Sunday, October 30, 2016

Propaganda - How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the F-Bomb

Disclaimer: The blogster's history of swearing dates back to well before this post. The new part is the "how I learned to stop worrying" portion of the title. One of the things that sets off swearing is propaganda, be it Russian, German, or the insidious claim by the cat known as The Princess that the blogster is yet again starving her and her fellow domestic pocket tigers.

A recent short post showed an example of German propaganda in an opinion piece of the "liberal" German Zeit Online, [Update] Journalist of German Die Zeit loses it: "Yes, we journalists have treated Russia unfairly".

Today, it* wants to show you a stellar item from conservative daily Die Welt, Fact checking Russian NATO myths.** The page starts with a separate item showing the German defense secretary calling on Russia to not use its aircraft carrier for missions in Syria.

The section on the "myths" is almost a verbatim copy of this NATO paper. For your convenience, the blogster provides the text of the first myth from the NATO paper as well as from the article at the bottom of the post.

Quoting the actual "myth" verbatim is justified. After all, that's the basis of the discussion. But creating the rebuttal merely through reshuffling the text of the NATO paper is a dubious practice for any piece of writing that purports to be about fact checking.

The NATO paper calls itself a "Fact Sheet" but uses "myths" in the title instead of more neutral options, such as "claims" or "assertions".

The blogster won't parse the NATO paper in detail but does find it rather light on facts. There is, in fact, not much that would refute the claim NATO has outlived its purpose if we look at the purpose that was stated in its founding document and over the subsequent fifty years. In fact, the number of wars and the number of casualties is at a historic low. Getting around this with the simple "NATO's mission has evolved" does not - in the eyes of the blogster - merit the designation as "fact sheet".

The rendition of the paper by Die Welt even goes beyond the original in some areas. Take, for example, "Myth" number two: "This myth ignores geography."
Die Welt has this as "Dieser Mythos sei bereits durch einfache Geographie widerlegbar", turning "ignores" into "refutable" and "by simple geography". Adding "simple" to geography makes this condescending and implies the argument is so basic that it shouldn't even be brought up.

On "myth" number 3, the NATO-Russia founding Act, Die Welt matches "NATO has respected its commitments faithfully. Russia has not." with "Russland habe die Vereinbarungen verletzt, die Nato sich daran gehalten."

Let's agree with NATO that Russia has not been "faithful". Why would Die Welt not read the Founding Act to perform a fact check? To avoid calling out NATO countries on the act's goal of "conversion of defence industries"?

One sentence of the Welt piece, not found in that NATO paper, sticks out like a sore thumb: "We do not want a new nuclear war" [our translation of "Wir wollen keinen neuen Atomkrieg“].

Time for an F-Bomb:  What the Fuck?

Despite the use of two nuclear weapons at the end of World War II, WWII is not considered a "nuclear war".

All in all, an article any good intern would not wish to be tied to his or her name for the rest of a journalism career.

So, to sum it up:
1) It is not a fact check when you use only one source (outside of fields of hard science).
2) Regurgitating that source is not a fact check either.
3) What the dumb fuck!

* Gender neutral, also to tick off EU Commissioner Oettinger and any conservative Russians.
** Our translation of: Faktencheck Diese Mythen verbreitet Russland über die Nato
*** Myth 1: NATO outlived its purpose after the Cold War.
For decades, NATO has helped to preserve and create stability in Europe. The end of the Cold War marked a new period of optimism
and hope in Europe. The Soviet Union collapsed, former adversaries joined NATO and the EU, and Russia became a partner.
NATO’s mission evolved. The Alliance maintained its collective defence, but also stepped up to manage conflicts beyond our territory,
with missions in the Balkans and, following 9/11, in Afghanistan.
Today, the world is more dangerous than it has been for many decades. To the east, we see an assertive Russia, violating sovereign
borders. To the south, we see turmoil across the Middle East and North Africa. NATO Allies also face other threats, including acts of
terrorism in our own streets. NATO’s commitment to defend each Ally is as important today as ever before. The challenges we face
are such that no nation can tackle them alone. For many partners, that’s a reason to seek NATO membership. For sixty-seven years,
NATO has bound the U.S., Canada, and European Allies together, an anchor for world security and the ultimate insurance policy.

