Wednesday, December 28, 2016

In the German construction industry, wrecking balls can take on a life of their own

A recent long article about the trials, in and out of court, and tribulations of a renter in the city of Mannheim fed the blogster's suspicion that something may be wrong with German wrecking balls or with the training of machine operators.

In this instance,, a home improvement chain wanted to build a new superstore in downtown Mannheim and tried to evict renters of an apartment building it had acquired for the store extension.

Most renters left, but one remained a hold out despite the chain offering 10 000 Euros and then twenty thousand to terminate the lease. That second offer was made after the gentleman had won a court case for wrongful termination of the contract.

Several months later, he received a letter from the attorneys of the chain at his other apartment a few towns over, informing him that a communication mishap had occurred at the site in Mannheim, causing the apartment block, and with it his fourth floor rental to be demolished.

The firm was very sorry for the communication failure that caused the construction company to tear down the building. Another court case followed. The company tried to get the case dismissed because the apartment no longer existed - the court again found in favor of the renter.

But the project went ahead.

A criminal complaint against the errant wrecking ball of the construction company was rejected by the DA due to lack of evidence.

Chatting with a friend about the stubborn German, the friend only smiled: oh, that happens quite a lot around here. He then proceeded to tell a story about another shopping center in a small nearby town. A historical landmark building along the perimeter of the permitted area was inadvertently damaged beyond repair when the developer himself took the seat of the bulldozer one late Saturday.

It just so happened that the developer had bought the building earlier but had been denied a permit for using the space for the shopping center.

Did he get prosecuted?

Of course not. He was so sorry that he had overestimated his bulldozer skills after years of doing only office work.

So, if you plan any building projects in Germany and there are building in your way, the law firm mentioned in the above article might be able to help.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Surveillance art: somebody please build a robot that pees near CCTV cams

TheGuardian had a special kind of Christmas present for its readers on 25 December, reporting that British councils (local administration) used the famed Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to spy on the public: Councils were given permission to carry out more than 55,000 days of covert surveillance over five years, including spying on people walking dogs, feeding pigeons and fly-tipping.

The original RIPA was, of course, designed to protect British society from the worst of the worst, i.e. the famed trifecta of terrorists, drug dealers and child molesters. Its most recent incarnation became law in November 2016 under the apt label 'Snoopers' Charta', doing away with any pretense of online privacy and legalizing previously illegal practices.

Nobody should be surprised about the Guardian revelations, grumbled the K-Landnews TheEditor from the downstairs basement, refusing to leave its* den even for Christmas.

To be honest, the blogster is not surprised it happened, but the extent of the zealous hunt for turds and pigeon feeding grannies does make it* a little sad.

You may recall, the blogster described 'CLASS REUNION INT' in earlier posts, recounting how a police officer used police databases to track class mates for a reunion.

The blogster has also been called 'ever the optimist', and has been reminded that it has 'una faccia mobile' (Italian for 'expressive mimics' or a face 'like an open book').

So, it comes as no surprise that the first thought when mass surveillance comes up is 'art'. Surveillance art is not new, even Andy Warhol did it, if we can believe Wikipedia.

Accordingly, the second time the blogster saw a tweet referencing the Guardian article, it went "somebody should build a robot that pees near surveillance cameras". (The first time, nothing happened.)

Why a robot?

Because that's art, whereas the same act performed by a human is a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on where you live. Also, it can get you killed, like a man in Germany a few months ago, beaten to death by others for the act of urinating near a church.

At least in Western countries, public urination by a statue is considered cute, with just enough frisson or gross factor to be art.

If you let your robot wander during dusk or in other low light conditions, you may just get the desired effect of upsetting a human CCTV operator or fooling a program scanning a stream for weirdness.

You could also buy a robot dog and hack it to do some "fouling" in order to get a UK council to go after a robot dog.

A headline in one of the UK's trash tabloids would be guaranteed.

If you were given a drone for Christmas, you may be able to do a flying version, wouldn't that be fun?

For a more provocative experience, consider some more church inspired designs, like the gargoyle above a church entrance shown in a recent edition of Atlas Obscura.

If any of that fails to impress, the K-Landnews TheEditor claims to have an 'outrage guaranteed or I'll give you my last Susan B. Anthony dollar coin' sort of idea: 
Buy one of those 31' or 48 inch Star Wars storm troopers, add a dick and some servos to make it look like the storm trooper is jerking off. 

