Sunday, January 31, 2016

Germany: money for jobless goes to pay for jobcenter administration

Germany's official unemployment figures look good. They went from around 5 million ten years ago to around 3 million in 2015.

Yet, the agency administering benefits continues to have a headcount of over 100 000, with a budget of around 50 billion dollars. By size, this would put the agency in the number 12 spot compared to Germany's 30 biggest companies, beating household names like Bayer and Lufthansa.


Critics, and there are many, have called the agency a model of job enrichment.

Investigative journalist and German media bad boy Wallraff did some of his trademark undercover work in and around the agency's local branches (called Jobcenter in easy modern German) and reports desolation and desperation, both on the part of the job center employees and their "customers". In bureaucratic newspeak, Germany has adopted the term "Kunde" (customer) for its unemployed and those in need of government benefits.

Wallraff quotes former jobcenter workers:
In the end, it is an institution so busy with itself that we don't need any customers.
It's a money destruction machine with a desolate structure.
We only administer unemployment.

Taking care of regular unemployment benefits is one of the main functions of the agency. If you have worked long enough and are laid off, they will pay the benefits.
But - as we described in a previous post - you must be prepared to be called Arrogant and Lazy when you show up with all documentation and a temporary job offer

A second major area is administering the basic means tested benefits regime Hartz-IV (named after its inventor, who was convicted of corruption a couple of years after his brainchild became Germany's new normal for the poor).
Related to this is the effort to get the country's long-term unemployed back into work.
Hartz-IV regulations come with German style, painstakingly detailed, means testing: a cheap car is okay, a small house, too. But if you exceed the allowed square meters for your posh residence (50 sqm/adult), the agency can make you move into a smaller domicile, with the cost of the move on you.
Sanctions for missing appointments at the jobcenter, for not filing enough applications, and for pretty much anything that can be construed as unwillingness to work, are a big part of "re-integrating" customers into the general labor market.

In 2015, the Bundesagentur came under fire for plans to take 750 million Euros out of the general Hartz-IV budget, thus cutting benefits for 4.3 million Germans, and use them to fund a special program for 43 000 long term unemployed.

This means, just under 17 500 Euros per head for an effort to put these long term unemployed to work.

Worse, on January 30, 2016, the German minister of labor, who oversees the jobs agency was accused of taking funds earmarked for measures to get jobless back into work to pay for jobcenter administration costs.

The total moved from benefits to administration in 2015 comes to 767 million Euros out of a budget of about 4 billion in integration funds. This is legal, so why the upset?

Because it allows the government to show how great of an effort its makes in support of the unemployed and of HARTZ-IV claimants at the beginning of the year, only to then go and take hundreds of millions of those funds and move them into the general administration budget.

This report comes just days before a law designed to "streamline" the benefits system to be able to better handle the additional workload due to the influx of refugees is going before parliament.

Charities already criticize the new regulations as insufficient and not addressing administrative waste, citing, for example a government report stating that a small contribution of 10 Euros for a child's music lessons comes with 6 Euros of administrative costs. 

The sanctions system also remains in force, and just one failure to finish a "support measure" can entail a 3 months cash benefits suspension, with a second failure potentially leading to cancellation of rent assistance, exposing customers to homelessness.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Are those nefarious "social media bubbles" a figment of our imagination?

From our Homemade philosophy series

Your answer should be: No, they are real, of course!

The exclamation mark is not essential, but the blogster thought you might enjoy it.

We get to reasons why you might say "yes" and draw the ire of many people a bit further down.

This post uses the term "social media bubble" in the sense of "filter bubble" or "echo chamber", not in the economic sense of something overvalued and potentially nearing a crash.

Unfortunately, social media - in everyday usage in Western countries that really means Twitter and Facebook with a side of YouTube - are being blamed for pretty much everything that is wrong or outright hateful and evil in mass communication.

The blogster uses the term "mass communication" for the features that share information with the world, not an invitation only Twitter account, not a friends only Facebook account. The latter are highly interesting to law enforcement and spooks, but much less relevant to this post, although, if you like overly broad incorrect generalizations, you could see them as perfect examples of an echo chamber. 

We all know many examples of how hate and hurt in social media had "real life" consequences, and we get pummeled by reports of more hate speech. The blogster looked at some in A ranking of German tweets that attack people as a***hole.

Setting aside attacks on individuals for whatever trait or alleged action, the two main media concerns with the bubbles and the echo chamber are propaganda and extremism.
Reports on Russian Twitter propaganda with "troll factories" and bots are legion. Their actual impact, though, is much less certain than typically claimed. NATO, always eager to emphasize the danger out of the East, commissioned a study on the issue of trolls in "hybrid warfare" Internet Trolling as a hybrid warfare tool: the case of Latvia, which is more interesting than one might think. It contains the usual hybrid warfare trash talk - which any good historian would shrug off as, oh, the Romans did that, just without the internet.

On page 81, the study concludes:
The blogster considers this section remarkable. The admission that trolling doesn't really do much in one of the Eastern European countries that came out of the USSR and are presented as very fragile is impressive. The mushy "induce certain effects in the longer run" looks like a sentence a desperate analyst might put in to "save the day".

There is another NATO publication, this one straight from a defense college and awfully named The Weaponization of Social Media, with some interesting practical and ethics questions,

According to German website dekoder, Russian propaganda also includes buying outright fake witnesses for stories. Before you get too upset about the reported instances, you might want to consider that the West is, as the blogster said elsewhere, better at faking it. One of the stellar accomplishments of the West was the hoax story about Saddam's soldiers and the incubator babies of Kuwait.

As far as extremism goes, this excerpt from a VICE Motherboard article sums up the basic thinking: In a way, social networking has taken fringe groups and given them power they never had before. The small-town white supremacist or misogynist might be obnoxious on his own; armed with an internet community of like-minded individuals, he becomes outright dangerous. In that way, technology has taken the fringe and "exacerbated" the problem of extremism, Phillips said.


It is true, the small-town white supremacist or the ISL fanatic can reach out to others around the world with ease. As a result, we are constantly reminded of the dangers by politicians and much of the media.

There is only one problem: history.

So far, history's most atrocious wars and genocide all took place without the internet and its social media.

The world is becoming more peaceful, despite a recent spike.

How dangerous then are the echo chambers?

Until now, certainly much less so than the echo chambers at the time Hitler and Stalin came to power, or at the time of the Chinese Great Leap Forward.

Sometimes, the "traditional" media feed on and reinforce a social media storm, like the dumb, idiotic frenzy described in German 4 Dummies: h8 the 88.

How are algorithms that create a filter bubble by personalizing what you see fundamentally different from what newspaper editors have been doing since their industry took off?

They are not as far as content creation goes. The issue of the data they collect and what they do with it, is another subject altogether. If you are worried about insidious algorithms, there is information out there to help:I Liked Everything I Saw on Facebook for Two Days. Here’s What It Did to Me.

And here is a claim:
Today, it is much easier to break out of your bubble or at least see other bubbles because you don't have to spend a lot of time and money to get other views. You can read some of the New York Times, some RT, some Frankfurter Allgemeine or whatever else and get a much better insight than before the Internet.

Try to answer this question: before the internet, before TV and radio, how many citizens would go and buy a stack of newspapers ranging from the "left" to the "right"?

Answer: very, very few.

Don't get sucked into the narrative of the bad guys having much more power. The good guys have a lot more power too, and we see it used.

And the "bad guys" are easier to spot. You don't have to travel to the small town of the Motherboard article to see if it has a white supremacist. Yes, pseudonyms make it a little for difficult, but the people we pay to keep an eye on those guys can overcome that hurdle.

It is important to know how to defend yourself on social media. A nice guide is HOW TO: Effectively Manage Hate and Anger on Social Media Sites.

Are you still waiting for the "yes" to the question "are social media bubbles a figment of our imagination"?

Philosophically speaking: yes because every concept humans come up with comes from our imagination.

