Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Archive for October 2014

On my inactivity and human stupidity

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Even after returning to the Internet almost a year-and-a-half-ago I have published (or written, for that matter) very little. There are several reasons for this, including that I have decided to and benefited from cutting down on my “extra curriculars” in favour of more post-work relaxation and that I grown more and more critical as to what I consider a text worthy of publishing and a thought worthy of writing up in the first place—to the point that I must force myself to artificially lower my criteria, lest I remain silent.

The greatest reason, however, is something very different: Sheer frustration with the stupidity of most humans, with the way those more in need of feedback are correspondingly less responsive to it, and with how many of the greatest ignorants are sure of their own (imagined) knowledge and understanding. (Including the important special cases of incorrectly believing that knowledge or experience automatically implies understanding, failure to realize that understanding is almost always the more important of the three, and entirely overlooking that none of them is worth much without actual thought.) My activities in the Blogosphere have been particularly unrewarding and frustrating, and it has been a long time since I had a non-trivial activity there.

It is no coincidence that there are many sayings or quotes expressing the principle that the fool is cock-sure and the wise man doubts—nor that the Dunning–Kruger principle has gained fame among those who do think. (Executive summary of Dunning–Kruger: Ability at A goes hand in hand with the meta-ability to judge ability at A.) Indeed, one of the few things that give me some amount of personal pride is simply that I belong to the small minority of people actually willing to actively challenge their own opinions and modify them as time goes by.

The examples of this are very common and the effects extremely demotivating to me. It is proverbially better to light a candle than to curse the darkness (and I have long tried to live by this claim), but there simply comes a point where it is hard to keep it up—especially, since there are many ignorants not only impervious to candle light—but who actively put out candles lit by others. Those who are familiar with my writings will know that I have written a lot about censorship—and the sad truth is that there are many blogs (notably feminist ones) who simply censor comments that have a dissenting view. This includes even polite comments using factual arguments, links to statistics, pointers to logical errors, … Indeed, often the comments that are the more likely to convince a third-party are the ones preferentially censored… Specifically in the realm of political correctness (in general and to some degree) and feminism (in particular and to high degree), there appears to be no willingness to actually look for the truth. Instead, pre-formed claims are pushed with great insistence, even when no more justified than e.g. the claims of a creationist: Both kinds live in their own special world where some things just have to be true because else they would find themselves in another world or have to face possibilities that they cannot cope with. Scientific proof, logical arguments, whatnot, are all secondary: The truth that these point to is abhorred and therefore they must, ipso facto, be faulty. It is inconceivable that God did not create the world; it is inconceivable that differences in outcome could have any other explanation than differences in opportunity. Anyone claiming otherwise is uninformed and should let himself be enlightened—or an evil liar deliberately trying to ruin the game, a heretic, a sexist, … Meanwhile, those wishing to “enlighten” the dissenters typically give ample proof of their own ignorance, undeveloped ability to understand arguments, and lacking prowess with critical thinking. A particular annoyance is the constantly recurring claim that those who criticize feminism (more specifically gender-feminism and feminist populism) are ignorants who must be exposed to the truth—when most critics (at least in Sweden) actually grew up under feminist indoctrination, long took feminist claims to be true, and only over time developed a more nuanced world view, by means of critical thinking, exposure to more scientific information, personal experience contrary to the feminist world-view, and so on: If the feminist claims about e.g. rape statistics, domestic violence, earning capacity, discrimination against women, …, were true, then almost everyone would be feminists—but I have over time learned that these claims for the most part are invalid. (For varying reasons for different cases, but often including hiding vital details that radically change the interpretation of data, misreporting of data, use of unsound methodology and non-standard definitions, statistics extrapolated to different areas or times without verification of relevance, and even statistics simply made up.)

These problems, however, are by no means limited to the Blogosphere, nor to the politically correct or any other ideology or religion. No, stupidity, irrationality, incompetence, and so on, permeate the world and all its aspects, the main question often being whether a certain phenomenon is explained directly or just indirectly by such factors: Is the advertising industry filled with idiots or does it merely try to convince idiots? (I suspect that it is a bit of both: People of highly disputable competence and judgment trying to preferentially convince the most stupid, irrational, and uninformed consumers.)

