprised by the "recent" findings. Even the more sedate generation of German kids needs a lot of food, and we have pointed out previously that there is hunger in Germany.

Another observation regarding the two approaches to the Hartz IV news is that the conservative paper decided to not turn on the reader comments, while the not conservative one did.

* Simply gender neutral, for principle and to tick of the tick-offable.
** Unnecessary Douglas Adams reference.
*** In German; Hartz-IV-Regelsätze steigen 2017 zum Teil deutlich
Jüngere Kinder sollen 21 Euro mehr bekommen

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Mandatory nude beaches: no more burkini problem, no beachfront terrorism, better for the environment

The blogster is trying to beat TheOnion to this one. The best way to achieve this it to not look at the Onion's website until we have published this post.

So, here we go.

The simplest solution by far to the burkini problem haunting the civilized world is to make all beaches mandatory nude beaches.

It would solve discrimination issues which inevitably arise from Catholic nuns' bathing habits. Why do they get to dunk in garb but not Muslims?


Another unresolved problem with the amount of clothing has not received much attention besides the now famous photo of two people in full motorcycle garb on a beach. Here is what burkinistas could do to circumvent the ban: dress in normal street clothes, long pants, long sleeved shirt, plus a hat with cloth on the sides of the head and down the back.

This look, variously called "le look French Foreign Legion" or "American almost nude bathing" would potentially cause numerous legal challenges, tying down much needed law enforcement resources on beaches.

Disclaimer: It also happens - minus the ridiculous head gear - to be the standard outfit worn by the blogster on the beach, so there is some selfishness in highlighting potential issues.

The real security gain from mandatory nude beaches would obviously be inherent protection against beach front terrorism. There is simply no way to hide an AK or an Uzi when you are in the buff.

Note that we are only addressing beach front terrorism, not terror. On nude beaches, the two terms are not as interchangeable as they may be in other contexts.

Do we need to explain this?


The claim that mandatory nude beaches are better for the environment is less intuitive than the other claims. European beach frolickers of the kind the French fondly call "les rosbifs" would initially waddle to the waterline slathered in a thick layer of SPF 500 sunblock. Nothing environmentally friendly about that, true.

The boost to a more healthy beachfront environment would come from the overall decline in resource use.

People would head to the beach later in the morning, leave earlier in the evening, and during winter and during the transition times in Spring and Fall, beaches would be empty, allowing the downtrodden delicate flora to stabilize sand dunes and leaving sand fleas and other critters alone.

To galvanize reader support for this unconventional proposal, the blogster would like to ask you a simple question.

Don't you want to help save the incredibly rare Petrophaga Lorioti?

Ha, forgot the angle of the much needed economic boost to ailing Southern European countries. Climate change with more heat in the North could negatively affect this in the medium to long term but it should bring much needed cash to the South prior to that.

Northern European beaches would continue to see hardy Finnish and Russian thrill seekers as well as an assortment of masochists from other countries, but the bulk of beach enjoyment would go south, thus giving the countries on the Mediterranean the cash relief the stingy German government doesn't want to provide otherwise.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Germany: multiculturalism is dead - long live multiculturalism, or maybe not, or whatever

For many Germans, October 2010 was an important month: they finally got to hear that multiculturalism had failed. And not just failed, but utterly failed!

Here is the Wikipedia entry: Angela Merkel told a meeting of younger members of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party at Potsdam, near Berlin, that attempts to build a multicultural society in Germany had "utterly failed", stating: "The concept that we are now living side by side and are happy about it does not work".

As the Wikipedia page authors and a host of brilliant researchers have said for a long time ideologies and policies vary widely.

Now, Merkel's understanding of the concept would appear to indicate a degree of separateness, slightly tempered by the inclusiveness of "we". "We" can argue about whether she wanted to be nice, whether it means nothing, but the fact is that critics of the concept of multiculturalism seized upon her statement and went into "no parallel societies" mode, which is nothing but a euphemism for voluntary segregation - not the kind in which one sector of a nation forces a minority into a segregated role through discriminating laws and the use of force.

The official policy of German government is "integration", or, in simple terms, you are here, so you need to follow our rules, our laws, and respect our culture, our values.

This doesn't sound bad at all, but the practical questions are interesting:
1) Who is "you"?
2) Does "respect the law" work in practice, compared to the natives?
3) What about the "rules, culture, and values"?
4)What happens when "you" don't comply?

No, the blogster will not list examples or answers.
And no, religion is not listed as a separate item, most of it can be put under "rules, culture, values", some aspects under "law".

If you take these four big questions and look for answers, you will find that different groups of "you" are treated differently.

Then draw your own conclusions.

Personally, the blogster feels that a country that became a nation state about 150 years ago should go easy on declaring multiculturalism an utter failure.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Self-paced online courses outside of the well known college based MOOC offerings

The blogster loves the world of online learning, from the sometimes a little dodgy Wikipedia to the classy classes offered by some of the most prestigious schools on the planet.
The field is diverse and complex. A lot of effort has gone into it, and not all that much money has been made. Teachers find themselves in the limelight, some do great, others struggle and drop out - just like their students. Credentials have been added, including convenient links to professional networking site LinkedIn. The blogster doesn't have figures on the percentage of students who complete credentials. Given that the total enrollment in a course can easily be tens of thousands, it would certainly be fun to see credentials figures. While teaching can scale, how do you scale grading? It's a multiple choice world, isn't it?

The two great promises since the early days of distance education were "study anywhere" and "study anytime".
Study anywhere has become a reality if - and it is still a big if for many countries - you have internet access.

Study anytime is more ambiguous and depends on how classes are set up and the underlying objectives. If we look at the required study time between the start date and the end date of a course, study anytime has been mostly achieved. Students can often study before work, after work, on weekends, etc. and still get the benefit of being able to contact the teacher and/or tutors when they need.
Still, you have to get a certain amount of learning and testing - for certification - done within a set period.

Which leaves us with self-paced courses. Without fixed start and end dates, without set milestones and "mid-terms", you can call self-paced courses the "ultimate" study anytime classes.
It comes as no surprise that self-paced study offerings make up a very small part of the offerings of well known online education sites like Coursera, edX, or the smaller European iversity. Coming from the structured institutionalized education of traditional colleges and universities, fully self-paced courses have not been a priority for them. They can also claim that many topics are not well suited for independent study. This is reflected in the subject matter of many traditional self-paced or self-study courses: "soft sciences", such as history, art, literature, social studies.

Expanding self-paced study into fields considered more challenging has been left mostly to newcomers.

