Sunday, December 25, 2011

My favorite flash mob

Happy holidays!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Appearances, not content

Ron Paul, member of the United States House of...
The allegedly unpresidential-looking Ron Paul. Image via Wikipedia
Earlier this year, I wrote over at SolarServer about my surprise at how Germans were willing to listen to nuclear experts who looked like hippies. I also blogged about it here:

My feeling is that, whatever their actual expertise, critics of nuclear power would need to look like conservative businessman to be heard out [in the US].

My observations were unfortunately spot-on, as we can now see in the coverage of presidential candidate Ron Paul. As the folks over at FAIR point out, the Washington Post starts off with the claim that Paul simply does not look right for the job. Another article in the Post also claims that Paul does not look "presidential."

Such reporting is indeed not uncommon in the US, where articles often start off with or at least include a description of the person. But as FAIR correctly states, the media are acting like it is unfortunate that we pay so much attention to appearance when, in fact, they could simply stop talking about it themselves and report on what Paul has to say – and I say that as someone who is diametrically opposed to many of his views.

Paul looks like a conservative businessman. The media's neglect of him on grounds of his looks and mannerisms is enough to make the Little Prince cringe.

Last week, I published this interview with British author Peter Watson, who agrees with me that Germany is far too grown-up for such shenanigans. (The German version is here if you want to read the [mostly negative] comments from German readers.)
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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Plagiator to protect "Internet freedom"

Around two years ago, when Germany's current governing coalition took office, I wrote about how I could not understand the cabinet appointments. Now, it seems that a certain Mr Guttenberg, whom I have written about considerably (the former German Defense Minister who committed flagrant plagiarism in his dissertation), has been asked to help EU Commissioner Kroes look into how freedom on the Internet can be protected.

Once again, I fail to understand why this particular person was chosen – though, of course, a slew of people have already felt free enough on Internet forums and blogs to surmise that Mr. Googleberg (aka Minister of Copy & Paste) is obviously the perfect choice for Internet freedom.

Nonetheless, he has apparently never said anything or had anything to do with this issue. Decisions like these undermine public faith in our democratic processes by making the impression that some politicians are simply too important to drop. In other words, personality trumps merit.
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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Korean cuisine

One of the most important experiences in a foreign country is the food. In Korea, the emphasis is on freshness and variety. I don't think I have ever seen so much freshness in my life, and the wide array of side dishes made some meals seem like they had 15 courses.

The Korean diet seems to be largely based on vegetables, and is very low on salt and fat. My hosts certainly made sure that I had enough to eat during my visit, but I did not gain any weight during those 8 days.

I put together a video for you to explain the experience. We have a lot to learn from Koreans. If Americans and Europeans switched from their prefab food to fresh vegetables, obesity would be drastically less common – as the waistlines in Korea show.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Korea: "Why can't we do that?"

Prof. Yong-Du Jun, whom I mentioned in my post yesterday, apparently leads a team of researchers working to make Korean cars quieter inside. When I heard that, I could not help but think about this video, where the chairman of Volkswagen (at about 2:00 minutes) sits inside a Hyundai at a car show and gets frustrated because the car "sounds so tight" ("nichts scheppert"). He asks his colleague, "How do they do it? BMW can't do it, and we can't do it. Why can they do it?"

Prof. Jun swears it's not because of him.

On a related note, further evidence that the Koreans don't like noise can be found in their metros, where trains enter the station behind noise barriers, and double doors open (one set of doors on the noise barrier, and the other on the train) for people to get in and out. This Wikipedia entry claims that "platform screen doors" are "common in Europe and Asia," but it only gives a few instances in Europe. These things are everywhere in Seoul, and Japan had them all over as well when I was there 13 years ago.

Friday, November 25, 2011

How my book got translated into Korean

I write (both of ;-)) you today from Seoul, Korea, where I will be holding two lectures comparing German and US energy policy next week. The person who invited me is also the Korean translator of my book, Energy Switch. We finally had the opportunity to talk about how he came to translate the book. The story is yet another event in my life proving that a lack of success can also be fortuitous.

His name is Yong-Du Jun, and he is a professor in Korea with a PhD from Cincinnati. Several years ago, he was a guest professor at the University of Nevada at Reno. One day, he decided he needed to learn more about energy (not just renewables!) and went to the library to check out some books. The first eight he tried to check out were all already on loan, and then he discovered mine, which was still available. Had more people been reading my book, it might have been checked out from the library in Reno – and therefore never translated into Korean.

We sat having lunch yesterday at a Japanese restaurant, and Yong-Du explained that he became absolutely fascinated with my book. He had not begun it as a proponent of renewables, but "I am 100% on your side now." He says he has not read Hermann Scheer and some of the other books that inspired me, but I had a similar experience with some of those books myself.

My book differs greatly from Scheer's in particular in one aspect: style. Scheer is a German, and Germans write as though they could not let their guard down intellectually. In doing so, they intimidate their readers. Germans are used to this and don't see anything wrong with it, but Americans want to be entertained, as the reviews of Scheer's latest book at Amazon demonstrate.

Yong-Du says he was fascinated by my style (which most Americans would probably consider to be run-of-the-mill popular science), and it apparently was challenging for him in the translation. He said he struggled to find that middle ground between tough engineering language and readable prose for laypeople. Come to think of it, I probably did, too.

Nonetheless, he says he does not think that Americans would like my book (it certainly hasn't sold well) because I am highly critical of what the US is doing. I told him I wasn't so sure – after all, people like Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman sell pretty well criticizing the US quite a bit. The main problem is that I sold far fewer copies in English than I did in German. Almost no one read my book in English.

But one guy did: Yong-Du, a professor of aerospace technology who now works in the automotive sector, was compelled to spend his scarce spare time translating my book about a topic unrelated to his work because he wanted his countrymen to read it, too. What an honor! It certainly was nice to sit there and have someone so knowledgeable tell you that your book changed their life. It's a feeling I hope a lot of you have at some point. Honestly, that one sentence from him made writing the book worthwhile on its own.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Plagiarism - now it's me

In mid-September, I was reading through Die Zeit online when I discovered an article about Global 2000, a report commissioned by President Jimmy Carter. I was interested because I did not know of any reason to be writing about that study now, and as I read on I realized that the presentation sounded quite familiar – such as here:

Vor allem aber den Klimawandel beschreiben die Global 2000-Experten bereits so, wie man ihn heute in allen Ausmaßen kennt. Die Temperaturen an den Polen klettern rascher als am Äquator, der Meeresspiegel wird steigen, die Erderwärmung könnte sich bis 2100 um drei bis sechs Grad erhöhen. Hierfür sei die Verbrennung fossiler Rohstoffe eine der Hauptursachen. Frühere Studien, die dieses Phänomen untersucht haben, bezieht Global 2000 in seine Analyse mit ein und bezeichnet deren Ergebnisse als »vielleicht sogar zu konservativ«. Acht Jahre bevor der Nasa-Mitarbeiter James E. Hansen im US-Kongress seine bahnbrechenden Klimaszenarien präsentierte, findet sich in Global 2000 bereits die Bezeichnung greenhouse effect –Treibhauseffekt.

