Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘Germany’

Volkswillen and Parliament

Brexit started with rhetoric about unelected Eurocrats thwarting holy parliamentary sovereignty. Now, faced with opposition to her Brexit plans in Parliament, Theresa May

insisted “the government’s hand in the negotiations cannot be tied by parliament”, adding that she would not countenance any amendment that would allow parliament to “overturn the will of the British people”.

I am reminded of this comment by German political scientist Jan-Werner Müller, shortly after the Brexit vote:

Dazu gehört in gewisser Weise ein Taschenspielertrick: Zunächst sagen sie, es gebe einen einzig wahren Volkswillen, der sich gar nicht irren könne. Dann behaupten sie, dass dieser Wille bisher von den Eliten unterdrückt und nicht gehört worden sei. Und schließlich, dass sie selbst nichts weiter täten, als diesen Willen zur Geltung zu bringen. Sie setzten nur um, wozu ihnen das Volk den Auftrag gebe.

Underlying it is a sort of sleight of hand: They start by saying, there is only a single popular will, that can never be wrong. Then they say, this will has been repressed and silenced by elites. And then, finally, that they themselves are doing nothing but to give effect to that will. They are just fulfilling the task assigned to them by the People.

What’s English for Führerprinzip?

The Guardian today knocks back the argument that UK vice chancellors are not overpaid — indeed, are grievously underpaid — when you take account of the extraordinary talents they must bring to the job, and compare them with the appropriate reference group of CEOs and American university presidents. They fill their remunerations committees with CEOs who will swear that no one worth their salt would get out of bed for less than half a million, and what can you do but pay what it costs to hire someone who can manage this huge and complex organisation and wheedle the high-class donors.Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.27.50 (more…)

The EU OS

Twenty years ago I had a short visit from a college friend* who had just discovered the technical utopia. Completely enthralled. The Internet was going to upend all power relations, make all governments irrelevant, make censorship impossible. I was fascinated, but I did ask, How is The Internet going to clean the sewers?

But there was something else that intrigued me. He was very much on the nonscience side as a student, but he had just been learning some programming. And he had discovered something amazing: When your computer looks like it isn’t doing anything, it’s actually constantly active, checking whether any input has come. The user interface is a metaphorical desktop, inert and passive until you prod it, but beneath the surface a huge amount of complicated machinery is thrumming to generate this placid illusion.

I thought of this when reading The European Union: A Very Short Introduction. The European Union is complicated. For instance, in EU governance there is the European Council and the Council of the European Union, which are distinct, and neither one is the same as the Council of Europe (which is not part of the EU at all). There is a vast amount of work for lawyers, diplomats, economists, and various other specialists — “bureaucrats” in the common parlance — to give form and reality to certain comprehensible goals, the famous “four freedoms” — free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour. The four freedoms are the user interface of the EU, if you will, and the

There’s a lot of legacy code in the EU. In the absence of a further world war to flatten the institutions and allow a completely new constitution to be created, EU institutions had to be made backward compatible with existing nation states. There is a great deal of human work involved in carrying out these compatibility tasks. When people complain that the EU is “bureaucratic”, that’s more or less what they mean. And when they complain about “loss of sovereignty” what they mean is that their national operating system has been repurposed to run the EU code, so that some of the action of national parliaments has become senseless on its own terms.

Some people look at complicated but highly useful structures with a certain kind of awe. When these were social constructs, the people who advised treating them with care used to be called “conservatives”. The people who call themselves Conservative these days, faced with complicated structures that they can’t understand, feel only an irresistible urge to smash them.

* German has a word — Kommilitone — for exactly this relationship (fellow student), lacking in English. Because it’s awkward to say “former fellow student”.

Commands in German

Republican Party finance chairman and casino magnate Steve Wynn has been outed by the Wall Street Journal for systematically sexually abusing women on a Weinstein scale. But one of the creepier details of the story (from Kevin Drum’s quote, since the WSJ article is paywalled):

Some said that feeling was heightened at times by the presence in a confined office space of one or more of his German shepherds, trained to respond to commands in German.

I remember talking many years ago with a German colleague, who felt it was unreasonable that Germany still, after fifty years as a stable democracy, still was expected to be specially on guard against any hint of fascist or racist tendencies. I pointed out that, no matter what the Germans themselves may think, fascists and racists the world over look to Germany for inspiration. I don’t really want to think about what it means that the Jewish Wynn, leading ally of the white nationalist president, has been living out Nazi stormtrooper sexual fantasies.

(Just to be clear. I can’t see any signs in Wynn’s wikipedia entry that he otherwise has links to German culture or language. The article also says that Wynn’s original name was Weinberg. This isn’t a pattern I’m comfortable following up. It makes me think of a perverted form of the old Cold War era joke about a State Department conversation about plans for an upcoming cultural exchange. “The Soviets are sending over two Jewish violinists from Odessa. And in return, we’re sending them two of our Jewish violinists from Odessa.”)

