Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Problems with buying an apartment in Germany

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I am currently considering buying an apartment, especially in the light of the inexcusable and utterly absurd behavior of my current landlord*. This has turned out to be extremely frustrating, even when discounting the predictable complication of attractive locations having high prices and low prices having unattractive locations (or some other problem). Consider:

*The one for my official residence in Düsseldorf. Not the one for my temporary apartment in Köln. I am very likely to write a long post on this at some point—but I am not certain that anyone will actually believe it! (Sometimes reality makes fiction look unimaginative…)

  1. In the flawed German system, I cannot hire* a realtor to search for me, because they only provide services towards the seller—for which the buyer has to pay.** Ask them to search for the buyer and they may or may not give a listing of the entries they currently have available***, but that is the last ever to be heard from them. If they do any work for the buyer, well, then they have additional work and no additional money…

    *In any sense that matters. As a matter of form, a “hiring” is implied at the latest when an agreement to buy is reached with the seller, but for all practical purposes this just means that the buyer acquiesces to pay for the realtor’s services towards the seller. The real hiring is done by the seller—the buyer just pays.

    **This used to be the case for rentals too. Fortunately, this idiocy has since been stopped—but only for rentals.

    ***More likely than not, they will either not respond at all or just tell the prospective buyer to have a look at their website—which is usually border-line unusable and highly uninformative.

  2. Realtors are highly problematic in other regards to, including that many of them only provide listings through meta-service providers like “Immobilienscout24” (effectively, Craig’s List for real estate), where they upload information provided by the seller, make the disclaimer that they make no guarantees whatsoever (just repeating in good faith), and wait for the prospective buyers to search. (Remember that the buyers are the ones who pay for this farce.)
  3. The lists of potential objects provided by most realtors and the large meta services often make no clear separation between apartments for buy-for-own-use and apartments for buy-and-rent-to-someone-else. These two use-cases are so different from each other*, however, that at least the buy-for-own-use-er will find half of the entries worthless— and often only finds this out somewhere towards the end of the page… The buy-and-rent-to-someone-else-er, OTOH, will be less than enthusiastic about the other half, because if he does not find a tenant, he is just leaking money.

    *In theory, the buyer can get rid of an existing tenant through invoking “Eigenbedarf” (“own need”); however, this brings a considerable risk that the tenant will be uncooperative and possibly requires a costly and time-consuming detour over the courts. To boot, I have considerable problems with the ethics of this, its legality notwithstanding. “Pacta sunt servanda” is otherwise the theoretical cornerstone of German law, as well as of ethical business practices in general.

  4. Similarly, a very considerable proportion of the objects turn out to be “Zwangsversteigerungen” (court auctions; literally, “forced auctions”) that imply a considerable additional risk and a lot of bureaucracy that many are not willing to take. (However, it can have advantages for those who are willing to take the risk.) Of course, the price listed is then not the actual price but some vague estimate or minimum that could turn out to have nothing to do with the actual price paid by the winner of the auction…
  5. The usability of most web sites in this area is extremely poor, including not working with JavaScript disabled, but being border-line unusable with it enabled (through factors like animations, marquees, requests that the user participate in surveys, and the like). Other common problems include poor search criteria, a minimal number of listings*, and “functionality” that breaks tabbed browsing—-something that would otherwise be extremely useful with this type of content (i.e. lists of entries where the user wants to review many of the individual entries at his own leisure and/or concurrently).

    *There appear to hundreds of realtors (be they individuals or companies) who each have just a dozen objects, of which just one or two are relevant to any individual buyer. It would be far better to have a dozen realtors with a few hundreds objects each. This too is likely a result of the flawed German model: The only reason that realtors do not have money effortlessly pouring in, is that the potential profits have lured too many people into this business…

  6. Due to utterly idiotic and over-killing money-laundering laws, the prospective buyer needs to give up a lot of information, typically including a copy of an ID document, even when just approaching a realtor with the wish for information on an object*. Not when he buys it, not even when he inspects the object in person, but when he makes a simple inquiry!

    *Or so a number of realtors claim. I have not checked whether they are telling the truth, but am somewhat skeptical, because not all do require this.

  7. If everything seems to pan out, the object being really interesting, then the “Hausgeld”* turns out to be 400-something Euro instead of the the 100-something typical for the size of apartment I am looking for—might as well be renting.

    *Frankly, I have no idea what this is in the English speaking world, but it amounts to a monthly fee to the apartment owners’ association to cover various costs, including for parts of the house not belonging to the individual apartments.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 13, 2016 at 12:00 am

How to win an election in a lost democracy

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Looking at the U.S. Presidential election system, there is an interesting flaw in the two phases* involved: A candidate can win the first phase by having an ever so small majority, possibly even plurality, of his own party support him—and be without chance in the second phase through this support being too small.