It's quite a succinct wrap-up of the more than 1,000-page study – or at at least, that's what I thought when I drew exactly the same conclusions roughly four and a half years ago to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Carter's speech on the energy crisis from 1977 (no, not the "malaise speech"/Crisis of Confidence from 1979):

Global 2000 [listet] alles so auf, wie man es heute auch kennt: Die Wissenschaftler wissen nicht genau, wie die Folgen aussehen werden, aber vermutlich steigen die Temperaturen an den Polen schneller an als am Äquator; der Meeresspiegel steigt; die Erde wird vielleicht 3-6 Grad wärmer bis 2100 und die Verbrennung von fossilen Brennstoffen ist wohl eine der Hauptursachen, wenn nicht die größte. Global 2000 bezieht sich auf frühere Studien, die vor einer bevorstehenden Katastrophe warnen und nennt deren Ergebnisse "vielleicht sogar zu konservativ". Rund ein Jahrzehnt vor Hansens Bekanntmachung spricht Global 2000 von einem – im Original in Klammern gesetzten - "greenhouse effect".

As chance would have it, just a few days later security expert Bruce Schneier blogged about a study on software to detect plagiarism, which discusses the difficulty:

[the software] captures only the most flagrant form of plagiarism, where passages are copied from one document and pasted unchanged into another. Just as shoplifters slip the goods they steal under coats or into pocketbooks, most plagiarists tinker with the passages they copy before claiming them as their own. In other words, they cloak their thefts by scrambling the passages and right-clicking on words to find synonyms. This isn't writing; it is copying, cloaking and pasting; and it's plagiarism.
Kerry Segrave is a right-clicker, changing "cellar of store" to "basement of shop." Similarly, he changes goods to items, articles to goods, accomplice to confederate, neighborhood to area, and women to females. He is also a scrambler, changing "accidentally fallen" to "fallen accidentally;" "only with" to "with only;" and, "Leon and Klein," to "Klein and Leon." And, he scrambles phrases within sentences; in other words, the phases of his sentences are sometimes scrambled.

That's what the author at Die Zeit did: tweaked some of the wordings while sticking to my underlying analysis (my "almost a decade beforehand" becomes "eight years earlier"). I actually caught him red-handed, for my article in German was based on the English original, not the German translation, and he gives himself away in the German by quoting passages that occur in my German text but not verbatim in the official published German edition of the book.

You are probably all (or should I say, "both"?) wondering how this prestigious newspaper would react to the news, and I certainly was curious – so I wrote the author's editor. His basically said they will try to do better next time, but it is not really plagiarism because my text was not a dissertation. I then reported all of this to the publisher of my German article, who also said I would simply embarrass myself by making a fuss out of this – after all, I had simply written an article, not a dissertation.

I suppose there are two explanations for this reaction, which puzzles me: 1) it's possible that all of the discussion about plagiarized dissertations in Germany over the past year has made Germans see some kind of exclusive connection between plagiarism and dissertations; 2) it's possible that Germans believe that dissertations are somehow more "real" than mere journalism, whereas I have no illusions about dissertations generally containing original work. Maybe they did 100 years ago, but to my mind a dissertation is the thing you do in order to get a real job, such as in journalism. For me, the journalism is what lots of people read, and that's where you can have an impact. Maybe that's why I thought a dissertation would be a waste of time and never bothered to write one.

I did tell the clever plagiarist's editor that if Die Zeit thinks my ideas are good enough to publish, they should order them directly from me next time, but the editor merely responded that no one at his newspaper would have time to do any work if they went after everyone who plagiarized them. It's a silly response – I doubt that there are too many cases of serious publications stealing outright from Die Zeit – but at least I now know a little more about how Germans feel about plagiarism. And about how hard it is to get into major mainstream papers.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

An absolutely fantastic (interactive) chart

For my upcoming presentation at the ATA Conference in Boston, I was thinking about using this chart to illustrate the energy sector in the US in general – until I noticed that it has a severe flaw: the blocks on the left and right should be exactly the same size going up and down.

Now, I see that Bloomberg has come up with a really fantastic interactive version of basically the same information and has gotten rid of that beginner's mistake. Check it out for yourself.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Friday, July 29, 2011

Covers of Time

An interesting comparison of the various covers of Time magazine over at FAIR, and I suspect you could make such a comparison just about any week.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

NYT on taxation levels

As if to prove what I was saying a few days ago – that low taxation is in fact the main cause of US debt and that raising the peak tax rate is the quickest and easiest way to solve the problem – the New York Times has produced a chart showing how the debt has come about over the past two presidents.

I was not aware that Obama's stimulus package does not even make up half the value of Bush's tax cuts for the rich, and that Bush's tax cuts actually even exceed what was spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Plagiarism update -- German sense of humor

Quite a bit has been happening in the past few weeks in Germany's ongoing plagiarism saga. First, CDU politician Bernd Althusmann will apparently soon face official plagiarism charges from his university. Second, FDP politician Chatzimarkakis has definitely lost his doctorate – and says he will be writing his dissertation again. Third, FDP politician Margarita Mathiopoulos is once again having her dissertation reviewed. Fourth, SPD politician Uwe Brinkmann has lost his doctorate on charges of plagiarism.

And finally, FDP politician Koch-Mehrin, whose doctorate was also revoked because of plagiarism, is taking her university to court because, as she sees it, they should've caught her back then and it's too late now.

And you thought Germans didn't have a sense of humor...

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Balancing the budget

If you haven't seen the Budget Hero yet, it is a sort of online game that you can use to make decisions about how to balance the US budget. 

Personally, I find it hard to use (if I want to replay it to change some things, I have a hard time getting it started again, and it seems hard to get the thing to play right away without instructions), but my main problem is the lack of options. It seems that the programmers merely put in a few options that are on the table without allowing you to change things that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans currently propose.

For instance, the first thing I would do is start gradually raising peak tax rates for the rich back up to the levels we had during the baby boom years, for instance under Republican President Eisenhower. As Robert Reich has pointed out, the peak tax rate was 91 percent back then. Note that this would not affect the middle class much – only the people who are able to pay more in taxes would pay more.

The problem with our budget deficit is that we have reduced tax revenue over the past three decades even as we increased spending.

Budget Hero does not allow me to change the peak tax rate, though it would be informative to see how that would affect the budget deficit. In my attempt, I managed to postpone US bankruptcy until 2032 – but we still went bust. In other words, there is no plan on the table for the US to get out of the red.

Here it is if you want to give it a go.

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Friday, July 22, 2011

German rating agency

I recently talked about rating agencies, and it turns out that there is one in Germany, though it is hardly known – and lo and behold, the German one has a different rating for the US. If you can read German, this press release (PDF) from June 8 announces that Feri has changed its assessment of the US from AAA to AA.

I can't really assess this, but as I stated in my previous post, I also cannot understand why the big three US-based rating agencies give countries like Greece and Portugal (much less Ireland, which has actually turned things around) such a bad rating while the US remains AAA.

If anyone knows of any other rating agencies in the EU, I'd be interested in hearing about them.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Desk chair

Over at her blog, my colleague Jill Sommer talks about the importance of a good desk chair, and I couldn't agree more.

