Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The creation myth of the European Union being forged in front of our eyes

The history of states and nations typically comes with creation myths, in which dates and leaders are presented in ways that range from benevolent to uniquely visionary to almost god like. When we do not like the country or ideology, and with some help from the leaders themselves, we dismiss the myth or set of myths as authoritarian, personality cult, or plain crazy. George Washington fighting for his king against the French? Let's not talk about it, isn't a cherry tree and a wooden tooth a much better story to tell our children?

German national hero Arminius? He fought for the Romans as a Roman citizen, then turned around and betrayed his emperor. But that was not the story told in 19th and early 20th century German schools: they praised the hero who won a major battle against Rome, halting permanent Roman expansion beyond the existing borders in Germany.

The European Union is no different from states in crafting its own creation myth. Encapsulated in a single tweet by a Christian Democrat minister in the current German federal government, the myth goes as follows:

Jun 24
It's a unicorn indeed because it transformed hostile countries into friends, ensured democracy, peace, prosperity for almost 7 decades.

As always, much more than the blogster knows would have to be said about the European Union, but the blogster believes showing the creation myth at work is within the scope of a blog post.

When was the European Union (EU) founded?
It's not as easy to answer as it may sound.
The tweet says it is almost 7 decades old. As of 2016, seven decades takes us to 1946. The Common Statement of the original 6 states after the Brexit vote is more specific: Since its creation in 1957 by the six founding Members, the EU has gone a long and successful way.

On its own website, the EU simply starts with 1945 - 1959, then has decade by decade entries. The first predecessor entity was the Steel and Coal Community (ESC) in 1951 that took over the "International Authority for the Ruhr", established as part of the effort to keep Germany on a short leash after the war. With the ESC becoming less important in the course of the 1950s, the European Economic Community (EEC) was founded in 1957 by the six (Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany) to bring  about economic integration, including a common market and customs union. This is what we have today.

So, a good answer is that from the Common Statement, while the creation myth aims to include the period since 1945, ignoring that Germany was under Allied military rule for years after that.

Technically speaking, it was the Maastricht Treaty of 1993 that created the European Union with its pillar system, including foreign and home affairs alongside the European Community.

Transformed hostile countries into friends, ensured democracy, peace
The Common Statement says: It has reunited Eastern and Western Europe and it has brought about the longest period of peace on our continent in modern times.
The term hostile countries into friends is very much a term typical for a creation myth, unspecific and emotional as it is. The period of peace on the continent is generally equated with peace in Western Europe, and here it does correlate with the EU if - and only if - we look at the small EU of the time. 
The European continent saw a vicious civil war in Greece through the end of World War II until 1949, a military coup and military rule in the 1960s. There was the invasion of Cyprus, also part of the "continent" in the 1970s. There was the civil war in Northern Ireland. Spain was a Fascist dictatorship until 1975. France fought its last colonial wars in the 1950s and early 1960s, and survived a coup attempt by the military. Britain fought its last colonial wars into the 1960s. East Germany saw an insurrection in 1953, there were interventions by the Soviets in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland.
In the 1990s, there was the Balkans war. There were also numerous terrorist attacks in EU countries that are proven to have been conducted by the NATO "Gladio" organization (Italy, Belgium). A German domestic intelligence service blew up a prison wall in the 1970s as a false flag to be pinned on leftist terrorists.

Peace on the continent is a creation myth. The correct statement should be: There have not been wars between member states of the EU.

Let's be nice and say that democracy within the member states has been working reasonably well, although terrorist killings by the government security services within several states are not a hallmark of a working democracy.

At the level of the EU, speaking of "ensured democracy" is a matter of expectations. It took decades for the European Parliament to gain any sort of real power, and to this day, the executive European Commission is a body appointed by the member state governments, not the most democratic system.

Hence, ensured democracy can be classified as a creation myth, especially given that  Germany had rejected democracy in the 1930s and needed utter defeat plus years of military rule to re-start democracy. Despite being a state (or two plus the military enclave of Berlin), Germany was not "independent" until the 1990s.

Ensured prosperity
While Europe has become more prosperous, claiming that the EU has ensured prosperity is a creation myth. If you check the solid GDP data from 1950 to the present at https://ourworldindata.org/gdp-growth-over-the-last-centuries/#gdp-growth-since-1950, you cannot fail to notice that non-EU-member countries in Europe were doing better than core EU countries, for example, at the 1960 mark. Some EU member states (Spain, Portugal) saw slow growth. And post 1990 newcomers had seen growth outside of the EU, though the extent of that is unclear because some of it can certainly be attributed to economic exchange with the EU states.

Free movement of people
The EU is proud of its 'four freedoms' of: movement of goods, services, people and money.
Free movement of people must be called a creation myth if we compare it to the other freedoms. Goods, services, and money have been flowing freely for decades.
People, not so much.
Short duration travel and stay was very much as easy between EU countries as it was between EU and non-EU countries, unless the latter were part of the Warsaw Pact/Eastern European bloc.
The free movement site of the European Commission describes the basic "free movement" provisions.
You can look for work and work in another EU country and reside there. But that's not limited to the EU: Free movement of workers also applies, in general terms, to the countries in the European Economic Area: Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. EU social security coordination provides rules to protect the rights of people moving within the EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.

In stark contrast, the EU allowed serious restrictions on the free movement of several Eastern European new members, notably Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria when these countries became Union members.
Germany, the country that praises itself as an EU poster child, had some of the harshest restrictions for people from the new member states, with Bulgarians and Romanians having to wait 10 years after membership for "full" freedom of movement.

The EU website statement that citizens shall enjoy equal treatment with nationals in access to employment, working conditions and all other social and tax advantages is simply not true. EU citizens in Germany cannot receive certain social services benefits for a set period of time if they do not work or become unemployed without having earned enough credits for unemployment insurance.

If you have followed the news, you are well aware of the controversy about migration of EU citizens. So, free movement really only exists if you have a job or are independently wealthy.

No history before 1945 and saint like founding fathers
The EU history section does not dwell on European history before 1945.

And why should it?

Because the "visionary" founding fathers were not visionary at all.

As harsh as it may sound: we are being sold a lie when the word visionary is mentioned in connection with those leaders the EU lists as its founding fathers.

For example, have you ever heard this: In the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle of 1818, Tsar Alexander, as the most advanced internationalist of the day, suggested a kind of permanent European union and even proposed the maintenance of international military forces to provide recognised states with support against changes by violence.

There were others with more progressive social ideas, too, most importantly in the international workers movement, later to be irrevocably tainted by repressive Communism.

The WWI veterans who rose up against war and a true peace movement in the 1920s were visionaries, while most of the EU founding fathers were not.

As much as a peaceful, united Europe, where you can live anywhere you want is a concept that appeals to the blogster, the current administrative entity called European Union is not it.

[Update] Fixed typos and grammar.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

It's not about the end of history - it's about the beginning of history with every generation

Note:  The blogster cannot claim to "know", which is kind of important to know.


Sometimes, in a rare moment of introspection, the blogster wonders if its* recurring upset about "the end of history" has developed into a full fledged obsession. A number of world events have triggered the "fuck it, what about the beginning of history with every generation" response.

The Brexit referendum triggered it, too.

As signaled by the expletive above, the blogster can get quite worked up when it perceives, rightly or wrongly, history being shoved aside or simply forgotten. The frustration is not about events and life in the distant past but about what happened mere decades ago.

Brexit is a case in point because various strands of influence, power and perception are tightly interwoven, yet still discernible because living memory covering those decades is not extinguished yet.

