Thursday, May 28, 2015

Israeli Navy ships made in Germany by a company headquartered in Beirut and Abu Dhabi?

Every now and then, globalization reminds me of the Mel Brooks movie Spaceballs intro scene, complete with the bumper sticker We brake for nobody.

A less artsy and more bizzy statement would be something about intricate, complex global supply chains. 
Except that the image of a chain, the nicely structured, neatly linked and dependable mental artifact tends to look more like spaghetti in real life. Only MBA porn and PowerPoint slides cling to the well defined order in chaos.

We stumbled upon another cute military globalization anecdote.  Our first one, somewhere on this blog, told of the surprise appearance of Cold War Soviet Union trucks at a NATO military installation for a delivery of wood. Turns out, most of the wood was for target practice, so the whole thing sorted itself out.

Today's global supply chain episode is more delicate because it involves a German shipyard, the Israeli Navy and a company headquartered in Beirut and Abu Dhabi.

You may know that Germany has been a reliable provider of ships to the Israeli Navy, and there is another deal in the works, this time not for submarines but for surface vessels according to this newspaper article from Northern Germany.

German shipbuilding, like other nations' maritime hardware shops, has suffered from mostly Asian competition, and acquisitions, mergers, sell-offs and insolvency are all too familiar concepts in the remaining ship building companies.

To make a long story short, one of the German ship builders ended up in the hands of a Middle Eastern holding company, the one with HQs in Beirut and Abu Dhabi. With the new owners came a new name for the shipyard: Abu Dhabi Mar.

Only four years after the renaming ceremony, another renaming event was held, and now the shipyard is called German Naval Yards. The official reason for the name change was that it better reflects the new (or renewed) focus of the yard on military vessels.

The paper reports that the real reason for the name change lies in a deal that would see this shipyard build the hulls for up to four corvettes for the Israeli Navy. Although only a subcontractor, the paper says that the name Abu Dhabi Mar did not appeal to the client navy.

Closing the loop with Spaceballs, it is understandable that the bumper sticker Abu Dhabi Mar might not look great, so a more neutral company name was adopted.

Everybody was happy with the change, except the guys who had to paint over the name ADM atop the huge crane that is visible seemingly forever in the northern German flatlands.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Germans replace the world's flimsiest trash bags - after 25 years

Any foreigner who moves to Germany has lived through the nightmarish system of trash separation and recycling. The lucky ones among us wake up one day and find they have mastered it. For the others, it remains the closest thing to purgatory this side of hell.

We have applauded it and made fun of it in earlier posts, both reactions are appropriate. For example, if you look through last year's posts, you will find Fruit flies shut down space-age German tech.

Jokes about the German recycling system are a staple of funny, yes, funny, German movies like Fuck you Goethe.

Again, for good reasons.

The most painful trash is plastic and cans because they go into thin yellow plastic bags in most jurisdictions. These bags are as thin as the small transparent fruit and veggie bags you know from supermarkets, except that the yellow trash bags are a hundred times bigger.

A single milk carton edge or, worse, a can with the requisite sharp edge, can and will slice through the flimsy bag either when you carefully take them to the curb or when the collection guy picks it up and energetically throws it towards the truck.

The bag comes with a draw string at the top to securely close it.

The one thing you must never do with the draw string is?

Draw it.

You need to gently peel the string out of the "reinforced" seam and tug it as gently as you tug the blanket around a newborn baby.

If you do it wrong, the whole top separates from the bag and you have two choices, either get some duct tape (yeah) or take the bag and stuff it into a new bag, thus doubling it up.
Which gives you one functioning drawstring.

As it turns out, many Germans, foreigners included in this category for trash purposes, have taken to doubling up as a routine. This and the fact that the original trash Nazis (in the Seinfeld soup sense) have all reached retirement age must be the reasons why we are now getting stronger bags.

This is a big deal, mind you, because the yellow trash bags (as well as the blue ones for paper) used to be strictly rationed, too. You pick up the free bags at designated stores or at town or county offices, and until a few years ago, you had to be prepared to get a stern look if you took more than two rolls, a verbal admonishment for three and an outright "no" for more than three.

Please note that nothing in this post is exaggerated. Seriously.

We once talked to a truck driver in the trash biz, and he told us that he vastly preferred to haul dead animal carcasses and suffer the clinging soap resistant stink of such a load than to distribute clean, pretty yellow bags to the pickup points.

On almost every bag run, someone would insult me if I only delivered, say, half a palette instead of the desired full palette, he told us.

The era of the stronger yellow bag is clear proof of human progress!

[Update 3/29/2016] The latest improvement is to use a trash can instead of bags! But the big issue in the ongoing legislative negotiations is money, billions of Euros sit on German curbs for collection, and cash strapped towns have their eyes on the prize. According to this article, there is clear evidence that communities in several German states use garbage collection as a cash cow - how else can you explain that fees in some regions are several times higher than in others.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

German 4 Dummies: Homo-Ehe or Homoehe

Mere days after Ireland came out of a referendum with a large Yes majority that will allow gay marriage, "conservative" Germans are upping their game of The Sky is Falling.

The Irish vote is considered a problem by those in Germany who want to have it both ways.
Yes, you may smile.

The problem faced by German conservatives is that many citizens are in favor of gay marriage and that Germany's constitutional court has been chipping away at treating gays differently from straight people. So, conservatives want to give gays more rights but not the right to simply marry.

In the heated exchange of arguments - which know by heart if you come from the U.S. and some other countries - the term Home-Ehe plays a pivotal role.

We use the hyphenated version for easy understanding of the term's origins. Homo is short for homosexuell (homosexual in English), and Ehe is marriage. While the new compound appears logical, there is a catch. The catch is that the neutral word "homosexuell" has been made into the noun "Homo", which on its own has been used as a derogatory term among the many even more pejorative terms in this Duden dictionary entry.

Little wonder then that many in the German LGBT community, as well as straight ass folks at the K-Landnews, do not like the term Homo-Ehe.

For that same reason, many in the camp of "classical marriage" kind of like the term, after all, you can appear reasonable and still convey negative emotions with admitting them.
They do have a point. The term Homo-Ehe is used across the main media outlets and across the mainstream political spectrum. And German being the language it is, there is no convenient, short, happy replacement a term more accurately and legally called gleichgeschlechtliche Ehe (German for same-sex marriage).

LGBT folks and their allies ask why there is any need to call it Homo-Ehe in the first place. If it is the same as any other marriage, you don't need to differentiate, do you?

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy Holidays by numbers: 420 and 175, where the 175 is the number German gays and lesbians used to pay attention to.

Monday, May 25, 2015

83 year old German man to be moved to old folks home for G7 summit

Got to hand it to the Germans, they know how to seal off an area. Specifically, a wide area surrounding a hotel in the southern Bavarian alps where the G7 economic summit will be hosted in early June.

The luxury hotel, spiffed up with some taxpayer money just to make sure it is really comfy has a cottage right on the hotel grounds next to a busy pedestrian path between two buildings.

And this cottage has been the home of 83 year old Mr. Haase for the past 50 years. His late wife and he both worked at the hotel for decades and were given lifelong residency rights to the cottage. 

Now that the most powerful politicians of the Western world are due to move in for a short time, Mr. Haase has to move temporarily into an old folks home, a fact that worries him a little.

A minor inconvenience you say?

