Thursday, July 31, 2014

Feeding and care of Germans: housing space

Recent posts in our series Feeding and Care of Germans have included such gems as "Ice-cold cheaters" on hidden food price hikes and "Food without balls" on the difficulty of finding food without soccer ball labels during the latest installment of Bread & Games.

Today, we answer the question: how big are houses and apartments in the K-Land?

You may have seen the castles, which are pretty big but which - they generally won't tell you - were rather cramped, dirty, and noisy in medieval times. Later on, the feudal lords got themselves more space, and that's what you are shown on tours.

Today's average German house or apartment has about 90 square meters (just under 1000 square feet). That's homeowners and renters combined.

That doesn't tell you much?

Okay, then. Household sizes have dropped, which means that 75% of households consist of no more than two people, so about 500 square feet per person.
If you say to yourself, I could not live on 500 SqF, note that this is still almost 20 times the space for a fully grown pig (less then 2.5 sqm) on an organic farm around here, according to this website.

We blame today's attempt to mess with your head on the weather, an inch of rain in an hour is quite something.

Back to the numbers. We write about them because of their presentation, not because of absolutes -- the latter are interesting to developers and the property tax assessors.

The 90 sqm average hides a few things. First, it is an average, not a median, which means that MacMansions skew the figure, making it appear the "average" German has more space.

Second, this is the national average. Remember, there was a second Germany for almost fifty years? Those guys did not have as much money, Socialists, right.

So, the statistics say that in the former East Germany, the average is about 73 sqm, or about 730 sqf, almost one third less than in the old West.

Home owners have a national average of 118 sqm, while folks who rent have some 47 sqm less than that.

Are you confused yet?

We were.

We did some approximate calculations to clear things up: someone who rents has about 60% of the space as someone who owns a house or apartment.

Keep in mind that this category contains both houses and apartments, and houses here in the hills are bigger than the 118 sqm mentioned in the statistics.




Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Surfing the web? Nope, snorkeling from here on out!

Let's pay tribute to the term "surf the web".

You have been a good term when nobody except the inventor knew what the Web was and computer screens came with green dotty text bits on black background, the whole thing packed into a housing only slightly smaller than today's SMART car.

Surfing had the friendly connotation of sunshine, well groomed beaches with life guards to get out out of trouble. And, back then, who would not want to be saved by Pam or the Hoff?
Sure, surfing with its easy California or Hawaii lifestyle imagery was culturally biased towards the U.S., but that was fine.

Even landlocked Switzerland took to surfing the Web. To some, it was their dream of escaping the mountains, and the Germans to the north, come true. Others needed a bit of explaining that "no, a two-by-four is not a surf board, and neither is a keyboard".

But it worked out.

So, dear Surfing, thank you. After 25 years of Surfing, it is time to retire.

Snorkeling is a much better term for doing your thing on the web. Snorkeling does not come with the instant proficiency image attached, it evokes water wings, parents who anxiously try to look after their children.
Snorkeling does not have the six pack abs, bronzed body image --  and if you look at the obesity statistics in almost every country on the planet, snorkeling seems more accurate.

Surfing is between you, the board and the ocean, plus impressing the other sex.

Snorkeling has all of this but in different proportions, and snorkeling means you may get lost in the scenery, you may run out of breath if you do not go up for air in time. Or you may not notice a fast dark storm cloud or predators.
Snorkeling takes you close to creatures you have never seen before, some of which can hurt you badly, other creatures are camouflaged, stirred into action only by an inadvertent move on your part or by an innocent air bubble climbing up through the reef.

And wrecks! Wrecks upon wrecks.

Surfers avoid areas with wrecks. Snorkelers do not, especially if a friendly guide you just met at one of the dive bars on the beach (formerly called search engines) tells you a great story about a wreck you absolutely have to see. Don't wait until tomorrow, there might not be anything to see, the flow of the tide keeps bringing in more and more sediment.

The Web we snorkel over has colorful reefs, some of them artificial, with sites like Disney, it has the endless rolling  mudflats of corporate web sites, dotted with small holes where you find colonies of worms or tiny crabs.

Where surfers like their beaches pristine, empty, and remote, and really want to be in the water all the time, snorkelers spend time on beaches. Populated beaches, where they buy their gear from the gear vendors. Like the all in one vendor with the same body suit all over the world, no matter what the local conditions are. A local label, that's it. Once you buy from them, you are stuck with them. The goggles and the snorkel are integrated, and rumor has it that some people nearly drowned when they tried to mix and match gear. There is a stylish vendor, from a former fruit company. Some say it was a nut company. They easily charge twice as much as the generic vendor, and for the longest time their suits were kind of funky. The moment they got wet, they'd become see through. Great for exhibitionists and voyeurs, a bit over the top for the other 95% of people.
There are others who make and sell their own gear, and they have improved. Early on, you would invariably have to sand off the mouthpiece or use duct tape to make the goggles hold under water.

And it is only from the beach that you can see boats out in the distance, trying to put up floating barriers, allegedly against sharks, sting rays and jelly fish. Though it seems odd that they are starting over at the wonderful white sand beach where the MacMansions are. You'd be forgiven to think they might be trying to separate your crowd of snorkelers from those over there.
But they reassure you, that's not what they are doing.

We hope to have given you an idea of why we will go snorkeling. Don't feel bad if you prefer surfing.

Anything that sticks around for 25 years is a long standing tradition, and we know how hard it is to change those.

One more thing:
Snorkeling is also much nicer towards places like Switzerland, because they have beautiful lakes, too small for surfing but great for snorkeling.
Not sure about Luxemburg, has anybody tried to snorkel in a pond?

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The treadmill in the middle of nowhere

From our Show Me Your Letterbox series.

A short time ago, the fitness studio had a summer vacation time offer. Like the early January New Year's post Christmas binge flyer. Or the Spring Time brochure, the get into bikini shape for the ladies and get your Summer Abs for the men flyer.

If the past few years are anything to go by, there will be another flyer in early Fall telling us to get in shape for winter sports.

The fitness studio must be doing okay, we've seen their obnoxious flyers for many years.

To us, the unwanted flyers in the mailbox hold no promise of physical fitness, better health, or a longer life.

They signify merely in a personal manner the immense changes in this rural region over the past few decades.

People around here had a straightforward fitness program for the past few thousand years or so. It was called work.

The construction workers, roofers, and other craftsmen still make up a good part of the workforce, but the farmers are virtually extinct, and heavy machinery does the work in the forest. Most of the small factory jobs around here are gone, and everybody is chanting the praises of tourism -- as ritualized and at times desperate as chants for rain during a prolonged drought back in the U.S.

Although Germany has not lost as much of its industrial base as many other Western countries, that industry has changed and is concentrated in fewer places.

Today, the descendants of farmers and manual laborers flex their muscles on the treadmills and other fine examples of German engineering in the thriving fitness studio a few towns.

After the exercise routine, they only need to drive a quarter mile or so to get to the upmarket garden center for a huge selection of plants and accessories.

There will be seasonal flyer by the garden center in a week or so.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Overheard

When you do not want to see something, you can close your eyes. This simple action can protect you at least in part from cruel or inane scenes.

Human ears do not come with a closing mechanism, despite what you may think when you see some people's lobes. In everyday situations outside of a very loud but reassuringly OSHA compliant workplace or a heavy metal concert, you use your hands to shut out or dampen sound.

The blogster considers this unfair from both practical and philosophical points of view. Unless you wear in-ear protection, you look like a dork, and if you forget to bring it, it's your palms again, dorkier yet.
Philosophically speaking, it is another tiny bit of circumstantial evidence against "intelligent design", unless god had a prankster moment, saying to himself, 'well, this way they have to invent OSHA if they don't all want to be deaf by age 25'.

The blogster also has to admit that some of the most amusing moments he remembers have come from overhearing conversations.
We know of at least one man who made a good living by collecting overheard fragments of bar chit chat into best selling books. A Frenchman.

One such entertaining moment is from this year's carnival parade day. On the way home, we found ourselves a couple of yards behind a middle aged couple. They were very animated, not as sure footed as you'd expect on a normal day, the male half was carrying a bottle of beer, sipping from it during a break in the conversation.

The other day I saw the Mueller kid smoking pot on the porch again.

Marijuana is evil, said the male.

Junkies!

Addicted idiots, no self control, said the male, washing the insight down with a swig from the bottle.

I hate these pot smoking junkies.

Me too, really.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

My big fat German wedding

What is a German wedding like?

We wrote about the traditional ceramics and porcelain smashing event "Polterabend" and its much less stressful modern incarnation, we gave you a couple of bachelor/bachelorette party insights.

The wedding itself? Most of the standard bits and pieces are familiar enough, bride & groom (soon probably bride & bride and groom & groom), wedding bands, the various maids, flowers, cakes, foodstuffs, presents, music and what have you.

