Sunday, September 25, 2016

Hidden West German Cold War history: How to get yourself the newest tank

The K-Landnews has dipped into contemporary military history several times thanks to our OMGs (Old Mustached Germans) and some firsthand experience. If you found earlier posts, you know we referenced just one OMG.

We now have two. For twice the fun.

You may know things about the military, or you may not. But two universal characteristics throughout history and across countries and ideologies are these:

1. The military wastes colossal amounts of money.
2. The military loves toys.

The activities described in this post took place in West Germany in the 1970s, to be exact between 1976 and 1980.* This was during the Cold War, when the West was - wrongly as some knew then and all know now - afraid that the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies would make a run across Germany to the Atlantic.

It is about very expensive war machines: the German main battle tank Leopard 1 and its successor Leopard 2, nicknamed Leo 1 and Leo 2. 

The Leo 1 had a great reputation and sold like mad. Countries from Brazil to Saudi Arabia wanted them. Then came the Leo 2, and things in the German military industrial complex and its main customer, the Bundeswehr got crazy.

From sergeant to general, kids with barely a hint of a beard and former World War II fighters, everyone in the Panzer troops salivated and schemed.

Despite the allure of the new toy and tons of cash spent, the Leo 2 was to be phased in over many years. The holders of the purse strings told the troops that they would not exchange a perfectly good Leo 1 for a Leo 2.

Soldiers have a lot of idle time. Don't let the tight schedules plastered everywhere fool you. Some used that time to figure out a solution to the toy problem.

Eventually, troops in one of the country's then twelve panzer divisions cracked it. The administration had said "perfectly good Leo 1".

We should turn ours into not perfectly good ones.

General German engineering prowess and additional robustness requirements for military gear posed a challenge to be overcome by what some might call extreme means.

OMG did not elucidate whether the solution was inspired by the casual display of car stripping in Hollywood movies. He only explained how the troops did it.

Mount a tank on blocks sturdy enough for the purpose. Cinder blocks are not great, they might work in a pinch. Ask the engineers, also idle, for help.

Once the vehicle is off the ground, unscrew the bolts keeping motor oil in the engine. Being Germans, they did not let the oil run off into the storm sewers but caught every last drop.

Start the massive engine, rev it up to a comfortable RPM level, and wait.

When the pistons seize with a massive shudder (hence the need for really good blocks), pour some of the drained oil back in.

Clean up everything, remove the blocks, then report that your Leo 1 experienced catastrophic engine failure.

Filling out reports and answering questions was routine.

The reward soon arrived on a huge flatbed: a brand new Leopard 2.

The troops lived happily ever after and all are safely retired as of this writing.

* We could narrow down this period more but feel it would be a disservice to OMG, According to Wikipedia, series production of the Leo 2 began in 1979. However, there were plenty of early specimen out there.

"Germany's Judge" and the country's neutrality of judges paradigm

It took a while for the blogster to get its* understanding of German to the exacting standards you unfortunately receive from perfectionist parenting. We'll write about that one later.

This post is about the German concept of "neutrality of judges" , which requires judges to keep any public appearances and comments from giving rise to any impression that their neutrality in legal matters might be tarnished, that they might hold preconceived opinions which could affect their work on the bench.

While Lady Justice is blind, German judges are supposedly held to even higher standards, something like the judicial version of "see nothing, hear nothing, say nothing". Of course, the blogster does not condone use of the monkey image in this context.

Compare this to the U.S., and you get a good sense of a legal divide wider and deeper than the ocean between the two countries.

From Scotusblog to senate confirmation hearings to epic soap opera style dealings with the life and opinions of America's top judges, there is enough news and commentary for everyone. 

In Germany, on the other hand, there is only one: Thomas Fischer, presiding judge of one of the five criminal panels of the German Federal Court of Justice.

He is a prolific author, and his weekly column in DIE ZEIT has irked some media outlets, politicians, and judges because - so they claim - it undermines the essential concept of judicial neutrality.

