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Written by michaeleriksson

August 12, 2017 at 11:39 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Google employee fired for questioning … intolerance of opinion

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Google employee fired for questioning … intolerance of opinion

[tags Google, political correctness, oppression, discrimination, gender science, feminism, nature, nurture] I have repeatedly warned against the dangers of the anti-democratic, unscientific, and destructive trend towards extreme measures against those with the “wrong” opinions. (Cf. e.g. [1], [2].) This week, a particular atrocious case appeared on my radar screen: A Google employee was fired for writing a well-reasoned memo titled Google’s ideological echo chamber. A particular sad twist is that one of his main points in this memo was the dangers of
intolerance against “wrong” opinions…

This behavior is utterly inexcusable and reprehensible, worthy of all condemnation we are capable off.

Below I will discuss some parts of this memo, with a particular eye on how its contents fit in a bigger picture. Before I do so, a brief side-bar:

Looking into the situation around the memo, I stumbled upon a Norwegian TV production Hjernevask* (“Brainwash”), that I recommend very highly. It makes many of the points I (and the memo) have made in the past, largely by comparing and contrasting statements by various gender “scientists”, social scientists, and the like with those by e.g. biologists and evolutionary psychologists—the latter providing data and arguments, the former unsubstantiated opinion.

*The link, hosted by Google’s (!) own YouTube,
purports to have English subtitles. For me, they only appeared on the last episode; however, much of the contents are actually in English to begin with, especially the parts dealing with actual scientific opinions (as opposed to what journalists like to claim is scientific opinion). Even those who do not understand Norwegian will be able to profit. (Being Swedish, I could understand most of the Norwegian parts.)

It was particularly fascinating to see academic adherents of e.g. “cultural constructs” having to defend and explain their ideas on screen (as opposed to on paper), especially when confronted with claims by scientists: Virtually no arguments, vague and evasive claims, blanket denial of “heretical” claims (even when backed by numbers), …—basically the same behavior that I have seen e.g. ESP claimants display in similar contexts.

A particular problem seen in the series, matching my own experiences very well, is
that many believers in social constructs simultaneously a. deny any biological influence, b. raise the straw-man accusation that their opponents would deny any non-biological influence. In reality most opponents simply say that we have to also consider biological influences. Many (including yours truly) believe that these influences are quite strong (in at least some areas); but hardly anyone claims that they are the only influences.

On with the main topic (quotes from the link above; some reformatting has taken place for technical reasons; beware that the discussion only goes through a subset of the claims made):

> When addressing the gap in representation in the population, we need to look at population level differences in distributions.

One of the central points the PC crowd seems unable to understand: Anyone claiming e.g. a difference between men and women as population groups is more or less automatically accused of considering women to
be inferior or even of claiming that all men would be better than all women in some regard—a grotesque distortion. At the same time, differences between groups, averages, distributions, whatnot, can have a massive effect on societal outcomes, especially when looking at the extremes. For instance, a slight difference in math ability (or interest!) will not matter much when looking at a high-school math grade—but could have a massive impact on the distribution of math professors*.

*But also note that when looking at individuals the proportion of math professors in e.g. the groups of men and women, will be very small: The size of the effects also depends on what populations are viewed from what perspective.

> If we can’t have an honest discussion about this, then we can never truly solve the problem.

And the poor author immediately becomes yet another example of this lack of honest discussion…

I have complained about this again and again: View-points that are not considered sufficiently conformant are rejected out of hand, censored, persecuted, belittled, or otherwise mistreated in a virtually religious manner. To boot, this is done without investigating the correctness of these opinions (often even without verifying that the opinion was correctly understood…), in a manner entirely lacking in scientific and intellectually honest behavior. When people are being fired for having the wrong opinions, how can we have freedom of speech in any sense that is practically useful? How can we have scientific progress? How can we question the status quo?

Even if he had made claims that were in drastic opposition to the scientific consensus, this is not a legitimate reason for a firing. (Unless those claims showed a clear unsuitability for his work, e.g. a physician claiming that Homeopathy is a good cure for cancer—and even then work performance should be
given priority: She* might still keep to the text book when it comes to actual treatment.)

*Homeopaths are overwhelmingly often women.

As is, those of his claims that are scientifically investigated* are not in drastic opposition to the scientific consensus—only to the make belief and pseudo-knowledge of some groups of social scientists, politicians, journalists, … On the contrary, they are closer to the scientific consensus than the beliefs of these groups.

*For instance, claims relating to the internal culture at Google are not a natural target for scientists. However, if anything, he has been overly optimistic, as proved by his fate. Other claims, e.g. relating to biological influences, have been researched by scientists and the verdict is, by and large, in his favour.

To boot, his opinions/suggestions are far more reasonable that the destructive attitude of
e.g. the PC crowd.

> Psychological safety is built on mutual respect and acceptance, but unfortunately our culture of shaming and misrepresentation is disrespectful and unaccepting of anyone outside its echo chamber.

In society* as whole—not just at Google. Refer e.g. to the many posts I wrote on topics like censorship in the early years of this blog.

*Swedish (and, going by Hjernevask, Norwegian) society is permeated by both this attitude and even long discredited claims by gender “scientists” and feminists are often parroted by journalists and politicians. In the U.S. and Germany the situation is not yet quite as bad, but it is growing worse and there are many areas that are lost, including certain papers, political parties, university departments, large sections of the blogosphere, …

> Thankfully, open and honest discussion with those who disagree can highlight our blind spots and help us
grow, which is why I wrote this document.

Yet, knee-jerk rejection of other opinions are one of the main problems with the PC crowd. Feminists are particularly bad. I have e.g. often seen comments on blog posts that were neutrally formulated and proposed counter-arguments or linked to actual statistics being censored for no other discernible reason than dissent. Certainly, this is a strongly contributing reason to the intellectual stuntedness of certain movements.* At the same time, I have always found that I benefit more from discussing with someone who holds the wrong opinion for a good reason than with someone who holds the right opinion for a poor reason (e.g. “my teacher told me so”). A very significant part of my intellectual growth has come from my willingness to investigate more than one side of various issues—and to do so while actually thinking.

*I am tempted to add “certain individuals”,
but that could be reversing cause and result.

> Google has several biases and honest discussion about these biases is being silenced by the dominant ideology.

Society as a whole….

> At Google, we talk so much about unconscious bias as it applies to race and gender, but we rarely discuss our moral biases.

Society as a whole… In fact, in my personal experience, the most biased, bigoted, intolerant, whatnot people are found among those who spend their time complaining about bias, bigotry, intolerance, …, among others. How people can be blind to the hypocrisy of being outraged over any type of racial bias (be it real or imagined) and at the same time considering anyone with the wrong opinion morally deficient*, that I still cannot wrap my head around.

