Tuesday, March 31, 2015

German 4 Dummies: Reitbare Rentner

This term would have been a cute contribution to the earlier post The Joy of Slang, but hey, it make a great German lesson by its own.

Reitbar is an adjective meaning rideable, Rentner is a retiree.

Seeing the term reitbare Rentner (reitbare is the plural)  for the very first time in the Free Stuff section of an online classifieds site right after reading a depressing piece in the Guardian about more planned deep welfare cuts in the UK may be the reason for a slightly twisted interpretation of the ad.

The blogster let the thought some Germans are giving away retirees because they do not want to care for them, well, but they are rideable roll back and forth between the left and the right side of the brain but balked at disturbing visuals that began to emerge.

Admonishing self for a creepy attempt to make a 50 Shades of Grey joke with retirees, the blogster settled for a rated G lesson.

Of course, the ad was talking about rideable horses, either from a horse rescue or simply an elderly equine who was retired from its tournament or race job.

Next up, the Easter Bunny.

Monday, March 30, 2015

German press recycling: first paper, now content

Wait a second, didn't they publish this article about a woman dreaming of Los Angeles earlier?

Click, check the publishing date. Today, but that's wrong, I remember seeing this a couple of weeks ago.

Are you sure?

Thus began an exploration of the re-use of prior articles in the German media. Look, they have always done this. How much new content can you write about Easter eggs, or about planting lettuce or growing tomatoes?

Or about what we called the yuck fest subjects in an earlier post, the large group of annual "bacteria on your smartphone, tablet, keyboard, toilet seat...and so on"?
When you write about a scientific subject, isn't it reasonable it won't change within a few weeks?
Take today's offending re-jigged piece from Spiegel Online about mysterious rubber-like plates inscribed "Tjipetir" washing up on British beaches. They went over board, float around the high seas for a hundred years and wash up on a beach in a storm.

Don't we have whole segments of the media hardly doing anything but recycled content, with different names, different size breasts, different affairs but otherwise utterly interchangeable?  Aren't the big religions eternal content recycling institutions?

What's so bad about writing about the same topic multiple times, it happens right here on this blog, too?

The big difference is that we add the note "re-post from" and the date when we notify the world via Twitter. And we do not go back and copy and past a post into a blank editor window to pass it off as a new post.

Sure, sure, blame the content management software. It automatically adds the date and the time, and you can't do anything about it, sure.

The old media are still trying to figure out how to survive in the digital age, cut them some slack.

Was the same argument made in favor of, say, wheelrights, when wooden wheels were made obsolete by technological progress?

Did Mr. Gutenberg, the man of the printing press, voice an opinion on the relative importance of wheelrights versus scribes?

Just don't mess with the time stamp. You can safely assume people will forget and eventually read that article again anyway.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Joy of Slang

Slang is bad. *

Abso-fucking-lutely bad. **

And abso-fucking-lutely happens to be the very first entry in one of several books on slang that came out of the "boxes we didn't know we had". The boxes could very well be called a renaissance person's treasure given their range. From Stedman's Medical Dictionary to a tome on World Famous Paintings edited by non other than Rockwell Kent, from books on gardening to a phat Industrial Safety Equipment catalog, from a Handbook for Chemical Engineers to 125 Super Songs of the Superstars, from the Deadbase to Berkeley in 1900.

By the way, did you know that D.R. Wentworth & Co. at 809 Delaware St., West Berkeley sold SHU-EZ... at prices from $ 2.25 to 3.50? Or that the Postmaster at the time was German?

The abso-fucking-lutely hilarious book on slang is Forbidden American English, published by National Textbook Company. In the foreword, the editors take great pain to explain that one view might be that none of the expressions in this book ought to be forbidden, a ballsy statement indeed.

The purpose of the dictionary is to help non-native speakers navigate the language without embarrassment or - as the blogster would say - without resorting to the exclamation what the fuck? in polite conversation when a surprise interpretation of a seemingly harmless word or phrase pops up.

The book has a definition of terms which classify the entries as, for instance, colloquial, crude, jocular, or juvenile.

Funny enough, the dictionary includes a Pronunciation Guide. Since you are not supposed to utter these words, the blogster assumes this is to help you understand the terms when someone else uses them in conversation or yells at you.

Since all of life is all about context, a good dictionary provides example phrases, so does this one. They may even help you avoid being ridiculed in public, for example, when you mention your seafood allergy when out having dinner with friends and your best buddy goes "well, you should make sure their clams are not bearded clams".

Learning slang is a good thing, it gives you a choice between an eloquent jab and a foul mouthed insult, and if you get the context right, you have control over the image you project.

The blogster frequently plays with the allure of linguistic transgression and goes for the image of bat-shit crazy bastard. People tend to bother you less when you do that.

* As in bad.
** As in great.

Bend it like Einstein: spacetime and the politics of Big Time

Time flies, you can't is one of the deep philosophical constructs the blogster remembers from an earlier time, when summers lasted forever, when Christmas was over in a heartbeat, when every day in school consisted of a succession of units that were technically of equal length but felt utterly and disconcertingly uneven and bumpy.

When they finally taught us about Einstein's space-time, the single concept that recognizes the union of space and time, some of us kids went "duh, obviously, it just feels right", and we would spend a good part of the next summer vacation sitting still on the porch, trying to slow down time through sheer will power.

Others, of course, wanted to speed it up, eager for that driver's license, for a boyfriend or a girlfriend, doing all sorts of crazy things to make the final years before the coveted status of "adult" pass more quickly than the adults advised us they would.

Since then, a lot has happened. For some of us, time stopped and never resumed.

The rest of us in most Western countries, well, we face the twice yearly ritual of daylight saving time, or - as some old folks in France call it to this day: l'heure allemande, German time.

The blogster wanted to write about the superstitions people hold with regard to time and found a wonderful example on the web site of German weekly Der Spiegel: When East Germany wanted to be ahead of its time.

It is a tremendously funny, yet sad piece about the introduction of daylight saving time in East and West Germany in 1980. The two countries had been discussing daylight saving time for years when East Germany simply went ahead with it in 1980. Der Spiegel says the West Germans were shocked and hastily followed suit, with considerable disruption due to insufficient planning.

Getting all bent out of shape because someone advances the clock by an hour illustrates the creeping suspicion the blogster harbored as a teen: life as an adult might not be all it was cracked up to be.

And that is the true meaning of daylight saving time: we make it up as we go.

Friday, March 27, 2015

A roundup: what tobacco can tell us about glyphosate

Note: The term roundup as used in this post refers only to "a gathering of animals" and in the mathematical sense of rounding a number.

Disclaimer: The blogster has used thousands of gallons of commercial pesticides for farming commercial crops (Twitter profile Life #2 or so). Fully organic private cultivation of food and tobacco tea against infestations of rose bushes are current activity highlights.

Are you still with us?

The world's most widely sold herbicide glyphosate keeps making headlines every now and then. Lately, there was a spate of reports saying that glyphosate can cause cancer, for example as reported in Scientific American here.
But the National Pesticide Information Center pages on glyphosate don't say that, so defenders of glyphosate point there.

GlyphoFans (people who like glyphosate) rightly point to the toxicology factsheet on the National Pesticide Information Center site which tells us the substance falls into the category "Low Toxicity".

Not only is this re-assuring but GlyphoFans have failed to point out that the LD50 (the dose fatal for 50% of test subjects) of glyphosate is actually far lower than the LD50 of - take a deep breath -  standard computer printer toner, or lower than that of capsaicin (the stuff in peppers and pepper spray).

If glyphosate is not all that dangerous by itself, why the rage?

Enter tobacco again after the note in the disclaimer. We know that smoking is very dangerous, causing cancer and other nasty illnesses, yet the active ingredient nicotine is rather benign. For tobacco, the "other stuff" serves as the delivery vehicle for nicotine, as the method to get it into your body.

So, for the sake of reasoning, take glyphosate as the active ingredient and "other stuff" as the substances that make glyphosate usable.

That's called a formulation and is what you buy when you purchase pesticides at the store. There is really no practical usage scenario for many chemicals unless they are put into some sort of carrier substances.

Believe it or not, when the safety of pesticides - but also chemicals in general - is studied, the "other stuff" is ignored. The adjuvants, which is the technical term for the other stuff, are classified as inert, as not active.

Simply ignoring the oft-quoted idiom that the whole is more than its parts is easy and, to some degree, even understandable in a world as complex as ours.

You don't have to read this research paper that says Major Pesticides Are More Toxic to Human Cells Than Their Declared Active Principles but you may want to keep the basic statement in mind next time you hear that a certain individual chemical substance is harmless.

One more thing:
Yes, the long fight over the dangers of tobacco may also tell us a lot about how power and money might work in the area of pesticides, but that's a separate issue.

PR bloopers 101: It's so safe you can drink it!

Every time the K-Landnews comes across another specimen of the title statement It's so safe you can drink it or a variant like It's so safe you can eat it, with or without exclamation mark, a couple of things happen in the basement newsroom.

