Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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

Posted in Uncategorized

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Various idiocies from around the world

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Recently, I have written a few post based on different news items from the world of sports. Since I found this format entertaining (from a writer’s point of view) and different from my usual styles and topics, I am giving it a go with some more general news items that I encountered the last few days. The common thread is a more abstract one of stupidity, irrationality, etc., and thus the items are less connected this time around.

Note: Much of the international news I encounter come from sources that are not in English or that provide no “permalinks”. I have tried to find corresponding English sources suitable for linking. Beware that there may be some differences in the content from my original sources.

  1. A breastfeeding protest in Argentine: Apparently, the police had, very laudably, removed a women from a public place for breastfeeding. This has resulted in a mass protest, with statements made like:

    “My breasts, my rights; I’m not interested in your opinion,” (sign)

    or

    “This is great because it sheds light on a problem. And police need to be on the public’s side and not work against them” (Adolfo Perez Esquivel; Nobel Peace Prize winner)

    I am sorry, but this is utterly idiotic, selfish, and irrational:

    This type of bodily function belongs to those better kept in private out of consideration for others. I do not pick my nose in public either. (Even though “My nose, my rights” could just as easily and with just as much or little justification be applied, showing the uselessness of cheap rhetorical statements in lieu of arguments.) Breastfeeding is just as disgusting as nose picking (arguably more so, because the duration is considerably longer) and if the police should be on the public side, then they should indeed prevent it. Now, unlikely nose-picking, there may be situations where breastfeeding can be justified on an emergency basis, to protect the health of a child; however, these will be few and far between. There will almost always be somewhere private* to go, even when originally in public. It is only very rarely a choice between breastfeeding and not breastfeeding, but one of breastfeeding where one currently is and taking a brief walk to breastfeed in private, or to wait a little while and do it at home, or to plan better and avoid the situation in the first place. The truth is simply this: These women egoistically prioritize their own comfort over the interests of the rest of the world. (The “I’m not interested in your opinion” is telling.) Their moral outrage is utterly misplaced.

    *Which I here take to include public bathrooms and other areas that are potentially still public in the strict sense of the phrase, but are either more shielded than “public public” places or by their nature are more open to intimate bodily functions.

    In contrast, someone who urinates in public can become a registered “sex offender”, with the massive disadvantages that follow, in many U.S. states. (Cf. e.g. http://www.businessinsider.com/surprising-things-that-could-make-you-a-sex-offender-2013-10. The U.S. is a country of insane laws.)

  2. The NBA all-star game is being rescheduled over bathroom laws: The game should have taken place in North Carolina, which apparently has a law requiring that the men’s or lady’s room is chosen based on the chooser’s sex at birth. NBA has a hissy fit over allegedly illicit discrimination and now moves the game elsewhere—political correctness at an irrationality high.

    There are at least three things wrong here:

    Firstly, transgendered people pose a new problem where we do not yet have norms and there often cannot be a solution found that satisfies everyone. The perspective that a certain individual feels like an X, while being a Y by birth, and through feeling like an X should be allowed to behave like an X (even without an operation), has some legitimacy. It is, however, not the only perspective. Others might with equal legitimacy feel that they do not want to be confronted with a Y-by-birth in the bathroom. Or what about the risk that someone sneaks in to the wrong bathroom under the mere pretext of being transgender? Yet other perspectives exist. Why should the perspective of one be more valuable than the other*? Either we have to resign ourselves to the fact that cramming more than two categories of gender or sex into two categories of bathrooms will require that some party remains dissatisfied or we have to change the categorization of bathrooms. (The most reasonably manner would likely be to use unisex bathrooms throughout, but then the outrage from those currently outraged will likely be twice as hard and blowing in the other direction…)

    *Given that these perspectives are based in rational and irrational criteria, objective and subjective harm to similar degrees. Indeed, in as far as an objective harm is present, the “by birth” faction probably has a stronger claim. (Although it might be different if we look at “post-ops” or other transsexuals.)