The blogster, intellectually challenged and devoid of substantial legal knowledge, has always maintained that the concept is largely fiction. At best, a standard to strive for; at worst, a sorry excuse for punishing folks without accepting an ounce of personal responsibility for a sentence.

When a person of undisputed skills in the field writes a widely read column that acknowledges what most humans know, it will raise questions and can create push back. In the case of judge Fischer, the main outlet of this public push back has been the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine. The row took off in 2015.

You know where this is going, right?

The paper looked for a suitable person to uphold the cherished neutrality and found him in a judge from Berlin, who penned a strongly worded piece.

The result was another pointed column of Mr. Fischer in Die Zeit. The blogster cannot describe and translate all of it, but you will understand how it played out after this opening line: Even if the law was a natural science, and even if determining what is right was the same as determining what is real, things would be quite complicated.**

Instead of walking away, the paper had one of its own legal journalists write another piece in 2016. In an ironic corroboration that "the law" is very much about power, it became obvious that the valiant journalistic effort made no dent. If you know German, see the entertaining comments section of that article to get my point.

* Gender neutral, folks. It works.
** Wäre das Recht eine Naturwissenschaft und die Erkenntnis des Richtigen dasselbe wie die des Realen, wäre die Sache schon schwierig genug.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Yearning for a tight-knit community? You may be a big city person

Here's the thing: for centuries, people fled remote rural places for the freedoms of the city.

Germans even have saying for that, which is "Stadtluft macht frei" ("urban air shall set you free").

Unlike a much more famous, much more recent saying that includes "macht frei", the urban air thing was real. Serfs or indentured servants who made it into a city (a very specific legal construct from the Middle Ages), would gain their freedom after one year and one day.

The correlation with standard Silicon Valley stock option vesting schedules is sheer coincidence.

While the world's population continues to mass in cities, creating double-digit million mega cities, there are some humans who continue to live in small places and many more who yearn for a simple life in such places.

If you want to live far away from the bustle of the city, do it in a country with lots of space, like Russia, the US, or something equally big and empty. Oh, Canada.

Because in Europe, you will almost always be moving into a "tight knit" community. Don't fool yourself: you may think you are invisible to your neighbors, but you are not.

The blogster has learned a bunch of hilarious and sad facts about others, even though it* does not "belong".

For example, the one about the cultured educated wife of the important city man giving in to a lustful romp in the barn with a country guy - only to be surprised in the act.

Or the divorced middle aged man who had been scraping by on basic mean tested Hartz IV (the modern version of work shall set you free) until he couldn't take it anymore and rammed a knife into the carotid artery of his neck, bleeding to death right there, where they used to slaughter pigs when people still farmed.

Another fun one, the catalyst for this post, is the ongoing - and possibly - doomed effort to get one of the old guys off drunk driving.

The first step undertaken by his grown son who lives nearby was "the talk". A few days later, the old man took the car to drive half a kilometer to the town bar and got hammered again.

So, the son took the car keys. Of course, the old man had a duplicate.

The next step was to chain the vehicle to a concrete post. Both chains and concrete posts are found in abundance on old German farms.

The son hid the angle grinder, too, but someone loaned one to the dad. The chain lasted less than a week.

Removing the car battery, well, another largely symbolic exercise.

The current debate, at the bar, centers on more radical measures, with some arguing for removing the wheels, while others advocate dismembering the electronics.

And no, the blogster doesn't know what stories they tell about "the Americans". You do get used to the mailman reading postcards, really.

* Gender neutrality, folks.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

German job centers to ramp up the fight against "anti-social behavior"

Germany certainly is not the only country where some eye the recipients of government benefits with suspicion.

Folks around here don't drive around with bumper stickers that read "if you can't feed them, don't breed them", they don't try to put the down and out through drug tests to get assistance, or dream up the other shenanigans we are used to in the U.S.

Or do they?

Young people who become temporarily unemployed in Germany can run into the most unfriendly of jobcenter (EDD for the US) employees. One such case, of a young man who did everything right was described in the early post Arrogant and lazy. Another one about sanctions handed out by the government agency supposed to support you is in Hilda the hairdresser.

