Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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Osthyvlar and cheese in Sweden and Germany

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During my visits to Sweden, I re-encountered one of my favorite inventions—the osthyvel.* This kitchen implement amounts to a (carpenter’s) plane for cheese, but in a more compact form, looking** a little like a cake and pie server with a bladed slit, which cuts and collects a slice of cheese.

*Going by Wikipedia, this might translate as “cheese slicer”, but it also claims that the osthyvel would be “very common” in Germany, where it is, in fact, a niche tool (as discussed in this text). I will stick to “osthyvel” (singular) and “osthyvlar” (plural) here. (Note, throughout, that I am weak in kitchen terminology and do not necessarily pick the optimal words.)

**At least in the standard model. I have seen some other versions over the year.

While ubiquitous in my native Sweden, it is quite rare in my adopted Germany, which has implications on e.g. how cheese is packaged and sold—big blocks of cheese for home slicing in Sweden and pre-sliced cheese in Germany. This, in turn, severely reduces the value of the osthyvel in Germany. Indeed, I spent the first 21 years here without bothering.

After my re-encounter, I decided to purchase one anyway and see where it took me—especially, because German cheese is sold in too thick slices that tend to over-power the taste of a sandwich*, use the cheese up unnecessarily fast, and are likely sub-optimal from a health perspective. To boot, these “value subtracted” slices come at a hefty price increase,** both through the smaller quantities per package*** and for the “service” of slicing—just like the coffee in a coffee pod is more expensive than regular coffee.

*For convenience, I will take “sandwich” to include toast, bread-rolls, and other breads where a slice of cheese might find use.

**Something of increased importance as I try to live cheaply as a struggling author.

***If in doubt, because the larger surface areas, post-slicing, reduce durability. 200 grams, less than half-a-pound, is a typical size, but smaller and larger quantities are available.

My new osthyvel has improved my cheese situation, but nowhere near as much as it could have: In order for it to be useful, I have to buy unsliced cheese. However:

  1. The selection of unsliced cheese in Germany is much smaller than in Sweden. Apart from some more expensive “special” cheeses, most super-markets appear to have only Gouda and Emmentaler (“Swiss cheese”)—and because of the holes and the small blocks, cf. below, Emmentaler is not much of an option. In other words, I am largely restricted to Gouda. (As it happens, Gouda is one of my favorite cheeses, but still…)

    Indeed, I strongly suspect that the unsliced market in Germany is simply not intended for sandwiches, instead aiming at e.g. cooking, grating, cubing, use on crackers, …

    In contrast, Sweden has an enormous variety of cheeses available. This does not just increase the customer’s ability to choose and prioritize, but has a two-fold positive effect on the price: Firstly, because unsliced cheese is not a rarity, there is a downwards price pressure through competition—there is no “niche effect” on the price. Secondly, there is a greater chance of finding something “on offer”. (Non-offer differences in price exist too, but are implicitly contained in the “prioritize” above.)

  2. The package sizes and, often, shapes are unfortunate for slicing, which requires more stability than e.g. cutting. For instance, the Goudas that I usually buy come in at about one pound, are shaped like very high pie slices, and still have the “crust” attached. The result of the former two is that it takes more skill to slice the cheese and that even an experienced slicer can see a portion of the cheese break off rather than be sliced (especially, on the narrow end of the “pie slice”). Indeed, I stick to specifically “medium old” Gouda for this reason—the “young” Gouda is softer and trickier.* The third, at least in combination with the “pie slice”, implies a bit of tricky cutting with a knife and/or a further waste of cheese.** (Emmentalers are more rectangular and without crust, but still have unfortunate proportions—and are, again, weakened further through holes.)

    *The “medium old” also tastes better, but both variety and the lower price might make me prefer “young ” on occasion. “Old” Gouda, the best tasting version, I have yet to see in unsliced form (in Germany).

    **I tried using my osthyvel to remove it, naturally, but this does not work as well as I had hoped. The curvature of the cheese is a particular problem.

    In contrast, Swedish cheeses often come in multi-pound varieties and, when not, have proportions and shapes that make them much more stable—e.g. in that the above “pie slice” of Gouda might have been replaced by a half or entire “pie” of Gouda, or even a larger block pre-cut into a more rectangular and crustless shape. The greater quantities also imply a better price relative weight.

    Disclaimer: It is possible that my (German bought) osthyvel is not the very best and that some of the above would go smoother with a replacement. Unfortunately, the very limited choices and often high prices in Germany make experimentation and comparison harder than in Sweden. Then again, I have no obvious reason to suspect a quality problem. (Going by price and optics, I might even have assumed clearly above average quality, but I know from experience that neither need say very much about a products “fitness for purpose”.)

The above refers to the situation in the self-service areas of more general stores: I have neither checked the “serviced” areas*, nor the specialist stores. Even if they were to have better options, I would likely still avoid them due to the increased effort, e.g. for having to waste time queuing twice. Moreover, one of the main advantages with a “bulk buy” would be a better price; however, in my impression, the former sell by weight without a quantity discount and with an implicit service surcharge, while the latter have a higher markup for reasons like targeting “refined” tastes and bigger pocketbooks, and smaller volumes of more choices.

*Where e.g. meet and cheese can be ordered by quantity, with or without additional cutting, from staff. This might or might not be “fresh-food counter”.

Measured by importance, relevance, whatnot, this is not what I would have chosen for a first text. However, I am a little uncertain on how to begin and coordinate the (often over-lapping) others. This text gives me a start, if nothing else.

Excursion on coincidence vs. conspiracy:
The above is a good example of why it is important to not jump to conclusions about e.g. conspiracies, sex discrimination, or similar. (Cf. e.g. an old text on misunderstood discrimination in hair-salons.) It is tempting to look at the above and conclude that German stores deliberately make it hard to use an osthyvel—so that they can keep selling their over-priced and too-thick pre-sliced slices. Possibly, they do,* but another explanation is more likely, namely that Germany took a different turn than Sweden because the osthyvel was invented and spread too late.** A more likely case for cheese, is the thickness of the slices, but that too might have another explanation, e.g. that it is harder to make thinner slices by machine, that too thin slices are too perishable, or that consumer demand and the need for a one-slice-fits-all solution limit choice.

*There are cases, where I do consider such manipulations outright likely, but those are in the minority. An example is the removal of two-ply toilet papers from stores, which artificially limits access to a (superior, in my opinion) product that was present for a very long time. (While, in contrast, the mere introduction of higher ply-counts is not an example, even if it serves the same purpose.)

**The inventor was Norwegian, and the step to Sweden was considerably shorter. To boot, the invention appears to have taken place as late as 1925.


Written by michaeleriksson

August 3, 2019 at 12:56 am

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Problems with German health insurance

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I am currently looking into switching my (German) health insurance, specifically moving from a “private” (“private”) to a “gesetzliche” (“legal”) one. Here I re-encounter some idiocies in detail that I have previously discussed in a bigger picture ([1]; also note many related discussions, e.g. [2]).

