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The 500th anniversary of Luther’s protests

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Today is a day of considerable importance in Germany—and, no, I am still not talking about Halloween…

It is the 500th anniversary* of the beginnings of Martin Luther’s official protests, and while October 31st is normally only a public holiday in parts of Germany (“Reformationstag”), on this occasion a one-time country-wide holiday has been called.

*At least officially: I very strongly suspect that intervening calendar changes makes the claim somewhat approximate, but have not actually investigated the issue.

Having already written a lengthy piece (on another topic) today, I will not go into details, but I will note that this was the beginning of a very long period* of upheaval, wars, and conflicts, in Europe arguably worse than in the 20th century, which resulted in a permanent split of the then Catholic Church (the Christian German population is still roughly 50% Catholic, 50% Lutheran), and (if largely for non-religious reasons) the creation of e.g. the Swedish and English (i.e. Anglican Church) State Churches. While it would be wrong to attribute this day too much of a cause-and-effect value**, its symbolic value as the delimiter between the pre-Reformation and Reformation eras is immense.

*Incidentally, a good example that it does not always pay to suppress dissenters with violence: All that suffering on both sides and the “heretics” still got a draw…

**Something very similar would very likely have happened anyway, be it without Luther’s action on this day or Luther himself (entirely), albeit possibly with some delay. In situations like these, the one man or the one event is typically just the trigger of the avalanche—not the avalanche it self.

As for the underlying religious issues, the question of who has the greater right to claim “true” Christianity (then or now), who is closer to the original teachings of Jesus, etc. that is still a matter of debate. (On which I have no strong feelings, but where I suspect that they are all off the mark to a considerable degree.) It seems quite clear, however, that the doings of the Catholic Church were often severely at odds with what they should have been, and that reforms of behavior (not necessarily religion) were direly needed.

In a bigger picture, it is quite possible that the departure from the Catholic Church had positive societal effects (post-conflict), e.g. in that non-conformant thinking was seen in a less negative light, that native-language Bibles help with increasing the proportions of the populace who could read, that secular government needed to pay less attention to religious matters, …


Written by michaeleriksson

October 31, 2017 at 3:36 pm

The temptation of conservatism

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I am currently in a period of reading various political articles and opinions on the Internet, including e.g. the blog of Pat Buchanan and other more conservative sources. (These readings have already contributed to my being more active in writing, and will likely result in a few more posts in the near future.)

Venturing into the conservative direction is always a little odd to me, because much of the conservative thoughts and principles* are almost as hard to combine with my libertarian**/classical liberal stance as what is found on the left (including the alleged liberals of the modern U.S., whose ideas are quite often antithetical to what the word “liberal” used to imply). At the same time, conservatives and libertarians have been allies against the Left in a great many countries and over long periods of time. Moreover, the “conservative world” has a certain beauty and many of the ideas have a potential pragmatic value (much unlike the very ugly world and largely hare-brained ideas of many Leftist groups, notably feminists).

*With the caveat that there are a many variations on the conservative theme, from country to country, from era to era, and even within e.g. the U.S. Republican party. For the purposes of this discussion, I speak approximately of those (or some of those) variations found among current Republicans self-identifying as conservative (and not e.g. libertarian), possibly with a tilt towards the paleoconservative faction. I avoid a direct interpretation of the word “conservative” to include e.g. “keep things as they were” and instead look at the expressed ideas.

**For the sake of convenience and to avoid confusion with pseudo-liberals, I will speak only of “libertarian” below, even if this is potentially imprecise, and could be taken to include e.g. “Left libertarians”. Such inclusion is not intended, and I find the latter combination to border on a contradiction in terms.

To take a few examples (where I stress that I discuss pragmatic possibilities, and do not express ethical or ideological approval):

  1. Christianity: In a country with a strong (if preferably moderate) Christianity, there are a number of potential benefits, including stronger “Christian values”*, a greater focus on “core families” (cf. below), and greater contentment/less existential doubt/more purpose in life through the belief in a bigger something, rewards (to me) and punishments (to my enemies) after death, and similar. However, the probably greatest benefit is as an inoculation against more** dangerous belief systems: Many people appear to have a positive need for something to believe in, often in a fanatical manner, or something to fill their lives in a quasi-religious manner—in particular, among those less-than-bright. In the past and large parts of the “West”, Christianity has swept up many or most of these people (together with many considerably more reasoned individuals). In e.g. 1920s/1930s Germany, this was not (or not sufficiently) the case. Ditto e.g. revolutionary Russia***. Ditto large parts of the current Islamic world. Ditto e.g. various politically correct extremists, the Antifa, …, in the modern U.S., Germany, and Sweden. The result ranges from droves of the easily lead gathering around a detrimental “golden calf” to fanatics trying to over-through society-as-it-is with force or shutting down their opponents through violence. It is no coincidence that dictatorships and groups of fanatics are often strongly anti-religious****—the religions are competitors.

    *Exactly what is meant with this expression is another thing that can vary considerably, but by-and-large few see them as negative, and what forms the “common core” is almost invariably (including by me) seen as something positive, notably the “Golden Rule” and related values.

    **Christianity is obviously not free from disadvantages and risks—no religion, quasi-religious ideology, or similar belief system is. Compared to many others, however, the reasonably modern Christianity fairs well. If we posit that some form of religion or quasi-religion is near unavoidable, modern Christianity is a much better choice than modern Islam, feminism, “anti-fascism” (a movement with disturbingly much in common with fascism…), and many others.

    ***A case can be made that Russia was in very urgent need of change, and I find it easier to understand a communist revolutionary of that time than a non-revolutionary communist of today—it was a different world with a different set of problems. (And the communists were not the only revolutionaries in Russia back then…) Still, the cure was worse than the disease and far worse than the competing Western democracies. To boot, other countries have proved that a more peaceful transition is possible, e.g. Sweden and the U.K. (To which can be noted that the English civil war and the over-through of monarchy by violence proved very short-lived, while the later gradual drift of power from the King/Queen to parliament has stuck. France, similarly, went like a pendulum between monarchy and republic for a disturbingly long time after the French revolution.)

    ****Which is not in anyway to imply that being anti-religious is automatically bad: There are other reasons why someone can be anti-religious.

    As an aside, the same principle very likely contributes to the wasteful obsession with celebrities many display today, replacing, so to speak, the one Madonna with the other.

  2. The “traditional family” has much to offer, especially when compared to the all-too-common divorce scenarios of today, or the many single mothers who never entered a stable relationship with the father.* There are many studies to show both that divorces are damaging to children and that they benefit from having two parents. My personal experiences after my parents divorce, even was it an amicable one, are very much in the same line. Other changes in family demographics, notably the higher average age of marriage** (the more so in Europe than in the U.S.), can have negative effects, including a lack of population growth or a dysgenic pressure***. To boot, rational considerations aside, the wholesomeness so often depicted in family life in somewhat older sources (whether more or less idealized than today) has a great temptation.

    *Some other comparisons are trickier and might require considerable research, e.g. on whether marriage provides benefits over a more casual, but stable and long-term, relationship, or the one male and one female parent constellation over male/male or female/female constellations. (I would voice some a priori skepticism towards the female/female constellation, however: I was raised by my mother and grand-mother, with comparatively little male involvement, which comes close to this situation, and the lack of a male role-model/mentor/whatnot was a very severe disadvantage to my development, and likely to my sister’s. I refrain from an outright rejection because there is no guarantee that it would be the same with another child, other women, or other circumstances in detail. However, note that my complaint is not an uncommon one.)

    **While not stringently related to the “traditional family” there are strong connections, e.g. in that a more relaxed attitude towards pre-marital sex, prostitution, and pornography reduces the incentives to get married at a younger age.

    ***Another contributing factor is how long people study after high school, and this can lead to more generations and a greater population of the less bright: Few people start a family in an economically insecure situation, and if we compare the scenarios “graduate high school and get a job” with “graduate high school, complete a bachelor, throw in a master, pay off most of the debt accumulated in college” there is a clear difference. (Other factors can contribute too.) I stress that I do not suggest cutting down on education to increase birth-rates among the bright.

