Sunday, November 30, 2014

My computer is "thinking about it"

Would it be asking too much to dampen the AI (artificial intelligence) craze for a few months or years?

Sure, artificial intelligence will come, and sure, the Turing movie is cool, what with the acting, which also shows that people with odd surnames can make it in this world.

It's just, please, don't go down the road outlined in this Guardian/Observer piece: Today, it is not uncommon to hear people talking about their computers being “confused”, or taking a long time to do something because they’re “thinking about it”. 

There is a quote: “the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted”.

The great man was certainly right but in a different way: what he describes in this statement was already true at the time.

No computers needed.

The quote made the blogster say: without knowing his biography, I'd venture to say that Mr. Turing did not work in the underbelly of industrial society, or on a ship, or anywhere where machinery dominated. He probably never owned a temperamental, unpredictable car that needed a name so we could reason with it, coax it, threaten it into starting up in morning - after all, we needed to go to work to pay for parts and labor for it. He may not have been welcomed into the army with the smirk "this is your bride", which was a frigging rifle.

People have anthropomorphized the world since the dawn of time. So, doing this with regard to computers is merely more of the same.

Where does this leave us with defining artificial intelligence?

Because knowing or not knowing whether we are dealing with a machine does not seem very valid when people behave like they are dealing with an intelligent, living being despite knowing it is not.

Artificial intelligence is often framed in terms of loss of control over the world, loss of  deterministic human steering power. That power is shaky at best for most of us anyway, and it seems hilarious that we talk about robot ethics in a world where humans are the scourge of humans.

Does it matter whether you are killed by an intelligent drone or by an intelligent human? Old fashioned me finds the latter much more worrying.

Abuse of the term artificial intelligence by commercial interests does not help either. To name only one, selling a computer named Watson - anthropomorphized - as intelligent is a disservice. Oh, Siri, is this correct?

Artificial intelligence has been around for thousands of years: it is called God.

Just as with this one, the believers will recognize it when they see it.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Robbing your own bank

Hit and run accidents, speeding, and burglaries seem to be the most common crimes in the hills we call home.

Nothing as interesting as any random story from the police blotter of a large US city ever happens here. Over at the freeway not too far away, they have the usual mix of traffic snarls and mangled flesh, but from our vantage point, that's TV land.

In the minds of the hill folks, the land beyond the freeway might as well be called Ukraine, or Syria. It's where the others live.

The other day, we were hanging out for a few minutes with the old lady for whom we run the odd errant every once in a while. She asked: have you heard about the robbery?

We had not.

The post office was robbed again. 


Post office and gas station robberies are the two big ones in the countryside. These shops don't come with all the bullet proof glass you'd expect from the US. Nor do they have the tiny tubes Italian banks use. Down there, on the other side of the Alpes, banks tend to have glass locks between the entrance and the tellers. You come in, you find yourself in a tube narrower than an economy class plane seat. A pane slides into place behind you, and for a few seconds, you have nowhere to go. Then, a pane in front of you slides to the side with a sad hissing sound, and you are inside the bank.

This contraption must be the real reason for the low obesity rates in Italy. The Mediterranean diet might help, but the air locks at the banks are the real reason for staying slender.

Obese Italian people simply cannot get at their money.

Anyhow, the old lady explained that the post office had been robbed twice during the last twelve months, and now it had happened again.

The woman did it, she laughed.

The woman?

The young woman who runs it.

All three robberies had taken place when the clerk opened the shop. The first time, she had been held up by a masked bandit with a gun, the second time, by and individual with a knife.
This time around, there had been two men, who had apparently waited outside her apartment, grabbed her as she walked out to open the post office, forced her to open the safe, taken her with them as a hostage to their car and let her go as they sped off.

None of it was true.

After the second robbery, the owners of the 1 Euro store that doubled as the small twon post office had moved the store into an empty grocery store not far from the original, somewhat isolated, location.
The former grocery store was deemed a safer location, although it struggled to stay open.

Every six months or so, some new entrepreneur restarted the grocery store, only to shut down because they could not compete with the two supermarkets on the outskirts of town.

The post office was the only tenant for a while, until a new owner decided to give it another go as a grocery store.

That's how the young lady tripped up.

On the morning of the third robbery, some workers had shown up early to stack shelves for the grand opening of what we assume will be called Another Doomed Grocery Store. Be that as it may, the police talked to the workers, explained our old lady, and they all said that the young woman postal worker had been alone all morning.

This time, the police had not called in the friendly folks from Victim Support, and the twenty something young adult had confessed.

The intriguing aspect of all of this was not gall, greed, or motives though.

It was the laugh of the old lady.

It felt neither malicious nor condescending but -- well -- wise.

Like an acknowledgement of the sheer hilarity of life itself by a woman just shy of her 100th birthday.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The unwitting East German millionaire

From our People are People series.

During the recent German celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the melting of the Iron Curtain, we saw the power of memory, and many "Then and Now" comparisons flooded the media.

Every story of then and now had its own rationale, of course. Some were blatantly partisan along the lines of bad then - good now. Others seemed to seek to reassure readers that their memories were indeed correct, that there had been a huge wall with guard towers, mines, razor wire, and that you would be shot if you crossed into the plowed fire zone.

To us, the stories of everyday life were more interesting than the iconic imagery.

The ever present reports of East Germans not owning much, of having to wait 20 years for a car, had left such a deep impression that the term privately owned business seemed odd in the context of East Germany.

Didn't people work in these huge firms that were all state owned? Turns out, they did not. Most of them but not all. Many small business owners were allowed to keep their companies, so that when the Wall came down, this country of about 14 million people still had around 90 000 small businesses, out of some 300 000 in 1949.

Mind you, they were strapped into the tight bureaucracy of the land. They couldn't set their own prices, they couldn't freely pick and choose their customers.  As tolerated but certainly not loved holdovers of an old system, these companies were under greater scrutiny than the collectives and mega farms.

When it was all over, the generous, rich West sent in armies of advisers to help in the transition of these small cash strapped outfits.

So, one day, a Western chamber of commerce person arrived at a private window making and glazing company and was baffled after the owner had showed him the premises with a huge stockpile of supplies.

You guys are....millionaires, the Western man finally said.

25 years later, the company still does business. Asked if there was anything he missed, the old owner told the reporter: We were so used to doing business by just shaking hands, we were ripped off to the tune of more than 100 000 marks before we rigorously stuck to written contracts.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

We are all getting older! No, we are not!

The cheerful headline We are all getting older or the slightly less exuberant versions mentioning rising life expectancy would be really good news, were it not for a couple of downers.

The big one, of course, is that some experts and non-experts rush to announce the end of the world one or two paragraphs into the feel good story. The more informed will call for adjusting retirement age, the more idiotic ones will ask for a retirement age of 80 years.

Invariably, the idiots calling for an 80 year retirement age at this point in the 21st Century come from two groups of people: those who could easily have retired at age 30 or 35 and those who spend their lives in protected government or quasi government jobs with no physical or mental hazards other than putting a staple into a finger out of sheer boredom.

The preceding paragraph may sound a bit harsh, but don't be upset. The blogster values jobs without life shortening qualities as much as everybody. Going overboard on a lobster boat, getting electrocuted by 100kV power line, getting burnt to the consistency and crispness of a Thanksgiving turkey, or simply falling of a building - none of these seem desirable.

But do think about those folks next time you hear a bright eyed motivational speaker ask for a general retirement age of 80.

There is this sad word "average", used casually with regard to life expectancy. It really means that with an average life expectancy of, say, 70 years, a hell of a lot of people die before they get there.

This is well known, you say? Maybe it is, maybe it isn't.

Knowledge never matters if it is not acknowledged. You may say, well, stay off of the lobster boat, and leave that power line alone. We can disagree, but at least you have shown some thought.

The blogster is not that old, yet many people from the cohort -- a fancy word for saying many people out of that age group -- have already died. Their life expectancy didn't help them one bit.

So, no, we are not all getting older.

In one of the more personal moments on this blog, there is also the fact that the blogster has family lines in which a 60 year old would have been called an adolescent. Seriously, with a bunch of 90 plus and a few 100 year olds, don't tell me I'm going to live longer. That was before antibiotics, too. No envy please, either, the blogster is unlikely to make it that far.

At least, we beat the average life expectancy of a turkey.

Emotions should be allowed in politics, too

Emotions should be allowed in politics, too.

