Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Archive for November 2017

Innovation over repetition in the movies (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets)

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Several earlier posts (cf. [1], [2], [3], and possibly others.) have dealt with themes like (over-)continuation of franchises; and I feel that much of the entertainment industry is caught in creative laziness and a greedful attempt to just squeeze as much money out the fame and popularity of existing works as possible.

That it can be done differently is proved by Luc Besson and his “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”*, which I finally got around to watching: Unlike e.g. the latest variations of the “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” themes, he actually tries to do something new, bringing in fresh ideas and unusual takes, in a manner similar to what he did in “The Fifth Element” twenty years ago**. To boot, he does so in one of the most visually spectacular manners I have ever encountered. The whole movie appears to be driven by a wish to push the envelope as far as possible, e.g. with the “Big Market” or “Bubble” scenes.

*In all fairness, it is based on an older comic series, which technically makes it an example of another continuation/re-boot/medium change/whatnot. However, Besson’s intentions, going by reporting, are very different: Showing his own vision of a favorite childhood fiction—admiration and genuine interest rather than a wish for more money. (“The Fifth Element” is similar in this regard, except that it was described as originating in his own childhood creation/fantasies, rather than the original work of another.)

**These two movies have a lot in common and most of what I say about the one will apply, m.m., to the other. I mostly choose not to be explicit, to avoid cluttering. There are also some strong parallels with the two first “Star Wars” trilogies, like pushing the envelope, unbelievably impressive visuals (by the standards of the respective day), new weapons, …

Of course, the movie draws on the works and ideas of others (and/or independently comes up with ideas others have already used)—but not doing so in today’s world is nearly impossible. Here the question of execution and combination enters, and Besson sets news standards. Consider e.g. “Big Market”, a bazaar/society hidden from plain sight: Similar ideas are not uncommon in fiction, as e.g. with the “Troll Market” used in the “Trollhunters” and “Hell Boy” franchises—but combined with the concept of over-laying realities that only interact partially, and the execution that allows for great comedy and exciting action, we have something on a different level. Even so, there are a number of more simple ideas that I, personally, have never seen before, like the weigh-your-opponent-down gun used in “Big Market”.

Where others engage in unimaginative mass production, Besson sets new standards and has created what is the best sci-fi movie I have seen from this decade—far superior to e.g. the last “Star Wars” installment. This is how it should be done! I would rather have one movie like this every few years than a few generic continuations in one year.

Now, I am not saying that this movie has reached perfection. For instance, it is weak* in terms of “food for thought” (but that applies to almost all the block-busters in a similar genre; even if some more “artsy” sci-fi movies can be strong here). For instance, much of the overall plot is a typical variation of “world in danger; hero to the rescue; complications ensue” (again, the competition is rarely better; and the “complication” part is quite strong). For instance, the last half hour (or so) is considerably weaker than the preceding majority of the film, being less imaginative and more cartoonish than the rest—and the virtually immediate re-creation of the Pearl’s world, if on a smaller scale, reduces the impact of the previous losses on the viewers in an unfortunate manner.

*Among what is present, I note the ethical dilemma that led to the destruction of Mül, the situation and developments of the Pearls subsequent to that destruction, and several instances of having to weigh “the right thing” against orders (note the military setting) or personal loyalty vs. organizational loyalty. None of these, however, are given much real exposure, and the food-for-thought aspect is to some part neutralized through the fairly one-sided black-and-white takes on the issues. (For instance, even if we strongly disagree with the actions of Filitt, it still pays to try to understand what motivated him, and to contemplate whether we, in a similar situation, might have acted in the same manner.)