True study anytime offerings include Khan Academy,  duolingo, or (to a large extent) Udacity. On those and similiar sites, the supporting role of teachers and tutors in helping students resolve questions and improve learning is predominantly peer based, with fellow students helping each other in forums under the more or less loose supervision of dedicated staffers.

In addition to holding their own, sites like Khan and Udacity can also help people to get back into the "mechanics" of learning before embarking on more structured ventures.

If you miss comparable European providers, tell us about them.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Presenting the Digital Information Experience (DIX) rating for political discourse

The blogster has written extensively about lists, for instance, the paramount importance of "the candidate list" in German elections. There are lots of good lists many people would love to be on, for example, the list of Olympic gold medal winners, the Forbes 500 richest list, most eligible bachelor/bachelorette. Then there are negative lists, including any personal sh** lists, various watch lists, the no-fly list, the list of death row inmates of Texas, you get the idea.

Others are ambiguous, typically waiting lists for things such as housing or organ transplants. Being on any of these indicates a problem, yet the mere fact of getting on such a list may point to better times ahead. Oftentimes, you may not even be aware of the existence of a list that has your name, rank, and serial number on it. And if you do find out by chance because the ADC forgot to shut the padded door to the inner sanctum and two gents talk really loud (a combination of decades near things that cause intense booms and the habit of barking orders), trust me, you do not want to be in the category "extremely competent but independent".

One of the areas for which the blogster determined a disappointing absence of ranking is political discourse. Cartoonists sporadically do drawings one could call "Pinocchio index", where a long nose indicates lying. But it is unsatisfactory, too dependent on the individual brush stroke and frequently lacking context.

Rating political discourse is also extremely hard, because we love our political beliefs, because there is so much ritual and group membership, with no accepted standard of neutrality.

The best so far has been fact checking with a nice truth-o-meter. The subtleties, the euphemisms, the non sequiturs, the many shades of "non statements"  - they remain elusive.

The blogster, never short of delusions of grandeur, decided to propose a system that could form the start of the start of a debate on finding a more rigorous rating scale than the common binary "you suck" or "brilliant leadership".

Because of the emotional energy in politics, the blogster did not want the name to contain "rating" or "ranking". Its* initial name for the scheme was Digital Infotainment Component Katalog. Digital is always good, Infotainment was supposed to hint in a not subtle manner at the purpose of much of political discourse, Component meant "part of speech", and Katalog was just that, a catalog, but with a decisive and authoritative K instead of the hunched, bent over, weak looking "c".

"Dick", said the K-Landnews TheEditor.


The acronym is Dick, you can't do that.

Oh, shucks, sorry.

After a good cry (don't tell anybody), the blogster came back with a new name: Digital Information Experience, or DIX.

Well, well, .....well, DIX it is, said TheEditor.

At the heart of DIX, there will be a digital algorithm, a smart one, that uses "sentiment analysis" as well a a corpus of speeches and interviews gathered surreptitiously from the internet.

Once nicely sliced and diced, the algorithm will assign a ranking to a speech or article, etc., on a scale of 1 to 10. The numbers won't be shown to the public, though, because they might offend some who have trouble with math and others who don't like the historical attachment of our number system to the Arab world.
Instead of Muslim Sharia numbers, users will see something less threatening, maybe cute little Facebook-Twitter hearts, maybe stars, maybe a series of sweet stylized hamsters - we'll see what the focus group likes best.

Once the rating system goes public, the blogster will publish the underlying corpus. This, in turn will generate a whole new eco-system of corpus critique and improvement suggestions.
All that needs to be done then is find a way to monetize this meta discussion. And voila, from nobody to meta pundit in a few months.

* Gender neutrality is it, folks.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

How German xenophobia is made: Christian Democrat/Social Union against dual citizenship

Germany's mainstream conservatives are fascinating. They have managed to govern the country for most of the post war decades, all by themselves early on, then in various coalitions, several of which are being called "grand" in English because they are with the Social Democrats, giving these governments super majorities.

The Christian parties Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union do not have a monopoly on xenophobia. Take, for example, the Social Democrats' Mr. Sarrazin with his crude anti-immigrant conjectures and his disdain for the poor.

The Christian Democrats even have some members from immigrant backgrounds, which in part goes to show what Americans have figured out a long time ago: if you let them in,  immigrants tend to be more patriotic than other citizens.

All of this notwithstanding, the CDU/CSU duo has played with xenophobia for decades, as much and even more so than the current populist right "du jour", the bad gals and boys of the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Here is a quick, not necessarily complete list:
Accusing legal immigrants from poor Eastern European EU states and asylum seekers of flocking to Germany to be lazy and just collect generous social services benefits? Check.

Trashing Southern Europeans as lazy, while snapping up cheap property? Check.

Reducing access of foreigners to social services, including new limits on EU citizens despite official policy of "equal treatment"? Check.

Not giving the first generation of migrants from the 1960s German citizenship until decades later? Check.

Raging against majority immigrant neighborhoods in German cities, while tweeting cute photos of themselves in San Francisco's China Town? Check.

Advocating profiling of people of color in public? Check.

Advocating torture (openly in the 1970s to 1990s)? Check.

Demanding abolishing dual citizenship for children born in the country? Check.

The latter has become a big topic within the past months, and it is primarily directed against Germany's Turkish minority. The party chairman of the CSU is the latest to chime in with his call for a ban.

He claims that dual citizenship is becoming the rule and that it devalues "the German passport".

Yet, only just over 4 million citizens (out of a population of about 83 million) have dual citizenship, and around a quarter of those are of Turkish origin. So far, not a single one of the politicians who want to ban or increase the hurdles for dual citizenship has been able to resist singling out Turkish people in this context.

[Update 3/12/2017] The 2017 national elections are casting a long shadow. "Christian Democrats" are once again talking about abolishing dual citizenship. Last time around, the blogster suggested to offer every politician opposed to dual citizenship a second passport, preferably a British or an American one.

Monday, August 22, 2016

German government goes gambling: more pension money to be put into stock buys

The blogster confesses a bad habit: It* regularly skips of any newspaper article on or by Mr. Jens Spahn (aka. Spahnplatte - no idea who coined that), one of Germany's up and sometimes coming young Christian Democrat Conservatives.

A new piece on why increasing social security retirement age to 69 is needed almost fell victim to that habit.

For unclear motives, with boredom suspected as the major driver, the blogster opened the webpage and read. Just as the  PR piece for the job of future chancellor came to its end, a nugget of information popped up: The German government wants to put more money for civil service pensions into the stock market for improved returns **.