On a practical everyday level, wouldn't this quote from an article by the American Press Institute entitled How Americans get their news indicate that social media bubbles do not, or not yet, have that much power over us?

Only 15 percent of adults who get news through social media say they have high levels of trust in information they get from that means of discovery. Social media and word-of-mouth are the least-trusted means of discovering the news, with 37 percent of those who got news this way in the last week mistrusting or trusting only slightly social media and 33 percent mistrusting word-of-mouth.

The blogster doesn't doubt the existence of bubbles, but finds it counterproductive to focus on the social media bubbles while ignoring all the others: family background, education, regional/national roots and others.

Which bubbles do you pick, which ones do you inherit or drift into, what are the rewards of a specific bubble, is there a price to pay for leaving a bubble?

What if you could turn all your bubbles into soap bubbles?

[Update 2/3/2016]
Good news from inside our bubble!
According to this article in French conservative daily Le Figaro on Islamist extremists, 95% of those radicalized were radicalized outside of the Internet, by "human contact".
Obviously, we all need to live in social media bubbles because human contact is dangerous.


Thursday, January 28, 2016

The small town German mayor on the economy and society

At the end of the post A small town German mayor chats about the refugee crisis, we promised a second installment on developments in Germany in a wider sense over the past two decades.

Our fifty-ish Christian Democrat mayor had some interesting things to say about his country then and now.

He is a small businessman and a landlord with a grand total of three employees, and his overall impression of what it is like to be a small businessman in Germany is summarized below.

Small businesses in most traditional sectors are under increasing pressure, he said. Despite what politicians tell us, they really don't care about mom and pop businesses. In general, it doesn't have to do with big issues like globalization. You can't globalize tiling a bathroom or baking bread very well, but we are getting ever more regulated or controlled, and bigger companies reap the benefits. In a couple of weeks, for example, I'll have an audit by the pensions agency, no large company gets audited by them. Politicians at all levels are finding large companies very attractive. They sponsor local events, they provide jobs for those retired politicians who don't have a civil service job to go back to, or they pick up the kids of politicians. Germany has very much become a society of networks, it's who you know, not what you can do.

Aren't personal connections always important?

I'm not saying the phenomenon is new, but it has become more pronounced, more widespread. Life is more regimented, and even if one administrative process becomes slightly simpler because one form goes away, you get more constraints that more than make up for that.

The blogster told the story, elaborated in the 2013 post The building code mafia, about relentless paperwork demands by the building and construction association which culminated in an unannounced visit by a customs officer on foot to investigate whether we had employed paid undeclared workers during the remodeling of the old house.* The mayor only nodded.

Jobs are still being created, mostly by bigger companies, and right now in the construction sector, but most don't pay that well, he explained. Many of our small business owners do not pass on their business to their children, they simply close down when they reach retirement age.

Then he made a surprise statement.

I think, you did it right.

What do you mean?

You didn't get stuck in a place or a career, you took chances, lived and worked in different countries without getting bogged down like most people.

At a loss for words, the blogster came up with an admittedly lame: That has not always been easy, there were hard times, too.

He obviously understood, and by unspoken agreement the conversation shifted to traveling in general and to vacationing in the U.S. Soon after, with firmer ground regained, we said our good byes.

* Spoiler alert: we had not.





Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A contender for Germany's worst digital forensics team

Almost two weeks ago, we asked the internet to Tell the K-Landnews about European law enforcement handling of alleged online drug purchases or sales.

Today, we can report that we may have found a contender for the title of Germany's Worst Digital Forensics Team right off the bat.

It is such a doozie that the blogster wanted to FOIA some more documents to investigate if this is a widespread pattern or a rookie error, maybe caused by time pressure or whatever else could explain it.

Unfortunately, the state of Hessen, where the team resides, does not have a freedom of information law, unlike twelve of the sixteen German states. So, we go with what we have.

The case:

An online drug dealer was busted and found to have a bunch of documents squirreled away on a USB stick. The forensics folks looked at the trove and correctly figured out that they were dealing with OpenOffice documents (ODF). They opened the documents and found data relevant to the case. They were particularly happy to find "*.ods" spreadsheets with names and addresses of potential customers.

They also found that a certain number of  OpenOffice Calc .ods files were "corrupted and could not be opened." The report contains no information on other standard areas any forensics expert would investigate.

As baffling as it is, no repair efforts were made. None whatsoever.

For the non-experts among our readers, a two minute search in your favorite search engine reveals that OpenOffice files are .xml files saved in .zip format.

You can use any compression software that supports ".zip" to open an OpenOffice file and get at the component xml files.

Since files were corrupted or damaged, you should search for something like "zip file repair". Pick a tool and have a go. Of course, there is no guarantee, but there is a good chance you will get most of the data back.

This is how far you can get with off the shelf, free repair tools.

Actual forensics folks would not give up if the repair fails. Recall that an ods file consists of several xml files, what we called component xml files above. These are separate individual files, which means that a programmer could write some code to get at the specific part of a zip file that is of interest. *

An intact or repaired .ods file can be extracted to give the individual xml fiiles, which looks like this:



The one file you really want is "content.xml".

The test "content.xml" file from the above ods/zip looks like this:


Near the bottom of the screenshot, there is an entry "text:p" with the bold text "bad".
That's the text we entered into the first column of the first row in OpenOffice Calc.

We did mess with the zip file a bit by changing some bytes in a binary editor to get a "corrupted" file and ran this through several zip repair tools with good success.
As long as the "content.xml" part (or 'zip entry') is not damaged, all of the juicy data can be retrieved.

Would you agree that we found at least a contender for the worst German digital forensics team, if not the very worst?


* A good .zip repair tool will do this anyway, but we are trying to explain a more hands-on approach.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Railing against universal basic income (UBI)

The other day, a board member of German software giant SAP went on record by voicing support for universal basic income (UBI) in the mainstream conservative German Frankfurter Allgemeine (on January 21).

At this point, the blogster started the countdown: within a week, there should be an article making the argument against UBI. Lo and behold, the economics editor of the Sunday version of the paper comes out swinging with an opEd against UBI, today (five days later), under the headline Forget UBI (our translation).

It is a seriously awful piece, calling the idea "an old hat" (a relic), a "sedative for the army of workers rendered obsolete" if the disturbing scenarios predicting the loss of up to half of all jobs through automation and digitization came true.

The alleged arguments of those in favor of UBI are a caricature of a reasonably thoughtful approach like this article in the Huffington Post.

Claiming that proponents point out that "we have been so successful that we can liberate humans from the curse of work" and individuals can do whatever they please, "as Karl Marx predicted", plays on the fear of moochers. The valiant editor goes on to quote Marx and Engels: "Go hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, and raise some cattle in the evening".

Putting any modern argument pro UBI firmly into the corner of Marx and discrediting it as mostly supported by top managers of the computer world (implying that they really don't know what they are talking about) is a neat device that leads to the climax of economic theory as misunderstood by the gentle commentator.

"People need paid work. We all know, if something is free, it's worth nothing."

Tell this to the world's volunteers, who give billions of hours of work every year for no pay at all.

And "what if the robot co-worker really does all the work? We'll find some new needs we don't know about now, needs that require human work because they cannot be automated. That's how history has worked until now."

Can we simply dismiss these final thoughts?

No.

But in the 1970s and 1980s, those who predicted higher long term unemployment in the 21st century were equally ridiculed. For Germany, there were predictions of some 4 million unemployed (at a time when a 1% unemployment rate was considered a disaster). While that figure was exceeded in 2005, the current lower level does seem to confirm a long term trend.

[Update 2/1/2016]
German daily Zeit Online reports on the world's first popular vote on UBI in Switzerland on June 5, 2016 and on a plans for a Dutch pilot project. Unlike the comment in FAZ above, the Zeit article is thoughtful and balanced.

Monday, January 25, 2016

How free is free movement in Europe?

