Friday, October 13, 2017

Nicknames matter - the quiet change from "Rocket Man" to "Little Rocket Man"

We know that words matter, whether spoken, written, or even the unspoken ones.

Words matter so much that humans spend countless hours debating the "correct term" for something physical or abstract. Open any paper on a random page, including the sports section recently, and you find numerous examples. In case an article or opinion piece does not explicitly define or delimit terms and their meanings, you can be sure that the reader comments section will make up for it - unless the comments function is blocked, which in turn is an unspoken statement by the publisher.

For example, did the German governing Christian Democratic Party just agree with its Bavarian appendix Christian Social Union on a ceiling for refugees to be allowed into the country?

Well, they did agree on a recommended maximum number of refugees, allowing the Bavarian hardliners to claim victory while leaving the promise of "no ceiling" made by current and future Chancellor Merkel unbroken.

Some labels are less obviously damaging and require historians or economists to tease out the underlying reality. Take the chippy "gig economy" in all its independent glory and self-determination. As it turns out, pre-industrial work was very much like today's gig economy, and today's auto rickshaw drivers in India work in the same basic gig setup as the Uber or Lyft drivers. Minus the web company that funnels customers to them.

One of the common tools of the word fighter is nicknames and derogatory labels. An older example is the label "death tax" used by American conservatives for the estate tax.

The most in our face labels, very literally when you call an American president the Orange Thing, are nicknames attached to a specific person. All it takes is swapping out one word against another, like for the death tax, or adding a loaded adjective, as was done to stigmatize a candidate as Crooked Hillary. 

The more elaborate version removes the person and highlights one or more traits of the person, for example The Orange Thing. Readers in 2017 will easily recognize the person so labeled. "Thing" is, of course, a derogatory moniker, depersonalizing a human. 

In professions where brawn and heroism are common descriptors, mainly in law enforcement and the military, nicknames associated with a certain level of aggressiveness are a standard of praise. Take the example of James "Mad Dog" Mattis, general and US defense secretary. Mad Dog would probably not be considered praise if given as a nickname to, say, a librarian or a math teacher.

Sometimes, nicknames go wrong.

What happens next is a tribute to the power of nicknames and to the importance of quietly fixing a nickname gone wrong.

That's where Rocket Man comes in.

The nickname Rocket Man for the leader of North Korea burst onto the stage when US President Trump used it in a speech at the United Nations this September.

Rocket Man - the term, not the man - posed several problems in addition to reminding the older folks among us way too much of the Elton John hit (link to the official music video here). Fans of the song lyrics might well have been wondering if the president was doing a triple-meta-slam of Kim Jong Un by alluding to the song line "high as a kite".

To the blogster, the real issue with Rocket Man was that it missed its negativity target. Rocket Man has some positive connotations, and even the context of the speech could not make the positive vibe go away.

Within a week or so, the blunder was fixed: Rocket Man was replaced with Little Rocket Man throughout the media. "Little" put the North Korean leader in his place, thus rectifying the image.

Just for the sake of completeness, calling the North Korean strongman Rocket Man goes back to at least 2006, when the British Economist magazine featured Jong Un's father on the front page under the headline Rocket Man.






Friday, October 6, 2017

More major German media sites blocking ad blockers - good riddance

Over the past few years, major German news sites have moved to denying access to folks who use ad blockers.

The principle is as simple as it is German: Unblock or pay, or we give you no access.

Nasty German tabloid rag BILD was the first of the majors, the blogster recalls. This one was a godsend. Finally, no more late night peek at the latest screaming headlines designed to rile up readers and stir anger and divisiveness.

More respectable papers followed, such as Sueddeutsche Zeitung, and more recently Spiegel Online. The funny things about Spiegel Online is that its international, i.e. English language, section is still accessible to users with active ad blockers at the time of this post.

Maybe they don't want to seem provincial, maybe they haven't gotten around to modifying the site.

In a little over a week, Frankfurter Allgemeine will be next. To their credit, they are nice enough to notify readers of the upcoming policy change.

Die Welt has a free section and a "Plus" section.  Economics weekly Handelsblatt refuses active ad blockers too.

What does this mean to the blogster?

Should it* be worried about missing insightful discourse or crucial news?