The “gesetzliche” insurance is a public scheme, with at least the partial purpose that those who earn more should pay for those who earn less. (While a proper insurance would have those with luck in health pay for those unlucky.) It is the default and is hard to get out of—by design, because the more people leave, the less money is left for the rest, and because those who earn more have more to gain by leaving. The monthly fees are a proportion of the income at an outrageous 14.6 % “kranken” (“sick”) insurance and another 3.05 or 3.3 “pflege” (“care”) insurance—to which is added a “Zusatzbeitrag” (“additional fee”) averaging* another 1 %. Typically, then, about 19 % of income is paid for health insurance alone**.

*Unlike the other percentages, the individual insurer may chose it as it sees fit.

**Another 18 (?) percent goes to mandatory pension schemes. Then there is income tax, VAT on purchases, and whatnot…

Some of the detail issues:

  1. Because the fees are (almost) unchangeable by the insurers, and a certain basic cover must not be reduced, the insurers mostly compete through offering services beyond the basic cover. The result is an increase in costs, which puts an unnecessary upwards pressure on the percentages. These additional services usually include the quackery that is homeopathy… (Something that does not just cause entirely unnecessary costs, but also allows this quackery to remain profitable.)
  2. The use of percentages give negative incentives towards earning more (e.g. through harder work, more responsibility, or a switch from part- to full-time or to working more over-time), because that much more of any pay increase is swallowed. (Up to a certain maximum amount, which is beyond the reach of most of the population. Also note, again, that it is not just the insurance fees that cause problems—we also have pension fees, income tax, lost or reduced government support for low earners, …)
  3. Because the percentages are independent of actual use of services, the customers do not have a reason to be restrictive in their use, implying that the overall costs are unnecessarily high. Moreover, this does not just lead to those lucky in health paying for the unlucky, but also to the fit paying for the obese, the non-smoker for the smoker, the reluctant hospital visitor for the hypochondriac, the skeptic for the superstitious (cf. homeopathy above), …
  4. The insurance includes children and spouses with no (or only minor) own income, implying that those who are unmarried or lack children have to pay that much more to cover other peoples expenses.* Moreover, it can give spouses (pre-dominantly women) additional incentives to not find own work.

    *This type of undue, unethical, and absurd discrimination against the unmarried and childless is quite common in Germany. The next item is another example—as are different tax rates to the disadvantage of the unmarried; that the childless pay taxes to cover school costs; and the government provided “Kindergeld” (“child money”), which amounts to more than 200 Euro per child and month!

  5. People with children pay the 3.05 % “care insurance” (cf. above), while those without pay the 3.30 %. Imagine this: Someone causes less strain on the system and has to pay more!

On the other hand, the “private” insurers are equally bad. In theory, these work according to the principle that everyone pays an income independent fee, which does vary depending on how services are used, what age someone is, and (possibly) other factors relating to the likelihood to cause costs. Moreover, the choice of scope of insurance is larger, allowing a choice between paying more for better service and paying less for a lesser service. Children and spouses are not automatically included. On paper, this is a fair system—this is how it should be.

In reality there are a number of problems, some caused by the politicians, some by the insurers, including:

  1. Even the buyers of private insurance has to pay a supportive fee to the gesetzliche system. (Unfortunately, my brief search for details on this was not successful, and I do not want to spend too much time on this text. Going by memory, it might have been a few tens of Euros per month, starting a few years ago.)
  2. Sex is not included in the risk/fee assessment, implying that there is a transfer from men to women, the latter being much more cost-intensive when it comes to health insurance. Apart from the dubious ethics of this, it reduces the possibility of giving women incentives to not over-use medical services, which keeps the cost level up.
  3. A significant portion of the monthly fees are used for “Altersrückstellungen” (possibly, “old-age savings”), which are nominally intended to make the insured party pay a little more today so that he can pay a little less during his old age (compared to what would otherwise have been the case). In reality, these fees are intended to lock him in, because if he switches insurer, the old insurer keeps the “saved” money… However, if they truly were gathered for his future benefit, it would be obvious that he would either take them with him to the new insurer or receive the money as a payout.

    Moreover, whether someone wants to have Altersrückstellungen should be up to him—it should not be decided over his head by others. (Note arguments made in [1] on similar issues, including that the money might be more profitably spent paying off a mortgage.)

  4. At least* with my insurer, HUK, the increase of fees with age is not based on a fair risk assessment. Instead, fees are continually hiked up and up and up, year by year by year, in a disproportionate manner. Even when discounting inflation, my own rates are entirely disproportionate to my (low) use, age increase**, health, whatnot. The scheme is simple: Because it is hard*** to leave the private insurance (and because of Altersrückstellungen), chances are that most people will remain with the same insurer even with the disproportionate increases—as long as no individual increase becomes too painful individually. (Boiling frogs…) Switching to another private insurer is an option, but would not necessarily lead to lower fees…

    *Going by media, it is the same everywhere.

    **How they relate to my absolute age, I leave unstated, because that is much harder to judge. However, even if they were in order today, they would be out of order in ten years, assuming the same upwards trend.

    ***Yes, it is hard to switch in this direction too: The politicians want to actively prevent even high-earners from returning to the gesetzliche insurance, because they would usually do so in their old age, when they (a) cause more costs, (b) eventually will not earn that much (at the latest after retirement).

    Indeed, I have heard the claim (but do not vouch for its correctness) that many private insurers deliberately offer young people artificially reduced fees to lure them in—and the money lost there must then be recovered through higher fees later in life. This is not only unethical but contrary to the principles behind an insurance. (Interestingly, a mechanism that is the reverse of the Altersrückstellungen—how about just skipping them both?)

    On the positive side, the law has at least partially made this scheme less profitable through mandating a “Basistarif” (“base [scheme, rate, fee, plan, whatnot]”), which roughly matches the gesetzliche insurance and is capped in terms of fees. Should the fees grow too high, the aging can move to the Basistarif and avoid a complete disaster.

Excursion on how to do it better:
How to do it better is tricky, and the answer depends on what compromises are acceptable to the individual. (For instance, most Leftist politicians take the line that the private insurance should be abolished, so that everyone must be in the gesetzliche system, which I would rule out as unethical and increasing problems.) Moreover, a complete answer might require a full Ph.D. thesis… I would make the incomplete suggestions, however, that:

If both schemes are kept, then everyone should have the ability to switch from the one to the other and back again at will. This would make the tricks of the private side hard to pull and force the gesetzliche to be more responsible and cost competitive.

The gesetzliche be remodeled to be more like the (on-paper version) of the private.

The gesetzliche should not include family members without additional fees.

All insurances should work with a very large deductible, to give incentives for the insured to be responsible, to put downward pressure on costs, and to reduce the overall fee level. Failing this, the requirement of being insured at all must be reduced for groups like free-lancers.