Just today, one of the editors of German Frankfurter Allgemeine, praises the "unhindered freedom" of the European Union, and laments that this freedom, peace and prosperity "are seen as self-evident" (or given) and as "costing nothing".

The passive voice is a wonderful mechanism for dodging specifics.

Which segment or segments of the European population sees these achievements as "given"? Young people? Don't we teach them history anymore, or if we do, don't we believe our teaching makes a difference?

Let's see what the European Commission says about free movement: "Citizens of the EU and their family members have the right to move and reside freely within the territory of the EU, subject to certain conditions".

Article 6: EU citizens can reside on the territory of another EU country for up to three months without any conditions other than the requirement to hold a valid identity card or passport.

Now, let's see how U.S. citizens compare: A U.S. citizen can stay in the EU for up to 90 days without a visa. Having sufficient funds is required by law, but nobody checks as long as you are in possession of a return ticket and are not flagged as potentially undesirable.

90 days is three months (give or take a couple of days), which means that EU citizens are - in practice - not better off than U.S. citizens as far as the duration of an unconditional stay is concerned.

A variety of restrictions of free movement of citizens of new EU member states seeking work in other EU states existed over the years, for example for Polish citizens looking to work in the UK. Most restrictions are now gone, but restrictions still apply for citizens of Croatia with regard to working in several other EU countries. Germany lifted restrictions on Croations in 2015, the remaining countries will follow by 2018.

Once the initial three months are over, EU citizens can reside in another EU state if they
1) have work or
2) possess sufficient funds & have health insurance

If you are a U.S. citizen, getting a job in Europe may not be easy, so EU nationals have a distinct advantage there.

As a US citizen, if you have sufficient funds and health insurance, you have are in an excellent position to retire in Germany or another EU country. You are, in fact, in a better position than poor EU citizens.

EU citizens can get access to the social system of their new country of residence, which means does represent the first real advantage over a US citizen moving to Europe. However, access to the social services of the new country come with a whole slew of restrictions, such as a wait period of six months or more. In addition, the United Kingdom is currently planning to restrict in-work benefits for migrants from other EU countries.

The heated debate about these British plans is summarized nicely in this BBC article.

German politicians, notably some social democrats, have also put plans on the table to limit benefits for other EU citizens. This article (in German) in spiegel online explains some proposals.

Current media focus on the danger of collapse of the "Schengen zone" (no passport or ID checks are performed when traveling from one Schengen state to another) is misleading in this context.

The conditions for taking up residence in a Schengen country are not predicated on the convenience of crossing the physical border. This being said, the absence of border checks in the Schengen zone has been significant as a symbol of free movement.

Even the blogster exclaimed: Well, this is nice! when first crossing into France this way. Schengen made the mandatory stop at the California checkpoint on Interstate 5 coming from Oregon appear even more quaint than before.

Yes, California has Border Protection Stations (BPS)!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Thoughts on disappearing - by a German refugee center official

The influx of just over one million refugees into Germany in 2015 has had plenty of organizational challenges. We described one aspect in the January 2015 post Why are so many asylum seekers born on 1 January?


In the meantime, the world found out that one of the November 2015 attackers of Paris had registered under multiple false names as a refugee in Germany, exploiting delays and loopholes in the system.

This did not come as a surprise to many insiders, and we know this from another chat the blogster had with an official in charge of a refugee intake center. In the context of describing the lack of documents which gets refugees the January 1 birthday, the official said: If I wanted to disappear and get myself a new identity, I'd become a refugee.

Really? Even as a German?

Sure, here is what I would do. First, figure out a place you can claim to be from. Tall, blue-eyed blondes don't really come from Syria, so find a credible origin. Don't laugh, but Chechnya might work for someone with seriously Caucasian looks. You can change hair color, of course.

Next, pick a name. Spend some time on this, because it will be your name for the rest of your life if you succeed.

Throw away you smart phone, get adequate clothes, then make your way to a refugee intake facility in the south of Germany or one of the states that are struggling to cope with the numbers of incoming people.

But I don't speak the language of any of the potential countries of origin!

Not a problem, you need broken English. Watch the Tom Hanks movie The Terminal for a primer.

Don't they take fingerprints and check them?

They do, but there is lots of confusion, there are delays checking them against refugee registration databases of other EU countries, and they don't check against the fingerprints of natives, at least not currently. Of course, giving up all of your previous life is hard, next to impossible for most people, so don't take this as encouragement. I'm only explaining that the system and the sheer numbers of people we need to process in a short time could allow someone to go this route.

Wouldn't it be easier if you had a friend who works at a center and who could get the paperwork done?

Probably, but I'm thinking of writing a novel when I'm done with the job, and that's one of the plot lines. Germany seen lots of disappearing acts in the 20th century, for example the story of Hans Ernst Schneider, an SS guy, who ditched his persona in 1945, took on a new identity, married his wife a second time, went through college again, got a second PhD and became a liberal college professor. He was unmasked over 40 years later, and stripped of his pension and titles because someone found old photos from first life.

So, a prerequisite of the disappearing act would be no photos of you on the Internet?

Hm, that's a tough one fore today's young people, but it could still work. I'll make a note of this for my novel.

[Update 4/28/2017] Told you so.
Germans arrest a German soldier who passed himself off as a refugee. A 28 year old German lieutenant was arrested on suspicion of planning a terror attack. The soldier registered as a refugee from Syria in December 2015. He managed to lead a double life until having been caught in Vienna with a gun, the Austrians set off a chain reaction that ultimately led to the "Syrian refugee" being unmasked as a German soldier.

The man does not speak Arabic. Apparently, Germany, short of Arab speakers, was using French interpreters for Syrians (the country had been under French colonial influence for some time).


Saturday, January 23, 2016

Fracking is good for human rights - oh, it's just a Spiegel comment

From our series We finally found a comment worse than the K-Landnews standard

Just as a frozen blogster was staring at a blank screen, wondering if writing about writer's block negates the very existence of such block, Der Spiegel saved us, well, maybe.

Oil price: Fracking is good for human rights [Our translation, but accurate]

The piece comes as a "comment", and goes something like this: no more money for ostentatious display of wealth, no more cash for arms and the security apparatus, the low oil price could drive some of the worst despots out of their palaces.

Where would they go, who would take their place?

Enter Saudi bashing.

We are spared details of Saudi investments and financial reserves, which is understandable because the numbers would blow our little Western brains. Instead, we are given the crucial number of princes and princesses in the kingdom: over 7000.

The pressure on the "Saudi decapitators" (that's his words, not mine) is so on.

It's fine, we get it. There are other guys, thieves, potentates, human right abusing regimes in the former soft underbelly of the Soviet Union, then there is another regime in Venezuela, and Russia too, sure. Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, all bad.

Oh, ISIL, yes.

No word about Turkey in that context.

Casual mention that the US fracking boom is to a large extent responsible for the crash of crude prices is made - had to be.

The the commentator addresses the bad side of cheap oil: it's bad for climate change and fosters waste of fossil fuels. Warnings of destabilization get dismissed as cynical, as support of bad actors.

Had one read, just as a random example, The Economist, one might be less strident.
Or a recent well-written, fact based but pretty jargon free German piece on the "curse of cheap oil", one might....

One might....

One could...

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A small town German mayor chats about the refugee crisis

A few days ago, the blogster had the opportunity to sit down for a cup of coffee with the mayor of a typical small German town of some 5 000 residents, and located within standard commuting distance from the nearest urban center.

The mayor is a member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Germany's conservative biggest party, the party German Chancellor Merkel belongs to. In his early fifties, college educated, he is old enough to have some perspective on changes in modern Germany and young enough to have a stake in the upcoming decades.

These facts represent "middle Germany" as ideally as it is likely to get, the blogster figured. So, we chatted about various topics but mainly about the refugee crisis.

Like the overwhelming majority of his fellow countrymen, the mayor has empathy for people fleeing war and destruction, and there was no indication throughout the informal interview that a hard maximum limit of the number of people allowed into the country was even on his mind.