    Secondly, the issue is not one of sufficient importance that such actions are proportional and reasonable, not even if viewed symbolically*. This especially considering that the law-makers are merely elected by the people—they do not constitute the people or a consensus opinion of the people. Indeed, it is quite possible that many of those who will be “punished” are against the law… What about the hot-dog salesman or hotel owner who loses a business opportunity? What about the hardcore fans who now have to travel so much longer? In contrast, the law-makers will be largely unaffected and might even have a possibility to spin this to their advantage comes election time…

    *In contrast, the far more important, pervasive, and illegitimate racial segregation applied in South-Africa a few decades ago made a far stronger case for similar boycotts (but see below)—as the situation in North-Carolina yet a few decades earlier might or might not have. (I am not certain what exact state had what exact rules at what point in time.)

    Thirdly, sports* should be kept apart from politics to the degree possible and reasonable. To use it as a cheap bat against or for a certain pet issue is not acceptable, especially seeing that many of those involved, including athletes and fans, might have different opinions. (Just as the population does not necessarily agree with the law-makers.) To presume to speak for or moralize on behalf of these is inexcusable. This is particular disturbing as there is a strong tendency to attack athletes with the “wrong” opinion through various sanctions. There are situations when even a sports organization might need to take a political, moral, whatnot, stance, but this is most certainly not one of them.

    *In contrast, movements, organizations, and whatnots, that have an inherently political, ideological, moral, …, nature are in a different position.

  3. According to http://www.ard-text.de, German television will continue its policy of not re-airing episodes of the popular series “Derrick”. (I have no current English source, but there are older on the same topic.) The reason: The lead actor, Horst Tappert, used to be a member of SS.

    Again an irrational decision: His background does not affect the quality of the show, those punished are the audience (cut of your nose to spite your face…; Tappert himself is dead), and by no reasonably means can a re-airing be seen e.g. as support of Nazi values. But above all: Tappert (going by e.g. his entry in the German Wikipedia ) entered SS in 1943 and was only 21 at the end of the (European) war. “Derrick” ran from 1974–1998… During an Internet search, I found no indication that (specifically) Tappert had committed war crimes or otherwise acted in an illicit manner compared to, say, the average U.S. soldier. (He might still have, especially considering his company, but it is up to the accusers to prove guilt.) Now, if Tappert had been the commander of an extermination camp, I could possibly see a point. He was not: He was a very young man—who, for all we know, might have been pressured into entering or might simply have had naive ideas, influenced by the immense Nazi propaganda-machine*, that he had shed decades before “Derrick”.

    *Remember that he must have been around nine years of age when the Nazis rose to power, and severely disadvantaged to those already of an adult age—let alone those who look back at events taking place decades before they born…

  4. About two weeks ago, I bought a new travel bag. As I paid, the cashier told me that the key to (the otherwise combination) lock was in the possession of “just” the TSA—and I immediately had images flashing through my head of keys leaking out, the lock being practically useless, and myself abstaining from the buy. (A moment later, I realized that even without such key leaks, well, a flimsy three-digit combination-lock on a bag with textile walls will not be much of an obstacle to a thief anyway.)

    Today, I learned of exactly this type of key leak—and not the first leak to take place either. “Just” the TSA, my ass!

    This system is idiotic in its own right, because such problems are obvious, bordering on the unavoidable. No thinking and informed individual who actually cares about security could consider it anything but idiotic. More likely, it is implemented for the convenience of the TSA and with nothing more than imaginary security* ever intended for the travelers. However, it does not end here: This is exactly the type of problem** that would arise if some politicians had their way with encryption and other digital security measures. Back-doors will eventually leak out or be discovered and be used by criminals. Ditto digital master-keys. Ditto whatnot. Well, there are two differences: A criminal with a TSA master-key still needs to get hold of the individual bag and needs to open it individually; a criminal with a digital master-key can have a program automatically attack targets all around the world, from the distance. A criminal without a TSA master-key could still get into the bag comparatively easily; a criminal without a digital master-key typically cannot get in at all. In other words: The problem would be far, far worse…

    *More generally, I am not a fan of the way airport security is implemented. The direct and indirect cost, especially for the passengers, especially in time, is immense. Hi-jackings are avoided through very different means, and the increase in security with regard to attempts to smuggle bombs on-board appears to be limited—and could definitely be made in a more rationalized manner.

