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A Swede in Germany

Follow-up: Deliberate lies, threats to freedom of speech, etc. based on “Unsettled”

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[Fauci, journalism, politics, society, COVID] As a follow-up to my text on “Unsettled” and various COVID texts:

Recent controversies around “it might be a Wuhan lab, after all”, “hydroxychloroquine might work, after all”, and the various Fauci emails, again point to the dangers of e.g. preventing scientific debate or trying to force-feed others a fix opinion, instead of giving them the opportunity to form their own. Note my “three questions to consider” from the prior text.

I have no deeper insight into these specific controversies (as with climate change, I have not done the leg work), but it seemed to me from very early on, that many ideas, Wuhan lab-leak and hydroxychloroquine among them, were struck down without a proper scientific investigation and without strong arguments (as opposed to “Fake News! Must be censored!”). Indeed, at least one article that I read this week claimed evidence that e.g. the Wuhan-lab-hypothesis had been struck down in a blanket manner for the simple reason that it was favored by Donald Trump. (This, incidentally, matches an impression that I have often had of the Left—that they often pick positions based on what their opponents believe, that what the opponents believe must be the wrong thing to believe, or that what the opponents believe must be discredited in order to discredited the opponents.)

Of course, the constant stream of misinformation, misinterpretation, exaggeration, and whatnot from the Left does a lot to explain the great skepticism that many show, even on (the few) issues where the Left might be right. This might, in turn, explain why some U.S.* Conservatives tend to go for what might seem to be conspiracy theories. Consider vaccinations and two scenarios: In the one, a skeptic is told that, yes, vaccines can have negative effects, but they are rare and the benefits outweigh them. In the other, he is told that vaccines are perfectly harmless and never, ever cause problems. What will happen when one of these meets evidence (or even rumor) that a vaccine has had negative effects? Well, the first will note that this was one of the rare cases, shit happens, and no-one and nothing is perfect. The second will note that he was misinformed, grow even more skeptical than he was to begin with, and quite possibly turn into an “anti-vaxxer”—especially, when he has met a plethora of other cases of the government, the Left, or whoever, misinforming him. (Similar reactions can be presumed e.g. when climate-change proponents overstate an otherwise potentially legitimate case.)

*The same pattern is absent or considerably weaker in e.g. Sweden and Germany.

Overlapping with the previous paragraph: While my opinion of Fauci is and remains highly negative, some of the current criticism might be unfair, in that his changing positions sometimes might reflect a changing state of knowledge (as opposed to deliberatele lies that are now being revealed). Had he been less cock-sure, categorical, and black-and-white, and if he had had the decency to be open to other positions, to admit that what we believe today might be found wrong tomorrow, etc., the criticism against him might have been far smaller.

Excursion on lab-leak as cause of overreactions:
I have long toyed with a (hopefully) hypothetical scenario: If (!) the lab-leak hypothesis is true, if (!) the virus resulted from gain-of-function experiments, and if (!) world-leaders knew of this, then it would explain the extreme and disproportionate reactions. They might then have known that the original virus was problematic and that the modified was worse, but, critically, they might not have known by how much. Of course, other explanations have to be found for the continued overreactions after the first few weeks or months of pandemic.

Excursion on “Unsettled”:
I was greatly puzzled to find the last sentence of “Unsettled” to be a grossly hypocritical Biden quote:

We must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated, or even manufactured.

Let that sink in: Biden rides this “culture” to get where he is today, and then tries to take the moral high-ground and reject it, as if he, the Democrats, and the Left were staunch proponents of truth and the Republicans were the serial liars. (Of course, the quote lacks the original context. Maybe it was preceded, in that context, by “Forgive me people, for I have sinned. Hear my repentance.”, or some such.)

Also, let this sink in: A book seeming to be about the need for better science, communication of science, greater honesty in opinion making, etc., turns around and cites Joe Biden (!!!) in a positive manner. For Pete’s sake!

Written by michaeleriksson

June 5, 2021 at 4:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Deliberate lies, threats to freedom of speech, etc. based on “Unsettled” / Follow-up: Various.

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A while back, I wrote ([1]):

Indeed, these constant cries of wolf have strongly contributed to my changed take on man-made global warming, from “definitely real” to “I do not know”—my previous belief was based on claims made by journalists and politicians, experience shows that I cannot trust their claims, and I have (to date) never done the leg work to actually form an independent opinion on the matter.

I am currently trying to get some of that leg work done by reading Koonin’s “Unsettled”, but find the most interesting observations with regard to my own thoughts not in the area of the climate, but in the discussions of knowledge and free speech that are present in e.g. [1], [2], [3], and [4], as well as some of my many COVID discussions.

This both with regard to the contents of the book and the reactions against it.

I lack the time for a deeper analysis, but the problems discussed include topics like:

  1. Misleading reporting of science (notably through poor choices of what data to include in graphs and how to present that data), often with each layer of reporting distorting the actual finding further.
  2. Scientists being loathe to speak up for fear of repercussions.
  3. The possibility that some journalists and politicians take it upon themselves to deliberately exaggerate or distort so that the broad masses will be convinced of the “right” opinion, while being robbed of the right to form their own opinions.

(Of course, very similar issues can be found in e.g. I.Q. research, research into biological differences between men and women, and any other academic area which comes into contact with the Left and/or the PC crowd. Ditto COVID-related topics. )

Particularly telling is his repeated references to e.g. Einstein and Feynman with regard to a duty to truth, intellectual honesty, and similar in science. Consider e.g. Einstein’s

The right to search for truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true.

I note e.g. my own suggestions for a new press-ethics in [3], where the very first item is:

To always report the facts in a manner that allows the readers to form their own opinions—even if they happen to deviate from the journalist’s. This includes not selectively filtering facts that that are unpleasant or incongruent with the journalist’s world view, and not presuming to be an arbiter of what is relevant and what not.

In a bigger picture, I have long been concerned that systematic lying and distortion in line with this quote is taking place—an adult version of the “snus” example from [2]. Indeed, much of the discussion in [2] is highly relevant. This tendency has been very, very clear during the COVID-era, where any claim deviating even slightly from the official line is to be stomped out as inexcusable heresy and misinformation—even when the speaker is a legitimate scientist, even when the science is not yet settled, and even when the facts might support the claim.

Finally, I have previously argued that being right or wrong is not the only thing that matters, e.g. in [4]. Based on my experience and readings since [4], including the massive suppressions and distortions relating to COVID, I would suggest at least the following three questions to consider:

  1. Is a certain opinion correct?
  2. Is a certain opinion, its correctness or incorrectness aside, held for a good reason? (cf. [4], especially.)
  3. Has a certain opinion been freely formed by its holder? (As opposed to instilled in him by another party through means like indoctrination, selective reporting of facts, emotional manipulation, or other intellectually dishonest means.)

Of these, I consider the last the most important—and one likely to be answered with a resounding “NO” for most people and most opinions in today’s world. This failure is a far worse threat to civilization than COVID and climate change put together. It could kill science, democracy, and societal progress. It could ensure that more and more opinions are and remain incorrect as there is no competition between ideas, and as ideas will go untested once deemed the “official truth”. Etc. This is the realm of Soviet-style dictatorships and “Nineteen Eighty-Four”.

