Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A few thoughts around the death of Terry Pratchett

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I have far more to say on the topic of Terry Pratchett than on Leonard Nimoy, yet somehow find it far harder. This is to some part because a greater amount of material is almost automatically harder to write down; to some part because most of it does not belong in this context; and to some part because Pratchett’s death had a greater personal impact. I will still charge ahead with some of the points that are closest to my heart at the moment, disregarding trifling details such as actual relevance, reasonable structuring, whatnot.

In my post on the recent death of Leonard Nimoy, the central part of my message was that it was not an occasion for tears. With Terry Pratchett, the situation is very different: He died at a, by today’s standards, young age, he was still highly productive, and with another dozen years of life he might have produced another dozen of his wonderful books. A particular loss is that (I suspect) most of the Discworld fans have been hoping for just one more book centering on their respective favourite-character-who-last-starred-ten-or-twenty-books-ago, be it Rincewind, Granny Weatherwax, Death, Susanne, …

While I admit that I find most of his latest books somewhat disappointing (as in “did not match my very high expectations” and as opposed to “useless crap”), his immense impact on my life cannot be denied. He has been my favourite author for close to twenty years, providing not only nearly endless entertainment but also much food for thought. (The latter makes him stand out from some authors with whom he is often compared, notably Rowling: Harry Potter was very entertaining, but lacked greater depth or higher literary value—children’s books suitable for adults. Many of Pratchett’s work showed a greater depth of insight and were more thought-provoking than most works by “serious” authors—adults’ books suitable for children. While some of his early works are mostly comedy bordering on silliness, later works have a lot to offer beneath the comedy and, as case may have it, silliness.) Between the great number of books and my repeated re-reads, there was a period of quite a few years when I spent more time on Pratchett than on the rest of the world’s authors put together (but, factoring in Wikipedia and the rest of the Web, still less than half of my readings).

Among the many great books he has written, I would recommend especially “Small Gods”, which should be mandatory reading for anyone with an interest in religion and topics like religious leaders, organizations, etc. (much of it generalizes outside the field of religion), and “Night Watch”, the premise of which fascinates me deeply: The books hero is sent back in time and has the opportunity to relive a forming period of his life through the more developed perspective of his older self and through the role of his younger self’s mentor.

My main criticism of Pratchett and what, in my eyes, keeps him from being considered one of the truly great “serious” authors, is his weak grammar and (textual) writing style. While he shows a great degree of fantasy and creativity, which is laudable, he appears to lack an understanding of and feel for “good” language. It might be fair to say that he has a strong artistic ability of writing literary texts, but that the craftsman’s ability that should underlie it is missing. This is particularly noteworthy, because Pratchett himself has repeatedly emphasized the importance of good grammar (etc.) and spoken of how his background as a journalist has helped him—claims that are paradoxical in light of his considerable weakness in just this area. The “journalist” part is particularly odd, seeing that journalists tend to be surprisingly poor writers (other weaknesses common among journalists include poor thinking skills, lack of erudition, and a tendency towards sloppy research).

I have on several occasions almost contacted Pratchett for various reasons. Most of these have been relating to the atrocious, inexcusable, reader hostile, and author defaming German mistranslations of his work: During my early years in Germany, it was still hard to find the works of even best-selling English authors in English, which left me the choice of either reading translations or not reading. While my experiences with translations have been poor in general, they have been thoroughly depressing where translations of Pratchett are concerned, comparing to the original as a photograph of a statue does to the actual statue. Problems include mistranslations, text portions simple left out, puns that disappeared, and a general lowering of the “register” of the text, to the point that I suspect that the translator and/or publisher considered the works intended solely for “young adults” and lower ages. As for puns: Translating a pun in a natural way is often impossible and almost always tricky. However, if worst comes to worst, a conscientious translator would at a minimum report what was lost in translation in a footnote. (Unfortunately, many translators appear to wish to hide the fact that a work is a translation, even at the cost of loss of meaning and other negative effects for the readers. These should not merely be banned from their profession but given to the kittens (a form of torture described in “Raising Steam” (In honor of Pratchett and his often recursive footnotes, I take the liberty of using recursive parentheses. (Seeing that footnotes are not supported by the current format.))).) In fact, the reason that this particular letter was never sent is that I wanted to strongly recommend a switch of German publisher and felt that I needed to be thorough. This resulted in two lengthy drafts, written with a few years in between, of which neither was ever completed due to the sheer mass of problems illustrated by even one single book…

(Subsequently, the German publisher was given a severe sacking, due to an unauthorized advertisement in the middle of one of the German editions. I suspect that the quality of translations also played in, seeing that there were many other Pratchett fans in Germany who disapproved of them, often very strongly, and chances are that some of these did contact Pratchett. I am uncertain whether the quality of the translations improved, however, since I had by that time switched to a strict policy of only buying the English editions.)

Another letter that I almost wrote was a faked (!), lengthy complaint concerning his repeated and “highly offensive” use of swedes (a vegetable; which I would pretend to be ignorant of) as food, with the suggestion that danish (a pastry) and/or some other food-stuffs named after a country were a preferable alternative. (Note that I am, myself, a Swede in the nationality sense.) This should also be seen in the light of Pratchett repeatedly making fun of those who tend to write complaints on a semi-professional basis, often with the (presumably false) claim of knowing the editor-in-chief, mayor, CEO, whatnot. Since I postponed writing the letter until it was too late, I will never know if the idea would have been as amusing to him as it was to me.

