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Archive for April 2016

Harriet Tubman and the twenty-dollar bill (follow-up on Democracy Lost)

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As I heard today, Andrew Jackson is being removed from the U.S. twenty-dollar bill in favor of one Harriet Tubman—a name that did not ring a bell with me*. My curiosity was awoken and I did a bit of reading up. Visiting her Wikipedia page, my memory was sufficiently refreshed that I knew that I had heard of her before, but not with so often or in such detail that the name had remained with me. However and more importantly, it turns out that this change of portrait is a very good example of the issues that I discuss in a recent blog entry on democracy. Furthermore, the decision is at best arbitrary in other regards.

*With my being European, this is not extraordinarily remarkable, but I know enough of U.S. history, society, and culture that I rarely encounter a “household name” that is unknown to me (outside of pop culture).

Before proceeding, let me stress that I have no beef with Tubman herself (the object of my attack is the decision making). On the contrary, going by her Wikipedia page, she was a true hero, someone who went through great dangers and hardships to save others. In this, she is by no means unworthy of the honor and there are other people on bank notes who are far less worthy in terms of personal achievement and merit—including a great many members of royalty who just happened to be born to the right parents. (Note that I deliberately do not extend this to all members of royalty. I equally deliberately do not make any comparison whatsoever with other people on U.S. bank notes, including Andrew Jackson.)

I see the following problems:

  1. She was picked for all the wrong reasons and in a manner that illustrates some problems discussed in my previous post: A lobbyist* campaign was started to force the choosing specifically of a woman**. The campaign presented a number of hand-picked candidates that were suited to its own overall agenda*** (as opposed to candidates picked for being the most deserving) and then a popularity contest**** was held.

    *Lobbies and similar “para-democratic” means are extremely dangerous and potentially ruinous to democracy. I stress that this campaign was not a grass-root driven attempt by the people to get the attention of the elected for a particular cause, which would typically have been legitimate within the democratic framework.

    **I have nothing against women being on bank notes. However, I am very, very strongly opposed to all such systematic and deliberate discriminations. (And make no mistake, “affirmative action” is just a euphemism for discrimination.) At best, such are a good examples of “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. More often than not, they add more injustice than they remove. Further, in the times we are currently living, any imbalance in the proportion of the worthy and the honored among men and women will straighten it self out in time; particularly, if a woman is the worthiest candidate right now, there is no reason to give her a leg up—just give her a fair contest. In contrast, if she is not the most worthy, well, then she should certainly not be given an undeserved victory. This type of discrimination is caused by stupidity and populist politicians, two other great problems of democracy.

    ***In the full list of candidates, almost all appear to have been chosen for their roles in areas around women’s rights, feminism, or race, effectively making the list a political statement and forcing the poll participants to choose between candidates (almost) all resulting in the same message. In contrast, there is no woman on the list who is present for scientific achievement, great inventions, literary or artistic accomplishment, or similar. Some language is highly tendentious, e.g. (regarding Patsy Mink) “Largely responsible for passage of Title IX bill ending sex discrimination in education, including in athletics.”—where others have directed heavy criticism against Title IX and the way it has been interpreted by courts and colleges, including for its negative effects on freedom of speech, for having resulted in many excessive and unfounded accusations of various sex crimes and “sexcrimes”, and for many cases of discrimination against male athletes. (Fewer women are interested in sports than men and when the proportion of women participating in college sports do not match the proportion of enrolled women, colleges have been accused of Title-IX violations, causing many colleges to artificially reduce the sports opportunities for men, giving women with an interest in sports an equally artificial advantage over men with an interest in sports.) This all apart from the assumption being extremely naive that a de jure requirement will automatically be reflected in the de facto situation: An existing discrimination might have been diminished, but would not magically have disappeared. See e.g. [1], [2], or [3].

    ****Degeneration of democracy into popularity contests is yet another grave threat.

  2. While Tubman, cf. above, is not unworthy, history is full of other characters with a similar degree of worthiness for their accomplishments, sacrifices, or their impact on the lives of others. This especially around the time of the Civil War (including others with a similar background) where a considerable portion of her activities fell. Why would she be more worthy than e.g. Frederick Douglass (like her a slave and influential abolitionist)? Maria Goeppert-Mayer (besides Marie Curie the only woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physics)? Jackie Joyner-Kersee (arguably the greatest female athlete in history, and also a black woman)? One of the other many worthy candidates (including both black women and those pesky white men)?
  3. I would strongly prefer that the use of portraits on bank notes ceased entirely—or that it be limited by very strict constraints:

    Historically, money has mostly portrayed heads of state (kings, queens, presidents, and the like)—in as far as historical people have been depicted at all. In the case of the currently ruling king in a pure monarchy, this had some justification in that he was in some sense the issuer or the final authority when it came to money. In doubt, he was someone whom it could pay to suck up to, e.g. through using his portrait. Even going the step to include past kings or presidents (past or not) is more dubious through the implied relative valuation of their importance and actions. Including people, not in anyway restricted to Tubman, who are not heads of state is treading on very dangerous ground.

    As a very relevant case in point: Apparently there are some native tribes who refuse to accept the current twenty-dollar bills, because they disapprove of Andrew Jackson. As soon as there is a subjective valuation entering an area like this, such conflicts are almost unavoidable. Possibly, there will be KKK members who feel the same way about the new twenty-dollar bills.

    Doing some brief research, I found a list of current (?) U.S. bills. There are only three non-presidents on the list, and of two of the three (Alexander Hamilton and Salmon P. Chase) where both Secretary of the Treasury, and thus involved with the issuing of money in a role similar to a head of state—and they both appear to have been historic within the group of their colleagues. The third is Benjamin Franklin, who is possibly the most revered non-President in U.S. history. All three were major characters in and around one of the two defining crisis of U.S. history (the independence from England respectively the Civil War).

    Giving the important twenty-dollar bill to anyone outside a very narrow range of candidates is thus a very major policy change. (Although it is conceivable that people outside this narrow range have been honored in the past.)