    Several other common (value-)conservative opinions could have benefits in the general area of family. For instance, a more restrictive approach to abortions could result in a more responsible behavior towards sex or preventatives, or, again, increase the chance that people (or at least women) seek an earlier marriage in order to avoid the risk of becoming a single parent.

  3. A focus on “law and order” has very obvious advantages (as long as one remains on the right side of the law*), including greater physical security, less corporate losses to criminals, fewer junkies**, … An interesting point to bear in mind is that it is often minorities and “weak” societal groups that are hurt the most by crime. For instance, Black people (as a group) are not only put in prison at a considerably higher rate than Whites—they are also the victims of crimes at a higher rate, live in more insecure neighborhoods, deal with more fall-out, … A magic wish to eradicate all crime without negative side-effects would correspondingly favor them the more—and even more conventional methods could very well have a greater positive net effect.

    *One of the reasons I stress the importance of “civic rights” over e.g. the interests of the police is that doing this is not always easy (or even recommendable) and not always under the control of the citizen: There are laws that are outright unjust, others that are arbitrary or unpredictable, and even someone who still sticks to the letter of the law can be the victim of false accusations (or unwarranted suspicions arising for other reasons). This is particularly dangerous when computers come into play.

    **At least under some set of assumptions. By and large, the overall societal problems appear to diminish when various drugs are treated more leniently, if in doubt because of the profitability of criminal enterprises. Cf. e.g. the great failure of the Great Experiment. Here and elsewhere it can pay to keep in mind that the result that would seem to occur at a casual look are not always the results that actually do occur. Then again, this post is not about why conservatism would be a great thing, but why some of its ideas can have benefits and why they sometimes tempt me.

Unfortunately, there is often a conflict between my world-view and such ideas. As an atheist, I would be troubled recommending a greater focus on Christianity. As someone in favour of individual choice, I cannot mandate e.g. that reproduction take place solely within traditional marriages. Etc. Indeed, it is often not even necessarily the case that e.g. Christianity would be better in general (including for the intelligent and educated). Some advantages can apply; others will not, and the inoculation effect is certainly for the dumb masses. An attempt to apply these ideas could amount to dividing the population into those (in some sense) trusted to think for themselves/act on their own discretion and those required to be guided by others—an idea that could be taken from a great many Leftist parties and movements around the world… These simultaneously show why this is a potentially very bad idea (even ethics aside): Those who see themselves as the enlightened few and who presume to dictate* what other people should feel and think are quite often highly unsuitable for the task, themselves among those who would be in greatest need of guidance…

*As opposed to conviction through rational arguments and presentation of facts.

Of course, in many other cases there is a more direct overlap, for instance in that U.S. conservatives tend to favour small government. In other cases, the widely held ideas can make sense outright without being something that follows naturally from being e.g. conservative or libertarian, as with the tendency to an “old school” interpretation of the constitution: The U.S. constitution (including the “Bill of Rights”, but not necessarily later amendments) was an unusually thought-through document intended to preserve rights and balance powers with an eye on the risk that some part of government, most likely the executive or legislative branch or a part thereof, would at some point try reduce the rights of the population (or otherwise cause mischief). If a re-interpretation of the original intention is allowed or if too great a lee-way is given when interpreting new situations*, then this central function is weakened and the constitution fails in its purpose.

*A 240 or so years old document cannot realistically have foreseen every situation that can arise today or the society we currently live in. By implication, some degree of deviation might well be necessary. It should, however, be kept to the necessary minimum, in order to a. keep the constitution intact, b. ensure that the judicial branch does not intrude on the legislative through implicitly making new laws by such re-interpretation. For farther-going changes I point to the possibility of introducing new amendments.

As an excursion on how little it can take to bring those weak in critical thinking into a “fold” (and the potential benefits of an inoculation through bringing them into another fold in time): During my later school years, a few of us grew politically active. After already having developed a reasonably mature ideology (for a teen), I read up thoroughly on all the major Swedish parties, and only after that joined one them* —and I kept reading after that. A former class mate had joined the social democrats. Her road? “I read one of their pamphlets and it seemed to make sense!” (Or something very similar. This is not a verbatim quote, but the pamphlet part and the brevity of her “research” reflect her unambiguous own statements.) There are people who are so lacking in insight and naive that they join a party based on a single pamphlet—and which party they join is then mostly determined by whose pamphlet they read first… (Such documents are by their nature written to appeal to the readers, show only one side of the issues, and give an over-simplified view of the world—when the politically naive and weak at critical thinking pick up any political pamphlet, chances are that it will “make sense”!)

*“Moderaterna”, in U.S. terms a comparatively centrist part of the Republicans with a strong libertarian/neo-liberal streak (at least back then).

Excursion on “respect”: A common complaint from conservatives appear to be lack of respect, especially in the younger generation (“children do not respect their teachers/parents anymore”). At the same time, a stereotypical “angry black youth” complaint is lack of respect, being disrespected, whatnot, while Aretha Franklin was quite keen on just respect. I am honestly far from certain that it was better in the past, especially lacking the direct comparison, and do believe that e.g. teachers should not be respected more than anyone else just for being teachers (“respect is earned”). However, I do agree that there is a major problem with a lack of even a basic respect for other people and their rights, boundaries, interests, whatnot, that permeates (in my case, German) society in a depressing manner. For instance, about half the bicycle drivers in Cologne drive (illegally) on the side-walk instead of the street when no separate bicycle lane is present—even to the point of blocking or endangering the pedestrians. (To which can be added a number of other traffic violations and a general disregard for both pedestrians and cars.) Similarly, there are plenty of people who take small children into public, including grocery stores and even restaurants—and make no attempts whatsoever to silence them when they start screaming. Most corporations, let alone government agencies, appear to view their customers as a mere nuisance when it comes to anything but paying: There is no respect for the customer as a client, for the agreements entered (unless the customer is in violation…), or often even the law. Etc. (And do not get me started on the politically correct…) Lack of respect for others, the unwillingness to see them as humans with rights and feelings, the refusal to pause and ask whether a certain action is actually justifiable or just convenient, …, that is a truly major societal problem. Other conservative complaints about attitude, e.g. that the people of today are lazy or lack a sense of responsibility for their own lives, have a lot of truth in them and can be pragmatical societal problems, but are not that much of an issue from a libertarian ideological point of view: If someone is lazy, he rarely hurts others*; someone who lacks respect for others tends to very soon hurt others, be it out of carelessness or callousness.

*With some reservations for the details involved. For instance, if someone is lazy and does not fulfill his obligations towards his employer or if he stays at home and collects a social security check he really does not need, then others are being hurt. This is a step beyond e.g. “is in a dead-end job because of laziness in school”, “lives from day to day because he only works when the money runs out”, “never is promoted because he never goes the extra mile”, etc. (This also points to the benefit of investigating why people are lazy and what society might be doing wrong.)

Excursion on the level of reasoning, etc.: It is interesting that the level of reasoning used in conservative (generally, non-Leftist) contexts tends to be much higher than in e.g. politically correct (generally, Leftist) contexts, the tone against others less negative, the risk of misrepresentation of others opinions smaller, the degree of emotionality lower, and so on. Often, it appears to be a group of adults trying to have a conversation with a group children. (Caveat: There are obviously great variations within any group and the impression could in parts result from having visited more “deplorables” from one group than from the other. However, this well matches what I have seen over decades in several countries, and I am loath to give too much “benefit of a doubt”. I note that even e.g. some Leftist college professors/institutions are known to behave in an absurd manner.) Even Buchanan, who appears to be widely considered a crack-pot on the Left and who was usually mentioned with some condescension in Sweden during his presidential campaigning, does better than a great many Leftist debaters—and compared to the typical Leftist blogger he is a shining beacon of rationality and fairness.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 31, 2017 at 2:17 pm

When a TV series turns into a zombie of its old self

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Remark: I started this post quite some time ago. A lot of things have come between since then, including two posts on the related topic of franchises and sequels ([1], [2]) that cover at least some of the originally intended ground. Today, I decided to finally get it done—which actually mostly consisted of throwing half the draft out, and making some minor expansions. (The quality, as a result, might be a bit subpar.)

