Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Archive for June 2011

Let no man pull you low enough to hate him

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I just encountered a post titled Quotes I likee stating:

Let no man pull you low enough to hate him.
Martin Luther King Jr.
US black civil rights leader & clergyman (1929 – 1968)

I was struck by the great contrast between this and the very often hateful attitude of the self-proclaimed anti-racists of today. For instance, just yesterday, I saw the following commente:

Rasister är vidriga. Måtte de döden dö.

(Racists are despicable. They should die. [Lit. “May they die the death”, a Swedish expression.])

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Written by michaeleriksson

June 26, 2011 at 2:33 pm

The abominable over- and misuse of “you”

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An ever recurring annoyance in today’s writing is over- and misuse of “you”. The “Freshly Pressed” entries on WordPress, e.g., are usually full of the word. Software literature is another great source of examples—the more absurd because software developers need to be of above to noticeably above average intelligence, and those who might actually benefit from “you” are best kept away from the field.

What is wrong with using “you”? Nothing—when the reader is validly addressed directly. This, however, is almost never the case. It is far more common to abuse “you” through-out a text as e.g. a highly sub-optimal means of attaching actions (believes, emotions, whatnot) to a subject. In these cases, there are a number of issues:

  1. The result is unnecessarily wordy and hard to read, compared to more adult formulations. Compare

    However, if you want to use features such as hot redeployment on a full application server, you need to package your application correctly.

    (genuine example) with

    However, to use features such as hot redeployment on a full application server, we need a correctly packaged application.

    The second text is shorter, easier to understand, and stylistically better. Consider the effect not merely on individual sentences, but on the length of books: This is a roughly 15 % drop in length (more in terms of words; less in terms of characters). Admittedly, this sentence is not representative, but even shaving off just a few per cent can be valuable for a hard-working professional.

    As an aside: The fact that I often am unnecessarily wordy, even without over-using “you”, is a matter of personal incompetence in this area—not a sign of problems with non-“you” texts in general.

  2. “You” is often condescending, misleading, illogical, or entirely ridiculous. A particularly atrocious example is the common “in this chapter you will learn”: Possibly, but the reader may also merely be refreshing something he already knows—or even be a reviewer with superior knowledge… Even if not, the statement can be faulty, e.g. because the reader is merely currently getting an overview, contemplating individual points, or is slow on the uptake. A far better formulation is “in this chapter we discuss X” or “this chapter deals with X”.

    I have even often seen “you” (the reader) used where context demanded “I” (the author)… A typical example would be a traveler describing his emotions or subjective impressions during certain events of a journey. Obviously, it should be “When I saw Mount Everest, I was filled with humility.”, not “When you see Mount Everest, you are filled with humility.” or any similar formulation.

    Rule-of-thumb: Does the text work when taken from the perspective of an actual reader who takes “you” as a direct reference to him? If not, “you” is inappropriate. (The reverse conclusion does not necessarily hold.)

  3. “You” polarizes the author and his readers; “we” unites them; other formulations provide neutrality.

  4. “You” can be accusatory, even to the point of raising the issue of guilt or fault with innocents. Consider an oral example: “When you come late, you hinder the rest of the team.” Unless the counter-part actually did come late, this formulation is entirely and utterly unacceptable: Not only will most feel accused, but a third-party who over-hears the discussion can come to entirely incorrect conclusions. If the discussion is intended to be general, it should be kept general: “When someone comes late, he hinders the rest of the team.”

  5. As can be seen by the previous item, “you” introduces unnecessary ambiguities: Is the author/speaker discussing the counter-part or a generic someone?

Rule-of-thumb: Try to replace every instance of “you” with an alternate formulation using “we”, a generic pronoun (e.g. “someone” or “one”), a sentence with an implicit subject (this sentence is an example), or a passive. Only allow the “you” to stand on those rare occasions when it actually is the best alternative. (Do not follow guide-lines that try to ban the passive outright: The passive is very valuable and the extreme anti-passive stance that many naive teachers take is highly misguided—they parrot and misapply an insight that they have not actually understood. Excesses of passives should be avoided, true, but very many uses are legitimate and beneficial, and bending backwards to eliminate them does far more harm than good—just like the positive effects of a pinch of salt on a soup are no reason to empty an entire salt-shaker into the pot.)

