Friday, March 31, 2017

Get yourself a VPN already for private internet use

If you still do not use a virtual private network (VPN) regularly, you should spend some time to get connected to one and make using it a habit.

The habit part is as important as setting up a VPN. If you cannot do it yourself, ask a friend or the teenage nephew to do it for you.

No money - no (big) problem
Great unlimited VPN service comes at a cost, although prices for decent VPNs can be as low as a few dollars per month. Which really shouldn't bother you if you are the proud owner of a high end smart phone. However, if you spent your last buck on the flashy hardware or are simply poor, you can still get some privacy and security at no cost. 

Getting into the habit - free services for occasional use or travel
You can search the web for free VPN services, and you will find many, for example this pcadvisor comparison page. Read up on features and drawbacks or limits carefully, and the ad free offerings will help you use the internet securely while you travel.

Opera, the web browser with built in free VPN
The company behind the web browser Opera has a track record of innovation despite not being one of the big names in the web browser world. In late 2016, they added free VPN to their Opera browser.
Simple, isn't it? Unlike a "full" VPN which makes all of your applications/programs go through the VPN, this one is for the browser only. That's good enough for most web uses, like browsing or internet banking.

SoftEther - free open source power VPN
For the more technically inclined or those with techie friends, the blogster recommends SoftEther. Originating out of a research project in Japan in the early 2000s, SoftEther has become a versatile, fast VPN solution that uses donated server bandwidth in many countries, although primarily in Asia.

SoftEther is not difficult to install and use, no worries. At the same time, it has advanced features that make it a geek's delight.

You can use the latter to entice the nerd friend or the nephew to install SoftEther and configure it for you. When you ask "can you help me set up a VPN" make sure to add "you know, the documentation says it even runs over ICMP and DNS".

If this does not get his or her attention, you are either dealing with a snob or someone who pretends to know more about computers than they actually do.

There is no need to tell them that the feature may sometimes cause problems. 

Think about Christmas & get a paid VPN
It is never to early to think about what you want for Christmas or as a birthday present, whichever comes first.
While experimenting with one of the free VPN solutions described above, research the commercial offerings and get one as a Christmas present.

In the meantime, should you be so unlucky to find yourself accused of illegal download or upload of a movie or a song and face hundreds or even a thousand or more dollars in fines and legal fees, interpret this as a sign of the universe to move to a full VPN.

[Update 1/4/2017]  Because the blogster feels generous today, here are two favorite paid services. Not cheap, but among the best you can buy.

Perfect Privacy, no logs, no hard disks (RAM only!), TOR access

[Update 5/24/2017] There currently is a 3 Months Free special by VyprVPN. You can get it here.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Breitbart: viciousness as a business model

The K-Landnews very own grumpy TheEditor coined the title of today's post and added, for good measure, think German tabloid Bild Zeitung, the British SUN or a bunch of others, but with the world's biggest military and the world's biggest bigots behind it. Breitbart is so much like Bild Zeitung or the SUN, you can't even give them credit for innovation in linguistic harm.

Reading Breitbart for several days felt like eating junk food piled high on white bread all day. Followed by a deep visceral urge to vomit.

In addition to time tested emotional trigger word choices, such as calling Planned Parenthood an "abortion chain", Breitbart produces copy like this, for example on a right to healthcare:

How a right to healthcare would "force others to ensure you are healthy" fails the most basic test of logic, but they print it anyway because logic does not matter.

What worries me most, TheEditor continued, is how they have embraced the concept of "fake news", they really weaponized it. 

You can see this in the piece on the CBS Sunday news show 60 Minutes, where they write Curtis Houck at NewsBusters notes that 60 Minutes’ Sunday report, “How Fake News Becomes a Popular, Trending Topic,” admits that the audience for “fake news” tailored to the left is mostly “affluent and college educated.”

The piece is nothing more than a few highlights from a site called Newsbusters, which in turn bills itself as "Exposing & combating liberal media bias". Not only do Breitbart and Newsbusters feed off of each other, for example with both featuring the same Planned Parenthood story.

They also feed on the allegedly biased liberal media, absorbing articles one could highlight as proof of unbiased writing by the New York Times or reporting by Spanish speaking TV channel Univision into their narrative of the evil liberals.

A Univision report on deportees finding work in Mexico and being happy with their new life is swiftly turned into an argument that deportation can be beneficial - for their own good, so to speak. Despite the wide spread U.S. conservative "speak English" mentality, Newsbusters also offers a Spanish version of its Latino section, showing that the dividing lines in society go right through communities and ethnic groups. Saying this just in case you hadn't noticed Ben Carson chiding black people.