Being home with a summer cold, I spent the morning catching up on iZombie, a crime show with a strong comedic side and one of my favorite TV* series over the last year or so.

*There is also an original comic upon which the TV series is based; however, I have had no exposure to this comic.

This turned out to be a horribly disappointing experience, with the developments I had seen and feared over the last season eventually culminating.

When the series began, it was a wonderful variation of the x-of-the-week theme (s. below), it had a main character who secretly was a zombie*, zombies were extremely rare and unknown to the public, and the actual “high concept” part of the series was not zombies, but the partial adoption of the victims personality and memories by the main character (Liv)**. The latter was used to solve murders, Liv working in a police morgue and combining her access to brains of murder victims with her inside contacts at the police.

*The zombies of iZombie are very atypical, most notably in that they are normally unaltered in terms of intelligence, personality, etc., compared to their pre-death/pre-infection selves. Good: If this had been another bullshit work with mindless, slow moving, and hyper-aggressive brain-eaters, I would have stopped watching after the first episode.

**A side-effect of a zombie eating brains. Extremely unscientific even by the standards of the zombie genre, but it made for good stories.

A typical early episode would revolve around Liv trying to come to terms with being a newly made zombie and practical problems coping, trying to help the police with vital tips without revealing her nature, and dealing with the personality changes brought on by the brain-of-the-week. This resulted in interesting story lines, great comedy, and a large amount of variation.

As time went by, the “newly made zombie” theme unavoidably faded—she was no longer newly made, she had had time to adapt to her new circumstances, and her closest allies eventually found out the truth (the opposite, like with Lois Lane and Superman, borders on the ridiculous).

Unfortunately, the other aspects that characterized the early episodes increasingly and unnecessarily disappeared: The brain-of-the-week theme was weakened in favour of unimpressive arches dealing with zombie crime, zombie organizations, zombie hatred, and the potential revelation of zombies to the public; too many people learned that (specifically) Liv was a zombie for the secrecy aspect of the show to work well; and the sheer number of zombies rose and rose. Towards the end of the latest episode (3.13) a mass infection has taken place, zombies have been announced on television, and no matter what happens next, the original show is effectively dead. If the series continues, it will have about as much in common with its original as an “ordinary” zombie has with the living person who preceded it. I turned the episode off during the TV announcement and I will not watch any continuation.

The changes that iZombie has gone through are, unfortunately, quite common. Of these, the disappearing x-of-the-week in favour of longer arches is the one that depresses me the most, having seen a number of TV series lose* in quality or be ruined outright in this manner. Notable examples include “Stargate SG-1” (planet-of-the-week) and “Dollhouse” (identity-of-the-week).

*However, a series can still grow better despite such a trend: It is quite common that a series sees improvements in the skills of directors, writers, actors, composers, …, over its life (because the old staff improves with experience, because a bigger budget allow better choices, because weak links are replaced with stronger over time, …); equally common is that positives of a show not originally present appear over time, e.g. new recurring villains or interesting (fictional) technologies. These effects can compensate for or even outweigh negative effects. “Stargate SG-1” is an example of this. “Dollhouse”, unfortunately, is not, and ended up wasting the potential to be one of the greatest TV series of all times—with very high scores both as entertainment and “food for thought”.

The x-of-the-week is arguably the highest form of art in television, with the greatest potential reward for the viewers, plenty of room for “artistic aspirations” (or whatever snobbish term you prefer), and with excellent entertainment and variation potential*. If done correctly, we have a viewer who is both brought to think and kept entertained/interested week after week.

*Of course, it is possible to achieve this without using the x-of-the-week format. However, this format more or less forces the makers, if they want to do it well, to focus on quality and to prioritize well-crafted and innovative single episodes over mass production; the repeated variation-on-a-theme allows a greater depth of exploration over the course of the series; and the “x” often brings benefits through opening possibilities otherwise not present. Compare e.g. iZombie with the brain-of-the-week to a hypothetical iZombie just having a zombie solving crime—the latter being a case of a populist “high concept” work without any practical benefits from the “high concept”.

However, it is likely also the most taxing on the writers, who has to come up with something new and original every week, while keeping the quality high. This is likely one* reason why so many series start with an x-of-the-week theme and drift towards story arches**—arches are comparatively easy and can be drawn out with little creativity, but they are also less rewarding for the viewers. In some cases, a point is reached when a show degenerates into a soap opera.

*I will not attempt to analyze the reasons in detail, but one obvious other reason is the wish to keep people coming back to “find out what happens”.

**There is nothing wrong with using story arches. In fact, when done correctly, they can bring a significant extra value, especially in areas like romance, where a single episode is rarely helpful. The problem comes when they take over the show, when more time is spent on parallel arches than on the current episode per se, when a single arch is so dominant that we effectively have a triple or quadruple episode, or similar. “Buffy” is an example of another series with notable screw ups here, e.g. the end of season 5, but that was just a too outstanding series for me to voice strong complaints.

Another common problem is introducing too many characters that work poorly: For natural reasons almost all TV series (even many of the “assembly” kind) tend to start with a small group of core characters that are strong contributors to the shows early success (be it through good casting, careful character creation, or because show with weak initial casts/characters tend to fail early). With time the group of characters naturally gains new members, and while it sometimes loses old (especially among the temporarily intensely recurring)—and keeping the quality up can be hard. Unfortunately, some series do not stop there but appear to simply throw in more and more characters willy-nilly, be it in a misguided effort to create variation or to see “who sticks”. Potentially recurring (let alone regular) characters should be chosen with great care and be few in number. iZombie failed miserably in this regard. To boot, while many of the recurring characters were well cast, others appear to have been chosen based on quality of hair or amount of muscle mass.

A more famous example is “The Big Bang Theory”*: It started with four nerds and a blonde. By now we have another two women, a fifth nerd, and a baby for eight-and-a-half core members—to which must be added a few recurring characters and the normal one-off characters**—and this with a run-time of roughly twenty minutes per episode***. Too boot, the average quality of the cast is not that impressive, with roughly half being reasonably skilled contributors, roughly half being dime-a-dozen. (I will not mention names.) In contrast, “Friends” started with six actors and ended with six-and-a-half (another baby)—and did so with a longer to considerably longer episode run-time. The average quality of the regulars was considerably higher and many of the recurring characters were extremely well-cast and strongly contributing (including Tom Selleck and Bruce Willis).

*This show could also likely serve as a good example of a TV series moving too far from its roots. On the other hand, this can be given some justification through just reflecting the natural developments of the characters and their lives as they have moved from mid-twenties to late thirties. Still, today I watch it more out of force of habit than anything else—and had the series ended a few years ago, it might have been for the best. “Friends”, in contrast, was still kicking ass when it went of air. (Notwithstanding that it too had changed in some ways, over a similar time and age frame.)

**Although these are rarer than in most similar series, likely because there is only so much screen time available.

***OK, “Modern Family” does pull something similar off very well, but it has a higher tempo, a stronger cast, and better stories.

Of course, one of the greatest problems is members of the extended “jumping the shark” family: A series starts to struggle over the years and increasingly desperate attempts are made to keep the viewers through making changes, thereby, more often than not, driving away the old fans even faster. (And without gaining many new fans: People are far less likely to jump in in, say, season eight than in season two…) Instead, a series should pick one of three options (or a combination of them): Let things play out, even at the risk of cancellation; re-focus on the old strengths and hope for the support of the old fans; or call it a day and do something more worth-while.

“Scrubs”, another old favorite of mine, is a good example: It started as a reasonably funny series, which had its greatest strength not in comedy but in the realistic* depictions of hospital life and the problems of hospital workers, and what we could learn from that. Within a few seasons, the serious themes were largely gone, but it had grown a lot funnier. Over time, however, the humor grew weaker while leaving the silliness (of which there had always been too much for my taste). In the end, for the last season, most of the characters were axed and a subset were moved to a new setting** with a new group of main characters—a disastrous end to the show***.

