The Birth of a New Blog


Conundrum: This blog is supposed to be about Germany in general, and it's not supposed to be very political. A little political, but not very.

Yet lately, the German immigration crisis has generated so much fascinating controversy that, like a crow toying with a bright, shiny object, I can't seem to let go. The immigration posts are taking over this blog, but the subject is so momentous that I feel obliged -- nay, compelled! -- to keep posting about it. 

Solution? I'm going to split off immigration posts into a brand-new blog called "How Many? Which Ones? The German Immigration Blog" (h/t Ralph for the first part of the title).

Stay tuned here for announcements and links.

Bleg for Facebook Solutions Please?

As I noted, I now post mainly to Facebook. This blog is a hobby, not a business, and I only have spare time in which to maintain it, so I am not going to waste time copying identical content from Facebook to here. I did add an RSS feed to my Facebook profile, apparently, but I'm not sure how that works.

What would be ideal is to have Facebook posts appear here as well as on Facebook, so that all my readers will be happy. So I've been looking into options.

However, the solutions that have been proposed so far don't really work for me. I could migrate this blog to Wordpress, which apparently has some sort ot integration feature, but Wordpress is a much more time-consuming and technical platform than Typepad, and the migration process is not worth figuring out.

I tried to put a Facebook 'Like Box' widget on this blog but I have tried that and it doesn't show up. Apparently you cannot use this widget for personal facebook feeds, but only facebook pages (which are mainly used by businesses or groups). If I convert my personal profile to a page, according to Facebook, I lose my entire history.

So what I'm saying, dear readers, is that I am out of ideas. I am now looking for is a simple, easy way to have my Facebook feed show up somewhere on this Typepad blog, without moving or migrating or converting anything. I am even willing to pay a certain amount of money (for some sort of app) to make this happen! It just has to be simple.

If anyone has ideas, I would be grateful to hear them in comments. And not to be too shirty about it, but if you're considering posting yet another comment about how Evil Facebook Is, don't waste your time. That train sailed long ago.

Startup Idea: Ads for Enemies

A million-dollar idea: An app that lets you program the ads during your enemies' web or Facebook browsing. For $5, you can make sure that the entire day, they are looking at ads for nothing but giant sex toys, hemorrhoid cream, mail-order transgender escorts from Kyrgyzstan, the 'Twlight' movies, and suicide hotlines. 

Freund hört mit, or: Under US Law, Germans Have No Privacy Rights and Can be Spied on at Will


I slapped together a little something (g) for Germany's Legal Times Online about the Snowden case. The editor pepped up the language a bit, but that's fine with me, it's supposed to be a popular format.

What I said is that the Fourth Amendment guarantees US citizens privacy in situations in which they have a 'reasonable expectation of privacy'. Email and (especially) phone calls certainly belong in that sphere. So if the NSA is collecting massive amounts of emails and telephone data randomly, without a specific search warrant, then it is violating the privacy rights of US citizens. According to recent revelations, the NSA has developed internal 'minimization procedures' that instruct agents to stop listening or reading if they find out that they are spying on a US citizen, similar to regulations the German Federal Constitutional Court has required in cases of spying on telephone calls or private apartments. But since the court meets in secret, we have no way of independently verifying these claims. Also, since the Obama administration has blocked all privacy lawsuits with the legal doctrine of the state secrets privilege, no American court has yet ruled on whether these programs are constitutional.

However, the situation in Germany is not very different. German spy agencies have extremely broad powers under existing law, and will gain new ones under the new Telecommunications Law which takes effect on 1 July. There is a parliamentary committee which provides general oversight of requests for surveillance and a so-called G-10 committee which rules on individual requests. They are supposed to follow strict minimization procedures and insist on adequate proof of possible wrongdoing before authorizing spying measures. However, since both of these committees operate in secret, we have no way of knowing how carefully these guidelines are respected. Plus, since there have been no German whistleblowers, we have no real insight into the scope of German programs. As the Green Party speaker Konstantin von Notz recently remarked, it is high time that Germans learned more about what their own spy agency is up to.

