Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

PC annoyances

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One of the great annoyances and proofs of human stupidity is the many, many, many news items where poor reasoning or ignorance is used to support a politically correct agenda (be it by the journalist or the politicians, whatnot, reported on). I regularly find myself keeping a browser tab open, because I want to write something about a particularly idiotic item—but before I get around to it a week has passed and I have ten open tabs. (At which point I usually resign myself and just close them.)

Particularly common problems include:

  1. Variations of the 77-cents-on-the-dollar myth, which has been debunked for years*. Recently, e.g., the video-text of the German ARD reported that Germany is about to introduce transparency rules implying that women should have a (presumably asymmetric) right to find out what men in similar positions in their companies earn.

    *Cf. e.g. several earlier posts.

    A major problem with this is that just having the same (let alone a “similar”) position is not that strong an indication of what someone earns or should earn. Other criteria include actual performance, experience, education, how long the position has been held, and (very notably) negotiating* skill and tactic.

    *It could be argued that this is a bad thing, but as is it is a fact of life. I also suspect that it would be hard to abolish without risking a system where everyone is payed based on purely formal criteria, e.g. years in the company.

    The last item is particularly interesting, because men* tend to be more aggressive negotiators and are relatively more likely to turn down offers based on money—while increasing the risk of periods of unemployment and rejections. We can now have scenarios where four out of four women are hired at X (in some currency, for some time interval), while out of four more aggressively negotiating men three are hired at 1.1X and the fourth goes unemployed. The women find out that the three men earn more (while being ignorant of or disregarding the fourth), demand a raise with charges of sexual discrimination, and we end up with four women and three men earning 1.1X and one unemployed man… One group takes the high risk road for a higher reward and the other group receives the same reward without taking the risks… (With many variations, e.g., that is possible that everyone would have gotten 1.1X at a given company—but that only the men asked for it. Negotiations are there because the employers want to pay the least amount they can get away with—not because they want to systematically give women less money. I have even been asked outright what the smallest offer was that I would accept…)

    *Here and elsewhere I take is as granted that we speak of group differences, relative probabilities, and so on. That individual variations exists is a given and will not be spelled out.

    The first item (performance) is also of of extreme importance: In software development, my own field of practice, the difference in output and quality can be so large that it would often be easily justifiable to pay the one developer twice as much as the other. (Unfortunately, the decision makers are usually under the very unfortunate misconception that software developers are fungible and differences of that size are far rarer than they should be. Still, that someone earns 10, 20, 0r 30 % more is not automatically a sign of discrimination, skill at negotiation, or any non-performance factor—quite often it is a result of better performance.)

  2. Variations of women-are-not-successful-in-technology-due-to-discrimination.

    The truth is simply this: Men and women have different aptitudes and interests. Men more often end up as e.g. software developers and women as e.g. kindergarten teachers because that matches their natural preferences. Too boot, the women I have encountered so far in software development have only very rarely broken into the top half of the pack; off the top of my head, I recall no single woman who broke into the top quarter. (But I stress that my sample is too small to make statements about the overall population of female developers with certainty.)

    A particularly idiotic example is reporting on Facebook’s diversity program (which I originally encountered in a German news source which just parrots the original without any critical thinking).

    Facebook wants to diversify, but this “has been hampered by a multi-layered hiring process that gives a small committee of high-ranking engineers veto power over promising candidates”. Of course those pesky white men are at it again: “The engineering leaders making the ultimate choices, almost all white or Asian men, often assessed candidates on traditional metrics like where they attended college, whether they had worked at a top tech firm, or whether current Facebook employees could vouch for them”.

    What makes this particularly outrageous is the mention of “white or Asian men” in manner that very obviously is intended to imply that “white or Asian men” is the actual problem. It is not: The criteria used by these “white or Asian men” are sound and justified. The problem here is not the decision making process—it is the lack of suitable candidates. If (!) there is a problem here it is not with Facebook but with earlier stages: Facebook cannot be faulted if too few members of minority groups have gone to Stanford and MIT. This article* makes creating diversity a higher priority than finding the right person for the job at hand—an absurd attempt to create equality of outcome through destroying equality of opportunity. Notably, there is not one shred of proof presented that the decision makers would discriminate based on e.g. ethnicity—but if the lead of the article was followed, they would be forced to do so!

    *There are a number of problems with the article that I will not analyze in detail, but most of them boil down to observing result X and concluding Y without regard for other alternatives. For instance, it is true that using school as a criterion at the last stage of the process, rather than the first stage, is a bad idea—but if school has not been considered appropriately in the earlier stages and the sensible people only have a say in the last stage, well, better late than never. For instance, the claim that promising candidates, cf. above, are filtered out, is unsubstantiated and an explanation of “promising” is not given. For all we know, “promising” could here mean nothing but “is Hispanic, has a bachelor, wants to work here”—which is a long way from “is Hispanic, has a master from MIT with a great GPA, and has ten years of relevant experience”.

    (Not to forget: There is nothing remarkable with these decision makers being “white or Asian men”. Almost certainly this also reflects the suitable candidates in an earlier generation.)

    What has happened here is easy to understand: Facebook started to search for more diversified candidates, put them into the process, and found them being filtered out again, because they were not satisfactory. By analogy, if a fisherman casts his net wider, he will still not get the fish that is small enough to slip through the net.

