Ve have vays of making you not talk!

I’ve written before about governments outsourcing political censorship to social media companies, and also about Germany’s suppression of free speech. Today I read this:

A German satirical magazine’s Twitter account was blocked after it parodied anti-Muslim comments, the publication said on Wednesday, in what the national journalists association said showed the downside of a new law against online hate speech.

Titanic magazine was mocking Beatrix von Storch, a member of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, who accused police of trying “to appease the barbaric, Muslim, rapist hordes of men” by putting out a tweet in Arabic.

Twitter briefly suspended her account and prosecutors are examining if her comments amount to incitement to hatred.

So not only is the German government forcing social media companies to block their political opponents under the guise of counteracting online “hate speech”, the people doing the blocking are too dim to spot a parody account. How the Germans can’t see that such a law, in the hands of the wrong party, could be devastating is a mystery. I can only conclude such occurrences have no precedent in their country from which they could draw obvious lessons.

Titanic said on Wednesday its Twitter account had been blocked over the message, which it assumed was a result of a law that came into full force on Jan. 1 that can impose fines of up to 50 million euros ($60 million) on social media sites that fail to remove hate speech promptly.

A lot of people will rightly ask who defines hate speech. What they should be asking is how easy is it to change that definition.

Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms are scrambling to adapt to the law, and its implementation is being closely watched after warnings that the threat of fines could prompt websites to block more content than necessary.

This is a feature, not a bug. The German government and those who would emulate them want the social media companies to self-censor everything that doesn’t explicitly conform to progressive standards of right-think. That way they can hold their hands up, adopt an innocent face, and say “We never told them to censor X, Y, Z”.

Merkel’s conservatives accused the AfD of undermining the post-war democratic consensus in Germany.

By winning so much support at the ballot box that she stands to lose her job?

“The racism that AfD lawmakers have been tweeting for days is intentionally violating, with criminal intent, the basic consensus which democrats have built up since 1949 despite all disagreements,” Armin Laschet, party deputy of Merkel’s Christian Democrats, tweeted.

There ought to be a law against it! Well, there is now. It’s ironic that a German politician coming out with this believes citing war-era precedents is an argument in his favour.


Babylon Berlin

I’ve spent the past few weeks watching the TV series Babylon Berlin which has been airing on Sky Atlantic (the second season has just finished). My Dad recommended it, and IMDB tells us:

Most expensive non-English language drama series ever made in history and also most expensive German TV series at the time of its first season release with a budget of approximately 40 million Euros.

As far as I know it’s not been dubbed and all the dialogue takes place in German with some Russian thrown in, but the subtitling is excellent: no Chinese DVD effort here. It takes place in 1920s Berlin and follows the path of a young detective sent over from Cologne to investigate vice, corruption, and blackmail in Germany’s capital.

The first thing that struck me is that the actors can actually act. All of the leads are capable of portraying a range of emotions, in stark contrast to most American TV shows. I recently watched The Man in the High Castle and found the leading woman wore the exact same facial expression from start to finish, and her boyfriend wasn’t any better. How these people ever got through an audition to secure the part is beyond me, but thankfully the Germans playing roles in Babylon Berlin are proper actors.

The characters are more interesting too. I’ve written before about how I like characters to be complex and not squeaky clean or cartoon villains, and I was delighted to find that few of them in Babylon Berlin were one-dimensional. Nobody is wholly good, many of them are morally compromised, and the bad guys aren’t going around raping people to let everyone know they’re bad. (I recently got introduced to the series Outlander. Sure enough, by the second episode a dastardly English redcoat is raping a bonnie Scottish lass in front of her brother, the hero of the series. I switched it off right there.) You’re never too sure who to root for because you don’t really know who’s who in the swamp of corruption and intrigue they’re all operating in. There are a few clichéd moments, but none bearing the saccharine we’ve come to expect from American or British TV series, which often seem like they replaced the scriptwriter with software.

The producers have also shown some balls in choosing to set it in the 1920s. It would have been very easy to set the show in the 1930s and beat the audience over the head with a “Nazis are bad” message, but instead they picked an era of surprising complexity which isn’t well known. The First World War looms large over several of the characters, former soldiers and widows alike, and we get a glimpse of the German perspective and the impact it had on their lives. I can’t think of another series or film that addresses this in any way. A large part of the plot concerns the social and political changes taking place in Germany, especially the threat of Communism supported by the fledgling Soviet Union now under Stalin, but the audience is never told what to think. They managed to capture issues of considerable complexity without taking sides, which is a rarity these days. The plot is complicated and I lost my way a few times, but it was at least believable. The Man in the High Castle only managed to advance the plot by portraying the totalitarian, ruthlessly paranoid Japanese occupying government as utterly incompetent, incapable of performing basic background checks. Babylon Berlin thankfully doesn’t use blithering idiocy to get the script working, although there are a few too many coincidences and chance encounters for my liking.