Written by michaeleriksson

April 21, 2016 at 8:54 pm

Post by Email and current situation (follow-up on line length)

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As I wrote in an earlier post, there was problem with spurious line breaks when using “Post by Email”.

This is probably explained by emails having an old upper limitation on line length of 998 characters. This implies that WordPress is either not the one doing the breaking (but my mail client or one of the involved mail servers) or that it is doing the breaking in an acceptable manner.

For my last post, I simply inserted artificials line breaks at the last space before the 999 character of each potential line and everything appears (knock on wood) to have worked.

I suspect that it is OK to just send the email in normal formatting and that my original removal of all line breaks was unnecessary (unlike with the web interface), but have not yet had the time to test this.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 16, 2016 at 9:26 am

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Democracy Lost

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Churchill is claimed to have said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” I have long held the same belief: Democracy is not a good form of government, due to weaknesses such as giving clever manipulators power they are unsuited for and allowing the majority to impose its will on the minority in an often unfair or destructive manner. Unfortunately, all other methods (that I am aware of and that have actually been tried) have been worse. The “enlightened despot”, e.g., suffers from the massive problem of how to ensure that the despot is actually enlightened…

Today, however, we are at an absolute crisis of democracy, where the leaders elected are problematic or even disastrous; where the “democratic ideals” are increasingly neglected in the name of democracy; where democracy it self just becomes a charade to keep politicians in office and lobbies in charge; and where the voters’ concerns are only relevant to the degree that they can be used for (re-)electing politicians, implying that only the concerns of the broad masses are on the table and that party “information” becomes misinformation geared at the dumb and easily manipulated. In many ways, the modern politicians are as separated from and have the same attitude towards the people as the likes of FIFA and IAAF* have towards their respective athletes. Where politicians should see themselves as the voters elected representatives and servants, they too often see themselves as the elected conservators and masters; while the voters do not so much exercise a given right as they pose a bureaucratic obstacle to keeping the politicians in office.

*I had repeatedly warned against these and similar organizations (IOC, PETA, various UN organizations, …) years before the recent scandals broke. In part, because I had observed much negative behavior, especially a disregard for the best of the athletes and the sport (more generally, the ostensible raison d’être); in part, because it appears to be general principles that organizations slowly become mechanisms for their own self-preservation and that power-hungry opportunists drift to the top. Many of these organizations have a monopoly in their area of activity and the people in charge can be so for decades, with little or no accountability to the outside world or the athletes, and are therefore extremely vulnerable to these principles.

Democracy is degenerating into a caricature of it self. More: While democracy has never worked more than adequately and has often failed locally at different times (especially in countries lacking a democratic tradition), we are now standing the risk of global failure. More yet: One of the greatest selling points of democracy used to be that it was “for the people”, not “for the ruler(s)” or “for the state”—and this does not apply more than nominally in today’s world.

Often, the best we can hope for is politicians who do less harm than others. Obama did very little good, but (with some reservations for yet unknown long-term effects of ObamaCare) he also did very little harm, and by that standard he deserves a passing mark.

If the negative trends do not turn around, we will end up in a scenario halfway between “Nineteen Eighty-Four”* and “Idiocracy”, with a regular dose of “panem et circenses”.

*I almost renamed this article “Twenty Sixteen”, seeing that Orwell’s work is far more relevant to the text than Milton’s.

The U.S.* presidential elections are a good case in point: For all practical purposes, they are just another popularity contest along the lines of “American Idol”. Take Obama: What does it matter whether his wife is considered wonderful? What does it matter whether he is a Muslim, African, Hawaiian, whatnot? What should matter is what he brought (or was expected to bring) to the table, say how intelligent or unintelligent he (and not his wife!) was, how knowledgeable or ignorant, how diplomatically skilled or unskilled, what experience he had, … Was his election and re-election based on this? No: His proponents played up his image, his wife, his (as turned out) empty “hope” agenda, and the “no more Bush” angle. His opponents tried to defame him based on issues of heritage, religion, and the like, even trying to remove his eligibility based on birth place. (Making a challenge of eligibility is of course legitimate. However, rules along the lines of “the President must have been born in the U.S” have little practical relevance on whether someone is suitable for the job. In contrast, hypothetical rules like “the President must have a post-graduate degree” or “the President must have served as a state governor or mayor of a major city for at least five years” would be much easier to defend.)

*Among the Western democracies, the U.S. is possibly the one where democracy works the worst—despite arguably having the most thought-through system. I would speculate that this is due to the age of the U.S. democratic system, with “FIFA-ization” simply having had more time to do its damage, possibly aided by the earlier and wider spread of television. (Cf. how Kennedy allegedly beat Nixon due to a better television performance.) The common use of public elections to appoint e.g. district attorneys is likely harmful. The emphasis on individual politicians and not parties (as in Sweden and Germany) almost certainly increases the populism and the vulnerability to lobbyists, but could have positive counter-effects e.g. through diminishing the role of organizations (and thereby the “FIFA-ization”).

Of the three current main candidates, all appear unsuitable for the job and each could do considerable damage if elected. Sanders is disturbingly far to the left. Trump seems to be off his meds. Hillary* is a corrupt opportunist (as was revealed repeatedly during her husband’s presidency), appears to have a distorted world view (e.g. regarding feminism), and has a political career that consists of gifts from others. In fact, her main strength is campaigning and public relations… (Between her and Bill, this is probably her fourth preliminary campaign, to which we can add two presidential campaigns, her senatorial campaigning, Bill’s gubernatorial campaigning, possibly campaigns for smaller offices at some point in time, and likely some involvement in at least the campaigns of Al Gore.)

*When I hear “Clinton”, I still think “Bill” and I suspect this is the same with most people outside the U.S. “Hillary” reduces the confusion.