Bear with the blogster for an explanation of this typical Germano-feudal leftover in the 21st Century. There are two basic categories of civil service workers in Germany.

1) People who work under the same legal framework as regular employees in the private sector. They pay into social security, they pay health care premiums, etc. They can opt into a supplementary pension scheme, for which they also pay premiums. That supplementary scheme is managed by an independent fund. If the fund does well, swell - if it doesn't, the loss is carried by the enrolled workers if insurance is exceeded.

2) "Beamte", often incorrectly called career civil servants. Workers in the first category can have a career in government, too. "Beamte" stem from the bad old days of the monarchy, and their status is protected in the constitution. The argument goes like this: you are the people who fulfill "critical state functions", and if you forego things like organizing in unions, the state cuts you a deal: no payroll takes, no social security payments, generous subsidy for health care, and a pension that takes good care of you.

3) There is a third category. Paid by the hour "contractors" without any government fringe benefits. Among them, lots of highly qualified university teachers.

Beamte pension payments come out of the government's tax revenues, and traditionally there was no fund for future payouts. it all came out of the tax revenue for the current year. If there was not enough, the government took on some more debt. Over the past decade or so, governments began to set aside some money for future Beamte pensions. The buildup has been slow but it continues.

Now, if you have a few billions of any currency (besides whatever they use in Zimbabwe and other exotic locales), what do you do with them?

Investing them seems like a good idea. At least make it so that the officially non-existent inflation won't eat up their value, right?

It appears, the government looked at the voluntary supplementary scheme for the non privileged workers and said: good idea. Fiduciary duty for the voluntary scheme and some cautiousness means that the money in that scheme went into safer, low return investments.

This is where the statement of Jens, Spahnplatte, Spahn becomes interesting. He clearly states that he is aware of a trade off between guaranteed return and higher yields.

So, more of the set aside cash will be placed in the stock market for those cool higher returns.

The issue, then, is what happens if there are losses? If the principal is negatively affected?

The answer: the gamblers are safe.

Because taxpayers are on the hook for Beamte pensions no matter what happens.

While German social security retirement pensions have been on the decline in relation to the last earned income, from 55% in 1990 to somewhere around 45% today, with further cuts already budgeted, the government goes on a risk-free stock market gambling spree.

Even a crash of a magnitude of 1929 or the great housing bubble recession will not wipe out the obligation of regular taxpayers towards the privileged group of civil servants.

And the blogster won't even mention the opportunities for corruption that arise out of the stock market scheme. Please credit it when the first big scandal breaks.

* Gender neutral is what we do. Also to piss off some folks.

** Source FAZ: Als Beispiel verwies er auf aktuelle Änderungen bei den Pensionen der Bundesbeamten, die künftig zu einem höheren Maße in Aktien angelegt werden sollen.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Fact-free - the English speaking world and Germany

Fact free, or fact-free for those of us who like the occasional hyphen, has become one of the most used terms of 2016. From calling the Brexit campaign (you still remember that one?) fact-free to agonizing over how Ukraine can win the information war in a fact-free world, all the way to suffocating in fact-free cocoons.  

Questions came up, such as, if "the world" is fact-free, what does that tell us about the definition of information on the part of those who make the claim?

Or, at what point can an argument or campaign be called fact-free?

Fact-free does feel like a strong statement, doesn't it? Much of the time, alternatives like "lacking facts", "insufficient facts", or other softer expressions would be more appropriate.
Insidious extreme use makes fact-free itself "fact-free".

The blogster does like one aspect of "fact-free": replacing more emotionally fraught terms, for instance "propaganda" or "lies". In using fact-free instead of more loaded terms, we can avoid moral judgement and accusations of unethical, dumb, even criminal intent, while - at the same time - enjoying its slightly hyperbolic side. Or does this make it a euphemism?

The blogster's reflex question on seeing repetitive claims is - regular readers know this - how knew is it? The answer, reflexive, too: probably not all that new because people are people.

One recent fun reminder in the German media is a long article on a journalistic master of fact-free journalism: Zeit online has a fascinating article on the "decades long" career of a gentleman named Tom Kummer. Since 1990, this enfant terrible (fancy French for controversial person) has haunted the German language press. According to ZEIT, Mr. Kummer wrote a piece about young satanists, only to be informed by a reader that Kummer and used passages from a book by Richard Ford. It took the magazine two more years to fire him. Since then, many papers gave him "a second chance" and, in turn, had to fire him.
In early July 2016, more than a quarter of a century after his first fake, Mr. Kummer managed to hit not one but three Swiss German publications.

His is merely one example of many and if you would like to read up on fact free journalism in the English speaking world, one great list, although last updated in 2007, is the web page Ethics in Journalism. Most of those listed on that site are not widely known, a list of more famous cases can be found on this Longreads page.

The blogster is not very smart, sorry. So it has a question: if this is a "fact-free world", can this statement be a fact?

* The blogster likes the world gender neutral.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Of course, there is corruption in Germany, lots, and it is costly

Quick tip on corruption in Germany: Never try to slip a cop or a government employee a bill to expedite service or make a ticket go away. 

German officialdom tends to be very happy when corruption watchdog NGO Transparency International (TI) publishes its annual ranking, because Germany looks pretty good compared to practices in many countries.

That's in part because some of the most blatant forms of corruption are in fact rare.  For example, you won't find a police officer pulling you over for not having a freeway toll sticker, handing you the official fines schedule with a wink, only to then accept a fifty Euro note in the folded up flyer when you return it to him. Have a look at the "True Stories" section on the TI website for real life "old fashioned" corruption stories. In Germany and other Western countries, corruption tends to come without physical violence, or at least without jackbooted thugs.

Germany has seen its share of donations to political parties involving Swiss bank accounts or manila envelopes. Some politicians even served short stints in prison for the most egregious offenses, although others, like current Mr. Austerity Schaeuble and his then boss Chancellor Kohl never faced justice in a 1990s scandal that rocked the country.
Much of what we see as criminal corruption today was not even penalized in Germany until new anti-corruption laws were finally passed in 1999.

The working paper Beyond the cartel law handbook has examples from as late as the 20th century, detailing how governments like Germany's, actively promoted anti-competitive practices.

A list of twenty high profile anti-trust cases involving German and international companies in business periodical Handelsblatt shows that corruption is real and fines can be hefty, some to the tune of over a billion Euros.

