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Written by michaeleriksson

August 12, 2017 at 11:39 pm

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Google employee fired for questioning … intolerance of opinion

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Google employee fired for questioning … intolerance of opinion

[tags Google, political correctness, oppression, discrimination, gender science, feminism, nature, nurture] I have repeatedly warned against the dangers of the anti-democratic, unscientific, and destructive trend towards extreme measures against those with the “wrong” opinions. (Cf. e.g. [1], [2].) This week, a particular atrocious case appeared on my radar screen: A Google employee was fired for writing a well-reasoned memo titled Google’s ideological echo chamber. A particular sad twist is that one of his main points in this memo was the dangers of
intolerance against “wrong” opinions…

This behavior is utterly inexcusable and reprehensible, worthy of all condemnation we are capable off.

Below I will discuss some parts of this memo, with a particular eye on how its contents fit in a bigger picture. Before I do so, a brief side-bar:


Looking into the situation around the memo, I stumbled upon a Norwegian TV production Hjernevask* (“Brainwash”), that I recommend very highly. It makes many of the points I (and the memo) have made in the past, largely by comparing and contrasting statements by various gender “scientists”, social scientists, and the like with those by e.g. biologists and evolutionary psychologists—the latter providing data and arguments, the former unsubstantiated opinion.

*The link, hosted by Google’s (!) own YouTube,
purports to have English subtitles. For me, they only appeared on the last episode; however, much of the contents are actually in English to begin with, especially the parts dealing with actual scientific opinions (as opposed to what journalists like to claim is scientific opinion). Even those who do not understand Norwegian will be able to profit. (Being Swedish, I could understand most of the Norwegian parts.)

It was particularly fascinating to see academic adherents of e.g. “cultural constructs” having to defend and explain their ideas on screen (as opposed to on paper), especially when confronted with claims by scientists: Virtually no arguments, vague and evasive claims, blanket denial of “heretical” claims (even when backed by numbers), …—basically the same behavior that I have seen e.g. ESP claimants display in similar contexts.

A particular problem seen in the series, matching my own experiences very well, is
that many believers in social constructs simultaneously a. deny any biological influence, b. raise the straw-man accusation that their opponents would deny any non-biological influence. In reality most opponents simply say that we have to also consider biological influences. Many (including yours truly) believe that these influences are quite strong (in at least some areas); but hardly anyone claims that they are the only influences.


On with the main topic (quotes from the link above; some reformatting has taken place for technical reasons; beware that the discussion only goes through a subset of the claims made):

> When addressing the gap in representation in the population, we need to look at population level differences in distributions.

One of the central points the PC crowd seems unable to understand: Anyone claiming e.g. a difference between men and women as population groups is more or less automatically accused of considering women to
be inferior or even of claiming that all men would be better than all women in some regard—a grotesque distortion. At the same time, differences between groups, averages, distributions, whatnot, can have a massive effect on societal outcomes, especially when looking at the extremes. For instance, a slight difference in math ability (or interest!) will not matter much when looking at a high-school math grade—but could have a massive impact on the distribution of math professors*.

*But also note that when looking at individuals the proportion of math professors in e.g. the groups of men and women, will be very small: The size of the effects also depends on what populations are viewed from what perspective.

> If we can’t have an honest discussion about this, then we can never truly solve the problem.

And the poor author immediately becomes yet another example of this lack of honest discussion…

I have complained about this again and again: View-points that are not considered sufficiently conformant are rejected out of hand, censored, persecuted, belittled, or otherwise mistreated in a virtually religious manner. To boot, this is done without investigating the correctness of these opinions (often even without verifying that the opinion was correctly understood…), in a manner entirely lacking in scientific and intellectually honest behavior. When people are being fired for having the wrong opinions, how can we have freedom of speech in any sense that is practically useful? How can we have scientific progress? How can we question the status quo?

Even if he had made claims that were in drastic opposition to the scientific consensus, this is not a legitimate reason for a firing. (Unless those claims showed a clear unsuitability for his work, e.g. a physician claiming that Homeopathy is a good cure for cancer—and even then work performance should be
given priority: She* might still keep to the text book when it comes to actual treatment.)

*Homeopaths are overwhelmingly often women.

As is, those of his claims that are scientifically investigated* are not in drastic opposition to the scientific consensus—only to the make belief and pseudo-knowledge of some groups of social scientists, politicians, journalists, … On the contrary, they are closer to the scientific consensus than the beliefs of these groups.

*For instance, claims relating to the internal culture at Google are not a natural target for scientists. However, if anything, he has been overly optimistic, as proved by his fate. Other claims, e.g. relating to biological influences, have been researched by scientists and the verdict is, by and large, in his favour.

