Category Archives: Luxembourg

Translation: Fear and Loathing about the Luxleaks process

Angsch a schrécken zu Lëtzebuerg” (Fear and Loathing in Luxembourg )is a Luxembourgian blog that publishes critical texts about current affairs in Luxembourg.  The downside is that usually most articles are in Luxembourgish  This makes it hard to share with the majority of my readers.  I thought that “Angscht a Schrecke mam Luxleaks-Prozess” would be a worthy read for more than just Luxembourgers.

Since the original article “Angscht a Schrecke mam Luxleaks-Prozess” licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, I realized I could translate it.  I tried to keep as close to the original article as possible, which probably causes quite some Germanisms.  I don’t claim it’s a perfect translation and some things really can only be understood by knowing local culture, but still the gist should be just fine.

Obviously, my own translation, is also licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Edit 2016-05-01@13h31CEST: Added the bold text “funny” about the fictional product “RulingCloud”.

 

Fear and Loathing about the Luxleaks process

30 April 2016 by Joël

A good friend of mine, told me once that people shouldn’t be using the expression “Kafkaesque” so often. In this style: “I was at the supermarket and there were no Kinder Maxi King, totally Kafkaesque!”. I think my good friend is right, but there are still situations where the expression is mandated. The Luxleaks process is one of these situations. The two whistle-blowers, Antione Deltour and Raphaël Halet and the journalist Édouard Perrin are on trial, as your probably already know.

The things happening in that court, are really to be ashamed of. Of course, you can say that this is a case for justice, because private or secret documents have been stolen and then been published. However, it is hard to say that these documents don’t have a public interest. Well, for the rest of the world. Luxembourg itself doesn’t really have an interest in having the tax-rulings to be exposed to a broad public. That’s probably the reason why, in the year and a half between the accusation and the process, there hasn’t been a change in laws to protect whistle-blowers like Antoine Deltour and Raphaël Halet.

If you think that it’s only the defence who politicizes the process, you’d be wrong. At first glance it seems to be only about the misappropriation of documents, but: Deltour is being accused of having political motives. It seems as if the Luxembourgian police and the internal investigators from PCW agree, that Antoine Deltours actions are motivated by an anti-capitalistic conviction. The evidence for this are not a library filled with Marx, Engels and Lenin, but two newsletter subscriptions. One from Mediapart and another one from the Green Party. We all know that the last time the Green Party has been anti-capitalistic, nobody even knew where Chernobyl was.

This means we approach one of my currently favourite subjects: freedom of expression. It seems as if in Luxembourg is is now somehow criminal, to have an anti-capitalistic stance. So please think twice: When was is the last time that you had the idea that a system that makes the rich, richer and the poor, poorer may perhaps not be the best one.

So, only perhaps? Totally theoretically?

Yes?

Don’t say that too loud.

Think back three years ago. At that moment in time, we had a scandal regarding the secret service. That’s the reason we have a government that’s different than usual, isn’t it? Those with excellent memory, will remember that a whole bunch of organizations in the opposition were under surveillance. Since the scandal haven’t been resolved – why not, after all the government is in the government – we have no idea whether such organisations aren’t still under surveillance.

But back to the Luxleaks process: A few exciting facts have surfaced. Obviously not from official sources. Luxembourg has a very strong secrecy regarding state affairs, which allowed Guy Heintz, the director of the tax bureau, to say nothing. Because, guess what: we don’t only make deals with multinationals, who then only pay 0,5% tax, but those deals are also secret.

Raphaël Halet, the second whistle-blower, who worked at PWC in a department that prepared documents, could give us insight in how things work in Luxembourg. Every month, on a Wednesday, there was a fixed appointment between PWC and the tax bureau number six, where tax rulings would be signed. PWC printed the documents on the official stationary from the tax bureau, in order to process them more quickly. “More quickly” means in this context: About three minute per document.

From time to time a USB-Stick got lost, or a state servant forgot the password of such a stick, which caused PWC and the tax bureau to set up a Cloud in order to exchange documents. Something like a tax ruling Dropbox.