  3. “Mäns våld mot kvinnor” (“mens’ violence against women”) is a Swedish specialty, but has similar variations in e.g. the U.S. (notably the misconception that domestic violence is committed predominantly by men onto women, which is very far from true).

    Using this specific phrase, feminists has spent decades running a grossly sexist campaign that paints men as serial abusers and women as innocent victims. Violence in the other direction and any other form of violence is strictly ignored. Violence simply is not a problem for these people—except when the perpetrator is a man and the victim a woman. To boot, “Mäns våld mot kvinnor” is painted as gigantic problem, while it in reality is a marginal issue: The vast majority of men do not in any way, shape, or form abuse their women.

    Unfortunately, feminist populism has become such a staple in Swedish mainstream political rhetoric that this type of hate speech and sexist rhetoric is regularly uttered even by high level politicians.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 13, 2017 at 6:11 am

Horrible customer experiences in Germany: Postbank

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Over the years, I have encountered a disturbing number of truly depressing behaviors from various German companies, both privately and in my professional and business life, be it stemming from incompetence, from blatant disregard for the customer’s rights, or from an inability to understand that both parties have to keep up their end of the bargain. I intend to discuss some of them over time, starting with the events around the business account I until very recently held with the Postbank (a banking subsidiary of Deutsche Post, the German “Post Office”). I recommend all readers to without exception have no dealings whatsoever with this grossly incompetent and customer hostile institution.

In an incomplete account:

  1. The account was supposed to come with a credit card, barring a vague disclaimer about credit worthiness. This disclaimer is fairly standard in Germany and something someone in good standing should be able to ignore—and I* earned well, had a bit of money put aside, and had never failed to pay a correct and undisputed bill. Still, I was refused a credit card, with the claim that these were not available to businesses* younger than, in my recollection, two years—something not mentioned with one word in advance.

    *Note that I work in a legal form that does not require the explicit founding of a company, implying that my credit worthiness as a business entity is (or at least should be) the same as my credit worthiness as a private person. This also makes the time limit applied harder to defend.

    No alternatives were presented (e.g. a debit or pre-paid card or a deposit).

    My request, about a year later, to look at the amount* of money in the account instead of the age of my business went without a reaction.

    *I will not discuss details of that kind here, for reasons of privacy. However, it was considerably more than I could realistically spend with the types of limits that apply to most German credit cards—and it had a history of rapid growth over the year that had passed.

    As a result, I was forced to use my private* credit card for e.g. booking and paying hotels, resulting in an unfortunate mixing of private and business funds/transactions, probably formally violating the terms of use for my private account, and removing many of the benefits with having a business account. Certainly, had I been told in advance about the business-age limit, I would absolutely not have opened my business account with the Postbank.

    *This credit card, as well as my private bank account, are with another bank.

  2. The account was supposed to come with a fully functioning Internet banking (and is anything else even conceivable in the years 2015 and 2016?!?). This did not turn out to be the case: In order to take actions within the online banking, including executing money transfers, I needed mTans*. In a first step, this required entry of a cell-phone number, to which a text message would be sent as verification, after which everything would work. However, despite several attempts on several days and despite a fully functioning cell phone**, I never received this text message.

    *I.e. Tans sent to a mobile phone. Frankly, the technical problems aside, it is very weak of a bank to force some specific technology on the users in that manner. What if someone does not have a cell phone?

    **Including the ability to receive text messages, something I verified carefully through copy-and-pasting the phone number from the online-banking page to an SMS-sending tool.

    My requests that the Postbank fix the problem went unheeded. Alternative means to activate mTans or do online banking were not provided.

    With this, the remaining benefits of a business account were gone and, again, I would certainly never have opened the account, had I expected such problems.

  3. As time went by, money accumulated on my business account from bills paid by my customers while my private account grew thinner and thinner, seeing that I had to pay all my costs, private and business, from my private account.

    I now wanted to transfer money to my private account and used one of the provided (paper) forms for an inconvenient and fee requiring* transfer. This transfer was never executed and I never received any notification as to the the “that” and “why”.

    *Whereas transfers through online banking, had they been possible, were free of charge.

  4. A little later, I finally bought a suitable apartment (cf. earlier posts) and needed to pay the seller. This time I went directly to the bank/post office, bringing a number of documents, including identification papers, with me, so that this could be done directly in the office, with no possibility of a hick-up. At the same time I wanted to transfer the lion’s part of the remainder to my private account.

    What happens? The clerk hands me several forms and asks me to complete them—apparently unable to do anything of what I had expected. Well, if filling in forms was the only thing available, I could have saved myself the walk and the almost half-hour (!) long wait in the queue, and just done this at home with the forms I already had.

    I filled in the forms, double-checked them, had the clerk double-check them (comparing against the known amounts and papers with printed versions of the relevant account numbers). This while explicitly mentioning the earlier unexecuted transfer and having emphasized how important it was that nothing went wrong. The clerk had no objections whatsoever to the form contents and claimed that the money would be transferred in no more than three* days.

