Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Conflicting own beliefs and what to do about them

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In the set of beliefs* held by anyone, there will be occasional real or imagined conflicts (consider also e.g. the concepts of “cognitive dissonance” and “doublethink”). People differ mainly in (a) the degree that they are aware of and (b) how they handle these conflicts. Unfortunately, most people are unaware of most or all conflicts that arise, make no attempts at detecting them, and are prone to just explain away the conflicts that are known—even descending to outright doublethink.** A particular issue with awareness is that a too faulty or incomplete understanding can make such conflicts go undetected.***

*I use “belief” as a catch-all that, depending on context, could include any or almost any belief, idea, opinion, whatnot that implies or would imply something about something else. This includes e.g. “cucumbers are green”, “cucumbers are blue”, “God does [not] exist”, and “I [do not] like chocolate”.

**This includes such absurdities as simultaneously professing to believe in Evolution and Gender-Feminism. Indeed, a great deal of my annoyance with politics/ideology (in general) and Feminism/Leftism/PC-ism (in particular) results from the adherents ever recurring faults in similar directions.

***Consider again Evolution vs. Gender-Feminism: It is, for instance, highly unlikely that evolutionary processes would generate physical differences while keeping mental abilities identical—but exactly that is seen as a given by most Gender-Feminists (and a significant portion of the PC crowd, in general). Similarly, it is highly unlikely that the different roles of men and women in most societies over thousands of generations would have left no trace in form of e.g. natural inclinations. A Creationist–Feminist match-up would be less prone to contradictions.

In many cases, these conflicts are sufficiently trivial that they may be neglected.* For instance, that someone has two favorite dishes, music bands, movie stars, …, rarely has major impact on important decisions.** When it comes to topics that can have a greater impact, especially on others, care should be taken, however. Consider e.g. questions like how to vote in an election, what recommendations to make to others, what agendas to push, …—here it is important to have a sufficiently sound view of the topic; and if beliefs conflict, the view is unlikely to be sufficiently sound.

*A resolution can still bring benefit, e.g. through better self-knowledge, and I would not advice against the attempt.

**However, the resolution is often fairly simple, e.g. that none of two is the favorite and that the word “favorite” is best avoided; or that an opinion has changed over time, while still being professed out of habit.

Giving blanket rules for detection is tricky, but actually reading up* on a topic, gaining an own understanding (as opposed to parroting someone else’s), and deliberately trying to see the “bigger picture” and making comparisons between different fields and ideas, can all be helpful. Above all, perhaps, it is helpful to actually think through consequences and predictions that can be made based on various beliefs, and looking at how they stack up against both each other and against observations of reality. In my personal experience, writing about a topic can be an immense help (and this is one of the reasons why I write): Writing tends to lead to a deeper thought, a greater chance of recollection in other contexts, and a thought-process that continues intermittently long after a text has been completed.

*Note especially that information given in news papers, in school, or by politicians tends to be too superficial or even outright faulty. Wikipedia was once a good source, but has deteriorated over the years (at least where many topics are concerned). The “talk” pages can often contain a sufficient multitude of view-points, however.

If a conflict has been detected, it should be investigated with a critical eye in order to find a resolution. Here there are at least* five somewhat overlapping alternatives to consider: (a) One or both beliefs are wrong and should be rejected or modified. (b) Both beliefs have at least some justification and they should be reconciled, possibly with modifications; e.g. because they cover different special cases. (c) The conflict is only apparent, e.g. through a failure to discriminate. (d) One or both beliefs are not truly held and the non-belief should be brought to consciousness; e.g. because profession is made more out of habit than conviction. (e) The support of both** beliefs is approximate or tentative (awaiting further evidence), and (at a minimum) this condition should be kept in mind, with revisions according to the preceding items often being necessary.*** Note that the above need not result in rejection of one belief—it can equally be a matter of modification or refinement (and it can also happen to both beliefs). This is one reason why investigation is so beneficial—it helps to improve one’s own mind, world-view, whatnot.

*A deeper effort might reveal quite a few more alternatives. I write mostly off the top of my head at the moment.

**Here it has to be both: If one belief is taken as true and only one as approximate, then it would follow that the approximate one is outright faulty (at least as far as the points of conflict are concerned), which moves us to the “One” case of (a).

***For instance, if two physical theories are not perfectly compatible, the realization that physical theories are only approximations-for-the-now (eventually to be replaced by something better) gives room for an “approximate belief” in either or both theories. As long as work proceeds with an eye at the used assumptions, with the knowledge that the results might not be definite, and while being very careful in areas of known conflict or with poor experimental verification, this is not a major issue. Indeed, such “approximate belief” is par for the course in the sciences. In contrast, if someone was convinced that both were indisputably true, this would be highly problematic.

Again, giving blanket rules is tricky, especially with the very wide variety of fields/beliefs potentially involved and with the variety of the above cures. However, actually thinking and, should it be needed, gathering more information can be very productive. Having a good ability to discriminate is helpful in general; and with (b) and (c) it can be particularly beneficial to look at differences, e.g. if there is some aspect of a case where one belief is assumed to apply that is not present in a case where the other belief is assumed to apply. With (d), it is usually mostly a matter of introspection. (In addition, the advice for detecting conflicts applies to some parts here and vice versa. Often, the two will even be implicit, hard-to-separate, parts of a single process.)

For a specific, somewhat complex example, consider questions around what makes a good or poor book, movie, whatnot—especially, the property of being hackneyed: On the one hand, my discussions of various works have often contained a complaint that this-or-that is hackneyed. On the other, it is quite common for works that I enjoy and think highly of (at least on the entertainment level*) to contain elements of the hackneyed—or even be formulaic. Moreover, I rarely have the feel that this enjoyment is despite of something being hackneyed—this weakness, in it self, does not appear to disturb me that strongly.

*Different works serve different purposes and should be measured with an eye on the purpose. When I watch a sit-com, depth of character is far less important than how often and how hard I laugh; the romance in an action movie is a mere bonus (or even a negative, if there is too much); vice versa, an action scene in a rom-com is mere bonus; plot rarely makes sense in non-fiction; etc. For more “serious” works, more serious criteria and higher literary standards apply.

Is my explicit complaint compatible with my implicit acceptance? To some degree, yes; to some degree, no.

