Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Various idiocies from around the world

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

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

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

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

    or

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

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

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

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

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

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

    There are at least three things wrong here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by michaeleriksson

July 24, 2016 at 10:26 pm

Follow-Up II: Olympic trials or tragedies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by michaeleriksson

July 22, 2016 at 11:20 pm

Follow-Up: Olympic trials or tragedies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by michaeleriksson

July 14, 2016 at 6:48 pm

Olympic trials or tragedies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by michaeleriksson

July 12, 2016 at 12:14 am

Plastic bags, the environment, and dishonest companies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by michaeleriksson

June 29, 2016 at 9:51 pm

Examples of simplistic reasoning (and Sjöström rocks)

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Over the last week, a complete fiasco for my fellow Swedes at the ice-hockey world-championships was ameliorated by the continued swimming success of Sarah Sjöström—arguably, the greatest swimmer Sweden has ever produced.

One article even speculates that she could be the first woman to break 55 seconds in the 100m butterfly, first accomplished among the men by Mark Spitz in 1972. “If that summer back in 1972 you’d have suggested a woman could match him, Spitz might have been forgiven for laughing. After all, the ladies had just celebrated their first moment inside 1min 04.”

So far, so good. However, this reminded me of two border-line ridiculous lines of reasoning that I have encountered in the past, and that provide good illustrations of why simplistic reasoning and lack of critical thinking is a danger. See e.g. a previous post on science and reason, my website category on thinking, or any number of my posts on feminism or the politically correct. The world would look rather different from what it does, were the ability and willingness to actually think common.

Firstly, extrapolation that women are/were over-taking men in long-distance running*: In, I believe, the early 1990s**, I read a news-paper article that noted how the world records of women were improving much faster than those of men and how women were bound to move ahead within some years or decades. I looked at the accompanying graphic—and saw, immediately, from the graphic it self, with no additional thinking or background information needed, that women allegedly were over-taking men at an earlier time, sometimes noticeably so, the later they had taken up a particular distance. A journalist or scientist*** comes to and publishes a conclusion that is so obviously flawed that a teenager immediately saw that it was flawed!

*Note very carefully: The notion that women could over-take men is not the problem. There can even be a few good arguments raised, e.g. regarding fat reserves or average weight, which would make this plausible a priori. The problem is the simplistic (not to say “simpleton-istic”…) reasoning used. Being right for the wrong reason is often as bad as being wrong.

**At any rate, with several repetitions over the years, until it became obvious that the idea did not pan out.

***It is always hard to tell whether a case of “bad science” reported in popular journalism is bad because of the scientists or because the journalist distorted the claims. Considering the extreme incompetence of the average journalist, I would tend to give the scientists the benefit of the doubt—but there are also plenty of bad scientists out there, especially in the softer sciences.

The problem here is obvious: The newer a discipline is, the lower the standard tends to be, and the record development correspondingly faster. Consider e.g. “the female Bubka”: I heard this epithet applied to at least three different women (Emma George, Stacy Dragila, Yelena Isinbayeva) in the space of likely less than ten years. George (as the first) is by now a nobody on the all-time lists; Dragila is still very good, but not really remarkable, with several women a year jumping on a comparable level; and Isinbayeva lost her indoor world-record earlier than Bubka lost his—but with him setting his far earlier. To make matters worse, George was by no means the first woman to break the world record at a Bubka-esque frequency—just the first to make headlines in Sweden.

In addition, new events often have a certain “hipness” or can be attractive through being new, the greater ease that athletes have at reaching the top, etc., which can also contribute to the faster record development.

Only after an event has reached a certain degree of maturity are extrapolations like in that idiotic article sensible—or the extrapolation has to be done in a far more sophisticated (and still error prone) manner to compensate for the relative youth of an event

In effect, this was a comparison of apples and oranges. History has proved the prediction utterly wrong—but even if the prediction had turned out to be true, the reasoning behind it would have remained so flawed that the scientists (or journalist) might just as well have been tossing coins.

Secondly, an almost derisive article by Douglas Hofstadter*, who claimed (likely correctly) that the female swimmers of some college or high-school matched the times of their male counter-parts just a few decades earlier.** He now concluded that if women could match men physically after so short a time span—how ridiculous would it then be to even contemplate that there was a mental difference worthy of mention***.

*His book “Gödel, Escher, Bach” impressed me immensely as a teenager and I would long have considered such nonsensically reasoning unlikely from him. However, what I have read by him since has impressed me less—as has “Gödel, Escher, Bach” in each subsequent reading (possibly five by now). Remove the funny stories, the dumbing-down, and the “pedagogical scaffolding”, then what remains could be abbreviated into a fraction of the book’s actual length and remains solidly in the undergraduate, usually freshman, curriculum. While it remains a strong accomplishment, those of Gödel (and, in their own ways, Escher and Bach) utterly dwarf Hofstadter’s, and I have come to see him more and more as a self-promoter, possibly even a pseudo-intellectual, than a true thinker.