*Preliminaries and main election. A case for more phases including preparations, declarations, nominations, and (of course) the election by the electoral college could be made, but I stick to the popular vote here.

In this setup, what is the best way to win an election? Make sure that a. you have a strong internal support, b. your opponent antagonizes almost half of his own party (or otherwise has a weak internal support and a strong risk of defectors). By planting, covertly supporting, whatnot, a poor candidate within the opposing party, the election result can be manipulated in a massive manner. The poor candidate does not even have to be “in on it”. In fact, I would be unsurprised if most variations of such (at least approximately) “divide and conquer” tactics work better when only the outside manipulators know the truth.

Notably, in the U.S. political landscape, with the two main parties both covering a very wide range of opinions and interests (the Republicans likely more so), this is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Take a candidate like Donald Trump*, who by playing the populist element and fringes of one party can gather a majority of his own party, while being highly unpopular in other parts of the party. Chances are that he will be able to mobilize a smaller share of the party members in the main election than a more main-stream/moderate/whatnot candidate—and he will see far more “defectors” from his own party than the opponent’s come election day**. In fact, a number of Republicans have actually publicly declared Hillary the lesser evil (something I very strongly disagree with, however problematic Trump may be). Similarly, with some reservations for how well the populism works, he is likely to miss out on most of the party-less vote.

*This post is very definitely inspired by the current situation. However, and I stress this strongly, I am not saying that this has actually already happened—just that it is a very real risk that it eventually will happen, the more likely after the parties have reviewed the events of the current election. However, similar stratagems have definitely been tried in other contexts in the past, notably during military conquests.

**Normally, almost every Republican voter will see virtually any Republican candidate as better than his Democrat counter-part (and vice versa), because even if flawed in character and sub-optimal in opinion, he will still be the lesser evil through belonging to the right party and having at least roughly the right opinions. The idea is to find a candidate who will disturb this principle with as many voters as possibly (while still managing to gain the party majority).

Say that election day comes, that the Republicans and Democrats are equally strong in general support, but that 80 % of the Democrats vote loyally while 20 % remain at home—and that only 70 % of the Republicans are loyal, 20 % remain at home, and 10 % actually defect. Well, that splits the vote 90–70, giving the Democrats an easy victory*, where we “should” have had a hard fight to the last hour of the election.

*Of course, with the all-or-nothing voting on the state level, such overall numbers are not necessarily important. However, in the given constellation, this would have kept every blue state in its traditional color, likely turned every swing-state blue, and quite possibly given some red states a do-over. The result is the same—an easy victory.

Now, consider the special case that you are put in charge of getting someone herself* almost unelectable elected. Suddenly, this strategy is not merely advantageous—it might be an outright necessity! For a disaster** to be elected, the opponent must at least appear to be similarly poor.

Bottom line: If you are Scylla and want ships heading your way, make sure the alternative is Charybdis.

*And, yes, I am most definitely talking about Hillary Clinton. However, I am still not saying that this is what actually has happened.

**In the case of Hillary Clinton, the disaster falls into two parts. Firstly, she is objectively a poor candidate, with a history of corruption, dubious qualifications, weird opinions, … She has even already more-or-less promised a cabinet with a male–female division of 50–50 based on the overall population distribution and ignoring actual suitability and availability of candidates—an idea fully on par with a wall to Mexico. Secondly, she is a candidate with handicaps when it comes to being elected, including being less than universally liked and more controversial among the Democrats than is safe for a candidate to be, being unusually disliked among the Republicans, being less telegenic and charismatic than many others have been (including Bill and Obama), and just (at least to me) appearing less natural.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 9, 2016 at 12:11 am

Living it UP with the HIGH society

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Preamble: Through my work, I have spent a lot of time in hotels and apartments rented on a monthly basis, in addition to a number of more permanent residences. I intend to write down some of my experiences in a blog series (of which this is the first post), especially with an eye on several recent negative experiences, but also some more general, some (as below) dealing with unusual situations, and one dealing with how to live in hotels in the best manner.

A few days ago, I moved into an (at least by German and Swedish standards) very unusual apartment, roughly a hundred meters above the ground and with one of the most amazing views I have ever seen—better than many dedicated observation decks. This includes a fair bit of the Rhine, most of central (and not so central) Cologne, and a straight line of sight to the world-famous Cologne Cathedral (once the highest building in the world).

It is not quite the proverbial highest room in the tallest tower—but it is the third-highest (24th) floor in the 55th tallest building in Germany (according to Wikipedia; and, yes, the building does have its own Wikipedia page), with a clear majority of the taller buildings being used for offices and the like. By co-incidence, the second highest I have lived was also in Cologne, somewhere in the range 12th–14th floor, in a building clearly visible through my window, despite being several kilometers away.