Absolutely not. There are still freely available German news sites, both general and specialized ones. To be honest, only a few authors of all these papers will be missed. Much of the news is not just predictable but also almost indistinguishable at times anyway, no matter if you read Spiegel or Frankfurter Allgemeine,
The huge German public television system has been receiving the blogster's contribution for years, paid grudgingly, but the blogster's household has neither a TV nor a radio. So, why not finally use some of the 'services'?

And then there is the small matter of not being limited to German or English. French and Spanish work just as well, and over the next few years, they will have the distinct advantage of not covering the populist right AfD excessively, while it will dominate much of the German native news.
 
Lastly, exploring other German news sources may offer the opportunity to expand the blogster's view of country and culture.

So, thanks for all the fish.

* Gender neutrality rules!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The day they stopped the press for the blogster

It will come as a surprise to readers that the blogster has a few published articles to its* name. They appeared in trade journals, the kind of slender glossy print matter that comes with membership in an organization of like-trained and like-minded individuals and entities.

One of pieces even made it into a book**, which led to arguably one of the nicest phone calls ever by a friend who enthusiastically blurted out "you got published again" before she caught her breath.

But this was not the piece for which they stopped the press.

That one happened a couple of years earlier, and it taught the blogster a several lessons. The story of the article is unremarkable up until the call by the journal's editor. One day, the blogster sat down and wrote a five or six pager about the kind of work it was doing at the time. In a fit of uncharacteristic assertiveness, the blogster sent it to The Journal***. Then it went off to some class.
Upon returning, an agitated companion said: "You had a call from the editor of The Journal about the article. She said she stopped the press and needs you to call her back today."

Oh.

What's this about?

I wrote an article and sent it to them. 

You did what?

I wrote a piece and sent it to them.

Tense, the companion handed the blogster a post-it with a name and a number.

The blogster called, the editor answered and told the blogster how much fun the piece was. And yes, she liked it so much that she intended to bump another article to a future issue and print this one instead. Hence the urgency of the call. What regional chapter are you a member of, the editor asked.

I'm not a member of the organization.

Oh, you are not, the editor hesitated. The she added: Oh, well, I'll print it anyway if you sign the contract. As a member publication we don't pay authors, though.

The lessons came in the months following publication. The first one, closest to home, was that the blogster's companion never quite recovered from the episode, because, you see, the companion was supposed to be the super smart and assertive one.

The second lesson was peer feedback, which can be summarized in the perennial you can't please them all. Some in the field loved the iconoclastic take on aspects of the profession, others said it presented the field in a detrimental light. In other words, even experts take things personal.

Lesson number three would be: if you don't try you will never know if someone will stop the press for you.

* Gender neutrality is prized at the K-Landnews.
** Yes, there is some pride here.
*** We'll call it The Journal to avoid giving you details.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Deriding industrial policy when it saves jobs

In October 2016, the Financial Times wrote about French industrial policy using this example:


You can argue, as does the FT and as do many FT readers, that this is a perfect example of misguided government policy.

High-speed trains the country does not need is clear, and the point is reinforced with maximum speed is 200km an hour at best.

The FT may be right to invoke the mental background image of industrial policy we have learned to associate with old style socialist governments and backwards regimes in general.
One big problem, as the blogster sees it, is that government controlled economic activity in these systems tends is inextricably linked to corruption, laziness, and exploitation by a nomenklatura, or ruling clique.
These aspects do not seem to be in play in the example given by the FT, unless one is willing to claim that averting the shutdown of the plant signifies laziness in the face of the need for change. So, sure, you can go there, if you feel like it.

We are not told whether France needs new regional trains, or how much they would cost if not built to the "state-of-the-art TGV".

When it comes to "needs" in general, there is sometimes surprising leeway, as anyone who had the opportunity to ride the glorious old late weekend nights "hospital train" out of San Francisco will understand. The blogster nicknamed the train hospital train because the carriages were plain white on the outside with a definitely military-ish green interior.

They were old and quiet.

Unlike the newer ones, which must have been labeled "needed" at some point in order to justify their purchase.  

Yes, government money should be spent reasonably, but as long as France, or any other country for that matter, can afford the luxury of splurging billions upon billions upon producing stuff that is not meant to ever be used, buying a few new trains and keeping workers employed a little longer is not a big deal to the simple minded blogster.

