Monday, August 31, 2015

German political kindergarten: you are the hater, no - you are

My apologies to the precocious kindergarteners who may happen to read this: I know, almost all of you guys have a lot more common sense than adults, especially adults who make money by leading something big, a country, for example.

This supposed conversation between an adult and a kindergarten age child made the rounds on the tiny slivers of the internet we access:

Are there any foreigners in your group?

No, only children.

Mind you, this may or may not have occurred, fact checking on Twitter can be difficult. But it could very well have.

Anyhow, with the increasing number of arson attacks on refugee shelters and residences in Germany, and especially after the scenes of right wing extremists attacking police in a small town of what used to be East Germany, the media have been buzzing with attributions and allegations.

If there is a kindergarten in hell, these allegations, insults, and holier than thou clowns populate it - that's how the blogster imagines it.

First, the German vice chancellor - the one guy in their federal government who actually spoke up as events unfolded - called the demonstrators riffraff (Pack in German).  Which is understandable as an emotional response but not that great. We'll have a word on that later.

Next, pundits and politicians began a mud sling fest of "soul searching" and accusations.
How could that happen, who are these haters, are East Germans more xenophobic than West Germans? Numbers were dug up, accusations sharpened. Yes, by most statistics, the "new" states - that's the term used 25 years after East Germany ceased to exist -  have seen more violence against refugees.
Wasn't that extreme right murder gang National Socialist Underground also based in the East, smirk some. Well, the domestic intelligence service the police didn't perform a stellar job finding those guys.
The state governors of the new states protest, saying our citizens are no worse than others, don't accuse us, you have xenophobes in the West, too.

Fanning the flames, one Western state interior secretary says, well, yes, people in East Germany simply didn't have the multi cultural encounters we in the West had. Then, smugly, he adds that we have many second and third generation immigrants in the West.

And not a single word of discrimination, hate, and violence towards foreigners in the West between ca. 1960 and 1990.

One problem is that the long tradition of German officials and extremism: always mention right and left together has come home to roost.

Another, likely more critical is that the German social safety net has been cut, leaving many behind. The promises to the citizens of the East have materialized only for some, and the creativity of both business and government in finding "savings" has been amazing.
Read our previous post on how retirement entitlements for former East German refugees have been slashed to get an understanding of the lengths to which both social democrat ("labour") and conservative governments went.

This is not to say that right wing or xenophobic Germans are all poor, uneducated losers - far from it.

The clincher is that there are plenty of educated right wingers, but they are smart enough to not hurl stones and fireworks at cops.
No, they talk "the people", "the state". "the national interest" and have no issue with papers like the big tabloid BILD running xenphobic headlines for decades when they are not busy mocking the German poor.

[From left to right, top]
Germany's bravest DA: The truth about criminal foreigners
The bitter truth about foreigners and social benefits
[From left to right, bottom]
The 6 truths about the Roma
7 truths about refugees - jobs - crime - money

Once the official government policy became "let's help and make sure the neo-Nazis are kept at bay", BILD stuck a "We help - #refugeeeswelcome" sticker on its daily front page.

Some Christian conservatives continue to be as xenophobic as they were before, but they redirect their energy towards "ensuring that those in real need get assistance", which means "economic refugees" need to go.

[Update 10/23/2015]
After the one year anniversary of the PEGIDA movement and a knife attack by a confirmed right wing extremist, Bild Zeitung came up with a new project: outing "hate speech" folks on social media, printing their unpixelated image (unusual in Germany) and even paying them a home visit.

Another age-old custom rebranded: Leading by Example

In all the breathless reporting on the refugee crisis in Germany, one short question caught the eyes of the blogster.

Why don't politicians get on buses and ride to shelters with arriving refugees?

We didn't bookmark the article, so we cannot quote the source. The question didn't go away, instead it led to another look at one famous leadership motto: leading by example.

One of the great sounding concepts of leadership, it is described in uplifting prose in books and on web sites such as MindTools. There is a photo at the top of the Mindtools page showing these two mountain climbers, one on top reaching out to his mate just below.

It's a great photo, there's danger, there's the we are in this together, romantic and uplifting.

The examples of people who lead by example in normal life are much more mundane, reflecting the reality of everyday existence: Very few of us are mountain climbers.

We don't face high cliffs or dizzying drops like the guys in the photo, we face office incidents, like the boss who tells everyone to stay late and then leaves at 5 PM sharp to play golf.

Two more things the photo tells us and what real life tells us:
1. We are looking at an activity commonly thought of as very egalitarian.
The boss who leaves for golf is unlikely to see you as his equal.
2. The men are performing the same activity.
Your boss does not perform the same activities as you.

These facts make "leading by example" a bit less straight forward than we are led to think.

The MindTools page gives Jack Welch of General Electric (GE) and Ghandi as examples of great leaders who led by example. To be fair to the site, it states that we are, of course, neither Welch nor Ghandi.

"Leading by example" got Ghandi killed and made Welch rich. For us average folks neither of these outcomes is likely.
We don't know the security arrangements of Jack Welch but they were certainly more sophisticated than those of the average boss who splits for golf at 5 PM.

There is a big question, though, and that is why is 'leading by example' such a revered concept?

Our partial answer is leading by example does not come easily in today's world.

Until not all that long ago, give or take a hundred years, the big prize of leadership, ruling, required leading by example in many sectors of Western society. Kings went and fought with their armies, great captains of industry were not yet shielded from worker contact by small armies of armed guards. Queens were slightly better off in the battlefield presence department, but they still had face more challenges than their modern counterparts.

Also, lower ranking citizens, such as shop floor supervisors or foremen were not considered 'leaders', they did what they were told to. More recently, they were told to be leaders. So,  continuing to do what they were told, they became leaders - only to realize they had greater responsibility for the same pay.

In the military, leadership is next to godliness, and the equivalent of the foreman, the squad leader, is reminded from day one to lead by example, which makes sense because running towards bullets needs convincing and you are more likely to do it when someone else does it. The problem these days is that the ranking officers value physical distance to bombs and bullets and try to make up for this by ostentatious bravado and well publicized mess hall mingling.

You are forgiven if you wish old style style leading by example, if enforced, could solve a few crises in the world. For example, the frequently mentioned "if you want to fight a war, dear head of state, put on some boots, grab a gun and do it". Or, for the modern surveillance state: "You want to read my emails, sure, be an example and let me read yours first".

But if history is a guide, that's unlikely too happen, which means, expect even more calls to lead by example.

So, for most of us, leading by example means nothing more than "don't be a dick".

Why don't politicians get on buses and ride to shelters with arriving refugees?

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Burst peaches, first lemons, sad corn - our 2015 crop failures & successes

We grow some of our own food, organic of course, but by far not all food. 2015 has been a memorable gardening year in our mountains, or hills to those of you in real mountains. The weather in 2015 until late August has been nuts, really. Winter was mild like the previous one, but spring never really took off. Cold spells into June killed of quite a few seedings and delayed others.

In short, a cold spring, followed by several consecutive dry months, followed by scorching heat to just under 40 C (almost 100 F), and most of the rain during the all important flowering and pollinating period coming down as vicious thunderstorms, some accompanied by hail.

The very first hail storm completely stripped our rescue grape vines - salavaged a few years ago from extinction. They make delicious red grapes, which don't have the, frankly, yukky taste of Concord grapes, and we still plan to make homemade red wine in the future.

Several later gale force storms hit the gorgeous runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) in bloom. During quiet weeks, new flowers had time to produce pods, so the total yield was down by about half.

Add this to a mountain growing season shorter by 4 to 6 weeks compared to the lowlands, and you can get a feeling of what several crop failures in quick succession must have been like to small farmers. Emigrating to America was one of the solutions for the people who lived an toiled here centuries ago.

Corn finally sprouted when sustained temperatures of 20 C and higher arrived, but it remained stunted due to the lack of rain, with plant height about two thirds of that in a normal year. Yield will be 50% of last year's at best. Our great Hokaido pumpkins from the past year produced zero offspring.

Tomatoes were so late that we are getting the first ripe ones only now, which means chilly nights in a few weeks time will reduce yield by about 70% unless we decide to pickle green tomatoes. Lettuce did well, but it always does with a little irrigation from the rainwater barrels. Potatoes were fine, too, and beans did okay despite the losses.
Our most optimistic outdoor proposition at this altitude, the peach tree had been hanging on to peaches the pathetic size of walnuts, which then burst their skins when sustained rains delivered too much water to the stressed tree.

The apple trees have done best this year, the crop promises to be more flavorful thanks to the rainfall shortage. A good thing, too, because we are running out of cider and apple vinegar.

