We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

“Who said the ‘N’ word?”

Natalie asked, “Can you guess what Lufthansa is talking about here?” For a bonus point, can you guess what word, beginning with ‘N’, the German policeman is prohibiting here?

… Jewish passengers were confronted by a layer of armed police who stood between them and the departure gate. In a scene that conceivably would have won critical praise had it been staged in a dark historical comedy, one of the distressed passengers asked plaintively, “Why do you hate us?” as the officers grimly surveyed them. Then someone else said the word “N—” … one of the offended police officers began barking in a thick German accent, “Who said the ‘N’ word? Who was it?”

[Excerpted from this article, edited to omit some letters following ‘N’ lest these offend any German police readers, or sympathisers thereof.]

One can hardly blame a German policeman for speaking “with a thick German accent”, and in Germany, it is a crime to call a police officer that word. Prudent Germans who wish to use the word without consequences are better advised to apply it to Donald Trump, or to call Israel a ‘N— state’. And prudent Jews who find themselves in Germany were reminded three years ago by the (perhaps unfortunately termed) ‘German anti-semitism commissioner’ to avoid looking Jewish – advice these “visibly Jewish” Lufthansa passengers had completely failed to heed.

I guess one take-away from this is that, next time anyone make a fuss about “the ‘N’ word”, they’ll need (and frequently deserve!) to be asked, “Which one?” Commenters are welcome to add any other take-aways that occur to them.

The Matrix Preloaded

I thought that after most of a lifetime reading science fiction and alternate history I knew all the ways Hitler could have won World War II if just one little thing had turned out differently, but I had never heard of this one:

Onthisday.com for May 12th included this entry:

1941 Konrad Zuse presents the Z3, the world’s first working programmable, fully automatic computer, in Berlin

W-w-what? Straight to Wikipedia I went. Here is the entry for the Z3:

The Z3 was completed in Berlin in 1941. It was not considered vital, so it was never put into everyday operation. Based on the work of the German aerodynamics engineer Hans Georg Küssner (known for the Küssner effect), a “Program to Compute a Complex Matrix”[b] was written and used to solve wing flutter problems. Zuse asked the German government for funding to replace the relays with fully electronic switches, but funding was denied during World War II since such development was deemed “not war-important”.

The original Z3 was destroyed on 21 December 1943 during an Allied bombardment of Berlin.

Well, good. While it is interesting to speculate on how the development of the computer might have been different, it sounds like the Lord guided the bomb-aimer’s hand on that occasion.

Anyone know, how close did they come?

People can collaborate in free markets too

The author of this Reuters article on the German jobs market plainly hasn’t heard of Linkedin, or jobs advertising, or even old-style labour exchanges where people can go to find out where vacancies are and retrain. Time for a good old fisking:

Germany’s industrial heavyweights are teaming up to retrain workers in areas such as software and logistics to fill a growing skills gap and avoid layoffs among workers of all ages as the economy shifts to clean energy and online shopping.

There is nothing wrong with firms exchanging ideas with one another to fix an issue. (Although ironically, government “anti-trust” laws might work against that.) It is worth noting, of course, that losses of jobs in areas such as petrol-driven cars are partly caused by government policy itself, such as the Net Zero decarbonization efforts that, depending on your point of view, are necessary or barking insane.

More than 36 major companies, ranging from auto suppliers such as Continental (CONG.DE) and Bosch (ROBG.UL) to industrial firms BASF (BASFn.DE) and Siemens (SIEGn.DE), have agreed to coordinate on redundancies at one firm and vacancies at another, training workers to move directly from job to job.

Right.

The scheme underscores Germany’s long-term social market economy model, which gives more influence to labour unions as opposed to free-market capitalism focused on maximizing profits.

Does it? I mean, I assume German firms want to pursue a profit. They’re not charities.

The costs of the initiative will be shared by the companies involved on a case-by-case basis. So if a factory closes, a dialogue will begin on what to do with its workers and then involve another company which may be seeking new skills.