His concerns were practical in nature. What do we do with so many young people, how can we get them to learn German, how can we reasonably house and feed them if the labor market cannot absorb them fast enough, if the current record tax revenue slows down, and so on.

He went: Look, we don't offer the refugees nearly enough opportunities to use the time they now have to learn German and to get settled. We don't put them in full time German classes, as we really should. It doesn't help much if a nice German lady stops by one evening a week and tries to teach them.

He has a good point. The "integration courses", which are really language classes with a few field trips are booked solid, they are at best part time, there are not enough qualified teachers, and those teachers are often paid the same a barber makes. The German government has outsourced these teaching jobs to charities in order to get around its own standards for school teachers.

He sounded sad, as he continued: So, without basic German, how can we expect to educate and train all those who need more skills to get a job?

Reminded by the blogster that the German education system is still geared towards children who are born here, go through the entrenched system, then go through an often very extensive and potentially overly demanding training, he got the point. Yes, I know the US has more flexibility, lower bars for entry jobs, and I think that's helpful. If we simply put large numbers of newcomers on HARTZ IV basic social security, they'll be stick, and we won't be able to pay forever.

He went on to describe the financial situation in his area. The town is doing great, he said. We just received an additional one million Euros, and I have no idea where that money comes from, he chuckled. We don't spend money on the latest wave of refugees, the county takes care of that. So, we are using the extra cash to fix up some buildings, pay off some debt and put the rest on the side for a rainy day.

At the county level, the math works like this: they receive 800 Euros per refugee per month. For a family of six, that's 4 800 Euros for housing, food, a small cash payout, and health care. If health care expenses are low, if that family of six is in good shape, that's plenty of money. It's the health care expenses that can quickly turn this into a steep loss.

And as far as housing goes, each county does its own thing, there is absolute;y no standard. My county pays per apartment or per house, and I have actually rented out the old house where my mother lived to refugees. I get 300 Euros a month without heating and utilities, and I am not making money on this. The heating system doesn't work too well, fixing that will cost at least 1 200 Euros.

One county over, they calculate the rent per person. Granted, rents are somewhat higher there, but landlords rake it in. That same family of six brings in 1 800 in rent each month.

Asked whether he can confirm reports that refugees looked at an assigned residence and refuse to take it, he shrugs: Yes, it has happened, but what can you say. It is about expectations, in a world where everybody has a smart phone, what should people think when they get a photo of a brand new apartment from someone?
This is obviously not of significance to the mayor, isolated incidents. And rightly so, the blogster would add.

The conversation then moves on to developments in Germany over the past two decades. Another post will deal with this.


A seal (phoca vitulina) atop a traffic light?

The morning coffee ritual over, we were walking back to the car parked on the street along the foot of high dunes that hid the ocean.

After several days of bad weather, this morning was calm and warm, with only a few clouds lazily hanging almost stationary in the sky.

The call of a seal came from beyond the dunes.

Wait, that's a seal, let's go see it.

Okay.

We make our way a set of stairs. The seal is calling again. It sounds normal, not in distress, so we take our time.

The stairs end at a pedestrian crossing with traffic lights towering over the street almost on top of the dunes. It is one of those press to cross deals.

The seal has stopped calling.

We press the button and wait.

I can't wait to see a seal, it's been a while.

As if on cue, the seal calls again.

But something is wrong: the seal call comes from above, not from the beach. We look up, expecting, well, nothing really.

Oh, my god.

The exclamation is followed by laughter. There, on top of one of the traffic lights sits a crow. A big one, pitch black and alert.

It opens its beak and makes the seal call, turns its head as if to check how we react.

We laugh.

It makes the seal call again, then immediately bends forward a little as the light goes back to red. The crow carefully inspects the red light, its head almost disappearing. We press the button again.

The crow decides it has had enough, flaps its wings and takes off towards the street we just came from.

Stumped by a crow, not bad, if you think about it. Should have spent some time on YouTube and gone through the clips that show the great abilities of crows in mimicking other animals, including humans.


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

German public broadcaster SWR bans populist AfD from pre-election debate

Debates between top candidates for political office are held in Germany, too. And, just as in other countries, there is jostling and fighting, sniping and upset when it comes to which parties get a seat.

In the run-up to the British 2015 elections, for example, the BBC made headlines in October 2014 when it announced the Green Party would not appear in the TV debate, though UKIP would.

The situation was resolved and in April 2015 everybody was happy: They each said they were "looking forward" to the TV clash which also features UKIP, the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru leaders for the first time.

Not so in the two German states of Baden-Wuerttemberg and neighboring Rheinland-Pfalz in 2016.

The regional "public broadcaster" SWR was going to hold debates of candidates and found itself at the center of a controversy because they wanted to invite the young AfD (Alternative fuer Deutschland), a populist startup polling at between five to eight and six to ten percent in the two states, making entry into the new state legislature highly likely.

The AfD, strongly anti-Euro, heavily opposed to the government on refugee and asylum matters, was looking forward to the debates, when the social democrats (SPD) and the Greens in both states made it clear they would not share a debate stage with the AfD.

The conservative Christian democrats (CDU) said they did not oppose inclusion of the AfD, although the blogster could not determine with certainty whether this was before or after the SPD and Greens leaders issued their ultimatum.

German public broadcasters are supposed to operate in a manner independent from government, although politicians are on the boards of directors, ultimately control the purse strings, and tend to put their buddies into the CEO jobs when they can - or as critics would say: always.

The head of SWR had to make a choice.

Insist on including AfD and thus render the debates useless because the SPD and Greens would not be there.

Give in to the demands and play into the hands of the many critics who have been decrying too much political influence on the broadcasters anyway.

Himself being up for reelection soon, the broadcast chief caved: only parties that are already in the current state legislatures will participate in the debates.

To give at least some voice to the others, including the right wing AfD, the left wing DieLinke, and the FDP in Rheinland-Pfalz (where it is not in the legislature, as opposed to Baden-Wuerttemberg), the broadcaster chose a format Americans know well from the presidental State of the Union addresses.

Interviews taped in advance with the candidates of the excluded parties will be aired after the respective debates.

[Update 1/21/2016] Der Spiegel just reports that the CDU candidate of the state of Rheinland-Pfalz, Ms. Kloeckner, has decided to pull out of the SWR TV debate for her state.

[Update 1/31/2016] Politicians of the Green party and the Social Democrats in both Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate changed their minds and agreed to have AfD and FDP in the debates. The CDU candidate of the state of Rheinland-Pfalz, Ms. Kloeckner, also reversed her last decision and will participate.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Germany's dubious use of "extended police powers area" (Gefahrengebiet)

Many German police forces have an interesting tool at their disposal that extends their already considerable powers even further. They can declare an area a "Gefahrengebiet", literally a danger area, an area at high risk of unrest ur widespread serious crime. In US or English police parlance, "stop and frisk" appears to be an appropriate description. The German measure includes assembly of groups, both large and small.

The K-Landnews decided to use the term "extended police powers area", probably not the best choice and showing our ignorance as to how law enforcement in other countries would call such a measure. 

In effect, any such area is a delimited geographical region where the normally required prerequisites for police action, "probable cause" or "reasonable suspicion", are temporarily suspended. Declaration of an area as a "Gefahrengebiet" requires "concrete intelligence" of a high risk of serious crimes.

In the northern city state of Hamburg, the measure was introduced in the 2005 revision of the law enforcement code.
As an administrative measure, police sets up an "extended police powers area" without requiring approval by a judge. Excessive use of the measure in 2014 caused widespread criticism, and the state's highest administrative law court declared the 2014 measures a violation of basic rights and therefore unconstitutional.

Currently, the city of Berlin, Germany's capital, is using a "Gefahrengebiet" in the former East Berlin borough of Friedrichshain, with the focus on several buildings on Rigaer Strasse occupied by squatters and various leftist and autonomous groups. 

In the press and on social media, the area is generally referred to as Rigaer 94, or R 94 for short, the address of the most important building.