*This is important: If we disagree with someone, a reaction of just “you are wrong”, would be one thing. Even “he is an idiot” is
often understandable, possibly even correct. Very often, however, the PC reaction goes exactly into the territory of “you are morally deficient”, “you are evil”, “you are hateful”, …, even with perfectly factual opinions that should be measured on whether they are factually correct. “Kill all Jews” is an evil statement; “Group A has a higher average IQ than group B” is not. As I have said again and again: Measure good and evil by actions, not opinions. (And measure e.g. intellectual strength/weakness by how others deal with arguments/evidence/facts/ideas/… and whether they are willing to adapt an existing opinion in face of new such—not based on whether said opinion agrees with your own.)

> Left Biases […]

> Right Biases […]

I will not discuss these in detail, but I do consider some items simplistic and strongly discourage the use of the
Left–Right division. The Right is sufficiently heterogeneous that the term is useless. (The Left, on the other hand, can be used as an at least semi-reasonable grouping.)

> Google’s left bias has created a politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence. This silence removes any checks against encroaching extremist and authoritarian policies.

Society as a whole…

> At Google, we’re regularly told that implicit (unconscious) and explicit biases are holding women back in tech and leadership.

Society as a whole… In reality there is scant evidence that this would be a major factor, and the biological factors (including interests) make far more sense and are better supported by actual science.

> On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways. These differences aren’t just socially constructed because:

> They’re universal across human cultures

> They often
have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone

> Biological males that were castrated at birth and raised as females often still identify and act like males

> The underlying traits are highly heritable

> They’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective

Amen! Hjernevask discusses all these items.

> This [personality differences] leads to women generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading.

One of the points I have made repeatedly (cf. e.g. [3])) is that differences in ability to negotiate (as well as e.g. different priorities and risk taking behavior) is an explanation for various salary differences that are only indirectly rooted in being a man or a woman: It is not (or only rarely) the case that some old white man hands out a bigger
raise to a younger man than to a younger woman because of sexism or sexual discrimination—more often, he reacts to their respective behaviors. These behaviors, in turn, are (on average) influenced by the one being a man and the other a woman. The old white man discriminates* by behavior, not by sex**. And: When a man behaves in the “female” style and a woman in the “male” style, outcomes change correspondingly.

*The word “discriminate” is absurdly abused and misunderstood in today’s world. I have vague plans for a post on that topic. For now: To discriminate means approximately to make a distinction or to see a difference as important. Hiring based on education level and by skin color are both cases of discrimination. The first is widely considered OK (strong assumed tie to work performance, education is open to everyone); the second widely considered reprehensible (weak assumed tie to
work performance, skin color, Michael Jackson notwithstanding, is something we are born with).

**Here and elsewhere I will prefer to speak of “sex” instead of “gender” (even when the original text uses “gender”). C.f. e.g. [4].

> Non-discriminatory ways to reduce the gender gap

The formulation implies (or could be taken to be imply) that we should reduce the gap. The degree to which this is correct depends on the causes. In as far as these causes are personal preferences, interests, life priorities, and, of course, ability, I am very strongly opposed to such interference. In particular, I do not see any benefit* for society in leading people into other areas of work than they would themselves have chosen—but a
disadvantage for the individuals involved.

*Reasoning like “we must get more women into tech, because we have a greater demand than supply of good tech workers” is simplistic, even assuming that these women bring the right skill-level/-set: Competent workers are a scarce resource in a great number of fields. Artificially shifting people into one field will worsen the problem in other fields. What if the quality of the teacher corps falls even further because more high-I.Q. women end up as software developers? (The reverse applies equally, but calls for driving more men into teaching are far rarer.)

Two representative examples:

> We can make software engineering more people-oriented with pair programming and more collaboration. Unfortunately, there may be limits to how people-oriented certain roles and Google can be and we shouldn’t deceive ourselves or students into thinking otherwise (some of our programs to get female
students into coding might be doing this).

Pair programming should be used if and when it has advantages (often it has)—not to shift the character of a field. Ditto collaboration. Going down this road would potentially be a good example of paving the road to hell with good intentions. In a worst case scenario, highly competent lone wolves (very common in software development) will grow dissatisfied, perform worse, or leave for other fields or companies.

> Allowing and truly endorsing (as part of our culture) part time work though can keep more women in tech.

It could, and if this is one of the aspects that give women problems without a significant benefit for the employer this could certainly be something to consider. However, this suggestion would sit far better with me were it about giving employees better opportunities, regardless of sex. Also keep in mind that the relative aversion to part time that many corporations display is rooted in
(real or perceived) benefits with having full time employees.

> The male gender role is currently inflexible


> Feminism has made great progress in freeing women from the female gender role, but men are still very much tied to the male gender role. If we, as a society, allow men to be more “feminine,” then the gender gap will shrink, although probably because men will leave tech and leadership for traditionally feminine roles.

Here the original author shows a considerable lack of insight. Attributing the “freeing” of women to feminism (as opposed to liberalism, natural societal changes, changing work force requirements, …) is highly disputable; and (at least gender and political) feminists have a very different focus, namely on banning the “old” roles. They do not say “you can have a career” but “you must not be a house-wife, because that is a betrayal of other women
[or some other silliness]”. True freedom implies the right to chose what we want, not what others believe that we should want. Here feminists are worse than their windmill enemies. At the same time, in the U.S. as well as in Germany and Sweden, men can be as feminine as they like—if anything, it is the traditional masculine ideals and stereotypes that are frowned upon. Drink beer and drive a Humvee, and you are a Neanderthal; wish for a housewife, and you are a monster; dress like a woman and demand to use the women’s bathroom, and you are a hero.

> Philosophically, I don’t think we should do arbitrary social engineering of tech just to make it appealing to equal portions of both men and women. For each of these changes, we need principles reasons for why it helps Google;

By and large my take on the issue in society, except that society (unlike Google) should focus more on the rights of and benefits for the individual than e.g. on the
bottom line.

> However, to achieve a more equal gender and race representation, Google has created several discriminatory practices:

> Programs, mentoring, and classes only for people with a certain gender or race

> A high priority queue and special treatment for “diversity” candidates

> Hiring practices which can effectively lower the bar for “diversity” candidates by decreasing the false negative rate

> Reconsidering any set of people if it’s not “diverse” enough, but not showing that same scrutiny in the reverse direction (clear confirmation bias)

> Setting org level OKRs for increased representation which can incentivize illegal discrimination

> These practices are based on false assumptions generated by our biases and can actually increase race and gender tensions. We’re told by senior leadership that what we’re doing is both the morally and economically correct thing
to do, but without evidence this is just veiled left ideology that can irreparably harm Google.

Again a reflection of society as a whole; although, the mechanisms are often less explicit (e.g. through giving organizations incentives to increase the proportion of women in some area) or have another character (e.g. through selective quotas based on the blanket assumption that any difference in outcome must arise through a difference in opportunity).