On the “no” side: I suspect, after introspection, that I do or do not find a certain work enjoyable, thought-worthy, whatnot, based on criteria that are not explicitly known to me.* If I find enjoyment (etc.), I am less likely to look for faults; if I do not, I am more likely to look for faults—but there is no guarantee that my original impression was actually caused by the faults now found. Some will almost certainly have been involved; others need not have been; and there might have been other faults involved that I never grew explicitly aware of.

*There are many aspects of different works that can individually have a large impact, and the end-impression is some form of aggregation over these aspects. For instance, consider the impact of music on movies like “Star Wars” and “Vertigo” or on TV series like “Twin Peaks”—change the music, and the work is lessened. Notably, the viewer is rarely strongly aware of the impact of the music (even be it hard to miss in the aforementioned cases).

On the “yes” side there are at least three things to consider: Firstly, a work can be hackneyed and have sufficient other strengths to outweigh this. Poor works are rarely poor due to one failure—they are poor because they fail on numerous criteria, e.g. (for a movie) being hackneyed and having a poor cast, wooden dialogue, unimpressive music, … Being hackneyed is, alone, not a knock-out criterion—being original is an opportunity to gain points that a hackneyed work simply has not taken. Secondly, different criteria can apply to different works,* and being hackneyed is not necessarily an obstacle for the one work, even though it is for another. Thirdly, if something is known to work well, it can be worth using even if it is hackneyed—“boy meets girl” has been done over and over and over again, but it still works. (See also an excursion below.)

*Partly, as in a previous footnote; partly, with an eye on the expected level of accomplishment. For instance, my very positive discussion of Black Beauty must be seen as referring to a children’s book—had I found the exact same contents in a work with the reputation and target group of e.g. James Joyce’s “Ulysses” (which I have yet to read), I would have been less enthusiastic.

All in all, I do not see a problem with this conflict in principle; however, I do suspect that I would benefit from (and be fairer in detail* by) looking closer at what actually created my impression and less closely on criteria like “original vs. hackneyed”. The latter might well amount to fault finding or rationalization. To boot, I should pay more attention to whether specifically something being hackneyed has a negative effect on me (beyond the mere failure to have a positive effect through originality).

*I doubt that my overall assessment would change very much; however, my understanding and explanation of why I disliked something would be closer to the truth. Of course, it might turn out that being hackneyed was a part of the explanation in a given case; however, then I can give that criticism with a better conscience…

Excursion on expectations:
In a somewhat similar situation, I have sometimes complained about a work having set a certain expectation and then changed course. That is an example of another issue, namely the need to discriminate*. There are setups and course changes that are good, in that they reduce the predictability, increase the excitement, whatnot. This includes well-made “plot twists”. There are, however, other types of expectations and course changes that are highly unfortunate—including those that make the reader (viewer, whatnot) set his mind on a certain genre or a certain general development. A course change here is likely to detract from the experience, because different genres are enjoyed in different manners, and because there is often an element of disappointment** involved. Depending on the change, there can also be a delay and reorientation needed that lessens concentration and enjoyment further. Another negative type of changes is (almost always) those that try to rejuvenate a TV series or franchise by sacrificing what once made the series worth watching, by “jumping the shark”, and similar.

*Yes, discrimination is also a sub-topic above; however, here we have a too blatant case to be truly overlapping: There is no need for me to re-investigate my own beliefs—only to clarify them towards others. (Except in as far as I might have suffered from a similar fault-finding attitude as discussed above, but that attitude is just an independent-of-the-topic aspect of an example.)

**Note that this holds true, even when the expected and the delivered are more-or-less equivalent in net value. (However, when there is a significant improvement, the situation might be different: I recall watching “Grease” for the first time, with only a very vague idea of the contents; seeing the first scene; and fearing that I was caught in the most sugary, teenage-girls-only, over-the-top romance known to man—the rest was a relief.)

Excursion on “boy meets girl”:
An additional, but off-topic, complication when considering the hackneyed, is that there comes a point of repeated use when the hackneyed does not necessarily register as hackneyed and/or is so central to a genre that it is hard to avoid. Consider the typical “boy meets girl” theme. This, in it self, is so common and so basic to movie romance that it rarely registers as hackneyed. In contrast, the rarer “childhood friends fall in love” does*. With “boy meets girl”, the question is less whether the theme lacks originality and more whether the implementation is done with sufficient quality** and whether the details are also lacking in originality (is there, e.g., yet another desperate chase to and through an airport at the end?).

*At least to me, which also shows that there can be a large element of subjectiveness involved.

**Oscar Wilde defended against accusations of plagiarism by pointing to the difference between adding and removing a petal when growing tulips: To repeat in a better manner what someone else has already done, is not necessarily a fault.

Excursion on good fiction:
More generally, I am coming to the conclusion that fiction (and art, music, whatnot) either works or does not work—and if the end result works, an author (movie maker, whatnot) can get away with more-or-less anything along the road. This includes the hackneyed, poor prose, absurd scenes, artistic liberties with science, a disregard for convention and expectation, the tasteless, … (But the question of “because or despite?” can be valuable, especially with an eye at a different reactions among different readers.) The proof of the pudding is in the eating—not in the recipe.

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Written by michaeleriksson

November 17, 2018 at 2:53 am

Adults say the darnedest things

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I just re-encountered the fiction (and real-life) cliche of the child–adult exchange “He started it!”–“That is no excuse!”. This is a good example of adults telling children things that simply do not make sense,* and that are likely to leave the children unconvinced: “He started it!” is not just an excuse—it is a perfectly legitimate reason. There might be situations where it can be pragmatically better to turn the other cheek, try to deescalate, find a more constructive solution than retaliation, whatnot; however, that has no impact on the ethics of the issue and expecting a child to understand such matters is highly optimistic.** Furthermore, there are many cases where retaliation in kind is the best solution, especially when boundary pushers and bullies are concerned (which will very often be the case with children): Both being exposed to consequences for inappropriate behavior and having to take a dose of one’s own medicine can have a great positive effect in limiting future inappropriate behavior.

*I suspect that this is partly due to the answer being dishonest, that the adult is motivated by something unstated. (“What” will depend on context, but a fear of negative consequences from e.g. fights between children could be high on the list, as could a wish to just keep some degree of peace and quit.)