**I do not recall the exact years and circumstance, but it might have been the early 1980s vs. the early 1960s. Beware that my analysis below can conceivably be off in detail too, seeing that I read this article more than ten years ago.

***As above, the problem is not the claim it self but the reasoning behind the claim. (However, it is no secret that I argue both for the existence of differences in mentality and distribution of abilities, as well as a clear tendency for men to do better in almost any area when we look at “the best of the best” and, likely, the average individual or the group aggregate due to biological factors. Not, however, automatically any individual man compared to any individual woman, due to large individual variations—a point that the politically correct appear to be utterly unable to comprehend.)

There are a number of problems with this line of reasoning, including:

  1. Comparing results from two groups so limited in size is misleading. In order to make a reasonable comparison, the groups have to be so large that the effect of individual variation does not hide the group characteristics. If in doubt, the best women in virtually any sport will be better than a very clear majority of all men in the general population and than most hobby and amateur players; for some sports they might even be better than most professional men.
  2. Comparing using such a limited measure is misleading. It could simply have been that women were naturally better* at swimming (e.g. through having a better buoyancy), but that this fact was hidden in the past due to lower participation numbers—and that they would still have lost out in other physical areas, e.g. power lifting.

    *While men have many physical advantages and are naturally better at the vast majority, possibly all, common sports of today, it would be naive to assume that they are naturally better at any and all conceivable sports: A prime Michael Jordan would have beaten most grown men in most sports—but would have had his ass handed to him by many children in a limbo contest.

  3. Even if we accept the premise that women were equally good swimmers as men (or better power lifters, for all I care ) once equal opportunity was given (or some other change of a similar character), it does not follow that they would be equal in other regards that have little or no connection to the ability to swim. In contrast, if women were as good chess players* as men, the case would have been far, far less weak (but by no means conclusive: Chess is more relevant, but still only covers a small area of all what would need to be covered).

    *From what I have seen so far, they are not even close: The famed Judith Polgar topped out at number 8 on the world ranking and the current female number one ranks as number 73 (at the time of writing, according to the given link). I have heard the claim that female success would be proportionate to their participation and, therefore, the difference is not biological. This too is an example of flawed and simplistic reasoning, although more subtly so than the above examples, because it assumes that the difference in participation is not based in biology; however, both different preferences (e.g. a greater interest in games that require thinking or a greater competitiveness) and different abilities (we tend to enjoy doing things that we are good at; too poor players might not had the opportunity to play in the long-term) contribute to the degree of participation and both are likely to have a strong biological aspect. By analogy, if we find that the success of NBA players of various heights match the expectation based on their proportion of the overall number of players, we cannot conclude that height is irrelevant to success in basket ball.

  4. The circumstances of athletes and within sports change over time and these changes must be considered before comparing different times. Swimming, in particular, appears to be very strongly influenced by issues like bathing suits and pool construction. Other factors include understanding of training methods and diet, level of competition (if someone wins in weak competition (s)he will lack the incentive to train harder of someone who narrowly looses), state of technique*, and, sadly, what drugs are available.

    *With the four established swimming techniques and their separation into different events, there is less revolutionary change and more improvement in detail, but even such detail can make a tremendous difference in the end. Sjöström, e.g., is known for her exquisite technique. In other sports, however, game altering changes have taken place, including in the high jump, shot put, cross-country skiing, and ski jump.

  5. If the women had caught up not only with the men of “yore”, but also with their contemporaries, this would have been far more impressive and had supported the claim less weakly. They had not… Correspondingly, it is unlikely that the times posted by these women were a sign of a removed difference in opportunity—but rather a result of factors like the above.

    For a further comparison with Sjöström, let us look at the world-record progression according to Wikipedia:

    Sjöström’s current 55.64 is roughly equal to Spitz’ 55.7* from 1967. The women’s world record in 1967 was 1:04.5 or 15.8** % slower. The current men’s world record is at 49.82, making Sjöström 11.7 % slower. Not only is the gap still very large, but it has not diminished by very much, when considering the aforementioned arguments about the age of an event. The 1980 world records actually differed by noticeably less with 9.4 %.***

    *Presumably, timing was in tenths of a second back then. Additional differences might exist, notably with regard to hand timing vs. automatic timing.

    **With the potential flaws in the measurements, 15–16 % might be a better statement, but let us keep it simple for now.

    ***1980 was picked as a round number when women’s swimming might have had a reasonable time to mature, in order to have an additional comparison. Going to 1981, the difference is far smaller yet, due to an extreme outlier. The presence of such outliers make a comparison with e.g. the tenth best time of the year more sensible—but I simply do not have the time to do the leg work. Even 1980 might be somewhat misleading due to PED issues, which tend to affect women more strongly, or the systematic selection programs of the GDR, which had dominated the 1970s. (However, the 1980 world-record holder, Mary T. Meagher, was from the U.S.) On the other hand, the current men’s recording might be misleading too, due to now banned swimming suits. The point remains: Differences might be smaller or larger than in the past, but they are still far too large to claim that women would have caught up with men in swimming; which kills Hofstadter’s premise.