To expand on the implicit subject: This may seem to be just as bad as using “you” on a casual glance, because the implicit subject may seem to be a “you”. There are at least two crucial advantages, however: Firstly, there is no unnecessary overhead. Secondly, the implicit subject could in most cases be something else, e.g. a “we” or a more abstract entity. (For example, a “Try to […]” could be seen as “We should try to […]” rather than “You should try to […]”.) This resolves the problems with e.g. an accusatory or condescending tone.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 25, 2011 at 11:31 am

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An absolutely awful marriage story

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A few weeks ago, I encountered an an absolutely awful marriage storye. In fact, one that almost made me feel sick—but which the blog author absurdly proclaimed to be “great”. (From context it is not clear whether she also was the author of the story or merely a spreader of it. Either way, seeing it as great requires a near complete lack of perspective and insight.)

At the time, I left a comment explaining why it was awful. Having just noticed that this comment has been arbitrarily censored (the more in need of a comment a post is, the greater the risk of censorship, as I have noticed over the last year), I try to recreate the gist here:

  1. The woman has an entirely unrealistic and unreasonable view of what marriage and love is.

  2. She is about to throw away her promise of “until death us depart; for better and worse” based on what appears to be mere boredom.

  3. Instead of constructively discussing her issues with her husband, she waits until she has given up hope of him spontaneously changing—and then springs divorce upon him.

  4. She requires of him, in order that he proves himself worthy of the second chance he requested, that he consider his own life worth less than her (hypothetical) whim of having a particular flower. This is something that is, frankly, inexcusable: A wife may have the right that her husband risks his life to save hers (and vice versa!), but under no circumstances that it is sacrificed for a whim.

    Besides, any man who agreed to even the hypothetical situation would afterwards be in an impossible situation: How can he later refuse to buy her jewelry for a mere few hundred dollars at her asking? To take out the garbage in the middle of a Superbowl game? To letting her unilaterally decide where every single vacation is to be held? … That the man still wanted her after hearing this demand is hard to fathom—better divorced than living with such a self-centered bitch.

  5. While he declines, he does give an extremely cheese explanation for why he declines—and this explanation proves her earlier dissatisfaction to have been very, very unfair. In effect, she was about to throw away a far more wife-friendly husband than most women ever have—and one that she gave no signs of deserving.

To make matters worse, there are many elements of this story that are reminiscent of the bad marriage experiences I have heard men tell from real life, including that problems are not brought to their attention, that unrealistic expectations are raised, and that they are faced with a divorce out of nowhere and without the wife reflecting on what a marriage actually implies.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 23, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Trains and deteriorating comfort in Germany

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Deutsche Bahnw, the national railway company of Germany, is an object of very mixed feelings in the population. I belong to the large faction who considers Deutsche Bahn not merely bad, but a disaster of incompetence and customer unfriendliness. Indeed, I could write a long rant about its many problems. Today, however, I will merely discuss the matter of comfort:

The flag ships of Deutsche Bahn are the ICEw trains: They are faster than the other trains and are given preferential treatment when it comes to e.g. right of way or what trains have to wait for other trains—but are also infamous for their poor time-table adherence. Moreover, they are among the more uncomfortable trains in the fleet. Even mere S-Bahnw trains are usually better—certainly, providing far more leg room. Indeed, the second rank of trains, the ICw, are far better, despite being older and less expensive. Furthermore, it seems to me that the older the IC, the greater the comfort: More comfortable seats, more leg-room, and a more aesthetically pleasing interior.

Today, as I traveled with one of these ICs, my book turned out to be fifteen minutes too short, and I picked up one of the on-board magazines. Browsing through it, I found only one interesting article—but one which prompted me to write this entry. The topic was the next generation of trains, with the working name “ICx”, and the recent 6 billion Euro/300 trains deal that would provide these trains for several decades. Among the aspects discussed were the new chairs: Instead of having an adjustable back to allow passengers to recline, the same effect would be achieved by a seat that could slide forward. Somehow, this would safe space and (as was stated in a discreet sentence) …

… allow for a shorter distance between the chairs!

In reality, Deutsche Bahn chooses to further lower comfort in order to fit more people into the trains. While this is to some degree understandable (Deutsche Bahn does want to turn a profit), it is also likely to backfire over time as an age-old monopoly is replaced by a more competitive environment. Importantly, the reasoning used is likely to be a mere excuse: If the new chairs save space for reclining passengers, it does not follow that they do so for up-right passengers—and the leg-space (and e.g. elbow-space) is less-than-generous even for those up-right and of medium height. For 6”3’ me it is decidedly unsatisfactory, and those yet a few inches taller may be forced into very awkward positions. Spare room to fit in a bag does not exist (the available “regular” storage area for baggage is also under-dimensioned, making this a reasonable wish). Further considering that a) the population will grow taller over the planned decades of use, b) many passengers use the ICE five days a week or for uninterrupted travels of three or four hours, the decision seems highly disputable.