*As confirmed by many who actually work in hospitals and can speak from experience (unlike yours truly). And, no, “realistic” does not mean e.g. shot with a grainy camera, filled with blood, or depicting tragedy—it means giving a depiction that comes close to reality. There is fair chance that e.g. that war or gangster movie that the critics call realistic is quite far from the truth…

**Strictly speaking, the old building had been torn down and replaced, and the role of the hospital changed somewhat, while remaining in the same location. However, it could have played a hundred miles away and virtually nothing in the season would have changed.

***The more the shame, as this last season had shown quite a lot of potential had it been the first season of a new series. They should have killed the original series one season earlier, possibly borrowed (or not…) the odd character, and then set up an entirely new series.

I just hope that BBC does not screw up the upcoming* series finale of “Doctor Who”: This season has not been stellar** and there is apparently a switch of Doctor forthcoming—exactly the type of situation, where so many series try to save themselves through “jumping the shark” or a doing major revamp, but only succeed in committing suicide.

*Back then—by now it is long past. The switch appears to be postponed until the Christmas Special. Doing a brief Internet search, it appears that one of my fears have been confirmed and a woman has been cast. (Cf. e.g. my remarks on women in “Star Trek” in [2].) This is not an automatic disaster—there are women, notably “Missy” Gomez, who might pull it off. The current choice, the unknown-to-me Jodie Whittaker, might or might not have the skill, but even if she does, it is virtually certain that she has been cast for the wrong, politically correct, reasons. (Not only because of general trends, but because the revived franchise has a long history of pushing “gender issues”, starting with the first season and the bi-sexual, Doctor kissing, Jack Harkness, and later his spin-off “Torchwood”—where, based on contents, “Torchwood” could very well be a synonym for “Faggot”…) To boot, The Doctor is simply a male character to me—just like Sarah Jane (or Buffy, or Echo, or Janeway, …) was a woman. Combined with the recent weakness of the series, I am frankly uncertain whether I will give her a chance or just stop watching, pretend it never happened, and not risk damage to the previous parts of the franchise (cf. [1]). (Besides: Why not simply do a spin-off featuring a Time Lady while keeping The Doctor male?)

**In fact, there has been a noticeable drop in episode quality after the Matt Smith => Peter Capaldi switch, but the last season in particular. The current main companion is also the weakest of the entire post-2005 series. (However, Capaldi himself I would likely consider the best of the post-2005 Doctors and definitely the best actor. Then again, he is about to leave the show…)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 28, 2017 at 11:30 pm

The horrors of October 31st

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This October 31st we have that yearly horror of my current client’s, that thing that has the employees groaning and wishing they could be somewhere else, that most dreaded part of the year.

No, not Halloween: The deadline for the annual security awareness training.

There is so much wrong with it that I hardly know where to begin—and honestly doubt that I will manage to remember all issues. To give it a try:

  1. In order to complete the training, an online course, it is necessary to use a Flash* program/lecture/presentation/interactive course/whatnot loaded over an external** website.

    Pause right there: It is necessary to use a FLASH program from an EXTERNAL website—in order to take a SECURITY course.

    In other words, the greatest single endangerment of my work computer and my clients internal network that I am involved with in the course of the year is the security course…

    As one of the colleagues remarked, he actually considered the possibility that the course was some form of test: Refuse to take it and complain to the security officer—automatic pass. Take the course—automatic fail.

    *Writing this, I contemplate the minor possibility that the course might have been re-written to use some variation of HTML5 and JavaScript, although it still felt and acted like Flash—unlikely, but possible, and I mention it for the sake of fairness: Last year, I definitely had to take actions to re-activate Flash and to grant it access to the sound system, things I have de-activated as a matter of course. This year, I did not. It could be a re-write, it could be that some automatic update had re-activated/-reset Flash. (Something that has happened repeatedly in the past with this client.) I also have JavaScript deactivated, as a matter of course, but since I deliberately switched from Firefox to IE for the duration of the course, the fact that I did not have to reactivate JavaScript means nothing.

    **I am unaware of the actual authorship of the program and to what degree the client is able to control contents. However, the contents are most definitely from an external website, implying that even if the program was non-malicious to begin with, there is no guarantee that it still was so at the time of the download. Of course, Flash is well-known as one of the greatest security horrors, with the most vulnerabilities, of any web-based technology. It is no coincidence that even those who once were hailing it as the future are now distancing themselves, nor that future developments will not take place: Earlier this year, Adobe, the maker of Flash, announced its end-of-life.

  2. The presentation is poorly made, with many unnecessary moving objects, artificial and droning voices, and other annoyances and distractions. The general format is similar to a PowerPoint-style presentation: Imagine someone being given an extensive introduction into the various features of such a presentation program—but not one word on how to make a good presentation in any non-technical regard. Imagine this someone, as such people often do, go nuts with using any feature available without any regard for anything but feature use. That type of presentation is the equivalent of this course.

    Why a presentation style course instead of possibly two pages of text and a questionnaire to begin with? Beats me…

  3. Most of the contents are too trivial to keep a computer professional out of boredom or to teach him anything really useful. On the outside, different courses for different target groups, with different skill levels, should have been provided. I, e.g., have read several books and many articles on various topics related to computer security, including two by the infamous Kevin Mitnick on social engineering. What do I gain from being shown one or two presentation slides that amount to “watch out for social engineering”? Nothing: Either I already have a certain knowledge and understanding or I do not. In doubt, chances are that I would be better qualified to hold a course in computer security for the makers of this course, than they are to hold one for me…

    (A partial explanation might be that the keyword is not so much “security” as “awareness”: The intention is likely less to educate people about security and more to remind them of the importance, which also explains why what amounts to the same course is mandatory every year, rather than just once. This is to some degree something that can be of value even to those with a considerably above average knowledge. It is also something that could be done much, much more efficiently and effectively, and without boring the “students” to tears.)

    To boot, the general level of the course is truly for the “lowest common denominator”, suitable for high-school drop-outs, and extremely condescending: Let’s see if you can help Mary avoid phishing! I can only be thankful that this was not a course on dogs or English: See Spot run…

  4. Considering the low amount of actual content, the course is much too long*, especially since there is a boredom factor, with the ensuing lack of concentration—and I repeatedly caught myself drifting off to the point that I had missed was what said. Cutting it down considerably would have resulted in something with greater educational value (for those weaker in knowledge) for the simple reason that they would be that much more focused. For those already knowledgeable, it would have shortened the pain.

    *I did not time my effort and also paused the course several times to answer questions concerning/suggest solutions for a work problem—as well as getting at least two cups of coffee. However, in a guesstimate, the actual “course time” might have been around two hours. At any rate, even materials for a beginner should have been coverable at, say, three times the tempo used; for those knowledgeable, with less material needed, there was likely less than five minutes worth of content…

  5. Interactive questions: The progress checking takes the form of a number of multiple-choice and match-left-item-to-right-item style questions to answer. Most of these are fairly useless and/or can be answered without taking the course based on common sense and an ability to guess what type of answer this type of test maker wants to hear. (The reader might recognize the latter part from high school or some social-science course in college.) This to the point that several questions are of the type “Which of these items are dangerous?”—with the correct answer “all”.

    At the same time, some require actually deliberately giving a wrong answer, because there is no logic or insight behind many of them, merely a mechanical comparison to earlier examples. Notably, I needed three* tries to answer a matching question for the simple reason that I matched the label “quid-pro-quo” to an example actually containing a quid-pro-quo… Unfortunately, the test makers did not follow the normal meaning of “something-for-something” in a trade/barter situation (where, for all I care, one of the parties might be dishonest), but instead intended something along the lines of “pretending to offer something so that someone else unwittingly would give up something valuable” (specifically, “pretend to want help you with your computer so that you thoughtlessly give access to it”)—something incidentally matching the normal meaning of another item, “pretexting”, very well… The intended match for “pretexting”, in turn, had very little to do with the normal meaning of “pretending to want something in the hope of actually getting something else” or “using the claim of wanting something as an excuse for an action with a different agenda”, but instead referred to a social-engineering practice of pretending to know something/being someone, or offering a bit of known information, in the hope of learning something new that could later be used for further infiltration.**

    *Multiple tries are allowed, which reduces the insight needed even further, especially with the low number of possible answers. However, rumor had it that there is a three-strikes limit, and I did grow a bit nervous there. Specifically, I got the first try wrong due to quid-pro-quo and, not even reflecting on the possibility that that could be the issue, I just turned two other matches around, and failed again (because quid-pro-quo was still in the “wrong” match.)