Again, this seems like rational self-interest to me. There’s no objection I see to firms liaising with one another, and forming pacts about dealing with the need for skilled people. The key is that the State keeps its nose out of it. Also, if firms try and steer staff who might lose a job to another firm, that needs to be weighed against whether and how the employee might want their lives to go. The tone of the article seems to be that what is needed is a sort of hand-holding paternalism, but that creates a vicious circle where employees lose the desire to manage their working careers in a proactive way.

A study by think-tank Ifo Institute warned that 100,000 jobs linked to the internal combustion engine could be lost by 2025 if carmakers failed to transition fast enough to electric vehicles and retrain workers.

Forcing an entire industry to abandon a reliable, effective technology used for a century and switch to an arguably less reliable, and more costly one. Yep, there are going to be consequences. It also doesn’t help that German government policy in the past 20 years on energy has been almost calculated to harm its manufacturing base in the long run.

Engineering, metalwork and logistics are among the sectors seeking high numbers of people in Germany, alongside care work, catering and sales.The demand for skilled workers is coming from overseas companies too, highlighted by Tesla’s (TSLA.O) decision to build its European electric vehicle and battery plant in the state of Brandenburg, where it will create 12,000 new jobs.

Good news, so long as the jobs are financially viable.

Ariane Reinhart, board member responsible for human resources (HR) at Continental and chief spokesperson of the [jobs] business-led initiative, was quoted as saying: “Leaving it to the free market is not enough – it would not be what’s best for workers, or the economy.”

Wrong. For a start, none of the ideas about firms collaborating to move workers with desired skills around could not happen in a free market without state interference. Employers (I am one) know that finding talented staff is one of the most important issues there is, and in an open economy, there are all kinds of ways people with skills in demand can find jobs. Further, it is hardly a mystery to employees that they should keep on top of new skills to make themselves more desirable and increase what they earn. That’s the “free market”. The author of this article might want to reflect that it was the free market economy, and not some sort of top-down socialism, that helped propel West Germany after 1945 into being one of the richest economies on earth. By 1960 or thereabouts, that country had matched the UK in terms output per head.

To repeat an important point: there is no reason why firms could not and would not collaborate, if their self-interest coincided, in figuring out how people with desirable skills could be moved from place to place. What the author of this article cannot or will not address is whether firms in the article are not just doing what they might do anyway? Why did this question not get asked? Why just accept, at face value, that this sort of collaboration is some wonderful example of a less market-based system? After all, I can log on to the internet and find jobs, homes, flights, hotels, courses for training in new skills, etc, without anyone from government or some official entity holding my hand. Amazing, isn’t it, this “free market” of ours.

Massive revolt in Canada & Germany

How long before Twitter and YouTube takes down these videos of massive rolling demonstrations in Canada and Germany?

Brian and I chat for the last time

As promised.

By the way, I found this rather good obituary of Brian by Sean Gabb at The Critic.

Update. The post was initially put up with the wrong link (hence Paul’s comment). It has now been corrected.

A sad walk around Berlin

Our late colleague and friend Brian Micklethwait was very good at making people think. In particular he was very good at making me think, and even at times making me write. Often he would say something interesting that would make me write something as a response that I would never think to write for any other reason, and this blog, his own blog and its predecessors are full of articles and comments that were responses to things he started me thinking about. He had a tendency to repost my comments as articles when he found them particularly interesting, and many of our conversations took place in the articles and comment sections of various blogs. He loved posting photos of quirky things, fascinating objects, major pieces of architecture and engineering and interesting maps of places around the world that looked like they might be interesting.

Brian was not a great traveller. He was very pro-American, but he never visited the United States. He had done some travel earlier in life – including some behind the Iron Curtain before it fell, which I wish I had been able to do – but in the final two decades of his life when I knew him, he only ever really left London for regular summer trips to visit some friends in France. He clearly enjoyed this immensely, but travel was too much of a hassle for him unless there was warm hospitality as well as good company at the end of it.

