Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Me too, and me too, and me too, and me too, …

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A common, by now unimaginative and hackneyed, scene in U.S. television and movies shows a person of authority (e.g. a principal) about to swoop down on a protagonist (e.g. a teacher) for some perceived sin (e.g. being unconventional or homosexual) in front of a group of comparatively powerless people (e.g. a school class). Suddenly, one brave soul from among the powerless steps forward in the protagonist’s defense. A long tense pause follows, and then another voices his support. A second tense pause, a little shorter this time—and another supporter. After a third pause, quite short this time, another one or two supporters declare themselves—and then the rest of the group cannot join fast enough.

Such scenes are a good illustration of what makes me greatly troubled by the “me too”* take on showing support, admitting something, pointing out culprits, … To take a more real-life example: Someone who stood up for gays or came out of the closet in 1977** was doing something brave, not just risking condemnation by his peers but quite possibly exposing himself to physical danger—and very few did. In 1987 things had changed a bit, but the area was at best highly controversial, and standing up or coming out could still be a major contribution—made by comparatively few. By 1997, homosexuality had gone a long way towards losing its stigma and was not a very big deal for large parts of the younger generations, but was not yet a mainstream phenomenon; standing up or coming out could still contribute, but far less than earlier, and was far less dangerous—and a reasonably large number of people did. In 2007, homosexuality was well in the main stream, nay-sayers were frowned upon, and people were coming out in droves***. 2017? We are now at a point where heterosexuals are more likely to have to explain themselves, where a TV show without at least on homosexual character feels like the exception, where objections towards “gay marriage”**** brings out the villagers with torches and pitch-forks , …—and still there are people jumping on the “me too” band-wagon, protesting how much must be done against “intolerance”, and seeing themselves as the brave heroes or enlightened minority.

*Apart from the correct phrase almost always being “I too” or even “and I”, but that correction would not mash well with the latter parts of this post.

**The years and implications will vary with geography and should not be taken as more than illustration of the principle—certainly not as an historically accurate overview. (I suspect that the text holds reasonably well for e.g. large parts of the U.S., however.)

***In my impression, those who remained in the closet often either had concerns relating to specific individuals, e.g. a parent with a known aversion, or were held back by (possibly justified) reasoning like “my boss would probably be OK with it, but if he is not then my career could be set back considerably”.

****Another unfortunate phrase.

Sorry, band-wagon-eers: By now you are not heroes, you are sheeple who just follow the main-stream without an ounce of courage. For celebrities, the suspicion of cheap attention seeking has to be added. In 1997 you might have had my respect—and you definitely would have in 1977. Today, I might go as far as seeing you as part of a problem…

A particularly interesting recent example is the situation around Harvey Weinstein and the “#MeToo” Twitter campaign, paralleled, if on a lesser scale, by a number of more individual cases in the past (e.g. the accusations against Bill Cosby):

Allegedly*, Weinstein has a very long history of sexual abuse towards actresses. Yet, until very recently, this was not public knowledge and no-one seemed to publicly care—the more surprising, since the list of actresses includes quite a few women of considerable success**. Even if worst came to worst and raising accusations actually became a career ender***, these are not people who would see themselves living off food-stamps. Why did none of them try to cause a stir in the past? If what happened to them was that bad, why did none of them try to protect the next generation of actresses from the same experiences?

*I have seen somewhat conflicting claims to what he has and has not admitted and do not wish make any assertions in either direction. See the below discussion on presumption of innocence, however.

**I can understand very well if a barely adult actress at the very beginning of her career chooses to not speak up. Neither, apparently, were they all in that situation, nor did all of them remain in that situation.

***And not leaving the career untouched or even giving it a boost through the extra publicity and courage shown, which might or might not have been the case.

Then, earlier this year, allegedly after decades of misbehavior, the news breaks—and we are inundated with “me too” claims. Real courage there…

Now, I lack the detail knowledge of what (allegedly or not) happened in any specific case, and I have no psychic powers enabling me to understand what motivated each of these individual women. However, there are a number of conceivable scenarios in which actresses come off as bad as Weinstein. For instance, allegedly a number of them accepted hush money to keep quite about their experiences—willingly taking into account that others would later find themselves in the same situation… (And possibly committing breach of contract by later coming forward despite taking the money.)

Excursion on behavior as a result of feedback: A particularly problematic point is that in situations like these a lack of sufficient or sufficiently early protest could have strongly contributed to the problem. Such behaviors are highly unlikely to continue for a prolonged time unless the benefits outweigh the costs for the perpetrator. With too little protest or too much success, it is even possible that he fails to realize that certain behaviors are inappropriate. Consider two situations: In the one, nine out of ten women remain uncooperative but silent and the tenth gives him a blow-job. In the other, the tenth sends a knee to his groin. In which of these situations will we see what long-term behaviors? What self-perception and perception of own behavior? Humans are not rats in a lab—but some aspects can be quite similar. (More generally, much of intersex interactions is driven by past experiences. Consider e.g. a rich and famous athlete who is used to women wanting to be with him. He might, especially when not among the brightest, not interpret a negative reaction correctly. Or take the guy with the sleazy pick-up line that instantly turned a given woman off: Chances are that it does work with sufficiently many other women that it pays for him to keep using it…)