No sector is safe. The Handelsblatt list of uncovered cartels within the past ten or so years includes rails for railroads, potatoes, sugar, zippers, cement, paraffin, vitamins, elevators, air freight, natural gas, and the popular favorites beer and sausages. Taken together, fines for these cases exceed 10 billion Euros.

The working paper describes three basic pillars helping corruption:
(1)  The  paralysing effects of corruption, heightened by under-funding, direct political control.
(2)  Social  norms  which  are  sympathetic  to collusive  practices,  compounded  by   historical  factors  such  as  the  past behaviour  of  governments.
(3)  Collectivist  business  cultures in which agreements are largely built upon personal relationships.

The blogster believes that Germany is highly susceptible in all three areas, as demonstrated by three ongoing anti-trust investigations: the practices of the styrofoam insulation panel industry, the waste disposal industry as well as the EU level anti-trust case against Google, which seems to be primarily due to German pressure.

The blogster also believes that weak media could be included as a forth factor. German public media do some good reporting, the insulation panel investigation is an example, but public broadcasting is itself subject to heavy direct political control (1) and collusive practices (2).

Insulation cartel:
The TV report found typical cartel behavior, such as identical prices for products by different companies, regional production & distribution agreements (i.e. one manufacturer produces and distributes a "competitor's products"), personnel overlap between manufacturers and the supposedly independent Fraunhofer Institute branch near Munich, a suppressed Fraunhofer study from 30 years ago showing facade insulation to be of little insulation value. Government involvement includes personnel overlap, the German legal classification of styrofoam as B1, "difficult to ignite" (where the EU classifies it as easily ignited) to allow use under the building code for private buildings (but not government buildings). The government also consulted lobbyists when the energy savings law was passed, and it subsidizes energy saving, including insulation, to the tune of around half a billion Euros a year.
Outright fraud claims by a whistleblower state that companies set aside product batches that fulfill the hard to replicate highest R values and send these to the testing institute after an inspector stops by - this involves faking the stamp inspectors use to mark batches they want forwarded to testing. Independent testing of off the shelf panels indeed showed that about 40% of panels did not meet the officially certified insulation values. The cases below range from "some government involvement" to "government knowingly tolerating abuse of human beings".

Waste disposal:
An ongoing investigation by the German competition watchdog continues to dig into the huges price differences for common garbage removal, where one household in one town pays, for example, 564 Euros versus 128 for the same household twenty miles away. Mergers in the industry are being investigated as one cause. Some communities provide their own waste management services, while others are privatized. The public entities do not charge "prices" but "fees".
Government is involved at many levels but a stark intervention in 2013 removed the investigative authority of the competition watchdog with a law that says services with "fees" are no longer under its jurisdiction. Instead, local elected bodies or "special districts" are supposed to regulate any such fees - which, according to the FAZ article, is routinely undermined or delayed.

The Google case in EU Commission hands represents even more government involvement. German lobbyists have been pushing Berlin to action, claiming Google was exploiting its monopoly in the eCommerce space. While Google had issues, the blogster looked into the common claims that Google did not give "online shops" the search results placement they deserved and found the claim to be untrue. The company that complained loudest and without any fact checking by the mainstream media belongs to the infamous Springer group (not the scientific publisher) and is not an online shop. That company sells absolutely nothing!
It is a clickbait outfit that gets paid by real online shops for simply displaying links and giving users the impression that they see the best possible deals.

Home care slaves:
Zeit online uses the term slaves in a piece that highlights the plight of mostly Eastern European home care personnel in Germany. "Insults, beatings, no time off" may sound like common abuse scenarios by wealthy Saudis with regard to their household staff, but they happen every day in Germany in the year 2016. Live-in help from the East is the cheap German answer to round the clock care for the elderly.
The German government excluded live in household staff from pretty much all workplace regulation. The maximum work week of 48 hours: does not apply. Minimum wage: does not apply. EU law mandating that anybody who lives at the workplace be a regular employee: ignored.

[Update /29/2016] The blogster shares the sentiment of many Germans. In a poll by Transparency International in 2010, an astounding 70% of Germans said they felt that the level of corruption in the country had been going up in the three years prior to the poll.

Germany ratified the United Nations Convention against Corruption in November of 2014.

After Sudan.

Which leaves Japan as the only major country that has not ratified it. It is no coincidence that Germany and Japan lagged behind, but that goes beyond the scope of the post.

[Update 1/27/2016] A great example of how corruption often works in Germany is illustrated by a scandal in the Bavarian city of Regensburg, culminating in the arrest of the lord mayor and of a local building magnate. Donations via strawmen are the reported, but the real story goes deeper: three local building companies "somehow" saw a regular, even distribution of public works. The mayor himself does not appear to have accepted money for personal use and can claim "I cannot be bought".

Thursday, August 18, 2016

German ministry calls Turkey key Islamist 'platform' - blames 'office glitch', causes fingerpointing

As reported by AP and all major German news media tow days ago: The German government said in a confidential document obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday that Turkey has become "the central platform of action for Islamist groups" in the Middle East.

Contained in a reply to a formal question by the left party DIE LINKE in parliament, the statement quickly developed into a storm in the houka: a smokescreen soon went up when the interior ministry called the failure to coordinate with the foreign ministry on the reply a "clerical error".

The part of the document that contained the assertion was classified for reasons of "well being of the state" (Staatswohl, a term that includes 'national security' but can be used in a wider sense).

Since the media called the information 'confidential' and in light of the official statement, the blogster assumed a minimum classification level of 'Confidential'. This was incorrect. The actual classification was "For official use only" (VS-NfD), the lowest level in the German classification system, also known as "Nur für Dumme" (for dummies only).

Thus, the door was wide open for speculation:
1) Why was a supposedly very sensitive statement classified at the dummy level?
2) Who wrote it in the first place?
3) Was inclusion in the reply "human error"?
4) What "really" was the purpose of putting it in there, knowing full well that it would become public?

The answers so far:
1) Nobody knows - or rather says. As a matter of fact, it is old news for anybody who wants to know or who has a computer, that some version of the statement "as a result of Ankara's domestic and foreign policy that has been Islamized step-by-step above all since 2011, Turkey has developed into the central platform of action for Islamist groups in the Middle East region." is true.
However, no arm of the German government has previously gone public with the open secret.
2) After some speculation, it is now certain that the statements were written up by Germany's foreign intelligence agency BND.
3) The official line has changes from, sorry, human error. A spokesperson of the interior ministry has since then come out in explicit support, saying that "important information has to be provided to parliament when the question is asked. Such Information cannot be simply suppressed."
The interior minister himself added he was "not sorry" for the statement.
This leaves only one conclusion: premeditated, on purpose, fully aware of the fallout.
4) Which takes us to the real why?
Der Spiegel speculates that the possibility exists that "some individuals in the Chancellery wanted to torpedo the tenuous diplomatic rapprochement between Turkey and Germany" in the wake of the row caused by the failed coup.