Tensions between police and the motley groups of anti establishment leftists and anarchists have flared up recently, with each side accusing the other of acts of provocation and violence.
Earlier this month, there were reports of an attack on a police officer and the attackers fleeing into the Rigaer Strasse 94 complex.

As reported by VICE Germany, police reacted by sending in a SWAT team plus an additional 500 officers. Beatings, insults and threats by officers were reported, and the lawyer of the house was not let inside for an hour.
Police called the action an "inspection" (Begehung, or walk through) aimed mostly at finding objects that could be used as weapons.

At the latest since Hamburg in 2014, German police have become as creative as their Anglo counterparts when it comes to defining a "potential weapon", going as far as declaring a plastic toilet brush to be such a device in Hamburg - thus ensuring instant public ridicule.

In Berlin, police allegedly had some 10 tons of coals for winter heating (aka. possibly dangerous objects) removed, leaving the old building without a good source of heat.  

To their credit, police did not try to justify this as a quirky implementation of the latest Paris climate change agreements on reducing the use of fossil fuels.

In the latest disruption by police, a vegan cake bazar was raided on Sunday, and in retaliation a trash bag was hurled at police (it missed).

On January 18, the local Berliner Zeitung reported an attack on the office of a conservative  politician. The attack consisted of a colored chalk scribble saying "R 94 lebt" (R 94 lives) on the stone facade of the building housing the office.

Local Berlin politicians love to talk about "No go" areas in Germany's cities as a big problem for law and order. Consequently, the chalk attack on the office was promptly followed by resolute calls for more police action in the R 94 area.

Rigaer Strasse will not be declared a No go area, said another conservative (CDU) politician.

What he failed to mention is that Berlin police go there quite happily, as shown in this video taken by residents of the complex.

If you liked this post, here is an earlier one about German police crowd control: the "Flexi-Kettle". at a major demonstration in Frankfurt in 2015.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Another brief news cycle about the super wealthy

Kumbha Mela: The more you give, the more you 've got to give.

The super wealthy? The more you have, the more you gotta have?

The wealth of the world's richest 62 people is the same as that of half of the population, it's today's big headline in the European media, from TheGuardian to the conservative outlets.

TheGuardian illustrates its article with a tasteful night time photo of a harbor filled with yachts. Yachts are typically associated with wealth, seen as stereotypical toys where raunchy party excesses take place. The image shows an unspecified but obviously European harbor.

German Zeit Online goes with a slick yacht photo taken at French port Cannes.

German Spiegel Online, on the other hand, opts for the view of the poor: a photo of two children, vaguely ethnic, walking along a fairly barren land in the twilight of dawn or dusk.

Conservative German FAZ goes with the Guardian's concept but shows yachts of the super rich in the Chinese city of Sanya, thus creating a focus on the ostentatious newly rich of Asia.

French daily Le Monde has nothing at the time of this writing.

You have noticed that the blogster focused on the presentation of the article in several European papers. The reason for this is simple, the blogster is at a loss for something new and passionate to say about the phenomenon.

The facts are known, the direction of development is known, many solutions as countermeasures are being discussed yet again in the OXFAM study and the media.

So, instead of being glib about next week's Davos Economic Forum summit with so many private jets coming in that airports near and far will be full, we refer you to two previous posts.


Ooops, the rich are richer than we figured, new ECB study says

Higher rates of depression in wealthier German states

For the more demanding readers, we suggest Picketty, Freakonimics, or any of the brilliant thinkers not owned by big corporations.

We salute those wealthy humans who do something good with their riches. We know they exist, and we count some among our friends.

The rest of us, as poor as the blogster or even poorer, we'll be okay.

Namaste.

[Update 1/18/2016] The discussion is on! Some argue that overall poverty is declining, so all is well. Absolute poverty, currently defined as the number of people living on less than $ 1.90 a day, has indeed been declining. A great chart on the subject is by Max Roser and can be found in Quartz, among other publications.
Conflating the two is ill-advised and really suggests that a (free) online course or two in economics and statistics might be a good idea for the new year.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Officers help themselves to confiscated illicit Grateful Dead merchandise

It is a sight to behold.

As American as apple pie.

Or as American as dildos, your choice.

On the night before a concert of Dead & Company, which is the latest incarnation of the iconic band Grateful Dead sans Phil, a group of plainclothes law enforcement officers stand on the corner of Larkin and Grove on the sidewalk opposite of San Francisco's Bill Graham Civic Auditorium next to City Hall.

Grove Street is shut down for the one city block occupied by the Auditorium. On the other side of Grove, beyond the "crowd control barriers", the sidewalk and the small park are occupied by Deadheads - as fans of the band are often called - and small time merchants and, yes, a few pot dealers.

The majority of these residents of the temporary marketplace, called Shakedown Street after a Dead song, are mostly young people, up to their early thirties, many have the requisite dogs, and small children are as much a part of the scene as a generation or two ago.

Along the edge of the grass, small patches with a variety of goods are marked by towels, a coat, or tie-dye shirts. You can hear a lot of catching up between people who have not seen each other in a long time, and many of the younger crowd do all the talking and selling or bartering with one finger up in the air.

The finger means I am searching for a ticket.

A couple of adventurous souls hold up money, indicating they can pay for a ticket. Grab and runs don't seem to be a concern in 21 century S.F. Others hold up a hand written sign "Miracle" or "Looking for Miracle", which means they don't have money or not enough to pay the full face value of a ticket.

Back to the officers.

There are about five of them, standing in a loose circle around one who is holding a black, sturdy trash bag. All but the leader are dressed in black, he is wearing a blue jacket. One of them is holding the bag open, showing the wares they confiscated so far from vendors on Shakedown across the street as "illicit" merchandise, merchandise that infringes the copyright of the Grateful Dead (or any version of the band, or anybody who bought rights).

Two or three of the officers bend down and reach into the bag to rummage around. The leader reaches down and his hand comes back out holding a black wool hat that has a "Steal your Face" patch on the front. He inspects the hat carefully, opening it to test stretchiness, going over the surface with the palm to get a measure of softness and quality.

Then he folds up the hat and puts it into his jacket pocket.

Did you see that? a bystander only two or three yards away asks a companion.

They do that all the time, man, replies the older male. That's how they roll, he adds, smiling for added emphasis.

While the officers, one of them sports a badge of the San Francisco Sheriff's Office, do this, people are milling all around them, ignoring them just as much as the officers ignore the concert goers, the other folks with fingers up in the air, and the counterfeit ticket sellers.

If you spend just a few minutes talking to older deadheads, stories about confiscation of illicit goods or just about anything police felt like taking come forward.

Some years, they left us mostly alone, other years they were crazy. I remember one show where they took stickers that depicted roses off a kid. Just because the Dead uses roses a lot doesn't mean you cannot draw roses and sell your own stickers. But they didn't give a shit.

Still don't, if you ask me.

Back in the days, I recall many cases, especially on the East Coast and in the South, when they would march in, take all your t-shirts and stuff and issue a citation to appear in court in a week. Then they'd tell you to get the hell out of Dodge before the court date and never show up in their jurisdiction again.

Such is life.

After the show, venue security gives the crowd some fifteen or so minutes to say goodbye to each other and then crosses Grove and starts telling people to move on.

Nobody had bothered the guy who made the rounds in the crowd already before the show quietly telling folks: "remember to take your Penicillin".

Yes, compared to episodes the blogster recounted in the 2013 post Bent copper for sale, the night at the Civic Center was utterly uneventful.





Tell the K-Landnews about European law enforcement handling of alleged online drug purchases or sales

The K-Landnews TheEditor did it again - it** rumbled: "don't you morons see there is a story here? Get off your lazy ass and ask the Internet!"

The admonition took place after the mystery document described in Prosecutions in Germany continue in 2016 after the Oct. 2013 Silkroad bust sat on the desk for a few days.
   