**And arguments in that direction are usually absent to begin with.

Note how the “adult” reply makes no attempt at providing reasons or actually convincing, and how a discussion of pros and cons is entirely absent—it is just an (invalid) claim that the child is supposed to take at face value “because I said so”. No wonder that children are not more cooperative…

The “because I said so” is, of course, a good example in its own right—the effect of such argumentation is that the child’s rejection of a claim is complemented by a feeling that the adult is an unreasonable dictator. It might or might not create compliance in action, but compliance in thought is not to be expected. Worse, it could have a harmful long-term effect on the relationship. It is true that there might be a point where a child is too young or the situation too critical for a deeper discussion to beneficial; however, the uses that I have seen (be it in fiction or in real life) would usually have benefited from a motivation.* Consider** e.g. a child’s refusal do the dishes countered with “because I said so” vs. “we agreed that everyone should take a turn—and today is your day”; the adult’s refusal to play based on “because I said so” vs. “I am sorry, but I am dead tired and need to take a nap”; or even any discussion resulting in “because I said so” vs. “I pay the bills; I make the rules”. The last example might superficially seem to offer no real difference, but most children (above a certain age) will at least be able to see the adult perspective of the bill payer and the hypothetical alternative of buying greater freedom through going hungry and homeless—but not of the more power-based “because I said so”. (Also note that “I am the parent; I make the rules” is closer to the dictator than to the bill payer.) At the same time, I advice against reasonable sounding arguments that do not make sense on closer inspection or that could back-fire.***

*Generally, even among adults, I recommend that any rule and whatnot be given some form of motivation, so that those affected know why something should or should not be done. This to increase the chance of compliance, to make more informed choices possible (e.g. when dealing with interpretation and special cases), and to allow a critique of the rule with an eye on future improvement.

**I stress that I do not consider the alternative arguments to be silver-bullets—dealing with children is hard and often amounts to a “damned if you do; damned if you don’t” situation. They are, however, improvements.

***E.g. “That is no excuse!” above. A more interesting example stems from my own childhood (pre-VCR): My mother argued that she should watch the news on the bigger color-TV and I a simultaneously broadcast movie on the smaller black-and-white one, because she had not seen the news in a week (due to a study absence). From my perspective, the negative effects of the inferior device on a movie were larger than on the news, and it might be years (not a week) before another opportunity to watch that movie arose. The result? I was left with not only an implicit “because I said so”—but also with the feeling that my mother was dishonest… (Adult me is open to the alternative that she simply had not thought the matter through.)

A sometime reasonable, but more often misguided, argument is “And if your friends all jumped off a bridge, would you follow them?!?” (with many variations). The analogy involved is usually inappropriate (notably regarding dangers) and/or too subtle (the “lemming” aspect). Normally, the only justification is that it came as a response to a weak argument from the (typically?) teenager, e.g. “but all my friends are going”. Here, however, such “smart ass” answers are not helpful. Better would be to evaluate the suggestion (e.g. going to a certain party) on its merits, factoring in both the fact that “all my friends” can seem like a strong argument to the teenager (even when it is not), and that there are at least some cases where the argument has merit through its impact on teenage life* or through giving a different perspective**.

*The degree to which adults should be concerned about this is limited, but it is not something to ignore entirely. There are aspects of popularity and networking that might be largely alien to an adult (and to some teens, including my younger self); however, they are there and showing them some consideration is not wrong.

**Notably, that something is wide-spread and tolerated by other parents could point to a too restrictive own attitude.

Generally, I caution against giving “smart ass” answers to children, and recommend using only factual arguments. For instance, my school class would sometimes be asked to explain/solve/perform/… something that had simply never been taught (especially when teachers changed). Typically, someone would reply with the idiomatic “det har vi inte fått lära oss”, which carries the clear intent of “that has not been taught” (and an implicit “so you cannot fairly require us to know”). Unfortunately, this phrase is vulnerable to the deliberate misinterpretation of “we have not been allowed to learn this” and the answer was invariably along the lines of “Who has forbidden it?”. The results on the class were never positive… To boot, this answer is doubly unfair in that (a) the students cannot be expected to guess what the next teacher considers “must haves” when the previous teacher saw things differently, and (b) traditional schooling severely limits the time, energy, and (often) interest available for own learning in addition to the official curriculum. (Note that both, even taken singly, invalidate the potentially valid angle that this answer does have—that learning should not be limited to school and that teachers usually indicate the minimum to learn.)

In a bigger picture, adults often impose constraints or obligations on children that make little sense. For instance, what is the point of a child making his own bed, should he not see a benefit for himself in doing so? There is no automatic advantage in a made bed and if no-one else is hurt by it… Indeed, apart from when I receive visitors (actual reason) or change the sheets (trivial extra effort), it might be more than twenty years since I, as an adult, made my bed.

Excursion on women as perpetrators:
While errors like those above are by no means limited to women, they do appear to be considerably more likely from women. It is conceivable that at least some of the problem stems from an arbitrary imposition of some irrational values that often occur among women (e.g. that any and all violence no matter the reason is evil, or a wish for orderliness-for-the-sake-of-orderliness).

Excursion on fairness:
Much of the above is related to the feeling of being unfairly treated. A fair treatment is by no means a guarantee for a happy and well-behaved child; however, the opposite will make things worse. Where fair treatment might be important to most adults (at least when on the receiving end…); it is paramount to most children.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 13, 2018 at 2:08 am

Thoughts around social class: Part II (prices etc.)

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As I have often remarked, the best way to create a society with a higher degree of wealth for those* with relatively little wealth and income, is not to redistribute the existing wealth (often at the risk of reducing it)—but to increase the overall wealth (even should it result in larger differences in distribution).

*I am troubled to find a good phrasing, with “poor” often being highly misleading, “disadvantaged” simultaneously a euphemism and (potentially) interpretable as a statement about opportunity (where the intended meaning relates to outcome), “lower class” too fixed in perspective, “less well off” either a euphemism or covering too large a group (depending on interpretation), …

The most obvious sub-topic is economic growth (e.g. in the rough GNP sense); however, for my current purposes, the area of prices and purchasing power is more relevant.* Trivially: If earnings rise faster than inflation** then every major group will (in real terms) earn more.*** This is, in turn, closely connected to factors that, directly or indirectly, relate to economic growth, including government policies, introduction of new or improvements to old technologies, energy prices, wastefulness or efficiency of business planning, …

*However, I have a text planned on some other aspects relating to growth.