Finally, the production quality is superb. The clothes, set design, and attention to historical detail meets the standards set by Boardwalk Empire and on these measures you’d believe you were watching a big-budget American series (only with some money set aside for a scriptwriter and some actors). There are several scenes which are beautifully shot, and visually it is a pleasure to watch. The score is probably good too but, as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t notice.

Babylon Berlin was the second German TV series I’d watched recently which I was very impressed with, the other being Deutschland 83. I’m rather hoping they keep this up.


A Detail of the Berlin Wall

Once, when watching a documentary on the history of the Berlin Wall, I learned something I’ve never been able to forget:

That rounded piece on top of the wall was obviously put there to make it harder to climb over. When I visited Berlin in 1995 and saw a preserved section, I assumed it was moulded as part of the wall itself. But according to this documentary, it was just a bog-standard piece of concrete pipe with a longitudinal section cut out and plonked over the top. I always thought this level of crudity was apt for what the wall was, and what it represented.

I also read last week that the Berlin Wall has now been down longer than it was up. If anyone were to look around now, they’d scarcely believe the thing ever existed or the Communists lost the Cold War and the right side won.


Germany’s Suppression of Free Speech Online

I don’t know how accurate this article on Angela Merkel’s clamping down on digital free speech is – perhaps Bloke in Germany could comment? – but it’s an interesting follow-up to my earlier post:

Absent of an easy route to get at the netizens themselves, what the government really needed was a quick way to force social media firms to make their platforms inhospitable environments for critical, dissident expression; But taking action against social media networks did not turn out to be all that easy.

But coercively targetting social media companies remained an attractive option for the German government. Outsourcing censorship to privately-owned social media firms presents a neat way to circumvene the high bar of constitutional scrutiny that would apply to the state if it tried to enact such censorship directly.

As Germany has economically boomed under Merkel‘s leadership, social compassion and honesty in the public sphere has reached a record low. Corrupt property developers, ruthless drug dealers, and organised crime are being allowed to take over economically deprived parts of Berlin, Frankfurt, Bremen and Colonoge with impunity, while police simply watch. As Berlin‘s political-corporate elite shops in an ever-growing number of luxury all-organic supermarkets, they cheer on the financial rape of Greece and other Southern European countries by the German-led EU‘s austerity programs; Brutal regimes of cuts and privatisations have left some ordinary, hard-working people in those countries unable to afford even basic essentials such as food and medical care. The supposedly anti-racist, pro-equality mainstream media in Germany outdoes itself day-on-day in finding new, politically-useful ways to implicitly suggest to their readers that ‘lazy‘, ‘heat-dazed‘ Greeks deserve all the degrading austerity they get.

Unsurpringly, Vladimir Putin‘s authoritarian United Russia party has already moved to replicate the Network Enforcement Act. In July, it presented an extremely similar draft social media bill in the Russian parliament, the Duma, that even goes as far as explicitly referring to the German law as its inspiration. Proving that imitation is the sincerest flattery, Russian legislators even copied the exact, expedited content deletion timeframe of 24 hours directly from the German government‘s law.

They’re all at it, aren’t they?


No Fun in Germany

When I opened my letterbox on Saturday I was rather surprised to find a speeding notice sent all the way from Germany. Apparently when I was in Baden-Baden I was travelling at 41kph (38kph after tolerance adjustments) in a 30kph zone. Or in English, I was doing 23.6mph in an 18.6mph zone.

Until recently I wasn’t even aware that speed limits below 30mph existed, but I see some 20mph zones have appeared in London down residential streets full of chicanes and speed bumps. In France, the general limit in built-up areas is 50kph and occasionally 40kph. So what did this road in Baden-Baden look like? Well, street view is banned in Germany (along with most everything else) so we only have the aerial view of Geroldsauer Straße:

Geroldsauer Straße is a 2-lane road forming part of the B-500, which puts it in the Bundesstraße category:

In the German highway system they rank below autobahns, but above the Landesstraßen and Kreisstraßen

In other words, if you drive at more than 19mph along sections of Germany’s second-tier highways you’re liable to be photographed and fined. The photo is quite funny, it shows my Russian pal and me on our way somewhere, but the road is wide and clear. The fine is only 15 Euros which I have no problem paying, either in practical terms or in principle; that’s not my point here.