You are welcome.

* TheEditor insists on strict gender neutrality.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Despite lower share of income: relative tax burden on poor Germans is about the same as for wealthy ones

From our Merry F****ing Christmas series.

It turns out that the blogster's off the cuff statement "if a family receives, say, 1000 euros a month in the form of this benefit, at least 100 euros (actually more like 200) of this money goes back to the state in the form of indirect taxes" in the 2013 post Hilda the Hairdresser was not far off the mark.

A new study that looked at the effective tax burden of Germans, not just the well rehashed theoretical burden listed in the various tax tables, deals a serious blow to the most beloved statement of centrists, free market liberals, and conservatives.

We'll get to the meaning of "new study" a bit later.

The gist of the statement is that the wealthy and the middle class contribute much more to the country's tax revenue than the poorer Germans.

Of course, there are different permutations of the claim, ranging from the superficially correct absolute numbers to the classist "the wealthy are carrying the burden of keeping the poor alive", with various shades of hate in between.

The Germans even have a word for those highly taxed members of the working population (middle class and up) that keep the tax coffers full: Leistungsträger (lit. those who carry the performance burden). The existing English translations are inadequate - neither "key personnel" nor "top performer" quite captures the bitterness and the condescending vibe of the term.

So, let's get the oft quoted absolute numbers out of the way.

The argument, the Leistungsträgers are paying the price of the welfare state

The top 10% of earners pay some 60% of the government's income tax revenue, and they pay some 20% of indirect taxes.
Also, income tax is progressive, the percentage paid automatically increases with income. If a pay raise is small and crosses a tax bracket, that increase can eat up the increase.
And the very poor pay no income tax at all.

Slam dunk?

Indirect taxes & how to tax a tax (not a typo)
This is where we get to indirect taxes (sales taxes, consumption taxes, various specialty taxes) combined with the many ways for better earners to lower their effective tax rates.

Lo and behold, the study says that the overall relative tax burden is very similar, or, as the centrist-conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine phrases it: more evenly distributed.

The relative effect of indirect taxes it that lower incomes are affected more severely in relative terms. If all your worldly possession for the month is 100 dollars and the government takes 10 in  taxes, you hurt more than someone who has 1000 and needs to give the government 100.

German indirect taxes are much higher than US indirect taxes, skewing the German tax revenues to the detriment of the poor and the middle class.

Take sales tax (called VAT around here). The main rate on almost all goods and services is 19%, with a lower 7% rate for basic necessities, such as food.
Add too this various other taxes that make up the prices of goods and services, for example the gasoline tax that makes gas prices here some three to four times higher than in the US, and you begin to understand how even the poorest Germans end up paying more than 20% in taxes.

The blogster has marveled time and again at the brazen system of double dipping by the German government. Take electricity prices, for example. There are levies and fees (not called a tax thought they function like one) that are used to subsidize companies and (mostly) wealthy folks who can afford to add solar panels to their abodes. On top of the price consisting of base plus levies and fees, an "electricity tax" it added. On top of this, sales tax is added.

There you go, this is how you make people pay tax on another tax.

It happens a lot.

In other words: The poorest 10% of Germans contribute 5% of all indirect taxes to the government coffers, yet their share of the country's income/wages is only 3%.
The top 10% pay 20% of all indirect taxes but make 30% of all income/wages.

The picture gets even worse when you add some (not all) of the payments into the social system (healthcare, contributions to social security).

So, across all economic categories from the very poor to the wealthy, the total tax burden is between 20% and 25%.

The historical development in Germany since the late 1990s is - surprise - not mentioned in the article in Frankfurter Allgemeine, but it is in this one.

Successive German governments, "liberal" as well as "conservative", have lowered income tax rates and increased the rates of indirect taxes.

Here is the promised definition of "new study". The media really should have called it "recent". Because - as so often in the short history of this blog - the blogster is indebted to the reader comments.

One reader of Frankfurter Allgemeine said: When I studied tax law in 1972, my teacher said 'at the end of the day, everyone pays around 25%'. Ergo, nothing new under the sun.

Remember, we have not even touched other structural  hurdles that affect only the poor. There is, for instance, the well studied fact that low income earners cannot take full advantage of store sales because they simply don't have the cash to buy extra supplies when stuff goes on sale. Another one is that German welfare beneficiaries who have to replace, say a broken washer, have to rely on small loans to pay off the appliance, thus paying even more indirect taxes. Though, to the credit of the German system, interest rates are not as usury as those of US payday lenders.