Excursion on presumption of innocence: A very disturbing secondary element of the recent waves of accusations is that people are being fired, outright fired, based merely on the accusations. This leads us to a very dangerous territory of deliberate false* accusations for reasons like personal gain or revenge: Jack and Jill compete for the same promotion—good-bye Jack, congratulations Jill. Jack is Jill’s boss and (rightfully) fires her for incompetence—goody-bye Jack, welcome back Jill. Jack voted for Trump and Jill is in tears over Hillary’s failure—good-bye Jack, chin-up Jill. Etc. It is of paramount importance that such drastic actions only be taken in clear-cut cases (e.g. after a confession or a conviction), and that, for interim measures, the interests of the accused are given due concern.

*While this is not a behavior that I would expect from the average woman, there are enough non-average women who would resort to such tactics. Common feminist claims like “a woman would never lie about rape” or “a woman would never lie about her children being abused” are demonstrably (and very…) false—and the lie is often calculated, e.g. to avoid a revelation of infidelity or to gain the upper hand in a divorce. Some previous discussion and links to other sources are present on [1], [2].

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Written by michaeleriksson

November 23, 2017 at 5:53 pm

Finally writing again!

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As the subscribers and recurring readers might have noticed, I have posted at an unusually high rate lately, especially compared to the near dormancy of 2012–2015. This post actually sets a new “personal best”* for a month with 16 posts and counting—and it is admittedly gratuitous, made mostly for the purposes of getting that record out of the way.

*Which is not to say that it is the month I have written the most in: During the days when I actively worked on my website, this was not a remarkable number.

There are several reasons for this increase:

  1. I have been reading a lot of other peoples opinions lately, which always makes me itch to write.
  2. There has been a welcome slowdown in my current project and I am already “writing checks” based on having a lot of vacation in December.
  3. Writing more again has made me remember how rewarding it can be in terms of gaining a better understanding of the world or myself, clarifying and developing thoughts, re-evaluating* my opinions, etc. Most of the time, this is the reason why I write—self-improvement. If I am able to change the mind of the odd reader, show a new perspective, seed a little doubt, …, that is just the cherry on top.**

    *This is something close to my heart: Re-evaluation with an open mind and a willingness to change is at the core of intellectual development, a sine qua non. The result of the re-evaluation need not be a change of mind, but it must be undertaken with such a change as a possibility. (Indeed, the unwillingness of others to do so is directly or indirectly connected with the majority of my criticism of e.g. the PC crowd.) Incidentally, I have a post on this topic in preparation.

    **Which is a good thing at the moment, because the visitor numbers on this blog have yet to recover and I still have not gotten around to fixing my website.

I plan to go on writing, but I suspect that the post numbers will drop down a bit in the following months; and I hope that I will be able to take my ridiculously delayed* mini-sabbatical in the course of 2018, during which I will likely switch my main attention to where it belongs—my long neglected website.

*Originally planned for the autumn of 2016…

Written by michaeleriksson

November 23, 2017 at 6:59 am

A few thoughts around childhood recollections

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Through a somewhat random chain of association, I find myself thinking about one of my childhood’s favorite objects: Skåpsängen*.

*I am not aware of an English translation. Literally, “säng” is “bed”, “-en” is “the”, and “skåp” can, depending on context, translate as e.g. “cupboard” or “closet”. Below, I will speak of “box” for the “skåp” part, because this matches the internal structure best, even if it was larger and more finely worked than what I picture when I hear “wooden box”. I keep the word with a capital “S” because it always came over as a proper name to me—not a mere noun or a mere description. (This was often the case with me. Cf. “mormorsfranska” below.)

This was a foldable bed-in-a-box, that I used to sleep in when visiting my maternal grand-parents as a young child. As a result of the construction, I lied down with my head well within the box, which was something of a world of its own. Not only did the walls and roof shelter* me, but I often found myself just staring at the walls for minutes at a time, following the grain of the wood, especially the brown patterns formed by wood knots, or admiring one or two little pencil drawings (possibly drawn by my mother in her youth)—almost as good as TV. My positive associations are strengthened by how grand-parents spoil their grand-children and the “exotic” overall environment, with its new smells, different and older furniture**, different food***, toys that once belonged to my mother and her brother …—and, obviously, the grand-parents themselves.

*In my subjective impression. There was, of course, no actual danger or discomfort to shelter against.

**Including some actual antiques that had been handed down from an even older generation than my grand-parents’.

***Including what I thought was named “mormorsfranska”, but was actually just a descriptive “mormors franska”—“[my specific] grand-mother’s [style of] bread rolls”, often given to me while tucked into the bed.

While a trip down memory lane is all fine and dandy*, it is not something that I often write about. However, there are a few thought-worthy things and my mind kept wandering back to other childhood memories and potential lessons, a few of which I will discuss below.

*Or not: By now, I am actually feeling quite sad, seeing that the grand-parents (and mother) are all dead, the house was torn down decades ago, Skåpsängen probably does not exist anymore, most of the other things likely have gone the same way, the innocence of childhood has long passed, …, One of the risks with looking back at happy times gone by, instead of forward to happy times to come or at the happy times of the now, is that the element of loss can ruin the experience—and the happier the memory, the greater the loss.

