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March 2012
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Dutch Cannabis Tourism in Danger?

A Dutch court has upheld the so-called 'weed pass' law which would prevent foreigners from buying marijuana in some Dutch cities:

A Dutch court on Friday upheld a new law that will prevent foreigners from buying marijuana in coffee shops across the Netherlands, potentially ending decades of “pot tourism” for which this city and others became universally known.

A group of coffee shops had challenged the government plan, launched after southern cities in the Netherlands complained of increased levels of drug-related crime. The decision means that coffee shops in the south must stop selling marijuana to foreigners by May 1. They would be allowed to introduce a so-called “weed pass” for Dutch citizens, who would be legally permitted to keep buying cannabis. The plan would roll out to other Dutch cities, including the popular tourist center of Amsterdam, by next year.

Amsterdam coffee-shop owners are pledging to resist the laws with civil disobedience, if necessary. Lots of people think it's already illegal for foreigners to buy marijuana in Amsterdam, but that's not the case, as I can personally confirm.

The background to this is simple: Southern Dutch cities on the border with Germany, most notoriously Venlo, do have a problem with pot tourists. Since Germany has decided to waste scarce resources on the futile enterprise of marijuana prohibition (g)*, many Germans cross the border to buy dope. It also helps that Dutch marijuana is generally pretty good, or at least better than what you can get in Germany. Most of these pot tourists are lower-class punters who clog the cheapest trains with their pit bulls and bargain beer and tattooed bodies. They often do hang out and 'party' near the towns where they buy their weed, causing problems. So I have sympathy with the Dutch border towns about this problem.

Amsterdam, however, is a different story. The desire to legally smoke delicious, high-quality marijuana is a prime motivation for a not-inconsiderable number of tourists visits, and the business is highly profitable and doesn't cause too many problems. Many Amsterdam residents know this and are keen to preserve coffeeshops, even if they don't partake themselves. I'd be very surprised indeed to see the ban reach Amsterdam.

Continue reading "Dutch Cannabis Tourism in Danger?" »


The Wooden Fence, Denazified

Just when you think you knew everything about the Nazis, along comes the German Society for Garden Art and Landscape Culture* with an exhibition on Nazi gardening: Zwischen Jägerzaun und Größenwahn. Freiraumgestaltung in Deutschland 1933–1945. I'll try to translate this directly, so you can get an idea of the turgidity of German gallery-speak: 'Between the Hunters' Fence and Megalomania: Free-space Design in Germany 1933-1945'.

There was apparently even a National Socialist way to design your garden. Take it away, Hans Hasler: 'All culture and thefore all art and its styles -- this truth has now become generally-accepted in Germany -- always emerges and lives from a national and racial essence. The false image of an "international culture", or a "world culture" belongs to the past, at least for us Germans.' (German Garden Art, 1939).

New to me was the controversy swirling around a particular kind of garden fence, the so-called 'Hunters' Fence', made of diagonal wooden slats:

oh, i get it! if you look at them just right, they're made up of nothing but hundreds of little swastikas!

The article assures us that it was long considered the 'essence of Nazi garden design', but apparently the conference has exploded this myth, along with others, such as that Nazis zoos contained mainly 'Germanic' animals, or that Nazi gardens were known for their straight axes and sharp edges. Apparently Germans favored hunters' fences and right angles long before the Nazis, and still do to this day. I'll leave you to work out the implications of this.

Continue reading "The Wooden Fence, Denazified" »


A Bleg: Where is the New Germany?

It's struck me recently that a recurring theme on this blog is how much Germany is beginning to resemble the US, mostly in unfortunate ways. When Germany finally becomes 83.54% culturally indistinguishable from the US, where can I go to recapture that Mitteleuropäisch flair? I suppose Hungary, which I've always really liked, but then I'd have to learn Hungarian, which, as we all know, is impossible. I guess it will have to be Vienna, which I also love. The Austrians still seem to have enough cultural self-confidence to remain fresh and odd.

Any other suggestions?


Merkel's End Game

Eurozone Unemployment Rates
The New York Times on growing resistance to austerity:

A German-inspired austerity regimen agreed to just last month as the long-term solution to Europe’s sovereign debt crisis has come under increasing strain from the growing pressures of slowing economies, gyrating financial markets and a series of electoral setbacks.

Spain officially slipped back into recession for the second time in three years on Monday, after following the German remedy of deep retrenchment in public outlays, joining Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte handed his resignation to Queen Beatrix on Monday after his government failed to pass new austerity measures over the weekend.

...

It was only in March that leaders from 25 of the 27 European Union countries gathered to sign the fiscal compact championed by Ms. Merkel. Her plan, combined with $1.3 trillion in cheap loans injected into the banking system by the European Central Bank in December and March, raised hopes that the worst of the crisis had passed.