Breitbart has added several locations to its site over time with their focus very much "traditional conservative/FOX News derived":

Breitbart London: Brexit is freedom, Muslims are bad.
Breitbart Jerusalem: Don't ever call us anti-Semitic again, and Iran and Hamas are the evil ones.
Breitbart Texas: H1-Bs, rape & more rape (but not by Americans), the left and its bathroom bills and 'sanctuary cities'
Breitbart California: more evil liberals, good news from the USGS is that many liberal areas could fall into the sea

If Breitbart actually comes to Germany in 2017, the section will be Breitbart Germany or Breitbart Berlin, and you can probably expect Muslims are bad, Social Democrats are destroying Germany, the country's social security system rewards moochers, the EU exploits Germany.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Tweaking Germans - social security retirement checks at the end of the months & taxes on benefits

You may know that Germany is the home of the modern social security retirement system. The 19 century imperial chancellor Bismarck, whose name has an uncanny similarity with a US state capital for a good reason, gave the country the social security system not out of the goodness of his heart - his nickname is Iron Chancellor - but because of widespread unrest and social upheaval.

Over the past 40 odd years, successive German governments have "reformed" the system many times. Reform is in quotes, because the term traditionally is benign, implying improvement, whereas modern usage really means cuts.

Some "reforms" have attracted little attention outside of the country, in part because they are obvious compared to other national systems, in part because they have been too small to make news.

The most significant example in the first category was the change from a post-tax deduction to a limited pre-tax regime.

For the longest time, German workers paid income tax on their social security deduction and were rewarded with tax free pensions.

This changed with the major "carrot and stick reforms" of the early 2000s. Small carrots, big stick, that is.

There now is a base amount of deductions that is tax free, and amounts beyond that can be claimed as deductions on the tax return, resulting in some tax savings. Retirement benefits are currently tax free up to some 5000 Euros a year, with everything beyond that taxable. Starting in 2040, all retirement income will be taxable. Given that payroll deductions are not completely tax free and income is taxable, some retirement benefits are effectively taxed twice.

The government is very happy about this.

The press reported this week that the 2017 pension hike will bring about 625 million additional tax revenue for the government by 2018, of which some 205 million are 2017, the rest in 2018.

This is not a negligible amount, given that three quarters of German pensioners are still not eligible for income tax on pensions as of 2017 because their total pension does not exceed the general income tax threshold of about 8600 Euros per year.

What makes this new system so attractive for the government are two factors. The first, already mentioned, is that workers pay some tax on deductions withheld. The second is the duration of pension benefits.

Average life expectancy has been rising and with it the duration of pension benefits, whereas the period in which workers pay into the system has not changed as much, although the percentage of deductions withheld has gone up too. Granted, full retirement age is rising to 67 years in the near future, but that's less than life expectancy has risen.

Taxing pensions shifts the balance. While social security will continue to pay out for a longer time, government tax revenues rise substantially. If some of these revenues are given back to social security, the government will look generous and fiscal conservatives can continue to complain about "increasing government subsidies to social security".

Other tweaks to the system could be dismissed as "nickeling and diming", but this would be a mistake because the sums of money are so huge that these nickel and dime measures add up to millions in annual "savings" (i.e. cuts) each.

One such under reported change in the big "reform" package was changing the payout of pensions from the beginning of the month to the end of the month.

While the social security carriers do benefit from this, the main beneficiaries have been corporate private pension plans. These invest contributions in stocks and equities, and an extra 30 days before each payout makes a big difference.

At the same time, the calculation of benefits from corporate plans was changed. The effect can be a "negative return". One example the blogster knows of is an older German who paid money into a voluntary corporate scheme several decades ago for six years. The benefit to be paid once the person reaches full retirement age was 3.50 Deutschmarks a month, i.e. 1.50 Euros, a buck and a half.

Roughly worth a pack of cigarettes at the time, the 1.50 will remain fixed forever, there will be no increase even if and when that person reaches retirement age at 67.
Last time we checked, a pack of cigs is at about 6 Euros, and in general inflation terms, one Euro bought roughly the same as one Deutschmark when the blogster moved to Germany years ago.

As a matter of fact, the cost of a bank transaction is currently at about 1 Euro per transaction, trending up, which means that our German is set for a serious negative return on those pension contributions taken out of a paycheck for six years straight.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

German federal parliament rule change to thwart the populist AfD after upcoming elections

It is fair to say there is no love for the "populist" AfD (Alternative for Germany) among the established German parties.