Friday, September 15, 2017

German generals get themselves a seat upgrade on government planes through sheer serendipity

Note: The news reported in Frankfurter Allgemeine today can only surprise people who have never worked in large organizations where the RIP principle (Rank has Its Privileges) applies. So, enjoy.

The facts are simple enough:
1. The German government has a fleet of aircraft that members of the government, the German president, and high ranking members of the federal parliament use for official business.
2. The fleet belongs to the German defense department.
3. General officers (generals, admirals) are not entitled to using these aircraft, except when a craft conducts a training flight and a general officer happens to need to go where the plane flies.

In other words, item 3 makes German generals mere governmental hitchhikers.

For example, one of the valiant defenders of German freedom, as well as ours as part of NATO, wakes up in the morning and finds he needs to go to Afghanistan, he calls up the fleet people to find if a government plane just happens to go there.

Or to Paris, or London, or some similar remote fighting location.

If so, he can hitch a ride.

And if not?

Well, that's where "RIP" comes in.

Of course, you have already figured out what the hitchhiking provision really achieves, right? 

Say, a German general, let's call him Alert for the sake of a cheap joke, needs to fly to New York. General Alert asks his ADC to organize the flight. The ADC will send an email to fleet management to ask if they would like to schedule a training flight to New York.

Fleet management, knowing full well that any email which starts with "the General would be happy if" is really an order, will do its best to make the improbable happen.

Oh, the general needs to leave on July 3rd at 8 AM and return on July 12th at 5 PM?*

Yes.

What a coincidence, we will have a training flight to New York on July 3rd at 8, with the return on July 12th at 5. Will that be convenient?

This is how German generals roll, or fly, for that matter.

Now, a pesky newspaper finds out that German general officers routinely arrange "training flights" to satisfy their airborne needs.

And also to overcome the feeling of being the underlings of civilians, who - let's face it - shouldn't get to fly for free on planes that really belong to the military anyway, right?

Will Germany's brave heroes have to revert to hitchhiking after being outed by the press?

Most certainly not. This news will be forgotten in 24 hours, and Germany's finest will get to enjoy the privileges that come with their rank.

* Please note that this is not a literal quote. Germans don't use AM and PM.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Data - or why birds strike military aircraft and civilian ones different ways

This is another cautionary tale about data. It is also a plea to listen to what experts say about data despite headline news that show efforts by experts to manipulate data in various areas of life.

The diesel emissions scandal that has damaged the reputation of German automaker VW is a case in point. It took experts to develop the cheat system, and it took other experts to prove the company had circumvented emissions regulations for years.

And that does not include the frequent examples that show people believing in the correctness of their data, only to be proven wrong by some new discovery or method. 

The blogster tries hard to avoid being duped, but has fallen for bad data many times - not counting the times it* has not realized having been suckered.

One aspect of events, and the data (or facts) they are based on, is whether they impact your life.

Which brings us to the exotic example of bird strikes. You may have heard of the birds that brought down a passenger aircraft in New York and made a hero of the pilot, Mr. Sullenberger.

So, birds striking a plane you are on can be life changing.

Collisions between birds and a military plane are generally considered part of the job and make few, if any, headlines.

So, it makes perfect sense that we don't know one interesting aspect of data on bird collisions with military planes.

Which is: military planes collide with birds much more frequently near the airfields than do civilian planes. The greater the distance of a fighter jet to its base, the fewer collisions are counted.

Why could that be?

There are many things that can come to mind, for example, whether military airfields are more frequently located in areas with more wildlife. Or maybe there is a correlation with the intensity of use of a base.

As the blogster learned, while this may influence the number of incidents, there was one other aspect that stood out: military pilots tended to report bird strikes close to the home base but ported fewer when they were far away.

As it turned out, protocol required pilots to find an airfield and have their bird inspected before taking to the air again. Which frequently meant the valiant fliers would not make it home for dinner.

Pilots and ground personnel felt protocols did not adequately handle bird strikes that caused no obvious serious damage to the plane. 

They found a way around it, and in the process created "incorrect" data because collection was based on the two variables "bird strike" and "plane location", ignoring a third variable "extent of damage".