That sentence has been hanging around in some part of TheEditor's cerebral cortex since it popped up on the computer screen as a regularly shaped composition of adjacent pixel values.

The light emitted by the region of the LCD display traveled through about one yard of a breathable gas mixture (about 78% nitrogen, around 20% oxygen, trace amounts of other gases, some dispersed dust and biological material), then through a silica based, metal enclosed material, some more "air" into the layered biological light sensor assembly of the homo sapiens entity we call TheEditor, finally via a wide nerve into the brain.

Emotions should be allowed in politics, too.

The statement was the headline of an OpEd piece in a major German paper in the context of the Scottish independence vote. 

In the piece, the OpEd'er acknowledged that individuals would, at the end of the day, decide based on their feelings.

Okay, so they have to write something to justify their paychecks, TheEditor had fumed, we all recall it. But why is this even worth mentioning?

Because it exposes the carefully constructed world of "rational" thinking as a mirage, an artificial edifice we all pretend to accept.

For convenience.

To justify behaviors and actions we would otherwise suffer from.  To make us feel good if we buy something for a buck at a garage sale and keep the millions it turns out to be worth all to ourselves. To kill humans and other animals for the greater good. Or take the upcoming German road toll - it was born out of sheer spite, but we cannot say we make politics out of spite. So it becomes an infrastructure fund, necessary in times of tight budgets.

To treat life as a poker game or a chess match. Everybody makes fun of a player who hurls a chessboard or who throws the cards at an opponent - that's what gets the youtube hits.

Yet, even the most rational conversation is all about emotions. In public discourse, we tend to treat aspects like the emotional aspects of shopping as a big discovery or something we'd rather not mention.

Or as theater, as a show, to explain away the sheer travesty and indignity of a person exercising a supposedly logical and rational job.

If even folks like judges, trained for almost a decade in reason and logic can't keep it together, who dangerous must the rest of us be?

To make it worse, "the rest of us" often do manual labor, using tools that any surge of emotion turns into deadly weapons. So, we select for those who don't cry, we select for those who - even though they have to work on that straight face like the young Ms. Rice - deny emotions, yet play politics with them all the time.

Psychologists know, preachers should know, and those who suffer from PTSD not only know but live it.

It's all about emotions.

If we did not get biochemical satisfaction out of a mathematical equation, there would be not math.  If we did not feel bad about losing a business deal, there would be no PR, no backstabbing in the sales office.

Should someone who writes Emotions should be allowed in politics, too be hired as a political journalist?

Of course, because it won't matter much.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Tie-dyes and guns - meet the redneck hippies

From our People are People series.

Young women in Indian or Himalayan dresses, dancing wherever they want, hugging random strangers. Young men with long hair and some non-tobacco smokables getting lost in whatever train of thought they thought they were. And all of them Buddha quoting peaceniks talking to their flowers and prone to skinny dipping.

Then the redneck, gun toting, squirrel skinning, linguistically challenged, sun burnt mountain log cabin dwellers. 

These are just of the stereotypical images almost all of us know and love, or love to hate. And while Americans know the lines are far from clear, folks over here in Europe are constantly surprised when they hear of redneck hippies or hippie rednecks.

Blame Cheech and Chong and the Woodstock movie, mainly.

Woodstock was not a free concert.

Again, Woodstock was not a free concert.

It became one after the concert had sold out of tickets and thousands more folks showed up. That's when the organizers showed their hippie colors and decided to roll with it. That's how the account told the story.

Hitching a ride in a pickup truck with a Confederate flag covering most of the vehicle may be interesting, but in the parking lot after a show of a prototypical hippie band?

Much of this permeability has to do with libertarian views, a concept not handled well by the German language, with the term "libertär" not a good equivalent.
It is just as well that both "redneck" and "hippie" denote these groups in German, with the requisite capitalization of the nouns, of course.

Holding some redneck views works because of that hippie tolerance, because even those who are in touch with their inner redneck are....people.

Monday, November 24, 2014

German 4 Dummies: Professx

Please call me Professx.

The spelling you are seeing is neither another minor episode of dyslexia nor sloppiness but the answer by a German gender studies professor when asked how to address her. Frau Professorin would be standard, Frau Professor another option.

Germans have been struggling for several decades with the he/she classifications that come with their language. Unsurprisingly, the generic plural for members of a group that comprised both males and females used to be the male form. For instance Studenten was the plural for a a group of all male students as well as a mixed gender group. Only an all female group would be said to be Studentinnen.  

The solution to the issue remained largely confined to academia and feminist media: StudentInnen. Capital I.

However, as the K-Landnews TheEditor often said: it is too unwieldy and doesn't do a thing when you are dealing with the singular.

Singular forms have proven singularly resistant to easily accepted gender neutral ways.

TheEditor has, we would like to stress, taken the pronoun it. Seriously, there is a trail of *s in this publication explaining TheEditors neutrality stance.

Professx goes a little further, pushing the envelope of the thang. The German language does have a grammatical "neutral" form, recognizable by the article "das". Your American Volkswagen commcercial "Das Auto" is an easy example.

Professx is bending the ending of neighboring words, too. She suggests that the German equivalent to "dear professor" should be Liebx Professx since "liebe/lieber" suffers from the same shortcoming as the noun it precedes.

That linguistic XX apparently symbolizes to old, conservative Germans** what 5XL represents to snotty, privileged size zero white kids in other countries.

Deliberate evil.

An onslaught on culture by people who lack self control and respect for the sore eyes of those around them.

When you look at a 5XL, that person takes up at least double the retina space of a size zero. Presumptuously occupying my valuable visual receptors. You know, those cells that have space for at least two naked size zero ladies at the same time - quashed by one 5XL.

Enough with feminism, is the battle cry of the marginalized and ridiculed teutonic males who have been suffering under the rise of the Valkyries, or so they say while loudly proclaiming they are not misogynists because they like Angela, and she's a lady, isn't she.

Teutonicus simplexis so blinded by her self confidence that he does not see the obvious. Pronouce Professx a wee bit lowly, and you get Professex. Which would be all any non-blind male ever needs to be happ.

We are wishing Professx luck, because she will need a lot of it in order to survive the hatred. Tabloid rag BILD Zeitung may have found a new love to hate figure, time will tell.

** Old, conservative Germans have also been called Nazis in German and foreign media. The K-Landnews coined the term Homo Teutonicus Simplex for them, which is more inclusive because it brings younger versions of same into the fold.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Hide-a-KeyText easy personal encryption explained to our non-Twitter folks

The program is available for free at Click on the "executable" link, extract, an you are up an running.

The great encryption programs out there have a few things in common: they are overkill for people who just want to protect some of their data. They are a pain to set up and manage. Why in the world should you have to attend a training event called cryptoparty in order to get simple text encryption to work?

To thwart common criminals, you do not need the full PGP package.

Of course, there existing, but little known ways to encrypt some data, for example, most .zip packages support password encryption, as does the .pdf standard.

But then you are back to passwords. What if your password is too short, or too easily guessed?

Hide-a-KeyText works without a password. Think of it as picking a web page or an image file and using this as a password.

The concept of Hide-a-KeyText is very much that of having a house key somewhere on your property in case you manage to lose the key, or in case a trusted person needs to gain access.

Burglars may look at the house and wonder if you have a hide-a-key and where it could be.
They'll check under the mat, maybe the flower pots next to the door, but that's it.
They'll go for the open window (get that, Microsoft users?) or a weak door.
The guys who can obtain a house key specifically for your house are a different matter.

Who are we to say that nobody is watching the web sites where you can download PGP?

Hide-a-KeyText makes your encryption operation look like a simple visit to a web page or to an image site.

If you use, say, a specific Daily Mail article for encryption, your site visit looks pretty much like hundreds of thousands of others that same day.

And for images? People want you to look at their tumblers, instagrams, flickrs and whatnot.

To communicate with someone else using Hide-a-KeyText, the other person needs:
  • The same Hide-a-KeyText program version.
  • The same settings for Website (http) or Local File and for Fake Language
When you encrypt text, Hide-a-KeyText creates a small image file with that text. You send the file as an attachment to the recipient, who can decrypt it in his or her Hide-a-KeyText.

You do need to communicate the two bullet point items above, but there won't be an email or SMS from you that says "hey, here is the password".