    *Considerably slower than with online banking. (But in all fairness, I likely would not have been able to transfer so large a sum in one sitting per online banking anyway. The transfers to my private account are different, because I could easily just have made a monthly transfer for a smaller amount.)

    I waited four (!) days and still found no trace of a transfer.

  5. Come the next banking day, I went to another office, further away from my living quarters, where I expected a more bank- and less post-centric support from the external presentation, in order to terminate my account, ensure that the apartment seller received his money, and that every last cent of the remainder were transferred to my private account.

    Despite the exterior giving a “banky” impression, including having signs advertising various bank services, this office turned out to know nothing about banking, being virtually dedicated to postal matters. Not only that, the clerk I talked to this time was extremely rude and aggressive, from the first word on, apparently considering me an idiot for coming to them for a bank matter—never mind their own signs… In the end I was sent to a central office several kilometers away, where I eventual managed to find someone who was a dedicated bank employee.

  6. This visit took half-an eternity, with time spent waiting for service, with explanations, research of what had happened to the earlier transfers, the filling out and signing of form after form, …

    As it turns out, the first transfer had been rejected due to deviations in the signature. That might have been acceptable (I certainly do not want others transferring my money) had I been informed—but I was not. (As an aside, pen-and-paper signatures are an idiocy, being far to easy to forge, and suffering from considerable variations when written by the same person on different occasions. However, that is not a problem with the Postbank but with the overall system.)

    The other two had been filtered out because the scanner had been uncertain about the amounts. This sound more like an excuse than a reason, but is not entirely implausible, with standard German and Swedish digits being somewhat different. However, what followed later is under no circumstances acceptable: Firstly, such ambiguity should have been easily handled by a human reader (remember that the original clerk had verified the correctness and, by implication, readability)—and they had explicitly mentioned the amounts involved during the phone call, without prompting, which proves that they had no problems reading the numbers. Secondly, again they had failed to notify me.

    For the money transfer to the apartment seller, the situation was now urgent, and the clerk recommended an “express transfer”—for which I would have to pay another 15 Euro. This despite the only reason the express transfer was needed was the incompetence of the Postbank… Having no other choice, not wanting to risk the seller backing out, I consented, but clearly stated that I would demand these 15 Euros back. As promised, the money was transferred the same day.

    However, the money transfer for the remainder was not executed at all. This despite there being no room for error, the forms having been filled out by the clerk this time, and again without my receiving any type of notification as to the “that” and the “why”.

    Instead, the amount from the second of my earlier transfers to the private account suddenly turned up a few days after this visit. In combination, this is an obvious, obviously deliberate, and gross violation of my expressed will.

    To boot, despite my account being unambiguously terminated, with the additional unambiguous demand that any remainders of my money be transferred to my private account, this remainder has still not been transferred—almost two weeks after the visit. (And despite the clerk’s claim that money from an account termination should be available within roughly one week, even when not otherwise transferred.)

    As a result, the Postbank is currently sitting on a significant amount of money that they have no right whatsoever to sit on, while I find myself short the same amount of money.

    I have no idea whether they intend to return it, let alone when—but I do know that I will file criminal charges, contact the German Bank Inspection (Bafin) with a detailed complaint, and instruct a lawyer to take steps to retrieve my money against any and all further obstructions by the Postbank.

As an excursion, I originally picked the Postbank for my business account due to the, so it was presented, large net of bank offices, virtually every post office also being a bank office. In reality, as I have come to understand over the last few weeks, most of the post offices are useless when it comes to banking matters—even when their signs claim otherwise. In reality, the number of offices to take seriously is quite limited and the service network is far weaker, not stronger, than that of the main competitors (e.g. Commerzbank, Deutsche Bank, and, locally, various Sparkassen). Mostly, everything that can be done is to fill out a form that is then mailed to a more central office.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 17, 2016 at 7:52 pm

The declining security of Linux (and sudo considered harmful)

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Naive approaches to computer security have long been a thorn in my side, starting with the long lasting Windows assumption of a single user and user account on a system. (Originally explicit in that no second user account or user control was available; in the last ten-or-so-years in the form that the standard case is one user and one user only—who if at all possible should only ever work with one account.)

Unfortunately, Linux has also taken a turn for the worse over the years, often taken extremely naive approaches, prioritizing the convenience of the inexperienced user over security*, and opening holes that even a highly proficient user is often unaware of—and with more and more holes as time goes by.

*With the dual effect that those who want security have to put in a load of work (and likely still fail) and that many users are not aware of how poor their security is. Notably, the naive users might be pleased about the convenience—but they too are victims of the poor security. I would even argue that because they are naive, there is a greater obligation to protect them through implementing strong default security.

A prime example is the default file permissions (umask), which on most modern systems are set so that anyone can read the files of everyone else… This is so obviously wrong and idiotic that whoever is responsible should be taken out and shot. The obvious correct default behavior, and what matches the reasonable intent on almost all systems, are permissions where either only the owner is allowed to read a file or only the owner and the members of the files “group”*. One of the first things I do with a new installation is to restrict the default file permissions to owner only—if something else is needed for a specific file, I override the default.

*The standard file permissions on Unix-like systems divide the world into the owner, the group, and everyone else. By assigning users to a group, they can be given different access to certain files than “everyone else”, without being the owner.