Casting a slightly bigger net, we might add a “Is the opinion professed the true opinion of the speaker?” (as opposed to a claim made for fear of repercussions, in order to seem enlightened, or similar).

Excursion on the climate and “Unsettled”:
Roughly half-way through the book, my impression of climate change and climate science is mostly unchanged, i.e. (a) there is likely something too it, but (b) there is a lot of exaggeration and panic-mongering going on, (c) what e.g. journalists claim does not automatically match what scientists say (in this and countless other fields), and (d) I still have not done enough leg work for a firm own opinion.

Something very interesting, however, is that “Unsettled”, in my reading, largely comes down with a “global warming is real” (etc.) take,* while others seem to read the opposite, e.g. (paraphrased) that “Finally, someone proves us skeptics right!” or “This is just a pseudo-scientific attempt to discredit the very real threat of climate change!”. This discrepancy between contents and reactions are not only another example of how dangerous the political climate is in the U.S. (in general) and on the Left (globally), but also plays in well with some of my recent thoughts around “The Bell-Curve”. Contrary to being e.g. “racist” or “White supremacist”, that book could be argued as anti-racist: If we look at what individuals from the broad masses with e.g. an anti-Black attitude say, it often amounts to “Blacks have some natural propensity towards crime [or whatnot], which makes them unsuitable for this-and-that.”. In contrast, “The Bell-Curve” has a take of roughly “those with low I.Q.** tend to end up in jail more often, and race is very secondary to I.Q.”, etc. If the Leftist hate-mongers had not been so keen on shouting the book down as racist, this could have been a very strong anti-racist argument, led to a far greater degree of tolerance, and led to policies much more likely to benefit all races over the long term.

*That the science and science reporting is criticized does not imply that the overall picture is rejected. Here, again, I suspect a strict policy of “either you are 100% with us, including by supporting any of our misinformation, or you are against us”.

**The authors usually deliberately do not speak in terms of I.Q., but the end result is the same and my last reading is too far back for me to remember the exact term used.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 25, 2021 at 11:11 pm

Hollywood insanities / Follow-up: Various

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As a follow-up to some earlier discussions on the influence of the actor and the part on the performance resp. politically correct distortions (e.g. through undue alterations of fictional characters) and countless texts dealing with inappropriate (and especially PC) criteria (e.g. a call for more discrimination):

I just encountered a very depressing text on affirmative action in Hollywood, which I strongly recommend reading—and which makes me, for the umpteenth time, marvel that this type of nonsense has not been struck down by a popular protest. What is described here is insane even by current U.S. standards, e.g. that “best picture” Oscar candidates must have:

o At least one actor from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group must be cast in a significant role.

o The story must center on women, L.G.T.B.Q. people, a racial or ethnic group or the disabled.

o At least 30 percent of the cast must be actors from at least two of those four underrepresented categories.

Apart from the problem of “underrepresented” (cf. excursion), this forces enormous compromises in artistic integrity/quality and distorts the playing field to such a degree that the the award might be entirely spurious—as if the Superbowl invitations would ignore all teams who did not have a significant number of female players, even if the ignored teams had actually had significantly better results. (Note that this applies even if we assume a similar skill level among “represented” and “underrepresented” actors resp. male and female football players. Cf. excursion.) In fact, it codifies a problem that is already having a massive negative impact on TV and movies.

Moreover, it introduces an implicit near-mandatory political message and risks a continuation of the trend of “best actor” awards being awarded not just for the performance but for the part or the movie. (The above criteria, in my understanding only applies to “best picture”, but being in the “best picture” is an advantage, there is bound to be some indirect influence, and, as evidenced by the following, there are already strong PC pressures on “best actor” too.)

Another telling quote is:

A white actor, Anthony Hopkins, beat out the favored black, the late Chadwick Boseman, for best actor. Boseman supporters say he was “robbed.” If Boseman had got the award, would anyone dare say Anthony Hopkins was robbed?

Well, I have not seen the movie for which Boseman was nominated—or hardly anything of his other works.* However, there is a fair chance that I would have both dared say that and would have said it: Hopkins’s performance was monstrous. The “I’m losing my leaves”** scene is as close to perfection as I have ever seen, down to such details as the shaking of the hands. Indeed, after having watched “The Father”, my first impulse was to write another Oscar prediction—ten months in advance. (However, I soon learned that I was not ten months in advance but rather two months behind.) Of course, I have seen a great many of Hopkins’s performances over the years, and he is widely considered one of the greatest actors of our time. Boseman? Well, he has tons of nominations, but appears to have won next to nothing, and most of even his nominations are for his works in 2020, where both a “was Black” and “just died” bonus is likely to apply—not to mention that his main movie had a “Black icon” topic.***

*Going by Wikipedia, “Gods of Egypt” (only the vaguest recollection), an episode of “Castle” (no recollection), and a few minor appearances as “Black Panther” (left me cold; however, note that I have not seen the actual “Black Panther” movie).

**Reservations for the exact phrasing.

***Possibly, with other aspects like “mistreated by Whites in a less enlightened era”. I have not seen the movie and I do not have the time for detailed research.

Then we have issues with further “black-washing” and whatnot:

Most of the upcoming Marvel movies will star non-whites and have POC in important supporting roles. The new Captain America, one of Marvel’s most popular characters, is black. The most famous superhero, Superman, will also be black in his next film.

As to the aforementioned criteria, I have long considered writing a “turn the TV of if” post, as I am highly annoyed by many issues with modern film and television, including the artificial introduction of various “underrepresented” (or, better, “PC-favored”) characters in e.g. TV series. I will not go through with this (for now), as this blog is supposed to be closed, but I give as examples of what I had in mind:

  1. If there has been more than marginal changes in the racial-or-whatnot “make-up” of an original work, e.g. through recasting Superman as Black or having a female Doctor (in the “Doctor Who” sense); or compared to the realistic historical proportions, e.g. through having a Victorian setting with as many Black or Indian characters as White*.

    *Unless the work actually has a topic that makes this plausible.

  2. If there are PC-favored characters that seem to have been added for no other reason that PC conformity, e.g. an overrepresentation of gay couples in a work with no obvious gay connection, a cast where “ethnic” characters are severely overrepresented, or where all or almost all protagonists have a union card*.

    *I.e. is at least one of non-White, non-male, non-hetero, non-whatnot.

  3. If there is a gratuitous sex scene within the first ten minutes. (My motivation is rooted in fears that the rest of the work will be equally wasteful—as they usually are.)
  4. If homosexual or interracial kissing occurs within the first ten minutes. (Because this is likely done for the specific purpose of pushing a “look how enlightened this work is” agenda—not because I would view it as worse than other instances of kissing. Also note that I would prefer less onscreen kissing in general.)
  5. If a female protagonist has been raped or lives/d in an “abusive relationship”.

Excursion on “underrepresentation”:
The underrepresentation angle is usually complete garbage. Often these claims are based more in Leftist rhetoric than in actual facts, even to the point of being less a matter of underrepresentation* and more of a general “have it worse than they deserve”, which, in turn, is also usually a misrepresentation. When an apparent underrepresentation is present, it usually arises from looking at the wrong baseline. For instance, if there are fewer Black Oscar-winners, senators, or whatnot than predicted by population share, is that really because Whites are deliberately oppressing them or because there simply are fewer qualified candidates? Mostly, the latter. (The same applies to e.g. female senators, board members, whatnot.) Look at e.g. U.S. colleges: Blacks are given an enormous leg up with preferred admittance with worse SAT scores, they are often graduated from high-school with better grades (or at all) than they have earned, etc. If they still trail in academic accomplishment, it is mainly** because they have not managed (or been willing) to take the opportunities provided them.