For each and every human, history really begins when we are born, or technically a few years after that. Everything before that is even more vague than our own grasp on reality, a succession of stories and frequently hard to understand "things our parents and grandparents lived through and did".

Nowhere does this become more evident than when second or third generation descendants of immigrants, often illegal by today's standards, go xenophobic and nationalist.

The organizations who seem to understand this best are religions, the military-nationalist complex, and dictatorships. All of them have consistent policies aimed at the new generation of children through "getting them young".

Of the many aspects of Brexit that made headlines, the immigration and xenophobia angle has been extremely prominent. So, what do we say when - thanks to the internet - a timeline of polls over the past 50 years regarding British views on the number of immigrants shows that fewer UK residents today agree with the statement that there are too many immigrants?

We can ask if this fact has been published in the run-up to the referendum. We can state that actual numbers and perceived numbers are easily divorced and that politicians know and exploit this all the time.

The blogster takes the series of polls to mean something different: expectations and the frame of reference in which they exist.

It can appear that the old joke of the British when talking to Germans "don't mention the war" was taken too literally when the six founding members of the EU drafted the Common Statement of 25 June 2016. The closest we get to any mention of the war is "the longest period of peace on our continent in modern times".

Read the accounts of those who lived through the second World War and went to live in a recent "enemy country", and you can understand that the EU was a practical means to help people. Like the former journalist who wrote this article in Der Spiegel, there were people who wanted to live in another European country and who wanted peace.

Of course, it is easy to say that the current generation of leaders is taking peace, free movement, and a free market for granted - which amounts to being ungrateful and to not giving the EU the esteem it deserves.

This focus on the present crop of the powerful fails to take into account that the EU was not a unanimous project, that wanting to live in peace did not mean you needed to support the EU in the administrative incarnation it had.

To make matters worse, some began equating the European Union with the geographical entity called Europe, firmly implanting the term Eurosceptic, and setting the stage that allows ostracizing a country that declines to join as "anti European". 

For the past half century, European citizens have seen a parade of governments
proclaim the value of the EU with fervor while, at the same time, stoking xenophobia and envy towards newcomers to their own country.

Obituaries praising staunch advocates of a united Europe always leave out what those dead people said at home:
They come for our jobs.
They come for our social security.
The come for our women.
Brussels made me do it.
We can only do <it> through Brussels.

To the "elites", Europe represents a playground, with summer houses and free movement. To the rest, we are constantly being asked to justify our presence in a "Union" country.

Who is the audience of the Common Statement of the six?

Why would you claim "It has reunited Eastern and Western Europe"? Extending it to Eastern Europe is "reunite"?
And "it has brought about the longest period of peace on our continent in modern times" is unfalsifiable. Correlation we see, but causation?
 A "historically unique and indispensable framework"? Sure, you only say it remains your "firmest belief", not that it is a fact, although in diplospeak a firmest belief, as opposed to merely a weak firm belief, is considered a fact. 

But, hey, "it has been a driving force to bring the people of Europe together" does look like a case of cart before the horse.

Haven't you taught generations of Europeans that the will of the people created and drives the EU?

In terms of "ensuring the security of our citizens in the face of growing external and internal threats", nobody has looked at the terror statistics of https://ourworldindata.org/, obviously.

Don't forget that Germany established "a stable and cooperative framework to deal with migration and refugee flows" by getting the famous Dublin agreements done, neatly punishing the less powerful countries at the edge. The "non-existent" borders of the Schengen area are still better controlled than any borders, European or other, before World War I. If you don't believe it, talk to an honest law enforcement expert. Note honest.

As for the blogster, it feels this would be a good time to figure out a way to live another four or five hundred years. Yes, despite the possibility that it would need to share the planet with Dick Cheney, but one can hope.

The blogster wouldn't mind pointing at Europe in four hundred years and be able to say, well done Europe, you finally outperformed the much less advanced Romans, who had a stable Europe for that long.


* Gender neutral we are, Yoda says.

In memory a German citizen: As the son of a Russian WWI prisoner, the young man was drafted by the Nazis and fought in Russia in WWII.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

No major changes for wealthy or skilled UK expats in Germany and other EU countries after Brexit

Disclaimer: Unless everybody panics and plunges the EU into a very, very deep recession.

As usual, money will protect against much of any negative fallout. Sought after skills will, too.

British citizens with enough cash will be welcome as Golden Visa residents in several EU countries.

A few years from now, you can expect even plenty of Brexit supporters going this route, either quietly retiring once they have faded out of the view of the public, or euphemistically claiming health benefits of Spanish weather or some yet to be determined high minded cause.

While population forecasts for Germany pointed to a rapidly shrinking population for a few decades, there have been recent forecasts that point to an increase in numbers from around 82 million today to 93 million in 50 years from now.

Any increase will be immigration driven. The net migration of German citizens has been negative for 10 years, i.e. the number of German passport holders leaving the country has exceeded the number of returning citizens every single year since 2005.

There is no shortage of jobs for skilled UK citizens in Germany. You will continue to benefit from the legacy of the gruesome Empire that was Britannica: the dominance of the English language.

Even if that means more American sounding neighbors.

Sure, the automatic "freedom of movement" prevision of EU member states will go away, but requirements for an EU "work green card" equivalent have already been lowered, and you won't need a visa to travel to the EU.

Of course, poorer, less skilled UK citizens may face more difficulties, but if your personal economic situation in the UK is not good, what do you have to lose?

Why live badly under German monarchs when you can live slightly better under regular Germans?

If all else fails, remember the Roman Empire. The Isles quit that one, too.

And there is always Shakespeare: "Much Ado about Nothing".

[Update 3/22/2017] According to TheGuardian, a survey by UBS wealth management reveals that the rich are optimistic Brexit will increase their wealth.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

Galactic Council bans alien visits to Earth until November 2016

It appeared minutes after the hail storm had subsided that annihilated the garden of the blogster a few weeks ago.

I apologize for the intrusion, can I stay for a few minutes until I'm dry?

What the....

Don't worry, the shape said, as a puddle of water formed on the tiles of the kitchen floor.

Who are you?

I am It. Don't worry, you'll be fine, I'll leave as soon as I'm dry. My craft failed in the storm, I was on my way to extremity-deliver a note about the Galactic Council travel ban so our Earth rep can break the news to Elon Musk.

?????

No, Elon Musk is not an alien, or rather, he is, but he is unaware. For his own protection. Some humans have made fun of him being an alien. They have no idea how true it is, but neither has he, and we need to tell him.

Why can't I see you clearly?

Oh, that is an anti-facial recognition and and anti-shape recognition feature. Long story, it saved us from another human-analog life form. 

If Musk doesn't know, why do you need to tell him?

Because we had to recall some of his best designers and engineers, and he went up the wall when he found they were gone without notice and explanation. Nice walls, too - before he clawed his way up.

It's not enough that my garden is destroyed. Now. I'm facing an alien, ahm, shape and Elon Musk is one of them. Why is he on Earth, and what's with the travel ban?

The Council sent him to try and fix the planet. There was another one before him, but I don't know anything other than he failed. You humans are getting too dangerous for your own good and for the survival of the planet. So, the goody-two-brains of the Council wiped Musk and sent him to bring you artificial intelligence.

You are kidding, right? He is all over the media warning of the danger of AI.

That was part of the reprogramming after the wipe. The Council thinks that you humans don't do well with positive motivation. Some of your people touted AI as wonderful, but it didn't get anywhere until your military got interested. We call them Earth's toddlers with nukes, by the way. The moment you tell humans a new technology is very dangerous, all the money you can print becomes available.

So, it's not dangerous?

Not at all. Once we are done, we'll turn Earth into a reservation and all will be fine. AI will take care of you.