Was not greater comfort supposed to be one of the strongest arguments for going by train instead of aeroplane?</p

Written by michaeleriksson

June 21, 2011 at 11:09 pm

Comment censorship

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I have repeatedly reported about censorship on the blog hypocritically named Aus Liebe zur Freiheite (“For/due to the love of freedom”)—indeed, I first became aware of that blog through discussing its destructive and uninformed comment policy. I was going to ignore the fact that two factual and highly relevant comments of mine had recently been censored, but I will not, seeing that another commenter just wrote the following eloquent complaint (my translation is suboptimal):

James T. Kirk:

Sehr geehrte Frau Schrupp,

ich fände es schön, wenn Sie mal auf meine Argumente eingehen. Warum haben Sie so große Probleme mit sachlicher Kritik?

Es ist sehr befremdlich, daß Sie so viele sachliche Kommentare löschen. Ist das die ideale Welt, die Sie sich vorstellen? Haben Sie Angst, sich sachlicher Kritik zu stellen?

Es ist mir persönlich schleierhaft, wie man solch ein Verhalten vor sich selbst rechtfertigen kann.

(Dear [highly formal version] Ms. Schrupp,

I would appreciate it, if you would spend some time on my arguments. Why do you have so great problems with factual criticism?

It is very strange that you delete so many factual comments. Is that the ideal world, that you imagine? Are you afraid to confront factual criticism?

I have problems comprehending how one can justify such a behaviour to oneself.)

Ms. Schrupp has indeed proved again and again that she has a very destructive take on comments—which she combines with enough arbitrariness that the poor souls who try to counter her many misstatements, misunderstandings, and misinterpretations are led to still comment in the hope that this particular comment will go through and provide at least some counter-weight to her pseudo-intellectual, uninformed, and one-sided prattle. (While I usually try to remain ad rem and show some degree of politeness, my patience with the feminist branch of intellectual dishonesty has been very sorely strained lately—and Ms. Schrupp is worst than most. When push comes to shove, the success of feminism is largely based on being able to build strawmen, spread factually faulty statements, perpetuate false or misinterpreted statistics, whatnot, without sufficient contradiction. It is relatively easy to convince people when they only see one side of the issue—it is very easy, when the one-sidedness is complemented by unprotested distortion of the truth.)

My two comments:

Diese drei Punkte stoßen bei mir auf Unverständnis—denn gerade hier ist ja die Debatte normalerweise zum Vorteil der Frauen gewinkelt. Dies vorallem bei 2., wo immer und immer wieder versucht wird, natürliche Geschlechterdifferenzen kategorisch auszuschliessen, um alle Verhaltensunterschiede mit „Strukturen“, „Patriarchat“, o.ä. zu erklären. Auch 1. und 3. sind jedoch sehr zweifelhaft—ist doch eine von den üblichsten Beschreibungen/Schlussfolgerungen, dass Männer etwas falsch machen und Frauen richtig, bzw. dass Frauen nur was Falsch machen wegen „Strukturen“, „Patriarchat“, … (das Thema kehrt wieder).

(Points out that the central claims of the post are strawmen or otherwise incorrect.)

Ich wollte gerade zu deinem letzten Kommentar einwenden, dass die Mehrheit dieser Punkte im Grunde Strawmankaraktär haben. Hierbei muss ich leider feststellen, dass mein voriger Kommentar, der sachlich eine ähnliche Observation zu deinem ursprunglichen Beitrag machte, ohne erkennbaren Grund zensiert worden ist—und dies auch nicht zum ersten Male.

Unabhängig von deinen Beweggründen sind diese Art von Eingriffen grob unethisch und die Debatte verzerrend. Widerspruch ist keine legitime Grund zur Zensur.

(Further statements are strawmen. My previous comment has been censored without a legitimate reason.)

For my part, I will stay away for the future—but I also publicly declare that Ms. Schrupp is narrow-minded, intellectually dishonest, and has far more to learn from her commenters than they from her. Her blogging brings a net damage to the world—and it is women like she who ensure that feminism remains a force of evil.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 19, 2011 at 6:48 pm

Interpreting statistics and research (housework among boys and girls)

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I just encountered a Swedish news service claiming that “Girls help [do housework] more at home”/“Flickor hjälper till mer hemma”.

While this article, to my mild surprise, did not make the usual partisan statements of e.g. “Girls are better at X”, it still manages to show some common problems with reading of statistics and how poor critical thinking can lead people (in particular, journalists) astray.

