Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The world really needs an International Burn That Flag Day

Trigger Warning & Disclaimer: If you are deeply patriotic and get very emotional about the national flag or a state or regional one, this post may upset you. Please go to a safe space, preferably something like our old standby Disney. The same applies if your country has laws against "flag desecration". So, if you are from any of the countries on this somewhat outdated Wikipedia list, again, Disney it is. Furthermore, the blogster has never desecrated a flag, nor does it* intend to do so. It also continues to own a U.S. flag made out of American cotton and Made in USA.

So, you are still here.

Are you sure you want to read this?


If you feel like burning a flag but do not have access to the real thing, or are afraid to do so in public, the internet can help. The website Flag Burning World takes you as close to the real thing as is possible from the comfort of your home/basement.

There appears to be a good demand for it, too. If we believe the site statistics, some 57 million online burns have been performed.

While "the flag" plays a huge role in the US - literally, I mean, after 9/11 you could see one on the side of a building from the air as your plane approached SFO from the South - initiatives to criminalize its "desecration" have ultimately failed repeatedly. Until now, the Supreme Court has stepped in.
Pre-PEOTUS Trump was pro flag burning, unlike PEOTUS Trump, who never fails to hang his flag in the wind.
Expect another big push to criminalize burning the American flag, and this time, the Supreme Court may not save you. Heck, even people quaintly descried as leftist liberals, such as pre-PEOTUS Hillary Clinton, have not been shy when it comes to sponsoring legislation to criminalize desecration of the flag. (Thanks to Twitter user @downgerd for the link.)

The blogster finds existing laws in many countries more worrisome than a change in the U.S. because the nationalist background of such laws in garden variety democracies such as France or Germany is rather insidious.
In France, they actually try and convict people for "outrage au drapeau". The incident quoted here happened in 2010, before the latest surge of nationalists in the country's political system.

The problem with many of the existing laws is that they are incredibly wide ranging, opening the door for arbitrary trials as soon as some nationalist wingnut comes to power again. Because many of these laws were passed under a nationalist government and simply not repealed later.
As an example, take the Wikipedia entry for Portugal: Who publicly, by means of words, gestures or print publication, or by other means of public communication, insults the Republic, the Flag or the National Anthem, the coats of arms or the symbols of Portuguese sovereignty, or fails to show the respect they are entitled to, shall be punished with up to two years imprisonment or a fine of up to 240 days". In the case of the regional symbols, the person shall be punished with up to one year imprisonment or a fine of up to 120 days (fines are calculated based on the defendant's income).

In the blogster's opinion, the best way to counter the world's nationalists is to institute an International Burn That Flag Day.

Laws against desecration could remain on the books, only an exception for the holiday would need to be added. While there is reason to doubt that hardcore flaggers would readily agree to such a measure, the media could help get the world in a festive mood.

Like on New Year's Eve, they could broadcast flag burning events starting at the date line and work their way West.

This would avoid the generic nationalist circle jerk squabble "you first, no, you - you go first" and citizens of every country would thus demonstrate to the rest of the world that we are all just humans who like a transgression every now and then.

* We are gender neutral here. Which, to some, is just as bad as defiling the flag. But certainly not a crime.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

That 5 Euros per month hike in German Hartz IV benefits in 2017 is already eaten up

German officialdom does not like to be reminded that there is hunger in one of the premier economies of the world.

So, the blogster decided to do a tiny study when it* read that the announcement that basic means tested social benefits (HARTZ IV) will go up by five Euros to 409 Euros per month for adults.

Serendipity - or German efficiency - timed the press release for the month of August, giving a notoriously disorganized blogster ample time for a non-representative study of prices.

The blogster broke the study down into food and non-food basic living costs.

Non-food basic living costs:
1) Another increase in power prices is coming. Assuming that only the levy components (renewables subsidy, grid maintenance levy) are going up, the blogster calculated that more than 1 Euro per month will go into the electricity bill.
2) Car insurance up by about 25 Euros per year, 2 a month. The funniest thing about German car insurance is that it never seems to go down. The boring and cautious blogster gets all the "good driver" bonus points that reduce part of insurance but a general premium hike or a reclassification of the make and model of the car just never makes it cheaper. If you don't have a car, regular annual increases in public transportation costs have the same effect.
3) A general liability insurance may be something basic benefits recipients tend to forego. The blogster doesn't know if they do. Five Euros more for next year on the cheap on the blogster has.

Prices of some staple foods have risen sharply over the past couple of months. Butter went up by 25% across stores and brands, milk by about 15%. Most basic cheeses did, too, by about 15%, although for the stores the blogster checked, benefits recipients can switch from Swiss to Gouda to compensate.

The hike in these food prices alone exceeds the 5 Euros a month.

So, Merry Christmas.