A positive surprise, the lemon tree is loving it and put out five tiny fruits, one of which does not look viable and won't survive the winter indoors.

The accidental avocado plant is branching out nicely after trimming it to turn it into a bush and stands at just under two feet.

A ginger plant, grown out of a small piece of store bought ginger saved for this purpose, is our latest project of impossible plants, with a single stalk about five inches tall right now.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Germany's Mr. Mohawk calls refugees displaced persons & hits home run

Somewhere buried in the straight-up listing of almost 1500 posts is one that mentions the man we called Germany's Mr. Mohawk after his trademark red hairdo, Sascha Lobo.

In that post, we said that he had great talent but needed a bit more time to find his voice.

Which, coming from us, was a statement so presumptuous that is can blow your mind. Who are we, an unknown little pseudonymous "blog" to tell a well known media person he had talent?

Well, that's just us.*

But he did it.

With the simple question: Why don't we call refugees displaced persons?

The German political right, in the form of the CSU (still calling themselves Christian) had an apolpectic  meltdown: that's an insult, you cannot say this!

Coming from a party that uses all nasty anti-refugee and anti-migrant stereotypes on the books and invents some new ones, why would Mr. Mohawks question drive them crazy?

Because displaced persons (in German Vertriebene) are the good refugees or the good migrants from the end of World War II.
To the Germans, and the Bavarians in particular, these displaced persons were their brethren, ethnic Germans forced out of German territory in the East or out of areas where they were part of a multi-ethnic state. These were the innocent victims hunted down by the Russians, persecuted by newly minted nationalists (incidentally, often guys who had collaborated with the Nazis until a few weeks earlier).
They were the raped women, the young children, the starving old people who symbolized the innocent caught up in the turmoil brought about an otherwise brutally devastating regime.

In West Germany, these refugees made up a large part of the population in some regions, and all parties courted them, but the conservatives revered them and loudly supported the calls of the organized refugee movement for the return of the occupied lands to the East of East Germany. Officials in Bavaria often call the "ethnic German displaced persons" the fourth tribe of the state.

The blogster believes that the Christian Democratic Union (CSU) felt the sting of changing the label because it encapsulates exactly what is happening to the current refugees from war torn countries: people caught up in a world of slaughter trying to find a way out, even if it means many die along the way.

What Mr. Mohawk did was change the label. The CSU conservatives are masters in the art of changing labels, for example, stigmatizing European Union citizens who exercise their right to look for work in any EU country as "poverty migrants" or as "abusers of the German social security system".

But this time, they found themselves outflanked by a guy they hate. Oh, they hate him, for his hairstyle - his views are just icing on the hate cake.

The hard reality of today's EU refugee situation is not easily reconciled with Christian values: if lots of refugees face closed borders, you get deaths, many thousands.

Using "displaced persons" removes the cop out enjoyed by many German conservatives: blame the victims, dehumanize them.

The change of label is unlikely to stick, conservatives will fight any attempt to make it permanent, and the press and the public will prefer the well established "refugees".

But, for a second, it pierced the veil of self congratulatory smugness.

So, thank you.

* The kind of over inflated ego that comes as stereotypical byproduct of spending your days in a basement newsroom in your PJs (at best) with only an imaginary lava lamp for company.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Making it hard to get money back - the German way

If you live in the U.S., you know, hopefully, of the nifty way government helps you get back orphaned money from companies and institutions, for example, an inheritance from some distant relative, escrow funds, or overpaid insurance premiums.

Companies first need to contact you, and if this fails, they need to transfer the funds to the government, which holds them for you. Without interest, of course, but still.  We haven't checked recently, but by now pretty much all U.S. states have had publicly accessible web sites for a decade or longer.

You go to the respective state web site, type in some identifying data, and there you have it. Then you send in notarized proof of identity, and a check arrives in the mail.

And in Germany?

If a company is not eager to contact you or fails, you will never know they owe you money.

Obviously, one could argue that the need for some sort of centralized system may not have existed because Germans didn't move nearly as frequently or as far as Americans, and - who knows - maybe German companies are better record keepers?

We decided to give Germans the benefit of doubt until we stumbled on the use of premium telephone lines by businesses. Toll free 1-800 numbers are not as crucial to business success over here as in the U.S., again somewhat understandable from a cultural and historical perspective.
Where it gets interesting, though, is the use of premium numbers by businesses - an approach totally opposite of the U.S. retail sector.  We are not talking about premium numbers for "certain kinds of services", but regular old retail, from groceries to hardware stores, airline companies, or, egregiously, telecommunications companies and internet service providers.

Of course, many customers feel ripped off being charged extra for questions or issues they gave with some purchase. Even publicly run entities resorted to premium numbers. The radio and TV license agency still clings to premium numbers whereas the jobcenter/EDD folks ditched charging unemployed citizens for pleasure of asking for help.

According to a newspaper article a while ago, existing customers of a company can ask their telephone company to withhold a premium charge whereas new customers generally have to pay up.

In short: you need to know your rights in detail, and you have to put in extra effort which can exceed what you are owed.

One illuminating example of numerous hoops you have to go through despite all data being available to the folks who billed you is a health insurance reimbursement clause, intended to help with extraordinary illnesses.

If the total of co-pay in a given year exceeds 2% of your income after taxes, your health insurance provider is obligated by law to pay back the money in excess of the 2%.
Say you make very little money, have a long hospital stay and need expensive medications and months of physical therapy.

The health insurer gets all the bills and the co-pay information from the different medical providers. 

Now, you might think all you do is hand in your income tax return, and a health insurer's customer specialist enters that tax information and clicks a button on a screen - done.


You have to keep all receipts given to you by the service providers and hand these in with a an application form. No application, no reimbursement. No receipts, no reimbursement.

If your dog ate, for example, a 500 Euro hospital co-pay receipt, the insurance provider will deny including that amount in the rebate calculation - despite having the computerized data from the hospital. Of course, for an individual co-pay as high as that you'd go and get a copy from the hospital - hopefully before the reimbursement deadline.

We have come to call the German reimbursement system "the booze in Utah" system: not only do you have to ask, you must do so in a very specific manner.

[Update 4/1/2016] Of course, this setup disenfranchises those people who would benefit most from a reimbursement: the poorly educated and those immigrants don't speak German well enough.
Now, some immigrants do overcome this information deficit through curiosity and community support. Which - we kid you not on this 1 April - has enraged some locals. The blogster has heard this statement: How do these people who don't speak German know the ins and outs of the system better than me?

Since 2004: more German citizens leave the country than are returning

From our Text Analysis 101 Refresher files.

Not all refugees can stay - what does 'can' mean?

Can (German können) is an interesting little word, isn't it?

If you were around for the U.S. presidential campaign of 2008, you will recall its positive use in "Yes, we can".

Since you are reading this post, you have also been around long enough to see it used as a way to get out of some demand or some request that was inconvenient or difficult. The author of these lines has used 'can' as a cop out, too, both with and without the implied apology of a preceding 'sorry'.

Sorry, I can't drive you to the store tomorrow.

Sorry, I can't loan you a hundred dollars.

Sorry, I can't give you a raise.

Both of the first examples may be objectively correct - my car is at the shop, and I have less than 100 dollars to my name.  Or they serve as socially acceptable ways to deny a request without the need for a direct, more personal, more emotionally loaded and blunt "I do not want to do this or that".

This use of 'can not' in a sense obfuscates the underlying facts, or - to be more precise - the 'frame of reference', and it is not the only set of words that do this. 'Can not', as well as its cousins in obfuscation 'need', 'must', and 'have to' always merit special attention.

Being such great 'dual use' words and such integral components of speech makes them wonderful devices in public discourse, and the German debate about the influx of refugees is a brilliant example.

Those uneasy with the influx of humans across the Mediterranean or over land via the Balkans use the arguments "we cannot let in everybody" and "not everybody can stay" on every talk show (so the non-TV watching author is told) and in every newspaper article.

In an in depth analysis or discussion, reasons and justifications tend to be advanced which provide insight into the underlying frame of reference. Unfortunately, we get a lot of soundbites that are just a few sentences long, vapid chains of phrases designed to avoid the question of why.

The question most dreaded by parents: why?

Ironically, anti-refugee protesters shouting "We don't want you here" are more honest than politicians or journalists with their "not everybody can stay". Try it by asking "so, you don't want everybody to stay?"

Incidentally, statistical data show that not everybody wants to stay in Germany. These population data from 1991 to 2013 show that many hundreds of thousands of "migrants" leave Germany every year. For our American readers used to huge deportation numbers, no, the German departures are not deportation figures. There were just over 10 000 deportations from Germany in 2013, mostly to Balkan countries.