So, be cheerful: Merry F****ing Christmas!

[Update 12/23/2016] Fixed typos.

Monday, December 19, 2016

German anti-UBI economist: we already have a basic income, with just a few conditions

It surely feels good to have the chief of a German economics research institute say what we said before: future social security retirement benefits should not be included in calculating a person's "wealth".

This being said, the two aspects this post is about are:
1) The corporate conservative German claim we already have a basic income, with just a few conditions.
2) The statement some jobs will only be done if you have a financial incentive.

Those claims are routinely being made by the German think tank Ifo and almost verbatim by most company executives. Linking to the article in Zeit online is merely a convenience. There are plenty of other examples out there.

The blogster personally regards both arguments as disingenuous, hence worth a rant.

To understand the first argument better, it might help to clarify the German term, which is "bedingungsloses Grundeinkommen", "unconditional universal income". Germans could also call it "universelles Grundeinkommen", but they don't. In purely psycho-linguistic terms, the argument "with just a few conditions" would be pretty much impossible if the German term were "universelles Grundeinkommen", in other words, you cannot modify it and still be credible.

It is a completely different situation with "we already have a universal basic income, with just a few conditions" if you can add a good reason for the existence of these "few" conditions. This is exactly what opponents of UBI are doing.*

In the article referenced above, the claims above take this specific form:
We have a basic income. The welfare state secures people. But it is not without conditions. Only when you have used up your own means and still cannot make it, then the state intervenes. I find this is a marvelous achievement. Universal basic income cannot be financed. Also, masses of people would quit working. This is incompatible with a social free market.

The sequence of claims is interesting.
He drops the "universal" from the get go. Note that the condition is separated from a short, matter of fact like "we have a basic income" by a full sentence. That sentence "the welfare state secures people" bridges the conceptual gap between "basic income" and the nature of what the welfare state provides, which is not a "basic income". The abstract collective term in German for the different benefits is Grundsicherung (basic safety), the various components all use the respective German for "assistance" and "benefits". The most common scheme, Hartz-IV, is a means tested benefits scheme designed under the concept of "assist and assert", and comes with a wide variety of administrative sanctions that can and do reduce the benefits by various amounts down to zero in continued violation of the constitutional court's mandated minimum needs for pure survival.

So, once the opponent has planted the notion that "basic income" is equivalent to welfare benefits, he adds "used up your own means", which other opponents often couch in explicit terms of fairness, such as it is only fair to ask people to use up their own means before asking for help. He reinforces this with I find this is a marvelous achievement. The next two statements are the blanket statements Universal basic income cannot be financed. Also, masses of people would quit working.

Neither of these have been proven true.

Then he comes back to the German concept of the "social free market", aka. capitalism tempered by social programs, without elaborating the claim.

Interestingly, neither the two interviewers of Zeit online nor the "opposing" expert challenge him on equating "basic income" with welfare benefits.

The closing argument that many jobs will only get done if there is a monetary incentive seems to be viewed as so fundamental that nobody ever questions it.
His version even includes the modifier "important", "there are many important jobs that will only get done when there is a financial incentive".

While some less careful CEO gave away the game by citing trash collection as an example, the pros don't do that.

So, the anti-UBI person does not provide any example of "important jobs", leaving it up to the reader to figure things out.

So, let's do this:
a) Universal basic income is given to everybody to cover the basic needs of life in such a way that it alleviates constant worries about food, shelter, whether to buy a cup of coffee or two.
b) Recipients can and will often work to earn more money, as demonstrated by small scale field tests over time.
c) The jobs that, according to him, would not get done, are therefore jobs where you make so little money above the UBI that they are not worth doing.
d) This leaves, hey, trash collection and other minimum wage jobs, or jobs so gross nobody would want to do them.

Which makes the term "incentive" utterly ridiculous.

Since he equates "basic income" and current welfare benefits, we should have tons of jobs that are not getting done right now.
And once people have used up their means and get that "basic income", shouldn't there be many who kick back and enjoy it for the rest of their days?

Or are we counting on the social and financial pressures associated with access to that "basic income" to be the incentive that gets many important jobs done?