What you tell your grandma or friend instead is maybe that you like a small program from this website unchartedcharters, and that you just read this great article on Wikipedia.

If you use Hide-a-KeyText right, you get the same level of encryption as with standard PGP packages. Read up on this here.

Why is nobody using these old techniques in software? It's not a conspiracy, to the contrary.
In terms of efficiency, space requirements, and versatility, Hide-a-KeyText is pretty wasteful.

Hide-a-KeyText is not suited for infrastructure jobs, like establishing a secure connection between servers, and it won't do encryption of your fridge's internet connection either.

Hide-a-KeyText has a wider range of results, from decent to unbreakable. This is a feature that frightens many software folks and probably every security expert on the planet.

That's what the modern standard encryption packages do, being immensely powerful. You should still have " learn PGP" on your todo list.

Would you like to know why Hide-a-KeyTextwas written in the first place? Ironically, the folks who would deserve the credit for pushing a simple coder to write the package will never be acknowledged in public.

It's a conversation for  encrypted communication only.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

1.75 bn Euros vs. 7 bn, and Economic Make-Up Sex

Last week saw two economic headlines in Germany: the projected cost of Germany's new retirement scheme, and the cost of the Russia boycott for German firms.

The timing of the reports was very interesting because of their close proximity and of how the media framed the raw figures.

The new retirement scheme
The new scheme allows workers to retire at age 63 with full benefits if they can show 45 years of contributions to social security. In terms of the life lived by eligible workers, this means you start working at under 20 years of age and don't stop until 63.

New calculations project extra costs of the scheme of about 1.75 billion Euros combined for 2014 and 2015.

The extra cost to social security will either be covered by additional payroll contributions or from record tax revenues. This money "stays" in Germany.

Cost of Russia sanctions
The cost of the sanctions in place against Russia: Latest estimates project the loss to the German economy at around 7 bn Euros for 2014 alone.

While some economists hope for a boom once sanctions end - the economic equivalent of make-up sex - others are worried that Russia will permanently switch to Chinese suppliers for some products.

How these numbers were framed in the press
The sanction costs were neatly framed in one major paper as tiny compared to the overall German benchmark numbers. Lowering growth by 0.1 percent was the biggest of these impact statements, everything else became even smaller, such as 1/400th of <whatever benchmark>.

The additional expenses of the new retirement scheme, on the other hand, were not put in relation to GDP, or expressed in terms of negative impact on anticipated growth or any other macroeconomic benchmark. Not a single major German paper made any effort to provide context.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

When in Ireland, don't do these two things

The blogster has two simple rules for visits to the Republic of Ireland.

Rule 1: Do not chase leprechauns.

Rule 2: Do not try to keep up with Irish women when drinking.

The first rule is sensible for dealing with any mythical creatures and, if you have seen any movies with leprechauns, just common sense.

The second rule was learned the hard way.  Beer and liquor have never had much room in this blogster's life, but even seasoned drinkers should think twice when they go out for a drink with folks in Ireland.

Before you kill off another few million brain cells, take note of the fact that the 100 pound woman you have been flirting with will -- that's will, not may -- drink you under the table and be at work at eight in the morning while you are still hugging the bucket that your room mates hopefully put besides the bed when they saw you stagger into the house.

If you do not have considerate roomies, you can only hope for a clean toilet bowl.

People buy rounds in Ireland, and you need to play your part. When it is your turn, buy the round, be nice because the Irish really are one of the nicer people on the planet.

However, don't finish off every drink. If the next round shows up while your glass is still half full, so be it.

Let it go.

It will be so much easier for you to find you way home at the end of the pub crawl. And you will not suffer a pounding, gut-wrenching hangover the next day.

If you show up at work looking some 20 years older than the night before, how will the ladies you spectacularly failed to impress treat you?

They will be very nice to you.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Pixel poems, Mark Twain, and cracking CAPTCHAs

For the impatient nerds among you, here is how you can crack any CAPTCHA:

Take that facial recognition software (the one that makes a 3D image out of a 2D) or another program which converts 2D to 3D, run it over a CAPTCHA. Tweak as necessary.

Working on text encryption for grandma has been a meditative experience. Yes, coding can be highly meditative. Though anybody under 30 may be running too much testosterone to have made the experience. Ask your lady coders for advice.

The encryption tool, which we call a scrambling tool to avoid the impression we know what we are doing, now supported images as a source for values we run over text. 

Check it out at

Just for the heck of it, we took a piece of scrambled text and turned it into a very basic image, which gave us this:

 Not much of a looker, agreed, but when the soothing effect of typing stuff like for (int x=0; x < width; x++) kicked in, some avenues of further exploration opened up.

The grey image above makes no effort to do anything with colors. In addition, it is encrypted, which takes all the pixel values towards the higher end, obliterating almost any contrast in the process.
But, with a little bit of effort, we should be able to turn a regular text into appealing visual art.
We'll do this for Mark Twain first. The old print writer (Java pays homage to him by having a PrintWriter class) would appreciate.

Pattern recognition:
Once we have a Mark Twain text turned into a nice, colorful image, we'll do some more of the same to figure out the next challenge. Can we use images created out of text to identify an author?
Sure, there are the usual string based programs out there, which do a decent job. However, strings tend to be sort of a bitch. They have become so much easier over the years, yet, a lot still goes wrong.
So, why not turn texts into a format that all the swanky programming languages handle without breaking over the wrong number of double or single quotes?

Image processing and recognition coding is a blast compared to even a few years ago.

Again, let your facial recognition software do the recognizing of the style of an represented by red, green, and blue pixels.

More Art:
Time to translate emoji to text and see what we get. Apart from lots of uninterrupted "words" like "aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa" or similar.

Who knows, maybe assigning colors to text will even give us a hint why some people like some authors better - emotionally speaking.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The mystery of negative mileage on a rental car

Been busy for a few days writing a text encryption tool even your grandma can use safely with almost no learning curve. Check it out at

The generic madness of life in one of the so-called advanced civilizations hit a friend the other day.

Rental cars.

Need we say more?

We do, because no matter what you think about US rental car companies, they are wonderful compared to the German counterparts. Do not let yourself be fooled by the fact that the Germans have the same names as in the US.

Running a rental car business the German way means hassle for the customer. First because the Germans will record even microscopic scratch - but only if you point it out to them.
If you don't, you will be made to pay upon returning the vehicle. Because, at that point, the nonchalant German checker goes into overdrive. You can protest as much as you want, you lost.
Of course, they won't get them fixed but play the same game with the next customer.

This was not the issue our friend had. The friend had rented a car for two weeks and extended for another two. The extension was fast and easy, just a new two page contract, and done.

Upon return, five hours before the flight to the US, the rental car employee did the checks with the disinterested look that must be a required part of the uniform.
The checker got as far as the mileage check, looked, doubled back and said: I cannot take the car back, it has negative miles.

What do you mean, negative miles?

You have fewer miles on the odometer than when you received the car. That's highly irregular, I cannot take it back.

It's not my fault, is it?

I cannot calculate the mileage driven.

But I had a contract with unlimited miles!

I understand, but I cannot take it back.

What do you want me to do? Drive around until the miles match? My flight leaves in a few hours, I am getting upset.

Well, I guess, we made a mistake when we filled out the extension.

Listen, I will leave the keys with you, if you want it or not. When I get back home, I'll get a lawyer, and that's that. You can''t treat customers like that.

They took the car back, the friend flew home, and contacted a lawyer.

You may not have the same negative experiences with German car rentals. But here is a tip: Frankfurt, Main, airport has a reputation of being worse than others. Even off airport rentals there already seem to be a better.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The old lady of Paris

From our Memories of Yesteryear series.

There was a small hotel in downtown Paris, France.

The old lady who ran it was French, well, to most people. She dressed in the classic French middle class style, she spoke the language like someone born in the country.

By the time we heard of her, her hair had gone grey, and she was thinking of retiring for good.

The hotel was a favorite among officials, government workers. The older generation of regulars knew at least some of her background.

That she had been born and raised in the UK, for instance. Some time around the 1920s, give or take a few years. That she had lived in France since the end of the second World War, had raised her first born there, and, obviously, had run the hotel.

How she had come to France was a story told with a big smile.

By plane from England, mon cher, as a surprise, if you will.

At the time, the plane had not come straight from, say, London to Paris. It had taken the long way round because the world war was raging in Europe. South over the Atlantic, down to about Portugal, then a sharp left to the island of Corsica.