To boot, his opinions/suggestions are far more reasonable that the destructive attitude of
e.g. the PC crowd.

> Psychological safety is built on mutual respect and acceptance, but unfortunately our culture of shaming and misrepresentation is disrespectful and unaccepting of anyone outside its echo chamber.

In society* as whole—not just at Google. Refer e.g. to the many posts I wrote on topics like censorship in the early years of this blog.

*Swedish (and, going by Hjernevask, Norwegian) society is permeated by both this attitude and even long discredited claims by gender “scientists” and feminists are often parroted by journalists and politicians. In the U.S. and Germany the situation is not yet quite as bad, but it is growing worse and there are many areas that are lost, including certain papers, political parties, university departments, large sections of the blogosphere, …

> Thankfully, open and honest discussion with those who disagree can highlight our blind spots and help us
grow, which is why I wrote this document.

Yet, knee-jerk rejection of other opinions are one of the main problems with the PC crowd. Feminists are particularly bad. I have e.g. often seen comments on blog posts that were neutrally formulated and proposed counter-arguments or linked to actual statistics being censored for no other discernible reason than dissent. Certainly, this is a strongly contributing reason to the intellectual stuntedness of certain movements.* At the same time, I have always found that I benefit more from discussing with someone who holds the wrong opinion for a good reason than with someone who holds the right opinion for a poor reason (e.g. “my teacher told me so”). A very significant part of my intellectual growth has come from my willingness to investigate more than one side of various issues—and to do so while actually thinking.

*I am tempted to add “certain individuals”,
but that could be reversing cause and result.

> Google has several biases and honest discussion about these biases is being silenced by the dominant ideology.

Society as a whole….

> At Google, we talk so much about unconscious bias as it applies to race and gender, but we rarely discuss our moral biases.

Society as a whole… In fact, in my personal experience, the most biased, bigoted, intolerant, whatnot people are found among those who spend their time complaining about bias, bigotry, intolerance, …, among others. How people can be blind to the hypocrisy of being outraged over any type of racial bias (be it real or imagined) and at the same time considering anyone with the wrong opinion morally deficient*, that I still cannot wrap my head around.

*This is important: If we disagree with someone, a reaction of just “you are wrong”, would be one thing. Even “he is an idiot” is
often understandable, possibly even correct. Very often, however, the PC reaction goes exactly into the territory of “you are morally deficient”, “you are evil”, “you are hateful”, …, even with perfectly factual opinions that should be measured on whether they are factually correct. “Kill all Jews” is an evil statement; “Group A has a higher average IQ than group B” is not. As I have said again and again: Measure good and evil by actions, not opinions. (And measure e.g. intellectual strength/weakness by how others deal with arguments/evidence/facts/ideas/… and whether they are willing to adapt an existing opinion in face of new such—not based on whether said opinion agrees with your own.)

> Left Biases […]

> Right Biases […]

I will not discuss these in detail, but I do consider some items simplistic and strongly discourage the use of the
Left–Right division. The Right is sufficiently heterogeneous that the term is useless. (The Left, on the other hand, can be used as an at least semi-reasonable grouping.)

> Google’s left bias has created a politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence. This silence removes any checks against encroaching extremist and authoritarian policies.

Society as a whole…

> At Google, we’re regularly told that implicit (unconscious) and explicit biases are holding women back in tech and leadership.

Society as a whole… In reality there is scant evidence that this would be a major factor, and the biological factors (including interests) make far more sense and are better supported by actual science.

> On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways. These differences aren’t just socially constructed because:

> They’re universal across human cultures

> They often
have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone

> Biological males that were castrated at birth and raised as females often still identify and act like males

> The underlying traits are highly heritable

> They’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective

Amen! Hjernevask discusses all these items.

> This [personality differences] leads to women generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading.

One of the points I have made repeatedly (cf. e.g. [3])) is that differences in ability to negotiate (as well as e.g. different priorities and risk taking behavior) is an explanation for various salary differences that are only indirectly rooted in being a man or a woman: It is not (or only rarely) the case that some old white man hands out a bigger
raise to a younger man than to a younger woman because of sexism or sexual discrimination—more often, he reacts to their respective behaviors. These behaviors, in turn, are (on average) influenced by the one being a man and the other a woman. The old white man discriminates* by behavior, not by sex**. And: When a man behaves in the “female” style and a woman in the “male” style, outcomes change correspondingly.

*The word “discriminate” is absurdly abused and misunderstood in today’s world. I have vague plans for a post on that topic. For now: To discriminate means approximately to make a distinction or to see a difference as important. Hiring based on education level and by skin color are both cases of discrimination. The first is widely considered OK (strong assumed tie to work performance, education is open to everyone); the second widely considered reprehensible (weak assumed tie to
work performance, skin color, Michael Jackson notwithstanding, is something we are born with).

