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December 2011

"Who Knows This Man?"

There's only one publication in Germany that can intentionally make me laugh out loud, and that's Titanic, the monthly satire magazine to which I am a proud subscriber. Its subtitle proclaims it to be "the ultimate satire magazine", and that's true in any number of ways. Among them: nobody in Germany goes further than Titanic. According to occasional contributor Oliver Maria Schmitt, the magazine's motto (g, paywall) is "A resounding 'Yes' to 'No'!". Titanic's doesn't just slaughter the sacred cows, it tortures and mutilates them first. Which brings them endless lawsuits (g), usually based on quaint German laws making it a crime to insult people or otherwise injure their honor or dignity. Naturally, Titanic wears these lawsuits with pride.

The latest Titanic escapade is particularly rich. To understand the joke, we must first review some recent German history. On the 4th of November, an apartment burned down in the East German city of Zwickau. Nearby, in Eisenach, two right-wing extremists shot themselves in a mobile home after a botched bank robbery. During searches of the apartment and the mobile home, police found evidence linking both sites to a team of two men (Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, the ones who killed themselves) and one woman (Beate Zschärpe) who together constituted a right-wing terror cell called the National Socialist Underground (g). Unbeknownst to police, the NSU had, since 1998, been on a nationwide murder and bank-robbery spree (g) killing at least 10 people in targeted assassinations -- mostly immigrants, but also a young policewoman, murdered execution-style. All of the shootings were committed with the same weapon. The group also set off at least one bomb, in 2004 in a crowded street in a heavily-immigrant section of Cologne, injuring 22 people.

In the rubble of the Zwickau apartment in November 2011, the police found a truly astounding 15-minute video in which the group -- using a mash-up of Pink Panther animation clips -- took explicit credit for the mayhem (g) and mocked both victims and police. Even shortly after the discovery, people began asking how a group could go on killing and bombing undistiurbed in an advanced, well-policed nation such as Germany without being detected. But the facts that came out later made the question even more urgent. It turns out all three suspects were known to the police in the 1990s as neo-Nazis. The men had criminal records for violent attacks on foreigners and bomb threats. The three even ran a small bomb workshop in Jena in Zschärpe's garage. They narrowly escaped arrest in 1998 after a tip led to the workshop's detection. Despite the fact that they were all known to the police by name, appearance, and affiliation, they were able to go underground and elude detection for 14 years. When police investigated the immigrants the NSU had murdered, the cops generally discounted the idea that right-wing violence might be behind the killings, and instead suggested that the victims were targeted because of their involvement with drug-smuggling or immigrant mafias.

During the entire neo-Nazi terror spree, the German domestic spy agency (rather pompously called the Verfassungsschutz, or Agency for Protection of the Constitution (APC)) released report after report announcing that there were "no signs of right-wing terror groups" in Germany. The APC had infiltrated dozens of paid snitches into right-wing groups, but still didn't uncover the extensive network of accomplices that made the 14-year murder spree possible. After the vicious 2004 nail-bomb attack in Cologne -- in which a white man can be seen in a surveillance video depositing the bomb -- interior minister Otto Schily denied the very next day that there was any evidence it was a right-wing anti-immigrant attack. All of the murders and bombings, of course, went unsolved. In fact the murder of the policewoman was attributed to a mysterious female super-criminal who, according to DNA traces, had committed an astounding number of varied crimes all over Germans from 1993 until 2009. Until it was found out that the DNA actually all came from a police lab employee who had contaminated (g) crime-scene samples.

The mind, as they say, buggers. The whole sordid episode has sparked a controversy in Germany which has dominated headlines for weeks and shows no signs of abating.

Titanic felt the need to intervene. Here its its current cover:

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The caption reads: "The APC Needs Your Help: WHO KNOWS THIS MAN?" Meanwhile, according to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung (g) newspaper a citizen in the small Bavarian town of Taufkirchen had reported sightings of a "poster" displaying the markings of an "organization hostile to the constitution" (in this case, a rather large portrait of a controversial Austrian statesman). The police immediately swung into action, confiscating five more copies of the "poster", cunningly hidden among racks of magazines in various retail stores across town. The police surmised that the guilty parties must have come from "right-wing radical circles", and perhaps wanted to taunt the APC.

After further analysis, the police determined that the "right-wing posters" were copies of Titanic. (h/t MW).