If you don’t think this is bad enough: PWC isn’t the only member of the “big four”. Next to PWC, there is Deloitte, Ernst & Young and KPMG. Every month has four Wednesdays, you can fill in the rest for yourselves.

It is sickening.

Let’s also consider: the politicians -both the opposition party CSV, and the three current ruling parties some of which were one day against such rulings- insist that nothing illegal was being done. The supposed anti-capitalism of Antoine Deltour is just a motive for our justice. The Grand Duchy is basically a failed state, where the economy has hijacked the power. A bit like in those dystopian Cyperpunk Movies, just without Punk and much less Cyber.

It totally sickening. You couldn’t even eat that much if there would be “all you can eat” roasted piglet.

There is a silver lining, though: We don’t have to worry about our “Nationbranding” any more. After the Luxleaks process, the whole world will know that Luxembourg is a deceitful piece of crap.

This episode of Fear and Loathing in Luxembourg is presented to you by RulingCloud!  RulingCloud is a start-up from “Silicon Luxembourg”.  You are a fiduciary and write tax documents that the Luxembourgian tax bureau needs to sign?  You want to enact laws that make Luxembourg an even more attractive tax haven?  RulingCloud offers you all functionality that you need for this.  Of course, using state of the art security measures with built-in leak-protection!  RulingCloud is a product made in Luxembourg.
Luxembourg: open, dynamic, trustworthy.

Language tests at the INAP

Exam

Hand completing a multiple choice exam.

Today, I had to go to the INAP to certify my language skills in the three mandatory languages, being French, Luxembourgish and German.  While I’m not all that happy to have to prove this (given I passed a language test, but not this one, when I tried becoming a teacher, and can prove it), let’s just play by the rules.
I wasn’t all that worried when I went there, since orally I’m quite capable of bullshitting myself through anything.  I’m pretty sure I bullshitted fine for that part of the test: “Oral expression”.  Basically, talk a bit about a given topic.

I wasn’t really prepared for the second part of the test, and it feels as if I thoroughly failed it.  That part was called “Oral comprehension”.  The test basically amounted to this:  get a bunch of multiple choice questions, of the type where more than one answer may be chosen.  Then you have to listen to a recording about a certain topic, you check when you think is correct, and that was is.  (On some recording you could listen a second time, but that’s semantics).  Sounds simple, right?
Well, not to me.  The questions felt as if they were designed to confuse you.  I’ll give an example from the German test, being the chosen lowest tier for me.  (If you need to know, I chose French: hardest, Luxembourgish: intermediate, German: simple).  The first question already put me in “fuck, what the hell do they want me to reply mode?”, and I kept in that mode pretty much all the way.  Basically, it was a recording of a lady buying prescription medicine for high blood pressure.

Q: The lady was in a ?
[ ] Shop
[ ] Pharmacy
[ ] Football stadium

Points: 1

So, you see, it can give you one point, so perhaps it means only one answer is correct.  I know she’s in a pharmacy, so I checked that… However, a pharmacy is also a shop, so I checked that too.  It’s only logical.

However, is that what they wanted to see? I have no idea.  Why wife disagrees: I should only have checked “Pharmacy”, because “I think too far”.  Fine, but in my eyes that would be incorrect.

Second question:

Q: The lady bought non-prescription drugs?
[ ] False
[ ] True
[ ] This was not addressed in the recording

Points: 1

Since she bought explicitly prescription drugs, the logical answer was “False”, but then eventual drugs she could also have bought were not addressed in the recording.  Technically, she could also have bought non-prescription drugs while buying prescription drugs, right?  That it wasn’t addressed in the recording, does not mean it didn’t happen, right?  Even if it didn’t happen, it wasn’t addressed specifically in the recording, So it might be “false” + not addressed”.  I chose “False” in this case, but frankly, I could make an argument for it not being addressed in the recording, because no word was said about non-prescription drugs.