Top 1: Die Nato hat ihren Zweck nach dem Kalten Krieg erfüllt. Die Welt heute sei gefährlicher als in den vergangenen Jahrzehnten, heißt es in dem Papier. „Im Osten sehen wir ein durchsetzungsfähiges Russland, das souveräne Grenzen gefährdet.“ Im Süden, dem Nahen Osten und Nordafrika gäbe es Unruhen. Zudem seien die Nato-Partner anderen Bedrohungen, etwa Terrorismus, ausgesetzt. „Die Verpflichtung der Nato, jedes einzelne Mitgliedsland zu verteidigen, ist so wichtig wie nie zuvor“, steht in dem Papier. Die Herausforderungen der heutigen Zeit seien alleine nicht zu meistern. Die Rede ist von Konflikten auf dem Balkan und dem Engagement nach 9/11 in Afghanistan. Zudem sei die Nato seit 67 Jahren ein „Anker“ für die weltweite Sicherheit und die „beste Versicherung“.

[Update 11/14/2016] The author of this post is an "Honorary Lifetime Member" of the 3rd of the 36th Infantry.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Know Germany: traffic ticket/citation quotas are common practice

An hour before the end of the shift, the station chief would say something like, "okay, let's make some money". He'd send us to one of several places known for easy pickings, and we'd come back just before the end of the shift with a bunch of tickets. 

There was one particularly great intersection where left turns were prohibited. Late at night, when there was no cross traffic, many drivers would take the left turn there. One night, our crew wrote fifty tickets in half an hour at that turn.

This snippet from a conversation with OMG 2 (our second Old Mustached German) prompted the blogster to search for citation quotas in Germany.

Not only do quotas exist, generating city income from traffic tickets based on a quota system is commonly practiced all over the country.

Municipalities do not advertise it, but when questioned, they defend it without shame because it is legal.

An older article in the daily Die Welt, for example, on an increase of quotas for Berlin city traffic wardens in 2002, states that the city expressly justified the higher quota with a decrease in revenue from fines the year before.

An article in the weekly Focus from 2013 corroborates the facts, this time with leaked emails by the traffic department chief of the small town of Dietzenbach. The town had had a private contractor with a quota of 100 tickets a day and decided to maintain that after transferring the duties to city workers. This is to minimize revenue loss to the town of Dietzenbach, the article quotes the chief.

The stories by OMG and the press reports illustrate that German officials behave very much like their American counterparts when it comes to making money off of the citizens.

How much money are we talking about? The 2013 article says around 450 million Euros a year are collected by the municipalities. This figure does not include tickets given by the police. Police are a state or federal agency in Germany. and there is no municipal police force, and the money collected by police goes into the state coffers.

What the blogster was not able to find out, was whether there may be a profiling component to the practice. The dimensions of the issue are certainly not as egregious as in some American cities - Germans like to keep things more low key - but it would not come as a surprise to read that inhabitants of wealthier neighborhoods are targeted less.

Too many lawyers and others with the means and the will to contest tickets live in the better parts of town.

You can, however, get some consolation from the fact that the level of fines and accompanying fees in Germany is still much lower than in the United States. Also, in Germany, we have yet to undergo the ever so slightly creepy experience of being followed by a car for fifty miles on the freeway at exactly one mile under the speed limit.

Germany's minimum wage playbook

The good news first: the German minimum wage of 8.50 Euros will rise to 8.84 by January 2017.

But, there are still plenty of exceptions to the minimum wage for some of the most crucial low wage sectors, including the meat processing industry, farming and forestry, industrial laundries, and the East German textile and garment industry. Workers in these sectors will receive the minimum wage starting 1 January 2018.

The dire warnings of massive job losses during the heated debates on minimum wage a few years ago have proven baseless, and some 4 million workers have benefited from the measure introduced only in 2015 - longer after other industrialized countries.

The blogster, with it's* skewed view of the world, has pointed out earlier that Germany did have a minimum wage before. Just not for low wage workers. But lawyers, architects, tax counselors and others had generous fee schedules written into law many decades ago. Other professions, for example pharmacists, enjoyed price fixing by the government under the ostensible label of avoiding price gouging.

Be that as it may, Germany now has a real minimum wage.

For anybody who has followed the fate of minimum wage in other countries, it comes as no surprise that something so simple and fundamentally reasonable would continue to be under attack even if successful.

The biggest foe, of course, is the combination of inflation and an absence of review or any set provision of increase.

The double whammy has worked out swell for the United States, where minimum wages have not kept up with inflation and increases are being rejected or vetoed regularly. Despite partial successes in Washington State and, to a lesser degree New York, U.S. workers continue to struggle.

Germany set up a review commission to avoid the most egregious attacks.

The commission is composed of three union representatives, three employer organization representatives, two scientists and a chairperson who serve five year terms and review the minimum wage every two years.

Members are recommended by the unions and employers respectively, but appointed by the government. This does give future governments a lot of leeway to influence the direction of the minimum wage.