    **Disclaimer: I go by memory here, not having access to the actual questions at the moment. It is conceivable that my details are off—but not the overall principle.

    In such cases, it might actually be an advantage in not being a sharp thinker and not having much prior knowledge. Notably, someone who lacked an understanding of quid-pro-quo (e.g. a high-school drop-out…) might just go blindly by the examples to begin with, and get it “right” in one attempt.

    To my recollection, I had one other answered turned down: In a “chose all things on this computer desktop where secrecy is needed” (or similar) scenario, I reasoned that the test makers probably wanted to see the icon for MS Word included, seeing that careless use of MS Word can be a confidentiality issue*. They did not: They argued that MS Word is a program and, unlike data, is not a matter of confidentiality. This actually matches my own opinion, but it was also a distinction that I had judged to be beyond the intellectual horizon of someone engaging in such extreme dumbing down. In other words, the format and “stupid” questions, which moved the test taker to not give the right answers, but the “right” ones, back-fired on me.

    *Notably, the totality of the information present is not necessarily equal to what can be read in the document, due to meta-information, “track changes”, comments, and possibly some other mechanisms. Say that the sender of a document has the display of “track changes” turned off, the recipient turned on, and that the changes contain confidential data (or e.g. derogatory remarks).

  6. Some of the items take an attitude which is practically unrealistic or too focused on the security aspect. For instance, one question described a situation where someone dropped a report of some type near a fax machine, despite this type of report normally only being sent by email: Guessing the intentions of the test makers correctly, I opted to keep quite in the moment and bring the issue to the immediate attention of HR. In theory, this might be a good idea. In real life? Probably a very bad idea: There is an undue risk for both me and the other party, in that I could be seen as paranoid, untrusting, or unfriendly (especially if details got out or I had bad luck with the who-knows-whom), and the other party might see his reputation hurt by unfair suspicions—bear in mind that most instances of suspect behavior actually have a non-malicious explanation. Left to my own devices, I would probably have just asked for an explanation, feigning casually curiosity*. Depending on what that explanation ended up being (possibly including factors like delivery), I might or might not have talked to HR or made some alternate research. For instance, if the answer was “Bob is stuck with a dead lap-top battery and needs the report urgently for a customer negotiation”, I would have pretended to take it at face value—and at first opportunity, again casually, brought the topic up with Bob. Now, if Bob had a different story, then I would have talked to HR**.

    *As opposed to the “confront” alternative given among the multiple choices.

    **Or someone like the security officer, the other party’s boss, whatnot. Depending on company culture, regulation, and the individuals involved, HR is not necessarily the best starting point—nor even necessarily a good one. In fact, I suspect that a partial reason why HR was the “right” answer is that going to HR puts the employer in full charge of the process, which might be preferred for reasons unrelated to security topics (but is not automatically in the best interest of the other parties involved). From another point of view, many people in corporate hierarchies see themselves as necessarily smarter, having better judgment, being better educated, whatnot, than those theoretically lower in the hierarchy. This might be true when most of the employees are e.g. uneducated factor floor workers or clerks. In my field of work and during my career, a Master’s degree in a STEM subject has been the norm, and the situation is correspondingly very, very different. (Admittedly, this is changing for the worse over time.)

  7. Many highly needed pieces of advice (to the uninformed) are left out, notably safe-surfing tips like “make sure that Flash and JavaScript are deactivated per default”…
  8. Technical problems: At least two colleagues have complained about program interruptions and state not being saved, forcing them to start over—with something that was a chore the first time around. I suffered a “website not responding” scare my self, but program execution resumed shortly after.
  9. Political correctness: There are plenty of images of people (none of them adding any value). To my recollection, only one features a white man: An image of a disgruntled employee, out to do harm to his employer, sadly hunched over his computer, face hidden. The rest were women, various non-Whites, or both—all smiling, happy, beautiful.

    (It is saddening that this topic pops up even in a context where it should be entirely irrelevant.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 28, 2017 at 4:34 pm

Follow-up: Swedish teletext and PC obsession

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And I visit the teletext again, only to find:

Page 304 and 305 deal with the alleged sending of “penis images” to a female official (?) by three members of the Swedish national soccer team.

Page 306 deals with a claim that FIFA spent about as much money on a celebratory event as on developing women’s soccer. (FIFA retorts that the numbers are incorrect.)

(Remember that these pages are the very first pages of the sport section after the table of contents, the equivalent of the front page of an ordinary news paper.)

This is a truly sickening agenda pushing and abuse of what should be the sports section.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 26, 2017 at 7:03 pm

Swedish teletext and PC obsession

with 5 comments

I have already written repeatedly about incompetent journalism in Sweden (in general) and the teletext of the Swedish national television (in particular, cf. e.g. [1]). At the same time, topics like feminism and political correctness have been extremely common.

Quite often these areas of concern overlap in my daily observations. For instance: Earlier today, I visited the aforementioned teletext online. For the umpteenth time, the sports section had prioritized PC issues over actual sports news.

Pages 303 and 304 (i.e. the first and second article page, after the “table of contents” for the sport section on pages 300–302) dealt with criticism of the nomination of one Deyna Castellanos, apparently an 18 y.o. amateur, for FIFA’s female player of the year award. This is border-line news worthy to begin with, better suited for a single paragraph in an overall discussion of the award—and it is given two full pages* at the virtual front page. I saw no other entry dealing with the awards or nominations in general… Apparently poor Deyna is not good enough for the nomination and this is proof that FIFA does not care enough about women’s soccer**. (Of course, another interpretation is that FIFA does care and wants to increase attention through picking someone young and exciting. Yet another that FIFA simply and honestly thinks very highly of her…) The pages were (justifiably) categorized as “soccer”.

*But beware that the teletext pages are much shorter than regular news paper pages.

**Specifically, a quote by a U.S. player, Megan Rapinoe, is given in Swedish “Det skickar en tydlig signal att Fifa inte bryr sig om damfotboll”, which re-translated into English amounts to “It sends a clear signal that Fifa does not care about women’s soccer”. This would not be quote-worthy for someone not trying to angle this into a “pesky old white men” issue, and that they have to resort to quoting a U.S. player is a strong sign that they either dug deep or deliberately have cherry-picked the topic from an English source. (Which is the case, I can only speculate. Neither case would happen with a news source and individual writer without an agenda, however.)

Page 305 (the third page) dealt with a Swedish cross-country skier (Charlotte Kalla) praising some form of social media campaign (“MeToo”) on sharing abuse experiences. In as far as this is news worthy, it has little or nothing to do with sport and should be put in a more general news sector. This page was very dubiously classified as “cross-country skiing”, likely for the sole reason that this is Kalla’s sport.

Page 307* contained claims by an alleged sports researcher (“Idrottsforskaren”) Jesper Fundberg, who is not surprised about alleged penis images sent by players on the national team… (There is no context given and there is no substantiation that this had actually taken place, but such information might be clear from previous reporting.) He says e.g. “Jag skulle säga att det finns en normalisering av hur män tar plats. Det är en normalisering av mäns sätt att trycka dit, trycka upp och trycka ner kvinnor på olika sätt”—“I would say that there is a normalization** of how men take up space***. It is a normalization of men’s way to press on, press up and press down**** women in various ways”. This page was extremely dubiously classified as “soccer”.

*I am a little confused as to what happened to page 306. In my recollection, these were all consecutive pages. It could be that I misremembered; it could be that page 306 dealt with either the same topic as 305 or 307 and was prematurely closed by me. By the nature of the medium, I cannot go back and check, but have to go by what is in those tabs I kept open. (No, the page is not in my browser cache either.)

**Likely in the sense of having become/begin considered a state of normality, something taken more or less for granted. While this is a legitimate academic and “social discourse” term, I have found it to be rare outside certain circles of ideologically driven pseudo-scientists and propagandists, and to some degree it serves as a shibboleth (at least when used outside an academic context).