First, a chair will tumble to the floor, then a computer mouse will fly across the room, narrowly missing the lava lamp next to the comfy office couch, and hit the wall with its characteristic plastic on masonry impact sound.

To be sure, the lava lamp and the dark green velvet office couch are purely imaginary, added just for effect, but the computer mouse is very real, as is the scrunching noise when the faded yellowish shell strikes the old brick wall.

Please, don't think you have a piece of valuable meta data on the K-Landers now: they use at least one computer with a mouse, or so.

The flying mouse is a prop for one purpose only, namely to be thrown in exhilaration to celebrate a gotcha moment. It is not attached to a computer, the cable has been cut some five inches from the body of the mouse for easier throwing and reduced danger to bystanders from an oscillating three foot cable.

Our most recent find of It's so safe you can drink it, comes from time.com, where you can see "a Monsanto lobbyist" claim the herbicide glyphosate (the one from Roundup) is safe enough to drink - only to freak out when the reporter offers a tasty glass of glyphosate.

We have seen the scenario play out multiple times over the decades, most often in relation to wastewater treatment. The setting is predictable: a running camera, a guy with a glass of clear liquid, and another guy asking questions. The fatal It's so safe you can drink it! may or may not be preceded by a simple It's safe but it sure will come.

As will the request for a demonstration, to be followed by a red face and/or upset.

Other than wastewater treatment plants or their spruced up sewage to drinking water cousins, we recall a scene in which a bovine growth hormone specialist declined a glass of milk fresh from a cow treated with the hormone.

No particularly noteworthy example of the "you can eat it" version comes to mind. There are so many cooking shows that stretch the you can eat it paradigm, like Anthony Bourdain's great No Reservations, that the only remaining trustworthy yuck factor eat is probably near when you hear a group of small children in the backyard clamor eat it, eat it.

Now it is time to retrieve the computer mouse from its spot next to the lava lamp and the office couch to prime the giggle sweet spot for another one.

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Being nice to customer service reps

It is way easy to find customer service horror stories on the web, but yours truly has always been trying very hard to be nice to these strangers on the phone who spend a good part of their lives with more or less friendly, more or less irate customers.

Of course, yours truly is absolutely sure to have stuck to the "always be nice protocol", even in stressful situations. To be honest, I know that the overall tone of voice certainly did give away a feeling of distress in a couple of cases, but even then it is possible to be friendly to the person on the other end.

The other day, a fun letter arrived from the cable company, no name, but it does not start with a T.
The letter said Thank you for your order and went on to praise me for having become a customer "a few days ago" and segued into a special offer for cable TV for only 5 Euros for three months.
Apart from the fact that sending a technician to remove the hardware filter would really mean they give away free TV for at least six months, there is a more pressing concern when you receive a Thank you for your order letter.

An invoice or a credit card charge are typically never far behind.

Which is a problem if you have not ordered anything.

But they had a toll free number, which is noteworthy in Europe. It's a customer service thing, we've written about the sly use of "premium" numbers around here, another ingenious "money for nothing" scheme.

After only a few rings, a lady picks up, introduces herself and asks how she can help. I explain that I received a letter thanking me for an order and would like to ensure that nobody did place an order under my name.

Oh, I think I know what you are talking about, she goes.

I chuckle, I hoped so.

The one signed by Mrs. June?

That's the one.

I'm sorry. I'll check your account just to make sure.

While she types and waits for the computer to spit out what it knows, we chat, and she asks if I am interested in the TV subscription.

I don't do TV.

So, you are a reader. What have you been reading lately?

While this might have been a good time to say 50 Shades of Grey and see what happens next, you just don't do this with a customer service rep.


Oh, volume 4 of Game of Thrones, a huge book.

The computer at her end has come alive, and she verifies nothing has changed. We part wishing each other a good day and a different letter template for Mrs. June.

Again, be nice to customer service folks. You might save someone's life.

"These light rays", German physics II

Only days ago, we had fun with an idiosyncratic interpretation of waves in In space, no one can hear you laugh - German physics, and we just found another fun example.

This second example is from a German web site called Ruhrbarone, which means Barons of the Ruhr Industrial Region. For once German is shorter than English, the name of the river Ruhr is shorthand for the large industrial area north-east of Cologne, Germany.

Since much of the region has been heavily social democratic because it was the heavy industry heartland of Germany, the name Barons of the Ruhr is both a dig at the captains of industry of old and at the social democratic amigo networks of today.

The article in question is Will these death rays kill us? The Ruhr region in fear.  The site (in German only) published two letters, one of which, from 17 March, we partially translate for your reading pleasure: We will close the curtains on all windows so no children will be exposed to these light rays.

You may have guessed that the reason for these letters sent out by two schools in the state to parents and legal guardians was the well publicized partial eclipse of the sun on March 20, 2015.

The author of the Ruhrbarone site points out that he believes most schools have prepared their students correctly for the event and surmises that some are caught in "over protective mode", a somewhat sad phenomenon.

Here at the K-Landnews, we are not sad at all about school principals displaying a disproportionate amount of worry and/or a cheerful ignorance of physics!

We are simply relieved to see that being overprotective of kids is not limited to the United States but is found in a country as rational as Germany, too.

This fact has set us off on a quest to come up with a culturally adequate popular scare like a sharknado. It won't be easy because there are no sharks outside of zoos and aquariums in Germany, neither are there any tornadoes to speak off, other than some dirt devil size disturbances.

One the side of problems to overcome, here are some examples: Raining men is taken by a song, raining cats and dogs by the Brits, raining frogs might cause a war, but we are not giving up.

On the plus side, German physics should make the final choice much easier.

Breaking the cycle of School, Government Job for Life, Retirement

We decided to go abstract as a sort of summary of how government workers are made in Germany and many other countries. In Germany, though, the status of "career civil servant" they call Beamte has been or focus because it is in many ways such a strange institution.

Imagine it a bit like the old US un-firable teacher stereotype, with the worst thing that can happen is ending up in the "rubber room" unless the employee becomes a bona fide felon with a sentence of more than a year.

While this is an easy joke to make and a barely acceptable sketch of the system, it does not serve as a good explanation of stereotypical official behavior, such as the "[Update] German police crowd control: the "Flexi-Kettle" and the official reaction to violence and clashes.

The main areas where you find this privileged type of civil servant are schools, law enforcement, the judicial system, and the general administration. The one thing all of them have in common is the trajectory of the workers: school, government job for life, retirement.

In the 20st Century industrial society, similar paths existed in some of the larger private sector industries, from the quintessential coal miner to the steel worker, to the postal service, the railroad, the auto worker, and the public utility worker. But even in these industries, people would not necessarily remain with the same company throughout life.

Some of these government entities have been privatized in Germany in the last 25 or so years, a move that makes small government enthusiasts happy and also means your post office worker may have had a successful career as a tree trimmer before switching to processing dead trees in the form of letters and stamps.

In the remaining "core" areas, little has changed, and those who think outside of the box are rare enough to be mentioned prominently. The boringly predictable sequence of sound bites in favor of the German government's decision to introduce general collection of communications meta data is but one example of official group think fostered in part by the cycle of "school, government job for life, retirement".

So, when a thesis by a graduate of a German police academy that questioned the straight trajectory was featured in some of the countries major newspapers, we perked up. The author of that thesis advocates some refreshingly simple ideas about how to give police officers a slightly wider view of the society they will serve. He asks: why not make future officers do internships in places like a social care home, a drug rehab clinic or another institution of civil society.

You may argue that such measures are not needed if you buy into the standard argument that officers live in the community, too, that they have kids and see schools as parents and so forth. But then you may not be aware of how groups of professionals tend to socialize outside of work and of the tendency to form fairly uniform circles over time and in countries where moving to the other end of the land means a five hour drive.

The blogster would find it nice to know, for example, that the tax person on the phone explaining some odd provision of the tax code had spent at least a short period of time out there "in real life".

Even if that meant, as mentioned in one of our older posts, that the BDSM aficionado at a post-event volunteer party turned out to be - I kid you not - an IRS employee.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Invisibility and the pain of the expert

Before the internet took off less than 25 years ago, knowledge about complex topics was very hard to come by. Much has been made about the explosion of knowledge and the resulting changes, but how has the immense knowledge changed the way we see experts?

Acquiring sound, detailed knowledge still follows the traditional pathways, which we can simplify into two basic approaches: either acquire knowledge and skills by going through schooling and training, or rely on experts who have done just that and then share their knowledge.

What has happened to experts in the last several hundred years in Western culture is an interesting question, at least to us at the K-Landnews.

In the vast universe of human endeavor, there are innumerable specialties beyond the abilities of the blogster, so we split them into "soft" and "hard" science, with the understanding that the boundaries are often less than clear and move over time. But it helps to do this, not least because this is a blog post and not a 1000 page treatise.

The ultimate soft science, theology, has done remarkably well in many ways since the middle ages. Theology has gotten away with discussions that no first grade math student can. The number of angels that fit on the head of a pin, the mechanics of reducing your time in purgatory by spending tons of money on monks to pray for you for years after you die are just two examples that avoid talking about the theological underpinnings of the inquisition and other atrocities.