The interior minister definitely has managed to pull another stunt of "have your cake and eat it too". While not being "sorry", he has made sure that the media knows it was not his signature that appeared under the reply to DIE LINKE but that of one of his assistant secretaries.

We may or may not find out whether he was aware of the "explosive" content of the reply.

The foreign ministry, meanwhile, has distanced itself from the statement, and Turkey has officially protested after the initial standard "no comment" a couple of days ago.

The blogster ends the post with more houka references:
Where there is smoke...
Several people can suck at the same time.
Some may blow, and you won't notice.

And the fingerpointing reference, well, that one alludes to a "simple sign language" gesture made by the German vice-chancellor. Going public with the open secret regarding Turkey and Islamists might just be a paper version of the same (though not by the same person or persons.)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Microsoft's free terminology website and unused data companies often don't know about (but pay for)

A few days ago, the blogster wrote about a simple viewer for translation memory exchange (.tmx) files.

The big picture was not explained: companies and institutions can spend many thousands or millions of dollars on translation services without ever making full use of the product.

How come?

Sure, customers like you or me will get a native language user interface, a translated online help, a neat manual for the greatest ever vacuum cleaner, an auto manual. Or sometimes a small slip of paper that makes the rounds on the web because its translations are hilarious or outright dangerous.

That is not what the blogster means by "product". A better term might be "intermediate product", the translation memory files (.tmx) or terminology exchange files (.tbx) that are created by the people and machines who perform the translation work.

The overwhelming majority of consumers of translation (i.e. companies/agencies paying for them) either do not know or do not care about the value of these "intermediate" resources.
These consumers won't make tmx or tbx data available for free within their own institution and even less so give them to the public without any strings attached.

Who cares whether the secretary who needs to write up a memo in a foreign language has access to a tmx that contains all the translations of the contracts and shipping documents the company has ever needed for that language?

Who gives a rat's something about the call center person who works in three languages, because it is cheaper, and struggles every day?

Wouldn't it be memorable if the engineers in the basement could communicate smoothly with their counterparts in a Japanese basement?

Oh, you send them to Google Translate or to Bing Translator because you didn't even realize that your company has subject specific, domain specific data that was produced by actual humans? Instead of a machine that confuses dork and dark, or does not quite understand that female and male parts in electrical engineering/electronics are not what WebMD serves up?

Or you use an awfully odd free smartphone travel app to figure out what that Chinese tourist you stuck into a German refugees shelter might have to say? This despite the fact that your bureaucracy is guaranteed to have a Chinese translation of "asylum" and one of "wallet theft" sitting around somewhere?

Microsoft has been one of the great exceptions for decades.

In the early days of the internet, you could download zipped "glossary" files from MS if you were patient and knew where to look.

Nowadays, Microsoft has a dedicated Language Portal for your terminology pleasure. Granted, the portal is not one of fastest sites of the Redmond giant, but choice makes up for that.

You can download bi-lingual terminology data (English plus the respective foreign language) for nearly 100 languages. Need a teaser before you accept anything out of Redmond for free?

How about Arabic, or Inuktitut, or Yoruba?

Note: Of course, you can argue that machines will take over soon, why bother? That's for another post.

[Update 8/16/2016] In an effort to be nice to the EU, the blogster decided to add this link to a page of the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament, which guides readers through the process of downloading their very own pieces of the world's largest language project ever.

Germany's internet desert: the suspense & fraud allegations around travel portal Unister

Practical European internet use suggestion: Thoroughly check before you buy anything from a European website that has "24" in its name. This often - though by now means always - indicates domain farms, for example "vol24.fr", or "flug24.de". One place to check may seem a bit unlikely at first, but go do it: a workplace review site like Kununu (not affiliated with the K-Landers in any way, and not the only site of its kind). Check the additional note at the end of the post.

It started out with a short news piece like others reporting the accidental death of some important person. The founder of German internet company Unister and another member of the team died when the small plane that took them from Venice to Berlin crashed. Other outlets put the praise right into the headline: "internet millionaire".

Nothing worth writing a blog post about.

A week or so later, the story became interesting. The founder had been in Venice for a business deal involving "a very large sum of money", and he had been defrauded, according to documents by Italian police. And Unister announced it was seeking bankruptcy protection.

More time passed, and a couple of days ago, the news reported the arrest of a loan consultant who had "duped" the deceased. According to that article, the Unister chief withdrew half of the three million in cash that the company had to hand it over as collateral/downpayment on a loan of 12 million Swiss Francs closed in Venice.

The 12 million were handed over in cash. Which turned out to be fake, except for some 10 thousand Francs or so.

So, "duped"?

The plane crashed on the way back.

Thus far into the story, most people would have wondered what kind of a company Unister was. The blogster, snotty as usual, figured that it was one of typical German "internet start-ups", in other words, a company that had taken an established business model and made it German. The main business areas, travel and price comparison, supported that interpretation.

Rounding off the unflattering impression of Germany's internet elite, an article in today's Zeit online talks about the cut throat business model of Unister, and reports what several former call center employees experienced there. There was immense pressure to sell unnecessary service packages, fees for anything - for example a fee to run a customer's credit card, or a 15 Euro fee to simply tell a customer if a flight was refundable or not.  One the bright side, some foreign language reps with a solidly monolingual boss would use their advantage and give open advice to customers or waive add-on fees, telling the boss later that they forgot.

According to the article, one factor in filing for bankruptcy protection was that the company's finances were a complete mess, with a network of about 40 "clone" sites adding to the accounting disaster.

As already indicated at the top of the post, workplace review sites can sometimes assist in figuring out whether you want to deal with a company or not. Caveats for those are that they may tend to be overly positive, at least for Germany with its strict libel laws and a somewhat underwhelming concept of free speech.
Most importantly, though, you may not find the company because it is merely one unit of a larger conglomerate.

If you enter, for example "flug24.de" or "www.flug24.de", one of the Unister companies, on Kununu, you get no result. A web search for something like "flug24.de parent company" can fix that.

Please note, the numbers "24" in a domain name are not always an indicator of an "internet desert" domain farm. For example, https://www.flightradar24.com/ is a great, useful and ethically sound enterprise.