If so, you don't know much about the legal situation of the elderly in Germany. Around here, social services and doctors have quite the power to get old folks placed into a care home. They do have to justify it to a court, but judges really defer to the professionals. And if you live at home and have someone look after you several times a week, as is the case with Mr. Haase, it does not need much for those professionals to claim you need full time care in a home.
German social services (hospitals, old folks homes, rehab clinics) run a battery of tests on elderly patients to determine if they are able to live on they own. Only recently, a 90 year old neighbor underwent this after breaking a leg at home. They let her return to her house, but then she can beat some 50 year olds at memory and coordination tests. Fail, and you stay.

That's why Mr. Haase's worries are not as unfounded as you might think.

As said above, the hotel is a luxury hotel, so its everyday clients are already a cut above the rest of us. How does the old man handle the proximity to the upper crust when the spotlight of the world is not on him?

I keep to myself, he says in the article in Sueddeutsche Zeitung. I don't engage with the hotel customers, but many of them will approach me and chat, they seem to enjoy talking to normal folks.

To us, from a few miles away, it seems that the old man would enjoy sitting on his front porch watching the to and fro, weather permitting, and maybe be happy if the U.S. president or Ms. Merkel took a minute to pop over and say hi.

But that's not how the next few weeks will turn out for him.

Let's hope, the carers at the old folks home don't see a need to keep him there.

And by the way, according to the article no official wanted to explain who and exactly why Mr. Haase had to move.

The most underused eGovernment transparency feature: notifications

If you perform online activities, you encounter notifications in both everyday routine interactions and in emergencies. Some notifications use the telephone system, TV or radio, or road signs.

Common examples include:
1. email notification when a password is changed on an email or a social media account
2. email notification that a new credit card bill is available, in online banking
3. alerts on TV and radio (tornadoes, disasters)
4. popup windows in software, such as for a new program version or a computer virus alert
5. newsletters or digests (consolidated information)
6. newsletters and alerts from a school
7. alerts on digital road signs (Amber alerts, "vamos Argentina" soccer match alerts, bear and zombie warnings)

For a pretty good summary of notifications, see this Wikipedia page.

If you are a very social person, have a family, a few club memberships and do lots of shopping online, you may at times feel swamped by the number of notifications and alerts you receive.

Nowadays, even most government agencies send out newsletters and Twitter messages in addition to letting you view and pay bills and taxes online.

So, why would we claim that government does not use notifications well or in a manner that improves transparency?

To understand the claim, we need to talk a little about processes or "workflow".  They are not exactly the same but close enough for the purpose of this post and they mean "the steps performed to get something done".

The whole world consists of workflows! From getting up in the morning and making a coffee to the steps you just took to arrive on this web page, workflows are everywhere.
Some are highly regulated and mandatory (and if you don't like them, you often call these bureaucratic), others are less strict (for example, you generally have a choice of clothes after getting out of bed to get to the coffee machine).

In the old days, you'd take a pencil and a paper and put boxes (description of a step) on it, then draw lines (or arrows), often with intermediate boxes (conditions, branches).

Nowadays, you can scan these documents and publish them on the web, especially if they look like a child's drawing of a spaghetti meal.
For real work, you use specialized software with "swim lanes", start and end points, connectors and all sorts of pieces (often called "lego" blocks but in reality often more like individually handcrafted blocks, the "artisanal" components done by all those software ninjas out there).

Notifications are essential to this software. Notifications can be either between pieces of software without users ever seeing them ("services", "alerts") or from software to human (e.g. "your order is ready") and even from human to software (e.g. send an email with the subject "unsubscribe") make the difference between a system that works and one that does not.

To understand the difference between notifications by government agencies and other entities, let's look at this simple example.

Online order processing
Even the smallest online retailers in the flatlands outside of the  K-Landnews hill country normally send at least these notifications: order confirmation, order fulfillment started, order shipped, feedback request.
If there are problems or delays, you will receive specific additional notifications.

Unless you happen to live in the handful of countries at the cutting edge of eGovernment (such as Estonia), you are pretty much out of luck when it comes to notifications on completed steps within a workflow.
Standard government notifications tend to be "start/end" or one off.
For example, if you eFile your tax return, a message that the return was received will be all you get. After that, you'll get the tax return or a visit by an audit team.
If you pay road tolls electronically, you'll get bill at the end of the month either with or without itemized pay events.

But most importantly, when the government accesses and processes "your" data, you tend to receive no notification whatsoever.

For example, take license plate readers: when you pass a toll booth without paying, your license plate is scanned. The scan performs optical character recognition of the image, takes the recognized license plate and compares it to the state DMV records and finally sends a nastygram to the person or entity shown as the registered owner of the vehicle.

Why don't they send an email or an SMS text to you if they have this contact information in the database?

Especially if the nastygram (pay or else) takes three weeks from the time of the alleged violation to your front door, leaving your wonder where exactly your car was three weeks ago, when you know you have never been to this place a thousand miles away.

Other examples of "why not?" include expiration of an alien registration card in Germany. At the minimum, it is a misdemeanor if it expires and you show up a day later to apply for an extension. They do have at least a phone number and usually also an email address in their databases, so why does nobody program a trigger (two or three lines of code) that reminds you a few before the expiration? Under development in, yes, Estonia.

Germany's new data retention law
Germany is currently rushing through a new law that requires telecom and internet providers to save call data and internet data for up to ten weeks. This is similar to the U.S. Patriot Act Section 215.
While some data can be accessed without telling you about it, the juicy data come with the  requirement to notify the subscriber before accessing the data.
Guess what is happening even before the law is passed?
Some politicians want to do away with this requirement completely while others want to move it to some later date.

The simple point about governments collecting data about your movement (license plate readers, toll cards) and your communications (telephone and internet) is that notification would be extremely easy in the vast majority of cases at almost no cost.

Reasons for not notifying citizens include plain incompetence, stupidity, lots and lots of politics, and a dismal view of humans, neither of which we feel like discussing on this sunny spring day.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Germany's subcontracted precariat: 3 Stripes and you are out?

From our Be careful what you wish for series.

Germany has seen several high-profile strikes in recent months. Train drivers (engineers), postal workers, and child day care workers have engaged in work stoppages.

None of these has been resolved yet, so we cannot talk about the long term effects.

We have heard one joke, though, which we would like to share: One mother says to another: I'll have a hard time scheduling due to the kindergarten strike, you too?
I'll be just fine, my husband is train driver.

These three groups of employees have two crucial things in common: they are unionized, and their work affects large groups of people.

The work from home office wonk who complains about not being able to take the train to work in the unlikely case that he should feel a desire for personal office presence is merely your stereotypical cuddled citizen.

This sort of lifestyle complaints very much highlights public discourse in a modern industrial country and starkly contrasts with the few reports about the life of the German precariat.

We had to do some research to understand how Germany has developed Europe's biggest low wage labor market in the 21st century. Deregulation has led to the rise of temp and subcontractor agencies, social cuts have taken away much of the job security previous generations enjoyed. Wages, not only in low skills jobs, were further brought down by the European Union's free movement of people policy. Add the rise of industry in countries euphemistically called the developing world plus the fear of downward social mobility (2005 unemployment was ca. 5 million, 2015 is under 3 million), and the rise in the number of low paid, short term jobs becomes more plausible.

Today, German ZEIT Online has a long, depressing article about work in a logistics center of German sports gear producer Adidas. Adidas, the company with the 3 stripes logo, was recently named  a top employer by the press.

How do hiring and firing practices, docking of pay, exploitative multi-bed accommodation  with WiFi access at 25 Euros a week, unpaid on-call requirements, "no vacation" block periods, and more practices that sound more like "developing world" than socially advanced first world country co-exist with the pride of being named top employer?