She was a young woman then, and she had worked with French resistance fighters back in the UK. One of those she had developed a close relationship with.

As the plane came to a stop in front of the main building complex of the airfield, he had been there, too.

We need to talk.

I'm pregnant.

That's how the old lady behind the reception desk at the small Paris hotel had come to France.

Friday, November 14, 2014

A bonus bottle of whiskey per floater

There's always worse, they say.

And the saying is correct when we whine about the boss not greeting us in the morning, or when the driver ahead throws his McDonald's fast food trash out of the window on a country road. In Germany, too, by the way.

It is hard to believe that it could be worse when you have a job that includes fishing dead people out of the water.

Not just the ones who fell or jumped a few minutes or a couple of hours ago. Which is bad enough.

It's the others, colloquially called floaters, who get you. In the water for a several days, sometimes having lost a limb along the way. Bloated, rancid, decomposing human-like shapes bobbing in the shipping channel or caught in the branches of bushes on the embankment. That's in the summer, winter is relatively easy because cold water works like a fridge.

More often than not, the higher ups have been informed by the authorities and told you to be on the look-out.

Not vomiting is as important, if not more so, than gently inching the floater closer with the hook on a long stick. They are delicate after some time in the water, explains the foreman to the greenhorn.

You hit the torso a bit too hard, it can pop.


Depending on the boat, you have more or less fancy equipment to get them out. Usually less. Netting is your best bet.

Everybody gets a bottle of whiskey or schnapps as a bonus. It helps with the sadness and the pain.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Let's ban the number 3, it is unsafe and immoral

The arithmetic expert (AE) at the K-Landnews has long advocated banning the number 3, and raised the subject again this week when security experts found that it takes cyber criminals only three minutes to get the low-down of your web mail account.

The media reported, 3 minutes of rummaging through your mails is enough to start wreaking havoc on a user's life.

Abolishing the number 3 will benefit humankind enormously, said AE. For starters, 3 is dangerous beyond the three mythical minutes in your inbox. 3 is a preferred instrument of blackmail, as you recall from many motion pictures. You know, where a criminal threatens the good guys "I will ll count to three, and if you haven't dropped your guns by then, <add a threat of deadly action here>".

3 is also a time waster of epic proportions, as you understand if you love baseball. Three strikes, that's what slows down the game. The number of strikes hasn't changed in a century, and that's fine by your standards?
If Henry Ford had looked at baseball for inspiration, he would never have invented the assembly line, there would have been no Model T and no product placement of Ford SUVs in Jurassic Park.

People have died because of 3 strikes. Not just the justice system version of three strikes, but because of the baseball original. If anybody kept statistics on that, you'd find that many people caught a cold and worse in drafty baseball arenas in bad weather. They went home, got a fever, and died because they had no health insurance and spent the last of their money on baseball tickets.

Television changed this, it saved lives by keeping people at home, watching baseball protected from inclement or freezing weather. If television actually has healing properties, why is it not regulated by the FDA?

3 is bad in other areas, for example, how do you feel in a three-wheeled car? There us a reason why NASCAR and Formula 1 shy away from three wheeled race cars.

Even God, not known for great engineering of species, he went like, walking on three legs, are you kidding me. Look around!
No legs, fine, two, okay, then four or more, but three legs are not what the Lord thought optimal.

The trinity concept does not stand in the way of His insight at all. He knew, one of them would be killed, so it was really only two. He hasn't complained about us still talking Trinity because, after all, 3 kind of feels nicely mythical.

If safety, security, or productivity cannot convince you, there is a moral argument for getting rid of the number 3: threesomes.

Look on the Web, and you see it, threesomes have destroyed so many happy one-man-one-woman families! Read a few of the stories, you'll discover how people felt the attraction of the idea, again the mythical power of 3, and then found their marriages in ruins. For the curious, you may want to try foursomes. Even more fun, and if things go wrong you just move in with the other's partner, which may not be morally beyond reproach but sounds more acceptable than destruction by 3.

Now, our AE is aware that removing 3 from our lives from one day to the next is not easy and suggests a transition model using Harry Potter's train station. Platform 9 and three quarters worked for them, so we should start by replacing 3 with two and three quarters. You can expect some resistance from decimal freaks but the cultures that still use un-decimal systems like foot and gallon will be supportive.

The major obstacle to banning 3?

Computer users fear they will only get two log-in attempts before the box tells them to take a hike.

Give users four or five log-in attempts, and they won't miss the 3 for long.

Eggheads: Can you please do a study to see if increasing the number of log-ins reduces workplace altercations and increases workers health?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

German 4 Dummies: Türkenhasser

Welcome to a new German compound. This is, the blogster believes, the first one with an umlaut, which is the term used for a German vowel topped off with two wee dots.

Türkenhasser consists of the nouns "Türke" (person of Turkish ethnicity, a Turk) and "Hasser" (hater, despise), meaning someone who hates Turks. The term is a serious insult generally hurled at despicable xenophobes who specialize in denigrating people from Turkey or of Turkish origin.  

Some time ago, a German friend asked us for some foreigner advice regarding a relationship between his teenage daughter and a Turkish immigrant son. We knew the two youngsters as well as the German parents. The young man seemed personable enough, with a slight macho tendency. He talked about his father being a very traditional man who prayed five times a day and did not like Germans much.

One day, the phone rang and the German friend asked if we could offer an opinion on a problem. The kind of problem best not talked about on the phone.

When he opened the door, his face showed stress and despair.

He called me a Türkenhasser, the German said, his hands shaking, his voice the voice of a person who felt deeply betrayed, whose trust had been shattered irreparably.

What the fuck?

The other day, several kids, including his daughter, had been sitting in the car in the driveway, and when he passed someone had gotten out and a cloud of pungent smell wafted across the driveway.

We asked our daughter if they had been doing drugs, and she explained that the owner and driver of the car, not she nor her boyfriend, had.  And that the other guy had offered to drive her boyfriend that night because his car was in the shop. Of course, she told her boyfriend, and the following night he came into the house. headed straight toward me and yelled

We calmed down the couple, the wife had joined us in the meantime, and together, we talked through various scenarios. In the end, they called the father of the young man and arranged a meeting that same afternoon.

When the father arrived, there was a brief surprise.

We knew him. 

The two men disappeared into the living room while we finished off the coffee the girl's mother had made earlier. Then we said good bye to the men who were discussing the events and what to do.

Seeing and hearing the two, we looked at each other, smiling. If you didn't know that one of them was German and the other Turkish, you would not have been able to tell. The Turkish father had lived in Germany since age five or so, there was not the slightest hint of an accent, and the German father would have passed as Mediterranean with his black hair and the darker skin tone of a man who had worked outside for the better part of his life.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

[Updated] Hide-a-KeyText encryption, using web page text as symmetric key

[Update 17 November 2014]
A small standalone Java program is now available on It is free. The source code is available on the site as an exported Netbeans 8.x project zip.
The algorithm is based on a Beale cipher, where the "standard text" or key is text pulled from a web page specified by the user. We then simply add the Unicode codepoints of the standard text and the message. No wrapping or "mod". More fun is provided by a combobox with several scripts (Unicode blocks) that can be used to shift the message text. Currently, this includes Braille and other goodies. It only shifts up in v. 1 of the program, so an apology to our Japanese, Chinese and other friends is appropriate.
Oh, and no app.
[End of Update]

Millions of homes all over the world have a small container with a house key somewhere near the house. Despite this, burglars almost always have to break windows or doors to get in.
Millions of cars on the roads of the U.S. have small magnetic boxes with a spare car key attached to them, yet car thieves don't take the time to inspect all the nooks and crannies of a vehicle they want to steal.

Imagine any user could encrypt text emails by simply adding a web address to a new field in a "Settings" dialog.

You can do this if the encryption key is like a Hide-a-Key, somewhere nearby but really f***ing hard to find.

The web address would go to a page used as the encryption key. Whatever text is on that page is applied to the email text to encrypt it, like in the one-time pad approach, except that you could use all of the web's "texts".

The recipient, of course, would need to know the URL and enter it into his or her email client.

Since you use our hide-a-key approach only to exchange emails with your grandma, you call granny on the phone and tell her to set the url for all emails coming from you. That call is a one time affair. When you want to switch to a new URL, you tell granny in one of your fancy encrypted emails to use http://let'sbesosecurethatcybercriminalswillweeporstarttodohonestworkforonce.ogr or whatever address suits your needs.

