Thursday, November 26, 2015

Bridge over troubled autobahn

About four years ago, when we started planning the house we’re living in now, the surveyor made a small error. Then the architect made an error in his calculations. The result of those two errors is that our house is a couple of inches closer to the neighbouring house than regulations allow, although since the local planning department didn’t notice and all our neighbours signed to say they had no objections to the architect’s plans, that’s all moot. Or was, until we got a carport that’s just slightly too narrow for us to open both car doors.

Anyway, a story has just now broken that puts this into perspective. It concerns a bridge over an autobahn, which was completed in 2012.

This happened while work was progressing to widen the A2 autobahn between Kamen and Hamm, and old bridges had to be replaced. One bridge was built 45 centimetres — nearly 18 inches — too far to one side. It was a surveying error, which then wasn’t caught by the inspector, and remained undetected until it was too late.

A bridge too far over.

Whereas our carport is a bit on the cramped side but still usable, the poorly located bridge had some pretty major consequences. You can’t just put a wiggle in an autobahn: they had to redo the plans for 600 metres of autobahn and make alterations to three other bridges. The total cost of this error ran to €600,000. If my calculations are correct, that’s a thousand euros a metre. (I was never much good at arithmetics.)

So why has this story only now come to light? It was buried in this year’s annual report of the Federal Court of Auditors, and it took journalists a week to get bored enough to actually read it (seriously, if your job included reading the annual report of any organisation with “auditors” in its title, you might struggle to stay alive).

According to the report, right after the bridge went up, the construction workers noticed that something was amiss, and alerted the local road construction authority, who took careful measurements and concluded that everything was fine. Three months later, the construction workers said, “No, really, none of this makes sense,” and this time the measurements confirmed it. Sometimes it pays to listen to men with shovels.

Still, I’m now feeling a lot more relaxed about our carport.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The downside of vlogging about current affairs

One of the things that YouTube suggests as a way to attract viewers to your channel is to make videos about the hot topics of the moment. It’s a good piece of advice, as long as your channel can accommodate the subject at hand, but it does have its disadvantages.

One of those is the risk that your video will be made to look silly when things suddenly change. As I have now found out.

The news that Germany had decided to send the very controversial singer Xavier Naidoo to the Eurovision Song Contest was, it seemed, a godsend to me. It was relevant to Germany. It was a story that could be made to look ridiculous. It introduced non-Germans to a German celebrity they may never have heard of, not to mention a conspiracy theory ditto. Germans were busy vlogging, blogging and tweeting about it. Perfect.
Oh, drat.

So it was probably inevitable that, hours after I published the video, the news broke that, following harsh criticism, Xavier Naidoo would in fact not be competing after all.


Nevertheless, it’s a decent vlog, and I’m quite proud of it. I’ve been trying recently to do pieces that are more comedic, and this is the sort of tenor I’ve been aiming for. Not that it doesn’t accurately reflect my genuine feelings on the matter — it does — but that the monologue builds up to a punchline, which is the last sentence. I think it’s possible I may have upset a few Xavier Naidoo fans among my viewership, but it’s quite hard to take him seriously.

In addition to the things I said in the video, a lot of Germans were quite annoyed that Naidoo had simply been accounced as the German entry: until now, TV viewers have always had the chance to vote for the act they wanted to go through, but this year they’re only getting to vote for the song. Quite a few are complaining about this as if it were an attack on their democratic rights.

Well, there are a couple of things to say about that. First off, the actual contestants at the Eurovision Song Contest are not the performers, but the songwriters. The performers just perform the material, but they don’t get the prize. Second, not every country lets their viewing public vote for the performer: a very large number don’t. Third, the last time Germany got to choose the performer — last year — it all went horribly wrong. The winner, Andreas Kümmert, pulled out; so it was the runner-up, Ann-Sophie Dürmeyer, who performed. She came joint last with the Austrian entry, having scored a total of no points.

Well, there was drama there, that’s for sure. But that’s really why it’s such great fun (that, and the relentless cheese). Personally, I think that if you consider a Eurovision Song Contest win as a matter of national pride, you’ve probably not understood the Eurovision Song Contest.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Making use of fair use

A few days ago, I uploaded a video about the cult German sci-fi TV series Raumpatrouille (often incorrectly referred to as Raumpatrouille Orion). And I took what for me was the unusual step of including some clips from that series.

This is, of course, a risk; and since I didn’t ask Bavaria Film (or whoever currently owns the rights) for permission, what I did might be copyright infringement, i.e. illegal. Or not, as the case may be: actually, since nobody’s sued me, there’s no court ruling on my case, so I don’t actually know.

In this scene, Major van Dyke gives Major McLane a piece of her mind.