Finally, in the unlikely event that you read the Zeit Online article and feel that a couple of "disgruntled employees" should not be given a voice, check out Kununu entries from a year or more ago.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Authoritarianism did not return to Germany recently - it has been here all along

You have probably read articles and seen TV footage of Germans marching against some imaginary islamization of the West (the PEGIDA folks), of anti-immigration AfD party clocking up double-digit results in three German regional elections, of burning refugee shelters, and more.  And after the recent shootings and stabbings, calls for more police, more surveillance, harsher punishment were heard.

Bad as it is, figures for extremist killings over the past 25 years in Germany are very clear: according to research from 2015, the death toll of extreme right violence was 156 between 1990 and 2015, with 2 Islamist murders. Even if you add all the victims of 2016, the big picture has not changed.

Yet, it is the outcry by conservatives denouncing the latest series of measures and infringement on civil liberties as woefully inadequate to counter the alleged immense danger of Islamist terrorism that is getting almost all of the attention.

We can take some of the sting out of stating that German authoritarianism is not new by calling incidents "isolated". Which is what conservatives did when an Amnesty International report in the mid 1990s accused German police of abuse of foreigners, including cases in which people in deportation detention suffocated while in custody,

The older generation of conservative German politicians is currently mocking Donald Trump for his advocacy of waterboarding and more, yet some of those very Germans remained silent as young hopefuls when a Christian Democrat state prime minister openly called for torture of "reticent" suspects. The ticking time bomb and weapons of mass destruction justification we continue to hear in the US was made by the German Mr. Albrecht, the father of the 2016 German defense minister Ms. von der Leyen. Calls for extra-judicial killings were also in his repertoire.

Officials not protesting against known widespread torture in an another NATO country (Turkey) was par for the course in Germany well before 9/11. A well honed strategy that came in handy after 9/11 when one German resident landed in Gitmo and another was abducted to Afghanistan. This silence was encouraged by the fact that alleged highjacker Atta had lived in Hamburg and planned his deed there.

And if you want to look for media going full on xenophobic and hateful towards asylum seekers, look not further than bad old tabloid BILD. This collection of headlines from the pre-Welcome-Refugees past is as clear as needed:

Members of one of the very same parties (Christian Social Union, the Bavarian "sister party" of the CDU) were even fond of introducing caning/lashes and bragged about it in BILD.

[Same day update] Fixed officials not protesting. Inserted "to counter the alleged immense danger of Islamist terrorism"

Germany: One weekend, one music festival - 770 more drug war casualties

Summer time is drug war time in Germany.

A friend recently told us how he saw a flyer at one of the music festivals he works. According to him, the flyer read: Clean Driver, truck license.

How does that work?

A person who does not drink or do drugs drives your vehicle through police checkpoints, and then you take over and drive home.

The blogster had read last year how Germans face both administrative and judicial punishment if caught with even small amounts of soft drugs. Even when prosecutors decline to indict someone, many DA offices report the offense to the person's motor vehicle department. The latter routinely issues a request for a current drug test, which costs around 200 Euros. Failure to produce a test within the strict deadline of three days after being asked to do so will trigger automatic suspension of a driver's license.

The friend gone to set up his vending booth at another of the many summer festivals, the blogster began digging for some numbers. Once again, a shoutout to the internet: thank you!

Some police forces put out press releases detailing all sorts of events at and around music festivals. For example, the police of Itzehoe released this one regarding the first day of Germany's huge metal festival Wacken Open Air, an event with about 75 000 attendees. Media reports after the recent terror attacks in Germany mentioned a possible ban of backpacks at festivals but the press release is silent on this topic.

The police press release mentions "lots of music and lots of alcohol" as well as "repeated" finds of small amounts of drugs, going on to say that 15 seizures and criminal complaints were made. After two days, the count was 57 incidents, according to the latest press release.

That's a tiny number compared to this police infomercial in the run-up to the 65 000 people techno festival NatureOne in the south. Police reports that almost 770 criminal charges related to drugs were filed against NatureOne visitors in 2014, not including driving under the influence cases, of which another 240 were reported, but without breaking down the figure into alcohol and drug related.

Comparing the two events and the police announcements and press releases makes one thing abundantly clear: officials responsible for Wacken did not field the full drug ware arsenal that the police brought to bear on NatureOne participants. The latter faced "continuous" checks of persons and vehicles before, during, and after the festival. Figures for 2016 don't seem to be available yet. The event ended only a few days ago, and a radio and TV station report only mentions "approximately 90 officers" dedicated to looking for drug offenses.

The German version of the drug war is far less violent and deadly than the "original", the U.S. incarnation. On the flip side, the stigma is far greater, and the basically unchecked and fundamentally arbitrary "punishment by DMV" without ever seeing a judge has even been criticized by legal scholars as discriminating and obsolete.

Common and insidious arguments on the legalization of cannabis in Germany can be found in the earlier post The fight against cannabis legalization - German style.

[Same day update] Grammar, spelling.

Friday, August 12, 2016

How to run a budget surplus German style and fight over the spoils

Germany's federal government continues to run a budget surplus. In an earlier post, we called the phenomenon "stealthy" and noted it was upsetting to many citizens.

The German economy is still doing better than most in Europe, and Christian Democrat (CDU)/Christian Social Union (CSU) politicians would really love citizens to stop right there when they discuss government finances. The same goes for the Social Democrats (SPD).

That's because both of the major parties also presided over a variety of cuts to social security and assistance programs while, at the same time, lowering taxes for the wealthy and creating a sustainable energy program in which individual consumers and small businesses finance renewable subsidies as well as rock bottom electricity prices for the heaviest industrial users.

The term for such policies when other countries have them is "austerity". In Germany, the proponents of austerity have largely succeeded in keeping the bad word  in check, using "Sparen" (i.e. to save) instead. Known as one of Europe's foremost nations of savers, the positive connotation rubbed off on government programs using the label. Even intermittent criticism as a "spardiktat" cannot completely she the benevolent imagery of "save".

Conservatives and the "free market liberals" (FDP) relentlessly claim that social democrats and/or Greens waste public money and accumulate government debt. It has been such a successful trope that hardly anybody outside of Germany, and even in the country, realizes that Social Democrats governed at the federal level for just a fraction of the almost 70 years after the war. Since 1945, there has been a single German government in which Social Democrats governed with another "left" party, the SPD-Greens coalition between 1998 and 2005. Cuts to the retirement system and the introduction of a vicious means tested basic assistance scheme introduced in those seven years do not strike one as debt prone socialist policy.
By the way, the German FDP "free market liberals" are famous as the party of choice of lawyers, pharmacists, and tax consultants - which all have great income protection through government regulations.  Luxury minimum wage, if you will.