It is not a surprise that theology, despite more rationality, is still going strong: talking about "nothing" without a measurable basis in reality shields experts. 

Sometimes related, sometimes not, philosophy is a close second, especially where it deals with esoterics. In esoterics, you can make it up, stick to it, and you can be an expert without a decade of training.

The more practical side of philosophy dealing with logic, verifiable observation, and structures does require some training and is useful, although it can be abused, especially when it becomes self-referential, or closed. Which makes art and political sciences a lot more understandable.

Some of the oldest hard sciences have fared well, such as farming and sea-faring have done well. Legends of sea monsters, lunar planting cycles, or prayer for a good harvest and sprinkling tractors with holy water notwithstanding, they were hard sciences long before academics decided that observation and mathematics belonged to them.

Next on the K-Landnews of science harness are the modern tech sciences and their theoretical foundations. The new sciences, or offshoots of older ones given their own name and area of application, count some of the most powerful and controversial ones among them, like nuclear engineering and biotechnology.

Yet, despite promises such as feeding many more people with improved crops or an endless supply of energy, there is tremendous, often unscientific opposition, which leaves experts puzzled, upset and fighting what they perceive as windmills (the Cervantes metaphor, not the alternative energy metaphor).

What beats them?

Money, greed, power?

Yes, but mostly the invisibility of what they are doing. **

Humans have, let's say, issues with invisible things. If you put two people side by side and let them run a distance, people see and understand (or think they do).

If you put two atoms side by side and make them "run" a distance, you have a lot of explaining and convincing to do.

Which is where some of the modern sciences have done a dismal job which was hugely exacerbated but the unholy trinity of money, greed, and power.
Add to this the sort of conspiracy theory validating evil George Monbiot describes in The fake persuaders, for instance, "there are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience know that your organisation is directly involved... it simply is not an intelligent PR move."

So, the number of DNA base pairs to add or change to make a plant produce its own insecticide may well be more similar to the angels on a pin head debate than you like. In the absence of clear, long term study and proof not only of benefits but of absence of harm, what do people do?

The same thing we have done for millennia: pick a belief. 
With the internet, they can get some facts and pick a more informed belief.

The worst thing you as an expert can do?

Fault them for it.

** Don't say computers disprove this. They took off once people could see something "reasonable" instead of command lines, once they could hear music, see photos, and watch movies.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Climate Skeptic: Thunder & Lightning are not man made, let's party

Blame Twitter for our foray into the murky world of climate change because we found someone ah-ing and aw-ing about how a founding member of Greenpeace came out as a climate change skeptic.

A few minutes of research performed by our famous Random Research (RR) team lead to an article on the Heartlander web site.

The typical problem of the K-Landnews basement newsroom manifested itself after the first read of the article: we are just not extreme enough to yell and dismiss it with tons of righteous indignation.**

We agree with Mr. Moore on many things, for example "certainty they can predict the global climate with a computer model." There is no doubt about temperatures having gotten warmer long before the massive CO2 emissions shown in the hockey stick graph.

We'll even buy the observation "The optimum level of carbon dioxide for plant growth, given enough water and nutrients, is about 1,500 parts per million, nearly four times higher than today. Greenhouse growers inject carbon-dioxide to increase yields."

Sheer stubbornness on the part of the K-Landnews draws the line at "Humans Saved Planet". That's just a dumb statement, without any logic if you accept Mr. Moore's stated premise that we don't really know enough about how climate behaves.

Much of the climate change debate suffers from a focus on CO2, which is understandable in terms of the volume, gigatons of the stuff is released through human activity each year, partly because computer models are so complex and measurements are equally complex.
And being able to talk about just CO2 to a human population on non-scientists may seem a good idea.

The mild mannered K-Landnews staff keeps asking a simple question: why does it matter whether climate change is completely man made, partly man made or not at all man made?

The answer by Joe Average usually is: because if it is not man made you don't need to do anything.

The brighter of the climate skeptics, though, shy away from this answer because they know that it does not hold water. The flu is not man made, yet we fight it. Thunder & Lighting are not man made, yet we don't party outside in a thunderstorm.

As fossil fuels go, we are partying in the thunderstorm.

The big brains at the K-Landnews (size wise, not necessarily IQ wise) have long held the belief that the focus on CO2 is as detrimental as it may be useful because we tend to not look at all the issues from fossil fuels unless there is a major oil spill. Enough humans will be able to live in a greenhouse, no doubt, but it's the chemicals that will get us and our food.

On a lighter note, let's misappropriate a line from a Hunter/Garcia/Kreutzmann song: If the thunder don't get you then the lightning will.

** Emissions of righteous indignation cause undoubtedly man made heating up of the atmosphere of public discourse.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

In space, no one can hear you laugh - German physics

The K-Landnews TheEditor rumbled: Some would claim that if you still follow the great Snowden surveillance debate, you don't have much going on your life. Me, I go for the comic aspects, like the German physics.

This statement caused a mad scramble in the K-Landnews basement newsroom. What the heck did it** mean to say with German physics?

You dodos, check Wikipedia, came the holler from upstairs.

Okay, the Wikipedia page on German Physics is pretty long, these guys were busy, let's give you one quote : "Einstein's name was completely ignored. Many of these classical physicists resented Einstein's dismissal of the notion of a luminiferous aether."

So, by the end of the read, we concluded: While not completely cartoon physics, German Physics is probably the closest real life thing to cartoon physics you'll find. 

Oh, how wrong we were!

German Physics is in use today, in 21st Century Germany, and here is where it is found.
Since that page is in German, let us relish in explaining it to you.

Germany's "foreign" intelligence service BND, a poor man's version of the NSA and the CIA rolled into one, intercepts satellite communications using some big dishes on German soil.
In deliberations of the German parliamentary investigative committee, the BND folks were asked what legal basis this activity had. Interception of comms from German soil falls under laws, so they were politely asked which laws applied and how they dealt with restrictions re comms of German citizens. Their answer was "this interception is not subject to any restrictions because it takes place in space, where German law does not apply."

Apparently, some smiles and some frowns prompted further clarification: We grab the data directly at the satellite, so we are good and don't have to filter out German citizens and so forth.

This statement is perfectly in line with the old style German physics described above.

In terms of real physics, you need waves to hit whatever receiving surface you use for communication. Collecting data directly at a satellite can be done, if you will, just not using an antenna thousands of miles away on the ground.

So, when the blogster read their explanation, two things happened. The first was the immediate appearance of a visual of a German astronaut floating in space next to a satellite, a stethoscope in his big space suit gloved hands, laughing his space butt off.

The second thing was a business idea alert. What if I set up a listening station in Germany and intercept satellite communications using this rationale?

TheEditor, however, burst this bubble right away: Dummy, it is German physics, totally malleable cartoon physics. For you, that means, if you do the same, they'll tell you straight faced that their German physics works only right above their intercept stations. Outside of the intercept stations, regular physics apply, they won't say Jewish physics, that's a no no, but anyway, if you do it they lock up your sorry ass.

** TheEditor insists on gender neutral forms of address and will be even grumpier than usual if we do not comply.

[Update 2/25/2016] Zeit Online has found why the "space theory" was invented by the BND. According to documents the paper managed to obtain, the BND logged the collection and the transfer of data as required under the law. When the investigative committee was set up, the BND feared, rightly so, that the committee would ask for records.
In order to avoid having to divulge records, the "space theory" was invented: collection occurs outside of German law, hence, no need to document anything.
This leaves the question: what happened to the stored records?

The reality distorters are here: Twitter & Facebook

We have repeatedly expressed our sympathy to the print media for their modern day conundrum: everybody can take to the web and write the same great things they do.

Or the same dumb stuff they write.

What do you do as blogster to get your news?

Published studies are a wonderful, free, source of information. Yes, we wrote about open source publishing, too. Just enter the term into your favorite browser, and you are good.

The blogger's life gets even easier when you read the "papers" and comment on their work.

It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it. 

If not, the likes of BILD Zeitung would rule the world and our German readers would believe that the Greeks are greedy or that German means tested social security recipients are lazy bastards - who somehow manage to study all the case law and find all the loopholes, allowing them to always be one step ahead of valiant elected officials attempts to stem the hemorrhaging of the toil of the many into the coffers of the lazy poor.

At times, the more classy and respected papers (which do not include the K-Landnews) fall for the easy reporting on a study, for example, a study on how Twitter and Facebook distort our reality.

In articles like this one in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the twists and turns of the newspaper's interpretation are often much more interesting than the underlying study.

Twitter and Facebook algorithms have as their primary purpose "to increase our satisfaction."

[Blink, rub eyes, laugh]

Here's the deal: Unless you are a masochist, you don't use a social media site which does not increase your satisfaction.

We know, we did Facebook, and after an hour or so TheEditor of the K-Landnews started strumming the air guitar and dancing in front of the screen: I can't get no...satisfaction, I can't get no...

The reality distorting bit is utterly predictable, only worth editor time for the word "distort" because that implies the existence of a normal, undistorted reality.

Had they said "shapes reality", it would be news but nothing scary. Oh, right, there was a study of how Google shapes your reality.