Any old gas station has the current issue of Wedding Style magazine -- note yet another another easily understandable German publication title "Wedding Style" -- as well as a few web sites like http://www.weddingstyle.de.

According to these publications, "traditional marriage", defined as 1 man & 1 woman & one wedding registry, is alive and well. 

The wedding we were lucky to get invited to was so much more fun. A barn as the setting of a wedding party is rare these days in rural Germany. The family had done all the work, starting with the easy job of driving a monster combine out of the barn all the way to rigging speakers to the rafters 15 feet up.

Cakes, including the wedding cake, as well as salads were contributed potluck style, the meat was as local as it gets, from the butcher down the street. Bread and rolls from a baker one town over, sun flowers from the garden just yards behind the barn, wild flowers on the tables, a huge friendly dog roaming the grounds, an appropriately disinterest-feigning cat completed the picture.

After this zero drama wedding, we are not sure if we'll ever accept an invitation to a Frankfurt banker wedding.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The joy of double standards

Write something light yet poignant about double standards, said TheEditor calmly and with an inviting smile.

Around here, calm and inviting smile tend to be synonyms for "take it as a challenge, and, well, don't bother me for a while". Procrastination worked for a few minutes, yes, we can report the accidental avocado tree is doing superbly well, its leaves shiny as if polished by elves or leprachauns, or whoever polishes avocado tree leaves in these northern latitudes.

More coffee, followed by a very conscientious hunt for the perfect fresh grass clippings for the cats from the yard, another thirty minutes of successful avoidance. Should we try and determine the botanical names of the different species of grass in the yard? There is a blueish grass with nice wide leaves, a strong dark green with narrow, almost round leaves, there is a super soft kind, and...

Nah, double standards, it is. No, we won't hand out examples of how we personally used double standards. You'll probably find some if you read enough of our posts.

What is a double standard? Merriam Webster has a definition for kids link, so we had to pick it: a set of standards that applies differently and usually more harshly to one group of people or circumstances than to another.

Not bad, but there is a link to the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica. Go there or not?
Not to be accused of double standards right off the bat, we clicked it. What a relief, it is about bimetallism, a monetary system.  

When we talk of double standards, we tend to attach a value statement, moral judgement to our statement. Since a statement like "xxxxx is a double standard" rests on the definition of the "group" or the "circumstances", owning the definition of "group" or "circumstance" is what any debate about being accused of double standards is really about.

If you look closely at conflicts big and small, you'll see they tend to be about "different standards" versus "double standards". If you have two groups of people and you manage to define them as sufficiently different, then you can justify modification of the "set of standards" or suspend application of the "set of standards".

At the end of the day, that's most of what you need to justify nationalism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, poverty, or any of the daily injustices in the family.

Failure to come up with sufficient differences does not mean you have to give up on double standards, however.

You can simply crush opponents:  As a parent, you can yell at your kids and beat them up, which, at an international level, somewhat equates to a sharply worded protest note and war.

The two preferred ways of enjoying to treat people differently are invoking an ultimate unverified authority or declaring an unverifiable common good. Try to talk to a religious fundamentalist or an ardent supporter of the German policy of "if your spouse does not pass a language test in their home country, we refuse to issue a visa, it's for their own good and the common good".

Was that light yet poignant about double standards? 

Use double standards in moderation.

Oh, the avocado tree needs to be looked after.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Lucky Luke takes an HIV test

First, let us explain: You may have heard of Franco-Belgian cartoon cowboy Lucky Luke. In this post, Lucky Luke is an alias of another mysterious cartoon character. We decided to replace the <other cartoon character> with Lucky Luke for added privacy.

Recently, a statement made the news about spooks or hackers: they know your HIV status, the claim warned.

Do they?

The report reminded us of a chat with German experts about privacy of medical data in the context of a nationwide patient database project. Back in the corner of the U.S. we hail from, you can go and take an anonymous HIV test.
While this is in stark contrast to much simpler diseases, the reasons for anonymous HIV testing are truly compelling. We assumed the same enlightened approach would be the natural state of the matter in Germany.

Not quite, the expert said. There is one German state, known for minor mountains and beer, where HIV testing is not anonymous. If you walk into a doctor's office to get tested in this state, you will end up being reported to the state health authorities should the test come back positive. However, you may get lucky: doctors can thwart government curiosity.

We only test Lucky Luke, said the expert.


So, you are saying that anybody who comes in to get tested is given the name Lucky Luke?  Yes, you pay out of pocket, we put Lucky Luke on the form, the lab does the test, the insurer does not know, and neither will the government.

As it turns out, this practice is not limited to the state of Bavaria but is routine in many, if not virtually all, doctors' offices across the country. Clinics and individual doctors across Germany have been doing this for a long time. Outside of the confines of the yodel state with its overly nosy health bureaucracy, practitioners worry about wider data protection, mainly dodgy or illegal ways in which insurance companies try to procure highly sensitive data like your HIV status.

No, we have no idea whether the spooks have identified the fact that many Germans named Lucky Luke seem to have no fixed address, no bank account, not even a telephone.

Now, if you use Lucky Luke as your user name for some online activity, maybe the information above should make you reconsider the choice of online character. Unfortunately, we do not have a full list of all cartoon characters who take HIV tests in Germany. If you are a health professional in the K-Land, we would appreciate you sharing those names with us.

And a big kudos to German health professionals for doing the right thing.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Pineapples, mangoes & a side of variables

Are we the only people who find the abbreviation "Econ 101" for Economy 101 kind of funny?

Can we go back for an instant to the grand econ 101 lesson about two farmers and their crop? In Europe, they might use tomatoes and potatoes or some other produce, we'll stick with the U.S. original pineapples and mangoes.

This is what the professor said:
Farmer Joe produces mangoes at 25 cents apiece and pineapples at 50 each.
Farmer Sue produces mangoes at 20 cents apiece and pineapples at 60 each.

The lesson to be learned, said the professor, is that Sue is better off if she buys pineapples from Joe, and Joe does better if he buys mangoes from Sue. This way they can both specialize on what they do best.

True as a mathematical and fourth grade logic exercise, but econ 101?

We cannot even compare the prices without a weight based comparison.
Do they need or want each others product?
Energy input, including transportation?
Pesticides, herbicides...?
What are they doing with the produce besides selling it to each other?
So, doing something cheaper than the other guy means "doing it best"?

The real lesson to us is this Econ 101 teaches how to ignore variables. But that's okay. And if this way of farming ever leads to a mango bubble, turn the surplus into booze, get very drunk and forget all your troubles.




Wednesday, July 23, 2014

German industry: great cars, terrible socks

Industry and trade work in mysterious ways, as anyone with international travel experience knows.

Going from New York to Texas does count, although it is irrelevant to today's post.

We have written about several strange commercial customs in Germany, for instance about the fact that aspirin is outrageously expensive in this country - made weirder even because this is where aspirin was invented.

Today, we need to talk about another intimate subject: socks.

If you are male and your feet are not tiny, you are advised to bring plenty of socks on any trip to Germany. Well, let's make that to Europe, since the United Kingdom is even worse because their train stations are littered with sock shops that are unable to meet the demand of average people.

Wearing size 9 shoes or below? You are safe, treat this post as entertainment or as a boost to your dented morale, right? Because of the little feet.

Wearing size 10 and up? This post could save you lots of frustration.

Walk through every mall or pedestrian zone in Europe, and you will see displays of inexpensive socks in sizes up to European 45, which is approximately U.S. 12. Europeans like their socks nicely designed and crafted with comfy heels. So, you buy a five or ten pack, and feel good.

The false sense of security will get a hole about the size of a big toe after the first wash & dry cycle. They won't fit any more.

At this point, do not panic!

Above all, do not go out and buy more of the same. If you have a single pair of clean, undamaged socks, find a paper bag, and in big, fat letters write airport security socks on it, then put the pair of socks in the bag and stow it safely.

Having this single pair of socks safe for the potential source of great public shame that is airport security will allow you to travel with dignity.

Next, weigh your options.

You can go commando, of course. Only, for feet it is not called going commando, it's called hippie style or barefoot.

You can get a pair of hiking socks at the bargain basement price of around 20 bucks. But you do get two socks for the price of one.

You can wear mismatched socks if you have a couple that still fit but are not the same color. To make this work, put on different color socks and practice a whimsical response to any comment by co-workers or your partner in front of the mirror. Wear nothing but the socks - if you can do a straight faced whimsical response in that outfit, you have nothing to fear at work.

You can send an email to a loved one, or - once you get desperate enough - to uncle Jamie back in the U.S. asking to mail you a pack of tube socks. In the crazy world of 2014, putting the words "tube socks" into an email may get you into all kinds of trouble. Internet email sucking computers hiding at every node may misinterpret the request. Is the reward of fresh, fitting socks worth the risk of ending up in a Chinese computer flagged for all eternity as a pervert who orders condoms from "uncle Jamie"?
Oh, you didn't know that some people jokingly refer to condoms as 'tube socks'?