    **Not to mention the independent problem of abuse through the government, but that is another issue.

As a brief post-script to the “Olympic” posts: I really should have dealt with the situation around Russia and the possible blanket ban at some point. While I am not necessarily saying that a ban is bad thing (it is a complicated issue), there are several troubling aspects relevant to the previous posts, including that the presumption of innocence is removed (that tests have not taken place or not been reported accurately by some Russian organization or other does not mean that they would have come back respectively were positive), that individuals are punished for the actions of other individuals and/or various organizations (collective punishment), and that the ban is arbitrary in terms of different sports (according to the last I heard, earlier today, the IOC leaves the decision to the individual sports organizations, which means that Russian athletes from sport A will not go, whereas those from sport B will.) The idea of letting Russian athletes compete, but not for Russia, could incidentally have been a good one, eventually leading to a participation based on individual effort, not on country of origin. (See my previous posts for problems resulting from the current fixation on countries over athletes.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 24, 2016 at 10:26 pm

Follow-Up II: Olympic trials or tragedies?

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And yet again, there have been plenty of interesting events:

  1. Aregawi was indeed not nominated for the Olympics. The reasoning for this is vague, but seems to be largely based in doubts as to her form or some other factor*. This is a good example of how sports organizations get in the way of sports—and is doubly unjust, seeing that the reason why she might be out of form and has been unable to prove herself is the flawed doping suspension… The decision to compete should be hers and hers alone**. Should it transpire that she goes to Rio and makes a fool out of herself, well, that is a risk that she should take or not take according to her own wishes.

    *E.g. that she might still somehow be a cheater. While this is definitely a possibility, it should be up to those with suspicions to prove her guilt—not up to her to prove her innocence.

    **Given that she already has surpassed the international qualifying standards. I am not inviting the average couch potato to join the competition.

    A twist is that in order to compete, any Swedish athlete has to satisfy at least three different organizations: The International Olympic Committee, the National Olympic Committee, and the respective national organization for the individual sport (in this case Track and Field). This not counting other organizations that might have a say on another dimension, e.g. WADA.

  2. Molitor has been promptly turned-down in court. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, I honestly do not know. What I do know is that the problem is an artificial one, created by an unjust rule of three athletes per country.
  3. Hurdler Kendra Harrison (who almost featured in my original post) went to the U.S. trials with a world leading time that was one of the best in history, missed the top three, and will not be going to the Olympics.

    Today, she broke the world record of almost thirty years… No matter who wins in Rio, there can be little doubt that she at best the number two in the world. (Barring the possibility that the winner answers with a similarly good time, which is highly unlikely.)

    Since hurdlers often have a short peak, I would be extremely surprised if her chances at winning the next time around, in four years, are even close to what they would have been this year.

  4. The IAAF are again screwing around with competition formats, to the detriment of both athletes and fans: Apparently competitors in the field events of the current Track-and-Field Junior World-championships are allowed a maximum of four attempts, instead of the six which has been the standard since the days of yore. Looking at past competitions, this is a very major change, seeing how common last round changes are, and it replaces an element of skill with an element of chance. This is particularly disturbing, since the IAAF seems to have strong urge to just shorten competitions, without considering how the results might be affected.
  5. In other news relating to doping and the power of organizations: Norwegian cross-country ski star Martin Johnsrud Sundby appears to have been suspended on a doping violation, retroactively losing several titles—because the national-team physician had screwed up with a medication that he was allowed to use.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 22, 2016 at 11:20 pm

Follow-Up: Olympic trials or tragedies?

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It is almost a shame that I did not wait a few days to write my last post, with a number of interesting events occurring in the mean time, relating directly or indirectly to my post:

Good news: Kallur has been given a dispensation from the unjustified restrictions imposed by the Swedish federation.

Bad news: A number of other Swedes in the same position, but of lesser stature, have not, and are thereby arbitrarily blocked from competition.

Interesting news: Javelin world-champion Katharina Molitor has not been selected for the German team, despite being another strong candidate for Olympic gold and a given on the team of almost all, possibly all, other countries. She is know pursuing her possibilities in court… On a related note, Claudia Pechstein (speed skater and multiple Olympic champion) is renewing her court efforts to get compensation for a doping suspension that appears to have been unjustified (Pechstein certainly feels so; I lack the detail knowledge for a definite claim). She has hitherto not been that successful in court, but it is interesting (and positive) that the power of the sports organizations is questioned and tested.