Make a note: write about how Angry Birds distorts reality.

Actually, extend the note: write about how any activity changes your brain! Yes, any. It is true, read up on some neuroscience, especially mirror neurons.

So, thank you for letting us change your brain for a minute today. Have a great weekend.

Friday, March 20, 2015

In a nutshell: media reports on Frankfurt Blockupy protests on 18 March

You may want to read the previous post "German police crowd control: the "Flexi-Kettle" to get an idea of what the inner city of Frankfurt, Germany, looked like between noon and 7 PM. The previous post also explains why the K-Landnews adopted a very low profile approach to the first foray into a large German event.

Our intrepid reporter was not in Frankfurt when the clashes between police and protesters occurred which would shape almost all of the reporting, but the reporter was present for pretty much all of the official events.

We hope you are not surprised to learn that the approved demonstrations and assembly were not accompanied by any violence. Between 15 000 (low estimate) and 20 000 protesters spent the time between noon and just after 7 PM peacefully doing typical protest activities.

Despite the vivid photos and film of the early morning clashes, it proved difficult to get numbers and meaningful information. Police reported around 100 officers injured by noon, the vast majority of them (about 80) impacted by some sort of gas or acid type liquid, the others hit by stones, or empty glass bottles. No details were given about the extent of the "gas" or "acid" injuries, no figures for injured protesters were readily available at the time.

Long before the trade union demonstrations, long before Greek rap, Naomi Klein, a festive if slightly claustrophobic main march, minds were already made up, politicians were calling for draconian punishment, and at least 15 000 people were discredited.

The best summary of the violent early clashes can be found here (in German). There are also some great photo galleries on the page. The article also explains why the rioters could get as far as they did and why they could do so much damage: little to no police for about half an hour.

This comment from Bloomberg news is probably the prevalent condensed version of what the public will remember.

The winners of the day?

Cafes and ice cream parlors.

And, of course, the intrepid reporter who figured out the "wandering kettle", or Flexi-Kettle.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

[Update] German police crowd control: the "Flexi-Kettle"

You have seen the pictures of burning police cars and heavily protected riot police clash with early morning protesters at the Frankfurt, Germany, protests on the day of the official opening of the European Central Bank.

We'll deal with the riots and the demonstrations in a later post after studying what the media are saying now.  It is important to know that the riots took place very early in the day, long before the approved demonstrations and assemblies started at around noon.

The blogster took a day off from being a productive member of society to do some research into large scale protest in Germany.

By way of background: At some point in life, the blogster stumbled into crowd control, the art and science of herding humans to prevent stampedes, if you want to use a snappy image. In less snappy, and thus more appropriate terms, you can use the Wikipedia intro "preventing disorder and prevention of possible riot".

Having previously worked side by side with police or in cooperation with them, the blogster decided to go incognito. The coat only said Press on the back, no lanyard either.

Having thoroughly enjoyed doing work in the U.S. at events from a few hundred to a hundred thousand participants, the ECB opening seemed like a good opportunity to get an insight into how Germans do it.
What you see in the press and on TV when protesters clash with police is but a tiny sliver of a large effort on the part of police and protest organizers that include planning meetings, imposed requirements, such as the routes and the number of porta-potties and more.

After just over three hours of travel, first by car, then the final leg by train, the blogster arrived at Frankfurt's main train station.

Unlike the Twitter photo "Frankfurt inner city deserted", this appeared to be a normal workday. No police in sight, no protesters at just over 1 km from the main protest site, just a couple of railroad rent-a-cops in their usual spot, bored as usual.

On the street leading away from the station, shops are open, cars and delivery vans do their thing, people carry freshly unfolded shopping bags with the accoutrements of consumers. There is only one thing that says the day is different from a normal work day, and that is a police helicopter frozen in the air about a mile away.

Past a small park where a young German is curious about what is going on and laughs at the explanation, saying, oh in my home town near the Dutch border we get this at least twice a month when the police do their large scale drug trafficking raids.

Finally, at the pedestrian shopping area, a row of shiny police vans, doors open in the warm sunny weather, bored occupants earning overtime and per diem (this group hails from out of state).

Cafes are open and have their springtime sidewalk seating out, they are busy. Lines of people are seen in front of every ice cream parlor. The clientele consists of few suit wearing people, the first real sign of demonstrators having an impact on who goes to work in downtown Frankfurt on this Wednesday and who dials in via VPN from home.

It doesn't get much more peaceful than that, so the music, the speeches, the happy atmosphere at the main assembly are no surprise, and we'll skip ahead some four hours to the "flexi-kettle".

Kettling has a bad reputation and was ruled unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights in 2012. Wikipedia explains kettling as follows: "Protesters are left only one choice of exit controlled by the police – or are completely prevented from leaving, with the effect of denying the protesters access to food, water and toilet facilities for an arbitrary period determined by the police forces."

From the assembly area, which was open, where people were free to come and go, the main demonstration march of the day set out along the route. The first noticable aspect was the absence of police on the sidewalk.

Where were they?

A large entrance way to an inner courtyard of a large building provided the first hint. There was police in full riot gear stacked about five deep shoulder to shoulder. Then no police until the next intersection. The same deployment, but stacked ten deep with vans in between.
The tactic was clear now. No police on the sidewalks with their backs to the buildings, deploy only in bigger numbers and in areas where they can move in all four directions.

The same layout followed further down the route at a large square. The side of the street open to the square had a solid line of police vans bumper to bumper with the exception of two stacked deployments of officers, one at each end of the van block.

This was worth testing. The blogster walked right up to the line of officers: Can I please get through to leave?


I would like to leave.



You cannot leave. You have to either march on until the end of the route or wait until everybody has passed. [Incognito blogger turns around without saying good bye, leaves]

Check the definition of kettling above. Now, as someone who worked events much bigger than the 20 000 or so march, the blogster is well aware of reasons to restrict movement into and out of a march or parade.
For political demonstrations, the generic tactical reason for preventing people to leave a march is of course the need to prevent potentially violent groups from breaking out to to damage.

Further testing of what the blogster decided to call the flexi-kettle gave these additional results:

1. State police, like the one in the above discussion, are badly trained for dealing with simple individual requests.
2. Young police officers generally do not have the training or experience to make reasonable decisions that balance individual rights and the mission of the officers.
3. Federal German police were the only ones who granted the request for passage through the line. The officer in charge was older, and ordered the young officers behind him to open the line, an order they followed, but leaving literally not an extra inch.

No request for clarification of policy was filed, or will be filed, with the Frankfurt police.

Yes, the blogster is available for crowd control work if it is interesting or adequately remunerated.

[Update 3/21/15] Some research on the webby web turned up a German term for the approach witnessed in Frankfurt. It is, don't laugh out loud, called Wanderkessel, a wandering kettle. The web tells us it has been in use since around the mid 1980s, and unsurprisingly, is considered somewhat controversial in that it may actually increase aggression on the part of the "controlled" crowd. Given that the 20 000 or so marchers remained unfazed, the authorities should in fact be thankful to the marchers.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

[Update: Hoax] News from the teacup: Greek Finance Minister gives Germany the Finger

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis upset Germans with a video that shows him giving The Finger.

For those of you who have not seen the reaction of a German TV talk show host when the man and his finger were shown in a YouTube video, here is a link to a remarkable host expression.

With Germans upset, Mr. Varoufakis hastily explained "It is doctored", a reaction which never helps even if it were true. The video is from a speech he held in May 2013 in Croatia, almost two years before he became Greece's latest Finance Minister.

Of the many Eurozone countries upset at Greece not doing enough to comply with the harsh terms of the bailout, many Germans feel it is their money that keeps Greece afloat, so it is no surprise that emotions run high in Germany about the video. Accusations fly, such as that of an overblown state owned sector of the economy, money changing hands in unmarked envelopes, resistance to change, and more.

The relationship between Greece and Germany is complicated by all accounts. Imagine how you would react if you knew that Mr. Minister across the table is known to have received envelopes of cash donations for his party and  would later admit that he knew the money was "not correctly handled".
How would this shape your perception of the man as Finance Minister of his country?

Oh, the envelope juggler was not Mr. Varoufakis, that was Germany's current Finance Minister Mr. Schäuble.

All of the back and forth about money is just one more reason for the K-Landnews to ask why we cannot have the tried and true mom and pop shopkeeper's motto in international politics: You broke it, you bought it.

Have you noticed people in a shop slow down when they see this sign prominently displayed?

The K-Landnews TheEditor was initially upset when it** saw the Wikipedia page on the German scandal but then bellowed: Maybe the Germans are upset because they have the feeling they even do corruption better than the Greek?

** TheEditor insists on gender neutral treatment for itself.

[Update 3/19] Today, the German press asks if the "finger" was a hoax after a German comedian came out and said "I did it". Our hyper cautious "even if it were true" was not misplaced then?
That would be great, because it would validate the unease on first seeing the video, it did not feel right.

Monday, March 16, 2015

German 4 Dummies: Putinversteher

Now that the West's current favorite punching bag, RussPutin, is back, we can finally bring you another German 4 Dummies term: Putinversteher.