More recently, the blogster pointed out that people go hungry in Germany.

So, why revisit the sad subject yet again? Because the current German government, that "grand coalition" of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, has been busy tightening the screws for those who receive means tested basic support Hartz IV.

When "middle of the road" papers spin a tiny increase in benefits planned for 2017 into a major achievement, you should pay attention.

So, the blogster did. And it does not look good, especially for single parents. Single mothers, for example, have a right under German law to not state who the father of their offspring is. But the jobcenter agencies don't like this because it prevents them from clawing back child support from fathers. So, think twice before you become a sperm donor in Germany.

For divorced parents with shared custody, the jobcenters recently acquired the power to make parents document each and every single day a child spends with the other parent. Armed with this information, jobcenters then religiously deduct benefits from the monthly amount of around 300 Euros per child.

New investigative powers of the jobcenters mean they will perform stricter checks of income and property of citizens who do not receive government benefits if they share a residence with someone who does.

With these powers to go after benefits cheats, what else could a German official want?

How about more power to fight "anti-social" behavior?

Since 1 August 2016, the existing powers under the Orwellian "assist and assert" slogan of the nanny state have unveiled more of the BDSM nature of German government benefits for working age unemployed.

Under the previous regime, the agency could claw back money if the claimant had become needy on purpose or "through gross negligence" prior to applying for benefits. While on benefits, monthly payout could be reduced for a variety of misdeeds, from skipping an appointment or refusing a job offer.

Starting now, even amounts already diminished by sanctions can be clawed back for "anti-social behavior".

Experts predict a flood of new lawsuits against an agency that already loses almost half of the cases in which a benefits decision is challenged in court.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Students whose native language is not German at Berlin high schools: between 1.9% and 97.9%

In the German capital Berlin, the high school with the highest rate of "non native speakers of German" is Albert Schweitzer with 97.9%. This means, some 12 or so out of a total of about 600 students count as "native speakers of German". The blogster doesn't do "decimal point students". The school with the lowest ratio is Gerhart Hauptmann with 1.9% of a student body of about 730.

The term segregation has been used to describe this phenomenon.

The answer is not as clear cut as one might think. According to this recommended article, the Berlin board of education defines "not a native speaker of German" as a student whose native language is not German or whose primary language used at home is not German.

The nationality of a child does not factor into the definition. In other words, a child may well be a German citizen in a dual national family where the primary language used at home is not German.

Proficiency in German varies widely, not just because of children like the aforementioned but also because the classification as "native" or "non native" speaker is primarily left the the parents choice of the respective check box on the school application forms.

Some boroughs therefore take a different approach to determining the language status and use a standardized test to evaluate primary school students who enter the system.
While the allocation of children to primary schools is based on the residence of the child, families are free to choose a preferred high school.

This is where the "non native" statistics have a divisive influence. Parents often look at this number and infer the social status of students as well as the quality of education. Not in a positive way, of course - otherwise nobody would be talking much about it.

Low proficiency in German is frequently seen as an indicator of lower social status, as well as lower education and lower income of the family.

This perception becomes even more detrimental in a country like Germany, which has traditionally had a multi tiered education system that separated students very much along class or social status line and less based on merits.

It comes as no surprise then, that some parents who can afford private school fees, put their children into largely church affiliated private institutions. Others have been known to move towards the more Germanic suburbs. And still others band together as a group when their children move from primary to secondary school and apply together, so that their kids have a greater chance of taking their friends with them to the new school. Secondary school principals frequently tolerate such "group applications" as long as they do not take take the form or mass applications (one said twenty students is not acceptable).

Schools with a higher percentage of "non native speakers" do have one distinct incentive: more money and more teachers. The idea is to give these schools more resources in order to help less advantaged students achieve educational goals.

Scientists have been warning for quite some time that allocation of resources based on the "non native" ratio was not a good strategy. They have argued it does not take into account the students' actual proficiency, and it leaves out native students whose proficiency may well be inadequate but does not figure among the criteria for increased resources.