On the other hand, I am not certain that I share the common criticism of the cast: I agree that neither of the two leads put in extraordinary acting performances, but they fit the parts very well, have great on-screen chemistry, and contribute strongly to the overall effect. Chances are that a re-cast with more accomplished actors would have led to an inferior result; and I have a hard time even imagining the movie with different lead actors (just like e.g. the original “Star Wars”, but very much unlike “The Force Awakens”). Cara Delevingne is similar to several other Besson castings, notably Natalie Portman in “Leon”* and Milla Jovovich in “The Fifth Element”, in that the combination** of the character and the actress left me infatuated (which is comparatively rare with me). The rest of the cast is very mixed, but the characters of importance are mostly well played, if possibly a bit exaggerated.

*On the first watching, when I was just several years older than Portman’s character…

**Jovovich as Leeloo had me head over heels—but she has left me neutral or even slightly negative in the other movies I have seen her in. An interesting contrast is Olivia Hussey, the only other actress that has had that large an effect on me: She did it in at least two different works (“Romeo and Juliet” and “Ivanhoe”), and left me anything but cold in several others. (While comparatively unknown, she combined extraordinary beauty with amazing charm, beating even e.g. Audrey Hepburn in this combination.)

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Written by michaeleriksson

November 28, 2017 at 5:59 am

German businesses appear to blame their customers for conflicts over poor service…

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I was actually about to deliberately scale my writing back a bit again, when I encountered a German article article that more or less demanded an answer. This article, dealing with the tone used in contacts between customers and customer service effectively puts the world on its head, making vague references to a study and quoting various “experts”.

Claims made (or passed on) include:

  • “Umgangston zwischen Kunden und Service wird rauer”—the tone between customers and service is getting harsher.

    If the tone is getting harsher, it is normally not the fault of the customers. On the contrary, the problem is the businesses* with their lower willingness not just to provide a reasonable customer service—but to actually fulfill their part of the contracts. In as far as the attitude of the customers have changed, it is for the better! They are no longer willing to put up with the disgraceful, customer despising, often even outright fraudulent behavior of German companies. If the customer attitude of old, which often amounted to unquestioningly accept any excuse or refusal made, is changing, well, that is positive—extremely positive! More than that: I positively urge my fellow customers to deliberately take a stand against the current situation and complain more.

    *I find myself lacking a good English word that is both sufficiently inclusive and sufficiently exclusive. I settle for “business” for the purposes of this article, but stress that this need not the ideal choice of words in all cases. Think “the party the customer pays to provide a good or service”.

  • “Oft haben auch Kunden falsche Vorstellungen.”—the customers often have faulty expectations.

    Speaking for myself, I have expectations like my contract partners actually fulfilling their part of contractual agreements. From what I have seen, this is the case with most other people too.

    On the other hand, the businesses often have unrealistic and unfair expectations that they do their darnedest to push through—sometimes to the point that a contract appears to be seen as a one-sided obligation for the customer to pay, with the other half of the contract being left to good luck and (metaphorically) the will of God.

  • “Zwar betreibe auch er großen Aufwand, um Personal zu schulen. Dennoch würden die Mitarbeiter in einigen Fällen derart übel beschimpft, dass die Gespräche abgebrochen werden müssten.”—Despite major attempts to train the staff (in e.g. de-escalation techniques), the staff is sometimes verbally attacked to the point that the call has to be terminated. (Quoting an individual call center.)

    There are people who go off over nothing and there are people who take a bad day out on the wrong person—however, they are the exception (at least when we speak of such excesses). If something like this happens on a regular basis, the call center and the business has to take a step back and ask “why?”—and if they do, they will almost certainly find that the problem lies with them, that there simply has come a point where the customer is no longer willing to take the situation unfairly imposed on him.

    For that matter, that the staff has been trained is not necessarily an indication that they have the intended capabilities. Indeed, in my general experience, by no means restricted to customer service, the amount of formal training is usually less important than intelligence and insight. That staff is rude, even without any type of provocation from the customer, is by no means rare either…

  • That the customer expectation “the customer is king” is (implied rightfully) a thing of the past. (The original formulations are sub-optimal and mix direct statement and quote in an unfortunate manner.)