So, when in Germany, never let anybody drop the "universal" in UBI.

Equating a system designed to punish people who are out of work to one that respects people is a rather marvelous achievement.

* The critical passage in German is this:
Fuest: Wir haben ja schon ein Grundeinkommen. Der Sozialstaat sichert die Menschen ab. Es ist allerdings nicht bedingungslos. Nur wenn man seine eigenen Mittel ausgeschöpft hat und es trotzdem nicht reicht, greift der Staat ein. Ich halte das für eine Riesenerrungenschaft. Ein bedingungsloses Grundeinkommen ist nicht bezahlbar. Außerdem würden die Menschen massenhaft aufhören zu arbeiten. Mit einer sozialen Marktwirtschaft ist das unvereinbar.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Germans discover that policies favor the rich when government "edits" draft report on poverty

From our Quaint Germany series.

To be honest, almost every post about things German could run under the snarky "Quaint Germany" teaser.

The blogster often relishes comparing the German media to their Irish (Republic of) counterparts. In this view of the world, German public broadcasters are nothing more than an over bloated version of RTE, and the German print/online press a bad copy of the Irish Times plus the inevitably crazy Sun - only a lot less funny and with more very long words.

At some very recent point in German history, aka. a few years ago, the German government decided to do a regular official poverty report. This decision did not come easy to a country that has a hard time even acknowledging that poverty exists within its borders.

Somewhat similar to the introduction of a minimum wage over a decade after every other less hypes EU state had done so.

Good job, Germany!

The first news from the upcoming report have come and gone, like the news that the low wage sector in the country is expanding, or - as the blogster gloated - German taxpayers are subsidizing your Porsche.

Since that early piece of news, some journalists have done their work and found some creative editing of the initial draft. The current version no longer has several long passages about the results of a study that looked into the influence of the rich on policies.

According to this article in Zeit Online, the very explicit findings of the study have been largely removed. Instead of the initial dire warning that policies clearly favor the rich and we can thus talk of a 'crisis of representation', the new version only acknowledges that political change is more likely when favored by a majority of the richer citizens. The new government draft warns that the study has not found hard evidence for why this phenomenon has been observed.

The study is lauded as the first study of the influence of the elites and the wealthy on political decision making, which is somewhat funny because we have a US study published in 2014 that comes to the same conclusions.

There are differences in the political systems, so doing a study for Germany is prudent, but fundamentally different study results would be a huge surprise in light of German economic and social policies over the past generation or so.

After all, the big social and labor law changes under the label of "Agenda 2010" are really nothing more than an adaptation of long standing US provisions with some British style sanctions plus health insurance.

We'll keep an eye on any additional changes of the report before its final publication in early 2017.

Since the German government won't include the good stuff in its report, we'll give you this 2014 Huffingtion Post piece on the US study: “Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all,” the researchers write in the article titled, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.”

Friday, December 16, 2016

German government opens pathway to internet censorship: lumping together Fake News and hate speech

When the Fake News craze started with unproven claims that fake news on Facebook had swayed the US presidential election, the blogster was worried it would be exploited as a means to discredit unwanted opinions and maybe even for censorship.

Tweeting about a German article that cited calls by politicians for improved measures against fake news, the blogster added "censorship", and promptly lost several Twitter followers.

So, it* proudly brings you these headlines:
Fake News: Coalition wants to force faster deletion by Facebook  and Internet Hate Speech: Justice Minister threatens Facebook with fines.

While one article highlights fake news in the headline, the other emphasizes hate speech, but both report along the same lines.

The German government plans to add a new law to the statute after the Christmas break, so that it will be in force before the 2017 federal elections.

Unlike the US, Germany already has laws against hate speech, and these laws are being used. Just "not fast enough", complains the justice minister. Adding an additional enforcement process to deal with hate speech is not drawing much criticism.

What does draw ire is the inclusion of "fake news".
Specifically including "fake news" in the new law that calls for a 365 24/7 staffed complaints organization makes the project a vehicle for censorship - period.

Remember, this is a German law.

Which means that flagging something as potentially fake news, as Facebook is currently trialing in the US, won't fly in this detail obsessed country.

[Update 12/17/2016] Today, The Guardian runs a short article on the topic, mentioning out "fake news" only in one sentence. Like the German reports, it mentions "Facebook also could be compelled to distribute corrections that reach the same number of people as the original post, Oppermann suggested, something traditional media companies in Germany are already required to do."