The most notable is how my child’s mind could be so fascinated with the walls of the box, where I today might have had a look around and then immersed myself in a book or my computer. This is largely because a child is easier to amuse and stimulate than an adult, who (often) needs something more challenging, and whose curiosity has moved on to other areas. Not only are such contrasts between the child and the adult important in order to understand children and (e.g. in my case) developing a greater tolerance for them, but when similar variations are present in the adult population they can become a tool to understand humanity as a whole better. Consider e.g. how a difference in intelligence levels can cause one person to view a certain activity as too easy to bother with, while another might be challenged and stimulated, and the activity that challenges and stimulates the former might simply be too hard for the latter; or how some might be more interested in stimulation through thinking and some more* through perception, and/or the two having different preferences for channels of perception.

*At least here the “more” is of importance: There seems to be quite a few people who really do not like to think, but few or none who are entirely cold towards sensory perceptions. More often, it is a question of prioritizing them, or some forms of them, lower than other things.

However, another partial explanation is likely the modern tendencies to crave more active forms of stimulation and not appreciating the little things in life: There can be a benefit found in, for a few minutes a day, just relaxing, cutting out stronger sources of stimulation (e.g. blogging or TV), and just focusing on and enjoying something small in the moment. (While I have resolved to deliberately and regularly do so on a few occasions, the resolution has usually been forgotten within a week. It still happens, obviously, but more accidentally and likely not as often as it should.)

Yet another contributing factor, especially for an adult, is today’s intense competition for our attention: There is so much entertainment, so much to learn, so much to see and do, that a dozen life-times would be too little. Back then, for a child, shortly before lights out*? The competition might have been re-reading a comic or just letting my thoughts wander while staring out into the room…

*Possibly more metaphorically than literally, since I was afraid of the dark and usually insisted that the lights be left on—which could, obviously, have prolonged the time available to look at the box…

An event that took place in Skåpsängen during my very early childhood is another good illustration of the difference between more childish and more adult reactions, resp., among adults, more emotional and more rational ones: The most favorite object of my childhood was a toy penguin. At some point after dark, one of its button eyes came off. I raised hell, annoyed my grand-mother (who, understandably, did not see this as a big deal) severely, and ended up being ungrateful when she sew another button on, without locating the original. (My memory of the exact details is a little vague, but I strongly suspect that if I had seen the “injury” as less urgent and waited until the following morning, the original button would have been used.) Apart from the repeated implications on understanding children and, possibly, humans in general, there are at least two lessons: Firstly, that someone who is very upset and/or makes a lot of noise does not necessarily have a legitimate complaint, or a complaint more worthy than that of more reasonable protesters. Secondly, that we should not expect gratitude from these people if we try to satisfy them…

Importantly, however, I did not complain loudly and stubbornly because of any calculation*—I did it because I was very genuinely upset: I was unable to comprehend that this truly was no big deal. Even if we allow that a child can have a very strong emotional connection to a toy penguin**, this was not a damage that was noteworthy, debilitating, or hard to fix—a few minutes with needle, thread, and (preferably the original…) button, and everything would be fine. For I all know, exactly that could have happened to the other eye at some point when I was asleep and unaware of the events, having no way to tell after the fact. This type of inability to make correct assessments is regrettably very common among adults too, if not in such extremely obvious cases.

*In contrast, I suspect that e.g. a large part of the PC crowd is driven by calculation when it comes to their style of protest. I use similar tactics, on occasion, when dealing with e.g. spamming companies-where-I-placed-a-single-order-and-never-consented-to-any-advertising: Reasoning very obviously does not convince them that they are doing something grossly unethical, so let us see whether they pay attention when a customer leaves in (apparent) anger. (To early to tell, but I am not optimistic.)

**Which we certainly should: Even now, I find myself having a surprisingly strong reaction when thinking back, stronger than e.g. when thinking of the real-life people that I later went to school with… Similarly, one of the most enduringly popular songs in Sweden, since before my own birth, is “Teddybjörnen Fredriksson”, dealing with the nostalgic feelings of a grown man towards his childhood teddy bear (named Fredriksson). I suspect that it is better known and more beloved among Swedes that the top hits of ABBA and Roxette.

Children do provide many, with hindsight, ridiculous examples. The proudest moment of my life came when I, about four years old, gave my grand-father a tip on how to repair a broken (probably) 16mm film—and he, an actual adult!, followed my tip. Did I save the day, like I thought? No: As I realized later in life, he would have done the exact same thing anyway. (As implied e.g. by the fact that he already had the right equipment for the repair.) Similarly, the first, and possibly only, time I played croquet, at about the same age, I was very proud at having beaten my grown-up uncle. (He claimed that I did, and who was I too disagree, not even understanding the rules…) Can you say “Dunning–Kruger”?