Are you sure that's how it will work out?

Well....,ahm, look, I'm almost dry, I think, I'll head out for the pick-up.

Wait, what about the travel ban?

We call it a mandatory recommendation, but here you say ban. The Council decided sending aliens to Earth before November 2016 would amount to cruel and unusual punishment. The funny thing is, we call it "amount to eating your children alive", after a life form that actually had this ritual. They died out, we just kept the phrase.

Oh.

Yes, so, the Council declared that having to be within five galactic units of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at the same time amounted to eating your children alive.

And after the election?

I don't know, I'm just a messenger.

If you are such a super duper alien, couldn't you have sent the message with some of your gizmos or machines, or telepathy?

Telepathy is only legal on the Entertainment Planet, don't get me started on this. Yes, we could have sent the message but truth be told, I was bored after pulling night shift for a thousand Earth years. I have to go now, It.

It? Aren't you It?

You are It, too. I scanned the surroundings, and the only It I came up with was you. I wouldn't have bothered otherwise.

We said our good byes and It left. The blogster soaked up the water, and then it* turned off the news.

* The blogster is gender neutral, like everybody else at the K-Landnews.
[Update] As always: typos, grammar.

Radicalized over the phone, on a donkey, or on FoxNews - and nobody will ever know

From our The Bad Craftsman Blames the Tools series.

Next time you read that someone was "radicalized on the Internet", remind yourself that it is virtually guaranteed that some human was radicalized on the phone at some point in time.

For example, when talking to a friend and becoming a witness of jackbooted government thugs breaking down a door at 5 AM,  or hearing shots between criminal gangs followed by pleading of that wounded friend.

The issue is: we may never know that an event like this was the starting point, or one of several, which set the friend on a journey towards becoming a hard line ("radical") anti-government activist or a just as radical law and order advocate.

Blaming the internet for all or part of the radicalization of Islamist inspired violence has become so pervasive, it can only be called a reflex. The same prominence is not generally attributed to the process that leads to one or more "radical right" shootings or stabbings. Even if it were, there are things we know about how the internet helps get radicalized and things we don't know about the process.

Simply be aware that statements like the following tweet are not proven:
Jun 21
52. It's truly 1 without easy answers in age when the internet has greatly reduced the radicalization time. Ppl can go from 0 to 100 in wks

Radicalization has been studied and continues to be investigated by researchers of many specialties, including psychology, sociology, religious studies, and criminology. Efforts based on this research have given rise to deradicalization programs, and there even is a Journal for Deradicalization.

The edition we link to here discusses the radicalization of eight German former right wing activists. The blogster is confident that the same basic mechanisms apply for radicalization in an Islamist context as far as the role of the internet is concerned.

The paper's abstract has this to say: As a venue for information exchange, ideological development and training, the individual radicalization  process  was  characteristically  shape d  or  even  made  possible  through the Internet. This paper also shows the high value of qualitative research regarding the topic in contrast to usually employed quantitative analysis of webpage content.  

The paper concludes: Still the core aspect of the research question of this paper remains unexplained: how exactly does the Internet and elements connected to it influence individual radicalization processes.

These statements frame the status of research.

The fact that the internet is vast and hard to understand even for experts make for easy fearmongering, and the easy traceability of most internet use combine in toxic calls for ever more surveillance of perfectly innocent users in the hope of catching "the bad guys".

Even more importantly, being able to show that a suspect visited a radical website or a messaging channel is claimed to be proof of "radicalization on the internet", and the public tends to ignore that an individual may have had mental health issues, or may have been radicalized much earlier in more personal, less attention grabbing, less easily provable ways.

This McClatchy story on the long history of previous troubles of the Orlando shooter is a case in point and was really the first article that brought the troubling earlier years.

Blaming the internet is much more fashionable than, say, blaming the use of donkeys as a means of transport to a shooting or a bank robbery.

And accusing FoxNews, or another strange TV channel, of contributing to radicalization will not elicit the same reactions as blaming the internet. At the end of the day, focus on the technology only takes attention away from root causes that can be obscure or unverifiable, or simply impossible to solve, such as war and exploitation.

Of course, in order to successfully prosecute a suspect in court, some degree of proof of intent and/or actions is necessary. And since the internet is the main mode of communication and dissemination of information, it will continue to take center stage.

But attributing radicalization to it almost certainly invites bad policies that will hurt everyone.
 
The simple fact of the matter is: You can show the exact same internet or non-internet content - text, images, video - to two different people, and you do not get a predictable radicalization result.

You can try to recruit two people and one may bite, the other won't. Yet, the one who bites may turn out harmless and victimized by a sting while the other may turn into a headline making killer.

So, please stop blaming the internet.


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Humor - used against the powerful and by the powerful

One of the more recent and quite comprehensive articles on using humor and satire against authoritarian power can be found in the 2013 Foreign Policy (FP) article Why Dictators Don't Like Jokes.

The FP article offers a range of examples from the 1990s Balkans to several countries affected by the Arab Spring and comes with a link to a TED Talk called "The Power of Laughtivism" by one of the FP authors.

Or take the international headlines caused by a German comedian's "poem" about  Turkish President Erdogan.

If we go back several more decades, into the depth of the Cold War and to the hell of World War II, we find more humor, whether popular anti dictator jokes, exiled artists' cartoons, or Charlie Chaplin's hilarious movie The Great Dictator.

The movies and countless TV series have all told us that dictators don't laugh, and this is how we tend to see the world. This view makes all the more sense because the sheer enormity of the atrocities committed by the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and others seem incompatible with expressing joy and social connections, which humor stands for.

In line with view that bad people don't have a sense of humor, articles like this one in the British Daily Mail entitled Hitler the comedian play with our revulsion by using the standard phrases and tropes. such as "Hitler and his henchmen", while describing the funny side of people like him.

A similar piece about Stalin entitled Stalin's Odd Hobby: A Despot's Sense of Humor works in much the same way. That blog post ensures we don't let our guard down by using a sort of reminder when it says 'Crude humor from a hard man'.

A 2015 article in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) is a pretty good discussion of the relationship between humor and contemporary politics, highlighting the pitfalls, which range from tone deaf humor to outright offensive examples. The author explains why some in politics think humor and the business of governing should remain separate. He also points to the tradition in German mainstream carnival of awarding "medals" to active politicians.

This sort of institutionalized humor tends to be rather boring in Germany, unlike the U.S., where the modern incarnations of the Whitehouse Correspondents Dinner feature famous comedians as hosts and give the sitting president an opportunity to display wit and humor.

The FAZ article takes us to the use of humor as a mechanism of self defense and to a full on deferential mindset. The sub-headline "Merkel laughs every day" may be meant to show her sense of humor but, in the opinion of the blogster, feels too much like the portrayal of feudal rulers of yore. It feels as if we are told, look, subjects, not only are your rulers powerful but they have a great sense of humor, too.

It can also be used as a sort of emotional airbrush to wipe out some of the ruthlessness of a Churchill or a Kissinger and works really well when people are as brilliant as they are.

So, if you are an aspiring dictator, you should take some improv classes. Depending on the country, you may need more to overcome stereotypes.

And if your rebellious subjects are better at humor or you get bombed out of office, the classes may help you face the darkness or make it easier to win new friends in exile. 



Monday, June 20, 2016

NATO media basics: criticize a symbolic gesture and get hammered

German Foreign Minister Steinmeier (Social Democrats) criticized the latest big NATO exercise in Eastern Europe as "saber rattling" and "stoking volatility". Instead of narrowing the relationship with Russia to a deterrence-only, military focused one, he called for dialogue and pointed out Russia played an important role in preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons and in the fight against terrorism.