After living here for just a few days, I cannot give a full evaluation of the house or positive and negative aspects of living so high above the ground; however, a few observations are possible:

  1. The exposure to the sun is not interrupted by other buildings, trees, and the like. The temperature within the apartment has been considerably higher than would have been expected from the outside temperature (by the standards of an ordinary apartment). While sub-optimal in the summer, this could be an advantage in the winter.
  2. This is compensated for by air movements being similarly uninterrupted: Open a window* and fresh and cooling air will pour in.

    *The windows can all be opened, unlike in many newer buildings. In a building where they cannot, we had better hope for good air conditioning…

  3. A very unfortunate disadvantage, although I am not certain whether through the building’s tallness or its placement within Cologne, is disturbances through idiotic noise-makers—and that could get old very fast.

    For instance, this weekend there was a demonstration of some sort that featured several hours of loud drums and several (or one multi-day) near-by events with third-rate music and hysterically shouting MCs. If such things happen often, they could poison the situation entirely.

    Generally, I am of the opinion that such demonstrations and events simply should not be allowed in populated areas. If you want to have an event, an outdoors rock-concert, or similar, find an area outside of town, let those interested come to you, and leave those not interested (likely, a clear majority) in peace. If you have a political message to spread, start a blog or a party, talk to politicians, whatnot. Political demonstrations are only a legitimate tool for people artificially cut-off from otherwise expressing their opinions, e.g. through state censorship, or in situations involving a direct escalation against an unlistening and undemocratic* regime. Even in these cases, it is rarely sensible to demonstrate in general public areas and far better to do so in front of the appropriate government buildings.

    *To which I count regimes that were democratically elected, but then ignore the will of the people or the peoples interests, go back on election promises in a large-scale manner, and similar.

  4. The apartment is a little run-down, but by-and-large well organized and thought through, including the provided furniture.
  5. An exception is the bath room which is small and has a shower bordering on too small*, a bathroom cabinet that partially blocks the sink, and a “platform toilet”**.

    *According to the above Wikipedia page, the building was originally an office building, and it is conceivable that showers were added as an after-thought to existing toilets when converting to apartments, rather than setting up new bathrooms from scratch.

    **A regrettable idiocy of the German plumbing are occasional toilets with an artificial platform that collects excrement above the water until the user flushes. Apart from the distasteful optics and increased risk of smell, this virtually guarantees that the user needs to apply the toilet brush after every “number two”, whereas a “normal” toilet is cleaned by the flushing alone possibly two thirds of the time.

  6. The water pressure is quite OK, contrary to my expectations, but it is hard to get cold water from the taps, probably because the long way from the ground or use of an internal water-tank (to ensure water pressure) gives the water time to grow tepid.
  7. The house-door uses a weird electronic key that requires a battery while still needing the key to be inserted into the lock and turned. Conceivably, this too is a left-over from the office-building days; likely the technology is a failed pre-cursor to later key readers, where a battery-less object, often a card, is simple held to the reader.
  8. The elevators have so far come in a timely manner and traveled with very few interruptions on the way. This is a positive surprise, seeing that elevators are often an issue even in buildings with less than a dozen floors. The explanation is possibly that the number of apartments per floor is low (three at “my” floor), while e.g. a hotel often has ten, twenty, or more rooms per floor.
  9. Did I mention the amazing view? If not: The view is amazing.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 4, 2016 at 7:28 pm

Follow-up: Censorship of opinion, disgraceful sports organizations

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I make a post on Hope Solo and an outrageous and unjustified suspension, practically naming it the height of abuse, and what happens? More or less immediately a three-fold example that is equally bad pops up.

The French tennis federation has decided to suspend three of its players for allegedly damaging its image.

In one case (Benoit Paire), the crime, according to the article, consisted of “He reportedly sometimes stayed away from the village or came back late. He also made dismissive comments about the importance of the Games because there are no ranking points.”.

Here we have an adult man who “stays away” from a team location or sets his own hours—oh, the horror! Going by Wikipedia, he is 27 years old and has been a professional player for almost ten years—meaning that he is not only an adult, he is also used to traveling internationally, taking responsibility for his schedule, knows how to live his life when competing, … We are not talking a teenager leaving his home-town for the first time. If and in as far as he made any misjudgments (say, by getting too little sleep) that is his responsibility as an adult—not the French federation’s as a baby-sitter.

Now, if he had been a member of, say, a soccer or basket team, I could possibly, on the very outside, have seen a point, because he just might have damaged the teams coordination, training, spirit, whatnot. He was not a member of such a team: He is a tennis player, who competed in the singles (!) tournament.