The pride aspect is yet another case where children could differ from mature adults: I am not necessarily free from pride, but this particular type of pride (as opposed to e.g. contentment) over a specific event or a specific accomplishment is comparatively rare, and it seems pointless and vain to me for anything but the greatest accomplishments (major scientific break-throughs, Olympic medals, …) Then again, I need not be representative for adults. For instance, while I keep my college diplomas somewhere in a stack of paper, many others, including my mother, have theirs framed and hung on the wall.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 22, 2017 at 10:03 pm

Follow-up: The German 2017 election

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Six or seven weeks ago, I wrote “We are now two weeks past the last German parliament election, and there is still no certainty about who will rule with whom”.

This is now more true than it was back then, because the coalition talks between CDU/CSU, FDP, and the Greens have failed. There is great insecurity, and even the option of a new election is on the table.

To some degree, this is bad; to some, it gives me great hope, because of the motivation given by FDP leader Christian Lindner for why he terminated the talks. What I wrote in a footnote about the preceding CDU/CSU and SPD coalition was “[…]it had two parties in bed with each other that simply do not belong together. This type of coalition amounts to a breach of the voters trust and is by its nature not very democratic.”—and Lindner, highly unusually for a politician, appears to have an at least similar take on the ethics of coalition building.

To give some quotes from his speech (translations somewhat approximate due to idiom):

Nach Wochen liegt aber heute unverändert ein Papier mit zahllosen Widersprüchen, offenen Fragen und Zielkonflikten vor. Und dort, wo es Übereinkünfte gibt, sind diese Übereinkünfte erkauft mit viel Geld der Bürger oder mit Formelkompromissen.

(

After weeks we still have a document* with countless contradictions, open issues, and conflicting targets. And where there is consent, the consent is bought with large amounts of tax payers’** money or [formulaic compromise]***.

*Referring to the preliminary agreement, common statement, whatnot, which would have been the result of the negotiations and the base for the coalition.

**More literally, “citizen”.

**I am not aware of an English equivalent, and to boot this is one of the rare occasions where I learned a new German word. Wikipedia gives an explanation amounting to “we pretend to have reached a compromise, while actually leaving the issue open for the time being”.

)

Es hat sich gezeigt, dass die vier Gesprächspartner keine gemeinsame Vorstellung von der Modernisierung unseres Landes und vor allen Dingen keine gemeinsame Vertrauensbasis entwickeln konnten. Eine Vertrauensbasis und eine gemeinsam geteilte Idee, sie wären aber die Voraussetzung für stabiles Regieren.

(

It turned out that the four parties [to the negotiations] could not develop a common understanding for the modernization of our country and, above all, a mutual trust base. However, a trust base and a common understanding* would be necessary for a stable government.

*“Idee” is normally translated with the cognate “idea”; however, the use here appears to be more abstract and “understanding” matches the previous formulation better.

)

Unser Einsatz für die Freiheit des Einzelnen in einer dynamischen Gesellschaft, die auf sich vertraut, die war nicht hinreichend repräsentiert in diesem Papier.

(Our efforts for the freedom of the individual in a dynamic society, which trusts [has confidence in?] it self, were not sufficiently represented in this document.)

Wir sind für die Trendwenden gewählt worden, aber sie waren nicht erreichbar, [list of sub-topics]

(

We were elected for course* changes, but these were not reachable, [list of sub-topics]

*Literal meaning closer to the English cognate “trend”.

)

Den Geist des Sondierungspapiers können und wollen wir nicht verantworten, viele der diskutierten Maßnahmen halten wir sogar für schädlich. Wir wären gezwungen, unsere Grundsätze aufzugeben und all das wofür wir Jahre gearbeitet haben. Wir werden unsere Wählerinnen und Wähler nicht im Stich lassen, indem wir eine Politik mittragen, von der wir im Kern nicht überzeugt sind. Es ist besser, nicht zu regieren, als falsch zu regieren.

(

The soul of the document we cannot and will not be responsible for [stand by?], many of the discussed measure we even consider harmful. We would be forced to relinquish our principles and all that for which we have worked for years. We will not abandon our voters, by signing off on a policy*, of which we are not truly** convinced. It is better not to rule, than to rule erroneously***.

*“Set of policies”, “political direction”, or something similar, might catch the intention better.

**Literally, “in the core”, which could conceivably and alternatively refer to the core of the policy, or possibly even FDP.

***“Falsely” or “wrongly” might be better translations when understood correctly; however, these words could introduce unintended connotations, e.g. two-facedness or moral wrongness. These would make sense it context, but do not match the normal intent of the German formulation.

)

Respekt, Herr Lindner! I would like to see a lot more of this attitude among modern politicians.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 21, 2017 at 1:45 am

A few thoughts on specialization and excellence (part III)

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(This is the third part of longer discussion. See also part I and part II.)

Annoyingly, I find that I left out a major subtopic from part II: Denial that one thing* can be be better than the other, or even that there can be differences between them. This post is thrown together a little haphazardly with the aims to 1) be able to close the discussion, 2) have enough material to justify a part III.

