Blogging is So 2010, Long Live Blogging

Draught donkey powering millstone

Blah. What am I going to do with this blog? Germany is boring.

The food is bland. The cities are well-run marvels. The weather is the weather. The politicians are colorless functionaries.

To quote Max Hastings, 'nothing ever happens in Germany.'

The press is even duller: a never-ending carousel of the same old '68 generation has-beens (Prantl! Knopp! Augstein! Niejahr! Pohl! Fleischhauer! Schleiermacher or Schnellschnorrer or whoever that guy from FAZ is! di Lorenzo channeling Schmidt!). The mainstream press circles around the same hobbyhorses like a donkey tied to a millstone: Eurocrisis. Energiewende. Rich-poor gap. Genetically modified whatever. Brussels. Europe. What will happen to [insert tiny, meaningless third party here]?!? End of print. Dangers of Facebook/Twitter/Google. Death penalty. Why we claim to hate ze sweatshops but love ze low prices. Stress/burnout. Eurocrisis. Energiewende... rinse and repeat, ad infinitum.

About 4 years, 3 months, and 15 days ago, I had an epiphany: If I began reading a German news article, especially an opinion piece, I could predict its slant after reading the first sentence, or sometimes just the headline. I would cover the rest of the article and mentally forecast what I would read. After my accuracy rose above about 80%, I finally gave up.

Mocking German smugness, complacency, self-satisfaction, and parochialism is fun at first but it's uncharitable and it gets old. Besides, as Tom Waits once said about writing political songs, it's about as effective as throwing peanuts at a gorilla.

Also, I have real work to do.

Yet I don't want to just let this blog die. That would be weak and cowardly.

So, I'm going to take it in a crazy new direction. Better yet, several crazy new directions at once! The only thing is, I haven't figured out what they are going to be yet. I think I'll just turn this blog into an unfiltered stream-of-consciousness experiment possessing no unifying theme. Or maybe it'll be opera DVD reviews. Pictures of spiders. Erotic ice-cube molds. Or all at the same time!

Suggestions are welcome in comments, yet most will be ignored.

Stay tuned!


Ask Me Anything about American Law or Life in Germany

You know, I've been wondering what to do about this blog. I don't really have the time for elaborate posts anymore, or perhaps I just don't have the patience. I was considering just shutting it down for a while, but then there was a bit of an outcry, so I kept it alive, but as you can see it's sort of limping along.

But then I got an idea from this brilliant series of videos called Sixty Symbols, where people write in with questions about physics and other things, which questions are then answered by the physics faculty of the University of Nottingham. So far, my favorite question has been 'What would happen if you put your hand in the Large Hadron Collider?', plus the God video I just posted. 

I also just got a GoPro Hero 3 camera, which makes great HD videos and is much smaller than a pack of cigarettes. Therefore, I thought to myself, why not open up the floor to my readers? Instead of me having to think of stuff to blog about and then laboriously type it up, I can just field questions from you. Hyperinteractive Web 2.0, people!

But obviously nobody wants to just hear me rambling about random subjects such as anal fissures, Albanian hip-hop, or chameleon husbandry. The only things I can really claim any expertise in are American law and life in Germany. As a bonus, I'll try to record some of the answers in interesting spots in or near Düsseldorf, if time and weather permit.

So if you have any questions about either of those subjects, fire away! You can also ask about other stuff and try your luck, but I will only pick questions I feel like answering. You can propose them in comments or by email, I guess. Let me know if and how you want to be identified.

Oh, and nothing in any of these videos will ever constitute legal advice of any kind whatsoever, or any other kind of advice on any subject. And all views expressed will be my own, blah blah blah.


Moderation of Comments and the Röhm Purge: How's that for a Non-Sequitur?

Hi there!

