from the world's big
Why Germany is a blank spot on Google's Street View
There are good historical reasons why Germans are suspicious of surveillance — but is Google as bad as Gestapo or Stasi?
- Since its launch in 2007, Google Street View has mapped millions of miles of roads across the world — and even gone to space and into the ocean.
- Germany and Austria are a conspicuous gap in the mess of blue lines that covers the rest of Europe.
- It's to do with Germans' curious sense of privacy: they'd rather flaunt their private parts than their personal data.
The only other European countries as yet virtually unmapped are Belarus, Moldova and Bosnia
Image: Google Maps
In Google Maps, drag Pegman over Europe and you'll see a curious picture emerge: virtually the entire continent is covered in the blue lines that indicate Street View is available – but Germany and Austria are almost entirely blank.
It's an image reminiscent of those late-19th-century maps of Africa with the center of the continent left empty, marked Regions Unknown. Germany and Austria are among the world's most advanced economies, so why do Google's camera cars find those countries as inaccessible and/or inhospitable as European explorers found Africa's interior?
It's because Germans are famously jealous of their privacy – an attitude that also resonates with their culturally close neighbors in Austria. But it all depends on what you mean by "privacy." For example, Germans are not that private about their private parts.
"Social nudity," for health and vigor and to commune with nature, is very accepted in Germany.
Image: FKK Gelande Sudstrand / CC BY 2.0
While public nudity is a big no-no in the United States for example, Germany has a long tradition with what is known as FKK – short for Freikörperkultur, or "Free Body Culture." Certain beaches and areas of city parks are dedicated to nude sunbathing, and even Nacktwanderung ("nude rambling") is a thing.
On the other hand, Germans are extremely possessive of their personal data — and are shocked by the readiness with which Americans (and others) share their names, addresses, friends' lists, and purchase histories online.
According to research presented in the Harvard Business Review, the average German is willing to pay as much as $184 to protect their personal health data. For the average Brit, the privacy of that information is only worth $59. For Americans and Chinese, that value declines to single-digit figures.
Why? Because Germans carry the trauma of not one, but two totalitarian systems in their recent past: the fascist Third Reich, and communist East Germany.
Stasi listening post, used for spying on its own citizens, in Berlin's DDR Museum
Image source: Rakoon / CC0 1.0
Both regimes wanted total control over their citizens. In the Nazi years, the state's blunt instrument was called the Gestapo (short for Geheime Staatspolizei, or "Secret State Police"), in East Germany it was the Stasi (short for Staatssicherheit, or "State Security").
In either system, citizens effectively ceased to have a right to privacy, and could be branded criminals for private thoughts or acts, resulting in severe punishment.
As with many other aspects of the Nazi regime, post-war Germany resolved Nie wieder ("Never again") when it came to violations of privacy. That's one of the reasons why the very first article of (then still only West) Germany's post-war constitution reads:
Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.
The EU's GDPR, adopted in May 2018, builds on Germany's tradition of strict privacy laws
Image: Dooffy / CC0 1.0
Over the decades, Germany broadened and deepened its definition of privacy.
- In 1970, the German state of Hesse passed the first data protection law in the world.
- In 1979, West Germany laid the foundation for the Bundesdatenschutzgesetz (BDSG), or Federal Data Protection Act, the main aim of which was to protect the inviolability of personal, private information.
- In the 1980s, citizens successfully sued the government over a census questionnaire so detailed it would allow the government to identify individuals. The court recognised German citizens' right to "informational self-determination" and block the sharing of any personal information with any government agency or corporation.
- In March 2010, the German Federal Constitutional Court overturned a law that allowed the authorities to store phone and email data for up to six months for security reasons, as a "grave intrusion" of personal privacy rights.
- In May 2018, the EU adopted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which follows the German model of data discretion rather than the laxer American one.
Missing the train
Germany is high-tech when it comes to transport – cars, trains – but when it comes to digitisation, not so much
Image: TeaMeister / CC BY 2.0
Foreign firms operating in Germany have to adjust to some of the strictest privacy laws in the world. But Nie wieder is difficult to maintain in a world that increasingly mines and monetises data. As a result, the inexorable advance of digitization is viewed with a mixture of fatalism and misgiving.
Example one: Germany's split personality when it comes to social media. Yes, Germans are instinctively distrustful of big tech companies such as Google and Facebook. Meanwhile, Google has cornered more than 90 percent of the search engine market in Germany, and close to half of all Germans have a Facebook account.
Example two: privacy trumps efficiency. While Germany's macro-economy relies on high-tech to maintain its global pole position, on a micro-economic level, good old-fashioned cash is still king. In 2016, 80 percent of all point of sale transaction in Germany were made in notes and coins rather than via card. In the Netherlands, it was just 46 percent.
Brits, Danes or Swedes can go for months without handling cash. In Germany, you won't last a day. Why? Again, an intense desire for privacy and an instinctive distrust of surveillance. A cashless society would be more transparent and efficient, but also a lot less private.