*Indeed, in the specific case of TV and movies, “underrepresented” groups are usually overrepresented.

**There are secondary complications like schools with more Blacks tending to be more violent, have more unruly classrooms, and similar. However, this usually goes back to the Blacks, themselves, and not to e.g. White supremacists trying to push them down. In doubt, colleges should not be punished for a failure in the school system.

To this might be added problems like a usually undue focus on the group instead of the individual, a focus on potentially wrong groups (e.g. through grouping by race rather than e.g. college major, profession, interests, IQ, or what might be relevant in a given context), and a strong risk of destructive and dehumanising “identity politics”.

Excursion on negative effects of artificial limits:
Artificial limits, e.g quotas, are almost always harmful even when the groups involved seem fungible (and the more so when they are not fungible). Consider, as a very neutral example, the hypothetical regulation that “best actor” awards must be equally divided based on what day-of-week actors were born, and that this is implemented by only considering candidates born on a Sunday this year, only those born on a Monday next year, and so on, in a seven-year cycle. Now there is roughly a chance of 1/7 that the respective winner actually was the legitimate “best actor” of the year, and 6/7 that he was merely the best of those born on the same weekday.* The risk that a relative dud, e.g. the 10th best overall, manages to win sky rockets compared to a system without quotas.** Etc. To make matters worse, there is now a risk that the entire system is changed, e.g. in that actors born on the “wrong” day are not even cast in parts that might be award relevant to begin with, or that the release of a movie is artificially delayed to ensure that it matches the year that the lead actor is eligible.

*Assuming that the awards are otherwise objectively and competently decided, which is dubious.

**I do not want to get bogged down in math, but broadly speaking: Without a quota, number 10 would have to unfairly beat out nine others (as well as, fairly, those behind him). With a quota, it is enough that the best of the current day-of-birth is ranked no better than 10, which is not that unlikely, or e.g. that the number 2 of that day-of-birth beats out just one higher ranker instead of nine.

Excursion on “The Father”:
While Hopkins performance was monstrous, he almost certainly had the benefit of having the right part in the right movie, in a manner similar to those discussed in my first text. The movie, as a whole, might have been better, had it stuck more strictly to the perspective of the protagonist. This both to improve the overall effect and to avoid confusion about what is real and not real through showing other perspectives (as opposed to confusion caused by the protagonist’s failing memory).

Written by michaeleriksson

May 17, 2021 at 3:57 pm

Musings on configuration of software

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[tags, Vim, Vi, Linux, Unix, Debian, configuration, software]

Preamble: I just stumbled on what appears to be a completed-but-unpublished text, dated “Jun 11 2017” in my file system. As it is fairly lengthy, I have decided to publish it retroactively. Except for a spell-check, the text follows “as is”, including outdated time references, in the hope that the text actually was in order. Note that improvements to e.g. Vim might have been made in the almost four years since the text was written.

Over the last few days, I have been puzzled as to why my experimental install of Debian Stretch did not handle copy-and-paste using the “primary selection” within Xterm windows correctly.*

*Do not worry: Understanding that sentence is not a pre-requisite for understanding this post. Being interested in issues like software development could well be, however. A complete understanding will require a background with Unix-like environments, but much of the discussion should be clear without it.

After many twists and turns, I found out that the true problem was not related to Xterm—but to Vim (my favorite editor): The new Debian came with a new version (8) of Vim and the behavior of the default settings had changed considerably. More to the point, changed in a very ill-advised manner.*

*However, I stress that some degree of change is not automatically a bad thing, especially considering that some of the previous default behaviors had proven suboptimal and that a major version increase of Vim actually corresponds to a major release—unlike e.g. Firefox and its versioning idiocy. What is changed and how, that is where I have objections.

Among the problems:

  1. Many of the choices are disputable, including what I stumbled on: The activation of the mouse in terminals (including Xterm). Any application that activates the mouse in a terminal automatically breaks the terminals own mouse-handling, with the implication that this should only be done when there is a considerable benefit from using a mouse. To boot, if the benefit is so large, the developers really should consider whether their application is compatible with a terminal in the first place. There are cases when even a terminal based application needs a very point-and-click interface, e.g. w3m*—but Vim does not have a point-and-click interface! By and large, Vim is keyboard driven and the mouse brings marginal or no benefits to those who can handle Vim by keyboard—and those who use Vim in a terminal should be assumed to belong to this group! In fact, Vim is the proverbial keyboard-driven application! A more sensible approach would have been to leave the mouse on in the GUI versions only.

    *w3m is a terminal-based browser, handy for instance for viewing HTML-based admin interfaces when logged in on a remote server. Because web pages are almost always written with the expectation of a point-and-click interface, even browsers with great keyboard support are handicapped without a mouse.

    Another example is the blanket use of the non-Vi-compatible mode*: A better solution would have been to follow the (well-established) convention of being compatible when called with the “old” name (here “vi”) and not when being called with the “new” (here “vim”), analogous to the behavior of e.g. Bash when called as “bash” and when called as “sh”.

    *Vim was created as an improved version of Vi, an older and extremely popular editor. Like many other (non-commercial) tools in the same situation, it tries to make life easier on users and admins by additionally allowing it self to be used as a drop-in replacement, thereby removing the need to have both it self and the original installed. Being a drop-in replacement, however, requires a high degree of backwards compatibility. On the other hand, this backwards compatibility would restrict the improved parts severely, were they active all the time. The solution is a separate compatibility mode.

    Yet another the remapping of “Q” (switch to ex mode) to do the formatting previously done with “gq”. Not only is this a highly unexpected break with old functionality, but it is also pointless: Users still need to hit the same number of keys whether they type “gq” or “Q” (the shift key and the “q” key). If the change at least had had a mnemonic advantage … An added complication is that messing with the keyboard short-cuts in Vim can have unexpected consequences in more advanced mappings made by the user: The conceptual binding between the key pressed and the action taken is so close and hard that it is quite common for users to just build their mappings as sequences of keys.* If the binding is changed, these mappings, some of which might have been used without fail for decades, could suddenly break.

    *It can be disputed whether this is a good idea, but fact remains that this is how it is mostly done. An interesting twist is that building mappings with “noremap” (i.e. simulate-a-set-of-manual-keystrokes-but-pretend-that-there-are-no-other-mappings) instead of “map” (i.e. simulate-a-set-of-manual-keystrokes) helps with isolating from such changes, but that is contingent on this change being done through a map. As it happens, it is done through a map, but that has the disadvantage that a user used to formatting with “Q” would now be forced to use “map” over “noremap” in order for his mappings to match his expected behavior… In most cases, the map/remap differentiation is not very helpful or practical, and I have always found it better to try to simply make sure that the keys of the “original” key–action-bindings are not used to identify mappings. (Disclaimer: To avoid confusion, the preceding is over-simplified. I have, for instance, skipped over topics like the mappings restricted to a certain mode and the possibility to use a “mapleader”.)