As absurd it may seem to someone who knows my political stance (libertarian and classical liberal) and what I tend to think of the Left, I consider Sanders the least of these three evils. Indeed, since he might be the best hope we have of preventing a Hillary presidency, which is an absolute nightmare scenario, I would urge those who still have a vote to cast in the preliminaries to cast it on him. (By analogy, in a Hillary–Trump match-up for the main election, go with Trump. A Sanders–Trump match-up is harder, because there is at least some possibility that Trump is merely playing the opinion or trolling the election process, with the intention of being far more reasonable should he be elected. If so, he is the better choice; if not, Sanders is slightly ahead.)

The general problem, however, will not go away by voting for the “lesser evil”. To remove ourselves from popularity contests, radical measures are needed. In the specific case of the U.S. President, one way could be to explicitly forbid candidates for the electoral college to in anyway indicate a preference for a presidential candidate and to re-focus the election process on the individual electors, ideally even with the electoral college being chosen before the presidential candidates are determined: The college candidates have to convince the public that they are, individually, more suitable for the ad hoc task of electing the president than their competitors, ideally through pointing to intellectual accomplishments, experience, education, whatnot. (The actual implementation would have to be carefully thought through, especially in order to prevent a candidate’s unofficial preferences for President from being well-known, despite an ostensible lack of preference.)

A more general solution (that I have repeatedly suggested) is to set competency based limits on eligibility for both voters and candidates for office. For instance, presumptive voters could take a test to determine their ability to think critically and rationally and to see through political propaganda. (However, tests based on opinion or even knowledge must not be allowed, because these would very soon be abused to limit the right to vote to those having the “right” opinions, thereby defeating the democratic process. A test of thinking, in contrast, is only marginally different in principle and purpose from the age restrictions that are in universal use.)

An important point of democracy, too often forgotten: There are certain rights that are usually grouped with democracy in a blanket manner, but which are actually unrelated—and more important than democracy it self. Consider e.g. freedom of speech and thought or the right to due process. (To some degree these overlap with the connotations of “civil liberties”, “human rights”, and “Rechtsstaat”. More often than not, in my experience and at least outside academia, they are simply grouped together with “democratic rights” or “democratic principles”.) Keeping a true democracy running without (at least some of) them is hard; preserving them in a non-democracy might be even harder. Still they are not inherently linked to democracy. Indeed, there are many officially democratic countries that try to limit these rights and in doing so they become lesser than (hypothetical) non-democratic countries in which the rights are preserved. To take a few examples:

  1. Crimes related to sex are often given a drastically different treatment than other crimes, which undermines principles like “due process” and “Rechtssicherheit”. The underlying reason for such principles is, somewhat simplified, that no-one should be arbitrarily punished without having committed a crime or punished in disproportion to a crime actual committed. (With regard to criminal law. Civil law is the same m.m.) This is not just to reduce the risks of incompetence—but even more to reduce the risk of deliberate abuse of the legal system. This applies particularly to abuse by the government*.

    *Generally, a constitution, bill of rights, system of government, whatnot, must not be based on the assumption that the leader(s) of the country, governmental agencies, and individual civil servants are never evil (or incompetent). On the contrary, one of their most important tasks is to protect the people against this very risk. Unfortunately, this is something that most politicians fail to grasp—thereby proving the importance of the task…

    However, we now can have situations where no-one (ideally) can be arbitrarily punished for e.g. theft and murder—but easily could be so for rape (sexual abuse of children, whatnot). What then is the benefit of preventing arbitrary punishment for murder? A hostile entity (e.g. a government or a powerful personal enemy) simply forgoes the murder accusation and trumps up a rape accusation.

    For this reason, it is imperative that sex crimes are not treated differently than other crimes, no matter how easy it is to play on emotions. (The irrationality often present is proved e.g. by rape carrying similar penalties to murder in the U.S. and how some debaters actually seem to consider it the worse crime—a stupidity so abysmal that its sickening.) If someone accused of murder has the right to the presumption of innocence, then so must someone accused of rape. If someone accused of murder has the right to face his accuser, then so must someone accused of rape. If an alleged victim of attempted murder is cross-examined by the defense, then so must the alleged victim of a rape. Etc.

    Notably, “strict liability” has no justification whatsoever in criminal law, be it with regard to sex or other areas. All cases where a punishment is reasonably due (in the absence of unlawful intentions) can be fully covered by variations of negligence. For instance, someone who fires a gun in an apartment and accidentally kills a neighbor is negligent, because any reasonable person should have realized that this action endangered the lives of others. A large corporation is almost always negligent when inadvertently breaking laws, because a duty* to have sufficient legal knowledge or to make sufficient legal consultations can be assumed. In contrast, someone having sex with an underage person who professes to be of age and looks it to boot, cannot be considered negligent without additional proof that a reasonable person should have suspected something foul.

    *Typically, the legal system of a given country will assume such an obligation for entities, including natural persons, in near blanket manner. However, I am very skeptical as to whether this is ethically justifiable and compatible with a sound legal system, especially considering the horrifyingly large number of laws and their complexity. In my opinion, natural persons should be given considerable leeway, outside a certain core set of laws where knowledge can reasonably be assumed and demanded. (Better yet, if the average person cannot be presumed to understand or know that something is a crime, there is a fair chance that it should not be criminal to begin with.) Corporations, especially major ones, are a different matter.

    This the more so, as many sex crimes are in fact Orwellian “sexcrimes”: In the modern West, homosexuality is perfectly legal; a few decades ago that was not always the case and in other parts of the world it still is not. In Germany, someone 60 years old can legally have sex with a 16 y.o. partner*; in some U.S. states, someone 18 years and 1 month old can see his life ruined over having had sex with a 17 years, 11 months old partner. (In both cases, assuming mutual consent.) In Germany, prostitution is perfectly legal; in the U.S. it is not; in Sweden and (until this month) France it used to be legal, before campaigns of misinformation and misrepresentation forced the illegality of the purchase**. Indeed, I strongly suspect that some who call for changes in legislation have a hidden agenda. For instance, making sex with a 17 y.o. a strict liability statutory rape, will not merely cause people to stop having sex with 17 y.o. looking people—it will also make them a whole lot more careful about having sex with strangers who appear to be in their early to mid-twenties, about having sex while drunk, and similar. Similarly, extending bans on child porn to include not merely (proper) children, nor even just “children” below the age of 18, but depictions where someone above 18 pretends to be below 18 or could be taken to be below 18, is absurd and idiotic—unless we assume that this is just an indirect way of attacking porn in general, merely using the pretext of attacking child porn (and thereby avoiding the strong protests and resistance that would follow an attempt to ban porn in general).