Among the disadvantages of such stances is, obviously, that it becomes harder for people to gain opportunity to excel and recognition when they do; ditto the risk that suboptimal things are taught, that societal progress is reduced, etc. Of course, in many cases, it can be discussed whether two items are comparable**, which of the two is the better, whether a certain valuation only applies from one perspective or for one purpose, what is a matter of objective evaluation and what is a matter of personal taste, etc.—and, yes, sometimes the comparison is highly dubious to begin with***. If that was the level of discussion, I would have no beef—but it is not: Far too often blanket rulings of “everything is equally good” are made. Often, especially in politically correct areas, merely raising the discussion can be a cause of condemnation and vicious attacks.

*I deliberately use a vague word, because there are so many, very different examples.

**In a mathematical sense; along the lines of comparing two oranges and not an orange and an apple.

***Humans appear to have a strong tendency to feel superior to others based on groups, including even who favors what sports team. The PC crowd is no better, having merely substituted one “superior” grouping with another. This is often the PC crowd, it self, or a sub-section of it; however, individual choices can include e.g. a particular combination of sexual and gender orientation—I have seen people who non-ironically identify with something containing two or even three hyphens… Sadly, the problem with sexism/misandry within the feminist movement is enormous; while the black movement, in my impression so far, contains considerably more racism than the white (or black) overall populations. Whenever contrasting two groups, while being a member of one of them, it pays to really consider whether the evaluation is a knee-jerk support of the “home team” or whether there are actual arguments to support it.

To consider a few examples (I stress that these are not all examples of actual problems; some merely illustrate the general attitude; and all are resulting from “free association”):

  1. My early school years (I doubt that things have improved…) and much of the children’s literature I encountered had a very strong focus on “different—not better”. A particularly telling example*, is how I talked to the school nurse after we had been measured for height and she showed me a diagram of height projections. I used the word “normal” to refer to the average curve, a use I still consider harmless—and saw her go into full panic mode, as if I had just called those lying on more extreme curves, including my own**, deficient.

    *And I have to admit that I, after so many years, remember very little else with sufficient detail to use as an example. In my strong suspicion, I would not remember this incident either, had the nurse reacted less strongly…

    **I was an unusually fast grower as a child, and had a projection well over two meters at the time. (Adult me topped out at a more modest 1.91 ~ 6’3”.)

  2. In a natural continuation, we have the whole “differently abled” thing: In many cases, this can be a justified phrasing, e.g. with some groups of autists, or blind people who have developed other senses and abilities to a considerable degree. In many other cases, however, the correct prefix cannot reasonably be “differently ”—it should be “dis-”: In most cases of disabilities, we have a clear possibility to compare, with no or only an inadequate compensation in other areas. Still going with “differently abled” in these cases is a clear sign of an agenda.

    Of course there is no evil in e.g. considering someone with a bum leg less able as walker or a soccer player—the evil would arise when he is considered of less worth in unrelated areas, say suitability to hold office. Similarly, going a bit off topic, it is not the words and descriptions used that matter, and just finding more pleasing names does not alter the underlying facts.

  3. And another step further, we have the Swedish obsession (at least back then) with educating everyone together, irrespective of ability—piece of shape-less dough in, kneed and bake, identical bread out. That someone was offered to skip classes was extremely rare* at the time and other forms of “acceleration” were mostly unheard of; only the worst of the worst** had to re-take a year; and everyone had to do virtually the same things. Of the re-takers, a particularly illustrative case is Hans-Erik, who joined my class for a year in (likely) fifth grade, during his slow, wasteful, even cruel*** progress through school: Hindered by severe cerebral palsy, he had only very barely managed to get where he was at age 17 (!), about six years older than the rest of us.

    *I recall only one case among the several hundred children that I came into contact with during my school years, but there might have been others.

    **I recall only three cases, but there almost certainly were more.

    ***Off topic, this is still something that infuriates me: Imagine being forced to spend year in and year out in school, getting no where, always the slowest, ridiculed by half the class-mates, seen as a recalcitrant obstacle by the teachers, …—and what for? Even a nominal fifth-grade level is almost useless for a modern adult, and his real grade level was lower yet. If he ever entered the work-force, it would by necessity be in so simple a position that his school years brought him no benefit. (And with his coordination problems and severe speech impediment, there is no guarantee that any job would be available.) Any personal benefit from education would be dwarfed by time wasted during schooling. Why not just let him spend his time having fun?

  4. One of my own first contacts with the current negative trends in the U.S. college world was reading an introductory text in linguistics, where the author claimed, without supporting arguments or qualifications on the claim, that “Ebonics”* was just as good as standard English (possibly also that no language was better than any other, but my memory is to vague). This might be superficially true in that all languages** with some degree of development can fulfill the same tasks, just like one Turing-complete programming language can, in some sense, replace another. However, just as with programming languages, it does not end there. On the contrary, there are many factors to consider, often with a dependency on the perspective applied. Take e.g. (inherent to the language) expressiveness, number of words and nuances available, the risk of ambiguity, the ease of learning; or e.g. (relative the overall world) number of speakers, compatibility when comparing the language at different points of time, available literature; or (subjectively) aesthetics.