The Altersrückstellungen are abolished and existing amounts paid out to the rightful owner.

Excursion on my switch:
My attempts to switch have three reasons: Firstly, cf. above, the private insurance is not what it portrayed it self to be when I originally* switched. Secondly, with my move from IT consulting to writing, a percentage is much less costly. Thirdly, my insurer, HUK, has not only again and again and again proved to be extraordinarily incompetent (to the point that even a change of address is beyond what it can handle), but has also left me serious doubts as to its honesty—even if I were to remain with a private insurer, it would not be with HUK.

*I was aware of the increasing costs with age, but not of the disproportionate increase and Altersrückstellungen were not actively mentioned—obviously, these are aspects that the insurers try to keep on the down-low and the amount of information on the Internet was much smaller than today. Items 1 and 2 above, in turn, did not yet apply.

Excursion on “Arbeitgeberanteil” (“employer’s portion”):
A common portrayal by politicians and insurers is that “the employer pays half”, in that the percentages above are partially deducted from pay (like income tax), partially paid on-top of pay by the employer. This is, obviously, a complete fiction, because the Arbeitgeberanteil does not grow on trees—it is an additional cost of employment that implies a downward pressure on salaries. This pressure might not amount to exactly the Arbeitgeberanteil, but it should at least be similar, implying that the situation is the same as if the employee received a larger pay-check and paid the full percentage—and that is the correct view. A minor side-effect, however, is that the exact percentages are slightly exaggerated: Someone who nominally earns 40,000 Euro/year, assuming 19 % overall, would pay roughly 7600 Euro. His “true” salary, after adjusting for the Arbeitgeberanteil, would then be roughly 43,800 Euro/year, and the “true” percentage 16.4 (give or take).

Written by michaeleriksson

July 27, 2019 at 1:39 am

A book lover’s lament

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Yesterday, still plagued by loud renovations, I decided to take a day trip somewhere. The decision fell on near-by Düsseldorf, largely due to the presence of one of the few bookstores that I take seriously—Stern-Verlag. This especially with almost every visit to one of the weak Wuppertal bookstores having been a waste of time.

While on the train, I sketched a plan for the day, which would see me visit some other stores, do a bit of walking, including revisiting the park and the birds that I had enjoyed so much during my years as a Düsseldorf resident, have a prolonged meal with a good read—and then to go through Stern-Verlag from top to bottom, to make up for several years without visiting a good bookstore.

After dinner, I set out in the rough correction direction, to my surprise finding that I had forgotten the exact location, a fair bit outside the actual city-center. As I drew nearer, my memories started to click again, and I knew that I was either in the right street or one parallel to it. The latter applied, because I suddenly spotted the back-entrance. Good enough. I approached—and found the glass-door locked on a conspicuous lack of books.

Hoping against hope, I went around to the main entrance—possibly, there had just been cut backs, with a portion of the store closed? Alas, no. (Rest in peace, old friend.)

A last hope was a sign in the window pointing to a nearby Mayersche. While this chain has been one of the leaders behind the declining quality of bookstores, there might at least be some possibility that it had taken over a significant portion of Stern-Verlag stock, possibly because Mayersche had bought and stream-lined the old Stern-Verlag. No, this too was an unfulfilled hope—the “new” store was not worth the trouble, being even smaller than the Mayersche a few hundred meters from my apartment. The size of the downgrade is clear from German Wikipedia, which gives the sales floors as 7,000 m2 resp. 400 m2—a cut by more than a factor of 17… Veni, vidi, exivi.

To save something of my main purpose, I walked to the known second best alternative—a Mayersche about a kilometer away, in the main shopping district, which had a similar size to Stern-Verlag, but which, obviously, suffered from the Mayersche attitude towards books and customers. There I found myself demotivated and found the usual, depressing, Mayersche proportions of hyper-commercialism to more worthy content. However, I still managed to pick out two books, both college texts on literary science. (Exactly the type of book that is the first to go when we move down bookstore sizes.)

In this, I see two sad problems repeated: The death of bookstores and the take-over of highly commercial products, often even non-books.

Now, I can understand the wish, even need, to make a profit—and I do realize that with less commercialism, even more bookstores would already be gone. I also understand that the bookstores are not always the source of the problem, themselves being victims of “people don’t read anymore” and decreasing intellectual aspirations among those who do read. (Even eCommerce competition aside.) The development is still a negative and lamentable one—it might be a necessary evil, or a lesser evil, but it remains an evil. Moreover, the same development appears to have spread to libraries, where it is not defendable.

If we look* e.g. at the bookstore closest to me, the aforementioned Mayersche a few hundred meters from my apartment, we find that:

*I go by memory here. I might be off in detail, but the broad strokes hold true—and match what is typical for at least the major German chains. (But any quantities mentioned might need scaling by store size, including that a very large store, like the larger Mayersche from yesterday, might contain some types of books that smaller stores do not have—but still only in small proportions. Also see an excursion below.) Stern-Verlag, at least at the time of my last visit, had better proportions.

  1. A significant portion of the products are not books at all. This includes calendars, cups, writing utensils, DVDs, … I have seen bookstores where more than a quarter of the floor space is lost to such products. (But I do not think it to be quite that bad here.)
  2. The sections* for cooking, travel, and languages are among (or outright) the largest. That such sections are present is by no means wrong, but when they are so large compared to the overall, something is amiss, and such large sections on cooking and travel might even be better left to a specialist cooking respectively travel store. (Note: “store”, not “book store”.)

    *Here used to imply a portion of a bookstore with a clear own theme, typically somehow labeled to inform of the contents. In the case of this store, most sections (not including the above three or the main fiction sections) are just a single bookcase from top to bottom.

    Note, not necessarily as a criticism, the common theme of a practicality or a use unrelated to reading per se—and often unrelated to learning, education, and Bildung* too. Languages is likely the most “traditional” of these sections, but even here, the character of the books is different from both fiction and more regular non-fiction—it is not a matter of reading, Bildung, whatnot, but of learning a language.

    *This German word is hard to translate to English, although a metaphorical “cultivation” or some older meaning of “culture” might come close. It contains aspects of growing intellectually, growing as a person, and similar. The “Bildungsroman” (as might be guessed from the name) deals with Bildung, if typically on a beginners’ stage or the specific stage of growing from youth to adult. Bildung is not to be confused with just gaining an education—and certainly not with e.g. dressing well and visiting the opera.