They can co-exist in large part because workers under the latter regime are employed by subcontractors while those enjoying top employer benefits and atmosphere are the privileged ones on the payroll of Adidas.

We suggest you read the ZEIT article (use Google translate to get a decent English version) for details.

We will henceforth use the image "3 stripes and you are out" in the K-Landnews basement newsroom.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Irish: the Italians of the North with an extra dose of anti-authoritarianism

Galway International Airport, Republic of Ireland, some time ago.

A single story rectangular brick building, a single straight conveyor belt no loner than five meters that goes through a square hole in the wall and doubles as both check-in and baggage claim area.

Through the plastic strips marking the boundary between the building and the runway area you can see a farm tractor with a small trailer, the baggage shuttle to and from the plane.
The driver might also man the control tower, for all you know. In front of the building is the parking area and a single sign Arrivals/Departures.

The passenger planes to and from Dublin, on the other side of the island, are small propeller planes, the kind with the best passenger to flight attendant ratio ever: 15 to 1 or so.

To the blogster, Galway International Airport is one of the symbols of how this small country on the edge of the Atlantic sees itself in the modern world. Everything you need is there, just smaller, not fancy, somewhat tongue in cheek.

Dublin, on the other hand, is where they play at Celtic Tiger, where the houses are modern, where those who were successful in the U.S. flaunt their money, where those who grabbed the first major European headquarters of an American software giant from under the nose of Switzerland live very comfortably, and where you catch a plane to Heathrow Airport in London.

At Heathrow, the gates to Dublin are an awfully long walk away from the security check area. So far away through many doors and narrow corridors that the blogster thought more than once, well, maybe some airport planers sought revenge for Ireland kicking out the British after the Easter Rising. Might as well make them walk to Dublin.

It took the blogster no more than a week before nicknaming the Irish "Italians of the North". Don't let the free flowing beer and the Gaelic (after lots of beer) fool you. Get to know them a bit, and the nickname should become understandable. Oh, and it is meant as a compliment.
The Romans did not realize this, to them the place was so unattractive that they called it Hibernia and stayed away.

Maybe you'll run into an academic who will explain that Bono, the front man of U2, is not really Irish because his ancestors came as leaders of the invading English a few centuries ago. Or you might share a beer, even if you don't like beer, with an earnest young man who explains that the infamous potato famine that killed so many Irish in the West and drove so many to emigrate was accompanied by booming exports of wheat in the East.
Or you might share a beer with a short, wiry, smiling man who single handedly prevented an Israeli tank column from crossing a bridge into Southern Lebanon when he was with the Irish UN peacekeepers in Lebanon. I just stood in the middle of the bridge, I just could not let them through. 

After your first day in Ireland, there is a chance that you have gone through all four seasons in what is considered a normal year elsewhere.

The ruthlessness of the Catholic church in Ireland, even more extreme than in many other countries, may have been in part an inadvertent acknowledgement of the Irish attitude towards authority. Like in Italy, authority is subject to almost daily renegotiation.

If the outcome of the Irish vote on same sex marriage is indeed the Yes it appears to be according to early tallies, attribute this in part to a keen sense of "live and let live if there is no harm in it".

Friday, May 22, 2015

Double government productivity for 9.99 per worker

Note: If you are an underpaid and way overworked government employee, you may find the title unfriendly or even offensive. Please bear with me, this post is about your lazy co-worker next door.

Ever since the first 24/7 streaming webcams appeared on the web, the blogster thought, wow, we should have one of these in every government office.

This also explains the high price of 9.99 per worker. Today, you can get them for 2.99 or less if you buy in bulk. 

Now that police body cams are all the rage, why not go further and make all of government more transparent? Wouldn't you love to see how the IRS processes your tax return, or how the break room at your least favorite agency is packed much of the day while the counters are understaffed?

If you like more interesting work environments, hey, maybe you'd be able to catch a utility worker watching porn while splicing cables.

Or think of a camera in the office of state governor Mr. C. - how long do you think it would take for that one to be nicknamed "empty chair cam"?

Unlike 20 years ago, there are almost no technical hurdles that would amount to a violation of privacy. The office cams would not have sound capability. Software today is more than capable to automatically fuzz faces, which would also prevent lip reading, protecting both the employees and visitors.

Cameras for all hierarchies would level the playing field, as they say.  Why, for example, should a cop on the beat be watched while the commissioner is not?

Why should the personnel at the counters of the DMV be on camera all day (faces not fuzzed, by the way) while the chief sits in the office picking his nose?

Fuzzing out the face would also eliminate the grossing out caused by nose picking recorded for posterity.

Of course, there are certain sensitive job activities where employees would object to being recorded, such as locker rooms at a VA hospital and such. That's obviously exempt.

We might see many a governor's office be declared a locker room, or at least attempts to do so, but there are ways to make such maneuvers less appealing. For example, the duck approach: if it doesn't look like a locker room, it's not a locker room. Or, if the governor insists, he should have to change in front of the cam for six months or least least 50 times before the status of the office gets adjusted.

The above examples have been U.S. centric, so we would like to add a few international ones.

In some countries, bribes are common, so why not have an exchange of envelopes on camera? You can still claim it was a stack of forms for a building application or some other permit.
In other countries, acts of physical violence, or ad-hoc torture, would be likely to plummet, turning urban wasteland into the great Mr. Roger's Neighborhood.

Why are we so sure we could vastly improve government productivity by installing office cams?

That would be because the blogster worked in government. Not sure in which of the nine lives of the Twitter profile - number four or five, depends. Yes, twice as productive as the runner up, four times as productive as the lazy co-worker.

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy The Men Who Stare at Votes.

American city life: white and living "in the hood"

From our People-are-People series.

As Ferguson, MO, Baltimore, MD, and other cities make news around the world you can rightly wonder what life is like in deprived neighborhoods, especially if you only know them from TV or movies.

A white friend back in the U.S. once told us how she began life in a black city neighborhood.
She had just had a bad breakup and had to move out, the small company she worked at had reduced work hours to avoid layoffs, you get the idea.

So, I looked for a place I could afford, and all there was was this small apartment in "the hood". I took it, I was a bit worried but it seemed the only way forward. Two friends helped me move in. Not that I owned much, we were done within a couple of hours.
I made dinner for us, we share a bottle of wine, and they left. The move itself hadn't been much work at all, but I was tired from the stress. I set the alarm, I had to go to work in morning. After I glanced at the bullet hole in the ceiling one last time - did I mention there was bullet hole in the ceiling - I went to bed.

A hard, repeated knock on the apartment door woke me up. It was a few minutes after four in the morning. My heart started to race, I wanted to ignore the knocking but it didn't stop. So, I got up and opened the door just an inch or so. Right in front of me there is this black dude, he is tall, like at least 6'5, and with big dreadlocks. "I'm sorry, he goes, I didn't mean to wake you in the middle of the night, but your keys are in the door."
I looked down, and sure enough, my keys were in the door, worse than not locking the door, leaving your keys in for everybody to see. The dude and I talked for a few minutes, he was on his way to work.

That was my first night in the hood. I lived there for about a year, and of course, some bad things happened in this deprived neighborhood. But I did fine, and people talked to each other and kept an eye out for each other. One day, for example, I came home from work and this drug dealer who hung out on the corner all the time stopped me and explained he had seen a white who had obviously checked out my apartment two days in a row while I was at work. He described him really well, I guess that's part of the job description, and I realized it was my friend Jim from upstate, who had said he'd be in town later that month, and that he'd stop by.