[Update 1/29/2016]
According to the German federal statistics office, more German citizens have emigrated between 2005 and 2014 (latest available figures) than have returned from foreign countries.

For foreigners, the numbers show uninterrupted net immigration since 2000, with a negative balance for the two preceding years. While the total net figures, including refugees, vary significantly from year to year, many foreign nationals leave Germany every year.

The 2014 figures for foreign nationals are:
To Germany       left Germany          net
1 342 529765 605576 924

The lowest recent net numbers are from 2008
To Germany       left Germany          net
573 815563 13010 685

Refugees who came in 2015 will without doubt increase the net value, but we are seeing the first reports of refugees returning to their home country, for example Iraq.

Editorial note: title of the post changed.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

There is more on the NSA - German intel XKeyscore deal than meets the eye

German intel agencies have XKeyscore and pay with data (in English).

OMG* (Old Mustached German), the K-Landnews NatSec/all things spooks person, had been waiting for this ever since the news broke after the Snowden dustup of the German domestic intel agency BfV playing with the cool NSA toy XKeyscore.

When the news first broke in July 2013, the agencies told the public they were evaluating, or testing, the capabilities of the software. Statements acknowledging possession of XKeyscore by the BfV emphasized that they were performing tests, were merely evaluating the tool. Some commentators even made it look like this sudden interest was tied to the Snowden revelations.

At the time, OMG went: Not credible, it's not how these guys work. As long as the NSA does not have a freeware website touting Get your Free Evaluation Copy now!, I'd love to know details.

Some of the details are now available, and a remarkable one is this: The Germans were given a demo at the NSA area of the Bad Aibling, Bavaria, intelligence operations center on 6 October 2011, using data from real life BfV (domestic intel).

OMG comments:
This pushes the timeline of discussions on XKeyscore between the Germans and the US back by anywhere between six months and a year to early 2011 or late 2010, if not further. At least two years before Snowden.

The article goes on to say:
In contrast, for example, to the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, the BfV does not use a dragnet to collect huge volumes of data from the Internet.
It then goes on to state:
The version of the software obtained by the BfV is unable to collect data on the Internet itself, but it is able to rapidly analyze the huge quantities of metadata that the agency has already automatically collected.

It tries to resolve the "no dragnet" of the first sentence with the "huge quantities" already collected by introducing "metadata".

OMG comments:
The number of targeted surveillance measures given for 2013 is about 100, which makes the reference to huge quantities of metadata a little odd. Sure, you get a lot more metadata than content data, but I would not say "huge" based on one hundred or so targeted measures. Either the authors are unsure about what is going on, or we are not told the full story. My guess is that a full on dragnet did not exist but that the newly announced expansion of internet surveillance and the added personnel will make a "full on" dragnet a reality.

The most interesting and controversial aspect of the deal is that the German domestic intelligence agency is providing the NSA with "as much data as possible". As expected, the article and related pieces in other papers, treads very lightly with abundant quotes: "Certain NSA requests … cannot be met insofar as German law prevents it." and adds "Furthermore, the agency declared, a special legal expert would approve each data transfer."

OMG comments;
Judging by insights from the investigative committee on the collaboration between the BND and the NSA, I will believe this when I see it. Remember when Chancellery chief Pofalla went on TV in 2013 and said only two datasets of German citizens had been given the US?
"Productive" use does not mean a handful of data sets.

Issues not addressed in the reporting on the recent leaks:
1. Does BfV funnel data to the BND for forwarding to the Americans, thus working around stricter rules on domestic surveillance?
2. The BND can at least claim it is focused on foreign intelligence, which necessarily involves few Germans. The BfV cannot do that, and highlighting some real or imagined endpoint outside of Germany does not change the ratio of German vs. non-German data significantly. Remember the EU?
3. "In accordance with German law": how exactly has interpretation of German law changed, what changes to the law are in the pipeline? Given the irrationally broad interpretation of what is a "state secret" in the recent attempt to go after, this is not a whacky question.
4. Since both the domestic BfV and the foreign BND use XKeyscore, do they have even partial access to each others data?
5. Are technical measures in place or planned that "allow direct access while allowing denial of such access"? The way this is commonly done is through automation with some sort of manual intervention, where the "intervention" or "checks and balances" can be as little as a prompt "Press Enter to proceed" followed by a timer that automatically proceeds after a few seconds of wait time, or merely the option to have a human look at it.
The best comment by OMG, though, concerned this article snippet:
Prior to 2013, Germany's domestic intelligence agency was only able to analyze metadata by hand -- and it was rarely done as a result.

We provide it as is for your enjoyment:
Can someone explain to me, for fuck's sake, how the Germans have not had any notable Islamic terrorism for decades without performing this oh so crucial mass metadata surveillance in the first place? Doesn't this make even the most surveillance happy folks reconsider? Yes, they failed with domestic right wing terrorists, but not for lack of data - after all, they had a bunch of those guys on the payroll as CIs.

* Regarding OMG's qualifications, please see the footnote of the post This hybrid war and information war babble is deeply offensive for basic information on this matter.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Sparen mit Spaß: "Calas" - lockere, leckere kreolische Reis-Kreppel aus Louisiana

Es gibt eine Reihe von englischsprachigen Rezepten im Internet, z.B. dieses, das unserem sehr ähnlich ist und einen Überblick über Calas im French Quarter von New Orleans gibt.
Calas fallen in die große Gruppe der frittierten Teigwaren, zu denen Beignets, Doughnuts, Berliner und Kreppel gehören.
Calas eignen sich für die Verwertung von ungewürztem weissem Kochreis (nur mit Salz gewürzt). Sie können auch braunen Reis verwenden, sollten das Rezept aber mit weissem Reis ausprobieren.

Die Zutaten für ein halbes Rezept (ca. 6 oder 7 Calas)
ca. 150 ml lauwarmes Wasser
ca. 200 g weicher weisser Reis, egal ob Rundkorn oder Langkorn. Basmati oder Jasmin ergibt ein besonderes Aroma.
ca. 200 g glutenfreies Kuchenmehl oder normales Weizenmehl (Type 405)
1 Esslöffel (EL) Zucker
1 Päckchen Trockenhefe bzw. entsprechende Menge frische Hefe
2 Eier, leicht verquirlt
1/4 Teelöffel (TL) Vanilleextrakt, ersatzweise entsprechend Vanillezucker
Muskatnußpulver nach Geschmack (zwei große Prisen, bis ca. 1/8 TL)
1 Prise Salz

Zum Frittieren eignet sich Rapsöl bestens.

Zum anschließenden Bestäuben Puderzucker nach Wahl.

Einen Tag bevor Sie die Calas machen möchten müssen Sie den Reis mit Hefe ansetzen.
1. Das lauwarme Wasser mit dem Zucker in eine kleine bis mittelgroße Schüssel geben.
2. Die Hefe hinzufügen und etwa 10 Minuten warten bis diese aktiv ist - das heisst, bis sich  sich schaumige Bläschen bilden.
3. Den Reis hinzufügen und die Mischung gründlich umrühren.
4. Mit Frischhaltefolie oder einem Küchentuch ganz abdecken und anschließend bei Zimmertemperatur über Nacht ruhen lassen.

Die Calas erhalten so eine leicht säuerliche Geschmacksnote, wie man sie von Sauerteig kennt.

Am folgenden Tag:
1. Die Reismischung erneut gründlich umrühren und den Reis zerkleinern. Sie können das von Hand mit einer Holzspatel, wenn Sie eine etwas ausgeprägtere Teigtextur möchen.  Oder Sie können einen Stabmixer benutzen, um einen ganz glatten Teig zu erhalten. 
2. Eier, Mehl, Vanilleextrakt, Muskatnuß und Salz hinzufügen, und glattrühren.
Der Teig soll dickflüssig sein, ein wenig dicker als Waffelteig.
3.  Die Schüssel abdecken und an einem warmen Ort mindestens 1 Stunde gehen lassen.
4. Öl auf ca. 190 Grad erhitzen (oder bis sich Bläschen an einem Holzlöffel bilden). Mit einem grossen Löffel oder einer Kelle eine Portion des Teigs ins Öl geben. Goldbraun frittieren, dabei einmal wenden. 

Mit einem Schaumlöffel herausnehmen, auf Küchenkrepp abtropfen lassen. Nach Wunsch mit Puderzucker bestäuben und warm servieren.

Tip: Mit Cafe au Lait schmecken Calas am besten.  Probieren Sie sie auch ohne Puderzucker.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

How unified Germany screwed hundreds of thousands of East German refugees

We were very reluctant to use the word 'screwed' in the title of this post but after reading up on what happened to several hundred thousand East Germans who fled to the West and lived and worked there, often for many decades, we stand by the use of screwed.