Furthermore, increases are not automatic or have a minimum threshold, say the inflation rate.

Opponents of a minimum wage will likely try to exploit the potential openings created by the law but do not have the easy "do nothing to make it go away" option.

Instead, they warned about detrimental effects on employment during the decision on the raise, and even after the 0.34 cents hike, they lamented that it might cost jobs.

One area where the interests of the government matches that of the foes of a minimum wage has been that of compensation of unemployed Germans put into work schemes.

Officially touted as a measure to help long term unemployed regain a foothold in the jobs market, they offer 1 Euro per hour. The government has announced the creation of another 100 000 or so of these "opportunities", mainly justified as measures to help refugees find regular jobs.

An often overlooked advantage of the 1 E/hour measures is that they reduce the unemployment rate. Participants are not counted as unemployed.

Some employers have used more creative measures to soften or erase the labor cost increase. Among reported examples are increases in the cost of accommodation and food, typically for seasonal workers who live at the place of work for a few months.
Other - completely legal - measures include the elimination of voluntary compensation, such as a gasoline or commute allowance or small adjustments to shift or night time hours to circumvent thresholds for extra compensation (such as the times 1.5 rule).

Last but not least, there is the argument of undue administrative burden on employers. Not recording the number of hours correctly has a long tradition in may sectors. So, it comes as no surprise that the partly successful fight against "too much paperwork" has figured prominently among the opponents of a minimum wage.

* Gender neutrality works, try it.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

"At least, this one is legal", said the CEO as he reached for the Coke can

Chalk this one up to any of the following: the weather, the peace talks of Colombian guerilla group FARC with the government, the friend who talks way too much about German aristocrats and the Illuminati, a day (six hours, really) on Youtube watching videos of American and world history over the past half century, the cat who woke me up too early.

Anyway, here we go.

It is not unheard of to hear an American CEO make a joke about youthful drug use, but this quip from a middle-aged leader left the audience speechless: "at least, this one is legal", made by a CEO as he reached for a Coke can.

Some of the audience of less than 200 people, none of whom had ever met the CEO before, periodically brought up the incident at the water cooler or near the coffee machine in the weeks after the address. Then it fizzled out.

Of course, it is not an earth shaking statement to make in a country where the president has freely admitted to related youthful indiscretions.

Gawker would have loved it.

Especially the video.

Yes, the scene was captured on video by the company's PR staff.

The CEO's address was considered so important that it was up on the main website for months.

But the staff caught the opening remark, and the published video betrays nothing. You do see a man having a sip of Coca Cola, but there is no hint of, let's call it product placement.

Consider this short post as a recording a factoid from an otherwise uneventful day. Maybe as a small reminder that humans are more complex than they strive to appear to the world.

There is virtually no chance of this particular business man ever running for office, so, unless the editor of the video kept a clip and decides to send it to a future biographer of said gentleman, you will never come across the episode again.

Also: always have your smartphone on you.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Candian academics open letter re CETA - so well intentioned and so meaningless

Disclaimer: It breaks the blogster's heart to read the open letter of 16 Canadian academics calling for a reasoned debate on CETA, the EU-Canada trade deal temporarily halted by Belgian's Wallonia region.

Their sincerity is a credit to academia: We do not wish to tell people on what side of the debate they should stand. Yes, most of us, following our analyses of the agreement from different perspectives, are of the opinion that CETA is overall a good agreement for both Canadians and Europeans, even if it is by no means perfect (such agreements never are!). 

But the intent is next to meaningless: But as academics we feel it is our duty to refocus the discussions and debates on CETA by dispelling what we think are the most significant erroneous assertions about CETA.

Meaningless for one because the treaty was, after years, supposedly a done deal. The "last minute" wrangling in the next day is not about a reasoned debate. It is about power, about what industry associations and major pro parties see as the "EU's international credibility" or about demonstrating the EU's ability to act.

Assertion #1: CETA will lead to net job losses! 
Pointing out that companies would be bankrupt without international trade is nice put irrelevant. We all know that.
The helpful recommendation however, instead of blanket statements that CETA will only kill jobs, it would be much better if the debate focused on the firms and sectors that are more likely to gain from the agreement and those that stand to lose is likely to not go anywhere. Governments that want to debate this are put under tremendous pressure, Wallonia being the prime example.