In addition to using tests to find which students need remedial support, several school districts have moved away from the language criterion to a social measurement. They now allocate additional resources based on the economic situation of the family, in other words based on the number of families who receive government assistance.

So, segregation is happening, although the line is not as clear as we normally understand the American use of the term.

Conservative Germans and their politicians tend to view the issue in Berlin also from a religious angle, with a larger Muslim population prompting some to equate "non native German speaker" with Muslim.

Against this background, bullying of a German kid by a couple of Muslims with "you'll go to hell" is perceived differently than - true example - white natives in the Ozarks hurling "you'll go to hell" at a city child that answered Buddhist when the teacher wanted to know her religion.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

German government thwarts transparency with the K-land version of "for official use only"

The German government and its intelligence services don't have much shame left when it comes to withholding information.
Neither the fact that the country's foreign intelligence service BND was founded by a rabid Nazi general, nor the fact that the man "hoover"-ed up saucy details on the newly democratic politicians of his time, nor a stream of scandals (one every five or so years) has resulted in positive change.

The federal domestic spy service is not much better. After all, it is led by a gentleman who gained notoriety through a legal brief arguing a German resident held at Gitmo was not entitled to return to the country after release because he had been outside the country for more than the maximum six months allowed under German immigration law. In 2015, that German intel agency declared a "Confidential" doc a state secret in order to bring treason changes against a couple of bloggers. The effort backfired, but the gentleman still has his job.

The most recent installment in the BND saga even made it into arstechnica under the headline German spies violated law, must delete XKeyscore database - watchdog. But since the chief of the BND already lost his job, thus becoming the first and only victim of Mr. Snowden, nothing much will change. The German government already has a bill ready that simply legalizes the previously illegal.

As if that's not enough, a wonderful article in Zeit online brought to light how the German government nixes requests for information by members of parliament.

The line is simple: This is classified.

To fully appreciate the difference between the same line used in the U.S., you need a primer on the German system of classified information, notably the lowest level called "VS-NfD", which is "Classified - for official use only". It has no corresponding level in the U.S., and in German security circl slang, the "NfD" is often resolved to "Nur für Doofe".* Upwards of that, there are the usual confidential, secret, top secret, plus compartmented.

The beauty of having the plain "for official use only" designated as classified means that the toxic laws governing the handling and disclosure of classified information apply.

It is noteworthy that "VS-NfD" documents are not subject to the physical security requirements of the other levels. There is no sign in or sign out, no locking up in a safe, no armed guard for taking any such document for a stroll, etc.
"VS-NfD" sit, for example, on library shelves accessible to people who have not undergone a formal security background check.

The specific document used by the German government to go "sorry, classified" to silence requests that relate on the cooperation of the foreign & domestic & military intel agencies and police/law enforcement has the beautiful name "Richtlinien für die Zusammenarbeit der Verfassungsschutzbehörden, des Bundesnachrichtendienstes (BND), des Militärischen Abschirmdienstes (MAD), der Polizei und der Strafverfolgungsbehörden in Staatsschutzangelegenheiten (= Zusammenarbeitsrichtlinien) vom 18. September 1970 in der Fassung vom 23. Juli 1973, in Kraft getreten: 26. Juli 1973"

We spare you the translation. The current guidelines date from 1973 and are classified "VS-NfD" to this day.

That is enough to deny answers.

If you are curious and know enough bureaucratic German, the full text of the document was published in a 1979 textbook on German constitutional law.

Zeit online also reprinted the whole thing in its 6 September 2016 edition.

* For Dummies Only, or For Idiots Only.

It's Payback time at Deutsche Telekom - loyal employees game the system

Disclaimer: As a newbie to Germany, the blogster got a swanky 7Mbit/sec subscription from Telekom, only to find out that deep, deep in their terms and conditions buried on an obscure website, the pink giant promised a service of 13KBit/sec.**
And their "unlimited data plan" throttled down to the latter blazing speed after a few GB. So, we had a fight, which left the blogster with a free smartphone.

Some of the fallout of this dust up was captured in the old post New NEW Deutsche Telekom slogan.