First of all, kudos to Theresa for correctly guessing the origin of the picture I posted yesterday. It was the cover illustration for Max Gallo's book The Night of Long Knives, an account of the Röhm purge:

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The illustration comes from one of my favorite blogs, Pop Sensations, in which an English professor presents the juiciest items from his collection of 1950s-1960s pulp fiction paperbacks. Drink-sodden gun molls, lesbian seductresses, hard-boiled private dicks, 'shockingly frank' depictions of suburban orgies -- you name it, it's there. If you've never visited before, say goodbye to your afternoon. The 'gay' section is particularly revealing -- although somehow Pop Sensations didn't tag the Röhm book as gay. A rare Bildungslücke.

Trackback-spam

And now to housekeeping. I'm switching to moderated comments from now on. There was too much spam, and the counter-measures kept snagging genuine comments (you know, serious discussions about penis enlargement or carpet cleaning in Flagstaff, Arizona). I'm sorry for the inconvenience, and hope everyone will still keep up the great stuff in comments, which for a long while has outshined the idle noodlings I post.


German Internet User Threatened With Bankruptcy and Jail for Posting Video

The problem of outdated laws inflicting unpredictable, massive penalties on people who use the Internet in unapproved ways (see Aaron Swartz) is also acute in Germany. Case in point: In 2000, a highly unusual-looking man, seeking attention, went out onto the streets of Berlin to dance in a techno-parade. Another attendee filmed him doing his thing. This is the result:

Notice that there's no attempt to conceal the filming. The filmer, Matthias Fritsch, decided to post the video online, figuring it might amuse other people. Indeed it did: the man in the video became known as the Technoviking, and his moves spawned an Internet subculture. Fritsch even made a modest amount of money from all the YouTube views.

And now, thirteen years later, he faces bankruptcy and jail. The Daily Dot reports:

[Fritsch stated:] "I am being accused for creation and publication of images connected to the Technoviking, therefore infringement of personality rights. They also say I am earning a lot of money by that. They argue that [I] gave him the name Technoviking, create 3D characters, comics and more to constantly increase the popularity in order to market Technoviking and therefore cause damage to the protagonist"

If Fritsch loses, so does the Internet. He'll have to scrub any original content he created that featured the Technoviking's likeness, and he'll be barred from creating new content. Worse, the lawsuit accuses him of creating numerous other derivative works, most of which Fritsch says he never touched....

Failing to do that, Fritsch would face a €250,000 ($334,441 U.S.) fine and up to six months in jail. Fritsch said the lawsuit only includes content he allegedly posted, so no matter the result of the trial, other Technoviking remixes around the Web are safe—for now.

"I can't say how far his intentions go for removing content that is posted by other people," Fritsch said. "It would be a Don Quixote action to try removing Technoviking from the Web."

Fritsch, who still won't reveal the Technoviking's identity despite the lawsuit, said he's not really worried about the trial. He doesn't take credit for the Technoviking character, which he believes was born out of the collaborative creativity of millions of Internet users.

"I am only worried that the judge might not understand contemporary web-culture and therefore judges from an old fashioned perspective," Fritsch said. "Artists are not rich usually and I am one of those artists. To put me in a financial emergency is really something I wouldn't like.

Technoviking's lawyer is almost certainly suing under German Persönlichkeitsrecht, which gives people control over how their own image is disseminated. The most famous case is the so-caller Herrenreiter (g) (dressage rider) decision from 1958, in which a professional horse rider's image was used without his permission in advertisements for a tonic thought to increase male potency. You could also sue for this under the common law, since this is appropriation of someone's unmistakable image without consent or payment to use in advertisements for a consumer product.

However, the common law has a different answer when it comes to people who are voluntarily putting themselves on display in public. In this case, the law generally says that if you volunarily go outside and expose your image to thousands of strangers, you are demonstrating that you don't wish that what you're doing should be kept secret, and therefore your image can be taken and used by others. There is, however, an exception for voyeuristic videos that attempt to reveal parts of your body you would wish to be kept secret (such as upskirt videos). That's obviously not an issue here. Some courts also have an exception when your image is used without your consent for a profit-making enterprise that you certainly would have demanded money for participating in had you known about it.