It is a compound of, obviously, the last name of Mr. Putin, dutifully transcribed into a Latin version, plus "Versteher". Versteher is a made up noun based on the verb verstehen, to understand, and is used exclusively in compounds.

We will freely admit that The Economist beat us to explaining the term to the English speaking world. But we diverge from The Economist after the first paragraph, when the venerable econ rag launches into political intricacies and accusations.

Our topic is the language and its use.

The Economist says "Versteher" generally mix flattery with irony, but we have to disagree. The term really mixes irony with disdain, and the more controversial the subject is, the more pronounced the disgust. While, for example, Frauenversteher (he who understands women) is mostly irony with a pinch of disgust, the term Putinversteher is a term of attack and disdain, as close to any insult as you can get without resorting to one of the charming words from TV's bleeped or banned words list.

The great thing about Versteher is that you can make up your own terms as you please.

This expands you German vocabulary immensely without any effort. You don't know how to tell your kid coming home from school that he behaves like a teacher's pet?

Lehrerversteher would do fine. Though it is of course not a translation of "teacher's pet" it does capture the adulation your offspring will exhibit towards the teacher.

Telling a coworker that he is a Chefversteher may solve the problem of you not knowing how to say brown nosing in German. Of course, saying either may well create a whole slew of problems for you in the workplace, but, hey, at least you got to stand up to the man.

Versteher can be combined with any other noun, you can have Katzenversteher (he who understands cats), Hundeversteher (dogs),  Baumversteher (trees), and so forth.

If you have the desire to go all out on understanding, you could try Uberversteher, which combines the americanized version of "über" with the newly learned Versteher.

Applying this to Mr. Putin, you can impress your German friends with Putinuberversteher!

That, unlike the original Putinversteher, gets a bit of the irony back which is do dear to The Economist.

If you think the blogster is an Economist-Versteher, you may have a point.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sparen mit Spaß: Kimchi (koreanisches Sauerkraut)

Liebe Kochexperten, ist schon klar, daß euch der Begriff koreanisches Sauerkraut vielleicht sauer aufstößt, wir bitten um Verzeihung für diesen publizistischen Kunstgriff.

Es gibt im Internet viele Rezepte für Kimchi, beispielsweise dieses hier. Das Rezept ist okay, gefällt uns aber nicht sonderlich, weil es langweilig und zu teuer ist.

Wir haben hier ein sehr einfaches Grundrezept ohne die typischen koreanischen Zutaten.

Nur Kohl und Zwiebeln ist langweilig, Zucker ist überflüssig, Ingwer und Fischsauce sind unnötig, und es braucht kein koreanisches Chilipulver zu sein. Normales Steinsalz ist mehr als ausreichend, das meiste Salz wird sowieso weggespült.

1 kg Chinakohl
2 Spitzpaprika
2-3 Lauchzwiebeln
1 EL Knoblauch (sehr fein gehackt)
2-3 EL Chilliflocken (sehr gute und billige gibt es oft in der Dönerbude)
200 g Salz (am besten frei von Zusätzen, obwohl wir auch mit jodiertem Salz erfolgreich waren)
ca 2 Ltr Wasser

1. Kohl waschen und schneiden. Weiße Stämme nach Wunsch entfernen, Blätter in Streifen von ca 4 bis 5 cm Breite schneiden.
Kohl in einen großen Topf oder Steinzeugbehälter geben. 5 Liter Topfgröße Minimum.Spitzpaprika in schmale Streifen schneiden und hinzugeben.
Lauchzwiebeln kleinschneiden und zugeben.
(Sie können die Paprika und die Lauchzwiebeln wahlweise auch erst in Schritt 2 hinzufügen.)
Salz über das Gemüse geben und in die Kohlblätter einreiben (ggf. Einmalhandschuhe benutzen).Wasser hinzugeben bis der Kohl bedeckt ist. Einen Teller auf den Kohl legen und beschweren, damit der Kohl ganz von Wasser bedeckt bleibt. Zum Beschweren z.B. einen leeren 1-kg-Joghurtbehälter mit Wasser füllen und auf den Teller stellen.
Den Topf für mehrere Stunden bei Zimmertemperatur stehen lassen.

2. Gemüse 2 bis 3-mal gründlich abspülen, dann ca 20 Minuten abtropfen lassen.

3. Chilliflocken und Knoblauch mit 2 EL Wasser mischen, gründlich unter das Gemüse mischen.

4. Kimchi in Gläser füllen, dabei lagenweise pressen, um möglichst wenig Luft im Glas zu haben. Saft/Wasser sollte das Gemüse bedecken.
Glas verschließen, aber NICHT völlig luftdicht. Das Gemüse fermentiert und Druck im Glas entsteht. Der Druck muß entweichen können!
Statt Gläsern können Sie Kunststoffbehälter verwenden, die bei falschem Gebrauch nicht explodieren können.
Die Gläser 2 bis 5 Tage bei Zimmertemperatur stehen lassen, dabei unbedingt einen Untersatz benutzen, um austretende Flüssigkeit aufzufangen. Ein Holztisch mit Kimchiflüssigkeitsringen verdirbt den Spaß und den Appetit.
Danach im Kühlschrank aufbewahren.

Mit koreanischen Zutaten
1 TL Ingwerpulver und 2 -3 EL Fischsauce zu der Mischung aus Chilliflocken und Knoblauch geben.

Andere Gemüse
Gute Varianten sind Spitzkohl, oder selbstangebauter Pal Choy. Salatgurken und Radischen eignen sich ebenfalls dafür. Probieren Sie auch einmal Karotten.

Noch koreanischer
Kimchi ist, wie viele "traditionelle" Gerichte, ein Gericht von und für arme Leute, d.h. alles geht.
Löwenzahnblätter beispielsweise, aber nicht zuviele, sonst wird es zu bitter. Feldsalat, Sauerampfer, Kresse - all das würde eine alte koreanische Dame sofort als Kmichi akzeptieren.

Für ganz Faule Sauerkrautliebhaber
Mildes Sauerkraut aus dem Laden, waschen, abtropfen lassen. Dann Gewürze mischen (Schritt 3) in Behälter füllen (Schritt 4), fertig.

Be creative, be creative, be creative....

It's nice to see a professor and acclaimed expert spell out an argument you made at an earlier time.

So, we'll indulge in our quip "With autonomous cars potentially coming to a road near you in the foreseeable future, taxi drivers may find their real worries are only starting.", brought to you in September 2014 in the post The Uber Fights - Taxi Driver 2.0.

In today's Spiegel Online  on the lack of preparedness of Germany for the digital revolution, a bona fide professor states taxi drivers won't be needed when self-driving cars become ubiquitous.

Of course, we can claim our six months advance is a sign of creativity.

But it is also likely that someone else made that very same observation before we did.


And if it wasn't the exact same statement, you can be sure that a more lofty, abstract one can be found which encompasses the taxi drivers and a slew of other jobs. In fact, we are so certain this last statement is true, we won't even bother to find a matching quote in some scientific paper.
The current wave of articles warning about job losses is tied to a new study out of Oxford saying that roughly half of the current jobs are threatened by the digital revolution.
As with previous studies, warnings and scifi literature, the basic recommendation for staying ahead or just keeping afloat in the job market is: be creative.

And our initial response to it is the same as before: not everybody can be creative or creative enough, and you cannot run a whole country with bartenders, barbers, politicians and media professionals plus those jobs related to maintaining and disposing of humans (healthcare and undertakers). More soldiers is not a good long term solution either.

Creativity has saved humans before, so we can be sure some great ideas will emerge and help us out. Will they be enough?

The blogster would find it preposterous to answer yes or no. So, instead, let's look at creativity itself.

Much of what we see as creative around us is not in the least bit creative. Almost all of fashion has been there before, some of it for thousands of years. You don't have to watch British archaeologists in a Time Team episode discuss whether a necklace pendant found in some English field is Roman or Victorian to get the point.
New materials make a difference, as do new processes but that's about it.

The sad truth is that the fundamental spark for something revolutionary needs to occur only once in a world as interconnected as ours. While the telephone was invented on different continents roughly at the same time, many things digital have but a single instance of creation. Once created and once a patent has expired, it's a free for all.

So, the bona fide professor says, for instance, Apple doesn't make its money by selling a computer or a phone but through creative combination of devices and content.

Which matches what the teacher of the course Novell Network Administration twenty years ago told the class when he waved the floppy disk with the software to emphasize his point.

Physical goods are produced where it can be done as cheaply as possible, no issue with this, so let's come to possibly the only original contribution of the blogster: "not stuff" things.

The term virtual might have been expected, but we are not using it here. "Not stuff" is our category for everything that is not hardware. And, to exasperate intellectuals, we include food, trees, water, clothes, condoms, books in their paper incarnation, even computer files as physical representations of bits and bytes.

What we are trying to get at is the "money for nothing" concept which has been around for some time but has really taken off in recent times without (as far as we know) being recognized as an "instrument of production" or an industry by itself.

