Saturday, February 28, 2015

Should Germany, Britain, China & others share computer backdoors?

The question needed to be asked.

Okay, maybe not needed, but should in light of the arguments between the US and China on the matter. Anyhow, after Britain, the US, France - we end the list out of environmental considerations*** - voiced the desire for backdoors in communications and software to fight bad guys, why not make one big backdoor and share it?

Didn't it work in the fine old days of nukes, in the nuclear bipolar world?

It was called MAD, mutually assured destruction, and it may sound mad to us younger people, but why not try it?

Every participating country would get a set amount of data sucking each year, like when they agreed on a set number of nukes.

The quota would be based on population and several other criteria. The other criteria would ostensibly be based on rational reasons, but all of us would know that they were meant to make the smaller countries feel good.

We even have a name for the set of "other" criteria. Taken together, they could be called NAPOLEON, NAtional POLicing Excellence Orifice Notion, and enable former empires and would be empires to save face in a complex and medically bipolar world. What exactly these criteria would be should be the subject of negotiation, which themselves could be backdoored, and there are many potential parameters, for example, the number of top tier terrorists a country has produced, or the movie audience numbers from Shades of Grey and its sequel. There will be one.

Distractors would rush to claim that criminals would benefit from a unified backdoor, but that position - backdoor and position really go together well, don't you think - would be wrong.

With only one way in, criminals would compete with the states, the states would just sit there, stare at the backdoor, watch the pulsating flow of bits, and nab any non-state intruder.

A single backdoor also provides plausible deniability for the populace of sensitive countries. Any government's most valued statement, No, it was was not us, would continue to be utterly believable with the new addition "it was one of the other one hundred and fifty signatories to the common backdoor protocol, really".

Voila, problem solved.

MAD.

We presented the idea to the K-Landnews TheEditor, and it** said: if they did this, I'd actually buy a smart phone.

** TheEditor insists on gender neutrality, hence the it.
*** Entropy is it.

Friday, February 27, 2015

German healthcare access getting worse [seriously]

If you are older than 20 or so, you may have this notion of Germany as a great socially advanced country.

A place where everybody has six weeks of paid vacation that come with an extra vacation bonus payment to ensure you have vacation spending money, a distinguished high-quality healthcare systems open to all for a small fee.
You know, you sprain an ankle, you get sick pay, and then your smiling physician will send you off on several weeks of paid, free rehab to get the ankle moving just right. 

It's the past, baby.

Gone.

Germany has joined the race to the bottom, and not only are there people without health coverage, their numbers are increasing without great media attention other than one yearly headline when the statistics are published.

As someone who was close to uninsured US citizens, the fact that people go without coverage is not very interesting. What is alarming, though, is that there is no network of free volunteer clinics in Germany, or most other European countries for that matter. An accident followed by a 50 000 dollar hospital bill is no longer an "only in America" feature.

It is happening right now in one of the four or five most advanced economies on the planet.

How do we know the numbers of uninsured people are up?

Listen to doctors. They will tell you if you know how to broach the subject.

With the uptick in the numbers of uninsured, healthcare fraud is up, too. Doctors report people borrowing insurance cards from family members or friends is up, too. Since January 2015, these cards have a photo of the insured person, which makes it more difficult to pull off a free visit.

In theory, Germans in need can go to their job center or EDD or to local government and enroll for social services. In practice, it is estimated that some 5 million Germans who are eligible for state assistance never apply.

Why?

Because the means testing performed in modern day Germany is done with the same sort of thoroughness and depth you have heard about in German history.

And often with the same friendliness on the part of the government employees.

An unreported German military academy cheating scandal

Nobody knows the thoughts we think.

That's our translation poeticized  of the German "Keiner weiß, wie der Landser tickt", a headline in FAZ of 2/27. The good people of FAZ put the article in the paper's Feuilleton section, which is a fancy French word for Entertainment, according to Mr. Webster.

Current students of the Hamburg Military University, one of two, the other being in Munich, got together and wrote about how aspiring officers of the German military feel, how they see the world, how they think the world sees them.

According to the article, much is said about how they feel undervalued by the "hedonist", individualistic, "laissez-faire" (French for I don't give a hoot) wider society. Afghanistan plays a huge role as the first German war after WWII. Kosovo didn't count, and Afghanistan is still not officially called a war pure and simple by the German government.

It is not easy to justify the K-Landnews TheEditor's take on the collection as "an utter waste of paper but a great larmoyant insight into a pampered, false hero sucky tome, the Sorrows of Gun-Toting Young Werther".
The rest of the staff here is more forgiving, seeing it as the obvious writing of young, idealistic soldiers trying to think big thoughts and - like the rest of us - not being very good at it. BTW, larmoyant is French for teary, or John Boehnery as we would call it in the US.

The FAZ article was the catalyst for reporting on a cheating scandal at the southern German counterpart of the Hamburg academy in Munich. According to our fully trusted source, this scandal was never reported in the media. Since our source learned of it in the late 1980s and early 1990s, either all or the vast majority of cadets are safely retired and you must regard this report as only historical.**

The cheating "scandal" was an uneventful routine thing, combination of lazy teachers re-using questions and engineering problems of mid-terms and finals. Students who sat the mid-term or the final passed the questions and correct answers and solutions on the next set of course participants.

Not all classes or professors were involved, of course.

** In case someone feels offended, please email the K-Landnews using the public encryption key from the post in the blog header.  Our source talked to some of the cadets at the time in question. Thank you.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Slender Cat Lynx versus Fat Cat Hunter

Germany's northern Harz mountains national park was the location of a project in 2000 designed to re-introduce lynx into an area where the last of its kind had been killed by hunters in 1818 or so.