  3. A very significant further section is school literature—large heaps of mostly the same books that parents buy for their children’s classes. At the seasonal height, one might think that “bookstore” actually should be “school store”, due to the sheer quantity of books, the common addition of non-book school supplies, and the prominent placement. College-level literature is far rarer.
  4. There are a few shelf meters with natural-science books. These are virtually all popular science and they are matched by a similar quantity of shelf for esoteric/“new age”/superstition/astrology/… books (that take these topics seriously) and a similar quantity of “self-help” books offering trite, superficial, and not very helpful advice for those unable to handle themselves on their own.
  5. Other non-fiction sections of a more serious character (to which cooking and travel do not belong), tend to fair similarly poorly, languages excepted. There is a computer section, but it contains only or almost only practical guides to various programs—with no sign of more abstract treatments, including books on actual computer science. Psychology books tend to be superficial pop-psychology or even “self-help” in disguise. Ditto religion. History does bit better, but not much. Literary theory, history of literature, and similar themes are absent (despite there being a natural connection between reading and having an interest in such topics). Mathematics is absent. Engineering is absent. Philosophy is probably absent. Etc.

    Two more practical sections are law and “work topics” (e.g. concerning job applications, on-job conflicts, middle-management skills, and similar By the nature of the topics, their contents seem appropriate, but, again, we have fields not strongly relating to reading, education, Bildung, … I have bought a few books from the latter category myself over they years—and have usually not found them to be very helpful or insightful. (I have bought a few reference books from the law section too. These have done their job, but today I would stick to the Internet.)

    Other notable sections include biographies and politics. I have never looked into either in more detail, but my superficial impression is that they continue the best-seller, for-the-masses, well-short-of-academia trend of other sections. For instance, recently a book by Michelle Obama has been very heavily featured.

    Through-out, irrespective of field, books on the college level or above, including actual textbooks, are rare or entirely absent.

  6. The various sections for fiction are dominated by best-sellers—works of “high literature”, “classics”*, whatnot are very obviously secondary to the latest Stephanie Meyer or whatnot. The proportions given to children’s and “young adult” literature sections seem larger than warranted by their part of the population—which is a shame for adult me.** A very significant portion are English works translated to German.*** This includes the many sci-fi and fantasy works that I might have been interested in, had they been in English—and would have been very interested in during my twenties.

    *In all fairness, most books counted as classics are in the public domain, and I recommend trying Internet sources for free access before looking in a book store.

    **However, I stress that I do not necessarily see this as a bad thing in a bigger picture—if children never learn to love books, bookstores are doomed.

    ***There is not necessarily anything wrong with translations in principle, but (a) most translations that I have encountered in Germany have been quite poor, (b) it borders on the shameful that the average German is so bad at reading, or unwilling to read, English in the original (other languages are more understandable). We are at a stage when most books by English authors should be sold and read in English even in Germany.

It does not contain a cafe, but that is only because it is too small… Larger Mayersche (and many other larger bookstores) typically do. Similarly, the lack of book signings and book-readings-by-the-author is more likely to relate to size than to insight into the typical commercialism and lacking intellectualism that dominates the former and is very often a factor in the latter—the former is for idiots and while the latter might have value for many non-idiots, I suspect that the idiots dominate among the actual visitors. (Consider e.g. motivations like “A reading by the author might reveal something new about the text.” vs. “Yes! I get to see my favorite author in the flesh!!!”.)

Excursion on school books:
The presence of school books is easy to understand in that this is a recurring and large scale way to sell a lot of books—the number of books needed by a student at the beginning of the year might match or exceed the number of other books bought by the typical parent for the entire year. However, in my eyes, there is a systematic error here: if books are mandatory for school, it would be much better for the school to buy them, in bulk, with VAT deductible, with some leverage to negotiate prices,* etc. This not to mention the time and effort the parents would be saved. (This might, of course, come with some type of additional fee for the parents corresponding to the shift of immediate costs.)

*In fact, when schools dictate what books the parents must buy, publishers have every incentive to artificially inflate prices, and as long as parents pay, schools have no incentive to consider costs when making choices.

Similarly, I have read about U.S. schools where parents are given lists of things to buy for their children, include crayons and “Kleenex”* packages, which are then confiscated by the teacher, to be handed out among the students according to need. Apart from the implied Socialism, this causes a considerable extra effort and cost for the parents, which would be much better handled if the school bought in bulk and then just billed the parents a small amount—notably, an amount almost automatically smaller than what the parents would have payed individually, and potentially much smaller when the opportunity cost of the extra work is factored in. To boot, the quantities I saw in at least one list were such that the average child would be unlikely to use everything up, implying that the reminder turns into an involuntary gift from the parents to the school.

*Which raises the additional question of whether any brand will do or whether it has to be specifically Kleenex—a question which is not moot, considering variations in price, quality, and package size.

Excursion on Düsseldorf:
With my prolonged absence, I had forgotten how loaded with stores and large stores Düsseldorf was. Compared to Wuppertal (where I currently live) and Cologne (the stop before that), there is a mismatch with the population size. For instance, the larger Mayersche above could alone contain all of the bookstores that I have seen in Wuppertal—probably twice over. The Wuppertal Saturn (electronics store/chain) might be a third as large as the one in central Düsseldorf. Etc. Population-wise? Wikipedia gives population sizes for 2015 of 350,046 for Wuppertal, 612,178 for Düsseldorf, and 1,060,582 for Cologne—going only by stores, I would have matched the 1,060,582 to Düsseldorf and the 612,178 to Cologne. This is likely partially explained by a “magnet” effect after reaching some critical limit—even for me, Düsseldorf might be a better alternative than Wuppertal for my rare (non-grocery) shopping.

On the down-side, during my years in Düsseldorf, I repeatedly noted how the city was ruining it self through construction works, including causing traffic jams and reducing access to some smaller stores to the point that they lost too much business and had to close or relocate. Amazingly, such works are still on-going… (But it is much better now than around e.g. 2012.) Of course, for the big-shots of the city, this might not have been seen as a problem at all—the cost of traffic jams are carried by others and the loss of a mom-and-pop store just means that there is an opening for a new Prada or whatnot store that brings more prestige and tourist interest. The overall gain from these works, with the incompetent and intrusive implementation,* were not worth the cost.

*The same works done in a better manner, might have been a very different matter.

Excursion on bookstore sizes:
As might be clear from above, we need large bookstores. With smaller bookstores, the choice of books is highly limited; and having two, three, or four small ones, only means that we have the same limited choice repeated in each of them. Comparing e.g. the large Mayersche in Düsseldorf with my local, we can e.g. note that the proportion of books on literature is quite small—but there are still a few shelf meters. Similarly, it does not have many math books, and likely no truly advanced—but it does have a few shelf meters of the early college level. The Wuppertal Mayersche has a few shelf meters with (untranslated) English books—in Düsseldorf there is a similar quantity of French and Spanish books, and the English sections might be ten times as large. Etc. I would rather walk two hours to a bookstore of this size than five minutes to the local Mayersche. (Unfortunately, a walk to Düsseldorf would take far longer than two hours.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 18, 2019 at 1:35 pm

Follow-up: A German’s home is not his castle / a few issues around inspections and meter readings

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Last Friday, the exhaust inspection for my gas heater took place (cf. [1]).