    *I am not necessarily saying that this is a good or a socially accepted combination (certainly not a likely one). The point is that it is very weird (and usually a sign of too restrictive laws) when one highly developed and “modern” country declares something illegal that other highly developed and “modern” countries allow. Even within the U.S. there are odd variations from state to state.

    **But not the act of prostitution it self. The asymmetry is absurd, illogical, and incompatible with how e.g. narcotics are handled (the buyer or possessor is often not culpable, but the seller is). If nothing else: If the purchase is illegal, then the prostitute is enticing others to a criminal act, which would normally (and justifiably) be criminal.

  2. Germany has considerable restrictions on freedom of speech and expression, notably in that a number of symbols and greetings associated with the Nazi movement are forbidden. While to some degree, for historical reasons, emotionally understandable, there is little or no rational justification and it remains an undue intrusion on the rights of the individual. In stark contrast, the (largely common) symbols of GDR, the USSR, and other Communist dictatorships are not forbidden, even though the crimes of the USSR match those of Nazi-Germany and the GDR showed the same disregard for the life and rights of the individual. (More generally, unfortunately, and contrary to Leftist propaganda and Hollywood movies, there is nothing uniquely evil about Nazi-Germany. History is full of qualitatively similar examples, the difference being a matter of scale and success, which, at the time, where unprecedented.) To make matters worse, there are ongoing attempts to ban the strongly nationalist and allegedly Neo-Nazi NPD while a direct continuation of SED (the governing Communist party of GDR) is sitting in parliament. Notably, these attempts are directed not against actions but against opinions* and Leftist extremist often call for blanket bans on all claimed** Nazi and Fascist organizations. Claims for bans have even been raised against upstart AfD, currently the third largest party in Germany. Populist, yes; unconventional, yes; disliking the “old” political parties, yes. More ban-worthy or extreme than the other parties in parliament? NO! Fascist is as Fascist does: The organizations that want to ban other organizations for their own benefit are the ones that deserve to be banned.

    *In my understanding of German law, a ban would require more than opinions and to boot something specifically “anti-constitutional” (“verfassungswidrig”); however, I have seen little or no evidence of more than opinions and those Leftist extremists that call the loudest for a ban appear to ignore the question of constitutionality. Further, in as far as the opinions of the NPD, themselves, are anti-constitutional, they are so partly or wholly because the German constitution makes too far-going attempts to regulate what is the right opinion to have and the right way to do things, in manner that is not worthy of a modern Western country. (I have toyed with the idea of a deeper analysis, but have so far not executed the idea.)

    **The degree to which this classification is correct is often disputable. As I have noted again and again, words like “Nazi”, “racist”, “sexist”, are often used in a highly inappropriate manner by the Left (the politically correct, feminists) in order to unfairly discredit their opponents (or through pure incompetence); similarly, it is quite common than an anti-immigraTION sentiment is considered anti-immigraNT or even anti-foreigner, or an anti-IslamISM statement considered anti-Islam or even anti-Muslim. In the specific case of NPD, they have many opinions that I find absurd, but if the Nazi claims apply (of which I am not yet convinced), they still make no demands for an invasion of Poland or extermination of Jews. In addition, as absurd as I consider some of their opinions, they are no worse than many Leftist extremists, and in areas unrelated to nationalism and the like their opinions often coincide with other parties. Indeed, having read up a bit during the writing of this article, I find them to have quite a lot in common with the Left in areas like economic policy and the traditional Leftist anti-EU, anti-globalization, anti-nuclear-power, …, stances—an observation I have made repeatedly with organizations considered to be on the extreme Right, including the Swedish SD. People on the “extreme Right” are often actually people that would have been considered on the Left, except for the addition of nationalist (etc.) opinions. To a non-trivial degree this applies to NSDAP (the original Nazi party) it self, even in its self-perception and deliberate presentation: The “S” stands for “Socialist”, the “A” for “Worker” (“Arbeiter”).

    Analogous to the above “sexcrimes”, this just amounts to Orwellian “thoughtcrime”.

  3. The surveillance mania of allegedly democratic governments is reaching a point which is, yet again, Orwellian. In light of the common knowledge of the Snowden revelations, I will not go into detail of what is already known to be implemented. However, I will give special mention to the recent attempts to force Apple to manipulate user devices according to governmental wishes (albeit by the judicial branch) and the suggestions for legal restrictions on encryption: Encryption should only allowed if its breakable (thereby rendering it almost useless). Similar calls have been made for a requirement that encryption providers also provide explicit back-doors or keep keys that they can hand out to the government at its will (making encryption useless against the government and opening a major security hole that non-governmental attackers will love). Some jurisdictions already require users to “voluntarily” hand out their encryption keys and passwords to allow governmental access. Other suggestions with a somewhat similar motivation is to remove large bank notes or put upper limits on the size of cash transaction, for the purpose of making anonymous payments impossible.

    Big Brother sees you…

    As an aside, I am very strongly in favor of legislation in the other direction (and use encryption extensively, myself): In order to protect the citizens from the government, such attempts to break encryption, engage in digital surveillance, accessing private computers, …, must be made illegal even for the government. (As should access to some non-digital forms, notably private paper diaries.) In particular: A computer can tell us so much about someone that such access is unconscionable. Firstly, many (including yours truly) use their computers as an extension of their own memories, making the intrusion tantamount to an intrusion into their actual heads. Secondly, many use their computers to record highly private thoughts, including for diary and (as I once did) therapeutic purposes. Thirdly, a computer can indirectly give us enormously detailed information about someone—too detailed. (Including highly intimate information, such as porn habits.) Fourthly, a computer will almost certainly contain communications with other parties that can be damaging to them or be of a type that they justly wish to remain secret to third parties, including e.g. exchanges of romantic emails and confidential business communications. Fifthly, digital evidence is so easy to forge* that it must only be admissible in court when the absence of manipulation can be proved, which is basically impossible to do when third parties have extensive access to a device, making most uses of such surveillance and access pointless to begin with.