If you are lucky, you can find a rare European type of tube socks, called Bergmannssocken in German, "miners socks". They don't come in white. With the steep decline of the coal mining industry in Europe, these socks are hard to come by. Stock up if you do find them, and send us an email with contact information!

Travel guides fail to address the absence of tube socks in Europe, our Conspiracy Affairs Editor (CAE) pointed out. Neither do reports about the mining industry and miners union strikes. Isn't this odd, given that tube socks are the most egalitarian of socks? Will scientists one day find out that the onslaught of British WAS IT girl Maggie on the miners unions was as much motivated by a desire to suppress the egalitarian socks as by any other dark impulse?

Disclaimer: Neither Monty Python nor Joe Frank contributed to this post. If this post inspires you to import tube socks into Europe, please show your appreciation by donating a free lifetime supply.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

German 4 Dummies: "bildungsfern"

Another day, another German compound.

Like several other words in our German 4 Dummies series, it didn't seem remarkable until usage patterns took shape. Made up of the words "Bildung" (education) and "fern" (remote, distant), "bildungsfern" is widely used to denote less well educated, educationally disadvantaged sections of the population.

Did we see potential euphemistic use at work? Checking on Wikipedia, the euphemism warning was right there in the very first paragraph.

The term treats higher education as the only relevant form of education. If you have a highschool degree or a GED, or dropped out without a degree, that's where "bildungsfern" is used.

Which immediately prompted our TheEditor to growl: goes to show how German elites are "bildungsfern". More research led us to a reader article in the weekly Zeit, in which a reader using the alias "responsum" tries to make sense of the term. In passing, responsum calls politicians "bildungsfern", putting a damper on the smart self image of our TheEditor.

Responsum comes to the conclusion that "less well educated, educationally disadvantaged" do not adequately describe the term. Responsum maintains that it should be understood as "intentionally staying away from education" because many parents with low formal education encourage their children to do better, to go on to college and beyond.

While some scholars still use "bildungsfern" as short hand for lower formal education, the term is widely used in clearly disparaging and xenophobic statements, as synonym for freeloaders, illegal immigrants, or the poor in general.



Monday, July 21, 2014

Hide metadata when you email your grandma?

Warning: True geeks, nerds, and security experts may not want to read this post. It may distract you from the complex tasks you face. Instead, you may want to move on to a safer web site, like Disney. Also, we think that the really sneaky among you might be using something like this already.

If, on the other hand, you would love to send your grandma an email and hide metadata (the To: and From: data), have a look.

The email To: and From: fields are very much appreciated by every internet hoover sucking on cables and bending waves. Many highly educated and experienced engineers are working on making encryption easier for the rest of us to use. And they are working on ways to hide those pesky metadata in emails.

Here is a simple concept for a program to hide these two fields when you communicate with grandma. You can improve it by hiding the subject line, too. Or get used to writing emails without a subject line until a great solution comes around.
By the end of the post, you'll have a better understanding of how complicated it really is to make metadata "go away". So, hopefully, once someone comes up with a comprehensive solution, you'll donate to his/her/their project.

What you need:
1) You need to be familiar with PGP.
2) A couple of (free) email accounts.
3) Some coding skills (motivated beginner to intermediate will do fine).

Try this:
1) For the sake of simplicity, put only the recipient (To:) in a text file, encrypt it, attach it to an email. Ignore the From: field, and leave the subject line blank.
2) Send the mail to your free account, for example <bait@catandmouseandcat.org>.
3) Now, get out your coding skills and find some open source software.
Use software and skills to download the email, decrypt the To: address text file.
4) On catandmouseandcat.org,create a new email with the decrypted recipient in the To: field. Use software and skills and send the new mail. Make sure you throw away all the headers and make a "new" email.

In essence, this is not much more than a "hey, grandma, can you forward this for me" algorithm with some cleanup.

In case we have not dissuaded all experts from reading this, let's acknowledge some issues. If someone "sees" you send a mail to <bait@catandmouseandcat.org> and then sees a mail from <bait@catandmouseandcat.org> to <grandma>, they might say, ah, it is from you to grandma. You can onion that a bit, make a few more intermediate stops, though it is work with the manual encryption. You can keep the mail on the catandmouseandcat.org server for a random time and send some bunk mails to a bunch of dummy accounts. If you are doing this in China, encrypted bits of the Little Red Book would be fun. If you are doing it in Russia, you have thousands of pages of Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy to choose from.

Then there is the even nastier problem of the email content. Even if it is encrypted, that Someone might look at the length or run a quick fingerprinting algorithm over it and then go "ha, gotcha, we don't know what you are writing but <bait@catandmouseandcat.org> just sent a mail to <grandma> with the same content as the one you sent to <bait@catandmouseandcat.org>". You'll need to get creative with that one. One option might be to double encrypt the content. First, use the public key of grandma, then encrypt that encrypted text using the same public key as for the To: address.  Once it arrives at <bait@catandmouseandcat.org>, "decrypt" the contents, too. <bait@catandmouseandcat.org> can't see the real text because that is still under grandma's key, but an onlooker won't be able to do a simple gotcha.

Don't forget to put the return email address into the text somewhere unless your grandma knows it already.

Oh, and sorry if a tool like this already exists and we simply did not find it.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The seven principles of public life?

Today is as good a day to bring up the "seven principles of public life", isn't it?

The last paragraph of the Guardian article lists them as "selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership".

It is easy to see a problem with this, isn't it? If there is a course for members of parliament, will it look and feel like the ethics courses in large companies?

If you have not had the pleasure of taking one of these, the main point is not so much the contents but the acknowledgement of the employee at the end stating: I have taken the course.

This represents the get out of court free card companies pull out when something goes wrong.

The cynical view apart, does it mean we should stop trying? Certainly not.  But it helps to keep expectations low, so we won't be surprised by and upset at news like in today's FAZ about a weapons manufacturer sponsoring a party by German social democrats and greens.

Party spokespeople become little Houdinis in their elaborate effort to wriggle out of such situations. Oh, but weapons are only 20% of their business, they are moving away from arms making.
Isn't this cute? Do you see the implication? We are taking their sponsor money to encourage them on their way into a less lethal field of business.

Since today is 20 July, it is also the anniversary of the most well known attempt by Germans to kill Hitler. At the risk of sounding like a FAZ fanboi, we suggest their article (in German) which is much more well rounded than many from earlier decades.

With a BBC news show about "neuro-diversity" running in the background, we'll end the post and go to the two important tasks of the day: check how the accidental avocado tree is doing and update our list of "idiots with guns".


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Germany's Best - Cheats

It is a great day to gloat about a misfortune that befell German "public" TV broadcaster ZDF.
We apologize for giving in to the petty impulse. Well, a little, not too much.

What happened?

According to reports like this one in Bild, the team working on the show Germany's Best - Men and Germany's Best - Women resorted to old fashioned vote rigging, making some people vastly more popular and others less so.

The team used three polls to select the celebrities  for the shows. One poll was among the German TV weekly Hoer Zu, the other an online poll, the third a poll by a polling firm.

In the end, the show's makers were not happy with either one of them, so they fixed the ranking. Bild reports some of the changes, and we picked the most egregious one: former soccer legend Beckenbauer was bumped up from number 31 (out of fifty) to number 9.
The top 50 in each category were supposedly the people the Germans considered their "Best". Invitations to the studio were sent, talks were scheduled, praise was heaped on the grandees.

Nice job!

After a few days of soul searching, the chief of the ZDF entertainment division offered his resignation, which was graciously accepted.

The series Germany's Best was cancelled.

We, as 100% non TV viewers, feel this cancellation is a shame. The "public" broadcaster once again failed to see the full potential of a brand.

In the world of nimble public broadcasting with big budgets, the first reaction should have been to create an episode called "Germany's Best - Cheats".

Next time, maybe?

Friday, July 18, 2014

Ice-cold cheaters - sneaky inflation

Food price inflation is one of the staple non-satire topics of this blog for several reasons. Count us among the dwindling number of people who know that fish does not grow in square blocks, or that cows produce milk of various shades of white while chocolate milk is made by adding chocolate to the white base product.

Food prices are subject to a wide range of factors, many obvious, such as weather and climate, plant and animal diseases, crude oil prices, evil speculation and more, others are very sneaky.

A few grams off of the package size here, some water sprayed onto birds when they are frozen, to name just two.
Here is a recent list of the Hamburg, Germany, consumer advocate association. It is in German but you'll understand easily because they have the "price hike" column in red.