A bullet hole in the ceiling of the apartment is no problem. It can't hurt you because the shot has already been fired.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Times past: a grub hut & German as a language in science

If you have enjoyed the German visa regulation that basically says "no German skills - no visa" *, let's take a moment to express our sympathy to them about the loss of the German language as an important language of science.

Up until less than 100 years ago, even after World War I, Germany was such a scientific powerhouse that its somewhat unwieldy language was no obstacle to the attraction of its universities and research institutes.
In today's world, the vast majority of advanced German research is published in English. If you don't, nobody will read it, said a scientist some 40 years ago.

But science is also forgiving in that some German terms and concepts from the heydays of German research are still around for specialists all over the world to enjoy or grapple with.

A couple of easy examples: Mr. Bunsen's burner is a tool chemistry students love. Mr. Roentgen's X rays found an unexpected refuge in the English language when the German's went all proud and renamed them to Roengtenstrahlen (Roentgen rays). In mathematics, students learn about eigenvectors and eigenvalues. Note that there an eigenvector in the equations you can use to compute the movement of your tongue when you pronounce "eigen". Just saying.

A while ago we were working our way through the complete British archeology series Time Team when one of the team resolved a term we had heard on the show many times: grub hut.

To any American, grub is a colloquial term for food, and since the archeologists had explained grub huts were ancient houses with a dug out cellar feature for storage, we had happily - and mistakenly - assumed the grub house was something like archeology slang for a pit dwelling, you know, people live and eat there.

Then, out of the blue, an archeologist pointing, as so often, at one of John Gater's geophys results, said "this here could be a grub house, which comes from the German Grubenhaus..."

Oh, my, Grube is German for pit or dug out, Haus, of course, is house.

The Grubenhaus Ersatz grub hut is one of the leftovers from German archeology's better days. 

* Exceptions apply, so many exceptions in fact that going through the list tells you more about the German government views of foreigners than you want to know.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The other BMI crucial to sexiness of the dad bod BMI: the Bank Money Index

Praise of the dad bod has made its way around the world. Even middle of the road conservative German papers bring happy dad bod news.

The enlightened Western male is paying lip service to the mom bod - well, not that kind of lip service - and does some thigh slapping, all the while ignoring that the dad bod BMI (Body Mass Index) is not sexy without that other corresponding high BMI, the Bank Money Index.

If you have been suspicious about the sudden love of soft bellied males, study the Twitter messages and the talk on TV, and you will come to the same conclusion as our research.

A low or zero Bank Money Index means your dad bod BMI is perceived the same way as it was just weeks ago: a sad loser with no money, no future, no will power in a Whole Foods desert. This version of the human male is seen at a gym only as the janitor, and no one cares how many mops you can bench press.

Not all is lost for low or zero Bank Money Index males, though, you may be able to partially substitute it with another BMI, the Brain Matter Index. So, if you are super smart but a low earner, certain social environments still reward you for this BMI. Artists of all persuasions with a high Brain Matter Index do well with the other sex, or with the same, too.

But if you are a dad bod and draw SSI in some rural parts of the US or Europe, a high Brain Matter Index won't make much of a difference.

While the Brain Matter Index is tied to other factors like the one just mentioned, a high Bank Money Index requires no further support. It does not matter whether you achieve it selling luxury toilet seats or luxury automobiles, whether you breed pigs or are an undertaker.

There are two more BMIs we would like to address, the Blunt Moron Index and, for the younger males, the Boner Masturbation Index.

The Blunt Moron Index is the most detrimental of all BMIs, totally annihilating your dad bod BMI unless you possess a Bank Money Index that is off the stock charts, as in hundreds of millions of dollars.

A high Boner Masturbation Index indicates virility and stamina, both desirable dad bod enhancements. But telling a prospective partner about it requires a light touch. You must not brag, especially with other males within hearing distance. Experts advise to not mention the Boner Masturbation Index before a first mutually satisfying erotic encounter.

What does the future hold for the dad bod?
Those males with a high corresponding Bank Money Index will be insulated - by the cash, not the blubber - from the inevitable swing towards the universal six pack in a few months from now.
All others are well advised to join a gym now in order to be ahead of the curve.

The dad bod conspiracy theory
There have been rumors that the dad bod as the new sexy male is an invention of a coalition of hard core lesbians and roid damaged former body builders. This is pure nonsense. Roid damaged former body builders can not benefit much from the dad bod if they can not find the "utility parts" any more.
The guys of the IT department have nothing to do with it either.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Farewell to that filthy, messy token of freedom: Cash

The basement news room of the K-Landnews was abuzz this weekend as we unwittingly landed on the print mag teaser page of German white collar dad bot weekly Spiegel Online and found a German econ prof calling on the government to end the use of cash.

We must emphatically state that the scantily clad young lady on this week's Spiegel cover had absolutely nothing to do with this.

It was a Twitter link that took us to the professor's invocation of the digital future of money.

Get me a eulogy on cash, said TheEditor, let's beat the big boys to it. Make it spiffy, not like the sad BitCoin proponents who falsely claimed they had a currency that would stick it to the man. Write about digital money as the wet dream of an authoritarian freak show couched in convenience and safety. Don't forget to push the angle of fecal bacteria on bank notes for that French frisson feeling.

Don't you, dear readers, think we have tough life in the basement with an editor like that? Surprise - many real life editors seem to be just like ours, but we digress.

We wrote about BitCoin, the first digital money which managed to grab the attention of the public at large. We even like the concept, so why would we lament the demise of cash?

Haven't we been using credit an debit cards for decades already? Even checks are not really cash, and they have been around much longer. And most of the money newly created by central banks comes into being as a few keystrokes on a computer keyboard, right?
The great cashless pioneers of Sweden and Denmark are doing just fine, right?

The widely quoted economists who have been calling for an outright ban of cash, the likes of Mr. Rogoff, Mr. Summers, and That German Guy, more or less say the same:

1. Cash needs to be produced, transported, administered
2. No cash means drying out illegal commerce (under the table work, drugs, prostitution, tax evasion)
3. Measures of central banks become much more effective when there are no hoards of stuffed mattresses.

When did you last shop at a place with a big CASH ONLY sign in the window? How did you feel about it - indifferent, oh how quaint, what they don't want my cards?

The other day, we found ourselves standing in front of a shop that said CARDS ONLY. It was an odd feeling given that they sold nothing but rubber ducks. Shelves of all kinds of rubber ducks, no price labels, and a fat CARDS ONLY sign - the kind of useless consumerism flourishing in waves in the big city. Like the long defunct fresh cookies shops, only with fewer calories.

Imagine this: no place whatsoever takes cash, no bank gives you cash.

Don't worry, it is harder than it looks.

Of the basic arguments above, we leave 2 and 3 for you to examine. Argument 1, though, is interesting in that it is both obvious and disingenuous. Even if you have never heard of or been been affected by the strange doings of credit card companies, here is an obvious but unstated factoid.

You can claim transaction fees on cashless buys actually result in money "losing value". Take a 50 dollar bill and spend it. The merchant has 50 USD in the register and can spend 50 USD on new stock.

Spend 50 USD on a credit card purchase. The merchant has somewhere around 48.5 USD in the register, the rest goes to the card processing fee. The merchant can spend 48.5 USD on new stock.
Since a 50 dollar bill has a lifetime of about 8.5 years, you can do some math to figure out how much it costs to keep the bill in circulation.

Of course, if you pay cash, the merchant has to count it and take it to the bank, which costs time and gas, but you simply do not spend the equivalent of 1.5 dollars on counting one 50 dollar bill and on gas to take it to the bank.