The blogster firmly believes in equal opportunity in skewering parties, and has done so for the AfD too, for example, when one of its leaders warned that the refugee influx in 2015 was "like barbarians flooding the borders of the Roman Empire".
The blogster reminded the gentleman that the barbarians flooding the empire had in fact been Germans.

From outside the country, the lines between the good democrats and the bad "right-wing" AfD may appear clear and simple. Reality has been a lot more complex. The big conservative parties CDU (Christian Democrats, present in all of Germany except Bavaria) and CSU (Christian Social Union, present in Bavaria only) have had strong right-wing factions ever since they were founded after World War II.

These right-wingers were not called right-wingers like or extremist, both terms used by the main stream media for the AfD.

Right-wing voters and politicians of the CDU/CSU were instead referred to as "value conservatives", "true conservatives", or simply as "very conservative" in a "people's party".

The official language of the parties described the desired phenomenon as "there should bot be a party to the right of the CDU/CSU".

To the simple minded blogster, this looks like a nifty dog whistle. Yet, it works just as in the U.S., where Republicans can be as xenophobic and nasty as they want as long as they add the usual disclaimers regarding their commitment to democracy and the rule of law.

Occasionally, someone of note in German pierces this nicely constructed narrative but not much happens. Take for example a piece by one of the publishers of the mainstream centrist daily Frankfurter Allgemeine discussed in this post: Publisher of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung sees Bavarian Christian Social Union as home of populist AfD voters.

The established parties have been using all the tricks in the book and some off the books to weaken the AfD, especially since the party managed to get into several state legislatures in a string of state elections in 2015.

Here are some examples:
In the state of Rhineland Palatinate, the governing social democrats initially refused to join a televised debate if an AfD candidate was present.
In Wuerttemberg, a social democrat refused to shake hands with an AfD member of the state legislature.
In Bremen, the established majority parties set out to change the rules for the "independent" public broadcaster to prevent the AfD from gaining a seat on the oversight body.

The latest move comes from the leader of the federal legislature in Berlin.

The CDU president of the federal parliament (a position similar to the U.S. Speaker of the House) suggested to change the rules for the largely ceremonial position of "president by seniority" (something like pro tempore) of the parliament.

Since the founding of the new republic, the president by seniority has been the oldest member of parliament.

His or her only real job was to prepare the first session of a new parliament after national elections and initiate the election of the speaker.

Nobody had a problem with giving the oldest person in the room a day in the limelight until now.

That's because the parties have recently finished the process of nominating candidates for the election in Fall, and it turns out the the AfD has fielded the oldest person of all parties very close to the top of its list of candidates. Since all polls forecast that the AfD will clear the 5% limit and get into the federal parliament, this all but ensures a place in parliament for him in the proportional system used in Germany.

And guess what?

The AfD person would be the pro temp.

So, the current president of parliament came out with a call to change how the pro temp is appointed.

Instead of by age, the new system would make the longest serving member of parliament the pro temp.

The argument made in public is that this would ensure an experienced member of parliament would prepare the first session of the body.

The real reason, mentioned in some articles, is to prevent the AfD from getting the job.

The social democrats, the current junior partner in Ms. Merkel's government, waited a few days and have since signaled agreement.  Their speaker, Mr. Oppermann, finds is a great idea to have an experienced member as pro temp.

Of course, he would. Even though nobody has worried about experience for half a century.

A nice side effect of the change would be that it basically automatically favors one of the larger parties, the CDU/CSU and the SPD because only they can be assured to have some long term members in parliament.

Thus, the rule change has a majority and is pretty much a done deal.

So, expect Germany's pro temp in Fall to be none other than Mr. Schaeuble, famous for his hard nosed politics and also for having handled cash donations in brown paper envelopes a few decades back.

[Update 4/28/2017] The deed is done, with the required approval of the full parliament only  formality. The longest serving MP will get the job.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Admission that neo-liberal economics is bunk found in -- a New York Times obituary

You really should read more obituaries.


This one, in the New York Times of 21 February 2017, has not been read by many people. And with the demise of rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry and some more bone headed conjectures about bad Putin or the Golfer n Chief, the chances that anybody will go back to the obit of Kenneth Arrow are nil.

Even economists will agree on that.

Modern free marketeers love the gentleman for this part of his work:
Professor Arrow proved that their system of equations mathematically cohere: Prices exist that bring all markets into simultaneous equilibrium (whereby every item produced at the equilibrium price would be voluntarily purchased). And market competition puts society’s resources to good use: Competitive markets are efficient, in the language of economists.