Assertion #2: CETA threatens our water, healthcare, environment, sovereignty, etc.
Largely discusses the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism. The problem lies in two words, brought up in the statement  foreign firms may have no legal recourse through the domestic judicial system if domestic laws allow unfair and inequitable practices.
Unfair an inequitable are rubber band terms.
The blogster cannot say more because it* does not know whether the Joint Interpretative Declaration agreed less than ten days ago reinforces further this notion of government control over policy and regulation will prevent abuse.
At the end of the day, individual citizens are routinely treated unfairly and inequitably by the local laws of other countries. Companies want better treatment - that's fine, but please say so.

Assertion #3: CETA’s ISDS mechanism will be biased in favour of firms
While acknowledging that the Canada and the EU have agreed to set up a permanent tribunal whose members will be appointed solely by the Canadian federal government and the European Commission was to remedy the private arbitration scheme, there is another issue where the academic viewpoint does not seem to recognize political realities.
It is rather quaint to read Surely, Canada and the EU will not name judges that would have known or perceived biased against governments.
That is naive.
The EU Commission has several members who are utterly pro-industry. These members are appointed by governments. The bias to be avoided is not necessarily against governments but against the people of the EU.
Most importantly, the bitterness and governmental reluctance in the protracted fight for this improvement does not bode well.

Assertion #4: CETA will force Europeans to eat unsafe Canadian beef and pork
As a vegetarian, the blogster has no opinion on this claim.

Assertion #5: CETA can easily be renegotiated to accommodate critics’wishes
The main statement in the letter is the Pandora’s box cannot just be opened, modified and closed up again. CETA is a finely balanced agreement whose parts jump out in the air if you reopen it.
CETA as well as the US-EU TTIP are called "living agreements". The following quote from a parliamentary question by the German Left party raises concern.**

The association of the German chemical industry, a pro-CETA organization, emphasizes the fact that the treaty is a living agreement, saying the treaty can incorporate and regulate future areas.

It appears that easy renegotiation is not the issue to be concerned about. Rather, opponents worry about the details of how the "living agreement" is implemented. Proponents love this feature, so, shouldn't we know more about it?

* Gender neutral
** Das Handels- und Investitionsabkommen mit Kanada (CETA) mit vorläufigem Vertragstext vom 1. August 2014 als auch das derzeit verhandelte Freihandelsabkommen mit den USA (TTIP) werden als „living agreement“ ausgestaltet. Folglich soll nach Abschluss des Ratifikationsprozesses die regulatorische Kooperation künftig vertieft und über die Abkommen institutionalisiert werden. Das ist neu für europäische Handels- und Investitionsabkommen. Die Funktionsweise und Effekte der regulatorischen Regulation sind unklar.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Germany's 'foreign' intelligence agency reform: "Legalize It"

Does anybody remember those heady days of freedom?

That was 2013, when Germany and Brazil proposed a UN resolution against mass surveillance.

Barely three years later, Germany is going to expand surveillance by its 'foreign' intelligence agency BND and to legalize the practices criticized by legal experts and technologists as problematic or illegal.

Federal parliament will pass the "reforms" on 21 October, tomorrow, despite numerous warning by national and international organizations.

The two critics of the new law most familiar with actual intelligence operations of it are the current deputy of the parliamentary standing group on oversight of intelligence gathering on German citizens (the G10 commission, named after the legal provision that governs this oversight), and the recently dismissed chief of the BND itself.

The parliamentary research service, i.e. the scientists and legal experts who prepare reports for members of parliament, has concluded that parts of the new law are unconstitutional - which does not bother the government one bit.

Internationally, Reporters without Borders has writeup on criticism of the bill by three UN special rapporteurs, stating "UN Special Rapporteurs David Kaye (Freedom of Opinion and Expression), Michel Forst (Situation of Human Rights Defenders) and Mónica Pinto (Independence of Judges and Lawyers) expressed “concern that the draft law would pose a threat to the exercise of the right to freedom of expression” in a letter to Germany’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva. The issues raised by the three specialists include the creation of “overbroad conditions for the collection and processing of data” and “insufficient safeguards for the rights of foreign journalists and lawyers.”

Sadly, once the vastly expanded powers go into effect, our blog post In space, no one can hear you laugh - German physics becomes a curiosity item.

The surveillance bureaucracy and its contractors can celebrate with a cake decorated with "he, who laughs last..."

Germany's "Reichsbürger" (Reich Citizens) - former West Germany's under reported role

On Wednesday, a SWAT team of the Bavaria police went to the home of a man to confiscate his firearms. The man shot four officers before he was overcome and arrested.

One officer died of the injuries sustained in the raid.

The shooter is reported to be a so-called "Reichsbürger" (Reich Citizens), which makes this incident the first one resulting in a deadly firefight between a Reich citizen and police.

Who are these Reich citizens?

Short version: people who believe the German state is not legitimate.