> We all have biases and use motivated reasoning to dismiss ideas that run counter to our internal values. Just as some on the Right deny science that runs counter to the “God > humans > environment” hierarchy (e.g., evolution and climate change) the Left tends to deny science concerning biological differences between people (e.g., IQ and sex differences). Thankfully, climate scientists and evolutionary biologists generally aren’t on the right. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of humanities and social
scientists learn left (about 95%), which creates enormous confirmation bias, changes what’s being studied, and maintains myths like social constructionism and the gender wage gap. Google’s left leaning makes us blind to this bias and uncritical of its results, which we’re using to justify highly politicized programs.

Mostly a good point. The strong left bias/ideological distortions in many of the softer sciences is certainly a well-known problem. However, there is a fair chance that the causalities are more complex. The description of the right here is likely overly U.S. centric. Whether Google is actually left leaning, just follows political pressure, or is simply too gullible, I cannot judge. In the big picture, the typical journalist is certainly both left leaning and gullible (and may suffer some degree of peer pressure); while many non-Left* politicians likely support such nonsense for populist reasons.

*For instance,
Swedish politicians on both sides appear to believe unquestioningly in e.g. “the Patriarchy”, systematic wage/career discrimination against women, and gender-roles-as-cultural-constructs. (I have some hope that they are not all that stupid or uninformed, only saying what they are “supposed” to say, but that is of little practical importance.)

> In addition to the Left’s affinity for those it sees as weak, humans are generally biased towards protecting females.

This might seem like a minor point, but I have seen a lot of speculation over the years (and consider it reasonably plausible myself) that the natural male reaction to protect women has contributed strongly to the current situation, especially through female claims (resp. claims made about the situation of women) not being scrutinized sufficiently. Such situations are definitely common in daily life, where a woman tells a man a sob story and he rides out to joust the alleged bad
guy without bothering to hear both sides of the story.

> We have extensive government and Google programs, fields of study, and legal and social norms to protect women, but when a man complains about a gender issue issue [sic] affecting men, he’s labelled as a misogynist and whiner. Nearly every difference between men and women is interpreted as a form of women’s oppression. As with many things in life, gender differences are often a case of “grass being greener on the other side”; unfortunately, taxpayer and Google money is spent to water only one side of the lawn.

Several related things I have often complained about in the area of female hypocrisy and inability to see the other side of the story. I like to use the analogy of a boy having a dollar in dimes and a girl a dollar in quarters—and the girl raising hell because the boy has more coins… A telling, almost surreal, example is provided by a switch of portraits on Swedish notes some years
ago: Women were “mistreated” because they got more low denominations and fewer high denominations than men did. Apart from the extreme pettiness: George Washington is on the U.S. one-dollar bill. Abraham Lincoln on the five-dollar bill. The Yanks cannot think very highly of them…

> De-emphasize empathy. I’ve heard several calls for increased empathy on diversity issues. While I strongly support trying to understand how and why people think the way they do, relying on affective empathy—feeling another’s pain—causes us to focus on anecdotes, favor individuals similar to us, and harbor other irrational and dangerous biases. Being emotionally unengaged helps us better reason about the facts.

Over-emphasis on empathy is a root of many evils and poor judgment call, including framing villains as heroes, infringing the rights of one on the whim of another, creating euphemistic tread-mills for fear of insulting one group or another, etc. To boot,
that which is called empathy is often nothing more than emotional contagion.

We should look at who is in the right—not at who is the most upset.

> Be open about the science of human nature. Once we acknowledge that not all differences are socially constructed or due to discrimination, we open our eyes to a more accurate view of the human condition which is necessary if we actually want to solve problems.

More to the point: If we want to transcend human nature and its basically animalistic roots, then the first step, no matter how trite, is to “admit that we have a problem”. Denying the biological basis of much of human behavior is not helpful. Believing that we are some form of superior being is not helpful. Sitting in an ivory tower and fantasizing about how others “should” behave, think, and feel is not helpful. Understanding what we are, were we come from, why our urges can go contrary to
our intellect, when we should and should not fight those urges, …, now that is helpful.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 12, 2017 at 11:34 pm

Some problems with information on nutrition

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Over recent years, I have been looking into a healthier life style, seeing that I am on the wrong side of forty and have a family history with several cases of heart attacks, diabetes, and whatnot.

Eating healthy is tricky for a number of reasons, including that what is considered healthy and unhealthy changes over time* and that most even slightly processed** foods have been unnecessarily altered beyond even what follows from the processing, e.g. through addition of salt or other additives*** better left to the discretion of the consumer—restaurant food is usually even worse.

*For example, eggs were once considered a super-food, had an extremely bad reputation through most of my life, and are now increasingly being reconsidered as probably not that bad after all.

**Unprocessed foods are widely considered better than processed in a blanket manner, but factoring in time and effort to do this-and-that… I suspect that most of the benefits from unprocessed food can be achieved merely through preferring whole grain. Even refined sugar, often named as a great evil, is a lesser evil than (too much) sugar in general. Processing is simply a lesser problem than too much this and too little of that—by a considerable distance.

***Including such extremes as a jar of pre-sliced carrots having added salt or canned fruits (or even frozen berries) having been artificially sugared.

The complication that bothers me the most, however, is poor transfer of information to consumers by alleged specialists, being destructive, incompetent, and/or intellectually dishonest—and it falls most heavily on the less bright who would benefit the most from an unobstructed information flow. Four examples that I find particularly annoying:

  1. The obsession with “good” and “bad” ingredients, fats, cholesterol, …

    By and large there is no such thing as good and bad ingredients*, etc. As I gather from actually reading up and thinking on a deeper level than the simplistic “lying to students” practiced in this area, it is rather quantities and/or proportions that are good or bad. That X is “good” and Y is “bad” usually only amounts to “most current diets have less of X and more of Y than would be optimal”. Drink too much water and you die; drink too little water and you die…

    *Conceivably combinations of ingredients could still turn out to be bad in a more blanket manner; however, even a McDonald’s meal could well have been manna from heaven at many points in human history.

    This type of miscommunication makes it unnecessarily hard to make informed choices and brings a risk that people will over do the “healthy” thing. Yes, too much sodium is unhealthy and most people have an intake currently considered excessive; no, attempting to eat no sodium at all is not a good idea. Too little sodium is also unhealthy. (In extreme cases probably even lethal, but I have not done the leg work.)

  2. The (especially U.S.) idiocy of making recommendations/giving information in “servings”: Eat at least x servings of fruit a day. One serving of meat contains y grams of protein. Etc.

    These “servings” only make it harder to get the information. The size of a serving is basically never* defined, it varies from food stuff to food stuff (making comparisons harder), and does not necessarily have anything to do with what actually lands on the plate (i.e. a literal serving). Notably, the people who benefit the most from eating healthier are the once most likely to have servings considerably above the average.

    *In the few cases, where I have seen an actual definition, it has either been using some obscure or ambiguous term (notably, “cup”) which requires a separate investigation or through some construct that makes the use of “serving” entirely unnecessary, e.g. “a 100 gram serving”—just say “a 100 gram”! As for cup: A cup is a measure of volume. This might work well for fluids, but when it is used for e.g. fruits and berries, it becomes extremely vague, because factors like compression, shape of the cup, shape of the fruit, …, can have a major impact on the actual contents.