I believe I bought this chair to the left around six years ago. It cost a fortune (easily four figures in euros, but I'm not quite sure anymore, and it doesn't exist on the web), but it is worth it.

My previous chair looked very much the same but broke after about five years, and the leather was already looking worn down. It was from Ikea and cost around 300 euros, if I remember correctly. Ikea no longer offers it.

This one is going strong, and as you can see the leather is not worn down anywhere; there are only a few creases.

I should admit, however, that I practically stopped using the chair a year ago, when I started sitting on the sofa with my laptop. The sofa is not good for everything (such as using two screens), but for 90 percent of the work that I do, it's just me hammering out sentences, so the sofa is great.

All of this is terrible for your muscles, so there's no substitute for yoga twice a week.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Japan rocks, part II

Japanese defender Aya Sameshima, a real sweety-pie
Today is Ocean Day in Japan, and my Japanese friend I watched the game with last night says that everyone goes out to the beach today.

I expected the final of the women's World Cup to be exciting, but it exceeded my expectations. I saw Japan shut down undefeated Sweden, and I saw the US rally back against Brazil and France. Lots of commentators over here compared Japan to Barca, confirming my impression that they controlled the ball with short passes a bit like the Spanish national team. So I expected Japan to dominate the game, but if any team could pull victory from the jaws of defeat, the US could.

In fact, Japan was lucky to still be in the game after the first 15 minutes, and it was them who rallied back, though they never managed to control the ball the way I expected.

My Japanese friend says that two of the players on the national team are actually from the Fukushima area. One of them is left defender Aya Sameshima, who is a joy to watch – and look at. Since her team's facilities were destroyed, she apparently moved to the US and now plays for Boston.

So congratulations to the Japanese, and I hope you enjoy your day off at the beach.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Rating agencies

Maybe someone can help me out here. I have been looking for a chart that provides a quick comparison of countries like the US, Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Italy, etc. to get a better understanding of why a particular country gets in trouble (pretty much every EU country listed) with rating agencies and another (the US) doesn't.

There is some material out there, such as the chart to the left from here, showing that the US is one of the worst performers according to a single parameter (national governmental debt per capita in euros – the figure reportedly rises to around 250,000 euros per capita if we include debt at all levels of government and include private debt [see the second chart below from here]), but part of the problem is that the criteria on which the three major rating agencies, all of which are based in New York City incidentally, are not actually known, so it would be hard to come up with an exhaustive chart.

I can tell you that the general sentiment over here in Europe is that these rating agencies are run mainly by a number of large US investors with a preference for their interests in the US – hence the double standard. It is hard to come up with financial figures demonstrating that the United States is currently in a much better financial position than the European countries currently under attack. But if you know of any such articles, feel free to drop me a link in the comments below.

It is worth keeping in mind an article from the Washington Post from 2004, which essentially describes these rating agencies as a kind of mafia. They go door to door to companies offering to give them a free rating along with a request that the company should pay for these ratings at some point in the future. If the company repeatedly refuses to pay, the rating agency goes into full-attack mode and severely downgrades the company's stock. Such attacks are especially egregious when the rating agency that the company actually pays continues to give the firm a good rating.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Another FDP politician faces plagiarism charges

This time, the culprit is Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, who has been in the news recently quite a bit because he is half Greek, half German and has therefore repeatedly been asked to explain what's going on in Greece to German TV audiences. I found him to be quite an affable fellow, especially because he openly says he holds both passports; Germany officially does not allow double citizenship, but in practice foreigners are not allowed to keep their passports when they become German – there are practically no checks of whether someone with a German passport has or gets another.

Anyway, this guy really takes the cake with his dissertation. In the chart you see, the blue stuff at the beginning and end is the intro and bibliography, which are not checked for plagiarism. In the rest, the white stuff is where no plagiarism was found. As of this morning, plagiarism had been found on 72 percent of this guy's dissertation, and all of the red stuff is pages that were more than 75 percent plagiarized. He is expected to lose his doctorate officially in two weeks.

This from the party whose slogan is "Leistung muss sich lohnen" (performance should be rewarded).

On a similar note, his fellow FDP politician Koch-Mehrin, who also lost her doctorate, refuses to step down as a member of European Parliament, though she was forced to step down from the committee on research after a slew of German researchers said they refused to be represented by someone who had so obviously committed plagiarism. Otherwise, Koch-Mehrin is sticking to her position that her university did not catch her plagiarism when she submitted her dissertation and therefore has no right to take away her doctorate.

You have to admire her for her chutzpah.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Germans oppose tax cuts

Several times in the past, I have written about how Germans oppose tax cuts. Now, Germany is doing so well that tax revenue far exceeds budget plans – it's like Germany is undergoing the boom the US had in the 1990s. According to Deutsche Bank, tax revenue is up 10 percent, and the budget deficit is now below two percent of GDP.

The governing coalition has responded in an American way by saying it will lower taxes, but the Germans are having none of it. Economics journal Handelsblatt – the closest thing that Germany has to the Wall Street Journal – announced today that it is sending a copy of today's issue to all members of the FDP (Germany's libertarians, the party closest to the Democrats and Republicans as I once explained); the paper argues that the debt should be paid off before taxes are cut, and apparently readers overwhelmingly agreed, as the letters to the editor indicate.

As I mentioned in that blog post about the FDP, what started off in Germany and Austria – and partly in Freiburg – as "ordoliberalism" has become a blanket call for smaller government in the US. But the original idea lives on in Germany, and yesterday the editor of Handelsblatt published an editorial entitled "Der große Selbstbetrug" (which could be loosely translated as "Facing the facts"), in which he argues, as he himself puts it, along "ordopolitical" lines that "we should pay down our debt before we fritter away our future capital."

So there you have it – German politicians continue to propose tax cuts, and Germans will have none of it, with the people behind Germany's version of the Wall Street Journal being among the most vehemently opposed.

Diane Sawyer apparently perceived as leftist

As I mentioned in my penultimate post, I tried to find some indications that Diane Sawyer, a Republican by all indications, had at some point changed her political position towards the left – and could not find any.

What I did find was a number of right-wing websites that list a number of statements she made, which the right-wingers perceived as being leftist (see these of Google hits). This particular website contains a particularly long list of instances, and though the number of responses is quite low this discussion over at Yahoo is also revealing.

Apparently, people are not well-informed enough to realize when they are dealing with someone close to the Republicans; all you have to do to be charged with liberalism is be in the media.

Monday, June 27, 2011

How Americans see the French

Over at Harper's, John R MacArthur wrote an interesting article a few weeks ago about how he, the son of a French woman, views American perceptions about the French, particularly in the context of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's current court case:

If America really respected women, we would follow the French model. Reducing economic stress tends to reduce stress on marriages and helps keep families together. I’ve been the direct beneficiary of France’s family/women-friendly policies — from the private hospital room that permitted me or my wife, at no extra cost, to stay overnight with our sick daughter to the Napoleonic Code that prevented my French grandfather from disinheriting my mother and my aunt. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that the French divorce rate is lower than America’s (43 percent compared with 49 percent, says Divorce magazine)...

Germany actually comes in at 41 percent.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Former Nixon aide a source of left-wing bias?