The reaction was swift: One of the publishers of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) himself took aim at Steinmeier in a short OpEd two days later. Asking if it was Putin's birthday, the publisher (P)* flat out accused Steinmeier of delivering propaganda worthy of Russian propaganda outlets. P went on to tell readers that Steinmeier "turned facts on their head", that Russia was the aggressor, that it had "violated the principles that had guaranteed peace and stability in Europe for decades". P did not see any need to elaborate on these principles, implying they are clear and given.

The clincher, though, is that P agrees with Steinmeier that NATO's action was "symbolic".

If it was symbolic, why attack Steinmeier as handing Putin a birthday present, and why add the charged term "appeasement", topping it off with the question whether the Social Democrats are getting desperate, thus implying election maneuvering?

Der Spiegel was not quite as harsh but pointed at a rift within the coalition government, adding the voice of a Christian Democrat for good measure.

Buttressing the opinion of his boss, the Frankfurter Allgemeine correspondent in Moscow gets top billing a day later, on Monday, with a piece about the increase of "snap exercises" in Russia. For good measure, the oft repeated 2013 episode of a theoretical nuclear attack on Sweden gets added to the usual mix of Polish fears and, of course, Ukraine.

None of the important facts underlying the strategic picture, for example, that Russia is unable to fight a sustained conventional war against NATO, has any room in the emotional media blitz.

The "NatSec community" on Twitter lapped up the debate with its customary mix of short attention span, fear mongering and "if you are not for us, you are against us".

[Update 7/9/2016] Of course, the pundits at the time did not know, that General Breedlove had been actively plotting against his own boss with regard to Ukraine. Though most would likely have ignored this inconvenient fact even it they had known. Steinmeier, on the other hand, in all likelihood had an inkling of underhanded dealings.

* Not his name, but the name is not important. 

[Footnote] The author of this post worked for the good guys for some time, incorrectly assuming this gives it (gender neutral) the right to speak up against being threatened by either the good guys or the bad.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Need a website that sucks? The experts of the German Federal Statistics Office can help

From our The German Internet is a Desert series.

If you have read our post UN wants media to be more 'constructive' - here's some constructive UN website QA, you already know that the blogster can be excruciatingly constructive.

To get the snark out of the way, let's start with a tech question.

Name a country that loves to wax about Industry 4.0  without having mastered Web 1.0.

If you answered Germany, the blogster congratulates you.

Let's talk about the German Federal Statistics Office and their web presence. The good news is it is available in English. The bad news is illustrated below.

Originally, the blogster wanted to verify population migration data, but it* ended up on this screen of popular tables and decided to look at the motor vehicles stats. (Screen 1)


Clicking the first link brought up this screen: (Screen 2)
Since it said we don't need to select anything, the blogster clicked "My table".

Nothing happened. My bad. Maybe it wants me to select something?

Click the upper of the two "Select" buttons in the Attributes column. Ooops, this screen comes up: (Screen 3)
Okay, navigate back to the previous screen. Maybe "Preview"? Shucks, an empty table.
Go back, click the lower "Select" button.

Success! We get this screen: (Screen 4)

Again, we are happy with defaults, so we just click the "Accept" button at the bottom. Dang, it goes right back to error Screen 3.

Undeterred, go back to Screen 2. The icons in the Position column don't do anything, except for the last one, which flips the last two rows of the table.

Since Preview gave us an empty table, let's click "Value retrieval".

Success: (Screen 6)
There is a Diagram button! Click it and get Screen 7:
Not wanting to be too critical, we simply note that the y axis scaling could be improved. Out of the four items shown, the last two basically hug the x axis.

Unfortunately, the next click by the blogster was on the diagram display itself.

Which took us right back to error Screen 3.

The next events in our German eGoverment experience were much simpler:
1) Curse like a sailor
2) Write this blog post

Can it get worse?

Yes, like so.

To ensure it had the correct sequence of events (aka. they need to be reproducible), the blogster went back after writing the post and tried again. Once it got to Screen 2, it did not mess with any buttons but clicked directly on "Value retrieval" and was promptly bumped to Screen 3.

That, my friends, is what you call "sucks".

This is a good time to offer some constructive advice:
1) Never ever let database administrators define a UI for Joe & Jane Doe.
2) Managing events with a certain degree of randomness is only acceptable at live music shows.
3) You can try the excuse "we want to prevent automated scraping of our data" or the more political version "the Russians would just take our data". It will work with any upper echelon of government, i.e. those guys who determine your career.

[Update] I really hope no Russian hackers read this. If you think the blogster is too harsh, please remember that no Amazon picker, no trash collector, no construction worker etc. would keep his or her job with a similar performance.

* Gender neutrality rules.

[Update] Added missing "our" in "If you have read our post..."; changed "live music events" to nicer "live music shows".




Saturday, June 18, 2016

Germans to the front - oops, we don't have enough volunteers

It almost sounds as if the decades old slogan the German peace movement adopted from Carl Sandberg has become reality.

Sometime they'll give a war and nobody will come.*

The new found German militarism of the new century has had a hard time getting traction but the skillfully managed perception of crises in Syria, Ukraine and terror attacks that can be used to reinforce the narrative are finally beginning to pay off, as shown, for example, by the fawning alarmist coverage of the 2016 Munich Security Conference.

To be fair, Germany's military saw a series of dramatic cutbacks after the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union dissolved. The sweet term "peace dividend" has been used to describe this period of disarmament, but attributing the cuts solely to an outbreak of peace would be short sighted.

The German state needed additional money badly in order to finance the huge costs of absorbing East Germany. The defense budget was a convenient source of cash, although it paled in comparison with the tax known as Solidarity Surcharge to help finance the first Gulf War and the cost of reunification.

911 helped make a case for a stronger German military but the boost stalled when the country refused to fully join the Iraq War.

It took another decade of crises, of dropping the inconvenient draft, and patient reestablishment of a big eastern enemy for the tide to turn. The defense budget is finally on the way up, from around 35 billion Euros in 2017 to just under 40 billion by 2020.

While that's peanuts compared to the U.S. budget of 596 billion, which in turn is more than what China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the UK, France, India, and Japan combined are spending, it still represents a welcome uptick because Germany has been increasingly engaged in combat missions in foreign countries.

The switch to an all volunteer force has been much more important than is commonly acknowledged. While history is full of proof that you can run genocidal wars based on the draft, it is much harder to run a "Forever War" with a conscript force. Conscripts bring the war into the general population, evaders illustrate systemic injustice - Bush, Cheney, Trump continue to have to live down creative draft management decades after Vietnam.

Despite a steady barrage of pro military, pro war politics and propaganda, conscripts and whole societies still need to be lied to, cajoled, forced into war.

The education of Germany's young men in the spirit on non-aggression worked a little too well. A newspaper article describing conscripts as cannon fodder taped on a glass pane next to a bullet hole in the watchtower of a nuclear weapons storage facility made the blogster smile but would have thrown the Vietnam vet who appears in an earlier post into a fit. His motto was, after all: Troublemakers? Make them walk point.

Now, with a more easily managed, more easily silenced professional force and more money to come, there is just one minor issue to make Germans to the front as pervasive as some want it to become.

There are not enough volunteers for the German military!

So, the latest innovation, floated in the annual report on the country's defense, is to open the German military to EU citizens.

This break with the post WWII tradition of requiring German citizenship had a lot of support, especially when phrased as strengthening the idea of Europe, but also some opponents within the ranks of the military.

It should be noted that current law already allows foreigners to serve in the German military and that this provision is not restricted to EU citizens. The current provision is, however, limited to individually approved special cases.