(To my knowledge, Pratchett never discussed his take on complaints in more detail. The types of petty complaints usually ridiculed by him are not necessarily something that I approve of either. However, it is my firm personal belief, and here he and I may differ, that the world would be a better place if more people complained, e.g. about poor political decisions or customer-hostile behaviour from various companies: Fear of a negative public opinion can have a major effect, but if none of the unsatisfied ever complain politicians and executives will just ignore them. In other cases, as with the translation issue above, someone who could influence a problem might be very willing to act—but never learns of the problem, because no-one ever bothered to complain.)

In a case of very poor timing, I had very recently actually started writing a letter for the third time (following the two aforementioned drafts concerning the translations). This after finishing my reading of “Raising Steam”, the latest and most likely last, Discworld novel. My main theme was what I considered a very odd treatment of the dwarfs. Additional themes that I may or may not have decided to include, depending on how presumptuous I felt, was the feeling that the Discworld novels had grown tired and that it might be a good idea to go back to the roots for a final “old-school” novel, possibly a joint Rincewind–Granny Weatherwax adventure, before permanently moving on to non-Discworld works; and a regret of technology taking over the magic Discworld: While this take-over has a number of interesting points and has led to several good story lines, it is also contrary to where the Discworld started. A story including long-distance travel per broomstick, e.g., fits well on the Discworld and would be amiss on a non-magical world. In contrast, a story about the early days of railways and steam-engines (as in “Raising Steam”) could just as well take place somewhere else—indeed, better, seeing that the presence of railways, telegraphs (“clacks”), etc., alter the character of the world and reduces its natural opportunities. For instance, by analogy, if the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple had access to modern CSI technology, extensive finger-print registries, and CC-TV, their stories would have turned out very different. Not necessarily worse, but different, and it is a good thing that history has provided us with different time periods that allow for different types of detective stories (explorer stories, romance stories, whatnot). The “original” Discworld provided a new set of story abilities, but these have been diminishing over time, while abilities more akin to the technological world have been introduced, making the Discworld increasingly just a carbon copy of the real world, with fewer “literary benefits”.

(To some part, this reuse of the Discworld for increasingly more technological and less magical stories might go back to a wish to reuse beloved characters; however, with Pratchett’s creativity when it comes to new characters, I would still have recommended a fresh start in another world for stories not inherently “Discworldy”.)

As for the treatment of the dwarfs, I provide a quote from my draft. Note that the text might have been revised and certainly edited further, had Pratchett’s death not occurred. Further that it is is highly helpful to know the contents of the book, and to some degree other Discworld novels, to understand the text in context. For those lacking this background knowledge, I note that dwarfs in the books of Pratchett originally made no differentiation between males and females, that (clothed) dwarfs cannot be visually recognized as male or female, and that an inquiry into someones sex was considered a very, very personal question.

Your treatment of the dwarfs is in my eyes highly unfair. I do not speak of their portrayal as the source of fanatics—real-world experience shows that such can potentially arise in a multitude from basically any human culture, creed, country, whatnot, and I consider it likely that the choice of antagonists was mostly a matter of convenience, based on what group was the easiest to adapt based on the previous books. Instead, my problem is with the question of queens, mothers being considered inferior, and the like: The developments and the statements by the Queen at the end of the book are simply entirely incongruous with how I perceive the dwarfs and their take on the sexes/sexual roles. Worse, the statements of the Queen copy the error of many real-world feminists, in that they assume a hostility that is not there, misattribute a mistreatment to sex/gender when the true cause is something different, etc.

The dwarfish take does not in anyway appear to me to be anti-woman. Instead, it is a matter of having an weird sense of what is appropriate. (Where I would even caution somewhat against judging this weirdness: It might be weird to us, but so are the modern Amish and the morals of the Britain of, possibly, a hundred years ago—and our standards may be equally weird when viewed from the other direction.)

On the contrary, dwarfish society appears to be entirely equal and “gender blind” (an ideal that so many real-world feminists claim to strive for). Females do the same jobs, carry the responsibilities, have the same opportunities, whatnot, as males, no questions asked. That the king turned out to be a Queen is entirely and utterly unremarkable—on average, assuming equal abilities and interests, a 50–50 distribution of kings and queens are only to be expected and the Queen might equally have revealed being born during the night and not during the day. (Very much unlike the situation in “Monstrous Regiments”, where the high proportion of women deviates considerably from a priori expectations.) For that matter, I strongly suspect that the revelation of a queen would not even be possible in dwarfish, where I would not expect there to be a different word for the female leader. (As a comparison, the current British queen is not a king, but Thatcher was most certainly the prime minister—woman or not.)

In addition, I cannot but help feeling that Cheery diminished herself, when she started to imitate human women (long, long ago; possibly in “Men at arms”): Not because she revealed herself to be female, not because she went contrary to dwarfish convention, not because she (as case may or may not have had it) wanted to increase her desirability among male dwarves, … No; because she jumped at those parts of human female behaviour that arguably are silly—human women often go to such lengths with make-up and clothes that it makes them less attractive than to begin with and a more down-to-earth (here, possibly, down-in-earth…) female would be a better and more attractive partner to many men. (I do not deny that tasteful and moderate application can benefit a woman’s looks, but too many women simply take it too far.) One might even consider your writing unduly anthropocentric, seeing that there is no reason why females of different species should naturally match the preferences or behaviours of another. Many earth-species have females that are larger than males, males that try to look pretty and females that remain drab, or even males that take care of the children. From that point of view, dwarves and the sudden wish to express femininity is just a bad idea. In contrast, a variation where dwarfish females had remained traditionally dwarfish would have had considerable value in terms of giving some groups of readers food for thought. (The same could conceivably have applied to a reverse variation, where male dwarfes had an interest in e.g. make-up.)