My point is that Germany looks about the least fun place to live or visit, especially when compared to France. I suppose mind-numbing sterility is what happens when a largely secular nation’s middle-classes get wealthy and comfortable enough that they find it necessary to meddle and proscribe to an ever-increasing degree. But hey, if this is what the Germans want, then who am I to complain? I’ll just keep to my side of the border and laugh at things like this:

It’s also going to be interesting seeing how the Germans will enforce their millions of petty laws in a few years’ time when the effects of their immigration policies begin to take hold. Historians might find some bemusement in a country that fined people for driving at 38kph down what would be a major highway in most of the world, but couldn’t stop mass sexual assaults in its city centres.


Germany’s Two Faces

Back in May I wrote the following response to regular commenter Alexei K. under a post about Germany under Angela Merkel:

I think she’s presided over some serious economic skulduggery and corruption, the VW emissions scandal being just the tip of the iceberg. I think Germany has happily taken on the role of the economic engine of the EU, as it allows it to ensure the economic structure and interests of the EU are perfectly aligned with those of Germany. The entire Euro project appears to have been set up to ensure poor European countries could magically afford German products (mainly cars), and Germany’s treatment of Greece a couple of years ago showed exactly how Germany sees the rest of Europe. I think there is a prevailing attitude around the EU that what is good for German companies is good for Germany, and what is good for Germany is good for the EU. German companies have been given a free-hand in writing much of the industrial legislation (particularly environmental stuff) imposed by the EU on the whole bloc, and stuff like corruption (Siemens), dodgy financial dealings (Porsche takeover of VW), and emissions cheating are all ignored in favour of German corporate giants (it seems to fall to non-EU governments to complain).

I think there is a lot of rotten structure under Germany at the moment which everyone – particularly the EU lot – are turning a blind eye to. How robust is Deutschbank, for example? And would we be told if there was anything amiss? Merkel might be long-gone by the time all of this comes to light and unravels, but she’s presided over it and much of it will be deliberate policy not benign neglect.

Then today I came across this story:

Russia has delivered electricity turbines made by Germany’s Siemens to Crimea, a region subject to European Union sanctions barring EU firms from supplying it with energy technology, three sources with knowledge of the delivery told Reuters.

Reuters was unable to determine if Siemens knew of or condoned the equipment transfer, but the move exposes the German company to potential accusations of indirect sanctions-busting and of not taking sufficient safeguards to ensure its equipment does not end up on territory most countries view as illegally annexed, say legal experts.

I can’t say I’m surprised. Nor can I say I’m convinced by this:

“Siemens has not delivered turbines to Crimea and complies with all export control restrictions,” said Wolfram Trost, a spokesman for Siemens in Munich, when asked to confirm the turbine transfer to Crimea.

Citing client confidentiality, he did not answer written questions asking whether Siemens was aware that the turbines had been shipped to Crimea and whether it would now be activating or servicing them.

It wouldn’t be the first time Siemens has engaged in dodgy practices overseas, would it?

EU sanctions bar European individuals and companies from providing energy technology to Crimea or from taking any actions designed to circumvent those rules due to the bloc’s view that the peninsula was illegally stolen from Ukraine.

When asked about the matter, the European Commission has declined to comment on the Siemens case in the past, saying it is up to EU member states to enforce sanctions rules on their companies.

When asked about the issue on Wednesday, a spokesman for German’s Ministry for Economic Affairs said he had no immediate comment.

Now there’s a surprise! What was I saying about a prevailing attitude in the EU whereby what is good for German companies is good for Germany, and what is good for Germany is good for the EU? Nothing to see here, obviously.

As I said before, I think this is merely the tip of a very large iceberg. Streetwise Professor recently wrote a post on Germany preaching European unity in one breath while stitching up eastern Europe in the next in order to preserve their commercial interests with Russia. It’s worth reading in full, and thoroughly consistent with the Reuters findings.


A Trip to Baden-Baden

Last week I spent a few days in Baden-Baden, a German town so bath-like they say so twice. The springs there have been known since Roman times and nowadays one can visit the Friedrichsbad bathhouse, which is a classic 19th century building containing pools of various temperatures which I assume are similar to the Széchenyi baths I went to in Budapest.  Alternatively, you could do what I did and go to the much more modern Caracalla Therme complex, which is fantastic.