The term "Reich" indicates that their ideology is rooted in the first half of the 20th century, when Germany officially was a "Reich", that of the Kaiser or the infamous Third Reich.

A brochure by the German Waldorf schools describes the Reich citizens as follows:
“a marketplace of mismatched ideological components” combining “antisemitism, vegetarianism, belief in UFOs, conspiracy theories, and feel-good esotericism,” in which “proclamations of humanist sentiment and populist nationalism can merge together.” This is not a uniquely German phenomenon. In a US context, the movement is comparable in some ways to the “sovereign citizens” subculture with its anti-government resentments, who dream of “freedom from taxes, unlimited wealth, and life without licenses, fees or laws,” in the words of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Its more extreme versions, such as Posse Comitatus organizations or the notion that Americans live under a “Zionist Occupation Government,” are often intertwined with regional and ethnic-racial separatism.

The movement's main argument is that the current German state is illegitimate. They variously claim that the last sovereign German nation (the Third Reich) has never ceased to legally exist and/or that Germany continues to exist in its pre-1937 borders.

While it is easy to dismiss this thinking as denial of history or plain bullshit, successive West German governments and even current mainstream politicians have, at least partially, upheld some notions and policies that Reich citizens use to this day to feed their narrative.

1. Pre-1937 border maps in schools
Maps used in every single West German school well into the 1970s showed the German territories to the East of the river Oder with dotted lines and under the labels 'temporarily under Polish administration' as well as 'temporarily under Russian administration' (the area now known as the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad).
Questioning these earned you the designation of radical or traitor.

2. Judgement by West Germany's constitutional court in 1973
The Federal Constitutional Court had to decide on what is arguably the cornerstone treaty between West Germany and East Germany regarding statehood and borders. While declaring the treaty to be legal and thus making the continued thaw in Cold War relations possible, the court used a legal twist exploited to this day by the Reich citizens.
Wikipedia summarizes: The judgement held that the 1949 Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany (Grundgesetz) itself assumes that the Reich, as a subject of international law, despite the German Instrument of Surrender and the Allied occupation, had survived the collapse of Nazi Germany, but is incapable of acting as a state because it lacks any organization, such as governmental authorities.

3. The power of refugee associations
Millions of Germans lost their homeland in the East as a result of the second World War. Their associations, mostly affiliated with the conservative parties, in then West Germany were opposed to giving up their ancestral homes and fiercely opposed the Cold War policies that eventually recognized the historical facts.

4. Mr. Schaeuble's history class & the side-stepped constitution
Conservative CDU stalwart and current German finance minister Schaeuble is one of those modern politicians who show off their acumen by touting out that Germany has not been independent since 1945. The German constitution described itself as 'temporary', proclaiming Berlin as the capital at a time when no one reasonably expected Berlin to ever become the capital of a single state called Germany again. The constitution also stated that a new constitution would be drafted and put to a referendum of the people after reunification. This provision was side stepped by the government after the fall of the Iron Curtain, giving Reich citizens yet another talking point.

It is perhaps noteworthy - little known inside Germany, and pretty much unknown outside the country - that East Germany, aka. the bad socialists who ultimately went away, never endorsed or promoted any of these.

Since much of the most visible right wing activity after German re-unification has taken place in states of the former East Germany, the deep roots of the Reich citizen movement in the West can be happily ignored, it seems.

Of course, nationalist or 'sovereign citizen' movements do not require solid historical facts and events to flourish. They will either go back as far in time as needed to find their arguments or simply invent them.

The craziest German conspiracy theory illustrates this.

But letting the West German governments, thinkers, and media off the hook for the Reich citizens movement would be glossing over some of its deepest roots.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Germanic fiction: pilot shoots down passenger aircraft - TV audience decides "not guilty"

When the blogster read the Frankfurter Allgemeine article's "Schirach's Terror on TV", it* stopped in its tracks because the name "von Schirach" is historically significant.  Not many can claim someone of their family was a war criminal.

The "Terror" on TV was on a different subject, a that of the proverbial civilian airliner highjacked by a terrorist and heading for a fully occupied soccer stadium. An air force pilot shoots down the plane in the absence of a shoot down order, only to be  - this is Germany, after all - indicted for murder.

The original theater play is about the trial of the pilot who took matters in his own hands after his command did not come to a decision for a whole hour.

Turned into a TV movie, the German (and Austrian and Swiss) audience is then asked to vote, and comes out handily with a not guilty verdict, with over 80% in each of the countries.

The live vote is then topped off in traditional Germanic TV fashion by a talk show to rehash everything and to offer closure.

