Saturday, November 28, 2015

German conservative CDU plans "pledge of allegiance" - for immigrants only

Germany's ruling Christian democrats (CDU), the party of Chancellor Merkel, are planning a resolution calling for an "integration agreement" for immigrants at their December caucus, report all major German papers today.

The idea to make immigrants sign an "integration agreement" has been floated several times this past year but each time it disappeared as quickly as it popped up. The blogster thought it was an all too tempting measure to go away, just as the calls to exempt refugees from the country's minimum wage law are certain to come up again.

This time, the call for a "pledge of allegiance" type agreement immigrants will have to sign is set to be formally introduced by the larger of the two parties that make up Germany's federal government.

The agreement is conceptually modeled on an "integration agreement" that every long-term unemployed resident has to sign in order to get basic means-tested benefits under the HARTZ-IV social services regime.

If a long-term unemployed person refuses to sign, the jobs agency can enforce the "agreement" as an administrative measure. Failure to fulfill the terms and conditions entails sanctions and penalties in the form of cuts to benefits that technically represent the basic minimum to survive in the world's fourth largest economy.

The integration agreement for immigrants as reported today has more lofty goals than, for instance, the exact number of job applications.

According to Die Zeit, immigrants will have to pledge to uphold:
1) Equality between men and women
2) German laws overrule Sharia laws
3) No discrimination of homosexuals and religions
4) Israel's right to exist

Failure to comply will entail benefits cuts and possibly a "change of immigration status". 

An earlier report in Focus was more comprehensive, so we add a few items from their list.

5) Accept democracy with a separation of powers as the only form of government
6) Renounce any kind of forced marriage
7) Accept mandatory schooling for girls
8) Obtain work
9) Learn German

The resolution will very likely either leave out the word "Sharia" altogether or cite it merely as an "example". In the Focus article, Israel's right to exist is quoted as "derived from" the German law banning denial of the Holocaust, and you should expect very similar wording in December in order to avoid political or legal challenges to the statement.

The pledge is so obviously directed against Muslim immigrants that the authors of whatever the final version will be, will try to make doubly sure to defuse that very allegation.

But even if they don't manage to remove all appearances, Germany does not have good anti-discrimination laws, or - where a law exists - enforcement can be tricky.

In reality, all pledge points are already covered by the German constitution and specific laws, so it can be argued that introduction of the pledge is populist politics at its worst and a handy tool to punish perceived non-compliance through administrative measures instead of formal court procedures.

Of course, immigrants will be able to appeal decisions in court, but the government still sanctions HARTZ-IV recipients despite court rulings. Expect a similar situation in application of the immigrant integration agreement.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The odd reporting on the Turkish downing of the Russian bomber

Among the "odd reporting" of 2015 in the main five to six German media outfits the blogster reads each day, the downing of the Russian war plane in Syria is one of the highlights.

To be very clear: This criticism does not apply to the initial several hours after the event was first reported. The blogster considers the RT German claim that a reports around noon of a "shootdown in the border area" are misinformation to be overblown.

However, the initial headline of tabloid BILD.de saying "Putin attacks Turkey" was so far out of the ballpark that even the famously grumpy K-Landnews TheEditor fell silent.



After a while, it* said: "I know this sounds harsh but the only comparison that comes to my feeble mind is the Nazis reporting their invasion of Poland with the announcement 'Since 5:45 this morning, we are firing back' when not a shot had been fired by the Poles and everything had been staged by the Germans."

A short time later, BILD changed the headline to "Putin threatens Turkey", still untrue but at least not such a bellicose brain dead lie.

Alarm bells should have been going off in every newsroom when the Turkish justification map shown below was published. This link to the Unian website lead to a page timestamped 14:07 on 24 November.

The map was disseminated widely as proof that the Russian Su-24 violated Turkish airspace, and the blogster accepted this claim without any ifs and buts. The first smart Twitter users had asked immediately after the first reports how many seconds of incursion we were talking about, and a brief glance at a larger map with a scale obviated any doubt: it could only have been seconds.




This article in the New York Times in the afternoon of the 24th tries to make sense of the claims and shows this detailed map.


If we extrapolate the "known" time of 17 seconds and the "known" distance between entry and exit of the Russian plane and assume a near constant speed, we have a potential issue with the warnings given by the Turkish military. As reported by the German FAZ and elsewhere, 10 warnings were given within 5 minutes would seem odd. Measuring out the Russian flight paths seems to indicate that the first plane heading north comes in at no earlier than about three minutes (more like 2.5 actually) before the shootdown.

Did Turkey start the warnings about 2 minutes before the Russian planes veered north? That would be odd because the call to change heading wouldn't make sense. Or did Turkish forces continues to broadcast warnings until a couple of minutes after the incident?

Maybe a more comprehensive radar map would explain this, but the map above doesn't.

Then there is the complete silence regarding the "grey" plane path. The article in the Times and in German media focuses on the "red", the Russian planes and makes no mention of the grey and the green tracks, which would be the Turkish F-16s. The grey track is in Syrian airspace (since the blue line is the border) for about twice the distance covered by the Russians inside Turkish airspace, then heads down straight to the border where it abruptly stops, which indicates that the plane went into Syrian airspace for a second time.

RT has a new article, last edited at 16:57 on Nov 27, with details and a timeline by Russian personnel.

The basic sequence of events is very similar to our interpretation above, which was based solely on the Turkish radar image.

It is unclear why the German media, or the NYT for that matter, did not have a pilot or an expert interpret the Turkish radar image.

[Update 11/28/2015] Just checked the Bellingcat website to see if they had anything to say about the Turkish radar image. They don't, which is in line with our expectations.

[Update 11/29] Just found this Motherboard article, which deals with both the Turkish and the Russian graphics. The Russian one was obviously a dud, and what they say about the Turkish one is in line with our radar map-only interpretation. They got a very plausible actual plane speed of 980 km/h using information in addition to the map. The real relief to the blogster is the calculation of the plane speed based on the 17 seconds as 420 km/h because the blogster had that at 430 km/h and was sure there was no way this was true.

* TheEditor is a gender neutral personality.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Racists love it when upset and helpless people use "last resort leverage"

Apologies to the experts: There is probably a succinct specialist term in psychology or some wonderful philosophical concept that describes what the blogster calls "last resort leverage".
Feel free to comment.

What the blogster means with the term is behavior that uses membership in a "protected" group as needed to get a desired result in an interaction. We can debate forever whether such behavior is unethical, sometimes justified, smart, or dumb, etc., within a specific set of circumstances, but this is not the point of the post.

The problem is that such behavior tends to be seized upon by racists and xenophobes with a gleeful "I told you so" or with some rant about evils of political correctness, or worse. But those instances the blogster personally knows had one thing in common: resorting to arguing with membership in a protected group always occurred when someone had maneuvered himself into a corner or was treated badly.

Such as when a young black man accused a white woman who had lent him money and been very patient with repayment delay after repayment delay: "You hate blacks!"

"No, I hate assholes."

At which point another black male who had overheard the exchange intervened: "Man, you know she's right, pay back that money, I know you have it."

Or the story of the second generation Turkish young man with a German girlfriend. The two had been together for some six months, the young man had helped his girlfriend's father to assemble furniture, had moved some heavy items in the yard because the father couldn't lift heavy stuff anymore, had stayed for dinner multiple times. One day, the young woman's dad found him smoking a joint and told him he could not do it at the house. The young man tried to argue that what he was doing was harmless but became upset when told that there was no arguing, and smoking pot would not be tolerated. At this point, he launched into "You just hate Turks."

The final example for the post is the story of a friend from northern Germany who asked if she could stay over night because she needed to apply with the ministry of education of the state to get her Eastern European medical degree recognized and to be allowed to do an additional one year intern training to be able to practice in Germany. That evening, she told the blogster how unfriendly people at the agency had been, rifling through every single class, trying to find fault, and eventually questioning the motive of this German citizen for applying in this state instead of her home state up north. At this point, the friend was exasperated and said: "The reason for coming to this city is that there is a vibrant Jewish community here."