    A closer analysis would likely show similar problems with other entries and for any given entry at least some people will object to it. (Admittedly, to some degree, the argument holds that we cannot make everyone happy. However, this argument is not valid when it comes to supporting a mere matter of taste, and quite a few of the entries appear to be less centered on activating new features or objectively improving usability, and more on just picking the arbitrary preference of the file’s author—which is a lousy basis for defaults forced onto the rest of the world.)

    On the other hand, there is at least one point where Vim’s behavior is idiotic* for reasons of backwards compatibility, but where a change was not made… The “Y” action still “yanks” (copies) a whole line, instead of the line from the cursor column to the end of the line—as would have been expected, noting that “D” deletes from the cursor column to the end of the line, that “Y” behaves in this manner in the “vi mode” of e.g. Bash, and that there is another command, “yy” that already yanks the entire line (analogous to “dd”, which deletes the entire line). In fact, Vim’s behavior here has worsened over the years: There used to be an official setting to control this behavior; now, users have to define a “mapping” as a workaround.** Note that while there is a superficial similarity to the “Q”/“gq” issue, the cases are not analogous: Firstly, many users will instinctively type “Y” and expect the entire line to be yanked (because they use it that way in Bash, because they do what comes naturally, or because they are used to another instance of Vim, where they have corrected the problem); in contrast, the change of “Q” goes against instinct and expectation. Secondly, “gq” is typed with roughly the same effort and time consumption as “Q” (possibly even less than “Q”); in contrast, the recommended work-around for “Y” is the construct “y$”, which takes three key strokes and includes one of the more hard-to-reach characters***. The risk of breaking a mapping would remain, admittedly, but a prudent mapper would have written his mappings with “yy” instead of “Y” to begin with (and very many would already have re-mapped “Y” to “y$”).

    *To which could be added a number of options and behaviors where the default is likely to clash with the personal preference of the average user, typical programming guide-lines, or similar—without reaching the point of idiocy. For instance, in almost every project I have worked, the tab character has been banned and the standard indentation has been four spaces. Vim still adheres to the more 1970’s convention of using tabs for indentation and showing tabs as eight (!) spaces. (Eight not only being considerably rarer than four, but also likely rarer than two, possibly even three, today.)

    **In all fairness, it could be argued that creating a mapping in Vim is so easy that the official setting was redundant. However, through the existence of the setting, the developers at least acknowledged that there was a problem with the default behavior.

    ***y, shift, 4, assuming a standard QWERTY-keyboard. Compared to “Y” (shift y) this might take twice as long. Note that due to the keyboard-driven approach of Vim, this is an important concern, unlike in e.g. Microsoft Word.

  2. defaults.vim gives the impression of being a set of application defaults, but in reality it comes closer to being a default ~/.vim/vimrc: It only applies when ~/.vim/vimrc is not present, forcing Vim’s documentation to present the suggestion to alter ~/.vim/vimrc to load it anyway*. Here the developers clearly have not made up their minds** what defaults.vim should actually do… In fact, it would have been better to never execute it automatically and instead giving the option to manually include it in ~/.vim/vimrc or /etc/vim/vimrc (with the added benefit that no code change would be necessary and that the initialization process would be simpler). A further snag is that based on names and naming conventions, the role as a default*** ~/.vim/vimrc is already filled by /etc/vim/vimrc, causing confusion and inconsistencies.

    *My recommendation is the exact opposite: Put anything from defaults.vim that you find sensible in your ~/.vim/vimrc and then forget that it ever existed. This way you are better insulated from later arbitrary alterations. Alternatively, an admin, especially when the sole physical user, might want to expand /etc/vim/vimrc and then remove/blank defaults.vim entirely. (But see below.)

    **This is almost always a bad idea in software development: The clearer the intent has been established and the fewer ifs-and-buts are made, the better things tend to work out. Software should be predictable and consistent. Failing to pay attention to this is one of the greatest causes of poor usability and high maintenance/extension costs that there is.

    ***Whether “default” is the right word can be disputed, since /etc/vim/vimrc is executed even when ~/.vim/vimrc is present. However, since the developers obviously (cf. above) want defaults.vim to be used by everyone, even those having a ~/.vim/vimrc, the difference is minimal. As an aside, system vs. user-specific config files are handled inconsistently for different tools, with many (e.g. Vim and Bash) always running both, and some (e.g. Xpdf) skipping the system file when the user-specific file is present (just like defaults.vim).

  3. If an admin alters defaults.vim (e.g. to blank it, cf. above) chances are that the changes will at some point become overwritten or ineffectual, at the latest when Vim 8.1 appears*. A better approach would have allowed for some way to preserve overrides, e.g. the one used by Debian** to handle /etc/vim/vimrc: This file (which could be altered by e.g. a change in Debian’s handling of Vim) calls /etc/vim/vimrc.local, which is guaranteed to be left unaltered by Debian, and here an admin can safely put settings.

    *As can be deduced from the path on my system, which contains the version of Vim. Implication: 8.1, 8.2, 9.1, …, will have different files from 8.0, and changes to the 8.0 version will not affect other versions.

    **Whether a distribution should actually provide any settings for a tool like Vim is disputable (cf. elsewhere)—an originally blank /etc/vim/vimrc that is never altered by Debian might have been even better. However, the mechanism is still an improvement (and there are other cases where distribution settings are more legitimate).

  4. The running order of defaults.vim and /etc/vim/vimrc is unexpected and suboptimal. The natural thing to do would be to run defaults.vim first, allowing /etc/vim/vimrc to override it. Unfortunately, defaults.vim’s role as a ~/.vim/vimrc stand-in applies with regard to execution order too. This implies both that upgrading to Vim 8 will break many deliberate global configurations that have worked for years and that admins will now have to alter two different files to set global defaults. Worse, since defaults.vim only (or so it is claimed) triggers when no ~/.vim/vimrc is present, the admins may never even notice the need…
  5. Default settings intended for every single installation of a program, not just the local system, belong in the code, not in a config file. This might seem counter-intuitive, with the extra config file being a better abstraction and making alterations easier. However, there are several reasons why this must be so, including at least: The code must contain defaults anyway, so that the application can run in a well-defined manner if the configuration is missing, not readable, corrupt, whatnot; if we also have defaults in a file, there are now two alleged and potentially contradictory sets of defaults… (In the specific case of Vim, where the use of the file is conditional, this applies doubly. Notably, it is reasonably safe to conclude the two sets of defaults are contradictory, because otherwise defaults.vim would be almost pointless.) As implied by the previous, the config file is a potential, unnecessary, source of complications—and not limited to those already given. (What, e.g., if an admin alters this file instead of the intended system global configuration?) With a config file, there is a considerable risk that, deliberately or accidentally, the default settings will be altered* arbitrarily from release to release, forcing users and admins to use a different set of overrides, because they agree with the default on system A but not on system B.

    *There is no law against altering code-based defaults, but both the psychological and the practical obstacles tend to be higher, even considerably higher. Altering a config setting is done in virtually no time at all; recompiling the code of a larger application can take several minutes, even many minutes, in extreme cases hours, depending on the application and the machine doing the compilation. Alternatively, from a different point of view, developers tend to be more responsible where code changes are concerned.