As the country found out yesterday, the blogster was not the only person unhappy with the pink giant: Employees of that very Telekom gamed the company's customer loyalty bonus system and got themselves 40 million "Payback" points worth about 400 000 Euros.
The employees then took the points and went shopping at partner companies, for example, a drugstore chain.

For you linguists, the German term is "Payback-Punkte", the standard Denglish of Germans short on ideas.

The German media have had fun  with the story but the blogster has its* own pathetically conservative view.

Loyalty programs suck.

Everybody who runs one will, if not in public, then in private, admit two things:
1) Loyalty programs create additional work and administrative costs.
2) These outlays are recouped by a combination of two facts. One, customers don't use the program, they lose receipts, let points expire and so forth. Two, everybody pays more than they otherwise would.

Deutsche Telekom won't suffer from this glitch, no worries. The former state company is deeply embedded into the German government.

So, if feel like paying too much, Telekom is a good choice.

* Gender neutrality, peeps.
** They upped this shortly after our fight, still laughable, though, and no connection to the quarrel.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

EU Digital Commissioner Oettinger offers free digital lunch for everyone

The European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, a German gentleman named Oettinger, has been busy.

His office has been at the center of some of the most brain-dead EU proposals, the latest of which is a sweeping "copyright modernization" venture.

Previous successful initiatives the office include abolishing telecommunications roaming charges in the EU by 2017. Well, that's what the European Parliament codified into a law. But this must have been too easy of a success after more than a decade of wrangling over lucrative roaming charges.

So, in the most recent incarnation of the "end of roaming charges", the Commission defines "end" to mean 90 days out of each year and no relief for cross border commuters. Once the 90 are up (or 0 days for commuters), the Commission defines the "end" following that end as "a mobile operator may apply a surcharge not exceeding the corresponding wholesale roaming cap. The Commission has proposed 4 cents/min, 1 cent/SMS, 0,85 cents/MB – still to be adopted by the Parliament and Member States in the current wholesale roaming review."

The blogster considers the wholesale roaming cap worthy of wholesale ridicule.

With the actual cost of long distance telephony as well as data volume down to values that see the first non-zero digit in some place behind the decimal point (comma in Europe), 4 cents/min is supremely profitable.

Although we still have not seen a gold-plated cell phone tower, so there's your mystery.

The wholesale success of the end to roaming charges policy bodes well for the modernized copyright.

In a recent interview in Frankfurter Allgemeine, Mr. Oettinger brought us the good news: consumers will bear no additional cost.

So, y'all relax.

Only the rich interweb companies like the Google, the Twitter, the FB, and others will pay for the privileges the Electronic Frontier Foundation calls "Plans to Force the Internet to Subsidize Publishers".

In the past, the blogster has ranted about the German internet being "a desert" and bitched about the German "snippets law".

This is slightly emotional, so we'll quote a few sentences from the much more nuanced EFF statement.

Rightsholder Greed: The assumption that copyright owners should be entitled to share in any value created by online platforms is never really examined by the Commission.

Automated systems, no matter how technically sophisticated, can never replace human judgment about whether user generated content infringes copyright. Content ID-type systems are extremely expensive.

Link Tax: The Commission's proposal is to award publishers a new copyright-like veto power, layered on top of the copyright that already exists in the published content, allowing them to prevent the online reuse of news content even when a copyright exception applies.

Under the new EU rules, the above quotes would suffice to put the K-Landnews out business. Where business is defined by about 50 Euro cents a month from ad revenue.

Since the Commissioner has assured us - in the internet version of a traditional print medium - that end users won't see any additional cost, we are getting a free lunch, right?

Because "we" don't pay for using Google et al.*

The statement of the O might be true if everyone along the corporate value daisy chain decided to simply eat the decreased margin that comes with the gentleman's package.

Because money will flow from someone who has it to someone who wants it. Judging by the unquestioned reception of the free lunch interview by the modernized print publisher, O might get away with it.

Sadly, few people ever question the well worn "it won't cost users/consumers anything".

* Showing off some education here, sorry.