This indicates that the German government will try to give Facebook and other sites the legal status of a "media organization", as opposed to the generic "telecommunications company" status. A telco is never liable for what people say over the phone, media orgs fall under the press laws.

German law makers proposed to distribute corrections to every user who viewed a hate speech post or fake news instance, saying that Facebook collects the data that make this possible.

The blogster doubts such targeted notification will be included in the law because it would demonstrate how far reaching data collection is and raise awareness of surveillance. Governments generally don't like citizens to think much about surveillance - but maybe the disgust of German politicians for Facebook will overcome this. Which would be a great, if unintended benefit.

Sadly, The Guardian mentions only the right wing AfD as a critic of the plan. Many associations and companies far removed from right wing politics are very critical of the government.

Defining what constitutes "fake news" will definitely haunt German law makers because use of the term in the German press and by politicians is worrying: it is primarily used for ambiguous news, to describe reports that don't correct earlier reporting fast enough when new facts emerge, or "propaganda".

[Update 12/18/2016] In a new article today, Frankfurter Allgemeine also switches headlines and goes with Fake News instead of its earlier focus on hate speech.

[Update 12/18/2016] Martin Schulz, the president of the EU Parliament, chimes in with a call for an EU wide law against 'Fake News'. "It shouldn't be much of a technical challenge to mark or delete 'Fake News'", says Mr. Schulz.

[Update 12/20/2016] Today, German digital rights and policies platform  published an analysis of the proposals from various politicians of the governing Berlin coalition, coming to the same conclusions the blogster condensed into its* post above. The article is in German.

[Update 12/24/2016] Yesterday, German media reported that the government is preparing to set up a "Center for Defense against Disinformation" under control of the government's press office in  Berlin. The German journalist union DJV came out strongly against the plan: No censorship agency!
According to the planning paper by the Interior Ministry, ethnic Turks and Russians are the groups most susceptible to "Fake News".

[Update 12/26/2016] Existing German laws work: Renate Kuenast, a prominent politician of the German Green party had Facebook delete a post that contained a made-up quote by her about the alleged murderer of a student in the southern city of Freiburg, and the DA investigates the FB page that published the post. The politician, however, is unhappy that it took Facebook "almost three days" to remove the post.

[Update 4/9/2017] Told you so.

The German government recently drafted new hate speech legislation mandating deletion of hate speech and with steep penalties for platforms that fail to "pull their weight". German all things digital site netzpolitik has a nice English version of the proposals and their dangers.

The bill, as bad as it was, relied on platform operators to delete entries in a civil law context.

But calls for a government agency have now surfaced. For instance, a member of parliament of the governing Christian Democrats wants a state agency to decide on content.

We used to call that censorship. 

* Because the blogster likes to be gender neutral, just because.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Fake news, deniable fake news (misdirection), and coincidences that can look like fake news

The blogster loves the current Fake News debate because it brings out the best and the worst in journalists and pundits.

It* does not feel like restating what more astute minds have already said.  Instead, the blogster will try to show how easily the lines become blurred between 'fake news', 'misdirection creating a deniable fake news effect', and 'coincidence potentially misinterpreted as fake news'.

1968 - Invasion of Czechoslovakia
A recent German and Czech study on the events of the Prague Spring and the way these were handled by the then West German foreign intelligence agency BND can be found on the website of the BND itself here. [Update 4/13/2018: golly, the document was disappeared and you get a 404, praise the power of screenshots!]

One of the historic documents in the study deals with press coverage of the events showing the BND in a good light, in a not so good one - and how the BND fixed the negative coverage.

For those of you who do not know German, the first part tells us which publications covered BND activities favorably. Then the letter goes: The negative comments in [redacted] of 23 and 24 August 1968 are explained by the fact that our [redacted] is currently on vacation. [redacted] was informed of this unpleasant publication and has since managed to get a positive piece on the work of the BND published in the [redacted]. Clippings will be provided later.

The blogster would call this fake news because influence was used to manage public perception, not to correct factual errors.

2015 - Shootdown of a Russian jet in the vicinity of the Turkey-Syria border
We simply link to Wikipedia for a description. The website of German tabloid BILD ran with this propaganda-like news headline:

It is a brilliant piece of misdirection. The text, the imagery, and the large "Putin attacks Turkey" all steer the reader to expect a military attack on Turkey while - at the same time - allowing BILD to proclaim innocently 'no, we mean verbally attacks Turkey, which he did, right'.