He did, however, inspire me to travel. I saw photos of interesting things on his blog, and I researched them and wanted to go there, and I often did. He found this amusing, but he also liked to talk about what I had seen and photographed with me, so this continued the thoughts and conversations. (I still haven’t been on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, alas, although I have been on the similar but not quite as spectacular Matheran Hill Railway south of Mumbai).

In any event, in March this year Brian posted a pictographic map of Berlin in 1440 that he knew nothing of the origins of Berlin, but that he found the map interesting, showing a town or small city on two islands in the river Spree with a third island on the left that was at not that point significantly populated. As it happened, I knew relatively little about the origins of Berlin either, but I was instantly curious. I have been to Berlin many times, but I couldn’t have told you where the original town was. (Actually Berlin was technically two towns at the time – Berlin on one island and Cölln on the other). So I researched it, and discovered that although Berlin had some medieval city walls, these had not protected the city well in the Thirty Years War. The relatively unfortified city had subsequently been fortified into a star fort between 1650 and 1683, at which time the two outer streams of the river surrounding the three islands had been turned into a moat and the inner banks replaced with high walls. These walls then subsided into the swamps on which Berlin was built and were torn down starting in 1734, after which the two outer streams of the river were filled in, leaving only one island. The route of the north-easterly wall/stream was eventually used as the route for the Stadtbahn – Berlin’s main east-west railway. The south-easterly route, well, it was filled in and replaced with a layout of streets. Where it was is not obvious on a map or in a photograph.

I also found some modern maps and photographs of Berlin, and sent them to Brian. The inner island, the Spreeinsel, is recognisably the same between the oldest map and the newest photo, and does still have some remnants of being the important centre, including Berlin’s protestant cathedral, but the northern half northern half of it became the site of Berlin’s greatest museums, many of which have been reconstructed in recent times and restored to something even beyond their pre-WWII glory. In the comments, further conversation ensued. More people got involved in the conversation.

Inevitably in all this, I booked a trip to Berlin to wander around and look at the city from this new (or old) perspective. This was originally booked for April 2021. This was optimistic on my part given the circumstances, but I have actually done a lot of optimistic booking of travel over the last 18 months, the vast bulk of which has subsequently been rebooked, postponed and/or cancelled. (Lots of things have been ludicrously cheap to book due to travel companies promising anything in return for being given even small amounts of money, and have then been deferred to the indefinite future. Hopefully these companies will not now go bankrupt when they are forced to catch up with their liabilities). In any event, this trip was postponed to this month.

And, well, on Friday October 15 I got on a plane having received the awful news earlier in the day that Brian had died that morning.

Trying to find old things in Berlin is a struggle. There was a fairly small town there in 1400, but since then it has been drained, expanded, made a provincial capital, rebuilt, fortified, invaded once or twice, expanded again, demolished, rebuilt again, expanded some more, fortified, rebuilt again and turned into an imperial capital, torn down, blown up, bombed to rubble, blown up some more, turned into a communist capital, demolished again, neglected, expanded some more and rebuilt again and made into a national capital, just giving he highlights. In most cities, the geographical and historical bones stick through. In Berlin, much less so. The watercourses to some extent, but that is all.

I attempted to look for remnants of the old city walls. In most cities it would be helpful to type “[City Name] wall remnants” into Google, but “Berlin Wall Remnants” gets something else. To make things even more complicated there was another wall, the Customs Wall, that was built around 1737 for tax collection purposes (boo). Most Berlin place names refereeing to gates (most notably the Brandenburg Gate) refer to this wall. So, I actually found myself looking at the original maps of Berlin in 1440 (and the later map of the star fortress in around 1683), looking carefully for the rights bends and branches and former branches of the river. I started well, finding a piece of (obviously restored) medieval city wall in Littenstrasse>. But that was it for finding further pieces of wall. I followed the approximate line of Littenstrasse through Alexanderplatz, just to the south of the Stadtbahn along the top of what had been Alt-Berlin.

