Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

My experiences with professional associations and similar groups

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There are a great number of professional or amateur organizations, associations, whatnot in the IT, computing, engineering, …, areas that on paper could be of interest for someone like me. In reality, they appear to be mostly a waste of money for the typical* member, and do not always work in the interest of the members. At least some (notably VDI, cf. below) have gone down the road of FIFA-ization (cf. e.g. parts of [1]).

*For those members who have the time and inclination to be highly active participants, the situation might be different—if active participation is at all possible. However, realistically speaking, the typical member will not be a highly active participant.

To date, I have been a member of or considered membership in five different organizations of note. I will discuss these briefly and incompletely* below:

*Including because I probably only remember a minority of the problems encountered and because my memory will often be vague on the details of the things I do remember.

  1. ACM: This was my first membership, some time close to the millennium switch.

    I was mildly disappointed with the member magazine, the contents often being too superficial, never digging down in a manner that brought real benefit, and leaving the impression of being more of an abstract introduction-for-executives than educational-matter-for-engineers.* I was outright annoyed at their political activities in the name of the members, especially with regard to the then hot topic of DMCA: While I do consider (at least parts of) the DMCA a bad thing, it is not a given that all members do or did—and using their money for political purposes was unethical. To boot, while I did oppose the DMCA, who knows what ACM would have next campaigned for or against that I would not have agreed with?

    *These problems have been quite common with membership magazines over the years. With hindsight, I even suspect that I would have see ACM as a positive surprise, had I encountered their magazine after e.g. that of VDI.

    With the above I could live, however. What came next was so outrageous that I that could not:

    As I went online to renew my membership, I was met with a form that was very obviously intended for the user to just scroll through and to click “OK”. Half-a-second before my mouse button went down, I was halted in my tracks: Why was the amount almost three times as large as it should be?!? On closer inspection, I found that the the ACM had sneaked in pre-selections for a second membership somewhere else, as well as two (!) “voluntary” donations. Such methods are basically inexcusable when used by a commercial business—but when used by an allegedly not-for-profit professional society?!? I left right then and never looked back: The default should obviously be a renewal with identical content. Any and all change should be made through an explicit action by the users. (I am not entirely certain, but I suspect that the course taken by ACM would be outright illegal in today’s Germany.)

  2. VDI: I became a member a few years back—and had enough within just a few months.

    First, this organization is strongly geared at running its own political and other agendas in a very top–down manner. The members appear to be viewed primarily as a source of money, and their interests are ignored. A common criticism from others is that VDI is more of an interest organization for the industry than for engineers (contrary to the name and ostensible purpose). I would tend to concur, but would also point to the common problem of large and old organizations over time becoming an end in themselves rather than a means—or becoming a means to the end of furthering the careers of its governance.

    Second, there were a number of almost absurd problems around membership friendliness, starting with the fact that the membership charter (or whatever the appropriate term is) was only available to those who already were members. In effect, becoming a member is like entering a contract without being given prior access to the T & Cs…

    Third, the web pages, emails, whatnot, were on such an amateurish level that it makes any engineer cringe. For instance, I regularly received HTML emails that were so poorly written that my email client could not render them—and what engineer sends HTML emails to begin with? Other emails had such absurd problems as the greeting appearing in the “To” header before the email address.* The web pages were often lacking in information but filled with uninteresting and wasteful images of the cheapest advertising kind. Know your audience: Engineers are among the smartest people and most rational thinkers around. You might get away with treating the average citizen like a complete idiot (but still should not!), but here? To boot, there were numerous functional problems with the web pages too.

    *And, yes, I have verified that this was not an issue with my email client. The actual raw message had this screwed up.

    Generally, I had the impression that there was very little of an engineer mentality (including a focus on substance), and much of a business-student mentality (including a focus on appearances). Dilbert would not have felt at home; his pointy-haired boss might have.

  3. VDE: So far, knock-on-wood, the least disappointing organization and the only one where I am still a member. There are some VDI-like tendencies, but they are nowhere near as strong and there is much more of the engineer mentality I found wanting at VDI.

    To date, I do have two complaints:

    First, sloppy handling of address and bank data causing me a considerable extra effort around the time of the first (?) membership renewal. (Unfortunately, many Germany organizations, businesses, whatnot, are thrown off when a member/customer moves or changes bank. Do not ask me why.)

    Second, an extensive prospect trying to sell a trip to China under the guise of an educational excursion (possibly, to a power plant?). From overall context, it is quite clear that VDE (deliberately or out of naivete) became an advertising tool for a travel business. This included aspects like the price being considerably over the top* and the suggestion that the members should let family and friends join them**. (This to be contrasted with the quite legitimate other, intra-German, excursions they irregularly organize.)

    *Out of interest, I did a few online comparisons, and the price was quite unfavorable. This is the more negative as one would normally expect a better price when one organization brings many travelers to the table than when one single traveler orders for himself.