**Here and elsewhere I will prefer to speak of “sex” instead of “gender” (even when the original text uses “gender”). C.f. e.g. [4].

> Non-discriminatory ways to reduce the gender gap

The formulation implies (or could be taken to be imply) that we should reduce the gap. The degree to which this is correct depends on the causes. In as far as these causes are personal preferences, interests, life priorities, and, of course, ability, I am very strongly opposed to such interference. In particular, I do not see any benefit* for society in leading people into other areas of work than they would themselves have chosen—but a
disadvantage for the individuals involved.

*Reasoning like “we must get more women into tech, because we have a greater demand than supply of good tech workers” is simplistic, even assuming that these women bring the right skill-level/-set: Competent workers are a scarce resource in a great number of fields. Artificially shifting people into one field will worsen the problem in other fields. What if the quality of the teacher corps falls even further because more high-I.Q. women end up as software developers? (The reverse applies equally, but calls for driving more men into teaching are far rarer.)

Two representative examples:

> We can make software engineering more people-oriented with pair programming and more collaboration. Unfortunately, there may be limits to how people-oriented certain roles and Google can be and we shouldn’t deceive ourselves or students into thinking otherwise (some of our programs to get female
students into coding might be doing this).

Pair programming should be used if and when it has advantages (often it has)—not to shift the character of a field. Ditto collaboration. Going down this road would potentially be a good example of paving the road to hell with good intentions. In a worst case scenario, highly competent lone wolves (very common in software development) will grow dissatisfied, perform worse, or leave for other fields or companies.

> Allowing and truly endorsing (as part of our culture) part time work though can keep more women in tech.

It could, and if this is one of the aspects that give women problems without a significant benefit for the employer this could certainly be something to consider. However, this suggestion would sit far better with me were it about giving employees better opportunities, regardless of sex. Also keep in mind that the relative aversion to part time that many corporations display is rooted in
(real or perceived) benefits with having full time employees.

> The male gender role is currently inflexible

Bullshit!

> Feminism has made great progress in freeing women from the female gender role, but men are still very much tied to the male gender role. If we, as a society, allow men to be more “feminine,” then the gender gap will shrink, although probably because men will leave tech and leadership for traditionally feminine roles.

Here the original author shows a considerable lack of insight. Attributing the “freeing” of women to feminism (as opposed to liberalism, natural societal changes, changing work force requirements, …) is highly disputable; and (at least gender and political) feminists have a very different focus, namely on banning the “old” roles. They do not say “you can have a career” but “you must not be a house-wife, because that is a betrayal of other women
[or some other silliness]”. True freedom implies the right to chose what we want, not what others believe that we should want. Here feminists are worse than their windmill enemies. At the same time, in the U.S. as well as in Germany and Sweden, men can be as feminine as they like—if anything, it is the traditional masculine ideals and stereotypes that are frowned upon. Drink beer and drive a Humvee, and you are a Neanderthal; wish for a housewife, and you are a monster; dress like a woman and demand to use the women’s bathroom, and you are a hero.

> Philosophically, I don’t think we should do arbitrary social engineering of tech just to make it appealing to equal portions of both men and women. For each of these changes, we need principles reasons for why it helps Google;

By and large my take on the issue in society, except that society (unlike Google) should focus more on the rights of and benefits for the individual than e.g. on the
bottom line.

> However, to achieve a more equal gender and race representation, Google has created several discriminatory practices:

> Programs, mentoring, and classes only for people with a certain gender or race

> A high priority queue and special treatment for “diversity” candidates

> Hiring practices which can effectively lower the bar for “diversity” candidates by decreasing the false negative rate

> Reconsidering any set of people if it’s not “diverse” enough, but not showing that same scrutiny in the reverse direction (clear confirmation bias)

> Setting org level OKRs for increased representation which can incentivize illegal discrimination

> These practices are based on false assumptions generated by our biases and can actually increase race and gender tensions. We’re told by senior leadership that what we’re doing is both the morally and economically correct thing
to do, but without evidence this is just veiled left ideology that can irreparably harm Google.

Again a reflection of society as a whole; although, the mechanisms are often less explicit (e.g. through giving organizations incentives to increase the proportion of women in some area) or have another character (e.g. through selective quotas based on the blanket assumption that any difference in outcome must arise through a difference in opportunity).