The web site of the lynx project (in German) details the history of the undertaking since its inception, has lots of photos of Germany's biggest wild cat and shows you how to get there. There is also an enclosed lynx habitat to bring the shy animal closer to people.

Between 2000 and 2007 a total of nine males and fifteen females were released into the wild. This table also has a +2* entry which tells the readers that two lynx escaped from the nearby municipal game park of Wernigerode to find  a new home in the national park.

The population in the somewhat isolated Harz (the isolated red dot in the middle of northern Germany on this map) is doing well.

Which upsets regional hunters.

Complaints by farmers would seem logical, but by hunters?

Hunting in Germany is very different than in the U.S. or even in neighboring France. You cannot just go buy a permit and hunt on public lands. German public as well as private lands are leased to deep pocket hunters, mostly rich individuals or companies whose CEO is a hunting aficionado and will arrange tax deductible hunting parties for clients, etc. 

The lease system comes straight from the old feudal system, most glaringly shown by the fact that farmers, the largest private owners in our hills, cannot simply hunt on their own land.

Why would wealthy hunters complain about their beloved nature?

After all, the web sites and the PR material of every single hunting association proudly states that they love nature and that hunting plays a vital role in ensuring balanced wild life populations. Isn't the Eurasian lynx part of a balance knocked out of whack by the ancestors of today's hunters?

Money.

The regional association of hunters went as far as claiming that lynx in the Harz cost hunters some 500 000 Euros in lost game revenue since 2000.

We don't have lease figures and cannot be certain about the area leased by the complaining hunters, but from figures from our very own hills, we can safely say that the 500 grand may represent at least half of the money they paid for the leases.

Since hunters complain about a lynx over population, does anyone know how much they stand to earn from lynx pelts?

Farmers get nothing of the money the municipalities take in from hunting rights leases. And hunters don't go around giving farmers game either.

Disclaimer: This post is biased towards cats. Just saying, in case you have not seen or Twitter profile picture.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Thieves in the grocery store

A while back, a German friend told the blogster about a teen being caught at the local store when he stole a buck's worth of candy, supposedly as a gift for his girlfriend.

This started a conversation about theft at grocery stores and department stores, and the friend told us a story from his school days. After school on the way home, the friend and a boy he knew from school ran into each other at the entrance of a grocery store.

I had like two dollars of pocket money burning a hole into my first ever wallet and told him I was going to buy candy. He said, I'll join you, I have some time before the bus leaves. We went in, I took a few minutes to make up my mind. Two dollars didn't get you very far. He was hanging out with me, then wandered off, and came back as I made my way to the cash register. I paid, he had nothing.
We left and continued to walk to the bus stop. After we had cleared the store and crossed the next street, he told me to stop for a second, set down his book bag, opened it and reached into his coat. It was fall or winter, he was wearing a good size winter coat. Methodically, he pulled items out of his pockets, chocolate bars, candy, even small cans of canned fruit, and transferred them into his book bag. I was stunned beyond belief. He was very proud of having stolen probably 20 bucks worth of items.

The episode came back to our minds last week when we overheard the store manager at our local grocery store talk to what was probably a district manager about theft at their branch. Produce and other goods worth 1700 Euros and change had been stolen last month.

So much for the quiet, uneventful small German town in the hills.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

German Valentine's Day article: Roses are way too cheap

Leave it to a well meaning German journalist and a complicit editor to slap readers of Zeit Online with this Valentine's Day headline:

Roses are way too cheap

The article is a rather nice interview with an author/activist about the international trade of roses. We learn, for example, that Kenya has been a major producer of roses for Europe but that competition from cheaper and less regulated neighbor Ethiopia has caused some firms to move there.

We learn that Germany's most venerated houses of roses have all production facilities outside of the country.

And we learn that the producer in Kenya or elsewhere gets some 19 cents a rose, of which less than 2 go to the workers, while a rose sells upwards of 3 Euros in German shops.

Forget the pesticides and the environmental aspects, what are we looking at? The standard explanation is: It is cheaper and more efficient to produce roses elsewhere, it's the free market at work.

This is true for many industrial products, from mobile phones to cars to power plants, but is it true for agriculture in relation to mild climate Northern countries?

Bananas, sure, Coffee, of course, tomatoes, well, for Ireland, yes, but plants that grow here like weed?

Walk around any small town in our neck of the hills, and you see more roses than you could ever want. Just not in the middle of February, so there is a climate aspect to growing roses here.

But in summer, your market roses still come from other countries. 

They surely cannot be produced more cheaply in Kenya, because I spend five minutes per bush to trim them in winter and another five minutes to spray them with tobacco tea when the mites start multiplying in Spring.

So, if growing them is cheaper in my garden, what is happening?

The old folks here in the hills still remember the big fruit trucks in summer and fall as if it had been only a few years ago. Wait, it has been only 30 or so years ago that trucks would come and leave a stack of pallets and baskets at the village co-op representative to be picked up full a week later.

The villagers would harvest plums, for example, from the orchards behind the houses, or from the fruit trees dotting meadows and pastures, take the to the collection point and be paid a few cents a pound after inspection and weighing.

In cash.

I used to make some money picking a bucket or two of cherries which the town grocery store would then sell to customers, says a German friend. When it was a bad year for cherries, the store would either buy them from a big vendor or simply have none. Of course, we did not use pesticides, so that was one worry less for the owner.

Are we saying that for some produce, the supply chain and the government are to blame for the fact that it is imported today?

To a large extent, yes.

The cost of the product is only one element of business, the management of suppliers is another, as demonstrated by the plum harvest organization and the cherries.

The government was more than happy with the development because it, too, benefited. First, the flow of money was more easily controlled, improving tax revenues. Second, regulations, like testing for pesticide residues could be expanded. 

And with a booming industrial economy, farm workers or part time farmers could be absorbed into that sector instead of becoming unemployed.