And it’s at this point that I must explain that I am not a lawyer. What follows is my personal opinion, but I am not offering it up as legal advice. If you need legal advice on one of your videos (or anything else), please ask a lawyer.

So, the default situation is that using somebody else’s intellectual property without their permission is illegal. But there are some exceptions to this; and in US law (which may apply here, since the service I uploaded the video to is owned by an American company), copyright law includes the concept of “fair use”.

Here’s how it works: if the copyright owner ever sues me in an American court, I can raise the “fair use” defence. The court will then have to consider whether my use of the disputed material was fair. If they think it was, the copyright owner loses their case.

There are a lot of myths about fair use, and I can’t address them all. But put quite bluntly, fair use is a lot less generous than most YouTubers seem to think: in fact, as a defence, it’s quite hard to prove. For example, one of the reasons for this concept is to allow teachers to, say, photocopy pages from a textbook for their students for the purposes of education: this does not, as a lot of people seem to think, mean that uploading an entire nature documentary to YouTube is “fair” simply because the content can be described as “educational”.

When the fair use defence is raised, a court has to consider various things, grouped together in four, broad criteria.

Purpose and character of the usewhy am I using that particular content, and how am I using it? I’m using it to illustrate the points I am making: for example, when I say that the ship’s controls look like the result of a trip to a home improvement store, I show some shots of the bridge that feature bathtaps and electric irons, which the characters have to fiddle with to pretend they’re flying a futuristic spaceship. That likely counts in favour of fair use: I can hardly use scenes from anything else to comment on scenes from that show. As for how, I’m actually using the clips unchanged and not being creative with them at all: that counts against fair use. (You win some, you lose some.) On the other hand, they don’t actually make up the bulk of my video: most of the time, it’s just me talking.

Nature of the copyrighted work — is the work I’m extracting from just a series of ideas or facts, or does it have artistic or literary merit? Unfortunately for me, it’s the latter: facts and ideas can’t be protected by copyright, but TV dramas certainly can. A lot of people put a lot of work into that show (as I mention in my video, post-production took an entire year), and I can’t just take advantage of all that work so that I don’t have to make my own show.

Amount and substantialityhow much of the original did I use, and which parts did I use? Here, I feel I’m on much safer ground. I used only a few small portions of the original whole (just a couple of minutes or two taken from two episodes, each an hour long, out of a total of seven), and I didn’t include any spoilers. Those two facts definitely count in favour of fair use.

Effect upon the work’s value — might I be denying the copyright owners of the chance to make money? In this case, quite unlikely: nobody is going to watch my video and decide there’s now no point in buying the DVDs. This last criterion, incidentally, is a lot tougher than you might suppose: if I were to sell a Raumpatrouille T-shirt, featuring the faces of all the major characters, the copyright owner might argue that by doing that, I am making it harder for them to earn money from their own merchandise.

A court would have to weigh up all those things against each other and come to a decision. Personally, I am pretty confident an American court would accept a fair use defence. But unless the copyright owners take me to court in America, I’ll never actually know for certain.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

On making a stand

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris were horrific and unjustified. Nothing can ever excuse indiscriminate violence inflicted on innocent people, and the way these attacks were executed is sickening. This is a tragedy and a brutal crime that I condemn in the strongest possible terms.

There’s a problem, though.

A couple of days before the Paris attacks, two suicide bombers in Beirut killed about forty people and wounded, according to more recent estimates, over 200 others. That was also an inexcusable and horrifying tragedy, and there are many others like it. Yet it’s quite likely you hadn’t heard about this one; not because it wasn’t reported in the media, but because not many people cared about it.

This is also a human tragedy.

But they should. Although we should probably take with a pinch of salt ISIL’s claim to have carried out that attack, it’s still the worst in that country since the end of the civil war, and may yet prove to be the catalyst for a revival of that conflict: more violence, more bloodshed, and a huge problem for the million or so Syrian refugees in that country — where are they supposed to go now?

How many people superimposed the Lebanese flag on their Facebook avatars? How many public buildings across the world were lit up in red, white and green? How many western politicians made statesman-like speeches?

Instead, while Paris merits a huge outpouring of grief and anguish, Beirut barely registers: that outrage disappeared into the background radiation of general violence in the Middle East. Nobody there, apparently, needs our support, our prayers, our blood donations. Paris is different.

Now, at this point, the temptation is to gloomily conclude that we’re basically racist, and that we’re simply not concerned about Muslims killing other Muslims. That, surely, is the point of this entry, right?

I almost wish it were that simple: it would be at least understandable.

On October 31st, a Russian airliner crashed in Egypt, killing all 224 passengers and crew, in what is now believed to be a terrorist attack of some kind. What was the reaction on social media? Speculation, some expressions of horror, but nothing like what we’ve seen for Paris.