"Miniature female nudes, most with swelled abdomens, immersed or wading in fluids and oddly interacting with interconnecting tubes and capsules"

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Yale's Beinecke Library has scanned in and put online the entire Voynich manuscipt, a book written in a yet-to-be deciphered text whose contents are as follows:

Based on the subject matter of the drawings, the contents of the manuscript falls into six sections: 1) botanicals containing drawings of 113 unidentified plant species; 2) astronomical and astrological drawings including astral charts with radiating circles, suns and moons, Zodiac symbols such as fish (Pisces), a bull (Taurus), and an archer (Sagittarius), nude females emerging from pipes or chimneys, and courtly figures; 3) a biological section containing a myriad of drawings of miniature female nudes, most with swelled abdomens, immersed or wading in fluids and oddly interacting with interconnecting tubes and capsules; 4) an elaborate array of nine cosmological medallions, many drawn across several folded folios and depicting possible geographical forms; 5) pharmaceutical drawings of over 100 different species of medicinal herbs and roots portrayed with jars or vessels in red, blue, or green, and 6) continuous pages of text, possibly recipes, with star-like flowers marking each entry in the margins.


Tatort as After-School Special

There's an English phrase that always comes to my mind when I watch a particularly preachy episode of Tatort ("crime scene"), the weekly crime show that is a German institution. The phrase is "after-school special". An after-school special, was a TV show, usually a drama, that played at 4 pm or so, just as kids would come home from school. The scripts taught us kids to to tolerate all races; be proud of who we were; accept people who are different; be kind to the handicapped; avoid drugs, smoking, alcohol, and sex; not let strangers touch us "there"; and so on. The clip above gives you an idea of what we're dealing with (and, as an extra bonus, it features the title "The Boy who Drank Too Much"!).*

German publicly-financed television has a so-called Bildungsauftrag, roughly, "duty to educate". Now there's nothing wrong with requiring broadcasters who are financed by TV fees to provide educational programming. The talk shows and documentaries you see on regular German television -- as much as we might mock them -- are streets ahead of anything on American TV. The show Titel Thesen Temperamente (g) which runs every Sunday on the main German broadcast station, shows a fantastic dog's breakfast of 8-10 minute long clips about everything from jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani to discrimination against homosexuals in Turkey to Tiken Jah Fakoly (including a tour of his home and studio in Bamako, Mali), to anti-right-wing activists to Werner Herzog's new films to the Nazi past of the Alpine climbing group. Just about every one of these segments would have been deemed too controversial/hifalutin/boring/full of non-Americans for any of the 500 channels of American television. Except the stuff about Nazis, of course. Nazis always sell.

The problem is that this duty to educate often seeps into the dramas. Tatort, nominally a crime thriller, often reeks of after-school special. Frank Junghänel provides an example (g) in the Frankfurter Rundschau (my translation):

The problem is often the stories...they always have to be relevant. If there's a case from the 'beekeeper milieu', we're guaranteed to find out that the bees ate some genetically-modified rapeseed. Then the detectives will spontaneously discuss the dangers of adulterated honey, [Detective] Freddy Schenk will wring his hands over his granddaughter's future, and, at the end, the pharmaceutical industry will be outed as the villain, having sponsored experiments with rapeseed...

These after-school-special theme episodes are rarely highlights. But Tatort produders want to remain true to their mission to educate the public. "I'm trying to motivate the screenwriters to be more flexible with their narrative structures", says Tönsmann. "The theme should develop from the story, not be imposed beforehand." Screenwriters tend to want to explain too much. "We want to reduce the didactic element." At home, he likes to watch DVD series such as "The Wire." It plays in Baltimore, and shows police mostly at work.

The article goes through an entire laundry list of weaknesses in Tatort scripts: the sensitive would-be literati who write them have no idea about real police work, the situations are often ludicrously exaggerated, the characters make implausibly long and well-organized speeches, didacticism makes things boring and predictable, the same targets get whacked again and again. The problem, in a nutshell, is that the after-school special in the USA was designed for teenagers, while Tatort, broadcast on Sunday night, is watched (mostly) by adults.

Which leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that the people who write for German public TV stations think of their audience as largish children still in need of moral instruction. According to Tatort, adult Germans need to be taught that neo-fascists are bad, asylum seekers/transvestites/nonconformist teenagers are misunderstood and unjustly persecuted, corporations (especially pharmaceutical and agricultural corporations) are evil, sexual abuse destroys lives, yet even pedophiles deserve a second chance, vengeance is always an wrong, Eastern European crime gangs and their rich German customers exploit women, your cheap clothes come from stinking sweatshops, etc.*

As Junghänel's article shows, there are some producers and writers for Tatort who are aware of the after-school special problem. The mention of The Wire is promising: High-end American TV has recently gotten very good indeed at Balzacian realism, and The Wire is among the best shows ever made. It's based on careful observation of reality, and its writers generally let the chips fall where they may: if a scene was logical and right, it got shot, regardless of whether it might have happened to confound or confirm a stereotype.