So, we have us a project:
Collect lots of great information pertaining to how European law enforcement prosecutes alleged clearnet (your "everyday" internet with sites like bild.de or disney) and Darknet (TOR/I2P) drug crime and write something meaningful about it. Identify what works well, discuss mistakes and issues.

We are interested in both unambiguous and messy cases, where messy means anything dubious at any stage of an investigation. This includes, but is not limited to, legal framework for and disputes over online & physical searches, standard digital forensics tools and potential errors in forensics and attempts at a cover up, lost or compromised evidence, inadequate understanding of the different technical layers involving such criminal activities.

We accept information on both state and federal cases, or equivalent administrative levels.

Alleged purchases should be small (up to about 10g or 20g of pot, between 1 and 3 g of other drugs) because the greatest political and social disputes revolve around how society should treat small time and casual use.

Documents can be in any of these languages: German, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian. We'd love to do others, too, and might be willing to accept your help with them, depending on the volume of cases this request produces.

Requested specific information regarding the German cases described in the above linked post:
If you, or someone you know, possesses a copy or the original of a German document that is titled "Zeugenvernehmung" and has the following timestamped footer, please send us a copy:
Zeugenvernehmung_018
04 / 2014
Note: At least two document versions with this same footer exist, one version from 18 April 2014, the other from almost to the day a year later (April 2015).
Of course, all other documents regarding this investigation are welcome, too.

In order to obtain a comprehensive and balanced picture of the current state of affairs, please send us any other case files or documents relating to investigations that might be of interest to the public and could shed a light on current practice in your country outside of the stereotypical political warnings that "the sky is falling".

How to contact us:
If you have a protonmail account, you can use the email address krautlandnewseditor@protonmail.ch

If you use any of the major email providers, please encrypt email with PGP using the K-Landnews public key available here. and use this email address: krautlandnewseditor@gmail.com
We will not respond to unencrypted email to this address.

Other options may be considered, including upload to a TOR hidden service (if and when we decide to upgrade ours to the needs of 2016).

What happens with your information:
It will be downloaded asap and virus and malware checked, the copy on the provider server will be deleted (with the general caveats re providers on that subject). It will then be stored on an external drive. Person names - other than those of government officials acting in their capacity as officials - will be minimized or removed.
You are free to make the names of suspects and witnesses illegible before sending documents but we ask you to leave the names of officials intact.
Also, please do not redact nicknames used for accounts since nicknames of suspected dealers are vital to establish the scope of research into complex cases and to the search for public information on sites such as reddit or in existing mirrors of defunct Darknet sites.
Any posts or articles resulting from the collected information will not include real names of individuals subject to an investigation or of witnesses.
German publishing law/guidelines protect the disclosure of the name of individuals who are not bona fide public figures. We habitually go beyond that by changing names altogether.

To be very clear: None of the documents themselves will be published, this is not a "leaks" type of project. 

Can the K-Landnews be trusted?
Read some posts, and lots of our tweets, then decide. It may not matter much to you, but none of the many stranded facebook users who emailed us in the first year with their account woes has encountered grief from us. Our sources still talk to us.

Other than a completely offline adventure that saw the blogster disrupt a conspiracy by the local adolescent, roids fueled wannabe drug lords (there's an earlier post about that) with their retaliation being the destruction of Christmas lights, life as a hillbilly has been supremely uneventful.

Why not just fire up TOR and sleuth around the net?
Because we are interested in the real life fallout, not in who's who on the net. The realm of what comes after the net activities is the subject of this effort.

[Update 1/15/2016] Felt the need to clarify the project by adding "
To be very clear: None of the documents themselves will be published, this is not a "leaks" type of project."

** TheEditor insists on gender neutrality, hence it. Note: also for the heck of it.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The forgotten community of Pacific Shores, California

The night started something like this.
 
Where's the campground?

Just off Kellog Road, coming up on the right.

The night ended only a few hours later when it became light enough to back out of the swamp road about half a mile from what the GPS had promised was a campground.

The GPS was wrong. The place marked as a campground was a trail head with prominent "No camping" signs. This was the second fail in a row. Unfortunately, the GPS did not tell people if a campground was open in the off-season. They had played, and lost, the same of "dive up and see" several times in the past few days. Hint: most are closed.

They examined the map and decided to continue ahead towards the beach. On the left, a few hundred yards ahead, the small screen showed a major road, Tell Boulevard, it said.

Tell Boulevard was dark in the dark of night, in the shadow of the dunes. Odd, but not impossible in this remote far north eastern corner of California. As the car turned left, the headlights illuminated a burnt out trailer.

This is creepy.

Look, there are lights further down.

Tell Boulevard once must have looked grand. It had two double lanes for traffic separated by a wide median strip. The concrete slabs of the road surface were broken, and the ongoing rain collected in puddles in the cracks and on the sides.

Cautiously easing the vehicle forward, it became clear the road was in such bad shape that a truck was the only sensible option. When the median first gave way to a connection between the lanes, they turned to head back out to Kellog.

The lights are cars, coming towards us.

Take a right, on this road. It looks much better.

Just ahead, there were trees.

They pulled over and decided to catch some sleep right there. Only to be woken up by a truck with a trailer slowly passing into the wooded area. The headlights of the truck illuminated pieces of garbage, a discarded tire, ghostly pieces of metal sticking into the night next to a tree.

Few long minutes later, the truck came back. The trailer bounced, the sound of an empty trailer. Their fitful sleep was interrupted several more times by revving engines of more vehicles traveling along Tell Boulevard, though none turned their way.

The faint light of dawn revealed the road the car sat on. Locals were using the area as a dump. An overnight stay on an official landfill wouldn't look much different.

They left a few minutes later and spent the time it took to get back to U.S. 101 North speculating on the history of the place.

Much later, a quick web search would bring up an article by NBC News from 2008 would explain the twists in the history of Pacific Shores. The desolate place had a wonderful name, Pacific Shores.

Here is what NBC said:
Pacific Shores, as it was dubbed by a developer who sold lots on the cheap to far away dreamers, is a limbo land where the state has been able to prevent development but unable to get lot owners to give up their quest.
Owners have been squaring off with the agency that oversees coastal development almost since the Coastal Act of 1976 was created, partly in response to Pacific Shores and similar undevelopable subdivisions. 

And what explains the night time traffic?

The article is charitable, failing to mention the sprawling illegal dump, and instead quotes a local resident: "Ninety percent of the residents here either learned how to drive here or were conceived here".

The official name of the area is Tolowa Dunes State Park, and it lies only miles north of the real town of Crescent City, CA.

Unless you are in the neighborhood or love birds, there is not much reason to leave U.S. 101 for a visit, but Google Maps can take you there.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Cologne, Germany, NYE attacks and sexual violence in general

As we said in the February 2013 post Meteor pulverizes sexism debate at the tail end of a major sexism debate in Germany: another debate will flare up

Well, it's here, and it even comes with its own catchy German word: Sexmob. Apparently coined by the ever inventive staff of tabloid Bild.

Germany is still reeling under the attacks on women on New Year's Eve, discussions are everywhere, and there is a new Twitter hashtag #ausnahmslos (without exception) started by feminists in order to address sexualized violence in general, instead of following the narrow focus on violence allegedly perpetrated by Muslims, migrants, or refugees.

Since anybody can use any hashtag, as spammers invariably demonstrate with ads and assorted crap soon after a hashtag becomes popular, a large number of tweets criticize #ausnahmslos, usually with the same old, boring, false, or hateful xenophobic and ignorant content.

Anti-feminist slogans make up a large chunk of tweets aimed at #ausnahmslos.

On a more, if you will, mainstream level, middle of the road conservative FAZ accuses the initiators of the hashtag of "distracting from the Cologne perpetrators".

The FAZ author claims that #ausnahmslos swiftly moves from the Cologne attacks, "primarily caused by migrants with roots in Islamic culture", thus ignoring and diluting the current problems and seeking out a comfort zone away from harsh reality.