Polar-bear academics

I have on occasions compared my position, as a statistics professor in Oxford, to that of one of those forlorn polar bears photographed on shrinking ice floes as the Arctic melts around them. In my immediate neighbourhood the ice is still ice: my job looks like the academic profession that I imagined when I started training for it three decades ago. But if you go just a little distance away, either to other UK universities, or even within Oxford to some other disciplines, you see something that looks like a freakish hybrid of the worst features of academia and corporations. I just came upon this disturbing account of the phenomenon by Michael Edwards, a lecturer in music in Edinburgh, now moving to Germany:

Now that I’m constantly being monitored and spending increasing amounts of time justifying what I do instead of doing it, I, like a lot of my colleagues, am taking all of my leave and I’m not answering emails while I’m away. My perception is that, because of the increasingly unattractive working environment, academics are correspondingly increasingly unlikely to put in all of the extra hours organising talks, concerts, and other activities that, let’s be honest, make universities so attractive in the first place, not only for staff and students but for the wider community too. All in all, the good will which holds together UK universities is being stretched beyond breaking point.

I realise that some of these trends are universal, but I believe that Britain is, at least in this pathological respect, exceptional. Seen from the outside, the UK has first-class universities that are the envy of the world, and a mostly hapless industry and business sectors (excepting the finance industry, with its world-leading money-laundering and tax-evasion facilities). A healthy reaction might be to consider what lessons British business could learn from the successful universities. A neurotic nation trapped in pathological mourning for its lost empire instead tries to destroy the universities by forcing them to be more like British business.

Fascist alarm in Germany

There’s a lot of breast-beating, inside and outside of Germany, about the right-wing nationalist AfD getting more than 12% of the vote and taking seats in the Bundestag. I find much of this commentary overwrought. It’s not just the rhetoric that tries to make the AfD into the second coming of the Nazis, such as this from the Telegraph:

The far-Right could return as a force to be reckoned with in Berlin politics for the first time since the Second World War.

Almost identical lazy rhetoric appears all over the place, such as this from NPR:

It’s the first time since the Second World War that a party professing such xenophobic, anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic views has been voted into the Bundestag.

I dare say that the previous time they are alluding to, the problem was not that the far-right was “a force to be reckoned with” in Germany. It’s a bit like if you were writing an article about the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster and called it “the most significant nuclear incident in Japan since the Second World War.” (I suppose they could have made it worse by calling this instead “the second time since the First World War” that the far-Right was a force to be reckoned with.) (more…)

Intimate English

Der Spiegel posted a little quiz for people to test their colloquial English skills. Some of the questions strike me, as a native English speaker, as somewhat off. For instance, the first question is:

Sie kennen einen Geschäftspartner aus dem Privatleben und machen Ihre Kollegen darauf aufmerksam. Wie sagen Sie es – ohne unfreiwillig Gerüchte über Ihr Intimleben zu streuen? [You know a business associate from your private life, and want to mention this to a colleague. How do you say it — without unintentionally arousing scurrilous rumours about yourself.]

  • I know him privately.
  • I know him a bit better.
  • I know him personally.

The second one is obviously anglicised German. The third sounds like you’re saying, I’ve actually met him, rather than knowing him by reputation or having heard him give a talk. The first one sounds like something I might say, even if in reality I’d be more likely to say something slightly more specific about the context from which I know him: He’s my neighbour, I know him from the rabbit-breeding club, we do hang-gliding together, etc. But their favoured answer is #3, and about #1 they have this to say:

TMI – too much information. Da hätten Sie auch gleich ausplaudern können, dass Sie die Person schon mal nackt gesehen haben. Ihre achtlose Bemerkung klingt auf jeden Fall so, als wollten Sie ein wenig mit einem intimen Geheimnis prahlen. Doch das will niemand wissen. Jemanden privat zu kennen, bedeutet im Englischen, sie/ihn in einer vertraulichen Weise zu kennen, die in der Öffentlichkeit nichts zu suchen hat. Nur als Tipp: “Private parts” im Englischen sind die Geschlechtsteile. Sagen Sie deshalb “I know him personally”, und Sie werden garantiert nicht missverstanden.

You might as well have blurted out, that you’ve seen this person naked.* Your careless comment certainly sounds, in any case, as though you wanted to boast of an intimate secret. But no one wants to hear this. To know someone privately means, in English, to know him or her in a confidential way that has no place in public discussion. A tip: “Private parts” in English are the sex organs.

*Which, in a German context, actually doesn’t necessarily mean that you know him well, but only that you’ve been to the same beach, or possibly the naked swimming hours at the local pool.