    **If the main reason for the trip was educational purposes, family and friends should be left at home. The educational part does not (or only considerably more weakly) apply to them, and their presence is likely to be a distraction for the main traveler. The real reason? Almost certainly that they wanted filled seats, irrespective of who filled them, and better profits.

  4. CCC*: This is an organization of a very different character, currently best known for a strong focus on political work/lobbying/education for consumer/citizens rights, but with no real member benefits. I originally became a member to give them some economic support when it came to fighting for protection against unethical governmental snooping, for more freedom of information, and similar.**

    *These experiences are the most recent and what moved me to write this post: Do not be mislead by the length of the discussion relative the older experiences.

    **Note that this is a very different situation from both ACM and VDI above: Political activities are not an ostensible purpose of ACM and they took place over the head of the members. VDI, meanwhile, engaged in activities that were not, or only coincidentally, in line with the members’ interests.

    Unfortunately, the CCC turned out to be such complete amateurs with regard to the membership that I not only find it better to not be a member, but also see myself doubting their credibility in other regards too. I am willing to make some allowances for idealism and volunteer work, but somewhere there has to be a limit, and if CCC is unable to stay clear of this limit, well, that does not send a positive signal. I note that CCC, according to the linked-to Wikipedia page, was founded in 1981 and has 9000 members—even a largely volunteer organization of that age and size simply has to have mastered the basics.

    For instance, I have repeatedly received highly unexpected emails that my account would be in arrears since six months back, despite never receiving a notification that any amount was due. No invoice, no statement of renewal, no nothing. Notably, CCC does not support the German standard of Lastschrift or any other payment form that allows the CCC to initiate payment on their own.* That it takes half an eternity to send a reminder is depressing in its own right. Either they, as a group of computers professionals and enthusiasts!, have failed to implement even the most basic of automatic invoice and dunning processes or they are negligent in terms of cash flow…

    *Which makes interaction with the CCC in this regard highly unusual by German standards. With the one major exception of rent payments, virtually all recurring, and many ad hoc, payments are initiated by the recipient, with the possibility of the payer canceling any unwarranted payment after the fact. Correspondingly, people do not expect to actively take steps to pay without receiving a bill. Of course, even when no active steps are required, a bill (or corresponding document) should be sent as a matter of course. Alas, the CCC sees this differently.

    For instance, the member magazine saw its last issue in 2014 (!), yet CCC still mentions the magazine as an advantage of being a member… This to the point that the in-arrears message claims as the one practical consequence “die Datenschleuder wird nicht mehr versandt” (“[magazine] will no longer be sent”). This as opposed to a membership not in arrears where the magazine is not sent either… Now, I do not give two hoots about the magazine*—but I am very concerned about the general attitude and the lack of professionalism displayed. If the CCC over the course of four years has been unable to even just hack together a yearly pro-forma edition of four pages, what does that tell us? If they give members misleading information, what does that tell us? For that matter, when things have taken such a turn, I would simply have officially discontinued the magazine and removed references to it from membership information (apart from the old-issues archive). That the CCC has failed to do so, is a further sign of lacking judgment.

    *But out of sheer annoyance required them to send one, even be it a back issue, for me to pay the outstanding amount.

    Now, if I had trust in their ability to do well in other areas, this might still be tolerable (my membership being intended as an act of support)—but I do not. There tends to be a strong correlation between incompetence in one area of an organization and incompetence in other areas.

    For those who still want to support the CCC: Do not become a member. Instead opt for a one-off donation. The money gets where it should go and you are free from future hassle.

  5. IEEE: I have repeatedly considered membership. Every time I have found myself in the conundrum that IEEE requires its members to adhere to a certain code, while not telling the prospective members what that code is…

A similar area is qualifications like Eur Ing: While the idea behind them is not a bad one, the benefits appear to be limited*, the costs and efforts high, and there is a significant risk that these are just a way for someone to get money from others with a low effort… I have deliberately chosen to stay clear of these for now.

*The main benefit, on paper, would be an added professional credibility and/or a few pre-/post-nominals. Unfortunately, since hardly anyone (in at least Germany) knows of these titles and organizations, this benefit will be small in practice. (However, I have the impression that the situation can be different elsewhere, where e.g. the U.K. has similar country-specific titles that are considerably better known and far older.) For that matter, Germans rarely use any post-nominals and usually only post-graduate academic pre-nominals to begin with.

Aside on renewals:
The almost exclusive form of renewal in Germany is the automatic: If the member/customer/whatnot does not give notification otherwise within a certain time-frame, renewal takes place. In other countries, explicit renewal can be more common, as with ACM above: The member/customer/whatnot is asked whether he wants to renew and if he does not actively do so, no renewal takes places. I find the latter to be much preferable to the former, for ethical reasons, for reasons of control, and (in mutual interest) for clarity of communication. To boot, situations like with CCC above could no longer occur. I would go as far as claiming that many German companies use this strategy in the deliberate hope of customers accidentally missing deadlines and thereby being caught in an unwanted relationship for one more year*, especially with an eye on this being the typical minimum renewal period: If this was not the purpose, why not allow a discontinuation with, say, two weeks notice at any given time?