Under the common law, then the Technoviking video can be legally shared. Technoviking went out into a public festival, where certainly knew he might be filmed, and started dancing. He was sharing his image with thousands of strangers, and obviously enjoyed himself doing so. The artist was not using the Technoviking's image to sell a product, and the money he earned from it was merely incidental to its unexpected success. And it was, of course, money for something he created -- the video of an interesting person dancing on the street.

The idea that this could lead to jail time is an absurd consequences of Germany's outdated privacy and intellectual property laws, which also subject you to hefty fines, believe it or not, if someone else (g) posts a copyrighted picture to your Facebook page. The problem here is uncertainty. Germans are normally obsessed with Rechtssicherheit, the notion that the law must be stable and clear, so that private persons can regulate their affairs in peace. But there's a huge hole in that protection when it comes to Internet users. The persistence of these old, overbroad definitions are a constant background threat that chills Internet freedom. Any of you who have a Facebook account could theoretically face a lawsuit tomorrow for something innocent you shared with your friends years ago. All that needs to happen is for someone to find out about it and contacts one of the many German lawyers who specialize in harassing German internet users with ludicrously exaggerated damages claims for infringements both real and alleged.

This is why I have a soft spot for the Pirate Party, for all their shenanigans. None of the mainstream German parties was giving much thought to these issues before the Pirate Party came along. This was due probably in equal measure to technological ignorance, the inherent conservatism of the German legal system, and effective lobbying by the content industry. The Pirates found resonance because they pointed out that outdated laws were making potential criminals of literally millions of citizens, an absurd state of affairs in a country that claims to be governed by the rule of law. The Pirates, in the best tradition of third parties, forced the mainstream to finally face an issue they'd been all to happy to ignore.


"Europeans Can't Blog"

The new Bruegel blog surveys the European blog landscape and finds it pretty pathetic (h/t MTW). Read the whole thing, but here are the hight points:

It is striking to note that the online debate about European economic issues mostly takes place on American blogs. A couple of European blogs have contributed to change this landscape, but the European blogosphere remains behind the US in terms of quality and density of discussion.

As Ronny Patz noted in a recent post (hat tip to the European blogs aggregator bloggingportal), European blogs are still very much “unconnected”. That is, they use hyperlinks far less than their American counterparts or do it and in a way that doesn’t create two-way debate. In brief, Europe has bloggers, but no blogosphere: it lacks a living ecosystem to exchange and debate. Of most leading European blogs, only 1 in 5 were linked to other online content. This is a pretty striking number but one that is somewhat consistent with the use that Europeans make of blogs (ie. just another media but not an interactive one).

As Ronny puts its:

Euroblogs quite often do not refer to discussions on other euroblogs. Linking to some newspaper article, even with a discussion section, does not create a two-way discussion (…) and linking to articles on your own blog is nice, but not really a sign of an interlinked blogosphere. What this means is that it is difficult to speak of a “euroblogosphere” in the narrow sense, because this implies some kind of level of interconnectedness. I don’t really see that in our sphere outside a narrow circle of people.

Ronny is right but there are certainly a few of reasons for that.

First, economic discussions in Europe remain for the most part national and simply do not take place online outside of a few exceptions....

... But except a few exceptions like Kantoos who write posts in both German and English, this blogosphere remains mostly national and self-referencing.

Second,  there are probably also “cultural” reasons behind that phenomenon. Europeans don’t have “debate” classes in High School and they tend to have far less confrontational academic discussions (we have nothing as direct and antagonistic as the Cochrane/Hubbard vs. Krugman/DeLong for instance). European economists seem to prefer spreading knowledge rather than stirring debate. VoxEU, Telos, the column section at Eurointelligence, and the new OFCE blog all provide avenues to disseminate research and to express opinions, but are not, so to speak, blogs with arguments and disagreements.

This is unfortunate as it certainly reduces the overall quality of debate. As Paul Krugman puts it for the US

“we’ve seen some famous names run into firestorms of criticism – *justified* criticism – even as some “nobodies” become players. That’s a good thing! Famous economists have been saying foolish things forever; now they get called on it."