"It worked?"

"Yes, that lady became very friendly."

So, the blogster has not witnessed a single instance in which a member of a "protected" group argued on the basis of this identity at the outset of a dispute or altercation. This is not to say that every single one of the billions of humans out there will always wait until all other arguments are exhausted.

When you hear that someone is accused of using "the race card" or any other "card", try to understand the event better -- and ask yourself what you would have done.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Hindus, Muslims and agnostics who enjoy Christmas

There is one time during the year when the famously grumpy K-Landnews TheEditor becomes nostalgic and nice: Christmas.

I hate the commercialism, and religion is not my thing, confided TheEditor one Christmas Eve, but I do like the slowdown of life and positively relish seeing the world's greatest a***holes have to smile for Christmas. And I put up a tree with decorations for the cats to play with.

It's no surprise then that the K-Landnews has published some fun Christmas themed posts over the years.

There was Dr. Who and the war on Christmas on the Christmas special of the British TV series in 2013. The premise, a war on a planet called Christmas, was so cringe worthy that we had to top it with an equally cringe worthy post.
Another one was O not a Tannenbaum on a newspaper article which detailed how a German had decorated a tall plant that nobody sober would classify as a member of the genus Abies (fir trees for you and me).
Not to be outdone in considering the needy, our post Christmas and the marginalized was a touching piece on the two groups that need the spirit of Christmas the most: CEOs and homeless people.

We even had an early insight into what working at Santa Corp is like in the post Santa and the Hotline. You are not the only undervalued elf, okay?

But what we love most about Christmas is that friends and acquaintances from other cultures and religions enjoy it, too.

Hindu friends back in the U.S. would always get a tree, claiming "it's for the kids, you know". But their smiles were not "it's for the kids, you know" smiles. A year or so later, they confirmed the observation.

Even some practicing Muslims like the ritual, as one second generation lady of Turkish descent in Germany told us recently. I enjoy Christmas, she said. Well, I grew up in this small German town and found it wonderful how all the houses had Christmas decorations and lights up. It's sad, though, to see that people do this less and less every year. Maybe they are afraid of the high electricity bill?

In stark contrast to the U.S., where lazy Christians or members of "non-Christmas" religions have plenty of cuisines to choose from, our nearest Indian and Chinese restaurants are shuttered on the holidays. 

So, get out those lights and decorations and remember: even if you are bored or stressed by Christmas, there are plenty of Hindus, Muslims and others who enjoy it.



Thursday, November 19, 2015

The U.S. Visa Waiver Program is really an eVisa program for foreigners

The U.S. Visa Waiver Program is in the news again because of the recent Paris terror attacks and the refugee crisis in general.

Republicans in Congress are particularly fond of questioning the program that allows U.S. citizens to visit other countries without going through a visa application process and, in return, allows citizens of some 40 other countries to visit the United States without having to apply for a visitor visa at a U.S. consulate or embassy.

So, how does a U.S. citizen travel to one of the core European countries (the Schengen area)?
The U.S. citizen gets a passport, buys a plane ticket, flies, goes through border control and customs at the destination, and that's it. There is zero paperwork for the countries the blogster knows. And no fees.
There is no fingerprinting and no taking of pictures.

This is not without pitfalls for newbie travelers. On one occasion, coming into Germany from the U.S., the blogster saw a confused group of twenty-ish Americans wandering around the arrivals area before immigration. They were looking at the glossy tourist brochures of Germany, and chatted nervously. The blogster stopped. Two of the group came over and asked where they could find the forms.

You mean immigration and customs forms? 

Yes.

They don't have any here. You just walk up to the immigration officers and get a stamp.

The two went back to the group and informed them. One or two of the others looked at the blogster in complete disbelief, as if wondering whether they were being sent into a trap, or whether the blogster was just a numbnut who had somehow managed to buy a plane ticket and make it to Germany.

How does a Schengen area citizen travel to the U.S. on the waiver program?
Originally, a trip to the U.S. was very similar, except for the forms, of course. This changed with the introduction of the electronic system ESTA. ESTA became mandatory in 2009, and since 2010 airlines must require the ESTA waiver at check-in. Registration on the ESTA website costs $ 14.
At airport check-in, the traveler has to show the ESTA number assigned on approval. At the U.S. port of entry, fingerprints and a photo are taken and stored.

What information is asked when a European citizen fills out the ESTA form? Pretty much the same information asked on a standard DS-160 Nonimmigrant Visa Application, except for the question about direct relatives in the U.S.

A crucial additional requirement is that you pay the fee with a credit or debit card. This information is - in the words of one card company - priceless.

For countries not participating in ESTA, the regular DS-160 is also accepted in handwritten form, although this is becoming rare these days. Still, handwritten forms are error prone.

Once your data are in ESTA, they are checked by the same systems that check the DS-160. Information from the credit card is also checked. If the traveler does not have a card, someone else can make the payment.

So, as of late November 2015, the European "visa waiver" for U.S. citizens still is a waiver. This may change but we'll see.

The U.S. "waiver" for Europeans has been an eVisa since the mandatory verification of ESTA by airlines in 2010.

Just in case Congress raves about being interviewed in person by a U.S. consular official, that's pretty much bunk. The duration of such an interview is between 60 and 90 seconds.

Oh, and before we forget, here is a brief story told to the blogster by a very reliable nonimmigrant.

The nonimmigrant was admitted at immigration and attended a party that night to celebrate the return from a natural disaster zone. At the party, he ran into the immigration officer who had admitted him a few hours earlier. The officer greeted him and handed him a joint.

The importance of labels and change over time
The Visa Waiver Program is another great example of the tremendous importance of "labels" (or, in everyday usage, "names") and change over time without changing the label. We all know examples from everyday life that we would classify as misleading labeling, but tend to see this as a static issue. In other words, something it named or labeled, and that's it - the label/name is "correct" or not.
With the changes over the years making the underlying process of the program almost identical to a traditional visa application for non-US citizens, we continue to use the original name, after all, that's important for legal reasons, important to ensure communication works, and it still reflects reality for US citizens.
But when you start to discuss potential changes while ignoring the current actual process, as Congress did, you don't look so good. To be fair, it is difficult and - in this case - potentially unpleasant to acknowledge that a process changed from basically equal treatment for both parties to something more onerous to one party only.

Notes:
1. There is a program to facilitate entering the U.S. without the often long wait times at immigration, the Global Entry Program. It is available at major U.S. airports and requires additional screening.
2. The blogster knows of several Europeans who reduced the number of trips to the U.S. after routine fingerprinting and photos, saying they were unwilling to undergo a treatment previously reserved to law offenders more often than absolutely necessary.
3. Yes, some U.S. travelers are unlucky and get pulled out by UK officials for questioning. That's just how the Brits roll.

[Update] Added "Notes" and biometrics section, typos. Clarification added "For countries not participating in ESTA, the"
[Update 11/22/2015] Added paragraph "The importance of labels and changes over time".

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

German daily life: when paying cash means losing tax deductibility

There are people who like cash, and then there are governments that don't.

Not running afoul of laws and regulations when you pay in cash can be quite a challenge in Europe. A German consumer protection charity has this handy website in German and English. While it is advertised as a resource for travelers, you really should consult it if you are moving to Europe.

The map shows only a few countries that have "no limit" on cash payments and many in ominous red for "cash payment limited".

The blogster suggests you click on a couple of the "red" countries to see what is regulated. Keep in mind that the justification for putting limits on cash payment is to curb tax evasion and corruption. Checking out, for example, France and Italy shows us what legislators in the two countries decided to tackle, and some details may surprise you.