The street plan had been changed by the centuries and the Prussians and the fascists and the communists, and I found nothing more medieval. I crossed the Spree at Bodestrasse, between the Neues Museum (now again containing the bust of Nefertiti, as it did before 1939) and the Berliner Dom, the now restored protestant cathedral that had still been in post-WWII ruins when I first visited Berlin in 1992. I then doubled back to the top of the island before walking past the Humboldt University of Berlin, through Bebelplatz (site of the Nazis infamous book burnings), past the Roman Catholic St. Hedwig’s Cathedral (at present closed for the East German post-war modernist restoration to be removed and replaced with something more tasteful and less full of asbestos) and Oberwallstrasse, Niederwallstrasse, and Wallstrasssse, the latter three streets following the route (with a little straightening) of the wall of the star fortress, at least some of the bends in the shape of that wall being apparent. And back where I started, but on the other side of the river, having circumnavigated the old cities of Berlin and Cölln.

But there was one more thing to see. When we were looking at old and new pictures of Berlin, Brian’s cousin (I think) David Micklethwait commented that the only building that could be seen in the first, last, and intermediate pictures of Berlin was the Berliner Schloss (Berlin Palace), originally the Churfurstl Schloss (Elector’s Palace), home of the heads of House of Hohenzollern during their long journey from Margraves of Brandenburg to being Emperors of Germany before Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate in 1918.

Except, I did some further research and it is stranger than that. Rather than being the oldest building in the later photo of Berlin, the Berliner Schloss is actually one of the very youngest – the current building was completed in 2020. The original building was badly but not irreparably damaged in World War 2. The East Germans at times used it as a backdrop for a War movie (including firing live ammunition at it), partly repaired it and used it as office space, denounced it as a symbol of Prussian militarism, and finally demolished it in 1950, partly for ideological reasons but mainly because they were arseholes. The Palace of the Republic – the East German parliament – was then built on the site. After German reunification in 1990, the new German government demolished this building, partly for ideological reasons and partly because it was full of asbestos.

After much discussion, the Palace was rebuilt as the Humboldt Forum, a museum featuring a reconstruction of the Berliner Schloss on the exterior but with an entirely modern interior. (The result was then denounced by the New York Times as an attempt to hide the history of Prussian militarism). Brian found this amusing, as it fitted in with another of his ideas – the triumph of modernism on the insides of buildings but not so much on the outside. His recent thoughts on this subject came in the context of hospitals, alas.

So, I finished my walk around old Berlin with a visit to the Berliner Schloss / Humboldt Forum. And, well, it’s weirder than that.

If you are going to reconstruct old buildings after a war, there are a few things you can do. You can take what is left, and use modern techniques and designs to rebuilt the rest, leaving you with a building that is half and half new and old. (Lots of buildings in Britain and for that matter in West Germany that were quickly rebuilt after WWII are like this). You can reconstruct the new parts in hopefully a sympathetic and complementary style, but also in such a way that the new bits are obviously new rather than old. (Much of the recent restorations of central Gdansk are like this, and I like them a lot). You can attempt to restore the damaged part of the building to the same design as before. The aforementioned Berliner Dom is an example of this. Or you can demolish the ruins and start again, either in the same style or differently. Rebuilding exactly what was there before (as was done in the centre of Warsaw) perhaps works if you do it right away (as the Poles did) but the longer you leave it, the more the result looks like trite and artificial, at least at first. (For an example, look at the Dresden Frauenkirche. It’s a brand new Baroque building with no wear built to modern health and safety standards)

And well, the architects who rebuilt the Berliner Schloss decided to make the fact that it is a reconstruction obvious, by building the front wall (including the main entrance) and two side walls as perfect reconstructions of the original down to every detail, but the back wall in a rather severe modernist style. Similarly, the main courtyard has three interior walls in the Prussian Baroque style of the original building and one in modernist wall. If you look at the building from the front or the sides, it looks like an (admittedly brand new) Prussian Baroque palace. From the back, it looks like a modernist building. From other angles, it looks mostly like an old building, but not quite.