**But note that inflation also has an effect on e.g. bank balances, which implies that not everyone will automatically grow wealthier in a stricter sense. These effects, however, will naturally hit people harder the more money they have—and might even be beneficial to those in debt.

***With a number of caveats and reservations when we look at the gritty details, e.g. that the distribution of increases is sufficiently reasonable, that there are no upsetting changes in (un-)employment patterns, and similar. Discussing such complications would lead to a far longer text.

A few observations relating to this sub-topic:

  1. The current “economic power” of e.g. a well-todo (but not outright rich) German is quite great in some areas, e.g. relating to food; however, it is quite poor in others, notably where the government or major businesses tend to be involved. For instance, laying a single meter of Autobahn costs roughly six thousand Euro—under ideal circumstance. In extreme cases, it can be more than twenty times as much. (Cf. [1], in German.) A clear majority of all Germans could not afford to build a single meter of Autobahn out of their monthly income—even taxes and living expenses aside… Looking at “discretionary income”, most would need to work for several months for this single meter—and real low-earners might need years.

    Through such examples, we can see a clear difference between living in a wealthy/well-fare/whatnot state and actually being wealthy. Indeed, as will be argued in a later installment, the vast majority of people are still (and might permanently remain) second- or third-class citizens in a bigger picture. (While, I stress, having far less to complain about than their grand-parents.) This includes very many who typically consider themselves successes in life, e.g. middle managers, most upper managers, professionals in good employment or running small businesses, …

    The Autobahn example also raises some questions on the effective use of tax-payer’s money: Chances are that these costs could be a lot lower with a greater efficiency—but when the politicians pay with someone else’s money, there is little need for efficiency.

  2. A particularly troublesome issue is rent, prices of apartments/houses/land, and building costs: Looking at the vast improvements in most other areas (in terms of better products and lower prices) we might expect even relatively poor earners to affordably live in their own houses or large apartments. The reality, excepting some unattractive areas, is very different. In booming areas, prices can even be preventative for many. Even in non-booming areas, the monthly rent or mortgage payment is often the single largest expense. To further increase the economic well-being of the people, reducing these prices should be a priority.

    To some part, these prices are caused by high localized population growth that is hard to work around in a timely manner—and lack of land can be a long-term issue for the duration. (Someone happy with an apartment can be accommodated e.g. by building higher; someone looking for a large garden either has to be loaded or live somewhere else.) However, there are other issues, including too long delays in building new apartments, building* costs, taxes**, luxury renovations***, “unnecessary”**** and temporary***** rentals, and undue realtor fees (see also several older texts, e.g. [2]).

    *For one thing, these are generally quite high in Germany, for reasons that include great demand, personnel costs (taxes and the employment construct; cf. a later installment), VAT, and a mentality with a disconnect between the value delivered and the price. For another, building methods, materials, “pre-fabrication”, …, have not advanced at the rate that they should have—possibly, because the building industry has little incentive for progress.

    **If a landlord makes a profit, he must pay taxes. Even if he does not make a profit, VAT will often be an issue. (Generally, note that taxes do not just hit an employee when he earns his money—they also hit him when he spends it, although usually in less obvious manners than income tax etc.)

    ***German law allows landlords to make many renovations, with a corresponding rent increase, even against the will of the tenant and in alteration of the terms of the contract. This is often used to artificially increase the rents considerably, and often with the side-effect that old tenants are forced to move out to be replaced by better earners.

    ****A common investment strategy in Germany is to buy a single apartment for the purpose of letting it for rent. This does increase the number of available rentals, but it also decreases the number of apartments available to those purchasing for own living, which (a) drives the prices up unnecessarily, (b) forces some people to rent who otherwise would buy.

    *****In times of project work, temporary assignments, and whatnot, increasing numbers work in cities for so short times that it does not pay to rent or buy a regular apartment, but still long enough that living in a hotel is unnecessarily expensive. This has led to a market of furnished apartments that are rented for weeks or months at a considerably higher than ordinary rent—and each of these apartments is removed from the regular market, increasing the deficit.

  3. A drop in prices is increasingly countered by product alternatives, product improvements, and product “improvements”, that partially or wholly move inexpensive products of the market in favor of more expensive ones. Consider e.g. the boom around various coffee machines, like Nespresso, Dolce Gusto, Senseo, which allows the sale of coffee grounds with an immense increase in markup.* Another good example is the continual replacement of computer models with more powerful and pricey versions. This is to some degree good, however, the simple truth is that, for most people, a modern computer already is more powerful than it needs to be, and that the average customer would be better off if technological advancements were directed at lowering costs. A particularly perfidious** example is toilet paper, which becomes more and more expensive the more plies it has, even at the same overall quantity***—and where even two-ply paper has been artificially removed from the B2C market.

    *This is an example where the customer still has the option to use the older and cheaper versions—and often are better off doing so. For instance, I have repeatedly had a Nespresso in temporary (furnished) apartments, but actually grew tired of the taste and tended to prefer drip brews. In my own apartment, I have a Dolce Gusto, which I used on a daily basis for a while, enjoying the greater variety, but I ultimately returned to drinking drip brews almost exclusively—I have not used the Dolce Gusto in months, despite having a dozen capsules still lying around. A Senseo that I owned some ten or fifteen years ago produced outright poor coffee, having a shorter preparation time as the sole benefit compared to a drip brew.

    **In the other discussed cases, I pass no moral judgment: That businesses try to gear customers towards more profitable products is only natural, while the customer does gets something in return and often still has a choice. The result might or not might not be unfortunate for the customer, but at least there is only rarely an ethical wrong-doing. With examples like toilet paper, the customer is left with no improvement and no choice—and is forced to pay the additional and unnecessary cost.

    ***One segment of four-ply is more expensive than two segments of two-ply, etc., even though the overall weight and volume is virtually the same, and even though the customer could just fold the two two-ply segments over another for what amounts to four-ply.

    Without such artificial market alterations, life could be a whole lot cheaper.