This misconfiguration is particularly dangerous because it is unexpected, it is often only discovered when it is (potentially) to late, and it requires an over-average amount of knowledge to correct*.

*It is not enough to simply change the default setting: Each and every file that has already been created with that setting must have its individual setting corrected.

Another particularly annoying and dangerous problem is demonstrated by utterly conceptually flawed tools like sudo, pkexec, and polkit: Much like the execution controls in Windows, they assume that a user has a varying amount of rights to do things depending on how he does them. (E.g. through calling a command with or without sudo, or through giving or not giving a password to polkit.) While these tools are intended to increase security, they instead open up ridiculous security holes, and increase the likelihood both of users being given rights that the admins never intended them to have and of hostiles being able to achieve “privilege escalation”*.

*Roughly, an attacker starting with a certain set of rights that do not pose a danger and tricking the system into giving him more rights until he does pose a danger. This is a central part of cracking a computer system.

Consider sudo: The intention of sudo is that when a user executes the command X as “sudo X” (instead of just “X”), it is as if root (the main admin user) executed the same command. Now, what commands are allowed to “sudo” for a certain user is configurable, but this configuration can be a bitch. Take something as harmless as an editor: If the user can “sudo” the editor, he can now change system files, manipulate the password storage, read documents that should be secret, … The system is effectively an open book that a skilled cracker can exploit and infiltrate as he sees fit. OK, so we do not allow editors (and a number of more obvious things like command shells, commands to delete files, and the like). Now what about all the other applications that are not editors but still have the ability to execute editors or have the ability to even just save a file? What about those that can execute commands (e.g. through a “shell escape”—a very common mechanism on Unix-like systems)? They too must be ruled out. Etc. But here is the real devilry: How do we find out what commands have what abilities? This is a virtually impossible task, with many nasty surprises—e.g. that the standard pager (“less”; seemingly only intended to view files) has the ability to launch an editor… The only chance is to reduce the “sudoable” commands to an absolute minimum, carefully verify that minimum, and (more likely than not) conclude that the users now do not receive the convenience that sudo was intended to give them.

The task of configuring sudo is made the harder because most Linux distributions appear to work on the assumption that any system is a single user system (as with Windows above)—and cram down whatever gives the user convenience in the corresponding configuration. Looking at the configuration file /etc/sudoers on my current system*, I find e.g.

*No worries: While the configuration file is still there, the actual sudo program has been removed.

# Allow members of group sudo to execute any command

%sudo ALL=(ALL:ALL) ALL

The comment line says it all.

Now, a good admin would not assigns the group “sudo” to just anyone and would use far more granular settings to give individual users what they need. However, not all admins* are good and this approach practically invites the admin to be lazy and assign rights carelessly. To boot, this makes it ease for the Linux distribution to screw up, because the consequences of a change become hard to predict, e.g. when default group assignments or default configuration entries are altered. In one horrendous case I heard of some months ago, the default configuration actually gave everyone, irrespective of group, the right to “sudo” anything, resulting in a system with no actual security anymore…

*Note that the admin is often quite, quite poor as an admin: Admins are not just found in big enterprises—the family member who takes care of the family’s computers is also an admin.

Others do truly stupid things, like https://help.ubuntu.com/community/Sudoers which gives an example of how to add an editor (!) to the configuration—and this in a section titled “Common Tasks”…

myuser ALL = (root) NOPASSWD:NOEXEC: /usr/bin/vim

This example lets the user “myuser” run as root the “vim” binary without a password, and without letting vim shell out (the :shell command).

Well, preventing “shell out” (more properly “shell escape”, one of the issues I mention above) is good, but obviously the idiot who wrote this has failed to understand that an editor is lethally dangerous too (cf. above). For instance, “sudo vim /etc/shadow” gives a malicious user the possibility to change the root password, after which he can trivially gain a root shell—without needing a “shell out”.

In contrast, the earlier approach was very sound: Either a user account had the right to do something or it did not—end of story. Usually, “did not” applied, when not dealing with the users own files. When more rights were needed to do a task the physical user had to log in with a new user account with more rights in the relevant area (and typically less in other areas!)—if he was trusted with such an account*. Yes, sudo can be more convenient, but that convenience is bought with a horrendous drop in security.

*If he was not trusted, then he correctly had no opportunity to do whatever he wanted to do.

The one saving grace of sudo is that it makes live a little safer for those who would otherwise take even greater risks in the name of convenience, through giving themselves dangerous rights all the time. This, however, is not a valid reason to make life that much less secure for the users who actually try to be secure and know how to handle themselves. This is like noting that condoms reduce pleasure and replacing condoms with some other mechanism which gives more pleasure—but does so at the price of not actually preventing pregnancy and disease transmission…

As a rule of thumb: If someone recommends that you use sudo, discount anything he says on security issues. This tool is simply one of the worst security ideas in the history of Linux.

I have seen some truly absurd cases, e.g. one nitwit who adamantly insisted that logging in as root on a terminal was very dangerous, but still threw sudos around willy-nilly. (While logging in as root is never entirely without danger, a terminal is the least dangerous place to do so, seeing that this reduces the risk of a snooper catching the password, removes the temptation of starting various GUI programs, and drastically reduces the risk of forgetting that one is using the root account and mistakenly doing something stupid.)