If you prefer to read one of a number of articles published in the German press on the subject, we recommend this one from 2011 in Die Zeit.

A single sentence explanation for our harsh statement:
After German unification in 1990, many former East German refugees saw their social security pension drop, often by as much as one third, in contrast to earlier law.

The history behind this unexpected slide in benefits sounded unbelievable, but here is how it came about.

From its inception in the late 1940s, West Germany was keen to show it was the better, the more democratic, the more socially just of the two Germanys left by World War II.

One of the cornerstones of demonstrating how great the West was the treatment of East Germans who left everything behind to start over in the West, often under life threatening circumstances. 

Social security pension contributions and eligibility were granted to the refugees as if they had worked in the West all their lives. Pensions in the West were higher than in the East, but so was the cost of living.

The West German social security administration sent out benefits statements to former East Germans, informing them that the years in the East were fully recognized under the applicable "foreign pensions eligibility law".

For example, East Germans who had fled in the 1960s and reached retirement age in 1980 began receiving the promised pension at 100% of the West German level.

After unification, everything changed, yet those former East Germans who had not yet reached retirement age in the West didn't notice. Nobody informed them that the provisions of the "foreign pensions eligibility law" had been retroactively suspended for former refugees and instead replaced with a new law meant to provide pensions to those who had never left East Germany.

All of a sudden, citizens who had signed away their East German citizenship and all rights to whatever that state promised in benefits saw their pensions recalculated according to the new formula for time worked in East Germany. Depending on how long individuals worked in East Germany before fleeing, the losses often end up to be one third of projected benefits, taking people like a registered nurse acquaintance of the blogster to a pension below the poverty level after 40 years of work.

And the courts?

The courts sided with the new interpretation while government is in no hurry to speed up the plans to achieve pension equality between the former East and the former West by 2019, almost 30 years after re-unification.

Of course, you can always find worse, as reported on NPR news only minutes ago in a piece about Brazil. To this day, 500 years after the Portuguese made all land in the country theirs, many Brazilians still have to pay property transaction taxes to the descendants of Portuguese nobles who were awarded the rights to collect rent on real estate by the Portuguese crown.

Time to start taxing capital gains as "virtual workers"?

The blogster is sure some fabulous econ undergraduate - not a graduate, for obvious reasons - had the idea or something very similar many years ago. But why not re-invent the wheel, it is being done all the time, often successfully patented to boot.

Folks come up with new taxes faster than you can spell 'tax', and somehow they have been hitting the poorer citizens hardest for a generation or more. One of the more recent ideas floated was a tax on robots. The reasoning goes something like this: robots eliminate jobs, so why not take some of the gains off the top?

But this and other taxes don't address capital gains, the money that makes more money kind of profits.

We, well, "we", gave companies the legal status of "person", why don't we do the same with money? Investment consultants and banks are already behaving as if we all had little green helpers.

Let your money work for you.

How to make your money work harder. 

And for sweatshop operators: How to get more out of your money.

Let's turn the hard working money into 'worker equivalents' and tax them like employees, with payroll taxes and income tax. The payroll taxes and health insurance premiums go into the funds for human workers, the income tax goes wherever it goes today.

How do you establish a "worker equivalent"? **

A single person's annual median income,  based on existing government statistics, could be the representative base unit, any capital income larger than that would be split into "representative" equivalents. A million dollars will get you X number of workers.

No longer would Warren Buffet find himself in the situation that he pays less tax (by percentage) than his secretary because his profits would now be treated in part as many "virtual" secretaries.

Even the laziest, non-entrepreneur living largely off of interest and other capital income like the blogster, could genuinely claim to be a job creator - for "virtual workers", but still.

The idea is too simple to pass, but imagine for a second it did. "They" would immediately try to game the new system by reducing the tax burden of the higher paid worker equivalents, right?

A few percent tax reduction for higher income virtual workers would make a big difference.  Simply do what should have been done in the existing system a long time ago: you can only reduce taxes for all taxpayers or for none.

Would this actually increase overall revenue?

Probably, but that's not the primary motive. What is important is to make the point that money making more money is like having workers who do jobs you can not or do not want to do.

To the simple minded blogster, there is no philosophical difference between, say, generating electricity by putting your kids on a stationary bike to run a generator and a 600 foot windmill.

** If you find the idea of measuring something abstract by using a living, breathing being as the unit revolting, the blogster kindly suggests to look up the history of the mechanical unit "horsepower".

Monday, August 24, 2015

No news is good news: the taciturn Ms. Merkel

German Social Democrat Vice Chancellor Gabriel visits the town of Heidenau that saw violent clashes between right wing anti-asylum demonstrators and the police over the past three days. It is not his first trip to a refugee crisis hotspot in Germany.

His boss and 'grand coalition' partner, conservative Chancellor Ms. Merkel, remains silent until mid Monday and has never visited an asylum seekers center or a refugee residence.

When the official government speaker finally tells the press, Ms. Merkel finds the violence 'disgraceful' and 'not acceptable', the wire services proclaim she made a statement.

On Monday afternoon, she finally appears on TV at a press conference with French Prime Minister Hollande.

This is very much the MO of the current German chancellor, and it has earned her her very own Twitter hashtag #MerkelSchweigt (Merkel is silent).

Internationally well respected, liked my the majority of Germans - according to polls - her style can framed in any way you like. Thoughtful or hesitant, uninspiring or down to earth, soothing or unresponsive, a speaker without empathy or a realist with the right priorities.

To the blogster, it seems this makes her somewhat of a mirror, even to the media, who were supposed to not be easily dazzled.
It was a bit of a surprise to the blogster to find out that even most Germans do not have a good grasp of who their head of government is. They know that she grew up in what was then East Germany after her family moved there from West Germany. She became a member of the socialist youth organization, studied physics and received a PhD in physics, and ended up in the conservative Christian Democratic Party after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Her Stasi file is sealed for a few more decades, and there have been persistent rumors that she, like many East Germans, was a confidential informant of the Stasi. She was mentored by then conservative chancellor Kohl and ended up leading the country since 2005.

In authoritarian countries, keeping your opinions to yourself and being able to follow the party line are well established mechanisms to stay out of trouble, but how much of her way of governing does this explain?

Despite appearances to the contrary and exceptions to the rule, Germany's top politicians generally do not find quirks and flaws laid out in public as easily as leaders of other nations. Only years after someone has retired for good, will scenes of anger and pettiness enter the narrative to a substantial extent, for example, lurid stories of a former interior secretary flinging files at office aides or the timing, down to every jealous last second, of a speech by a foreign secretary.

So, from afar, we can only go by reactions to other high profile events. When nothing can go wrong, Ms. Merkel is as quick as anybody.

When the Germanwings plane was crashed into an alpine mountain side by a deranged co-pilot earlier this year, Ms. Merkel was at the crash site within a day. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

176 arguments of futility & irrelevance by climate deniers

If climate deniers were as creative at solving problems as they are in making up "arguments", the world would be a better place.

In tourist brochures, our rural county is presented as a clean and serene place, ideal for hiking, dotted with small towns, and ruins of castles on dominating peaks. But the blogster calls life here "living in an outdoor power plant" because the county produces far more electricity than its residents and businesses use.

Take a drive in the dark to one of the peaks, if you can call them that, and if you chose well, you will be looking down on a sea of red flashing lights, a post industrial light show of sorts.
If you drive around by day, you will find some small hamlets not just visually subdued by windmills as high 600 feet, easily topping the highest cathedrals, but also exposed to the incessant swooshing noise of rotating blades.

Climate deniers, who generally are also highly critical of renewable energy, point to places like our county with ridicule and scorn. Then they typically launch into one or more of the 176 (current count) arguments against climate change.

While the responses collected with great effort on this web site make sense, the blogster does not always have the time and patience for a conversation. So, sometimes, a shift of argument is in order.
Mind you, we try very hard to always be nice and considerate but we are not perfect, so a less than nice argument over the question if climate change is caused by humans or not, might go as follows.

So, when you go for a hike in Death Valley, you don't take water?

That has nothing to do with it!

It does. You adapt to the environment, and the reason why the environment is the way it is is secondary. 

Humans are not responsible for the climate in Death Valley!

Correct, but I didn't want to allege you'd do nothing to help victims of a car crash unless you were certain it was caused by humans.

Alternatively, there is a very nice version of an argument shift which has worked wonders with upset, grump individuals in other situations:

I'm sorry you are having a bad day.

Germany's famed vocational training system has a dark side, Part II

We wrote about the famous German vocational training system in several earlier posts.
Without diminishing the positive effects of the system, we believe that its drawbacks are largely ignored and the overall view is frequently nothing short of romantic.