The web site does not provide a full picture either, as notes at gas stations and shops tell us. Most won't accept any banknote above 100 Euros, so no 200s or 500s, and that's pretty reasonable. Should you be as naive as the blogster and accept a 500 note from the friendly bank teller because it is so convenient you because you've never seen one before, rest assured that the effort of spending any of it is guaranteed to make you decline any subsequent suggestion by the friendly teller.

In Germany, there is a pretty bad trap that is equally guaranteed to make the German tax authorities millions each year from gullible newbies to the country. No statistics exist, but millions it must be because the blogster alone lost somewhere around a grand, and with close to a million newcomers to the country - not counting the latest refugees - more folks will trip over the regulations.

So, what is it, you say?

It's that often copied but never rivaled German way of legally allowing you to do something and then punishing you for it later.

The first of these tricks surfaced with regard to a lost driver's license. As it turns out, in our state, the fee for replacing a lost license is double that of replacing a stolen license.
In a rare display of up front information by a German government agency, they do inform citizens about this on their web site.

The tax authorities have a different take on good information when it comes to how to deduct the cost of contractors who fix something in your house or do maintenance, for example, sweeping the chimney or clearing out the yard.

The good news is that you can deduct some of the labor cost from your taxes when you prepare the tax return.

The bad news is that you get to deduct nothing, nada, when you pay cash.

The receipt by the contractor is not accepted by the tax man unless it comes with a bank statement that proves direct debit. Small contractors around here often do not accept credit cards, so, no, that won't work.

The obvious problem, of course, is that the tax preparer you enlist after your first six months to a year in the country may inform you about with an appropriately sympathetic "sorry for your loss", but you cannot fix the problem. Of course, you may also find that the tax preparer recommended warmly by a co-worker is a completely condescending gentleman who has a knack for making you feel your measly salary is not worth his effort. That's a different story, though.

If you plan to move to Germany, don't expect a "welcome to Germany" package to warn you of the driver's license loss penalty or any tax regulations.

If want to see the quirks in a positive light, convince yourself that learning German to the point to understand newspapers may pay off.

Oh, and feel free to send the folks who run the limitations on cash payments website a nice request for correction.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The ice cream truck does parcel delivery

In the recent post The Greedtocracy: Deutsche Post goes from civil service to day labor, we gave a brief description of how the German postal service went from government agency to a freewheeling transportation and logistics behemoth that uses day labor to the tune of roughly 10 000 full time equivalent jobs.

But there's more: subcontractors, some of them a mere freezer truck away from our own US parcel service experience.

For a small company in SomeWhereUSA that ships physical goods to all 50 states, shipping costs add up. So, one day, the boss announced we were trying out a second supplier in addition to the household name company we had been using exclusively.

A few days later, Janice from Accounting (that's a John Oliver, Last Week Tonight, reference, sorry) tells us a pickup is scheduled for around 2 pm today.  Around the announced time, a frozen food delivery truck pulls into the street and backs up to our loading door.

While we were wondering if the owner had experienced a bout of generosity, the driver has gotten out and is standing in front of us.

I'm here to pick up parcels for Hey-you-Ship-it-and-we-might-deliver-your-crap.

One of us goes to see Janice, the one from Accounting, and the driver explains that he is doing shipping jobs for Hey-you-Ship-it-and-we-might-deliver-your-crap in addition to his frozen food delivery contract work.

Don't worry, I turned the freezer unit off, he reassures us a Jorge comes back from Janice and confirms that this is indeed our new shipping service operator.

The following week, a rust bucket former utility company van - you could still make out the outlines of the removed logo - is our driver.

The subsequent week, someone else.

We begin to make jokes about what kind of vehicle would show up next.

Everybody's favorite is, there's no surprise there, a hearse.

Sadly, no hearse ever shows up.

This experience came to mind when we started paying attention to the delivery vehicles around the countryside.

The bright yellow vans of Deutsche Post/DHL stand out, but it was the others we found fascinating. The old vans with faded colors, with drivers without uniforms, are everywhere these days.

They do have one or two small yellow stickers on the side and on the back saying they operate for Deutsche Post.

The stickers are not, as you might hope, an acknowledgement of the hard work of subcontractors.

Far from it.

They are the only way Deutsche Post can get companies to hand over parcels to folks who may speak hardly any German and arrive in a decrepit van.

The Germans can be hard to convince of advancements.

Monday, November 16, 2015

It's about history and social problems - France's Algerian War

As Paris struggles with the atrocities of 13 November, as authorities investigate, as pundits punt, it appears everybody is focused on their narrative about Syria and ISIS.

The short term focus is understandable, but Islamist terrorism in France, including the French speaking southern part of Belgium owes much of its ferocity not to ISIS but to the Algerian War of Independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s. To get a better picture, we'd need to talk about Morocco and Tunisia, too, even Libya to some extent, but we leave it at Algeria because it was the biggest conflict, casting the longest shadow into 21st Century France.

After the January 2015 attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, there were a couple of extended references to issues of North African history. In the aftermath of last Friday, pretty much all we get are nationalities or places of birth, maybe with an "of Moroccan descent" thrown in.

There is, however, one immediate sign of historical ignorance when we call the Friday events, as for instance in The Daily Beast, "the worst atrocity to befall France since World War II".

Worst terror attack, certainly, but not the worst atrocity.

For the record, that awful designation goes to the killing of over 200 Algerians by police in Paris on a single day in October 1961.

If you only have time for a single account of the Algerian War and its consequences, the article Fifty years after Algeria's independence, France is still in denial is a recommended read. It talks about the brutality of that war, the mass emigration to mainland France, the housing estates, the grandchildren, and the lack of honesty by the French state.

Those housing estates with a population of 99% black or North African descent make headlines every now and then, and the blogster does not know many white Europeans or Americans who would go there at night.

But, as the blogster found, they are actually safer than some neighborhoods in U.S. cities, if you are simply nice to the kids hanging out. We will never know whether the young white French woman who lived in one of the large estates south of the city made a difference to the life of a young Beur by treating him or her like an equal, but we do know that you can live there safely as a white person, walk your dog, and schlepp your groceries without harm.

Social problems don't go away by bombing, and individuals do make a difference.

As this brief anecdote from Paris a couple of years after the Algerian War of Independence shows. It is an anecdote that may otherwise be forgotten.

The occasion was a reception at the Algerian embassy in Paris, a black tie event as we would call it. Introductions were being made, Parisian officials mixing with Algerian officials, Bonsoir Monsieur, Bonsoir Monsieur. A French civil servant introduced himself to one of a series of Algerians, expecting a version of the small talk made several times that evening.

The Algerian diplomat introduced himself and added: I am very pleased to finally be able to talk to you. I had you in my rifle sights many times, but you were good to our people.

After the initial shock on the part of the French civil servant, the two had an enjoyable chat.

[Update] Fixed typos. Decided to give a couple more details. The French civil servant had held the rank of captain during the war, and his last name began with L.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

To report or not to report - the line between 'decision' and 'censorship'

Life is all about choices all the time. And we have rules for making them. Laws, guidelines and unwritten rules.
Much of what we do involves making and breaking them. In journalism, this can take the not so subtle giveaway of valuable gifts highlighted in our 2014 post Quality journalism fringe benefits: Ueber-Shwag. How much of this violated the German Press Association guidelines section 15 on freebies is not always clear, although the blogster considers a TV set a bit much.

In addition to state or national rules, newspapers and other media outlets have their own editorial code, for example, the editorial code of the British The Guardian. That's a fairly extensive one, which also includes a paragraph on reporting on suicide including the number of a suicide hotline to be published with an article.

German outlets are less forthcoming with their guidelines, probably because they have the industry wide press code and prefer to keep anything beyond that to themselves. Among the few exceptions we found is the publisher of the notorious tabloid Bild Zeitung with a handful of political guidelines (such as transatlantic, or opposed to totalitarianism of any stripe).