Excursion for the pros:

Those who know a little more about Unix security might see a major advantage of sudo in the reduced need for suid-ing programs. This might or might not have been an advantage at some point of time, but I have worked for years without using sudo and I have never needed to change anything in this regard. I conclude that what should work works, be it through appropriate group settings, daemons, or suid programs that are there irrespective of the presence of sudo. In addition, I am not convinced that suid programs, the potential dangers notwithstanding, are a greater evil than sudo, at least not after considering the relative likelihood of an admin doing some stupid—it is not just a question of what approach is the safer technically, but also of what approach gives us the better protection from human errors.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 6, 2016 at 11:07 pm

A modest proposal

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Earlier today, I received a most disturbing communication from my good friend Jonatan Schnell. He has got his hands on a number of secret documents from various government agencies, and has asked me to publish the following excerpt:

This noble organization has been entrusted with two central tasks:

  1. Ensuring sufficient surveillance that unwanted transgressions of any kind are detected in a timely manner, ideally including the expression and formation of unsound opinions.
  2. Ensuring swift, accurate, and unavoidable corrective measures for such transgressions.

The last decades have seen many technological advancements and developments that raised our hopes of finally reaching success. Unfortunately, despite many partial successes, they have all eventually proved insufficient. I hardly need reminding you of how physical inspection of hard-drives has proved to be very fruitful, yet has far too often failed in the more important cases, through the use of high-grade encryption, often in conjuncture with the transgressor’s claim of “having forgotten” the passwords. Encryption in general, of course, has been a major obstacle, including not only hard-drives but also email communications and alternate networks like i2p and tor. Even HTTPS, although easy to circumvent, has caused considerable over-head, delays, and missed opportunities. Or take the unfortunate case of the aforementioned alternate networks: Left alone they risk nullifying our communication surveillance and de-anonymizing of Internet communication. (I stress again how important it is to continue our infiltration campaigns.)

The reason for failure is almost always that we are too far away from the immediate interaction, either in time or geographically. The best, but invariably most and often impracticability expensive, results are reached when we can apply direct surveillance, e.g. through camera and microphone monitoring or the installation of software directly on the computer of the transgressor. It is to be feared that even the most promising in-roads available, including the intended use of service providers such as Google, Facebook, and CloudFlare, will never suffice to meat our requirements, especially with the more surveillance-hostile elements.

The logical conclusion is to take this one step further, in a manner that ensures that all potential transgressors can be surveilled at a moments notice at no additional cost (after, admittedly, a high initial investment):

The enhancement of our citizens through physical implants to monitor their audio-visual input, including, indirectly, what they do, say, write, etc. In addition a GPS module might be added, allowing us to pin-point the location of any and all citizens at any given moment, as well as allowing us to track their movements and physical meetings over time. (Of course, some of the same benefits can be reached through tracking cell-phones. These have the weakness that they can be left at home, run out of batteries, or be temporarily shielded.) Long term additional surveillance of brain patterns, heart beat, and other biological signs can prove a valuable addition. For instance, if someone reacts negatively to a government message, we would immediately know that there is need for more dedicated surveillance; if someone reacts with arousal to another party of the wrong gender or below the age of eighteen, this can be registered and the corresponding warnings be issued to neighboring residents; and so on. The addition of the possibility to produce auditory or visual stimuli is particularly interesting. For instance, when a transgression is detected in flagrante the transgressor can be given immediate notification and instructions from law officers to stand down and await arrest.

To avoid removal or more temporary manipulations, these enhancements would regularly and automatically be in communication with a central controller (e.g. by radio or the cell-phone network). Any time an enhancement misses a check-in, this if filed as a violation and an APB is put out. After the transgressor has been apprehended, the enhancements are checked and/or replaced (at the transgressors cost) and corrective action is taken when appropriate. It would of course be made illegal to provide or use any structure or equipment that blocks the needed signals.

In the long term, the enhancements can be provided with the ability to directly incite an algesic response when the check-ins fail, as well as during any detected attempt at removal. This can be extended to a greater range of transgressions, like trying to enter or leave the country without using the official border crossings. Additional possibilities for aversion therapy are open: The wrong reactions to certain stimuli, the expression of unsound opinions, and other correctable transgressions of a similar nature can be swiftly and automatically handled by the enhancements themselves, causing the transgressors to associate such deviations with the algesic response.

Following this trail to its end (but here I fear that the political climate is not yet sufficiently matured) enhancements can be used for more conclusive corrective actions. Consider replacing the lengthy and costly procedures around e.g. a lethal injection by reaching the same result with a minor trauma in a suitable brain region. Or permanently incapacitating a hostage taker remotely, with the push of a button, through the same mechanism. Or removing a threat from a greater group (e.g. the Irish) of potential transgressors in one single action, including cases where large-scale incarceration or deportation would be the alternative.