As for “dismissive comments”: So what? Not only does he have a full right to free speech and opinion, but this opinion has considerable merit. By not awarding* ATP points, the Olympic Tournament is placed outside the normal world of professional tennis, and is diminished severely in value. Even when points were awarded, it was arguably only the fifth or sixth most important tournament of the year (behind the Grand Slams and, possibly, the Tour Finals)—and possibly not even reaching top-twenty over the entire Olympic cycle. Without points? I can understand very well how someone from within the tennis world would consider it a blip on the radar screen. This is not figure skating where the Olympics compares to the second best competition as France does to Luxembourg.

*I am not aware why this is so or who made the decision. However, since points are allocated by ATP (their tour and their points…), the IOC could be free of guilt.

The other two (double players Kristina Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia) apparently had the audacity to complain about incompetence on behalf of the federation—and appear* to have a good case to do so! This is one of the very, very worst signs of corruption: Trying to silence dissenters and sources of criticism through threats and sanctions, where, on the outside, solid arguments would have been used by a fair-minded organization. To boot, in my experience, the more prone someone is to censorship of criticism, threats against dissenters, etc., the more likely it is that the criticism is justified… The French federation does more to condemn it self that the two ever could.

*I do not know the details, but it seems clear that information that the two should have had was not communicated sufficiently early or sufficiently clearly. At worst, I would assume that they made their statements in good faith and in genuine disappointment and frustration, which might require an apology—not a suspension. At best, they are entirely right and the French federation tries to cover its own incompetence in an inexcusable manner.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 28, 2016 at 10:41 pm

Censorship of opinion, disgraceful sports organizations

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I have complained repeatedly about censorship, shunning, forced apologies, whatnot directed at athletes who express other opinions than what disgraceful and unethical sports organizations consider acceptable, or where athletes are otherwise forced into certain behaviors, e.g. with regard to when they are allowed to show the logos of their sponsors. Whether someone is allowed to compete should be a matter of accomplishment and ability—not opinion. With a recent incident involving Hope Solo, we have reached a point where the athlete basically becomes a rightless tool, who has to do what (in this case) she is told and otherwise keep her mouth shut—or she risks seeing her sports career severely damaged, without any regard to actual accomplishments within the sport. This to a point that she has effectively lost the right to freedom of speech and opinion.

To make matters worse, this is just a piece of a larger puzzle, where having the “wrong” opinions is increasingly becoming one of the worst conceivable sins (“crimethink” and so on), where people have to watch what they say online lest they be fired, where scientists supporting the “wrong” hypothesis, even on plausible grounds and a fair chance of being objectively correct, have their funds canceled or are refused publication*, where most politicians are too cowardly to deviate from the established “truth”, but more than keen on attacking others who do, …

*Note that I am not talking about pseudo-scientists with a professorship, legitimate scientists who cling to disproved theories, or the mere incompetent. That these eventually lose funding, and so on, is in order—if they have been given a fair chance to prove their theories and have been rejected on scientific (!) grounds. I am talking about legitimate, competent scientists who are attacked solely for expressing an opinion which is not sufficiently politically correct.

Now, what did Hope Solo say? According to e.g. USA Today:

“We played a bunch of cowards. The best team did not win today. I strongly believe that.”

This after having lost a chance at an Olympic gold in an upset loss—on penalties. The U.S had four golds and one silver in five attempts, won last year’s World Cup, and won their group without loss prior to this quarter-final; Sweden did not even have an Olympic medal, lost in the round of 16 at the World Cup, and finished third in its group after being smashed 5–1 by Brazil…

To which U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, according to the same source, claimed:

“The comments by Hope Solo after the match against Sweden during the 2016 Olympics were unacceptable and do not meet the standard of conduct we require from our national team players”

“Beyond the athletic arena, and beyond the results, the Olympics celebrate and represent the ideals of fair play and respect. We expect all of our representatives to honor those principles, with no exceptions”

Speaking as a Swede and country man of the “insulted” team: The only thing unacceptable here is the behavior of Gulati. Not only are Solo’s statements legitimate personal opinions, not only could they have been made in the heat of the moment, not only are they well within what can be expected by quite reasonable sports people having a bad day—but even if they had been unacceptable, there is no reasonable way this should have resulted in more than a slap on the wrist, say an informal warning between four eyes. Instead, she was publicly denounced—and received a six (!) month (!) suspension! Where is Gulati’s own sense of fair play and respect? (Or do only athletes need to prove these characteristics?)