In the German mainstream media, reporting about suicides appears to be governed by an "unwritten rule", according to this Der Spiegel article on the rhetoric publicity bait by the "anti-islamization" movement PEGIDA, the right wing AfD and others on the right.

That unwritten rule, according to the Spiegel article, goes like this: "...in general, the media won't report on suicides. Because it only inspires copycats." Known as the Wherther Effect after the suicidal romantic in Goethe's The Sorrows of the Young Wherther.

Confronted with some evidence of the effect, the K-Landnews TheEditor mumbled: "I see, but they have the cause wrong. I don't think these youngsters killed themselves because they felt the deep heartbreak of young Wherther. They may have offed themselves because they could not bear the fact that a German writer could pen something so awful."

Why would a journalist invoke the reporting on suicides in an article about the rhetoric of various right wing outfits?

Because, he says, giving outrageous claims and verbal provocations a media platform by reporting them only emboldens the speakers and writers and begets more of the same.

To the blogster, this seems a bit odd because Der Spiegel in particular picks up every obscure Nazi reference, like the one in which we learned that the number 88 in German can mean something more than 80 plus 8, or 90 minus 2, or 4 * 20 + 8, or whatever mathematical rule you can use to obtain it. 

Nobody forces Der Spiegel to pick up right wing barks with the reliability of one of Pavlov's dogs, or does the blogster not understand something important here?

It's a decision, so man up.

As to not reporting on suicide, that one actually smacks a bit of self censorship. Because, hey, everybody reported on Robin Williams with almost frightening abandon.

But a once-a-year one-pager on the 10 000 or so Germans who kill themselves every year is enough?

That's many times the number of homicide cases in Germany, which was under 3 000 in 2014. And out of that number, almost 50% were merely attempts. The number of 1st degree murder cases in the whole country was 298 in 2014.

Less than 300, that's very likely fewer than you get to see in a single evening on the 80 TV channels an average German household can receive.

Incidentally, the number of attempted suicides is about 100 000 on top the 10K.

Not reporting on this "as a rule" is not smart.

One more thing:
If you feel depressed or suicidal, find your local hotline number and talk to someone.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Germany: Severance pay for confidential informants in extreme right party NPD

From our You gotta be kidding series.

Recent German news reports about right wing demonstrations, arson attacks on refugee shelters, and hate speech have largely focused on the "anti-islamization" movement PEGIDA, and the recently founded political party AfD (Alternative for Germany).

Little notice was paid to the long standing extreme right party NPD (National Democratic Party). NPD members participate in PEGIDA demonstrations, but so do AfD members as well as citizens whose party affiliations are not always clear cut.
The last substantial event concerning the NPD occurred in September of 2015 when five NPD members of the state parliament of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern visited a refugee shelter in their state. The conservative interior minister of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern had denied an NPD request for a visit of a state refugee shelter, saying that the part's anti-asylum policies justified a ban.

The AfD is seen as much more of a potential rival in a series of 2016 state and local elections than the NPD.

Most important, though, is the ongoing attempt to have the NPD banned in a case pending before Germany's federal constitutional court. The current proceedings come roughly a decade after an attempt that was soundly defeated by the constitutional court in 2003 after it was discovered that a number of the NPD's inner circle - including as many as 30 of its top 200 leaders - were in fact undercover agents or informants of the German secret services.

30 out of its top 200 leaders, that's about 1 in 7, enough to raise a number of questions. Questions the blogster leaves to historians.

Because it gets better.

Several German states eventually decided to try again, and the constitutional court made it clear that it would consider a new petition only if the plaintiffs were able to prove that the security services had severed all ties to confidential informants within the party leadership. By May 2015, lawyers for the states certified that eleven CIs on the federal and state executive committees of the NPD had been "deactivated".

Until recently, details of the "deactivation" were not known.

They were made public in a recent article in Die Zeit, entitled "Government going away presents for NPD officials" [our translation]. Die Zeit obtained minutes and documents from the May 2015 submission that show relationships between CIs and their handlers that the word "cozy" does not adequately describe.

The documents show that at least nine out of the eleven total were given "severance pay". Although the amounts remain unknown because they were redacted, generic guidelines of domestic intelligence agencies indicate that the formula "monthly pay * number of years as CI" were used.

In many cases, the separation was marked by warm words of thanks and "best wishes for the future". Other phrases that could come right out of a letter of reference include gems that praise a CI as "always reliable, loyal and very engaged".

To lessen separation anxiety and to provide for potential emergencies, at least some of the former CIs were given emergency contact numbers.

It would be so nice to know whether the same courtesy and empathy is extended to CIs in left wing organizations. 

[Update 1/22/2017] The latest attempt to have Germany's constitutional court ban the NPD failed, but not for the same reasons as the first one. This time, the court posits that the party is not an imminent threat, leaving a future ban open. In the aftermath, the major parties are now looking into changing the German system of government funding of parties with the intention to cut off small parties.



Tuesday, November 10, 2015

How to make an enemy out of a bad manager: make work look easy

Today, we have a few words of warning on making a project, or your whole job, look easy.

We have all heard the proverb "the squeaky wheel gets the grease", so cynics could argue it's your own fault if you fail to explain complexities and challenges correctly. You may have your very own examples of failure to do so, complete with feedback along the lines "well, if you had told me <whatever the issue> early on..."

But there is a lot more to it, including occasions when it was perfectly clear that the friendly "if you had told me" was probably a lie. Again, there's a good chance you've used that one, too - the blogster has, for whatever good or bad reason.

Let's assume a project is well defined, gets done on time, and the customer or client is happy. You even hear that your manager bragged about yet another great delivery out of his department, and he congratulates the team in the next department meeting.

And then, the counter intuitive happens:  the manager begins to show signs of hostility towards you or the team. The blogster has seen such scenarios play out, either directly affected or as an observer.

They were always about power, control, and hierarchy.

Smarter minds than the blogster have advice for dealing with serious workplace conflict, and there's always Dilbert.

The only piece of advice, the blogster feels comfortable giving anybody in this situation - subject to the caveats in The best three words of all time: I don't know - is to try and find out your manager's need for power and control as soon as you start working for him or her.

Other workplace behavior posts on this blog are much more entertaining, for example on the use of private cell phones and smart phones as a parallel infrastructure to Hide your s@&*, or about the finer points of Management by email forward. Two outright cheerful ones describe how one employee set about Getting a raise and how communication between people from different cultures can be Clueless with dictionary.


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Germany's stealthy budget surplus, the "black zero", is upsetting many

The German colloquial term for operating in the black is "schwarze Null", literally a "black zero", not considered hugely profitable but okay, often implying that the small profit is achieved under adverse circumstances.

Not widely reported outside of Germany, the federal government has managed to run a small surplus in 2014. 2015 brings a surplus, too, despite unexpected costs caused by the record influx of refugees.

The prospects and plans are very optimistic for 2016, according to the linked article in Handelsblatt and more recent news, in the view of the finance minster: "challenging but possible". Latest estimates forecast a smaller surplus than originally expected for 2916 but the government still believes to be able to cover the billions of euros for the refugee crisis out of the surplus.

Due to record tax revenues and cuts and savings ranging from "necessary" to "vicious", the Berlin government is proud.

Of course, no new debt does not mean that overall debt decreases - you understand if you have ever done minimum payments on your credit card.
At the state level, new debt is still being made, with only seven out of the sixteen states announcing that they will not borrow fresh cash in 2015.
Taxes at the state and local levels, mostly a generic "business tax" and real estate purchase (stamp duty) have continued to rise despite any "no tax hikes" pledges.

Some of the surplus revenue will go to raising the threshold of income tax free income (basic taxation threshold), some will go into raising the basic child allowance, but most of the surplus was "just sitting there" - at least as far as the general public could tell.

Running a surplus was not enough for some. As we wrote in Let no good crisis go to waste: the German refugee influx version, Pavlovian calls for tax hikes were voiced the very moment it became clear that government would need to make additional funds available to deal with the refugees.