An example: one character, Kima Greggs, is a detective who -- even though she's a a gay black woman -- is not shown to be unusually noble, self-sacrificing, or wise. She's out on patrol when a bunch of mostly-white officers are arresting some black men, and one of them turns around and assaults a cop. Big mistake. A cluster of uniforms surrounds the hapless arrestee, beating the living crap out of him. Greggs runs over to the scene. Does she deliver a lecture on racial tolerance or police brutality to the beefy white cops? No, she joins in -- because a good cop always protects fellow officers, and that includes making sure anybody who attacks a cop lives to regret it. And of course there's no disciplinary proceeding, because (a) the guy really was resisting arrest, and (b) nobody's going to snitch. This would be the point at which a robot programmed with politically-correct Tatort episodes would begin shrieking "does not compute" and finally explode in a shower of sparks. Good riddance.

Continue reading "Tatort as After-School Special" »


Dieter Rams for Braun

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Das Programm, an English company, sells only works designed by Dieter Rams for Braun:

As incorrigible Dieter Rams collectors we are all too aware of the gap between the desirability and availability of his work. Das Programm was conceived to correct this. We only sell Dieter Rams designs and Braun products issued between 1955 and 1995, the period of Rams’ office as Braun’s Director of Design. The site is a unique online resource offering some of the most desirable and important examples of Twentieth Century industrial design, until now largely unobtainable without travel or risk of e-auction frustration.

Via.


Healthcare Reform in the Hands of the U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court has decided to hear a case challenging President Obama's signature legislation, the so-called Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).  The most controversial provision, the so-called 'individual mandate', requires almost all Americans to buy health insurance or pay a penalty for not doing so. This is obviously an important piece of the puzzle, since it creates large risk pools, preventing insurers from cherry-picking the best risks. The most important question before the Supreme Court will be whether this provision exceeds the federal government's constitutional power. The lower appeals courts in the U.S. have disagreed about the constitutionality of the individual mandate, with the most recent opinion on the law upholding it:

A three-judge panel on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals — comprised of two judges appointed by Republican presidents and one by a Democrat — upheld the constitutionality of a key section of President Obama’s health care law in a ruling released Tuesday.

Senior Judge Laurence Silberman and Judge Harry Edwards ruled to uphold the law — specifically the mandate that requires Americans to purchase health insurance — on the merits. Judge Brett Kavanaugh dissented from their ruling, but he, too, would have ruled against the plaintiffs seeking to overturn the mandate. His opinion argued that federal courts lack jurisdiction to enjoin the mandate, which functions similarly to a tax.

Interestingly, even the conservative judges agreed that the mandate could stand. Their personal policy preference is against federal government power, but their role as judges required them to respect previous Supreme Court decisions upholding pretty wide-ranging power of the federal government to regulate interstate commerce.

Now, political scientists are ginning up their models to predict what the Supreme Court will do. Two of then, Forrest Maltzman and Michael Bailey, recently posted an interesting analysis to the American Prospect blog:

The first scenario relies on a prominent theory of judicial decision-making called the attitudinal model.  It holds that justices are unconstrained policymakers.  To predict and explain Court actions we simply need to figure out the policy implications of the legislation and justices policy preferences.  The vote takes care of itself from that point.... Based on preferences alone, 5 justices, including the “swing” justice Anthony Kennedy, are predicted to vote to overturn the PPACA.... The most likely scenario is a 5-4 decision overturning the PPACA.  Under this scenario, the Court would be a lock to overturn. Goodbye Obamacare.

But wait! Judges' personal political preferences play a role (also in Germany (g)), but respect for previous decisions counts as well:

Given that precedent ... is supportive of upholding the law, we then calculated the predicted vote of each justice based not only on their policy preferences but based on their tendency to defer to precedent.   Deference to precedent varies by justice: Kennedy does so much more than Thomas, for example.

As always, predictions are hard, especially about the future (see Berra v. Bohr) and especially when it isn’t clear which precedents apply or which legal doctrines are likely to dominate. Thus, any specific prediction must go beyond the model.

That said, here is ours: 6-3 or 7-2 to uphold the law.

Respect for precedent pushes Kennedy to support the law and Roberts comes along for the ride in order to keep the opinion out of Kennedy’s hands (and possibly writing an opinion that cabins the Commerce Clause more than it is now).  Alito probably goes with Roberts, but seems more up for grabs.  If we are wrong, expect the justices to either downplay precedent and emphasize other legal values (such as federalism) or play up the few precedents that protect state rights.