* Gender neutral is it at the K-Landnews.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Walter Mitty reloaded: the fantasies of bureaucratic resistance

If you don't know James Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", your friends of The New Yorker magazine have it here.

In case you prefer a movie version, please go with the 1947 reel, the 2013 remake is crap.

Also, in the extremely unlikely event that any Breitbart readers find this here post, this special note is for you: Don't get confused by the section header "Fiction". This short story really is a propaganda piece by the far left designed to show meek liberals as heroes and foment resistance against white Christians. And yes, the date stamp 'March 1939' proves the internet has been around for all that time, kept hidden, first by the Socialist Harry Truman after WW II, then by 'I don't remember where I was on the day of the JFK assassination' Daddy Shrub.

So, why talk about Walter Mitty today?

Because some might have missed the clue in the post title?

The daydreaming hero reminds the blogster of the fantasies about bureaucratic resistance to the potential assaults by the new Trump administration on civil liberties and freedoms.

No, the blogster is not trying to say all resistance it futile. Hey, we even give you a link to a "HowTo" for interested government workers.

To show our good faith, we go one further and provide a link to the CIA's release of that old standby, the OSS Simple Sabotage Field Manual. You really want to read the latter because it has sections that you will recognize from daily working life in any modern large organization.

Should the release disappear - things happen, you know - you can always email us for a copy.

We have even seen a powerful law expert write about 'should I stay, or should I go' for lawyers in government.

This being said, the blogster would like you to exercise some caution with the piece you can find behind this tweet: What happens when a government employee doesn't do what they're told to do? Sometime they become a hero.

It is in the New Yorker, almost 80 years after Thurber, bless their hearts.

The tweet does have that most crucial caveat of all 'sometime' in front of our modern day Walter Mitty reference.

The blogster would like to point out, though, that the vast majority of us will never attain that coveted hero status.

Because it is hard.

Because we may have a family to feed.

Because a work slowdown may be all nice and dandy as long as we blame it on laziness or a "need for more training" but will unleash vicious retribution when we come out as motivated by "the constitution" or "freedom".

Hanging out by the watercooler or the coffee machine and exchanging witty remarks with co-workers is as far removed from throwing a spanner into some evil gears as Planet X is from the sun.

'We are all in this together' generally means, we sound off but continue to comply.

If it were not that way, none of the big dictatorships some of us can still remember would  have happened in the first place.

If you enter 'resistance mode', you will probably become somewhat lonely - not necessarily from the perspective of an outside view. Your friends and family will still be there, at least as long as you don't tell them.

The loneliness is mental.

And it is powerful.

By all means, do follow your conscience. As you get older, you may realize that this is all you have. Although the people you are up against are remarkably different in their mental wiring.

Read or watch the Walter Mitty tale, sit back, smile.

And make sure you understand that the operative word is 'sometimes'.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Be careful with numbers in the media and in politics

The blogster likes numbers. It* enjoys the relative comfort of measurements and predictions using numbers. Despite people's best efforts, we do get numbers wrong - just look at the polls that did not accurately predict the British EU referendum or the US presidential race.

While getting numbers wrong is simply a fact of life, the blogster still tends to get upset every now and then when numbers are used in a biased, misleading, or outright lying manner.

So, here is a short compilation, in no particular order and by no means complete, of the use of numbers that should make readers question the purpose and prompt more research.

We'll start with the absence of solid numbers.

No figures are collected
A time tested way to get around solid debate is to not collect figures at all. In Germany, this has worked for the number of homeless or the number of illegal aliens. Estimates is all they have.

It is too difficult to get good numbers
In Germany, this argument has been made for both the homeless and the illegal aliens figure. It holds true for illegal aliens - no country has really reliable numbers on those, but in the case of German homeless, the media have noted utter disinterest by successive governments to even try and get reliable figures.
In general, the more illegal something is, the harder it is to get good numbers.

Zombie numbers
There are numbers out there that we take for granted because they have been around for so long. Yet, there is no firm base for them. How can you spot them?

You cannot.

Unless you happen to know the provenance of, say, the "3000 deadheads in prison", you may never know that this was an estimate by someone not exactly qualified to make that estimate.

The real origin and meaning of some popular figures can be found with a little bit of research, for example, the claim that it needs two years before an employee is productive in a new job. Taught by such luminaries as French economics teacher and ex president Sarkozy, it is based on the claim that it takes 10 000 hours to learn a new skill. The TEDx presentation The first 20 hours -- how to learn anything tells you how the number 10 000 came about and how its meaning changed over time, basically from "become a chess champion" to "learn a new skill".

Complete omission of existing solid figures
In speeches and statements, one popular device is to provide no figures at all. This has been a staple in speeches on crime by "law and order" politicians and their media helpers.
It very likely contributes to the perception in the US as well as in Germany that crime is up despite statistics showing it has been down.