At some point, though, the situation changed. The further afield production went, the less control the government had over pesticides and taxes. When yo go from, say 1000 domestic producers to 10, it looks great. When these 10 move their production into another country with lax regulations, what do you do?

You have helped create not just a lobby by concentrating the money previously divided between 1000 producers in the hands of 10. You very likely have created a cartel because 10 people can easily fix prices over then phone, whereas 1000 need to leave a paper trail.

In Europe, you pursue EU wide standards, playing catch up and against bigger lobbying power.

You end up with some insane regulations, a grand total of five varieties of apples and supermarket chickens with a 60% contamination rate for campylobacter and other assorted nasties.

And in the meantime, you have raised a generation of children that believes fish actually grows in squares or has fingers. Without the Turkish run Kebab houses and Chinese takeout, half of modern day Germany would likely be malnourished or try to eat raw potatos.

There are very few exceptions to the modern war of the roses, one in Germany being bee keeping, which is still a small scale affair in this country.

If you feel like a new career, bee keeping in Germany might be right for you. There are generous government subsidies for bee startups.

It may be a coincidence that the web page "Legal and Insurance" on our state bee keepers association site has been displaying - in German, of course, "This page is being updated. Please come back later."

Are roses way too cheap? Everything is too cheap, if you ask the right person.

Our own roses and your own food: priceless.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The bomber pilot of Dresden

In memory of Phil, World War II Dresden raids Lancaster pilot and gentle soul.

Bath, United Kingdom, late 1970s
A young couple of German backpackers arrives at the tourist information just before closing time.
The lady at the accommodations desk helps them find a bed & breakfast within walking distance of the train station. She makes a couple of telephone calls, points to the map in front of her, "how about here?" The youngsters are happy, thank the assistant and are on their way.
Some ten minutes later, they arrive at a stern looking building on a street corner, ring the bell, and an older lay opens.

After a few minutes of chat and administrative details, as well as paying in advance for three nights, the couple get their room. A very British room, two separate beds, springs from another era, several layers of thin sheets, Paisley wall paper.

The next morning, they have breakfast and meet a Polish exile who offers to show them around town later. They agree to have dinner and a drink together that evening.

As they leave for the day, the room next door is open, a vacuum cleaner and cleaning supplies sit in the hall way beside the door. An old man, thin, grey haired, wearing an apron steps out to fetch a broom.

Good morning, he greets as he sees them.

Good morning, they reply.

At the foot of the stairs, the landlady catches them: May I bother you for a minute? See waves, and they follow her into the now empty living room.

I'm afraid, I did not catch where you are from. Are you from Australia?

We are from Germany.

Oh, dear. You see, we don't take German guests, because, well, because of the war. I worked with the military, and Phil, you met Phil upstairs, right, he was a bomber pilot. We'd understand if you wanted to leave, I'll refund the money.

Oh, sorry. We are fine with that, but if you prefer us to leave, we'll do it right away, of course.

It's more about Phil, she said. He was a Lancaster bomber pilot in the war, and he flew in the raid on Dresden. It has not been easy since.

He seems like a very nice man.

He is a darling. He was my seventh fiancee, you know. The others were all shot down and killed by, by the Germans.

How hard that must have been.

Well, we have been together ever since.

The conversation went on for quite some time afterwards. They stayed at the B&B, and when they came back in the evening, they ran into Phil, who was visibly happy to see them.

The next couple of days, they spent more time than usual talking to their B&B hosts, and they left wiser than they had arrived.

You are your metadata: When the government stores your IP address to 'make the site more useful for you'

A Dutch traveler to the U.S. recently received some additional scrutiny as reported here (in Dutch).

The media reports said this: The man had filled out his ESTA Visa Waiver application, and the system that records it had examined the IP address used and determined he was located in Jordan.

The ESTA web site, however, gives the impression that the IP address is not tracked or recorded for this purpose. See the last sentence of the subsequent privacy statement.

The ESTA website's privacy statement says this [our italics]:
When you browse, read pages or download information on The Department of Homeland Security's websites, we automatically gather and store certain technical information about your visit. This information never identifies who you are. The information we collect and store about your visit is listed below:
  • The Internet domain (for example, “xcompany.com” if you use a private Internet access account, or “yourschool.edu” if you connect from a university's domain) and IP address (an IP address is a number that is automatically assigned to your computer whenever you are surfing the Web) from which you access our website
  • The type of browser (e.g., Netscape, Internet Explorer) and operating system (Windows, Unix) used to access our site
  • The date and time you access our site
  • The pages you visit
  • If you linked to the Department of Homeland Security website from another website, the address of that website
This information is only used to help us make the site more useful for you. With this data we learn about the number of visitors to our site and the types of technology our visitors use. We never track or record information about individuals and their visits. 

There is probably a national security exception for that, too.

It does not matter what exactly went on in the case of this traveler. Nor would we dare to suggest that the web site is changed to include a question like: Hey, your current IP address is XXX.XXX.XXX, and the country is YOURCountry, If this is not correct, please enter a message below.


We are using this example only to make one point: You are your meta data.

You may have heard the snappy You are the product in the context of free internet services, be it Google mail, Facebook, Twitter, etc. 
While helpful, the You are the product quip leave out a couple of aspects. One: even if you pay for a service, your data are more often than not used to make more money.
Two: You are the product gives you a false sense of knowledge, because you know who you are. But "your" data go far beyond the generic "you".


The point is that data are created without you having any control over them. The IP address is a great example of this type of administrative data that can then be used to help define who you are.

Originally intended to be nothing but a series of numbers to allow you to connect to other computers and services on the internet, the IP address has been turned into something like an internet social security number, with sometimes expensive or surreal consequences.
As you read this, someone may be sued over alleged copyright infringement purely because an IP address is allegedly assigned to a computer used for illegal movie or audio downloads.