One other meat cheat we have seen grow in popularity here does not even look like one. Stores and producers can claim to merely cater to an increasing demand in prepared food in a culture where cooking from scratch is in decline. We are talking about pre-seasoned cuts, for instance, steaks with spicy marinade. Which is mostly water and vinegar, but at least there is a real benefit for the non cooking consumers.
 
Our packaged summer time treat, ice cream, is another product that undergoes the sneaky sort of inflation you won't read much about.

Ice cream tubs around here prominently feature the size in volume units, which have been fairly standard, usually around 1 liter, at even 100 ml increments. Taking a few ml out, for instance, going from 1000 ml to 985 ml isn't a good option. 

This leaves two basic cheats:
1) Change the container shape, add the English qualifier "Premium", and raise the price.
2) Change the ingredients. Use less of the more expensive ingredients. The most recent round of change to our beloved Italian amarena cherry ice cream has left us with a single cherry and some juice in each tub.

Of course, you can combine the two options, which the manufacturer in question decided to do. Instead of a standard round tub, we now see a square container featuring a convex lid (giving the impression of greater volume) as well as a bold Premium across the top.
The new price is 30 Euro cents higher than the old.

How do they get a single cherry into each tub?

Modern engineering, my friends.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Web surfing privacy for the absolute beginner

Disclaimer: If you are a web wizard, you may want to move on to a more appropriate site, for instance, Disney.com. This is for your peace of mind, because you might get upset about what we are doing in this post.

This post is for readers who have not taken any browsing privacy measures. Do you know if your web search provider saves the IP address of every search? Do you use tools to block tracking by web sites?

Not sure? Then read on.

Even the intellectually slowest internet reporters have acknowledged that privacy might be important to users and web sites with great advice are readily available. But there are many users who are simply overwhelmed by the information and the tools.

Having been asked frequently "how can I get some privacy without enlisting expert help", we set out to find one search engine for improved privacy in web searches and one tool that restricts which sites track your browsing.

First, use Firefox as your web browser.

One search engine
We recommend Ixquick.com. Go to the page, set it as your homepage.
We love the short version of their privacy policy: Ixquick does not collect or share any personal information! Nada. Zilch. Nothing.

Now, perform your first search, type BBC. See the word "proxy" next to the web address?
Click "proxy".
The BBC page opens but the BBC or anybody trying to track you will not get the address of your internet connection. They only see the address of a server "in the middle" provided by Ixquick, in technical terms "a proxy".
Ixquick will disable javascript and forms when showing a page through the proxy, which you do not want if you go shopping online but for simple browsing, this is great.

One tool to stop trackers
You will now install an extension module for Firefox. There are many great extensions for different purposes. You may, for example, have heard of AdBlock for blocking ads on web pages you visit.
But you want to do more. You want to prevent sites like facebook, twitter, or google from tracking you, and you want others who grab your browsing habit to grab, well, nothing. The devious thing about browsing is: they sit there and wait, they do not need your permission to store what pages you visit.
And there are thousands of such sites.
In Firefox, click on Tools, then Add-ons.
On the Get Add-on page, type Disconnect in the Search box, like so:

You will get a results page like this. There may be more items than on our example page, but the only one we want will be there: Disconnect. The version number may be different by the time you read this, that's fine.
Click "Install". Restart Firefox.
From now on, you will see the icon "D" with a number in your Firefox bar.

If you click on the downward arrow next to the D, you will get details about what the extension has blocked.

You are now preventing about two thousand sites from tracking your browsing habits, and your search history is yours again. This does not make you "invisible" or fully anonymous

There is a lot more you can do, like installing more tools, learning encryption or giving your iPhone to your worst enemy.

Let us know what you think about this post and what you would like to do next - other than the iPhone giveaway.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Medieval times and a mobile medieval daycare unit

Germans have found more room for festivals in summer, with various medieval themed events all over the country. Though you do not have to limit the adventure to Germany, try, for instance this one in the Austrian town of Mauterndorf.

Staying closer to home, we did some research and found the vast majority of these events go back no further than 20 to 25 years, give or take. The immediate question "why at that time" has several answers. We are not trying to be comprehensive but a few things come to mind. First, there was a stagnating economy in much of Germany around and after re-unification, lots of people with little to do after several decades of being very busy.
Then there is an unspoken aspect of history themed festivals and events having been somewhat poisoned during the time prior to that.
For an example, see one of the all time top posts on this blog. You'll know which one as soon as you browse the list in the sidebar.

The current medieval festivals are quite different from whatever real or - mostly - imagined history prevailed before them.
Much of what you in the modern incarnation has a teaching aspect. Many of the old crafts are demonstrated by eager and skilled volunteers or by some of the last surviving practitioners.
Blacksmithing, for example, is one of these crafts. While endangered, it has been adopted by the art community and is faring pretty well as opposed to, say, the waddle and daub builders or the weavers.
Some shoemakers pushed out of shops and malls by modern sneakers manufacturers have found the making of medieval style footwear to be a good way to continue the craft.
The shoemakers we have seen go for a minimalist product, unlike some of our American friends who produce fully custom made shoes using a variety of leathers and styles and let you submit your own designs.

Jewelry, from cheap Chinese made to 1000 Euro plus local jewelry, bows and arrows, period style clothing and more "stuff" is all there, of course, too.

Medieval festivals have been great venues for traditional music and folk song but they also cater to modern tastes with medieval fusion or, as we called in an earlier post, medieval heavy metal.

Lots of food and drink, but no drinking water fountains, round out the event. Some artisanal cheesemakers even bring a couple of goats for kids and adults to marvel at.

We stood near this cage for a while to see how Germans would react to our "oh, honey, look, a medieval mobile day care unit". And indeed, we saw all reactions ranging from barely contained upset at the quip to some very wide grins.

(c) 2014 K-Landnews, Creative Commons, free for non-commercial use.

One downer we want to mention is this: we may be seeing a saturation point, with some festivals going from annual to every other year and attendance and spending down.

The one enduring mystery we have not resolved after years of medieval festivals is this: how on earth do Germans manage to eat the very high fat crispy roasted pork knuckles in 90 F/30 C heat without keeling over on the spot?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Ooops, the rich are richer than we figured, new ECB study says

As if the nagging feeling of average folks needed confirmation, the European Central Bank just published a Working Paper saying that the rich are somewhat richer than we thought.

The paper's title is statistical lingo but happens to make a very catchy one for non-experts:
How fat is the top tail of the wealth distribution?

For Europeans who until now have pointed to their own official statistics and said, well, we have a big proportion of wealth owned by one or five percent of the population, but look at how big the difference is in the U.S., the study serves as a damper.

The study author uses the two common surveys of wealth distribution plus the Forbes Rich list and does his magic.

The result for the Germans on the Forbes list?

Table 4 of the paper says 53 Germans on the Forbes list own 2.4% of the country's wealth.

This is one tenth of a percent higher than for the U.S., where 396 individuals own 2.3% of the country's wealth.

This result is in stark contrast to the image of Germany as a more egalitarian, more unionized, or - as the old term would have it - more "socialist" society.

The U.S. and Germany are the only two out of ten countries listed that exceed the 2% share. The next highest one is Austria at 1.2, and everybody else in that table is under 1%.

Our take home point from the working paper?

Life is full of surprises. And we look forward to see what the "other press" makes out of the study.



A German bachelor party

From our Wedding Season files.

Bachelor and bachelorette parties are common in today's Germany and quite similar to such events elsewhere.

The typical trip to Las Vegas is obviously not common, although there are anecdotes of people with the requisite time and money going to Las Vegas for their party.

The Spanish island of Mallorca is one destination for German grooms and their buddies, but most of the time it is a more local affair. You have your paintball outings, go cart racing, tree top zip lining followed by heavy drinking, the supposedly last ever visit to a  nudie club or the plain local pub crawl, which sometimes ends in a very real crawl.

Here is one bachelor party tale that made us smile. It also underlines the importance of good, clear communication.

The friend charged with organizing this bachelor party asked the groom: What is it you would really like to do?

Ah, man, I don't know. Whatever crap you can come with.

Okay. [Yes, they do use "okay" here, too.]

The organizer and two helpers set out to plan. Once they had agreed on the main surprise, their first trip took them to the local plumber. The question 'do you have a discarded toilet bowl we can have for free', startled the craftsman, but he smiled when they explained the purpose of the acquisition.
Heavy duty industrial cleanser and silicone were next, and the final purchase consisted at buying up all the chocolate pudding mix at the town's small grocery store.

They took possession of the laundry room in the organizer's house and kept the door locked at all times.
On the day of the party, the mother of the organizer had the unexpected pleasure of seeing her son cook up a gallon or more of chocolate pudding and not eating any of it. Instead, the finished product disappeared in the basement laundry room.

The helpers showed up after work, and the three soon left after announcing that the laundry room was free again.