***Or, possibly, how men take seats. Either which way, it is a metaphorical expression for alleged male behaviors centering around attention hogging and similar phenomena in the general, highly prejudiced and unfair “men feel entitled, especially when they compare themselves to women” genre.

****The sentence is only very marginally better in Swedish. He appears to invent expressions as he goes along… What he actually intends to say is almost certainly that tired old lie/prejudice that men oppress women.

This is exactly the type of astrology level bull-shit a serious news source should filter out—certainly not feature prominently. He contributes to anti-male prejudices, spreads misinformation, and gives a very distorted view of the world to those too uninformed or too weak at critical thinking see through it. His talk of “normalization” borders on the offensive, considering how heavily tilted large portions of Swedish society is towards women as the norm and/or the “good” sex.

To boot, he does not at all appear to be a sports researcher: Going by an Internet search, he is more of a gender studies guy to begin with, and I saw no signs of sports research. His own web pages calls him an ethnologist and consultant, and puts down his field of business as gender, equality, and diversity. (In the Swedish original, respectively “etnolog”, “konsult”, “genus”, “jämställdhet” and “etnisk mångfald”.) In other words: He is not only a gender studies guy, with all what that implies, but he actually makes money from spreading this type of misinformation and relies on the continuation of such prejudices for his livelihood…

(Note: Using “post by email” I originally managed to publish a version in which some changes were not yet written to disk. That version has been deleted.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 23, 2017 at 11:58 pm

Who cries the loudest wins

with 3 comments

Something I have seen again and again is that issues are not judged based on the facts at hand, factual arguments, comparisons with other issues, or similar—but on who cries the loudest and who has the best sob story, greatest scare factor, whatnot. (Of which almost all are exaggerated, most are misleading, and many are detached from reality.) In a bigger picture, outside the scope of this post, what amounts to popularity contests are all too common (c.f. e.g. my discussion of Harriet Tubman and the twenty-dollar bill or any number of TV shows following a certain template).

This is particularly dangerous when combined with opportunistic politicians (of which there is no shortage…) who are keen on keeping the majority and/or those most likely to switch allegiances happy*. Similarly, it is a major contributor to some problems like athletes being sanctioned or people being fired for having the wrong opinions or saying the wrong things, because many decision makers fear landing in the cross-hairs of e.g. the politically correct or whoever cries “offensive”** the loudest. Another recurring problem is the common case of “apologies” being issued for which no apology should have ever been needed, as with the recent Denise Young Smith incident***, or the absolutely horrifying Larry Summers’ incident****.

*An interesting, but slightly off-topic, example is the issue of migration, which within my life time has moved from an issue like any other to a taboo, where to even mention any opinion other than politically correct orthodoxy was grounds for a shunning even among those parties who have a history of skepticism—but where the public opinion and the success of political new comers (e.g. the German AfD or the Swedish SD) is now making the topic acceptable again (outside of the Left). Of course, this is all for the wrong reason: They are not standing up for their ideals or what they believe is good for the country—they are, by all signs, just fishing for votes.

**To which I note that many of the allegedly offensive things are not so to a neutral and rational third-party, that offensiveness is inherently subjective, that I consider much of what happens in the PC movements offensive—including, among many others, the presumption of defining what is offensive, the obsession with avoiding it, and the too common accusations towards others. As Eminem put it: You find me offensive. I find you offensive for finding me offensive.

***A black woman (!) claims that a group of white men can be diverse too—and is shouted down and vilified for it. Her claim, however, is 100% correct: The problem is that her new enemies live in a world where any difference in outcome is seen as ipso facto proof of differences in opportunities, cultural indoctrination, or whatnot, in a severe case of reality detachment—and often where women, Blacks, Hispanics, gays …, all magically have some talents or abilities that no straight White man has. To boot, it is highly naive, as some do, to see it as an automatic positive to have a certain mixture of people in a certain setting: Positive is to have people with the right capabilities and sufficient motivation in the right place—even if this means that we have e.g. more male engineers and more female social workers.

****He mentioned the possibility that some of the differences in outcome between men and women could be based in different abilities (in both case referring to groups or distributions, not individuals)—a claim with scientific support that explains the results that we actually with great economy (while e.g. feminist theories fail to provide such explanations without going through extreme contortions and making unproved and often implausible postulations). It followed a protest campaign of great hatefulness, irrationality, and ignorance—and repeated apologies from Summers. Apologies from his persecutors would have been far more called for. (As an aside: In the past, I have repeatedly referred to his being fired over the incident, and originally intended to give him as an example one sentence earlier. There is a fair chance that this is true, in form of a forced resignation, which would make the situation all the worse; however, based on “common knowledge”, it is at least possible that he resigned for other reasons.)

To look at some examples:

  1. Breast-cancer campaigns: While the noise has died down over the years, it was not that long ago that breast-cancer campaigners had celebrities lined up, everyone and his uncle was carrying pink ribbons, and breast cancer had gained an image as possibly the most important health issue around (in at least some circles).

    Now: If these campaigns had been directed against cancer (in general), I would have had no beef and be short one truly excellent example. So, why were they not? (Even though cancer is necessarily a bigger problem than any single special case of cancer; and even though breast cancer has one of the highest survival rates.)

    Similarly, why has there been so great an emphasis on mammography, to the point that I have repeatedly heard claims that the rate of mammographies is too high*?

    *I lack the expertise to judge this issue and do not necessarily say that these claims are correct. However, arguments around cost effectiveness, the number of false positive, and the relative benefit of testing for one specific type of cancer and not another, do not seem obviously unreasonable. If I do not misremember, I have also heard similar claims about prostate-cancer checks.

    The explanation is the mixture of scare factor and symbolic appeal: Very many women do not primarily see the risk of death, but the risk of losing their breasts. This hits home harder and opens the road for manipulators, both well-meaning and more sinister.

    (Many charities and other forms of campaigns are similar, e.g. in that an “aid to Africa” charity is unlikely to cite facts and extremely likely to show an image of a black child on the verge of tears, preferably an emaciated one: Emotional connection over intellectual connection.)

  2. Nuclear power: For decades, nuclear power has been commonly seen and treated as a great evil. In Germany, there is a long history of active and destructive, sometimes even violent, protests; some parties (in at least Germany and Sweden) have had the fight against nuclear power as a central item for years; during my school years, we were basically told* to be proud that Sweden was the first country that had decided to abolish nuclear power; …

    *Generally, my Swedish school years contained a lot of indoctrination of a type I (as an adult) consider unethical. Notably, topics like nuclear power, at least before high school, were treated in a black-and-white manner, without a presentation of positives and negatives: This is bad. This is good.

    At the same time, fossil fuels kill more people and do more damage to the environment each and every year than nuclear power has throughout its entire history.

    Nuclear disasters and radioactivity scare people in a very different manner than does the continual damage through fossil fuels, likely aided by the association with nuclear weapons* and many inaccurate fictional depictions. There is a lot of concern about various types of pollution and their effects, but there is nowhere near the type of fear and urgency so many people appear to suffer from with nuclear power.

    *In turn sometimes, in some contexts, vilified out of proportion: Consider e.g. that the conventional bombings of Japan during WWII killed more people than did the two nuclear—yet the former is almost without exception consider merely war and the latter very often a war crime.

    To boot, the image of nuclear disasters is often horribly distorted: Even a far worse disaster than Chernobyl would be highly unlikely to cause any type of rapid death outside the plant it self, likely even outside the immediate vicinity of the reactor. (In fact, I would be unsurprised to see radiation risks lose to e.g. risks through steam and steam explosions on the day of an accident.) The reactor will not explode with the force of a hundred Hiroshima bombs. The nuclear core will not travel through the earth and re-surface in China. Etc. For that matter, I would rather see a repeat of Chernobyl at my city of residence than I would a Wanggongchang or a Bhopal disaster.

  3. The Israeli–Palestinian conflict* (and many others through the years): There are a great many examples of some Palestinian group provoking a situation and then casting blame, fishing for sympathies from the international community, or similar, in a grossly intellectually dishonest manner, similar to the way some children manipulate their parents vs. their siblings: Punch the other kid—and when he punches back, go crying to mother. Cf. e.g. the Mavi Marmara incident.