Yes, you "have" an IP address right now, otherwise you would not be able to read this. But using an IP address against you relies on two things:
1) At any given point in time, the IP address should uniquely identify you.
2) Your computer skills are not good enough to fake an IP address.

Item 2 is almost assured, few people have the skills and the resources to spoof an IP address.

Item 1 has been subject to legal battles for the simple reason that IP addresses change and that records of such changes are often presented as 100% reliable - which they are not. In countries like Germany, the simple legal solution for a time was an abstraction layer: the person who owned the internet connection was held liable for any abuse.

And the IP address issue is only the beginning. Think about identity theft. We are rightly worried about inexplicable charges on a credit card or cybercrimes committed with our online credentials but there are more devious doppelgaenger issues out there.

A small time whistleblower, for instance, who seems to turn into a stalker? The malicious boss who signs up a hated employee to an extremist web site, to a bunch of porn sites? You have not heard of such a story? These things tend to not make it into the news, but they exist. And there will be more in the future.

So, the internet is a lot like driving. You have no idea what really goes on under the hood, the roads are what they are, the other drivers include road raging ones, and you are likely to have an accident at some point.

Just hope it won't be a complete wreck.

And be nice to those around you, not just on Valentine's Day or on Christmas.








Friday, February 13, 2015

Meet a vegetarian pig farmer

A vegetarian pig farmer.

If your first reaction is along the lines, oh, a Portlandia type, some organic guru heavy on branding, light on running a business, don't worry.

We met the farmer at a get together, a potluck style event with the informal atmosphere typical for potlucks everywhere. Having been given a one sentence introduction on each of the guests, the farmer was described as "she's the mother of Hannah, they have a farm in" <several towns over>.

As the guests filled their plates, taking more from the promising looking dishes than others, adding large slices of roast, it became obvious that the lady farmer was one of only three or four vegetarians that night.

What made this unusual was the fact that during subsequent dinner conversation, others asked her about the farm, and we learned that she ran a commercial pig farm with a head count of about 300 pigs at any time. Given the economic pressures on farmers in a country as small and as industrialized as Germany, running a financially viable farm takes substantial skills and hard work in addition to several hundred acres of land. She had taken over the farm from her parents in the absence of a male heir after having studied to become a teacher, but you would not have guessed that when you saw her on the huge combine or in the cabin of the climate controlled tractor.

As she passed the platter of pork roast, one of the male guests teased: "still not eating your little ones?", which she acknowledged with a brief smile, indicating that the joke was old and stale.


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

[Update: Cojones found] Cologne, Germany, Charlie Hebdo carnival float pulled

A series of German reports at the end of January dealt with the decision of the Cologne carnival parade organizers to pull a Charlie Hebdo float planned in response to the terror attack in Paris in early January.

We eventually found a depiction of the float here, in Zeit online (in German, use your favorite online translator as needed).

While the pros and cons are mildly interesting, we figured a short post about the little known "political carnival" tradition in Germany to be of greater benefit.

If your image of carnival is like that of the vast majority of people, carnival will evoke:
1.  Scantily clad Samba dancing South American ladies in fancy costumes, the Rio carnival.
2.  New Orleans Mardi Gras. Similar to 1 in many respects, but also with guys in fancy costumes. Or the chicken runs.
3. Maybe the Swiss and Southern German style carnival.
4. Even maybe-er, the version you get to see along, roughly, the Mainz to Cologne stretch of the Rhine river.

The fourth version has had a political aspect for centuries, starting with a somewhat feminist looking takeover of local town and city halls by masked, costumed - and eventually inebriated - women, mostly ladies of a certain age.

This quasi-revolutionary event on the Thursday before Mardi Gras would probably considered to be a law enforcement nightmare in many countries. Not only because of masked ladies but also because they carry weapons: scissors.

Male office workers line up calmly in the face of female superiority to have their ties cut off.

Snip goes the appendage of the male office worker.

Yes, even men who never wear ties to work will find an old tie to put on for the sole purpose of symbolic snipping a few hours later.

No, the idea has been around since long before there was Ties4Ever or Ties Inc. or some tie marketing association.

But there is worse than drunk women with scissors: blackface.

The anti-authority aspect supposedly began as a ploy by revelers to male fun of the feudal lords and Catholic church pomp under the guise of driving out the bad winter ghosts. Obviously, even the dumbest feudal lords knew it was a ruse, but they went with it, knowing the remainder of the year was going to be just fine.

Political jabs during carnival tend to be rather good natured. Since local dignitaries are invariably given saucer size carnival medals (mad in China), you could even use the terms deferential to describe the relationship of organized carnival and organized politics.

A good example of a "political float" is this 2012 Mainz parade float themed Standard & Poor's taking aim at the Euro, depicting two slingshot wielding kids having a go at the Euro symbol. The symbol on the float is a miniature version of the official one in the Frankfurt, Germany, banking quarter.

The float is representative of the "political issues" carnival organizers take on: generic, easy issues without much controversy, really.

Cologne having pulled the Charlie Hebdo float did, of course, make German opEders ask if this signals the "end of the political carnival tradition".

It won't, because that tradition, apart from the scissor wielding women, has always been no more than a token gesture.

[Update Feb. 26] Surprise. The Cologne parade organizing committee "snuck" a Charlie Hebdo themed float into today's parade. Now, for anyone familiar with the organization of such a parade, "sneaking in" is not how things are done. There are multiple layers of approval. If the organizers or the police won't get you, the technical inspection folks will.

Still, Kudos.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

German 4 Dummies: Informationsgesellschaft

Today's German word is a compound of Information (information, knowledge) and Gesellschaft (society).

The reason why we write about this term is a certain ambiguity, which we nefariously call a serious lack of information or knowledge about its meaning.