> We all have biases and use motivated reasoning to dismiss ideas that run counter to our internal values. Just as some on the Right deny science that runs counter to the “God > humans > environment” hierarchy (e.g., evolution and climate change) the Left tends to deny science concerning biological differences between people (e.g., IQ and sex differences). Thankfully, climate scientists and evolutionary biologists generally aren’t on the right. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of humanities and social
scientists learn left (about 95%), which creates enormous confirmation bias, changes what’s being studied, and maintains myths like social constructionism and the gender wage gap. Google’s left leaning makes us blind to this bias and uncritical of its results, which we’re using to justify highly politicized programs.

Mostly a good point. The strong left bias/ideological distortions in many of the softer sciences is certainly a well-known problem. However, there is a fair chance that the causalities are more complex. The description of the right here is likely overly U.S. centric. Whether Google is actually left leaning, just follows political pressure, or is simply too gullible, I cannot judge. In the big picture, the typical journalist is certainly both left leaning and gullible (and may suffer some degree of peer pressure); while many non-Left* politicians likely support such nonsense for populist reasons.

*For instance,
Swedish politicians on both sides appear to believe unquestioningly in e.g. “the Patriarchy”, systematic wage/career discrimination against women, and gender-roles-as-cultural-constructs. (I have some hope that they are not all that stupid or uninformed, only saying what they are “supposed” to say, but that is of little practical importance.)

> In addition to the Left’s affinity for those it sees as weak, humans are generally biased towards protecting females.

This might seem like a minor point, but I have seen a lot of speculation over the years (and consider it reasonably plausible myself) that the natural male reaction to protect women has contributed strongly to the current situation, especially through female claims (resp. claims made about the situation of women) not being scrutinized sufficiently. Such situations are definitely common in daily life, where a woman tells a man a sob story and he rides out to joust the alleged bad
guy without bothering to hear both sides of the story.

> We have extensive government and Google programs, fields of study, and legal and social norms to protect women, but when a man complains about a gender issue issue [sic] affecting men, he’s labelled as a misogynist and whiner. Nearly every difference between men and women is interpreted as a form of women’s oppression. As with many things in life, gender differences are often a case of “grass being greener on the other side”; unfortunately, taxpayer and Google money is spent to water only one side of the lawn.

Several related things I have often complained about in the area of female hypocrisy and inability to see the other side of the story. I like to use the analogy of a boy having a dollar in dimes and a girl a dollar in quarters—and the girl raising hell because the boy has more coins… A telling, almost surreal, example is provided by a switch of portraits on Swedish notes some years
ago: Women were “mistreated” because they got more low denominations and fewer high denominations than men did. Apart from the extreme pettiness: George Washington is on the U.S. one-dollar bill. Abraham Lincoln on the five-dollar bill. The Yanks cannot think very highly of them…

> De-emphasize empathy. I’ve heard several calls for increased empathy on diversity issues. While I strongly support trying to understand how and why people think the way they do, relying on affective empathy—feeling another’s pain—causes us to focus on anecdotes, favor individuals similar to us, and harbor other irrational and dangerous biases. Being emotionally unengaged helps us better reason about the facts.

Over-emphasis on empathy is a root of many evils and poor judgment call, including framing villains as heroes, infringing the rights of one on the whim of another, creating euphemistic tread-mills for fear of insulting one group or another, etc. To boot,
that which is called empathy is often nothing more than emotional contagion.

We should look at who is in the right—not at who is the most upset.

> Be open about the science of human nature. Once we acknowledge that not all differences are socially constructed or due to discrimination, we open our eyes to a more accurate view of the human condition which is necessary if we actually want to solve problems.

More to the point: If we want to transcend human nature and its basically animalistic roots, then the first step, no matter how trite, is to “admit that we have a problem”. Denying the biological basis of much of human behavior is not helpful. Believing that we are some form of superior being is not helpful. Sitting in an ivory tower and fantasizing about how others “should” behave, think, and feel is not helpful. Understanding what we are, were we come from, why our urges can go contrary to
our intellect, when we should and should not fight those urges, …, now that is helpful.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 12, 2017 at 11:34 pm

Some problems with information on nutrition

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Over recent years, I have been looking into a healthier life style, seeing that I am on the wrong side of forty and have a family history with several cases of heart attacks, diabetes, and whatnot.

Eating healthy is tricky for a number of reasons, including that what is considered healthy and unhealthy changes over time* and that most even slightly processed** foods have been unnecessarily altered beyond even what follows from the processing, e.g. through addition of salt or other additives*** better left to the discretion of the consumer—restaurant food is usually even worse.

*For example, eggs were once considered a super-food, had an extremely bad reputation through most of my life, and are now increasingly being reconsidered as probably not that bad after all.

**Unprocessed foods are widely considered better than processed in a blanket manner, but factoring in time and effort to do this-and-that… I suspect that most of the benefits from unprocessed food can be achieved merely through preferring whole grain. Even refined sugar, often named as a great evil, is a lesser evil than (too much) sugar in general. Processing is simply a lesser problem than too much this and too little of that—by a considerable distance.