  6. At least with regard to the “man page”, the change is poorly documented. In fact, skimming through it, I can see no mention at all. defaults.vim is definitely not mentioned in the “FILES” section and what happens when the “-u” and “-U” flags are used is potentially* undefined.

    *The claim “All the other initializations are skipped” (resp. “All the other GUI initializations are skipped”) is made. However, with defaults.vim finding no mention on the page and with it’s inconsistent role, I would not trust the claim without doing a practical experiment. To boot, the Vim-internal help page claims “Most other initializations are skipped” and also makes no mention of defaults.vim… (Cf. “:help -u”.)

  7. Unlike e.g. ~/.vim/vimrc there is no obvious way to suppress defaults.vim on the command line. Instead, ‘set the “skip_defaults_vim” variable’ is the advice given. (Cf. “:help skip_defaults_vim”.) This normally assumes that Vim is already running and that it is either already to late or that the statement is in another config file (and, obviously, before defaults.vim is executed). An obscure workaround along the lines of “vim –cmd skip_defaults_vim=1” (“let skip_defaults_vim=1”? “set skip_defaults_vim=1”?) might possibly achieve that goal, but compared to e.g. “vim -u” this is a hard-to-remember chore of a call, which is by no means obvious from the man page.

The “skeleton files” are a particularly misguided complication: Through this mechanism, configuration files with default content are automatically created in a user home directory upon its creation—for no good reason. Config settings that are supposed* to be valid globally belong in the global config files (e.g. /etc/bash.bashrc), not in the user ones (e.g. ~/.bashrc). Putting them in user files creates an immense duplication and maintenance problem—to the point that a global configuration file must still be present** and most likely duplicating almost everything in the skeleton file… If not, then users will have different defaults depending on when they were created. At the same time, users with many accounts have additional problems in putting everything in order, because there is one extra thing that they have to check. In common constellations like mine (viz. a single physical user of a system with many user accounts) the skeleton files are a positive hindrance, because if it had not been for the skeleton files, changing the global config would have been enough and there would never have been a user config. The automatically created user config has to be deleted for each and every individual user in order to ensure that I have the settings I want***.

*In the sense of a default. Only very, very rarely is it legitimate to enforce settings in such a manner that users cannot override them—for that matter, only very, very rarely is it even technically feasible.

**Although there may be rare instances when it is empty (and when it may or may not be removable for the time being). If that is the case, chances are that there was no reasonable content to put in the skeleton file either…

***Or the skeleton files deleted in advance, which is very easy to forget and many will not even be aware of them before a number of accounts have already been created. (For instance, yours truly when he set up his first system.)

Generally, the settings that Linux distributions (e.g. Debian) try to shove down the users’ throats are often ill advised or even dangerous (e.g. a umask that lets everyone read the files of everyone else) and rarely anything better than the personal (!) preferences of someone. It is highly disputable whether a distribution should make such settings at all. As a rule there should be three parties involved—and the distribution is not one of them: The individual user, the entity running the current system (which often coincides with the individual user), and the maker of the specific piece of software. Of these, even the second usually has little or no reason to intervene where user tools like Vim and Bash are concerned, leaving us with what comes close to a two-fold partition: The user and the software maker.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 14, 2021 at 3:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Chauvin trial IV: Fair trials?

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Let us say that the Chauvin trial ([1], [2], [3]) was fair—despite my considerable misgivings.

Will this still be the case with future trials of a similar nature? (Including, but not limited to, the trials against the other three officers from the Floyd-incident and any further trials concerning Chauvin.) Unlikely:

As I read today, one of the pro-Chauvin experts is attacked over his testimony in a manner that could have grave consequences for his career and is likely to have a severe chilling effect on other expert witnesses.

Of course, in a next step, and looking at many other similar societal trends, we might see more or less any trial with a potential Leftist angle influenced in an undue manner (even the many judicial-activist judges aside), because witnesses might not dare speak up, experts might not dare give testimony, jurors might not dare vote according to their actual beliefs, etc. In reverse cases, a DA might not dare prosecute even grossly criminal Leftist behaviors or grossly criminal behavior by Leftists.

Indeed, going by other readings, any type of support of those the Left has condemned, even prior to any trial, likely even absent criminal accusations, can have horrifying consequences. I have, for instance, heard at lest one account of someone being fired over a trivial monetary contribution to the defense of Kyle Rittenhouse. (As well as several accounts of crowdfunding attempts for him and/or other similar cases and causes being canceled by the respective platform.) This while Rittenhouse, let alone his supporters, is still unconvicted, is still entitled to due process and the presumption of innocence, and while the facts presented so far point to legitimate self-defense and an acquittal in a fair (!) trial.

Once someone is in the gun sights of the Left, he can lose any chance at a fair trial, monetary help (trials are expensive), expert testimony, etc. that even a hardened criminal of a politically neutral or pro-Left nature has access to.

Then we have to factor in complications like firings over expression of non-PC opinions, even when these opinions are factually sound; firings over the opinions of spouses; attempts to de-platform those with non-PC opinions; attempts to shutdown alternative platforms (e.g. Parler); etc.; etc.; etc;

What is happening in the U.S., and increasingly other parts of the world, is disturbingly similar to what happened in e.g. the old Communist dictatorships or “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, with that mentality of “either you are with us 100% or you will be utterly destroyed”. Indeed, in the U.S., more or less the entire “Bill of Rights” is under attack.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 26, 2021 at 1:18 pm

COVID curfews / Follow-up various

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I have repeatedly mentioned the risk that curfews will be imposed in Germany. In particular, in [1] I wrote:

As to [a suggested nightly curfew], what is that supposed to achieve?!? The nights are the times when the streets are almost free of people anyway, when there is the smallest risk of infecting or being infected. By locking people in at night, they either lose an option of fresh air and exercise for no good reasons or are forced to move these activities to the day time, when the risks are larger … Utterly idiotic. (Note that bars, discos, and the like are closed to begin with, irrespective of this curfew.)

Nevertheless, nightly curfews have become more and more common in Germany. Beginning today,* these curfews are pushed through on the federal level and imposed nationwide. The rules, however, are quite confusing and inconsistent, e.g. in that it is forbidden to leave one’s residence after time X**, unless it is done for exercise (or some other limited reason), in which case time Y** applies.

*Probably and with some reservations for the local incidence rate. Cf. excursion.

**I have seen conflicting claims and have not verified which exact numbers apply at the moment. The earlier, more local, Wuppertal curfew probably had X as 9 P.M. and Y as midnight.

This re-raises the question: Given that there already are strict restrictions on inter-household contacts (irrespective of time of day), that discos, bars, restaurants, etc. are all closed to begin with, that the few stores that are open close at 9 P.M.* anyway, that most workplaces close a lot earlier, etc. what could the purpose of this be?

*Going by the grocery stores in my neighborhood—other localities might have (or have had, pre-COVID) longer opening hours. Non-grocery stores typically close even earlier.

There is, obviously, some chance that this is yet another case of politicians making incompetent decisions, possibly just for the purpose of showing that “we are doing something” (even should what is done be ineffectual or do more harm than good).

In light of the exceptions, however I see a suspicion supported that I have hitherto left unstated for fear of looking paranoid, as it points to something truly nefarious, an inexcusable GDR-level agenda—that these curfews are intended to make it easier for the government to enforce other restrictions. Effectively, they are not there to (directly) combat COVID, but to give the government the tools to force the people to compliance (even be it with the indirect purpose of combating COVID).