On the face of it, what could be more correct than translating Informationsgesellschaft as information society and knowldege society as Wissensgesellschaft? What's more, that is exactly what you find in the vast majority of German to English dictionaries.

Yet, when you look at usage of the terms in their respective native language environments, you will find the Germans using Informationsgesellschaft where the English speaking world uses knowledge society.

Why is this a problem?

Because sociology and philosophy majors as well as derived politicians insist that there is a difference in English between knowledge society and information society, the latter being not much more than a society focused on the acquisition and dissemination of data, the former being one that generates, processes, shares and makes available knowledge.

You can find this differentiation of terms in the German Wikipedia, too.

Specialist German publications, for example, Gabler's German dictionary of economics, emphasize the dominance of "information and communication services" over "traditional industrial production". You can consider this as blurring the neat lines between knowledge society and information society or as a pretty good match with this United Nations definition "Knowledge Societies are identified as societies based on the creation, dissemination and utilization of information and knowledge."

The same source says:
Knowledge Society or Information
Society?

Information Society emphasizes amount of information available and accessible.
It emphasizes technology (ICT).



The issue does not get any easier because, as you noticed, the knowledge society definition includes
information and knowledge. And to top it off, haven't all human societies throughout history been based on the creation, dissemination and utilization of information and knowledge?

Let philosophers debate the most def crucial differences between information and knowledge, we will stick with the meaning of the terms as they evolved. 

That evolution pre-dates the wide spread use of computers, which the Germans tend to put into the category of "Informationstechnologie" while the English speaking world goes with computer science

So, blame it on those early days when smart people woke up one morning and said, we need to find a term to describe the vast increase in human knowledge and its implications for mankind, what shall we call this?

Knowledge society, spoke the folks of the language of Shakespeare.

Informationsgesellschaft, said the Germans.

Matter does it not, Yoda said.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The odd resignation of an intelligence friendly German politician

In the wake of the Snowden revelations about the American NSA and various European intelligence agencies, the German federal parliament set up an investigative committee in 2014. Called NSA Investigative Committee, much of its work deals with the cooperation of the German foreign intelligence agency BND with the NSA.

While the German government has been less than helpful, the committee has done some interesting work, even though the super majority of the conservative CDU/CSU and the social democrat SPD meant expectations were fairly low.

After what seemed like an endless row over getting Mr. Snowden to testify (the result: no), a somewhat normal routine set in, characterized by lots of redacted documents, many sessions closed to the public, some leaks, and some bickering.

Early this year, the head of the CDU group in the committee, Mr. Kiesewetter, suddenly announced his resignation, citing too much other high priority work.

The media hardly blinked, mentioning only that he had been very friendly to the intelligence community, not soft balling questions, but always supportive.

Warrantless mass surveillance?

Does not exist.

Protection of Germans caught in the BND dragnet?

Look, how much of a great effort the BND is making in this area.

This past weekend, however, the shoe dropped. The gentleman, a former colonel and current head of the German Military Reserves Association, went on the record to say that "activities" of the BND within the reserves association might have been seen as a conflict of interest and resulted in damage to his credibility as a committee member.

The BND chief reacted quickly, saying that "contacts" with some members of the reserve association pre-dated the investigative committee and had nothing to do with intelligence gathering.

The BND is prohibited by law to spy in Germany, although such cases have been discovered in the past. The most recent high profile case was spying on journalists who reported on German involvement in Afghanistan.

Unsurprisingly, most of the German media simply printed the statement of the soon ex member of the committee side by side with the BND explanation.

The obvious question, however, is: Why did one or more of the fellow reservists come out and tell the head of the association and high ranking committee member of BND contacts at the point in time that they did?

The German press seems as yet to be unwilling or unable to pose the question and even further from digging for an answer.

The most likely answer is going to be that someone from the BND talked a bit too much about the role of Mr. Kiesewetter, and probably asked to see if he knew of suspected who on the committee might have leaked information to the press.

Personally, I would not put it beyond the BND to have tried to put out feelers to Mr. Kiesewetter for some kind of informal cooperation. After all, as a former soldier and as someone who defended the intelligence community throughout his time on the committee, how risky could is be to perform a gentle approach?

So, we do no know if the full story behind his resignation will ever become public.

If it does not, our explanation is the most likely one.

One more thing:
Every time this author writes about spooks and spy vs. spy, an HR person at a three letter agency says a prayer: Lord, thank you for making this person give us an 'eh, no, thanks but no' when we offered a job.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

A U.S. campaign strategist for the 2017 German federal elections?

Sunday in Germany still tends to be somewhat boring compared to the United States, or re-assuringly relaxed, if you enjoy slowing down once a week.

Were it not for the internet and teasers of Monday morning's newspaper headlines.

Besides the annual "the world is coming apart" bash called the Munich Security Conference, the tantalizing attention grabber launched by Der Spiegel is the news that Germany's social democrats (SPD, think "Dems") are in talks with Democratic campaign manager Mr. Messina to help them pull off a Germanic yes, we can in the next federal election.

Planning two years ahead for a national election in Germany seems a bit unusual. Traditionally, the country's career politicians have had little incentive for all out campaigning. The electoral system with its party lists virtually ensures a lifetime of well paid work in politics for the leaders of the larger parties, CDU/CSU and SPD.

The social democrats, however, have seen their fortunes decline quite substantially and are hovering at around 25% nationally, while conservatives of CDU/CSU are so far above 40% that some even think they could pass 50% next time around, an absolute majority, the realization of the dream to govern without any coalition partner.

In this setting, the news about the potential hiring of Mr. Messina does highlight some interesting aspects of German political discourse.

The few voices talking about modernizing and re-invigorating German campaigns are drowned out by those who fear that politics as entertainment is coming to the country.