Is this a good time to mention that the party organizer was also the best man and had been given the rings a few days before?

That night, the groom was meticulously blindfolded, led into the room at the community center and gently pushed down on a chair.

What have you got?

You'll see. Just a second. This is gonna be so much fun. You'll love how soft... Eh, shut up.

A stripper? the groom asked.

Give me your hand, and lean forward.

One of the helpers removed the blindfold while the other pushed the extended hand into the brown contents of the toilet bowl.

The groom gagged and blushed as the group burst out into laughter and taunts.

You know, the wedding rings are in there. If you want them...

The evening went on from there.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Vuvuzelas, car horns, fireworks - it's over

It is over, finally, the World Cup 2014.

So much soccer everywhere, empty cities during matches, and vuvuzelas left over from previous events, it was hard to escape.

The Germans celebrated their win - starting at just before midnight in the K-Land -  into the small hours of the morning.

Fireworks were going off in several places around town, car horns fell silent much later.

In the woods, a lone middle aged German male wearing a white DFB soccer association t-shirt walked home in the dark at around 3 AM. Though drunk, he was cautious and stepped off of the road onto the shoulder to let cars pass.

As the headlights swept fields and meadows, we wondered: did the Princeton based Global Consciousness Project register something?

Lo and behold, Germany vs. Brazil is on their results page in red, meaning registering as a "significant" event. Scroll down the page to table entry 482.

At least one positive use of a mega event.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A German wedding - Polterabend

Yes, the first part of the word Polterabend should remind you of Poltergeist.

Ruckus, loud, preferably obnoxious noise, that's the verb "poltern". "Abend" is evening or night.

Polterabend is a German wedding tradition, a party of the bride & groom with friends, family, and anybody who wants to show up. That's right, anybody can come and celebrate.
This is particularly important in rural areas dominated by small towns and villages where, to this day, many of the inhabitants are related to each other.

Bachelor and bachelorette parties have taken hold in Germany in recent decades, another sign of "cultures in contact". While they may replace the traditional Polterabend, more often than not they are an additional event a few weeks before the Polterabend.
Ever since most European countries embarked on a token separation of church and state, the legal marriage ceremony takes place at town hall, religious ceremonies are secondary, the icing on the wedding cake if you will. Registrars being civil servants, the schedule is 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, so the definition of Polterabend as "a party before the wedding" hasn't been true for at least half a century - since the end of the six day work week.


In the old days before Germans took to trash separation (five different kinds for the average household), a Polterabend could become a garbage nightmare for the young couple. That's because the "Polter" part involves bringing items you can smash into a million tiny pieces, like that old earthware flower pot or all the cracked and chipped dinner plates you can find.

Without limits on what to smash for good luck, bags of shredded paper or tiny plastic pieces from the factory, long dead flowers, metal sheets and tubes, all of this could show up.

Getting this mess under control was the exclusive job of the bride and the groom. So, older Germans tell us, there were many Polterabends that turned into a stress test for the soon to be newly weds.
Alcohol used to flow in great quantities, fist fights did occasionally break out, and in some areas of the country the tradition of kidnapping the bride and holding her for ransom for a few hours was practiced in rural Germany until recently.

These days, Polterabends have become a more mellow affair. Disposing all your trash at the newlyweds has fallen out of favor, and is illegal anyway. Most guests will bring no more than one or two ceramic items to throw into a makeshift container.

People still get drunk, but there is much less drunk driving.

It is in this context that the following scene from a recent event in the hills took place.

One Polterabend, at a farm a few towns over, an eighteen wheeler semi with a tipper trailer was slowly backing into the farm yard. The driver honked the horn every few yards on his slow backward crawl to make sure that he had everybody's attention.

It worked. The partiers assembled to watch the spectacle, and the faces of the bride and the groom betrayed anxiety.
The trailer was a dump truck style, all metal container, its contents invisible.
As the air brakes hissed one last time, the driver honked briefly, rolled down the window and asked a friend in the crowd to release the back flap of the tipper.

Once the friend came back, the driver revved the engine and engaged the hydraulic telescope lift.

The wedding party had moved to the side and towards the rear of the truck to see better what it would disgorge. The bride grasped the groom's hand.

Very quietly, the tipper went up, the back gate slowly opened.

Nothing happened.

The top of the tipper was now well above the top of the cabin, a space about a yard wide had opened at the rear, the onlookers were holding their breath.

Nothing happened.

A couple of people broke the silence and started to giggle. Hey, man... He's kidding.

Then, without hardly any sound, a saucer, with a cup on - the cup glued onto the saucer, as the driver explained later - it slid out of the gate of the huge tipper. It broke as it hit the cement floor.

The laughter spread from those closest to the rear of the tipper to the front of the group.  The bride laughed, hugged the groom, who looked up at the driver.

The driver flashed a wide smile and raised his right hand. He waved it a couple of times to alert whoever was looking at him, then let go of the rope he was holding.

Instantly, the forty or so feet of enclosed metal container began to rumble. Something was tumbling down the length of the beat up green metal box, the noise rising to almost deafening with fractions of a second.

The audience was stunned into silence.

A ceramic toilet bowl came crashing out of the tipper, shattering into what seemed like a million pieces.

The driver blew the horn once more, and lowered the tipper.

The spectators broke into a roaring cacophony of laughter and cheers, and you could have seen how both the bride and the groom were drenched in sweat.

People would talk about this Polterabend for years to come.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Google manipulates your world view? Stop yelping!

Another bad press day for Google in the German paper FAZ, what's up this time around?

The roughly 90% search market  share Google enjoys in Europe has attracted some valid criticism and free loaders who want a share of the company's revenue without lifting a finger to press a key. German intellectual property rights holders and paper print folks had their day in the media recently but the onslaught does not go away.

The new FAZ article expands on the theme previously raised by the chief of Axel Springer Verlag, which we discussed in the post Who's afraid of Google in a number of interesting ways.

First off, the article lead-in is brilliant.

By hooking into arguably outstanding soccer world cup match that saw Germany defeat Brazil with 7:1 and its reflection in social media, many readers will perk up.
The author swiftly accuses Google of standing out from pretty much everybody else by avoiding negative terms around the match and then swiftly accuses Google of manipulation and simply fashioning a "world according to Google".

An NPR piece about Google's experimental news center and tweaking the search algorithm in real time swiftly turns into the FAZ accusation of "newspeak" because Google decided not to have the negative terms "shame" or disgrace figure at the top of auto-complete and "News on Demand".

The author then claims that Google does this to get its "news" [his quotes] onto Twitter and facebook, the lands of happy news [says he].
Which may indicate that the FAZ does not look at Twitter or facebook very often.

As they do with the news, they do with the market.

Yes, Google has been known to rank products and services of its own and affiliates higher than expected or justified and has - so it seems - improved this.

But calling for an EU level anti-trust investigation for abuse of market power seems to be the fashion of the day. So much so that a depressingly non-sensical document out of review portal Yelp is served up as an illustration of Google abusing its power. To us K-Landnews folks Yelp has been one of the poster boys of tweaking its world, with allegations of bullying and a series of sad articles in papers small and big all the way to the Wall Street Journal.

 Search for "yelp scandal", and don't use Google for it, you know.

The part of the FAZ article about Google vs. Yelp is based on a TechCrunch piece and somehow has lost the moderation of the TechCrunch headline's " How Yelp Thinks It’s Getting Screwed By Google".

Our own research into results from Google does not substantiate the level of credibility claimed by FAZ. There are slight differences but nowhere near as serious.

The "Yelp study" lacks all credibility, period.

The sweetest comparison by the FAZ is that, on the web, Google is akin to the power or water utilities in the traditional world.

Next to the badly digested example of Yelp, the utility comparison is a riot: I would love to have all the water and all the electricity I want and pay for it with my data.

If you do want to investigate Google, you should set up and extensive, fair way of measuring what's happening. This would include comparing Google results to those of other search engines.

Hint: you'll be surprised. Just try this one "Gary Danko Yelp" in Google, Bing, Yahoo, and Startpage.

By the standards of the FAZ article you would have to accuse the traditional paper Yellow Pages of manipulating the world view of the users.

1) They had a 100% area monopoly.
2) They featured huge one or two page ads not marked as ads.
3) These large ads favored the advertisers over the regular one line small font guys.
4) The maps in the Yellow Pages were highly discriminative, giving prominence to only a small section of urban areas.

So, please quit yelping.

Disclaimer: We still don't own Google stock and still make only a couple of dollares a month with Google ads. Which you can completely block, unlike the full page Yellow Pages crap.

One more thing:
We are glad, the FAZ author missed this one: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2626515/Could-Google-fix-election-Researchers-search-ranking-influence-undecided-voters.html

Friday, July 11, 2014

Got a job interview? Think of Santa Claus.

HR professionals and recruitment specialists have had a hard time since the internet took off.