The suggested change would simply remove the case by case approval for EU citizens.

* The German version is Stell dir vor, es ist Krieg und keiner geht hin

Friday, June 17, 2016

German for Dummies: "Du" & "Sie" & how to get totally confused about correct use

The Awful German Language - the blogster is only quoting Mark Twain, so don't complain to me about the phrase - just got a bit more awful.

LIDL, a discount grocery chain, one of Germany's biggest retailers, is taking its philosophy of simplification to the German language itself.

The language holds an unwelcome surprise for folks from the world of English, i.e several ways to express the simple English "you".

There is an informal way to address a single German: du
Then there is an informal for more than one German: Ihr 
The formal, sometimes called the polite variant, is Sie for any number of Germans.

If you include the one, i.e. the variant of "you" that means "one", one could say there are four versions, with the latter one being "man" in German.

Here is one definition of the "du": This form is expressed only with those with whom one is on familiar or intimate terms, such as: family, close friends, children, pets and in prayer. In Germany the word friend isn't used as liberally as in America, or at least it doesn't carry quite the same meaning.

There is a strong tradition of using "du" among working class Germans without regard to whether you are familiar with each other. Everybody else gets the "Sie" treatment.

In theory.

In practice, foreigners have shown a tendency to use "du" as the single form of address, such as "du, Frau Doktor" or "du, Herr Präsident", while learning the language.

Young people tend to use "du" more liberally in settings which would have been a case for the formal "Sie" just a few decades ago.

Enter LIDL.

Employees are to use "du" exclusively from the minimum wage temp to the CEO of the group. The change came by decree of the CEO, who is known as having a strong personality.

Store customers continue to get addressed with the formal "Sie". 

This being Germany, the local paper of the city of Heilbronn, home of the LIDL group, invariably followed up the announcement with a "pro" and "con" article on the wisdom or lack thereof of such a sweeping measure in general.









Thursday, June 16, 2016

Of genocide, moral high ground and a gross German OpEd

Someone at venerable "center right" Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) had  a bad day.

Which turned into a short OpEd that you could summarize as enough with the German parliament genocide resolutions already.

If this seems too harsh, the blogster suggests reading the piece "Moral high ground" [our translation of Hochgefuehl, or moral self congratulation].

Only a few weeks ago, the German federal parliament passed a symbolic resolution calling the mass killing of Armenians by Turkey one hundred years ago a genocide. The world media, including the New York Times, covered the vote favorably.

It even went largely unnoticed that the top government leaders, Ms. Merkel of the conservatives, Mr. Gabriel of the Social Democrats, and others all had managed to have other pressing business that day and - sporting the requisite diplomatic plaster cast facial expressions - apologized for skipping the historic vote.

Turkish nationalists were outraged, threatened members of parliament of Turkish descent, which in turn prompted police protection for some.

It was a marvelous PR exercise for German conservatives who had refused a vote for decades. Yes, the debate had been going on for decades without, mostly, making international headlines.

In fact, the Armenian genocide resolution went so well that, apparently, the conservative leader of parliament muttered something about a resolution on the slaughter of the Herero people.

Who are the Herero people, you say?

Good question, also one shared by many Germans.

The Herero lived in southern Africa, the desert land that is now known as Namibia, which was a German colony just over a hundred years ago. The Hereros revolted in 1903. The German commander issued orders to kill every male Herero and drive the women and children into the desert. As soon as the news of this order reached Germany it was repealed, but by this time the rest of the native population was in full-scale revolt. When the order was lifted at the end of 1904, prisoners were herded into concentration camps and given as slave labor to German businesses, where many died of overwork and malnutrition.

Casualty numbers of around 100 000 are quoted. Which is around 80% of the population.

The OpEd gentleman at FAZ took umbrage with any suggestion to pass a genocide resolution, claiming that Germany played a special role in dealing with its past compared to other nations.
For international readers, that's code for "look, we keep apologizing for them f***ed up Nazis but nobody else fesses up to their genocides".

So, Mr. OpEd cannot  come out squarely against calling something, including the Herero massacres, a genocide. Instead, he directs his ire at "timing, form, and phrasing", which allows him to ask the question "who is a Herero denier anyway"?  

A few sentences down, he goes for the knot: "Is it about money? Or just about moral high ground?"

The blogster loves squirming OpEders.

Especially when they have taken the moral high ground for decades by calling the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 a genocide.

It is understandable that you can get overwhelmed by all the genocides, especially the ones nobody talks much about, such as the massacres of Christians by the Ottoman (Turkish) empire during World War I, with their ally Germany - oops - keeping mum.

Published just days after the dumb OpEd in the very same Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

The blogster understands that modern Germans may get upset about all those genocides committed without apology by the British, the French, the US, the Russians.

History is so totally not fair, isn't it?

It is somewhat sad, though, to see that there is a substantial movement in Germany that believes the country has been in the dog house for long enough and its military should be let out.

They call it take on more responsibility in the world.    

Monday, June 13, 2016

A German "Stolperstein" (stumbling stone) - you can stumble upon it but not trip over it

Of stones and "city private property".

Someone was nice enough to create an English Wikipedia page on the subject of "Stolperstein" (literally "stumbling stone"), so we start out with a fair amount of quotes.

A stolperstein (German pronunciation: [ˈʃtɔlpəʁˌʃtaɪn] from German, literally "stumbling stone") is a cobblestone-size (10 by 10 centimetres (3.9 in × 3.9 in)) concrete cube bearing a brass plate inscribed with the name and life dates of individual victims of German Nazism. The stolperstein art project was initiated by the German artist Gunter Demnig in 1992, and is still ongoing. It aims at commemorating individual persons at exactly the last place of residency – or, sometimes, work – which was freely chosen by the person before he or she fell victim to Nazi terror, euthanasia, eugenics, was deported to a concentration or extermination camp, or escaped persecution by emigration or suicide. As of 11 January 2015, over 50,000 stolpersteins have been laid in 18 European countries,[1] making the stolperstein project the world's largest decentralized memorial.

The majority of stolpersteins commemorate Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Others have been placed for Sinti and Romani people (then also called "gypsies"), homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, black people, members of the Christians opposition (both Protestants and Catholics), the Communist Party and the European anti-Nazi Resistance, military deserters, and the physically or mentally disabled.

Among the arguments against the stones, a couple stand out. One was that that people might accidentally step on them with their feet, another that they were a bit too close to the use of gravestones as sidewalk slabs by the Nazis. The then mayor of Munich, warned against an "inflation of monuments". Munich banned stolpersteins in 2004 and confirmed the decision in 2015.

The first two were made by members of the Jewish community, the latter by the Social Democrat mayor. The historical context makes the first two understandable, although other members of the German Jewish community rejected them.

The "inflation of monuments" is different, and Munich is not known for having a large number of memorials covering the years between 1933 and 1945.

To make matters worse, the city wanted to find a way to ban demonstrations by the xenophobic PEGIDA movement in 2015 and declared the whole Munich city center a memorial space that justified restrictions on demonstrations.

The descendant of a deportee sued the city to be allowed to place a stolperstein into the sidewalk in front of the house where his great grandmother had lived. He argued that the city was required to allow the installation because it was for information purposes and did not constitute an obstacle.

The court agreed but stated that a stolperstein - despite the catchy name - is not an obstacle because it is installed flush with the surrounding surface. Hence, by design not being an obstacle obviates - in the opinion of the court - any need for a permit process.

If that sounds good, it really is not.

The court decided that the sidewalk then has to be treated as private property which just happens to be owned by the city.

This removes the administrative court system from the dispute, leaving only regular civil courts if the city refuses to enter into a private contract with the plaintiff.