The combination of those two facts - a surplus, yet a call for higher taxes - have upset all those who feel ignored by their elected representatives, further fueling support for the anti-immigrant movement PEGIDA and the populist right party AfD.

Statements like "why does a German who worked for 30 years get the same benefits as a refugee" were an easily refuted exaggeration until Germany's brutal HARTZ-IV means tested benefits regime was introduced about a decade ago.

Today, the difference between the benefits for refugees and the proverbial German veteran worker are small enough to worry some politicians. Instead of increasing support to Germany's poor, however, they called for reducing the benefits for refugees.

Expect more support for the populist right over real or perceived benefits.

[Update] Added "Taxes at the state and local levels..."

[Update 11/13/2015]  Germany's federal government just finalized the formal draft of the upcoming budget. As reported earlier, it projects a surplus for 2016 despite billions of additional spending on the refugee crisis. Some of the "smaller" expenditures in 2016 to 2018 budget show there is room for generosity, for example an extra 78 million Euros for farmers, and an increase of "cultural affairs" spending of 120 million.

[Update 1/13/2016] The official figures for the German federal government for 2015 are out: a surplus of 12 billion Euros, according to FAZ.

[Update 1/16/2016] Recent increased popularity of this post prompted us to add a link to Let no good crisis go to waste: the German refugee influx version for an overview of demands for more revenue.

[Update 7/2/2016] The federal spending figures for 2017 are out. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung headlines the news with "More money for social expenditures and refugees, but the black zero remains". The Labor and Social Services Ministry budget is set to increase by 6.7%, with the major chunk of that money going to basic benefits for refugees and various integration measures, including "1 Euro jobs". While this is this the biggest increase in absolute terms, about 9 billion Euros, it is not in relative terms. Defense spending will go up by 7%, and Science and Education by 7.1%.




Saturday, November 7, 2015

Refugees in Germany: "existing rules" vs. "civic engagement"

Form our No good deeds goes unpunished series.

Earlier this year, there were newspaper reports about the obstacles unaccompanied minors faced as they want to play soccer in local clubs.

Soccer federation rules were simple: minors can play if parents or legal guardians sign the application forms. Unaccompanied child refugees don't have parents, so for this group 'legal guardians' needed to sign. After some tussles between child protective services (CPS), which function as legal guardian, and the soccer federation, the federation decided to accept CPS' signature, the issue was resolved and the kids got to play.

Right now, some soccer clubs report a new kind of problem: threats to revoke their non-profit status because of refugees. Some internal revenue offices have sent nastygrams to clubs when they discovered clubs waived membership fees and let refugees play for free.

Hailing from the land of volunteerism and sliding scale payments, this sounds like a perfectly odd and comically German thing.

Unfortunately, we do not have a copy of such a letter to look at the bureaucratic justification.
Clubs generally have a wide variety of membership classes and fee schedules. Membership for kids always costs less than for adults, pensioners typically get a discount, and you can often be a "supporting member" without having to compete, play soccer, or be an active firefighter, to name just a few.

In the current refugee crisis, sports clubs and other associations have also collected and donated clothing and food or donated money to charities that run shelters and offer services.

To us, as well as the clubs who are being threatened by the tax man, letting refugees play for free is simply another version of support.

In a way, this bureaucratic intervention is perceived by sports associations as adding insult to injury because over 1000 gyms have been sequestered by the state to serve as temporary shelters for refugees. Another 500 or so may be taken over for this purpose by the end of the year, according to this article.

At the same time as the state tax agencies threaten clubs, those very same states have increased subsidies to the very same sports clubs to help offset costs clubs incur due to the loss of gyms, such as costs for transportation to other gyms for practice and competitions.

This issue, a small one out of many related to the crisis, will likely find a solution, but the German tax agency tends to be very stubborn. Acknowledging a mistake or an overreach is not something they do often.


Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The German national employment agency job listing database could use some TLC

With around 100 000 full time employees and a budget of just shy of 34 billion Euros in 2015, the German national employment agency (Bundesagentur für Arbeit) is a big agency. It is responsible for matching jobseekers and employers and performs related tasks, including handling unemployment claims as well as training for the long term unemployed.

And it runs a job exchange website, Germany's largest, proudly listing the number of registered job seekers every time you visit. Today, there are some 2.9 million registered jobseekers and over 1 million open jobs, for a total nation wide active workforce of some 42 million.

There is one positive thing to be said about the site. You can change the user interface language from German to English, French, Spanish, Italian, Turkish and Russian.

But that's it.

There should be a disclaimer on the website warning No user interface designer has been harmed or involved in the making of this site.

Changing the language is already a 2 step affair. You select the desired language with a dropdown, then you have to click the button Ändern right next to the dropdown.

So, unless you understand the label "Sprache", figure out the dropdown can help and then hit Ändern hoping to get it right, it is not too nice.

The blogster doesn't want to sound too cynical, but a statement like Job vacancy just a few clicks away is traditionally not a good sign for usability. The statement indicates that the developer of the site felt it necessary to encourage the user in the face of coming complexity.

Right on. So, we see (/ added for clarity)

Job vacancy just a few clicks away

Looking for    Jobs / Change to apprenticeships / Change to jobs for artists
Job location   Germany / Change

While we can give "Jobs" and "Change to apprenticeships" the benefit of the doubt, "Change to jobs for artists" is nonsensical by any standard.

Job Location Germany / Change is equally misleading because clicking on Change will not give you jobs in another country. It brings up a list of the German states.

Let's say you stay on the national level and are looking for a job in the metal working/auto industry. This currently has over 150 000 open jobs listed.

So, yes, Job vacancy just a few clicks away....

The alternative form based search comes in basic and advanced. Both look like forms that are generated from database views via SQL or PS/SQL scripting (as opposed to a form designed as a user interface and then populated via database queries). 

Instead of splitting hairs, let's split search results
The first screenshot shows 200 search results (left) and a setting of "10" per page. We moved to page 10 of 20.

Let's say you change your mind and want 20 results per page. Click on "20", and you get this screenshot.


Note what happens? You are thrown back to the being of the results, page 1 of 10.
Calling this sloppy is the most charitable term we could find.

But hey, you want a job, so you want to set up a profile and get to work. To find how, you click "Help". You get this:


The first thing to notice is there is no "Search" function for the Help. That's pretty pathetic.

But, well, you read on and eventually end up at the blue highlighted part that tells you that you will get a PIN in the post after you have labored through entering all your information.

By post, snail mail. We tried, and it took 2 weeks.

To be fair, you can apply to individual job listings without setting up a profile but if you receive no unemployment benefits, potential employers have no way of seeing your profile.

No, the blogster won't be lenient on this because the postal feature can cost jobseekers money, and the employment agency in question is that of the fourth largest economy on the planet.

No, don't say this is "big data" and therefore difficult. It is not.


The funeral of a prince - how some German nobles hang on and others don't

Over the years, we have noted some oddities about modern day Germany and the group of folks called "nobility".

Noble titles and privileges don't exist in today's Germany, but you see articles and magazines with what looks just like titles and names in 19th century print. In several pieces about a former minister of defense, the old title "Freiherr" (Baron) was liberally used on its own to refer to the gentleman. In much the same way as we talk about "the minister" or "the CEO" once we have introduced the person at the beginning of a piece. Or like "the Doctor" in the long running British TV series refreshingly far removed from any hospital or ER.

As it turns out, when Germany abolished nobility in the wake of World War I, the ladies and gentlemen were allowed to keep their then titles as part of their new civic names. Today, some of them never use this often long part of the family name, others cling tenaciously to it.

Until a couple of decades ago, maybe even today, some big German companies had a few "reserved" jobs, positions you'd get if you had the name. No, we have no documentation for this claim - the information came from an occupant of such a position. There is a chance, however small, that the gentleman was simply making this up in order to have some private fun with the inquisitive foreigner who asked.