Partial omission
One current area of reporting in which we see this frequently is the Syria conflict. Numbers of civilians killed or injured by the Syrian government forces and Russian planes are everywhere. Civilian victims of "rebels" or Western forces are rare. Obtaining figures is not easy but the gap seems to indicate either neglect or intent.

Easily spotted bias
Sometimes, the way numbers are provided shows fairly easily detectable bias. You can find a small example in the post Even short news articles are biased: the 2017 hike of German basic social HARTZ IV benefits.

Compounded figures
One outstanding example of compounded figures was the early reporting on the German social security retirement benefits reform in 2014.
Almost all outlets had headlines like "Reform to cost 160 billion Euros". Only when you read the whole article would you find - in most cases - the added information on the time frame: until the year 2030.
Ten billion a year sounds a lot less scary. Given that the loss to the German economy caused by sanctions on Russia was reported as "6 billion Euros a year" at more or less the same time, one can wonder why the compounded 160 billion was so prominent.

No base figures are provided
Not providing base figures is so common that laziness is really the only sane explanation. For example, a recent article in one German paper reported 500 terror dead in "the OECD" countries.  Another article reported that Twitter had deleted 100 000  hate speech accounts in the past year. The number of total accounts on the platform was not provided.

Percent values should set off a warning
Percentages deserve a special note because they are less intuitive than absolute numbers. Few people think about what a small inflation rate means, but percentage values without base figures are truly evil.

The most egregious example the blogster has seen in recent months was an article in the big German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine. The article reported "an increase in online child abuse by 1000%".
No base figure at all was given.

Don't believe the effect of percentages? Try for yourself. Sit down and work out some percentage values, then try them on friends and family.

Let the blogster know what you found.

And remember, we didn't even get started on really huge and really tiny figures and logarithmic numbers.

* Gender neutrality is a thing at the K-Landnews. 
[Update 11/20/2016] Changed sentence structure of "Don't believe the effect of percentages" for clarity. 
[Update 11/22/2016] Added  the example paragraph "The real origin and meaning of some popular figures..."

Friday, November 18, 2016

[Updated] 100% javascript translation memory tool for bilingual XLIFF w/ a read-only TM + TBX

Nerd alert: Software stuff ahead. 

[Update 25/11/2016]
1. Now supports a multilingual .tbx in addition to bilingual xliff and tmx.
2. Search in tmx now starts when a target cell (including empty) is clicked.
3. Use of full or partial tm matches via copy and paste from a new results sidebar.
4. Fixed the nasty "empty cell" bug.
[End Update]

Someone just wrote a simple translation memory (TMM) tool in 100% javascript. Called xliffEdit. Its size is all of 10 KB, which might qualify it for the title of world's smallest.

It bills itself as a "proof of concept", with the concept being that modern web browser features and power can replace some of the more common standalone programs with ease.

Here is what the tool does:
1) It provides a translation workbench for bilingual XLIFF source files.
2) It allows using one bilingual TMX file as a read-only translation memory.

This screenshot shows a test with a translation memory. The user has clicked on a target segment, and the tool found a 100% match (existing translation) in the TM. The user can confirm or cancel use of the existing translation.

Here are some notes and caveats:
1) The "Store in browser" button will store the translation (upper table contents) in a local temporary location. Once you clicked this button, you can close the tab. If you then open the xliffEdit.html again, the translation will be reloaded automatically.
But you should not close the browser and expect the same behavior. The local storage behaves differently depending on the browser, some specific browser settings, and on the operating system.
Before closing the browser, always save the translation using the "Export" button. If it is not automatically reloaded when you start xliffEdit next time, load this exported.xml to continue.

2) The current version has only been tested with Xliffs and TMX files produced by Memsource Cloud (tm).

3) The current version has only been tested with Firefox.

4) The only changes the tool makes to the XLIFF base file is adding or modifying translations, i.e. the contents of "target" elements. No other xml elements or attributes are modified.

5) Existing context information or alternative translations are not shown.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Digital self-defense: transfer your social media accounts to your cat, dog, parrot, or weasel

From our There is no Mass Surveillance series

The blogster is very privacy oriented, continuously coming up with new suggestions, for example in the post Privacy for Germans: rename all to Haensel & Gretel Mueller?

Recent developments have convinced it* to put forth the suggestion made in the title of this post. The list is not meant to be exhaustive, feel free to add other pets, maybe even your pet rock.

Social media is getting blamed for every ill of society. Good researchers have been trying to put social media into a historical context, but those folks are largely ignored for the juicy click bait narrative.

There is no doubt, however, that governments have become very interested in monitoring social media use by their citizenry. Policing the web is not new, for example, it is well known that German police have been trawling online dating sites for pedophiles by pretending to be underage children.

That's a good thing.