Diane Sawyer as press aide shortly after Watergate.
The interview between Jon Stewart and Chris Wallace on Fox News has drawn quite a bit of attention (if you have not seen it, it is here). While everyone seems mainly focused on Wallace's admission that Fox intentionally tries to go far right to counterbalance the perceived left-wing bias in the rest of the media, I found another aspect to be peculiar.

One of the examples that Wallace gives of left-wing media bias is the way Diane Sawyer presented a particular issue. Stewart does not point it out, but Diane Sawyer is a peculiar choice for a source of left-wing bias. She started her career as a Republican press aide and worked as a "literary assistant" (as Wikipedia puts it) to Richard Nixon – after Watergate and even after his resignation.

I don't know if Sawyer has changed her political stance over the past 35 years, but I could not find any indication that she did so in a quick search online. If she remains a Republican supporter, then she is surely a poor example of a source of left-wing bias.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Dragon Dictate and Wordfast in Word 2011 on Mac

Last week, I purchased a MacBook Pro with an SSD drive and eight GB of RAM. In the work that I do, I require special Translation Memory software, and I choose to use Dragon NaturallySpeaking on my Windows machines instead of typing.

I wanted to comment in some detail on the performance of this set up just in case anyone else is thinking of going the same route.

To cut to the chase, Dragon Dictate only works properly on a Mac within the software’s own Note Pad. If you are coming from Dragon NaturallySpeaking on Windows, you are in for a terrible disappointment, and if you would like to use Dragon Dictate in a wide range of programs – from browsers to Microsoft Word – you are likely to regret this purchase.

In the reviews of Dragon Dictate for Mac online (such as at, there are some mentions about how slow the program is within Word. The Translation Memory software I choose to use is Wordfast Classic, which runs as a set of VBA commands within Word – in other words, I need to use Dragon Dictate on a Mac the way I use it on Windows: to dictate what I say, not to navigate around my computer. In particular, the Translation Memory software has a whole array of keyboard shortcuts to speed up work.

It turns out that there is a “golden rule” for Dragon Dictate on Macs that I have never encountered for Dragon NaturallySpeaking on Windows – you cannot use the keyboard at all at any point during the dictation session. Since I am fortunately not handicapped, I do not need Dragon to navigate around my computer; I simply use it so I do not have to type in what I am saying. Dragon has allowed me, since 2005, to look at a text in one language and speak it aloud in English – et voilà, when I looked down, the text was already typed there for me with 99% accuracy.

This simply does not work with my particular configuration now. Dragon Dictate has all sorts of glitches on Mac OS. Like its predecessor, MacSpeech, Dragon Dictate leaves leading spaces all over the place every time you move the cursor by hand. On various user forums, you will learn that the command “purge cache” can be used to stop that from happening. Basically, the program tries to remember everything in the text you are working on so that if you want to correct something somewhere, it will know where to go to. If you ask the program to purge (erase) the cache, it will assume there is no text and start from scratch. At least, that’s what the manual says.

In practice, the purge-cache command only gets rid of the space. The first word you say will be capitalized, so if you don’t want that word capitalized, have fun trying to tell the computer that.

In fact, the situation is even worse, as the manual itself says – take a look at this screenshot:

Essentially, this blurb means that you are still screwed every now and then even if you do not use your keyboard while dictating.

All of this would be completely unnecessary if Dragon Dictate had a mode that allowed you to completely do without all of these commands and just have the program dictate exactly what you say. If you want a capitalized word, you will have to say “cap,” and if you want a leading space, you will have to say “space.” Then, if you don’t say either thing, you get no space and a lowercase word. That would be a lot more convenient than what the program does now.

If you would like to see how terrible all of this is, visit my video here (give the video about 20 seconds to start showing something; for some reason, it's gray for the first 20 seconds after I uploaded it):

If any translators would like to comment,  I'd love to hear what you have to say, especially if I am getting some things wrong here.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Another "Plagiator" bites the dust

As I mentioned a while back, another prominent German politician, Koch-Mehrin, was accused of plagiarism, and yesterday her university nullified her doctorate.

I wondered in that previous post why so many of the people under review seem to be from conservative parties, and it turns out – according to a colleague of mine over at Heise, who put together the chart you see – that those parties actually have the largest number of doctorates. Not only are the Greens a relatively small party in the German Parliament, but only around 10% of its MPs have a doctorate – half as many as in the CDU or the FDP (Koch-Mehrin's party).

So perhaps the swarm is not as politically motivated as it may seem.

Disappointingly, Koch-Mehrin has yet to step down from her position as a high-level MP in European Parliament (where she continues to make a killing), nor has she admitted any guilt. On the contrary, on the nightly news last night, there was speculation that she might take the university to court to challenge the legality of revoking her doctorate.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

German video on US coverage of Merkel's visit

German public television has a very impressive online video library, where most things are available – even for downloading – for at least a week.

I was thus impressed to find this video below online for downloading when a reader of this blog commented that it must have been a local paper the Germans were complaining about when they didn't like the coverage of Merkel's visit. On the news program during lunch time, the correspondent in Washington shows that, in addition to covering Libya and Syria, the New York Times covers “a senator's sex scandal” (probably Mr. Weiner) and something about US TV moderators, while the Washington Post at least mentions Merkel's visit – but only in terms of her “evening dress,” referring readers to the lifestyle section.

On another news show (I can't remember which, so I couldn't look for the video), the Washington correspondent came to the same conclusion (one of the papers focused on the desert at dinner: apple strudel) after looking at major US papers and commented that, while Obama may treat Merkle as an equal, Berlin is obviously by no means on the same level with Washington – meaning that it's a big deal for Germans when Obama visits, but Germany is simply not as important for Americans.

For what it's worth, I didn't get the impression that this conclusion was drawn in malice, but simply stated as a matter of fact.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Merkel in US

The German media are incredulous about their Chancellor's reception in the US – not because she has been poorly received, but because so little attention is being paid to the event in the media. Repeatedly, reporters on German TV flipped through US newspapers to show what the US reports on – and to show that Merkel's visit just barely warrants a mention alongside all the wars the US is fighting and a number of things that seem trivial from abroad (and are, in fact, trivial).

Friday, May 27, 2011

Thanks for the mention!

From Telepolis, where my publishing career started:

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Former German Chancellor Schmidt on killing of Osama

Yesterday, Helmut Schmidt – the former German chancellor who is also a frequent contributor to German weekly newspaper Die Zeit – stated that the murder of Osama bin Laden violates international law. He also said that Americans have become used to "not viewing international law as binding for themselves."

I don't know much about international law, but it seems a no-brainer to me that a country cannot assassinate someone. Schmidt makes an interesting comparison with the attempted assassination of Hitler, which he said did not violate international law, but I don't follow his reasoning. First, I'm not sure what the law was before the end of World War II; second, it was not a state, but individual Germans (who wished to take over the state) who attempted to assassinate Hitler.

Whatever the case, the most interesting thing for me remains the drastically different reaction to the killing of Osama in the US and in Germany.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Germany and US on Osama killing

The first thing I thought when I heard the news about Osama's killing was, "Is that legal?"