*As opposed to more legitimate reasons, e.g. saving the costs for the additional communication.


Written by michaeleriksson

March 7, 2018 at 11:00 pm

Where did those millions go?

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The last ten days have been … interesting … work-wise, following a production release, and allowing some observations to be made and lessons to be drawn.

(Below, I am deliberately skimpy with contextual details to avoid a direct or indirect leak of internal information relating to my customer, as well as reducing the risk that someone identifies said customer.)

  1. The main event was several million (!) Euros more than intended being paid out to various parties, possibly including some misallocation of money between parties. Correcting this was fortunately possible, but it required a lot of additional efforts and caused face loss for my customer vis-a-vis its customers, the Development vis-a-vis the Payment department, and the both the Development and Payment departments vis-a-vis the executives.

    The reason for this was a single line of code* left in place, when it should have been removed, that caused the state of some records to not be updated appropriately, in turn causing them to be processed a handful of times each day (instead of one single time on one single day). How the hell did something like that get past not only the original changer (me), but also pass the code review and extensive tests by Quality Assurance? How did the resulting unexpected payment instruction not catch the attention of the (usually pedantic) Payment department until several days had gone by?

    *Specifically, a considerable part of the processing had been moved from using individual sets of database tables for data delivered from individual third parties to using one set of unified tables for all third parties. An SQL UPDATE that should just have altered all records given as input also checked whether a Foreign-Key field was filled—a check that might (cf. below) have once been necessary, but was now redundant. Worse, the test was now faulty, because the old tables had used “-1” to indicated the absence of the Foreign-Key while the new tables used a NULL-value. Since the check still used “-1”, no update took place.

    As is often the case, there has to be a confluence of a number of unfortunate circumstances. (Read up on the Chernobyl accident and note how many different screw-ups took place leading up to the event.)

    Here the problems include (but are likely not limited to):

    • My making the original change long before the filling of the unified tables was actually implemented (by someone else) and running my developer tests with correspondingly faulty data.
    • The left-in line of code looking very innocuous, possibly even like a safety measure, which would make it far easier to miss for the code reviewer, especially with no change being present compared to the original code: Very often, it is a good idea to write UPDATE statements in a manner that prevents unintentional changes by checking for an old value*. In this case it was not, because irrespective of the value at hand the records had been processed.

      *Consider writing a statement that corrects some incorrect data for a predefined set of records, and assume that, before the statement is actually executed, one of the entries is altered and processed further through some other mechanism or an intervention by someone else. The results can be quite problematic, and it is better to add a check that the records are still in the state they are assumed to be, e.g. in that a “SET a=[new value]” is accompanied by a “AND a = [old value]” in the WHERE clause.

    • The original code, pre-dating my change, was also almost* certainly faulty, because the check had the same dangers as in the previous item. The problem had simply never manifested, due to the Foreign-Key always having had the expected value until now. (Or had it? If the event was rare enough, it might have gone unnoticed…)

      *I do not have the code at hand, and there might conceivably have been some legitimate reason for its presence in the original; however, as I remember the corresponding statement, there was not—and even if there were, it was a sloppy solution to begin with.

    • The corresponding functionality was never tested by QA, limiting the tests to my previous developer tests (cf. above). Why was it not tested? Well, for the entirety of the test phase, this functionality ran into errors due to missing master data in a sub-system, preventing this specific line from even being reached for the test set chosen by QA*. The developer who would normally have been responsible for amending the data was on a month-long leave, and his replacement was his predecessor—who had moved on to project management and was swamped with the administrative parts of the same project. Despite several reminders over weeks, the data never were amended (and QA had their hands full testing other parts).

      The day before the end of the tests, I explicitly asked QA to do at least an approximate test by removing the sub-system from the equation** so that we had at least the equivalent of a smoke test (which would have been enough to discover this particular error). But here is the real kicker: As I come in the next day, QA tells me that the project manager (the very same as above!) had told them to not perform this test…

      *Inputs copied from the production system, intended to ensure that the test was as realistic as possible. Unfortunately, this often requires amending the master data in the QA systems, for which there is currently no way short of manually finding and copying the right set of entries. (I am not an enthusiastic supporter of this approach, but it is not my decision.)

      **Specifically, that we were to temporarily replace the interface to the sub-system with a dummy that delivered some approximation of the data for a very limited set of inputs.

      As an aside, my main contribution to this debacle was not that I made the original mistake—things like that happen every now-and-then and is the reason why code reviews and QA tests are needed. No, my main error was in not insisting that a test took place.

      Unfortunately, this is not the first time that an explainable, harmless error (here the missing master data) has lead to QA not discovering another, actually harmful error that was “hidden” by the first error.