Wholesale monitoring of social media, to the blogster, crosses a line. The first official government forms asking for your social media user name are soon to hit desks in at least one Western country, so, you need to get rid of your social media presence.

Transfer it to a pet.

Don't dismiss the idea. If a space craft, or a potted plant can have a social media account, so can your pet.

Be sure to do the transfer in writing. At least if your are in Germany, because over here, nothing is considered real unless you have it in writing.

Once your pet is the owner of your account, you can post on behalf of the pet. Don't go overboard and start attacking dogs if you are a cat, or vice versa.

Also, be aware that you can still be held legally responsible for the content of a post or tweet.

Ask a lawyer before you tell a government official you do not have an account.

If push comes to shove, you can try (again, ask a lawyer beforehand) to point out that a cat co-authored a physics study in 1975, long before social media existed.

There appears to be one potential issue frequently ignored by people when they select a social media user name or "handle".

This overlooked aspect has to do with prison culture. Apparently, inmates often give nicknames to their fellow prisoners based on some characteristic of the crime they committed.

For example, in the U.S., a bank robber took a taxi to rob a bank.

The robber was caught and duly sent to prison. His nickname became "Taxi".

So, please, do yourself a favor and consider this: how would you feel if your Twitter handle became your prison nickname?

Would you be able to live quietly in a cell with a handle like, say, 'buttlover43', or 'ferrarixxx'?

Of course, this would never happen to you, right?

* Gender neutral, yeah. Also, does that help behind bars? 

Monday, November 14, 2016

The elites are roasting themselves (in the TV show sense, not the pitchfork sense)

Here's the good news: the blogster has found a place on the internet where many authors still have a sense of history and at least try to think: counterpunch.

The bad news: the publication has been described as "left-wing" and even "conspiracy-mongering". 

While the blogster finds the categories "left" and "right" outmoded and superficial and never tires to repeat it, this is not quite how public discourse in general works.

A general issue with sourcing facts and opinions that human love of groups extends to this, and "you are what you read" is the name of the game.

At the end of the day, most of the complaining about 'filter bubbles' or 'echo chambers' prove to be nothing but either hollow phrases, a means to attack people who hold different opinions, or a justification for censorship.

At best, you are given the "I read Playboy for the articles" treatment, at worst, you are shunned or advised by a prospective employer that you are not a good fit for the position.

So, read as much you can. Don't be afraid of social media bullies and trolls. There is no certainty that whatever you write or try to communicate will be understood.

Even a factual reminder to one of the more famous social media folks can get you a lecture or a smack down. The blogster's most recent one was being rebuffed with it is "an aspirational story" despite the original tweet presenting a myth as a fact.

Once good response to a troll who attacked a brilliant lady turned out to be "you can be better than that", followed by a "sorry you had a bad day" when said troll tried again.

The memory of many social media participants is pretty short, or they simply move on with their old positions, which makes the recent deluge of "what happened" in the US election as entertaining as a TV comedy roast.

German papers first did their Trump explanation without missing a beat by slipping in the perennial "everybody was wrong". We had the usual "trailer park folks with a six pack of beer" meme.

But, with emotions flying high and everybody wanting to be on top, there were some wonderful insights. The chief of conservative German paper Die Welt, for example, let us know that Bill Clinton was sure Hillary would follow baby Bush as president. The writer came out with "as he told me - and likely many others".

Die Welt now follows up with "Seven fatal misconceptions of the elites". We'll just go through them quickly.
1. The end of history
Well, the blogster found that awful from the get go. Die Welt found it great, and now disavows it.
2. The Brits remain in the EU
Why would anybody who looked at the earlier referendum assume that?
3. The Berlin Wall is a reality
Die Welt and most others accepted it as a reality. Yes, some saw fissures, but a hated reality it was. And no, Regan's "tear down this wall" had nothing to do with it.
4. The Arab spring will bring democracy
Hell no. There were ample warning voices.
5. The Germans show a friendly face
During the major refugee influx. Hell yes, they did. And racists showed their faces, too.
6. Germany is not an immigrant country
Conservatives claimed that. Anybody with half a knowledge of history knew it to be false.
7. They will go away
The refugees. Conservatives warned they'd basically all stay. Forgetting conveniently how it was conservatives who kicked out Bosnians, that it was mainstream conservatives and their tabloid rag "Bild" who fueled resentment for decades prior to the kumbaya moment of 2015.

So, it was "the elites" that got it all wrong. Says a mouthpiece of "the elites".

The slightly more liberal Die Zeit has some advice on "preventing a German Trump". They go after the effect and the dangers of Facebook and call for "regulation". And they do call for more transparency of government.

It is up to their readers in the comments to point out the consequences of deep cuts, privatization and calling people "scum".