Equally, it would be incorrect to say e.g. that female dwarves adhere to the standards of male dwarves, behave “male”, etc.: This is only true when we presume to apply a human standard to dwarves—and you will note that I deliberately speak of “traditional dwarfish” rather than “male” above.

More generally, almost all problems in the world go back to human stupidity, irrationality, over-emotionality, whatnot. This appears to be a theme in many of your books (replacing “human” as necessary), and I would be highly surprised if you were unaware of it. This applies not only to the Nazis of old or the Islamist extremists of today (probably a strong inspiration to your last book, although some past depictions of dwarves have struck me as slightly Jewish Orthodox/Conservative), but also to e.g. the Christian Conservative and the Politically Correct of the U.S., homophobia, you-name-it. Importantly, it also applies very, very strongly to feminism, which is by no means a pro-equality movement—but one of the greatest problems of the Western world. (An even semi-complete analysis would cover pages, especially since feminism has many different directions, but common problems include: Denial of even the possibility of biological and evolutionary influences, contrary to main-stream science. Extreme cherry-picking of female disadvantages while ignoring male disadvantages. Painting men as the sole problem of the world. Grossly distorting, falsifying, misinterpreting, or even inventing statistics. Feminism is to equality what astrology is to astronomy or alchemy to chemistry. I also note that I have found the best way to judge a movement is to see how it treats dissenters, what its take on censorship is, whether it reasons rationally and fairly, and similar. Feminism falls as flat on its face as ISIS or Creationism does.) I would very, very strongly encourage you to not fall into the trap of feminism and not to accidentally write books that might play into the hands of feminism. On the contrary, if you are looking for new material, criticism of feminism could keep you busy for several books.

As an aside, I see a strong possibility that the revelations of the Queen and Cheery have an additional aspect not discussed here, with regards to (for want of a better phrasing) being one self in public, e.g. relating to the “coming out” of gays or transsexuals looking for acknowledgment. This aspect is more legitimate, but I do not see this road as very productive. If this is your (partial) intention, writing something more direct, e.g. actually using a gay couple or a transsexual, would be better. (No: Gladys does not count. She was put in her new role by others and adapted to the role—not the other way around. Besides, she did not originate as a man, but as a sexual tabula rasa, and considering her originally male would be a projection by the reader, the characters of the books, and/or the author.) Even such story-lines would be bordering on the hackneyed in today’s world, however.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 21, 2015 at 1:06 pm

A few thoughts around the death of Leonard Nimoy

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Leonard Nimoy is dead—and unlike his alter ego, Spock, he is unlikely to be miraculously restored to life.

This might seem a sad day for Trekkies everywhere, but I suspect that both Leonard and Spock would have considered sadness “most illogical”:

He, by human standards, lived long and prospered, his body of work remains even in the absence of his physical body, and his age and relative inactivity makes it unlikely that he would have made any major further contributions to the world, even had he lived for another few years. Sadness would be better directed at the limitations that aging ultimately places on us.

Instead, I suggest that we see this day as an opportunity:

  1. An opportunity to celebrate a wonderful actor, the iconic character that would not have been without him, and the positive influence on several generations of nerds that both of them had.

  2. An opportunity to remember, in these times of growing anti-Semitism and absurdly loop-sided views on Israel, how much good the Jews (to whom Leonard belonged) have done for the world through their entirely disproportionate accomplishments, be it with regard to science (Einstein, Feynman, …), movies (Spielberg, Mel Brooks, …), music (Mendelssohn, Mahler, …), and virtually any other area short of sports. Indeed, if asked at fifteen who my favourite (for want of a better word) “celebrity” was, it would likely have been a toss up between Einstein and Mel Brooks, with Spock being a strong candidate for favourite fictional character. They currently have provided roughly a quarter of all Nobel laureates.

    The analogy between the benefit of the small minority of Jews to this world is comparable to the benefit of the one-man minority Spock to the Enterprise.

  3. An opportunity to remember that life is short and that we should make good use of it. We may only have limited control over how long we live, but whether we prosper is mostly up to ourselves in today’s Western world.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 27, 2015 at 10:16 pm

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The disappointing Angela Merkel

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Recently, Angela Merkel was named “Person of the Year” by the British news paper “The Times”:

For her central role in preserving European stability at a time of resurgent Russian aggression in eastern Europe, Angela Merkel is named today as The Times Person of the Year.

The German chancellor, who must decide by 2016 whether to stand for a fourth term in office, was chosen principally for taking control of the west’s fraught negotiations with President Putin of Russia after his annexation of Crimea.

Mrs Merkel has shown herself to be an indispensable power broker in a year when east-west relations have been tested to breaking point in the most dangerous geopolitical crisis since the Cold


Now, I used to be a fan of Merkel’s, seeing her as one of the few politicians who actually bring some degree of competence to the table, as well as one of the least populist, and a positive counter-example to the many Swedish female politicians who have been promoted upwards just for being women (and have been correspondingly incompetent—consider Mona Sahlin, e.g.). As is, I consider this almost as a travesty, seeing that Merkel has spent 2014 ruining my impression of her—and has just broken the camel’s back by abusing the Charlie Hebdo situation to urge for an increase in “Big Brother”-/GDR-style telecommunications data retentionw of highly disputed effectiveness (according to a reliable German news sourcee).