Meanwhile, the Meldonium doping suspensions are being re-visited intensely, with Swedish–Ethiopian Gold candidate* Abeba Aregawi being cleared**—almost half a year after she was suspended. While I have nothing against cheaters being blocked, the revelations around Meldonium in the last six months show that there is something seriously wrong with how various sports organizations have handled the issues—often to the very severe detriment of innocent or merely slightly incautious athletes.

*Well, before her suspension. With the damage presumably done to her training, focus, planning, whatnot, I would be surprised if she comes even close. (Assuming that she is put on the team at all.)

**I have not looked into the details, but I am under the impression that this is a result of a re-evaluation of what amount detected should be considered an offense.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 14, 2016 at 6:48 pm

Olympic trials or tragedies?

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I have long been annoyed at the way participation in the Olympics and many other international championships are handled, especially from the point of view of priorities: Sports should be for the athletes first, the fans second, and various organizations/the broad masses/sponsors third (or even fourth)—and it almost invariably ends up being the other way around.

Consider the following absurdities resulting from the inconsistent country-specific regulations and/or the general limit that a country is allowed to send only three athletes:

  1. Allyson Felix is the reigning Olympic champion in the women’s 200-meter dash, a strong victory candidate, and despite still recovering from injury problems came in fourth at the U.S. Olympic trials—missing third place by a hundredth of a second. She is not allowed to go. There will be some (non-US) women going who have run no better than 23.20 (according to http://www.iaaf.org/competition/standards), to be compared to Felix’ season’s best of 22.54, last year performance of 21.98, and personal best of 21.69 (all according to her IAAF profile).
  2. Meanwhile, Jamaican Usain Bolt failed to compete at all due to injury in the Jamaican trials. He is also the reigning champion, also one of the favorites—and he gets a free pass from Jamaica. Better than the Felix case? Possibly—but tell that to whoever actually came third…
  3. Swedish hurdler Sanna Kallur* has repeatedly run faster than the international qualification standard, she is the hands down best female hurdler in Sweden, and in the absence of an Olympic trial of the U.S. or Jamaican type, she should be an easy choice for Sweden. However, Sweden applies a stricter qualification standard and, unless the rules are bent, she will not go either—in which case Sweden will not send a female hurdler, there being no single woman, let alone three, to fill up the team…

    *Unlike the aforementioned, she is unlikely to be a victory candidate due to years of injuries and old age. In her prime, however, she was formidable. Merits include the (still standing) indoor world-record in the 60m hurdles and European championship victories both indoors and outdoors.

This, of course, is just a small portion of all the absurdities that could have been listed. The U.S. Track-and-Field trials alone produce a handful of cases per Olympic cycle. Looking over the totality of all Olympic sports and all the countries involved there will be hundreds of cases just for the current Olympics.

To prevent such injustices and absurdities, a completely different approach is needed: It must be only the performance of the individual that counts—not what nationality someone has. The exact modalities are of course negotiable, but a reasonable interpolation from the current system would be that anyone* who has achieved the qualifying limit is allowed to go. Other possibilities include some form of gather-points-to-qualify, as used in e.g. tennis for its yearly tour finals, or a variation of the world-ranking concept.

*With some natural reservations, like the exclusion of anyone currently serving a doping suspension. However, under no circumstance the currently popular attempts to exclude people from competition for having the wrong opinions.

The only argument I have to date heard in favour of the three-athletes limit, is that there is a risk that some event or other grows boring, because we know in advance that the majority of the top-ten will come from a single country. So what!?! If Soviet pole-vaulters, U.S. sprinters, or Kenyan runners (at various times in history) would have been so utterly dominant, let them. The athletes themselves want a fair chance to win, while the true fans of the sport often care more about the individual athletes than nationality. For that matter, a dominance so complete that upsets never happen is very rare and tends to be short-lived—and they have grown rarer over time: Even if the argument had held at some point of time (of which I am skeptical), it need not hold today.

The U.S.-Style trials have more justification (assuming that a three-athletes limit is already imposed from the outside), e.g. in that someone who cannot win in the U.S. is unlikely to win globally, that it prefers the athletes with good nerves and the ability to “bring it”, or that that “bad day” could as easily have happened during the actual Olympics. Every system has its advantages and disadvantages, every system will leave an athlete here and there being (in one sense or another) unfairly left-out, and none can magically remove the three-athletes limit*. Disadvantages of the trials include the abruptness, the increased element of chance, the need to peak several times in one season, and less tolerance for injury periods (cf. e.g. Felix above).