Some call it proof of sheer desperation in a party that used to stand for social justice, yet dismantled much of the social safety nets and only recently worked to introduce a minimum wage in one of the world's largest economies.

If you are interested in German politics, just wait a few days until Der Spiegel has an English translation of the article on its web site and check it out for yourself.

Although, to be honest, German politics is terminally boring, and the electorate seems to think this, too: their once stellar participation rates in elections are rapidly approaching American percentages.

A recent county commissioner poll around saw a 36% participation.




Hard physical work of a German woman farmer

From our series Look what we found in the Drafts folder.

Late on Boxing Day, which most Europeans and most Americans finally understand as the day when stuff gets put into boxes - and not as the day prize fighters are let out again after a peaceful Christmas holiday.

We still don't do TV and saw this at friends who do.

Despite the utter absence of snow in most of the country, Christmas on German TV has lots of soothing winter snow. The same goes for mountains. The channel running in the background at our friends is showing a documentary about mountain farming.

We see the farmer himself, inside a barn, adeptly maneuvering a fire engine red gondola. He is sitting inside the gondola and uses what appear to be joysticks.  Big hydraulic arms pick up masses of hay in a single swoop and drop them through a hole down onto the feed floor where the cows are.

Cut.

We now see a woman, his wife, with a well-worn pitchfork lifting hay over the iron bar enclosure into the troughs of the happy cows.

Next, we see her push a small mountain of hay, about waist high, further down the aisle of the cement floor and continue to feed the happy cows at that end.

Cut again.

The happy farmer up in his gondola drops another load.** The wife pushes.

Are they trying to convey that a lot of manual labor is  done by the woman while the man enjoys the gadget?  There is no mention of this in the voice-over comment, unless we have missed a beat.

To be fair, a few minutes later, we see the male do some manual work. The camera shows him fill a pot with snow to melt for water.

** You got that? Great.

Friday, February 6, 2015

It's the little things:sober German taxi passenger threatened with revocation of driver's license

Not originally intended to become a series, our "It's the little things" (It's the little laws) postings are beginning to look like a self-sustaining series about oddities of German daily life.

The first two in the series were: Having to pay double the cost for a replacement driver's license versus a stolen one, and being denied medical care in non-life threatening situations if you do not have the chip card on you (even if the doctor has had you as a patient for a decade).

The title of today's posting comes straight from a report in German weekly Die Zeit. We came across the article when we checked the newest German sobriety debate about alcohol locks in cars.

During our time here in Germany, we have discovered the magic behind many new German political proposals: read up on what other countries do, present it as your own idea - done.

Breathalyzers combined with an ignition lock are the latest one.

But this debate is boring, the "See also" link to the administrative persecution of suspected marijuana users is more revealing. One such absurd story is that of a young woman who took the train and then a taxi to a music festival.

At one of the "all traffic gets inspected" checkpoints German police routinely set up on the way to and from large festivals, the young woman was found to have 1.2 g of pot and 1.5 g of hash. Apparently not enough to even warrant a fine, the charges were dropped.

A couple of weeks later, she received a letter from the DMV asking for a urine drug test to be taken within three days. If not, her driver's license would be revoked.

Compare this to how German bureaucrats treat drunk passengers, in a car, a taxi, on a train: nothing happens. You get a pat on the back for not driving.

According to the article, a highly profitable drug testing industry has sprung up in Germany because of the administrative punishment of suspected drug users.

But you do not need to use illegal drugs to run into trouble with a German DMV. 

Perfectly legal medication can lead to the same, or even harsher, treatment. Pretty much any medication that says "do not drive or operate machinery" can put your driver's license at risk, although enforcement of these provisions for medication has apparently become more lenient because so many German citizens are on anti-depressants and other mind altering medication that strict enforcement would cripple the auto industry.

We know that even a couple of decades ago, it was common for German DMVs to pull the driver's license of someone who was prescribed simple anti-depressants.

Why hunting depressed people was abandoned is not clear to the blogster. The most logical explanation might be that working at a German DMV makes a lot of people very depressive, which in turn results in a doctor's visit and a prescription of anti-depressants.

You cannot expect DMV employees to revoke their own drivers' licenses, can you?

 

A letter of 4 lines worth a billion dollars?

When the Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred in Japan in March 2011, the German government ordered the oldest nuclear power plants in the country to be shut down for three months.
What everybody knew:
The plants from the the 1960s/1970s were to undergo unscheduled safety checks.

But, crucially, this reason was not explicitly stated in the shutdown directive.

The power companies were upset but complied and filed a court case for damages of 880 million Euros (over none billion dollars) alleging the government had acted improperly. Having filed the court case, the power companies could have re-started the reactors immediately under the terms of applicable German administrative law.

They chose not to but were soon faced with a problem: what to when the three months moratorium ended.

At this point, events get interesting. A few days before the end of the mandated shutdown, the then CEO of the big provider RWE asked the state governor of Hessen, responsible for one of the stopped plants for written guidance. This guidance arrived just days before the end of the shutdown and said that the government assumed the power company would not assert its right to re-start the reactor so as to maintain good relations with the state government [our translation].

Two days later, the company announced it would not put the affected pant back into operation, and another company with old reactors in another state cited this letter as justification to keep its plant shut.

This letter kept the law suit against the federal government alive with a high probability of win for the companies because the shutdown directive had not mentioned safety concerns as the reason for the action.

The request for "guidance" was leaked to the media only recently, and the wording in itself has fueled the suspicion that the government had left the barn doors wide open intentionally by omitting the plant safety aspect from the initial directive and by then bolstering the companies' case with the four line "assumed that..." letter.

One of the former heads of nuclear power safety stated that the court case would have been a virtual slam dunk if the suspiciously worded request for guidance had not surfaced.

The experts are still out on the question if the new information will lead to the dismissal of the damages claim or not.