Does it work? I’m not sure. It would have no chance of working anywhere other than in the strange city of Berlin, which is a mix of old and new and original and reconstructed and broken and repaired and has been a showcase of every German regime for the last 500 years – for good or for bad.

A month ago, and a year ago, and ten years ago, and twenty years ago, I would have talked about all this with Brian when I got back. I might have e-mailed him photos when I was still there. There would have been more sharing of photos and conversing and commenting on blogs. He might well have called me an idiot if I said something I disagreed with. I have no idea whether he would have liked or disliked the rebuilt Schloss Berlin, but he would have had something interesting to say about it. He loved talking about what buildings looked like in the context of the surrounds of the cities they were in, and found that too much architectural commentary didn’t focus on this and instead talked about buildings in isolation. I agreed with him on this point, which is one reason why I go places to see stuff.

Anyway, the point is that I miss Brian. Fuck cancer.

Berlin dreams big

“Berlin’s vote to take properties from big landlords could be a watershed moment”, writes Alexander Vasudevan in the Guardian.

Judging by the history of such schemes it could be. But not in the way he thinks.

The vote in Berlin is not legally binding, but it does show the popularity of such a measure (the popular appeal of taking their stuff and giving it to us is eternal), and as the Guardian says it will “serve as a template and inspiration for activists in Europe and elsewhere”.

Professor Vasudevan (he is an associate professor in human geography at Oxford) continues,

Smaller landlords and state-owned social housing have been aggressively targeted by large institutional players for whom housing has become a vehicle for the management of global capital funds.

I have little doubt that the large scale institutional landlords such as the property company Deutsche Wohnen that the initiative targets have transformed the Berlin housing market, and not for the better. But it is worth asking why it paid them to to go on a speculative property buying spree in the last few years when it did not pay them to do this earlier? I would guess it is because they have taken advantage of artificially low interest rates created by government.

What about compensation? For obvious historical reasons, German law frowns on confiscation without compensation. The article says,

Efforts to enact the socialisation process will undoubtedly face legal challenges, not to mention the problem of compensation of the property corporations. Campaigners are adamant that their model would balance a commitment to fair compensation with “budget-neutral” socialisation.

When fair compensation is “balanced” with something else, it means unfair compensation.

When the normal operation of law is suspended we are always told that it will apply only to people or groups that few would leap to defend. It never stops there.

A huge crack appears in the media’s narrative dam

This is nothing less than the highest circulation newspaper not just in Germany but all Europe publicly repenting their role in spreading state propaganda and fake news. This is from 28 May 2021, and yet I only heard about this today; the fact it was not front page news across the world is very revealing indeed.

(turn on translation subtitles if you do not understand German. Also, partial transcript here in English and French)

Ursula von der Leyen speaks about creating a “truly global common good”

When a politician says the words “common good” it is usually with a very specific meaning, and this use of the phrase by Ms von der Leyen is no exception:

“The EU vows to force firms to declare what vaccines are being exported to the UK as Ursula von der Leyen says she ‘means business’ about getting bloc’s ‘fair share’ – despite warnings a blockade to help shambolic rollout could ‘poison’ relations”, the Daily Mail reports.

Ursula von der Leyen today vowed to make firms declare what vaccines they are exporting to the UK as she scrambled to contain a backlash at the EU’s shambolic rollout.

The commission president said a ‘transparency mechanism’ is being introduced as she insisted that the bloc ‘means business’ about getting its fair share of supplies.