***Including such extremes as a jar of pre-sliced carrots having added salt or canned fruits (or even frozen berries) having been artificially sugared.

The complication that bothers me the most, however, is poor transfer of information to consumers by alleged specialists, being destructive, incompetent, and/or intellectually dishonest—and it falls most heavily on the less bright who would benefit the most from an unobstructed information flow. Four examples that I find particularly annoying:

  1. The obsession with “good” and “bad” ingredients, fats, cholesterol, …

    By and large there is no such thing as good and bad ingredients*, etc. As I gather from actually reading up and thinking on a deeper level than the simplistic “lying to students” practiced in this area, it is rather quantities and/or proportions that are good or bad. That X is “good” and Y is “bad” usually only amounts to “most current diets have less of X and more of Y than would be optimal”. Drink too much water and you die; drink too little water and you die…

    *Conceivably combinations of ingredients could still turn out to be bad in a more blanket manner; however, even a McDonald’s meal could well have been manna from heaven at many points in human history.

    This type of miscommunication makes it unnecessarily hard to make informed choices and brings a risk that people will over do the “healthy” thing. Yes, too much sodium is unhealthy and most people have an intake currently considered excessive; no, attempting to eat no sodium at all is not a good idea. Too little sodium is also unhealthy. (In extreme cases probably even lethal, but I have not done the leg work.)

  2. The (especially U.S.) idiocy of making recommendations/giving information in “servings”: Eat at least x servings of fruit a day. One serving of meat contains y grams of protein. Etc.

    These “servings” only make it harder to get the information. The size of a serving is basically never* defined, it varies from food stuff to food stuff (making comparisons harder), and does not necessarily have anything to do with what actually lands on the plate (i.e. a literal serving). Notably, the people who benefit the most from eating healthier are the once most likely to have servings considerably above the average.

    *In the few cases, where I have seen an actual definition, it has either been using some obscure or ambiguous term (notably, “cup”) which requires a separate investigation or through some construct that makes the use of “serving” entirely unnecessary, e.g. “a 100 gram serving”—just say “a 100 gram”! As for cup: A cup is a measure of volume. This might work well for fluids, but when it is used for e.g. fruits and berries, it becomes extremely vague, because factors like compression, shape of the cup, shape of the fruit, …, can have a major impact on the actual contents.

    It would be much, much better to make statements in terms of grams/ounces of fruit, meat, whatnot—and even then a criticism for wishy-washy misinformation should be raised, because it implies comparing apples and oranges in both a literal and a metaphorical sense.

    As an aside, at least in Germany, the serving (“portion”) is often abused by the food industry to obfuscate the unhealthiness of certain foods. Potato chips regularly have their fat and whatnot contents listed in 20 gram “servings”—how often does someone actually eat 20 grams (~ 2/3 of an ounce) of potato chips? If 20 gram is the intended serving, why do the bags usually contain ten times as much?

  3. The incessant use of the out-dated and highly problematic calorie/Calorie.

    Firstly, the standard unit for energy is Joule, not calorie.

    Secondly, the differentiation into the “real” calorie and the alleged* “dietary” Calorie causes unnecessary confusion, and the distinction is often not made properly.

    *I am unaware of the exact usage history, but I very, very strongly suspect that some group of nit-wits kept saying “calorie” out of sheer ignorance, while actually meaning “kilo-calorie”—and then invented the “Calorie” for the single purpose of not having to admit their error and ignorance.

    Thirdly, Calorie is often used in contexts where a dimension, not a unit, is appropriate. (As in “sugar is high in Calories” instead of “sugar is high in energy”; like saying “an elephants weighs many kilos” instead of “an elephant is heavy”.) Apparently, there are even some people who interpret Calorie as some form of stuff or particle, analogous to carbohydrate. This leads to a reduced ability to judge the effects of carbohydrates and fats, as well as such brain-dead ideas like (literally) filtering the Calories out from foods.

  4. Speaking in terms of weight/weight-loss/weight-gain instead of fat/fat-loss/fat-gain*. What most people actually want to do is get rid of fat—not weight. Weight can be lost through reductions in muscle mass or bone density, dehydration, or, in a pinch, amputation—even when the amount of fat is not actually reduced. To boot someone who tries to reduce fat through exercise might actually grow heavier (!), because the reduction in fat can be outweighed by an increase in muscle mass. This is healthy and beneficial, but can still cause a misinformed teenage girl to see herself as a failure.

    Say what you mean and mean what you say!