    It would be much, much better to make statements in terms of grams/ounces of fruit, meat, whatnot—and even then a criticism for wishy-washy misinformation should be raised, because it implies comparing apples and oranges in both a literal and a metaphorical sense.

    As an aside, at least in Germany, the serving (“portion”) is often abused by the food industry to obfuscate the unhealthiness of certain foods. Potato chips regularly have their fat and whatnot contents listed in 20 gram “servings”—how often does someone actually eat 20 grams (~ 2/3 of an ounce) of potato chips? If 20 gram is the intended serving, why do the bags usually contain ten times as much?

  3. The incessant use of the out-dated and highly problematic calorie/Calorie.

    Firstly, the standard unit for energy is Joule, not calorie.

    Secondly, the differentiation into the “real” calorie and the alleged* “dietary” Calorie causes unnecessary confusion, and the distinction is often not made properly.

    *I am unaware of the exact usage history, but I very, very strongly suspect that some group of nit-wits kept saying “calorie” out of sheer ignorance, while actually meaning “kilo-calorie”—and then invented the “Calorie” for the single purpose of not having to admit their error and ignorance.

    Thirdly, Calorie is often used in contexts where a dimension, not a unit, is appropriate. (As in “sugar is high in Calories” instead of “sugar is high in energy”; like saying “an elephants weighs many kilos” instead of “an elephant is heavy”.) Apparently, there are even some people who interpret Calorie as some form of stuff or particle, analogous to carbohydrate. This leads to a reduced ability to judge the effects of carbohydrates and fats, as well as such brain-dead ideas like (literally) filtering the Calories out from foods.

  4. Speaking in terms of weight/weight-loss/weight-gain instead of fat/fat-loss/fat-gain*. What most people actually want to do is get rid of fat—not weight. Weight can be lost through reductions in muscle mass or bone density, dehydration, or, in a pinch, amputation—even when the amount of fat is not actually reduced. To boot someone who tries to reduce fat through exercise might actually grow heavier (!), because the reduction in fat can be outweighed by an increase in muscle mass. This is healthy and beneficial, but can still cause a misinformed teenage girl to see herself as a failure.

    Say what you mean and mean what you say!

    *With an honorable mention for over-focusing on weight issues: Good nutrition has many other components…

Written by michaeleriksson

August 6, 2017 at 4:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

Update on my living conditions

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I have now owned an apartment (Wuppertal) for more than half a year and am approaching the one year mark of my rental of another (Cologne)—and feel the need for an update.

For starters, things have not gone as planned—but mostly in a good way: According to plans, my current project would end with the new year, I would give up the rented apartment, and take a few months off to (among many other things) set up the purchased one. In reality, I have received several project extensions, spent almost all my time in Cologne, and have done almost nothing to the new apartment.

Correspondingly, I have a lot less to say about the purchase than the rental, but let us start with the purchase:

What little I can judge already about the apartment (it self) and Wuppertal more or less matches expectations, apart from the property manager appearing to be extremely incompetent. There is one major disappointment/annoyance in the bigger picture, however: I chose Wuppertal based on rational deliberations where train connections featured heavily*. Here there has been a three-fold disappointment (contributing strongly to my hardly ever being in Wuppertal):

*I often travel heavily for work reasons.

  1. There are major construction works going on around the central station, which make it harder and more time consuming to get to and from the station. According to the information published in and around the station it self, these works should have been concluded in 2017/2018*, and I decided that this was an acceptable time frame, especially with the promised resulting improvements. Unfortunately, it appears that the claim of 2017 was limited to the planned shopping area** (a nice-to-have), whereas the overall works, what would have been relevant for my planning, was on a very different time scale. As is, even 2018 is a highly optimistic estimate and a worst case could conceivably land in 2020… Knowing that in advance, I would very likely have made another choice.

    Lesson: Ignore public signs and pull more complete and reliable (in as far as this is possible where construction is concerned) information from the actual, official plans.

    *Officially: 2017. Knowing how construction work tends to run in Germany: 2018.

    **I would speculate that the misinformation arose through a wish to brag about this selling point for the project and too little concern for other effects.

  2. Deutsche Bahn (“German Railways”) have arbitrarily decided to cancel all (!) train traffic to and from Wuppertal for a period of six weeks (!) starting around two weeks ago. To boot, they did the same thing for roughly two weeks earlier in the year. While the cause (long neglected maintenance work) is worthy, the way of doing this is utterly unacceptable, especially bearing in mind that the railway lines involved are among the most commuter heavy in Germany. To the best of my knowledge, this type of complete interruption, for so long a time, is without precedence.

    Those who have tried the “Schienersatzverkehr” (“rail-replacement traffic”; effectively, travel-by-bus-while-we-pretend-that-it-is-still-a-train-line), appear to be less than satisfied with the travel time and comfort—even when just comparing the planned level of Schienersatzverkehr-service with that actually delivered. (As opposed to when comparing with the original travel by train.) I strongly suspect, but have admittedly not investigated, that this is also economically to the considerable disadvantage of the passengers, with no discount being offered for the lesser service or normally lower price level of bus traffic—and even with such a discount many would be left without compensation, e.g. because they travel with tickets valid for a month or a year at a time (or a similar construct*).

    Lesson: Deutsche Bahn is a passenger hostile horror. (But that I have known for many years…)

    *I do not want to discuss various ticket models, discount systems, etc., here, but those with pre-existing knowledge might want to consider e.g. the effective value loss of a BahnCard 50 for someone who normally travels a certain line once a week and now chooses to go by car, as a better alternative to bus.

  3. (A mere annoyance in comparison with the above; especially since regional travel was not a planning priority.) To my surprise, it turns out that not all the “regional” trains that travel past my local station, just a few minutes walk from my apartment, actually stop there. All the “S-Bahn” and “RB” trains do, but the much to be preferred “RE” trains are inconsistent. The RE to and from Düsseldorf, my point of reference when searching for apartments, does stop; the RE to and from Cologne, which is far more interesting at the moment, does not. I now have the choice between going by “RB” (takes considerably longer) or taking the “RE” (or a non-regional train) to the central station and then going by some other means* to my local station some four kilometers away.

    Lesson: Do not make the assumption that Deutsche Bahn (especially; but likely many other entities in general) handles things in a consistent and reasonable manner.

    *So far mostly by the local specialty of “Schwebebahn”; occasionally, by foot or by S-Bahn; theoretically, taxi or one of the other trains.