But those hopes have been dashed as growth has faltered and interest rates on the debt of struggling countries like Spain and Italy have shot up to dangerous levels again.

...

Another possibility, which Germany will be under renewed pressure to accept, is some form of common European debt, generally referred to as Eurobonds, which any member of the currency zone could tap. It is a step that Ms. Merkel’s conservative bloc has opposed forcefully, but with more than 17 million people in the euro zone out of work and the unemployment rate at 10.8 percent, the need for urgent steps is growing.

Marie Diron, an economic adviser to the consulting firm Ernst & Young, said Germany could slow down its own drive to balance its budget and do more to encourage domestic consumption. Other European states would benefit if Germany bought more of their goods.

“Austerity has to fit into a wider policy context,” Ms. Diron said.

...

Ms. Merkel has proved herself a masterful tactician time and again. She was adept at working with the Social Democrats as her partner in the previous German government, and Mr. Hollande might be even more amenable than Mr. Sarkozy to ceding French sovereignty in economic policy in exchange for help on growth, Mr. Vaquer from the Barcelona Center for International Affairs said.

“She will have to backtrack on austerity anyway,” Mr. Vaquer said. “Germany can now extract a much more unified Europe in terms of economic governance than it ever could have before.”

I've thought for a while that Germany was eventually going to have to back down on austerity. Vaquer's comments point to the end game: after holding out for years, bringing Europe as a whole to the brink of recession (and shoving many periphery countries over that brink), Germany will finally relent, but not without extracting major sovereignty concessions from the rest of Europe and transferring much more power over economic policy to Brussels.

So perhaps Merkel has known all along that austerity was never going to stick, and that the EU was going to have to become more of a transfer union in to survive. But she held out for years, pretending not to grasp this, in order to put the fear of Yahweh into Germany's European partners. Mildly cunning, ruthless, Machiavellian! Not words that many Germans like seeing applied to their relations with the rest of Europe, but when it comes to protecting its economic interests, Germany behaves like any other country. This episode can, of course, be added to the tu quoque list I recently threw together, when a German criticizes the United States of ruthlessly pushing its economic agenda on weaker countries.


Heidelberg Symposium Tickets Available

Heidelberg_Germany

As I announced a few weeks ago, I'll be in Heidelberg in two weeks to debate Robert Blecker, an American law professor who endorses a retributivist approach to punishment and favors capital punishment. The debate will take place during the 24th Heidelberger Symposium (g), which takes place from the 3rd to the 5th of May in Heidelberg. The theme is Mut zur Moral, roughly 'The courage to be moral.'

I've been informed by the organizers that tickets are necessary. Fortunately, you can buy them online here (the website's in German). Buy your tickets, come watch the festivities, and get drunk with me afterwards!


Krazy German Lawsuits Vol. XVII

the wrteched refuse of their teeming shores...

Once in a very long while I'll get one of those 'CRAZY AMERICAN LAWSUITS!!!!1ONE!!!' emails* from some German. The emails typically contain a mishmash of accurate, semi-truthful, ludicrously distorted, and completely false stories of wacky lawsuits those crazy Americans file. To see which ones you might have fallen for lately, go here.

I usually don't bother to respond, except perhaps to inform the hapless producerist Teuton that he is, as often as not, forwarding corporate propaganda created by the PR departments of scary multinational corporations. But in the spirit of the best defense is a good offense, I'm compiling my own list of CRAZY GERMAN LAWSUITS!!!!1ONE!!! for my readers to trade and collect. And because I actually know (basically) how to research German law**, I can guarantee you every single one of these lawsuits actually happened.

The latest installment comes to me courtesy of Ed Philp, and involves a case (g) decided by the highest German civil court, the Bundesgerichtshof, which sits in Karlsruhe. It involves a couple on a one-week bargain-basement package vacation to Turkey, all-expenses-paid, which cost a measly €369 per person. The travel agency specified in the terms & conditions that it could change the timing of the flight back, which they did, moving it from 4 in the afternoon to 6 in the morning of the same day. The two people on the trip would get picked up from their hotel at 1:30 AM instead of 12 noon. So they lost about 10 hours of their vacation. Mind you, the travel agency had given them warning and arranged transportation -- they weren't being stranded, helpless, among the Ottoman hordes. Plus, the agency paid the couple €42 compensation.

So, all in all, a moderate inconvenience, especially given how cheap the vacation was. But if you think the travelers left it at that, you are underestimating (1) how seriously Germans take their vacations, and (2) how many self-righteous malcontents there are among them who are just waiting to pounce on minor misunderstandings which they can elevate into scorched-earth legal jihads. Don't forget that Germany is one of the most, if not the most, lawsuit-happy societies in the world.