It's apparently not a question that a lot of Americans are concerned about, though it was pretty much the first thing discussed over here. German Chancellor Angela Merkel commented in wag-the-dog fashion that she was "pleased that Osama was killed," which drew a lot of criticism from within her party (which calls itself Christian) as to whether anyone can be pleased about a killing.

Now that the initial excitement in the US has died down a bit, the voices asking tough questions are moving into the foreground – such as Harpers, where John R MacArthur wrote this week of

the unseemly displays of patriotic fist-pumping by Americans who feel themselves superior to chanting Islamic radicals

Those were indeed interesting images (and MacArthur asks a lot of other tough questions, so it's worth reading in full). It's hard to understand why Americans don't realize how these images are seen around the world. Over here in Germany, it was a mixture of head-shaking and indifference, but – aside from politicians, whom diplomacy prevents from voicing criticism – few were pleased, much less dancing in the street. And Germany is a close American ally; I wonder how those images of Americans dancing in the street were seen in places like Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Horton on Madison

An excellent essay (PDF) by Scott Horton on what James Madison might think of the current US political system today, with this sad conclusion:

... our hope against a police state rests more on the good will of those who make up the Executive Branch, and less on the checks and balances that James Madison crafted...

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Plagiarism V - the swarm strikes again

POTSDAM, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 20:  Silvana Koch...Koch-Mehrin, who once said she was "to pretty not to take advantage" of her looks. Image by Getty Images via @daylifeAs I mentioned in my previous post on this matter, the wiki that took down Dr. Mr. Guttenberg has gone after some other politicians – and has not come up empty-handed.

Here, just under 19 percent of the pages in Dr. Silvana Koch-Mehrin's dissertation have been found to contain plagiarized passages – up from 14 percent yesterday. A member of the libertarian FDP (whose matra once was Leistung muss sich lohnen – "performance has to pay") is one of 14 vice presidents in the European Parliament.

She made headlines in 2009 for not showing up to parliamentary sessions; her attendance rate was apparently near the bottom. She sicced her lawyers on the newspaper – the FAZ, arguably Germany's most respected daily newspaper – that reported her attendance rate of around 40 percent, claimed that irregular record-keeping was the problem, and raised the figure to 75 percent (a figure doubted by the press), which apparently still puts her below the average for EU parliamentarians. She then stated that the rest of the time she had been in committee meetings where decisions are actually made, but a CDU EU-MP stated that she had only been to around 10-20 percent of the committee meetings.

Anyone who wants proof that plagiarism matters can take KM as a case in point. There have been signs all along – in addition to her terrible work ethic – that she is also not exactly well informed and must have gotten by (like Guttenberg) on impressive looks. On this TV show (video), she famously estimated that Germany's debt had increased by 6,000 euros during the 75-minute show. The other experts guessed between 15 and 25 million, and indeed the figure was just under 20 million.


A popular, very talented German comedy talk show host makes her density quite clear (he also quotes her "I'm too pretty to waste" statement). There are some pretty funny points, but I'll focus on one that's not – she states:

Everyone who's at least 18 can vote, and it is our job as politicians to explain things so that everyone can understand them regardless of their level of education.

Actually, no. That might be the job of journalists, but not politicians. Politicians are supposed to understand what's going on and come up with solutions to problems. But she is especially good at acting as though she understands things. We now at least know why she probably doesn't actually understand complex things like German debt – she faked it throughout her studies.

Another person who obviously felt that a doctorate was owed to her is Dr. Veronica Saß, the daughter of Edmund Stoiber of the CSU. At the moment, 45 percent of the pages in her dissertation have been found to contain plagiarism. And the CDU's Dr. Matthias Pröfrock (any association with Eliot's laughable character of a similar name is purely fortuitous) has apparently also used copy & paste throughout nearly half of his dissertation.

So we have one person from the CDU, two people from the CSU, and one person from the FDP – why has no one from the SPD or the Greens been caught? Could it be that the people in the swarm looking into plagiarism are only of one political camp? Or do leftists commit plagiarism less often?

Incidentally, Guttenberg himself was back in the news recently for siccing his lawyers on his old university to prevent their conclusions about plagiarism in his dissertation (the reviewers apparently conclude it was intentional) from being made public. The move obviously backfired, so now Guttenberg says he was misunderstood – he didn't want anything published before it was official.

  “That is not it at all,
  That is not what I meant, at all.”

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Maps of Japan

This map from Die Zeit shows the area "affected by the earthquake and tsunami" and also places it within Germany for a better perspective.

Nonetheless, it's not what I'm looking for. News reporters say that the main damage was caused by the tsunami, and they often report from areas affected by the earthquake, which they say are safer and still have infrastructure.

I'd be interested to see this kind of map, but with a distinction made between the area affected by the tsunami and the one affected by the earthquake.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Germany's no-fight zone

I'm not much of a warmonger, but the resolution of the UN Security Council to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya is good news. Unfortunately, Germany abstained from voting and will not be helping out militarily.

The reasons given by the government are that there is no way to tell where military intervention will stop – we may become as entangled as we are in Afghanistan and Iraq. Prominent German intellectuals, such as Josef Joffe of Die Zeit, agree that the risks outweigh the potential benefits.

I disagree. The Arab revolution is potentially the best thing to happen to the planet this century, but in countries like Libya and Bahrain the people saying "give me liberty, or give me death" are getting death. We have a moral obligation to stop these dictators from using military equipment they largely bought from us against their own people, and if that means we become militarily entangled, so be it – we are entangled anyway, which is what too many German intellectuals refuse to accept. And I say that to as someone who never supported the attacks on Afghanistan or Iraq (either in 2003 or 1991).

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Japanese TV on German TV

While most of the attention on German television has shifted away from the effects of the earthquake and tsunami towards the nuclear problem, a German news channel (ZDFinfo) is broadcasting live Japanese television with German interpreters, and the coverage is once again quite different. The Japanese are focusing on hospitals with intermittent electricity (people are dying because their life-support systems and treatment are unstable), the lack of blankets and food for the countless people who are homeless, and similar issues. They do mention the nuclear disaster, but the footage is from shelters, clinics, etc.

Seeing Japanese television helps put into perspective the claims on international TV that the Japanese are playing down the nuclear danger. I don't think they are playing down anything. These folks need help.

Although we are flooded with information, it is surprising to see how hard it is to get a good idea of what area was actually devastated by the tsunami. If anyone has any information about square kilometers, please let me know. The maps I find about the area affected by the tsunami primarily concern wave propagation across the Pacific.

The maps about the landmass in Japan vary greatly, from this map, which shows a small strip of the coast, to this one at the New York Times, which indicates a much lager area of "heavy shaking" with pictures showing tsunami damage a long way down the coast. If anyone knows of any more specific maps, please comment below.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"Situation here is slowly deteriorating"

Sad words from a friend in Tokyo, Japan. Over the weekend, he wrote that everything was okay, and the worst had been averted.

It's heart-breaking. You can't turn on the TV in the morning anymore. There's something new every day.

The New York Times has a list of ways to help.