    • Due to previous delays and the urgency of the deadlines, there were several complications, including the impossibility to extend the QA phase and the fact that the decision was made to go live even with a QA report clearly stating that there were untested areas (including the above) and that this was a high risk endeavor.
    • Production releases are theoretically only made after the informed approval of at least one of the two main executives, who are responsible for a final risk–benefit decision and whatnot. In practice, they rubberstamp all or almost all requests at a speed that forbids an informed decision.
    • The head of Payments had spotted a (still small) discrepancy on the very first day after the installation—but was so swamped that he, by his own statement, postponed the investigation.

    As an aside: I am a great fan of automatic and repeatable tests of various kinds. It is possibly that such would have helped finding the error. However, they are basically not a topic for this very non-agile customer, there is almost no infrastructure for them (apart from what little I have written myself), and even I rarely actually have the time with the hectic schedules that abound. This is the one thing from the Java world that I miss…

  2. In a further complication in the same rough area (and hit by the same instance of not-tested-by-QA) it turns out that some amounts had the wrong sign from the perspective of the next system in the chain of processing.

    An older piece of code (that we knew was faulty) calculated amount A from the absolute value of amount B and the sign of amount C—something that possibly might have been reasonable when the system was originally written, processing a more limited range of business cases from another source, but was now heavily outdated. After investigations and long discussions (including with the domain expert from and co-head of Product Management) the decision was made to ignore amount C and to use the negated sign of amount B instead. This made for a consistent and plausible calculation and preserved compatibility with the old results in the vast majority of cases—after all, if the old results had not been correct most of the time, the problem would have been fixed much earlier.

    Alas, no: The calculated values were only used in a minority of all cases—and this minority required the (unnegated) sign of amount B. The other cases had almost all been the exact opposite of what they should be for many years—but since the values were not actually used, no-one had ever noticed.

  3. Generally, it is often very small details that cause problems in software development, probably because they are so easy for both developer and code-reviewer to overlook. Above we have one example with a single line too much and another with a single character (a “-”) too much. A few weeks earlier, a colleague had in three cases used one of two different functions that only differed in that the name of the one contained an “n” (for n-umber or n-umerical) and the other an “a” (for a-scii, i.e. text) and that the one assumed that leading zeroes should be removed from input. One of the three cases correctly used the n-version, the second correctly used the a-version, the third accidentally the a-version when it should have used the n-version. Again: One single character—with very incorrect calculations as a result.
  4. The quite extensive changes made with this production release caused several prior errors that had gone undiscovered, typically for years, to manifest due to harder checking and less leniency.* This included, albeit mostly shortly before the release, the discovery that a third party had incorrectly passed us certain data in a pre-anonymized form that we needed in its original version, anonymization taking place in our system.** The effect was that several things that we needed to calculate based on this data were occasionally miscalculated, including some cash-flow dates.

    *Being lenient with e.g. input from other computer systems (as opposed, possibly, to “from human users”) is usually a big mistake. It is better to “fail fast” so that the problems with the input can actually be fixed, and do not remain hidden and potentially harmful for years.

    **Specifically, a string of characters that needed to be compared to configured ranges of characters to identify certain characteristics. A part of this string was overwritten with zeroes in a blanket manner, implying that the comparison often picked the wrong range or, more rarely, did not find any range at all. The latter case was sufficiently rare that we had hither-to assumed that it was a case of either the third party rarely receiving incorrect input, it self, or slight discrepancies in the range definitions used by various parties. (The ranges all coming from yet another third party on a regular basis, allowing for the possibility of small, temporary differences in definitions among different parties, depending on exactly when the definitions were received and imported.) The value it self, as opposed to the results of the calculation, had not caused any alarm for the simple reason that we normally never see these values: They are used for the calculations and then immediately anonymized, and, because we use the same anonymization algorithm as the third party, it is later impossible to tell that the data had been pre-anonymized.

  5. A strictly speaking undramatic and, in it self, unimportant issue was a temporary performance drop after the installation. This was easily resolved on the same day, but contributed (as did the interruption of services needed for the original installation) to Payment having its schedule delayed by several hours and indirectly to Payment not acting on the discrepancy they found (cf. above). The main hitch here is lack of communication: Payment had, as became obvious, no idea of the scope* of the changes going live that day, and were left unprepared for delays that were entirely within the expected from a Development point of view. Had they been sufficiently made aware that this was not just another run-of-the-mill release, things would have gone smother, the interdepartmental irritation would have been considerably smaller—and we might have discovered the main problem on the first day.

    *A very major project following the outdated “Waterfall” model that required correspondingly very major changes to the code. There is something to be said for the short release cycles of e.g. Scrum…

Written by michaeleriksson

March 4, 2018 at 1:37 am

A few thoughts on and around the Back to the Future movies

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I am currently re-watching the “Back to the Future” movies. A few observations:

  1. 2015, the part of the future actually shown in the movies, is come and gone in real life—and looked nothing like the fictional depiction. 1985 was closer to the real-life 2015 than the fictional 2015 was, and the same might* even, conceivably, apply to 1955.

    *1955 definitely feels more familiar, even though I was born twenty years later; however, this is possibly explained by my exposure to other fiction set in a similar time, or through deviations between the real and fictional 1955s.