Professor Arrow’s theorems set out the precise conditions under which Adam Smith’s famous conjecture in “The Wealth of Nations” holds true: that the “invisible hand” of market competition among self-serving individuals serves society well.

The math is good.

It proves that the invisible hand of the market of all those self-serving individuals - you and me included - works!

The marvelous policies that brought us various crashes, austerity, and assorted indignities like social services cuts were not for naught.

Except for the next paragraph in the obit, separated from the just quoted ones by a big headline that extols Arrow's work as having had Relevance Over Decades.

As was true of his earlier work on social choice, the magnitude of Professor Arrow’s theoretical insight was staggering. But, he made clear, his powerful conclusions about the workings of competitive markets held true only under ideal — that is to say, unrealistic — assumptions.

So, there you have it. The math is true but useless because the underlying assumptions are unrealistic.

All that counts in the eyes of the author of the obituary is that Professor Arrow proved that the economists’ workaday tools of supply-and-demand equations are built on a logically coherent foundation.

Which is pretty much exactly what most religions are: logically coherent foundations built on unrealistic assumptions.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Democrats won't save you -- Trump's 1980's Colorado Democrat politics

The Republican onslaught on 'Obamacare' is in full swing, and Democrats have nothing, unless you think that Hillary Clinton's possible return to public life, reported in today's TheGuardian, is a good thing.

Her recipe, according to the article, "But she urged a divided country to work together to solve problems,..."

Which brings the blogster to a brief post involving a former three time Democratic governor of Colorado. 

In a 1996 piece, the CATO Institute wrote this about the gentleman:
Among Lamm’s key issues are establishing population control, stopping immigration, raising taxes to reduce the deficit, increasing tariffs for greater trade protection and ending “excessive” medical care for the elderly.

Except for "raising taxes", this could describe Donald Trump and the Republican Party.

The awful "American Health Care Act" hits medical care for the elderly rather nicely in line with the call of this Democrat back in the 1970s and 80s.

The new administration still has to follow through with the tariffs, so we'll see.

The former governor, meanwhile, is no longer an advocate of tax hikes, and he has held a high office at the University of Colorado, which provides generous government financed health insurance, thus ensuring he can continue to call for curbs to health expenditures.

In this interview from 2016 in the Denver Post, his main prescription for the country bears an uncanny resemblance to Mrs. Clinton's "work together" call: the first issue is how do you make the political machine work in a more bipartisan basis.

In U.S. domestic policy over the past generation or so, "bipartisan" has been held up by prominent Democrats and Republicans alike, but reality has not held up, and "bipartisan" has been used to beat Democrats into submission.

In foreign policy, you can play a game of spot the difference and come up largely empty handed, except that the most offensive bellicose and ridiculous propositions tend to come from Republicans. 

But then again, see Mr. Lamm.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Multi-channel sneaky communication - the old fashioned way and a modern version using a custom HTTP header

From our Add more hay to the internet haystack series.

Multi-channel communication is simply a fancy term for something we all have done many times without thinking twice about it.

An example would be a letter from your friendly local government and you picking up the telephone to call the clerk because you have a question regarding the content. In this example, we have two physical channels, the paper letter and the telephone line. If you follow up on the phone call by email, you made it "multi" by adding a third channel.

We also know this behavior can cause problems.

Have you ever received a follow-up letter, for instance a payment reminder and reacted furiously with "but I called, and it was all cleared up"? Maybe you had to pay a fine because of confusion resulting from the use more than one communication channel, maybe everything was indeed resolved after the call.

Modern companies and government agencies spend a lot of time and money to collect communication from different channels in a single repository to make purchases traceable, to provide good customer service, to fulfill legal compliance requirements, or to analyze our lives.

So, if you want communication to be less easily traceable, how about using more than one channel?

Let's give a real life, fun example with potentially serious security implications.

Imagine a team of three burly military police arrives at your office one morning, and the guy in the middle - it is always the one in the middle, you know that from the movies - has a briefcase with a document for you.

You read it, and then you come across an acronym that can have more than one meaning. Unfortunately, the difference is critical, and you don't have a secure phone line to the author hundreds of miles away.

You can call the author and tell him or her you have "a document" and would like to clarify "an acronym" on "page 123, line 4, the second acronym". To put the person at ease, tell him or her you don't want to discuss details, you just want to verify that it means what you think it means. A simple yes or no answer.

If somebody is listening in, they won't get much.