Poor people know this. In the US, many states give out "food stamps" as debit cards, making it so that the poor get charged fees and preventing them from spending money on frivolous items like cigarettes or alcohol. Illegal commerce at its finest.

A fully cashless society has all the trappings of a potentially authoritarian nightmare for large groups of people unless you are incredibly optimistic.

But ask yourself: if all the drug users bought their dope with a credit card and society, for the first time ever, would see the unvarnished reality of drug use and find who makes millions and billions off of the trade, would that make us a more just and empathetic society?
Would the absence of cash change large scale tax evasion, which is already cashless, hidden by mazes of companies, today? 

The K-Landnews team decided not to do a farewell to that filthy, messy token of freedom quite yet.

Instead, we are thinking of buying lots of silver bullion and investing into an old fashioned stamping machine to make our own cold, hard cash in the future. Alternatively, maybe collecting candy is a better idea. After all, Italians did just fine in the late 20th century when they had a shortage of coins and merchants would give you small change in the form of candy.

[Update 2/3/2016]
It's getting serious. According to a new report, the German government want to limit cash transactions to 5000 Euros. The reason? Terror financing, of course, and a changed world after the November 2015 Paris attacks.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The thrill of stuff stamped "secret" - can researchers put spooks in an MRI, please

It's been almost two years since a young American citizen decided to share a trove of documents with journalists and the world. We cannot even begin to list the tons of paper and terabytes of articles, postings and tweets that sloshed around the planet on the subject since.

Yet, one aspect nobody has written about is this: how do secrets feel to those who work with them, what - if any - are the psychological effects of this kind of work on those who perform it? Are there differences between countries and cultures, as frequently claimed as a result of Germany's two regimes in the 20th century?

If you have synesthesia, the condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway, you could say, for example, this or that document tastes like strawberries while that one tastes like a hotdog.

But that's not what we mean. We mean how do secrets feel to all the Joe Normals and the Jane Does who handle them on a daily basis?

There is no single standard correct answer but a few points are common enough.

First of all, there is a process involved in obtaining the authorization to work with the stuff, the background check. Seen as an administrative process, it means forms to fill out, signing a ton of disclosure authorizations, asking friends or relatives if they are willing to talk to officials, having an interview or two, maybe a polygraph in some jurisdictions.

The psychology of this, however, is very much like an initiation ritual. It may or may not involve mild jokes from said friends as in "really?", "so you gonna save the world now?". 
There may be moments you feel like the first time you took a shower at school after PE.
When your boss explains the process, he or she may sound a bit like a parent alluding to changes to your teenage self a few years ago without going into details.

Let's assume the process is uneventful.

There are known instances when it was not, for example, as we recounted elsewhere, in the case of Old Mustached German (OMG) who was told by two of his references how a bored East German intelligence guy barged into an intimate telephone conversation they had a few months after OMG's intensive check for a top secret clearance had started. 

Usually the process ends with more paperwork. Boring but important stuff like you stating that nothing which could impact the clearance has happened since the background check started, a list of obligations and of bad things that could happen if you don't keep your mouth shut. 

The first week or so, a document with the stamp will probably elicit curiosity, even a tingling feeling of expectation but this goes away quickly once you realize that the stamp says nothing at all about the importance of the contents. One document might decide a war if it got into the wrong hands, another of the same classification is utter trash concocted by a self-important boss.

Some people, mostly male and mostly with a military background, hang on to the cowboy good guy image forever. Take the colonel at the cage, for example, who loudly complimented the private in the cage for telling him "sir, you are not authorized for access" despite the fact that he, the colonel, had not attempted to access the floor behind the cage.
"I was transferred effective yesterday", the colonel boomed, "and look how they are on the ball."  What other verifiable effects or issues are there?

Would it be correct or incorrect to claim that some of the selection and self-selection for these jobs is a bit flawed in the direction of clearance trumps qualifications? Or could it just be a subset of the generic personality trumps qualifications?

In politics, of course, stamping stuff secret has many mind blowing advantages, including the option of withholding information from rivals, buying journalists with leaks, and deniability in the form of wonderful statements along the lines of "I'd love to talk about this and share details but, unfortunately, this information is classified."

Can we measure effects on the personality of people who work with secrets all the time?  Why not run a bunch of them through an MRI to see how they tick? We have done it with taxi drivers and people engaged in intercourse, with workers doing night shifts for a decade and a whole host of others, so give us some science.

And finally, a practical question: How should average civilians like us handle people who claim prior work under the shield of the stamp or the cover sheet?

The answer to this is very simple: ask for a photocopy of the badge or "the" paper.
Ever since the advent of the photocopier, very few people have been able to resist making a copy of the badge or "the" paper. Just ask, unless you know his or her name from the newspaper.

You can't make this up: the farce of banning German right-wing NPD

A coalition of German states is trying once again to have the right-wing National Democratic Party (NPD) banned by Germany's highest court.

Since 2000, there have been a grand total of three attempts to outlaw the NPD. The party is your regular German far right bunch with all the accoutrements this entails. They hate immigrants unless they are good white European ones, many still believe that the Third Reich had its good sides - you get the picture.

Wikipedia says: Since its founding in 1964, the NPD has never managed to win enough votes on the federal level to cross Germany's 5% minimum threshold for representation in the Bundestag; it has succeeded in crossing the 5% threshold and gaining representation in state parliaments 11 times, including the current parliament in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

The NPD has been consistently monitored by the German domestic spy services, both federal and state level ones ("Office for the protection of the constitution" is our best translation of these agencies).

This post does not delve into whether banning the NPD is justified or not, or whether it is an attempt to demonstrate action against the extreme right after the domestic spy agencies failed miserably for a good ten years to help resolve a string of murders by the neo-Nazi NSU.

The subject today is the use of informants and the view of the constitutional court.

In 2003, the court rejected the request for a ban when it turned out the domestic spy agencies had top level informants inside the NPD but failed to inform the court of this.

Fast forward to the current attempt to ban the NPD.

Today, the German press reports that the domestic spies had 11 informants in the national and state leadership organizations of the party until early 2012 when the relationships were "terminated" by officials prior to filing again for a ban.

There is no information about lower level informants.
Are there any?
How much are informants paid?

We know that one informant close to the murderous NSU was paid around 100 K, for example, some of which he promptly used to support extreme right causes.

No matter whether the NPD is eventually banned or not, the farce around informants is bound to continue.

Because informants are likely to be used again either way.

If a ban comes, the party becomes illegal and hence a clear target for use of informants.

If the ban falls through, informants can be re-activated unless the court expressly forbids their use. Which is unlikely given that, for example, the left party Die Linke has been actively monitored by the domestic spies.

You can't make this up, right?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

German postal service using civil servants to break strike?

Postal workers are on strike in Germany. We won't explain what the strike is about because it is fairly complicated. Allegations of management putting pressure on striking workers and indicating to people on limited contracts that participation will "have consequences" are also not primary considerations of this post.

Our interest was piqued by news that Deutsche Post DHL is using civil servants in addition to temporary hires to keep up a minimum level of ooperations.

Civil servants?

That's indeed the case, and it goes back to the history of Deutsche Post DHL.

Like in most of Europe, Germany's postal service, including telecom, was a government operation until the 1980s/1990s privatization of these entities.
While the government still owns some shares today, the vast majority of the company shares are privately owned, and it is run like any other company.

The Germans had a personnel problem when they wanted to privatize the postal service, the telecom and the railroads: the special class of civil servants called "Beamte".
These workers have a privileged status in Germany. They do not have the right to strike and in return they cannot be laid off (unless convicted of a crime that entails at least one year in jail), they don't contribute to a pension plan (the taxpayer pays), their health insurance is better, they typically start right after school and don't leave until retirement.