Problems include:

  1. A far too weak reaction, almost a non-reaction, to the Snowden scandals. A chancellor after my taste would have taken a very clear stand against this intrusion on the citizens.

    I must conclude that she is in favour of such idiocies, is too weak to take the stand, or prioritizes international relations above the good of her citizens.

    (While the first revelations and Merkel’s lack of reactions date to 2013, there were plenty of opportunity for new reactions in 2014—none of which were taken.)

  2. An extremely populist take on last year’s general election, with many promises made without a word about the costs.

    I must conclude that she commits the politician’s deadly sin of prioritizing (re-)election over faithfulness to the ideals of the party and common sense—or, less likely, that she actually has more leftist views than she has hitherto let on.

  3. In the wake of said election (her party, CDU, and its Bavarian sister, CSU, where hailed as winners, but lost the supporting party FDP and with it the absolute majority), she for the second time entered a disputable alliance with the Social-Democrats, accepting many of their populist election promises and then passively letting them dominate the first few months—despite their being the junior partner in terms of members of parliament.

    I must conclude in repetition of the previous item, possibly and again, in combination with her being too weak.

  4. As a result of various election promises, we are now heading for (among other things) several ill-advised pension reforms, a too high minimum wage, and true abomination—-a 30% quota for female board members. This quota ignores that equal opportunity leads to unequal outcomes (for reasons including different interests and family/career priorities) and will therefore give women an artificial and unethical leg up at the cost of men, in particular with an eye on the age structure; it will lead to more incompetence in the board rooms (a problem that is large enough as it is); and it can be disputed on ethical grounds for the intrusion on the companies themselves.

    (Conclusions as above.)

The motivation given together with the award, on the other hand, fails in at least two regards: Firstly, it does not give a holistic view of her year. Secondly, if Merkel has been meritorious in this regard, it is not public knowledge. She has not gone “above and beyond duty” for a chancellor in her geographic position, she has not had any obvious positive impact beyond what was to be expected from a randomly picked chancellor from Germany history, and she has failed in as far as the Crimean is still in the hands of the Russians, Ukraine is still in a state of civil war, and the Russians are still highly aggressive.

At the end of the day, I cannot shake the suspicion that the award was more in line of a statement anti-Putin than a statement pro-Merkel, with Merkel simply being the candidate best-suited for being the excuse. Similarly, I am convinced that the absurd Nobel Peace Prize award to Obama was thinly veiled anti-Bush prize (with some suspicions for a few earlier prizes, including to the IPC/Al Gore)—as discussed in a previous article.

As an aside, the repeated “great coalitions” in Germany and recent odd agreements between the leading Swedish parties (in effect that the opposition will not oppose the budget suggestions of the ruling party/parties, even when the ruling faction does not have a majority) are leaving me with a fear that politicians are deliberately trying to get rid of their main irritant, those pesky voters, by making their own arrangements, irrespective of election outcomes. The conclusion is premature bordering on the paranoid at this stage; however, the last time I suspected that I was paranoid, well, according to Snowden I was naively optimistic…

Written by michaeleriksson

January 14, 2015 at 8:30 pm

On my inactivity and human stupidity

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Even after returning to the Internet almost a year-and-a-half-ago I have published (or written, for that matter) very little. There are several reasons for this, including that I have decided to and benefited from cutting down on my “extra curriculars” in favour of more post-work relaxation and that I grown more and more critical as to what I consider a text worthy of publishing and a thought worthy of writing up in the first place—to the point that I must force myself to artificially lower my criteria, lest I remain silent.

The greatest reason, however, is something very different: Sheer frustration with the stupidity of most humans, with the way those more in need of feedback are correspondingly less responsive to it, and with how many of the greatest ignorants are sure of their own (imagined) knowledge and understanding. (Including the important special cases of incorrectly believing that knowledge or experience automatically implies understanding, failure to realize that understanding is almost always the more important of the three, and entirely overlooking that none of them is worth much without actual thought.) My activities in the Blogosphere have been particularly unrewarding and frustrating, and it has been a long time since I had a non-trivial activity there.

It is no coincidence that there are many sayings or quotes expressing the principle that the fool is cock-sure and the wise man doubts—nor that the Dunning–Kruger principle has gained fame among those who do think. (Executive summary of Dunning–Kruger: Ability at A goes hand in hand with the meta-ability to judge ability at A.) Indeed, one of the few things that give me some amount of personal pride is simply that I belong to the small minority of people actually willing to actively challenge their own opinions and modify them as time goes by.