A few practical details: Normally the enhancements would be added shortly after birth, ensuring that everyone is included from an early age (and as a positive side-effect reaps the benefits from the appropriate feedback to reactions and behavior even during childhood). Unfortunately, it would take several decades to reach a reasonable coverage in the adult population in this manner; while a single mass-enhancement in the entire adult population would be entirely impractical. A reasonable middle road is a two-pronged approach where high risk groups, notably convicts and those potentially engaged in subversive activities (including critics of our operations), are targeted with a mass-enhancement and the remainder of the population is enhanced at certain occasions where the necessary equipment can always be reliably made available, e.g. a driver’s license renewal or when first entering the country. This has the added advantage that enforcement can be kept high and voluntary through making the enhancement a mandatory condition for the government granting a driver’s license, letting someone into the country, and so on. Ideally, we will even be able to pass on the cost of the enhancement to the respective citizen.

While the costs of this might seem prohibitive in a first impression, there are considerable reason to believe that we can leverage these enhancements to not only cover the costs of the project but to allow additional financing of related projects, once a sufficient critical mass has been built. Our preliminary research indicates a great industry interest in access to selective gathered data for purposes such as targeted advertising and market research. Or consider allowing advertisers to send information directly to the ears and eyes of the subject, without having to use conventional devices that can be turned off or the advertising otherwise circumvented. The possibilities are endless.

Postscript: For those who have missed the allusions, the above is entirely fictional, specifically making a play on Jonathan Swift’s work by the same name, in which he suggests using Irish children as a food source. However, apart from the most extreme parts, the above is well in line with current developments with regards to e.g. governments cracking computers or smart-phones, engaging in unethical and often unlawful surveillance, etc. If the suggestions were viable today, at least some of them would be on the table with at least some politicians, law enforcers, and the like. This just looking at the modern West—in North Korea they would conceivably go all out.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 21, 2016 at 12:04 am

How to lose an election in a lost democracy

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In recent times, I have made several posts dealing with the themes like democracy and the U.S. presidential election—including How to win an election in a lost democracy, on how a truly disastrous candidate (like Hillary Clinton) could conceivably and hypothetically manage to win through placing a sufficiently bad candidate (like Trump) in the opposing camp.

While this was not a serious suggestion (at least not for the current election), I actually and honestly thought that the flaws of Trump would bring Hillary a victory—for the last week or two before the election, a sure-fire one, with not enough time left for a turn-around. This to the point that I actually failed to write the please-consider-what-you-are-doing post I had planned for last week, seeing it as a waste of time.

Election day came the miracle and one of the greatest reliefs I have ever experience—a major bullet was dodged.

Despite the title of this post, I will not try to analyze how this happened in-depth (I have not done the necessary leg-work). But: Trump likely managed to leverage his advantages among the uneducated/working-class/whatnot*, while likely sufficiently many in the rest of the population realized that Hillary was the greater evil, possibly aided by the email scandals that brought her long history of bad behavior to mind—as well as the many investigations that have all been prematurely interrupted. Trump was lucky (or campaigned well…) in that his distribution of votes gave him a majority of electors through winning most of the swing states, while having slightly fewer votes than Hillary overall. Voter turnout, how many of whose supporters actually voted, might have had a significant effect (often the case with upsets).

*Looking at statistics at e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election,_2016 it is clear that the candidates have very different impacts on different demographics, including using criteria like education. That I side with the candidate of the “uneducated” while most of the “educated” go against my recommendations is annoying, but I can understand how someone like Trumps rubs the educated the wrong way—I too see him merely as the lesser of two evils and would like have preferred e.g. Obama. At the same time, I re-iterate my observation that education is not automatically a sign of intelligence or good judgment: Many of the educated who voted for Hillary will have done so because she too is educated, because she has a more sophisticated image, because the educated in the U.S. are “supposed” to vote Democrat, or similar. With the Republicans and the Democrats in general, there is often the problem that those with some intelligence are bright enough to see the right-most wing of the Republicans, the Fundamentalist Christians, and so on, as problematic; however, not bright enough to see that the left-most Democrats, the politically correct, the gender-feminists, …, are just as uninformed, irrational, dangerous, and otherwise problematic.

Looking back at the posts I did write, I want to repeat that this is not an ideal situation: Disaster was averted, but chances are that Trump, as the lesser of two evils, will prove to be a genuinely bad President—it is just that the alternative would with a high degree of probability have been even worse.

On the down-side, looking at the problems with democracy and its current failure, the victory of Trump could actually be the stronger side of that failure, with his extremely populist take. On the other hand, it is a positive sign that someone in no way established as a politician, and certainly not a professional politician, could win.

As for those who wanted Hillary Clinton because she was a woman, because it would be high-time to have a female President, or similar (all idiotic reasons to elect someone), they should take comfort in it being far better to wait a while longer and then get a woman who is actually worthy of the job. Someone like Hillary could, in a worst-case-scenario, have set back the chances for other women by decades. As a Swede I can point to a number of absolutely disastrous women, far worse than Hillary, who have been brought to the fore despite their lack of competence and other suitability to provide the female candidates the feminists cry for—and who have done exactly such damage. The single best example is likely Mona Sahlin, who came very close to becoming the Swedish Premier, but who also was deeply, deeply stupid and has repeatedly been caught in various, if minor, corruption scandals. In contrast, those women who have made it to the top without a significant leg up or with being a woman as a major selling point, like Thatcher and Merkel*, have done women a favour through actually proving that there are women who can do the job as well as the typical male Prime Minister resp. Chancellor.