To repeat: A six month suspension over a more-or-less harmless remark. There will be thousands of television viewers who said far worse…

This is the point were athletes and their managers need to start to consider refusing interviews or otherwise making public statements without the pre-approval and supervision of a lawyer—but, of course, if they do refuse, they will likely violate rules about post-event interviews, publicity appearances, and the like, and be suspended for six months…

There may well be remarks that are worthy of suspension, but, frankly, I am hard-pressed to think of anything not actually relevant for the (legal) courts that would warrant a six (!) month (!) suspension. Yes, had her team lost under similar circumstances against the Germans (who defeated Sweden in the Olympic final) instead and had she then made claims about “Nazis” or “doped-up East Germans”, then a suspension could have been quite legitimate, but even then six months seem excessive to me, considering the exceptional situation and the potential emotional turmoil. However: She said nothing of the kind. Her two sentiments were that the Swedes were cowards* and that the better team did not win**.

*They may or may not have been. I did not see the game, but it is almost becoming a problem that a considerably weaker team does nothing but defend and hope for a lucky counter when the stronger team slips or for a decision on penalties (as was the case here). This is a common scenario for e.g. FC Bayern. (We can, of course, discuss whether this is cowardice or a sensible strategy. Good sportsmanship, it is not.)

**Happens quite often, with many elements of chance being present—and even when it does not happen, the losing team and its supporters often have exactly that opinion. Certainly, the opinion that the U.S. team was better, would have been entirely uncontroversial before the game.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 25, 2016 at 11:22 pm

Good riddance and poor colleagues

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Through the years, I have said my farewells to dozens of teams and who knows how many individual team members*. Usually, this is a more or less sad occasion, depending on how long I have worked with someone and how the personal chemistry was. Only rarely do I have a feeling of “good riddance”, and when I do, it is usually directed at the company or the politics, not the team members. In as far as I am frustrated with individuals, it is usually a matter of their incompetence, not their character.

*I work as an external contractor/IT consultant who is typically hired for three or six months at a time. My “turnover” is correspondingly far above the average.

This Friday, however, I parted with a team member so obnoxious, immature, destructive, and unprofessional, that I am truly relieved to be rid of him—a very strong candidate for worst team member in my almost twenty years of working. In fact, he was so bad that had I not known that he was quitting, I would quite possible have turned down the last contract extension I was offered…

Below I will first give some illustrations of the problems and then go into a more general discussion of the conundrums of handling certain problems. (I try not to go off on a rant. If I fail, well, that is a sign of my long frustration.)

  1. The last few months, he might have spent as little four (4!) hours a day actually working and the rest of his nominal eight hours socializing with others—of course, keeping them from their work too. Now, while I have nothing against people socializing during working hours, this has to remain in reasonable limits and time that effectively is private time simply does not count as working time. If he had been in the office twelve hours a day, well that is eight hours of work and four hours of private time and I have no major objection. He was not… If anything, he tended to leave early.* If he had spent half-an-hour socializing and the remainder working, well no-one is perfect. He did not…

    *I have not timed his daily stays in the office, so I could be wrong. However, based on my impression ofwhen he typically came in the morning and left in the afternoon, compared to my own times and factoring in that I rarely take a lunch break, I strongly suspect that he came in short of even a nominal eight-hour day.

  2. He was a near constant disturber of the peace in the office we shared with two other colleagues. This included narrating what he did on the computer, making silly voices, and trying to be funny* through humor that was barely above the fecal level. To make matters worse, although not deliberate, most of his professional discussions consisted of long stretches of “uuum”s and “eeer”s interspersed with snippets of information—which after fifteen minutes is truly annoying.

    *Generally, the Germans tend not to understand humor and comedy. There are exceptions, but mostly their attempts are merely “albern”, not funny. (I have been unable to find a good translation of “albern”. From a dictionary, “silly” or “foolish” are possibly the closest matches, when taking “fool” half way between the “idiot” and “jester” senses.) I love good comedy, but it is rarely found in Germany and I cannot recall him, specifically, providing one single instance.

  3. When the other two colleagues were not present, he repeatedly went from a seemingly jovial moron to a nasty piece of shit, to the point that I repeatedly suspecting him of deliberately trying to provoke a fight. (See also parts of the more general discussion below.)
  4. It was impossible to have a constructive discussion with him regarding his behavior or actions*. For instance, I once pointed out, perfectly neutrally and as a simple factual observation, that it was a bad idea to have a window open and the AC running at the same time—and he actually tried to start a fight over that, from zero to hundred in two seconds. (He failed only because I refused to take the fight over an issue that did not affect me that strongly—if he wants to increase pollution and run up his employers utility bill, that is on him.) On several occasions when I tried to have a constructive discussion to make it easier to co-exist, he flatly refused to even take the discussion (e.g. through just leaving the office or saying that I should complain to his superior**); when discussions did take place they were without exception fruitless, because he refused to even consider other interests than his own.

    *We all make mistakes, most of us fail in being a bit egocentric, and so on. However: With most adults it is possible to at least talk about such issues—and that makes a world of difference.