Take intellectual property, usage rights, and license fees. We still think of them as belonging to industries, the movie or the music industry, the software industry or the publishing industry, but they have been morphing into a "money for nothing" industry right under our noses.

Meant at some point as a means to ensure compensation for a creative activity, their extension in terms of years of protection and in scope is, or soon will be, turning them into free money.

And that's where the blogster sees Germany unprepared for the digital revolution on one hand and extremely well prepared for it on the other.

While the business ideas, the algorithms, and the creativity of most things digital have largely originated outside of Germany or, if they sprang up in Germany, were bought up quickly by US companies, Germany is a leading nation in the "money for nothing" industry.

German consumers pay billions in abstract usage fees every year, and the sector is expanding. Cassette tapes, CDs, DVDs, USB sticks, smartphones, photo copiers, and other products already come with usage surcharges for copyrighted material, and this is on top of standard patent licenses. You may never put an illegally downloaded song or movie on a USB stick, yet a small amount of the store price for each and every one of these items goes to "creative" industry rights enforcers.

The German government shows no sign of backing off in this area. The most valuable, in terms of revenue, coup in the area of money for nothing in recent years has been the revamped "fee" for public broadcasting. A fee of just over 200 US dollars per household plus a tiered fee for every commercial entity in the country fill the coffers of the "public" broadcasters to the tune of some 8.5 billion Euros each year.
This is money for nothing because actual listenership and viewership has been declining steadily and is at around 48% right now.
Days of major sporting events are being broadcast on the public's dime (around .4% or broadcasting time account for some 5% of costs), and despite anger and court challenges, the system is expanding into print media.
The internationally well known German music rights association GEMA was raking in about 2 billion Euros a year in 2013 and is taking in more now.
A new rights association of print publishers was founded a couple of years ago to enforce payment under the "ancillary copyright" law with mandates that internet news aggregators need to pay royalties for text snippets. While Google has managed to stave off these demands by offering a "let us use it for free or we de-list you" policy, the publishers and the government are not giving up the fight for a whopping 11% of ad revenue associated with aggregator listings.

So, even without a detailed tally of the current "money for nothing" industry, it is well over 10 billion Euros a year in Germany alone.

Add a vibrant cease & desist industry (where Germany is also the leading nation), and you get an even better idea of the concept. 

In relative terms: this is more than the smaller German states make in annual revenue, it is more than most of the German federal government departments' annual budget, it is about one third of the German defense budget, and also more than one third of Germany's annual payments to its 4.3 million recipients of basic social benefits.

The trick is to make people pay for products or services independent of use. Imagine everybody had to buy a car, even if they couldn't drive or did not want to? With "non material products" (aka services) this is almost absurdly easy to accomplish - if you can convince government to pass the needed laws.


Give it a try, then.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Expanding to tweeting news in French, Spanish, Italian

You may have noticed tweets of  French, Spanish, and Italian news pop up under our Twitter account and wondered if there was a reason.

Of course, there is.

It makes us look so much smarter, said the K-Landnews TheEditor, throw in tweets of really famous quotes by long dead people for added effect.

Don't you love TheEditor and its** grumpy style.

Ultimately, we decided to go ahead and add news sites from France, Spain, and Italy to our reading list once or twice a week. This adds a little bit of flavor to the Anglo-German brand of the K-Landnews and dilutes the brand at the same time.

Diluting the brand puts the K-Landnews on a collision course with marketing people everywhere. Build a brand, and stick to it, the experts say. Then they invariably point to the latest internet "newsy" sites like the Gawkers, the Buzz Saw Feed, or whatever the latest fav is right now and applaud the brand.

This makes it so that a couple of years down the internet, they can come back and lament the loss of vision and dilution of the brand, said TheEditor. If they had any clue, they'd know that branding hurts like fuck, ask any Texas longhorn or any gelding. Yeah, I know, for geldings it hurts twice, don't distract me.

So the K-Landnews decided to go counterbrand, as in counterculture.

Which involves deep insights like today's tweet from Spanish daily El Pais telling us that the number Pi is not 3.14.

To be honest, what good is there to having a strong brand when you compulsively write about the great upcoming whiskey shortage like every other web rag on the planet?

Regarding our daring brand collision course, we regret there won't be any tweets in Eastern European or Asian languages any time soon.

That's because TheEditor was not home when the Japanese teacher called and said you have been doing so well, please continue the class. And Russian is mentally tied to the traumatic scene of a kid waltzing into a western military post with rolled up LitGaz under the arm - before the kid had enough money for a briefcase to hide the LitGaz.

Enjoy the counterbrand, and don't worry, once everybody else is doing it, we'll build a cool brand...

** TheEditor insists on a gender neutral form of address and jovially told us "get used to it".

Friday, March 13, 2015

Germany's highest court: blanket head scarf ban is discriminatory

Germany's constitutional court has overturned a blanket ban on head scarves at work.

Two school teachers had taken a discrimination complaint all the way to the Bundesverfassungsgericht and prevailed.

Head scarves for teachers have been a political issue in Germany for decades, and some states forbade teachers to wear a scarf in class. This ban was challenged and overturned by the same court over 10 years ago. At the time, it said the ban was not specific enough and states needed specific laws to justify the measure.

A number of German states then went and passed draconian bans, citing "danger" to the wearers while simultaneously allowing nuns head wear and yarmulkas.

To non-Germans, a law that prohibits head scarves for Muslims and allows Christian and Jewish wear can seem an obvious non-starter. In modern Germany, ten years of lawsuits can with a bit of luck convince the courts.

That difference, to us at the K-Landnews, seems to be an indication that German administrative law and court decisions in this area are, let's say, more relaxed about the concept of discrimination as well as the timescales allowed for implementing relief if and when courts order such remedies.

What are the consequences of overturning the ban?

1. Media outcry
Not by the media - though we don't know how tabloid BILD will deal with it - but in reader comments.
At the time of this posting, the conservative mainstream Frankfurter Allgemeine (FAZ) has not enabled the reader comment feature.
Slightly more "liberal" Die Zeit has comments enabled, and you can find some fine specimen here.

2. Exploitation by some politicians
It will take a few days, maybe weeks, before we see some politicians pick up the decline of Western culture theme.

3. Legal experts pronouncing the end of the civil service status "Beamte" as we know it
One of our favorites on the subject of the German workplace, those civil servants with the coveted status of "Beamte", which includes most teachers at state schools, will no longer be cookie cutter personalities when some can wear head scarves at work.
Don't laugh, an article here in FAZ already deals with the disturbing question of "self-actualization" as a Beamter. Hint: Beamte are not supposed to do this.

4. A potential decline in schoolroom crucifix sales?
Lots of school rooms in German state schools still have crucifixes, especially in traditionally Catholic states like Bavaria. These days, removal of a crucifix is done without much publicity, but sales for classroom size symbols will likely decline further.

Makes some of us at the K-Landnews nostalgic about dress codes in the American software industry ca. early Silicon Age: I don't care what you wear, just wear something! 

True quote by a CEO.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Split letters and their position into two files for simple "double strand" obfuscation

To read the original description of a mechanism that achieves some degree of message security without encryption, please read "Double Strand" text security available in "CuttleFish".

Here are two basic diagrams to illustrate the fundamental principle of the double strand concept.

Below is a visual illustration of the algorithm. The steps "original", "alphabetically sorted", "randomized", and "split" create the message distributed into File 1 and File 2.

To reconstitute the message, only two steps are needed: "realign" and "sorted on number strand, ascending".

More considerations:
1. Add random characters to the original to make cracking the message harder.
As implemented at present, CuttleFish adds "trash" to the original message before it is sorted alphabetically.
2. Further shuffling of the randomized but still linked strands can be added in the source code (also on the site) without requiring an upgrade by other users.
3. The same is true for the step "alphabetical sort". Currently a plain ascending sort, there is nothing that prevents you from changing this in the source code. For example, you could do a descending sort, create chunks - again sorted in various ways - or skip the step altogether.
4. "Stuffing" output File 1 or File 2 into another CuttleFish envelope to obscure file contents. If used within a small group of participants, this would be trivial to do and add more security.

Advanced considerations:
1. Modify the sources for use on binary files or executables.
2. Figure out how to to this on larger streams.
3. Write an OS level service for on-the-fly operation, with one part of the output on a USB stick.
4. Do some creative RNG switching, maybe write a "noise" module to mess just a little with RNG output.
5. [Update 3/13] To make text even more resilient against cracking, added "random" characters would ideally follow the statistical distribution of character frequency for the given language. A frequency table of the most common n-grams would be cool.  If you feel like being extra creative, you could add "trash" frequency tables from a second language. [/Update]

[Update 3/13/2015]
Yes, the required coding skill level is "CS 101", that's part of the charm.
The fundamental idea of a map with numbers and two sorts, one alphabetical and one numeric, date back to the early Silicon Age when the author was faced with a text content question.

The problem: Find duplicate pieces of text in several million words of technical documentation.
The solution: Break the docs into sentences (headline counts as a sentence, list items do too), create a table out of the text, add a column for sequential numbers, sort on the text.
Voila, all duplicates next to each other.