*Notwithstanding that my opinion of Merkel has dropped considerably over the last few years.

As a side-bar, it can be interesting to briefly compare Bill and Hillary, especially because part of my aversion to Hillary is Bill’s Presidency and a wish to keep the Clintons in general (but Hillary in particular) out of the White House: Bill was a lesser evil than Hillary for at least two reasons (if we otherwise consider them fungible, which is likely unfair to Bill) in that firstly he had considerable relevant practical experience from his time as Governor, while Hillary had a gifted Senatorship and otherwise was the Governor’s/President’s wife; secondly his Presidency interrupted a long period of Republican dominance*, while Hillary’s would have extended a Democrat reign.

*One of my main observations concerning democracy, and power in general, is that it is a bad thing for a specific individual, party, organization, … to have great power for too long. Reasons include a growing risk of corruption, people confusing who they are as persons with their official roles, lack of new ideas, and too much resistance to change. Correspondingly, it is good when another party wins an election every know and then, even when otherwise the worse choice. For Bill, the last Democrat was twelve years back and the Democrats had had four of the last twenty-four years. For Hillary, she would have extended a Democrat streak to at least twelve years and twenty out of the last twenty-eight.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 10, 2016 at 11:27 pm

The 2016 Nobel Prizes II: Women and the Nobel Prize

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One of my articles was almost upset by the 2009 unprecedented naming of no less than five female laureates, including a historically very rare Chemistry Prize and a first Economics Prize. I left a corresponding disclaimer that I would revisit some issues if this turned out to be a normal state of affairs.

It did not*: The following year saw not one single female laureate, neither did 2012—and the same applies to this year. 2011 did see three, but they all shared the Peace Prize. The remaining intervening years saw one or two laureates, of which only two came in scientific fields (the 2014 and 2015 Prizes in “Physiology or Medicine” each saw a woman among the three** winners.) The others were all Peace or Literature Prizes.

*Here and elsewhere I draw my numbers from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_female_Nobel_laureates and http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/lists/women.html.

**The science Prizes are almost always shared, typically between the maximum three laureates allowed per Prize and year. Here and elsewhere, I will assume equal shares for the sake of simplicity and of avoiding leg-work. I do know of at least one historical deviation, however: Curies first Prize was shared in equal halves between the Curies and Henri Becquerel, with Marie and Pierre effectively receiving a quarter each.

Counting in 2016, we have seen a total of 8 female laureates with a total of 4 and 1/6 Prizes in seven years—a little more than one laureate and clearly less than one Prize per year. For comparison, the (admittedly cherry-picked) years 1945–1947 saw three laureates and 1 and 5/6 Prizes for very comparable numbers. 1963–1966 women did almost as well in numbers and scored in both Physics and Chemistry—in the 50 (!) years since, they have scored one Chemistry laureate and not one single Physics laureate.

In other words, there is at this juncture no reason to assume that we have entered a new era, nor that women are being artificially held back, as naive feminists like to claim: That the science awards have seen so little change, or even change for the negative, while Literature and Peace Prizes regularly go to women, is a clear sign that the main underlying reason is one of inherent differences between the sexes in these fields, be it with regard to ability, priorities, interest, or some other factor. How the Literature and Peace Prizes should be interpreted with regard to ability* is very unclear, due to the extreme subjectiveness** and the obvious recurring political agendas behind the awards; however, these are definitely areas where women are more inclined to get involved than in the sciences.

*But, outside of the scope of Nobel Prizes, I do note for the record that several of my own favorite authors have been women.

**Bear in mind that while the sciences can be subjective too, e.g. regarding what discovery is the more important, the problem is far smaller there. If worst comes to worst, almost any result in, say, Physics is something that we can test today or will be able to test in due time. There is no such test for works of fiction and many works lauded by one qualified observer is consider garbage by another. (Including the works of semi-recent Nobel Laureate Elfriede Jelinek—the choice of which caused a dissenting member of the election committee to resign in protest…)

As an aside, I see at least two possible explanations for the anomalous results of 2009: The one is sheer co-incidence, the equivalent of drawing a one-color poker hand. This is unlikely for any given hand, but keep drawing hands and it will eventually happen. The other is that female candidates were given an artificial leg up. In fact, this type of artificial support is extremely common in Sweden, where the drive to have men and women share everything 50–50 can be virtually pathological. Many consider the relatively low number of female laureates a failure of the election committees—or even of the respective field of science it self! They simple fail to understand that this type of award must be about accomplishment, not feeling good; about equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 1, 2016 at 9:56 pm

The 2016 Nobel Prizes I: The Literature Prize joining the Peace Prize as a joke

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On my website, I have at least two articles relating to the Nobel Prize for which the 2016 Prizes have given more input. Since I still have not gotten around to consolidating the website, I will address them in two blog posts (this being the first):

I have already concluded that the Peace Prize is a joke, often being awarded to those unworthy, for political reasons, for things that might deserve some other award but not one for peace, or otherwise absurdly. Many similar criticisms can be raised against the Literature Prize, which has a similar degree of subjectiveness and is also, as far as can be guessed from the outside, occasionally abused to support a certain ideology, world view, or similar*.