In these earlier posts, we asked questions about the need of multi-year training for some jobs that do not see vast technological changes or increasing complexity. Barbers, for example, would fall into this category, despite the messages you might get from all the hair products commercials on TV. Mentioning barbers does not mean we undervalue a good haircut or don't want the providers to make a living wage. It does mean that - in comparison - it seems odd to have very similar vocational training time for barbers and, say, aircraft mechanics.

We also addressed the fact that vocational training traditionally shunted youngsters into a career path that ended at about 25 years of age at the most - if they went and completed the one year Meister (master) program after the generally three year apprenticeship. Entry into an apprenticeship program used to require no more than 8 years of school as late as the mid-1970s. Over time this bar moved to the next graduation option at 10 years for many jobs, and nowadays many firms and institutions providing vocational training will only accept young people with a 12 year school education.

Craftsmen with a "Meister" as well as graduates of a vocational program with several years of work experience have an easier time nowadays to move on to technical college but it took Germany pretty much 500 years or so to get to this point from the medieval guild system where it all started.

All the applause for providing training and education as well as slow modernization notwithstanding, the system has been a powerful tool for "keeping people in their places" beyond separating citizens into "workers" (both blue collar and non-university white-collar) and "educated rulers".

In terms of the wider society, the "master" title still is serves as the key to setting up your own business in the vast majority of blue-collar specialties. European integration has led to a slight loosening for EU foreigners coming to Germany, requiring an "equivalent" level of skills and knowledge for the latter. In the absence of a really equal system in many EU countries, EU foreigners effectively have an easier path to setting up their own shop than Germans, because the requirement of a "master" title continues to exist for Germans.

In terms of power relationships in the country, the role and position of the "master" can be described as the equivalent to the Master Sergeant in the military. Not an officer, thus no competition for the young lieutenant West Point grad, but vital to the stability and functioning of the system.

How bad can it get when an apprentice runs afoul of a master, the owner of a small business, which is in turn part of a regional organization of each and every single business that provides the same products or services?

Extremely bad.

Over the years, we have heard stories by apprentices which illustrate the power of the masters of these small firms which operate outside of the protection trade unions. Plumbers, carpenters, barbers, small store clerks and others have similar stories to tell.

Just as it is nearly impossible to get anywhere in the military if you run afoul of the Master Sergeant, getting in trouble with the master often meant you'd have to move to the big city or go to work in a factory that didn't insist on a glowing letter of recommendation from that master.

Before the German government eventually extended the college loan system to vocational master programs, you were fully dependent on the good will of your boss if you wanted to attend the program. The boss needed to keep your Saturdays free of work and had to accommodate school blocks by giving you time off, either as paid vacation or as unpaid time off.

With membership in the the regional employers' association being mandatory and with the company owners providing first and foremost for their own sons, you effectively had a cartel, and many would-be master hopefuls never managed to reconcile their aspiration with targeted overtime demands and the needs of a young family. Or in rural areas, a small money-losing part time farm.

So, if you see a small German business in the traditional craftsmen sectors advertise a proud one hundred fifty or two hundred year business history, try to not get swept away by romantic notions.

Friday, August 21, 2015

German calls for new tax on childless couples and singles

For decades, whenever the German government needed more cash - kind of all the time - some conservatives would pull out the proposal to tax childless couples and single adults.

Over the years, these conservatives have refined their arguments, and we will present the lessons learned in this post.

The basic justification goes somewhat like this: birth rates are so low that the country's population will shrink drastically while life expectancy is rising, this combination threatens the future of the government retirement benefits program (Social Security) because fewer young people will have to support a growing number of older people.

The proponents of the tax went to great lengths to stick to this exact script because of, you guessed it, the Nazis.

The Nazis firmly believed the world needed more Germans and set out to reward families with large numbers of children. The most well known policy consisted of the introduction of the Cross of Honor of the German Mother. It was not a new idea, but if you know history, the Nazis took it to new heights. There was also a program that was an outright breeding program for the master race, called Lebensborn (well-spring of life).

Now, the short version of birth rates are so low that the country's population will shrink drastically is, of course, there are not enough Germans.

Lesson one for the not enough Germans camp was: Never use the short version.

Lesson two was: Blame childless couples for alleged future shortfalls in social security. Insinuate or proudly proclaim that not having a child is a choice, a selfish one. Dismiss objections with "you can always adopt" but leave out stringent adoption requirements.

This is as brilliant as it is evil because of two major factors:
a) Large swaths of earners do not pay any social security tax. First and foremost, German career civil servants pay no contribution to retirement benefits but get a pension paid out of the General Fund. Self-employed and others pay no mandatory social security tax either but are eligible for the minimum benefits if they are poor later on.
b) The German taxable maximum for social security is at about 60 000 Euros per year, making the U.S. maximum, criticized as low,  of just under 120 000 in 2015 seem humongous.

Lesson three: Calculate the cost of raising a child, then claim this should be seen as avoided costs, hence a "kind of extra income" for childless couples. Then state that fairness, of course, would really call for clawing back some of this advantage.

There are, as any parent knows, real costs to raising a child. How high is the cost?

This is wonderfully fuzzy, with no clear upper limit. You take that cost, for example, one recently advanced figure was 4 500 Euros a year, and voila, you have a baseline for the new tax.
You must not overplay this cost card because of the government's many family support programs. Monthly cash allowances, income tax benefits, free health insurance until age 26 (premiums are the same for parents and childless people), free or subsidized child care, free education from K1 through Master's degree, subsidized mortgages, etc. are all quoted by the childless as proof that they subsidize your kids. In which case, you should immediately proceed to Lesson Two (future entitlements).

But you cannot tax a fictitious advantage!

Yes, they can, and this is how:
Do not call it a tax but a levy. The Germans recently managed to rebrand their radio and TV license fee as a levy. As such, under German law, the exact same amount of contribution for the exact same purpose can be collected from an arbitrarily large base, because you no longer have to own a radio, TV, or - just to make sure, they are Germans after all - a computer, smart phone, tablet, or any device that can play a few seconds of TV or radio content.

So, you stop calling it officially a tax, you call it a levy. Never mind that everybody calls it a tax, the law will say levy.

The final step - incidentally the reason why we write this post - is to find a better justification than the worn out not enough Germans argument.

The record number of refugees!

A levy on childless couples to pay for the cost of housing refugees.

All you need to do now is disarm the incontestable argument that German tax revenues are at an all time high, having increased by some 6% compared to last year.

To do that, enter some mumble about bailing out Greece, again.

The feedback mania - what's next? Al-Qaeda 1-800 How's my Bombing?

No, I don't want to be asked to do a customer satisfaction survey after every bank transaction.
If these surveys are used to fire service reps who don't make the cut, that's institutionalized snitching, period.

Neither do I want to be asked after a call to customer service how I would rate the experience - unless the company offers the option "post traumatic".

Birthday congratulations* by a bank, an auto dealer, or by the sex toys shop are out of order for anyone in the household except the cats. Birthdays, to me, are a non event except for those ending in 0 and the one when Social Security starts paying. The latter, ironically, keeps moving back, and some crazy folks want to get rid of it altogether thus making it the ultimate non-event.

After years of hesitation, I always click the No, thank you button of the pop up that announces me I have been selected for a short survey.  This policy was adopted the hard way, after feeling a bit flattered and trying to help improve the world - only to land on the Survey Monkey web site and, half an hour later, wondering what joker came up with the "it will only take a few minutes of your time".

At that point, I realized that Survey Monkey refers to you who take the survey, and don't let them tell you anything else. You are the monkey. At least, they should have called it Survey Great Ape, but no, not even that.

To me, the birthday card from the bank does not express the teller's happiness to see me alive and well. To me, it says we've got your money, and it gets worth less and less every year.  And by the way, if you were really rich, one of our private wealth management consultants would send you a hand written card with a bottle of champagne, but instead we let a computer print out a card.

I fully expect to wake up one day and hear on the news that Al-Qaeda or the latest terrorist group du jour packs leaflets around their bombs with a feedback number, We value your feedback at Al-Qaeda 1-800 How's my Bombing, or that done strikes, at least British ones, come with a note Sorry for the inconvenience. For questions or feedback please call <Premium Telephone Number>**
Let's pray that none of the death penalty countries on this odd planet starts to hand out feedback flyers to any audience or to the executioners.****

For years, I asked myself, how could this happen, how did we get here?