    **Not in the “OK, we disagree. Feel free to get a formal ruling.” manner but in the “I do what the fuck I like. If you don’t like it, don’t even bother to talk to me, because I won’t listen.” manner.

  5. A particular common problem was the question of ventilation. Once the summer had started, even on cold days, he suddenly wanted to have windows open, air conditioning on, or typically both simultaneously*. Something that happened again, and again, and again, was that he would open a window (which I tolerated), leave fifteen minutes later, me eventually realizing that he had not gone of for five minutes but for a prolonged time without closing the window, me closing the window, and him coming back five minutes later and insisting that the window be opened to “get some fresh air”—despite the air being as fresh as it gets. To make matters worse, he often left again another five minutes later, leaving the window open… My repeated offer that we should (on cold days!) keep the window shut for most of the time and “stoßlüften”** once an hour was ignored every time. During the last two weeks, I quite frankly found it hard to believe that “fresh air” was his objective in the first place—it instead being a case of recalcitrance or deliberate provocation. (While close to forty, he had the maturity to match fourteen, making this less far-fetched than it might seem—but remember Hanlon’s Razor.)

    *The original occurrence mentioned above took place on a genuinely hot day and was far less remarkable. I dislike boiling in the office as much as the next guy.

    **This is another German word without an obvious English equivalent. Basically, it is the approach of open the windows fully for possibly five minutes to exchange a lot of air quickly. It is recommended by e.g. heating companies as a matter of course in Germany.

    Not only was this a nuisance, but I actually had several sick days at least partially caused by having cold air blown at me for hours a day. In fact, I have gone for several weeks, in the middle of the summer, with a continually sore throat. I note that other offices on the same floor had their windows shut and the AC off during these cold days. (But I stress that I am not necessarily saying that I was in the right and that he was in the wrong, this being a matter of conflicting preferences and interests. The larger problem is his utter refusal to even discuss my point of view or even just try to find a compromise.)

Now, while getting at least some of these annoyances of my chest is satisfying, there are a few less personal issues that I would like to discuss:

  1. How should one handle a mostly internal problem (in this case a horrible employee) as an external contractor? The actual employees have it easier—if all else fails, they can go to their boss, explain the situation, get a mediation or a ruling, and in almost all cases things will at least be clearer, often better, in the end. For an external contractor, the situation is tricky for at least three (partially overlapping) reasons, often leaving him with the choice between “suck it up” and “find another project”. Taking an alpha-male stance, no matter how tempting, borders on the suicidal—Superman can stop a train; the likes of Schwarzenegger and “The Rock” would be squashed if the driver did not pull the breaks in time.

    Firstly, problems that occur are time limited for the contractor, he has a lesser personal investment, and he is normally paid far more for his troubles than the employees he works with. As a contractor, I can point out, for instance, that this-or-that is sub-optimal—but if the people who hired me insist to do it this way, that is usually none of my business. If in doubt, it is their money, future, success, whatnot on the line—not mine.

    Secondly, if an external contractor causes a conflict with or between the wrong people, he stands a far greater risk of seeing his services “no longer needed” than a regular employee does*. Notably, many companies are hyper-sensitive to criticism against local “traditions”—often the more so, the worse they are. Notably, with too many people it is a question of who knows whom the best—not of who has the best arguments. Notably, many (especially women) are unable to understand that a difference in opinion does not imply a personal dislike.

    *With some reservations for local law and customs. Note that Germany does not practice “at-will employment”; on the contrary, it is very hard to get rid of an actual employee, even when highly unwanted.

    Thirdly, taking a hard stance even against fairly junior employees is tricky. The exact organizational regulations will vary from project to project, but unless the contractor is specifically hired as a team lead, project manager, or similar, it is usually best to consider oneself outside both the formal and informal chain-of-command*. This especially since the personal and professional relationships will typically be more shallow than between the regular employees. For instance, if I had been a regular employee for the last ten years in the situation above, I could have** just set the trouble-maker down and given him a stern talking to about e.g. “the way we do things”. As is, he could just have responded with a “Who are we? What do you know about what we do?” or similar.

    *In Germany, this is more-or-less a necessity for another reason, namely “Scheinselbständigkeit”. This is too large a topic for this article, but the simplified version is that if an external contractor (working as an individual, not employed by a third-party) is too integrated into the company, the German government will see the “external contractor” part as an attempt at tax evasion, reclassify the contractor as an employee, and force both parties to shell out additional taxes and fees of various kind.