Next, OpEd writers put on their ethics and legal face and went to work. The 15 to 20% of viewers who voted "guilty" get admonished for being amoral, the 80+ are declared as not populist.

The blogster went to work, researching the legal situation, collecting bits and pieces of information on the play, and so forth. Of course, the play is based on 9/11. It is also based on a decision of Germany's highest court that declared a law passed in 2005 allowing the downing of a civilian airliner by the military unconstitutional. 

Before the blogster could have a go at the play and its TV incarnation, Germany's judge took everybody to task.

The theatrical trial verdict is trashed: of course, the action was illegal.

And that's only the start of the five page column. As with all columns of Germany's judge, find someone with very good German skills, bring out the popcorn and enjoy.

It is not every day that you will find a mainstream German paper allowing a judge to write gems like this: Brainfucking the esteemed viewers in the most shabby manner.**

* Again, gender neutral. 
** Die lieben Zuschauer werden nach Strich und Faden verarscht.

Monday, October 17, 2016

More on the mythical fragmentation of information/news

In the previous post, the blogster argued that fragmentation in the media (or rather fragmentation of information)  also includes fragmentation within the same outlets and that it is neither new nor a result of the internet.

It* pointed out that the matter is complex. Today, we'll follow up to look at the meaning of "choice" and argue that smart use of social media can achieve a well balanced diet of information.

A lot of effort goes into extracting information from data, into exploiting the information in all walks of life, and into preventing some of this information from being disseminated.

As consumers of information, humans are finicky, easily distracted and, at the same time, not easily persuaded to give up core beliefs. We not only believe unproven claims, we have spent tremendous amounts of energy and wealth on promoting myths. And we have killed millions of humans because they don't share our myths.

Against that backdrop, a debate about the exact number of television channels we should have, about the exact number of "propaganda accounts" on social media, or about the reliability of any given news outlet looks slightly less critical than we are called on to believe.

Does the sheer number of media outlets or channels have any significance beyond the easy claim of "bewildering"?

Some media researchers and most media professionals and politicians say, of course it does. They tend to cite the availability of "extreme views", the rate of hate speech,  and fragmented audiences.

Sure, if your job is to keep track of the plethora of outlets, your life gets more difficult when that number explodes. The same is true when your job is to reach as many people as you can with minimal effort, to win elections, or to sell stuff or services.

For media consumers, the situation is different. Unless you are unemployed, retired or otherwise have lots of spare time, you make your picks and mostly stick with them for the three to six hours a day available for media consumption.

It is natural to be confused by a vast selection of media outlets.

But the same is true for the supermarket cereal isle.

With the exception of NPR listeners or viewers, a vast array of cereals or a bursting freezer section is often regarded as showing how great capitalism is.

But the bursting airwaves or fat cables cause a different reaction.


Because you don't gorge on cereals continuously for six hours a day?

Because cereals, unlike propaganda, do not make you elect a dictator or turn you into a homicidal maniac?

Well, it was argued in a homicide trial that excessive sugar may have aggravated a chemical imbalance in a defendant's brain.

Despite a steep rise in the number and variety of media outlets, murder rates have been down in the US and Europe.

Polarization of opinion has been up, many polls and studies claim.  But civil unrest has not (yet?) been the result. The U.S. saw murderous times with only three TV networks.

Can we exclude that the world of the media only appears to be more confusing and worrying these days because more opinions and emotions are visible?

Choice by itself means nothing: media reported almost half of users in the US downloaded zero (0) apps in the past month.

Real choice
Out of those 50 cereals, some 45 are likely owned by two or so companies. Germany's 100+ public broadcasting channels are owned by just a few "public" entities. Only six corporations control 90% of the U.S. media.

So, we are bickering about 10% of the U.S. media?

Not really. The current soul searching in some American outlets regarding their possible role in the rise of Donal Trump is going to be temporary. But you invariably find worries about fragmentation of information/news mentioned in relation to foreign media, "unfriendly" ones to be exact. A prominent one, less so today, was Al Jeezera.  Russian RT is the current main villain.

Quality vs. Mush
Quality has nothing to do with choice. Fifty flavors of garbage, pardon me, cereals, is still garbage. 300 TV channels does not mean you have more quality than with 3 channels. All it means is that someone is paying enough money to keep the 300 on air. Whether that is through commercials, pledge drives or a tax that is called a fee (like in Europe), is irrelevant from a business perspective.

As a matter of fact, in a German report on the media, the blogster read that the professional media analysts of the German government share the wide spread public sentiment that the mainstream media often present the same mush.