Instead of taking the travel agency's earlier flight, the couple decided to book their own flight back, then file a lawsuit against the travel agency asking for:

Reinbursement of the entire cost of the trip minus 70 € for accommodation provided, reimbursement of 504.52 € for transport back to Germany, and compensation for wasted vacation time (nutzlos aufgewendete Urlaubszeit) in the amount of 480.80 € for the first plaintiff and 2,193,10 € for her companion (my italics).

So 10 hours cut off an ultra-cheap holiday has now turned into a legal battle involving a request for 10 times the per-person cost of the entire trip. And when I say battle, I actually mean 'war'. The couple lost at the first phase, the local court in Düsseldorf. Doubtless sighing inwardly in exasperation and wondering what they had done in a previous life to deserve this job, the court awarded the coupld €25 off the price of the vacation and dismissed all the other claims. Doubtless outraged at this disgusting miscarriage of justice, the couple appealed to the higher regional court, the Landgericht, which also told them to f**k off denied their appeal.

Finally, they landed at Germany's highest civil court, known by its abbreviation BGH. After considering various aspects of German civil law and vacation law (yes, there's a special German law for vacations (g)), the nation's highest court decided that the couple may have actually had a claim for some of the extra damages, if they can prove that their resort to self-help was appropriate, and that they gave the travel agency a chance to correct the problem. The court remanded the case to the lower court to look into these questions.

Pause for a moment, if you will, and imagine the amount of resources the legal system devoted to this one case: hundreds of pages of briefing, the time and attention of probably something like 15 full-time judges -- including the highest civil court in the land -- and their attendant clerks and support staff, and the preparation and publication of at least three legal opinions -- so far. All because one couple lost 10 hours from a hideous tabloid-insert package vacation in some grotty Turkish beach hotel.

Now that's what I call a KRAZY LEGAL SYSTEM!!1!!1ONE!!***

Continue reading "Krazy German Lawsuits Vol. XVII" »


Neo-Luddites Unite!

Stuart Staniford predicts there will be more robots than people by 2030:

Screen shot 2012-04-17 at 8.43.09 AM
He extrapolates the depressing implications:

  • This trend will continue because it's in the short-term interests of societal elites.  The median influencer's life can be made better with more robotically produced consumer goods and with service robots to perform tedious chores (or human labor made cheap by competition from robots).
  • The creative classes can have fun with new toys and with thinking up new uses for the technology.
  • Ever larger numbers of people will continue to be made technologically unemployed by this trend.
  • Managing the "class formerly known as working" will become an increasing challenge.  More and more of them will present as "criminals", "terrorists", and other undesirable labels since society is not able to provide them with a meaningful way to contribute (and people need meaning).
  • The least disruptive approach to managing this is for the underclass to disappear into technologically mediated secondary universes (whatever TV & video games evolve into).
  • However, the traditional cultural ethics that despise welfare/dependency etc will prevent easy/full use of this solution, and the alternative is to lock up more and more deviants and use more and more sophisticated technology to find and monitor the deviants - managing the risk that they become organized and attempt to overthrow the existing order.
  • Some people will reject the automation trend and there will be an ongoing romantic/back-to-the-land/local food/anti-globalization/anti-technology movement.  To the extent it relies on resources not needed by organized global society, and doesn't oppose "progress" violently or too-effectively, it will be tolerated.
  • Depending on how good the roboticists get how quickly, there's going to become a point where there really isn't enough in it for a sufficiently large fraction of humanity.  I simply see no way this trend can continue without eventually rendering almost all of us irrelevant.  People's basic survival instincts will not tolerate that.
  • However, by that point, there may very well be no easy way back, and all hell will break loose.

I thought about this over the weekend, when I held a seminar for translators. I think within about 20 years there will no longer be a significant market for human translators. The only things that will really still need human translators will be high-status but low-paid literary translation, where style counts. As for technical and legal translation, algorithms will probably be good enough to generate near-perfect rough drafts, which specialists will then correct. In 2020, you'll only need 1 human translator to do the work of 100, or 1000, today.

Other jobs that have no future: air-traffic controllers (possible pilots too), auto assembly-line workers, cashiers, non-specialized nurses and caregivers, bus drivers, accountants, car mechanics, pharmacists, radiologists, the list goes on. There will still be a market for some humans to oversee the robots, but brilliant algorithms and highly sophisticated robots will do 98% of the preliminary work and handle 98% of the non-problematic cases.

So get ready for, as Max Goldt calls it, our sad technological future...