    This is an outright disgrace: If this mentality has ever applied in Germany, it was decades ago. The corresponding German saying was “Servicewüste Deutschland” (“service desert Germany”) even when I moved here twenty years ago—and this matches the normal expectation found in Germany both then and today. (Notably, expectation through experience—not through approval or an agreement that this is reasonable!)

    We do not have a problem with spoiled customers with unreasonable demands—we have a problem with businesses that often fail to fulfill even their most basic duties.

    The addition “In der Regel muss er an die Hand genommen werden.” (“As rule, [the customer] needs to be led by the hand.”) is an inexcusably presumption, but, unfortunately, well illustrates the lack of respect, often outright contempt, that businesses show for customers and the rights of the customers. This is made the worse by the usually very low competence level in first-level support—if such people presume to try to lead a customer with a high I.Q., solid education, superior understanding of the law, whatnot, by the hand, they should not be surprised if he grows annoyed.

To make a complete analysis of the many problems present in German “service” is beyond the scope of both this post and the amount of time I can reasonably spend, but to give a few points of the top of my head:

  1. First-level customer support that is often highly incompetent, unable to understand basic reasoning, and/or limit their efforts* to finding the first piece of boilerplate text that is even remotely a fit (and usually not even remotely helpful).

    *Such problems often ultimately rest with the employer, who is unwilling to make sufficient allocation of time and resource to resolve the problems it has it self caused. Even members of customer support who would, in principle, be willing and capable to help are often unable to do so due to e.g. time constraints.

  2. A constant abuse of the customers email addresses for spam purposes, while deliberately trying to prevent the customers from using email in the other direction. (Notably through the use of unethical “no-reply” addresses or by forcing the customers to forego email in favour of user hostile web forms—often even a refusal to answer emails sent to official email addresses.) In extreme cases, even postal contacts are made near impossible.
  3. Forcing the customers to pay for for a prolonged time in a telephone queue before reaching support—often being forced to listen to second-rate music* during the wait.

    *It used to be the case that one could at least put the phone aside and wait for a human voice, while doing something unrelated. Unfortunately, many hot-lines now interrupt the music again and again for an automated message along the lines of “you are still in the queue”, effectively forcing the customer to focus on the telephone, lest he misses the point where a real, living human starts to talk.

  4. A refusal to honor legal rights without escalation. In particular, it appears that many members of support are given instructions that serve mostly to get customers who either do not know their rights or grow to tired of the effort to just go away. (“Abwimmelversuche”, with variations, is a wonderful German word for such behaviors that lack a good English translation.)
  5. Contracts and “terms and conditions” that are written extremely one-sidedly to exclusive favour the business and to turn the contract into an obligation for the customer to pay, come hell or high-water, and to regulate the obligations of the customer towards the business—while making all kinds of exceptions and excuses to allow the businesses to shirk their duties. (This is of course quite the opposite of what should be the case: Payment must be contingent on the other party fulfilling its duties, and should (almost) be the entirety of the customers duties. The contract should regulate the duties of the provider to earn that payment!)
  6. The presumption by businesses to unilaterally decide what compensation (if any!) the customer should receive—even when they are clearly in breach of contract. This compensation is typically not even remotely comparable to the efforts, costs, and/or negative side-effects the customer has incurred, often being nothing more than a five-euro voucher for the next purchase*. In some cases, notably delays and Deutsche Bahn**, the system is rigged against the customer in so disastrous a manner that a frequent traveler can rack up hundreds or thousands of Euro in damages and get nothing in return. Most delays give the customer no means of recourse whatsoever; most of the remaining require substantial additional efforts and give a fraction of the ticket price back.

    *Notably, something that does not actually cost the business anything. Five euro might reduce the gain from said purchase, but rarely so much as to make it a loss for the business. To boot, many will not use the voucher (not being willing to do further business, having lost the voucher, having no reason to buy anything before the voucher expires, …) in the first place.