If there's one thing Germans value even more than efficiency, it's — you guessed it — privacy. Germany seems in no hurry to catch the digitization train, when other countries are stations ahead, and generating measurable benefits.
"A million-fold violation"
The larger German cities have been mapped – Cologne, Frankfurt, Dresden and others – but the rest of the country is a blank, compared to the Benelux countries and France (to the west) and the Czech Republic (to the east)
Image: Google Maps
Case in point: Google Street View's German debacle. Launched in the US in 2007, Google Street View's mapping of interactive roadside panoramas has since expanded to cover most of the world.
In June 2012, it had mapped 5 million miles of roads in 39 countries; by its 10th anniversary in May 2017, the total was 10 million miles in 83 countries.
Street View features places as far off the beaten path as the International Space Station, gas extraction platforms in the North Sea and the coral reefs of West Nusa Tenggara in Indonesia. But not the Weimarer Strasse in Fulda, or most other normal streets in Germany, or Austria for that matter.
Not for lack of trying. In August 2010, Google announced that it would map the streets of Germany's 20 biggest cities by the end of that year. The outrage was huge. Some of Google's camera cars were vandalised. A 70-year-old Austrian who didn't want his picture taken threatened the driver of one with a garden pick.
Ilse Aigner, Germany's minister for Consumer Protection at the time, called Google's "comprehensive photo offensive" a "million-fold violation of the private sphere (…) There is not a secret service in existence that would collect photos so unabashedly."
A random street in one of the cities mapped by Street View in 2010, with plenty of houses blurred out
Image: Google Maps
Google automatically blurs faces and vehicle license plates and, upon request, the fronts of houses. Fully 3 percent of households in the relevant areas requested their houses to be blurred. Faced with that unprecedentedly high level of resistance, Google in 2011 published the data already collected, but left it at that. No new Street View images have been taken since in Germany.
Following the revelation in May 2010 that Google had used data from unencrypted wifi connections when collating its roadside panoramas, Street View was banned from Austria. From 2017, Google has resumed collecting imagery in Austria, and from 2018, it is available for selected localities.
As younger generations become more familiar with the transactional aspect of their personal data, perhaps German attitudes toward data privacy will start shifting significantly toward the American model.
For now, the difference has one side of the argument at a distinct disadvantage. As one online commenter noted:
"It doesn't seem quite fair that anyone in the world including Germans can take a virtual stroll around my street and my city, but I can't do the same in their country."
Strange Maps #991
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Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.
- A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
- The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
- This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.
Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).
A neural crêpe
A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.
So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.
The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."
Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum
Image source: Sereno, et al.
A complicated map
Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."
That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.
It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."
This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."
Bigger and bigger
The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.
"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."
As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."
Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."
What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?
- A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
- It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
- The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
Welfare as an investment<p>The <a href="https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/hendren/files/welfare_vnber.pdf" target="_blank">study</a>, carried out by Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser of Harvard University, reviews 133 welfare programs through a single lens. The authors measured these programs' "Marginal Value of Public Funds" (MVPF), which is defined as the ratio of the recipients' willingness to pay for a program over its cost.</p><p>A program with an MVPF of one provides precisely as much in net benefits as it costs to deliver those benefits. For an illustration, imagine a program that hands someone a dollar. If getting that dollar doesn't alter their behavior, then the MVPF of that program is one. If it discourages them from working, then the program's cost goes up, as the program causes government tax revenues to fall in addition to costing money upfront. The MVPF goes below one in this case. <br> <br> Lastly, it is possible that getting the dollar causes the recipient to further their education and get a job that pays more taxes in the future, lowering the cost of the program in the long run and raising the MVPF. The value ratio can even hit infinity when a program fully "pays for itself."</p><p> While these are only a few examples, many others exist, and they do work to show you that a high MVPF means that a program "pays for itself," a value of one indicates a program "breaks even," and a value below one shows a program costs more money than the direct cost of the benefits would suggest.</p> After determining the programs' costs using existing literature and the willingness to pay through statistical analysis, 133 programs focusing on social insurance, education and job training, tax and cash transfers, and in-kind transfers were analyzed. The results show that some programs turn a "profit" for the government, mainly when they are focused on children:
This figure shows the MVPF for a variety of polices alongside the typical age of the beneficiaries. Clearly, programs targeted at children have a higher payoff.
Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser<p>Programs like child health services and K-12 education spending have infinite MVPF values. The authors argue this is because the programs allow children to live healthier, more productive lives and earn more money, which enables them to pay more taxes later. Programs like the preschool initiatives examined don't manage to do this as well and have a lower "profit" rate despite having decent MVPF ratios.</p><p>On the other hand, things like tuition deductions for older adults don't make back the money they cost. This is likely for several reasons, not the least of which is that there is less time for the benefactor to pay the government back in taxes. Disability insurance was likewise "unprofitable," as those collecting it have a reduced need to work and pay less back in taxes. </p>