Why is Germany Giving Away Billions of Euros to a Rich Country?

Günter Grass' op-ed 'poem' was lame on many levels, but in Salon, a couple of investigative journalists praise Grass for focusing attention on a pretty stunning fact:

Germany had already given Israel two Dolphin-class submarines, and subsidized one-third of the $540 million cost of another. The Germans are planning to similarly subsidize the sale of the latest submarine.

Before the Grass poem, I'd be willing to bet that very few ordinary Germans were aware that their government was simply giving away billions of dollars in military technology to Israel. Take it away, Wikipedia:

Israel has one of the highest life expectancies in the world. It is a developed country, an OECD member, and its economy, based on the nominal gross domestic product, was the 41st-largest in the world in 2010. Israel has the highest standard of living in the Middle East.

Its GDP per capita is around 26th in the entire world, and it already receives $3 billion in yearly aid from the U.S (pdf). So why can't it simply pay for the military hardware it wants to buy? All Eastern European countries are much poorer than Israel, yet when they want German military hardware, they have to pay for it.

Historical issues aside, surely Germany has better uses for €1.5 billion in taxpayer money than giving away free military presents to a country that can easily pay for them itself. How many schools could that money  have built in Botswana?


Poem of the Day: 'Consciousness' by Attila Jozsef

Consciousness

1

The dawn dissevers earth and skies
and at its pure and lovely bidding
the children and the dragonflies
twirl out into the sunworld's budding;
no vapour dims the air's receding,
a twinkling lightness buoys the eyes!
Last night into their trees were gliding
the leaves, like tiny butterflies.

2

Blue, yellow, red, they flocked my dream,
smudged images the mind had taken,
I felt the cosmic order gleam -
and not a speck of dust was shaken.
My dream's a floating shade; I waken;
order is but an iron regime.
By day, the moon's my body's beacon,
by night, an inner sun will burn.

3

I'm gaunt, sometimes bread's all I touch,
I seek amid this trivial chatter
unrecompensed, and yearn to clutch,
what has more truth than dice, more matter.
No roast rib warms my mouth and platter,
no child my heart, foregoing such -
the cat can't both, how deft a ratter,
inside and outside make her catch.

4

Just like split firewood stacked together,
the universe embraces all,
so that each object holds the other
confined by pressures mutual,
all things ordained, reciprocal.
Only unbeing can branch and feather,
only becoming blooms at all;
what is must break, or fade, or wither.

5

Down by the branched marshalling-yard
I lurked behind a root, fear-stricken,
of silence was the living shard,
I tasted grey and weird-sweet lichen.
I saw a shadow leap and thicken:
it was the shadow of the guard -
did he suspect? - watched his shade quicken
upon the heaped coal dew-bestarred.

6

Inside there is a world of pain,
outside is only explanation.
the world's your scab, the outer stain,
your soul's the fever-inflammation.
Jailed by your heart's own insurrection,
you're only free when you refrain,
nor build so fine a habitation,
the landlord takes it back again.

7

I stared from underneath the evening
into the cogwheel of the sky -
the loom of all the past was weaving
law from those glimmery threads, and I
looked up again into the sky
from underneath the steams of dreaming
and saw that always, by and by,
the weft of law is torn, unseaming.

8

Silence gave ear: the clock struck one.
Maybe you could go back to boydom;
walled in with concrete dank and wan,
maybe imagine hints of freedom.
And now I stand, and through the sky-dome
the stars, the Dippers, shine and burn
like bars, the sign of jail and thraldom,
above a silent cell of stone.

9

I've heard the crying of the steel,
I've heard the laugh of rain, its pattern;
I've seen the past burst through its seal:
only illusions are forgotten,
for naught but love was I begotten,
bent, though, beneath my burdens' wheel -
why must we forge such weapons, flatten
the gold awareness of the real?

10

He only is a man, who knows
there is no mother and no father,
that death is only what he owes
and life's a bonus altogether,
returns his find to its bequeather,
holding it only till he goes;
nor to himself, nor to another,
takes on a god's or pastor's pose.

11

I've seen what they call happiness:
soft, blonde, it weighed two hundred kilos;
it waddled smiling on the grass,
its tail a curl between two pillows.
Its lukewarm puddle glowed with yellows,
it blinked and grunted at me :- yes,
I still remember where it wallows,
touched by the dawns of blissfulness.

12

I live beside the tracks, where I
can see the trains pass through the station.
I see the brilliant windows fly
in floating dark and dim privation.
Through the eternal night's negation
just so the lit-up days rush by;
in all the cars' illumination,
silent, resting my elbow, I.

[From The Iron-Blue Vault, translated by Zsuszanna Ozsvath & Frederick Turner]