For instance, without a curfew, family A could go visit family B, and unless they are observed together, a disgruntled family member tattles, or similar, the police would not be able to do very much. With a curfew? Nick them for violating the curfew on the way over, instead of the actual “crime” that they were about to “get away” with. (Conveniently, the exercise exemption is limited to one or, possibly, two persons, while the visiting restrictions have a similar one-person exemption.)

Looking at the future, this is could be highly problematic on at least two counts: Firstly, restrictions on civic rights are becoming ever more extreme and the ever more extreme is becoming “normalized”.* Secondly, this attitude of curfews and whatnots for the purpose of controlling the people could easily find a post-COVID** continuation, e.g. in that curfews are imposed to prevent AfD*** members from coordinating or that you-are-not-allowed-to-surf-the-Internet-anonymously-lest-you-spread-Rightwing****-hate-speech suggestions resurface.

*Notably, restrictions of dubious justification relative the crisis and the foreseeable benefit.

**If there is such a thing as post-COVID. Another immense danger is the COVID might remain and/or be milked by the politicians for so long that the next pandemic or whatnot appears in time to make the situation permanent.

***A popular-with-many-voters and hated-by-the-old-parties political party which is demonized and used as a threatening specter by the German Left—they must be suppressed or in a few years we will be gassing Jews and invading Poland.

****And note how often the focus is on explicitly “Rightwing” this-or-that, despite the Left almost invariably being the bigger sinners.

Excursion on governmental duty to inform:
As I noted in [2], there is too little information flowing in an explicit manner from the government. In effect, the citizens are supposed to hang on every word the press says, and hope that the press has got it right, in order not be ignorant of the current regulations. (And, again, not limited to COVID.)

This situation simply is not conscionable, especially with the way that the government dithers back on forth on some issues (note the Easter topic from [2] and some earlier texts) and with the often varying regulations on the federal, state, and municipal levels. Indeed, I outright missed the original imposition of a local Wuppertal curfew, only learning about it several days after the fact, because it did not find mention in any of the more nationwide sources that I had read. (And, frankly, I do not read that much German news anyway—in part, for lack of quality sources; in part, because of the high degree of paywalling.)

It absolutely, positively, and categorically must be the responsibility of the government to ensure that such information is given to the people—not the responsibility of the people to research whatever the government is currently up to. (The “how” I leave open for now, but this is one of the few areas where an email newsletter might make sense. With COVID and the often very short time from suggestion to decision, even putting paper notices in mailboxes might be justified.)

Written by michaeleriksson

April 24, 2021 at 11:15 am

Riots and whatnot, Chauvin trial III / Follow-up: Utterly insufficient data, insight, and thought

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For now, I will not comment further on the verdict or trial, as my take is sufficiently documented in Parts I and II.

However, it is time to revisit another quote from [1]:

Of course, if [Chauvin] is acquitted, we can cue the next round of riots … (“Racist jury!”, “Racist justice system!”, etc.)

While I have yet to hear “Racist jury!”, we do have riots, threats of violence, “Racist justice system!”, “Systemic racism!”, etc., etc., etc.—despite a conviction!

This shows how far the U.S. and the U.S. racial debate has descended, and it shows how dangerous it has been for politicians to not just treat e.g. BLM and Antifa with silk gloves, but to actually encourage their outrageous, anti-democratic, and criminal behavior. (Recent statements by Maxine Waters (?) are possibly the most horrifying in the mainstream, but the problem has been extensive for at least the past year.)

Moreover, it well exemplifies two problems that I have seen again and again in various incarnations of the Left:

Firstly, it is insatiable. Fulfill Leftist demand A to get some peace and quiet, to reach a compromise, whatnot, and it will gobble A down and raise demands for B and C.

Secondly, the more powerful the Left is, the more dominant its ideas are, etc., the more strongly rhetoric like “we X* are oppressed and society must be reformed” will be, the stronger the complaints about alleged “Rightwing” extremism, etc. A good example is the German “Rechtsruck”** propaganda, which is raised as a specter as soon as the voters or the more Conservative parties do not toe the Left-of-center line.

*With X e.g. “the workers”, “the women”, “the Blacks”.

**See a few earlier texts, including [2].

Written by michaeleriksson

April 21, 2021 at 8:56 am

Chauvin trial II / Follow-up: Utterly insufficient data, insight, and thought

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As an addendum to my last text:

A particular dangerous and dishonest part of the prosecution’s rhetoric is the whole “believe your eyes” sloganeering. The entire issue with this trial is that just looking at the video evidence gives a simplistic view of events. Indeed, in [1] I discussed lack of insight and thought as a society wide problem and exemplified it with the (long before trial) interpretations of the Chauvin–Floyd events that did not consider e.g. complications through drugs.

That the prosecution continues to push this simplistic angle is both depressing and a sign that its case is comparatively weak. Still, as demonstrated by O.J. and that glove, such sloganeering can be effective—no matter how cheap and misleading.

What our eyes tells us is very often not reliable—something many observant children pick up from optical illusions.* Apart from such directly misleading optical impressions, we have to consider both that other sources of evidence can be relevant in order to understand the situation and (often overlapping) that the “raw” evidence at hand might need interpretation in order to reach a correct understanding.

*For instance, the famous picture that shows a young or an old lady depending on how it is viewed, or those lines who look different in size but are measurably identical. Indeed, the Chauvin-trial provides an interesting example of such an easy illusion, too, in that some scenes where Chauvin’s knee appears to be on Floyd’s neck suddenly show the knee on Floyd’s shoulder when a different camera angle is used. (According to written reporting. I have not verified this, myself.) Or what about that dress where viewers cannot even agree on the color?

To take another example for children: when I was around five, I was at a public swimming pool with my family. I and my sister were given money to use a pop-corn machine of some sort. As my cup was almost full, I began to worry that it would over-flow, that I must somehow manually tell the machine to stop. I did the most naturally thing that came to me and lifted up the see-through flap in front of my cup. The pop-corn flow immediately stopped. My sister was up next. I told her that she could or should stop the flow by lifting the flap when she felt that she had enough. She did so earlier than I had—and an UNinterrupted flow of pop-corn spilled onto the ground.

The reason: I had neither considered all the available evidence, nor considered the evidence in light of reason. If I had, I would have noted that there was no obvious mechanism that allowed the flap to interrupt the flow, I would have considered e.g. a coincidence, and I would have contemplated the possibility that there was some type of automatic termination once a certain quantity had been dispensed. From an adult perspective, what happened with my pop-corn was that I began to fear an over-flow once the limits of the cup were reached, which is when the machine, by design, terminated the flow.

Unfortunately, this type of simplistic thinking, the taking of a superficial impression and jumping to conclusions, is extremely common. Good example include many abused statistics, e.g. the 77 cents on the dollar fraud and the (relevant to the Chauvin-trial) claims of “racial discrimination” or “systemic racism” that note e.g. that Blacks are over- or underrepresented relative their proportion of the overall population without considering more relevant sub-populations,* differences in individual behavior,** and similar.

*E.g. that a better baseline for deaths of ethnicity X at the hand of the police is the proportion of hard criminals of ethnicity X—not the proportion of ethnicity X in the overall population. E.g. that a college cannot be faulted for admitting students at a rate that corresponds to the proportions among those who have GPA’s and SAT scores above a certain level—not proportions in the overall population.