    **“German Railways”, which is run with such incompetence and/or even deliberate neglect of consumer rights that its offerings to large parts have to be considered fraudulent. It (metaphorically) sells and receives payment for horses knowing in advance that half the time it will only deliver mules.

  7. The hiring of third-party service providers that screw things up—for which the original business refuses to take any responsibility or to help with any recourse. A prime example is delivery services like DHL; however, the number of such service providers can be large and varied, often even including call centers… (That then often just parrot a script and have very little actual ability and discretion.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 26, 2017 at 12:57 am

Black Beauty

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When I read fiction, I mostly go for entertainment, as a less lazy alternative to TV for purposes like relaxation between work, reading non-fiction, thinking, writing, whatnot. Yesterday, I decided to slum it, even by my standards: I had read Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty with great enjoyment as a child, but had almost no recollection of it, and decided to refresh my memory.

Seeing that this is a children’s book, I expected it to be something banal and not overly well written—and as a horse book probably a little too girly to boot.

Was I wrong…

For starters, the book is not actually about horses: The main contents are moral stories and advice on how to handle horses and other humans, as well as how to lead ones life. Notably, most or all of the “horse advice” can be taken as applying to humans too, especially with an eye at e.g. master–servant* relationships; be it immediately or after looking past horse-specific details. The overall story, which is told from a horse’s** perspective, is just a vehicle.

*Note that the book was published in 1877, and by an English author, when a master–servant hierarchy, great class differences, etc., were everyday reality. The situation is less drastic today; but, to some degree, the same lessons can apply to e.g. an employer–employee relationship.

**The eponymous Black Beauty, later referred to by a number of different names by a number of different owners. Partly due to the name confusion, partly due to “Black Beauty” being a little awkward as a name, I will mostly speak in terms of “protagonist” below.

The prose is sometimes a little simple (as is to be expected), but of very high quality, especially for, in my understanding, a first-time author*. It has a great flow, is very coherent, and uses seemingly complex sentence constructs without actually introducing complexity or making the text harder to understand. (This is something that I struggle with myself, and where I could learn a great deal from Anna Sewell.) More over, the prose proves that it is possible to write in an understandable manner without resorting to the extreme fragmentation and simplistic (as opposed to simple) language used by many modern authors and journalists.

*Going by the Wikipedia article on Anna Sewell she had helped her mother, another author, with editing in the past, but had at least not published anything herself.

Take the first paragraph and imagine how it might have looked if written today:

The first place that I can well remember, was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it. Some shady trees leaned over it, and rushes and water-lilies grew at the deep end. Over the hedge on one side we looked into a ploughed field, and on the other we looked over a gate at our master’s house, which stood by the roadside; at the top of the meadow was a plantation of fir trees, and at the bottom a running brook overhung by a steep bank.

This is just three sentences, the third spanning over two hundred (non-space) characters, and containing three commas and one semi-colon—while still being extremely easy to read. A modern day children’s author who even tries to use a semi-colon might be forbidden to do so by an editor or a readability metric… (I might, admittedly, have put commas a little differently.)

The structure is well thought-through and the events move along at a high tempo without developments seeming unnatural*; although there is some change of character as the protagonist becomes a cab horse**. The episodic character of the book and, to a lesser degree, the progress from life station to life station makes it a little “choppy”, especially by today’s standards; however, in terms of readability and message, this has little practical effect.

*With the exception of the continual descent of the protagonist. However, this is not necessarily rare in the literature of the time or in the “moral” category. An interesting difference, however, is that such descent is more commonly through the lacking character of the protagonist. Here the protagonist, as well as the other horses, is the innocent victim of unfortunate circumstances or lacking character in others (e.g. the drunk rider who causes severe injuries to the protagonist—while riding himself to death).

**The stories grow longer and the tempo lower, more time is spent on one station, and the focus moves more towards human issues, notably working conditions.