    *In the vast majority of cases, no forgery will take place—true. However, it does happen even today, even in countries like Germany or the U.S. Cases where a DA seeks a conviction irrespective of guilt and innocence occur; where an investigator “knows” that someone is guilty and resorts to fabricating the evidence he lacks; where the accused has personal enemies who influence the investigation; … Worse: There is always a risk that times change and that, for instance, politically motivated persecutions through the justice system become common. “Due process” that is based on the assumption a benevolent justice system can never be true due process.

  4. The influence of lobbies does not only result in sub-optimal economic decisions, but also poses a severe threat to the rights and interests of the population. Among the many examples, consider changes in copyright legislation to postpone the time that works enter the public domain*, absurd restrictions on how a purchased good might be used (e.g. bans on backup copies of DVDs; as opposed to reasonable restrictions like a ban on arbitrary distribution of copies to third parties), attempts to reduce customers’ privacy from corporations, …

    *At what time and under what circumstances this should take place is ultimately arbitrary and the right to read books free of charge is something very different from the right to free speech. However, there have been repeated adjustments upwards over time (often retroactively), without the underlying ethical issue having changed, and through lobbying or other “para-democratic” means. To boot, I suspect that these changes are not only intended to favor the copyright holders—but also to artificially reduce competition for newly released works. While the nature of the change is my point above, I do find the often used criterion of 70 years after the author’s death to be excessive. Notably, these 70 years will almost always be longer than the time the actual author enjoyed copyright protection… If I had drawn up the rules, I might have gone with something like the author’s death or 30 years past first publication, which ever comes last: This protects the rights of the author (which is the most important), gives the heirs a fair slice even if the author drops dead the day after publication, and provides a sufficient time of use and security for third parties to not rule out buying the rights—while ensuring that the public domain is enriched in a reasonably timely manner. Alternatively, copyright could be entirely open ended, but associated with a rapidly increasing fee after the death of the author. (As an aside, I have grown increasingly skeptical to awarding non-natural persons rights outside of what is a business necessity, including copyright and free speech, seeing that these often lead to abuse like outrageous misrepresentations in advertising being called free speech or record companies snatching up the majority of the profit from the musicians’ work. Such rights are possibly better tied to natural persons only, with appropriate changes in business models where needed.)

Even the democratic process it self can be circumvented. Consider e.g. how the current German government consists of a coalition of two parties whose ideologies, economic policies, and whatnots are so drastically different that forming the coalition betrayed the confidence of their respective voters—and potentially made further elections unnecessary: They could, strictly theoretically, just make a behind the scenes deal to always form a coalition and potentially govern uninterrupted for decades, irrespective of the votes given. Or take the tricks of the Swedish parties against SD: Exclusion of SD from committees, parties voting against their own program rather than allowing SD influence on the vote, … This goes beyond the unethical-but-established practice of making election promises while crossing ones fingers—here the parties ignore the reasons why people voted for them in order to follow their own agenda.

The reader may be surprised that I have not included the rise of strongly populist parties, so common in Europe at the moment, that have a limited number of core issues, an incomplete overall party program, and a main theme of “we don’t like the way things are”. (In Sweden, they are termed “missnöjespartier”—“malcontentment parties”.) The “conventional truth” among the established parties and the press is that these malcontents are an evil and a proof of the stupidity of the masses—which would fit in well with my above discussion. However, I very strongly disagree with this premise: These parties show that there is hope for democracy, that the people is not satisfied with being the puppets of the politicians, and that the political landscape can change. In as far as they are problematic, they are just a symptom and not the disease. The common criticism that these parties often lack experience, competence, and a developed party program can be true, but before they actually become part of a government, if ever, they will typically have plenty of time to improve–and it would be a grossly unfair Catch-22 to exclude parties based on deficits they need inclusion to remedy. If nothing else, their presence can shake the old parties out of old habits.

Similarly, I have not included the sinking participation of eligible voters in elections: Yes, this is potentially bad, but it is also just a symptom of the underlying problems. I have, myself, not voted in the past fifteen years or so, despite once being politically active, because there are no parties and preciously few politicians that I find myself comfortable supporting. At best, I could vote for yet another “lesser evil” and I, as do many others, prefer to let my non-vote be a message of disapproval to the politicians. What I consider far worse, truly worthy of lament, is the reactions of some politicians: Instead of realizing that voter participation is a problem that they have caused themselves, they blame the non-voters… I have even heard statements along the lines of non-voters not doing their civic duty! The right to vote and to participate in the democratic process is a right—not a duty. (And, as above, not voting can it self be a deliberate message.) Quite often, I have heard claims that it is important to vote, irrespective of what one votes for or whether one feels informed enough, which is turning the world on its head: If someone does not have a clear opinion, it is most definitely better to stay at home and reduce the problem of the uninformed selecting our leaders. The attitude towards both the citizens and the democratic processes that shines through in these reactions is horrifying. Whether they are stupid, despise their voters, try to increase their legitimacy*, …, politicians like these have no business seeking office.