In the meantime, the merchants of death, NATO and the military industrial complex keep ramming the need for NATO and more defense spending down our throats.

Since you were so nice to read to the end, here is one for the Trump-Hitler bucket.

Remember when American conservatives said Hitler would not have happened if the Jews had had guns?

It's not about guns. It is about phones with cameras. *

* Maybe. Once again, the blogster does not claim to know a whole lot about the world.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

What does Newsweek's "Madam President" really tell us?

The 2016 US presidential election brought us another example of print media getting it wrong.

At least, "getting it wrong" was how the responsible CEO of Topix Media, the British Telegraph, and numerous others phrased it. Newsweek distanced itself from the edition, telling the world the magazine was produced by Topix Media, not Newsweek.

The German Der Spiegel reported this as a "mistake" and added two additional bits of information, one explicit, the other not so much. They are worth our attention.

Der Spiegel printed a photo of a woman at a table or desk looking at a copy of the magazine. The caption under the photo simply says "Newsweek edition". They do not tell the reader who the person at the desk is. If you watch a lot of TV, you may guess that the lady may be Hillary. But no confirmation under the photo, nor in the article.

To get the full picture, the blogster went to Twitter and found this, posted by ABC reporter Cecilia Vega:

The Twitter time stamp says the tweet was posted at 5:25 AM on November 9, just after election results told us Trump won. The Tweet says the photo was taken on Monday and that is shows Hillary signing a copy.

Comparing the two photos makes it very clear that Der Spiegel was more charitable by not showing the autograph.  At the same time, they could not resist a "hint", it would seem.

Other German outlets went without any photo, for example, NTV.

The media outlets the blogster has seen printed very similar story lines. "Mistake" or "getting it wrong" with an exculpatory "like everyone else". They also mentioned "historic road to the White House" and "shattered glass ceiling".

The Telegraph added, like other English language outlets, a photo of the 1948 flub showing Harry Truman triumphantly holding the Chicago Tribune edition that incorrectly announced his opponent Dewey won.

So, the mainstream press (for lack of a better term) tried to keep it light. Other outlets were more vocal, for example, Truthfeed:

The Truthfeed piece launches into a full on "Idiots. Even more stupid, Hillary allowed herself to be photographed SIGNING the covers".

Truthfeed is somewhere on the right, clearly supporting Trump.

Compared to Truthfeed, Russian Sputnik News, frequently called "a Russian propaganda tool" or accused as being part of the Kremlin's "hybrid war" or "information war", was much more reserved than you would expect from an information war tool.

Sputnik gives ample room to the Topix chief and to a description of the situation but does call out Newsweek's Kurt Eichenwald - and rightly so, if I may add.
Sputnik does close with a strong, unvarnished dig, but not at Mrs. Clinton: Newsweek was so sure their efforts would pay off, they seem to have forgotten that it is the people who choose the president.

Most importantly, Sputnik does not use a photo of Hillary with the Newsweek issue.

How you interpret the absence of the photo is up to you. Not that much of an information war going on? Are they truly evil masterminds just pretending to not kick someone who is down? Were they too stingy to pay for the pic?

We have talked about two aspects of coverage, the photo and the different tones (light to aggressive), but there is more, and for that we need to go back to Der Spiegel because no body else (it seems) bothered to cover it.

Two sentences from Der Spiegel are relevant for this: "What would the media have written if Hillary had won" and "Rather common media practice"**.

Common practice
As a media consumer, you should always keep this one in mind. A lot of what makes up news coverage is not written after an event. Opinions and stories around an event can and do exist prior to an event. Take something like a mass shooting or a terrorist attack as an example. There are facts, like the where, when, who, why - they are reported after an event occurs. But even there, the "who" and the "why" tend to be fluid or (that's what we call propaganda) pre-packaged in a biased way.
How serious this practice is depends on the event. For instance, in a 2014 post, the blogster asked Time Travel  by German National Parliament on 25 June?

What would the media have written
This is a bit disingenuous but can sort of slip through your critical analysis because of the unspecific term "the media" and the grammatical hypothetical question "shape" of the statement.

The article deals with something that was actually written!

Whatever analysis of the "historic" event we would expect after it occurs has already been put in writing before the event.

But we knew Hillary's positions, what with the debates and all the pros and cons laid out in detail before the vote count? That's all true, right?

There is a difference between these facts (so much as we can call them that) and presenting all of these events and narratives as making her the president.

In other words, had she won, then the Newsweek issue - and others that you do not know about - would have become the historic narrative, the "knowledge" and the "reasoning" other journalists and historians would build upon in their explanation of why the world is the way it is, in their explanation of the past and their prediction of the future.

Of course, TV folks have an easier life because they can change what they say without a long material production lead. But their notes were not different - just ask them.