On to the rented apartment, specifically revisiting some items from my earlier post (see there for background information):

  1. There have been no real temperature issues so far. If anything, likely aided by the comparatively cool summer, temperature has been less of an issue than in most other apartments I have had.
  2. The noise levels, e.g. through out-door music, have been considerably worse than average—but nowhere near as bad as I feared. It is certainly an improvement over my old Düsseldorf apartment. Likely, I just had a bit of bad luck during the short time preceding my original post.
  3. (Unpleasant content warning) The “platform toilet” has proved to be far more problematic than expected: Often, notably after I had eaten fiber-rich bread, simply flushing (once) has not been enough to move the feces on from the platform. On a number of occasions I have had to flush half-a-dozen times (annoying, time consuming, and bad for the environment); several times, I have actually given up, grabbed a piece of toilet paper and shoved it on manually… It puzzles me how such an idiotic, and so obviously idiotic, construction ever saw the light of day.
  4. The electronic key is and remains a disaster. The problem has been mitigated by some experience, specifically that it pays to not turn the key immediately after insertion. Still, this combines the weak points, but not the strengths, of both regular and electronic keys. I am amazed that they have not changed this idiocy, with the long term savings easily exceeding the short term costs—even user friendliness aside. (Note that the key contains a battery that has to be replaced now and then; that maintenance requires more specialist knowledge, which reduces the number of potential contract partners; that the solution is likely inherently more expensive than an ordinary key/lock; and that since there are other general locks with keys in the rest of the building, it is not necessary to switch out the keys—just the one lock.)
  5. The elevators have mostly lived up to the early days, but there have been exceptions. Notably, there was one time when I first had to wait for a perceived eternity for the elevator to arrive, then had to share it with four people who all stepped out on different floors—and then had it halt at the 23rd floor, one short of my floor, because someone going down had pressed the wrong button… I would have been faster walking* the 24 floors. Over the last few weeks one of the elevators has also had problems getting the doors on my floor closed.

    *Recently, I have done this twice for the exercise/out of curiosity and plan to do it once a week or so for the remainder of my stay. While hard work, this turned out to be less grueling than I had anticipated: I took two breaks the first time, one the second; but, contrary to my expectation, was not forced to give up half-way.

  6. The view remains amazing, it self almost worth the rent—or it would be, had I not grown jaded over time. One of the problems of having something great is that a just appreciation rarely lasts. (But will I miss the water once the well has gone dry.)

    Even apart from the greatness of the view in general, there have been many specific instance where I have been brought an experience that would not have occurred with an ordinary view. A few examples:

    A few weeks ago, I had not one but two very long and extremely impressive fireworks in perfect sight on the river, possibly two hundred meters from my window. (During the local “Kölner Lichter” event.) Barring the people in the 25th and 26th stock, I may well have had the best view of these fireworks of anyone in the city. To boot, there have been a number of smaller and/or more far away fireworks on the river over the months.

    Having the house surrounded by so dense* a fog (several times) or rain (at least once) that nothing else could be seen—no ground, no surrounding buildings, no whatnots. When I was a child, I sometimes fantasized about touching a cloud—now I have**.

    *Keep in mind that it is exceedingly rare that a fog grows so dense that not even close-by objects can be seen—but here there are no close-by objects. The ground, e.g., is almost a hundred meters away. Even so, this fog was unusually dense, giving me a better understanding of why fog is occasionally referred to as “pea-soup”.

    **Barring some technical differentiation between cloud and fog that is uninteresting for this purpose.

    Having had, in contrast, days with a sky so clear that I could see for many miles; days with incredible, border-line scary, storm clouds; days with mixtures of heavy rain in one direction, sun shine in another, dark clouds in yet another; days with unbelievably majestic constellations of clouds; … (Apart from standing on very large hills or actual mountains, there are very few opportunities to really see something of this level through just being “in nature”. The land would have to be very flat and free from obstacles, and it would still likely fall short.)

    A winter’s day where the pond beneath my window became one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. While a description can not make something like that justice, imagine a circle of ice-free water (kept so by a water spout), a ring of birds (most likely ducks) resting on the ice immediately next to the water, the remaining majority of the pond being covered by very white ice, and on that ice near perfect, very dark reflections of the near-by trees—and then the actual trees and a layer of snow around the pond. Escher* would have gone nuts over the scene.

    *Note that much of his work was not geometrically surreal and that he had a particular interest in reflections.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 6, 2017 at 4:53 pm

Usain Bolt and his place in history

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Yesterday, Usain Bolt had his last major competion. Predictably, even in light of mere bronze, there were many superlative statements made, many naming him the greatest sprinter of all time or even greatest (track-and-field) athlete of all time.

Depending on the exact claim, I am not certain that I agree, the main obstacle being Carl Lewis and the problems of making comparisons with earlier generations: Many greats of old competed in one Olympics and then retired to actually make a living, and world championships are a comparatively recent innovation*: What would e.g. Jesse Owens, Bob Hayes, or Tommie Smith have done had they had the realistic opportunity for a longer, professional career? (And what times could they have run on modern tracks?) Looking at athletics in general, many of the greats simply had no realistic opportunity to “double”, making comparisons in e.g. golds or number of world records misleading: For e.g. Al Oerter, Sergey Bubka, Viktor Saneyev, Jan Zelezny, …, to win even a single major gold in a second discipline would have been more impressive than Bolt winning a handful. Similarly, Michael Johnson’s 200m/400m career is likely worth more than a mere medal comparison would indicate.

*First held in 1983 and then at distances of four years until 1991/1993. Bolt has had them two years apart through his entire career. Carl Lewis, e.g., missed out on the opportunities in 1981, 1985, and 1989—where he would have been a clear favourite in both the long jump and the 100m. To boot, other athletes, including Lewis and Owens, have missed potential Olympics due to boycots or wars; Owens 1940 off his 1936 could conceivably have replicated Lewis’ 1988 off his 1984; Lewis would have been a very strong medal candidate and at least a weak gold candidate in the 1980 long jump.

Certainly, I would still view Carl Lewis as the greatest overall. His dominance in the long jump was immense, with one of the longest unbeaten streaks of all times and events, four Olympic golds (and gold/gold/silver at four-year-apart world championships), and a revolution of the non-altitude* world record. He did to the world record what Bubka did in the pole vault; to the medal record what Oerter did in the discus throw. Even without his additional sprinting efforts, the choice between Lewis and Bolt would be tricky; with them, it should be a no-brainer for Lewis.

*Unfortunately, the effects of altitude on results was realized too late; and where there is a limit on how much tail wind is allowed for a record to be valid, there is no such limit on altitude. This severely distorts the official record histories and those in the know prefer to look at non-altitude records. Lewis had to compete with high-altitude records in all three events, including Bob Beamon’s monstrous 8.90—which also has been questioned as potentially aided by an illegal amount of wind and a faulty wind reading. Lewis took the non-altitude record from 8.54 (Dombrowski) to 8.79 (and with an additional 8.87 in the same competion that Mike Powell set the current 8.95)—an improvement by almost 3 % or, correspondingly, almost 3 tenths in the 100m/6 tenths in the 200m. (I have not been able to find a list of non-altitude records on short notice. The numbers are taken from http://www.alltime-athletics.com/mlongok.htm, which has an exhaustive list with altitude indicators.)