This status is enshrined in Germany's post-War constitution, making privatization quite a challenge.

So, the government created new entities, colloquially called "holding companies", which then gave the workers to the newly formed private companies in return for their salaries.

While this happened some twenty or so years ago, it means that a good number of employees of the current  Deutsche Post DHL still have the status of Beamte civil servants.

Which means they cannot go on strike.

It is not quite a god sent, unless you equate god with government, but pretty nice to have when faced with a strike and the need to manage temporary hires to run things.

When the use of the civil servants in other than their normal jobs was reported, Deutsche Post said this was done on a "strictly voluntary base". Even though Beamte have enkjoyed the reputation of always doing what they were told to do, there is no reason to doubt Deutsche Post.

It's simply great fun to explain how beneficial this historical quirk turned out decades later.

Train drivers were on strike last week, and, guess what, the trains that were still running were manned by Beamte of the old government railroad company.  Some voices even called for making all train drivers civil servants again.

[Update 9/2015] The strike ended in early July, after four weeks, but the backlog of undelivered mail lasted more than two weeks, as this report of 21 July indicates.

Climate Skeptic? Stop bitching and start helping

If you are a "climate skeptic", we have some great news for you.

You can now use electricity generated mostly with fossil fuels to help study climate change models without leaving the comfort of that air conditioned home.

Let's take a step back and explain. 

Much of modern science depends on vast amounts of computing power, and there never seems to be quite enough of it.

So, some years ago, scientists looked at the internet and thought, well, there are millions of computers sitting around in private homes or small companies without doing much work at all. Wouldn't it be great if we could enlist some in a distributed scheme for science?

They set out to break computation tasks down into small bits which could be distributed to computers all around the world and then reassembled into the large jigsaw. If you follow popular science programs, for example NPR's Science Friday, you may have heard about projects like protein folding or computations for the CERN particle collider.

Unfortunately, the initial efforts turned out to be very sciency or very geeky, if you will. If you were not a geek or did not the correct make and version of machine and operating system, your efforts often failed outright.

In 2015, this has changed, and you should try again or try for the first time. You still need some patience but chances are you can get beyond a cryptic setup failure and start contributing to science.

UC Berkeley is my favorite starting point. They have a software package called BOINC for managing a tremendous variety of open source and grid computing projects.

Install Boinc, create an account, and marvel at the selection of projects you can choose from.

For climate skeptics, we recommend the Oxford University Climate Study Project.

See, you don't have to build a coal roller to prove your skeptic cred.

Just fire up your computer and let her run for a few days on a climate modeling job.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Lessons from the Seymour Hersh story

Veteran journalist Seymour Hersh's London Review of Books article The Killing of Osama bin Laden has caused a minor meltdown in the news.

Yet, we could have read the basic bullet points [pun intended] as early as August 2011 under the heading Bin Laden turned in by informant - courier was cover story.

This was a blog post by R.J. Hillhouse, one of my favorite Michigan ladies. Even before Hillhouse, others spoke up, for example former CIA operative Robert Baer.

Despite these and other reports, Mr. Hersh's piece was attacked from many sides. One of the most infamous hit jobs was delivered by online site VOX.
Vox represented something of a template for others: no new facts countering Mr. Hersh, the sloppiest of research (dates wrong in the first version) plus famous conspiracy critic Cas Sunstein thrown in.
Next on the slightly more credible nay-sayer side was CNN expert Bergen, the man who claims too have written "the book on bin Laden", who claims Mr. Hersh wrote nonsense.

Only with NBC reporting that there might be some truth to Hersh and with the New York Times saying a detail rings true, did a little bit of sanity return to the debate.

Lesson 1: ad hominem rules the day
You can publish almost whatever you want but as soon as important people or some larger publication notices, be prepared for the "kook attack" - you being accused of being the kook.
In the case of Mr. Hersh, there is a strong element of ageism. I am sure if you ask him, he will be the first one to caution about potential unfavorable consequences of getting old but don't ever underestimate a well functioning older mind.

Lesson 2: it not what is said but who said it
While some media outlets, including the New York Times and TheIntercept, mentioned the Hillhouse blog, they did not go as far as our statement.
It took a journalist with the credentials of Mr. Hersh to make the rest of the media and the politicians pay close attention.

Lesson 3: framed in terms of liberals vs. conservatives, pro- & anti-president
The New Republic came up with a neat quadrant phrasing the debate in these terms. Of course, the quadrant looks persuasive, and it fits into the simple left-right paradigm of reporting.

We prefer the circle graph shown in this posting by journalism professor J. Rosen.

A lot of people are hard at work trying to push Mr. Hersh into the "Sphere of deviance".

Lesson 4: avoiding the hard questions
Funny how media outlets perform wild speculation but stop short of asking relevant questions. But one of our Michigan ladies interjected a nice one:  While we're obsessing abt Hersh, anyone started wondering whether Zawahiri has limited movement under ISI's guidance?

One more thing:
Though not essential to this post, here is our take on Mr. Hersh: the President himself spoke of cooperation with Pakistan when he arrived at the podium after his "victory strut". An obvious giveaway was the photo of old bin Laden in front of an old screen - an old man, probably suffering from Parkinson's or one of the other "shaking diseases".

But we are willing to listen to adherents of the official story if you can assure us you looked for the people who turned off the electricity that night and could not find them.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Men Who Stare at Votes

From our Movie-Titles-With-Meaning series.

We wanted to do a post with a title that plays on the movie The Men Who Stare at Goats since 2009.

Goats - Votes, there is much more than phonetics at work here, hollered the K-Landnews TheEditor. Don't you see the obvious similarities between a bunch of billy goats kicking, punching and pissing on their face and any modern day electoral campaign?, it** continued while it reached for a glass of yellowish liquid on its desk. Oh. you frigging morons, it said as it noticed our looks, that is stale Mountain Dew from earlier today. Waste not, want not.

The reason why we did not dare to go ahead with the post is, you guessed it, George Clooney. Reading this post about politicians and pollsters without having the image of George Clooney somewhere between the lines is impossible.

How could it not be?

Did we just compare old and new British PM David Cameron to George Clooney? No, no, and no.

But see, that's the kind of trouble you create when you want to use a funny movie title.

Modern election campaigns have many of the elements of the goats movie, campaigns try to hypnotize you into selecting their brand, they use more trigger words than the Manchurian Candidate, they are MK-ULTRA minus the acid, a drum circle at midnight without the cute dancers.

Worst of all, once the polling stations close, the non voting population gets a few mentions and a few standard articles with the same worn out pretend worries about democracy, and then they are forgotten until the next election cycle.

Some countries have mandatory voting and get decent participation, most don't care, and participation seems to decrease pretty much across the board.

We have a simple, workable solution which resolves the problem of billion dollar campaign spending at the same time.

Every voter gets enrolled in a lottery funded by a measly 1% of the campaign money, apportioned in chunks of a million dollars, or Euros. One percent of the projected US 2016 presidential election spending of 10 billion creates a small town full of new millionaires!

The 50% or more of the population who do not vote because "it doesn't change anything anyway" would have to think twice about this argument.

We know it is far fetched. Having seen how voter rolls get cleaned out when there is no give-away for voters makes it much more likely that such a lottery would be accompanied by an even greater effort to keep the undeserving from voting.