Prior to the ubiquitous web, job candidates at least had to spend some effort on books that promised they would ace this interview or sail through this or that personality test.

Of course, the vast majority of the content was just common sense or platitudes wrapped in ever new slogans, says an unnamed expert. But at least one aspect of getting a stack of how-to books was positive: it showed a willingness to work.

The web made it all worse. You do not even have to read the paper or go to the library to find out what an employer is doing. A quick search, and you can ascertain which of the many underwater basket weaving specialty products a company offers.

I've had one candidate come in on Monday at 8 AM and ask me about a Wells notice we had filed with the SEC the previous Friday at six pm. How in the world can you tell if people want to have a steady, very busy job or a quiet desk for their day trading activities during work hours?

Another professional confided: My personal worst was a young man who came in with several filled out and scored personality tests, starting with Briggs Myers and ending  with the personalDNA test.

We've tried open ended questions, we've stolen bits and pieces from LSAT, GMAT and ALL-THAT, and nothing is ever good enough.

We run them by their future co-workers to show much we value our existing employees, and what do you get?
The career hungry John from Cube 101 systematically rejects anybody who might be more competent than himself. Which wouldn't be that bad if John were a triple PhD genius -- only, he isn't -- we keep him around because nobody else want to do the mind numbing tasks he does. Daisy Doolittle from section 9 runs what amounts to an ad hoc spelling bee, Jerry Jock really wants a skateboard buddy, and Honest Abe warns them of their manager, Crazy Boss.

We cannot do away with these modern features but we have limited their use and started doing what our old HR people did, like, look at the shoes, what kind are they wearing, how well kempt they are.
Look at their hair, is it dyed, not easy to spot with modern chemicals. Look at their faces, do they have worry lines, do they look older than they should?
Then it turns out that these Silicon Valley boys and babes go get all botoxed up by age 30.

Our last good test is the Santa Claus Test. It is somewhat culturally predicated, we know, but Hollywood Santa movies and NORAD's annual Santa tracking have leveled that sufficiently, we think.

The test consists of a single question: What was your reaction when your parents, including a two dad or two mom set of parents, told you Santa Claus was not real?

We provide 3 answers in multiple choice format.

1) They only confirmed what I had already figured out.
2) Santa Claus is real, historically speaking, it is irrefutable according to scripture. The trappings, like the sled, the elves and all that is just age adequate marketing.
3) I don't believe in Santa, but I think it is important to respect our cultural heritage and contribute to society overall. The evil sidekick Grampus, or Beelzebub, is an integral part of the mythology, and a little scare won't hurt.

Everybody who picks the first answer is disqualified, of course. Respondents who take answer two are good future employees. They will believe anything you can sell as the truth, yet they show a beneficial eagerness to bend and mold this truth as needed, even to the point of completely distorting the original message.

Category 3 applicants are just as good in many jobs as cat 2 folks but have the added advantage that they are able to consciously and willfully ignore facts. Orders matter more than facts, so that's great. Even better, they accept cruelty as part of the package, as "it's always been this way". Their appreciation of or need for a reason, a prima facie disadvantage, turns out to be the ultimate handle you have over them. Because you only need a single reason "respect our cultural heritage and contribute to society" - which works and will justify any behavior, "good" or "bad", at management's choice.

Note: The way the question is framed will change soon to make it less obvious to the candidate. Instead of " What was your reaction...", we will make it pseudo hypothetical. Imagine you are babysitting the child of a friend and you decide to tell the child that Santa is not real. How, in your opinion, would the child react?

The candidate's reaction to the demand is enlightening in itself. Will they refuse to even contemplate it, are they willing to potentially hurt a friend or damage a close relationship in order to get a job, will you see an emotional flare up? 

So, remember, next time you go to a job interview, think of Santa Claus.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

[Update] An accidental avocado tree way up north

[Update 9/13/2016] 

Sadly, Avo died in late 2015 due to horticultural incompetence.

The lemon tree had a hard time, too, and almost died, it was down to a single leaf. Replanting the lemon in a much larger pot did help. It looks better than ever.

But - surprise - there is another avocado tree in the garden. It popped up all by itself in a neglected area next to some raspberry plants and barely escaped a vigorous brush clearing spree.

[End update]

The other day, while working on the compost heap in the back of the garden, a few dark green, very shiny leaves caught our attention.

One quick pull on the stem beneath, and another undesired plant popped out, ready to be discarded.

Wait. there was an egg sized clump of compost at the bottom of the plant, with roots coming out on the side and at the bottom. A quick flick of a finger, just to figure out what plant that might be, and the surprise was complete: it was an avocado pit, nicely split where it had germinated.

A tiny avocado plant, the stem about seven inches long, three pairs of leaves at the top. How could that happen at a latitude higher than Vancouver? Vancouver, Canada.

The tree was expeditiously replanted at the edge of a veggie bed which had not fared that well in a somewhat cool summer, so there was space left. And given that the peas and cucumbers were inspected twice daily, the avo would be under our watchful eyes from now on.

Moving way up north from the sunny climate of the U.S., where an avocado tree in the yard was as far as we needed to go for some super fresh avos when they were in season, some adjustment had been required. Avocados were hard to come by, and expensive.

Despite the obvious fact that no avocado tree would survive around here, the "easy grow" instructions on internet sites like this one proved irresistible. And proved a failure as well.
Eventually, the pits were tossed out with other compost and forgotten.

Forgetting the pits, maybe helped along by an unusually warm spring, may have done the trick. If the plant makes it until fall, it will spend the winter in a large pot inside the house, where it can keep the lemon bush company.
The lemon bush was, once again, another idea born out of nostalgia and the excessive confidence that built up over many visits to the swanky garden center a couple of towns over.

If they can grow one, why shouldn't it work for me, too? 

Several winters later, the lemon bush barely brought back from oblivion each time, we know why it might not work.

Bye now, time to have a chat with the avo.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

God stopped by for a visit the other day

From our funky dreams department.

Early afternoon, the doorbell rang. The cats were hanging out in the living room and didn't react as they would when a stranger was at the door. These are guard cats. If a stranger came by, from the postman to the meter reader, the chimney sweep or a beggar, or a friend who had not been here often enough to pass their friendship test, they'd jump up and make their way up the stairs. Fast, too, before she managed to get the door.

This time, they lifted their heads, listened for a second, and went back to grooming and intently scrutinizing the sun on the old rug.

Friend or family, she'd find out who, she was not expecting anybody.

She opened the door. A slender, older man, wearing blue jeans and a plain shirt stood there. Yes, he did have a beard and was bald on the top of his head.

She had never seen him, yet knew exactly who he was, and - as she recalled later - was completely calm.

Hi.

Hi, come in please. Can I offer you a coffee?

Sure.

As she prepared coffee in the kitchen, she heard low, rolled "r" cat greetings in the living room, then silence. Why is this so utterly normal, without excitement and ooohs and aaahs, of course no trumpets, no angels, she was wondering, counting out the coffee scoops.

Returning to the living room with coffee, noticing she did not have to ask 'milk, sugar', she found the cats sitting in a circle, quietly looking at the visitor.

They talked about the cats a bit, she explained how cool they were and how Ms. Princess was a little crazy. Yes, he nodded, she just came out like that. Would you like me to fix it, not a problem.

No, she replied, as whacky as she can be, she's perfect in her own way.

God smiled and sipped more coffee.

And you did not ask him the big questions? friends would quiz later when she told them  of God's visit. They'd roll their eyes, signalling disbelief in this exaggerated manner, as if trying to make their expression match the gravity of the event.

There was some exchange between him and the cats, she'd explain. No words were exchanged, she would say, unsure how to phrase what happened.

The coffee finished, God left with a thank you and a good bye.

And that was that, a pretty cool dream.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

German engineer files criminal complaint against NSA committee witness

If you have followed this blog, you know we made fun of the great data vacuuming effort. Quite acerbic quips at times, and we still think TOR is a good idea. An idea we share, as it stands, with illustrious organizations.

But that is as far as we are willing to go. The many different aspects of the issue have been baffling greater minds than ours, and pretending we have answers where these folks fail, it's just too much.

So, imagine our surprise when we found a loose group of German Twitterati who have the best interests of their preferred American spy agency at heart.

It is one thing to make like a hobby sleuth and analyze the published documents, or to show off your math skills by adding up numbers and pointing out discrepancies. Why not? Errors do occur, translations of the English documents can come out weird. When that happens, are we witnessing sinister manipulation, or simply an error?

Run of the mill errors and a little sloppiness, generally, it seems, said a linguist we know.

The German NSA posse, as we decided to call the friends of the agency for their cowboy attitude, are a funny bunch. Involuntarily so, we assume, because they seem to be competent techies in their own right in such fields as networking infrastructure or telecommunications, to name just two.