Friday, September 1, 2017

When that super expensive worker costs less than the fuel for a truck

In every election cycle and with every annual report by economics think tanks, someone is bound to complain about the high cost of labor.

For German workers, this has meant various measures aimed at making the labor market more competitive and cutting costs. The traditional 50/50 split of payroll taxes and was abolished with the result of shifting costs to workers; a pre-tax regime for social security contributions was introduced concurrently with income tax on all retirement income, and companies were offered generous subsidies for hiring long term unemployed.

All of this led to a small reduction of the unemployment figures projected by economists some 40 years ago. In other words, demographics is a bitch, and automation and productivity gains are the whips.

The other day at a gas station, the blogster saw a truck driver pay just under 600 Euros for diesel.

"I use about one thousand Euros worth of fuel a week", explained one driver.

Sheepishly, the blogster said: "So, you burn more in fuel than you make in wages?"

"For sure", the driver replied.

"And your boss still complains about high labor cost?"

"No, our company owner doesn't. We have five drivers, and the government pays half of the wages for three of them."

"What?"

"Yes, the boss is an expert at finding government subsidy programs", he smiled.

As the truck driver went back to his job of supporting the booming German economy, the blogster absentmindedly paid for the four-pack of butane cartridges needed for an upcoming short camping trip.

It* will carefully look at industries and sectors next time someone complains about excessive labor costs.

* Quality gender neutral reporting.

Friday, August 11, 2017

German national elections in September - blink and you miss the campaign

So, there will be national elections in Germany in about six weeks, and the blogster almost missed the official start of the campaign season.

Exciting German campaigns tend to be extremely boring by American standards. No billion dollar extravaganzas spread out over more than a year, no competing lawn signs, no "honk for whatever".

And the current one is not even exciting by German standards.

Only orderly campaign posters in standard sizes fastened to light poles and trees with zip ties. To be recycled later.

The height off the posters off the ground varies with the height of the volunteers on the pickup trucks that slowly work their ways through towns and cities.

It also seems to depend on the attractiveness of a party to vandals.

Which means that the populist right AfD tends to go higher than the traditional mainstream Christian Democrats or Social Democrats.

None of the much dreaded Russian election interference has materialized either. Imagine that.

Even the Russians don't care.

Polls have the Christian Democrats of chancellor Merkel in an unbeatable lead, the second largest Social Democrats in the same pitiful spot somewhere below 30% that has been their home ever since the great disappointment of the turn of the century, when the supposedly social party took the chainsaw to several social security programs.

"Free market liberals", populist right, Greens, and the Left party fight over what remains of the voting share.

The populist right AfD had its day in the sun in last year's state elections and has been heading downhill when migrant numbers dropped and the country did not become Muslim within a few weeks.

The Social Democrats enjoyed a brief honeymoon with voters when they brought Mr. Schulz in from his cozy European job to tackle the seemingly immovable Ms. Merkel.

It didn't work.

The initial appeal to social justice and the aim to undo some of the "reforms" to the social system were quietly put on the back burner in favor of a half hearted attempt to copy Ms. Merkel's "We made Germany great" style non-campaign.

Calls for a quota for electric cars has replaced it.

So, yes.

Wake me when it is over.

In time for the asteroid the size of a house in October.

[Update 8/13/2017] Even the Germans are bored by this campaign and are now debating - yes - why the campaign is so boring.

And the up and coming Christian Democrat poster boy makes headlines by complaining about wait staff speaking English in Berlin cafes.

[Update 8/20/2017] The blogster was wondering if the main parties would even bother to put up campaign posters this year.

Surprise!

About four weeks before the vote, campaign posters are up.

By the side of the freeway, we saw one by the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) right next to one by the Social Democrats (SPD).

The CDU one shows a young man, safety goggles on, leaning forward over a workbench, measuring a long piece of wood he is working on.
The one word you need to remember of the bland slogan? "Arbeit" (work).

The SPD poster shows a young man sitting on a bench next to a small anthropomorphic robot. You know the type, big child like head, big eyes.
The one word you need to remember of the bland slogan? "Denker" (thinkers).

The meticulous hard working male, with protected eyes and not quite dirty hands versus the laid back thinker/tinkerer male.