And yet the scale of the tragedy was roughly similar, the likely culprits the same. We can’t even get away with saying that Islamic terrorism in France has never happened before.

Somehow, people everywhere who are unconnected with both events are acting as if Paris affected them personally, but Metrojet 9268 didn’t. This reaction mystifies me: what makes the difference here? Are Russians less valuable than Parisians? Is it the fact that the plane came down on an Arab country? Were the victims’ deaths somehow less terrifying? Or could it be that watching a dot disappear off a radar screen isn’t as compelling as watching terrified people running for their lives on live TV — and if that’s it, what does it say about us?

You won’t, then, see me changing my avatar on any social medium. It’s not because I don’t care, but because I would have to either pick and choose whom I mourn, or be in a constant state of mourning. I choose not to loudly proclaim “I stand with Paris”, not because I don’t, but because I don’t want to imply that I stand with nobody else. But the age of 45, I have lived through similarly turbulant times, and as horrifying as the idea is, this is still very much business as usual. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

My watch nags me.

I have recently acquired some new pieces of technology, something I am a little ambivalent about. On the one hand, it’s pretty amazing technology of the sort my thirteen-year-old self dreamed would one day be a reality; on the other, it can be frustrating at times.

The story begins with the Google Top Contributors’ Summit I recently attended. Google traditionally gives us some nice things to keep us happy while not paying us to do their front-line customer support for them, and this year it was a smart watch.

Of course, the thing about a smart watch is that it doesn’t work without a smart phone, and a smart phone is something I’ve never felt the need for. But if there’s one thing a week in America has taught me, it’s that everyone now simply assumes you have one, so “download this app” or “scan that QR code” are becoming common answers to many questions. Time, then, to cave in to all those voices saying, “I never knew I needed one until I got one,” and get one.

Well, the technology is ingenious. With my Android phone paired with my Android Wear watch, I can get text messages, weather alerts and reminders of upcoming appointments delivered straight to my wrist. Using voice recognition, I can even send my wife a quick text without having to take my phone out of my pocket. I get to feel like Dick Tracy.

The new bane of my life.

And yet, I’m not entirely convinced I really need all of this. About the most objectively useful thing I’ve found is that when I’m out in “the field” (as it were) organizing appointments, I can do that directly on my phone.

Other things could well be useful, although I haven’t had a chance to use them yet. For example, I might be in a strange town and in need of a pharmacy for some reason (perhaps I have woken up in my hotel room covered in itchy insect bites). I can ask my watch where the nearest pharmacy is, and it will give me a list along with their addresses, telephone numbers and opening times.

There are also cases where I feel tricks have been missed. Here’s an idea: on sites of historical interest, why not have the information plaque affixed to it incorporate a QR code? I could scan that code into my phone and get a proper, in-depth article fleshing out the necessarily terse information given on the plaque.

The trouble seems to be a lot of people not really knowing how best to implement this kind of technology. For example, take timetables in German train stations. They now incorporate a QR code you can scan to get, on your phone, a real-time departure board for that station. But the QR code is impossibly tiny and quite blurry, and nearly always behind glass, making it devilishly hard to scan... and all you need do is turn around, and there is a massive departure board hanging on the wall.

Then you get the overuse and over-reliance on technology that leaves people missing out on a lot. It’s nice to have, in the shape of Google Maps, a GPS navigation system, but the result is that more and more of my acquaintences can’t function without it. In particular, when visiting a place, they are more likely to scurry from tourist trap to tourist trap by the most direct route possible. There are now books explaining the art of wandering aimlessly, with, somewhat ironically, step-by-step guides (“if you see a man wearing glasses, take the next turning on the left”).

But worst of all for me is the fact that my phone, and therefore my watch, is constantly pestering me with totally irrelevant stuff. Stuff that can wait until I get home, stuff that distracts me from the here and now and, for no good reason, wants me to focus on the virtual world. But now I know why you so often see groups of people huddled together, each bent over their phones.

What happens is that every time you install an app, it assumes you want to be notified of everything. If you don’t go into each app’s settings and disable notifications, you get constant demands for your attention. Somebody liked your Facebook post. Somebody retweeted you. Somebody sent you an e-mail.

Of course, now that I have a watch paired with my phone, it gets all these push notifications sent to it. Plus, it has its own notifications because it includes a feature designed to help me keep fit. Just the other day, my wife asked me what time it was, and then sarcastically added, “...or doesn’t your watch tell the time?” Chuckling, I raised my arm to look at my watch, and... well, I had to swipe several notifications off its smug face before I could read the time. I had walked five kilometres already that day. The weather was cloudy but dry. An app I had recently installed on my phone had been checked by my virus scanner.

I think that this technology is potentially of great benefit, and the possibilities are endless. It’s just that you have spend so much time trying to stop it from pestering you all the time, it feels more like a curse.