    This is paralleled by other sci-fi works, in that they are often quite bad at guessing what the future will bring, often simply taking the trends and technology of the author’s now and extrapolating them optimistically (or pessimistically…) into some point of the future.* These trends, however, will usually diminish, cease, or even revert over time, depending on the type of trend**. At the same time, this method will not be a good means to discover e.g. new technologies. For instance, the average sci-fi author (or citizen, in general) of the 1960s might be horribly disappointed by the current state of space travel—but equally positively surprised by the Internet. To boot, there can be obstacles of a more practical, legal, societal, whatnot, nature that are not taken into account. Consider e.g. the flying cars of pseudo-2015: Making a flying car was technologically (but not necessarily economically) feasible even in 1985, but consider the ramifications on traffic accidents, the new opportunities for criminals and terrorists, or the problems with keeping the noise down to a tolerable level. Even if we had affordable flying cars ready to roll out of the factory tomorrow, there would be years before regulations, infrastructure, and whatnot, caught up.

    *This should not necessarily be seen as a criticism: In some cases this could be the result of naivete or laziness; in others it might be a mere lack of clairvoyance or a deliberate attempt to critique the contemporary society. In the specific case of the “Back to the Future” franchise, the choices made were likely strongly motivated by humor and the wish to create a future that was easy for a movie-goer from 1985 to relate to.

    **For instance, microchips have continued to grow smaller while the stereotypical 1980s’ fashion is long gone.

    Another complication is obviously that some things naturally change slowly, as exemplified by the clock tower that was present in 1955, 1985, and 2015—and actually saw its beginnings in 1885: Buildings are occasionally replaced en masse, but more often they experience a gradual change that often even puts buildings from different centuries next to each other. The furniture of a home is usually bought at some point, and then only changes a little here-and-there over a few decades—and usually includes inherited objects of even greater age. The hair-style of many people in their eighties often come close to what it was in their twenties, leaving a wide mixture in overall society. Most people do not drive “this year’s” car model, usually keeping their old car for as long as it is feasible. Etc.

  2. Time truly does fly—even if the cars still do not. I actually had planned to write something on this topic in 2015, but never got around to it because time flew too fast… A more timely and possibly even more interesting example from my personal point of view is “Grease”: This movie plays in 1958, was released in 1978, was first seen by me in 1998 (a twentieth anniversary re-release), and now we have 2018… 1998 does not quite feel like yesterday, but if twenty years go past this fast, twentieth anniversaries are hardly worth the trouble. In contrast, in 1998, I still thought of 1978 as half-an-eternity back, seeing that it was way back when I was still three years old. (More generally, the older I have become, the shorter time intervals have appeared, something which well matches what I have heard from people who actually are old—not just older.)
  3. “Back to the Future” commits the possibly most common and largest single error in time-travel fiction: It assumes that when the time line changes, the people remain* the same while society, their respective position in society, whatnot changes. Of course, the people already born at the point when the time-line changes will remain in existence**, but very soon after the change, there will be virtually no overlap between the people born in the two time-lines: For a certain person to be born, it is not enough that the same two parents land in bed, we have to see basically that one single sperm fertilizing that one single egg. Even the most minuscule of changes will cause that to not happen. (Also cf. parts of some previous discussions.)

    *The treatment within the franchise could be seen as inconsistent, with the events of the first movie erasing people, and the events of the second and third leaving them in place. The hitch is that the first movie deals primarily with the specific event of Marty’s parents becoming or not becoming an item, which gives the difference a certain pseudo-justification. Unfortunately, it would not work that way in real life.

    **But will, obviously, experience a diverging set of events afterwards, potentially including a considerably earlier death, as was the case with Marty’s father in the second movie. An interesting play on this can found in the very promising TV series “Counterpart”, which depicts two alternate realities with a “Check-Point Charlie”-style crossing (and which is obviously strongly inspired by the old divided Berlin and the Cold War).

  4. The whole siblings-fading-from-a-photo thing is of course ridiculous, even if we assume that time travel is possible. By any reasonable rule-set* for time travel, it would be a binary either–or deal: Either the siblings are there or they are not. To boot, the same mechanism that would cause a sibling to fade from a photo would also cause a fade from memory under any reasonable rule-set. Marty would not be in the position to panic over the fate of his siblings for the simple reason that either he would not himself remember them or they would not disappear from the photo. For that matter, if the photo is altered then Marty would be altered too at the same time. Of course, since the eventual alteration is his own erasure, he would not worry about the photo irrespective of his memories—he would not only not remember, he would have ceased to exist. (As would the photo as a whole, not just the contents.)

    *By which I mean something that is logically consistent and at least somewhat plausible in other regards. A problem is, obviously, that we do not know what the real rules of time travel are. Also see an excursion at the end.