The examples of this are very common and the effects extremely demotivating to me. It is proverbially better to light a candle than to curse the darkness (and I have long tried to live by this claim), but there simply comes a point where it is hard to keep it up—especially, since there are many ignorants not only impervious to candle light—but who actively put out candles lit by others. Those who are familiar with my writings will know that I have written a lot about censorship—and the sad truth is that there are many blogs (notably feminist ones) who simply censor comments that have a dissenting view. This includes even polite comments using factual arguments, links to statistics, pointers to logical errors, … Indeed, often the comments that are the more likely to convince a third-party are the ones preferentially censored… Specifically in the realm of political correctness (in general and to some degree) and feminism (in particular and to high degree), there appears to be no willingness to actually look for the truth. Instead, pre-formed claims are pushed with great insistence, even when no more justified than e.g. the claims of a creationist: Both kinds live in their own special world where some things just have to be true because else they would find themselves in another world or have to face possibilities that they cannot cope with. Scientific proof, logical arguments, whatnot, are all secondary: The truth that these point to is abhorred and therefore they must, ipso facto, be faulty. It is inconceivable that God did not create the world; it is inconceivable that differences in outcome could have any other explanation than differences in opportunity. Anyone claiming otherwise is uninformed and should let himself be enlightened—or an evil liar deliberately trying to ruin the game, a heretic, a sexist, … Meanwhile, those wishing to “enlighten” the dissenters typically give ample proof of their own ignorance, undeveloped ability to understand arguments, and lacking prowess with critical thinking. A particular annoyance is the constantly recurring claim that those who criticize feminism (more specifically gender-feminism and feminist populism) are ignorants who must be exposed to the truth—when most critics (at least in Sweden) actually grew up under feminist indoctrination, long took feminist claims to be true, and only over time developed a more nuanced world view, by means of critical thinking, exposure to more scientific information, personal experience contrary to the feminist world-view, and so on: If the feminist claims about e.g. rape statistics, domestic violence, earning capacity, discrimination against women, …, were true, then almost everyone would be feminists—but I have over time learned that these claims for the most part are invalid. (For varying reasons for different cases, but often including hiding vital details that radically change the interpretation of data, misreporting of data, use of unsound methodology and non-standard definitions, statistics extrapolated to different areas or times without verification of relevance, and even statistics simply made up.)

These problems, however, are by no means limited to the Blogosphere, nor to the politically correct or any other ideology or religion. No, stupidity, irrationality, incompetence, and so on, permeate the world and all its aspects, the main question often being whether a certain phenomenon is explained directly or just indirectly by such factors: Is the advertising industry filled with idiots or does it merely try to convince idiots? (I suspect that it is a bit of both: People of highly disputable competence and judgment trying to preferentially convince the most stupid, irrational, and uninformed consumers.)

Even in software development, stereotypically associated with the gifted and the border-line autistic, there are few who have the competence level they should have and many who have a good standing through social relationships and despite their lack of skill. About five in ten of the colleagues that I have worked with have been so poor that I would simply not have considered them an option, had I been setting up a new team. No more than one in ten is someone I would give a blanket “yes”. Another one in ten may be a border-line case, picked or rejected depending on the available alternatives. The remaining three might do if nothing else is available and a sufficient mentoring and reviewing could be guaranteed. Even those worthy of a “yes” are typically lacking of the competence they should have, for the simple reason that they have the competence level of a worthy developer—but typically work as lead developers. Notably, most of them have a very limited own understanding, instead basing their decisions on rules, recommendations, or things that they have read somewhere without giving sufficient thought to e.g. why the recommendation is made and when it does not apply because the underlying cause for the recommendation is irrelevant. For instance, The lead-developer of a team that I was assisting a while ago was highly surprised by the suggestion of replacing an ugly set of conditionals with a look-up in map—apparently, he was unaware of this obvious and well-established technique that even a junior should (but rarely does) know. Going outside the “yes” developers and the border-line cases, things deteriorate very rapidly. The average developer has no feeling whatsoever for what makes good and poor code, does not use the benefits of polymorphy over if-statements, uses copy-and-paste when he should write a new method or class to abstract the same functionality, writes test cases that are next to useless through checking the implementation instead of the interface, …

It is the same with other professions—software developers still do better than most other groups. Looking at most business graduates I have dealt with, I marvel that they actually did graduate… Most are lacking in knowledge, almost all are devoid of understanding, and areas such as critical thinking are uncharted territories. Large egos and great efforts to create an appearance of competence are more common.

A particularly frustrating problem: The few of us who actually do strive for understanding often see problems, opportunities, solutions, …, that others do not. However, because the ignorants are in the majority, the minority is considered lacking… (E.g. through being seen as obsessing with unimportant details when these particular details actually are important, or as being wrong in a dispute for lacking some insight of the majority—but where the reason for disagreement is that the minority has this insight and several more that the majority is lacking…) A project I worked on last year had me crawling up the walls for frustration for this reason (in several areas, but mainly with regard to Scrum):

I had spent some considerable time deepening my knowledge and understanding of Scrum and was actually enthusiastic (rarely happens with me…) about testing this and that, in particular seeing what gains might be possible through systematic inspect and adapt. My efforts where almost entirely blocked by a team that had no understanding of Scrum but merely followed a certain formulaic approach, leaving inspect and adapt (the very core of Scrum) entirely by the wayside. This regrettably extended to both the Scrum Masters that the project saw: The first had masterly conned large parts of the company into believing she was a true expert, making anything she said an ipse dixit during any discussion. In reality, she was a disaster in her role, not merely through failing to understand inspect and adapt, but also through failing Scrum in several critical regards, notably including trying to prescribe what the developers should do and how they should do it (and not limited to Scrum at that). The second had no previous Scrum background, but went through a crash course consisting of tail-coating number one for two weeks combined with some informal tutoring of the blind-leading-the-blind kind. Discussions with her were even less productive, with an even more limited intellect and the one implicit argument of “number one said and number one is the expert”. No: Sorry, the only one in the project who had any claim whatsoever of being a Scrum expert was yours truly—I was the only one who had bothered to go beyond superficial knowledge and actually gain an understanding of the principles and ideas, as well as the only one who seemed to actually evaluate how well or poorly something worked.