Policy motivations won’t be irrelevant, but score this one for law.

I think this is basically right, although I wouldn't be surprised by a 5-4 outcome.


GEMA Idiocy

If you're in Germany, you won't be able to watch this video, because the German copyright-enforcement monopoly, GEMA, has demanded disproportionately high fees for various kinds of web content. When, oh when will we be able to watch YouTube videos in Germany? Shouldn't politicians be doing something about this? They're always complaining about how ratings agencies push them around, but GEMA's absurd obstinacy results in daily inconvenience to millions of German web users every day...

As much previously reported, GEMA has, in the main, taken the hardest line of all the collecting societies when it comes to licensing new digital services, leaving some popular European music platforms, including Spotify, unable to launch in the German market. Digital start-ups say GEMA is asking for far too high royalties for music streams, while the collecting society says it is simply looking for viable business models before licensing its songs.

The record companies, in the main, have good relationships with YouTube (although there was a wobble with the YouTube/Warner deal at one point), and indeed Universal and Sony are basically in business with the web firm via their VEVO venture. On the publishing side, where the performing rights YouTube need are generally licensed collectively, there have been some issues – including a falling out with PRS For Music in the UK – though, in the main, deals have been done

GEMA, however, has a long running dispute with YouTube and its owners Google, and has been publicly critical of the web giant in the past, which it sees as wanting to profit from music-based services without properly compensating rights owners. That ongoing feud has turned legal on various occasions, and earlier this year the Society put in a claim against YouTube’s US division via the Californian courts, albeit in relation to twelve specific songs it represents.

Edgar Berger, CEO of Sony Music Entertainment in Munich told Billboard: “I suspect that some members of GEMA’s supervisory board have not yet arrived in the digital era. We want to see streaming services like VEVO and Spotify in the German market. [These platforms] must not be blocked by GEMA any longer. Artists and music companies are losing sales in the millions”.

Meanwhile, Frank Briegmann, President of Universal Music Germany said: “Germany is a developing country in the digital music market. GEMA apparently has not yet understood the new developments in the international music market”.

More criticism here:

From an accompanying Techdirt post:

Because of the way the laws work in Germany, those who have deals with GEMA effectively give up all of their own rights on such things. When I was in Germany, I spoke with multiple artists who were freaking out because they couldn't give away their own music, because GEMA didn't allow it. Aritst would show me their official webpage, without free music, and then their "secret, unofficial" web page with the music they wanted people to download. GEMA, which seems to be run by people entirely out of touch with how music works today, simply insists that no one can give away music for free... because then GEMA doesn't get to collect money. Furthermore, for those who try to get around GEMA and used alternative licenses, GEMA has been known to ignore such licenses, and insist that people still need to abide by GEMA's rules.


Two Short Takes on the Continuing Crisis

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The New York Times on the real reason Germany is opposed to the ECB acting as lender of last resort:

Many economists say there is little risk of inflation in the sagging European economy, but any large-scale intervention would create a political uproar. The bank could move quickly, said Richard Portes, professor of economics at the London Business School, but “it needs political cover to do what it needs to do.”

It is not clear where that will come from. In a speech in Berlin on Thursday, Mrs. Merkel cautioned, “If politicians believe the E.C.B. can solve the problem of the euro’s weakness, then they’re trying to convince themselves of something that won’t happen.”

Germany has reason to be cautious. In the event that Italian, Spanish and other bonds had to be written down the way that Greek bonds were, Berlin would have to pay the most to recapitalize the bank. That would be tantamount to a backdoor bailout, a transfer of money from German taxpayers to cover the debts of other states without parliamentary approval.

“New Yorkers don’t mind transferring money year after year to Appalachia, but in Europe, people do mind,” said Dennis J. Snower, president of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy. “Populism would rise, the European project would truly be in danger because the democratic deficit would explode.”

And Peter Dorman of Econospeak on "The German Obsession with Inflation":

[H]ere is an observation about the German obsession with inflation.  Media accounts always bring up the hyperinflation of the 1920s and its supposed role in ushering in the Third Reich.  This is bad history: a decade transpired between the inflationary madness of 1923 and the handing off of the chancellorship to Hitler.  That trope should be buried once and for all.

More generally, while the experience of the ‘20s is invoked by Germans themselves, I think it’s little more than a convenient rationalization.  Most Germans are generations removed from this era; it has as little relevance for them as, say, the great Mississippi flood of 1927 has for those living along its banks today.