The sabre-rattling from Brussels, which comes amid growing chaos and protests across the continent, has incensed senior MPs, with warnings that the EU could ‘poison’ relations for a generation if it blocks some of the 40million Pfizer doses the UK has bought ‘legally and fairly’.

But “Is the EU to blame for AstraZeneca’s vaccine shortage?” asks Robert Peston in the Spectator.

Short answer: yes.

The important difference between AstraZeneca’s relationship with the UK and its relationship with the EU – and the reason it has fallen behind schedule on around 50m vaccine doses promised to the bloc – is that the UK agreed its deal with AstraZeneca a full three months before the EU did. This gave AstraZeneca an extra three months to sort out manufacturing and supply problems relating to the UK contract (there were plenty of problems).

Here is the important timeline. In May AstraZeneca reached an agreement with Oxford and the UK government to make and supply the vaccine. In fact, Oxford had already started work on the supply chain.

The following month AstraZeneca reached a preliminary agreement with Germany, the Netherlands, France and Italy, a group known as the Inclusive Vaccine Alliance, based on its agreement with the UK. That announcement was on 13 June.

But the EU then insisted that the Inclusive Vaccine Alliance could not formalise the deal, and the European Commission took over the contract negotiations on behalf of the whole EU. So there were another two months of talks and the contract was not signed until the end of August.

What is frustrating for AstraZeneca is that the extra talks with the European Commission led to no material changes to the contract, but this wasted time that could have been spent making arrangements to manufacture the vaccine with partner sites. The yield at these EU partner sites has been lower than expected.

UPDATE: It’s hotting up: The Daily Mail reports, “Now EU wants our vaccines: Brussels demands Covid jabs made in Britain are sent to EUROPE as one lab warns banning exports from the bloc will mean NO more doses are made”

Thoughts provoked by some 3D printed miniature magnets

Beneath and beyond all the fretting we’re all now doing about The Virus, the onward march of technology continues.

I get emails from Google about advances in 3D printing, and each email contains lots of links, far more links than in any other Google emails I get on other subjects.

Links like this one, to a report about some newly contrived magnets:

Note the bit at the bottom on the right, where you learn the size of these things. They are very small.

Why are miniature magnets like this so important? And why do they have to be 3D printed? That’s what ignorami like me want to know. The anonymous writer of the report accordingly begins it thus:

Magnetic materials are an important component of mechatronic devices such as wind power stations, electric motors, sensors and magnetic switch systems. Magnets are usually produced using rare earths and conventional manufacturing methods. …

A bit later he says:

Permanent magnets are incorporated into a number of mechatronic applications. Traditional manufacturing methods such as sintering or injection moulding are not always able to cope with increasing miniaturisation and the resulting geometric requirements for magnets, and this is a trend which is sent to continue in the future. Additive manufacturing processes offer the necessary freedom of design. …

I had to look up sintering. Blog and learn.

→ Continue reading: Thoughts provoked by some 3D printed miniature magnets

Samizdata quote of the day

FYI, the death rate of COVID-19 among men is about 60% higher than among women. As there are no biological differences between men and women, I conclude this is entirely due to our inability in our society to teach men not to rape.

– Samizdata Illuminatus

The Spoils of War

Frank Falla was a Guernsey journalist when the German occupation began in 1940. He became involved in the production of an underground newspaper and when he was eventually caught he was sent to a German prison (not – please note – a concentration camp). By the time the Americans liberated him he was little more than a bag of bones and close to death. The Americans put him up in a hotel so that he could recover. There he was served breakfast in bed by a German civilian. He writes:

I think her name was Trudi – and she was to spell trouble for some of the American boys. She was a young, attractive brunette who a week later had a pretty rough handling from some soldiers who found out where her bedroom was. Three of them took turns to sleep the night with her. Some of these boys were completely sex-starved after long training in England and fighting their way through France and Germany, and they took it out on this poor girl, who was a week recovering from the ordeal. Still, c’est la guerre!

And all this in an area that was later handed over to the Soviets.