The most thrilling experiment in democracy would be to make the job as head of state part of the lottery winnings, say, first prize. Taking the ego out of running for head of state might be nice, but more importantly, as history has shown over and over, anybody can run a country if their support staff is minimally competent.

** TheEditor insists on a gender neutral form of address.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Ambidextrous: when the left hand knows what the right hand does

There are right-handed humans and left-handed humans, and then there those who are equally adept in the use of both left and right.  Wikipedia says "People that are naturally ambidextrous are uncommon, with only one out of one hundred people being naturally ambidextrous."

Imagine a child using a standard pair of scissors with its left hand in a craft project, switching a saw from right to left and back, pasting, gluing and finally putting on finishing touches of color. Every once in a while, the older or younger sibling working on the same project will hand over a piece of thin plywood and ask for help.

The supervising grandmother looks on and never comments.

It is natural and unremarkable to the child: that's how things are done.

The fact that the sibling cannot guide the saw smoothly around the left side curves of the clown figure you are making has no meaning other than you feeling good you can help.

As the child gets older and begins to write, first with a pencil then a pen, the adults tell it to use the right hand, and the child complies. For the next ten or so years, writing is the only activity performed exclusively with the right hand.

Other manual activities are performed with either hand, without ever thinking about or hearing about a "normal" way of doing something.

Manually sawing fire wood or chopping wood is vastly more productive when you can simply switch hands if you get tired. Work with that side until you get tired, switch, continue until that arm is starting to feel sore, switch back, and so on.

Threading a needle from the left can make the difference between frustration and satisfaction.

A game of table tennis with either your left or your right is not only fun, the teen notices. Best of all, you can totally upset the game of your opponent when the bat is in one hand on the way out and in the other as the opponent lobs the ball back to you.

Yet, even as you notice that you can do things differently, it still remains utterly, blandly, normal.

As time passes, life gets busy, you forget about being ambidextrous not long after you learned the word in school. At the same time, creating things with your hands becomes rare.

More than a decade later, when talking about the first nephew getting ready to go to kindergarten, your mother lets slip that her parents trained her to use her right hand instead of her left.

You feel a little sad for her on the drive home.

Then you realize that you are steering the car with only your left hand.

And you smile.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Spies Gone Wild - German edition

You may only have heard about the meandering German spy "scandal" when you read that Austria had filed a criminal complaint after German papers reported that the BND (German foreign intelligence agency) did some spying on Austria as part of the German cooperation with the American NSA.

The K-Landnews have been fairly quiet about the revelations, speculations, in-fighting and finger pointing that have been reported over months.

The reason?

There is not much to say unless you have a keen interest in the goings on of the intelligence world. Today, though, the current German interior secretary will testify in front of the parliamentary investigative committee whose work has been at the heart of many of the discoveries of the past year.

And we will give you a summary of what he will say before he takes the stand!

Cooperation between the US and the German intelligence services has a long tradition, and in a world facing as many threats as today it continues to be a pillar of security and stability. The German agencies operate within the law, and whenever problematic issues were brought up, both the executive branch and the parliamentary oversight body have investigated and addressed these issues. Regarding my time as the secretary responsible for intelligence oversight, I can have always been open and can categorically say that we have not overstepped legal boundaries.

This not not verbatim, of course, emphasis may be different, wording will certainly be legally watertight as behooves a JD, but all in all, that's what you will get.

There isn't really more to it because those who support their intelligence folks and those who want answers and ethics could just as well live on different planets.

The lines in the media are well delineated between the two camps, with only egregious temporary outliers on either side making waves. For example, when the news broke that the BND had spied on French politicians and EU institutions on behalf of the NSA for years, a commentator in the middle of the road conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine temporarily lost it and called it utterly unacceptable.
A day or two later, he penned a piece strongly supporting the German agency.

The posting title Spies Gone Wild - German edition is meant to sum up the the intelligence world in easy imagery:
Unless you are a teen, you have seen it before. The initially tantalizing glimpses take on a deja vu quality. The actors change but the scenery and the takes remain pretty much unchanged. Once the cameras are off, everybody returns to their less than exhilarating daily routine.

We end this post with a vintage example of The art of deception, cover letter [scan].

[Update end of day] Pat on the shoulder for our clear understanding of how German politics work. The Germans have an idiom for that: Tarnen, Täuschen, Verpissen.
[End of Update]

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

How good are you at choosing examples for a concept?

Consider yourself lucky if you have never asked yourself the question did I pick a good example to illustrate my point?

In this context, lucky can mean many things, from fortune consistently smiling on you to being in a position of privilege in which hired writers or coaches do all the work for you, from being a natural talent to the sheer dumb luck of never being asked for your opinion in the first place.

The latter is very improbable because people start asking for examples when you are a small child. So, if you have never questioned the choice of an example in your life, "lucky" would be more of a euphemism.

Having established that examples enter human life early and are ubiquitous, let's talk about their importance. We can all agree they have some importance and that their importance depends on the topic of discourse and on the stakes involved, right?

An example for low importance, low stakes?

When your first grade teacher asks for an example of an even number, you can pick any number, starting with the number 2, and your choice is unlimited. Even if you were busy studying the lawn outside of the classroom instead of paying attention to the teacher and make wild guess, you can still come up with a perfect answer 50% of the time.

One for higher importance, higher stakes?

Say you are a high ranking ambitious politician just one step away from the presidency of the most powerful country in the world, and opponents accuse you of taking money and gifts from influential donors, staying just short of calling you corrupt. You give a speech (with or without help from a pro) and explain to the nation how insensitive, how cruel it would be to make your small child give up a dog that was an impromptu gift to you and captured the heart of the little girl. There is a good chance that the choice of the dog as an example for your scrupulous yet human handling of gifts will be a success and become the name under which the long speech is known half a century later, the Checkers Speech.

There are even more dramatic and tremendously important examples, some utterly fake, that made countries go to war and brought death and destruction to millions.

No wonder that entering "how to choose a good example" into a web search engine gives over 80 million hits, with the first four or five pages solely spitting out examples of good passwords, brand names, and documentation keywords.

The grumpy TheEditor of the K-Landnews has its** typical strong opinion. Examples are dangerous, it says, and people may tend to not give them their full due. Yet, examples make or break policies and lives. I won't discuss the merits of a concept without first examining the examples, and if they are fishy or disingenuous, you can take your lofty concept and stick it...

But a concept can be valid, with the example just being a bad choice.

Maybe when you talk about a line of code showing usage of a class, or the size of a screw for an Ikea table, never when you deal with policies and issues that affect large groups of people.

Ikea affects large groups...

Come one, you know what I mean!

The media and citizens often demand examples when changes to existing laws or policies are discussed, and you will notice that whoever is in government loves big "no examples needed" propositions. If you want to be a cynic make everything economic about "prosperity" and everything restrictive about "national security" and you are more than halfway there.

Problems with examples can be funny or frustrating, as the German government found in recent weeks when it announced introduction of a law to retain phone communications metadata (plus mobile website and location data).

The draft says the data are to be used only for resolving "very serious crimes". You know, said proponents, terrorism and organized crime. Then one high ranking conservative added copyright infringement, which kicked off a storm and - just an assumption - an email blast within government telling people to stick to terrorists and pedophiles.

Similarly, the European Union felt the need to demonstrate that the transatlantic trade agreement TIPP would benefit not only international corporations but be great for small companies, too. They published a 10 myths about TIPP flyer, complete with small company benefits. We learned that a small Danish cake maker would see a 60% tariff dropped, that Spanish canned peppers would again be able to compete with peppers from Central and South America, and that the French could sell oysters and the Germans dinner plates.
While factual and correct, the flyer "failed" because of the examples are minute within the context of a trillion dollar trade agreement.