My previous impression of a somewhat cooperative attitude on behalf of the chimney-sweep (responsible for the check) turned out to be very wrong.

Not only did the employee in question claim that I would be (illegally and unethically) billed for an out-of-hours visit, she also, for the second time in three years, tried to start a fight over my (calmly and factually) not agreeing with her often absurd claims—this time, that I pointed out that there was no legal justification for this bill. This is a highly unprofessional behavior that should be unacceptable in any service profession. (To which I note the difference between a factual discussion and the highly dubious behavior displayed here—she was an inch short of throwing a hissy fit.)

Looking at the bill issue, I note that:

  1. I had suggested a date and time within the narrow (cf. [1]) scopes that she had provided and that she had accepted them. Thus, either we were within regular hours or the out-of-hours aspect was solely her fault.

    I note (cf. [1]) that she had previously rejected a total of four suggestions: The 7th and 14th of June for being already booked,* the 19th and 26th of July due to company holidays. While the two former are understandable, the two latter are a pure own convenience. In effect: On the hand, customer suggestions are rejected; on the other, the customer is to be billed for a date and time practically suggested by her.

    *Here she had also explicitly mentioned that these (later in the day) suggestions were out-of-hours, removing any chance of applying the (already highly implausible) excuse of “because I did not state the opposite, you should have assumed that it was out-of-hours”.

  2. No mention had been made of any extra fee at the time of the agreement, nor had there been any reason for a reasonable third-party to expect an extra fee. This, in it self, rules a fee out.

    In particular, the day in question, I would have had no problem with arranging an earlier time—and would have done so, had there been any talk of an extra fee.

  3. The only possible angle of attack that she (and/or her employer) could have is that she had given intervals for possible times of day that would normally be interpreted as referring to the beginning of the visit, but which could conceivably be construed as referring to its end. If so, however, it would have been her responsibility to point out that the end of the interval was not an acceptable start time—but instead she accepted the suggested time… Moreover, considering the length of the visit, the latter interpretation would have been unconscionable in combination with a fee: subtract the delays through her belligerence and the visit could have been done in just several minutes, implying that just replacing 2 PM with 1:55 PM or, on the very outside, 1:50 PM would have put me within the interval.

All in all, and noting the reputation German chimney-sweeps (and e.g. plumbers) have, I suspect that this is just a trick to earn a few Euros above what the employer was actually entitled to. (German readers can look at e.g. a dedicated web-site/forum for many examples of disputable billing attempts and other problems relating to chimney-sweeps.

As for some claims made by her:

  1. She (again) went on about how hard the “late” Fridays were for her to arrange—at 2 PM. Apparently, she was now incurring over-time, needed a baby sitter (more expensive than her over-time pay), and whatnot (I do not remember all the details).

    Well, cry me a river…

    First, compare this to what many of the customers* have to go through every year because time ranges set for her convenience: What about all those who have to take several hours off work? Those that have to commute twice in a day? Those that are so far away and receive so unfortunate a time that they miss an entire day of work, as e.g. with me and my Cologne project? For the employed, the last amounts to using up a vacation day; for me, it would have amounted to a full day that I could not bill. For that matter, consider the potential negative effects on e.g. an employer. Or consider her complaints about arranging to have her children picked up from school—what about the children of the many customers who are force-fed an unfortunate time?

    *The word “customer[s]” is misleading, but I will stick with it for ease of use and the lack of something obviously better.

    Second, much of this is a pure luxury problem, amounting to “because of this customer, I do not get to enjoy an artificially short work-week” or “[…] a much earlier week-end than most others”. I note that the central collective agreement (Bundestarifvertrag) for chimney-sweeps sets the weekly hours at 38.5, whereas I have never had anything less than 40—sometimes with the expectation that overtime be performed without additional remuneration above the monthly salary. (Whereas the same source would give her her regular hourly pay + 25 % for every hour overtime.) I further note that by the standards of past generations (and some modern low-end jobs) even 40 hours a week would be a relief. Further yet, that when I have gotten off at 2 PM on a Friday, it has usually been because I have had a long weekly commute on top of my 40 hours. For instance, when I lived in Düsseldorf and did a project in Munich my weekly schedule was roughly: Monday, five hours of travel and another six hours in the office; Tuesday through Thursday, nine or ten hours in the office; Friday, five or six hours in the office and another five hours of travel—to which must be added time needed for hotel handling, time to pack and unpack, time lost due to unforeseen delays during travel, whatnot.

    Third, none of this is my problem—it is a matter between her and her employer. If she has a complaint, she should direct it at him—too “harsh” working hours, too little over-time pay, whatnot.

    My grand-mother, I suspect, would have called her a spoiled brat to her face…

  2. She claimed that her working hours would be regulated by law. Not only do I find this implausible, but I have also not found any support for this claim on the Internet. Moreover, other companies appear to have different working hours (and/or a different distribution between “office” and “customer” hours). For instance, a magazine article discussing the field in general says “[…] der Außendienst, der meist so gegen 16 Uhr endet” (“[…] customer visiting hours that tend to end towards 4 PM”). Another company lists time intervals from 7–7:15 AM to 4–4:15 PM for possible visits. In other words, it seems highly unlikely that there would be such a law—and her employer appears to be unusually restrictive.

    More likely than not, she is deliberately lying, with the expectation that the customer will just accept the customer-hostile situation “because its the law”. (I cannot rule out that she is deeply ignorant or that her employer has earlier lied to her.)

  3. She claimed that I should be happy that replacement dates were offered at all, because I would have a legal obligation to let her in at her convenience. It is true that there are some jobs performed by a chimney-sweep that have a quasi-governmental (“hoheitliche”) character,* and for which this claim could to some degree apply. However, the exhaust check is not one of these and this reasoning does not apply. Extending it to general tasks is like a land-lord claiming that “because I have the right to enter an apartment unannounced and on short notice when there is an emergency requiring immediate action, I always have the right to enter an apartment unannounced and on short notice”. Or consider a police officer who reasons that “because I can violate some traffic rules when on duty, I can violate them when off duty too”.

    *Due to a very unfortunate and highly outdated legal situation in Germany. To be specific, this does not refer to chimney-sweeps in general, but to the designated local “Bezirksschornsteinfeger”; however, this company happens to be Bezirksschornsteinfeger in my area.

    Again, she is likely deliberately lying to trick customers into compliance.

  4. She claims that the works would be done for my benefit and paints the situation as if she were doing me some type of favor. She is not—on the contrary, her employer relies on outdated and disproportionate regulations to perform a service for the government, which in many cases amounts to cheap money-making for the chimney-sweep. I have very little to gain from this farce, and am stuck with considerable extra efforts. This claim is as absurd as when governments claims that issuing passports would be a service to the citizens, when the need for a passport only arises because of governments and their artificial impositions.