A more comprehensive and both higher level and funnier discussion can be found in the zeitonline column of Thomas Fischer, one of Germany's top judges. He says "Germany has once again someone to fight against. Men, who accost our women."

Beyond social boundaries and party lines, he states.

And this is very much how the blogster sees it. We all knew, or should have known, that migrants are not saints, and general crime statistics have shown they are no better or worse than the natives.

Too many hormonally challenged young men in the same place and you have problems, no question. How much greater is the issue in another culture? Depends.

There is one night in a packed British pub the blogster won't forget before Alzheimer's wipes out the sights, the sound and the smells.

A group of people were having a going away party for an administrative assistant, a young, cute woman in her twenties - if the dim light didn't alter that impression. The group had been drinking and chattering for about an hour when a male got onto a chair and started a speech. You know, something nice, something not unfunny, about work and about being missed.

Then he stepped down from the chair and asked the woman to kneel down in front of him. She did, and he began to undo his pants.

The rest of the group was uproarious, all the other patrons interrupted their conversations and looked over to the unfolding spectacle.

He continued to talk, but the words never made it into the blogster's mind. He dropped his pants and started to pull down his underwear.

His penis appeared, swinging.

He put a hand on the woman's head and drew her forward.

Still talking, still flooded by hollering and comments from the co-workers.

He stopped her head about an inch from his dick and let got. The woman laughed and got up. He swiftly pulled up his drawers, then his pants.

A few seconds later, the commotion had returned to the level before his chair speech.

Did she know what to expect when she went to the pub? Does it matter?

Anyway, if you focus exclusively on Cologne and similar events in other cities from the angle of how many migrants were involved, not much good will come of it.

The women cleaners at a factory near the blogster's residence know this. They get lurid comments on a daily basis, at the very latest when they start cleaning the men's restroom.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Prosecutions in Germany continue in 2016 after the Oct. 2013 Silkroad bust

Silkroad 1.0, the most famous "anonymous marketplace" for illicit goods on the Internet, made headlines before and after law enforcement brought down the site in 2013.

Politicians and law enforcement came out swinging in the face of what many called an unprecedentedly dangerous phenomenon. And the media licked up the twists and vagaries of the events surrounding this and other marketplaces.

The K-Landnews believes that a realistic statement would look more like this: The Darknet hype - 75% or more scam sites.

Mostly faded from view in 2016 is the fact that at least some countries continue to aggressively pursue not just dealers from the long defunct site but even more so small time buyers who either made a couple of purchases of a few grams of their favorite drug or let friends do it for them only to get scooped up years later.

We got our hands on a great document which exposes how swift the backlash in Germany really was.

Silkroad was taken over by the FBI on 2 October 2013. Within weeks, the Munich, Germany, state criminal police requested and received from the FBI all data from the site regarding German drug dealers.

A few more weeks, and the first major arrests were done. As the world learned, all this anonymity was over hyped too, and dealers and customers were often confused and made plenty of mistakes.

Some dealers kept records of transactions, customers, and other data.

The document in our possession - which we decided not to publish at this time** - details the story of one German dealer, his records and law enforcement making hay.

After the arrest, investigators combed through a treasure trove of data the gentleman had conveniently saved. Police made lists of "customers" and sent them to local German authorities as well as, for international customers, to police of those other countries.

In the first half of 2014, individuals on the list would receive an invite to local police to be questioned over detailed allegations, such as "on <date> you ordered x amount of this or that drug".

The dates of the alleged transactions for the cases and individuals (several distinct cases) in the document seen by the K-Landnews are all after the Silkroad bust, and the document only states that "a market" was used, listing several existing at the time, but does not give the name of a specific market for any of the transactions.

District attorneys would typically decline prosecution of small amounts, depending on the state (up 10 g of pot, 1 g of hard drugs). In early 2015, about a year after the bust, the dealer was sentenced to 2 years, to be served on probation, for a grant total of about 2 000 individual transactions involving over 5 000 g (5 kg) of various drugs, with an additional unsold stock of several kilos of pot and hundreds of grams of other drugs.

By any standard, that's a lenient sentence in Germany and next to nothing compared to, say, the U.S.

The story could have ended here, but didn't.

A year after the first round of prosecutions, a second one based on the same data kicked of around the middle of 2015. Individuals whose prosecution had been dropped in 2014 received the same summons: "on <date> you ordered x amount of this or that drug".

Under a different case number.

This time, the summons was accompanied by two witness statements, one from the dealer, one from the lead investigator. The action by local courts was swift: fines were set, the case was reported to the motor vehicle department. The latter typically has unexpected ramifications in Germany: you need to do drug tests and undergo a psych examination. The total cost can easily reach thousands of Euros, even if you are cleared.

What would seem to be a case of double jeopardy in many countries is actually totally legal in Germany.

Police apparently did not have to report to the DAs and courts that a previous investigation had been closed, and they avoided this by constructing a "new" case. For this, the convicted dealer was given witness status, certifying that he actually sent whatever drugs the records claimed he sent. The lead investigator added a statement of his own, certifying that the individuals in question had been "subject to an earlier investigation, according to my recollection". As strange as it sounds, the famed German record keeping seems to be full of holes in convenient circumstances.

DAs receive the information, pass it to a court, the court does not verify anything but sets a fine.

The issues in this particular case are somewhat troubling, though: The alleged times and dates taken from the same unmodified individual data set seized at the time of the dealer's arrest often do not match in the 2014 and the 2015 investigation, according to a lawyer familiar with the investigation.

The mystery document has a clue, saying records were "...reviewed and duplicates removed..."

The police report used for the 2015 sweep is dated mid 2015 at the top, but the footer gives away something else: a date that matches the time of the first investigation in 2014.

Without the original 2014 document, we cannot get any further interesting details on these cases.

But the overall picture seems clear, and should frighten anybody: All that's needed to be fined for drug possession in Germany is a written record with an individual's name and address.

The absence of any specific market used, absence of proof of order, absence of payment, absence of proof of sending, absence of proof of reception, or absence of any actual substances - they all seem to be irrelevant in the eyes of most German prosecutors and courts.

The document does not indicate the social or economic status of the accused individuals. But in Germany, as in other countries, you are likely spared any fines or stiffer penalties if you have the means and are influential.

As mentioned above, the amounts of drugs in the mystery document allegedly bought are small, much smaller than the 3 g of speed a German member of parliament admitted to not long ago, and he got away without even a fine.

If the unlucky alleged consumers listed in the document were given a penalty relative to the over 5 kg sold by the dealer plus the almost equally large amount confiscated from him, maths would come to something close to zero.

But maths and the law are worlds apart.

** German law prohibits publishing documents, though not allegations and questions, from an ongoing investigation, and we do not know whether the cases described are part of such. So, the decision was made out of an abundance of caution.

[Update 1/13/2016] Corrected typos, added remark re. record keeping.

[Update 1/14/2016] Style fixes.
 Added "absence of proof of order". The document nonchalantly explains that a large number of the listed transactions could not be tied to actual orders because the transactions were either small or would "originate outside of Silkroad."
This makes sense because only the Silkroad database fell into the hands of law enforcement. The two other markets mentioned in the document (Black Market Reloaded, and Sheep) were closed by the operators.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Grandpa's "donuts are so expensive" understandable by young people? Leave the country for a while

As a young person, you may have experienced the typical bewilderment caused by grandpa complaining about the high price of a doughnut or a gallon of gasoline.

It's grandpa's exasperation at inflation. But, as in life in general, intellectual knowledge is not the same as first hand experience.

Chances are, you will experience the same in your old days.

But you may not have to wait as long if you leave your country for a few years and then return to a changed world.

Having done the latter often and at different intervals, the blogster believes that an absence of a full two years is sufficient to drive home the point. Exceptions apply, of course. During first decade of the 21st century, you didn't have to be gone from, for example, Argentina for two years to be whacked by inflation on return.

So, make the two years the benchmark for most European countries and the United States.