This was at a time when the amount of RAM was measured in the low megabytes, as in wow, a machine with 4 megabytes of RAM.

The art of war: trash can tactics

This post is based on a story by OMG (old mustached German).

He's back, for all those of you who missed the insights during our great Snowden rants and poking fun at friendly intelligence agencies. The rants had some readers, yes, and the poking worked well.

Anyhow, with the first crocuses of spring, OMG stopped by for some "Springtime for OMG and Germany", minus the singing, as he insisted on seeing added to the post.

OMG dismissed the big military crises of the day, Russian aggression and the idiots of ISIS, with a single remark: Look, Russia cannot fight an extensive non-nuclear war, and ISIS only became big because 100 000 Iraqis ran, it will be over pretty soon unless some player has an interest in making them last.

It was yellow trash day, meaning plastic and metal consumer goods packages were collected in yellow plastic bags, flimsy like hell for cursory inspection of content - and for eternal annoyance when, not if, one of them ruptured due to overstuffing or bean can lid cuts,

OMG went: You wanna hear a fun story about trash and the art of war? 


In the 1980s, my very much younger self was assigned to a new post, not long before the camp got a new general. He was a bright, feared smooth operator, his best buddy was the then West German defense secretary, such a good buddy that he would chopper in over the weekend for a beer and some R&R. One of the first new policies of the general was a strict recycling policy. Yellow trash for plastics and cans, blue for paper, grey for classic garbage.
Within a week of the announcement, bins in these colors appeared everywhere. If I'm not mistaken, a bunch of press photographers came with the bins to document this first ever installation-wide step towards a green future.

Sounds nice to me.

It was. Had you been there, you would have heard and seen all the arguments and debates that come with any institutional change. The trash cans were a brilliant example of change management, and those who misplaced trash and were caught did get a stern talking to.
The man became a media prince, and the troops rallied behind him as the success became known. But...


What do you think was the problem, if I tell you there was one big problem?

I don't know, I don't see an obvious one. Maybe some issue with the recycling capacities, we've seen that in many countries that introduced trash separation?

Close enough, but closer to home: The local waste management company was neither  equipped nor organized for the new process. So, every week when they picked up the trash, the workers would empty the yellow, the blue, and the grey bins into one and the same truck, happily mixing the materials again, then carting them off to the landfill.

So he failed?

No, he succeeded, actually. It took the waste management folks about a year, after several of the towns around the base instituted the same collection policy, to get the pick-up sorted out.

Did the media report on that?

Of course not, who would have told them? The base logistics officer wouldn't want to look like a fool or diss the boss, the press officer knew better, too.

We are glad OMG is back and look forward to more stories over the summer.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Useless: baldness meds and the length of you-know-what

Only a few major German news outlets picked up an international study on average penis length. Der Spiegel was one of the takers.

We did not read the article because we deemed it too nonsensical, even with the teasing sub-header saying German males came in under average.

Why then would we go and write about it, assuming an act of reading has to take place before?

You are right, we finally gave in and read it, grinning happily afterwards - not because of that German thing but because the piece confirmed exactly why we hadn't touched it. The piece features just about everything: bad sample sizes, differences in the order of 0.5 cm, a mandatory reassurance for the shorter males that everything is okay despite the numbers, plus a link to some other sexual topic article at the end.

The related subject is baldness, this odd topic affecting mostly males, the subject of innumerable jokes and millions of dollars in sales of chemicals to make them grow.

It may have to do with men believing even less than women in the "beautiful on the inside" mantra, or maybe no man really wants to look like a Donald with a second hand merkin.
On par with fat shaming, male baldness gives men a taste of what women encounter in much greater numbers  every day.

But what should an obese, balding male with a tiny penis do in this cruel world? Go into hair regrowth research? Get rich enough to exploit the declining importance of any of these characteristics that sets in above a certain monthly income?

The situation is even worse for German males, again, not because of being deemed below average, but because "the quota" passed German parliament after years of heated debate.
The K-Landnews published an acclaimed series on Homo Teutonicus some two years ago, such as the post homo teutonicus simplex III,  with broad strokes on the topic,

The number of German female managers to benefit from a quota - hint: below 50% - on the boards of publicly traded firms is in the low two thousand but German conservatives feel under greater performance pressure than before, with some taking out their frustration on the still new and halting implementation of a minimum wage.

If you can spare a few seconds of your time today, think about the hard life of the average German male. It may seems insignificant compared to the crises around you, but even below average concerns feel very real to the affected individuals.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Plan: German citizens to contribute to infrastructure build-out

This phrase was really used to introduce a government plan: citizens should contribute to repair and extension of the German road system.

The K-Landnews TheEditor roared: The final solution to infrastructure problems, gotta hand it to them.

While TheEditor calms down, let's see what the plan is. We would prefer to say "was", but it keeps popping up and, if we know the German political process, it will make one or tow more rounds in the media and then appear as a fully developed bill in the Berlin parliament.

The plan is obviously very much needed, since there can be no doubt that German citizens have not contributed to the venerable road system!

If they had, why would the government feel the need to ask for a contribution?

So we went on a research binge, which means five minutes of web searches, to find out who pays for the venerable German road system.

Freakish as it may sound, we did not find citizens as road builders. The actors are the local communities (villages, towns, cities), the counties, the states, and the German federal government.

Look ma, no citizens!

The grand plan of the grand coalition aims to fix this problem by privatizing road infrastructure and financing it through tolls and fees. The grand plan states that this will bring much needed funds to infrastructure development and represent a contribution by citizens, who pay for usage.

The grand plan clearly says that incentives must be created to attract investors, and specifies that the incentives should come in the form of guaranteed returns on investment at the tune of five to seven percent interest or profit.

Everybody wins: institutional investors, such as life insurers who are facing minimal returns on capital in a zero interest economy, the country would get swanky new roads for free, the citizens would be able to go anywhere fast on these asphalt dreamscapes.

Oh, and the current government employees who do road work and planning would have a grand time. Some would supervise the private money machine, others would do, well, nothing because they cannot be fired as "Beamte" (that special brand of German government employees the world doesn't know much about).

So, we were happy with the grand plan until we saw what consumer organizations say.

They are sounding the alarms. Which makes lots of noise in this sedate country and won't help, but here it is.

The towns, counties, states, the feds, they all get their money from taxes, which surprisingly are paid by the citizens.

In a normal world, that could be called a contribution, right? And if the government can borrow money for new roads and pay 0.1% interest, why would that be bad? Like French freeways that generate easy revenue, or like Austrian mountain tunnels - sans the tunnels for better profit.

Look, say the experts, if we can make the citizens contribute five to seven percent, wouldn't they feel more valued as people with a stake in their roads?

More like a stake through their hearts, rumbled TheEditor.

As much as we would love to go into more detail about contributing to society, we need to make some real money (you people are not clicking enough ads, your fault) because we will have a street payment coming up.

Oh, you did not know that towns and cities - even without the new grand plan - make property owners on streets and roads pay a good chunk of money for renovating a street?

Well, neither did we.

[Update 6/4/2016] A report in Zeitonline today tells readers that a deal is planned before the summer recess. Last year, the minimum guaranteed return on investment floated by the commission was in the range of 5 to 7%. The government can still borrow money at 0%, and the European Central Bank has instituted negative interest rates for its account holders.
A couple of spoil sport readers suggested to give the freeways to a holding company whose profits would be used to support the crumbling public pension system of the country.

No, that might be reasonable, so it won't happen. A public private partnership transferring a huge piece of German infrastructure shows neo-liberalism is not going away any time soon.

The measure requires a change to the German constitution, which needs a two thirds super majority. National elections in 2017 may see the current "grand coalition" government lose that super majority, hence a sense of renewed urgency. 

[Update 11/12/2016]  According to the next issue of Der Spiegel, privatization of the German autobahn network is imminent as soon as the country's constitution is changed to transfer the freeway infrastructure to the federal authorities. Currently, responsibility for freeways is shared between the federal government and the states.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

A German War Tax in 1991? Holy Deutschmark Batman!

Common historical wisdom has it that Germany became a peaceful nation after World War II. So, why does nobody talk about Germany's War against Saddam Hussein, known as the First Gulf War?

And did you know that a special war tax was introduced in German in 1991 to help finance the First Gulf War?

Or that the tax, initially limited to one year, is still in effect today?

If this sounds bit much and you feel on course for a trip into conspiracy theory land, rest assured, the story is official, which means it exists in the real world outside of Wikipedia.

This blog has mentioned the tax, Solidaritätszuschlag in German, or solidarity levy for everybody else, in the context of the huge expenditures faced by the country as a result of re-unification after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain.

The levy is mentioned only in terms of support for this venture and in terms of general infrastructure support when it comes to discussions about its future.

Only today did we see it addressed as "funds for the US and its Allies for the First Gulf War" in one of the articles about the future of the tax in German weekly Die Zeit.

Digging a little deeper, starting with Wikipedia, which has a well documented page on Gulf War I in German, we find that the current narrative of the solidarity levy as the vehicle of economic transformation of the ailing former East Germany became the official narrative only in 1995. It stuck, as you have seen if you have read about it since that time.