Sure, you have to beg the developers of Outlook, Thunderbird and WhatNotMail to add a new "Senders & URLs" dialog to their email clients. Or get the ten year old nephew to program a plug-in.

So, the next time granny sends you the tracking number for an expensive Christmas gift, it is between you and granny.

Implementation hints:
  1. You can use any web text, provided it is long enough. For example, Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer on Project Gutenberg would be nice. For a short email, why not try the mission statement page of the NSA?
  2. A one-time pad works best if the data of the pad are random. A nice start for experiments would be the many public PGP keys out at the various key repositories. Though you should have the email client grab a bunch of keys and mix them up.
  3. As Westerners, we are so used to having alphabets of no more than 50 or so characters. You can get more mileage out of a small alphabet by using the work of our friends at Simply move the Latin-1 [we feel like showing off a bit, sorry] up into a different segment, make it fake Japanese by adding the appropriate integer values. Okay, that might require an additional setting the first time you email granny and she'd need to set this in her client, too. Alternatively, you could add this as an instruction to the receiving client, like in a signature footer, because messing with the "alphabet" is not the main security feature.
  4. Yes, the metadata. The whole world knows you love granny, making metadata unimportant. We are still thinking about that, though.
  5. You are too lazy to program something that implements this dastardly simple privacy measure? Guess what -- so are we, although we might just go ahead and give it a try.
  6. Sure, when you need to get in touch with a complete stranger, use PGP.

Disclaimer: As usual, this is between you and granny, although we are aware that granny is a cultural artifact. If you implement this, give us some credit to make sure you also have someone to blame if it doesn't work as expected.

One more thing:
You do not have to use text. Images might even be better -- want some cat photos?

One more one more thing:
If cat pictures are not your thing, there is always a choice, see out Staganography post.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Empathy among wild birds

The great southward migration of cranes is almost over for 2014. To some people, their incessant chattering is just noise, forcing them to cut short a conversation on their smartphones. To old people, their passage is a season marker. For old farmers, Fall starts with the swallows packing up and ends with the last of the cranes coming through.

The other day, two of the iconic wedge formations audible from miles away made their way south over our hills.
There were somewhere between five hundred to one thousand of these magnificent birds, fairly low, against an almost cloudless pale blue Fall sky.

The large formations passed, then dropped out of sight behind the hills to the southwest, and we were ready to resume our routine. That's when a fainter sound caught our attention, we looked up again, and there were three cranes. Three stragglers, their movements more laborious, less energetic and smooth were on the same trajectory, in their own three bird mini wedge.

As they came in over the buildings of the town, the lead bird banked, the others did the same, circling. Were they looking for a place to spend the night? Why over the town?

They continued to circle, dipping down a bit, then gaining elevation again. Their calls echoed between the buildings and over the brown fields.

Will those three guys make it to winter quarters?

We could hear another formation approaching! We had been wrong, they were not stragglers, they were ahead of their flock.

A formation came from the southwest, towards the town.

Confused humans, heads tilted back, stood there and watched in amazement what happened next.

The formation went straight for the three cranes, who were still circling overhead. As the cranes coming "the wrong way" reached the three individuals, the wedge broke and became a flurry of bodies, the birds regrouping around the three laggards.

A new wedge formed, oriented southwest, and the birds streamed away.

Did you see that? They took the three cranes into the middle, right?

Yes, I think they did. I am speechless, social Darwinism, my ass. Even birds don't do it.

Well, you can always make up some stupid, cynical explanation. Like the birds setting out for the trip saying, hey, lets take lame Andy, Jimmy, and guy with the one missing tail feather along as bait for predators when we stop over night. When they lost them, they went, guys, we are losing dinner, let's go get them.

Oxytocin at work sounds more plausible.

It does.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Darknet hype - 75% or more scam sites?

If you have followed this blog for some time, it will not come as a surprise that we looked into privacy and anonymity on the internet. This included such steps as switching to a search engine that does not leak private information like a sieve, as well as some work with TOR. Acerbic tweets and posts under the K-Landnews banner were part of the process of investigating this question:

What narratives are playing out in public discourse regarding the Darknet, and how dangerous is the Darknet?

Why would you want to read a pseudonym blog post on this question? A lot has been, and is still being written about this by people with great credentials...

When the terms Darknet and TOR burst into the media, our resident nerd went: "????"

One question mark is normal, two are okay - but four needed some investigation. What was this "safe, anonymous" way to move around the internet about? After witnessing how software sausage is made and who makes it, this was not an idle question.

The first realization was interesting: there is much more to the Darknet than TOR although most of the mainstream media use the two as synonyms. This use is compounded by the fact that illicit market operations under TOR are being called dark markets. Add to this the common jargon Black Hat and White Hat to denote the main groups of "hackers", and Darknet takes on a strong emotional charge. Another term used to describe the internet "outside" of the standard dot addresses is Deep Web, a better description and not as emotionally charged but also not as widely used in current reporting.

The frantic reporting on the Darknet and TOR focused on the illegal areas, especially on the underground markets, the most famous of which was the defunct Silk Road. Tied to these markets, the electronic decentralized "currency" Bitcoin was given wide coverage**.

The K-Landnews investigation of the Deep Web included many fun areas, for example, how to obtain a web site with a .geek, .parody, or .free address. These domains are outside of your standard .com., net. etc. system, and they are run for free and for fun by small groups of true nerds. At least some of these domains have been under threat since ICANN, the powerful regulator decided to expand the possible domain names for the "visible" internet and may well be pushed out. A more widely known sector of the "darknet" internet is the huge peer to peer arena, mostly associated with filesharing, another not very positive aspect of the internet.
Almost never mentioned in mainstream reporting are more exotic packages, like I2P, an anonymous network layer for the more patient users.

This overview is, hopefully, enough to allow us to continue to the reinforcing narratives.

Going back to the first wave of reports about the Silk Road phenomenon, the sensationalist approach of both online media, like Gawker, and mainstream media becomes glaringly obvious.

Recurring short phrases are "so easy, everybody can do it",  "highly anonymous", "no risk" or "almost no risk". Reporting in U.S. media has been generally much better than anything we have seen in the German press. Forbes, for instance, has several well researched and well-documented articles on the subject.

We looked at a different angle: scams. 

There were a number of highly publicized thefts from Bitcoin exchanges, but we wanted to get a better understanding of scams among TOR hidden services. Going through forums and discussion groups for several months, our estimate of the number of scam "commercial" sites is around 75%. In addition to forum and discussion site feedback, criteria for evaluation were "legality", "scope and complexity", "match with real world scams", "presentation of site". Getting highly reliable, hard data on the prevalence of scams is well nigh impossible for a small blogging outfit.

"Don't go there and get ripped off" certainly does not get the number of page views than a teasing "buy everything"  write-up.
The "buy everything" hype conveniently reinforces the narrative of the evil darknet. This narrative can then be used to attack anonymization services in general.

Drug sales indictments of darknet operators proudly list controlled buys that yielded great quality drugs. It might not make a difference to a judge, but the public would certainly chuckle when they read something like "officers made ten attempts to buy drugs on market X, five of these attempts turned out to be scams, four yielded mediocre products, one was high quality merchandise. And no, we failed to buy weapons, and that hitman, too, was a scam. Scam, well, we lost about half of the bitcoins to scammers, but since this was confiscated, the taxpayer did not suffer".

Media, hungry for sensations, and law enforcement, hungry for success and more, are not the only ones who feed the darknet narrative. You could even argue that they have been more restrained  than other actors in this arena: bitcoin evangelists and dark market operators.
Some bitcoin proponents hyped their currency as initiating the demise of the likes of dollar, euro, or yen. Dark market operators added a layer of hype about freedom and sticking it to the man, even giving interviews.

So, the narrative of site owner, law enforcement, and media - plus a helping of soundbite savvy politicians - made Silk Road a symbol.

Say what you will about U.S. law enforcement: they know a symbol when they see one. Silk Road 2.0 further ratcheted up that narrative by presenting a direct challenge and, in turn, eliciting a more powerful response.

This time around, the U.S. did not go it alone but shared the credit with the Europeans. The author of this post would love to know what this signifies beyond acknowledging cooperation. In addition to allowing a more substantial operation in terms of seized domains, our theory is that it will help to avoid possible issues around questions of "parallel construction". That's just a hunch.