    **Or at least tried: With such an exceptional case, I might have had to escalate the issues even in the modified scenario, for the simple reason that some rare people are beyond reason…

    As an analogy, consider the options available to a grand-parent and a baby-sitter who feel that a child should be treated differently. Unless the situation is so atrocious that social services need to be involved, the baby-sitter can basically only make recommendations to the parents—insisting, starting a fight on the matter, holding a I-am-better-at-parenting speech, …, these are things that a grand-parent can often get away with, sometimes even to the point of affecting a change. The grand-parent might even have the option to sue for custody, if worst comes to worst. The baby-sitter? Not so much…

    Being able to push issues with success and lack of danger usually requires having built a considerable amount of rapport with the right people. An external contractor who actually focuses on doing what he is paid for will rarely have that rapport outside of the immediate team.

  2. How should one handle a problem that one knows will soon pass on its own? (Assuming that other constraints do not apply, e.g. the “I am an external contractor” issue.)

    Here I am a bit at a loss: I have almost always chosen to sit it out in the past. This has often worked, but I have often also been left with a potentially avoidable damage because something worse-than-usual happened between the decision to sit it out and the actual passing, or because the damage accumulated higher than I had anticipated*, often because I had overestimated the competence levels of other parties and seen even repeated screw-ups as events unlikely to repeat. My tentative recommendation would be to give someone two or three** strikes, depending on the issue, and then take action—even when it is clear that the problem or the trouble-maker will be gone in the not too far away future. Going to four or more strikes will lead to exactly the type of problems I have had when waiting; reacting on the first strike will lead to too many reasons to complain and will likely come across as pre-mature*** with the recipients of the complaint.

    *Which to some degree was the case above; with hindsight, I probably should have escalated the issues, even as an external contractor and even with the limited time frame.

    **Of course allowing for faster reactions when something truly bad happens or when there is reason to believe that the counter-part both acted out of ignorance and is likely to repeat. Other special cases likely exist, say when someone does an unfortunate web re-design, which is a one-off occurrence with a repeating damage. (I often make a deliberate point of giving feedback on such occasions, in the (vain?) hope that someone will re-consider.) Personal conflicts, like the one above, can be particularly tricky, because while the one party waits, the other party is quite possibly already actively complaining to everyone else. This applies in particular to the type of two-faced individual I discuss below.

    ***Specifically in Germany, this need not matter, because the openness to critique and attitude towards customers is often abysmal. Where e.g. the U.S. has the proverbial “the customer is king”, Germany has its proverbial “Servicewüste Deutschland”—“Service desert Germany”. In both cases, the reality does not always match the claim, but there is a reason why it has reached a proverbial status.

  3. How should one handle the superficially friendly people who are at best neutral, at worst hostile, behind the mask?

    Let me start with the remark that most people in the modern world appear to not understand friends and friendship at all: A friend is not someone you like spending time with—a friend is someone who (e.g.) hides you at a personal risk when you are on the run from the law, or gives up a kidney when you need one. “A friend in need is a friend indeed.” No matter how entertaining someone is, no matter how much you like drinking a pint with him in the pub, …, he is still not worthy of the name “friend” if he drops you as soon as things get rough or if his main interest is in getting a benefit from you.

    I have long taken the stance, and will likely continue to do so, that what matters is substance, not superficial pleasantry. This is also the main reason that my opinion of the above ex-colleague is radically different from that of most other team members—they look at his attempts to cozy up, socialize, small-talk, …, while I look at his actual actions, how he handles conflicts, how he behaves when the mask drops, … Because of this, most people (myself included before I had the time to actually understand him) think of him as a pleasant guy, someone to spend time with. I see him for what he is: The possibly worst ass-hole I have worked with in my almost twenty years in software development.

    Here there is a potential source of problems: When opinions differ, it is usually the majority that rules and the minority that is considered absurd, even when having a more well-formed and realistic opinion.

    Another issue is that these two-faced individuals are so used to getting their way with the sympathies of others, that they often cannot handle a negative reaction. Even the troublesome ex-colleague above repeatedly behaved like a complete idiot and then expected that if he smiled at me and made a little small-talk everything would be well again.* Sorry: It does not work that way with rational people—once I know what lies beneath the mask, the mask cannot change things again**. In fact, such hypocritical attempts turn me personally off just as much as the original offenses.

    *This is not to be confused with e.g. two people who like or respect each other having an argument and then mending their relation, or with a basically good guy having a rare slip and then making amends. In these cases, and assuming genuinely friendly smiles, small-talk, whatnot, the situation is very different. The above, in contrast, deals with evil bastards, psychopaths, opportunistic salesmen and politicians, and the like. Consider Carcer in Terry Pratchett’s “Night Watch” for an extreme example.