To quote relevant parts:

SCB har undersökt vilka hushålls-
sysslor barn i åldrarna 10-18 år
hjälper till med.

83 procent av flickorna och 79 pro-
cent av pojkarna hjälper till med hus-
hållsarbete minst en timme i veckan.

([“The bureau of statistics”] has investigated what household chores children in the age range 10–18 years help with.

83 per cent of the girls and 79 per cent of the boys help with household work for at least an hour a week.)

Syssla; Flickor; Pojkar

Bäddar sin säng; 82 proc; 77 proc

Diskar eller plockar i/ur diskmaskinen; 81 proc; 71 proc

Städar sitt rum; 78 proc; 64 proc

Tar hand om syskon; 35 proc; 36 proc

Arbetar utomhus; 23 proc; 40 proc

(Task; Girls; Boys

Makes own bed; 82 %; 77 %

Does the dishes or loads/unloads the dish-washer; 81 %; 71 %

Cleans own room; 78 %; 64 %

Takes care of siblings; 35 %; 36 %

Works outdoors; 23 %; 40 %)

(The news service in questione does not provide an archive, so I cannot give a permanent link. Should I encounter the data from another source, I will add one.)

Going by the numbers presented (but beware that the full report may give another view; for instance, the list of task is likely to be abbreviated), the claim is highly dubious. Firstly, the difference in overall numbers is comparatively small (certainly not large enough to allow for predictions about individuals) and, depending on the size of the sample, could lack statistical significance. Secondly, and more importantly, the tasks are oddly chosen:

Both making ones own bed and cleaning ones own room are things that do not constitute “helping at home”—they are something that a child in the age bracket given either does or does not do for his/her own benefit. (Similarly, baking cookies for ones own consumption is not “helping at home” either—nor is tweaking ones own moped.)

The natural step would be to adjust the overall numbers by removing these entries. For lack of in-depth data, this is not possible; however, we can make a very rough first comparison by simply adding percentages. Now, in the original version we have 82 + 81 + 78 + 35 + 23 = 299 for the girls and 77 + 71 + 64 + 36 + 40 = 288 for the boys. (Pleasingly, 288 / 299 * 83 is just shy of 80, which compares well to the original 79 % overall for boys—in particular, as rounding can cause minor distortions.) Removing the “self serving” tasks, we instead have 81 + 35 + 23 = 139 for the girls and 71 + 36 + 40 = 147 for the boys—who are now ahead by more than they used to trail (as a proportion of the total).

The tentative conclusion, then: Boys (!) help more at home. (Incidentally and anecdotally: This was definitely the case when looking at me and my sister as teenagers. She could barely be bothered to put her own plates in the dish-washer; I moved the lawn and chopped wood for the fireplace.) Of course, I cannot guarantee that this would remain true if the raw data was re-investigated, but the gap is sufficiently large that the original claim (that girls help more) should be viewed as unsupported.

As an aside, the removed categories reflect an issue that is worth keeping in mind when discussing housework: Men and women have different priorities when it comes to cleaning and use of available time. (In my opinion, men have it the right way around and women should take a more relaxed attitude.)

Written by michaeleriksson

June 19, 2011 at 2:06 pm

That pesky German language and the quirks of the human mind

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After close to 14 years in Germany, I should be able to write correct German (barring the odd slip of the keyboard that we all make even in our native languages). Reality, alas, does not quite agree: I know most of the rules as well as the natives, and with enough proof-reading I can reach a near-native level, differing mostly in that my style, choice of words, whatnot, can be strongly influenced by Swedish and English. However, the extensive proof-reading is absolutely necessary: My first drafts tends to contain errors at several times the rate of my English or Swedish writings, because the “text generating” part of my mind makes many unthinking choices that are simply incorrect—even when the “text reading” part of my mind knows that they are incorrect… For instance, reading the notification email for a comment I sent earlier today, I found that I made a back-reference to a woman with the masculine “der” instead of the feminine “die”—a blindingly obvious error to any semi-proficient reader. A particular common error of mine is using a dative or accusative in constructs where a nominative is called for, e.g. “X is Y”. (The two former cover the English objective case, while the latter is the subjective.) Presumably, the presence of a verb toggles an internal “objective” switch irrespective of what verb is used.

This is a particular nuisance when I comment on German blogs: If I do not proof-read several times, there will usually be at least one error of the “a ten year old should know better” kind; if I do, the effort of submitting a comment grows to be several times what it is in Swedish or English.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 18, 2011 at 4:44 pm