Little wonder, then, that a study claimed Germany's social security retirement system might see 50% of recipients under poverty level by 2030.

Successive government have shown amazing ingenuity in moving money around, for example when money for jobless goes to pay for jobcenter administration.

Education expenditures, a 100% state function until very recently, have fallen to 3.1% of GDP, behind the U.S. with its 3.6%, way behind the UK's 4.5.
German teachers these days find themselves buying supplies out of their own salaries.

The most recent creative accounting stunt by Mr. Schaeuble is to dip into the health care fund in order to finance some of the health care costs for the large numbers of refugees who arrived in 2015.

The issue with this plan is that the fund is not financed through taxes but gets its money from health insurance premiums of workers and employers. Despite not being a government fund, the government decided to use 1.5 billion out of the 6.5 billion total to offset refugee health care costs.

The insurers protested, so did other healthcare experts.

But this is Germany, whose Chancellor, Ms. Merkel famously said in a speech in 2006 that "there is no such thing as a legal right to enduring democracy and socially responsible capitalism" (youtube link, the speech is in German).

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Several German business sectors dependent completely on foreign workers

The saga of Germany and its workforce keeps making headlines as various business associations release annual or semi annual reports which are then dutifully reported with little context and promptly forgotten over more topical news, such as Donald Trump's latest outrageous gaffes, something evil about Russia, the return of a former soccer star after a redemptive prison sentence for millions in tax evasion.

Or the Olympics.

Which give German media ample reason to post long stories about athletes and doping, about lost stadium keys, and the recurring question "three days in and no medal, what's wrong with German sports?"

Foreign migrant workers labor in agriculture, harvest fruit and vegetables, and they get their annual mention. Last week, meat processors and bakers reported a shortage of young Germans signing up for vocational training contracts.

This week, the construction industry followed with the alarming headline that only qualified foreign workers keep the country's building industry afloat among a building boom unheard of for decades.

Since 2008, the percentage of foreign workers in the German construction industry has doubled to over 13%, and companies are desperate to tap into the workforce represented by last year's young refugees. Subcontractors from Eastern and Southern Europe are also popular in the industry.

The most interesting figures, though, are at the very end of the article: in 1995, the German construction industry had 1.4 million employees. In 2016, around 763 000, despite an increase in new building permits of 22% over the previous year.

Low paid jobs and physically hard work will continue go to foreign workers - notwithstanding all the anti-immigration rhetoric that gained popularity in Germany, too.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

[Update:: .tbx] Translation Memory File (.tmx) viewer & editor (open source software)

[TmxViewer update 8/15/2016]
The viewer now has its own Search box. Only segments in which one or more table cells match the search term will be displayed. To reset, click the filename link in the header.
Entries in the "search results" view can now be edited. 
[end update]

Linguists, project managers, or simply curious people now have an easy centralized means of viewing multi-language files that use the standard "tmx" format.

We have put a copy of the description found on the viewer download website at the end of this post and added a couple of screenshots taken during evaluation.

The tool is primarily meant as a viewer, but it does offer limited editing capability as described here.

Once deployed on an application server, users can access the viewer in the web browser by going to <server>:<port>/tmx/.

This brings up a home screen similar to the following. TMX files previously uploaded are automatically available as clickable links at the top of the page, as shown here.

Clicking on a table cell makes it editable. Moving the cursor out of the editable area causes the browser to send the change to the server. There, it is saved in a new file with the name "output.tmx".

The description on the website notes that there is no mechanism for "concurrent" editing. More than one user can, however, work on the "output.tmx" file. As a workaround, rename the tmx you want to work on to "output.tmx", then perform any edits.
Users will have to refresh their view every now and then (the viewer does not notify) in order to see everybody's changes.

Tag protection is not available in the current version. It would need to be added to make it a production editor.

   What is the TmxViewer?
    A web application that allows to upload TMX files to a server for viewing over the network.
    Once deployed, users go to http://server:port/tmx to get the index page.
    The rest is self explanatory.

    Files are uploaded into the directory "uploads" under "user.home". The folder will be
    created on first use if it does not exist.

    The content of a tmx file is displayed in a table that has as many columns as the tmx has 
    languages (xml:lang attribute values).

    To edit an entry, click it, and make the desired change.
    When the mouse cursor leaves the text field, the change is sent to the server. The changed
    file is saved under the name "output.tmx". 

    NOTE: In this initial version, there is no synchronization for different concurrent users.
    You can, however, collaborate using the output.tmx (rename a desired file to output.tmx).

    Download the   .war file here.  or get the Netbeans sources 
     Netbeans sources with all libraries and build it yourself.

    Requirements: Java 1.8 and Tomcat 8.x (8.0.27 or higher, or equivalent).

    The TmxViewer is brought to you by http://www.vigoursoft.com/

Eco what? Germany rips up an autobahn and demolishes more villages for lignite mine

Can you imagine Germany voluntarily giving up a stretch of beloved autobahn?

One piece of freeway has been cut by the lignite mine Garzweiler II, a second freeway will come within reach of the huge diggers in 2017 as a 20 square km + hole in the ground moves from West to East in the North-Western region between Cologne and the Dutch border.

In a country of 80 million living in an area not much bigger than Montana, open pit mining is a tough act.

While crunching a path through two freeways affects both local and international traffic, the consequences for the inhabitants of the land set aside for the mine are as severe as they can possibly be: their ancestral homes are disappearing.

The extension of the old mine Garzweiler I means that another 13 villages, where some 7600 people lived in 1992, will be wiped out by the end of the project. On the English language website of mine operator RWE, you find nothing about the residents, only a blurb about recultivation and - you may have guessed - the nice new freeway to be built on the spoils.

Few Germans outside of the affected area and outside of the eco movement pay attention to the upheaval. Residents had hoped that the much publicized move towards sustainable power would cause the state and RWE to abandon expansion of the dirty coal mine.

The local press celebrates that one village will be spared, but 16 villages have already been lost in the last 50 years, and the remaining 12 will follow.

A recent rare article in Zeit Online gives a voice to one former resident of a village under demolition, but even this piece mostly describes how churches are being reduced to rubble in the process of clearing the land for the mine.

The Catholic Church has been opposed to the mine expansion, but it also stands to make good money from it. Compensation for the old churches is generous, with several million Euros for each flowing into Church coffers.

A good deal if you consider that most churches were originally financed not by the institution but through donations from the communities.