The birthday greetings may well be the result of Victorian novels replete with birthday cards, you know, scenes penned while the author is trying to figure out what to write next. I can picture one sitting there thinking, hm should I send him to Africa to contract some terrible affliction or to the New World colonies, while his pen is on auto-pilot scribbling, oh, dear, a birthday card by the Earl of Primrose, my, how considerate, do we know his birthday, and that of Lady Primrose?

And the feedback surveys?

There must be one original survey, Survey Zero, possibly dating to the time when the first polling companies realized that elections occur only every few years, and a smart intern figured out how to fill the time.

Once software companies realized that they could easily get customer satisfaction rates of 95%*** or more with no greater effort than throwing in a few football tickets or careful selection of booth hostesses, there was almost no stopping.

The real genius of the surveys, though, is the what can we improve section. Because, believe it or not, once the genius inventor has invented the supremely new and disruptive thing or service, they face a hard choice: either sell the company as fast as you can, or  make more new and exiting things or services.

When they opt for the second, they need new ideas, and that's where customers come in and give them ideas for free after filling out a survey for free.

Are there companies who do not need customer satisfaction surveys?

Yes, those with a no-questions-asked lifetime warranty/return policy.

* For you social engineering types, it is not my birthday, not even close. And I didn't do a bank transaction either.
** The UK government seems to love premium telephone numbers, and I can not figure out why.
*** There is no way my last employer gets a real 95% satisfaction rate, unless 95% of customers have exceedingly low expectations.
**** Although I'm not sure this is not already done.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Recommendations beyond products: If you like the moral case for fossil fuels might also like Genocide.

Recommendations are a old as humanity, the blogster is certain. Couldn't that explain the congregation of a variety of animals under Marulca trees or other trees whose fallen fruit ferments and produces alcohol? 

A couple of decades into the internet, we are seeing product recommendations on every visit to online shopping sites or whenever we look at our Twitter inbox or rummage around on Facebook.

If you apply the logic of the cynical dictum that users of a free service "are the product", ** then your Twitter "Follow" suggestions are product recommendations, just like those for books, lawn furniture or condoms. Question: do product recommendations for condoms really exist?

Let's assume for the moment that the know-it-all catchphrase You are the product is true for free services. At that point, we can begin to discuss product quality in order to take a deeply satisfying swipe at Facebook and call it the Social Media Disneyland with integrated Junk Yard.
In their relentless yet futile quest for real names, they have pretty much alienated every definable group of users, from native Americans to gays, from Muslims to atheists, from astrologers to physicists. The blogster would really love to know if German Mr. Keiner ("None", that preferred placeholder in so many form input fields) or Mrs. Unverzagt ("Undaunted") have Facebook accounts.

If users are products, how do define product quality? Are Twitter users with the default egg and a pseudonym the kind of products you can get at swap meets, often of dubious provenance, dusty, rusty, leaky, scratched or dented, with a few stunning bargains in between?

The ad model, of which recommendations and suggestions are a subset in the opinion of some, with its roots in print and radio and TV, has been taken up by the online world without much change.

One reason for that is the old categories did prove their value over time, and companies know how to do the needed metrics. A second reason are external requirements, such as legal restrictions on advertising of alcohol or tobacco. Yet, online ads do not have to be as well targeted as TV ads with their 30 second spots during the Super Bowl going for obscene amounts of money.

Ads don't worry the blogster much. They can be a nuisance, they can be entertaining, and some are even useful. But as long as Google does not get within a range of ten years of the blogster's true age and doesn't get the gender right, it is okay.

What is much more disturbing is the prospect of news or feature articles being preselected based on opaque criteria and/or social media connections.

For new readers: the blogster's view on real identity on the web is simple. It should be a choice. This entails a trade off because the blogster's posts and tweets cannot be readily evaluated based on resume snippets or a photo of a person and therefore tend to have less weight - which is totally fine.

Not to be outdone, we offer a couple of recommendations of our own!

If you are worried your Twitter "Following" list might tell the world too much about your political, sexual, or book tastes, you might want to add a good mix of accounts you are not interested in at all and simply put those on "Mute".

If you like this post, you might also like to take a day or two off of social media.

** The condescending "ah, you don't want to pay money for services, you pay with your information" is really fucked up because the picture is not much different for paid services. Lots take your money and your information on top of it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Humans need smaller hands for tech gadgets

The Apple Watch rekindled fond memories of an old episode of speaking truth to digital power.

It happened in a bar. Twenty or thirty people were milling about cheerfully in anticipation of an evening of free drink and merriment. They had been informed a few days earlier that the final release candidate of the software they'd been working on for almost a year was the real deal, the golden master was done and on its way to the factory.

The Director stood at the bar talking to the barkeep, giving him the company credit card number and looking up some information on his PDA, his personal digital assistant. A handful of engineers noticed the PDA and started hemming and hawing as their boss tapped the small keyboard with a stylus.

He savored the admiration of the small audience until he overheard a voice from behind his left shoulder ask why would anyone want to use a knitting needle to operate a device? He turned his head far enough to see the irreverent team member and was visibly relieved when he noticed it was not one of his folks, just a contractor who would be gone when the project wrap up was finished by the end of the week.

Since those days, the stylus has become a fixture of everyday life, the knitting needle joke has been told a few times too often, and even the modified oh, you can't even do knitting with a stylus has turned a bit stale.

The underlying issue has not gone away, though.

Pinching, squeezing and tapping doesn't solve the fundamental problem of nature's inability to equip at least half of humans with adequately small, dainty fingers.

Adapting the old custom of Chinese foot binding to the hands of 21st Century tech users has not even been proposed.* It remains a mystery why not. People are willing to forgo real food in favor of the horrendously named liquid concoction Soylent, they put RFID chips on their extremities to magically turn lights on and off, and they do all sorts of crazy things.

Voice commands are the answer, say some, without realizing that, strictly speaking, a command may or may not be an answer.

Granted, talking to your watch is not necessarily more or less crazy than talking to your cat, but we build the watch, so we have options. Unlike with cats.

Should we wait until evolution catches up and finally gives us Human 4.0 as those who persist reap the benefits of this technology, eventually producing offspring with slightly better fingers, who will in turn outperform their sausage-fingered cousins and produce even better fingers?

But what happens to those unfortunate contemporaries who cannot evolve cute spider leg fingers because their livelihood selects for strong digits?

We should not exaggerate the problem because even traditional technologies often favor the little-handed, as the author discovered recently when replacing an old porch light.

Had you been within a 50 foot range, you would have heard this: Who the fuck managed to wire this up, there is less than half an inch of wire sticking out of the wall? 

So, after capping the wires, a solar light was installed instead.

Oh, you changed the light.


You did is without even disturbing the spider who's using it to attract bugs.

C'mon, you think I'd do that on purpose?

I think, you would be exactly the kind of person to do this on purpose.

So, folks, what is the world's take on adopting Chinese foot binding to fingers so we can finally uses those gadgets as their inventors intended?

* Just hoping this statement is correct, because who really knows what's going on in the Chinese (!) factories where they assemble our electronics from tiny components.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Amazon's dirty laundry smells not really different

So, it is the turn of Amazon in the New York Times. There's the article, the response by Mr. Bezos, and all web publications have their say.

So, what's going on?

Nothing you won't find in other companies in the online world, although the anonymous feedback feature, which might warrant the name InstaSnitch, is a first for the blogster.

Why do we claim "nothing you won't find elsewhere"?

Having worked in the brave new online/software world, as employee #2 in one company and employee #5000 or so in another, having slugged as a contractor and as a nicely paid stock optioned permanent employee, having been a lowly individual contributor and a manager, the details of Amazon are interesting but - again - nothing is new.

If you seriously believe that -- sorry for singling out you guys -- Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft are fundamentally different from Amazon, you might want to re-think.

Amazon's parental leave policy sucks for sure, the absence of a free lunch may sound like punishment, and telling an employee who is undergoing cancer treatment that she does not perform as expected is certainly callous.

But unique, none of this is.

Culling employees?

Seen it done two decades ago via quarterly performance reviews (almost everybody was on annual then).

80 hour weeks?

Done them myself.

Telephone conferences at 2 am?


The myth of the startup that never grew up?

A myth, bunk.

But here is the rub. If you read some of our earlier posts on what it is like to work in the IT  industry, you have read about the coping mechanisms employees come up with.

We just outline them here in a few sentences
Long work hours were often achieved by super long lunch breaks during which people did the basic things of life, like go shopping, get that haircut, buy a car.
A friend couple had a baby, and the friend could not do much weekend work because the newborn had all sorts of health issues -- well, the baby was in perfect health, but the parent wanted to stay healthy and get out of mandatory weekend work, so yeah.
The 2 am telephone conferences were really great -- after the first one, where the blogster was the only dumbass on the line and realized how that scheme worked.
If you want to see how to become a super respected manager by using management through email forwarding, find that post.
Departments in a large company can feel like different companies -- even Amazon seems to have some "slower" departments. You will find atrocious departments at, say, Apple just as you will find nice ones.