**Often overlapping with the previous footnote: If someone engages in criminal behavior, tries to resist arrest, whatnot, the risk of dying in a police incident is increased very considerably. If someone does not work hard in high school the chance of college admission is diminished accordingly.

Finally, concerning the guilt-or-not-guilt of Chauvin vs. the settlement: In my previous text, I mentioned that “Moreover, while the burden of proof is lower in a civil suit, an acquittal of Chauvin (just wait a few weeks for Pete’s sake!) could have been a strong indication of a rejection of damages or an awarding of a much smaller amount in court.”. While I stand by that claim (and by the claim that the amount of the settlement was absurd), I should add that there are at least two other factors than burden of proof that could justify a payment, even should Chauvin be acquitted: Firstly, it is not uncommon that restitution is justified even absent criminal guilt.* Secondly, if Chauvin was acquitted e.g. due to having followed protocol, this would not automatically imply that the protocol was reasonable and conscionable. If the protocol was then found to be flawed, the city could still be culpable.

*Consider accidentally breaking the neighbor’s window while playing baseball, for a trivial example and to stick with the theme of children.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 20, 2021 at 10:03 am

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Chauvin trial / Follow-up: Utterly insufficient data, insight, and thought

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As the Chauvin trial is approaching final arguments, I will summarize my view in advance, to avoid the risk of later rationalization (or accusation of such).

In my past writings, there have been several mentions, probably most notably in [1], more than nine months ago:*

*Footnotes of the original text have not been duplicated. Please see the original text for these, the full context, etc.

From what I know at this stage, it is possible that even a drugged and unhealthy Floyd would have survived without the knee, but it is also possible that he would have died anyway. Remove the knee, and he might or might not have lived. Remove the drugs, and he might or might not have lived. Remove his health problems, and he might or might not have lived.

On the outside, it seems extremely likely that Chauvin, the “knee”, had no intention of causing death or permanent harm. Indeed, if he did, he would have to be Darwin-Award level stupid to do what he did on camera and in front of witnesses. Certainly, I have not seen one shred of proof that the event was motivated by racism. (Also see an earlier text on this situation.)

In a sane society, we might right now have an objective debate about what police methods are or are not safe, demeaning, whatnot. What we do have are near-blanket condemnations of “racist murder”, “institutional racism”, “racist police”, etc.—not to mention riots and looting.

I am going to go as far as to say that, unless further evidence appears and provided that the trial is fair, Chauvin will ultimately be acquitted of any murder charge, simply because there is next to no possibility to gain “beyond reasonable doubt” if even half of the “off screen” claims are true. There might or might not be room for a manslaughter conviction or some relatively lesser crime (reckless endangerment?), but not murder.

From what I have read* about the trial (in general) and testimony (in particular) so far, I see these claims broadly validated.

*See excursion for partial sources.

The scope of Chauvin’s guilt might (or might not*) be a little larger than I thought, in that he might (or might not*) have violated departmental procedures or shown poor judgment. However: Firstly, there is no indication whatsoever of e.g. a “mens rea”, a deliberate attempt to kill, or similar. (And certainly not of racism.) At worst, his actions might have been incompetent or negligent. Secondly, even if his actions were incompetent or negligent, I have not seen more than claims that he was a contributor to the death of Floyd. Considering the overall circumstances, including potentially lethal levels of drugs in Floyd’s system, it would be virtually impossible to see Chauvin’s contribution as proved “beyond reasonable doubt”. This brings me to my thirdly—the burden of proof is on the prosecution and the required level of proof is “beyond reasonable doubt”**. If it had been “balance of probabilities”, Chauvin might (or might not*) have risked a conviction even in a fair trial, but with “beyond reasonable doubt” there are simply too many points that are not sufficiently proved.

*Different expert testimonials have made different claims, and quite a few factors have to be weighed in, including what the exact procedures are, how a reasonable police officer would have seen the situation, whether Floyd could have been a threat to himself or others at a given time, whether there was reason to fear danger from the crowd, etc. I do not have the depth of knowledge to judge this. I do note, however, that the other officers at the scene did not act as if Chauvin was grossly and obviously out of line. Moreover, we again have the issue of burden and level of proof.

**With reservations for exact terminology in the jurisdiction at hand.

As is, I am going to sharpen my original statement and say that he would not be convicted even of manslaughter in a fair trial; and, in particular, that he rightfully should be acquitted of all the charges that he is currently facing.

However, as a counter-point, I partially retract subsequent claims that Floyd probably died of a drug overdose. From my current state of knowledge, that too is too speculative, and my original take (as quoted in the first two sentences above) is the better. (But I would judge the third sentence as a likely thumbs up: remove the drugs and Floyd would probably have lived—knee or no knee.)

Unfortunately, and here things become complicated, there are strong signs that the trial was/is not fair. This includes doubt as to whether jury selection found a sufficiently impartial group, that the jury might have fears of personal repercussion in case of an acquittal, the potentially damaging effects of the settlement with Floyd’s family (see excursion), the vastly different resources and (probably) competence levels of defense and prosecution, and the use of evidence that has no place in a fair trial.* To the latter, I point at least to the use of extensive “Floyd was a great guy” testimony, which is utterly irrelevant** to the facts of the case and can serve only one purpose, namely to prejudice the jury. Whether Floyd was Pol Pot or Mother Teresa does not change Chauvin’s actions or motivations, does not change Floyd’s drug levels or health issues, or any other aspect of what actually happened.

*Which is not necessarily to say that the use was against U.S. law or U.S. standard practices. However, I do note that [2] speculates that another issue might provide grounds for mistrial. (A claim that I am not qualified to judge.)

**With some minor reservations for issues that, in my impression, have not featured in the case, e.g. speculation that Chauvin might have known of Floyd as a bad guy and might have wanted to remove this known bad guy from the streets or, absent medical tests, that it could have affected the believability of the claim that Chauvin had taken drugs.

Excursion on sources:
My largest individual sources of information during the trial and pre-trial phases have been a number of early texts by Scott Johnson, who has analyzed the jury-selection process, and, after this source dried up, Coverage by Anastasia Katz. Other sources have provided just an article here and an article there, and I have not kept a record. (Except for [2] above, which I encountered today.) I note that somewhat factual sources have tended to say similar things as Johnson and Katz, but that strongly partial have gone off at different angles—ranging from Chauvin “obviously” having done nothing wrong whatsoever to Chauvin “obviously” being a malicious murderer. As a disclaimer, I stress that I have not spent as much time on the trial or had as thorough access to evidence and testimony as the jurors.

Excursion on “if Floyd had been found elsewhere”:
A common argument in the pro-Chauvin camps is that, by expert testimony, if he would have been found dead elsewhere, an overdose would have been assumed. This argument has merit, but it is not as strong as it might seem. Consider the common physician’s cliche “if you here hoof beats, think horses—not zebras”. This is a statement about what is more plausible in a certain setting (e.g. the U.S. while not in a zoo). Change the setting and it does no longer necessarily hold. We could well have an expert (correctly) testify that if he heard hoof beats in a zoo or in some parts of Africa, his thought would be “zebra”. This does not alter the fact that “horse” is the better assumption on e.g. a random Texan ranch. To judge which explanation is the better, then, we have to look at the actual situation at hand—not at some other situation.