    What benefit there is to gain, could be achieved much better by having e.g. the maintenance company* do the same check and/or doing the same check every five-or-so years—or by use of some type of detector**. Such a detector would actually be vastly superior through giving a timely warning, while the yearly check could lead to exposure over a full year before detection…

    *When this suggestion has been raised on the Internet, chimney-sweeps tend to answer that this would increase the risks, e.g. through giving the maintenance company incentives to approve its own work. This argument is not entirely without merit, but the benefits of avoiding this risk are not in proportion to the additional costs of the current system, making it specious. More likely, it is an excuse to justify own money-making than something honestly believed. In particular, the “incentives” part is highly dubious, because a maintenance company that does both work and check would be liable for any health damage without excuses, while the current system allows blame pushing between maintenance company and chimney-sweep.

    **I wish to recall having seen such in the past, but have not researched the availability and details. Even if I misremember, however, such detectors should be comparatively easy to provide.

    From another perspective, entering someone else’s apartment, outside of rare emergencies, is a privilege and should be treated as such—no matter the law. Indeed, even when a legal right is present, even e.g. when we talk of police with a search warrant, the self-invited visitor should show a corresponding humility and respect. The attitude displayed by this woman is entirely lacking in this regard. The same applies to the impositions regarding e.g. time: even to the degree that she might be legally entitled to force people to forego work and whatnot for her benefit, she should show a corresponding humility and respect, and realize that she causes a major imposition* for her own benefit—but she does not.

    *Indeed, so large an imposition that I consider it outright unethical, even to the degree that it is legally allowed. A more ethical company would still provide times for the convenience of the customers, not for its own.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 17, 2019 at 8:17 am

Follow-Up: My current noise situation / renewed renovations

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While the rest of yesterday remained quiet, very loud works started again at 08:46 today—just as I was about to start on a cup of coffee and a book. By now, the situation can no longer be considered conscionable. I will leave once my cup is empty.

As a minor addendum to yesterday’s text: The improved legal situation should also include an extension of the Sunday restrictions to Saturdays. Not only is this a day when most people will be at home and, therefore, hurt worse than on the weekdays, but having two days of respite, not just one, is a major benefit.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 12, 2019 at 7:59 am

My current noise situation / renewed renovations

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Unfortunately, my assumption that the renovations in my building were over was quite incorrect—right now, I can only even be in my apartment due to extreme counter-measures. Below, I will discuss some of the situation and my counter-measures, the stone-age* legal situation in Germany, and the general question of respect for the rights and interests of others.

*Also see e.g. [1] and [2] for some other points on e.g. laws and standards of behavior being influenced by an outdated world-view.

  1. The very day after I wrote that the renovations were over, the one or two weeks of respite ended. Until yesterday, the noise was at least tolerable when using ear-plugs. From then till now? Not so much.

    Around 11 AM yesterday, I thought that I would give myself a few annoyance-free hours. I left home, walked around the neighborhood for a while, then walked the roughly four km to Elberfeld*, spent about an hour walking around there, spent another hour (mostly reading) at McDonald’s, and then walked home, stopping briefly to do some grocery shopping. At this point, I was tired, dehydrated, sweaty, and wanted nothing more than to take a quick shower, down a pint of water, stretch out in bed, and relax with a movie.

    *The portion of Wuppertal that has the main city-center.

    As I approached the building, in my best guess around 3 PM, I was met with machine noises that could be heard over the traffic dozens of meters away. The noise in the stair-well was so loud as to be intolerable—we are talking levels that require protection to not be damaging to the hearing. Even in my apartment, it was so horrifyingly loud that I just threw the groceries in the fridge and immediately left again. I spent another few minutes walking, found a cafe, spent about two hours there, and walked home for the second time. The problem still remained, even if it varied between these absurdly loud machine noises and (merely loud) hammer strokes.

    This time, I only entered the building after putting in ear-plugs. Once inside my apartment, I put on a pair of ear-muffs*in addition to the ear-plugs. In this constellation, the noise was still drive-me-up-the-wall annoying, but at least not dangerous. I downed half** a sleeping pill to calm my nerves and to enable an early night—especially since I been awoken around 10 PM the day before, by a loud hammering. At some point (I did not note when) the machine noises stopped and I managed to go to sleep while semi-watching a movie.

    *These I had purchased as a precaution and an alternative to ear-plugs during the first round of renovations, but I had not hither-to used them. While I do not have the specs of the ear-muffs and ear-plugs at hand, the joint dampening should be at 60 dB or better. (With some reservations for what dampening takes place at what frequency and what noise travels through other channels than the outer ear.) This is the difference between e.g. a thunderclap and a conversation in restaurant, according to [3].

    **I tend to be very careful with medicine and I was quite sleepy to begin with.

    However, shortly before 11 PM, I was again awoken by hammering…

    This morning there were various noises until shortly before noon, when the machines started up again. I now countered with ear-plugs, ear-muffs, ear-buds placed in the ear-muffs to get sound from my computer (partially, to further counter the noise; partially, to get some entertainment), and a stereo playing a track with white-noise, downloaded earlier in the morning, at high volume through its loud-speakers.

    In this constellation, the noise is reduced to a tolerable annoyance, but the counter-measures are not exactly comfortable. Moreover, neither ear-muffs nor ear-plugs are intended for truly prolonged use, and the overall noise-level is, naturally, considerably higher than normal—likely to the point that everyday use over a prolonged time would it self be damaging. Of course, none of this does anything against the strong vibrations of the building, which I can easily sense.

    The above held true when I wrote it, but during the writing of the remainder the noises stopped and have yet to resume. (Knock on wood…)

  2. The German law, unfortunately, is extremely weak when it comes to noise disturbances. Some* protection is awarded during Sundays and holidays (but not Saturdays), during the “Nachtruhe” (“night quiet”) from 10 PM to 6 AM, and possibly** for some stretch of the earlier evening hours; however, chances are that if the renovations started at 6 AM and went on to 10 PM six days a week, the tenants would be forced to put up with it for a considerable stretch of time, especially because any attempt to put a stop to it through the civil courts might outlast the disturbance… These rules are basically geared at guaranteeing*** eight hours of sleep, but have no cover for other aspects of life, e.g. the wish to just relax, to engage in intellectual activities, whatnot—something that might have matched a typical working class life a hundred or more years ago, but is absurd in today’s world. It certainly does not cover the health-risk that modern medicine has discovered with regard to noise.

    *Naturally, and luckily for night-owl me, a wide range of “normal” noise is allowed at any time, e.g. in that no-one is forbidden from cooking in the middle of the night. There are some vague restrictions about undue and avoidable noise, which might (or might not) make e.g. hammering a piece of meat into compliance forbidden when cooking at 2 AM, but the rules seem to err on the side of being too permissive.

    **I have tried to look into the exact rules, but the descriptions are contradictory, too ad hoc, contain exceptions depending on circumstance, whatnot, which makes me unwilling to make a more definite statement.