A caveat
Corporate "surveillance technology", aka. big data and the merging of previously siloed communications, has progressed, so some of the time tested coping mechanisms are likely to lose some efficiency, and this may well be the case at Amazon.

The financial rewards
The NYT does not talk much about the compensation of office workers at Amazon but does mention that some middle managers get a second salary's worth of dough out of stocks.
The point we are trying to make is this: the blogster and many others will work 80 hours a week for a year or so if the price tag is right.
So, Amazon, if "you" read this: pay me a 250 K a year, and I'll sign up for a year at 70 hours.

The real Amazon scandal is in the shipping centers and in delivery
That's where the minimum wage jobs are. That's where the time you spend going through security is not counted as work hours. That's where the sick are not put on a performance plan but chucked like used coffee cups.

Don't expect the world of Mr. Bezos
Look folks, the man is human. Don't demonize him -- at least not until he throws a hissy fit like Boss of My Big Company when the previously docile employees dragged the company before a judge in a class action lawsuit over unpaid overtime (the issue of exempt and non-exempt employees).
I don't know him, and the blue collar issues make me hesitant to ascribe only the best of motives, but here is one thing you find over and over in successful companies: they tend to attract ruthlessly ambitious second or third line managers who tend to make a relentless atmosphere more gruesome as it already is.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Stop and Frisk is sooo 19th Century - it really is

How does a TV documentary about farming in Victorian England take one to 21st Century policing?

You must have heard of "stop and frisk", a police procedure in which police stop a person and search him or her for "weapons and other contraband". In the United States, the policy made most headlines in New York City when alleged abuses and racial profiling were reported, and the policy was challenged in court.
In Europe, the most noted stop and frisk city is London, and headlines plus disturbing Youtube videos show similar issues as in New York.

Of course, you have guessed the answer: stop and frisk is not new. This page of the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School talks about a case out of Ohio in 1967, and this Wikipedia article states in a somewhat obtuse fashion that the policy 'was adopted from English law', a phrase that almost always indicates more history behind a current day phenomenon. The footnote accompanying this sentence points to a legal paper 'Stop and Frisk: An Historical Answer to a Modern Problem'.

The abstract of the paper published in 1967 tells us that English nightwatchmen could detain night-walkers until these could explain why they were out and about. English police were given the power in 1839 to detain someone if they could be reasonably suspected of possessing stolen goods.

How did that turn out, you ask?

In exactly the same way as it would over 150 years later in New York and London, except that Victorian Britain abused Irish, factory workers, dirt poor Londoners, and tenant farmers in the absence of enough Latinos or Blacks.

They'd check your ID, which was the combination of your clothes and the way you spoke, and then proceed to rummage through your pockets or baskets.

The stolen goods tenant farmers were often gratuitously suspected of possessing or trying to obtain? Woodlands well stocked with game made for great hunting parties as well as for devastated crops. Game, from rabbits to deer to boars or birds, belonged to the land owner to do with as he pleased.
The police were happy to ensure the safety of the land owners' game and not averse to feeling up some peasant women in the process.

Nobody told us when New York mayor What's-his-name and police chief Bratton made the city the poster child of 1990s stop and frisk?

That's because nobody asked and because it doesn't sound so great if you announce a revolutionary new policy with "hey, let's do this grand new thing which failed so miserably two centuries ago."

Germany has a patriotism problem, or so they say

When Germans talk or write about patriotism, the blogster invariably begins to cringe. Which may sound odd because the concept of patriotism plays very little role in German society compared to many other countries.  

Patriotism is an emotionally charged concept, so we start with a definition from Wikipedia because we will need this later:
1. Love of country; devotion to the welfare of one's compatriots; the virtues and actions of a patriot; the passion which inspires one to serve one's country
2. The desire to compete with other nations; nationalism.

Let's start with the basic visual symbol of patriotism, the flag.

In an earlier post, we described how Germans have come to enjoy flying their flag. This newly discovered habit can pretty much be traced to the fall of the Iron Curtain and its most urban part, the Berlin Wall.
We pointed out the soccer World Cup of 2006 held in Germany was accompanied by a surprising sea of flags and car rear view mirror "cozies".

Our observation has since been confirmed word for word by an American with longstanding ties to Germany, who visited the country in 2006 after a couple of decades of absence.

As an American, you won't be surprised by a flag themed baby onesie like this one:
The label on the website expressly uses the soccer reference, in the spirit of the "narrower" use of the patriotic symbol.

The picture below shows use of the flag in a wider social and cultural context, namely the dedication of a mosque in Germany:
By the way, the article which contains this photo is an interview with excellent points about immigration, including one point we raised on the blog - in our more colorful language - asking immigrants to completely abandon their old culture is dumb.

The article also talks about the long psychological shadow of the Second World War with regard to Germany's "patriotism problem".

The country's colors, aka. the flag, are black, red, and gold, but the "gold" is really "yellow" in most instances - if you know your Pantone colors you understand. The current flag was adopted after WWII in both West Germany and East Germany, with the latter adding the socialist hammer, compass, and (rye) grains.
The Black-Red-Gold flag was first flown by republican students in the mid 1800s. These student organizations were very influential at German universities, and many lost their early liberal and republican ideas to become nationalist and, today, quite right wing.

The second major official symbol of patriotism, the national anthem, had a long and complicated history, encapsulating in itself some of the key aspects of Germany's patriotism debate since World War II. Unlike the flag, which was a clean break with the pre-1945 state, the anthem as such remained intact in West Germany. East Germany picked a new one. Only after re-unification, in 1991, was the post 1918 (West German) version officially cut to the third stanza adopted for the whole country. The first two stanzas with their "greater Germany" and "nationalist" content were abandoned.

If you feel like re-phrasing the text of the German anthem or messing with the music, be warned, doing so is punishable as a felony unless you can claim artistic license which you better make court proof. A Jimmy Hendrix at Woodstock style rendition will likely be fine.
Germans are just not a relaxed as Americans.

This being said, the text of the republican anthem was written by an aristocrat, poet Hoffmann von Fallersleben, before Germany as country existed, and the first line of the third stanza clearly is more suited to reading than slurred or mumbled singing: Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit (unity and justice and freedom). The "d" in "und" tends to become the victim of slurred or mumbled vocalization, with somewhat problematic or highly satirical consequences. Ask a German friend for an explanation.

Writing about the symbols was easy, it is the meaning of patriotism where the fault lines are.

The vast majority of post war Germans were pretty relaxed with regard to both of the meanings given in the dictionary definition, liberals and leftists were worried and about the aspect of nationalism, sometimes disparaging the national symbols, while middle of the road conservatives tried to salvage the love of one's country parts and more staunchly conservative citizens wanted "more patriotism".

To the first, "soccer patriotism" is as far as they want to go, to the latter, it is not enough, and that's where much of the real "patriotism problem" lies. An article in The European, Pride and Advantage (in German) addresses this. The article claims it is no wonder that Germany is dissolving if we leave the subject of national identity to hooligans.

It then goes on to contrast American Fourth of July celebrations with the German Day of Unity (the re-unification) holiday, bemoaning that the German national holiday is a somber affair without the over the top joy and "coming together" of the American holiday.
Next, it asks how can we expect migrants to develop respect for our way of life if we are not proud of our country? If green party chair Trittin, whom nobody suspects of harboring nationalist sentiments, sings the national anthem, why don't we?

The article culminates in the claim that sympathy from the middle class for right wing demonstrators in recent times is caused by German leaders and political parties leaving the discussion of national identity to unsavory characters.

In terms of arguments, this article is a near perfect example of co-mingled and warped reasoning based on dubious assumptions. How can anybody claim Germany is dissolving when the present version of the country is a poster child of "coming together"?
Nationalist extremists have always claimed their actions deserved to be called patriotism. National identity is not the same as patriotism, and pride in your country or devotion to the welfare of its citizens can exist without the label.

The act of displaying the flag does not always mean patriotism: many of my Indian and Pakistani coworkers put American flag stickers on their cars after 9/11 because being mistaken for Arabs could get you killed - as it did in the case of a Sikh friend of a friend.

Even burning a flag does mean you are not a patriot - at least not when you ask Vietnam war protesters or some veterans.

A single family home with barred windows, with an American flag decal and "Proud to be American" behind the bars can be seen as defiance or desperation, take a pick.

It is unfortunate that Germany does not have term limits for elected officials because I would love to try out my term limits joke on the Germans to see what they mean by patriotism.