An example from the saga of whistleblower Edward Snowden was the use of Twitter by journalists to transmit a fingerprint value. In this example, Twitter can be considered one channel, the other being email.

Computer technology has removed many of the existing physical boundaries that made traditional surveillance difficult and costly. Even so, new, if narrower, channels were created, and they are still useful despite increasing monitoring by private entities and governments alike.

This is basically what the image of the internet as a haystack describes.

Sifting through a haystack for a needle implies discarding stuff that looks like dry grass, which is what the monitoring agents do and what activists and privacy activists try to exploit. Disguising meaningful information as pixels in images or bytes in sound files, and sending protected data by turning them into http text (web page) traffic are some examples of this.

For sneaky nerds, custom HTTP headers can be a handy method of communication without triggering suspicious algorithms watching on a server along the internet. This works because servers that forward traffic ignore custom headers not meant for them and simply pass them on.

Bob and Alice
For example, Bob has a website he wants to use to chat with Alice. So, he writes a small online game and puts it up. Anybody who has internet access can play, including the school kid in India or the retiree in Georgia. The game also includes code that reads and writes a custom http header called, for example, 'x-gameinfo'.
He writes a corresponding version for Alice and gives it to her on a USB stick the next time they meet at their favorite coffee shop, NAS.

From here on out, Alice can play the game and send Bob short encrypted messages as values in the x-gameinfo custom header. Or she can just play.

To make sure that there is always an x-gameinfo header, Bob has written the online game in such a manner that the code sends some "non-message" version of x-gameinfo if any person other than him or Alice are playing.

A suspicious algorithm trying to make sure the internet runs fine will not understand that Bob and Alice are planning their next date at NAS or are working out details of the surprise birthday party for Charlie, who turns 30 in May.

Monday, March 13, 2017

How improved bulk trash pickup killed a German cottage industry of furniture re-use

One piece of good news for Americans in Germany is: bulk trash pickup works the same way.

You fill out a card with the request or go to the utility website and enter it there. They schedule and notify you of the pickup date.

There are some differences as to what items German waste management folks will take. And they enforce their choices by leaving non-conforming items behind so you can schlepp them back under the watchful eyes of the neighbors. If you have any. 
The rule of thumb for modern day German bulk collectors is that they take stuff that is typically used inside the house, mostly all sorts of furniture, small accessories, and the like. Windows count as building material - they won't take any. 

The basic process, though, is the same.

The trucks look similar, too, with their big hydraulic compactor at the back. Steering wheels are exclusively on the left in Germany, never on the right.

Most of the bulk trash is driven straight to the nearest big city incinerator for "recycling".

The old version of bulk trash pickup was done on a single day for all households.

And because whole neighborhoods or whole towns put their bulk trash out on a single evening, a cottage industry of scavengers managed to make a decent living picking through discarded stuff.

In cities, so the blogster has been told, these scavengers were soon joined by migrant workers when they arrived in large numbers in booming post war West Germany.

This article in the weekly Der Spiegel from 1972 provides an entertaining look at the phenomenon.

In Hamburg, says the article, monthly bulk trash day had become an almost festive event, with people coming out after dark to rummage through the mountains of stuff. Neither the police nor the utility company was worried, although technically people were stealing. Ownership of the trash remained with the discarding person until utility workers loaded it into the truck.

The diverse groups of scavengers came from all walks of life, from students to academics, and even included off duty police officers.

The utility chief was happy: every cubic meter they take is one less for us to dispose off. It's a win - win.

Antiques dealers joined, too. And the article quotes one man who built a successful business with six employees on the monthly bulk trash hunt.

At some later time, probably in the late 1980s or the 1990s, the system switched to on demand pickup, and the cottage industry collapsed.

Every now and then, on the way to somewhere in our hill country, the blogster spots a lone pile or two of bulk trash for pickup the next day.

And it* slows down and checks out the goodies. Two nice chairs on the porch and a gorgeous 1950s living room chair prove that even today too many perfectly good things are thrown away. 

* Gender neutral.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The German netzpolitik treason investigation and government lawyers

There is yet another article in a major German paper about the aborted 2015 treason investigation into the bloggers.

Today, zeit online runs a long read titled "Who lied" (in German) that tries to untangle the timeline, the controversial statements made at the time by the investigating federal DA and his boss, the justice minister.

The 2015 investigation ended without indictment after the DA was fired after claiming pressure from the justice ministry amounted to attacking "the independence of the justice system".