*Today, this would be something in the general Leftist family. In earlier years, others might have had an advantage.

This year, one of the most controversial awards in the history of the Literature Prize has taken place: Bob Dylan.

When I first heard it, I actually assumed that it was an real, non-metaphorical joke… At this point, I am not willing to give the Literature Prize much more credence than the Peace Prize—and the Peace Prize absolutely none.

Now, I do not deny that Dylan has been one of the more important makers of music of the preceding century. He has a considerable talent, he has inspired and influenced many of his colleagues, and his commercial (if somewhat paradoxical) success has been considerable. If not for his weakness as a singer, I would likely be a fan myself.

However, even if we assume that his works should count as literature*, there are considerable questions as to his worthiness when it comes to this type of award. There are many, many extremely capable “regular” authors that have accomplished so much more in terms of literary achievement and are still awaiting their Prize. Worse: Is Dylan even the most accomplished lyricist in the world of music? Unlikely: He is more likely to be the (or one of the) most famous and visible among the lyrics-centric artists—and one who had considerable importance for the sixties movements that find approval with the election committee. (Realistically speaking, and without denying his very considerable abilities, much of his fame is a result of having had the right message for the societal moods of the 1960s. Ten years earlier or later and he would have been a smaller deal.) His musical attraction also stems to a large part from his highly unusual melodies and delivery, and when we look only at lyrics his stature is considerably weaker than when we look at his music as a whole**. All in all, I sincerely doubt that Dylan was given the Prize in recognition of his literary accomplishments, with political reasons and/or an attempt to cater to the wide masses on behalf of the committee being more likely explanations.

*I am open to the idea myself. Indeed, when we studied Swedish literature in school, the starting point was medieval ballads. However, others might want to rule it out, and they could turn out to be right. Certainly, if viewed as literature, there should be a strong focus on lyrics and not the overall music.

**This is obviously a problem when trying to judge more or less anyone: What part of the overall impression is lyrics and what is music? Would the lyrics that seem so great work without the music or with different music? Etc.

As for the actual Peace Prize: Santos is not someone I had on my radar screen until very recently. However, it is notable that his peace plan failed in a recent referendum (for good reasons, in my impression, being to lenient with evildoers) and he might not have an entirely white vest himself, depending on how the above Wikipedia page is interpreted. In a best case scenario, he was chosen a year too early; in a worst case scenario, he is the same complete dud that Obama turned out to be in terms of making the world more peaceful.

Excursion: If Dylan is not the greatest musical lyricist, who is? Frankly, I have nowhere near the depth and breadth of knowledge to answer that question authoritatively, even discounting the necessary degree of subjectiveness and the complication of dividing credit within groups. However, I suspect that the number of candidates stronger than Dylan is very large and that someone with the corresponding depth of knowledge in a given, mature area of music (with lyrics…) could find several or many such candidates in that area—opera, musicals, rock, blues, jazz, …

Note in particular that many of the candidates will be local forces singing in international obscurity. For instance, Cornelis Vreeswijk and Evert Taube were living legends, when I grew up in Sweden, but I doubt that any non-Swedish readers will have ever heard of them. (Admittedly, they are both dead and therefore ineligible.) Similarly, many candidates are likely to be found outside of the infamous Top-40 and be unknown even to their own compatriots.

For myself, I am very impressed with the works of Tori Amos* and Depeche Mode in terms of lyrics. The artist for whom I have spent most time listening to the lyrics is probably Eminem*—while they are not necessarily stylistically or aesthetically pleasing, there is a lot to think about with regard to what they tell us about Eminem and how that might apply to ourselves. Simon and Garfunkel go in the other direction, with lyrics that are rarely deeply thought-worthy but often beautiful or original. My exposure to REM has been comparatively small, but from what I have heard so far they could rate very highly.

*In a twist, both Tori Amos and Eminem appear severely troubled and if the often raised accusation of misogynism towards Eminem is given credence, a corresponding accusation of misandrism towards Tori Amos seems appropriate, although she is considerably more subtle. (Consider e.g. the song “Precious Things” or the album “Boys for Pele”—the one containing lines like “I want to smash the faces of those beautiful boys”; the other even having a thematic title that implies sacrifices of men to a goddess… ) In both cases, it can be argued that what appears is not so much a statement about perceived truth about the other sex—but of personal weakness, feelings of inadequacy, and/or frustration with the other sex. To boot, this is something that the respective artists seems to be at least partially, possibly fully, aware of, partly using the lyrics as a means of self-exploration or -therapy.

In a first draft, I also included Sondheim, specifically citing “Send in the Clowns”, and Paul McCartney*. I do not rule out that I would rate either above Dylan; however, for the purposes of candidates for “best lyricists” they likely fall short, with my favorable impression being too based on the overall music. (With the added complication of who contributed what to that impression: A very significant part of McCartney’s work is co-credited with Lennon, often with unclear responsibilities. Sondheim’s greatest success and, to my personal knowledge, best result was the collaboration “West-Side Story”, with music by Bernstein. The music by Sondheim himself has been so-so in the few works I have seen in full, e.g. “Sweeney Todd”.)

*John Lennon is dead and not eligible. (But I would likely still have favored McCartney.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 1, 2016 at 9:52 pm