    *With an honorable mention for over-focusing on weight issues: Good nutrition has many other components…

Written by michaeleriksson

August 6, 2017 at 4:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

Update on my living conditions

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I have now owned an apartment (Wuppertal) for more than half a year and am approaching the one year mark of my rental of another (Cologne)—and feel the need for an update.

For starters, things have not gone as planned—but mostly in a good way: According to plans, my current project would end with the new year, I would give up the rented apartment, and take a few months off to (among many other things) set up the purchased one. In reality, I have received several project extensions, spent almost all my time in Cologne, and have done almost nothing to the new apartment.

Correspondingly, I have a lot less to say about the purchase than the rental, but let us start with the purchase:

What little I can judge already about the apartment (it self) and Wuppertal more or less matches expectations, apart from the property manager appearing to be extremely incompetent. There is one major disappointment/annoyance in the bigger picture, however: I chose Wuppertal based on rational deliberations where train connections featured heavily*. Here there has been a three-fold disappointment (contributing strongly to my hardly ever being in Wuppertal):

*I often travel heavily for work reasons.

  1. There are major construction works going on around the central station, which make it harder and more time consuming to get to and from the station. According to the information published in and around the station it self, these works should have been concluded in 2017/2018*, and I decided that this was an acceptable time frame, especially with the promised resulting improvements. Unfortunately, it appears that the claim of 2017 was limited to the planned shopping area** (a nice-to-have), whereas the overall works, what would have been relevant for my planning, was on a very different time scale. As is, even 2018 is a highly optimistic estimate and a worst case could conceivably land in 2020… Knowing that in advance, I would very likely have made another choice.

    Lesson: Ignore public signs and pull more complete and reliable (in as far as this is possible where construction is concerned) information from the actual, official plans.

    *Officially: 2017. Knowing how construction work tends to run in Germany: 2018.

    **I would speculate that the misinformation arose through a wish to brag about this selling point for the project and too little concern for other effects.

  2. Deutsche Bahn (“German Railways”) have arbitrarily decided to cancel all (!) train traffic to and from Wuppertal for a period of six weeks (!) starting around two weeks ago. To boot, they did the same thing for roughly two weeks earlier in the year. While the cause (long neglected maintenance work) is worthy, the way of doing this is utterly unacceptable, especially bearing in mind that the railway lines involved are among the most commuter heavy in Germany. To the best of my knowledge, this type of complete interruption, for so long a time, is without precedence.

    Those who have tried the “Schienersatzverkehr” (“rail-replacement traffic”; effectively, travel-by-bus-while-we-pretend-that-it-is-still-a-train-line), appear to be less than satisfied with the travel time and comfort—even when just comparing the planned level of Schienersatzverkehr-service with that actually delivered. (As opposed to when comparing with the original travel by train.) I strongly suspect, but have admittedly not investigated, that this is also economically to the considerable disadvantage of the passengers, with no discount being offered for the lesser service or normally lower price level of bus traffic—and even with such a discount many would be left without compensation, e.g. because they travel with tickets valid for a month or a year at a time (or a similar construct*).

    Lesson: Deutsche Bahn is a passenger hostile horror. (But that I have known for many years…)

    *I do not want to discuss various ticket models, discount systems, etc., here, but those with pre-existing knowledge might want to consider e.g. the effective value loss of a BahnCard 50 for someone who normally travels a certain line once a week and now chooses to go by car, as a better alternative to bus.

  3. (A mere annoyance in comparison with the above; especially since regional travel was not a planning priority.) To my surprise, it turns out that not all the “regional” trains that travel past my local station, just a few minutes walk from my apartment, actually stop there. All the “S-Bahn” and “RB” trains do, but the much to be preferred “RE” trains are inconsistent. The RE to and from Düsseldorf, my point of reference when searching for apartments, does stop; the RE to and from Cologne, which is far more interesting at the moment, does not. I now have the choice between going by “RB” (takes considerably longer) or taking the “RE” (or a non-regional train) to the central station and then going by some other means* to my local station some four kilometers away.

    Lesson: Do not make the assumption that Deutsche Bahn (especially; but likely many other entities in general) handles things in a consistent and reasonable manner.

    *So far mostly by the local specialty of “Schwebebahn”; occasionally, by foot or by S-Bahn; theoretically, taxi or one of the other trains.