To round out the story, a few words on the take of Snopes, a site dedicated to fact checking and debunking false stories and rumors. The Snopes piece was last updated on 7 November and deals only with the cover, labeled "Special Commemorative Edition", not with content. The Snopes entry is a direct and convincing debunking of claims by some that "the system is rigged".  Snopes points out that preparing obituaries is common and sometimes embarrassing, and that the same is true for sports memorabilia.

Neither obituaries, nor t-shirts of a winning team have the same impact as coverage of the presidential election.

The text of the Snopes image is hard to read, but you can make out a "went high" for Hillary as well as "as it turns out, the polls were wrong again" for Trump.

By now, the nicely positive "went high" has become "condescending", while the polls were indeed wrong. It would be nice to have the full content of both issues to see which parts of the narrative were merely political "legos", and what went beyond this.

* Was hätten die Medien geschrieben, wenn Hillary gewonnen hätte?
**  Eigentlich ganz normal in der Medienbranche.
[Update 11/13]   Added the Snopes photo and discussion of purpose of Snopes piece.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Screw the poor: German workers face automatic tie of retirement age to life expectancy

The blogster is fascinated by the German debates on social security and pensions. It shows in many posts, for example Germany's social security retirement system: 50% or recipients under poverty level by 2030?

Successive governments have chipped away at "entitlements", and politicians are talking about more "reforms", preferably soon enough to avoid the 2017 national elections being dominated exclusively by the subject.

The newest proposal coming out of the Cristian Social Union (CSU, the Bavarian counterpart to the CDU) is a fairly straightforward one.

Tie retirement age to life expectancy.

The logic is simple: when social security was introduced, life expectancy was lower, hence people received pensions for a shorter time, keeping payroll deductions at a low enough level. Life expectancy has been going up, the population is projected to shrink, so let's up the retirement age.

The law already makes these adjustments until 2030, with the social security retirement age slowly going up to 67 years and benefits falling further to about 43% (from 46% today).

The new proposal goes beyond this and calls for automatic adjustment, something like an increase of six months for every year of increase in life expectancy.

Average life expectancy is, indeed, going up. From about 65 years in 1950 to around 80 in 2015, projected to further increase to 85/89 in 2060.

The biggest problem with this is that workers in physically and mentally demanding jobs will suffer twofold.

They will have to work longer to accumulate the "points" needed for full benefits, damaging their health further. Alternatively, they can retire early with a smaller pension for the remainder of their life.

But automatic adjustment is more insidious than that and has to do with the difference in life expectancy of the poor and the wealthy.

Right now, males in economically depressed regions live on average 73 years, those in better off regions just over 81.

Based on the projected 2060 figures and assuming the current differences will not narrow down substantially, it is conceivable that full retirement age under an auto-adjustment formula as tight as the proposed 6 months for each year will catch up or surpass average life expectancy in poorer regions.

Should the life expectancy of lower wage workers decrease, as it has done in the U.S., Germany's poorer workers would be even worse off.

Exact figures won't be available for a couple of decades or more, but there is little prospect of the overall pictures changing to the benefit of the poor and of low wage workers.

Life expectancy of wealthy people has increased more than that of the poor - this effect alone will make it harder for the poor to achieve full social security benefits.

The 15-year study out of the U.S. says that life expectancy for the richest 5% increased by 2.34 years, and 0.32 years (a few months) for the poorest 5%.
Obviously, a raise of 6 months for every 12 of increased average life expectancy does not look good for the poor.

You could argue: This would merely be the way the system behaved for many decades after it was first introduced.

Given that Germany as a whole (in terms of real GDP) is so much wealthier that in the late 1900s, this would translate as follows: workers have not benefited much from the accumulation of wealth.

Given that workers paid only a small percentage of their wages into social security at that time but 18,7 % (worker share) now and over 20.4% in 2025, the relative benefits (in terms of ROI) are lower today.

What retirement benefits level have successive German governments considered a reasonable floor for government workers?

Today, career civil servants with high school plus vocational training skills receive about 1600 Euros a month without ever having had contributions deducted from their pay.

The average for a male worker in the private sector who retired in 2012: 898 Euros.

There is no statutory minimum. There is, however, a statutory maximum for social benefits of currently about 800 Euros a months.

[Update 11/10/2016] In a surprise move, both major parties (CDU and SPD) announced that there will not be a major overhaul of the German social security retirement system before the 2017 federal elections.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

German railway desperation: On time performance through early closing of doors

Almost identical news articles in Spiegel Online and Frankfurter Allgemeine  deal with the latest improvement Deutsche Bahn plans to roll out in order to improve its on time performance.

Closing train doors earlier!

The once "legendary" on time performance of German trains has lost its luster, says the press. These days, a train is counted as being on time if it is no more than six minutes late.

And the blogster still uses the old joke when an Italian co-worker says "in five minutes".