[Update 12/6/2016] Germany's constitutional court just decided that the government must compensate plant operators for the loss of business caused by removing nuclear power plants from the German power industry. The court did not decide on the amount, but estimates are around 19 billion Euros. The government and the operators are currently negotiating the modalities and cost of long term waste storage, and it was expected that the government would assume this responsibility in return for the power companies dropping lawsuits.
The blogster feels that the companies will likely use the freshly gained leverage to lower their mandated dismantling and storage contribution, which was set at 23 billion Euros.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

What's with the media's preoccupation with conspiracy theories?

We have discovered there are more articles about the phenomenon of conspiracy theories in the German media than before.

Or is this just another conspiracy theory?

If we were less lazy, we'd run a computer program to grab the number of publications on the topic in the past several years, put them into a graph and be done with it.

Are there more articles in the German media right now on the phenomenon? If there are, maybe in large part because of many reviews of a recent American book on the subject and also because the German "anti-islamization" movement Pegida has been throwing around the term "liars press" (Luegenpresse) to explain why the traditional media have relentlessly attacked them.

The most recent high profile German magazine comment on the phenomenon is in Der Spiegel. It is pretty decent as a spot light on Pegida and the German vaxxer movement, yes, they have an anti vaccination movement, too.

In our opinion, though, a few additional aspects on conspiracy theories merit attention. The first, and obvious one, is that so many outrageous conspiracies have been shown to be very real.

We can all come up with examples, right?

For example, when a few tree hugger friends of friends warned in the early 2000s that the new anti-terror measures would be used against environmental activists, the blogster dismissed this as a classic conspiracy theory. And was proven wrong.

Another aspect of the use of the term "conspiracy theory" has to do with its application to complete nut cases, xenophobes and con men. Focusing on these groups makes it easy to dismiss even scientifically valid questions as conspiracy theory.

The funniest thing, professional skeptics do not seem to do well when it comes to "debunking" conspiracy theories. The reason for this? Not sure, but it may have to do with them being so accustomed to being sharp observers and more intelligent than, say the maintenance worker who witnesses an explosion, that they cannot bear to open their minds later on.


The current crop of conspiracy theory explainers emphasizes the greater complexity of the world but fails to look back even a century or two.

In one of the many newspaper articles about the start of World War I last year, we saw a report about Russian spies being seen in our tranquil hills in the far West of Germany, complete with farmers armed with - yes - pitchforks forming a posse to hunt them down. As it turned out, the Russian spies were a German city couple going for a ride in their brand new car.

We seem to be happy to watch documentaries about witch hunts in Europe and the Americas without asking the question why such deadly conspiracies have been part of the fabric of our "modern" world.
It is great fun to browse odd web sites like http://galacticconnection.com. At the end of the day, if a previous president of the United States consulted with astrologers, don't many conspiracy theorists look relatively sane in comparison?

Once again, while "the media" are worried about conspiracy theories and point to the bad internet for troves of questionable or stupid material, we take a different view.

With a little bit of patience and time, it is a lot easier to figure out conspiracy theories today than at any point in the past.





This is 2015? Jesus Christ Superstar ruckus in Bavaria Germany

Just weeks ago, we made fun of More surveillance & harsher blasphemy law: Saudi Arabia or Gaudi Bavaria?

Would you believe that a blasphemy crisis has gripped the town of Dinkelsbuehl in Bavaria in the meantime?

Even better, the subject of the controversy is Jesus Christ Superstar, the 1970 rock opera. The initial problem began with the poster for the play, which showed three crosses side by side and the caption: Get the best seats!
The poster was only the start, and readers of the local paper flooded the office with letters complaining about a performance which constitutes, some claimed, "blasphemy". 

According to the article in Frankfurter Allgemeine, even a church deacon protested against such a blasphemous performance and a misanthropic poster. The opera director acknowledged the poster was not a good choice, saying he would do a different poster if the choice came up again, but he refused to cancel the play.

So, what can we say?

Despite the at times biting posts on religion, the true personal feeling when someone alleges blasphemy is sadness. The blogster feels profoundly sad for Christians, Muslims, Jews or whoever else because of the worrying combination of frailty and pretentiousness the blogsters believes to be enshrined in the term blasphemy.

And, if you have not seen Jesus Christ Superstar, go see it live or get the DVD.

You might enjoy it.


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Better education for Germany's jobcenter folks than its customers

German career civil service employees are often trained by the government itself. It makes perfect sense for many jobs that do not have a private sector equivalent, like law enforcement, for example.

In other areas, you can debate how much sense it makes, and one of them has made headlines recently, eliciting a satisfied grunt from the K-Landnews TheEditor. It** rumbled: See, told you slashing government by 50% wouldn't hurt anybody.

The agency in the news was the federal Jobcenter/Employment Agency, or Arbeitsagentur in German. Like other countries. Germany has been on a re-branding binge for a couple of decades when successive governments discovered that re-branding is a lot cheaper than improving operations or adhering to the constitution.*

Almost a decade ago, the Arbeitsagentur established its own college to train young employees in the fine art of providing services to the unemployed and to employers. Much of the training for job seekers focuses on basics, such as resume writing and interview skills, how to become a cook, a security guard, or get a GED. And this program saw large cuts in the last few years.

The agency has been less stingy where training its own people is concerned, prompting a recent budget oversight agency report to point out that the college costs twice as much per student as the national college average.

The college website describes the abundant facilities and points out that they have apartments for 300 students. 33 tenured professors plus ten teachers take care of a grand total of around 850 students. The site quotes a student-teacher ratio of 1:25, stating this is probably rarely found at other schools.

So, good education and training can be had at the Arbeitsagentur, just not if you are unemployed.