Many examples of how stupidity rules the world can be found in the UIs of modern software programs, with explanations coming to a high degree from the made-for-idiots camp, but also, if to a lesser degree from the made-by-idiots camp (e.g. through not understanding the benefits of separation of concerns, not having knowledge of alternate paradigms, or undue prejudice against e.g. command lines). Take web browsers: For a considerable part of the post-2000 period, I was a dedicated Opera user—Opera delivering superior functionality and speed. However, for each subsequent version, Opera grew less and less user-friendly, to the point that I threw up my hands in anger and reluctantly switched to what seemed the least of the many evils: Firefox. Unfortunately, Firefox has continued with the same user-despising trend as Opera. Negative developments include, but are by no means limited to, removing the options to turn images and JavaScript on/off from the GUI, necessitating a visit to about:config, or reducing the usability of the image filtering severely by removing the generic black-/white-list system in favour of a rights system where rights can only be set for the domain of the current page (but not for e.g. a domain that provides images displayed on that page). Worse, as I recently discovered during the update of an older system, when these were left in the “off” position in a version that had the toggle in the GUI, an upgrade to a version with the toggle in about:config would automatically, without asking the user, and in direct violation of reasonable expectation, turn them on again—absolutely inexcusable! Generally, Firefox has a severe usability problem through forcing central functionality into unofficial plug-ins that have to be installed separately. Yes, plug-ins are great. No, it is not acceptable to move functionality central to the product to plug-ins or to force the user to install a plug-in for something that should be done through a setting. (However, installing a plug-in to provide a more advanced version of the central functionality is acceptable. A JavaScript on/off switch is a must in a browser, and a per site toggle very highly recommended, but the full functionality of the NoScript plug-in is legitimately put in a plug-in.)

While Firefox removes central functionality, it also includes more and more non-central functionality that rightfully should be (but is not) in a plug-in, e.g. the “sync” functionality. Or what about the many, many URLs that can be found under about:config for a variety of unspecified tasks, some of which is highly likely to include unethical “phone-homes” or definitely expose data to Google (a by now entirely untrustworthy third party)?

One of my main beefs with Firefox since day one has not improved one iota over possibly some five years: I like to run different instances of browsers for different tasks (at home using different user accounts, at work at least using different profiles). Under Firefox this means a lot of unnecessary work. For instance, installing a certain plug-in for all users is not possible (resp. there is an alleged way, but it is poorly documented, it is non-obvious, it requires far more work than a single-user installation, and it, judging by my one attempt a few years back, simply does not work). Profiles, in turn, are very poorly thought-through, having no official means to copy them, requiring command-line intervention to run more than one profile at any given time, and, when push comes to shove, merely solving a problem that would not have existed in the first place—had Firefox made proper use of config files. If it had, one could just tell it to use the settings from file A for this instance and File B for that instance, with no additional programming or a cumbersome profile concept. Whether using profiles or additional user accounts, a major issue is to have to go through a good many settings for each instance: Settings is the most natural thing to export and import between parallel instances—but this is not allowed. What Firefox provides is a means to export bookmarks and similar—but that is near useless for any practical use. (Yes, this could be handy when e.g. moving from computer A to computer B. However, then I would most certainly want the settings too. For parallel use, in contrast, the settings are far more important: I may need to alter one or two individual settings between instances, but the website visited will be almost entirely disjunct.)

One of the most atrocious examples of stupidity is the German “Energiewende”: A massive and costly intervention has been made to move energy consumption and production to “renewable energies”, and many criticize it already for the costs or the many implementation errors that have unnecessarily increased the cost or distributed it unfairly. Personally, I could live with the costs—and have to admit that the increase in renewable production capacity has been far more successful than I thought it would be. Unfortunately, there is one major, disastrous, and incredibly counter-productive catch: The production form which has been replaced is almost exclusively nuclear power—while the use of “fossil fuels” (especially coal) has actually increased (!). In other words, the net-effect of this massive and costly intervention is increased pollution… (Notably, very few people are aware that fossil fuels do far more damage to the environment and cause far more human deaths on a yearly basis than nuclear power has in its entire history, including the accumulated effects of Chernobyl and Fukushima.)

I could go on and on from a virtually endless list of examples, causing the writing of this article continue for far too long and ensuring that almost all potential readers will have the feared “to long; did not read” reaction. (Not that I have any illusion about the proportion still reading, even as is.) Instead, I prefer to make a cut here, but I will make some honourable mentions that I had originally intended to include with one or several paragraphs each:

  1. Deutsche Bahn (“German Railways”) demonstrates so much incompetence on a daily basis that I could write several articles on that topic alone.

  2. Museums used to be a way for those with an interest to actually learn something. Today they are rapidly degenerating into cheap entertainment–and they pride themselves with their “family friendliness”, which means that those who try to learn have to cope with children running around and screaming without anyone intervening. In many ways, what the typical museum of today does, is antithetical to the purpose of a museum…

  3. The abysmal state of groups like journalists and teachers, who should be among the intellectual elite and are so often so embarrasingly poorly informed and poor at thinking.

  4. Belief in various superstitions and pseudo-sciences, e.g. astrology, homeopathy.

  5. The lacking queue management in stores where a further checkout-counter is only opened when the queue is already several times as long as it should be—not when it becomes clear that the queue is starting to get out of hand.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 13, 2014 at 8:48 pm

Lack of perspective on men and women in sports

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A very sad example of how easy people lose perspective can be found in a recent debate in Sweden:

In a short time-span male soccer player Anders Svenssonw and female soccer player Therese Sjögranw set new records for most games played in their respective national team. The former was rewarded with a car; the second was not. The predictable Swedish sexism debate started…

What few people considered was that the female soccer players are on a very different level from male players when compared on equal levels of “numerical” accomplishment. Its not just a matter of men being bigger or having other physical advantage—but the competition in and development of women’s soccer is far weaker. Women should have equal pay for equal accomplishment—not for a considerably weaker accomplishment.