John Le Carre's description of a modern British spy and the coincidental resume of the Syrian White Helmets founder
Der Spiegel ran an interview recently with famous British ex-spy and spy novel author John Le Carre. The very nice interview contains one sentence in which Le Carre describes the hypothetical modern British spy. That person "would speak Arabic, have had training in the military special forces and be a former mercenary".
According to Wikipedia and this website, the founder of the Syrian 'White Helmets', James Le Mesurier, was a British Army Officer and a security consultant.
It would be easy to present what appears to be a coincidence as 'news'. As it is, all we have are a few unrelated factoids. All that's needed to turn this into a piece of 'fake news' would be to remove the "coincidental" from the paragraph headline.

Let's take another example, not from such a high profile, emotionally charged series of events. We know that missionaries have sometimes been spies, too. The blogster personally knows a former officer who became a missionary in New Guinea.
Juxtaposition is powerful, isn't it?

And no, the officer turned missionary did not moonlight as a spy.

* Gender neutral. 
** Der britische Spion der Gegenwart, gäbe es ihn denn, spreche Arabisch, habe in Sondereinheiten des Militärs trainiert, sei ehemaliger Söldner.

More Germans in the low wage sector - or how the taxpayer subsidizes your Porsche

Economic news in Germany tend to be even more fragmented than political reporting - in other words, the blogster calls German economic news a s****show.

Only three weeks ago, the press was exited about an increase in government tax revenue of 8.2% compared to October 2015.

One reason given was the good state of the labor market.

This week, the labor department report on the country's low wage sector flashed by briefly: roughly one out of five Germans are employed in the low wage sector. This means, about 20% of the workforce make less than 10 Euros an hour before taxes. To put this in perspective, the current national minimum wage stands at 8.50 Euros per hour. In terms of approximate purchasing power (not in terms of currency exchange rates), one Euro in Germany buys you approximately what a dollar will get you in the U.S. 

What did the reporting of such an important benchmark look like?

Zeit Online was typical, with a slightly rewritten agency report with a photo of nearly the same size as the text. According to the article, the numbers are up from 2006 (16.4%) and 2014 (18.4%).

That was about it.

Once again, you have to leave it to the readers to add context and to try and make some sort of sense of this news.

For example, one reader added a link to the German version of a phenomenon we know well in the U.S.: profitable companies paying workers so little that the government has to step in with social benefits.

Sure, the favorite American example is Walmart, and you can dismiss this with a cynical, 'well, they sell cheap crap. so what do you expect as salaries'.
This still misses the point, of course, but humans go to great lengths to not look stupid.

Would reading that German luxury car maker Porsche does the same to some of its temporary workers make you feel different?

Whether Walmart or Porsche, the effect of wages not high enough to make a living is the same: the government steps in an uses taxes to help. 

If you feel like reading more about the way German media have reported on the budget and taxes in the past two or so years, the updated post Germany's stealthy budget surplus, the "black zero", is upsetting many could be a starting point.

Monday, December 12, 2016

German country life: cheap local firewood and the very Geerman hurdles to get it

The flyer from town hall read:
For town residents only. One cubic meter of wood for 20 Euros, limit 5 cubic meters per household.

The town treats its residents well, the blogster thought. If you find a local firewood dealer, the lowest price will be 65 Euros/cubic meter. If you purchase at the co-op during the summer months, budget 100. And it is up from there.

Borrow a tractor and a trailer from a friend, and off we go, the blogster figured. Until it* saw the notes under the order section.

Oh, right, there are the conditions listed in the old post German chainsaw massacre, the equipment required and the chainsaw permit.

Well, if I buy the equipment and take the course, we'll see a return on investment in two years. Not bad.

Bio-oil for the chainsaw seems not unreasonable as a requirement.

Wait, for the vehicle, too?

Any tractor entering a forest must use bio-oil only.

In most countries, the forest service person who supervises the pickup of your lot would not ask the oily question when you show up. If he or she did, you'd be safe simply claiming that, of course, your vehicle uses only bio-oil and grease.

In Germany, you cannot assume a wink and a nod will get you the wood, even though you pay the town before pickup.