Since then, the "external expert" tasked by the DA to study whether the publication by netzpolitik of some confidential and secret information amounted to treason has published his study. It is behind a paywall, but the salient point made since it appeared in 2016 and again in the Zeit article is that, yes, "some" of the information were state secrets, according to the law professor author of the paper.

Since the DA early on made was reluctant to press the investigation without the study by his external expert, the blogster had two questions:
1) Who was the expert
2) Does the classification "confidential" even rise to the level of state secret?

The Blogster's answer to the second question was no, German intel agency declares a "Confidential" doc a state secret. Lo and behold, this opinion matches the one by the justice ministry, according to the leaked publication of its own study into the matter.

The blogster's answer to question one was that initial statements by the DA made it very likely the "external expert" would not be a neutral one. At the time, this was pure speculation on the part of the blogster, although based on time spent working for a government in a position that involved, let's say, interesting restricted data.

As it turns out, the DA's expert was non other than a professor who teaches surveillance law and privacy law to recruits of Germany's foreign intelligence agency BND.

Netzpolitik says in this article that the gentleman even has a BND ID.

Reporting on the not-so-external expert's paper in 2016 as well as the current article in Zeit online seems focused on finding fault with the minister, accepting the not-so-external expert's paper as gospel while dismissing the justice ministry's as politically motivated.

Two posts from the time for further reading: Treason complaint and the domestic intel agency chief behind the complaint.

German readers may also enjoy the post "Bullshit Alert" that tried to explain the bureaucratic strategies of not taking responsibility and/or blame.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

CIA leaks: Germany's most incompetent infosec "expert" strikes again - shooting the messenger

Note: The blogster had been hoping to grab the honorific "Germany's most incompetent infosec person" for itself*, but reluctantly gave up and left if to Dr. Sandro Gaycken. A year ago, this director of a private German institution of higher education accused Apple of profiteering in Apple vs. the FBI - and got it wrong.

Today, in the same paper, he declares Now, everybody can be the NSA in a guest comment on the Wikileaks publication of CIA documents.

While his Apple hit job tried to make many technical arguments, the current piece is a classic "shoot the messenger" opus.

The lede declares the CIA leak more dangerous than earlier leaks, states that it exposes one of the world's biggest intelligence agencies, and then teases: The damage is more serious.

Proclaiming it more serious than the Snowden leaks, Mr. G. launches into military imagery. It is a genuine explosion, maybe with delayed effect, but a mega ton strength one with global consequences.

He then talks of how this, likely first installment contains detailed how to instructions: and code pieces for high quality hacking attacks. For example, how to to use publicly available hacking tools, how to build weapons development systems, lists many structural weaknesses in security technology and operating systems, which versions of Windows, Linux and Solaris operating systems can be attacked most easily and are particularly attractive...

Judiciously placed adjectives are one of Mr. G.'s favorite instruments of exacerbation. The documents even include attacks on embedded systems...****

A crowd pleaser in the auto building nation of Germany is his mention of targeted killings using attacks on the systems of vehicles.

This, he then postulates, could hit German technology companies particularly hard, as they now need to assess the potential dangers and have to develop rock solid security concepts for affected areas of technology within the shortest possible time.

Having pumped up the urgency, he segues without as much as blinking into a process that would normally take years and for which there is already little appetite and money.

Another cadence of alarming bits and pieces then goes into "iffing": If the whole archive were to be published.... The world would be completely compromised. Then everybody could be his own NSA.

So much for the "now" in the title.

Having already attacked Wikileaks several times, such as when putting responsible redactions in quotes, he finishes off with the bold claim that this leak renders the CIA impotent and calls for questioning the limits of responsibility in leaks and why it is Wikileaks that blasts tools for attacks and mass surveillance into the world.

The claim that the leaks render the CIA impotent really goes to show that Gaycken has no idea what he is talking about, and the rest of the final paragraph is shooting the messenger par excellence.

Coming from an expert, you would at least expect to find a work on the ShadowBrokers release of NSA tools, would you not?

You would also expect to hear that the intelligence agencies have been talking of owning embedded systems and the Internet of Things. Maybe his "little appetite and money" phrase is his way of expressing concern.

Gaycken omits that many of the attacks in the Vault 7 release that deal with smart phones require physical access, which takes the blogster and even Mr. G. out of the target group.

Boring little details of the Vault 7 documents, such as the list of most popular routers on Amazon hardly qualify as alarming. The premature self deletion of an implant caused by a simple subtraction error in coding doesn't either.

Redirection of execution via the Windows registry or DLL injection are well known boring concepts.

And why is setting up keyboard shortcuts in the Options dialog of Microsoft Visual Studio classified as SECRET//NOFORN in the first place?