These kind of convulsing questions, continued and believe me, it only became worse in the higher difficulty levels.  To the point, whether I think these questions were not conceived correctly.  The French one was especially hard: for most questions, I had no idea what was expected of me, because that was what I was thinking “what do they expect from me?”, not “what does the recording say?”.  Bad situation to be in, I know.

It’s not that I didn’t understand what the audio snippets were about, it just is that the questions seemed to make an extra point of wanting to screw you over.
I know the goal is to check “comprehension”, so perhaps linguists can make an argument for this approach to be correct.  The computer scientist in me just screams “too vague”, “not well-defined”, “specification is missing”, of course, people in languages don’t think in such ways, I fear.

I, for one, would not be surprised I completely blew that part of the test.

The end of an era

DNX to CNL

The end of an era


Today, I officially handed in my notice at DNX Network sàrl. My notice period extends until 29th of February 2016, which makes my time at DNX Network my longest held job in my career, with a full seven years. The decision to take the other job offer wasn’t easy, because I like my job, the atmosphere at the office was generally great, and I have great colleagues. It’s mainly because of them that I hesitated and had a though few nights. As I have said in other departures: I don’t work for companies, I work with people. So, yes, I worked with great people like Jeroen (the worst company website in history) and Pieter, both extraordinary system and network engineers which I couldn’t match ever, if I wanted to. I feel bad leaving them with an added workload and on-call duty.

Now, if you’re happy at your job, you don’t look actively for a job, right? Well, kinda, but kinda not. I have checked my archives, and it turns out that in the last year I sent out exactly three applications and have responded to no head-hunter inquiries. I’d say, that’s not exactly the behaviour of someone itching to leave.
Interestingly, the first two of those three where shortly after performance reviews that basically said: “You’re doing your job fine, but, nah, no extra money”. That would be five years in a row, it kinda gets old. Oh, I’m not the only one, from what I heard: it’s the same for everyone at the peon level.

The three applications have something in common, namely the institution I sent them to: The Luxembourgian State. I hear you say: the state? Job security, good pensions, but bad pay! Well, not really. If you’re a Luxembourgian national, that’s basically where you want to end up, because they do pay well.

Now state jobs are hard to get by. There basically are two types: the type where you do a state exam, pass that and then you’re are on the track to become a sworn-in state servant. Alas, for me, that way is next to unachievable, because it involves written tests in several languages. One is German, and I’m totally self-taught. I couldn’t write a sentence without a spell checker and then it will be full of grammar mistakes.
The other way is the “state employee”. For all intents and purposes, this is used to fill positions where they can’t find anyone who has passed above mentioned exam. Basically, anyone can apply if you fit certain criteria that make you fit for the position. The downside is, that it’s often used to “internalize” external consultants, making the job postings a formality. You’ll get called for an interview, but you won’t get the job regardless. At least, that’s what the rumors say…

Apparently, the rumors aren’t entirely true, because I applied to an A2 career for an IT guy at the Centre National de Littérature. The A2 “only” requires a bachelors degree. A1 requires a masters degree. I went for an interview the 17th of November, I had a job offer on the table the 2nd December.

So, I’m leaving the glamorous world of porn, for the quite less glamorous world of digital archiving. Literature, no less. I’m not all that certain what exactly my role will be, but I know it won’t be much system and network engineering any more. It’s back to programming and from what I understood, mainly database design. Fine, I can do that. Open source seems to be desired, but I doubt I’ll be able to use Linux on the desktop. I’ll be quite dependent on the CTIE, from what I understood.

If all goes well, I’ll be getting pretty much a 20% pay increase. I might not, because it depends on the state acknowledging my 15+ years of work experience. It’s obviously a gamble. There is something else that that’s talking for this job. It’s in Mersch and not in Luxembourg city. Mersch happens to be about 10km from where I live… Not walking distance, but I doubt the engine of the TT will become warm.

I do realize that working for a porn company probably fit my personality better, but is there any nerd out there that could say no to books?