The blogster has lived here long enough to know that 10 or 20 Euros can earn a small favor from the trash collectors or take someone by surprise, making him or her forget to write a receipt, or things like that.

But this is for locals, for folks who often have known each other since before kindergarten.

So, the blogster will figure out just how badly it wants the cheap firewood.

* Gender neutral.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Feel like calling population 'deplorables' without using the term - Gemany's 'Christian Democrats' can help

German Chancellor Merkel recently decided to run again for the post of Chancellor in the 2017 national election, so she continues to be the headliner at the annual party convention this week.

As such, she gave a speech, which you can watch in all its glory on Youtube. The normally taciturn physicist and former member of the East German socialist Free German Youth has weathered many a crisis and has many admirers and detractors.

The blogster has not followed her path closely and won't claim expertise on all things Merkel. It* would like to say a few things about the convention speech, though.

Historical ignorance
Just after minute 5:30 in the speech, she refers to events after "the dissolution of the two blocks" following the collapse of the Iron Curtain.
Whoever wrote the speech seems to embrace the post-truth paradigm we have been hearing so much about.
This is so patently false that the blogster repeated the sequence several times to make sure it had heard correctly.

The speech contains many other "lego blocks" of conservative German politics, for example the claim of Christian values, the "socially tempered" market economy, criticism of Russia, and more. Obligatory support for a burqa ban and opposition to "Sharia" were included, too.

The Deplorables
The speech contains two nice examples of ways to attack your citizens without calling them deplorables. The first one has riled up people because of its simplicity: "Some who have been living here forever could also use an integration course".
Integration courses are, of course, the German way to integrate foreigners, especially refugees, into society.
The statement is gorgeous in its condescending simplicity straight out of a stand-up comedy routine. Note that she does not specify the nationality or the ethnicity of those "some".

While this dig takes aim at anti-refugee views, Ms. Merkel can do better. She manages to accuse opponents of the trade agreement TTIP of cynicism, selfishness, and callousness without using any of these labels. 

Here is how it is done: To be honest, when a free trade agreement with the United States gets hundreds of thousands to protest in the streets but the cruel bombing
of Aleppo stirs hardly any protest, then something is wrong with the political standards.

See, nothing is wrong with the opponents - only with their political standards. Her audience understands this very well because they reward the statement with sustained applause.

And so does a commentator in Frankfurter Allgemeine, who calls it "Merkel's most important sentence". The gentleman continues: The chancellor gave an important lesson in cynicism.***

The blogster agrees!

It is utterly cynical to conflate opposition to TTIP with Aleppo.

As in so many other cases, some reader comments under this supremely stupid little OpEd are as mature and as insightful as it gets.

No, it is no consolation that the speech is not really addressing you or me but a venue full of party heads.

* Gender neutral the blogster writes.
** Our translation of the segment following the 5:30 intro.
*** Die Kanzlerin hat eine wichtige Lektion in Zynismus erteilt.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Add a little more hay to the haystack: fine tune your social media profile and connections

With the sweeping UK surveillance law nicknamed "Snooper's Charter" entering in force on 29 November 2016, the blogster figured this would be a good time to talk about your social media presence.

Privacy and security on the internet are big, complicated issues. This post is not about the latest and greatest in VPN tools, encryption and the like. If you use restricted groups or invitation only accounts, your real or perceived needs are already quite different from the rest of us, and this reminder is not for you.

This post is about a couple of very simple basic things that require very little effort and are about one thing only.

About making you just a little less interesting to some of the many companies and entities that collect data on you.

Make yourself a little more bland.

Or think of it as dressing for work, or as putting on make-up.
What to do:
Add "fluff" to your profile and connections. Become "friends" with celebrities you don't particularly like.
If you are a political conservative, add some lefties to the list of people you follow on Twitter.
If you identify with some sort of leftish world view, add some conservatives. 
As an atheist, add some religious accounts.
Find some comedy, add.
Find some science, add.
Baking, cycling, sports you never watch or perform, go for them.
You are in China? Follow that great communist party - it makes them feel important and secure.
In Turkey? Pick lots of government news outlets.

Then go and mute folks or hide them or their posts.

At the end of the day, obviously, what you post, re-post, tweet or blog is much more likely to get you into trouble than a list of "friends" or "follows".

There may even be an added bonus for the more curious users: you might get out of that dreaded filter bubble and discover something new.