** TheEditor insists on gender neutrality. 
* Germany's highest court ruled basic benefit sanctions for the unemployed unconstitutional, but nothing really changed.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Croatia to forgive poorest their debts

It is one of those headlines you tend to read twice in order to avoid looking stupid when you tell others.

The small European country of Croatia has begun to implement plans to forgive up to 60 000 of its poorest citizens their debts.
One of the countries that emerged as independent nations as the former Yugoslavia dissolved, Croatia's approximately 4 million inhabitants have seen war in the 1990s and are living in a struggling economy.

In case you thought about buying one of the many old castles on the scenic Mediterranean coast and a top of the line Ferrari before filing for debt relief, that's not quite how it works.

The poorest face the toughest burden, often having their bank accounts blocked by creditors, leaving some with no access to money at all. To be eligible for the program, you need to have no more than around 5000 dollars in debts and a monthly income of no more than around 350 dollars.

The most impressive aspect of the program is that, while initiated by the government, the private sector is in board.

The nature of the program plus the fact that the private sector is willing to go along are, of course, major red flags - well, the government is a social democrat administration - to our friendly greedy folks.

Which may be one reason for the very limited media coverage it has attracted.

As of this post, only two of the large German daily papers (Frankfurter Allgemeine and Sueddeutsche Zeitung) have devoted any space to it. Others will follow, but compared to the big headlines on the German Super Bowl World Championship victory, this interesting attempt to solve desperate poverty is relegated to the "misc." section of the mainstream.

We'll keep an eye on what the critics have to say.

Super Bowl World Champion Germany!

Super Bowl 

Deutschland ist Weltmeister!

That's a headline from today's online edition of normally laid back German weekly Die Zeit. Bringing you a headline in the original font size is rare for us, but you can see why we would.

In virtually all areas of life, not hearing about events in the U.S. media does not mean they do not exist.  We had to emphasize this, sorry.

Do they play American football in Germany? They do but on a scale far under soccer in the U.S. 

American football in Germany really was a GI sport, played by military personnel without much German involvement, unless you count the German wives of U.S. personnel. These days, there even is a German American Football association, which ranks as number 42 on the list of German sports associations. A couple of ranks behind underwater basket weaving, according to our research cats.** 

The National Football league even tried to get a football-hold in Germany some ten or fifteen years ago, which didn't work out, it seems. As a result, the website www.nfl-deutschland.de has nothing whatsoever to do with football.

The odd report on the Super Bowl is not new in Germany. It is a cheap and easy way to fill leftover columns, but you must have been wondering why they claim the World Champion title.

Germany is Super Bowl World Champion because one (1) of the New England Patriots players grew up in German and learned his craft here.

That's all you need to claim the title for a whole country? 

Well, the blogster should probably change its*** resume to include its TIME magazine person of the year award. From the one year, in which TIME put a small mirror on the front page and a "You" as person of the year.

Given the German champion logic, this would be ethical, wouldn't it?

If I find the copy of TIME magazine, I'll put it in front of the cat. So, don't be surprised to see a future post touting a cat person of the year.

** We have not recovered from the loss of our Random Research (RR) team and recently decided to make one of the cats work for its food. If you would like to try cat research, open a browser search window and simply put the critter's front legs on the desk in front of the keyboard. Then wait.

*** Gender neutral as advised by TheEditor. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Did God make Hessian conservative resign?

When God (Judeo-Christian-Muslim version) features in politics, things get messy very quickly.

This time, the events led to the resignation of a deputy speaker and education expert of the CDU in the German state of Hessen. He is the editor of this county paper, which features some heavy stuff about islamization and persecution of Christians in its latest edition. According to the media, a "third party" ad in the paper was the final straw in a long running string of controversies.

We went through the Feb 2015 edition and did not see any upsetting ad. The previous edition of January also looks harmless.

Chalk that up to inadequate knowledge of German or German politics. Why is the offending third party ad not named in the article?

Another controversy involving the gentleman is easier to understand. He had given an interview in which he criticized homosexuals by saying "Homosexuality is not normal. If it were, the Lord would have done procreation differently".

In terms of science, we could re-iterate a few points on this, but it would not be fun.

The religious view is more interesting:
Why would God cause the resignation of someone who so astutely interprets His design? Will the gentleman see his resignation as a test by God? Isn't it a little presumptuous for a human to clarify God's design plans? Or are humans allowed to expound on this because, after all, the Lord have them the ability to do so?

Some newspaper readers claim he was made to resign from his official duties because of his religious beliefs.
We know this argument from the U.S., too, where similar statements have caused similar controversy.

And in every single instance, we always ask the same question: isn't it nicer to phrase the demand for resignation using a little bit of religion than simply saying you are too uneducated or too stupid to hold the job?

We do not have an answer, and we cannot even ask the Lord to provide us with one.

But we will mess with the interview statement. If your religious feelings are delicate and/or easily offended, please go to another web site right now.

Do not read on.

Just don't.

"Homosexuality is not normal. If it were, the Lord would have done procreation differently".

Why has it not occurred to any, indeed any, just check on the web, any homophobe that the Lord might have invented homosexuality on purpose with a clear plan in mind?

Other than tempting normal folks and testing their faith for an unspecified later date.

Don't you think that someone who can make a whole universe or two, or three, couldn't come up with something to prevent some people from procreating and kill at least two birds with one stone?

The blogster, for one, can imagine the Lord sitting there scratching his beard just before he is taking a day off, thinking "almost done, but what can I do with those humans I don't want to see procreate? There must be a way to give them some distraction, so they don't go around stealing the babies of the faithful. Wait, I got it, I'll make them gay. But then I need to make it so that the others don't all want to be gay."

After another light second or so, he rubs his hands and goes, well, let's try this. I'll make the rejects gay so they can have some fun, but I'll make most of the others not understand the true reason for inventing gay people.