Looking at greatest sprinter, I too would likely favour Bolt, but it is not as clear cut as some seem to see it. Apart from what has been already mentioned, we have to keep in mind that the 100m/200m combination, with the possible exception of 5000m/10000m, is the easiest around. Virtual any top 100m-sprinter has also been a top 200m-sprinter, although some have chosen to only rarely run the 200m. (Say to maximize their chances in the more prestiguous 100m; or to avoid an “embarassing” bronze medal in the 200m.) Indeed, the comparison with Carl Lewis is made harder because he deliberate skipped the 200m at world championships where he did win the 100m (and scored gold/gold/silver in the long jump). Looking at times*, (non-altitude) world records, and superiority, Lewis actual fares quite well in the comparison even in the 200m**; and arguably has an edge in the 100m**. The main argument in favour of Bolt over Lewis is the latters “weak” record in the 200m, with just an Olympic gold/silver—but since Lewis had less opportunities to build his record, this partially amounts to whether ability or accomplishment is prioritized in the comparison.

*Comparing times directly, as in Bolt ran X/Lewis Y is of limited benefit, due to e.g. changes in tracks. Instead we have to look at times in their historical perspective.

**I looked into the numbers a few weeks ago, but did not take notes (not having an intention to write anything at the time).

As for the 100m, Lewis took five out of five possible golds in the nine year span from 1983 to 1991 (two Olympic, three WC). With a different schedule, this could* have been eight out of eight (WCs in 1981, 1985, 1989; eleven year span). According to Wikipedia Bolt has a total of six out of seven (one miss!) in the nine year span from 2008 to 2016. Bear in mind that Lewis did this while also doing the long jump on all occasions and the 200m on at least two; Bolt also had a second event, the 200m, but never a third and the 200m is easier to combine with the 100m. Lewis improved the non-altitude world record more often, including the first 10.00 in history, and by roughly the same overall amount; Bolt has a larger difference down to the second best. Their respective greatest winning margin in a major championship (in my recollection) was identical. In my book, this is a narrow victory for Lewis; on the outside a tie.

*Note that I am not saying “would”. While he would have been the favorite, there are no guarantees, he could have gotten injured, had an off year, lost motivation with the more intense schedule, …

As an aside, Bolt’s winning record could conceivably have been a fair bit weaker, had Gatlin and Gay not suffered doping suspensions; but Lewis’ would have been weaker (in the 100m) had Ben Johnson not been caught.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 6, 2017 at 4:52 pm

On Firefox and its decline

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I recently encountered a blog post by a former Firefox insider discussing its declining market share.

When it comes to the important question “why?”, he offers that “Google is aggressively using its monopoly position in Internet services such as Google Mail, Google Calendar and YouTube to advertise Chrome.”—which cannot be more than a part of the truth.

If it were the entire truth, this would mostly show in new or inexperienced users going to Chrome instead of Firefox, those that have not yet grown accustomed to a particular browser.

Then why is there a drop among the long-term users? Those who have used Firefox for years? Those who (like me) first used the Firefox grandfather Mosaic well over twenty years ago and then graduated to its father, Netscape?

Things like that happen either because the competition grows better (or better faster) or because the own product grows worse. Indeed, this is what I have repeatedly experienced as a user: After Netscape, I switched to Opera for a number of years, because Opera actually was a better browser, especially with its tabs. Year for year, Opera failed to add new useful features and tried to force-feed the users poorly thought-through ideas that some manager or developer out of touch with his users saw as revolutionary. Eventually, I gave up and moved over to Firefox, which at the time did a reasonable job and had over-taken Opera—not because of its own qualities, but because Opera declined.

Unfortunately, Firefox has gone down the same destructive path as Opera followed, has grown worse and worse, and the only reason that I am still with Firefox is that I use the “Tor Browser Bundle”, which is based on Firefox and recommended as the safest way to use Tor by the Tor developers.

To list all that is wrong with Firefox and its course would take far too long—and would require digging through many years* of memories of “for fuck’s sake”–memories.

*I am uncertain how long I have been using Firefox by now. In a rough guesstimate, the Opera-to-Firefox switch might have occurred some ten years ago.

However, to list some of the most important (often over-lapping) issues:

  1. The removal of preferences that should be standard, e.g. the ability to turn images and JavaScript on and off. If these remain at all, they are pushed into the infamous, poorly documented, and unreliable “about:config”—the use of which is strongly discouraged by Firefox.

    When such preferences are removed (respectively moved to “about:config”) the handling can be utterly absurd. Notably, when the setting for showing/not showing images in web pages was removed, the Firefox developers chose to defy the stated will of the user by resetting the internal setting in about:config to the default value…

    To boot, config switches that are in “about:config” often stop working after some time, merely being kept to prevent scripts from breaking, but no longer having any practical function. Among the side-effects is that someone finds a solution for a problem on the Internet, alters the configuration accordingly—and has to spend half-an-hour researching why things still do not work as intended. (The reason being that the solution was presented for an earlier version of Firefox and Firefox failed to make clear that this solution was no longer supported.)

  2. Forcing users to download add-ons to handle tasks that a good browser should have in its core functionality, while adding nice-to-haves appropriate for an add-on to the official interface… (The “sync” bullshit is a good example.) Worse: Not all add-ons are compatible with each other (or with every Firefox) version, making this road unnecessary problematic, with results including even browser crashes. To boot, any additional add-on increases the risk of a hackable vulnerability, data being leaked to a hostile third-party, or similar.
  3. Failing to add functionality that would be helpful, e.g. a possibility to disable the design atrocity that is “position:fixed” or a user-friendly mechanism for mapping keys.
  4. One truly great (and expectedly oldish) feature of Firefox is the ability to save tabs and windows when exiting or the browser crashes and have them restored on the next start. This especially since Firefox crashes more than most other applications.

    Unfortunately, the configuration of this feature is a bitch (and probably disabled by default). There are at least two (likely more; it has been a while since I dealt with this the last time) flags that have to have the right value for this to work—one of which should rightly be entirely independent*. The names of these settings in about:config and the description in the GUI are non-obvious, more-or-less forcing a user to search the web for information—if he is aware that the feature exists in the first place. And: In several releases this feature has been so bug ridden that no combination of settings has worked…

    *The one appears to control the feature; the other controls whether a warning is issued when a user tries to close more than one tab at a time. When the latter is disabled, which is very reasonable even for someone who uses the former, the former is ignored…

    Worse, without this functionality a simple “CTRL-q” just quits the browser—no confirmation, no tabs saved. For a power surfer who regularly has dozens of tabs open at the same time, this is a major issue. This is the worse since someone heavy on tabs is almost certainly a frequent user of “CTRL-w”* and there is no good native way to change key bindings—amateurish!

    *I.e. “close the current tab”. Note that “w” is next to “q” on a standard QWERTY-keyboard, making the likelihood of occasional accidents quite high.

  5. The config management is lousy.

    For instance, Firefox started with the Windows style concept of “one user; one configuration” and never added provisions to e.g. specify config files on the command line. Among the negative side-effects is the later need to invent the redundant and poorly implemented concept of a “profile”—confusing, user-unfriendly, and bloating the code.