Friday, December 2, 2016

German TV: "Imperial attitude - the long arm of US law"

Now that the US Congress has extended Iran sanctions for another 10 years, here is a timely story on how sanctions work or don't work.

On 1 December 2016, German investigative TV series Panorama had a segment on German citizens getting caught up in US Iran sanctions and ending up on the US list of "Specially Designated Nationals" (SDN).   

On the same day, Frankfurter Allgemeine published a long read based on the Panorama investigation.

The main subject of the report is a German business man who worked at a Cologne company that dealt with recovering payments by Iranian entities for goods and services.

In 2014, accused by the U.S. Treasury of having violated sanctions under both the terror financing (IFSR) and non-proliferation (NPWMD) regimes, he and the company he worked for asked for the reasons for the inclusion on the SDN. At the same time, they asked the German Central Bank (Bundesbank) for an audit of all Iran transactions. Mind you, the company had already applied for and being granted permission for each Iran transaction for years.

The audit turned up no wrong doing.

With the company heading for bankruptcy, it laid of Mr. W and was taken off the SDN in return. W. was not told why he ended up on the list. A letter from a Frankfurt, Germany, based law office on behalf of the Treasury had all relevant information redacted.

Mr. W. remained on the SDN under "Subject to Secondary Sanctions (individual) [NPWMD]

This is somewhat boring, but what happened next is probably the best illustration of the long reach of U.S. law, as the TV show calls it.

To recap, Mr. W. is a German citizen living in Germany, and the German authorities had certified all dealings with Iran were legal under the overall sanctions regime which Germany enforces, too.

Now unemployed, this is what happened to W.:
1) German banks cancelled his bank accounts and his credit cards - because of him being on the American list.
2) Deutsche Telekom refused to honor a cell phone contract for a Apple phone. They offered to let him out of his contract before expiration or send him a Samsung or Sony replacement phone. Reason: no American product for someone on the SDN.
3) Mr. W.'s mother bought a set of garden furniture in the German town where she lives and asked German company Schenker to ship the set to her son as a present. Schenker refused because of - you guessed it - him being on the American list.

When he petitioned the Treasury for removal from the SDN, they instead asked him for details on travel and meetings and - get this - a resume.

For more on this case as well another one, see Frankfurter Allgemeine (ask a friend or use Google translate) or check out the Panorama episode.

As for Mr. W., the blogster checked the SDN in the archives and found that the gentleman was removed from the SDN in January of 2016.

Don't ask whether he received an apology or damages for losing his job.

He takes the optimistic view: better this than Gitmo.

The blogster is known for poking Germans with this provocative statement: you are aware that even the most incompetent and dumbest American congressman has more power than Angela Merkel, are you not?

In case you wonder, experts in international law say this kind of extension of US law not legal.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

How LED lights saved German outdoor Christmas decorations

It's that time of the year again.

Which means, photos of American homes decked out for Christmas will soon be seen in photospreads on German websites and newspapers.

Or, thanks to Youtube, you can watch XMas drive-bys by Germans all year round, for example this one.

In contrast, Germany has looked dark and forbidding despite the fact that the Christmas tree as we know it was popularized here, then made its way to England and the rest of the world.

Even the year-round Christmas shop in the town of Rothenburg - an attraction visited by probably 80% of American soldiers stationed in Germany over the past 40 years - had no effect on the gloom of outdoor decorations in a country at 50 degrees north.

But it has not always been this way, and it is changing again.

It was the lady of the Turkish Kebab Shop who pointed out that Germans used to do outdoor decorations when she was a child. She loved these lights, she explained with a smile. Oh, and she is still a Muslim.

She also told us that the natives stopped putting garlands of light on shrubs and small trees.

We wondered why that was.

Had there been a war on Christmas, which the natives lost? Did the continued exodus from Churches manifest in dying lights?

As it turns out, the explanation was much simpler: the power bill. Electricity costs tripled in Germany over the last twenty years and stand at about 29 Euro cents per Kilowatt-hour.

How can we be sure?

Well, we cannot be certain but LEDs have taken off in the last two or three years, and so have outdoor Christmas lights.

By our non-representative count, the number of outdoor installations has approximately doubled compared to last year.

They are not as garish and involved as some American ones, but we have seen LED reindeer and multicolored LED strands.

Another reason might be that the local adolescent vandals have moved away or grown up. After all, someone cut our LED lights a couple of years back.