    ***For those who (a) can go to sleep at the right time and (b) have a schedule compatible with this eight-hour interval. Those who e.g. work an unusual shift could be stuck with far less.

    Of course, even the Nachtruhe is secondary to other concerns if push comes to shove. For instance, in my old Düsseldorf apartment, I once had an entire night ruined due to a re-laying of tracks for the tram that passed by my window—that there was no service interruption during the day outweighed the interests of the poor sods living in the street during the night… And, of course, some will violate it either-which-way, be it because they hope that no-one will complain or because they feel certain to be through before the complaint arrives—as might have been the case with the two late-night hammer incidents above. (This even e.g. accidental transgressions and different judgment calls aside.)

    Another outdated absurdity is the “Mittagsruhe” (“mid-day quiet” or “mid-day meal quiet”, depending on interpretation). This is a common, but poorly and inconsistently regulated*, interval of the day, e.g. 1 PM to 3 PM, where restrictions similar to the Nachtruhe apply. If we go back to a time when most people went home for lunch, it might have been understandable—but even then suspiciously late in the day. (Similarly, if we assume that this was for a meal after work, it might have made sense, but then suspiciously early, even by the standards of yore.) Today, it is much more common to eat in the office, in the work canteen, or in a near-by restaurant—and at times that overlap poorly with the Mittagsruhe**. If this interval is regulated and respected at all, it mostly serves to move loud noises from a time when people are absent to a time when they are present, which is extremely contra-productive. For example, where a construction worker could have worked e.g. from 8 AM to 4:30 PM, with a half-hour lunch-break, he might now work 8 AM to 6 PM with a two-hour break…***

    *Often just through the “house rules” (in a two-fold sense) of any individual building, land-lord, or whatnot.

    **A more reasonable modern 2-hour interval might be 11:30 through 01:30 or 12 through 02:00. Similarly, by modern standards, very few people arrive home after work before 3 PM.

    ***Assuming that all breaks are concentrated within the Mittagsruhe. I doubt that this would be the case. Note that 30 minutes is the minimum break for an eight-hour day in Germany.

    The paradoxical attitude of German regulations is shown by instructions on containers for glass recycling: It is allowed to use them at 7 AM on workdays, when most people are still sleeping; it is not allowed to use them in the Mittagsruhe on Saturdays, when most people are awake. (Barring changes or differences in regulation between different areas, compared to when and where I last saw the instructions. Note that their use often leads to glass falling onto glass from some height, often with a shattering as consequence.)

    Looking specifically at renovations, constructions, and similarly loud and enduring noises, a much better take would be to (a) restrict them to e.g. the interval 9 AM to 5 PM (without Mittagsruhe) in a regular building and forbidding them in the same interval in an office building, (b) require that the persons likely to be disturbed (including, without exception, anyone living in the same building) are notified in advance about the type of work and its duration,* (c) require formal approval by some entity for extreme disturbances**, (d) require that any reasonable measure is taken to reduce noise above a certain level*** (preferably, with a complete ban when there is risk of damaged hearings). In case of failure to adhere to this, hefty fines should apply.

    *Here and in the following footnotes, the details go beyond the scope of this text and will vary depending on the circumstance. However, for works that cover weeks or months, there should be enough information sufficiently early that the victims can take counter-measures like shifting vacation days. For two hours in a once-every-few-years action, the notification might be waivable. (Today, notifications are almost unheard of, even for very loud and extended works.)

    **Examples of such extreme works are the machine works described above and the renovations I experienced some ten years ago, when the entire hallway, air included, was filled with dust (gypsum?), and just walking from the front door to my apartment ensured that I dragged a considerable amount of dust into my apartment too. A suitable entity might be whoever issues local building permits or a tenants’ or owners’ association for the building in question. (At any rate, these permissions would be in addition to any regular building permit.)

    ***E.g. that doors and windows are closed to the degree possible, that some type of sound-absorber must be put into empty rooms before e.g. drilling into the walls, that louder machines are only allowed when no significantly better alternative is on the market, whatnot. As a highly negative example, I point to a student’s home that I once lived in: It was former hotel with likely several hundred rooms over six (?) large floors. These floors had thick doors for fire protection that could have been kept closed around the current work, but they were consistently kept open, implying that the noise in one part of the building spread everywhere, with only a weak attenuation. Indeed, if I closed one of the doors, as I tried on a few occasions, it was a matter of minutes before the workers pulled it open again… Because virtually every part of the building was renovated, this meant that the entire building was exposed to a noise level that made studying next to impossible during the day for the entire duration of my stay.

  3. The topics discussed here are obviously a special case of one of my main complaints—that people show far too little concern and consideration for others and their rights. This is particular absurd as some measures that could be taken can be taken almost for free, e.g. that a renovating land-lord or tenant just puts a note near the house-door that “We will be renovating from the Xth to the Yth. Please excuse the noise.” some time in advance. True, this is well short of the notifications I intend above, but it is still a potentially major help—if in doubt, because not knowing for how long works will continue makes the situation so much worse.

    I would particularly note that not everything legal is also ethically acceptable or something that someone “should” do. It might e.g. be deemed legal to drill holes in the wall between 9 and 10 PM every day for a week, but what kind of self-centered jack-ass actually does?

    Then again, not even the law is a hindrance to many. For instance, it is quite common to find idiots who ride their bikes on the pavement in Germany—even when its illegal. Similarly, bike riders disturbingly often do not care for such trifles as red-lights, one-way streets*, right-of-way, or the safety of pedestrians, when it shaves ten or twenty seconds off their time from A to B. The situation in Cologne, where I used to live, is horrifying to the point that it contributed to my decision to leave… (Wuppertal is not perfect, but much, much better.)

    *Even when not exempted for bikes. Such exemptions are common, and then I have no complaint.

    For other examples recently mentioned* consider e.g. delivery services that leave blanket “you were not at home” notifications to persons who were at home, merchants that do not go the extra mile to compensate for their own errors, service companies that demand entry to the apartments of others at their own convenience, and people who take screaming children to e.g. libraries or “grown-up” restaurants.

    *In order to keep the potentially very long list somewhat limited.

    A very significant portion of the problems in this world would go away, if some version of the Golden Rule was practiced much more often.*

    *I stress, however, that I do not claim perfection for myself in this regard. Still, I do at least regularly stop to consider the impact on my actions on others, whether the impact is justified, and what I can do to reduce it if the justification is weak.

Excursion on out-of-home activities:
Being caught with this type of disturbance when on a sabbatical is particularly bad, because there is only so much to do outside of my home. I can get my fill of visiting stores for a month in a few hours time (and most do not open before 10 AM anyway, leaving a gap when they are useless). There are few museums around. There is no nearby cinema, those further away are dominated by German dubs, and most shows are in the evening. Sitting in a cafe or restaurant for more than an hour makes me jittery and might take space away from other customers. I usually enjoy walking, but spending eight or ten hours a day walking is hardly healthy, let alone enjoyable—and even with “just” two to four hours a day, I am at a risk of sun-burn and friction sores.* Etc. To this must, for many alternatives, be added the extra costs at a time when I try to live cheaply.