No contest: Even the thinkers/tinkerers will vote for the guy with wood.

And the headshots of political leaders are dating site or LinkedIn quality, taking at least 10 to 15 years off of the faces, in the best tradition of venerating the powerful.

[Update 9/7/2017] Finally, a good vote hacking scare! A Zeit online article today says German elections can be manipulated. The article describes how a computer science student found that the software used to transmit results of the manual vote count of paper ballots to a state election board can indeed be easily hacked.

Again, this is a piece of software which simply sends vote tallies to the state commission.

The software has been around for 30 years with the flaws reported today.

Nobody has every certified the code, nor has the proprietary source code been checked by experts. A German court rejected a suit some years ago, simply saying that use of the software by a state election commission meant the software was fine.

The known issues of tampering with votes have all occurred in the manual counting after polling stations closed. Human error or, yes, outright collusion of polling workers appear to be the main threats to the integrity of the vote.

Oh, and the Russians?

They obviously either missed their 30 year long window.

Or don't care.

Maybe they achieved their ultimate goal: show German politicians their elections were not worth hacking.

[Update 9/16/2017] The German authorities knew of the reporting software flaws, ZEIT online and others reported today. Isn't it nice to have a country that uses paper ballots and keeps them for later recount?

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Goodbye merit, hello inherit - how crime pays extremely well

The other day, German Zeit published a long article about the ongoing massive wealth transfer through inheritance in German society, currently standing at some 400 billion Euros annually, and growing.

The piece described how inter generational inequality has been on the rise in the country, and how politics is actively promoting this detrimental development through extremely advantageous wealth transfer rules with low or next to no taxes, if done right.

One short line in the article said some people turned to crime to keep up with the Muellers.

The authors meant "regular" crime, missing out on the the vast swath of hidden, yet extremely remunerative crime tied to the act of inheritance itself.

Over the years, the blogster has heard many stories in our picturesque neck of the woods about illicit or outright illegal inheritance schemes by close family or other people.

It* has come to the conclusion that snatching an inheritance, or part of one, is the most under reported and most profitable crime average Germans engage in.

Chances of getting caught appear pretty much zero. Probably on par with money laundering.

Even if a whole town knows.

All you need to have a shot at getting wealthy is a brief hand written note that says an estate shall be yours. Dated, and with some sort of semblance of a signature, and you are in business.

A photocopy is sufficient. So, if you collect a few hand writing samples from the dear relative and invest in Photoshop, you can earn what amounts to an hourly rate of thousands of dollars.

Contest, you said?

German law favors the piece of paper to a degree that creates hurdles most people who are defrauded can not overcome, as long as that paper is more recent than any you may have.

Their paper even beats a nice notarized one you may have been sent from the court because it was kept there.

The demographics of the country only compound the issue. Many Germans get as old as few did even a generation ago. And those old people often have few or no immediate partner left.

The spouse died decades ago, much of the rest of the family is scattered to the winds, just an enterprising middle aged couple is present a few towns over.

It is a perfect setup.

Visit a few times, make nice, get the paper, make sure potential rivals did not sneak in and pull off the same trick, and when the health of the dear, beloved relative begins to decline, get out of the way.

Actually, you don't even have to make nice. You can coax, coerce, threaten, even beat up the person if he or she is sufficiently isolated without fear of prosecution. Elder abuse is part and parcel of the problem, and - again - largely ignored.

Let the helpers swing into action and care for the frail relative until he or she finally passes.

Then pull out the will at the family and town gathering after the funeral.

You may lose a family but you earned the money.

This, by the way, is a true story from a few towns over. And they happen every day all over Germany.

A version of this, even more elaborate, is to let the heir you are going to boot handle all the work that comes with a death, and only then whip out your paper.

While the helper, or as you would call him or her, the sucker, is arranging the funeral, is dealing with government agencies, utility companies, insurance companies and others, you should take a vacation.

This way, you won't be caught letting slip you have a will. Because the law requires you to submit it as soon as you have knowledge of its existence.

Once the sucker has cleaned out the house or apartment of the deceased, you hand the paper to the court.

Done.

Okay, maybe not fully done. You may have to endure a few attempts at shaming you into sharing or stepping back from the will.