Hardly any mention of books and documentaries
Books and documentaries tend not to figure prominently in the daily worries of the media watchers, despite the role of books and documentaries in "defragmenting" the complex world.

Social media
Even when they are not explicitly called out, much of the fragmentation narrative really is about social media.

There are even figures you can use to substantiate the claim. For Twitter alone, one of several such sites, not to mention Facebook and various large Chinese or Russian sites: 500 million tweets a day,  a half-life of 4 minutes (or so) for each tweet.

Again, if your job is in the media, if your job is keeping an eye on the competition or to find dangerous extremists, you would be crazy if you didn't feel overwhelmed.

You cannot "follow" thousands of people or have millions of "friends" without any assistance. Even with the help of software and humans, forget about it.

An average number of Twitter followers of 208 is already more manageable.

If you want - big if - you can collect news and other information in a targeted manner impossible to achieve twenty years ago. You can subscribe to major newspapers from all over the world for nothing. You can get challenging views delivered to your screen.

And learn within the mental and emotional constraints that make you who you are. If you overcome some, great. And if not?

Who the fuck cares.

Don't ask me how big my budget for papers and magazines was before the internet.

* The blogster likes the world gender neutral.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Try not to blame information fragmentation on new media/social media

Media fragmentation or the fragmentation of information/news is one of the recurring themes of media critics, especially those who lament about what they perceive to be nefarious effects of social media.

It is such a beloved trope that politicians and journalists will add alarming tidbits and calls for censorship of Facebook and Twitter to speeches and articles about almost any subject that plays out on social media - which means most of public discourse.

Neither this post or earlier ones that called for a less hyped up view of the subject can pretend to answer any of the big questions, but the blogster wants to continue to caution against what increasingly looks like a romanticized view of all things information before the advent of the internet.

What the blogster wants to show is that there is "intra-media fragmentation", i.e. information presented in a fragmented manner, without "connecting the dots" within one and the same traditional paper dating back to pre-internet times and still going strong today. 

One of the best, accessible to non-scientists, studies on the subject of media fragmentation is this one. It provides a great introduction to the most frequent questions and details evidence from lab experiments. We'll just quote one take-home point here and recommend their section on related research: “The results presented here suggest that information choice, at least among those with personally important opinions, does not appear to make those individuals or democracy better off,” Leefer concludes.

Another write-up (in German) confirms the role of inertia - or existing routines - in favor of what are often called "traditional media".

One clear evidence that fragmentation and polarization pre-date the internet and social media is contained in that article. It mentions Fox News and MSNBC as frequently cited "echo chambers".

The focus of earlier studies is summarized by the article as "prior to the Internet, scholars were concerned about the lack of media diversity and the fact that citizens were a “captive audience” potentially subject to mass manipulation.

Every now and then, clashing opinions within one media outlet surface. A great recent episode was the chasm between the Washington Post Editorial board opposing pardon for whistleblower Edward Snowden in contrast to the Post's newsroom.

It is tempting to call this "fragmentation", but this is not how the blogster understands the term. The dots were present - which is what OpEds are frequently about, though less often than one might wish.

The blogster's view of fragmentation within a publication/broadcast outfit is much simpler.

Here is a single example of the blogster's view of fragmentation as news as a succession of factoids.
Small enough that they hardly register - so don't feel bad if your reaction is "what?" or "yawn".

In a recent post, the blogster used reports on the 2017 benefit hikes of Germany's means-tested basic scheme Hartz IV to illustrate bias (or emphasis) in brief articles. The benefits for an adult will rise by 5 Euros from 404 to 409 Euros a month.

Within the past week, German news reported an increase of the "renewable energy fee", which is added to consumers' electricity bills.

No one did the math for benefits recipients.

The share of benefits set aside for electricity already falls short for many (depending on regional variations). Our calculation based on average power bills came to an average increase of the bill by a little over 1.5 Euros a month, which eats up a third of the benefits increase.

In short, fragmentation of news/information is old and pretty much unavoidable.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

[Update] Journalist of German Die Zeit loses it: "Yes, we journalists have treated Russia unfairly"

Disclaimer: As much as the blogster hates to admit it, it* fell for the headline "Yes, we journalists have treated Russia unfairly" [our translation]. 

To his credit, the Zeit writer came out in the second line: Russia should be treated as critically as the U.S.


The Zeiter says that the German press has always condemned American violations of international law much more vehemently than Russian ones.

Supporting his argument, the gentleman lists Zeit articles and OpEds critical of US policies regarding the Iraq War, Daisy Cutter bombs in Afghanistan, Abu Graib and Gitmo, drones and spying.