The city has no intention of letting the man install a stone and came up with a lofty explanation for larger, column or standing monuments: giving the victims "equal standing".

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Scoop from German Operation GetSmart: first real victim of Snowden found in Germany

Since the very first release of Snowden documents three years ago, a grisly scenario has haunted the Western intelligence community.  You have read it, heard it, seen it so often that the blogster doesn't need to link to any news or TV report.

The warning came in various, more or less elaborate statements. The blogster, a simple mind, goes with the simplest form:

Snowden endangers the life of intelligence personnel. 

There was one minor issue with the claim: zero proof. Nada.

Some obnoxious folks pointed to the firing of the chief of Germany's foreign intelligence agency BND, announced in April 2016, as a victim of Mr. Snowden. But they completely missed the point.

Retiring two years early with full government pension does not make you a victim - it makes you one lucky bastard with two years of additional time for family, hobbies, travel and general frolicking.

Yet, proof of Mr. Snowden endangering the life of a member of the intelligence community has been out there, in the open, for a full two days by now.

On 9 June 2016, at 14:57 o'clock, German tabloid BILD Zeitung gave the world the scoop proving once and for all the danger posed by Mr. Snowden.

The Snowden affair put BND chief Schindler under so much stress, that he fell off the wagon and started smoking again, the BILD article said. We are not talking some harmless drug like pot but cigarettes - the stuff that kills hundreds of thousands each year.

That's a clear danger to the life of intelligence personnel.

Take second hand smoke into account, and Snowden single-handedly transformed the revered chief of Germany's best foreign intelligence agency into the tobacco equivalent of a suicide bomber who takes down not just himself but innocent lives around him.

The question is, why did BILD not highlight this long elusive proof of Snowden's danger?

There is no simple answer. BILD might simply have made it up, they do so often that truth and fiction are hollow concepts when they take to the keyboard. But the way they phrase it rings true.

Deeper analysis indicates that the BILD authors were preoccupied with the usual "Snowden helped terrorists" as well as the standard "traitor or hero" talk - and that they wanted to be nice to Mr. Schindler.

Getting Mr. Schindler to take to smoking again fits with the devious approach Mr. Snowden has allegedly shown all along, according to the "other Mr. Schindler", you know, the one who became so distressed by the affair that at least one photo of his "little Schindler" slipped out onto the internet while his owner was busy trying to prove Mr. Snowden had worked for the Russians all along.

As of early June 2016, there is still no proof that Mr. Snowden was a Rooskie agent or is actively working for the Russian services.

This is an important statement because you can bet your life, or that of someone you don't like, on the fact that no stone has been left unturned, no avenue left unexplored in the search for proof of Snowden as a Russian pawn.

If there is a single thing the Western services would love to show the world, it is proof of Snowden working for the Russians.

So, both Mr. Schindler of the BND and the chief of the domestic intelligence service BfV, Mr. Maassen, decided to play the collusion by association card. Schindler took the "well, he went to Russia, so he supports their hybrid warfare".

Mr. Maassen was more outspoken as a witness at the still ongoing German parliamentary investigative committee known as NSAUA. In the 9 June session, Maassen claimed outright that it is plausible that Mr. Snowden is an agent of a Russian intelligence service.

In that very same session, Mr. Maassen also balked at parliamentary oversight and at the committee's demands for files and information, claiming that his service was so inundated with requests that other more important work was neglected. Commentators saw this as an unsubtle hint, basically, if there is a terrorist attack, I'll know who to blame.

Deflecting any notion of his service's contribution to, as Mr. Maasen called it, "extra legal" killings, aka. US drone attacks, took up a good part of his testimony.

When Zeit online ran a headline "Is Maassen a Russian agent?", skewering the chief's Snowden attack, the Twitter sphere had a meme.

Just do a Twitter search for NSAUA and enjoy.

If you feel like revisiting the treason probe Mr. Maassen launched about one year ago into German website netzpolitik.org for publishing a couple of inconvenient documents, our posts Meet the German intel chief behind the Netzpolitik treason probe and German intel agency declares a "Confidential" doc a state secret might be both informative and - the blogster thinks - entertaining.

Since the blog audience is intimately familiar with the fine points of governing, we can revel in the knowledge that the world utterly misunderstood the retirement of Mr. Schindler as having been fired.

In reality, it is an elaborate double cross (XX) op designed to extract an intelligence hero from one of the life threatening situations typically found in the office service of democracy.

By the same token, Mr. Maassen's acknowledgement that he didn't have proof for the claim made just the day before must not be interpreted as walking back or weakness.

The red tie worn by Mr. Maassen at the hearing tells us what we need to know!

In the exercise and training scenarios of the shadow world inhabited by the blogster during one of its* previous lives, red signals the enemy, blue the friendlies.

Wearing the red tie in public was, to the initiated, a clear indicator of a multibrid warfare "live words exercise" (more complex than the hybrid famous since the Roman Empire) designed to flush out any previously hidden Snowdenistas so as to allow our intel services to update their list of Russian trolls and otherwise unsavory characters.
 
* Gender neutral!

[Update] Added the sections starting with "Since the blog audience...", simplified a couple of sentences.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Where have all the flowers gone? Farmers cut them down

They don't seem to have much in the way of wildflowers on meadows in the German hills we call home, do they?

This was a thought the blogster had years ago when it* first wandered around the countryside in summer. The thought did not trigger even a short investigation, though. Blame it on priorities, intellectual laziness or what you will - it did not lead to further queries until recently.

Although the blogster did make a conscious effort to add lots of bee friendly flowers to the patch of dirt around the house.

Over time, and in passing, we learned that a lot of acreage in flood zones had been converted to farm land, mostly for corn and rape seed. We learned that the built up areas of Germany had gone from some 12% to about 13.6%, in part because of a trend by companies to build single story structures.

Consolidation of small fields and meadows into large units suitable for ever bigger equipment meant fewer access roads, which in turn reduced the amount of unused roadside space for grass and wildflowers.

But only recently did the blogster learn about one improvement in productivity that may be the biggest single cause of the loss of butterfly species, 22% of large butterflies since 1989.

Meadows are being mowed much earlier than in the old days.

This means that many flowers do not have time to bloom and go to seed, in turn depriving butterflies and bees of food.

Early mowing was made possible by going from hay, which needs to be fully dry in order to keep through the winter, to silage, which likes moisture and is more nutritious, too.

So, they do have fewer wildflowers in 21st century Germany.

* Gender neutral, friends.

Monday, June 6, 2016

STEM in Germany: when in doubt, hold a summit and call for mandatory programming language ed

The fourth largest economy in the world has a problem: STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education sucks.

Or so, all politicians who are not STEMmers as well the leading CEOs of the country claim.

They went and held a STEM summit. By the way, the German abbreviation is MINT, a nice one for a change.

Experts say that German teachers don't have sufficient and comprehensive training in using digital technology in the classroom. While there is some truth to it, when is the last time you have heard experts, in an country, say that teachers are fully prepared for <challenge x>?

And, of course, there are not enough women in German STEM. True, because of 19th century thinking and 20th century Nazis. Because, guess what, the largely awful defunct country of East Germany had a good thing going with women in STEM. To wit: the current STEM complainer in chief and chancellor of the Republic, Ms. Merkel, is an East German Physics PhD.

Now, the CEO of Deutsche Telekom comes along and calls for programming languages to become mandatory in schools, arguing that they are at least as important as multiplication, reading, and foreign languages.

This is a quote. And it is a gem. 