Excursion on time travel and paradox:
In my personal estimate, the three most likely resolutions to time travel and typical paradoxes are:

  1. Time travel is simply not possible and such paradoxes can, therefore, not arise.
  2. (The change in) causality would not take effect instantaneously along the time-line, instead traveling at the speed of 1 s/s (likely with some modifications for movements in space in accordance with the Lorentz transformations), preventing paradoxes through this delay. For instance, if someone goes back in time from 2018 to 1918 and kills his own grand-father, he will only be removed from 1918 after causality has reached the point of 2018 when he went back in time, leading to his grand-father being dead or surviving depending on where causality is. Eventually the grand-father is alive again, causing the grand-son to be born and allowing him to go back in time again, after which the grand-father is killed, and so on.

    This can to some degree be compared to a river where a small rivulet goes back from the main flow of the river at point A and re-enters the river at an earlier point B if the water level at point A is high enough, but where an the arrival of more water at point B causes the (possibly manual) diversion of even more water at an intervening point, implying that the water level at point A drops too low for water to flow back to point B, implying that the diversion ceases, etc. (A better example would use a river that actually changes course; however, I cannot come up with an immediate example that would not require twice the text to describe, and the preceding explanation is likely complicated enough.)

  3. The appearance of a time traveler in the past will still happen, even if his actions would have apparently prevented him from going back in time. This event simply stays happened and the apparent paradox is resolved by considering* the sum of the two time lines, one (using the example above) ending in 2018, one beginning in 1918, and their 100 years of overlap (but probably not simultaneous existence).

    *Theoretically: More practically speaking, this might be impossible to actually achieve, because of insufficient knowledge of the overlap. Possibly, the new timeline will just see a so-unlikely-as-to-be-virtual-impossible physical coincidence creating the time-traveler out of thin air.

    This can be compared to the same river with the alteration that the diversion does not cease again, when water levels drop.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 25, 2018 at 10:14 pm

German taxes and Elster IV: Elster offline

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And yet more problems with Elster and the VAT*: As I tried to call up the corresponding web page for January’s VAT declaration, I was met with a browser error indicating that the site could not be found. A few hours** later—same thing. A few days*** later—same thing. Today—same thing. I now tried pinging the server—no response. I tried a web search to find out what was wrong—and, to my great surprise, found a functioning page.

*Cf. a previous post on a late fee and another discussing the original VAT issue. On a positive note, my complaint against the late fee was approved; on a negative, I strongly suspect that I will receive another late fee over the events of this post…

**Even a well-managed site can on occasion be temporarily unavailable. Elster is not well managed…

***With the exceptional incompetence displayed by the “IRS” so far, I would not have been the least surprised, if they were unable to bring their servers back up within an even semi-reasonable time frame, had deliberately shut them down for maintenance and failed to provide a temporary explanatory page, or similar.

Apparently, the original official site of elsteronline.de, bookmarked by me, was gone, now replaced by elster.de. The switch alone is questionable, seeing that it can lead to exactly this type of problem—however, that no corresponding message was left for even a transitional phase, that is inexcusable. (I note that, from my browser history, such a transitional phase must have been present, since previous requests appear to have been silently redirected—exactly the thing not to do.)

Elster online, my ass! Elster offline!

Written by michaeleriksson

February 18, 2018 at 8:41 pm

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Follow-up II: The German 2017 election

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In October 2017 I wrote:

We are now two weeks past the last German parliament election, and there is still no certainty about who will rule with whom—however, there is a fair chance that we will be rid of the conservative CDU/CSU and social-democrat SPD coalition.

The current situation is depressing in (at least) two regards:

Firstly, even now, close to five months after the election, the issue has not yet been entirely settled, a renewal of the CDU/CSU and SPD coalition only now being finalized. At this tempo, it would have been faster to hold a re-election and settle the issue properly. Certainly, a re-election would have been a better solution for other reasons (cf. below).

Secondly, the result, this renewal, is the worst case scenario. (Among those with a realistic chance of occurring.) The only positive thing that might come of it is a further weakening of SPD. (Cf. my original post.) Sadly, this situation is partially the consequence of a more natural coalition partner doing the right thing—unlike SPD.

As I have written before, this type of coalition poses a major threat to democracy, grossly violating the trust given to these parties by their voters, and even eliminating the relevance of the voters’ will from the process: Any vote not given to CDU/CSU or SPD is effectively wasted—and any that was given to them only marginally affects who is the stronger party within the government that would have been anyway. At the same time, politicians often complain that too few people vote, sometimes even in an accusatory manner*. Why should people bother voting when their votes have so little effect? When they know that the politicians merely see them as a means to end or, worse, as a mere nuisance? To boot, such extremely long negotiations prior to forming an alliance ignores the will of the voters for an unconscionable amount of time, during which the old government, based on an election long past, continues to rule**.

*Along the lines of the non-voters not doing their civic duty.

**In this specific case, the harm is small, seeing that one constellation of an unholy alliance is replaced by another constellation of the same unholy alliance; however, this would not generally be the case.

Unfortunately, this problem of a Democracy Lost is not in anyway unique to Germany—it is a global phenomenon. It is, however, more tragic in Germany, where the awareness of the dangers rightfully should be larger than elsewhere, seeing both how the Nazi used and abused a democratic process to gain power and how a quarter of the country was stuck in a totalitarian pseudo-democracy for most of the post-war period.