    **However, a reciprocal mask of “I utterly despise you, but will keep it hidden, because we still have to work with each other for the foreseeable future” is still possible, often wise. As the remainder of his employment shrank, I grew correspondingly less inclined to keep that mask up.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 14, 2016 at 10:47 pm

Swedish teletext and incompetence

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In this era of Internet news, one of my main news sources is svt-text—the teletext (!) pages of the Swedish national television, which I visit about once a day (albeit in the Internet version). The brevity of each individual page (being limited by what fits within teletext) makes the “articles” highly compact and it is easy to get a quick overview. If something seems interesting, there is always the possibility to find more detailed information elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the people behind this service are not intellectual giants, and I often find myself sighing over the unnecessary quality loss and inconveniences.

To take a few examples (some Internet-specific; some problematic for TV users to):

  1. The article titles are often so lacking in information that is hard to judge which articles are worth reading without actually reading them. In at least some cases, in particular with sports, even the rough topic cannot be predicted from the title…

    For instance, I just called up the sports page and found the title “Rekordstort intresse för mästarna” (roughly “Interest for champions on record high”). What champions? What sport? What level (national? world? …?) What type of interest? Who is interested? Men’s team or women’s? “Ordinary” sports or “para-sports”?

    Looking at the detail page, the actual story is so uninteresting that few would have bothered to open it with a better title and it can seriously be questioned whether it should have even been published in the first place: The Swedish national champions in floorball (!) have managed to sell 100 (!!!) season’s tickets. The page did not say whether this was the men’s or women’s champions. Honestly, this is something that barely qualifies for the local news paper of wherever these champions were based.

    Sigh…

  2. During the conversion to HTML, links are added in such an unintelligent manner that any number occurring in the page stands the risk of being interpreted as referring to another page and being turned into a link. (Remember that teletext pages are identified by three-digit numbers.)

    This has, admittedly, grown considerably better over the years, but it still happens, possibly as much as 15 years after my first visit…

    This is the weirder as implies that the whole setup is amateurish, most likely in the form that a plain-text page is composed to be published “on the TV” without any alterations, while the Internet version is just generated from this plain-text without any semantic information. A professional would, as a matter of course, have kept the “master version” separate form the “TV version” and used a markup language (even be it a rudimentary one) to keep semantic information. The TV and Internet version would then both be generated from this master. This would include marking page references so that they cannot be confused with numbers during generation.

    Sigh…

  3. While the language level is poor overall, there are two specific ever recurring and highly annoying problems:

    Firstly, differences between A and B are almost invariably formulated as “A is better than B at [something or other]”, even when the “better” is highly subjective and even when it is not really supported by the text (e.g. because absolute numbers are compared when relative numbers would be appropriate). This in particular where differences between men and women are concerned*. I would only be marginally surprised if the headline “women are better than men at using drugs” would be used for an article reporting that women use more cocaine than men…

    *Generally, they have a problem with a feminist or PC world-view, but with a Swedish news source that almost goes without saying…

    Secondly, there is a virtual obsession with “hylla” (hard to translate, but “praise” when used as in the phrase “praise the Lord” is a decent match; “eulogize” can come close to, in some uses). If someone makes any form of positive statement about someone else, he allegedly “hyllade” him. If someone wins an international gold medal, one or two pages are dedicated to “tittarnas hyllningar” (or similar; roughly, “the viewers praise”)*. Etc.

    *Why they waste space by including the praise of the viewers in the first place is beyond me. It has no news value and the page could have been saved for something more valuable.

    The word, normally reserved for special occasions, is thrown around in a blanket manner and with very little value attached to it. Often it amounts to confusing “Would you have dinner with me?” and “Would you marry me?”…

    Sigh…

  4. Naturally, as news items arrive or are removed, page numbers will change. To handle this should not be that hard: Alter the page numbers and references of all involved pages and then publish them together. But no: Individual pages are altered separately and published immediately, leading to such effects as someone opening a page on X and finding an article dealing with Y or both page 110 and 111 having the exact same contents.*

    *Both can happen even when publishing all changes together, be it through unfortunate timing or because someone has opened an index page and then waited a minute or two before opening article pages. However, it will be a rare occurrence. The frequency at svt-text is far, far too high to be explained by such instances.

    Sigh…

  5. Generally, there are many problems around page numbers and page handling. For instance, it is quite common that the contents that once were on page X stays on page X for days—even after the page contents have officially changed. (Following the new contents as a virtual page within the page.) Or take the leader-board for the recent British Open/The Open golf-tournament: With a fellow Swede winning, I tried to follow the results through svt-text, but found that every single time that I refreshed the page, the leader-board had moved to another page. After some five or six times I gave up (ESPN had something that worked much better). Is it not obvious that such contents should be treated differently and fixed on the same page? This especially since they do have a dedicated number interval for “live” sports results that is used for that exact purpose, e.g. to track the score of soccer games.

    Sigh…

Written by michaeleriksson

August 2, 2016 at 10:34 pm

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