Since church attendance has been falling and given that many residents of the old towns simply take the compensation and move away, the new houses of worship in the greenfield settlements are small chapel style deals.

The Garzweiler mining operation exemplifies how successive German governments have dealt with major restructuring: throw money at property owners and enforce eviction without much regard to anything else. Which leaves the renters in towns slated for demolition with next to nothing.

When it is all over - by the year 2085, according to current plans - some of the lost agricultural area will have been restored, some will be replanted with trees, and a new lake with a surface of about 23 square kilometers and a maximum depth of about 185 meters (500 feet) will be the legacy of Germany's dirty coal.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The backlash against free public WiFi in Germany is sooo on

The blogster has not had much good to say about the German ways with the internet.

Do you know a country in which you can be dragged into court on a gun charge despite not having had a gun at the time the crime was committed?

Just in case you wonder: no, the little old lady from the post below did not give the instrument of the crime to someone else for that person to violate the law. The 2012 post reminded the world that Germany is one of the few places on earth where an Internet Connection is more Dangerous than a Gun.

Later, we taught readers the great German word Neuland (aka. internet), and added some stinging verbiage on the copyright craze of the Continued desertification of the German internet - "ancillary copyright".

Yet, the long German tradition of holding providers of freely accessible (no registration needed) public WiFi liable for illegal activities of users of the access point finally seemed to be a thing of the past when the country changed the law to give WiFi access point operators the same status as ISPs.

While many celebrated the new found freedom, the blogster was not convinced: they are Germans, they don't do freedom the way the world has come to believe as a result of 70 years of great PR and mostly good behavior.

Soon after the passage of the law, legal experts pointed out that individuals operating a free WiFi hotspot would still have no protection against the country's thriving Cease & Desist Industry.

Then came a few terror attacks, and we are finally seeing the start of a serious backlash. Centrist Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is the vanguard with a piece entitled The Danger of Free WiFi. Golden Times for Hackers and Bomb Makers.

The headline is so specific that discussing arguments is next to irrelevant. The blogster will point out a couple for their entertainment value only.

What makes the article dangerous is the author, a professor of media law at the technical university of Cologne, someone whose word has weight. Germany just re-introduced mandatory ID checks when citizens by pre-paid SIM cards, and the country's national criminal police agency has been conducting a campaign against the "Darknet" using completely bogus user figures.

The main thrust of Mr. Professor's argument is this: Attributing responsibility to internet use was onerous, so this responsibility was simply dropped instead of maintaining it as an expression of duty towards society. 

Another gem in the authoritarian world view of the article is: We need to be aware that the state, in granting this, places great trust into the citizens.

Trust, by its very nature, can be revoked.

We'll see how this backlash plays out when the first heinous crime in Germany can be loosely or falsely connected to the use of freely accessible public WiFi.

Did the gentleman get any technical input for his piece?

Obviously not.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The militarization of grief and a Senator's definition of "sacred"

Of the many comments on the speech of Mr. Khan at the Democratic Convention, this one sentence in a TPM  article caught the attention of the post's author:

"You will never win a fight savaging the parents of a dead soldier."

It encapsulates the emotional aspect of the issue very neatly. And it also masks the extent to which grief about the loss of a loved one in war has become a tool to silence critics, has become militarized.

The fact that Mr. Trump managed to get around serving in Vietnam, like so many other members of the "elite", as well as his aggressive reaction to the speech have made this particular debate more surreal than one would expect.

To the author of this post, the concept of war has lost none of its fundamental absurdity.  The sense of absurdity took hold as a child when the family was talking about an uncle "who fell" in war.

They sounded distressed. What was so distressing about falling?

As a child, you fall all the time, then you get up, maybe with a bruise or two, and you get on with it.

It took several years to understand that an adult falling in war meant the person was killed.

Why didn't they say killed, or shot dead?

Even later, the then former child learned more awful euphemisms, the most damning of which is "the ultimate sacrifice". Yes, there are well known stories of soldiers risking their own lives to save wounded fellow soldiers. They are few and far between.

There are also stories about soldiers who questioned their commanding officers being made to "walk point" in Vietnam.

Basically serving as bait.

The Vietnam War was the last war ruled by the draft, so we can justify speaking of some degree of "serving the country" and to some extent of "sacrifice". That war was also deeply amoral, both in the ways its necessity was justified and in its gruesomeness.

For a short time following the campaigns in South East Asia, it seemed that militarism in the US and elsewhere had lost its hold over society. What changed, however, was how the public was sold war and its images and effects. A decade later, journalists were embedded, war imagery was sanitized like never before, and the slaughter continued.

Grief stricken parents became "Gold Star families", were paraded in front of TV cameras, and veterans became homeless and suicidal in record numbers. After the original sin of the 21st century, the attacks of 9/11, patriotism was repurposed as jingoism. Subsequently, the millions of citizens who demonstrated against the invasion of Iraq were ignored. And torture by our very own military followed.

Ceremonies and ritual around serving in the military and getting killed in doing so worried the author as a teen: why would you have a military ceremony, with gun salutes and a show of military might on a day meant to pay tribute to the fallen of past wars? How can you possibly speak of heartbreak and grief, yet have the same machine that invariably causes more of the same parade and flex its power?

The answer, of course, is that we pay tribute to those who made "the ultimate sacrifice" in the "defense of their country". But those who fought and died defending their country rest side by side with those who died in various wars of choice, in campaigns with a thin veneer of legality, and in activities for which no legal cover was even sought.

Which is in part why the backlash against Trump has been so fierce, with reservist Senator Graham upping the ante: "This is going to a place where we’ve never gone before, to push back against the families of the fallen." And Graham continued "There used to be some things that were sacred in American politics - that you don't do - like criticizing the parents of a fallen soldier even if they criticize you. "

Donald Trump, no matter how you phrase it, was very successful with his five deferments and - with glaring insensitivity and aggressiveness - stands there as a mirror, breaking the comforting narrative of the social contract.

Graham's parenthetical explanation of what "sacred in American politics" means, i.e. things "that you don't do", perfectly illustrates one of the few remaining taboos in American politics.

You don't have to subscribe to the view of General Smedley Butler, who famously declared that War is just a racket. However, respect for the soldiers and civilians who lost their lives in war is not incompatible with Butler's views either.

As long as we effortlessly declare every dead soldier a hero while being silent when the parents of a dead civilian are savaged, the militarization of grief will continue.

Note: The author of this post is an honorary lifetime member of the 3rd of the 36th Infantry.

[Update 8/1/2016] Spelling. Added link to Abu Ghraib report.