Xtreme hedging

When a series of roadside bombs hit a bus carrying members of the Borussia Dortmund football club last week, it was easy to assume that this was somehow related to islamist causes, which have been responsible for — or, at least, eager to claim credit for — much of the most prominent random violence in Europe in recent years. But this attack turns out to be linked instead to the age-old prime mover in random violence against civilians: Finance.

The accused is believed to have acted for profit, attempting to kill or injure as many members of the Borussia Dortmund team as possible with the bomb. According to the investigators, he hoped to profit from a fall in the value of the team’s stock… The suspect had opened a [€40,000] consumer credit line and purchased 15000 put options.

Is this really illegal? I’m sure he just needs the right academic economist to explain to the investigators how important it is to increase liquidation in the market. It’s reminiscent of the scene in Catch 22 where Milo Minderbinder explains the logic of private enterprise:

One day Milo contracted with the American military authorities to bomb the German-held highway bridge at Orvieto and with the German military authorities to defend the highway bridge at Orvieto with antiaircraft fire against his own attack. His fee for attacking the bridge for America was the total cost of the operation plus six per cent and his fee from Germany for defending the bridge was the same cost-plus-six agreement augmented by a merit bonus of a thousand dollars for every American plane he shot down. The consummation of these deals represented an important victory for private enterprise, he pointed out, since the armies of both countries were socialized institutions. Once the contracts were signed, there seemed to be no point in using the resources of the syndicate to bomb and defend the bridge, inasmuch as both governments had ample men and material right there to do so and were perfectly happy to contribute them, and in the end Milo realized a fantastic profit from both halves of his project for doing nothing more than signing his name twice… It was an ideal arrangement for everyone but the dead man in Yossarian’s tent, who was killed over the target the day he arrived.

I’m skeptical of the claim that “This seems to be a crime without precedent in German history, and may represent a completely new phenomenon.”

Bearing your cross to Cadbury

The Church of England wants people to know the true meaning of Christian faith, which is, apparently, chocolate eggs. Official church spokesmen have attacked Cadbury’s and the National Trust for conducting “egg hunts” without mentioning Easter. It’s just like when Peter denied his Lord three times, and then left his name off the adverts for his Galilee fish shop.

The chocolate-maker retorts “it clearly used the word Easter on its packaging and in its marketing”, and no greater love hath a man than to use his suffering and death in packaging and marketing. But the Archbishop of York* says that’s not enough:

The Archbishop of York said calling the event the Cadbury Egg Hunt was like “spitting on the grave” of the firm’s Christian founder, John Cadbury… He said if people were to visit Cadbury World in Birmingham “they will discover how Cadbury’s Christian faith influenced his industrial output.”

I think we can all agree that Easter is a time for all Christian believers to reflect on industrial output.

And despite the politically correct marketing gobbledegook of the Cadbury’s representatives — “We invite people from all faiths and none to enjoy our seasonal treats” — it is appropriate to expect that people should think of the Church of England when looking at a hollow shell stuffed with unhealthful, cloyingly sweet goo.

I’m reminded of the stories I heard from East Germany about attempts to rechristen the Christmas tree to Jahresendbaum [end-of-year tree] and the traditional angel on top to Jahresendflügelpuppe [end-of-year winged doll]. Christmas itself was supposed to be called Fest des Friedens [festival of peace]. I’m not sure if these were jokes, or whether they referred to genuine government initiatives — maybe both — but here is one report of these designations actually being used, and even compulsory.

* This statement really should have come from the Archbishop of Cadbury…

Tactfully

The Guardian reports on UK government posturing to back out of its financial commitments to the EU, ahead of next week’s formal collapse start of the Brexit negotiations:

The EU scrutiny committee chairman, the Conservative MP Sir Bill Cash, urged the UK negotiators to point out during the talks that the UK wrote off half of Germany debts after the second world war, and as a result did not owe the Germans anything politically or legally. 

Cash said the UK had been “net contributors for many decades” and the “massive contributions” paid to Brussels would offset any divorce fee demanded by officials. He urged the government to remind Europe’s leaders of the 1953 London debt agreement, “where Germany, for all its malfeasance during the second world war” and unprovoked aggression, had half its debt cancelled.

Cash said that given Germany’s dominant role in the EU, it might be worth “tactfully” reminding people “that there is a realistic position here that we really don’t owe anything to the EU, whether it’s legal or political”.

Well, that already sounds pretty tactful to me, backing out on financial commitments to all of Europe because of Germany’s “malfeasance” in the first half of the 20th century. It’s funny that the British didn’t mention how strongly they felt about this back when they were applying for membership in the EU. You would have thought their memories would have been fresher.

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