*I tend to walk above average distances even when I do not suffer renovation noise, but even in the summer I probably end below ten hours a week noticeably more often than above—and in the winter it is less. (Not counting in-door distances, e.g. in my apartment or when grocery shopping.)

Reading in a park or similar, I have not yet tried, especially because I prefer to keep moving when I am outdoors. However, if these problems continue, it is definitely something to consider.

Visiting friends might be an alternative for others, but I am extremely introverted, not that interested in socializing, and have not yet invested the time to build a social circle in Wuppertal. (Chances are that I never will.) Of course, even for others, this could prove tricky because of friends being absent at work or becoming over-satiated with this one visitor who pops up every day.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 11, 2019 at 5:00 pm

Germany and “Big Brother”

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According to a German source, Horst Seehofer, currently minister of the interior*, appears to have his eyes set on “Nineteen Eighty-Four” level surveillance. While none of his ideas are new, or necessarily unexpected from politicians, or even remotely on the level of my own satirical suggestion, the situation is highly disturbing—this is something that might be pushed through in Germany in the very near future.

*With some reservations for official translations.

A few claims:*

*The first paragraph of each item paraphrases the source; the remainder, including any first-paragraph-footnotes, are my comments.

  1. Seehofer wants to use virtual assistants like Alexa and similar technologies (e.g. “intelligent” TV* sets and fridges) for government surveillance.

    *The very strong parallel to Orwell is somewhat incidental, because the state of technology was much more limited in his days. Nevertheless, I remind that a core part of “Big Brother’s” surveillance was TV sets that sent information in the “wrong” direction and that could not or must not be turned off.

    This will often make the average citizen a helpless target. The likely two largest (but by no means only) problems: Firstly, this will allow an indiscriminate surveillance and/or a surveillance that is hard to reduce to a scope that respects even the closest spheres of intimacy and privacy. Note e.g. that such gadgets will often be present in bath-
    and bedrooms, including during activities like sexual intercourse. Secondly, once the technology is sufficiently enabled, it will only be a matter of time before it is abused outside the legally allowed limits, be it by law enforcement, individuals with access to the technology, and third-parties who either hack the surveillance infrastructure or use weaknesses in the underlying technology (e.g. Alexa) necessitated by the surveillance.

    Moreover, such surveillance will (yet again) hit the average citizen hard while leaving a professional and competent criminal, terrorist, whatnot unfazed, because he will simply take measures like e.g. having sensitive conversations only when and where no such gadgets are present.

    I note that there might come a time when regular citizen can only protect themselves through extreme measures. For instance, in due time, more-or-less any appliance is likely to be “smart”, “IoT” enabled, or similar. Add on a harmless sounding law (or have the manufacturers enforce something similar through their T-and-C’s) that non-manufacturer modifications of appliances are illegal, and the typical citizen might be stuck with several surveillance mechanisms in every room—or need to forego what the rest of the world considers basic necessities.

  2. Seehofer wants to force messenger services like WhatsApp to record (in plain) the encrypted communications of their customers* and provide this record to the government.

    *I hope that this is supposed to be done only in individual cases, e.g. after a court-order; however, the article is not clear on this.

    Apart from privacy concerns, this will severely weaken security/privacy versus other parties, notably cyber-criminals. (Some of the above also applies here and for the following items.)

  3. The use of the Bundestrojaner is to be extended to German citizens within Germany* and breaking-and-entering to install surveillance measures is to be legal.

    *I do not remember (and have not checked) the exact current constraints, but German citizens (still) do have a better protection than the rest of the world.

    Both imply a further severe privacy violation, notably with much involved that has no bearing on any alleged case. (For instance, an unexpected physical visit can reveal things that are of a strictly private nature.) Both imply a great insecurity, because a citizen can never know that he is in the clear from surveillance. (Notably, this applies even when he is perfectly innocent, because innocents are quite often among suspects of various crimes.)

    I note that I consider the use of the Bundestrojaner grossly unethical and worthy of condemnation even in the current scope.

  4. Users* might see as much as six months of imprisonment if they refuse to hand out their passwords to law enforcement. A specific intended use for this is to allow law enforcement to hi-jack virtual identities to communicate with other parties while pretending to be the original user.

    *What users (“Nutzer”) was not clear from the source. Possible interpretations range from each-and-everyone to some groups of cyber-criminals.

    Already the former is inexcusable, and violates any reasonable standard of computer privacy. Indeed, one of the main reasons why everyone should use encryption is for protection against the government’s putting its nose where it does not belong. A requirement to hand out passwords invalidates this protection entirely, in a manner potentially much worse than any regular form of self-incrimination.* Moreover, it will typically make information available that is far more private than warranted and often has no connection with the matter at hand. (E.g. in that someone suspected of terrorism implicitly gives access to love letters, “sexting” messages, private journals, …; there have certainly been times and places where a revelation as a homosexual or Jew could have very negative consequences.)

    *With laws like this, we might have paradoxical situations where someone is allowed to keep silent on a particular crime, but is also forced to hand out information that will necessarily, indirectly, incriminate him for the very same crime…

    The latter would often compound this by damaging someone’s reputation, destroying future opportunities (even legal ones), leaving others with faulty impressions about human behavior, … To boot, there is a particular perfidy to such methods that I have always found highly distasteful, as with e.g. under-cover work and entrapment. Then there is the issue of trust—can we ever trust that our counter-parts are who they claim to be? If not, what will the effects be?

These items would be a massive step in the wrong direction, as I discuss in e.g. a call for the opposite. (Other texts of relevance include [1], [2], [3].) I note in particular, that the surveillance in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was ultimately not motivated by an interest in knowledge—but by thought control. In the long-run, it is almost hard to avoid a similar abuse, e.g. in that an artificial intelligence evaluates everything said, and posts corresponding notices to law enforcement, e.g. that “X has expressed sympathies for Y—high time to investigate him”.* Few would dare express the “wrong” honest opinions in such a scenario.

*More extreme scenarios are less likely, but certainly still possible, e.g. that a U.S. parent who uses the word “nigger” in front of a child is visited by child services.

Particular questions to ask include how the privacy of e.g. family members of a suspect is affected and what happens when the government turns evil*.

*Something that Germans (noting Nazis and Communists) should be particular leery of. Notably, a core realization of the Rechtsstaat, good constitutions, and similar, is that we cannot and must not assume that the government is and will remain “good”. Doing so is like leaving the door unlocked “because I have never had a break in”—it misses the point of a lock, the Rechtsstaat, whatnot, entirely.

In a bigger picture, this is just one further step of the government, the politicians, or whatnot moving away from a rightful role as a servant of the people and towards a self-appointed role as custodian and arbitrary master.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 28, 2019 at 7:59 am