Even in software development, stereotypically associated with the gifted and the border-line autistic, there are few who have the competence level they should have and many who have a good standing through social relationships and despite their lack of skill. About five in ten of the colleagues that I have worked with have been so poor that I would simply not have considered them an option, had I been setting up a new team. No more than one in ten is someone I would give a blanket “yes”. Another one in ten may be a border-line case, picked or rejected depending on the available alternatives. The remaining three might do if nothing else is available and a sufficient mentoring and reviewing could be guaranteed. Even those worthy of a “yes” are typically lacking of the competence they should have, for the simple reason that they have the competence level of a worthy developer—but typically work as lead developers. Notably, most of them have a very limited own understanding, instead basing their decisions on rules, recommendations, or things that they have read somewhere without giving sufficient thought to e.g. why the recommendation is made and when it does not apply because the underlying cause for the recommendation is irrelevant. For instance, The lead-developer of a team that I was assisting a while ago was highly surprised by the suggestion of replacing an ugly set of conditionals with a look-up in map—apparently, he was unaware of this obvious and well-established technique that even a junior should (but rarely does) know. Going outside the “yes” developers and the border-line cases, things deteriorate very rapidly. The average developer has no feeling whatsoever for what makes good and poor code, does not use the benefits of polymorphy over if-statements, uses copy-and-paste when he should write a new method or class to abstract the same functionality, writes test cases that are next to useless through checking the implementation instead of the interface, …

It is the same with other professions—software developers still do better than most other groups. Looking at most business graduates I have dealt with, I marvel that they actually did graduate… Most are lacking in knowledge, almost all are devoid of understanding, and areas such as critical thinking are uncharted territories. Large egos and great efforts to create an appearance of competence are more common.

A particularly frustrating problem: The few of us who actually do strive for understanding often see problems, opportunities, solutions, …, that others do not. However, because the ignorants are in the majority, the minority is considered lacking… (E.g. through being seen as obsessing with unimportant details when these particular details actually are important, or as being wrong in a dispute for lacking some insight of the majority—but where the reason for disagreement is that the minority has this insight and several more that the majority is lacking…) A project I worked on last year had me crawling up the walls for frustration for this reason (in several areas, but mainly with regard to Scrum):

I had spent some considerable time deepening my knowledge and understanding of Scrum and was actually enthusiastic (rarely happens with me…) about testing this and that, in particular seeing what gains might be possible through systematic inspect and adapt. My efforts where almost entirely blocked by a team that had no understanding of Scrum but merely followed a certain formulaic approach, leaving inspect and adapt (the very core of Scrum) entirely by the wayside. This regrettably extended to both the Scrum Masters that the project saw: The first had masterly conned large parts of the company into believing she was a true expert, making anything she said an ipse dixit during any discussion. In reality, she was a disaster in her role, not merely through failing to understand inspect and adapt, but also through failing Scrum in several critical regards, notably including trying to prescribe what the developers should do and how they should do it (and not limited to Scrum at that). The second had no previous Scrum background, but went through a crash course consisting of tail-coating number one for two weeks combined with some informal tutoring of the blind-leading-the-blind kind. Discussions with her were even less productive, with an even more limited intellect and the one implicit argument of “number one said and number one is the expert”. No: Sorry, the only one in the project who had any claim whatsoever of being a Scrum expert was yours truly—I was the only one who had bothered to go beyond superficial knowledge and actually gain an understanding of the principles and ideas, as well as the only one who seemed to actually evaluate how well or poorly something worked.

Many examples of how stupidity rules the world can be found in the UIs of modern software programs, with explanations coming to a high degree from the made-for-idiots camp, but also, if to a lesser degree from the made-by-idiots camp (e.g. through not understanding the benefits of separation of concerns, not having knowledge of alternate paradigms, or undue prejudice against e.g. command lines). Take web browsers: For a considerable part of the post-2000 period, I was a dedicated Opera user—Opera delivering superior functionality and speed. However, for each subsequent version, Opera grew less and less user-friendly, to the point that I threw up my hands in anger and reluctantly switched to what seemed the least of the many evils: Firefox. Unfortunately, Firefox has continued with the same user-despising trend as Opera. Negative developments include, but are by no means limited to, removing the options to turn images and JavaScript on/off from the GUI, necessitating a visit to about:config, or reducing the usability of the image filtering severely by removing the generic black-/white-list system in favour of a rights system where rights can only be set for the domain of the current page (but not for e.g. a domain that provides images displayed on that page). Worse, as I recently discovered during the update of an older system, when these were left in the “off” position in a version that had the toggle in the GUI, an upgrade to a version with the toggle in about:config would automatically, without asking the user, and in direct violation of reasonable expectation, turn them on again—absolutely inexcusable! Generally, Firefox has a severe usability problem through forcing central functionality into unofficial plug-ins that have to be installed separately. Yes, plug-ins are great. No, it is not acceptable to move functionality central to the product to plug-ins or to force the user to install a plug-in for something that should be done through a setting. (However, installing a plug-in to provide a more advanced version of the central functionality is acceptable. A JavaScript on/off switch is a must in a browser, and a per site toggle very highly recommended, but the full functionality of the NoScript plug-in is legitimately put in a plug-in.)