As an excursion, while the current situation proves that the German election system is flawed, it does not necessarily prove the superiority of e.g. the U.S. (republic) or U.K. (parliamentary, first-past-the-pole) systems over an (almost) plain representational parliamentary system. The latter is used with considerably less problems (to-date, knock-on-wood) in e.g. Sweden, due to a small-but-crucial difference: The German system is geared at having a majority government; the Swedish at a plurality government—in rare cases even a (non-plurality) minority. Governing without a parliamentary majority does weaken the rulers, but it has so far worked well (in those case where no majority was reached). Furthermore, a plurality government is more democratic than a forced, unnatural majority of the type currently ruling Germany—it can even be argued that it does better than a majority government, since smaller parties are given more sway and a chance to influence at least some issues through actual voting (as opposed to debating and working on committees). I might even go as far as saying that a weaker government is often a positive in its own right, keeping the politicians (less dis-)honest and preventing too much damage to be caused by those incompetent or too driven by ideological agendas. An exception occurs, obviously, in times of great crises, notably wars, where a strong government can be imperative—but there is no such crisis. (For that matter, a government that does not yet exist, due to lengthy negotiations, is even weaker than a weak government that does exist…)

Written by michaeleriksson

February 13, 2018 at 12:27 am

Interesting sports events

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There have been a few recent sports events that have been more interesting to me outside of sports than within:

Firstly, the European Championships in handball: During the time when I was the most interested in sports (late teens or so), Sweden was one of the world’s leading handball nations, often dueling it out with Russia. These days are long gone, and the world has changed sufficiently that Sweden’s smaller neighbor Denmark, an absolute nobody back then, is the reigning Olympic champion—something that teenage me would likely have considered an absurdity, even an insult, seeing that Sweden has racked up four silver medals without ever reaching the gold.

In the first game of the European Championships came the ultimate blow: A humiliating loss against dwarf country Iceland… I wrote off the rest of the Championship, reflecting on how sadly similar things had happened in tennis and table tennis, and noting how well this matched some of my thoughts on how short-lived traditions actually often are and how the world can change from what we know in our formative days. (Cf. my Christmas post.)

Today, Sweden played in the final of the same Championships against Spain, even having a half-time lead and an apparent good chance at victory. (Before, regrettably, losing badly in the second half. Still, a silver is far beyond what seemed possible after the Iceland game and a very positive sign for the future.) The road there was very odd, including the paradox of an extremely narrow semi-final win over Denmark, the aforementioned Olympic Champions, and another embarrassing and unnecessary loss against a smaller neighbor in Norway. Funny thing, sports.

Secondly, the immensity of Roger Federer’s 20th Grand-Slam title. A year ago, he and Nadal met up in the final of the Australian Open for what seemed like their last big hurrah—one of them was going to get a last title before age or injuries ended their competitive careers. Since Federer’s narrow win, we have seen another four Grand-Slam tournaments—with the winners Nadal, Federer, Nadal, and (with this year’s Australian Open) Federer. Indeed, where a year ago I was thrilled over the (presumed) last win, I was now slightly annoyed that Federer narrowly* missed going through the tournament without a loss of set. This is a very good illustration of how humans tend never to be satisfied, to ever want more or better**, and of how our baseline for comparisons can change.

*He entered the final without a lost set, won sets one and three, and only missed the second in a tie break. One or two points more and he would have had it. Such a result is extremely rare. (The oddity of 2017 notwithstanding, where it actually happened twice, making the year the more remarkable: Nadal in the French Open and Federer a few weeks later in Wimbledon.)

**Whether this is a good or bad thing will depend on the circumstances and on whether this tendency leaves us unhappy or not. At any rate, humanity would hardly have gotten to where it is without this drive.

An interesting lesson is the importance of adapting to new circumstances: Apparently, Federer has spent considerable time modifying his approach* to tennis in order to remain reasonably healthy and competitive even at his ancient-by-tennis-standards age of 36. Those who stand still fall behind (generally) and we all do well to adapt to counter aging (specifically).

*In a number of areas including style of play, racket size, and yearly schedule.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 28, 2018 at 11:15 pm

Stay away from Clevvermail

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For my business activities, I have tried a few service companies that seemed to offer something that would make my life easier. Mostly, they have not—and in one case, I had a considerable amount of extra effort for absolutely nothing in return. I refer to the mail-service company, or quite possibly scam*, Clevvermail:

*To tell the difference between extreme incompetence and evil intentions can be quite hard, but with the most recent events I do tend towards “scam”. Interestingly, the name is quite apt: While the intention of the “clevver” part is probably to invoke associations of the English “clever”, a word occasionally used in Germany too, especially in advertising, my first association was with Klaas Klever—the German name for that utterly amoral and ruthless, yet often incompetent, business duck John D. Rockerduck. Note the repeated letter doubles (“K”/“K”, “l”/“l”, and “aa”) for Klaas Klever and the deliberate doubling of “v” in Clevvermail. To boot, “Klever” likely originated as a similarly deliberate misspelling of “clever”.