    *Note that this item deals with a particular aspect of the argumentation around the conflict. I do not claim that Israel would be guilt- or flawless. This particular behavior, however, is comparatively one-sided.

  4. The Left and the extended PC crowd provide many examples, including scenarios* like the Zimmerman–Martin tragedy and the Jason Stockley situation , the drive for “equal”** rights for transgenders, or the whole recent “kneeing sports people”*** phenomenon. See also above and many past articles.

    *These cases are picked because the latter is a recent article and the former covers the same recent theme on this blog. They are not necessarily prime examples in other regards.

    **Which often have nothing to do with equal rights and a whole lot with prioritizing the special interests of one group over another, as e.g. when transgenders want to use another bathroom than they biologically would (what about the women/men who do not want to share a bathroom with biological men/women who might or might not be honest about being transgenders?), or when biological men want to compete against women in sports (despite having a massive unfair advantage).

    ***In many or most cases “useful idiots” who pledge themselves to issues they have a simplistic or outright faulty understanding of. More generally, it is quite common for celebrities to be loud in their support of issues they simply do not understand, often based of injustices that have been exaggerated/misrepresented or do not even exist (especially in the area of feminism).

As an honorable mention*, what prompted me to finally write this post: The claim (by German TV sender ARD’s video text) that European courts had decided that it would be “discrimination”** to apply the same size standards to male and female police applicants. This is wrong on a number of levels. Most notably, this amounts to requiring that a different standard is applied to men and women when judging whether they are capable of performing a particular job duty***, unethically and unfairly skewing the process in favour of women—and doing so at the potential cost of the citizens. This is just one example of how laws against unfair discrimination is arguably used to institute exactly unfair discrimination. An earlier example that ticked me off very badly was a German ruling, some years ago, that it is illegal to apply different health-insurances fees to men and women, even when the actual payouts show statistically significant differences.****

*It is not a perfect topic match, but is at least over-lapping.

**Presumably of the illegal type: The utter inability of e.g. journalists to understand what discrimination actually means and implies is astonishing.

***It can to some degree be disputed whether a size requirement makes sense in this particular instance; however, either it does, and the application of different standards is wrong, or it does not, and then size limit should be removed completely. In other cases, e.g. when actual physical performance tests are concerned, the question is quite clear. (Consider, for instance, the U.S. controversy over criteria for firemen and soldiers.) To boot, if the principle is taken to its natural conclusion, it would also have to apply to any ability test or performance evaluation where there was a difference in results between men and women, including e.g. that women are admitted to college with lower SAT scores (or men with lower GPAs, except that discrimination pro-men would likely be unacceptable).

****Another instance of “either it makes sense or something else must be changed”: Either insurance companies are allowed to use statistical group criteria (e.g. sex, age, education level) when setting fees or they are not—end of story. There must not be a rule “you may use such criteria, except for sex” (or, worse, “you may use such criteria, but only if specifically women have no disadvantage”).

Written by michaeleriksson

October 22, 2017 at 7:46 pm

And yet another apartment…

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(See two previous articles for background information: [1], [2].)

Just a few weeks ago, I was set on remaining in my Cologne apartment until the end of November (and my current project).

As of this Tuesday, I find myself living in a new one…

To give an overview of the events leading up to this situation:

On the 29th of August, I came home from work to see that someone had very obviously been in my apartment. Notable traces included a bathroom floor that now contained a very dirty towel that had previously been much cleaner and on a shelf, a wire-hanger that had previously been on the door handle, and a key that had previously been in the bathroom door.

As my landlady explained, there was a problem with water dripping into the apartment below mine and an emergency inspection by building management had been needed. She failed to explain why there were things on the floor…

Unfortunately, this inspection had brought no real result and several other inspections (and misdiagnoses…) and attempts to correct the issue followed, until the 29th of September, a full month after the initial event and probably the sixth(!) visit, when a final fix should have taken place, based on the worst-case scenario assumption of a broken pipe beneath my bathroom floor.

But no: Apparently, the problems were so severe that the entire following week would be needed—and until the conclusion of these repairs, for a full week, I was not allowed to use the shower*…

*Fortunately, the landlady was also the next door neighbor and I could use her shower: With a greater distance, I would more-or-less have been forced to move to a hotel.

The works started as scheduled on the following Monday, but consisted of nothing* more than tearing out the old shower, without any repairs of any kind.

*In my apartment: Some parts of the overall repairs were to take place in the apartment below. I do not know whether these did take place.

Tuesday was a public holiday and no work took place—as was to be expected. However, Wednesday brought two negative revelations: Firstly, no work had taken place on this day either (as verified by the landlady and the building management), for reasons unknown. Secondly, someone had been in my apartment again, accessed areas that had been unambiguously declared as out-of-bounds to the plumbers (and whatnot), and turned every single radiator in the apartment to the max—I was met with a tropical temperature after work. After various discussions, the landlady found the explanation: One of the neighbors had had a radiator problem and another crew of repairmen had been sent to fix it—and building management had given them the wrong set of keys/the wrong apartment number…*

*Which does not explain why the radiators were still all on max. Generally, however, I found that German handymen are extremely poor at restoring order after themselves, as well as considering the interests of others—even when these others are the ones paying the bill.

On Thursday, I came home to the next negative surprise: While the work had resumed, it mainly consisted of the removal of the toilet bowl! Now I could neither shower nor use the toilet… This despite both me and my landlady having been given explicit assurances that the only restriction would be “no showering”—the toilet was to remain fully functional through-out.

Repeated phone-calls and discussions led us to a re-newed assurances that the toilet would be restored on Friday. It was, but in a very sloppy manner: The flushing mechanism was not only severely weakened in its flow, but the automatic re-fill of the tank did not work properly. A typical tour consisted of my hitting the flushing lever repeatedly until the tank started to re-fill—not flush, just re-fill! After some wait, I could then actually flush. However, since the flush was weakened, I often needed to repeat this cycle several times…

Worse, Friday (or was it Thursday?) also contained the unpleasant diagnosis that the estimated date of completion had increased radically again—at least end of October, possibly mid-November, according to the landlady. At this point, she offered* a pre-mature termination of the contract and sent me some alternatives from an agent. Fortunately, everything came together in the search and I had the keys to the new apartment on Monday evening, moving the most necessary things before work on Tuesday morning and taking up residence on Tuesday evening. On the down-side, the new apartment is considerably smaller and worse equipped (if more modernly), despite only a marginal price difference—and there is no comparison to the view… (Obviously, this was a deliberate prioritization of speed on my behalf. I could have chosen to spend more time searching, but I wanted a quick end to the bathroom situation.)

*If she had not, I would quite possibly have terminated the contract anyway—or at a minimum shortened the rent: While this situation was not her fault, she was still in breach of contract.

However, as of last Friday (13th, hmm…) there was still no progress whatsoever in the bathroom* when compared to the preceding Friday (when the work should have been finished according to one prognosis), and precious little compared to the Friday before that (when the work should have been finished according to an earlier prognosis).

*As I noted when bringing over a few more bags to the new apartment.

While I seem to have mostly bad luck with my various apartments (most of which has not yet featured in my writings), I cannot complain about them being boring…

Excursion on the overall situation in the old building: According to my landlady, those apartment owners* who were pushing for timely renovations formed a minority. This includes the plumbing and the elevators, which are apparently running with dispensations and only with repeated stop-gap repairs that would have been unnecessary had a proper renovation taking place—or, in the case of the middle one, not running at all. (Which explains why I always ended up traveling in the left or right elevator, never the middle.) It could also be the explanation for why the idiotic semi-electronic/semi-mechanical key system has been kept. As I gather from building management, a large part of the building (including my floor) has always been apartments, contrary to my assumptions in [1]. This makes the aged look of the bathroom easy to understand, but the unfortunate layout (notably, the too small shower area) harder. Of course, this also implies that the plumbing has not been significantly touched in roughly 45 years—making the current problems an accident waiting to happen.