How then did the then convervative and liberal (as in UK concept of liberal) coalition sell the law to the people?

Limited to 1 year
No big deal, it won't hurt at all. A mere twelve months, and we return to regular business.
Well, the tax is still around 25 years later, and no end is in sight.

Not really to support the Gulf War
Aware that saying all of the funds would go to the war effort, the government said "in part as a result of the crisis in the Gulf..but also to support the countries of Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe...as well as some additional expenditures in the new East German states."
The enumeration is pure genius. It avoids the term war, that well earned anathema in Germany, and it minimizes the contribution with "in part as a result", then building to a  crescendo through enumerating "Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe" and trailing off with some additional expenditures in the new East German states. 

Was it really a war tax, since it did go to other ends as well?

Projected revenue of the one year levy was about 22 billion Deutschmarks (DM). Germany had agreed to pay between 15 and 20% of the total cost of the Gulf War.
Germany paid some 17.9 billion DM towards the war effort plus some 2 billion to Arab neighboring countries of Iraq as general support.
Which adds up to just under 20 billion DM out of a projected 22 billion.

Looks like a war tax to me. Not counting a few millions spent on coming up with a peaceful name and on selling the package to a nation whose citizens took the slogan "Never again" to heart after WW II - having failed with that very same slogan after World War I.

While the official list of countries that sent troops does not include Germany, it is well known that a German contingent of ground troops roughly in the order of the Polish or Dutch strength of 200, was active in the area. As a matter of fact, the blogster happens to know one of them. He came back to spend a year in hospital suffering from Gulf War Syndrome.

The Solidarity Levy came in handy again later, with German participation in Kosovo, in Somalia, Afghanistan, and other places.

Its contribution to the rebuilding of East Germany?

Negligible at best. In 1990, the German government estimated that effort at 100 billion DM in total.

The latest tally stands at over 2 trillion Euros (which is about 4 trillion DM at the 2:1 exchange rate when the Euro was introduced).

Go figure.

In major civilian events, you see sponsor banners plastered everywhere, you get venues named after major sponsors, TV rights contracts with specific sponsor product placement stipulation, why don't we have the same for wars?

Colorful signs don't go over too well, with the camouflage requirements and such? Glow in the dark is even worse? Oh, the corrosive effect of salt water in a maritime environment forbids them?

Come on, if you can sell a war tax as a one year solidarity levy, you can definitely figure out a way to bring sponsorship the the battlefield.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Polls as Infotainment: do you trust Putin?

Now we know 80% of Germans don't trust Russia. That's according to a big, splashy headline in one of Germany's mainstay newspapers.

The biggest problem upfront: the article conflates Russia and the government of Mr, Putin.

The K-Landnews reading of this poll result is that Germans are less crazy than our very own TheEditor@K-Landnews sometimes pretends they are, especially since almost half of those polled understand that Russia might feel threatened by the West.

The media reading of the result is different: see, the vast majority of Germans are for sanctions and, deep down, really for any means necessary to counter Russian aggression.

Russian aggression is the term the paper touting the poll uses. At the risk of being put into a pro-Putin or pro-Russian corner - we don't do corners - may we remind everybody that trust is not a good concept to measure politics.

Would you agree?

If not, well, you see, not long ago many Germans trusted a guy named Hitler, I mean, really trusted him.

The result?

Yes, indeed. So, what is the purpose of polls questions like do you trust Putin? A charitable answer would be to figure out the sentiment of the population and make better policies. What would a better policy taking into account an 80% distrust level look like?

It gets very murky, the blogster feels, so we won't go down that path.

We should be wary of the SurveyMonkey meets international politics approach to polling, not just in this instance but across the board. Employee satisfaction and trust in Putin are not as far apart as one might think, question wise.

Measuring sentiment via polls or surveys is by no means futile, but beware of intentions to move you into accepting a policy or an action based on it.

After all, the German infotainment polls has an approval rating of 12% for Russia and its government, which is a mere 3 points under the average approval rating of the US Congress in 2014.

[Update] Immigrants to Germany: more than half leave within a year

Germany has been proud of its immigration numbers: over 1 million newcomers, including some expats, have arrived each year in the past several years.

A great economy, low crime (anybody using guns around here?), friendly no form filling out immigration at the airport (if you are from a visa free country), a clean environment (unless you live too close to a BK or McDo or next to a nitrate generating farm), great numbers of English speaking folks for easy navigation, perfect Italian ice cream shops and pizzerias (you only need the two German words Bier and Pizza to survive), and so much more goodness.

And yet.

Yet around 60% of newcomers are gone within a year.


Nobody knows.

We at the K-Landnews have long advocated Exit Interviews for people moving to foreign climes, but we remain unheard.

Not that we complain about remaining unheard. With great popularity come great ad revenues but also questions like 'so, how the f*** do you know about that swastika flag incident at Stalag XIII'. Easy to answer, we just don't feel like being asked.

Why would people stay less than a year in a country as nice and welcoming as Germany?

Some may not like soccer. That would be a valid point with "public" broadcasters flooding the airwaves with the sport. But you can ignore soccer - though not the TV license fee requests.

Learning German is hard. True, but if you arrive early enough in the year, they give you a free voucher for a six week class. Well, if you are from a third world country, they won't let you in without a basic German certificate.

Most big music festivals are techno, metal, and whatever that weird Kraftwerk stuff is. Yeas, this one does hurt a bit, first in the ears, then in the head. But there is other music, you just need to find it, like in the East German city of Rudolstadt with a great mix of music that has actual lyrics and does not require ear plugs. German rap does exist.

Life in Germany is expensive. In the big cities and their surrounding "lard belts", money rules, and not keeping up with the Muellers can be hard, especially on kids. That's not country specific, though.

There are no German road movies. because there are no wide open roads or wide open spaces. Get used to it, travel in the Eastern EU countries, they still have both, including some almost empty stretches of EU funded freeways.

Righteousness is German. Germans still have this brand of hyper righteousness which makes it a bit more difficult than, say, British righteousness. Drivers are less inclined to let you get onto the freeway at the on ramp because your in ramp has a yield sign. If you asked me what the most typical German sign is, I'd say the yield sign.

It looks nice (not a stop sign) but is enforced in an uncompromising manner by the vast majority of fellow drivers. Like a flight attendant saying thank you for not smoking.

A premium on information. Premium as in price, not as in emphasis, gents. Good, no cost information is hard to find around here. Even on the web, where pretty much any German "ask me a question" type site goes to great lengths to tell you they are not giving legal advice. Any apparent violation of this is likely to get you an expensive cease & desist letter, which is really hard to fight.

Seriously expensive driver's license. Next to aspirin, a German driver's license will cost you a lot. Right now, 1800 Euros for mandatory classes is considered a bargain. That's just a passenger car. Need to have a small trailer: another grand.

What are you doing in my street? At least out in the country, strangers get scrutinized. But that is not directed against foreigners, it applies to Germans, too.
Don't get cocky and say ""oh, your street, eh, doesn't say private anywhere", be nice, say sorry and move on. They may not have as many guns, but if you cannot outrun a German shepherd or a Rottweiler, be super apologetic.

Weekly cleaning of common areas in apartment buildings. We all understand that hallways, stairwells, and common outside areas need to be clean, and who would balk at a once a month rotation? It's not that simple. You will be judged, with prejudice as the legal term goes, by when, for how long, and how thoroughly you perform this vital social task. The further south in the country you live, the worse it is. It's as if all the German neat freaks through history had been moving south, only to be blocked from reaching Italy by the five to seven thousand feet high mountain chain of the Alps.

Fines on everything. The bad news is, you can be fined for the smallest of transgression. Not that you invariably will, but the possibility exists and will have you nervous after the first time you get hit. The good news, at least for now, is that fines are so much lower than what you'd face in the US. A 50 dollar parking fine or a 300 dollar speeding ticket are hard to get around here, let that be a consolation.

Too much religion or not enough. Germany is fairly secular country, Scientology doesn't qualify as a religion here in the American sense. But in some German states, there is no public music and dancing on Good Friday, and the biggest political party calls itself Christian.

These are only a few possible reasons for not staying in Germany after the first few months of "new country smell" wear off.

As we said, get that exit interview going, so we can all learn to overcome our stereotypes.

[Update 3/10/2015] This article in Die Welt has some figures and a few of the standard reasons why people leave Germany. It's a start.

[Update 7/17/2016] The 2015 migration stats are out. The blogster uses this news article as a source because the Federal Statistics Office website is a bummer (and they don't have a number for "returning German expats" for 2015. I checked.
The Zeitonline article also happens to be one of the few that provides percentages, while pretty much everybody focuses on the record number of immigrants: 2.1 million.
That was an increase of 46%, mostly due, as we all know, to the refugee crisis.
But the number of emigrants also rose, to around 1 million - an increase of 107%.

And the trend of more German citizens leaving than returning will remain unbroken since it started in 2005.

The friendly conservatives of Germany continue to be unhappy about the figures because they don't get just premium immigrants, the kind who show up with at least one PhD,  perfect knowledge of the language and singing the national anthem upon arrival.