I’d not been to one quite like it before. What made this one different is it had dozens of jets, waterfalls, currents, bubbles, and baths which all did different things. There was a row of seats which blasted bubbles around your lower back; there were powerful underwater jets which could massage your legs, glutes, and back; there were fixed hoses which would massage your neck, shoulders and upper back, and waterfalls which would do the same thing. Somebody had obviously spent a lot of time thinking about how much water to send where and at what pressure, or how much to fall from which height, to allow you to get a proper massage without it stripping skin or killing you. There were also several jacuzzis of various temperatures, and each was set on a time-cycle: half were switched off for ten-minute intervals while the other half worked, then they swapped over. This was to stop people hogging the things all day. All you had to do was sit in something that wasn’t working and wait for it to start. There were also steam rooms, saunas, solariums, and a half-decent cafe (although the whole place was alcohol-free).

One amusing point is the upper floor is a compulsory nudist area, i.e. no bathing suits are allowed. For anyone rushing to book tickets with hopes of sharing a hot tub with a naked Maria Sharapova and two of her closest friends, I must warn that you’re more likely to be rubbing up against fat Germans the wrong side of sixty who don’t know their way around a Bic razor. I didn’t hang about in there long, but I spent three hours in the main complex one day and five the next: it was good for my bad back.

Something else I found interesting was the designers’ estimations of their clients’ intelligence. They had arranged three identical water fountains in the foyer as per the photo below:

The little sign on the nozzle on the two end fountains was like this:

But the sign on the one in the middle was like this:

Only in Germany would somebody install three identical fountains, make Nos. 1 and 3 dispense drinking water and the one in the middle non-drinkable, and rely on people reading signs to differentiate between them. Anywhere else in the world and they’d have to put the fountains on different floors. Inevitably, somebody told me that non-Germans (meaning, Russians) often end up drinking from the middle fountain. Nevertheless, the baths are well worth a visit: clean, accessible, and very well organised.

Germany is still an odd place, though. One evening I went with my friends to buy copious quantities of alcohol from a supermarket to drink in the apartment we’d rented. We arrived at about 9:45pm and the place closed at 10pm. For some reason I faffed about and by the time I got to the checkout it was 9:55pm and there was a large queue in front of me. For reasons known only to the people running the place, there was only one checkout working and three supermarket staff watching. As I moved along, the Germans in front of me started pointing to the bottle I’d placed on the conveyor belt and saying things like “Nein! Nein!” I couldn’t work it out until I saw the woman on the till frantically shoving the bottles of the customers in front over the scanner. Apparently once the clock on the till passes 10pm it’s not possible to buy alcohol. By the time my turn came it was about 10:02 and the bottle wouldn’t scan. The woman harangued me in German for a full minute, which I utterly ignored as if she were talking to somebody else about her dog: there was no point in arguing and I wasn’t interested in her explanations. I got the last laugh though: my bill came to €10.01 and I handed her a €20 note. She asked me if I had a cent and I said no, even though I did. Flexibility works both ways: you help me, and I’ll help you. After some huffing and puffing she gave me a €10 note in change. I left hoping she’ll be shot in the morning for that missing pfennig.

I wasn’t bothered about not being able to buy the booze, I had plenty of it already and my friends had gotten through ze German till with ein minute to spare. But it did highlight the difference between France and Germany. In France they’d have found a way to get around this restriction, one way or another. Either they’d have fiddled with the till or they’d have got a supervisor to override the block, or something. But they’d not tell a customer they couldn’t buy drink because the till said it was too late.

There were other reminders that I was in Germany, too. Last time I went was in 2012 and I thought the food was good but then I was living in Nigeria. Alas, this time around I found the food bloody awful: grey sausage on a bed of sauerkraut sitting in watery gravy. That’s what three years in France does to a person, it renders them unable to eat practically anywhere else. In one place I ordered a dish which came with two very small pork chops, which I found hiding under some cabbage. Halfway through the meal the waitress came over with a small bowl, like the kind you put sugar in, containing another two pork pieces. She said “These are for your meal,” and walked off. I dumped them on my plate and carried on eating. I was sat with a Frenchman at the time and I asked him if he could imagine this happening in a French restaurant, a chef forgetting to add half the meat and sending it out in a bowl later. He couldn’t, and neither could I.

The beer was good though, and cheap. Some things never change.


Knee-Jerk Evacuations

While I was in Germany I read that thousands of people were being evacuated from tower blocks in the UK after it was found they had the same cladding as the Grenfell Tower.

It started as a normal Friday night in north London. Some people were down the pub, others were watching TV or eating dinner. In some flats children were doing homework, preparing for exams.