Clevvermail at least claims to offer postal addresses in various cities of the world, including in Germany, with the option to forward the mail to another address—something that would have been perfect for me, with long stays in other cities than my official home, often at varying addresses in these cities: I give out my Clevvermail address to others and still receive the mail wherever I happen to be.

I optimistically opened an account—and have had nothing but costs, waste of time, and annoyances to show for it. The problems ended up being so large that I had only given out the address to several other parties and, to my recollection, not received one single piece of mail at the time I terminated the account again. With the sheer amount of problems, my memory is not good enough to give all details, but an incomplete and/or approximate list includes:

  1. An arbitrary rejection of my credit card in combination with 3D-Secure—and a refusal to even attempt to authorize the same credit card manually. To boot, this refusal was rooted in the claim that “da wir hier schlechte Erfahrung mit der Zahlungsmoral unserer internationalen Kunden gemacht habe” (“because we have had poor experiences with the willingness to pay [literally, “payment moral”] of our international customers”, which borders on an absurdity in light of Clevvermail’s own behavior, lack of morals, and invoicing practices. To boot, I was not an international customer…

    Unfortunately, no other reasonable* means of payment was available, short of money transfer, forcing me to pay each bill manually… (Something which will be highly relevant below.)

    *Notably, the German standard of “Lastschrift” was not supported.

  2. The need to register using a copy of my passport, which is strictly speaking an illegal requirement. Clevvermail’s comment: Die Gesetzgebung hat sich da in Deutschland noch nicht ganz den neuen Möglichkeiten des globalen digitalen Wirtschaftens angepasst. (Roughly, “German legislation has not quite caught up with the opportunities of the global digital economy”—or: We know that it is illegal, but we do not agree with the law and do what suits us best regardless of it.)
  3. A user interface that was cumbersome and regularly malfunctioning.
  4. Highly incompetent and uncooperative service staff, who on repeated occasions ignored my actual questions and/or gave “smart ass” answers that told me what I already knew.
  5. The (illegal) sending of non-solicited advertising emails, including for services that are extremely unlikely to be of interest to the average customer. Why should I want a postal address in Moscow* just because I have one in Germany? Barring other scam companies, there is no real reason for anyone to react positively to such an offer: Either someone already is moving in on Russia or he is not. If he is, he will make corresponding inquiries; if he is not, his plans will not change—and “not” is what will apply to the vast majority of the customers.

    *I cannot guarantee that Moscow was one of the specific cities involved in these advertising emails, but the principle of the example stands with any foreign city.

  6. The failure to send me my bills in a timely manner, or at all—something the more absurd with a company that deals with mail services. Indeed, I repeatedly received threats about account suspension due to unpaid bills before receiving the bills. In the end, my account was outright suspended, with no prior notice, without my having received a bill for the amount due… After Clevvermail refused to remedy this, I finally had enough and terminated my account, effective immediately.

It does not end there, however: This Saturday, more than a year after the termination, I received two spammy looking messages that I only ever opened because they used a specific email address*, that made vague claims about debt collection—and did so in English**. After I contacted Clevvermail, as the sole party I had given this address to, they now claimed (again, in English) that I would own them close to fifty Euro, for a period extending months beyond my termination… To boot, they now claimed that they were never able to close my account, “[s]ince only users can delete their accounts”***—however, according to prior communications, I would only be able to close my account per the web interface once the open bill (at the time I terminated the account) had been paid… Kafkaesque, amoral, and certainly not something a German court will accept.

*I usually give out individual email addresses to individual businesses, implying that I a) can block that one single address (e.g. due to spam) without affecting my other correspondences, b) know who is to blame for any abuse (e.g. through handing said address to a spammer).

**Note that this is a German company, that I live in Germany, that prior correspondence had been in German, … Of course, most Germans are quite poor at English, implying that most of the people receiving such communications would be at a severe disadvantage in terms of replying to, possibly even in terms of understanding, the communications.

***A claim which is almost certainly false: Any even semi-reasonable administration interface would give the appropriate administrators such abilities—and in a pinch there is always the opportunity of direct access to e.g. a database system. (I have spent twenty years in the software field and I have yet to see a system which runs without occasional such interventions.) To boot, even if there were no such technical ability, this simply is not my problem.

I can only unambiguously and emphatically tell you to stay well clear of this rotten-to-the-core “service” provider. For my part, I will presently contact both the police and the corresponding regulatory authority. (Poor customer service is not a crime, but the current fraud is—and so is at least the way the passport situation was handled.)

As an aside, it can safely be assumed that much of Clevvermail’s business is aimed at other parties of dubious morality or legality, including businesses trying to creating the incorrect impression of a local or international presence, front and shell companies, and various people seeking greater anonymity for illegal purposes. (As well as many with perfectly legal reasons and motives, like yours truly.)

Written by michaeleriksson

January 24, 2018 at 1:19 am

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