*Notably, the three-athletes limit makes it hard to find a good compromise. For instance, it might be plausible to divide the number of participant into three pools for best trial results, best marks of the season, and wild cards based on subjective estimates about past or future accomplishments. However, that makes each pool one person large… Going to six instead of three, we could have a trial pool of three, the two best marks, and one wild-card (or a number of other distributions).

Another angle is whether the concept of national teams are truly compatible with the Olympic spirit* to begin with: Would it not be better for international friendship and harmony if the athletes competed as individuals instead of representatives of their countries, without the resulting “us vs. them”?

*What exactly is meant by Olympic spirit has varied from time to time. The current official stance appears to involve “to build a peaceful and better world […] a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play […] promote tolerance and understanding […] to make our world a more peaceful place.” (Re-quoted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olympic_spirit.)

In as far as national organizations, completion’s, whatnot, have a role to play, then only to the degree that they may choose to support or not support the respective athletes. Sweden might let Kallur, and the U.S Felix, fend for herself in terms of travel costs, training camps, and similar—but they should have no say in whether she is allowed to enter the competition.

A welcome side-effect of focusing on the individual instead of the nationality is that the artificial import of athletes along the lines of Turkey or Bahrain, where athletes switch nationalities like they do soccer clubs, would be less tempting and less of a problem.

More generally, the way the individual athlete is treated today is often disgusting, as a mere pawn for the powers that be and far from being the main player of the drama. Consider, for instance, how the sponsors of the individual athletes are booted from the Olympics in favour of the Olympic sponsors—money that should have gone to the the athlete and PR that should have gone to his sponsor instead go to the IOC and their sponsors… The athlete is helpless: Boycotting the Olympics will hurt him far more than the IOC (barring an unlikely mass protest). Other examples include restrictions on acceptable opinions and behavior outside of the field of sports, anti-doping measures that cause impositions few of us would agree to live with, the obligation to participate in certain competitions (as is the cases with high-level tennis players, who have good reason to complain about too little time for recuperation), and arbitrary rule changes (e.g. track-and-field, formula one).

Written by michaeleriksson

July 12, 2016 at 12:14 am

Plastic bags, the environment, and dishonest companies

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There are many bad things in the world. Some large, some small. Some that we can ignore easily ignore, others that drive us up the wall—and it is not always the objectively large things that annoy or anger us the most.

One of my pet peeves is how store chain after store chain (in Germany) has started to charge for previously free plastic bags using the claim that it is “for the good of the environment”.

Now, I am very much in favour of “the environment” and if I actually believed these claims, I would possibly even welcome these charges. As is, considering developments, they are at best an attempt to protect businesses from a possible government intervention (it self based on dubious reasoning). More likely, they are an opportunity to earn another 20 cents on each purchase—while gaining in image among those to stupid to see through the charade. These customer-despising lies are what really tick me off.* How hollow the claims actually are is proved by my recent experiences with clothing retailer C&A: The charge came with a replacement of the earlier voluminous and thin-walled bags with smaller and far thicker bags, containing considerably more plastic and increasing the number of bags needed for a larger purchase. The environment is worse off, because in this manner more plastic is needed and (I strongly suspect) the new bags will be harder for trapped animals to escape from and take longer before they degrade in nature. At the same time, the increase in the number of sold bags drives the winnings up*. The redesign, if anything, is geared at giving an impression of higher quality (more bang for the buck) making it easier for the customers to swallow the extra cost—a public relations thing.

*I am not a friend of paying for plastic bags in general, due to the advertising issue discussed below. However, this much can be said in favour of those chains who have always charged for their bags, not just started doing so in the last one or two years: They have never pretended that they would be doing a public service. They have clearly portrayed the charge as a groat for tote—you give us a small amount of money for our benefit and we give you a disposable plastic bag for your benefit.

**Keep in mind that the cost of making one of these bags is extremely low. The main cost factors are in transportation and handling, and many of these will remain constant or vary sublinearly with the number of bags.