The two basic strategies are not very spectacular as concepts.  We discussed ring fencing of TOR* as one of the next big steps in the wake of the Snowden revelations in an email exchange with a German journalist (not published on the blog but available for research if needed).
The second tenet is follow the money, in this case Bicoin at the intersection with the real world. When the news of a guy bying a Tesla with bitcoins blipped on social media and under the misc. section in the mainstream press earlier this year, our resident nerd went 'hope that is legal dough'.

As a matter of fact, the tiny Bitcoin economy is likely to show a more distorted picture of wealth distribution than the general real world economy. Big Bitcoin fortunes, at this time, have very few legitimate sources, which should make checking out larger holdings relatively easy, offsetting the relative anonymity.
A final, more hypothetical, aspect of the close cooperation in the Silk Road 2 + operation could well be easier use of physical surveillance boots on the ground.

Will the nicely reinforcing narratives about the darknet change any time soon? Unlikely, because they are too juicy for all parties.

How dangerous is the darknet? Well, that depends on who you are and what you are using it for. There are atrocious corners but the anonymous community makes an effort to mark them, so you won't stumble on them. Overall, there are so many nonsense sites and scam sites that painting the darknet as just like the normal internet with an Amazon-like illegal shopping experience is disingenuous at best.

* This arstechnica article discusses one potential avenue in the overall strategy.
** There are other electronic currencies based on the same design principles as Bitcoin, Dogecoin and Litecoin being two more prominent ones of the lot.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Bunny in the Purse

A story of supposedly simpler times. It may seem like a long time ago, but it feels like yesterday. That's what great memories and awful ones have in common, it is what makes PTSD so terrifying and bliss so cosmic.

A few minutes in the past can cast us into pitch black darkness or lift us up, high above the grit of daily life. For today, we chose an uplifting story about a bunny and a young woman.

The young woman, for reasons unspecified, traveled with a bunny, following a band from show to show during a live concert tour. Sharing a room in a cheap motel with friends or strangers to save money posed challenges to animal husbandry.

The young woman started to sneak the bunny into the shows.

How do you get a bunny through security?

The secret was the bunny's love of purses. From its early days, the small black animal was not only used to traveling in a purse but loved it. Buried under a scarf or a spare t-shirt, the bunny would relax, becoming completely floppy. It would not move when a hand touched it.

Which turned out to be perfect for venue security. Security was looking for hard objects, water or liquor bottles, cameras, recording hardware.

Soft and not moving was great. 

The size of the purse mattered, too. If it was too large, backpack sized or so, the security people would always open it, even if it didn't look as if it contained much. So, a smallish purse, bunny at the bottom, some light piece of clothing on top, and the bunny attended more shows than a lot of people ever did.

Once inside at a seat or a spot suitable for the owner and the pet, the bunny would come out and be fitted with a small collar that had a sign saying "I know where to find my people, please let me roam".

By the end of a show, the bunny would be back at the purse.

Sometimes she would smell like roses, she loved eating roses, and there were lots of them, especially at the summer shows.

One day, a security person opened the purse and rummaged through, forceful enough to disturb the bunny.

What's that, a rabbit?

A bunny.

You can't bring animals inside the show. Stash it somewhere before you go in.

The friends with the car were already inside, no one else she could ask was nearby. She walked around to the backstage entrance and hung out, hoping for an acquaintance from the crew or staff to pass.

A couple of children came towards the backstage entrance. She recognized one as the daughter of a band member. They knew each other from other shows, where several kids often hung out at the table of one of the charities, which doubled as babysitters during a  show.

Hey, can I give you my purse with the bunny? Security found it, can you take it to the charity table for me to pick it up?

The kids were thrilled and took the purse with the bunny. No one bothers to check a child, especially not the lead singer's kid.

Back at security, she ended up in the line next to the person who had found the bunny.

Hey, check her, she tried to smuggle in a bunny earlier.

Not carrying a purse any more, the young woman lifted her hands: Look, no bunny.

Nowadays, every now and then, there is news about a concert of a singer who, as a child, smuggled a bunny into shows.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Beat up at the border

The elderly man does not look like someone dangerous, with slightly drooping shoulders and a bit of a belly. He is soft spoken, gentle. He drives a car for which dilapidated is an overly positive description and lives in a cheap, run-down apartment.

He pulls the thrift store shirt out of his pants and exposes his side up to the ribs. These bruises, he says, and some on my arms too.

The immigration officers did that to you?

Yes, they took me to a room, put cuffs on me, threw me on the ground and beat me and kicked me, yelling we don't want people like you here. Then they put me in a cell over night and put me on the first flight out the next day.

He smiles as he stuffs the shirt back into his pants. Yes, that's how it goes. As a former criminal, that's what you can expect.

Will you file a complaint?

With whom? My government couldn't care less, and you don't believe the guys who beat me up have any reason to be afraid, do you?

I guess not. To me, this is inhumane, gratuitous, it bothers me that our government employs and protects people like that. Why can't they just say you are denied entry and send you home?

You are young, so you don't know what it used to be like. It's been getting worse. When I was shot back in the day and the cops arrived and found a pound of weed, they just told my girlfriend to flush it down the toilet. Today, they'd probably take it for themselves.

Will you try to visit your friend again?

To be beat up again, no, he smiles. It's just the way it is. When you go to prison and then get out after doing your time, it's not over, not by a long shot.

We parted with the promise to withhold this story until it could be classified as being of historic interest only. The countries involved? The names do not make a difference to this specific instance of violence.

If you are curious, tell us why, and we might share. Encrypted email in this matter only, please.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Human Resources 4 Dummies: Do not use the anonymous hotline

From our Management Insights series.

Do you work in a company that boasts of an anonymous hotline for complaints and delicate questions?


You may have missed out on a fun human resources experience.


Don't use it unless you have nerves of steel, as in strong enough to rival a cable on a modern suspension bridge. You will also need to have earned a good reputation on the job and never have been grumpy or obnoxious towards your chain of command.
Finally, use the hotline only when you are prepared to resign from the company.

Here is the deal with the anonymous hotlines major U.S. companies have set up for various reasons.

The main reason being that they were mandated to.

Scandals in management and operation of public U.S. firms led to the institution of  Sarbanes-Oxley Act based processes and guidelines. While it is known mostly for rules around record keeping, there is a governance and fraud angle, too.
The operation of the hotline is outsourced to a third party. It is brisk business in the States, so there are outfits that specialize in this service.

While the hotline is for customers as well as employees, this post illustrates how it works on the employee side.

How it is supposed to work:
A public company with a hotline will tell its employees they can use it. They will describe the process in this way: You call the anonymous hotline, they will not ask for your name or identifiable details but give you a code word, like a password. The hotline personnel will route the issue to the company, which will answer it, and provide the answer to the hotline folks.

You call after a couple of weeks or so, you get the answer, and you are fine.

No employees get hurt in the process.

How it does work:
Say, you are being tortured by a manager in the wonderfully underhanded way that takes ten or more years in a job to learn. For example, your performance review sits in his or her inbox until the subsequent review is due. The note that the new review is due does not make the manager process the previous one. You complain to the next echelon, the old review gets processed, and you have even more fun on the job. Co-incidentally, your direct manager, a decent person is demoted and the team gets a new manager, like, well a guy who plays golf every Sunday morning with the bad guy.

So, you call the hotline. A nice lady takes your call and notes the issue/question.

It's always a nice lady, by the way. She tells you to call in two weeks.

Write down the date, make a calendar entry for the callback. Then watch what happens between about 48 to 24 hours before that call.

The bosses buddy, the one who shares a golf ball or other balls with the boss, will go negative.
Expect to hear something like: all contact with management and HR need to go through me from here on out.
Also expect telephone conversations to switch channels from work phones to private cell phones. Your new boss is going to be in and out of the office for the next few weeks, so the cell phone is going to be the best way to contact him.

On the agreed upon day, call the nice lady, give her the password and receive a non-committal answer.

Next, expect a call from human resources. They will say that they would like to help with the issues your manager has described to them.
Tell them this is very nice, and that you will resign in say a month or two and would like to ask for a severance package.

Are you still breathing?

Give the HR person time to explain that they don't do that if an employee resigns, severance packages are only given to people laid off from the company.

Respond very nicely with something along the lines oh, yes, I understand that's the normal process, but, you know, I have been expecting your call.