The recent episode surrounding the debate on bubbles and potential output where a Fed official directly responded to US bloggers was a striking illustration of the role that the American blogosphere has been playing on actual policy debates in the last few years. But while American “star economists” do not hesitate to battle in an arena where readers and critics do not necessarily match their credentials, European economists continue to view the econ blogosphere as a distraction from discussion with the very serious people....


The Tragic Demise of Library.nu

Christopher Kelty on the shutdown of library.nu:

 Last week a website called "library.nu" disappeared. A coalition of international scholarly publishers accused the site of piracy and convinced a judge in Munich to shut it down. Library.nu (formerly Gigapedia) had offered, if the reports are to be believed, between 400,000 and a million digital books for free. 

And not just any books - not romance novels or the latest best-sellers - but scholarly books: textbooks, secondary treatises, obscure monographs, biographical analyses, technical manuals, collections of cutting-edge research in engineering, mathematics, biology, social science and humanities.

The texts ranged from so-called "orphan works" (out-of-print, but still copyrighted) to recent issues; from poorly scanned to expertly ripped; from English to German to French to Spanish to Russian, with the occasional Japanese or Chinese text. It was a remarkable effort of collective connoisseurship. Even the pornography was scholarly: guidebooks and scholarly books about the pornography industry. For a criminal underground site to be mercifully free of pornography must alone count as a triumph of civilisation.

To the publishing industry, this event was a victory in the campaign to bring the unruly internet under some much-needed discipline. To many other people - namely the users of the site - it was met with anger, sadness and fatalism. But who were these sad criminals, these barbarians at the gates ready to bring our information economy to its knees? 

They are students and scholars, from every corner of the planet.

Pirating to learn

The world, it should not come as a surprise, is filled with people who want desperately to learn. This is what our world should be filled with. This is what scholars work hard to create: a world of reading, learning, thinking and scholarship. The users of library.nu were would-be scholars: those in the outer atmosphere of learning who wanted to know, argue, dispute, experiment and write just as those in the universities do.

Maybe they were students once, but went on to find jobs and found families. We made them in some cases - we gave them a four-year taste of the life of the mind before sending them on their way with unsupportable loans. In other cases, they made themselves, by hook or by crook.

So what does the shutdown of library.nu mean? The publishers think it is a great success in the war on piracy; that it will lead to more revenue and more control over who buys what, if not who reads what. The pirates - the people who create and run such sites - think that shutting down library.nu will only lead to a thousand more sites, stronger and better than before.

But both are missing the point: the global demand for learning and scholarship is not being met by the contemporary publishing industry. It cannot be, not with the current business models and the prices. The users of library.nu - these barbarians at the gate of the publishing industry and the university - are legion.

They live all over the world, but especially in Latin and South America, in China, in Eastern Europe, in Africa and in India. It's hard to get accurate numbers, but any perusal of the tweets mentioning library.nu or the comments on blog posts about it reveal that the main users of the site are the global middle class. They are not the truly poor, they are not slum-denizens or rural poor - but nonetheless they do not have much money. They are the real 99 per cent (as compared to the Euro-American 1 per cent).

...

Why doesn't the publishing industry want these consumers? For one thing, the US and European book-buying libraries have been willing pay the prices necessary to keep the industry happy - and not just happy, in many cases obscenely profitable.

Rather than provide our work at cheap enough prices that anyone in the world might purchase, they have taken the opposite route - making the prices higher and higher until only very rich institutions can afford them. Scholarly publishers have made the trade-off between offering a very low price to a very large market or a very high price to a very small market.

But here is the rub: books and their scholars are the losers in this trade-off - especially cutting edge research from the best institutions in the world. The publishing industry we have today cannot - or will not - deliver our books to this enormous global market of people who desperately want to read them.

Instead, they print a handful of copies - less than 100, often - and sell them to libraries for hundreds of dollars each. When they do offer digital versions, they are so wrapped up in restrictions and encumbrances and licencing terms as to make using them supremely frustrating. 

To make matters worse, our university libraries can no longer afford to buy these books and journals; and our few bookstores are no longer willing to carry them. So the result is that most of our best scholarship is being shot into some publisher's black hole where it will never escape. That is, until library.nu and its successors make it available. 