*In the German system, much of an apartment building is owned collectively by the Eigentümergemeinschaft (“Owners association”). Because the individual apartment owner does not necessarily own whatever causes him a headache, he cannot unilaterally make changes, even repairs, to it. In addition, there is the obvious questions of coordination and cost-effectiveness of related repairs, e.g. when the overall plumbing is involved. (Some of this common property is obvious, e.g. elevators—unless owned by some other entity. Other is less so and can vary from building to building, e.g. in that the windows of a given apartment can belong to the Eigentümergemeinschaft, the individual apartment owner, or be divided based on an outside/inside parts criterion.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 15, 2017 at 11:16 pm

The 2017 Nobel Prizes: Women and the Nobel Prize

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To briefly follow-up on women and the Nobel Prize, I note that 2017 saw a total of 11 laureates (not counting the Peace Prize, awarded to an organization). Again, all of them were men.

See the 2016 article for a deeper discussion, or the article that caused my interest in the matter.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 14, 2017 at 11:00 pm

The German 2017 election

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We are now two weeks past the last German parliament election, and there is still no certainty about who will rule with whom*—however, there is a fair chance that we will be rid of the conservative CDU/CSU** and social-democrat SPD coalition***. The most likely resolution appears to be a CDU/CSU, FDP (liberal, libertarian), and “the green party” coalition. This would be a clear improvement, but the presence of the Greens would make the situation sub-optimal: The environment is important, but large parts of this party is simply highly irrational—astrologists, not astronomers. To boot, large parts of their agenda is as incompatible with the potential partners as SPD’s was. On the plus side, the Greens did not even break 9 % and would be a decidedly junior partner, and they share my and FDP’s distaste for e.g. privacy violations, Bundestrojaner, and the like: Together they and FDP might restrain CDU/CSU in this regard.

*Note that Germany has a multi-party system with a fairly proportional representation by votes (unlike e.g. a first-past-the-post system). After the latest election, there are a total of six parties that made the 5 % cut-off.

**A quirk of German politics is that these parties are not nationally present, with CSU appearing only in Bavaria and CDU everywhere but Bavaria. For the purposes of national politics, they are often informally treated as one entity.

***This coalition being unfortunate in two regards. Firstly, objectively and neutrally, it had two parties in bed with each other that simply do not belong together. This type of coalition amounts to a breach of the voters trust and is by its nature not very democratic. As I noted after the previous election, if such coalitions are tolerated, we might just as well do away with the unnecessary formality of voting. Secondly, subjectively and personally, I dislike the politics of SPD (more than e.g. those of CDU).

It can be interesting to look back at the last few elections, seeing that they have seen some notable developments:

2009: Leading up to the election, another CDU/CSU and SPD coalition was in charge. SPD took a severe hit, CDU/CSU a minor hit, and the smaller parties benefited correspondingly. While CDU/CSU and SPD had been roughly on par last time around, CDU/CSU was now considerably larger and formed a (much more natural) coalition with FDP, which reached a record 14.6 % of the vote.

2013: CDU/CSU gained considerably and looked set for a continued coalition with FDP—except that FDP took a severe hit… So severe, in fact, that it narrowly missed the 5 % cut-off and was left out of parliament. Roughly 10 % or two thirds of the vote gone, from record high to record low, in four years. This was particularly unfortunate*, since CDU/CSU and FDP would have remained in majority, had the cut-off been just a sliver lower.

*However, at the time, I reacted with misplaced Schadenfreude: FDP had been fishing for tactical votes from CDU/CSU supporters, something I strongly disapprove of. Yes, it served them right; however, a very unfortunate political situation arose (cf. above).

2017: This time both CDU/CSU and SPD took severe hits (the former more so in absolute terms, but proportionally the loss was roughly a fifth each), but the remaining two parties (the Greens and leftist extremist/populist Die Linke) only saw marginal gains*. The reason was a resurgence of FDP, which not only made the cut-off but was back above 10 % (historically a good level)—and the massive rise of AfD**, gaining 8 % (for a total of 12.6 %) and its first entry.

*In terms of votes. In terms of seats, they obviously lost ground.

**I am loath to categorize AfD for several reasons, including that it is a very young party with an undeveloped own identity and that it can be hard to tell the difference between its own actual position and the often distorted portrait painted by the other parties and media. It does, however, indisputably have aspects of nationalism, migration skepticism, and a general dissatisfaction with the political establishment. Add in a degree of populism and it might be fair to say that it fills a similar niche as Trump in the U.S. (On these three points, I strongly agree with the last, disagree with the first, and agree or disagree with the second, depending on exactly what we discuss. Cf. a footnote below. In most other areas, I am likely in disagreement; a pro-equality and anti-feminist stance being an obvious exception.)

Interestingly, despite the major changes of 2013, the results of 2017 match those of 2009 very well, apart from the addition of AfD. (And, indeed, without AfD, the Greens would not be needed for CDU/CSU and FDP to re-form their coalition.) Scale off roughly 1/8th of the 2009 results and that is approximately the 2017 result. CDU/CSU has a little more; FDP a little less; the others match very well—as does the sum of the CDU/CSU and FDP percentages.

A twist here is that AfD allegedly has gained disproportionally many voters from CDU/CSU, while CDU/CSU remains the least affected compared to 2009. (This paradoxical situation is likely explained by other voter movements to the benefit of CDU/CSU, especially, I suspect, from FDP.)

Looking at the long term developments, 2009 saw an all-time low for SPD and a lowest-since-1949 for CDU/CSU—something repeated exactly in 2017. The historical constellation of two major parties with several minor parties is, just like in Sweden, disappearing. To some degree, cf. above, this could be explained by the ruling parties being punished: They actually have to do something, often something unpopular, and with a risk of screwing up; the other parties can just sit back, complain, and promise that “with us, everything would have been/will be better”. However, other explanations include voter estrangement and dissatisfaction with the attitudes and policies of the older parties, as well as more success for parties that focus strongly on specific areas where individual voters have similar priorities (the Greens, AfD, and Die Linke fall strongly into this category). SPD, specifically, is likely hurt by Die Linke* “stealing” more and more voters with opinions on the far Left or that are vulnerable to Leftist populism, especially in the area of the old GDR, where SPD often finds it self the smaller of the two…

*This starting with the entry of PDS (the reincarnated SED) in the 1990s and increased by the defection of a part of SPD to PDS to form Die Linke at some point before the 2009 election.

As for my personal take, I am not a fan of any political party (cf. earlier writings), but I would tend to consider a CDU/CSU and FDP coalition the best alternative. While none of them match me ideologically, FDP is likely the closest to a match, with CDU/CSU second. The Greens and Die Linke have no place in any government, hardly to be considered politically sane. SPD is politically sane, but remains a Leftist party (admittedly less so than in the past), with many ideas that I cannot get on board with, at least some of which are likely to be detrimental to Germany’s long-term prospects. AfD as a first time entry, is unlikely to be a good choice for a coalition partner (see also above and below).

The entry of AfD is tricky to judge, especially with the problems of understanding its ideology correctly. However, it has at least two benefits as a signal to the older parties: Firstly, that they cannot ignore, trivialize, or misrepresent migration* issues like they have done in the past. Secondly, that they have to step up their game in looking to the people, not themselves, in general. Until more is known, I am cautiously positive. (I would certainly see the continued presence of Die Linke as a greater reason to be concerned.)

*Migration is another tricky issue, including what levels and what type of migration should be allowed, including applying different perspectives. For instance, from an ideological perspective, I would favor free migration, seeing borders, citizenships, passports, more as an artificial obstacles than anything else; however, from a pragmatical perspective, I would want to consider properly the effects of such migration—including the negative ones that the politicians of the older parties often want to ignore. Similarly, we must consider the possibility of different resolutions for immigrants from different countries, with different backgrounds (notably in terms of education), or with different attitudes. Here is the important point: Irrespective of whether we are for or against migration, migration policy is something that must be discussable and discussed in a free manner, just like e.g. tax levels. The too common attitude of “either you agree with me or you are a racist/xenophobe/Nazi/whatnot” is inexcusable, doing no-one a favour.

(I draw on the German Wikipedia pages for the respective elections for data: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bundestagswahl_2017, https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bundestagswahl_2013, https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bundestagswahl_2009.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 8, 2017 at 8:40 pm