Low gas prices in today's U.S. take some of the bite out of the sticker shock, but  stocking up on food was a "grandpa like" experience.

The attempt to soothe the cash register shock with a bar of Trader Joe's PoundPlus has turned into an expensive item by almost doubling in price to $ 4.99 since the last visit.
Which is still not too much compared to the generally low quality American made chocolates.

Note: It beggars belief that Amazon offers the same chocolate for prices ranging from 11.50 to 15.99 a bar.

And if you feel like a cheap eat at Denny's, their coffee sets you back $ 2.99 - a price even Starbuck's did not dare to charge for plain coffee a few years ago.

The list goes on and on, and the blogster won't bore you with it.

The next time you hear about an increase in the minimum wage, be aware that it probably does not cover what inflation has taken from workers.

Meanwhile, enjoy the cheap gas which allows you to drive around as much as you want in search for a restaurant grandpa would not deem expensive.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Friends in 10 million dollar mansions, trailer parks and among the homeless

Let's start with a claim that may upset Germans: To the blogster, it seems very unlikely to have friends in 10 million dollar mansions, trailer parks and among the homeless in Germany. Which has nothing to do with the small number of German trailer parks.

It is not very common in the U.S. either, but - compared to old Europe - it happens more often, and there appears to be less judgement by members of each of these groups when you tell them, for example, how you enjoyed hanging out with the homeless friend while sipping a cocktail in the living room of a mansion in a world famous community overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Of course, you might say, why should the wealthy mansion owner care? Or cynical, isn't slumming a tradition among the well-heeled?

But how do you explain the homeless friend expressing genuine joy that you spent  a couple of days with a member of the "1%'? Is it merely another indication of the well established fact that poor people are less envious of the wealth of richer folks?

The blogster chalks the remaining social fluidity in today's United States up to the history of the country and finds it one of a handful of things that we should cherish about the people of the U.S.

At the same time, the blogster cautions against romanticizing: if the federal government  ran the blogster against its databases, the algorithms certainly would flag the blogster as "odd".

That's because these algorithms, like every single algorithm under the sun, encode a very limited set of specific social and cultural notions.

This should reassure any upset German or European readers: within the institutions of government and power, the similarities between the U.S. and Europe are probably smaller than one might think.

A German born friend and long time resident of the U.S. phrased it this way:  There is so much I really love about Germany, but you simply have more freedom here.

Hidden Valley, an American marijuana hub

Disclaimer: All names in this post have been changed, including that of Hidden Valley although the town is located in one of the U.S. States where marijuana is not prohibited at the state level. Any similarity to a real town named Hidden Valley is coincidental.

Hidden Valley is an unremarkable town in the rural parts of the state.
If you focus on the car's GPS display for too long, you miss the town, that's how small it is. 
Like thousands of small American towns, it has a Main Street with a post office, a grocery shop, a gas station with a small attached auto repair shop, a hardware store, a motel, a bar and an assortment of boarded up businesses with weathered signs slowly decaying in the rain. The motor vehicles around here are primarily pick-up trucks and SUVs, with a few Prius hybrids thrown in. There is no obvious sign of wealth here. Brand new cars or new pick-up trucks don't mean anything in a country where flashy cars are available to almost anybody with a credit score above zero.

Like large swaths of the rural United States, Hidden Valley's economy used to be a mix of agriculture, lumber, and small scale mining until a slow and seemingly unstoppable decline set in in the last decades of the 20th century.

Young people fled the rural area for better education and job opportunities in the big city.
Then other young people and families from large cities on the coast or the state's own urban areas started to buy the cheap land in the surrounding area and began to grow marijuana. The War on Drugs as we know it followed swiftly. Raids by federal and state agencies became a fixture of local life in the months after the springtime flood of the local river subsided.

Like in the towns of rural Kentucky and elsewhere in the heydays of illicit alcohol production, local law enforcement both suppressed and profited from the illegal trade. If you are patient with the locals, you can hear stories of quick money, of heartbreak and episodes so hilarious that any Hollywood movie maker would jump on them.

Over time, local law enforcement took to separating the growers into good and bad criminals. Non-local troublemakers and people who polluted the streams and creeks became the focus of local law enforcement. If you quietly went about your business and stayed away from violence, chances were that the local sheriff would not only leave you alone but might even warn you of an impending raid by the FBI or the DEA.

Of course, the local sheriff would not turn down his share of money seized by the FBI or DEA as part of "asset forfeiture". If you did not understand the warning of a county trooper and the feds busted you the next day with your money, the cut for the sheriff's office was simply par for the course.

One grower tells of the sheriff paying a visit shortly after a raid by the feds in which they - as is the American standard - destroyed property and seized cash.

The sheriff offered to take care of any excess marijuana the grower had or would produce.

"So, you are offering me to sell my drugs?", the grower asked.

To which the sheriff replied: "That's not how I would call it. I'd call it crime prevention".

The huge amounts of money generated in the county where Hidden Valley lies, come from the surrounding hills and valleys. The inconspicuous, frequently unmarked and generally unpaved roads leading away from the main road take you into the heart of an industry worth several hundred millions of dollars. Most of the product goes to legal outlets, either shops for recreational or medical marijuana. A substantial portion still goes to states where growing is prohibited, and it appears to be the latter portion of the product that is related to the relatively few instances of violence reported by the people of Hidden Valley.

No tourists ever come here. Clinging precariously on hill sides, snaking along ridge lines, it is on these roads that passing car drivers will wave in friendly acknowledgement of your presence or check out your vehicle to see if you are friend or foe.

Such roads can easily go on for forty or fifty miles, and if you need to understand why pick-ups and SUVs are prevalent in rural America, the first couple of miles of any such road will convince you.

Even though some of residents behind the fenced in and gated properties along the road could afford a Tesla or a Ferrari, such gems of modern car making would be trashed by the first few miles of serious potholes and ruts.

The marijuana growing business in Hidden Valley has kept the town attractive to its young people, and many operations are now in the hand of the second or even the third generation of the descendants of the first generation of growers. There also is some seasonal work for trimming and harvesting, often performed by itinerant youngsters or temporary people from urban areas.

Young people once again have the choice to stay or move to the city for a different life.

The blogster would like to thank the residents of Hidden Valley who opened their houses and shared their stories.

Here is a view from Ridge Road in Hidden Valley:


[Update] Minor style changes.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Year end roundup: news from U.S. event ticket scammer land

Event ticket scamming is big business. The problems for event goers begin with artificial scarcity created by some ticketing businesses or venues - often masking as charitable holding back of tickets for undecided last minute buyers. Then there is legal buying up of tickets and re-selling them at a markup, and finally plain old fraud - selling non-existent tickets or counterfeits.

2016 didn't bring anything new on scam ticket websites, and there are plenty of advice sites like this one to guide you.

Counterfeiters continue the technological advances that create ever more realistic fakes to the point that only the door scan will reveal if a ticket is real. A security guard at one of the venues we have had the pleasure to work at in the States showed us the haul of one show during the run-up to NYE 2015.

Buying pressure for sought after tickets has become extremely intense with the prevalence of smartphone apps, with British festival Glastonbury 2016 selling out in about half an hour.

But our 2015 "favorite" way to get top dollars out of event goers is the practice of venues or large ticket sellers of releasing very expensive last minute tickets. For "General Admission" event, i.e. events without assigned seating except for "VIP" audience members, ticketmaster pulled a nice one at the 28 December San Francisco show of Dead & Company. After regular tickets at 75 USD plus 15.25 service charge and VIP tickets (assigned seating) had sold out, a batch of "V-Plate" marked tickets with a face value of 165 USD appeared.

"V-Plate" tickets did not entitle buyers to any "VIP privileges".

Or, as one concert goer asked in very upset tone and possibly not 100% legally accurate wording: "Is ticketmaster scamming its own tickets?"

If we feel like it, we'll tell you the story about a scammer being out-frauded by two young ladies who managed to slip him a fake 100 dollar bill.