Other non-users of the title cum name include a reporter. The reporter comes with a great story. One day, she invited her colleagues from the newsroom for dinner to celebrate her birthday. They all came and enjoyed home cooked spaghetti a la bolognese with a couple of glasses of wine or a beer.
Towards the end of the night, the young lady steered the conversation to a topic they had hotly debated at work a short time earlier. It was about claim that some old people in Germany resorted to having cat food or dog food as their only kind of meat because they were too poor to afford the real thing. There were, indeed, in wealthy Germany, old folks, mostly women, who had very small pensions or none at all, and the current "basic minimum living allowance" was still a decade or more in the future.
Abject poverty existed, as did the claim of people eating cat food.
At the birthday bash, probably fueled by the alcohol, she eventually found herself out argued once again by a simple claim: you can't make this stuff edible.
So she took her friends and coworkers into the kitchen and showed them freshly opened cans of cat food.
She had no cat.
One of the "impossible" camp dashed to the bathroom. He didn't take much food home in his digestive tract that night.
The story is true. It appears in this post as an example of former German nobles with a social conscience and a sense of humor.

The non-users of derelict name titles may or may not be in the majority, they certainly are everywhere, hogging headlines and making up the content of "women's magazines" for an audience of middle aged and up.

But the true blue descendants strive to have an honorable place in society. That's what the article in the conservative mainstream daily Frankfurter Allgemeine reflects. The paper has a great number of bylines with the three letter particle "von", the smallest common denominator of German nobles. So, they may be a bit biased, but who isn't? There is/was high nobility and low nobility, if you know what I mean, so not all nobles were alike either.

Articles about funerals tend to be rather smooth, but the piece demonstrates the "old values". The deceased is introduced a son of the last German nobleman who "held governmental responsibility". That's such a gorgeous phrase, "held governmental responsibility", isn't it. It has none of bad taste taste of simply being born into a family that passed down power over generations no matter what those their ruled over said or did.

Instead, it encapsulates the rarefied air of responsibility. The article dwells on that last responsible member of the house and its history so much that the eulogy for the man in the "simple casket wrapped in the flag of the house" feels a sideline at times.

The statements "He regarded humility as his greatest duty. He found glamor and the rainbow press despicable" show us non nobles that we have it all wrong when we sneer at the current set of close relatives of the House.

In fact, there is enough in the article to substantiate the claims. While the three sons out of the first marriage of the last governing nobleman took wholeheartedly to the Nazis, the deceased kept his distance. He became a soldier but refused to become an officer, despite, as the article explains for just a bit too long, having had a long list of officers and generals to look back upon.
But it was a step the deceased undertook when the reconstituted West German military was fed with recruit from the draft that very much stands out: he became one of the very first conscientious objectors in West Germany.

In 1950s Germany, that meant you were considered a traitor by many. Some men went to prison for refusing to serve in the new military. Unfortunately, the article is silent about the consequences of his action.

So, the descendants of German nobility really are just people like everybody else. Except when the past is held up as better than today.

Ending this on a light note, you very likely have not heard of the weirdest conspiracy theory ever about Germany's nobility. Neither had we until June 2014, when we felt we just had to write about it in The weirdest German Kaiser conspiracy theory ever.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Bread and Games: European Union still supports bullfighting

Animal rights activists are celebrating a vote by the EU parliament demanding an end to subsidies for farmers raising bulls for fighting. This does not mean the flow of cash will stop. The vote is only the first, though very important step.

How much money are we talking about? PETA says upwards of 100 million Euros a year. The blogster would bet that some cash out of other EU funds also goes to support bullfighting, probably some cultural support funds, but that's between you and me.

Traditionalists don't like the idea, and some even point out that bullfighting bulls lead better lives than animals turned into meat. It is the old claim they respect the bulls, that the bulls live better than other cattle, and that bullfighting is a grand tradition; a form of art important to their culture.
Which so misses the point that we wanted to mention the argument.

As to culture, the K-Landnews TheEditor has a poignant definition of culture: It's any old crap that has been around long enough. Any crap that has not been around long enough is just crap.

Which puts TheEditor squarely against the likes of Heminway, who is quoted as having said "Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter's honour."

The response of TheEditor when challenged was: There is no honor in butchering an animal blinded by pain. And as much as I like Hem, he had a penchant for the kind of romanticism that eventually killed him.

You be the judge.

If you have never been to a bullfight, let's make that Euro-centric and a Spainish style corrida, and wonder if you should see one: don't, unless you study anthropology with a specialization in human craziness.

There are two very different kinds of bullfighting, the handful of major annual events, carefully crafted and staged. The sand in the arena is manicured to a degree of perfection otherwise only found in Japanese rick gardens. The stands are maintained in their meticulous and ornate state, the ritual is as polished as an American State of the Union address but with PA systems. It's were the celebrated matadors perform.

Then there is the other kind, which makes up almost all corridas. It comes with mobile, erector set stands that are a health hazard to the audience. The arena is whatever dirt is there year round, the matadors are lazy overweight middle aged guys who can't do any real job.

While the first kind of event may not make you vomit, chances are that the second kind may do the trick if you are a little sensitive.

What's more, there are slightly less obnoxious forms of entertainment with bulls, some where the score is more even and the animals live. In the European bullfighting countries, you have bull runs, the most famous of which is in Pamplona, Spain.
But even small towns have their bull runs. Unlike the corridas, bull runs are very similar without regard to the size of the town.

People do get hurt, but that's one them. If you want to experience the thrill of climbing up onto the top of a barricade or up a lamp post, why not. It is actually fun to try it in your younger days.

Then there is the rodeo. The bulls get to live, and there is hardly any danger to the audience.

If you are curious about bullriding at a rodeo, talk to caretakers or owners, and you may be pleasantly surprised to hear that the average Hollywood image is not the true story.
Many a rodeo bull will get to the point when it doesn't want to shake off pesky humans any more because the bull has learned that it wins all the time.

Handlers may also tell you that some of the bullriding bulls are as sweet as can be in everyday life and put on their game face only when put into the chute. Like any other reasonable mammal, maybe excluding humans, rodeo bulls learn that they have a job, and they are intelligent enough to know when they are at work and when they are not.

Let's end the post with a final remark on 'honor'. There is no honor in strutting around on a patch on encircled sand in a costume that makes a peacock look all mousy.

If you are searching for a way to express honor, there are plenty of opportunities that do not involve destroying life. Look around you, and you will find them. 

German public discourse reloaded: on Pegidiots, a Nazi named Gobbels & a Commie named von Schnitzler

German public discourse has been getting a lot shriller over the course of the year as the unprecedented influx of refugees into Europe and, in particular, Germany brought out the best - lots of helping hands by citizens - and some of the worst - several attacks on shelters per week, calls for a border fence, and more.

German officialdom was very reluctant to focus on the country's extreme right, as we discussed in the June 2015 post German officials and extremism: always mention right and left together.

The recent stabbing of a mayoral candidate and one other person in the million strong city of Cologne marked another low. The candidate was released after two weeks and is undergoing rehab before taking over the office of mayor, because she did win the election.

Much of the current debate on the rise of the right deals with the self-proclaimed anti-islamization movement Pegida. The one year old loose organization's regular Monday night demonstrations in the city of Dresden draw several thousand. prompt counter demonstrations and feature speeches with hateful content.

While Pegida is a xenophobic movement, they happily embrace equally minded immigrants, such as Turkish born German author Akif Pirinçci, who voiced regret at a demonstration two weeks ago that "concentration camps are currently closed".

He is being investigated for hate speech because of this statement.

The latest Nazi reference at the 2 November event came from the co-organizer Bachmann and caused instant outrage in the press and on social media.

The headlines were minor variants of "Bachmann compares Justice Minister Maas to Goebbels", or "Maas compared to Nazi Goebbels". Members of Mr. Maas' social democratic party mounted a vigorous defense, calling for hate speech prosecution, condemning demonstrators as "PEGIDIOTS", despicable arsonists, and more.