Another example of a thumbs down by the K-Landnews basement newsroom was an article in online magazine Aeon on why people believe conspiracy theories, sadly, not because the concepts discussed there were invalid but because the examples were sloppy.

We end with a question: does this post say something useful about the power of examples?

Did we pick good examples?

** TheEditor insists on gender neutral forms of address.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Creation myths in German media & the authority of the press

German media have been beat up recently by claims of bias, bad reporting, and - for public radio and TV - waste of funds. 

Being called "liars' press" was perceived as particularly hurtful because the Nazis used this epithet with abundance. Despite the insult, this historical context made it easy to defend today's media against the allegation.

The other defense was, of course, the internet, and how it has put the traditional media under huge pressure, causing some publications to fold.

The implication of this argument is if the citizens were just willing to pay for a good product, we'd provide it.

But they cannot be that blunt, in part because public radio and TV are raking in some 8 billion euros a year in fees and fail to make good use of the money. Imagine PBS showing the Super Bowl plus reality shows galore on the public dime.

In the debate, some self critical voices were heard but the statements to this effect invariably included cushioning words like maybe or possibly. And they disappeared after a day anyway.

Some of the nostalgia is very understandable when you look at the years after the end of World War II when the newly democratic members of the press endured hardship in their role of the "fourth estate". For example, a retired reporter told the story of how they had to bring a bag of coal to the newsroom to have some heating in the winter and still worked in their overcoats all day. The fact that many reporters had learned their craft in the 1930s and early 40s fell by the wayside.

The myth of how everybody was equal when the old currency Reichsmark was ditched in favor of the new Deutschmark and everybody was given 40 Deutschmarks in cash to start over. The fact that money in the bank was converted to Deutschmark somehow was never mentioned after the 1960s or so. 

The new radio and television stations to this day claim their organization and goals as modeled to forever avoid the famous Nazi radio propaganda. In the fray, nobody noticed that the announcer who hysterically blared the victory soundtrack of the weekly movie theater newsreel was the same who now touted democratic progress and economic resurgence.

Having overcome physical hardship - and in many cases rather undemocratic training and previous penmanship - German media built a good reputation, brought in a new generation of news people, and felt good about themselves.

Consensus worked. Newly minted journalistic pariah and ex reporter of Frankfurter Allgemeine, Udo Ulfkotte, for example, was present in Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war and witnessed Germans and Americans support Saddam's chemical attacks and took photos. Upon return to Germany, he wrote in a book, he was told to deliver the photos to the German chemical industry association - and complied.

Then came the internet. German media began to freak out and have not stopped since.

While we cannot fix their fears, we can suggest they read this blog entry by journalism professor Jay Rosen on the internet and the authority of the press.

While written with the American media in mind, the concept does fit the German media landscape. too.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

German 4 Dummies: Verantwortung

From our Perfectly-Timed-Explanations series  (formerly Just-Wait-Sh*t-Will-Happen series)

Verantwortung, noun, f., meaning responsibility.

The word Verantwortung may look like a compound because of its length or because you recognize "antwort" (response) in the middle but the online dictionary Duden is silent on the etymology.
Wikipedia does tell us that it is thought to be a translation of the Latin "respondere", which neatly explains "antworten".
The suffix "ung" is used in German to turn a verb into a noun. You can make your own by removing the ending of a verb ("en") and adding "ung". This creates a feminine noun, and with a little bit of luck people will understand what you mean.

The prefix "ver" is noteworthy in that it has a strong meaning of negativity or difficulty. Using a bit of the logic commonly applied by evil philosopher mastermind Heidegger, you take a prefix and play with it. An example is in the post German 4 Dummies: Sensation.
So, take "negative", "difficult", "movement of an object" and the verb "respond" and have fun.

As an abstract concept, Verantwortung requires some explanation, and my personal introduction to its meaning went as follows.

My father and I went to buy a replacement wheel for the family wheelbarrow. As we left the store, he handed me the bag and said: You carry the wheel, I carry the responsibility.

This was one of his better explanations of the world.

Years later, I realized on my own that he had introduced a second level of meaning without telling me.

Someone is left holding the bag. And that someone is not the person who carries the responsibility.

Unlike other abstract concepts, like money or happiness, Verantwortung is mandatory for any career oriented adult. Tied to hierarchy, responsibility grows as you move up. In the workplace, your regular performance reviews will talk more and more about responsibility.

Don't get fooled, though. As long as you still receive a periodical performance review, you don't really have responsibility. In a performance review, the mention of responsibility denotes its absence (take that Heidegger). In terms of dad's explanation, it means you are the one holding the bag.

If you soar and lose the shackles of performance reviews, you have attained the true nirvana of responsibility. You can talk about it all day, you can and will use it to justify any action or inaction.

Feel like annihilating thousands of perfectly good brain cells or thousands of strangers?

Drink responsibly, conduct a responsible foreign policy.

Do we have any advice on what to do with this post?

Hm, how about think responsibly?

Friday, May 1, 2015

Which witch? Walpurgis night pranks fade in Germany

Merriam  Webster has this somewhat roundabout definition: the eve of May Day on which witches are held to ride to an appointed rendezvous.

That would be April 30 for  you and me but the dictionary definition has the great advantage that they won't have to change it if someone adds a day to the month of April, removes a day, or even throws April out of the calendar!

The Encyclopedia Britannica boldly states April 30 and gives details on the countries where the event is celebrated today.

We wanted to know how the tradition is expressed in our southern German hill country and investigated a bit. 

The findings were disappointing, there is not much going on at all. You may see a Halloween clone gaggle of witches in a newspaper photo with a caption on brooms and the Blocksberg mountain up north, but otherwise, nothing really, say the locals.

Then they will launch into crazy tales of yesteryear, stories of heavy drinking, of pranks and at times serious property damage on the night of the witches.

Young men used to roam the small towns and villages from around midnight on April 30 to early light and perform acts of mischief that were then blamed on witches.

Savor that sentence for a second, please.

Can you give us some examples of pranks?

The most benign and most common ones would involve moving objects around that people had not secured for the night, like flower pots, garden tools, construction materials, farm equipment. Any such item would be moved over to a neighbor, hidden in or under something - you get the idea.

A step up, you'd have items removed from supports with tools, for instance shutters or other bolted down objects, and taken as far away as the other end of town, making it time consuming and annoying for the owners to retrieve their stuff.

Then there were elaborate pranks involving a large effort that reached the status of a work of art, if you will. A favorite in this category involved a farm wagon/trailer and a communal baking house: a group of young men disassembled a wagon and reassembled it on top of the steep roof of a standard German communal baking house, some 15 feet up in the air.

A group of its own were pranks that could ostracize people, cause emotional distress or even hurt people. One such distasteful episode was told to us by an old man who chuckled as he explained it. 
They attached two cans of pig blood one of the group had saved when they had butchered a pig at home a few days prior. They had engineered a contraption that attached above window shutters and which would discharge the cans when the shutters were opened.
They stood back and pelted the shutters with gravel until the residents opened first the window, then the shutters.
The cans released their contents, the owner, startled by the liquid, turned around, and his wife screamed as the kids ran.

None of this happens today.

When did it stop and why?

Pranks began to diminish some 20 or 30 years ago. People complained to the police over destructive pranks, there were fewer houses that had stuff lie around, fewer farms. And there was much more to do for youngsters out in the country, they'd hop into their cars and go party in the city, many would move into the cities to go to college or simply to leave the rather constrained rural life.