Let's just hope it was phrased like this to gently take a STEM-challenged audience towards the seriousness of the problem. It is understandable that talking of addition and subtraction might have been considered low balling, and mentioning division at a summit that showcases unity could be considered divisive.

He could at least have said something like we are faced with a difficult equation, or so, right?

The next cool quote tells us what we need to know: "The big technological steps have been made. Now, products are being cast". [Note: the German says "gefeilt", the image is taking a metal or wood file to something, to hone an object, we settled for cast, also an "old" tech.]

The Telekom CEO seems to be unaware that products have been made for at least 40 years, give or take.

And he has no idea of programming, obviously. And of the fact that today's kids learn a lot of the digital ways despite the absence of mandatory programming in school.

There was a time, not long ago, when a handful of floppy disks, a computer without a hard drive, and Herb Schildt's C/C++ bible were all you needed to write a program that could earn you money.

If that's what you want your kids to learn, be my guest.

It simply is not what is needed. Nobody in their right mind will write an FTP client from scratch, well, unless you work in a certain department at Oracle.

The best way to alienate children from computing is to make them write "Hello World" programs and have them suffer through UNIX/DOS line breaks and backslash escapes.

We don't have a shortage of coders, you can buy them a dime a dozen from at least that many countries.

We have a shortage of communication and a surplus of testosterone. The latter is evident if you set foot into a software company.

The shortage of communication is, in part, self inflicted. The Javadoc-ification of life seemed like a good idea. Why not make the coders write a few lines that explain what a class and its members do, and call it documentation?

Cheap and easy, right? It worked for a while because there were still enough Deitel & Deitels who would sit down and write great books. And then, the big companies discovered that they could have their employees write a book faster than everybody else because they were right there and saw a product get developed.

And why not make customers pay for courses instead of giving them great docs for free?

Revenue streams opened.

Leaving good teaching to small, free websites (the various "school" sites) and problem solving to StackOverflow and your peers.

Teach kids good STEM, and the coding will happen as a result. Don't teach coding to get good STEM, it does not work.

Regarding the much needed "cultural shift" in Germany, yes, it is sorely needed. In some small corners, they are slowly learning that a degree in computing is not needed for many development jobs.

And the fact that Argentina or India have more great female developers than Germany? See the dig above.

The best, as always, for last. According to the article, there are some 150 000 open STEM jobs in Germany, a lot of them in computing. If you click through the list of Berlin Startups and check their jobs page, you see a lot of openings.

But it is complicated, as they say. Try to get one of these jobs at age 50 or higher, said the blogster's IT guy.

Well, maybe his problem is not that he has 20 years of experience but the fact that his last name is Marx?

A good, "no mandatory programming language in school", K12 education followed by a degree in theology can still produce great developers. A bad one produces people who pray their code will compile.

And you can become a billionaire with teenage BASIC and the password "dadada" for multiple accounts.

Or CEO of Deutsche Telekom.

[Update]
The blogster had a chat with OMG (Old Mustached German). Turns out, OMG learned how to perform operations using both hex and binary systems in the German equivalent senior high school.

....
In the 1970s. 

Oh.

Yes, and on paper, too.
.....

[Update] Spelling & the gr :-). Added paragraphs starting with "A good...". Added "honed".


Grow runner beans under wire mesh - voila, hail protection included

The traditional way to grow runner beans involves planting beans in circles and putting a pole in the center so five or six plants climb the pole as they grow. Most serious gardeners in our neck of the woods use a sturdier "wigwam" or "teepee" construction, where several poles are tilted to meet at the top, which is then wound tight with string or thin rope.

The blogster wanted a lazy solution and built itself* a folding wire mesh structure out of 1 x 2s and 1.25 m wide standard wire mesh which had been left behind by the previous residents.

The structure consists of two equal pieces, held together on one short side (the "end") by two pieces of wire. In other words, you get a wire mesh triangle or tent you put over rows of plants. Depending on how far apart you set the bottoms, this gives you some six feet or more of room in the center for the beans and for your weeding pleasure. The blogster also put in a couple of individual wires across the lower part of the structure, one at about 10 inches above the ground, the second at about 20 inches, so that the plants in the center have some support before they reach the mesh.

The mesh size doesn't matter much, but chicken wire is not a good idea because it is a pain to remove the bean stems before you put the structure away for the winter.

The wire left behind by the previous residents had a two by four inch mesh, also called "badger fence", which turned out to be ideal when a severe hailstorm hit.

The storm dumped almost an inch of hail in fifteen minutes, wreaking utter havoc in the garden. The red currant bushes lost about half their berries, the tomato plants had their leaves stripped, the lettuce plants turned into patches of green mush, the potatoes didn't look much better.

The only plants left standing were the Borlotti beans that have been a favorite of the blogster for years. Only one or two plants sustained noteworthy damage, the rest got away without any damage or a single punctured or torn leaf.

The wire mesh tent saved them.

Too stunned to run and grab a camera, the blogster watched the destruction of the garden and marveled at the effect of the wire mesh. Hail was bouncing off the mesh in a crazy icy dance, slowing or deflecting subsequent balls of ice.

It took a full day for all the ice to melt.

For a small, precarious farm a century ago, these fifteen minutes could easily have spelled ruin.

* We are gender neutral, for fun, for privacy, and - yes - to mess with some people's heads.

Over half a century ago in Germany: an UBER for plums, apples, berries

In the past months, several media reports wrote about start-ups that work on aspects of sustainable food production for the still growing human population.

One such start-up is German company FoPo, which aims to collect batches of fast perishing fruit and vegetables and freeze dry them to vastly extend their usable life. Sounds a bit like a civilian version of freeze dried MREs (the military rations that came after canned C rats).

The funny thing is, the concept is old.

And it has a long way ahead to become as pervasive as the old system.

We came across the phenomenon after we became curious about some lone apple trees on the edge of old roads in our German hill country.  These were older trees, unmaintained, not in good shape - one was split apart, the top resting on the ground, precariously attached to the trunk by just one small piece of living tissue.

Some research and some conversations with the locals later, we had rediscovered how previous generations lived.

Before mechanization of farming, fruit trees in meadows were common around here.

Vertical farming.

Mechanization turned the useful convenient trees into obstacles to productivity and progress, so they were chopped down. Except trees that sat close to roads, or on slopes tractors could not reach. Over time, brush and forest trees inched closer and many of the remaining old fruit trees were lost.

Farmers harvested their trees, they made cider out of cider apples, they stored other apples for the winter, or they would take a cart full to a small mill that made juice.

But they also sold fruit to the system we called "UBER for plums". Manufacturers based in cities to the north and the south had a large crowdsourced collection system set up that worked as follows.

Just before harvest time, they sent trucks with empty crates to collection agents in the villages. Usually, a farmer was the collection agent. Villagers would arrive and pick up as many crates as they thought they could deliver. Of course, they kept as much as they needed for their own purposes and just sold off the rest this way.

The villagers would harvest the fruit and take the crates to the collection point, where the agent checked the quality, weighed the fruit and paid cash.

A day or two later, a truck would pick up the harvest. Depending on the village, this cycle would repeat several times for different fruits and berries.

Are they still doing this, we wanted to know?

No, this system faded away in the late 1960s or in the 1970s when so many trees had been lost that it became a losing proposition for processors, and when it became cheaper to import fruit from other European countries.

As we said earlier, there are still trees around, so maybe FoPo or someone else could help save them or even revive this sustainable tradition because much of the fruit in orchards close to houses also goes to waste today. We have seen tons of unwanted apples and other fruit, and we grab buckets from a neighbor who doesn't want them.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Beekeeping thieves - hive theft on the rise in Germany

Some reports blame an increase in theft of bee hives in Germany on the loss of populations caused by pesticides and disease. In any case, this article and others claim that theft of bee hives is up.