Reading all of these, the blogster can confirm they are critical of some US policies. To varying degrees, from outspoken (calling drone strikes murder) to wink-wink (CIA spying on Germany).

Die Zeit's Mr. Bittner then comes out swinging: none of these comes anywhere close to the violations of international law and the war crimes Mr. Putin put on Russia's conscience.

That is a strong claim, why he bases on two examples: the war in Chechnya and Syria. Mr. Bittner claims that Chechnya did not get much attention in the German press.

Which is simply not true.

The German media covered the slaughter and brutality of the Chechen War in depth. And they cover the "rebels" in Syrian Aleppo even more.

Thanks to the internet, getting a list of articles about Mr. Putin's Russia is as easy as never before. Take, for example, Mr. Bittner's publication, Die Zeit: Under this link, a German reader gets 104 results pages, each with over 20 articles, over 2000 pieces total. On the first page, a single article is less than "very critical". On page 2, the same pattern repeats.

Mind you, this is merely what Die Zeit wrote, a paper commonly regarded as liberal. And "liberal" is often construed as less friendly to the US than conservative or middle of the road papers.

Now, perform the same search for Mr. Obama. If the German press is more critical of the US than of Russia, shouldn't there be zero positive news? That was rhetorical.
Lo and behold, there are positive reads.

Maybe a benign interpretation of Mr. Bittner's onslaught can be found in the undisputed fact that there is vastly more reporting on all things American than on all things Russian? Any journalist at a venerated paper like Die Zeit should know that the U.S. is by far the most influential country on the planet, and that generates a lot of media coverage, much of it in areas where Russia has nothing or is not deemed interesting. Like Russia's answer to Hollywood. Have you heard of Mollywood yet?

So, especially in election season, you are bound to find a substantial absolute number of critical pieces - although many German media even treated Mr. Trump in neutral to friendly tones when he announced his run.

If you are a PhD student, you may want to extent the search to other mainstream German media, and you will find that Mr. Bittner's bold claim is bunk.

Since you have stuck with this post, the blogster would like to offer a factoid which it has not seen anywhere in the German news: German, as well as other Western mainstream correspondents, in Moscow tend to be a lot more critical about Russia than the folks from the very same paper or TV station who report from America.

Again, you can fact check this using targeted web searches for at least the past two decades.

[Update 10/21/2016] Innocently titled "Disaster Relief - What is to be done in Syria", Zeit Online lobed a propaganda doozie over the internet on 20 October.

The piece lists five measures advocated by the no byline article. We'll just give the measures, for justifications, read the (German) article.

1. Set up no-fly zones
2. Arm the opposition
3. Sanctions against Russia
4. Talks with Russia
5. Pressure Iran and Saudi Arabi 

Assuming that Mr. Bittner's commitment to treat Russia the same way as the U.S. is meant seriously, logic says that the statement is identical to "treat the U.S. the same way as Russia".

That sucks, because the blogster now has to read Zeit Online if it does not want to miss their OpEd calling for sanctions on the U.S.

* Gender neutral speech is a thing at the K-Landnews.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Using the "EU passports" line at German immigration as a non EU passport holder

Disclaimer: Past experience is not a guarantee for future success.* Your treatment may depend on the level of privilege your passport implicitly conveys (Western vs. non-Western). Use at your own risk.

The way a country sets up and runs its immigration booths at entry points says much more than many officials seem to realize or care about.

U.S. immigration, for example, is the stuff of legend, with lines that rarely deserve the neat, mathematically pure interpretation of the term line as the shortest distance between point A and point B.
The only fleeting smile on the face of a DHS man the blogster has ever witnessed was in reaction to a fatigued child asking his parents "why do we have to get off in America?"

Another example, the UK, has queues that vary in appearance between cattle herding and the emptiness of interstellar space punctuated by terminals still running Windows XP (a few years ago, hopefully not today).

In some countries, there are lines by gender for men and women. We cannot report on how a transgender person gets through but have a feeling that policies vary between strict enforcement and don't ask, don't tell. 

An un-German absence of forms to fill out can confuse Americans heading for German immigration booths.

Even more surprising is the fact that Germans don't enforce the "EU passports" signage at their entry points. Or they don't since automatic gates for EU citizens have taken almost all traffic away from the humans.

Whatever the reason, the idle EU passports officer waved at the short line waiting for the non-EU booths and happily volunteered the following information:

1. If you hold a non-EU passport and have any kind of EU residence permit, simply go to the EU passports line.

2. If the "EU passports" officials have a short or no line, waltz over and get in line. Just be friendly.  If the official tells you that this is technically not your line, say sorry, and all will be fine.

* This applies to all areas of life.