What these sites represent most clearly is a viable route towards education and learning for vast numbers of people around the world. The question it raises is: on which side of this battle do European and American scholars want to be?

I hope the judges in Munich are happy. The loss of library.nu is a serious blow to millions of people. The site was dedicated to sharing scholarly books, not bestsellers or music or videos. It was the way budding doctors, engineers, and sociologists all over the world could get access to the latest research, which otherwise would have been completely out of reach. If you visit the libraries of crowded state-run universities in the developing world, you generally see stack after stack of hopelessly outdated, yellowing books that are of no use to anyone. In fact, if you visit many German university libraries, you'll see the same thing.

Of course, allowing anyone to download books for free is not a long-term strategy. But considering academic publishers' opaque and often nonsensical pricing policies (Exhibit A could be the absurdly high price of my book), library.nu was an absolute necessity for worldwide learning. Academic publishers are routinely increasing the prices of their books and databases at a time when most university budgets are tighter than ever.

And, of course, there's going to be another library.nu somewhere soon. If you're doing research, you have three choices: (1) go without access to an expensive, important book because there's no accessible physical copy of it in your country; (2) wait for 2-3 weeks for it to arrive from interlibrary loan, or (3) get instant access to the very latest edition of the entire book in 20 seconds. In the form of a searchable .pdf. There is no contest. The demand for option #3 will soon kill off options 1 and 2 completely.

Of course, publishers could take advantage of this demand if they were willing to experiment with new business models and take some risks. But so far, it looks like they're relying on the courts to stand athwart history, yelling 'Stop!' -- something German courts, in particular, are only too eager to do (g). So the choice is, as it so often is, between exploitation and piracy. Of course, a better solution is to make the books available online for a reasonable fee, with discounts and concessions for libraries and students in developing countries. I'm not holding my breath.

Oh, and in the interest of full disclosure, I've visited library.nu several times, as have probably about 75% of all professors and students. And my book was available on the website, as well. I didn't put it there, but I also had no problem with it being there.


Now is the Time on Sprockets When We Experience Communicative Socialisation

The very German-looking Philip Oltermann (the glasses!) asks whether Germans just don't get social media because they, er, don't get communication in general:

When news magazine Focus announced this week that Germans were finally cottoning on to Twitter – the site reaching a record 3.5 million users – it was met with the digital equivalent of a shrug. One blogger suggested that Germans just don't know how to deal with social media:

"What they fundamentally do not see and get is the obvious, namely that Social Media is about communication. Communication/conversation is a dark hole in German culture. For Germans, talking first and foremost means conveying information. Conversation as a bonding agent in any form of interpersonal encounter is literally a non-starter in Germany. (If you've ever been to an awkward German office party where people have no problem with facing one another without saying a word for, oooh half an hour, you'll know what I mean.)"

Most Germans will recognise at least a grain of truth in that. Even back in the late 19th century, the sociologist Friedrich Tönnies wrote in despair about the German inability to get its head around the concept of an open and interactive Gesellschaft or society – tight-knit, closed-off Gemeinschaften or communities was apparently all they could do. Few young Germans still keep up the Stammtisch tradition, though small talk can still be a struggle. I recently attended a German conference in which the last item on the programme was billed as Kommunikatives Beisammensein, "communicative socialisation". Or, as people might call it in Britain, "going to the pub".

The rest of the article tries to add some caveats to the stereotype, in my view not very convincingly. Germans are just plain much more reticent and cautious about sharing information than Anglo-Saxons. Again, as with all national traits, this is a matter of averages and bell curves. The chart below, which I stole from some website, shows light orange as the standard normal distribution of 'communicativeness' (or 'chattiness') among Anglo-Saxons on the right, and among Germans on the left, in darker orange.

Graph-2-02
No, really, this is exactly what the chart shows! This is Science, people! In any event, if makes my point: although you can always find some German who's chattier than an American, the modal German is much more taciturn than the modal American. I think the Brits would fit just about in the middle, but I'm no expert there.