    For instance, “about:config” provides many, many options of the type normally found in a config file, that could have been edited with a text-editor much more comfortably than over the about:config interface. However, this opportunity was not taken and the users are stuck with about:config. Actually, there are some type of files, but these are absurd in comparison with those used by most Linux applications—and it is very, very clear that users are supposed not to edit them. (Statements like “Do not edit this file.” feature prominently.) For example, Firefox uses user_pref(“ui.caretBlinkTime”, 0); where any reasonable tool would use ui.caretBlinkTime=0.

    For instance, there is so much secrecy about and inconsistency in the configuration that the standard way to change an apparently simple setting is to install an add-on… (Also cf. above.) Where a user of a more sensible application might be told “add x=y to your config file”, the Firefox user is told to “install add-on abc”…

    For instance, copying the configuration from one user to another fails miserably (barring subsequent improvements), because it contains hard-coded paths referring to the original user.

    For instance, it used to be the case that a Firefox crash deleted the configuration, forcing the user to start over… (This was actually something that kept me with Opera for a year or so after I was already thoroughly feed up with it.)

  6. The support for multi-user installations, the standard for Linux and many corporate Windows installations, is weak and/or poorly documented. The results include e.g. that all users who wants to use popular add-ons have to install them individually—and keep them up-to-date individually.

    (Disclaimer: I looked into this on several occasions years ago. The situation might have been improved.)

  7. There are a number of phone-home and phone-third-party mechanisms that bring very little value, but often pose a danger, e.g. through reducing anonymity. This includes sending data to Google, which I would consider outright negligent in light of Google’s position and how it has developed over the years.
  8. The recent, utterly idiotic decision to drop Alsa support in favour of Pulse on Linux. This decision is so idiotic that I actually started to write a post on that topic alone when I heard of it. Most of what I did write is included as an excursion below. (Beware that result is not a full analysis.)
  9. The address bar started of very promisingly, e.g. with the addition of search keywords*. Unfortunately, it has so many problems by now that it does a worse job than most other browsers—and it grows worse over time. The preferred Firefox terminology “awesomebar” borders on an insult.

    *For instance, I have defined a keyword so that when I enter “w [something]”, a Wikipedia search for “[something]” is started. “ws [something]” does the same for the Swedish version of Wikipedia; “wd [something]” for the German. (I have a number of other keywords.)

    Among the problems: If a page is loading slowly and I re-focus the address bar and hit return again, the obvious action to take is to make a new attempt to load this page—it does not: It reloads the previous page! The history suggestions arbitrarily excludes all “about:” entries and all keyword searches—if I search with “w [something]” and want to switch to “g [something]”*, I have to retype everything. Per default, for some time, the history functionality is weakened through not listing the potential matches directly, but preceding them with annoying and useless suggestions to “visit” or “search” that only delay the navigation and confuse the users. Moreover, while there used to be working config flags to disable this idiocy, there are now just config flags (that do not work)…

    *Used to mean “search with Google” a long, long time ago; hence the “g”. Currently, I use duckduckgo.

  10. The layout/design and GUI (including menu handling) have been drastically worsened on several occasions.
  11. Many of the problems with Firefox can be remedied with “Classic Theme Restorer” (an absolute life-saver) or similar “user empowering” add-ons. Unfortunately, these all use the “XUL-framework”*, which Firefox has decided to discontinue. There is a new framework for add-ons, but it does not support this type of functionality (whether “yet” or “ever” is not yet clear). Many of the most popular add-ons, including “Classic Theme Restorer”, will therefore not be able to provide the full scope of functionality and at least some of them, again including “Classic Theme Restorer”, will be discontinued by their developers when XUL is turned off.

    *In a twist, XUL was once considered a major selling point for Firefox.

    My poor experiences with Firefox and the absurd attitudes of the Firefox developers might have made me paranoid—but I cannot suppress the suspicion that this is deliberate, that the add-ons that allow users to alter the default behaviors are viewed as problems, as heretics to burn at the stake.

To this should be added that since the switch from a “normal” versioning scheme to the idiocy of making allegedly major releases every few months*, the feature cramming has increased, with a (very predictable) increase in the number of run time problems. The Firefox makers were convinced that this would turn Firefox from a browser into a super-browser. In reality, this only resulted in hastening its demise—in much the same way that a TV series fighting for its survival ruins the good points it had left and drives away the remaining faithful**. If in doubt, most people who try to jump the shark are eaten…

*I.e. making version jumps of 44 to 45 to 46, instead of 4.4 to 4.5 to 4.6 or even 4.4.0 to 4.4.1 to 4.4.2.

**A topic I have been considering recently and intend to write a blog post on in the close future.

Sadly, the delusional author of the discussed article actually makes claims like “Firefox is losing despite being a great browser, and getting better all the time.”—turning the world on its head.

Excursion on the competition:

Unfortunately, Firefox could still be the lesser evil compared to the competitors. Chrome/Chromium, e.g., has many strengths, but configurability and adaptabtility to the user’s needs are not among them; on the contrary, it follows the deplorable school of achieving ease of use through reducing the controllable feature set—the equivalent of Apple’s infamous one-buttoned mouse. Chrome is entirely out of the question for anyone concerned with privacy; while its open-source sibling chromium (in my possibly incorrect opinion) trails Chrome in other regards. I have not tried Opera for years; but combining the old downwards trend (cf. above) with the highly criticized platform shift that almost killed it, I am not optimistic. Internet Explorer and Edge are not worthy of discussion—and are Windows only to begin with. Safari, I admit, I have never used and have no opinion on; however, it is Mac only and my expectations would be low, seeing that Apple has pioneered many of the negative trends in usability that plague today’s software. Looking at smaller players, I have tried possibly a dozen over the years. Those that have been both mature and user-friendly have been text-based and simply not worked very well with many modern web sites/designs, heavy in images and JavaScript; most others have either been too minimalistic or too immature. A very interesting concept is provided by uzbl, which could, on paper, give even the most hard-core user the control he needs—but this would require a very considerable own effort, which could turn out be useless if the limited resources of uzbl dry up.

Excursion on the decline of open source:

It used to be that open-source software was written by the users, for the users; that the developers were steeped in the Unix tradition of software development; that they were (on average) unusually bright and knowledgeable; … Today, many open-source projects (e.g. Firefox, Libre-/OpenOffice, many Linux Desktop environments) approach software development just like the commercial firms do, with an attitude that the user should be disenfranchised and grateful for whatever features the projects decided that he should like; quality is continually sacrificed in favour of feature bloat (while central features are often still missing…); many of the developers have grown up on Windows or Mac and never seen anything better; … Going by the reasoning used by many Firefox developers in their bug tracking tool, Firefox appears to have found more than its share of people who should not be involved in software development at all, having poor judgment and worse attitudes towards users.