You need one of two reactions, described below, to be fairly certain that your cynical attitude to the hotline was accurate. Namely, that the company would know exactly who called the anonymous hotline.

Reaction one would be a long pause and a deep breath, good.
The perfect reaction, number two, would be a shriek and something like "What are you trying to say?" or a plain but incredulous "What?"

Do not gloat, do not rub it in.

Sometimes, timing is a coincidence, and sometimes - well [or short pause] - it is not.

This should be sufficient. The company should now offer you a severance package despite the fact that you are leaving utterly, totally, out of your own volition and on your own schedule.

Disclaimer: Success is not guaranteed, but we know it does work. Really, absolutely. A three months package should be doable without debate. On the flip side, you may feel very alone during that period. When even your spouse looks at you as if you went bananas. If he or she uses the word "bananas", explain  how many tons of bananas the severance package can buy.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Celebrating 2 years of K-Landnews

Two years and 1200 posts later, what can we say? We'll take a short break for a couple of days.

Thank you to our readers, the proud, the few, the eccentric! Semper wry.

In terms on numbers, we are utterly insignificant, which is kind of nice because we do not have to field too many questions.

Well, no any more. As we said earlier, for some time we felt like a free Facebook help desk.
Seeing the misery of some Facebook users, who were bullied, who had their account access stolen, who waited for ages for feedback from the FB, was gut wrenching. But we answered every single email.

Trolls have not been a big issue for us after we changed the "Comment" settings to moderated comments.

The dumbest comment we received related to a post about the EU novel foods directive, a brilliantly stupid piece of EU regulation that slapped a blanket ban on traditional foods not in wide use in the EU in late 1990s.

There is a traditional tea called Muña from South America, which happens to be the best beverage for a queasy stomach.

And which happens to not be "food" according to the EU.

Rest assured, you can buy Muña in Europe, just not as people food. What was the label again? Botanic specimen? A pound of botanic specimen...

So, this guy writes a comment dissing our well-researched description of Muna. Offensive enough, he included a link to Skeptic magazine.

But no contact email, sadly. Because this prevented the blogster from writing the only insulting email since being on the web: you idiot. Anyway, comments became moderated and the trolls found other feeding spots.

Did we learn anything in the two years as mini-media moguls?
Writing a post a day is work.
Writing a good post every day is impossible.
It is extremely tempting to include names of public figures, even as "memes" only, but we are still very restrictive on this.
We may be very proud of a post but it receives only one or two page views.
We may think a post is boring, only to find lots of people read it.
The surveillance state exists. See the dedications below.

Plans for the future?
More work on our latest venture, an "art" blog. We had to call it something, and with people squatting blogger dot com addresses like f@@@ing crazy, we took the first artsy one and made up a reason. Have a look if you have not done so


Do you have a regular job?
No. Having lived and worked in, what, five countries is not the best resume for a job in Germany, too scary, unless you show up recommended by a friend of daddy, then it is cool again.

To be wise enough one day to know when to call it quits.

To our readers.
To the other animals in our lives.
To the humans who try their best in the face of adversity and hardship.
To scientists with empathy, and to level-headed observers.
To those no longer with us.
To the victims of the War on the Sensitive.
To the surveillance state, thank you for pulling back the veil.*

* Okay, so that sounds a bit grand standing, doesn't it? Here is a brief explanation in smaller font.
If you think, just because you live in a Western country, no one will waltz into your house and snoop around while you are away, you are wrong. We decided to interpret it as a friendly reminder. It certainly beats getting all depressed and feeling violated. Plus, there is only so much energy available each day, and those of you who have lived with and cared for someone who suffers from bouts of, well, PTSD, will understand. And a sneaky visit is still better than jackboots in morning.
You're good as long as the line I'm being followed by a moon shadow doesn't trigger all-out paranoia.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

"Don't Mess with Texas" stickers not allowed for some folks in Germany

You were unaware that there might be Don't Mess with Texas bumper stickers on cars in Germany?
You were equally unaware that the stickers might not be allowed on some cars in Germany?

This post is for you, then.

A leisurely drive through the German countryside. We are coming up to a T intersection with a stop sign. So, we stop and look. A sign pointing to the right says German Town A, a sign pointing to the left says German Town B (or Haenselville and Greteltown). A sign underneath says "Ammo Gate 2".

Oh, "Ammo Gate 2", hey, that brings back memories. Driving towards Greteltown, oncoming traffic is much more interesting than before.
We are expecting American cars, like the '72 Cadillac, or a Dodge Dart, or the Chevy the neighbor used to start each morning with a hammer. You don't how how to start a car with a hammer?
Open the hood, whack the starter with a hammer, get in, turn the key. Repeat as necessary.

There seem to be more pickups and SUVs on the road towards Greteltown, but we might be dead wrong, victims of the expectation triggered by Ammo Gate 2.

None of the cars have American license plates.

That's weird. Cars don't look that different any more, but what's with the plates?

But our daily routine regains a firm hold, and the riddle of the missing license plates fades. It re-surfaces in a different context in a different location, when a car makes a surprise hard turn and the burly passenger displays his US military credentials: a haircut like no other.

Our trusty internet confirms that the old American style plates on POVs (privately owned vehicles) in the K-Land were replaced by regular German plates.

For security reasons, explain the various web sites. Security did not stop at the license plates, though, anecdotes have it. US military personnel and family members were also told to lay off on bumper stickers, specifically the two perennial favorites among GIs: the Confederate flag and Don't Mess with Texas.

Sure, the Confederate flag is obvious, but Don't Mess with Texas? What's wrong with that?

The switch to German plates and the incognito-ization of vehicles still allow German drivers near US bases to recognize US personnel.

How? Recent arrivals from the States tend to spend a lot of their first few months on German freeways in the right lane, sweating, swearing, and looking very worried. Mind you, the locals are friendly, but their driving can be qualified as terrifying.

The hilarious consequence of discouraging Confederate flags, Don't Mess with Texas, Don't tread on me, and other many bumper stickers, though, is this.

If you see any Confederate flags, Don't Mess with Texas, Don't tread on me bumper stickers on a German car these days, you can be certain the driver is German.

A young, or a previously young, German dreaming of America.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The sharing economy? A many thousand year old model rebranded.

Disclaimer: We know there is a constant desire to stand out from the crowd, and marketing and PR folks feel a relentless need to contribute. But calling this thing "sharing economy"? Please pick a different Facebook button label for the next biz fashion.

Mainstream reporting about the wonderful sharing economy, or Sharing Economy for extra emphasis, has been nothing short of hilarious over here in Europe.

It has been mostly:
  • 1. Ignoring that the "sharing economy" is many, many thousand years old.
  • 2. Talking up the role of the internet in the "sharing economy".

The blogster takes umbrage with the self-professed sharing economy because it tries to highjack the cuddly term "sharing".

What is the difference between my stock broker and taxistas Uber and bedding specialists Airbnb?

The main interface to either is a web site.
They provide a service.
The fees charged by my stock broker are lower than those of Uber and Airbnb.

Shouldn't my stock broker call himself a proud proponent of the sharing economy?

Businesses like Uber/Airbnb allow users to earn money as providers of a service, to make money from an otherwise unused asset, you say?

Since at least 2008 or so, money in the bank has been an unused asset, and why should I become a slave to a system that gives me a few seconds to accept a job or open my house to someone who may well walk out with grandma's painting.

Let's be clear, we value a broker who makes sure we get paid for a service or product. The extended geographical reach of your offering is highly welcome, too.

That's why we have eBay and Etsy, right?

Calling your company a "sharing economy" company seems to work if the users belong to the growing number of humans who think that fish are square because that's how they come in the supermarket freezer section.

Let's have a look at exchanges involving sharing. When the neighbor hands you a bag of seeds for the garden, or when you lend the neighbor your chainsaw for a day, you share. The hand-me-downs some of you may still remember, that's sharing.

When the neighbor gives you something in return for the use of the chainsaw, or when you repay heirloom tomato seeds with a gorgeous pumpkin in Fall or with a 15 minute massage, you share. In cases like this, the term "bartering" applies.

When you sign up with (no endorsement if the site exists, just a theoretical example) and the neighbor buys a bag of seeds, that's not different from eBay or Etsy. It is a buying/selling transaction, you share your address and maybe feedback, but that's pretty much it.