*A higher voter participation implies a higher degree of (perceived?) legitimacy, because if someone claims to be elected by the people and does not have even close to a majority of the people’s vote, well, it is simply not very credible. In Germany and Sweden we can have situations where 80 % is eligible to vote, of which 70 % does vote, of which 90 % of votes actually have an effect (votes on parties below 5 resp. 4 % are wasted, because of a cut-off, some votes are sorted out for formal reasons, etc.), and the eventual premier belongs to a party that received 40 % of the votes that did count, relying on the support of smaller allied parties to gain a parliamentary majority. In this scenario the support of 100 % * 0.8 * 0.7 * 0.9 * 0.4 = 20.16 % of the overall population or 25.2 % of the eligible population is needed—elected by the people, my ass! Now, if everyone voted, and no-one voted on new or fringe parties (or the fictitious but popular-in-Sweden “Donald Duck Party”), these numbers would turn into an at least semi-legitimate 32 and 40 %, respectively. (Assuming the same distribution. However, even with a lower overall share, the original proportions would typically be exceeded by a considerable margin.) Drop the proportion of voters to, say, 25 % and the numbers become 7.2 and 9 %! No wonder that politicians react negatively to non-voters… Also no wonder that they are much against lowering the proportion of eligible voters, while at least some politicians want to increase it, e.g. through lowering the age of eligibility to 16.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 16, 2016 at 9:13 am

Post by Email and current situation (follow-up)

with 2 comments

So far, I have noted two problems:

Somewhere along the way, artificial line breaks are added in the middle of text, including in the middle of words. These require manual correction. The reason is not yet clear, but incompetent handling by wordpress is the main candidate. The underlying reason is likely that there is maximal line size somewhere that it is exceed because I put the entire contents in one line. The absurdity: The reason I do this, is that the ordinary WordPress interface added unwanted line breaks if I did not…

Some tags seem to be stripped out. Fortunately, the display still appears to be correct or approximately correct, but this is still weak: The original HTML should have been kept identically. (With exception for tags that must be stripped in order to fit the document in the display page.)

(See also the original post.)

Written by michaeleriksson

April 14, 2016 at 11:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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Review of The Force Awakens (Star Wars Episode VII)

with 4 comments

Disclaimer: The majority of the text was written around New Year’s as unconnected draft-level pieces, shortly after I watched the movie. The later combination into a whole and polishing up, together with some minor extensions, took place in the last few days, when my memory of the details had often faded. There quite likely are things that I wanted to write, but have since forgotten. Equally, there might be parts of the later changes that do not exactly reflect what I would have written back then.

Remark: I will refer to the Star-Wars movies by designations such as “Episode VII” (for “The Force Awakens”). For those with a superficial knowledge of the franchise, note that the episode numbers correspond to the in-universe chronology, but that the order is IV–VI, I–III, VII in terms of release history. Specifically, “the” Star-Wars movie is Episode IV (AKA “New Hope”). “The Clone Wars” and “Rebels” (that are briefly mentioned in the text) are animated TV series.

By and large, I found Episode VII to be disappointing and more a case of interesting fan fiction than a serious continuation of the franchise. (It shares many problems with the new Star-Trek movies, by the same director, J.J. Abrams, but these were more entertaining and struck me as better made.) The result is not even close to Episodes I–III*; Episodes IV–VI would have been indisputably better, except for the enormous difference in special effects; and I would even favor parts of “The Clone Wars”. In addition, the in-universe fit is comparatively poor and there are some decisions made that make me personally consider it (and the new Star-Trek movies…) non-canonical—if not, the events of the earlier movies, especially the happy endings to various sub-plots in Episode VI, become tainted and my enjoyment of the older movies diminished. Needless to say, when a sequel negatively affects the earlier installments, something has gone wrong—cf. “Highlander” for an absolutely disastrous example.

*Episodes I–III were very negatively received by many fans of Episodes IV–VI. I would, on the contrary, rate them as better, and strongly suspect that the problem was more one of expectations than quality: The two trilogies are very different in style and contents. (Since I have repeatedly seen the same phenomenon with myself, e.g. when a presumed action movie turns out to be a comedy or vice versa, I took very great care to watch Episode VII with an open mind.) Continuity issues were also criticized, but were not unacceptably common—and Episodes I–III resolved more problems than they caused, cf. below. In addition, many objected to mystic elements around the Jedi suddenly being given a more scientific/rational explanation; however, this is compatible to the respective settings in my eyes: In one case, we move on the edge of civilization and mostly on the lower levels of society, while the Jedi are virtually extinct. In the other, significant parts of the movies play in the capital of the Republic (and other “civilized” areas), the main characters are highly trained Jedi, senators, royalty, whatnot—and the Jedi abound. Some problems are present, e.g. the unfortunate Jar-Jar character and the third instant-victory-by-blowing-up-a-spherical-enemy-ship in Episode I (after similar events in Episodes IV and VI).

Even if we drop the comparison with the older Star-Wars movies and instead compare with other recent movies* of a sufficiently similar genre and target group**, I am not that impressed. “Ant-Man” (also in the extended sci-fi genre) is an example of a very recent better movie; the heavily criticized “Jupiter Rising” (more closely related sci-fi) is roughly equal. Episodes IV–VI (1977–1983) where exclamation marks with just a handful of (even) candidates for a comparison over the history of film up to their respective releases. Episodes I–III (1999–2005) had heavier competition (including the “The Mummy”, “Matrix”, and “Star Trek” franchises), but still managed to reach the highest levels and set new standards for special effects. However, with “Pirates of the Caribbean”; the film versions of “Lord of the Rings”, “Harry Potter”, and number of other book series; various super-hero movies; …; we may actually have seen several movies better than Episode VII and another several roughly on the same level per year since then. In addition, there are even rare TV-based franchises that produced/s at least some episodes more enjoyable, despite a fraction of the budget, notably “Doctor Who”.

*An obvious comparison would be the latest “Jurassic Park” installment: A similarly successful franchise and the number two in last year’s box office, trailing only Episode VII, and actually breaking a similar number of box-office records. However, I only visit the cinema in exceptional cases nowadays and I have not yet had the opportunity to see it through other channels.

**Dropping the genre and target group criteria, Episode VII would be in big trouble.

Among the problems I see:

  1. As I feared, too little space is given to the old characters, excepting Solo/Chewbacca. Their involvement is also too much of a coincidence* to be plausible. Luke’s appearance is even just a cameo, without a single line, at the very end of the movie. (But, to be fair, it is arguably the best scene of the movie, through the fondness of reunion and the satisfaction of closure.)