Three letter ccTLD domains

The Ring of ccTLDs #3

The Ring of ccTLDs #3 by Grey Hargreaves.
Creative commons license, found on Flickr.

My registrar of choice, Gandi, had its 15th anniversary this month. Apparently, I’ve been a customer for 15 years too. Has it been that long? Anyway, they gave away prizes and I’ve got codes for three free .xyz, one free .me, a .com at 50% and a .eu at 1€. To be entirely frank, I have no idea what to do with any of those codes1, but as you do when you get something for free, you tend to look what’s up for grabs. As the shortest, non-grandfathered, domain names you seem to be able to get are three letters long, I tried a few for .xyz and to my surprise I saw that the corresponding .lu was free.

That was a surprise. I’d have expected that most, if not all, three letter .lu domains would be taken. So I decided to investigate. A quick one-liner pounded the whois servers, and, well, I got banned quite quickly at my work IP address. I should have foreseen that. You might have seen a Facebook status about it, and someone suggested to first look whether there are DNS records2 and, then, and only then do the whois checks3. I decided to do exactly that and I ended up with 14291 three letter domains that have no valid DNS entries. That’s an amazingly a small amount. There are 26×26×26 = 17576 possibilites4, which means only 19% of all three letter .lu domain names have DNS entries.

Now, what? That’s way too much for bulk querying the whois servers and I had no desire to get my home IP blacklisted. My plan was to do one whois every 20 minutes, but that would make nearly 200 days. I decided to go manually over the list and pick the ones that caught my eye. I’m human, I get bored, so that’s probably why I selected more at the beginning of the alphabet. Anyway, I selected 87 domains for investigation and it turned out that 71 of those were not registered. Some examples (but really, just a few):

  • ado.lu : “ado” is French for teenager.
  • aes.lu : Advanced Encryption Standard. Neat to have as nerd.
  • asm.lu : Nobody in the demo scene got this? Seriously?
  • foo.lu, bar.lu, and baz.lu : Yes, you can still have the full metasyntactic-variable sequence. That “bar.lu” is isn’t taken, is simply amazing.
  • bbw.lu : I am so tempted to get this one.
  • bid.lu : For an auction site?
  • fac.lu : In French “la fac” is pretty much the colloquial equivalent of university.
  • fkk.lu : The Germans will understand.
  • gnu.lu : All hail Richard Stallmann!
  • jiz.lu : If you don’t know why, you need to have your perversion levels adjusted.
  • jts.lu : Ok, this one only means something to me. Online I get referred to as JTS. I don’t know when people started to do that, but I guess it’s because “jawtheshark” is too long.
  • nan.lu : Not a number. Another nerdy one.
  • pdp.lu : Neeeeerd! You should also take vms.lu, which is also available.
  • pie.lu : The cake is a lie, but the pie isn’t.
  • ocr.lu : Optical character recognition. I could see value in this if you’re in document management.
  • raw.lu : Calling the photography nerds… or for weird porn.
  • tit.lu : Again, I’m so tempted to take this one.
  • xen.lu : I should get this one, just for when I need to go freelance and want to offer virtualization services.
  • zzz.lu : Because I really got sleepy after going through so many domain names.

You can get the full list of the ones I verified as “not registerd”. (List without DNS entries) A .lu is free to register for everyone, worldwide and costs about 25€ per year.


Addenum
Apparently, while creating this post, I opened up the wrong list, namely the DNS verified one. My mistake. A few listed here are not free and haven’t been for a while. Those are foo.lu and bar.lu. No metasyntactic-variables for you. Sorry.


1I could add a few to my “free-for-friends” dynamic DNS. For now you can only get a subdomain of ipv4.lu.
2 Script used: for domain in `echo {a..z}{a..z}{a..z}`; do if [[ -n `host $domain.lu | grep NXDOMAIN` ]]; then echo $domain.lu; fi; done > threeletters.txt
3 Script used: for domain in `cat selected-domains.txt` ; do QUERY=`whois ${domain} | grep "% No such domain"` ; if [[ -n "${QUERY}" ]]; then echo ${domain} is free ; fi ; sleep 1200 ; done > available-threeletter.txt
4 Ignoring numbers, which would expand the search space a bit more.