We should not make fun of the great sharing economy without addressing the argument of using fewer precious resources, the eco angle. It makes sense, and we are all in favor of less waste, but less waste is so inherent to straight-up giving away of stuff and to bartering that the "sharing economy" pales in comparison.

How serious are different sharing economy players about reducing the impact of humans on the environment? There is no simple answer, but as to Uber, one may wonder how the corporate limo service side fits into the benevolent eco image.

The Uber-airheads follow in the tradition of the old classified adds, expanded to the electronic attic and basement by eBay, and the taxman is ready to accept taxes on your rented out spare bedroom (which is somewhere between the attic and the basement).

At least, Uber drivers or newly minted Bed without Breakfast operators are spared the indignity of being called mechanical drivers (based on Amazon's mechanical turks) or crowd beds.

What if the "sharing economy" really revolutionized society?

The size and complexity of major economic sectors are formidable obstacles to a sharing economy ultimately based on growth, and the sectors who really want your money - the government and the immaterial products folks - already have instruments in place that ensure their share of your sharing.

Making you pay for a product or service you never use is likely to get more traction in the future. The Germans, for one, are very good at that. That fee on your home printer going to intellectual property owners because you can copy pages of a book you don't own, or the license fee for TV payable by someone who never watches TV seem to us the "new sharing economy". Why bother with all the work and nuisances involved in a transaction when you can simply grab a share upfront?

So, go share, but don't complain if your government one day sends you a bill simply because you are a computer programmer. The justification for the invoice? You have the skills to fix your home computer without calling a professional (duly bonded and taxed), hence you withhold economic value from society at large.

And why should that be limited to fixing computers?

You have other taxable skills, and the vegetable patch in your garden produces, arrgh, free food.

Think that is crazy?

Do you live in a country where they only pay out unemployment benefits if you can prove you submitted x number of applications per month or week?
That's based on the assumption that you not doing so constitutes withholding economic value from society.

You could argue that you are not receiving unemployment benefits from your insurance premium - you are paid for the number of correctly prepared job applications.

Don't believe it?

Try a one line email approach to job hunting and see what your EDD/jobcentre/Jobcenter has to say.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

No more Day Old bread - what about Day Old thoughts?

A German bakery is discontinuing sales of Day Old bread.

Why could that be?

Because people don't buy enough of it?
Because the bakery owner discovered the joy of greed?

No, it is because the government insists on regulations originally meant for a different purpose.

German state officials insist that day old bread from a bakery needs to be treated the same way as factory bread sold in supermarkets and grocery stores.
At the stroke of midnight, five hours after the bakery closes, the artisanal, lovingly handcrafted loaf of traditional break turns into a highly regulated item - according to officials.

Regulations for the latter require:
1. Packaging the bread in accordance with food safety rules. Either vacuum sealed or packed in a "protective atmosphere" (read nitrogen) to prevent bacteria and mold for a week or two.
2. Detailed labeling of the ingredients on each package.
3. Label showing the exact weight at the time of packaging. Remember, bread loses a bit of weight as it dries.

The extra manual work and machine time involved in achieving compliance would make the Day Old too expensive, says the bakery chief.

So, instead of feeding people, the bread will go into the compost.

Giving it away does not seem to be an option in a country where dumpster diving can still be prosecuted as a crime

Wouldn't it be marvelous if the same strict regulations could be applied to day old statements made by politicians?

Vacuum sealing won't work for that, of course, but clear labeling and loss of weight because of a reduction of fluff sounds like a good idea.

Any Day Old thoughts not handled accordingly would be qualified as garbage and disposed of. Just like some old Germans did with the daily newspaper when they used it as toilet paper.

Vinegar treats mold on plant leaves

[a 10 percent satire content post]

This summer was very wet and warm enough to for mold to thrive on the veggies in the garden patch.

The American first reaction was to get the big guns: go to the garden center and get one of the fungicides locked up behind what looks like bullet proof glass, the stuff which an employee will release to you only if you answer a bunch of questions related to plants to treat, location of plants and your date of birth correctly.

If you encounter a very helpful employee, you will be asked a question in diplomatic mode, for instance, I understand you need to treat <plant a> and there will be no pets or children around?

If you fail to get the hint, tough luck.

The second reaction was, wait, vinegar should work.

Call it an unintended side effect of old school education, but the potent combination of basic chemistry and biology had left a memory about fungi/molds preferring neutral to slightly alkaline environments.

Vinegar, being acidic, should stop molds.

The next question was, how strong should the home remedy be in order to be both, hopefully, effective and safe for plants? The zucchini plants to be sprayed have relatively thick leaves, we figured, and if the solution was not strong enough, we could do another round with more punch.

We settled on about four tablespoons of vinegar in a liter of water for the five zucchinis on the last years' compost heap. It worked. The acidic water stopped the spread of the mold but was obviously a bit too strong because areas the areas of a leaf where the mold had dug deep into it, turned brown.
Areas to which the mold had spread just days ago, remained green and functional.

So, cauterizing part of a leaf may have been too aggressive but no harm was done - we did get a good zucchini harvest.

All this was done without support of the internet or books. Once fall came, we decided to give ol' Google a crack.

As usual, there was plenty of information, not merely on vinegar but other remedies, too.

This site on first plant aid in organic gardening looks good, not only because it confirmed that our first water plus vinegar solution was too strong.

The price of the home remedies is unbeatable, too: a few cents for a summer of treatment versus upwards of 10 dollars for certified poison.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Fruit flies shut down space-age German tech

As a fairly small country with a long tradition of engineering pride, Germans see themselves as a nation of tinkerers and optimizers.

Their successes are legion - and their failures are interesting. This blog has highlighted some failures in the field of computing, it's one area where people are in the way.

In other areas, nature is in the way.

The statement is obvious, and the engineers would be the first ones to agree. But glitches continue because of, well, nature.

The fruit flies that shut down the plastic bottle recycling machine at our supermarket are an example which proves the point.

Known for their efforts to recycle, Germans slapped a deposit on plastic bottles at a time other countries were still using 100% glass. With a deposit comes the issue of return. For store brand mineral water, for example, the deposit on the bottle exceeds the price of water + bottle at the cash register.

Normal engineers see a problem as an engineering problem, so they set out to develop a neat machine to collect empty containers and to dispense the deposit.
This approach was received well in a society that not only looks down on scavengers trying be productive but that very much ostracizes such people.

The resulting space-age box is a six foot tall and about six foot wide modern engineering triumph. An empty bottle is feed into an opening where belts grab it and drag it over a barcode reader.
The barcode being quite small, the machine will turn the bottle around until it finds the barcode at one of the many possible locations.
A happy beep confirms the scan, and the LCD display keeping you up to date on the progress adds another 25 cent credit until you are done and press the Done button.

In the couple of seconds between the happy beep and adding the deposit credit, the bottle disappears from view and is flattened though crushing. The cacophony of sounds accompanying this step does frighten small children. We have seen this happen but could not find any research on the long term effects of being exposed to crushing, screeching, and gurgling noises as a small child.

Crushing the bottle to minimize storage space releases the minute amounts of liquid which soon creates the perfect fruit fly habitat.

We have also experienced all the standard things that go wrong:
  • Scratched barcodes
  • Barcodes with residue on them
  • Bottles deflated when you take them from a warm house into a freezing outside winterscape
  • Bottles cut into two for some DIY project, then taped back together
  • And the worst: the wrong kind of bottle!

The machines flat out reject:
  • Multiple use PET bottles despite a deposit on these, too
  • One way bottles that carry no deposit at all - they exist in Germany!
  • Non-German bottles, whatever their deposit status may be
And then there are the fruit flies. Capable to live on small amounts of leftovers from bottles, they make many generations of offspring.

The machines do not have any signs telling fruit flies to stay away from belts, rollers, and crushers, so thousands of the poor guys get slaughtered each summer in every single automated deposit machine.

Their carcasses gum up the works with that powerful paste of protein, blood and guts.
For the few hours between the maintenance call and the fix, it is back to manual return.

Why don't they just blast the machine with bug spray?

You have not been to Germany in the last 20 years, have you?

TIP: Do not try to redeem bottle deposits at any machine in Germany on Saturdays. The lines are long, the tempers short. Some people come to drop off a whole car full of bottles. so jam packed that they could probably drive the car into a lake, climb out on top and paddle across, thanks to the buoyancy of the bottles.