  4. A partially overlapping area is convenience products that reduce the work-load for the customer at an increase in monetary costs. This is most notable when it comes to food, where e.g. very few people bake their own breads and whatnots today, because the convenience of store-bought alternatives almost always outweighs the additional* costs—and despite own baking once being almost a given.** Indeed, most bread loaves appear to be sold even pre-sliced today—unlike just a few decades ago.*** Coffee was regularly ground by hand in earlier days; today, it is mostly**** bought pre-ground. “TV dinners” can reduce effort considerably, but are a lot more expensive than own cooking. Etc.

    *In this specific area, we might have reached a point where even the monetary cost of own baking exceeds the price of ready-made products; however, if so, this is not generally true and it was not originally true in this area either.

    **Indeed, further back, even more elementary steps (e.g. grinding flour) might have taken place at home; while subsistence farmers might even have provided most of the ingredients.

    ***Here the additional cost in the process is likely to be very small; however, the customers are potentially hit from another angle: Pre-slicing reduces the expected “best before” date.

    ****And the exceptions are likely almost exclusively for use in coffee machines that automatically grind beans.

    As an aside, these convenience products do not only bring a money–effort trade-off, but often result in less choice and/or suboptimal products. Consider e.g. the German pre-sliced cheese vs. the block cheese for manual slicing that is common in Sweden—to me, the former slices are too thick, simultaneously reducing how long a given quantity of cheese lasts and making sandwiches less healthy. Or consider the often quite poor nutritional profiles of TV dinners compared to own cooking.

  5. Luxury and brand products is an area bordering on the perfidious: Often these come with a value added; often they do not; and only very rarely is the value added comparable to the price hike. For the rich, this is not much of an issue; however, even the “middle class” is often well-advised to stay away from brand products without a plausible real* value added. Unfortunately, a liking for brand, or even luxury, products is quite common even among those who earn little—and here the effects can be outright dire, e.g. when a low-earner spends most off a small yearly surplus on shoes** instead of putting it in the bank for a rainy day.

    *As opposed to e.g. one that is explicitly or implicitly claimed in advertising, or one that only applies to other groups than the actual buyer: If, hypothetically, Nike brings a value-added to an Olympic runner, it is not a given that a junior-high student taking physical education also benefits.

    **To take an extreme fictional example, the infamous Carrie Bradshaw once discovered that she (a) could not afford her apartment, (b) had spent forty-or-so thousand USD on shoes over the years. Generally, she might be a good example in that she likely was not that low-earning, instead creating her recurring economic problems through wasteful living.

    In particular, it is a very great fallacy to assume that “more expensive” also implies “better”.

  6. Attempts to gain through large scale salary/wage increases, as attempted by unions, will not be overly successful without a simultaneous and independent trend towards lower prices (relative earnings). Not only will people with more money have a tendency to spend more,* which drives prices upwards, but the additional cost of work will also have an effect on product prices. Notably, there are often chain effects, e.g. that a wage hike in the mining industry increases metal prices, which increases costs in e.g. the machine industry, both metal prices and machine prices affect the tin-can industry, etc. If we, hypothetically, were to increase wages and salaries with a blanket ten percent, the individual businesses would not just see a ten-percent increase of cost of work—they would also see an increase of almost all other costs. While these other increases might fall well short of the full ten percent, they can still be sizable—and they will lead to a greater price increase on a business’ products than would a similar cost-of-work increase limited to only that business. (Also note e.g. that a three percent wage increase at two percent inflation is slightly better than a ten percent increase at nine percent inflation.)

    *Or e.g. work less to keep income roughly constant with an increase in spare time. Similarly, an employer who must pay his workers more might opt to employ fewer of them, e.g. through use of more automation. Such aspects will be largely left out, for the sake of simplicity.

    To some part, such increases can even amount to a competition between different unions and their members, in that any increase drives prices upwards, and that those with smaller increases will see a larger part killed by the resulting increase in prices. At least in theory, there could even be a net decrease in purchasing power for one union/member connected to the net increase seen by another.

  7. For similar reasons, naive sometime suggestions from the radical Left that everyone should earn the same, that the fortunes of Billy Gates et al. should be confiscated and divided among the people, and similar, will work poorly (even questions like ethics aside): Give people more money and they will (a) buy more, which drives prices up, and/or (b) work less, which forces businesses to page higher wages/salaries, which drives prices up. After a period of fluctuation, the lower earning/less wealthy would be back at roughly* the same purchasing power as before, and little would be gained. At the same time, the incentives to start businesses, come up with inventions, earn money, whatnot would be reduced, which would harm economic growth…

    *It would probably be a bit higher, but by nowhere near as much as expected in a naive calculation. Indeed, in some scenarios, the prices of lower-priced goods are likely to see unusually large increases, which would be particularly harmful. Consider e.g. a simplistic world of poor peasants and rich noblemen, of which the former live on bread and the latter on cake. Turn the noblemen into peasants and divide their money in equal shares among the population—and watch cake prices drop while bread prices increase. Either cake has to grow cheaper, or no-one will now be able to afford it. Bread, meanwhile, will be eaten by more people than before (unless the price decline for cake is very sharp) and the increased competition for this traditionally scarce resource will drive prices up.

As an aside, some of these items allow the customers a degree of own choice and prioritization, and quite a lot of money can be saved by making the more frugal choice.

Excursion on myself and brand products, etc.:
While I do not take frugality to an extreme, I have almost always tried to avoid expenses without a corresponding practical value to me. This includes avoiding brands that are “famous for being famous”, buying lamps* at hardware stores instead of department and pure lamp stores, having no qualms** about going into a “one euro” store, usually preferring the cheaper hotel to the hotel with more stars, and having never owned a car***. Outright luxury items have been quite rare and restricted to times of high income.

*For instance, when new in Wuppertal, I wanted to buy an uplight (?). Asking around, I was directed to a lamp store where prices started around three hundred Euro. I spent the extra time to find a hardware store and bought a perfectly satisfactory specimen at (possibly) sixty Euro. To boot, I found the visual design of the latter to be superior…

**These days, I suspect, few people are hesitant, but in earlier days I have heard strong negative opinions expressed towards these and similar stores, both in terms of perceived product quality and the risk of being seen as a pauper for visiting them. (Quality can be a legitimate concern for some products, but mostly the products are fine enough.)