What I think of Luxleaks

A picture of some Euro banknotes and various Euro coins.

A picture of some Euro banknotes and various Euro coins. by Avij
Creative commons license, found on Wikipedia

TL;DR: We had it coming.

Long version: Originally I wasn’t going to say much about it, but I keep getting tagged on social media regarding this. I can understand: How many Luxembourgers do you actually know except me? Unless you live here, probably not all that many. Believe me, if something happens in the Luxleaks affair, I’ll know: Our local press won’t shut up about it. So, this post presents my opinions and thoughts about the whole thing.

General observations:

  1. Nothing of this actually surprised any citizen of my country. Well, “nothing” isn’t entirely true, but I’ll get back to that. It is fact that Luxembourg has been providing means to multinationals and big and small corporations alike to alleviate their tax levels. That this was done using “mailbox companies” was also known.
  2. Officially, “mail box companies” are sternly frowned upon. The idea was that, attracting companies to Luxembourg, would create employment. Yes, a local a secretary and local manager is two jobs more than the zero jobs that mailbox company would provide. Apparently, this was only an official stance, and did not match the reality.
  3. The existence of the so called “tax rulings” was known, even though I doubt by the general public. I most certainly never heard of it in that form, but the accountants I talked to, said they knew. Anecdote, of course.

Taxes for citizens and small businesses:

  1. Let me make this clear: we citizens of Luxembourg do pay income taxes and a plethora of other taxes. Yes, is true that we have a rather low income tax compared to other countries. As someone who is rather well-off, I (actually we: income of spouses are cumulated) end up in the second-highest tax level. There is very little I can do about that, except a few minor incentives to save for retirement or a home. The latter being totally ridiculous, as the amounts required to buy any property are so high that those saving incentives are pretty much a drop on a hot plaque.
  2. Small businesses have a bit more leeway as businesses do have more options to do tax write-offs. Nevertheless, the small business like the one of my father in law, have to pay the official taxes. There is no special ruling for them. The bakery at the corner, the plumber, the florist, they all pay the 29% corporate tax.

With this out of the way, let me state this: I was convinced that having multinationals here in Luxembourg was a good thing. I naively assumed they would indeed create employment, and while Luxembourg isn’t cheap, the lesser tax rate -I repeat: 29%-, would be enough incentive to bring business here. I thought: this is good for the country, corporations help fund the rather nice living standard we have.

However, that is not what is happening. What is happening, is that multinationals don’t pay fair taxes. As a matter of fact, some multinational companies pay less tax than me and my spouse. Other multinationals pay taxes with which you can barely buy a mid-class family car.  That is what surprised me.  That is not good for my country. We stand here as the crooks that allowed a crime, with barely any rewards. Barely any employment creation, no significant taxes paid to our countries coffers and a huge scratch in our international image. With the best of will, I cannot see how any government official would call this “positive” for our country.

In all honesty, I can not fathom why nobody is on the streets and asking for the heads of the officials that let this go through.  I can’t understand why mobs aren’t storming the headquarters of big consulting companies and lynching the suits responsible for this.
Well, yes, I can: I wouldn’t do much in the first place.

As for Antoine Deltour, the person who is accused of leaking the documents.  I personally think we can thank him.  Thank him for making public with what abject methods consulting companies work, thank him for showing the lack of transparency the Luxembourgian tax system has and thank him for trying to make this world a bit more fair.
He’ll probably be the scapegoat for the whole thing.  He’ll pay a much larger price than the thinks, literally becoming unemployable.

We all are the losers in this game, except the big multinationals, consulting companies and their respective shareholders.

Of course, it’s all legal and our elected government allowed it. We dealt with the devil and lost. We had it coming.