The real reason is that Germany is a country of savers.  The savings rate is high, and savings are distributed broadly.  Saving is valorized by the culture; you could argue that it is seen as the greatest virtue of all, above courage, generosity and all the rest.  It is an act of self-denial that looks to the future—one’s own and that of the generations to come.  To have savings is to be free.  Germans see the capital stock of the country as the product of their own savings, and to a large extent they are right.  The mass savings institutions, the Sparkassen and the Postbank and savings banks, constitute the bulk of German finance.  Germany is a savocracy.

The great threat to savings is inflation.  Long before hyperinflation destroys savings altogether, modest inflation chips at their edges.  Policies that permit inflation to increase penalize savers, and this makes them immoral, since saving is the epitome of morality.  Better to allow your economy to go down in flames than to resort to the wickedness of the printing press; at least, in the rubble, you will have your savings to draw on.

Among other things, this perspective fails to take account of where savings come from.  Yes, they come from choices people make, but they also come from the income that make those choices possible.  Cut someone’s salary in half, and no matter how virtuous they are, their savings will take a hit.  And a significant part of German income derives, directly and indirectly, from its trade surplus with debtor countries like the Eurozone peripherals and the US.  In other words, the virtue of savings is inseparable from the vice of debt.  Simple accounting identities require this to be true, but it to point it out is to remove yourself from respectable public opinion in Germany.

Of course, it’s easy for me to see this as an American, the product of a massively indebted society buffered by the exorbitant privilege of minting the world’s currency....

... [from another post]

In a nutshell, the German position is that any risk of inflation, no matter how small the inflation or the risk, outweighs the possibility of a financial meltdown resulting from a shortfall of euro liquidity.  If a country undergoes a run on its banking system or sovereign debt (typically connected), it is a sign of profligate living, and the specter of default is needed as an incentive for “reform”.  This attitude—and it is simply an attitude, not a rational economic argument—is the proximate reason why the global economy is on the brink.

So Germany, the biggest, strongest, richest country in the Eurozone is the rogue state, exercising its veto in increasing defiance of world opinion.  Forget the True Finns; the parties whose absurd demands are threatening to plunge Europe, and the rest of us, into crisis have names like the Christian Democrats, the Free Democrats, the Social Democrats and the Greens.  Will any of them start to crack before it's too late?

Image courtesy of the Kitten Covers.


Linguistic Nitpicking; or I Think "Think Wrong" Wrong

Michael, in comments to the last post, points us to Language Log (LL)'s analysis. Let me say that I like Language Log, and agree, for instance, with their defense of Donald Rumsfeld's immensely useful "unknown unknowns" remark.

But here they miss the mark. Mark Liberman, writing for LL, cites the use of "think wrong" or in certain articles and essays by "highfalutin" English intellectuals. Works cited include Hilary Putnam: realism, reason and the uses of uncertainty and Walsingham, or, The pupil of nature, both of which, I'm sure, are on Rick Perry's bedside table. Liberman concludes that many who criticize Perry "don't realize that [the usage is] fairly common in a certain register of British prose, and therefore in some writing by American intellectuals as well," and concludes "Governor Perry's grammar is not an indication of folksiness, laziness, or stupidity."

Damn straight it is, to use a Texanism. I confess to being a bit tired of linguists lecturing us about what is and isn't proper usage, usually with the goal of convincing us that some glaring mistake isn't really a mistake because 25% of Americans now use words this way, or it's perfectly standard in Southwestern Carribbean English. Addressing the ubiquitous use of "like" in American English to replace just about every other part of speech, one recent New York Times contributor wrote:

So is the new like proper English? Well, the latest editions of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary now include it as a usage heard in informal speech. That's not a ringing endorsement, but it's not a condemnation either.

As for me, I'm convinced that this is a useful, even ingenious, addition to informal spoken English. But let's be honest. For now, at least, it smacks of incorrectness to a great many people. In writing my grammar book for kids, I wrestled with this problem. In the end, I suggested that the usage is O.K. in informal conversation but not for situations requiring your best English.

Wrong! Using the word "like" 3 times in every sentence is annoying. It doesn't make you sound "ingenious", it makes you sound stupid. It's an horrible and depressing impoverishment of spoken expression. And it will always be so, no matter how many people do it.

Besides, Liberman is completely missing the point. I grew up in Texas, and I certainly don't remember people not using "is" in this context. Besides, what are the chances that Rick Perry (a) knows that omitting "is" in this context is "fairly common in a certain register of British prose"; and (b) decided to knowingly omit the word in order to speak in that register? In other words, what is the likelihood that Rick Perry -- Rick Perry, for the love of Christ -- wanted to sound like a British intellectual?

No, he just flubbed the line, and -- assuming he even caught the mistake -- was just too lazy to do another take. And this man wants to be President.