And, no, as much as I enjoy her success, the claim that Sjöström’s times “match” those of Spitz is, at best, misleading: For the reasons discussed above, comparing their times is another case of comparing apples and oranges. (Not to mention that she still is far from Spitz’ career best.) The same is not unlikely to apply to the students of Hofstadter’s example.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 22, 2016 at 5:58 pm

The common design problem of CSS and position: fixed

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One of the greater* mistakes in the history of the Web is the idiotic CSS instruction “position: fixed”. This instruction causes a piece of the page, usually the top navigation menu, to remain at the same position relative the browser window—instead of relative the web page. Effectively, objects counter-intuitively and annoyingly remain in sight even when the user scrolls.

*My first draft had “greatest”. Then a great number of other web idiocies occurred to me, including such astonishing mistakes as Flash (slowly dying) or the ability for a web site to manipulate the user’s browser history (long gone). Unfortunately, many of the collaborators on and inventors of various Web technologies have been idiots and/or self-serving at the cost of the users. A particular problem, of which “position: fixed” is a good example, is neglecting the interests of and control by the users in favor of the interests of and control by the web sites—quite contrary to the original spirit of HTML.

There are extremely few sensible use cases for this. In fact, of the top of my head, I cannot name a single one. They are bound to exist, but when someone who has spent more than two decades as an avid surfer and sometimes professional web developer cannot name one…

Unfortunately, it is used by more and more sites to implement use cases that are not sensible. Take the aforementioned top navigation menu: This permanently steals screen space from the actual contents of the page without, normally, bringing any benefit to the user. If the menu is present at the top of the page (not window) through e.g. a “position: absolute”, screen space is only lost when looking at the top of the page. After scrolling down, the entire window is used for content, and in the (for most websites) rare cases that the user wants to go back to the top menu, he can do so with one fell click of a button. Nevertheless, these insensible use(case)s have grown so common that it is almost hard to find a website who has not fallen pray to at least one…

This is particularly annoying, because modern displays are almost always* in the 16:9 format, which is far flatter than the old 4:3 or 5:4 formats, and many or most users are underway on notebooks that have smaller screens than desktop displays and often a lower resolution to boot. For instance, I currently write on a notebook with a screen 768 pixel and roughly eight inches tall—a standard reached by many or most “old” monitors in the 1990s (pixel) or even 1980s (inches)! (That my 1366 pixel of width would have been truly outstanding in the 1980s is no comfort in situations like these.)

*Except in the mobile area, where screen space is even more expensive to begin with and the negative effects are even larger…

Not to forget: These 768 pixel must be shared with other items too, including (in my case) the title bar of the browser window, the top and bottom border of the browser window (albeit minimized to 1 pixel), the browser menu, the browser tab bar, and the browser address menu. Many others will have even less space available because they have an OS-taskbar at the bottom of the screen (I have it to the left side) or because they have disabled fewer this-and-that bars in their respective browsers. In the early graphical web browsers of the 1990s there was less such overhead and correspondingly more horizontal screen space.

Take the recent, utterly idiotic*, redesign of FML: There is now a “fixed” top menu that takes up about 140 pixel. Add in the some hundred pixel used for browser bars (and the like), and there is roughly 500 pixel available for the contents (some other users could have less than 400 on the same monitor)—we are effectively back to the ancient VGA resolution! Combine this with a large increase in default spacing and font sizes, and a browser window now shows me two or, on the outside, three entries at a time. Before the redesign, there were twice or thrice as many.

*Other problems include poorly chosen colors, a hard-to-read layout, a chaotic navigation, removal of the paging, … The old version, in contrast, was easy to read, user friendly, relaxing on the eyes, and provided more content per browser window. It might not have won any prizes for avant-garde design; however, that simply should not be a concern for user-friendly website, which should focus on making life easier for the visitors. Indeed, the result is so utterly idiotic that I might give the site up—and had actually planned to make this post about FML… (I re-prioritized in light of encountering unusually many examples of the fixed top navigation menu today—not to mention a smaller-but-still-ill-advised fixed bottom menu on one of my other favorite sites, online dictionary LEO .) As an aside: It is truly depressing that most re-designs of websites decrease usability in favor of some ill-advised attempt to be “flashy”, “cool”, “interesting”, whatnot.

My advice to web developers: Never use this feature. (If some type of manager demands it, explain why it is a user unfriendly to user hostile idea.)

My advice to web surfers: If one of your favorites adds a new one, complain. The chance that someone listens is small, but it exists—and it is the greater the more people complain. (Complaining about all uses encountered would be an unrealistic task.)

Written by michaeleriksson

May 4, 2016 at 11:34 pm

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