Blogster: Five German or five Italian minutes.

No more, RIP oddly dated joke.

Even with the six minutes, current on time performance is at 74.4% (as of 2015).

A pilot project will allow conductors to close, or rather lock, the doors one minute prior to departure. The CEO of Deutsche Bahn explained that he himself once arrived 30 seconds late and saw the train leave.

The operative word in his explanation was very likely "once".

In olden days in the US, train station clocks would be set to be one minute early. But that won't work in modern Germany because half the clocks are broken and the other half are wired to some atomic clock.

On time performance has not been the issue the blogster and other passengers have suffered under.

Our problem is the transfer schedules.

In older train stations, would be passengers who transfer from long distance to regional or local trains get, pardon the expression, screwed over by the combination of tight schedules and last minute platform changes.

The basic setup goes like this:
1) The train you are on is scheduled to arrive on a platform next to the train you need to catch.
2) The schedule gives you one minute to cross the platform.
3) The train you are on is re-routed to a different platform, within the six minute window of course. It is on time.
4) If you are physically fit, you try to run. If you are older or not in great shape...forget it.
5) The train you needed to catch leaves - on time.

Your next train is in one hour, if you are lucky and do not travel after say 8 pm.

This has happened every single time the blogster ventured out on a long distance - local connection in the past years.

The result: the blogster pays a friend to take it* to the international airport.

* Gender neutral.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Germany: Masters of Subsidies - power grid version

Today, the main German news outlets have a short blurb about a hike of another fee that makes up some of the electricity bill in the country.

We are talking about the "levy for grid charges to large users", which is not to be confused with the widely known "renewable energy" surcharge.

The "levy for grid charges to large users" is another example of German government creativity in the area of making individual consumers pay for subsidies without ever calling something a "tax".

The sole purpose of this fee is to reduce the power bills of large consumers of electricity, like steel plants, meat processing plants, hospitals, insurance companies, fast food joints, food establishments and banks?

In 2017, private consumers and small businesses - or everybody not powerful enough to get on the list of over 4400 eligible organizations - will pay more than 1.1 billion Euros for power grid expansion and maintenance to benefit these "large users".

The kW/h amount of this fee is going up from 0378 to 0.388 Euro cents. The renewables fee increases from 6.354 to 6.88 Euro cents per kW/h.

Of course, large users also pay either no or a reduced amount of the renewables fee.

That's only fair, right? Maybe, the big consumers think, if I don't have to pay one fee, why should I pay another?

Have a look at the Clean Energy Wire page on German power bills for more fun surcharges and levies.

Various court challenges of the renewables fee as well as the "levy for grid charges to large users" have been successful in the past.

The result?

The government changed the law and continued to levy the surcharges.

Anonymous sources, unnamed sources, fakes, and conspiracies

The use of anonymous sources by media outlets is a subject of never ending debates. In a spat earlier this year, even the venerable New York Times announced it would "tighten the screws" on anonymous sources.

Still, everybody continues to use them, including this blog. A couple of examples: We told the story of a young German who was insulted by a jobcenter employee as "arrogant and lazy" despite having lined up a "mini job" for the duration of a six week break during his vocational training. We told stories by OMG (Old Mustached German). Strictly speaking, these are not anonymous sources - they are known to the blogster but not known to you.

They are normally referred to as unnamed source, or "a source who wishes to remain unnamed". Yet, sometimes, a journalist will call them "anonymous" because he or she feels the source merits an extra layer of protection.

Newspapers and websites with good sized audiences are in a different position. They produce a lot of content, their writers tackle more subjects that they don't know much about, and they are being fed stories by all kinds of people.

Truly anonymous sources are a different ball game. The journalist and the readers don't know them.

So, things go wrong. Take the story of the "hidden server" of one Donald Trump as published by Slate. Upon closer look, the story was busted, but it still makes the rounds on social media.

Why did it get as far as it did?

The "tea leaves" wordpress blog that alleges Trump had a server connected to Russian bank Alfa is shoddy, without any substantial data to corroborate the story. It boasts a couple of lines in Russian. "Still waters run deep" is kind of nice but ultimately of no more value than the inverted R in Toys R us.

No technical understanding, an eager Slate (unlike the Daily Beast, it appears), and the certainty that the subject would generate lots of clicks.

There are lots of anonymous sites out there that never make the news, for example, another wordpress site called swisspropaganda, which has two "studies" on propaganda in Swiss media, namely the daily NZZ and Swiss public TV. The latter could be called a conspiracy site because it has small section on a Swiss researcher who asked too many questions about the 9/11 terror attacks. He lost his job and is now more or less marginalized.

The studies, though, are very interesting, their methodology is laid out clearly and based on the works of Ponsonby and Morelli.

The site has a section on censorship and self-censorship that is worth reading in light of the recent crackdown by the Turkish government on the Turkish media.