***I have mostly lived in major cities with decent public transportation, and I prefer to walk when it is reasonably possible. Having a car would rarely have been worth the cost.

This, however, does not mean that I am skimpy when I see a benefit. Most notably, I have repeatedly taken sabbaticals to spend time on studies/writing and to enjoy life—while a year-or-so off work is very expensive, it really brings me something. (I strongly recommend it to those fortunate enough to have the opportunity.) However, I have also had no qualms about living in hotels or temporary apartments when working in other cities, even at distances where most others commute. If I can afford to cut out that extra one-to-two hours a day, with all that extra stress, having to go up earlier in the morning, having to wait longer before I can relax in the evening, etc., then I have a very real benefit. At the same time, I have always adapted to my income, e.g. in that I spend considerably less money on food, eating out, clothes, whatnot today (on a sabbatical) than I did a year ago (working full-time).

Written by michaeleriksson

November 12, 2018 at 1:15 am

Poor user interfaces / gkrellm and battery notifications

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Even the world of software development, even in the Linux and “open source” areas, often shows such signs of incompetence that it boggles the mind. This in particular where usability and workflows are concerned.

Take what I just observed: I tried to activate the low-battery notifications in the monitoring tool gkrellm.* These are activated through a checkbox on one config page, with the actual configuration (what to do when) on another, in a pop-up—it self disputable, considering that there were ample space to put both parts on the same page. I opened the other page, filled in appropriate values, closed the pop-up, and checked the check box to activate the settings. What happens? I am alerted that the settings have changed and that I must now open the pop-up to enter information (I do not recall the exact formulation). As I re-open the pop-up, I see that the settings just manually entered have been arbitrarily restored to empty default values!!!

*I run my notebook attached to an electric socket almost without exception and normally have no need for notifications. However, recently, some type of glitch in the connection at the notebook-side has led to a temporary interruption on several occasions—and today I awoke to find that my notebook had ran its battery down and shut off during the night.

Not only is this an extremely user-hostile restriction on the workflow, it is also not communicated in advance, the reset of the values borders on the inexcusable per se,* and (with some reservations for the detail implementation) this could prevent one of the most obvious uses of the settings—to keep a constant set of detail settings that are activated or deactivated as the situation fits.**

*With few exceptions, values explicitly set by a user should never be changed automatically or as an unexpected side-effect of a manual action. A similar example is the cookie settings in Firefox: If someone allows cookies per the main option, chooses the sub-option to disallow third-party cookies (as he should!), and later deactivates cookies per the main option, then a later reactivation of cookies will also change the sub-option to allow third-party cookies, which is counter-intuitive, against the stated will of the user, and to boot a poor default setting. (Disclaimer: I have not verified that this mis-behavior is still present in recently re-vamped Firefox.)

**E.g. in that someone using a notebook on a daily commute might have them off (as an unnecessary disturbance, because he knows that he will arrive before the battery runs down), but have them on when otherwise working without external power.

Generally, gkrellm has a very odd and unexpected user interface, be it in the main product, the various plug-ins individually, or the various plug-ins compared to another. (The F1-key opens the configuration, not the help. Sometimes a mere click on a plug-in activates or deactivates a feature; sometimes it does not. Extra information is sometimes displayed when clicking minuscule squares with no functional identification. The configuration is usually poorly though-through. Etc.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 10, 2018 at 4:08 pm

Prose and “Der Untergang des Abendlandes”

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I find myself unexpectedly returning to prose and style of writing—after having intended to deepen my understanding of history and societal development: Yesterday, I started to read Oswald Spengler’s “Der Untergang des Abendlandes”, which, going by reputation, should have contained a fair amount of material of interest to me. After about a hundred pages, most of which consisted of a foreword, I gave up in frustration—the man simply could not write. (And the overall work is two volumes of more than six hundred pages each.)

Ideas, definitions, and arguments are drawn out ad eternam. What could have been stated in a single ordinary* sentence covers an entire paragraph—or more. The total contents of these hundred-or-so pages could be compressed to ten. (If the rest of the work is of a similar character, I could have been more than three-quarters through a compressed version with the same effort.)

*As opposed to the often very long sentences used by Spengler, which can be paragraph-sized in their own right. (Also see below.)

The flow of the individual sentence is often highly confused, reminding me of a compass needle in the presence of magnetic disturbances. Hypothetical* example: A horse is a four-footed, in other words quadruped, animal, excelling in speed, contrary to the cow, whose digestive system is of the utmost complexity, and ridden, i.e. used as a means of transport, by humans, or dogs in a circus, the cow hardly ever being ridden, …

*Considering his complicated style and issues of idiom, I am loath to actually attempt a translation of a real example. Besides, I would need to make a re-download to find such an example. Note that I have not attempted to duplicate his style in any detail—I just try to bring the general impression of the compass needle across.

As for sentence structure, sentence length, and choice of words, he makes me look like Hemingway. I do not like to throw the first stone here, both because of the hypocrisy involved and because many failures to understand a sentence can be put more on the reader than on the writer. However, I readily admit that there were sentences that I had to re-read even to just understand them as sentences (as opposed to understand the idea or arguments presented by them—and the ideas and arguments were usually not hard to understand once the sentence had been deciphered). In a few cases, a sentence was also so long that I had to go back to the beginning in order to replenish my memory and to be able to put the end of the sentence in context…

The “reasoning” often consists of nothing more than claiming that something would be obvious, often drowned in a barrage of words. Spengler appears to continually confuse “personal belief” with “logical conclusion” and/or attempt to hide a lack of actual arguments through a flow of words.

Excursion on the actual contents:
Because I covered so small a portion of the overall work, I cannot make that many statements about the actual contents (as opposed to how the contents were written). However: On the one hand, Spengler and I seem to share a conviction that there are many lessons and, possibly, predictions to be drawn from past civilizations and phases of individual periods and fields*. (Also note sayings like “history repeats it self” and “those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it”.) I also share the general fear that the “Abendland” could, conceivably be approaching its “Untergang”; and the general idea that progress might be replaced by stagnation as a civilization develops.** On the other, his “Morphologie”*** takes this to such an extreme that it lacks plausibility and would likely be considered pseudo-science today. Going by a few tables with comparisons between civilizations, I also suspect that he has bent the data to fit his theory on more than one occasion. (Something almost impossible to avoid with the great difference in the developments that are considered morphologically equivalent…)

*For instance, I suspect that there are great similarities in the rise, flowering, and fall of this-or-that style of painting or music—not just empires.