It looked pretty clear cut until we read some articles and found the quote from the speech calling Mr. Maas "einer der schlimmsten geistigen Brandstifter seit Goebbels und Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler". Our translation: one of the worst intellectual arsonists since Goebbels and Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler.

You know Gobbels but von Schnitzler, with that aristocratic sounding "von" to boot? Schnitzler was fired from his broadcasting job in the West German city of Hamburg in 1947 and moved to the Soviet occupied East Germany where he joined its broadcaster. As host of Der Schwarze Kanal, which ran for 20 minutes every Monday night, Schnitzler edited together extracts of Western television footage and recorded caustic, virulently anti-Western commentary over it.

History tells us that Goebbels qualifies as a much bigger villain, so the upset about mentioning him and not von Schnitzler in the headlines is understandable.

As a component of the address, though, bringing the two propagandists into a single sentence is a textbook example of discourse, hilarious and scary at the same time.

For now, Mr. Mass has proven the greater man by not filing a hate speech complaint. If you ask the blogster, there's probably going to be more than one future occasion for a complaint.

The social democrats have a much easier time drawing very clear boundaries with Pegida than the conservatives. No matter how you slice and dice it, it can be difficult to figure out who is who on the right.

If two local politicians call their naturalized priest "our negro", and you are not told what party or organization the politicians belong to, what's your guess?

That's how two local CSU politicians in Bavaria came to hand in their resignation.

Finally, at least German conservatives would be well advised to keep the amount of noise over any Goebbels reference limited. After all, it was CDU Chancellor Kohl who pulled a Goebbels comparison versus then Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev in 1986. There is no need for a debate on any evil empire notion here.

[Update] Changed "a negro" to the officially quoted "our negro". Added Kohl L.A. Times link, though Newsweek is the original source.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Live in Germany? The authorities insist on registering your address

To phrase it nicely, the German authorities really want to know where people live so they can issue a national ID, send you all kinds of official post, and sell your address to address brokers.

If you feel like browsing the text of the newly changed law in all its German glory, click here.

With very few and narrowly defined exceptions, every individual in this country is required to go to town hall when he or she moves out of a residence and into a new home. If you have more than one place of residence, they want to know that, too.

The latest version came into effect on 1 November 2015 with two important changes detailed further down.

Various regions or localities in Germany had some form of registration of residents well before the 1930s, but it was the Nazis who set up a complete nationwide system in January 1938 when they consolidated state systems under a single country wide system.

Returned to the states in West Germany, registration at town hall/city hall has been around ever since. In 2006, registration authority was once again transferred to the national level, aka. the federal government. As of 2015, you still have to show up in person to register or tell them you move.

For reasons only known to the bureaucrats who administer the system, you can only "unregister" at your current place of residence within a week before you move out. At your new location, you then have two weeks to register. If you miss the two week deadline, you can be fined. It's the German way. But if you are nice and only miss the deadline by a few days, you may get away with a stern talking to. Don't bet on it, though.

Of the many changes effective since 1 November, there really is only one that needs attention and causes more work for renters.

Landlord certification
If you rent an apartment, a house, or a room, you need the landlord to certify your status as a renter as follows: Name of the landlord, type of move (in our out) with the effective date, address of the residence, names of all persons moving in or out.

There is no specific provision for home owners, only a generic statement that "the person to be registered provides any and all requested documentation".

Address brokers/sellers
When foreigners think of Germans and data, they tend to think "strong data protection".
Wrong.
Before the recent changes, there was hardly any limit on address brokers and others for buying your address data and selling it to the highest bidder. The new regulation allows you to veto the sale for advertising purposes. And only for that.

It is an opt-out provision, so have fun.

Other details
Under the new provisions, law enforcement, intelligence agencies, courts, and pretty much any government agency that wants the data get 24/7 automated query permission.

And just to make sure landlords comply with their obligations, authorities can ask them at any time to provide data on residents of their properties.

A specific provision in the law also allows "public broadcasters" unrestricted access to the data at any time to ensure nobody escapes their civic duty of paying the "broadcasting fee".

Reduction and simplification of bureaucracy
Note that the added effort for renters is unlikely to be seen as a contradiction to oft stated efforts to reduce bureaucracy in Germany.

Take the optimistic point of view: Getting your landlord to sign or fill out one additional paper is surely offset by the super efficient 24/7 exchange of data between government agencies.

The world may be getting flatter for Germans: 3D cubes test results down

Note: Since money is tight, we apologize for not shelling out $ 36.95 for the purchase of the study A reversal of the Flynn effect for spatial perception in German-speaking countries: Evidence from a cross-temporal IRT-based meta-analysis (1977–2014).

The abstract will do just fine for us. 

What is a spatial perception test? It involves 3D patterns and cubes, like the examples on this website. If you correctly match a flat pattern to a cube, or if you can identify a hidden symbol by looking at 3 representations of a cube, you are smart.

The "Flynn effect" says that the IQ of people tends to increase over the generations. There are several proposed explanations for this, including schooling, a more stimulating environment, nutrition, infectious diseases, less inbreeding.

The study on the spatial perception of Germans, though, claims we show an inverse u-shaped trajectory of IQ test performance changes in a large number of samples (k = 96; N = 13,172) on a well-known test for spatial perception (the three-dimensional cubes test, 3DC) in German-speaking countries over 38 years (1977–2014).

This sounds rather worrying, doesn't it? The good thing is, you don't need a 3D ability to visualize an "inverse U" - 2D is completely sufficient. Flip that U upside down, and you understand what the study says: Spatial reasoning of Germans went up, and then down.

The abstract of the study says: Our result suggest saturation and diminishing returns of IQ increasing factors (e.g., life history speed), which advocates of any "slow movement" may find very convincing. In addition, it says negative associations of IQ changes with psychometric g may have led to the observed IQ score decrease in more recent years.

The "g" in psychometric g is short for "general factor" (thanks Wikipedia), a general ability factor, which [Spearman] labeled g, and a large number of narrow task-specific ability factors. Also, critics say that emphasis on g is misplaced and entails a devaluation of other important abilities.

While the blogster has not followed test changes and modifications of metrics for quite some time, the critics seem to have a point which could have been discovered by MISPWOSO, the University of Maximegalon Institute of Slowly and Painfully Working Out the Surprisingly Obvious.

Should we be worried about Germans potentially experiencing the world flatter than it may really be? This biased blogster would say, only as far as the works of philosopher Heidegger go and in relation to the legal concept of the state as a transcending entity.

Who knows, they might return to an upwards trajectory of spatial perception ability once 3D virtual reality become cheap and pervasive. 

The blogster will avoid any 3D cubes test until artificial intelligence the size of, say, a Halloween chocolate eyeball can be unobtrusively used to ace the test.

Another simple way to train spatial perception might be to meet your friends in person more often instead of being satisfied with miniature 2D versions on social media. 




Sunday, November 1, 2015

Polls put German party AfD at 8% -- where do "right wing" votes from from

Germany's "new" right party AfD has seen ups and downs during its short history. Founded in 2013, they were ignored by existing parties as best as possible until they managed to get into three state parliaments and got 7.1% of the vote in the 2014 European Parliament elections.
After leadership upheaval in 2015 resulted in several founders leaving, the nice branding of the party as "center right" has undergone a change to "right" or even "extreme right", especially in the wake of an address of one leading member at the one year anniversary of the "anti muslimization" movement PEGIDA.

For this post, the finer - or rather not so fine - points of these organizations on the right are not of interest. For example, how many refugees should be allowed into Germany under what specific conditions is less important when the debate itself is on a firm xenophobic foundation.

In this post, we are interested in the explanations given by politicians and the most influential media when previously marginal right wing parties make gains or new actors pop up and acquire enough votes to be taken seriously.