For instance, the Swedish Wikipedia page on women’s soccerw:sv claims that women make up 29 % of all Swedish players. In other words, there are more than twice as many male players and the competition for spots on the national team is more than twice as hard. (Factoring in that men tend to be relatively more competitive and women relatively more interested in playing “for the fun of it”, the numbers likely understate the difference on the level of the national team.)

According to the same page, only one in 12 (10 million out of 120 million) players is a woman world-wide. This has at least two important implications: Firstly, women’s soccer is not competitive with men’s soccer even after correcting for physical differences between the sexes. Secondly, the far higher proportion within Sweden puts the successes of the female national team and individual female players in perspective: They are internationally successful because the rest of the world lags in the relative size of the women’s soccer sector—not because they would be truly great players.

However, women’s soccer trails men’s soccer by even more than these numbers imply: Watch a few games and compare the way the play, even natural physical differences aside. To say that there is a difference of one “league” would be extremely kind, even in Sweden two or three could easily be the case—world-wide there is no comparison. In contrast, female tennis players often have a technique and “feel” for the game that is comparable to male players, losing ground through their smaller stature, weaker arms, etc. Conversely, male athletes in sports that are considerably smaller globally than soccer are still more accomplished: In a match-up facilitated by magic, the Swedish national team in bandyw would likely have an easy time against the women’s national soccer team.

To take another perspective: Cars cost money. Which of the two is the better money maker? (And therefore the more reasonably rewarded from an economic point of view.) Comparing individuals could be very tricky; however, if we look at groups we can get at least a good indication. In 2012, the highest Swedish men’s divisionw:sv had a per game average number of visitors of 7210; the highest women’s divisionw:sv just 836.

Very recently, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, one of the world’s most successful soccer players in recent years and the team captain of the Swedish national team, spoke out about this affair, correctly pointing out that women’s soccer is not comparable to men’s and that there is no unfairness in giving only the male player a car. He also correctly points out the absurdity that he is internationally compared to the likes of Messi and Ronaldo but nationally to female players of a far, far lesser calibre.

The result (and what prompted me to write this post): He is attacked from every direction and seen as a sign of how unfairly maligned women’s soccer would be or how much undue prejudice there would be. (Cf. e.g. one of many Swedish news itemse). In the defense of his detractors, he could have formulated himself more diplomatically; however, that does not change the underlying issues or that he is correct in these underlying issues.

This debate points very clearly to some recurring problem with the current Swedish attitude towards “gender issues”:

  1. Actual accomplishment and equality of opportunity is less important than equality of outcome and a highly subjective and extremely superficial take on “fairness”.

  2. There is little will and/or ability to actually think an issue through. Instead reactions are based on emotions, what people want the world to be like (as opposed to how it actually is), simplistic assumptions, …

  3. Criticizing attempts to create or assert pseudo-equality borders on a crime—even when the criticism is objectively justified.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 26, 2013 at 4:51 pm

Prostitution/Blogroll update

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To expand on the issue of prostitution from the previous post:

There are strong reactionary forces working against prostitution, and with it both the individual’s right to make his or her own choices and a natural and de-mystified view of sex. To make matters worse, these forces often have a strong misogynist streak in that women are considered incapable of making sexual and life-style choices the way men do. In addition to countries like the USA with its long-standing outdated take on the issues, some countries that once were more enlightened are getting lost. Sweden, in the clutches of gender-feminism and feminist populism has already banned prostitution (however, irrationally and absurdly, only for the customers). The French are currently considering a ban modeled on the Swedish. Germany might be next: Shortly before the current proposal Alice Schwarzer (the hands-down best known feminist in Germany, rather extreme in her opinions) and her magazine “Emma” made head-lines with their call for a ban.

Looking more in detail at the proposal, it seems fairly innocuous and may well be well-intended; however, as already stated, it could easily be the first step for a ban. Practical problems include that the customers are put in an unduly problematic situation and that the effectivity is disputable with regard to the claimed goal of reducing involuntary prostitution. (Certainly, a better solution would be to increase transparency by changing perceptions around prostitution and making it more like an ordinary occupation in terms of what goes on around it.) Two quotes from a German articlee:

“Es gibt eine Reihe von Indizien, die für Zwangsprostitution sprechen”, sagt Anna Hellmann von der Frauenrechtsorganisation “Terre des Femmes”. Klare Merkmale seien Minderjährigkeit, Anzeichen von Gewalt oder der Aufenthalt der Frauen in verschlossenen Räumen. “Auch die Bitte der Frau, das Handy des Freiers nutzen zu dürfen, ist ein alarmierendes Zeichen dafür, dass sie in erzwungener Isolation lebt.”

(“There are a number of indications for forced prostitution”, says Anna Hellman of the women’s rights organization “Terre des Femmes”. Clear characteristics are under-age[iness], signs of violence or the women’s staying in closed off premises [depending on intent, possibly “rooms”]. “The request of the woman to use the cell phone of the customer is an alarming sign of her living in forced isolation”)

(I note that the proportion of male prostitutes is comparatively high, contrary to the impression given by the quote and common anti-prostitution propaganda. Further, that female customers certainly do occur, even if more rarely. Strictly for simplicity, I match the quote in terms of pronouns below.)