But over the space of the following few hours around 3,000 people on the Chalcots estate were told to leave their homes and get out – immediately.

The call to evacuate came from Camden council after London Fire Brigade told it the safety of residents “could not be guaranteed”.

I am absolutely amazed that more hasn’t been made of the unfathomable levels of stupidity in this decision. My only explanation is that a lot of people find it sensible.

Suppose a passenger ship in the mid-Atlantic gets word that its sister ship has sunk with all souls lost because of a fire in the engine room. What does the captain do? Does he give an abandon ship order and have everyone take to the lifeboats? No, he doesn’t, because that would put the passengers in more danger. He would instead post a watch in the engine room, put his crew on full-alert for a possible fire and abandonment, maybe cut back on the throttle a bit, close the bar, and either complete the voyage as planned or set sail for the nearest port with suitable passenger-handling facilities. Even if there was a fire he’d not abandon ship: he’d attempt to get his crew to fight it first, while having everyone on standby to get the lifeboats launched. If he panicked and launched the lifeboats at the first word of a potential fire, he’d go down in history as one of the worst captains ever to take command.

Back in 2010 the engine of a Qantas A380 failed, forcing it to return to Singapore and make an emergency landing. The result was the grounding of all A380 aircraft using those engines while inspections were carried out and Rolls-Royce consulted. Note that these other planes were not immediately ordered to make emergency landings: that would have seriously endangered the passengers.

The evacuation of towers with similar cladding to that of the Grenfell Tower is a decision made in panic with seemingly no consideration of actual risk. It is the equivalent of the captain ordering everyone into the lifeboats too early or planes making emergency landings. Yes, the cladding is dangerous – but only once a fire has occurred in a flat and reached the outside. Resources and efforts would be far better spent on ensuring these two don’t occur – information campaign, inspections, temporary fire-fighting measures, posted watches – than ordering everyone out of their homes immediately.

Perhaps a risk analysis would recommend people evacuate, but none would say this needs to be done immediately. The risk might have been high, but it was not imminent: anyone who understood risk and safety ought to have known this, and been aware that ordering unnecessary emergency evacuations would put the residents in greater danger than leaving them in situ. Firstly, emergency evacuations and temporary housing are stressful and not good for people’s overall wellbeing, and secondly next time they’re told to move immediately some people might conclude it’s just a bureaucrat covering his arse.

The situation required cool heads and mature decisions, instead we’ve got headline-grabbing knee-jerk reactions. The people running things have not got a grip on how to manage risks in residential properties, but then we knew that already: we have a burned-out shell and dozens dead as proof. But what it shows is the clowns in charge haven’t learned anything in the aftermath: an irrational approach to risk and safety is still dangerous whether it comes in the form of callous neglect or panicked decisions.

Incidentally, this:

German authorities on Tuesday evacuated a high-rise apartment building in the western city of Wuppertal, over fire safety fears in the wake of London’s Grenfell Tower tragedy.

Wuppertal authorities said they had carried out a fire safety review following the Grenfell inferno, which left 79 people presumed dead, and found that the insulation on an 11-storey building posed a risk as it is flammable.

So much for the idea that the oh-so-clever and perfectly-regulated Germans would avoid a tragedy like the Grenfell Tower, eh? Some proper journalism wouldn’t go amiss occasionally, would it?


Taking the lead, German style

From the BBC:

Angela Merkel has said she sees no obstacles in the way of beginning Brexit talks as scheduled after Theresa May failed to win a majority in Thursday’s UK election.

The German chancellor said she believed Britain would stick to the timetable, adding the European Union was “ready”.

I don’t know if it was always like this, but the EU seems to have given up all pretence that it isn’t the Germans running things. A few weeks ago we were told there was an EU negotiating team and that Britain would have to deal with it, rather than individual countries. We were told the EU member states had such faith in their team that they took fifteen minutes to agree on the approach they’ll take when negotiating.

Yet here is Merkel apparently speaking on behalf of the EU. Would the Czech prime minister get away with that? And note that she made these remarks pretty much immediately the election result was known, so she obviously didn’t run any of this by the EU negotiating team or the member states. She’s just assumed that Germany can speak on behalf of the entire EU and isn’t even bothering to hide it any more.

A half-decent negotiator on the British side could use this to drive a coach and horses through the EU strategy. The trouble with that is we have almost no chance of getting one. Either way, mainland Europeans seem quite content with Germany assuming the leadership. Let’s hope they don’t change their mind on that at some point.