Gizmodo has a posted video of the tsunami rolling in taken by an amateur along with a Google Street View link of the same area before the earthquake. At Facebook, my brother has also posted a link to this set of photos of satellite images before/after, including an image of the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Japan on BBC and German TV

This image from the BBC is wrong. It should be a pie chart for electricity, not "energy" -- as a quick search at Wikipedia reveals, oil makes up roughly half of Japan's energy supply, which is what I would expect. Nuclear makes up less than half of what the BBC reports.
As the dire events in Japan apparently continue to worsen, I can't help noticing some clear differences in the reporting on the German public television and the BBC (which is what I have at home). On the BBC, there has been a lot of talk over the weekend about how markets will react and how what is going on compares to Three Mile Island. A number of nuclear experts in business suits from this or that institute or university have come on to explain the technology to the general public.

In Germany (in my subjective perception), there was absolutely no talk about stock markets over the weekend (though that changed slightly today after the Nikkei opened), and comparisons are made primarily to Chernobyl, not Three Mile Island. Nuclear experts explaining what is exactly happening have prominently included people like Michael Sailer of the Institute of Applied Ecology and a handful of nuclear experts from Greenpeace; spokespeople from nuclear institutes have been few and far between. While the folks from Greenpeace generally look like a 30-year-old PhD students in physics in casual wear, Sailer outright looks like a hippie from the 1970s.

I say that not to disparage Sailor and the folks from Greenpeace; indeed, you take these folks lightly at your peril. They will explain current law, the history of nuclear power, and the differences between Japanese and German nuclear reactors in great detail, so if you want to oppose them, you have your work cut out for you. Sailer himself is the chairman of the German government's Nuclear Waste Commission.

I wonder whether such people would be taken seriously in the UK – or the US, for that matter; but alas, I do not have US TV at home. My feeling is that, whatever their actual expertise, critics of nuclear power would need to look like conservative businessman to be heard out.

As I was writing this, there was also a report on the BBC about how events in Japan might change Germany's plans to extend the lives of its nuclear power plants beyond 32 years. I tend to agree with German Environmental Minister Röttgen, who says that we need to focus on what has changed. Just because an accident happens does not mean that the risk of nuclear is any greater. As I wrote back in my book (published in 2006 but completed in 2005):

... nuclear power plants should not be built in areas prone to natural disasters like earthquakes, such as Japan, which has 52 plants. As Leuren Moret, the whistle-blower from the Lawrence Livermore Nuclear Weapons Laboratory’s Yucca Mountain Project, recently put it, “Of all the places in all the world where no one in their right mind would build scores of nuclear power plants, Japan would be pretty near the top of the list.”

So we knew such accidents could happen. As Röttgen points out, what we now know is that the precautions taken at nuclear plants in Japan were apparently not great enough – the plants may have been insufficiently protected against tsunamis, and they were designed to withstand earthquakes up to a magnitude of 8.2, whereas they got magnitude 9.

Röttgen seems to be suggesting that German nuclear plants should be reviewed with an eye to increasing safety requirements considerably. As Sailer points out, nothing has been done to the plants over the past decade since they were expected to be taken off-line anyway. Germany may very well decide that far stricter safety requirements are needed, and power companies could then react by opting to shut the plants down instead.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Japan rocks

13 years ago this month, I was in Japan with a group of Germans. We visited Kobe, which had been leveled by a giant earthquake less than three years earlier. As we stood above the city at a lookout point, the German Consul said that everything we were looking at had been flattened. It was hard to believe that the Japanese had taken less than three years to put a whole city back together.

Roughly 7 years later, I thought of Kobe again when I visited my hometown of New Orleans four months after Katrina. I also went back four years later in November 2009. Too bad the Japanese are not in charge of rebuilding New Orleans.

Only a few weeks ago, there was a report of a sizable earthquake in Japan that had apparently caused no deaths and little damage. I wasn't surprised. Of all the countries I visited, I don't think any impressed me more than Japan. In the 1990s, they had toilet tanks with sinks on top (something like this) – while the tank was filling up, you could rinse your hands using the same water. Taxi drivers had buttons to open the back doors for you. Someone in our party left a briefcase in the train, and the thing was returned to us in a different part of the country several days later. While visiting a famous site, we found an expensive wristwatch sitting atop a railing. Apparently, it had been lost, and the finder put it there in case the person came back looking.

But a magnitude of 8.9 is too much. To get an idea, keep in mind that the largest earthquake ever recorded is only 9.5. According to this list, the Sendai earthquake that happened today is the seventh largest ever. Good luck, Japan.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Happy 100th Women's Day!

Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg, 1910.Image via Wikipedia
Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg
International Women's Day is a German invention that goes back to Clara Zetkin. In a previous life, I studied German history and culture and remember being blown away by her life story. At one point, I wanted to write a biography about her; her unwavering bravery inspired me. (I should admit that I have practically forgotten everything I learned for my Masters, so I couldn't tell you anything about her today.)

It is with all the more dismay that I read the comments about Women's Day in Germany, for instance here at Die Zeit. A weekly newspaper, Die Zeit is arguably the most intellectual in Germany, so it is perhaps all the more surprising to read what some men are willing to post. In a nutshell: women are not further along because they don't deserve to be.

I have the impression that German men are, by and large, less macho than Americans, but the openness with which so many German men express their bigotry never fails to surprise me. Any self-respecting American racist/sexist knows how to preface a real whopper: "now, I'm not racist/sexist, but…" No such false modesty in Germany.

During lunch, there was a report about female circumcision on German television. There isn't much, if anything, that makes me cringe more -- but, of course, that's a barbaric practice from underdeveloped countries, and we are far more enlightened...

Rather than bore you with my opinion on what needs to be done, etc., I'd just like to say that, in my experience, the most likable people I have met did not really see themselves primarily as men or women.

But two things do come to mind that I think everyone should know. First, contrary to the lyrics sung by the Neville Brothers, Rosa Parks was not tired (except "of giving in") when she refused to stand up. And second, the Solidarnosc movement that eventually indirectly led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union would not have been possible without Anna Walentynowicz. Both of those movements really only took off when a man took over at the helm; we were not ready yet for a woman leader.
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Monday, March 7, 2011

Cutting funding for public broadcasting in the US

When I have the time, I try to listen to podcasts of the Diane Rehm show, and on this one from January 20 (I am a bit behind) the speakers provide two interesting statistics:

  1. Funding for public broadcasting in the US makes up only 1/25th of one percent of discretionary spending in the US budget, and
  2. Expenditures on public broadcasting in the US pale in comparison to the budgets in other countries. While PBS costs the average US citizen 1.35 dollars per year, a Brit spends 82 dollars a year on the BBC, while a Canadian spends 30 dollars on the CBC (Japan also comes in at around 60 dollars per capita each year). 

While the speaker did not talk about Germany, based on the figures I discuss here Germany would come in even above the level of the BBC at closer to 100 dollars per year per person. The monthly subscription rate is around 20 dollars a month per household, but people without televisions (and, more recently, without computers) do not have to pay, and there are exceptions for people with televisions who are undergoing hardship.

Clearly, there is no money to be saved from cutting funding for public broadcasting. The attack therefore cannot be financially motivated; it is political. Take away public broadcasting, and you are left with corporate-financed media – which is exactly what many Republicans want.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Guttenberg's gone

Guttenberg has finally stepped down.