Now, if these are criteria that would make a customer (at least negligibly) liable, a number of problems arise: How does he now that the woman is under-age? There is a great variety in looks of women of various ages and she is highly unlikely to answer even a direct question honestly. (As a case in point, I recently watched the German sit-com “Türkisch für Anfänger”. I originally thought that the main female protagonist was around 13. She turned out to be 16—and played by an actress aged 19…) Detecting that premisses are closed off need not be trivial and there can be other quite plausible explanations, including the natural characteristics of the building or measures for the protection of the women. A request to use a cell-phone is also at best a vague indication (absolutely not “alarming”), e.g. because her own cell-phone batteries could legitimately have run out. This not to mention the fact that there are ways to enforce compliance in non-obvious manners, e.g. by threatening violence, keeping passports hostage, or giving women with a poor knowledge of German and Germany faulty information about legal consequences—and the proposed law would be entirely useless in these cases.

When push comes to shove, the customer is stepping on a mine-field where he cannot have certainty and may make himself criminally liable even when acting entirely in good faith.

Grünen-Fraktionsvize Ekin Deligöz bezeichnete die angestrebten Reformen als unzureichend: “Der Opferschutz fehlt völlig”, sagte sie den “Ruhr Nachrichten”. Wenn man den Zwangsprostituierten wirklich helfen wollte, müsse man ihnen “die Möglichkeit eines Neustarts in Deutschland geben, mit Aufenthaltsrecht und Arbeitserlaubnis”.

([The Green Party’s second-in-command in parliament] Ekin Deligöz called the targetted reforms unsufficent: “There is a complete absense of victim protection”, she told [regional German paper]. To really help those forced to prostitution, it is necessary to give them “the possibility to start over in Germany, with visum [approx.] and working permit”.

Combined with other claims/quotes in the article, I am left with the impression that many already see the proposed reform as swing-and-a-miss in terms of actually bettering the situation of the prostitutes—as do I.

In addition, it pays to bear in mind that increasing what is considered criminal in cases like these often have the effect of increasing the influence of criminals on the business and making transactions take place in greater secrecy—but not actually reducing business to a considerable extent. Many fear that this happened with Sweden and prostitution after the ban; it was definitely the case with the U.S. prohibition.

To somewhat counter-act this nonsense, I am changing my blogroll by adding a link to http://sexwork-deutschland.de/?page_id=85e—a call for a more constructive take on prostitution from a German interest organisation for sex workers. Specific points include a rejection of legal bans/increased government intervention and promotion of the status of prostitutes.

By the first-in-first-out principle Christianity And The Witch Hunt Erae is removed. That link was first described here.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 4, 2013 at 5:35 am

More on the German election

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We are now more than two months past the election—and I have some serious doubts whether I was wise in endorsing Merkel’s victory.

For starters, the victory part can in it self be disputed. As I did warn, the failure of FDP left the Bundestag with a more-or-less hostile majority. Differences between various Left-leaning parties has still left Merkel and CDU/CSU as the main force; however, they need an alliance with the Social-Democrats (SPD), negotiations have taken forever, and the price to pay has been very heavy indeed: The Social-Democrats have a disproportionate number of cabinet seats allotted to them and they have pushed through a number of issues that are are worrying. The most notable example is an unduly high minimum wage at 8.50 Euro/hour, which could severely worsen the market for the barely employable. A far worse suggestion was under discussion, but appears to be off the table for the moment: The introduction of quotas for female board members, with a minimum of 30 or even 40 % being women—outdated, sexist, and unjust. (As usual there was no talk of a minimum quota for each respective sex—just one for women.)

CDU/CSU themselves were less than exemplary during the campaigning, making hefty promises. These promises are now combined with those of the SPD and the resulting joint proposals are quite expensive—but little has been said about the financing. As is, there will sooner or later (probably sooner…) be a hole that needs to be stopped. Based on my impressions from the negotiations, the stopping will likely eventually be done through tax increases.

Furthermore, there have been a number of areas in recent times where CDU/CSU have acted unfortunately or potentially dangerously. Most of these point to the important role the failing FDP could have played to keep a liberal rain on Merkel (not to mention keeping SPD away from power and thereby avoiding the above problems). Examples include:

  1. A far to complacent reaction to scandals around surveillance of citizens and politicians (not limited to the NSA).

  2. There are suggestions to reinstate the Telecommunications data retentionw, which on a previous attempt was struck down by the Federal Constitutional Court—the more absurd in light of the recent surveillance controversies.

  3. A wish to make customers of prostitutes criminally liable when they visit prostitutes who work on a non-voluntary basis. Superficially, this may seem like a move to counter-act “trading”; practically, it is an entry point for a renewed ban on prostitution and puts the customers in a very unfortunate position. (I will expand on this in the following post.)

Simultaneously, although likely not tied to CDU/CSU, there are renewed attempts to ban NPD, a minor party considered neo-nazi and “hostile to the constitution” (“verfassungsfeindlich”—a legal German term allowing the banning of organizations). This may not seem bad on paper; however, it violates the principles of democracy in the name of democracy, highlights the limits of freedom of speech and expression in Germany, and shows a great hypocrisy: The East-German Communist party has a descendant in “Die Linke”, which is actually represented in parliament. (The originally party, SED, was restructured and renamed to PDS after the fall of East-Germany. PDS was represented in parliament until just a few years ago, when they merged with another Left-extremist/-populist grouping to form “Die Linke”, which is still represented. There is even some remaining overlap with SED in terms of the actual people involved—admittedly minor by now, but then more than twenty years have passed.) In contrast, NPD has no direct ties to NSDAP (“the Nazi party”), but are accused of having similar opinions. The one is the continuation of a criminal organization and thrives in parliament—the other has similar opinions to a criminal organization and risks being banned.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 4, 2013 at 5:27 am

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