The blogster is well aware of the outsize role that "security through obscurity" continues to play in computing.  Relying on this is stupid, though.

** Es handelt sich um eine echte Explosion, vielleicht mit verzögerter Wirkung, aber im Megatonnen-Bereich und mit globalen Folgen.

*** Unter den Publikationen finden sich sogar Angriffe auf eingebettete Systeme

* Gender neutral.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Mysterious Germany: Call for a quota for male MDs because - there are too few says an emeritus

Did you know the German health care system suffers from an excessively high number of female medical doctors?

That is the bold claim of a German professor emeritus in one of the country's five bid dailies.

Not to be taken lightly, unlike the blog you are reading right now.

So, what is the gentleman's..ahem...beef?

The introduction is a common and valid statement of numbers: The number of medical doctors in Germany is set to decline substantially in rural GP offices and hospitals over the next ten years, and there are not enough new doctors to make up the shortfall.

If you wonder what that has to do with the number of women in the profession, welcome to the club.

The blogster's small mind wobbled and waved when it* read that "Only in private are doctors and politicians talking about an unstoppable feminization of the medical profession: about 65% of all new med students are women."

Still failing to see a problem with that, we are then quickly informed why that is bad. Says the man: Many drop out or leave the field after finishing (not working in the field, found a family, etc.). Of those female doctors who do work in the field, many only work part time, a problem especially for clinics which then don't have enough afternoon staff.

That is his reasoning for calling for more male medical doctors. It would be lovely to know how "many" he is talking about in private. So, he does not give any figures beyond the 65% and pointing out that 70% of women overall finish high school with better grades than men.

When did the feminization of medical doctors start? It was only in 1999 that the number of female med students surpassed that of male students for the very first time.
Older statistics from the 1970s show a distinct male-ization of the profession, with men making up about 75% of med students (in then West Germany).

Even with newly enrolled med students now at 65%, that's still less than the already progressive 1970s with males at 75%.

Sure, it is not the number as such but the "many" women who drop out, go into other fields or do the family thing later, the blogster understands.

It is not something that male medical doctors do, obviously. Male students don't drop out, the male MDs who become career politicians are cool, and if they have children, they do so not with female doctors. But nurses, hehe.

Let's talk about the remedies proposed by Emeritus. A perfect GPA does not mean you will be a good doctor, he goes.

The funny thing is, we have known that forever, but it was not used to advocate for a quota for women back then. Nope, women had to get in through school achievement.

But with women outperforming men in school, this now becomes a serious proposal.

He wants a psychological evaluation for med school candidates, too.

Oh, my, that is desperate.

Women will eat the guys' lunch even more if that is introduced. Unless the evaluation specifically sorts for male-y characteristics. Which wouldn't fly unless discrimination laws are changed accordingly.

The Emeritus must have forgotten a couple of pesky facts the health insurers cite on the subject of a lack of medical doctors. Statistics show two things:

1) There are more than enough doctors in the cities and the "lard belts", as they call the suburbs around here.
2) Many, as in 3000 in 2008, doctors leave Germany for other countries. That year, a grand total of about 10 000 graduated from med school in Germany.

However, there is one area where the blogster would happily support a male quota: for nurses.

It's nurses who do the heavy lifting, the hard work that sends many into early retirement, and male nurses are generally better at lifting the larger patients.

Also, male nurses might really enjoy being called "doctor" by patients and visitors in hospitals. It happens all the time.

Whereas female doctors being called "nurse" is really embarrassing.

* Gender neutral!

[Update 6/102017] Maybe the good emeritus would like to consider this brand new American medical blog article Overpowering the glass ceiling will take more than outnumbering men in the field.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Germany's annual "no, they are not poor" neoliberal media blitz

No one in their right mind would claim that there is a generally agreed definition of what being poor means. For an overview on "Extreme Poverty", using World Bank data, the very cool website "Our World in Data", has great charts that show a decline in "extreme poverty". Check them out

The annual neoliberal blitz we are talking about has nothing to do with this. It comes as a reflexive knee jerk when German charities publish their annual report on looming poverty in Germany.

All German media outlets cover the report to different degrees of detail. A fairly good overview of the key indicators can be found in this Zeit article.

To save you the effort, here is the gist of the new report: In 2015, some 15.7% of Germans, which translates into 12.9 million people, made less than 60% of the median income. The 60% is the report's criterion for "threatened by poverty". For a single adult, that's 942 Euros a month, for a family with two children under 14, it is 1978 Euros.