    *Do not get hung up on the specific example. The rest of the discussion is mostly in the abstract and I do not make direct comparisons within this specific pair. (Nor do I imply that English would necessarily win all comparisons, e.g. ease of learning, if they were made.) The point of Ebonics as an example is a combination of the claim almost certainly being motivated by politically correct and non-linguistic concerns, and the failure to provide a supporting argumentation, although this pairing should have made such an argumentation non-negotiably necessary, considering the typical reputation of Ebonics. (Indeed, at the time, I assumed that the claim was outright and obviously incorrect. Today, I do tend strongly towards rejection, but am too cautious to do so outright, seeing that my knowledge of Ebonics is highly limited—and I focus my criticism on the way she approached the claim.)

    **Used in a wide sense, without e.g. differing between language, in a narrower sense, and dialect.

  5. When we extrapolate such claims within a single language, the result is the currently popular and very detrimental everything-goes-because-there-is-no-right-and-wrong attitude. (Cf. e.g. an older post discussing prescriptive and descriptive grammar.)
  6. The PC crowd and the Left is obviously a major source of other examples, many that have been discussed repeatedly in the past, notably the common absolute denial that differences in outcome can result from differences in inherent characteristics. I will not rehash them here, but note that the interesting point for the purposes of this post is not what the truth* of the matter is—but how the truth-finding is approached. Feminists, e.g., tend to start with a certain set of assumptions (a new-born as a “tabula rasa”, social construct this and Patriarchy that, etc.), and then interpret observations to fit this assumption—while the very thought that in-born differences could exist is anathema.

    *But, yes, the evidence in favour of in-born differences of various kinds is much stronger than against when we compare e.g. men and women.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 19, 2017 at 11:24 pm

Those elusive Christian values

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A while back I wrote a footnote on Christian values:

Exactly what is meant with this expression is another thing that can vary considerably, but by-and-large few see them as negative, and what forms the “common core” is almost invariably (including by me) seen as something positive, notably the “Golden Rule” and related values.

This has left me a bit dissatisfied, especially with the problem of widely varying interpretations of the phrase and the knowledge that quite a bit of what Jesus taught is not followed by modern Christian and/or does not meet my own approval*—not to mention the differences between the Old and the New Testament**.

*For instance the idea of “turning the other cheek”, which could result in disaster (but the related idea of forgiveness is potentially a different issue). Charitable acts without strings attached is another thing I find problematic, because the consequences can be negative. Other points, e.g. a negative take on material values, leave me torn: Seeing material things as less important and living in modesty are good things (if not necessarily easy), but extremes like giving everything to charity and living as a monk are a different matter. I see nothing wrong with a degree of comfort; extremes of all types, even apparently virtuous, tend to do more harm than good; and a society without at least some people striving for wealth (and having other ambitions) would be doomed to poverty and stagnation—to the point that we would likely still be living in the stone age and would be unaware of Jesus and his now pre-alphabet teachings… Other yet are things where I could see a benefit in principle, but would be unable to comply. Notably, “love thy neighbor” is a tricky one for a misanthrope…

**Including the sometimes preference of the Old over the New by Bible proponents when it happens to match their ideas or agenda, even though the New Testament should take precedence when it comes to things Christian.

To remedy this dissatisfaction, I today visited a few Wikipedia links and did a few searches—and feel that I got nothing for the trouble.

For instance, the English Wikipedia article appears to be written by someone who has capitulated in face of the problems, spending half the (short) article on listing alleged world-wide “conservative” and “liberal” takes. A part from these being more U.S. centric than world wide, they contain a number of too specific items: How, e.g., is teaching “intelligent design” a (conservative) Christian value? (Even disregarding that many or most Christians, including almost all Swedish, do not believe in it…) How, e.g., is “high, progressive income tax” a (liberal) Christian value? For that matter, this is not necessarily something that even a U.S. liberal Christian would necessarily agree with, let alone see as Christian. The part of the article dealing with the New Testament is truly lazy; the Old is left out..

The German article does a better job , but also notes that “Ein allgemein akzeptiertes, in heutiger Terminologie genau konkretisiertes Verzeichnis christlicher Werte ist daher kaum realisierbar.”*

*The gist being that it is not possible to find a list of Christian values that would be accepted by everyone. I refrain from a direct translation, largely because “in heutiger Terminologie genau konkretisiertes Verzeichnis” is the type of sentence fragment that should be taken out and shot.

Other sources found are mostly similar, contentless, or depict a too personal view to be interesting.

It seems clear, however, that the Ten Commandments and the “Sermon on the Mount” (which includes the “Golden Rule”) are of great importance to any discussion. I will refrain from a more detailed analysis (lacking the time to do the necessary leg work; but also see the first footnote); however, I note that the latter is more likely to contain controversies and differences between supposed and actual behaviors, and that the former is mostly free from controversy once the religious parts are left out and noting that there are allowances for circumstance* in typical interpretations.**

*E.g. in that killing is allowed in self-defense situations.

**A remaining complication is whether a violation occurs already with the thought or only with the action. That we should not sleep with the neighbor’s wife is uncontroversial; if we must keep “naughty thoughts” about her out of our heads, then controversy is hard to avoid. (As the recurring reader knows, I am a strong believer in thoughts not being punishable—only actions.)