Frankfurter Allgemeine has a good new article on censorship in Turkey (beyond the well publicized arrests of journalists and closings of media outlets). The article points out that the German government financed a study on the ownership of Turkish media and how this relates to self-censorship.

As if the struggle with anonymous sources was not enough to drive journalists crazy, there are the fakes.

German radio Deutschlandfunk has an article on tracking fakes on the internet, saying it is a massive undertaking to avoid falling for fakes. The article explains that technical verification is still not reliable enough and that "gut feeling" is still important.

In short: We can't avoid to fall for fakes or propaganda altogether.

We can be skeptical, and that includes not believing everything that professional skeptics tell us.

One way to try and minimize being taken in is to have a look at yourself: what areas or topics make you vulnerable because of strong beliefs and emotional attachment?

Beyond puppies or kittens.

The blogster tries to get second opinions for much of what it* reads or watches. It helps to not see some sort of "hidden hand" behind everything. And, after the Syrian boy on the beach, it decided to stay away from photos of injured/starving/bombed children unless the photos come from the UN.

* Gender neutral is fun.
[Update] Usual suspects: grammar, spelling. Clarified use of  "unnamed" and "anonymous".

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Nobody wants a trade war - writes ex publisher and gent who once forgot taxes

Capitalism is tough, which may or may not be the reason former DIE ZEIT publisher Theo Sommer quotes the Communist Manifesto of Mrs. Marx and Engels in a commentary of said paper titled "Nobody wants a trade war".

The blogster never fails to cringe when someone writes "nobody wants a war". Because penning this means one of two things: either it is true, in which case it is utterly unnecessary to waste bits or ink on it - or it is not quite true and the author implies "but..."

The quote from the manifesto is: The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.*

Next comes the switcheroo: If we replace "bourgeoisie" with "People's Republic of China", we get the best description of the policy of the Beijing regime.

It is a nifty rhetorical device, playing on China's communist as well on its capitalist traits. Making the "regime" - a term even worse in German than in English - somewhat of a super predator.

Then comes the claim that an insatiable hunger for raw materials, food and energy has driven the Chinese into all continents, the claim that they hoard any and all raw materials they can get their hands on. This is followed by a brief blurb on how they have been buying tools and machines since the turn of the century and another take on insatiable when the gentleman says but in the past five or six years this has no longer been enough for them - they have since taken to buying the factories that make these tools and machines.

To be fair, he does then describe benefits of trade between Germany/the EU and China, and there is no doubt that some Chinese practices have caused hardship and losses to German companies.

Mr. Sommer addresses the issue of reciprocity, including limits on market access, intellectual property squabbles, and the mandatory set up of joint ventures.

If you ask why a leading German paper would run such a piece, the answer comes a bit later: it is about what the author as well as German politicians call Chinese investments in German high tech. 

There have, in fact, been three acquisitions by Chinese companies that worried some in Germany.

They also worried the American intelligence services.

A Chinese company bought Germany's flagship robotics company Kuka, ramping up from an initial small investment in 2015 to a 95% share in 2016.
The irony with this deal is that both German and EU efforts to find a European buyer for Kuka failed miserably.

The next deal, however, really got the current version of "yellow peril" going.

The sale of troubled German semiconductor machinery maker Aixtron had been approved by the German government when it was suddenly halted by that very same government.

Initial reports on the reversal were fuzzy in their attribution, mumbling that "German intelligence sources" said that "American intelligence services" had informed the Germans there was "a possibility" of China using Aixtron products in its nuclear industry.

U.S. intelligence intervention reversing an already approved sale did not fly too well with some in Germany, which may explain why "nuclear industry" was swiftly replaced with "anti proliferation" effort and "western security concerns". It did not help the Chinese case that a company with close ties to the interested buyer cancelled a big order at Aixtron, sending its stock down.

The third strike, if you will, came when another Chinese company announced the acquisition of the traditional light bulb daughter of German lighting company Osram.

The gentleman of DIE ZEIT muses whether the Osram deal will be approved by the German government: Could security concerns exist in this case, too?

In incandescent light bulb production?

Osram is trying to sell this part of its business because it largely missed the transition to LED and other high tech lighting technologies in the fist place.

Don't worry, lightbulbs will continue to go off in popular parlance long after you have replaced them with LEDs.

Let's return to the Communist Manifesto for a second. It has been just over 100 years since Germany did its must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere thing in China using military force.

As long as the PRC does not invade a harbor in northern Germany to set up a colony, you should really tone it down.

*  "Das Bedürfnis nach einem stets ausgedehnteren Absatz für ihre Produkte jagt die Bourgeoisie über die ganze Erdkugel. Überall muss sie sich einnisten, überall anbauen, überall Verbindungen herstellen."