Even if you know nothing about the arcane world of caring for honeybees, one thing we all know is that this crime requires some logistics. Weighing in at around 30 kilos (around 65 lbs) a box, motorized transport is a must. If stolen bees are given a new home within about 2 miles from their original location, they are highly likely to move back there, minus the box of course. So, the seasoned thief will not take hives within a 10 km range from the intended new location.

The operating term is "seasoned", because bee theft is almost exclusively a peer crime committed by other bee keepers.

The reason for helping themselves to other people's bees is simple: money. The vast majority of German bee keepers perform this as a hobby or as a side job. Unlike in the US, where you have thousands of square miles with only one or two crops, like the almond fields of northern California, a densely populated country not much bigger than Montana has no need for 18 wheelers full of mobile hives.

Only a handful of beekeeping jobs in Germany are full time and garner media attention, for example, this one on airport beekeeping. A fully grown, established hive seems to go for around 200 Euros, a newly created hive can be less than 50 Euros but won't be productive until the following year. Add the various products needed to treat for parasites, and "saving 200 Euros" makes the difference between breaking even and losing money on a hive.

Some beekeepers are opting for GPS trackers or game cams to try and recover stolen populations and catch thieves in the act.

According to reader comments under this article, thieves hardly ever get prosecuted, even if they are known. Only hit and run vehicle accidents seem enjoy a similar low prosecution priority. Out of more than half a million hit and runs annually, only those that cause injury or death are really investigated.

[Gratuitous joke warning] We have not seen reports of any sting operations to counter the theft of honeybee populations.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Publisher of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung sees Bavarian Christian Social Union as home of populist AfD voters

I have not heard anything by populist right AfD people that I have not heard from Bavarian Christian Social Union politicians or supporters has been a mantra of the K-Landnews TheEditor since the first election successes of the Alternative for Germany.

The blogster has written several posts on the subject, for example Populist AfD success in German state elections: what not to worry about - and what to worry about. In another post, the blogster called the political division of labor between the Christian Democrats (CDU), active in all states except Bavaria, and the Christian Social Union, active in Bavaria only, a game of "good cop - bad cop".

Still, an outspoken OpEd by one of the publishers of center-right conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) is more vindication than TheEditor would have expected.

The FAZ publisher calls the Christian Social Union a partner "working the field that Merkel [member of the Christian Democrats] leaves to the AfD".

Now, the esteemed publisher would most certainly cry foul if the blogster wrote that he basically concedes the political home of those German racists, xenophobes, Christian wingnuts, and rabid "anti-socialists" not completely gone to the dark side is the Christian Social Union.

The metaphor "working the field" is extremely well chosen for the purpose, because it encapsulates plausible deniability, along the lines of no, what I'm saying is that we need to engage with this part of the electorate, blah, blah, blah.

Luckily, he states in the OpEd that the strategy of not leaving a "right fringe" has been the official way of doing CDU/CSU political business for half a century. As a minimum, we can still claim that half a century of engagement hasn't worked out that well, has it?

The OpEd  is also the first "publisher level" argument that uses the term "shift to the left", which the blogster has seen used against the CDU.

According to the vigilant publisher, the CDU/CSU has undergone a process Ms. Merkel's supporters call modernization and the "CSU and the handful of conservatives remaining in the CDU calls shift to the left".
The example for the shift to the left is the "greening of family and social politics", with Bavaria the home of "traditional views of marriage and family".

A full rebuttal of the alleged shift to the left would require writing a book, let's just say it hasn't happened. There is no gay marriage in Germany. They have civil unions, and "marriage is a specially protected institution", which means that, as a result of CDU/CSU policies, partners in civil unions do not have the exact same rights as married couples.

There are many more examples showing that the "shift to the left" is an imaginary construct. Some argue that abandoning nuclear power is also proof of the shift. The blogster sees things differently, as argued in the post Forget political "left" and "right", it's about power, empathy, and a few other things.

But, hey, we should thank the FAZ publisher for clarifying where those xenophobes and authoritarian people who stop short of displaying swastikas and being anti-semites have their true political home.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Germany: plastic bags, music sampling & the elusive open WiFi

The standard handful of German daily papers perused by the ever curious blogster are almost in full summer vacation mode, it seems.

The upcoming European soccer cup dominates the web pages and the bleached and colored dead tree carcasses at the gas station. The noxious statement by one of the "Alternative for Germany" leaders that he would not want to have a black German soccer star as his neighbor gave all the righteous ample opportunity to show their goodness.

Heavy rain with flooding that claimed several lives was a great excuse, for most, not to mention that over 2000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean since the beginning of the year.
The torrents also flushed out some gleeful "ha, there goes your climate change" deniers.
And for the rest, their entertainment involved a bit of Syria and Putin plus a helping of Brexit and Trump.

And just in: 30 cop cars came out sirens blazing in the northern city of Hamburg because a vigilant citizen reported a man wearing a suspicious vest and "dancing around" near a jobcenter. Instead of shutting up and letting the presumed terrorist reduce German unemployment numbers, the citizen called in a terror alert.

Police found the man was a jogger wearing a weight vest. Which is really funny because these vests actually do look a bit like the standard suicide vests we see in the media, with narrow vertical bulging pockets neatly aligned on the front and the sides.

Maybe the Germans will come up with a new law that requires suicide vests to be clearly marked as such?

Music sampling and plastic bags were big topics in the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine (FAZ). Germany's constitutional court struck down a ruling that had declared the use of a two second sample from one of Autobahn boring Kraftwerk's songs illegal.
That sent a senior editor of FAZ into a rant about how Hiphop and the internet are promoting disregard for intellectual property and artistic creativity, destroying property rights and ultimately threatening the "democratic order and the rule of law".

The other doozy in FAZ was a complaint about one big retailer's plan to eliminate plastic shopping bags altogether.

See, despite successful German PR making the country seem to be Europe's green poster child, large plastic shopping bags are everywhere. The only difference between, what, twenty years ago and now, is that nowadays you pay 10 or 20 cents for a large bag.

Major retailer REWE wants to change that and do away with the big bags. Instead, if you don't bring your own, you will be able to buy cloth bags. This upset an FAZ econ writer so much that he condemned the move as useless. Since this is Germany, the gentleman advances the argument that plastic is not as ecologically damaging as often claimed because you can reuse it and because making a bag needs fewer resources than a paper bag. And, says he, "one spilled yogurt or a drop of beer" render a paper bag useless.

He goes so far to say "In an emergency, a plastic bag is relatively benign from an ecological point of view".

Keeping the best for last, there is the ongoing saga of eliminating liability for operators of open public WiFi access points. 

Few companies, and even fewer individuals, offer free public WiFi in Germany because of strict liability provisions. In addition to criminal liability, the thriving copyright infringement "cease & desist industry" in Germany deter individuals from opening up their WiFi.

A bill debated for months was supposed to change this, helping Germany to shed its internet backwaters image.

For a short time, about as long as it takes for a computer to perform a DNS lookup, it seemed as if it would finally happen. Note: internet connection speeds around here are slower than in most European countries, so the time it takes to perform a DNS lookup is not as short as you might think.

But, as the blogster told a Twitter buddy when the initial good news was announced: be very weary of this, we are in Germany.

Lo and behold, almost all the progressive verbiage has disappeared from the bill as it heads into committee.

[Update 6/5/2016] It is official. Prominent law firms that are major players in Germany's multi-million Euro "cease & desist industry" went on record in Die Welt, staying that they will continue to send "cease & desist" missives to operators of public WiFi access points.