Surprisingly little time appears to be spent on “the seven deadly sins” and the opposing virtues, whereas I would have thought them central. While these are quite open to interpretation, many or all could be seen as beneficial for both the individual and society in at least some interpretations. Avoiding sloth, gluttony, and wrath might be beneficial in all reasonable interpretations. As an aside, I have long found these to be more a matter of instructions on how to lead a happy life than e.g. on how to please God or how to fit within society.

A very different source gives me an equally different angle, especially with the common U.S. intermingling of Christian and family values. I have been revisiting “Family Guy” lately, which has a (highly ironic!) theme song of:

It seems today that all you see is violence in movies and sex on TV

But where are those good old fashioned values on which we used to rely?

[…]

(Quoted, with some editing, from http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/f/family_guy/family_guy_theme_song_lyrics.html.)

These two sentences* catch much of the Conservative view on the issues, while also explaining much of the attraction of Conservatism. Honestly: Where are those good old fashioned values?

*The first obviously giving only a special case to be taken as representative.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 19, 2017 at 2:42 pm

A few thoughts on specialization and excellence (part II)

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(This is the second part of longer discussion. See also part I.)

To continue with the topic of excellence:

My main concern is that excellence is very often not recognized, considered important, given opportunity to develop, …. Consider e.g.:

  1. Overlapping with part I, we have the obvious problem that too little specialization prevents excellence from being reached. A sad fact is that many go through their entire lives without being more than moderately good at anything—or have a sole area of excellence that is of little practical value*, e.g. because it arises out of a hobby.

    *This type of excellence is of course still personally satisfying and can help with personal development, but if we compare say an excellent physician who dabbles in Skyrim with a second-rate physician who excels at said game, who is more beneficial to society? Who is likely to better provide for his family? Who can make a better life for himself?

    An obvious observation is that people who specialize earlier can reach excellence earlier—and when it comes to reaching the very highest top, to be one of just several of the best in world at something, early specialization is often a necessity. The type of “Jack of all trades” schooling that I discuss in part I could turn out to be severely detrimental when it comes to producing e.g. Nobel-Prize winning physicists. Indeed, if school was the only source of education/training, it would be a massive obstacle; those who excel usually do so through own efforts on top of school—or, at least in earlier times, instead of school. What if Mozart had had the one or two hours of music class a week that I had—and then decided to be a professional composer or concert pianist after graduating high school?

  2. The way schools, including colleges, too often have an “everyone gets a trophy” approach, where dumbing down and grade inflation hides* many differences, while feedback that could cause students to realize weaknesses and move forward is suppressed. Similarly, one of the greatest benefits of higher education was the filter effect present: Having received a certain degree was a far stronger sign of accomplishment and ability than it is today.**

    *When even merely decent students can get A’s, how do we tell who is decent, good, very good, …? (Aside from problems not directly relevant to this post, like how to compare grades from different generations.)

    **Which also implies that the higher rate of college graduates, unlike what naive politicians like to believe, does not increase the overall excellence to a very high degree (in a worst case, the effect could actually be negative): In order for every larger numbers of students, with a lower and lower “least common denominator”, to actually graduate, the requirements have to be lowered correspondingly. This not only contributes further to the weakening of the filter effect, but it also implies that the better students learn less and less compared to what they once would have learned.

  3. How members of too many professional groups are seen as fungible, e.g. (in my area) the grossly incorrect belief that any software developer can be a drop-in replacement for any other. Such misconceptions are common among e.g. politicians, managers, and those within the respective profession whose own low competence hamper their judgment (cf. Dunning–Kruger).

    This is particularly dangerous in areas like social reform, where just increasing the number of graduates in a field, members of a profession, whatnot, is seen as sufficient to solve problems. (See also the preceding footnote.)

    It is also an at least partial explanation of e.g. the constant German employer complaint about “Fachkräftemangel”*, while media and politicians point to the many unemployed who would love to have this-or-that position. The point is not that too few are interested, nor even necessarily that they lacked the right qualifications on paper. The (partial**) true explanation is found in the lack of candidates who actually have the skills needed. This is particularly interesting in the case of the German apprentice system: College skeptics in e.g. the U.S. point towards Germany and suggest that something similar be implemented in lieu of sending everyone to horrendously expensive colleges—while the German system is starting to fail, because not enough quality apprentices can be found. Why can they not be found? Because the potentially attractive candidates go to college*** instead…

    *Effectively, that employers cannot find sufficiently many qualified people to hire. I have been unable to find a truly satisfactory translation, but “skill shortage” and “higher skill shortage” have a great overlap, while Wikipedia suggests “labour shortage”. A combined “skilled labour shortage” comes close to being a literal translation.

    **Another partial explanation is the lack of people who both have the skills and are cheap. This is on-topic when we look at highly proficient people being underpaid (because employers misprioritize); it is off-topic when we look at employees who simply do not bring enough value to offset their price tag.

    ***In all fairness, college is much, much cheaper in Germany, implying that the cost–benefit analysis looks different compared to the U.S.