While "center-left" and "left" went for the language of exclusion pretty quickly (riff-raff being the most famous quip), the "center-right" took on some of the catch phrases, especially that of "worried citizens". Only when they perceived AfD and PEGIDA as too closely allied, and with increasing arson attacks on refugee shelters, did they become more exclusionary.

A few standard stereotypes prevail in describing the rise of the "right". They are also used in the nowadays rare case when a substantially "left" movement gains steam, such as in Greece or Spain.

Disenchantment with the parties in power, the uneducated marginalized poor and incorrigibles make up the trio of prevalent arguments in everyday reporting. While experts try to examine the phenomenon in more detail, the dominant media outlets are generally happy to stick with the easy answers until election time.

Only in the aftermath of elections, or in historical studies, is a wider public given some better answers. When journalists report on the movement of voters from and to parties in an election, some trends appear. In the context of substantial gains on the right in recent German elections, a pattern described in Der Spiegel for a state election in Saxony in 2014 takes shape. The AfD gained a lot of votes (about 33 K) from the center-right CDU, and sizable numbers from the free market FDP (18K) and the Linke left (15K). A lot fewer came from the social democrats (about 8K) and the greens (3K).
"Disenchantment with the parties in power" is an easy label for this but does not really hold up. A detailed, if limited to one big city, study of AfD success in the city of Essen, where it reached 6.1%, did not support the disenchantment argument.

What about the poor?
The truly marginalized poor, i.e. those on the bare bones means tested long term assistance scheme Hartz IV did in fact show a preference for the AfD. The greater the proportion of Harz IV recipients, the better AfD did.
Unemployment did - surprise - not drive voters to the AfD, quite the opposite, in areas of higher unemployment, the party fared worse. In the full time but very low wage community, the AfD did again somewhat better.

The author of the study highlights a very narrow spread of votes across all 50 polling districts, a low of 4.4% and high of 8% for the right wing party in contrast with all others, such as FDP (low 1,1 high 11.6).

In socio-economic terms, this indicates that people in wealthy districts voted right-wing in a very similar pattern, though maybe not for the exact same reasons, as folks in poorer districts.

Germany's historically "most successful" and most thoroughly studied right-wing party, the Nazi NSDAP, has been described by researchers as a "people's party with a middle class bulge". German society has changed quite a bit since then, but maybe someone is willing to check if the democratic diet has eliminated the middle class bulge.


Thursday, October 29, 2015

"Learn German virtues" - xenophobia just went mainstream

Note: This post is biased from at least two points of view. The author leans heavily towards an emphasis on - presumably - universal human values. The second bias stems from having lived and worked in several countries on one's own steam.

At issue is an OpEd in Frankfurter Allgemeine, in which the author says that concepts condemned as "right leaning" only yesterday are now firmly part of Germany's "Culture of Welcome", in particular learning how to be German, which means not only learning the language but also German virtues.

It is an OpEd, or as they call it around here, a commentary, so what's the big deal about a statement the blogster does not agree with?

This is where the two biases come in.

Some time ago, there was another wave of "learn the German language" pieces in the media, which was kicked off by the intention of the Bavarian conservative party CSU to include a demand that foreigners not only learn German as mandated by law but also speak German at home.

Part of the problem with the mandate and the planned but dropped call to speak German at home is - very ironically - one of the German virtues: being conscientious and execution oriented.
A legal mandate to learn the prevailing local language has been part of the fashion trend in immigration law for a while. In the case of Germany, the virtue of 'sticking with a decision' (the execution part) has become a problem for thousands of non-EU foreigners who apply for a long term visa: you need to produce a certificate. No certificate - no visa.
Exceptions apply to countries of the closer set of Western cultures.

There is not a single refugee coming to Germany who wakes up in the morning saying" I am so happy I don't speak German.

We jumped into "German virtues" without a definition, so let's try to find one. What virtues are we talking about?

This piece from the Huffington Post claims to list 11, but some are synonyms, and they have really three, which they call "successes and virtues": stability, conscientiousness, and Gemütlichkeit.
A further three of the list are worth mentioning: free public education and a socially responsible free market system, the ability to compromise.

Stability
West Germany enjoyed stability since the 1950s. East Germany had its own less well defined stability (after all the needed a wall to keep people in) for some 40 years and went away. The past 25 years of the "re-united" Germany have been pretty stable.


Conscientiousness
In the eye of the beholder. They do execute pretty well, even if the subject or object of the execution is bad.

Gemütlichkeit
We will not even go near this, because a hard to translate word overlaid with some Alpine lederhosen antics is not a German virtue. Gemütlichkeit really means being cozy, comfortable and relaxed. All mammals can do this, even the smaller, more vulnerable ones who are more frequently on high predator alert.

Free public education
Success or virtue, or a bit of both? Germany still has decent system but it has been under attack for decades and faces mounting budget pressure. So, get it while it is still free.
And Germany is not the only country that has such a system.

Socially responsible free market system
Germans brought the world the first modern social security system. That is as big an achievement as it gets. But the country also has the greatest wealth disparity in Europe and the system has seen serious cutbacks. Somewhat simplified, the current German system is a little bit better than "the best from the more progressive U.S. states plus an improved version of Obamacare".

Ability to compromise
The blogster's understanding of compromise may be - again - biased towards a "win-win" type of conflict resolution. Based on this, Germans do not show a remarkable ability to compromise.
They do negotiate and come to solutions, but the relative calm which the media like to highlight as "ability to compromise" is very misleading. Representatives of big organized groups are very good at making back room deals.

So, in any modern society, there are good things and bad things.

Elevating some to "virtues" is at least good PR.

But asking foreigners to acquire any such virtues is condescending at best and really f***ing racist when you express the demand in a less charitable way.

It implies people show up in your society less are than desirable or Imperfect beings that need to be put though some sort of human equivalent of "doggie school" in order to be acceptable.

And that is not acceptable.

No floor plan? There's an app for that: MagicPlan

In a rural area like ours, the floor plans and construction drawings of many houses  have not survived two world wars and the various smaller disasters, like fire or flooding, or inexplicable bureaucratic mishaps. The floor plans of our house, for example, disappeared in 1938 when they were transferred from the county to the regional planning authority.

So, we measured with tape measure, but shouldn't there be an app for that?

If you work with building interiors as a builder, interior designer or in any capacity that entails work with floor plans, the blogster has a favorite app, MagicPlan.
It allows you to make floor plans for individual rooms or complete houses by taking a series of pictures with your smartphone and letting the app to the math.

The company website lists three steps:
1) Take pictures of your room's corners.
2) Fine tune the room.
3) Repeat and assemble into a foor plan.

There are some limitations on how you work and on precision, so for high precision work in very small rooms, keep the old tape measure. Obviously, if your habitat does not have corners, you are out of luck.

Pacing around in a room while taking picture of the corners is also not an option, although they are apparently working one that.

For now, you pick a spot and stand in that same spot while grabbing the corners. Think of it as being your own surveyor's tripod. Not being allowed to move around explains the issues with rooms that have complex shapes, i.e. shapes where not all angles are visible from a single point in the room.

Of course, you can add objects or mark reference points on the plan, which is why the makers of MagicPlan have a CSI version. It certainly sounds better the image of a police officer drawing an ad hoc floor plan on a small notepad.

An unanswered question about the 'CSI' version is whether modifications are logged to show potential later tampering. But that's more for authors of detective novels to worry about than for regular builders or home improvement workers.

Another app by the maker, Sensopia, is MagicMeasure, hailed as a digital tape measure. We have not tried it out.

It does get even fancier than 2D plans with Floorplaner's 3D plans based on MagicPlan.
Wouldn't it be cool if you could feed the data to a 3D printer to produce a wall segment that needs repair?

If the apps work on very small scales, a project with a lot more immediate potential could be reproductions of antique doll houses.

Note: We have no relationship with any of these companies and are not getting paid to write about their products.