But you can avoid meeting the others, ignore phone calls, and become aggressive if that doesn't work.

If they go to a lawyer, they will be advised to let go of small inheritances, the peanuts sort of up to 100 000 dollars.

It is a win-win situation.

You win.

And then you can deploy again and win again.

Of course, the sort of thing described above is not limited to Germany, far from it. But unlike the U.S. where elder abuse and wills have been discussed and some actions taken, German governments are turning a blind eye.

[Update 8/20/2017] When people start talking, you will get an earful. The variations on the theme of close and not so close relatives getting their hands on estates big and small are fascinating to someone as trusting as the blogster.

One of the most vile stories we have heard in the past weeks is the drugging of an old lady in the last months of her life. In this case, the niece caretaker and her doctor husband allegedly added sedatives to the old lady's diet. The prescription was  not in her name, so nobody could claim diminished competence. Then the lady wrote a will, again one of those handwritten things that any investigator of a "real" crime would immediately label highly suspicious and not trustworthy.

The friend who told us that one decided to let it go.

Another local recounted how family members converged at the residence of a deceased who had valuable antiques. The obvious suggestion to make a list was shot down by several vocal relatives, and the group decided to reconvene the next day to divvy up the estate. 
The next day, of course, the apartment was empty.

Almost everyone we talked to had bad to evil experiences about inheritances to tell in their families.

* We are gender neutral at this publication.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Europe is not a continent and Twitter is not a social network

Note: Philosophers and journalists or "communication experts" may not find anything new and exciting in this post. But that is not its purpose. Its primary purpose is to give a stream of photons from a computer screen the chance to interact with the retina of human readers and see what happens. Its second purpose is to feed computers and storage devices on the internet. Everything else is a bonus.

Europe is not a continent
It is fair to claim this statement is false if it is made in response to a request to list the seven continents of the world.
It is just as fair to insist on its truth because, after all, because the regions we call continents are generally defined by convention rather than strict criteria. Europe is a concept dating back to classical antiquity, and the world was doing fine before it was invented. Nothing really stops you from messing with the definition of this convention, although there typically are drawbacks or - for example in school - active countermeasures that constitute serious punishment.

With this foundation, let's do Twitter.

Twitter is not a social network
Twitter is a company, an online news and social networking service, People, bots, companies, NGOs, agencies, plants, and non-human animals use it to network.
They create not one but a multitude of social networks.
With the exception of a few characteristics which we'll talk about below, these networks are actually very much like "in-person", real life networks. They are groups, or tribes, or communities. If you decide to call them bubbles, you are no longer looking at them from the perspective of physically restricted 'in person' communities or groups but from a perspective that uses and emphasizes technical aspects of the service:

1) A Twitter/Facebook social network is public, and so are the interactions. And a network can be huge.
Unless you set your network to private.
2) Tools can be used to easily map out the relations and interactions of public networks.
3) You can reach across the world into anybody's public network.

Before the blogster continues to chide you about using the term bubble, it* would like to say it's not all your fault because the hype around the services very much emphasized the diversity and reach of the technology, while ignoring physical and mental limitations of us humans.

So, everybody - except some philosophers and cynics - acted all surprised that humans behaved the same ways online and in real life. It is not that this is new with social media - we have seen it with email before. Older geeks have seen it with USENET, or chatrooms. But social media of the Facebook/Twitter version is much more public. Even the biggest email lists are tiny compared to a big social media platform.

Humans will behave differently in public and in private. But:
1) Different people do so to a different extent.
2) Being in your home/office in front of a screen feels private.

Much of the criticism levied against Twitter and Facebook, the most widely used platforms in the West, can be easily traced to the grand total of five enumerated issues above.

If you mix and match these aspects, you can easily pen listicles of dubious value like the Twenty Theses about Twitter, or any story about online harassment.

The debate about social media is far from over, and if the crackdown on publishers of books, flyers and other independent print material in the decades after introduction of the printing press is a precedent - and it certainly is - then we will see much greater intervention of governments and other powerful entities.

The blogster finds Twitter great. It has encountered very interesting new ideas, and met people it would otherwise never have met.


* Gender neutral the K-Landnews is, Yoda says.