  4. The increase of “commoditization” as fields once relatively small and relatively filled with highly competent people grow and are increasingly filled with less competent people, lose in status, see individual experts be replaced by companies providing “experts” (or hiring real experts for a lower salary while pocketing the gains originally available to the expert); or where typical tasks are increasingly moved to a less prestigious role.* The IT world provides good examples, where e.g. the growth of software (and in particular web) development has caused employers to cast quite wide nets to fill positions, including hiring many people who are outright unsuitable for the job; how the type of contracting I do is getting a bad reputation because of the many people entering the field with more wish for money** than ability; or how the field is saturated with “talent agents”, often forming chains, just interested in getting a commission for having (in analogy) brought talent and show in connection, and see no down-side when the cooperation does not work out—anyone is as good as the next, as long as the money flows…

    *Which is not to deny that this can have positive effects too. Commoditization, which is a quite common phenomenon as time goes by, is usually bad for (the provider of) the commodity but often good or good to a certain degree for the customer. It becomes bad for the customer too, when e.g. he cannot differentiate between who or what is worth the money resp. when spending more money gives a sufficient return on investment and when it is a waste, or when what he gets for the money is largely a matter of luck.

    **At the same time putting a downward pressure on hourly and daily rates, through a mixture of over-saturation and the customers’ common inability to see differences in ability (but ability to do see differences in price).

  5. Related to commoditization is the problem of using criteria for e.g. raises and promotions that are not based on performance and ability (for instance age or years of employment), as can happen in e.g. the civil service or in areas where wages are set more-or-less in a blanket manner based on employer–union negotiations. A major problem for Swedish companies who want to down-size is that they often have to let people go by the last-in–first-out principle, which can imply letting the newly hired star-to-be go and keeping someone who has spent the last twenty years barely avoiding being fired for incompetence and negligence.
  6. Variations of the “tall poppy” syndrome, where those who excel are disliked, looked down upon, or even sabotaged—starting in school with “teacher’s pets”, “geeks”, and “nerds”.* This to a point that I have heard claims that some boys, especially from macho cultures, deliberately abstain from study to not lose street cred and coolness points. In adult life, the problem likely grows smaller, both due to greater maturity and less competition/more collaboration; however, it definitely still exists, especially when weaker employees feel themselves threatened by stronger new comers.

    *Which is not automatically to say that everyone classified as such actually excels, only that those who do excel academically are often given such names.

  7. Likely strongly overlapping, extreme “social justice” positions.

    “Harrison Bergeron” depicts the phenomenon taken to its absurd conclusion, but real-life examples include e.g. such simple things as a teacher telling parents to not allow a child to read more advanced books at home than the school provides—because this would be a “social injustice” towards the other children and an “unfair” advantage for their own… (Sadly, I have read about a quite a few such cases over the years, be it from the U.S., Germany, or Sweden. The latter was long permeated by an attitude that it was better for everyone to have the same, even if it meant making things worse for one party without improving them for another…)

As an aside, it can pay to keep in mind that society, communities, organizations, …, are often better of with specialists than with generalists. Would you rather have two “physician/lawyer”s or one specialized physician and one specialized lawyer in your town? Would your employer be better off with two “accountant/janitor”s or one of each specialization? (Which is by no means to say that it is bad to know something of other fields—quite the contrary. The point, cf. part I, is rather that depth should precede breadth—not the other way around, as is currently the case.)

As a further aside, the above issue with grades and degrees that lose the power to differentiate is likely part of a wider problem. I note e.g. that the U.S. SATs and other tests with a similar purpose (including the Swedish “Högskoleprovet”) often have problems with a gradual dumbing down and/or attempts to skew the results. For instance, every now and then Högskoleprovet is changed to “correct” the “problem” that men tend to score higher than women—without stopping to consider the possibility that this is not an effect of the test but of natural differences*. Unsurprisingly, such attempts tend to fail, unless they are willing to drop the ability to differentiate between those of greater and lesser suitability for studies (which is the actual purpose of the test). A possibly related issue is that the “verbal” part of the SATs are allegedly a better proxy for I.Q. than the “math” part—flying in the face of both common sense and practical experience. If true, the explanation is likely that this is an artifact caused by 1. the higher average and larger standard deviation of the math part, 2. the greater dumbing down of the same. For instance, it is far easier to get a perfect 800 on the math part, not to mention being among those who miss it only through sloppiness, and once there the test can no longer differentiate. However, the latest change (that I am aware of) might go in the other direction—through removing “too hard”** words, the difficulty of the verbal (!) part could drop, weakening the SATs ability to serve as an I.Q. proxy further, as well as reducing its discriminatory powers in general.

*This is the more absurd, because it is not necessary to consider men, in some sense, better for this to hold true. For instance, it could be that the better school grades of female high-school students simply implies that less of those who want to go to college have to take the test, thereby skewing the samples of test takers… As an example of where a naive approach to differences can lead: In a somewhat recent change, the math part was increased to favour women (!)—and it ended up favoring men. (A male advantage in math ability is very well established; however, the test makers reasoned that because women had better math grades in high school, women would have an advantage.)

**The rational appears to be to just test words that could reasonably be needed to understand college literature. While superficially reasonable sounding, this removes (above a certain cut-off) the implicit earlier check of how well-read and knowledgeable the students are. At the same time, it increases the risk of further dumbing-down of college literature and SAT in a vicious circle.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 19, 2017 at 12:43 am