Excursion on Pulse:

(Disclaimer: 1. The below is an incomplete version of an intended longer analysis. 2. At the time the below was written, I had a few browser tabs open with references or the opinions of others that I had intended to include. Unfortunately, these went missing in a Firefox crash…)

The reasoning is highly suspect: Yes, supporting two different sound systems can be an additional strain on resources, but this decision is just screwed up. Firstly, they picked the wrong candidate: Pulse is extremely problematic and malfunctioning so often that I would make the blanket recommendation to de-install it and use Alsa on almost any Linux system. Moreover, Pulse is not a from-scratch-system: It is an add-on on Alsa and any system using Pulse must also have Alsa installed—but any system can use Alsa without having Pulse. Not only will more users have access (or potential access) to Alsa, but good software design tries to stick with the smallest common denominator to the degree possible. Secondly, at least one abstraction already exist that is able to abstract multiple sound systems on Linux (SDL; in addition, I am semi-certain that both Alsa and Pulse provides backwards compatibility for the older OSS, which could have been used as a workaround). Thirdly, if none had existed, the proper Open Source way would have been to create one. Fourthly, a browser maker who tries to dictate what sound system a user should use have his priorities wrong in an almost comically absurd manner. (What is next? KDE only? Kaspersky only? Asus only?) Notably, there are very many Linux users who have made a very deliberate decision not to burden their systems with Pulse—and have done so for very good reasons*.

*Including how error prone it is, a too-high latency for many advanced sound users, the wish for a less bloated system, or Pulse’s straying too far from the classical principles behind Unix and Open Source software. Do an Internet search for more details on its controversy.

A particular annoyance is that the decision is partly justified by the claim that statistics gathered by Firefox’s phone-home functionality would indicate that hardly anyone used Alsa—which is extremely flawed, because many Linux distributions and individual educated users disable this phone-home functionality as a matter of course. Since the users who have a system with phone-home enabled are disproportionally likely to be unlucky/careless/stupid enough to also use Pulse, the evidence value is extremely limited.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 26, 2017 at 9:51 pm

International Day Against DRM

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Apparently, today is the International Day Against DRM. No, I have never heard of it before either; no, I have not been able to find an official* explanation of it. At virtually the same time, the W3C has very controversial signed of on DRM on the Web. The latter is particularly disappointing, because the W3C continues its trend of prioritizing the interests of the industry over the interests of the users and the original ideals of Internet, thereby contributing to its degeneration.

*That is: I have found explanations of it from several sources (and the name is fairly self-explanatory…), but none that makes it clear that it is the originator, organizer, whatnot.

This being so, I would encourage my readers to spend some time on the topic, e.g. reading up on what the EFF has to say.

My own take is simple:

While an industry interest in DRM can to some part be legitimate, the problems for the consumers are disproportionate, often unscionable. Honest consumers see their ability to use fairly purchased products in a fair manner* restricted, while actually paying more than without DRM, because DRM costs**—and often while being exposed to security threats*** or the risk of privacy violations. Indeed, the presence of DRM is likely often what motivated an otherwise exemplary user to look for illegal copies in the first place… In addition, the (German) customer already pays compensation to the industry over other channels, notably blanket amounts added onto the price of various electronic devices and media directly or indirectly usable for copying, which are then payed out to the industry. This makes DRM at least partially**** an attempt to eat ones cake and keep it too.

*What this implies depends on the product and DRM involved, but common problems include the inability to use the product without (an otherwise unneeded) Internet connection, to move the product from an outdated to-be-retired device to a new one or to use the product non-simultaneously on more than one device, to play DVDs on a computer instead of a stand-alone player, to copy-and-paste a brief quote from a PDF file, …

**Typical costs include developing and implementing the DRM system, license cost for DRM (notably with DVDs and its infamous and useless CSS), computer resources needed to e.g. decrypt something, … Even additional hardware costs are not unheard of, cf. e.g. (the misnomer) Trusted Computing.

***Not only does DRM virtually necessitate new code that increases the risk of new bugs and new security holes, but many DRMs actually interfere with the user’s system in a dangerous and unconscionable manner. In at least one case, the methods used were indisputably illegal and caused severe security problems.

****Nominally, this is intended only to cover some legally protected uses, e.g. backups. However, firstly, the size of these additional fees and the great number of occurrences are not in, IMO, in proportion to what they nominally should cover, especially when factoring in that everyone pays them—even when never engaging in these protected uses. Secondly, a common consequence of DRM is that these legally protected uses are infringed upon, e.g. in that a backup is no longer technically possible for the average user—and might suddenly be illegal (and a lot more effort…) for the advanced user, because the mere presence of DRM illogically invalidates this right.

To boot, DRM often misses the point. Specifically, there are three main types of users that are impacted by DRM:

  1. The average honest consumers, who are worse off without any benefit or compensation—definitely with no price reduction for the reduction in functionality.
  2. The more-or-less professional pirates and deliberate large scale violators of other types. For them DRM is a mere nuisance—they have the knowledge, resources, and a sufficiently good cost–benefit situation that they can just work around* DRM. The actual benefit of DRM through hindering this type is very small and cannot in anyway justify the disadvantages for the average honest users. (Of course, this is the exact opposite of what the pro-DRM rhetoric dishonestly claims.)

    *“How” will depend on the details, but many DRMs are easy to get around with the appropriate knowledge. Many PDF readers, e.g., ignore DRM entirely—switch reader and presto. Many DRM keys have been cracked or leaked and are available to the pros. Tweaked software or hardware can solve much of the rest. In a worst case scenario, the latest Bluray can be played on a screen and re-captured with a camera with only marginal loss of quality—and the result is a superior product, because annoying animated menus, unskippable trailers, and other user-hostile nonsense is removed…

  3. Some set of misguided people, mostly very young and/or poor, who just want to share what they have bought with their friends, e.g. through copying a CD or DVD while keeping the original. (While lending the original for two weeks and then getting it back is (still…) perfectly legal and unremarkable. Ditto just watching the DVD together.)

    The market impact of this is comparatively small to begin with, because the friends are not users who would otherwise all line up to buy the product themselves (again, the exact opposite of what pro-DRM parties claim through the calculations they present). No: Most of them will forego the product entirely, seeing that the world is drowning in other content; get the product from a professional pirate (cf. above); enjoy the one copy of the product in a legal manner (e.g. through borrowing, cf. above); or on the outside wait until the price has dropped to a more reasonable level*.

    *CDs/DVDs/… are often released at very high prices and over time drop quite considerably. The 29.99 Euro movie of today might sell for 9.99 in a years time and a fraction of that in ten years time. CDs from the 1970s are often sold five or ten at a time for 5 Euro… Calculations by the media industry seems to invariably assume that the release price is what everyone would have paid.

    For the small minority of them who would buy a given product (and many who would not), what is missing is not necessarily DRM—but often the understanding that what they do is illegal, and much of the same effect could be reached simply through better information about copyright, intellectual property, and the like.

    Again, DRM by no means brings enough legitimate benefits to outweigh the disadvantages for the average honest consumers. The problem is that the industry reaps all the benefits while the consumers bear the cost…

Written by michaeleriksson

July 9, 2017 at 2:41 pm