Their claim "no evidence of mass surveillance" prompted some American experts to question if these Germans were NSA booster accounts. And, of course, there is the "collection does not mean surveillance" argument. The simple questions if you are not intent on surveillance, why do you collect all of this in the first place, and since you run it through filtering software, what is up with that - these questions do not resonate with these engineers.

For some time, we figured that the sleuths were no more obnoxious than yours truly but that changed recently.

One of the gentlemen filed a criminal complaint against a witness of the German parliamentary investigation committee looking into the NSA surveillance issues from a German perspective.

The expert witness targeted by the complaint is German, little known to most folks outside of the computer sector, including us. The man who filed the complaint is German. His complaint quotes from the leaked NSA documents and slides, alleging criminal misrepresentation of the witness.

Wow, one lone German who succeeds in interpreting documents where dozens of journalists and experts have failed before? Unlikely success stories do happen, but on this subject?

We'll see if there is something newsworthy out of the posse, or entertaining.



Monday, July 7, 2014

Summer vacation time upsets German teachers

The lazy, hazy days of summer, the seemingly never ending vacation after a stressful school year, happy students, teachers wearing the smiles of a job well done.

If only.

The German national teachers association is miffed, and here is why.

The tourism industry is offering early bird deals for families within a few weeks before the start of summer vacation, before the end of the school year.  At twenty or more percent off, enough parents are willing to take the offer, pack up and head for the sun.

We know for a fact that many a couple would love to leave the kids behind for a few weeks - but they don't. So, they write a sick notice and mail it on the way out of town.

The teachers association reports an increase in student sick days by 30 to 50 % before the summer vacation.

The association's position on the phenomenon is, rather boringly, that parents are teaching their children a bad message: the message that rules can be broken.
This is anti-social and a very real problem, says the association.

It may be unrealistic to expect a teachers association to come out and condone such parental evasion. Is it also unrealistic to expect the teachers to simply keep quiet?

As sad as the rule loving adult typing these lines finds it: children need to learn how to break rules safely, and what safer environment than school would you propose?

Children who never learn to navigate the rules of life won't have an easy adult life, and teachers should know that. Easy, for you teacher readers, in this context means "exceedingly unpleasant and potentially brief".

We regret to have to give the German national teachers association an F for their year end project. 

While the association correctly identified the rule (attend until the last day of the school year), it has failed to correctly identify the many aspects that influence compliance.

Dear teachers, better luck next year.



Sunday, July 6, 2014

Hiding text & pictures inside pictures

Using the TOR software bundle to hide your location on the Web? Using encrypted email or chat?

As you read this, some of the world's intelligence agencies are trying to figure out whether you are doing it, and - worse - assume you are up you to no good.

TheEditor, instead of desperately arguing in yet another iteration of "freedom versus security", decided long ago, meaning a year ago or so, to set up a TOR relay and did some research. A TOR relay is the next level in being suspect, of course, since it behaves like a mini server, making additional bandwidth available to anonymous others. A test of a homemade "hidden service" followed. You can find posts on post subjects on the blog - or just ask your local intelligence service for details.

The black box democracy testing with encrypted cat pictures has one definite result: the cats, as encrypted photos, will live on long after TheEditor has faded away from the ravages of old age.

In the whole "I can't believe it's not mass surveillance" comedy, one set of very handy tools to hide stuff in has not been given very much media coverage.

Have you ever played a Spot the Difference game? It is kind of like that, only a lot more powerful and not for the naked eye.

Steganography
It is the concept and the respective class of tools which allow you to alter the pixels of photos or video to hide information.
Imperceptible to the eye and to everyday software, these tools make minute modifications of byte values which can be read by the recipient of the photo with a copy of the same software.

Heck, the fact that someone saves baby pictures of strangers might be more than the ordinary gross voyeuristic violation - what if the baby pictures had a message inside?
Other than the obvious message, which is: we are all human, we start small, then some of us turn into violent idiots or homicidal maniacs, and the freedom of the rest of us gets curtailed.

Steganography tools used to be a nerd's paradise but, today, there are some good free ones around. We are briefly describing two you might like.

QuickStego
Very easy to use, QuickStego accepts text and puts it into an image. For free. An extended version that costs a bit of money allows to encrypt the text before adding it.
Of course, you can use a PGP tool to encrypt text and then add it in QuickStego.

OpenPuff
Still free, but with a leaning curve compared to QuickStego, OpenPuff is our current personal favorite. It has a multi-password feature and a decoy feature. 

Here is a short list of uses for stego tools:

1) Use as a simple, unobtrusive tool to save passwords
There are, of course, the great dedicated tools like Password Safe, but a stego tool is handy. Especially if you are an artist with ten thousand or more photos lying around and do not need a dedicated tool.

2) Watermarking any photos or videos you create
There are standards, such as IPTC and EXCIF information fields, but once a photo is out in the wild, people can and do change these fields. A nice little stego copyright note may make a difference if one of your shoots takes off and you need to supply some proof.

3) Use for information exchange
If encryption tools are too much for you, stego gets you a pretty decent level of privacy. Cybercriminals getting access to your web mail inbox won't figure out that the photo of the classic car hides, for example, a pdf with medical information for an extension of SSI benefits.
Or a power of attorney for a friend so he can close a bank account that turned out to be no longer needed because you fell in love on that European vacation and ain't going back.

4) Hidden art projects
Have you heard of Willard Wigan, an artist who creates micro sculptures? You have never heard of the Golden Harley in the eye of a needle? Go and look at the gallery on his web site right now!
If you fancy using stego tools to create hidden art, let us know what you come up with.


How to become a double agent

In the context of the hilarious spy comedy playing out in Germany over the past days, we learned a few things.

A recap of the news: a German BND (like their CIA & NSA rolled into one) was arrested under suspicion of spying for an American service, apparently the CIA.

The very fundamental question of the life of a spy is: how do you become one?

These days, you have two options:
1) Go to the web site of your government and apply.
2) Do nothing, just wait.

Option 1 may work if you have the very specific skills and knowledge that prompts a spy agency to advertise an opening in the first place. Their enthusiasm to take to Monster Inc. or Twitter is limited, and they'll make you work hard to get in.

Option 2 is the traditional and much preferred avenue of recruitment. Going to a school where spy recruiters thrive, working in a "friendly" non-spy job, keeping the frat network alive, or simply growing up in a family of dedicated spies, all are better ways to become a spy. The little dirty secret of "all in the family" is a certain incestuous quality, good for security, not so good for the demands of a complex world.
Incidentally, meta data make a nice way to build Option 2 graphs. And the polygraph thing? Totally overrated.

Once you are a spy, work for a while, then set the wheels in motion for becoming a double agent.
The process is quite simple, nothing but a variant of Options 1 or 2.

Option 1 was taken by the German, if we can believe the press. He sent an email to a U.S. rep, a consulate or the embassy, done.
It is an obvious mistake to send such an email to an adversary representative. He tried the Russian consulate, and his mail was intercepted.
If you must make contact in this manner, send a mail with nothing but a PGP key from an email address you create for this purpose.
Still: Option 1 is not recommended.

Option 2 is much better, although the recruiter may not be truthful. Yes, many recruiters in any field are not truthful but the consequences tend to be less dire. If someone claims to recruit you for the U.S., try to figure out if that's correct. One of the more famous episodes in the 1960s was a person in Egypt going around and recruiting people to spy for the Germans - turns out he was an Israeli spy.
You can help this along by hanging out in bars, but unless she is gorgeous, don't go. 

A somewhat disconcerting fact of modern life is that there are so many people volunteering a spy past on Twitter that the glamor of the James Bond days simply isn't there any more.

The last big news about James Bond?

A developer wants to build on the James Bond Beach, spoiling the view.

One skill you will want to maintain in the days of an all digital world is how to read a paper book.
You will need this skill if you get busted. eBook readers are not issued in prisons. For that matter, regular books seem to be, well, phased out in UK jails but that's not the main point.

One twist of the German - American spy story may not be emphasized much as the English speaking world spreads the story. As a matter of fact, the German spin machine is already casting his arrest as a great success.

So, we list the main steps as published:
1) German domestic spies BfV intercept an email to the Russians offering service
2) They impersonate the Russians and respond to the Gmail sender.
3) No response by "spy"
4) The Germans ask the US for help in unmasking a presumed Russian spy.
5) The Gmail account of the spy disappears.
6) The Germans figure out who the guy is and bust him.



Saturday, July 5, 2014

Eine Journalismusstiftung für Schland?

Eine Entschuldigung vorab: dieser Post enthält keinen einzigen Quellennachweis in Form eines Links.

Das Thema Einsatz von Mitteln aus dem Rundfunkbeitrag für Aufgaben, die außerhalb der Finanzierung des öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunks liegen, ist nach unserer Ansicht so absurd, dass es keine Verweise verdient.