**I note factors like that a lesser need to work hard in order to survive could lead a “softer” and less industrious population, that entertainment could grew more important than accomplishment, the risks of dysgenic pressure, and similar.

***Roughly speaking, that the development of a civilization follows a certain fix pattern with (on a historical scale) synchronously repeating stages of even areas like math and art. Unless the unread parts of the work contains strong arguments and examples, I see this as much too far-going.

Excursion on predictions:
Future prediction based on history should always be taken with a grain of salt—Asimov’s psychohistory will likely remain more fiction than science. A good example is H. G. Wells’ “The Shape of Things to Come”, which gets almost everything wrong—and when it gets something partially right, the flaws render the prediction almost comical. For instance, he does manage to predict a German–Polish war with far-reaching consequences around 1940, half-a-dozen years past the time of writing, but has the Germans barely able to keep up with the Poles and, in my recollection, had the Poles as the original aggressors.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 8, 2018 at 12:10 pm

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Follow-up: Abuse of political power in Germany

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As a follow-up to an older text on Maaßen’s “resignation”:

Recent news is that the firing-by-promotion that was originally claimed has been replaced by an outright firing, the new job disappearing due to further Leftist criticism.

Specifically, his resignation speech appears to have been too much for them to swallow—never mind freedom of speech and whatnot.

I have read this speech (in German), and cannot agree with their reaction. Yes, I can see how some might see themselves slighted; no, it does not go beyond a reasonable expression of personal opinion, and is mostly cloaked in “diplomat speak”. It is certainly far more diplomatic than some of the statements directed against Maaßen… I lack the detail knowledge to judge the truthfulness/correctness of some claims (that require inside knowledge or even are a matter of interpretation or perspective); however, the general trend well matches my own view of German society. I also note that this is one of those cases where similar attacks would have been highly likely even if Maaßen was entirely truthful throughout—there are some claims that the Left does not tolerate even when they are both truthful and factually correct.

A core claim:

Am folgenden Tag und an den darauffolgenden Tagen stand nicht das Tötungsdelikt im politischen und medialen Interesse, sondern rechtsextremistische “Hetzjagden gegen Ausländer”. Diese “Hetzjagden” hatten nach Erkenntnissen der lokalen Polizei, der Staatsanwaltschaft, der Lokalpresse, des Ministerpräsidenten des Landes und meiner Mitarbeiter nicht stattgefunden. Sie waren frei erfunden.

Ich habe bereits viel an deutscher Medienmanipulation und russischer Desinformation erlebt. Dass aber Politiker und Medien “Hetzjagden” frei erfinden oder zumindest ungeprüft diese Falschinformation verbreiten, war für mich eine neue Qualität von Falschberichterstattung in Deutschland.

Gist in English:

After a murder (by a foreigner), the attention of politicians and media was not directed towards the murder, but towards alleged extreme-Right Hetzjagden* of foreigners. However, according to the local police, the DA, local press, the state president, and Maaßen’s own co-workers, these Hetzjagden had not taken place.** In his interpretation, politicians and media had either invented the alleged Hetzjagden or (re-)distributed misinformation without fact checking.

*I am unable to find a reasonable translation into English. Indeed, even the meaning in German is open to interpretation based on context. The literal meaning is a type of hunt (persistence hunt?), and could at an extreme be taken to involve e.g. foreigners being chased through the streets. A more metaphorical interpretation could include e.g. the type of negative political and media attention directed towards Maaßen, himself. Some overlap with a (metaphorical) witch-hunt could be present; however, that would be “Hexenjagd” in German.

**Note that much of the original criticism against Maaßen was based on his denial of these Hetzjagden. If his claims here are truthful, he was drawing on (mostly) independent sources that he had legitimate reason to consider both well informed and credible. This as opposed to just making a claim based on superficial knowledge from TV or prior prejudice.

Generally, German media, main stream politics, etc., does not seem to be aware of how much unreasonable Leftism there is. SPD (second largest party and member of the current coalition government) is to the Left of the U.S. Democrats; Die Linke, a direct descendant of GDR’s ruling communist party, is represented in parliament; and Die Grüne, a Left-dominated “green” party, also sits in parliament, and is at least partially* Left of the Democrats. In total, the Left-of-the-Democrat forces make up roughly forty percent of parliament… Despite this, the Left is ever again complaining about Rechtsruck** this and Rechtsruck that, trying to cause an anti-Right panic—despite concerns about undue and long-standing far Left influence being much more justified. (Not limited to parliament, but also including e.g. long traditions of “Autonomous” organizations, the Antifa, and other sources of hatred, violence, and the-end-justifies-the-means actions; and a strong dominance of media, with Die Linke and the Leftist part of Die Grüne being considerably stronger than even in the general population.)

*For natural reasons, it is heterogeneous when it comes to non-environmental issues and a blanket classification going beyond “Left-dominated” would be unfair.

**Roughly, “pull/move/scooch to the Right”—a vague and (intended to be) ominous slogan used by the Left whenever they fear that non-Leftist opinions are spoken too freely, that some people who “should” vote Left are suddenly not, or similar. Notably, it is not followed by arguments, being used instead of arguments.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 5, 2018 at 8:56 pm

A few thoughts on role-models

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Disclaimer: The below borders on free association, even by my standards.

In a recent text on math and “college material”, I mentioned the Feminist fallacy of demanding specifically female role-models for young women in various fields, especially the STEM ones—is it not better to pick someone worthy of admiration, while ignoring sex?

Since then, I have spent some time thinking on role-models*, both with regard e.g. to Feminist calls for 50–50 representation of the sexes in math books and to my own experiences:

*Used in an approximate sense on two counts: Firstly, I have mostly seen such calls in Sweden (“förebild”) and Germany (“Vorbild”), and I am not certain what the ideal translation in context is. Secondly, the words in all three languages are unnecessarily strong and imply more than is warranted in context. (This, however, is not unusual with everyday use of these words.)