Q: Why does the US have term limits for politicians?
 A: Because their flag pins get bigger with each year in office, making them too unwieldy and heavy after eight or so years in office.

As for us, we brought an American flag to Germany, but don't fly it - an antique "made in the USA" heavy cotton flag, not a made in China plastic sheet. We don't own a German flag but have a tie-dye T-shirt in black-red-yellow, and we do wear that on occasion.

We'll see if the Germans can do patriotism in the sense of Pride without Prejudice or not. The way things have been going, a heavy dose of pessimism seems in order.

[Update 6/12/2016] The Euro 2016 soccer cup started and some German media are waking up to the fact that "flying that flag" is not quite as simple as they made it out to be.

[Update 2/12/2017] At a tennis match in Hawaii, the singer performed the "banned" first verse of the German national anthem, the verse that has "Deutschland über alles". The US officials dutifully apologized, said "This mistake will not occur again", and the German tennis federation came back with a condescending "we hope so..."
The reporting on the flub was not exceedingly over the top, but this quote in Frankfurter Allgemeine gave the blogster pause: Later, the Nazis abused the first verse for their purposes.

This is insidious and plain stupid.

Insidious because is pretends that is was impossible to foresee that "Deutschland über alles" was not an invitation for nationalists.

Stupid because there was an intense debate after WW II about a new anthem, just like the country picked a new flag.

But no, "they" decided to simply ban singing of the first verse at official events. East Germany chose a new, peaceful anthem, which was quickly discarded after re-unification.

Many national anthems are rather blood thirsty musical contraptions, for example the French one, and, oh, the U.S. anthem.

* Später missbrauchten die Nationalsozialisten die erste Strophe für ihre Zwecke.

Friday, August 14, 2015

This hybrid war and information war babble is deeply offensive

As in "offending to readers" as well as "an attitude or position of attack".

Not a week goes by these days in Western media, across countries, across parties, across mainstream news outlets, without scary, lurid, alarming stories about the power of Russian propaganda.

The author of this post has read articles about the Russian troll factories and the people who fight them despite then being targeted viciously themselves, about the slick and selective, about serious pressure on independent news outlets in Russia in each and every language our miniscule basement newsroom can muster, including somewhat rusty Russian.

And not just once in each language but multiple times in the same publications. The last instance, the drop in the bucket, Putin's News Network of Lies is Just the Start, isn't even all that bad as a recap, or "taken individually, most Newsweek items would not look out of place", and, yes, journalists being murdered and opposition figures shot dead right on the streets is awful enough.

When the Berlin Wall fell, the Western world stopped thinking about how to explain and promote its political system in Russia and around the world. 

"The Western world" did not stop thinking about how to explain or promote its system - or is someone implying that our best strategic minds took their eyes off the ball?

The author of this post will be forever amused that respected journalists and policy experts keep a straight face when they report the establishment of a military unit of "soldiers with expertise in social media". Monty Python comes to life.
Granted, not many people will go and learn the language of the currently fashionable adversary to unlock its culture, its history, and its current affairs, but if you are young and curious, do so. Or if you are old and still curious.

Learn Chinese, learn Russian. Arabic would have been useful a couple of decades ago but in an environment in which Arabic flashcards can get you kicked off a plane, think twice before you enroll.

The current bitching by nearly all major Western news outlets about Russian propaganda has all the same characteristics as its Cold War incarnation, adapted to the 21st century.

And no, this statement is not proof of the efficiency of the claim "It strenuously promotes the idea that truth is relative and facts are elastic". There is no reason to deny that much of what is happening in Russia is bad, that many people in central or Eastern European countries are worried, but it is not "countries" that are worried, ever.

It is people, sometimes a majority, sometimes not, sometimes for reasons based on hard facts, sometimes not.

Luckily, there are much more nuanced and analytically sound writers than Edward Lucas, for instance Patrick Smith in his Salon article The U.S.-Russia "phony war": How Washington warmongers could bring us from stalemate to catastrophe. It is actually, from a historical and cultural perspective, pretty damn impressive that the majority of the countries of the former Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact have weathered the incredible social, economic, and political upheavals since the fall of the Iron Curtain without setting the world on fire.

Russia, and the other countries mentioned in the Newsweek article, have never had anything even remotely comparable to our Western ways and means of propaganda. How great is Russian propaganda when, according to credible reports, the vast majority of young Russians regards the country's state-sponsored as pure propaganda?

But, as the title of the post indicates, the author is not primarily worried about facts, because more facts than you can ever digest are available at your fingertips.
Pro tip: forget about "ideology", "human rights" and "democracy", map only natural resources and dominant cultures/religions, and you are already a better strategist than half the talking heads everywhere.

The author is offended by the disgusting condescension, the pervasive distrust in the public exhibited by blatant propaganda like the Newsweek article.

Maybe, just maybe, "the West" wouldn't have such a problem with Russian, Chinese, or Iranian propaganda if "we" hadn't successfully trashed so many of our own values without blinking?

But hey, the author understands that propaganda - from any party - is not about convincing people who hold different opinions but about manufacturing reality, about saturation and looking good in the eyes of of the current bank teller and of future history. Deeply held beliefs are exceedingly hard to change, if at all, and if you don't believe that, the Daily Show's 16 year binge streaming showed it in a manner our daily soundbites media consumption cannot rival.

An infallible red flag that says here comes propaganda is when an old phenomenon is presented as a new one with a swanky new name. Hybrid war and, to a lesser extent, information war are just that: slick names for something that is thousands of years old.
Read Homer, not Simpson, the other one, or read up on how the Romans ruled over their empire, and it should be obvious.

Propagandists, again of all stripes and from all sides, are really ever so pissed off that people want to live in peace.

Insert reference to the previous post here.

The latest to chime in, to be honest, it is hard to keep track, was the head of the Russian service section of German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle in an article in Frankfurter Allgemeine. A propaganda piece in its own right.

Okay, the blogster is caving in: In a different world, nobody would need to be reminded of that violence casts a long shadow. Exploiting these memories in support of more violence is simply evil. 
About the author: The author of this post is a former civil servant and an honorary lifetime member of a U.S. Army unit, and has no intention to move to Russia.

[Update 16 August] Added Youtube Sharyl Attkisson links (astroturf and "Stonewalled")
[Update 19 August] Paragraph starting with "An infallible red flag..."
[Update 3/2/2016] Added paragraph "The latest to chime in..]
[Update 4/29/2016] Added paragraph "Okay, the blogster is caving in...]

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Best statement for humans, worst for bosses: I don't know

You realize there are several ways to interpret the title, right?

One reading is the best statement for humans and the worst for bosses to utter is the mini sentence "I don't know".

Another reading is I, the reader or the author, have no idea what the best statement for humans and the worst for bosses is.

A third could be the best statement humans can make and really upset a boss in the process is the phrase I don't know.

Which one is this post about? All three, really, because claiming to know the best thing other people can say requires an extremely good grasp of a given context or a puffy ego. So, take all of this with a grain of salt.

Let's start with an apology to bosses, because the title can be interpreted as saying bosses are not humans. Which would be grossly insulting. The phrasing merely is a clumsy short version for "humans in a culturally defined position of real or imagined power ranked higher than others", okay?

So many words for a simple declaration of love for "I don't know".

The blogster loves these three words.

If you use them around the blogster, you will be well respected even if our opinions on a subject or our general world views couldn't be more different.

The problem, at least in the blogster's limited Western-ish understanding of the world, is that this wonderful phrase is undervalued or frequently draws immediate punishment when you use it.

When and where to use I don't know?
I don't know is best not used in high school unless the question is on a subject not previously taught, because the odds of having one of the rare teachers who appreciates it are small.

Unfortunately, there is no ultimate rule on when and how to use I don't know. As a manager, it is up to you to tell your team that you value the statement but you have to be honest and follow through.

As a worker, in the absence of a credible policy of your manager, which is most of the time, you need to decide for yourself.

The blogster has always used it, driving a couple of managers crazy while winning unwavering support from others, even a departing Human Resources Director in one company stopping by to say good bye - to the great surprise of the blogster and co-workers.

The point for workers is: if you say I don't know, try to explain how you are going to find out, whether you need assistance and by when the issue will be resolved.

Only hardcore dickhead managers will still go after you, and then it is time to find another job anyway.

Will this post help you?

I don't know.

You might be better off trying more wishy-washy sentence introductions, such as "as far as I know", "to the best of my knowledge", or similar phrases, though the blogster maintains they make you seem -- right in line with the dictionary definition of whishy-washy -- weak or indecisive. Which may be worse than standing tall.

So, enjoy.