Nun soll auch die Presse etwas davon bekommen?

Es gäbe nach Ansicht unserer Kleinpresser hinter diesem Blog einen wirklich guten Einsatzzweck für die eine oder andere öffentliche Million.

Nämlich guten Rechtsschutz.

Jeder Miniverleger, und dazu gehören die sogenannten Blog im Web auf jeden Fall, kann allein durch Androhung von Rechtsmitteln ins Schleudern kommen. Manche überstehen es, andere nicht.

Die bestenfalls im Forum einer Zeitschrift abgehandelten Anwaltsschreiben seitens eines Würdenträgers sind für Kleinschreiber wie uns keine Unterhaltung sondern Lehrstücke.

Die Rückenfreiheit eines Rechtsschutzes für uns Kleine wird wohl ein Traum bleiben. Wer in den Entscheidungsgremien dieser Gesellschaft hat denn schon ein Interesse an einigen Tausend nicht kuschenden Kleinverlegern?

Eben.

Research standards for German legal professionals?

Do you recall the last time when the excuse "well, sorry, I didn't read up on it" worked for you?
Primary school, certainly before you knew how to do a decent web search, would be the most likely set of answers for most of us.

A cynic friend of the K-Landnews has this favorite quote about the rule of law: Okay, assume we are all equal before the law, what about after the law?

To illustrate what this question might mean, here is a link to the latest ruling in the case of the German who spent seven years or so locked up mostly for being so crazy to claim his banker wife had helped people evade taxes (the ruling in German).

Because he was right, after all.

When the now released man tried to have a judge prosecuted, the court came down with the claim the judge had not done wrong because 'there was no proof the judge knew of an extensively published and widely commented on ruling by Germany's highest court banning the very same reasoning used to lock up the man' [our translation, quality: reasonably good].

When the link to the ruling made the rounds on Twitter, several users saw it necessary to state that this was not a spoof version from Germany's favorite satire web site Der Postillion.

This book (in German, link to Amazon) tells some stories of judicial error in Germany, and attempts to answer the question why so few ever become public.


Friday, July 4, 2014

Wilfred (TV show) - a likely new cult dog

The U.S. version of Australian TV show Wilfred is probably best described as a "real actor version" show of the genre Family Guy, without Lois and the kids.

Oddly enough, Wikipedia page for the U.S.does not give us the expected clear premise.

The show is about a dog and his friends, which might make you think it is suitable for children.

It is not! 

So:
Wilfred is a dog owned by a young woman named Jenna. One day, she leaves the dog with her single young neighbor Ryan while she is off to work.

Ryan finds he can interact with Wilfred like with any other human. They talk, they squabble, they smoke pot together, etc.
To everybody else, including Jenna, Wilfred is just a dog.

The rest follows naturally as well as rather not quite naturally.

Think hilarious, raucous, gross, endearing plus "they can't be doing this....oh my god, they are doing it".

The series is set in L.A., pretty low tech, with the most expensive or noteworthy items we will mention here being a convertible, a shovel, and several jars of peanut butter.

The cast of the show is one never ending - hopefully - line up of great actors from  comedy shows of the past two decades. My name is Earl brother Randy, Malcom in the Middle's mom, The Office manager Andy, and many more.

Another question to us as we read through the Wikipedia article to the list of countries where the show airs was how some of these countries handle the contents.

If we manage to get hold of information on dropped episodes or dubbing editing, we'll add it here.





Thursday, July 3, 2014

Burqa ban legal in EU -- can we ban suits, too?

The European Union Human Rights Court (ECHR) has upheld laws banning wearing the burqa and the niqab in public.
Making a big effort to sidestep any implication of religion, the ruling emphasizes a certain idea of "living together" is the "legitimate aim" of governments.

The narrow view of proponents of the law is that the face should be visible in public interactions, as a common courtesy in social interaction.

It's the same for motorcycle helmets, said one.  

Perfectly understandable, said the K-Landnews TheEditor. Guess what, back in the States, I would very carefully take down my hoodie when approaching a liquor store, or any small shop for that matter, even in snow and freezing cold. Common courtesy to the lone store clerk and his or her family. That's safety and security, but the "certain idea of living together" claim, come on.

So, how might creative administrators of the public space use the latest legal ruling in daily life?

Burqa/niqab wearers in most of the EU should be able to go fully decked out on at least one day of the year: Halloween. Even if Halloween is out of bounds because of religious beliefs, it should make a usable loophole. [Disclaimer: Only a theory, so you are on your own! Your results may vary.]
Carnival offers a second opportunity in many countries.

The creative administrators of public space, on the other hand, might be tempted to curb the use of masks on those very same occasions, with carnival being quite safe. But that pagan Halloween ruffles feathers, for instance, in Germany.

So, expect the odd call for banning Halloween masks in some localities based on this ruling.

Given that the French, in particular, have a thing against headscarves, is it time to talk about suits?

A K-Landnews instaPoll of friends found that two out of two experience a violation of their "idea of living together" as well as increased apprehension in the presence of groups of fully suited males.
We did not bother to look on the web if there is a name for it, so please accept the bold new name "Banker Presence Syndrome" (BPS). 

Examples of BPS abound in literature and movies, for instance, the great It's a Wonderful Life. The poor man becomes suicidal as a result of BPS, after all.

Would if not make sense to ban suits in public?

And T-shirts!

Pesky, irritating, provocative outerwear par excellence -  the daily violation of many people's certain idea of living should come next. Please, dear public servants, use the law to rid the world of the "I'm with Stupid" t-shirts, at least in public.

Do tie-dyes irk your certain idea of living? Ban them alright, like this this one which invokes the German flag. Maybe, maybe not.
(c) 2014 K-Landnews, of course.

Where are the straight lines and clear color separation we have a right to expect even on the cheapest flags made in developing countries?

Outrage, please.

You can take it from here, okay.

In case you have a Tricolore lookalike t-shirt would you send us a photo?




Tuesday, July 1, 2014

[Update] BMT - the wind and footsteps in the sand

He proudly wore the Grumpy Old Man pin in the shape of a hog on his hat, alongside a Steal Your Face, a white bunny pin, and others.

Transporting people was his job at Brooklyn Metropolitan Transport, and when he left to see the world outside of the fixed rail route, the abbreviation BMT remained his nickname for the rest of his life.

He continued to transport people to places new and ancient, to the most far flung countries on earth.
As one of the early group of people commonly known as the Hog Farmers, BMT was in the middle of the anti-war movement, the new music, civil rights struggles.
The Hog Farmers worked Woodstock, the most iconic music festival the world has ever seen.
You can catch a glimpse of BMT alongside Saint Misbehaving Wavy Gravy and the other travelers on the epic road trip of colorful buses going through Europe all the way into the Himalayas.

Brooklyn Metropolitan Transport most certainly has no memory of BMT, but, hey, you might find an old man somewhere in the Himalayas lighting up at the mention of BMT, 'oh, Brooklyn Metropolitan Transport'.

With a smile, BMT stated his profession as Independent Travel Consultant. He told great stories to us youngsters about the counterculture world when in the mood, and one of our favorites was how some activists had spirited Timothy Leary out of a hotel in Asia seconds before the DEA rushed in to nab the former Harvard man.

To most folks who were there, BMT may be familiar as the guy in the white bunny suit at shows of the band that is linked with the hog farmers in many ways: The Grateful Dead. Wearing a bunny costume with dignity is not an easy feat. Try it yourself one day.

Old age brought health problems, including a translucent oxygen tube. He was part of a group running a death pool over a decade ago. They'd have bets on who would die first. In his good natured way, he pocketed winnings on more than one occasion, and promptly spent the cash on celebrating the life lost.

Having moved into an assisted living facility, his health improved so much that management told him they would have to kick him out. Management eventually saw the irony and let him stay as a model tenant.

He is known to anonymously have helped others, with a little bit of money here, a pair of shoes there. If he was satisfied with the outcome of his effort, he might eventually come forward as the source of the gift.

BMT was one of the people who contributed to "the hippies" having become part of the fabric of society, which this episode illustrates:
Had you been in New York City's Lower Manhattan in the 2000s, over 40 years after the Summer of Love, you could have seen the surprise making both native New Yorkers and tourists pause, smile, and wave on the sidewalks as old school buses full of tie-dyed youngsters - and some old folks - rolled into town.
A bus with girls on the roof. holding on to a railing, did a lap around the Empire State Building - and the police car behind them let them do their thing.

BMT's optimism and good nature will be missed.

A poem was read in his honor at the Kate Wolf Memorial Festival 2014.

(c) 2014 K-Landnews. Free for non-commercial use.

Rest in Peace.

[Editor's Update] Fixed some text flow issues, clarified attributions, added some details, changed title to reflect a poem received by BMT some years back.