    *In fairness, it is possible that this will be explained reasonably later on. Episode IV had a similar problem, with the droids just happening to find Leia’s twin brother, as well as the twins being the children of Vader; however, this is somewhat reasonably ret-conned through the events of Episode III, especially if we assume that Yoda was pulling strings in the background.

  2. The lack of progress of the galaxy and its situation is depressing and diminishes the happiness of the Episode VI ending. Ditto the failure of Luke and his training academy, the unromantic state of Han’s and Leia’s marriage, and the development of their son (i.e. Kylo). (But oddly the new incarnation of the Death Star was absurdly more powerful than the old ones, despite their construction being a central part of the emperor’s plans.)
  3. Like so many sequels, it commits the error of just escalating what its predecessors did, instead of trying to improve the quality or adding something new, and often while forgetting what actually made the predecessor(s) great. If a successful horror film had four victims and used two buckets of blood, the sequel has eight victims and four buckets. If the action film had big explosions, the sequel has bigger explosions. Etc. (While this is not necessarily bad, the things that formed the success of the originals might have been the soundtrack, good casting, interesting character dynamics, an original story line, … If these factors are forgotten while more buckets of blood and bigger explosions are added, the result will be inferior.) In contrast, Episodes I–III added tons of new things and improved the quality of many aspects considerably, compared to Episodes IV–VI; indeed, even the individual episodes of both trilogies fared well in these regards. (Many parallels and the
    aforementioned threefold instant-victory-by-blowing-up-a-spherical-enemy-ship notwithstanding.)
  4. Dialog (often attributed to Lucas, himself) and acting* were possible never the greatest point of the franchise, but Episode VII is no improvement. The dialog without Lucas was on the same level as with him. Acting-wise there might have been fewer duds, but there were also no Alec Guinness.

    *While there were a number of strong performances in the earlier movies, there were also a surprising number of weak ones. It can also be argued that neither Mark Hamill nor Hayden Christiansen brought much to the table acting-wise, but that their characters worked merely because they managed to hit the exact right tone for the almost allegorical character and story framework chosen by Lucas. Natalie Portman was a surprising disappointment, considering what she has done since, as well as her promising work in “Leon” at an even earlier a

    Disclaimer: This item was added when polishing up before publication. Here I go by the memory of my impressions from months earlier and could be off.

  5. Most (possibly all) of the other Episodes had at least some new piece of music or theme, often several, that impressed me out of the ordinary. This was not the case with Episode VII. (At least not on the first watching and possibly there is something to be found on further watchings; however, film music tends to hit me on the first watching or not at all.) It is noteworthy that most of John Williams’ scores outside of Star Wars, in my opinion, have been bland and generic, albeit technically skilled. For the other Episodes he pulled out every stop, making him as important to the franchise as Bernard Hermann was to “Vertigo”; here he appears to have made one of those generic efforts, at least with regard to the new parts of the music.
  6. The female hero (Rey) was relatively disappointing, a thin patch on Ahsoka Tano (Anakin’s female side-kick in “The Clone Wars” and possibly my favorite character of the entire franchise), and too close to the hero in “Star Wars Rebels” both with regard to character and introduction (and both follow the hero-unexpectedly-leaves-home-for-adventure pattern already used for both Luke and Anakin). I also strongly suspect that the “female” part is an artificial attempt to either broaden the (previously mostly male) audience or to pacify the feminists*. If not, it would actually have made more sense to just pick the (male) hero from “Rebels”.**

    *I have repeatedly seen the complaint that the older episodes would have too weak and helpless heroines—which makes me wonder if the complainers have actually seen these movies…

    **Correction: Fact checking, I find that he would be closer to Luke’s age than Rey’s at the time of the events of Episode VII. I found “Rebels”, too, disappointing, paid too little attention, and forgot where it fit in the timeline.

  7. Her growth in and use of the Force is not realistic*: Others needed considerable training to achieve the same. (The assumption that she simply was naturally stronger does not hold, seeing that several of the earlier Jedi rated extremely highly, Anakin arguably topping off the scale of the theoretically achievable in terms of natural ability, being conceived to a virgin mother through manipulation of the Force.)

    The scene were she escapes through Force Conviction was a gross error of judgment. Keeping it at the initial failed attempt would have been better, remaining realistic and adding a dash of humor.

    She should have died very quickly when fighting Kylo Ren (the main antagonist) the first time. (As should Luke the first time he fought Vader—except that Vader had secret reasons to keep him alive. There are several other instances of events in the earlier movies that seem unrealistic, but have a reasonable explanation, whereas corresponding instances in Episode VII do not. A slight alleviation can be found by assuming, consistent with the pre-story, that Kylo Ren too was at a comparatively early stage of his training—but he would still be far more advanced.)

    *There is an unrealistic gap between the first and second trilogies too, which is not sufficiently explained by the often used ret-con that Episode IV–VI characters were untrained, old, or half-machine. For instance, Count Dooku was considerably older than the Episode IV version of Obi-Wan—yet far, far more impressive. However, these increases in ability were consistent over all characters, unlike the Rey-specific increase in Episode VII.

  8. The film-makers fail to understand that a villain that is too easy to defeat (and, vice versa, a hero that is too strong) is a liability. A good story has the hero winning despite being weaker, outnumbered, or otherwise having the odds against him/her. when the hero suddenly proves to be the stronger and the villain turns into an easy target (never mind a snivelling loser like Kylo)—that is just pointless. It is true that the Episode I–III Jedi were superior to almost anything they encountered, but the keyword is “almost”—and they had plenty of tough fights even against inferior opponents. Look at the main fights of these movies: In Episode I, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan together barely manage to defeat one Sith, at the cost of Quigong’s life and with a bit of trickery and luck on the part of the out-gunned Obi-Wan. In Episode II, Anakin and Obi-Wan are both soundly defeated by Dooku and only with the intervention of Yoda victory (if he allows the word) is achieved. In Episode III, Yoda is defeated by the Emperor, while Obi-Wan only defeats (the now evil) Anakin when the latter’s arrogance makes him commit a crucial and easily avoidable mistake. In Episodes IV–VI the heroes were underdogs almost everywhere.
  9. Generally, there is too much duplication in terms of characters and events with the originals (especially Episode IV), which already had a dangerous amount of duplication between them. (That duplication, however, could mostly be defended on grounds of parallelism and symbolism, in that Luke and Anakin went through similar stations and situations. With Abrams, looking at the Star-Trek movies, it appears to be a systematic problem of imitation and “fan fictioning”.) An additional similarity in parts with “Rebels” has already been mentioned. A few examples:

    Yet another variation on the Death Star theme is hackneyed, nay ridiculous: Too many variations was one of the weaknesses of the earlier movies and repeating it once again is idiotic.