Let us look closer at some aspects of the general issue:

  1. Not one single of these chains has made any claims along the lines of “we give the proceeds to environmental organization X”. If they did give the money away, they would sure as hell brag about it. Since they don’t brag, I conclude that every single additional cent earned is kept by the respective chain.
  2. These bags are invariably (now and before) filled with advertising, with the company logo and colours being the absolute minimum. This alone makes the charge unethical: No-one should ever have to pay for walking around with advertising. If they want to charge for bags, they have to remove the advertising. End of discussion.
  3. The immediate effect of the bags (amount of plastic needed, energy costs, etc.) are a drop in the ocean compared to many other things and should not be a main priority when fighting for the environment. Even when factoring in the later recycling cost for properly recycled (cf. below) bags, we remain at a somewhat larger drop in the ocean. Basic rule of optimization: Optimize where it has the largest effects first. We do not even have to look at the big industrial and chemical companies to find worse problems—consider the cost and waste from sending out company prospects and other types of advertising, of the employees of these chains driving their cars to and from work every day, or the considerably greater amounts of packing material, much of it redundant, that is used for the individual items sold in a grocery store…
  4. If we focus on plastic bags, there are better ways to help the environment, through attacking the underlying problems. What about biodegradable bags? What about increased focus on bags that are reusable in the long term, instead of being disposable or only intended for two or three trips to the store? What about some form of deposit–refund system (give the chain two Euros for the bag, get them back when returning the bag, and the bag then being expertly recycled)? (Hint: While these would all have the potential to be better for the environment, there is also less profitability in them.)
  5. In my understanding, the main environmental problem of plastic bags results from incorrectly disposed bags that land in nature, the oceans, kill wild-life, slowly emit various substances, … Then we should not (necessarily) reduce the number of plastic bags—we should reduce the number of plastic bags that land in nature instead of the recycling plant. This should also be carefully born in mind when looking at naive environmental statistics. For instance, a commonly circulated number in Germany, including from several chains I have complained to, is an average of 71 plastic bags per year and person. Now we are supposed to have an image of 71 plastic bags per year and person lying around on the beach, in the forest, or floating in the ocean. This is simply not the case. Take me for instance: I use my plastic bags as garbage bags, saving the environmental impact of additional bags bought for that ad hoc purpose. If I have a surplus, I eventually through it away with the rest of my garbage, and (provided that other involved parties do their duties…) the bags end up in recycling. If there was a dedicated recycling canister for plastic (but there is not…), making the recycling more efficient, I would be more than happy to use it, even were it in a store instead of my back-yard.

    I stress that the above is not in anyway to deny that these incorrectly disposed plastic bags is an environmental issue worth addressing—that they are is well-established. It is a matter of intellectual honesty and presenting the facts as they actually are—not how they best fit a particular agenda. If something is bad, by all means present it as bad and do so in all its “glory”—but do not try to paint a picture that it is even worse by a magnitude. Either the true facts presented in a non-misleading manner gives sufficient support (and no manipulation is needed) or they do not (and manipulation is both unethical and harmful).

  6. Will a charge for plastic bags help with preventing bags from getting into nature? Not very much: The people who take their bags to the beach, to a pick-nick, whatnot, and then just leave them lying around (or otherwise are poor disposers), will keep doing so anyway. A pick-nick (and so on) is something sufficiently rare and different that the overall number of bags getting into nature through pick-nicks will decrease by far less than the overall number of bags, making all this a largely wasted effort. For that matter, I doubt that the impact on even the overall number of bags will be that impressive. For instance, if we take the 71 bags per year and person and a hypothetical 20 cent a bag, we have 14.20 Euro a year—not something that will be a true influence on decision making for most people in a country as rich as Germany. (At the same time, this is well over a billion Euro to be divided up among the chains, and here, in the profit making department, there is a very noticeable effect.)

Let me conclude by emphasizing that I have nothing against people simply prioritizing the environment higher or lower than I do, nor do I have anything against people prioritizing profit making higher or lower than I do. What I do have something against includes both dishonest claims and thinking that the man on the street is so utterly stupid that he will fall for any claim made assertively enough or repeated often enough. This type of contempt (and contempt relating to the rights of the individual) is extremely wide-spread among commercial companies, politicians, governmental institutions, and the like, and is not merely offensive but also increasingly a genuine pragmatic problem for society.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 29, 2016 at 9:51 pm

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