One thing that has really angered Germans is the fact that communication to and from and even within Germany are being spied on by the US and the UK. The official position of the US government (in the form of a Senate report) is that foreigners 'foreigners outside the United States generally are not entitled to the protections of the Fourth Amendment.' Thus, the current version of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act provides no protection for the privacy rights of foreigners. The secret court which orders surveillance can authorize blanket data collection on all foreigners, everywhere. The only limitations kick in when it appears that an American citizen may be involved. In the words of the report itself, 'Section 702 thus enables the Government to collect information effectively and efficiently about foreign targets overseas and in a manner that protects the privacy and civil liberties of Americans'.

Of course, this wouldn't matter so much if American and the UK didn't have, and use, spying technology that can sweep up massive streams of data from everywhere and anywhere. As far as remedies for Germany, it's not clear what Germany can do, except send sternly-worded letters (g) to American officials. I'm not aware of any treaty that the US has ratified without reservation which would give Germany a basis for complaint before international tribunals. But I'm happy to be corrected in comments if I've overlooked something.

How Germany will Handle the Rise of the Robots

Kevin Drum has an insightful piece predicting that artifical intelligence will be here before you think and will radically change the economy:

We've moved from computers with a trillionth of the power of a human brain to computers with a billionth of the power. Then a millionth. And now a thousandth. Along the way, computers progressed from ballistics to accounting to word processing to speech recognition, and none of that really seemed like progress toward artificial intelligence. That's because even a thousandth of the power of a human brain is—let's be honest—a bit of a joke. Sure, it's a billion times more than the first computer had, but it's still not much more than the computing power of a hamster.

This is why, even with the IT industry barreling forward relentlessly, it has never seemed like we were making any real progress on the AI front. But there's another reason as well: Every time computers break some new barrier, we decide—or maybe just finally get it through our thick skulls—that we set the bar too low. At one point, for example, we thought that playing chess at a high level would be a mark of human-level intelligence. Then, in 1997, IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer beat world champion Garry Kasparov, and suddenly we decided that playing grandmaster-level chess didn't imply high intelligence after all.

So maybe translating human languages would be a fair test? Google Translate does a passable job of that these days. Recognizing human voices and responding appropriately? Siri mostly does that, and better systems are on the near horizon. Understanding the world well enough to win a round of Jeopardy! against human competition? A few years ago IBM's Watson supercomputer beat the two best human Jeopardy! champions of all time. Driving a car? Google has already logged more than 300,000 miles in its driverless cars, and in another decade they may be commercially available.

... True artificial intelligence will very likely be here within a couple of decades. Making it small, cheap, and ubiquitous might take a decade more.

In other words, by about 2040 our robot paradise awaits.

...This isn't something that will happen overnight. It will happen slowly, as machines grow increasingly capable. We've already seen it in factories, where robots do work that used to be done by semiskilled assembly line workers. In a decade, driverless cars will start to put taxi hacks and truck drivers out of a job. And while it's easy to believe that some jobs can never be done by machines—do the elderly really want to be tended by robots?—that may not be true. Nearly 50 years ago, when MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum created a therapy simulation program named Eliza, he was astonished to discover just how addictive it was. Even though Eliza was almost laughably crude, it was endlessly patient and seemed interested in your problems. People liked talking to Eliza.

...Increasingly, then, robots will take over more and more jobs. And guess who will own all these robots? People with money, of course. As this happens, capital will become ever more powerful and labor will become ever more worthless. Those without money—most of us—will live on whatever crumbs the owners of capital allow us.

This is a grim prediction. But it's not nearly as far-fetched as it sounds. Economist Paul Krugman recently remarked that our long-standing belief in skills and education as the keys to financial success may well be outdated. In a blog post titled "Rise of the Robots," he reviewed some recent economic data and predicted that we're entering an era where the prime cause of income inequality will be something else entirely: capital vs. labor.

So, by 2040, we will have robots intelligent enough to perform hundreds of tasks that used to be performed by humans. Let me put on my heavy, black-framed armchair-sociologist glasses and predict how these developments will be received in Germany [snark]:

  • 2035: A spate of articles on American robots will all emerge at the same time in German mainstream publications with titles such as: 'A Terrifying Experiment in the "Land of Opportunity"', 'Alienation in the Post-Human Age: As American as Apple Pie', 'Turbocapitalism and the Terminator', and 'Racial Injustice, Robocop-Style'.
  • 2037: Germany's leading philosopher, Hans-Jürgen Quasselkasper, pens a 35,000-word essay in Die Zeit in which he denounces the introduction of robots as an 'assault on human dignity, the very fundamental value of our Constitutional order' and calls for strict limits on robot labor. It is hailed as a 'bold intervention' by all broadsheet newspapers, and is read in its entirety by 563 people. Pope Kevin II issues an encyclical denouncing the spread of robot labor. The Evangelical Church of Germany issues a statement setting out its 'profound concern' about robots.
  • 2041: German politicians from across the political spectrum, but especially the Greens, call for strict legislation regulating the use of robots and preserving 'humane values' in the workplace and society. The German parliament passes a law prohibiting the import of foreign-made robots into Germany.
  • 2043: To those who complain about the protectionist law passed in 2041, German politicians and elite journalists reply that Germany is 'not going to join the chorus of simple-minded people crying Halleluja! about this promising but dangerous new technology' and that 'countries who prematurely embrace these innovations without considering the risks will one day rue their short-sightedness'.
  • 2045: The European Union convenes a Working Group on Robotics and Society to draft a set of guidelines to 'harmonize the use of robots with European social values' and 'protect the dignity of the worker and patient'.
  • 2035-45: German manufacturers, realizing the staggering profit potential of robots and well-prepared to compete internationally, begin manufacturing robot nurses, robot factory workers, sexbots, robot soldiers, and robot schoolteachers for export to the rest of the world. They're about 10 years behind the U.S. but they establish their niche, and billions in profits flow to Germany.
  • 2043-47: The furor about robots dies down as German-made robots begin be used in Germany and Germans begin to realize just how profitable they are. The federal Parliament quietly revokes the 2041 law. Lobbying by German and other European high-tech firms ensures that the European Union Working Group's final recommendations are non-binding blather.
  • 2047: In Berlin, German Federal President Jimi Blue Ochsenknecht proudly opens the high-tech exposition: 'Germany: Leader in Robotic Innovation'.


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.

Cautiously Sipping the Apple Kool-Aid

Last weekend, when the weather was almost surreally gorgeous (cool and sunny), I spent a day bicycling around the city and hanging out in various parks. During that time, I stupidly lost my mobile tunes setup, a Sansa Clip+ mp3 player and Klipsch Image S4 headphones. They're probably still lying there somewhere in the Düsseldorf Südpark, unless a magpie has already incorporated them into its nest.

To replace my mobile soundgear, I stuck with Klipsch, but decided to upgrade to the X10i in-ear headphones, which have an integrated remote control that only works with Apple stuff. So far, the sound quality, while predictably outstanding, is hardly distinguishable from the much-cheaper S4 headphones, but I haven't worn in my new ones. In general, though, Klipsch in-ears are head and shoulders above any others I've tried. Rich bass, beautifully distinguished mid-range, and crisp treble. But it's all pointless if the headphones aren't comfortable. Klipsch are specially designed to have an ear-friendly oval shape, and ship with a set of fully interchangeable ear-inserts in various shapes and sizes. You can easily switch until you find inserts that fit your ear. If you're just starting out, get the S4s. They deliver audiophile sound quality for 1/3 the price of the competition, and will probably be the only in-ears you'll ever need.

Now to my first-ever Apple product, an Ipod Nano. It gets rave reviews, looks beautiful, sounds beautiful, and isn't that much more expensive than the competition. Plus, it integrates with the remote control on the headphones cord, which is a huge plus. And, in fact, the Nano is a beautiful thing. Tiny, square, with a clear, bright screen, the famously intuitive controls, a solid clip, and excellent sound quality. But I have to say one thing: The fact that you must use iTunes to communicate with the Nano instantly claws back all of the user-friendliness. The no-frills Sansa Clip was so much easier: it showed up as a normal storage device, and you could just drag and drop audiobooks or music to the relevant folders, and the machine would automatically treat them accordingly. You have to spend hours navigating the hideous bloatware that is iTunes before you can reliably make sure you've put everything where you want it on the Nano. Nothing about iTunes works as you would expect it to, and workarounds to common problems are baffling and complex. Plus, you can only really manage the Nano with one computer. If you hook it up to another computer, the iTunes program on that machine huffily threatens to erase your Nano!

So, when it comes to the Nano itself, I have cautiously sipped the Apple Kool-Aid, and found it delicious. But when it comes to iTunes, I have spewed the Kool-Aid across the wall in a deadly crimson arc.

Continue reading "Cautiously Sipping the Apple Kool-Aid" »

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...