One of the most interesting aspects of this issue was the public's continuing support for the German Defense Minister. In the recent polls published this weekend, an overwhelming majority of Germans across all political parties wanted him to stay in office.

Perhaps because of the academic nature of plagiarism, support apparently seems to differ greatly across the media, with the greatest outrage found in the more intellectual newspapers, as the second chart shows. Over the weekend, an open letter from German PhDs was delivered to Chancellor Merkel asking her not to take the matter so lightly, and more than 1,000 professors signed their own open letter along the same lines.

What I don't get – but perhaps I am too academic myself (I started, but thankfully did not finish, a dissertation) – is why everyone was so apologetic on his behalf. The German media are full of people saying, "My goodness, who didn't cheat in school?" But there was actually a recent case of a local politician (CDU) who was found to have committed plagiarism and was forced to step down, so there is an immediate precedents for the case.

Furthermore, as practically everyone else who wanted him to step down as pointed out, every other imaginable comparable situation would also have been handled differently. Soccer referees who are found to have been paid off create quite a commotion, and soccer games don't matter.

That's why I find this report (in German) so interesting. Apparently, Guttenberg got the equivalent of a C on his exams and therefore should not have been allowed to write a dissertation at all; he would have received his degree without honors and been asked to stop. But the two professors who made the decision were CSU party members.

A new Wiki was also created, where other dissertations of prominent German politicians are to be inspected.

Personally, I don't find Guttenberg to be exactly contrite. In stepping down, he said he could no longer do his job properly when the debate "about my person is being carried out on the shoulders of the soldiers," which sounds a bit like everyone should have shut up and left him alone. More outrageously, he said that anyone who accused him of consciously plagiarizing was guilty of "libel." The Wiki that investigated his dissertation has now found plagiarism on over 76 percent of the pages. Practically the only thing that isn't plagiarized is the bibliography and table of contents. I doubt that Guttenberg wants to fight this one out in court, but just in case: Guttenberg, your dissertation was either ghostwritten (in which case you may actually not have known about the extent of the plagiarism), or you did it yourself and knew exactly what you were doing.

Friday, February 25, 2011

My Nazi comparison

Only last week, I told some friends at Facebook who were complaining about reactionary politicians in their home state of Wisconsin that I have been tired of comparisons with Hitler and the Nazis for a long time. But Omar Qaddafi's recent performance in which he practically declares war on his own people does remind me of Hitler's comments at the end of World War II that the best Germans had already died, so the rest might as well go, too.

Here's hoping that the people of Libya will not suffer too much before the inevitable happens.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Plagiarism IV - Mr. Guttenberg

As you may know, German Defense Minister Guttenberg asked his university to take back his doctorate because his dissertation is demonstrably a farce. The Wiki devoted to collecting evidence of plagiarism has come up with the wonderful chart you see to the side. The blue bits are the table of contents at the beginning and the bibliography at the end. The white bits are the parts where no plagiarism was found. Everything that is black or red is plagiarized.

Dishearteningly, his admission of "grave mistakes" has not caused popular German sentiment to turn against him. According to polls recently taken, an overwhelming number of Germans across all party lines overwhelmingly think he is doing a good job as a minister.

Personally, he has not given me much reason to complain either. The only question is whether the unbelievable, probably unprecedented level of plagiarism he committed is an indication of a general inability to accept facts and play by the rules – which is why I find this article (in German) the most interesting of any I have read on the matter. The author basically points out a number of times when Guttenberg was caught lying (mostly related to his CV) and, more importantly, the recent cases where people from his Defense Ministry outright called him a liar.

The willingness of the German public to view this matter as trivial – or at least not pertinent to his work as a top politician – surprises me. Some have argued that, since the majority of Germans do not have a college degree (until recently, there was no Bachelor's, so you had to study at least six years to get your first degree at the Master's level), Joe the Plumber might have a hard time appreciating what plagiarism in a dissertation means. But I don't buy that explanation. If Joe the Plumber turned out to have gotten certification to set up a plumbing business not because he passed the exam like everyone else, but because his nephew was the person rubber-stamping the certificates and his great uncle the one administering the exam, I think everyone would agree that we do not want such practices.

For the moment, Guttenberg seems to be weathering the storm well. Who knows how long that will go on?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Dr. Dr. h.c.

Speaking of the German fascination with doctorates, I just remembered this piece that I wrote back in 2005:

The one American businessman or the other had regular contact with German colleagues, who apparently generally had about three PhDs apiece. I tried to put things into perspective and pointed out that Germans were generally of the opinion that they could not compete with Americans. And this "Dr. Dr. Dr. h.c." business is a bit of intellectual arrogance that Americans cannot afford in the anti-intellectual USA. A German with a Ph.D. will often insist on being called Dr. So-and-so instead of Mr. or Ms. So-and-so, while an American who could go by "Dr. William Clinton" would be considered pompous if he introduced himself as anything but "Bill".

For the full text, click here.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Plagiarism III - Guttenberg still wiggling

The case of Guttenberg is getting interesting. First, the swarm has reportedly found cases of plagiarism on 68 percent of the German Defense Minister's 475-page dissertation. Second, the passages are no longer limited to directly lifted paragraphs; if you were wondering why he didn't simply rewrite the passages he lifted, take a look at this.

It seems fairly clear now that Guttenberg's dissertation is a patchwork quilt, with some passages lifted verbatim and some rewritten to hide the lifting – and possibly with some passages being original work, though that honestly remains to be seen. We started out with a mere 12 passages of directly lifted paragraphs with no source attributed.

My favorite part of the story was Guttenberg's statement for the press (full text here):

"Jede weitere Kommunikation über das Thema werde ich von nun an ausschließlich mit der Universität Bayreuth führen."

"Starting now, I will only answer questions about this issue exclusively with the University of Bayreuth." Good luck with that, Karl-Theodor...

The CDU/CSU – Guttenberg's political party – believes all of this is a political campaign and charges that their political opposition is rushing to conclusions that only the university that awarded the doctorate can draw. But I no longer believe that "guilty until proven innocent" holds here. This is not a case of he-said/she-said where the public doesn't have all of the facts, and the court will have to decide after careful consideration. I work with texts every day and would never hand in work that looks like Guttenberg's.

The question is what the outcome will be. Different polls in different media show alternately that a majority of Germans want him to stay and want him to go, so we will have to see how that opinion looks when it stabilizes.

There is reason to believe both that other scandals are to come and that the case will blow over completely. Germany's Family Affairs Minister is now also charged with abusing her resources as a member of Parliament to facilitate the writing of her dissertation; Guttenberg apparently also had a study conducted by his office, and that study was partly lifted for his dissertation. It may turn out that such practices are quite widespread.

Incidentally, German professors are themselves notorious for having their "HiWis" (assistants) collect raw data and, in the worst cases, actually do some of the writing later published exclusively under the professor's name, but that practice also extends into the publishing world. I have been warned a few times to avoid collaborating with this or that US author because they tend to take your work and publish it as their own. So perhaps all of this exists on a seamless spectrum of practices in the publishing world.