Excursion on Floyd’s character and the settlement:
The settlement is a disgrace and such a waste of city money that it should be cause for the immediate resignation of the decision makers and that they should be forced to pay back every single cent to the city out of their own pockets. The settlement was extremely pre=mature and likely deliberately timed to have a negative effect on Chauvin’s chances. Moreover, while the burden of proof is lower in a civil suit, an acquittal of Chauvin (just wait a few weeks for Pete’s sake!) could have been a strong indication of a rejection of damages or an awarding of a much smaller amount in court. (Here I had also intended to go into a long discussion of the absurd sum relative the life a scumbag vs. sums awarded to more upstanding and more innocent citizens; however, a brief research shows a long history of absurd awards in wrongful death suits in the U.S. The amount is and remains absurd, even compared to most other cases, often involving much worthier people, but it might only be a portion of a larger problem.)

Excursion on “systemic racism”, etc.:
The brouhaha around Floyd and Chauvin, contrasted with e.g. the Ashli Babbitt situation, is yet another (!) indication that “systemic racism” and similar ideas are bullshit. Floyd was a criminal who, even very early on, seemed to have died more from poor police decision-making than malice (even before e.g. drug issues became known); Babbitt (White) seems to have been an upstanding citizen who was shot without warning by a police officer (apparently Black). The former case goes to trial with murder charges; the latter is dismissed with minimal publicity long before trial.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 17, 2021 at 11:13 pm

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Follow-up II: Pinning the tail to the COVID-19 donkey

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As I wrote last week ([1]), the German government has been jumping back-and-forth on the topic of an Easter ease-up, clamp-down, or business-as-usual (by the COVID standards).

It appeared that the last bid had been “business as usual”, but, as I learned a few days later,* this was not the case. The individual German Bundesländer (“states”), to some degree individual municipalities**, are allowed to set their own rules, within some limits, and it appears that they are doing so. In the case of Wuppertal, where I live, I have been unable to find a reasonable description of the exact rules that will apply, but it appears that stores may only be visited after a “rapid test” (“Schnelltest”) during the Easter days. I am taking the safe course and treating the situation as a five-day*** everything-will-be-closed. Correspondingly, despite having been grocery shopping yesterday, I went again today to load up a little.

*I had not originally looked into the details, but merely noted the repeated pin-the-tail attitude.

**With reservations for what exact word applies.

***There appears to be some unclarity over the time spam, but my impression is that the Sunday (everything closed anyway) and the two holidays (everything closed anyway) are complemented by restrictions for both tomorrow/April 1st (ha!) and Saturday (April 3rd).

Here we have two issues: Firstly, does it really matter from a COVID-POV whether I went to the store today or whether I had done so on Saturday (as originally planned)? I doubt it. Secondly, quite a few other people seemed to have had the same idea, making the store unusually full for the time of day (and likely to grew much worse as the day progresses). Considering the governmental obsession with keeping distance, would this not make matters worse from a governmental perspective than if the store visits had been spread over several days? It would not surprise me.

The bigger picture also raises at least two other issues:

Firstly, federalism and subsidiarity. Normally, I am in favor of this more often than not; however, here we see it backfire. One of the most important points behind these principles is to protect the citizens (and other entities, including individual states and municipalities) from too arbitrary, too undiscriminating, too self-serving, whatnot decisions “from above”. If we look at the U.S. and the COVID approach of e.g. Texas and Florida, we see how this can work well.* In Germany, however, there appears to only be two approaches—hard lockdowns and harder lockdowns. Here subsidiarity does not serve to protect the citizens from the federation but to screw them over even when the federation does not. (While I have not looked into the details on other issues, my general impression is similar: if the federation does not screw something up, count on the Bundesländer to do so; if the Bundesländer do not, count on the municipalities.)

*Generally, my fears of the complete corruption of the U.S. in the wake of Biden have been slightly reduced in light of my growing awareness of the power remaining with the individual states and that the GOP might have fared better on the local level than on the federal level. (Nevertheless, the picture is very, very bleak. By the next federal elections in 2022, the damage will be absolutely horrifying, if things continue down the current path—even COVID aside.)

Unfortunately, I have no good solution to offer that would also preserve the positive aspects of federalism and subsidiarity, but a general principle might be that a “lower” entity may only ever weaken restrictions and regulations, reduce taxes, and whatnot compared to what a “higher” entity suggests. (Possibly, with some exemptions for extraordinary circumstances, say a local natural disaster or local riots.)

Secondly, communication: It absolutely, positively, must be mandatory that the involved entities communicate various rules in an explicit, clear, and timely* manner. This, notably, not restricted to COVID but in general. For instance, I have had massive problems, because my (now de-installed) gas heater was subject to various obscure, counter-intuitive, internationally unusual laws and regulations, spread over several different texts, none of which I had even encountered during my twenty-something years in Germany—until a belligerent and incompetent piece-of-shit of a chimney-sweep sics the authorities on me.** Given these laws, even discounting that they are unreasonable to begin with, it should have been the governments responsibility to inform me that I had to pay attention to certain regulations—which would have been trivial in light of both the heater being on registry and my purchase of the apartment being registered. Given the extreme size and complexity of current laws, and how often they go against common sense and/or vary drastically from place to place, the principle of ignorantia juris non excusat simply is neither conscionable nor compatible with Rechtsstaatlichkeit when the government has not actively informed the citizens or when the need for citizen to inform himself is obvious.

*To the degree that the situation allows. That e.g. an explosion in the infection rates can force a short-term measure is understandable, but this is not the case here where politicians have just been pinning-the-tail, and often concurrently.

**I will not go into details of the overall situation, but as a for instance: portions of the regulations are buried in the “Schornsteinfeger-Handwerksgesetz” (“chimney-sweep trade law”). That a regular citizen would even contemplate investigating what appears to be regulations strictly for the chimney-sweep trade is highly unlikely. Would you bother to read a “dog-groomer trade law” in order to find out e.g. whether pets must be spayed and neutered? Hardly. Would you even be aware that one existed? I doubt it. (That there is a “chimney-sweep trade law”, at all, might be seen as proof of over-regulation, even if the justification is larger than for dog grooming.)

As a minor correction to [1], it appears that Merkel’s back-tracking was only partially caused by the public outcry. Another part came from a business outcry, a “we simply cannot reasonably shutdown with such short warning”. This is certainly a legitimate concern, but one that should have been obvious to the government and one which I assumed had been taking into consideration, e.g. through discussing this with relevant business organizations. Apparently, this was not the case, and that makes the approach the more amateurish. To take just one example from my own professional experiences: In my last project, the topic of bank holidays was important, e.g. to calculate payout dates, often a week or more in advance. Assume that such a date is calculated and communicated today, and arrangements are made for payouts and book-keeping, based on a certain set of bank holidays, possibly spanning several countries. Assume next that tomorrow someone adds a new holiday, retroactively making these dates incorrect. Now, how are we going to resolve this? Without massive additional effort and chain-reactions affecting other businesses, the best bet might be to just send apologies (“due to circumstances outside our control, blah blah”) and hope that no-one is sufficiently dissatisfied as to sue, shorten payments, or jump to another provider.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 31, 2021 at 12:36 pm