On to the rented apartment, specifically revisiting some items from my earlier post (see there for background information):

  1. There have been no real temperature issues so far. If anything, likely aided by the comparatively cool summer, temperature has been less of an issue than in most other apartments I have had.
  2. The noise levels, e.g. through out-door music, have been considerably worse than average—but nowhere near as bad as I feared. It is certainly an improvement over my old Düsseldorf apartment. Likely, I just had a bit of bad luck during the short time preceding my original post.
  3. (Unpleasant content warning) The “platform toilet” has proved to be far more problematic than expected: Often, notably after I had eaten fiber-rich bread, simply flushing (once) has not been enough to move the feces on from the platform. On a number of occasions I have had to flush half-a-dozen times (annoying, time consuming, and bad for the environment); several times, I have actually given up, grabbed a piece of toilet paper and shoved it on manually… It puzzles me how such an idiotic, and so obviously idiotic, construction ever saw the light of day.
  4. The electronic key is and remains a disaster. The problem has been mitigated by some experience, specifically that it pays to not turn the key immediately after insertion. Still, this combines the weak points, but not the strengths, of both regular and electronic keys. I am amazed that they have not changed this idiocy, with the long term savings easily exceeding the short term costs—even user friendliness aside. (Note that the key contains a battery that has to be replaced now and then; that maintenance requires more specialist knowledge, which reduces the number of potential contract partners; that the solution is likely inherently more expensive than an ordinary key/lock; and that since there are other general locks with keys in the rest of the building, it is not necessary to switch out the keys—just the one lock.)
  5. The elevators have mostly lived up to the early days, but there have been exceptions. Notably, there was one time when I first had to wait for a perceived eternity for the elevator to arrive, then had to share it with four people who all stepped out on different floors—and then had it halt at the 23rd floor, one short of my floor, because someone going down had pressed the wrong button… I would have been faster walking* the 24 floors. Over the last few weeks one of the elevators has also had problems getting the doors on my floor closed.

    *Recently, I have done this twice for the exercise/out of curiosity and plan to do it once a week or so for the remainder of my stay. While hard work, this turned out to be less grueling than I had anticipated: I took two breaks the first time, one the second; but, contrary to my expectation, was not forced to give up half-way.

  6. The view remains amazing, it self almost worth the rent—or it would be, had I not grown jaded over time. One of the problems of having something great is that a just appreciation rarely lasts. (But will I miss the water once the well has gone dry.)

    Even apart from the greatness of the view in general, there have been many specific instance where I have been brought an experience that would not have occurred with an ordinary view. A few examples:

    A few weeks ago, I had not one but two very long and extremely impressive fireworks in perfect sight on the river, possibly two hundred meters from my window. (During the local “Kölner Lichter” event.) Barring the people in the 25th and 26th stock, I may well have had the best view of these fireworks of anyone in the city. To boot, there have been a number of smaller and/or more far away fireworks on the river over the months.

    Having the house surrounded by so dense* a fog (several times) or rain (at least once) that nothing else could be seen—no ground, no surrounding buildings, no whatnots. When I was a child, I sometimes fantasized about touching a cloud—now I have**.

    *Keep in mind that it is exceedingly rare that a fog grows so dense that not even close-by objects can be seen—but here there are no close-by objects. The ground, e.g., is almost a hundred meters away. Even so, this fog was unusually dense, giving me a better understanding of why fog is occasionally referred to as “pea-soup”.

    **Barring some technical differentiation between cloud and fog that is uninteresting for this purpose.

    Having had, in contrast, days with a sky so clear that I could see for many miles; days with incredible, border-line scary, storm clouds; days with mixtures of heavy rain in one direction, sun shine in another, dark clouds in yet another; days with unbelievably majestic constellations of clouds; … (Apart from standing on very large hills or actual mountains, there are very few opportunities to really see something of this level through just being “in nature”. The land would have to be very flat and free from obstacles, and it would still likely fall short.)

    A winter’s day where the pond beneath my window became one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. While a description can not make something like that justice, imagine a circle of ice-free water (kept so by a water spout), a ring of birds (most likely ducks) resting on the ice immediately next to the water, the remaining majority of the pond being covered by very white ice, and on that ice near perfect, very dark reflections of the near-by trees—and then the actual trees and a layer of snow around the pond. Escher* would have gone nuts over the scene.

    *Note that much of his work was not geometrically surreal and that he had a particular interest in reflections.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 6, 2017 at 4:53 pm

Usain Bolt and his place in history

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Yesterday, Usain Bolt had his last major competion. Predictably, even in light of mere bronze, there were many superlative statements made, many naming him the greatest sprinter of all time or even greatest (track-and-field) athlete of all time.

Depending on the exact claim, I am not certain that I agree, the main obstacle being Carl Lewis and the problems of making comparisons with earlier generations: Many greats of old competed in one Olympics and then retired to actually make a living, and world championships are a comparatively recent innovation*: What would e.g. Jesse Owens, Bob Hayes, or Tommie Smith have done had they had the realistic opportunity for a longer, professional career? (And what times could they have run on modern tracks?) Looking at athletics in general, many of the greats simply had no realistic opportunity to “double”, making comparisons in e.g. golds or number of world records misleading: For e.g. Al Oerter, Sergey Bubka, Viktor Saneyev, Jan Zelezny, …, to win even a single major gold in a second discipline would have been more impressive than Bolt winning a handful. Similarly, Michael Johnson’s 200m/400m career is likely worth more than a mere medal comparison would indicate.