While Firefox removes central functionality, it also includes more and more non-central functionality that rightfully should be (but is not) in a plug-in, e.g. the “sync” functionality. Or what about the many, many URLs that can be found under about:config for a variety of unspecified tasks, some of which is highly likely to include unethical “phone-homes” or definitely expose data to Google (a by now entirely untrustworthy third party)?

One of my main beefs with Firefox since day one has not improved one iota over possibly some five years: I like to run different instances of browsers for different tasks (at home using different user accounts, at work at least using different profiles). Under Firefox this means a lot of unnecessary work. For instance, installing a certain plug-in for all users is not possible (resp. there is an alleged way, but it is poorly documented, it is non-obvious, it requires far more work than a single-user installation, and it, judging by my one attempt a few years back, simply does not work). Profiles, in turn, are very poorly thought-through, having no official means to copy them, requiring command-line intervention to run more than one profile at any given time, and, when push comes to shove, merely solving a problem that would not have existed in the first place—had Firefox made proper use of config files. If it had, one could just tell it to use the settings from file A for this instance and File B for that instance, with no additional programming or a cumbersome profile concept. Whether using profiles or additional user accounts, a major issue is to have to go through a good many settings for each instance: Settings is the most natural thing to export and import between parallel instances—but this is not allowed. What Firefox provides is a means to export bookmarks and similar—but that is near useless for any practical use. (Yes, this could be handy when e.g. moving from computer A to computer B. However, then I would most certainly want the settings too. For parallel use, in contrast, the settings are far more important: I may need to alter one or two individual settings between instances, but the website visited will be almost entirely disjunct.)

One of the most atrocious examples of stupidity is the German “Energiewende”: A massive and costly intervention has been made to move energy consumption and production to “renewable energies”, and many criticize it already for the costs or the many implementation errors that have unnecessarily increased the cost or distributed it unfairly. Personally, I could live with the costs—and have to admit that the increase in renewable production capacity has been far more successful than I thought it would be. Unfortunately, there is one major, disastrous, and incredibly counter-productive catch: The production form which has been replaced is almost exclusively nuclear power—while the use of “fossil fuels” (especially coal) has actually increased (!). In other words, the net-effect of this massive and costly intervention is increased pollution… (Notably, very few people are aware that fossil fuels do far more damage to the environment and cause far more human deaths on a yearly basis than nuclear power has in its entire history, including the accumulated effects of Chernobyl and Fukushima.)

I could go on and on from a virtually endless list of examples, causing the writing of this article continue for far too long and ensuring that almost all potential readers will have the feared “to long; did not read” reaction. (Not that I have any illusion about the proportion still reading, even as is.) Instead, I prefer to make a cut here, but I will make some honourable mentions that I had originally intended to include with one or several paragraphs each:

  1. Deutsche Bahn (“German Railways”) demonstrates so much incompetence on a daily basis that I could write several articles on that topic alone.

  2. Museums used to be a way for those with an interest to actually learn something. Today they are rapidly degenerating into cheap entertainment–and they pride themselves with their “family friendliness”, which means that those who try to learn have to cope with children running around and screaming without anyone intervening. In many ways, what the typical museum of today does, is antithetical to the purpose of a museum…

  3. The abysmal state of groups like journalists and teachers, who should be among the intellectual elite and are so often so embarrasingly poorly informed and poor at thinking.

  4. Belief in various superstitions and pseudo-sciences, e.g. astrology, homeopathy.

  5. The lacking queue management in stores where a further checkout-counter is only opened when the queue is already several times as long as it should be—not when it becomes clear that the queue is starting to get out of hand.

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Written by michaeleriksson

October 13, 2014 at 8:48 pm