[Update 9/9/2016] The EU Commission just withdrew the roaming proposal after wide protest and will make changes.

[Update 9/17/2016] There has been near constant press support from the "conservative" German paper publishers, for example in yesterday's Frankfurter Allgemeine. The gentleman who did this OpEd calls for additional protection not only for periodicals but also for books.

I am so looking forward to the EU link tax, because I can finally dispense with linking to German sites.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

[Update] MessageBlur - javascript against optical character recognition

Your friendly email provider, and everybody else who can get hold of them, runs documents through scanners and optical character recognition (OCR) software.
There are lots of ways to thwart these curious people, for example, using encrypting, or hiding them with steganography tools. Others include Project Seen and the ZXX fonts.
Unfortunately, some ZXX and Project Seen are a little bit too good at what they do.

While playing with text on an HTML canvas, someone came up with a simple way of making the job of OCR software a bit more difficult.  MessageBlur is a small javascript utility for this purpose.

[Update 2/4/2017] An almost complete re-write with cleaner javascript. This will make it much easier to continue to improve the utility.
New feature: a "pencil" tool as well as direct keyboard input. Click in the box frame and type. This does not come with nice editing but is meant to help add nonsense text.
[End update]

Here is a sample screenshot:
This utility turns text into a image and then draws random lines over the image. When the user is satisfied with the result, he or she stops the overlay mechanism. The image in the red box can be saved to the local computer with one click.

[Update 9/9/2016] The pattern now consists of lines and circles (arcs) for improved blending and has a manual line draw feature to add black lines to areas not well covered.
Also updated the description taken from the website.
Added "Peel" feature: once satisfied with the density of lines, circles and manual lines, users can now split the image into two parts. Click "Peel", and one layer of the image will be "peeled off". The "peels" are not visible until the user clicks "Download". At this point, the first "peel" will be saved to a file.

It looks like in this example:
After saving this to a file, the user then clicks "Download" again, and the second "peel" will be saved.

To get the complete blurred message back, simply load the two peels one after the other. The sequence does not matter. The first peel loaded via the "Browse" upload button will appear in reversed colors like this:

As soon as the second peel is loaded, you get the nice complete image like the first one above.
[End update]

[Update 11/7/2016]
    1) Set the text color with a Color Chooser (simply click and select)
    2) Change the width of lines with a slider (also works on the fly)
 [End update]

This is the description from the website's home page:
    What is MessageBlur? 
    <b><a href="MessageBlur.html">MessageBlur</a></b> takes a text from a text area and 
    turns it into an image. It then paints random colored lines over the text. 
    Colored circles are added at the same time.
    This makes it hard or impossible for optical character recognition to figure out
    what a user wrote.
    Once a desired level of obscurity has been reached, the user can save the image
    as a file and transfer is like any other file.
 What's new:
 This is a full re-write of the original utility to improve perfomance and
 simplify the javascript.
 New features:
 1) Pencil tool
 In "random lines mode", this adds letters/symbols/numbers randomly to the image.
 In "free hand mode", it works just like a normal free-hand drawing pencil.
 2) Manual letters/characters directly into the image
 Simply click anywhere, and start typing. A good way to add nonsense text.
 Note there is no blinking cursor, nor are there backspace or delete functions.
 Make sure to try out the "Peel" feature. It splits the image into two, making
        them look as if strips had been "peeled off". 
        To download MessageBlur for use on your computer, <b><a href="">click here for a .zip file</a></b> 
 with the .html and the javascript.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Germany quietly got itself a national vehicle database, a national ID number and other goodies

Germany is not known for modern eGovernment.** It's politicians and think tanks repeat the need to modernize government during every speech, at every conference. What little eGovernment there is, suffers from the most basic of traditional shortcomings, for example, a conspicuous lack of automated notifications.

Lagging behind small countries like Estonia and Sweden in this regard makes German "elites" queasy and quick to blame something, anything, for instance, data protection rules. Or various evil Silicon Valley based companies.