*First held in 1983 and then at distances of four years until 1991/1993. Bolt has had them two years apart through his entire career. Carl Lewis, e.g., missed out on the opportunities in 1981, 1985, and 1989—where he would have been a clear favourite in both the long jump and the 100m. To boot, other athletes, including Lewis and Owens, have missed potential Olympics due to boycots or wars; Owens 1940 off his 1936 could conceivably have replicated Lewis’ 1988 off his 1984; Lewis would have been a very strong medal candidate and at least a weak gold candidate in the 1980 long jump.

Certainly, I would still view Carl Lewis as the greatest overall. His dominance in the long jump was immense, with one of the longest unbeaten streaks of all times and events, four Olympic golds (and gold/gold/silver at four-year-apart world championships), and a revolution of the non-altitude* world record. He did to the world record what Bubka did in the pole vault; to the medal record what Oerter did in the discus throw. Even without his additional sprinting efforts, the choice between Lewis and Bolt would be tricky; with them, it should be a no-brainer for Lewis.

*Unfortunately, the effects of altitude on results was realized too late; and where there is a limit on how much tail wind is allowed for a record to be valid, there is no such limit on altitude. This severely distorts the official record histories and those in the know prefer to look at non-altitude records. Lewis had to compete with high-altitude records in all three events, including Bob Beamon’s monstrous 8.90—which also has been questioned as potentially aided by an illegal amount of wind and a faulty wind reading. Lewis took the non-altitude record from 8.54 (Dombrowski) to 8.79 (and with an additional 8.87 in the same competion that Mike Powell set the current 8.95)—an improvement by almost 3 % or, correspondingly, almost 3 tenths in the 100m/6 tenths in the 200m. (I have not been able to find a list of non-altitude records on short notice. The numbers are taken from http://www.alltime-athletics.com/mlongok.htm, which has an exhaustive list with altitude indicators.)

Looking at greatest sprinter, I too would likely favour Bolt, but it is not as clear cut as some seem to see it. Apart from what has been already mentioned, we have to keep in mind that the 100m/200m combination, with the possible exception of 5000m/10000m, is the easiest around. Virtual any top 100m-sprinter has also been a top 200m-sprinter, although some have chosen to only rarely run the 200m. (Say to maximize their chances in the more prestiguous 100m; or to avoid an “embarassing” bronze medal in the 200m.) Indeed, the comparison with Carl Lewis is made harder because he deliberate skipped the 200m at world championships where he did win the 100m (and scored gold/gold/silver in the long jump). Looking at times*, (non-altitude) world records, and superiority, Lewis actual fares quite well in the comparison even in the 200m**; and arguably has an edge in the 100m**. The main argument in favour of Bolt over Lewis is the latters “weak” record in the 200m, with just an Olympic gold/silver—but since Lewis had less opportunities to build his record, this partially amounts to whether ability or accomplishment is prioritized in the comparison.

*Comparing times directly, as in Bolt ran X/Lewis Y is of limited benefit, due to e.g. changes in tracks. Instead we have to look at times in their historical perspective.

**I looked into the numbers a few weeks ago, but did not take notes (not having an intention to write anything at the time).

As for the 100m, Lewis took five out of five possible golds in the nine year span from 1983 to 1991 (two Olympic, three WC). With a different schedule, this could* have been eight out of eight (WCs in 1981, 1985, 1989; eleven year span). According to Wikipedia Bolt has a total of six out of seven (one miss!) in the nine year span from 2008 to 2016. Bear in mind that Lewis did this while also doing the long jump on all occasions and the 200m on at least two; Bolt also had a second event, the 200m, but never a third and the 200m is easier to combine with the 100m. Lewis improved the non-altitude world record more often, including the first 10.00 in history, and by roughly the same overall amount; Bolt has a larger difference down to the second best. Their respective greatest winning margin in a major championship (in my recollection) was identical. In my book, this is a narrow victory for Lewis; on the outside a tie.

*Note that I am not saying “would”. While he would have been the favorite, there are no guarantees, he could have gotten injured, had an off year, lost motivation with the more intense schedule, …

As an aside, Bolt’s winning record could conceivably have been a fair bit weaker, had Gatlin and Gay not suffered doping suspensions; but Lewis’ would have been weaker (in the 100m) had Ben Johnson not been caught.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 6, 2017 at 4:52 pm