Let us start with a question: If sex requires such special treatment, why then not e.g. height and hair color?

In a Feminist world-view, which almost invariable denies significant inborn differences between the sexes, these three criteria make comparably little sense.

On the other hand, for those of us who believe that there are inborn differences, e.g. that men tend to be naturally more interested in STEM topics or that they tend to dominate the high (and low) extreme of I.Q., there might be some justification—that young women see that there actually are opportunities for women, should they have the interest, the ability, and the dedication needed. In this manner, the role-models could serve as a counter-weight to the other young women in their circles who show no sign of interest or ability; the female relatives who have trouble telling the difference between Internet Explorer, Google, and the Web; etc.*

*Note that if the feminist world view was correct, such a counter-weight would not be needed, implying that this argument does not apply in their case.

However, here specific examples of (true or faked) great women in the STEM fields give the wrong impression and group statistics would be much more helpful, e.g. what (true) percentage of professionals in a certain field are women. This way, a more correct impression is created and better choices can be made than if e.g. a math text book is arbitrarily filled with 50 % male and 50 % female mathematicians.* Women should know that there are opportunities (subject to the aforementioned constraints) and that they are not carbon copies of other women, but not be led to believe that the field is naturally 50–50, and certainly not led to believe that anyone who has a degree in X is actually good at X**.

*Even such problems aside as smart young women seeing that the women are included on lesser merits or being aware of the debate (bright young women have been known to read the news papers…) that led to the 50–50 proportions—either would not only defeat the purpose, but could actually back-fire though the impression that women are only included through “affirmative action”, never through actually being worthy. More generally, many Feminist, PC, Leftist, whatnot groups appear to be working under the assumption that people are so stupid that they must be manipulated into having the “right” opinion; however, whatever might or might not hold in the overall population, people lacking in intelligence and the ability to think for themselves have no place in e.g. math. Simply put: Someone susceptible to or “benefiting” from such manipulation is unlikely to be a good candidate for the STEM fields in the first place…

**Another common fallacy—and a much worse one at that: A degree is worth little more than the paper it is printed on, should the the right understanding, the right abilities, or the right brain be absent. More often than not, at least with today’s graduates, they are absent… (And, yes, that applies to the men too.)

More: Too much discussion of e.g. top mathematicians can create a very wrong impression and lead to great disappointments, faulty expectations, or undue pressure for members of either sex.* The simple truth is that the likes of Leibniz, Newton, Gödel, or (to pick the likely strongest female candidate) Noether are very rare birds. The chances are overwhelming that no-one, male or female, in this AP math class, this Calculus 101, or this graduate course on Riemann geometry will be comparable to Leibniz et al. Such perceptions of standards was one** of the reasons why I, myself, did not pursue math/academics beyond the master level—I saw what these rare birds had accomplished, measured success against them, and feared that I would fail to make a truly noteworthy contribution, e.g. founding a new field, solving one of the major open problems, or finding a theorem of fundamental importance.*** Today, I realize that even a more modest (and realistic) career as a metaphorical made-the-NFL-but-not-the-Hall-of-Fame mathematician would have been an accomplishment to be proud of.

*But likely especially for women, who are often exposed to a simplistic message of great success being inevitable (at least, unless the “Patriarchy” interferes), despite such success being a rarity and requiring at least one, more often two, and even more often three out of great ability, hard work, and luck.

**Others include my time as an exchange student and a wish to remain in Germany afterwards, a wish to make a bit of money, and having become over-satiated with math the first few years of college: I am not telling a sob story about how someone would have been an NFL Hall-of-Famer, had it not been for that knee injury the last year of high school—I merely caution that we should avoid knee injuries…

***In high school and the first one or two years of college, I did well enough that such aspirations originally seemed plausible to me. A little more detail is present in some sections of an older text on issues relating to education ([1]).

Excursion on other issues:
In a more complete analysis of the calls for female role-models (this text is more geared at the issue of impressions caused by role-models vs. reality) other arguments can be relevant, including the inherent unfairness towards the people featured in math books (deserving men “quota-ed” out; undeserving women “quota-ed” in) and the myth of sex being irrelevant gaining a greater foothold in the overall population.

Excursion on differences:
A common problem in discussions like these is misrepresentation or, conceivably, misunderstanding of opinion by e.g. Feminists, notably in the form of statements about groups being distorted to exceptionless statements about individuals. (The equivalent of “every single man is taller than every single woman”.) Here I stress the importance of understanding the difference between the individual and the group, individual and group characteristics, and individual and group outcomes. This especially when areas with a high selectivity, including elites, is concerned. Cf. e.g. parts of [2] (search for/scroll to “Thoughts on comparisons and the effects of variation:”).

Excursion on fear of failure:
One of the negative things ingrained in me through school was a fear of failure, sometimes even a fear of not being perfect*, that I have only overcome through time. This fear of failure was not an obstacle** as long as I succeeded with ease, but when things got tougher it could be a problem. During my college years, my “brute force” approach (cf. [1]) eventually brought me a few unnecessary failures, I learned that I had limits, and I caught enough of the history of math to understand that the best-of-the-best had often already made major contributions*** at my age. To some degree, I fell victim to a “if I do not try, I cannot fail” thinking. (But, again, this was only one of the reasons for my not pursuing a math career.)

*Not to be confused with a tendency towards perfectionism, although there might be some causal overlap.

**But it did lead to e.g. some cases of undue test anxiety and the odd nightmare in the extended why-was-I-not-told-that-we-have-a-test-today family. On the positive side, I have never had a I-forgot-to-put-on-my-pants-before-going-to-school nightmare.

***In all fairness, they had often been helped by having less mandatory schooling, giving them more time for an actual education and for their own thinking.

Interestingly, this type of thinking is one those sometimes alleged special problems of strong female students, especially when society is too be blamed for women’s problems—and, as usual, this “female” aspect is flawed. It might or might not be more common among female students (group differences again), but in reality, it appears to be a reasonably common problem among strong students (strong performers generally?) of either sex. A notable “named” example of a similar type is the “impostor syndrome”, originally alleged as a problem of accomplished women, but which has less to do with being a woman and more to do with being accomplished.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 5, 2018 at 3:52 pm