The overall result: the number of Germans threatened by poverty is at another record high.
There are huge differences for different segments of the population, with older unemployed people and single parents among the best known precarious groups.

The report does a very good job of explaining how the numbers came about, what went into them and what didn't. Poverty, or looming poverty, is an emotional subject at any time, but even more so in an election year that recently saw the new Social Democrat candidate for chancellor call for easing the tight social benefits regime instituted in the early 2000s. Known as Agenda 2010, or Hartz IV for its centerpiece, it is famous for grumpy jobcenter personnel, sanctions (cuts) for the most minute deviation from the rules.

But the exact findings of the report really don't matter to its critics.

While critics mostly dismiss the figure of 932 Euros as too high in comparison with other countries in their preferred apples and oranges approach, they usually don't go as far as one professor quoted in "centrist" Frankfurter Allgemeine, who called the report "nonsense and dumb".

Nobody seriously working on the subject was taking the official numbers seriously, the gentleman claimed. The charities had no interest in the real picture, because, if they had, "they would find that poverty has been declining down for years".

Note the unspecific "for years". Shouldn't a scientist be more focused if he levels a Trumpian "nonsense and dumb" attack?

So, what does the prof see as a serious approach? You'd have to determine needs, baskets of goods, and keep those up to date, he says. That's a lot of effort, which is why nobody is doing it in the first place.

Wait, did a scientist call the report nonsense and claim a few sentences down that nobody (which means himself included) does the work required to figure it out?

So, he knows that poverty has been declining but cannot back it up?


On top of this, his claim that nobody determines needs and makes baskets of goods and services, is simply wrong.

The bare bones Hartz IV means tested benefits are assessed through a complex system of formulas and evaluation, only to come out at 409 Euros for an adult in 2017 (a hike of 5 Euros from the year before). Add to this the basic cost of rent, and lo and behold you end up pretty close to the charities' report.

Would it help to know that Germany's constitutional court has found these benefits to be too low?

What else does this year's neoliberal attack include, let's see.

Oh, students.

Yes, another expert says hundreds of thousands of students, out of the total of about 2.8 million, fall into the "controversial category of poverty", yet, students were "particularly politically active in society, rightly considering themselves the future elite".

That is a rather nefarious little statement.

Is he implying that you can be poor and politically active at the same time? Why would you want to say that, other than to say poverty isn't bad, you can have fun and be engaged?

Note he said "students" were active, not the precarious hundreds of thousands, just all students. He has no data on the behavior of the precarious ones. Maybe the only active ones are those without money trouble?

Or, more plausible, having very little money for a few years as a student and decent job prospects is very different from being, say, in your fifties, your physical health somewhat damaged from repetitive work, your mental health impacted by stress, and your prospects of being a future member of the elite long dead?

What will next year's report bring?

If inflation is a guide, more of the same. Just days ago, the official inflation figures for 2016 came out with 2.2%, wiping out the average wage increase of about 2.1%.  And the 1.2% increase in benefits? Gone before the first bank transfer.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Mysterious Germany: what happened to the shock pictures on cigarette packages?

In its* relentless pursuit of excellence in reporting, the blogster wrote about the upcoming introduction of shock photos on cigarette packs in Germany a year ago.

You can see some examples of the then new packaging here.

And promptly forgot about it.

Until it stood in line today at a small town stationary store that doubles as a post office. The line of Germans returning boxes of stuff bought from online retailers moved slowly.

The gaze of the blogster wandered around the store, from greeting cards shelves to paper and writing utensils, up a rack of yellow postal service envelopes, onto the long counter, and finally beyond the counter.

That's where cigarette and tobacco packages were lined up neatly and - presumably - deadly.

Something felt odd, wrong.

As the line took a left turn to get to the postmaster, another store clerk showed up, asking the line if he could help with something else.

The generally taciturn blogster shook its head for 'no', then said, 'Well, something with the shelves seems odd, but I can't tell what it is. Did you refurnish since my last visit?'

The clerk looked behind him, then said, 'Oh, you mean the cigarette packages? Many manufacturers gave us these cardboard fronts', he continued. 'They use them to hide the shock photos'.

To illustrate the point, he reached up, folded down a pretty cover and revealed a package with its deterrent picture.

'Most of them, in fact', he corrected his initial assessment.

The blogster replied, smiling: 'Thank you very much for showing me'.

So, the repackaging of cigarettes as a business idea in last year's post didn't catch on. But the goal of hiding the images did obviously come up in discussions at the manufacturers.

*Gender neutral