Back in 1994, a book was published with the title "Dimwits from Bonn – the dissertations of Germany's elite." I haven't read the book, but it basically collects passages from dissertations written by Germany's top politicians of a few decades ago and shows how vapid they are. The charge in that book was apparently not plagiarism or abuse of parliamentary resources per se, but rather that Germany's elite can apparently turn in just about anything and get a doctorate for it.
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Friday, February 18, 2011

Plagiarism II - how will Germany react?

Margaret Marks did me the favor of commenting on the case of plagiarism that Germany's Defense Minister currently faces. I was hoping in particular that she, as a legal expert, might have an opinion on whether his dissertation is as flimsy in general as his critics now charge (aside from the plagiarism accusations), but as she points out, 475 pages probably even wore down the people who had to read it.

She does bring up some interesting other facets, including general ghostwriting, which leads her to state, "I can't help wondering if this thesis was ghostwritten and Guttenberg can't accuse the person responsible." Yes, he may have given his word of honor (my bet is on Mitterrand in Kohl's bribery case). Having said that, there are certainly other members of parliament who managed to churn out a new book every four or five years – think of the late Hermann Scheer. I know from the man himself and from people who worked with him on a daily basis that he spent the evenings writing these books.

Nonetheless, I think Margaret – and the article she refers to – may be right, and I don't think the excuse exonerates Guttenberg in the least (Margaret does not say it should, either). The list of plagiarized passages apparently continued to grow over the course of the day according to this article in Die Zeit, and this website has been set up for anyone who wishes to help find copied passages in his dissertation. The search is crowd-sourcing now, and the swarm has found one spot of possible plagiarism every five pages on the average across the 475-page dissertation. I would not want to be in Karl-Theodor's shoes at the moment.

Margaret wonders "why he got the best possible mark without his apparent borrowings being spotted," and the terrible answer is all too obvious – in all likelihood, no one looked.  To paraphrase Finance Minister Schäuuble: the accusations of plagiarism are unjust to the character of the dissertation, everyone makes mistakes, and I read the dissertation myself. See, if you read it yourself and you like the guy, you don't need to check whether he plagiarized.

Guttenberg was already a prominent politician when he got his doctorate, and although Germany officially has no nobility, people's fascination with blue blood may even be greater in countries like Germany and the US, which are free to fantasize about aristocracy without any embarrassing flesh-and-blood royalty around to mar that fantasy.

And hey, when Guttenberg became Economics Minister in 2009, we all wanted to have our own Obama over here in Germany. Guttenberg fit the bill – suave, attractive, well spoken, and surprisingly young for all his achievements. I wonder if I would've checked for plagiarism if I had been a reviewer of his dissertation, or if he would've just blown me away. But that would only excuse the reviewers, not the submitter.

Whatever the case, unless Guttenberg has a really good excuse – a damn good excuse – here's the deal: if you are a budding politician with a pedigree but still lack a PhD in law as a shingle on the wall (as my dad would put it), don't worry – the professors would not insult you by questioning authorship. Just make sure the dissertation you throw at them is far, far too big for them to actually read. And remember to dress up nice for the orals (as my mom would say).

But if you are a working-class kid with a head on your shoulders, and you want to get into college-track prep school in Germany (Gymnasium), be on your toes in elementary school, because you will be required to be better than the offspring of the privileged.

Just for the record, I really liked Guttenberg myself until yesterday despite all of the recent mess-ups in his ministry, but this little mess is clearly on his shoulders and cannot be delegated. The most likely explanation for Guttenberg's predicament provides further reason to doubt the fairness of our society. The way Germany handles this matter could change the way I feel about this country. Judging from reader comments on news websites, the good news is I'm not alone with that sentiment.
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Thursday, February 17, 2011

German defense minister charged with plagiarism

Picture of Karl-Theodor Freiherr von und zu Gu...Image via WikipediaGermany's most popular politician, Karl-Theodor Guttenberg (a nobleman, so you also find him referred to as "Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg" – Germany did away with its nobility after World War I, but noblemen were allowed to retain indications of nobility, such as "von" and "zu"), now faces charges of plagiarism for his dissertation in law. Some legal experts say that the work itself is crap, but most of all there are entire passages that are extremely close to – if not literal copies of – some other publication not referenced at all. If you want to get an idea of it, check out this list here (PDF).

Guttenberg says he would be happy to check whether some of the more than 1000 footnotes across 475 pages need to be revised, but he says he did not copy and paste. After a quick look at the evidence, I'd say things do not look good for him.

The attack is obviously politically motivated, with some of the main accusations coming from legal experts with close ties to the SPD – but no matter – if the shoe fits, wear it.

The interesting thing for me is to see how Germany will react to this. Plagiarism, in my estimation, is not taken as seriously here as it is in the US. During my five years as a lecturer at a German university, I found that the idea of failing someone for plagiarism was tendentious; I was told I could also just give someone a stern look and a slap on the wrist.

In this age of the Internet, copying has not only become extremely easy, but also easy to detect. It seems that Guttenberg may have been handed over a PhD in law for really flimsy work, but I cannot judge that (and Margaret Marks has yet to comment on it) – it remains for the University's ombudsman to decide.

I should also point out that I was accused of plagiarism when getting my Masters, but my cases differed from Guttenberg's. I had actually provided footnotes to my sources, and the professor charged that I was sticking too close to the original. The case was brought before the graduate studies committee and dropped.
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Friday, February 11, 2011

Comedy Central stole my logo!

Since the beginning of the year, Comedy Central – the place where most left-leaning Americans apparently get their news – has had a new logo, and they obviously stole the idea from Petite Planète (see the logo to the right).

If any lawyers out there would like to go after the company, be my guest. We'll split the compensation for damages 50-50.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Oh say, can you sing?

Christina Aguilera's slightly botched rendition of the US national anthem at the Super Bowl on Sunday has been quite a hot topic, and has a nice overview of some even worse versions. But the thing that amazes me is that so few people are pointing out that she has screwed up the Stars and Stripes before.

What so proudly we what?

She did it better when she was eight.

If you want to waste some time, search for "worst national anthem" at YouTube.

Incidentally, my biggest culture shock last summer in the US was all of the situations where the national anthem is sung. In a park with fried chicken in my hands, a concert was about to start given by the local big-band, and the first two was the national anthem. With greasy hands, I was completely unprepared, leading one of the people with me to sternly warn: "Take off your hat."

I'm not sure what it's like in France, Spain, the Netherlands, etc., but in Germany the national anthem is not played at concerts, football games, and other similar events. I rather like this guy's take on the ubiquity of the national anthem in the US. He also talks about how the event gradually became so commonplace over the last century at sports events

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the US national anthem is probably the most difficult one of all to sing. It stretches roughly over nearly an octave and a half, which is about all the range your average Joe has. A skilled singer with more than two octaves nonetheless has to carefully choose the key – if you start off too high, you'll be pushing your luck when you hit the high notes. The German national anthem, for instance, stretches across one octave exactly and only hits the top note once. In Stars and Stripes, you have to go to the major third in the second octave twice.

Fortunately, my vocal range is well over three octaves, so if you want me at next year's Super Bowl, I promise to get the lyrics right.
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