    Han is killed off in a scene far too closely paralleling the death of Obi-Wan. (Even to the point that Obi-Wan was the closest thing to a father that the pre-Sith Anakin had.) As with several other of these parallels, it was also too predictable: As soon as Han initiated their meeting, the conclusion seemed pre-determined—Kylo’s speech in no way misleading the viewer, but merely re-inforcing the impression. In addition, this is a liberty that a non-Lucas movie should simply not have taken.

    Kylo Ren is too derivative of Darth Vader*. Making him the grand son of Darth Vader is just unimaginative, bordering on the silly, considering the many existing implausible family ties.

    *With the in-story continuity that he deliberate tries to emulate Vader.

  10. The parts of the story that are not just imitating the other Episodes are thin and lack innovation. (In all fairness, it is harder to do something new today than in the past.)
  11. The story line is not compatible with the (traditionally lower-in-canon) books that pre-date it. This is not necessarily a big deal to me (having never read any of the books) and certainly not to most viewers. However, there will be many hard-core fans who see their established view of the events post Episode VI turned upside down and could understandably be very upset about this. If in doubt, I would tend to view the books as having a greater degree of canonicity, seeing that Episode VII is not from Lucas’ feather, that I see Episode VII mostly as fan fiction, and that the books were published earlier.

On the positive side there is not that much that spring too mind, outside of special effects; however, the rebellious storm trooper was a nice touch. A positive surprise was that the “Disney-fication” was nowhere near as bad as I had anticipated, although the Disney/Pixar look of e.g. the new droid annoyed me.

For the future, I just hope that there will be no absurd surprises like Rey being Kylo’s long lost sister or the daughter of Luke (hackneyed beyond belief), Rey being the true “chosen one” (invalidating the previous movies entirely), Kylo’s master actually being Luke using some form of projection, or similar. If any of that happens, well, then the film makers should simply be lined up against a wall and shot for criminal incompetence.

As an aside, while Episode VII has been extraordinarily successful at the box office, this is to a large part due to the extreme-by-historical-standards numbers posted by today’s movies, which distort comparisons immensely. (And to a large part due to the cult around of the franchise; as opposed to e.g. “Avatar”, “E.T.”, and Episode IV, which all started from scratch.) According to Boxoffice Mojo, it is (at the time of writing) the 11th most successful movie in the U.S. after correcting for inflation, as opposed to a clear number one by unadjusted numbers. (Episode IV is the second best on the adjusted list.) It would almost certainly rate lower using global adjusted numbers, seeing that it followed the Star-Wars tradition of doing considerably better per capita in the U.S. than in the rest of the world (number three globally, unadjusted). I suspect that further adjustment for factors other than ordinary inflation would bring it even lower, considering how ridiculously dominated the all-time lists are by movies from the last few years. See also the unadjusted global numbers and U.S. numbers from the same website.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 14, 2016 at 11:13 am

Post by Email and current situation

with one comment

Over the last few months, I have several times started to write something, been three quarters through, and not put in the finishing touches because I have lacked the means of publishing:

On the one hand, publishing at my website proper would have taken considerable extra work, because I have yet to set up what I need (including various programs and the repository of writings and code) after my old laptop died last autumn. Worse, I have yet to straighten out various changes made during my absence from the Internet a few years back (cf. some older posts) and the website, unlike WordPress, is NOT published piece by piece but as a certain set of current entries in a version control system.

On the other, publishing at this blog has a) been extremely frustrating through the user hostile interface of WordPress and b) has hitherto relied on the same code as my website for generation of the HTML I publish.

In this way, technology has become an accidental obstacle where it was intended as a helper, while my wish to do things in the optimal way (i.e. using my website and/or the corresponding tools) has resulted in my doing nothing. Perfect IS the proverbial enemy of good.

To break out of this, I have made some experiments with a feature “Post by Email” provided by WordPress, which allows me to by-pass the user-hostile interface and, as the name implies, post by sending an email. The current post is the first official publication using this method (subscribers have likely seen a few test posts). This comes with a few caveats, however:

  1. There may be things that go wrong here and there. Especially, I fear that I might have to make manual tweaks post-publication for at least the first few posts (subscribers beware). Rumor has it that “Post by Email” often mangles HTML code.
  2. To resolve the issue of HTML generation and reliance on my website tools, I have decided to (for the time being!) drop all the fancy possibilities I had and use a sed command to generate a very basic HTML document.
  3. There is an additional security risk, because anyone who figures out the right email address could publish on this blog too and the risk that the address becomes known to a third party is considerably larger than for a password. In addition, a brute-force attack would likely be able to find the address for plenty of blogs, even though it would be hard to attack a specific blog in that manner. (The low security of this feature is the reason why I have never tried it until now.) Most likely, there will never be an intruder, but beware that it could happen, and do give me the benefit of the doubt, should some out-of-the-ordinary contents appear.

I do not think that I will suddenly become as prolific as I once was, because other reasons that deter me from writing remain, including a want of time and being fed up with human stupidity. However, currently on vacation, I hope to publish at least two lengthier pieces in the next few days: A discussion of why I feel that we have a crisis of democracy (that I am currently working on) and a review of the latest Star Wars movie (that I started around New Year’s, but am only finishing up now).

As for my main website, I hope to take a few months off for a mini-sabbatical in the autumn and (among many other things I plan to do) straighten the situation out.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 13, 2016 at 9:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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