The truth is complex but much of the reluctance to modernize government is deeply rooted in the tightly woven bureaucratic fabric of the country. The place is so tightly governed that the news of a woman living and working under a false name without being discovered for 30 years sent a shock wave through the country. How can that happen, asked the media for several news cycles.

If you are from a country where government is more sloppy, or "less efficient", you will appreciate the simple pleasure of quiet efficiency. Just hope that they never make a serious mistake.

Because the flip side of German style rule is that officials have an even harder time to acknowledge mistakes than in a known chaotic system and that you have to invest so much more effort into simply making yourself heard.

Of the many strokes of bureaucratic genius we have come across in this sedate country, the blogster would like to mention two that show German government can do IT quite well when it wants.

And without raising much alarm about the surveillance implications of a measure.

That's the real genius. Well, the Italians beat the Germans to this one, but still.

As the first example, take the national vehicle database. If you have never heard of it, rest assured that even most Germans don't think of the database as a "national vehicle database". What they think of is: the motor vehicle tax is collected by the customs agency.

Sold to the public as a measure to simply the collection of vehicle tax, the status of the tax was changed from a state tax to a federal tax in 2009. To the tax payer, there was no visible change for the next five years. The tax continued to be collected by the respective state tax board.

In 2014, collection was transferred to German customs. Sixteen different state databases were normalized and merged into a single one. Since nobody is perfect, about 100 000 records were not imported correctly and had to be fixed manually, but that was it.

Had a German government declared it wanted a national vehicle database, there would have been protest.

Then there is the "national ID number". Germany has traditionally demanded to know where residents live, and it has one of the most comprehensive mandatory registration laws on the planet. If you move within the country or leave, you need to show up at town hall/city hall and register or face a fine.

Still, they did not have a national ID number. The closest they came to it was a social security number, but this was not mandatory.

So, knowing how they got themselves an immensely valuable national vehicle database, how would you go about if you wanted to create a national ID?

Congratulations if you answered "something with taxes".

You could start by calling it "Tax Identification Number" (German: steuerliche Identifikationsnummer, or Steuer-IdNr. for short). Introduction of such an ID was controversial for several reasons.

Foremost among them was a failed attempt in 1973 (West Germany) to introduce an "Individual identification number".  The name alone was supremely bad PR in the rebellious 70s and barely a generation after the end of the most control-freaky German government in all of history. The West German constitutional court nixed the project.

East Germany, less bothered because model socialist citizens obviously understood its value, did introduce an ID under the same name "Individual identification number".

In the face of the double whammy of negative precedent, the successful introduction of the tax ID in 2007 is quite an achievement.

If you cannot pass a law to introduce a unique national ID because it is against the constitution, how can you fix the problem?

Something with taxes, right, but you can't make a new law for that either because opponents, calling the concept a "big brother" idea would go to court and likely win.

Enter the European Union. The EU had recently published a directive on the taxation of interest from capital gains. Implementing that directive did not require a new law but could be done by simple administrative decree.

This is exactly how the Germans did it. Every citizen and resident was assigned a unique, perpetual ID.

Babies get one at birth.

The ID for the newborn arrives in the mail, typically within two weeks from birth to ensure the little one cannot rack up too much untaxed capital gains interest.

To deflect the expected legal challenge, you add language to the decree that sounds as if there is only a narrow scenario of use cases: for the exchange of financial information only.

It worked. Court challenges failed.

Never mind that financial information is part of almost every criminal investigation.

Also, remember the mandatory registration at town hall?

You also have to provide your tax ID when you register, and the registration data is then run against the national tax ID database to detect people who try to register in more than one location.

But, don't forget, this is only meant to ensure you pay tax on interest on capital gains.

Plenty of other goodies exist, for example, a national register of telecommunications subscribers (the last loophole of pre-paid SIM cards is being closed as we write), and a national register of foreign nationals living in Germany.

** Yes, they do have online tax filing now. Many years after the U.S. Germany does have an "eVisa" system, but - again - they don't seem to be able embrace the concept and mandate a consulate/embassy visit for first time applications where other countries dispense with this step and capture biometrics on entry.