Had this been a book for adults, I might have criticized the weak character development, but it is a children’s book. To boot, this shallowness does not prevent the book from bringing its message across—-it might even make it easier. (Cf. e.g. the similar character depth of “Animal Farm”, which also features anthropomorphic animals and an animal–human conflict, and is written for adult readers to a higher degree.)

Similarly, the actual events and depictions of the events are often a little too child-centric, in parts verging on the boring, for me as an adult reader; however, I do remember that I found the book positively captivating as a child.

For a children’s book, and nominally likely somewhat younger children at that, this book is quite an accomplishment.

I would raise one possibly major point of criticism: When reading as a child, everything deeper than the surface action went over my head. If this is the case with other children too, the book might be less effectual than what Sewell hoped for.

As an aside, it is interesting that the protagonist, in particular, and horses, in general, tended to start of in a “high station” and descend in station as their physical capabilities grew less impressive. Here there is, likely unintended, an additional lesson in that those who want to move in a positive direction have to make sure that they have something wanted to offer—and to increase what is offered over time to get even higher. Those who let their abilities stagnate or even deteriorate are likely to see the same happening to their careers and lives. (Unfortunately for the protagonist, there was little he, as a horse, could do about it.) From another angle, this can serve as a reminder that we all grow old and should not be too cocky about our physical abilities when young.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 25, 2017 at 6:48 pm

The world is ending? Probably not!

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While we live in a time of great societal problems, including a failing democracy (e.g. [1]), a climate of censorship and intolerance of opinions (e.g. [2]), and the whims of the masses unduly influencing decision making (e.g. [3]), there is one very good reason to not give up hope: Great societal problems are historically the rule rather than the exception—and society has still managed to survive and move on.

If we look at the 20th* century we have such global or near** global issues like the sequence WWI, depression, WWII, cold war, which dominated most of the century. Specific countries have had additional “individual” problems on a similar scale, e.g. decades of dictatorships, genocides, civil wars or revolutions, … However, even the luckier countries have had a great number of problems. Consider e.g. the U.S. and the McCarthy era, which is an astonishing parallel*** to what happens today, or the “Monkey trials” era, which is another strong parallel****. Or consider the crime epidemics (be it organized crime or individual crime). Or the Vietnam War, as well as the political turmoil around it. Or the “Jim Crow” situation that covered a significant part of the century.

*The one I and, likely, almost all readers will know the best, barring the 21st. From what I know of other centuries, the 20th was by no means exceptional, although the set of problems has to some degree varied over time.

**Note that the effects of e.g. a war is not limited to those nominally involved: For instance, the non-combatant Sweden suffered far less from WWII than did Germany, Russia, and Britain, but it was still impacted severely—to the point that rationing was in place for most of the war. (For some products even for years after the war…)

***I suspect, however, that the worst “McCarthies” of today would be among the first to condemn what happened back then—without realizing that they are doing the same thing: Either you believe what I believe, or you have no right to speak, to work, to teach, … (Just like e.g. the Antifa has so much in common with the fascists they claim to fight against.)

****With the addition of the “let us ignore science—we know better what is correct” aspect that also permeates e.g. feminism and gender studies. I might even have larger sympathies for the creationists: They drew on a radically different source of knowledge and disagreed about which type of source was the better. Feminists and their ilk either have no source of knowledge, instead relying on wishful thinking and personal prejudice; or claim the authority of science while ignoring any contradictory science and opening their arms to pseudo-science that agrees—astrologers pretending to be astronomers.

Chances are that some of the problems we have now will eventually blow over, be looked upon by future generations like the current looks upon the McCarthy era, and, sadly, have been replaced by a new set of problems… The extreme political correctness of today is a prime candidate.

Others might see a turn-around, as public opinion sways back-and-forth, or as the back-lash grows enough to make politicians take heed, e.g. regarding privacy and the rights of the individual.

Others yet, regrettably, could prove quite problematic, and either lead us on to a dystopia (likely something Orwellian) or require some form of radical upheaval to be rid of. Even here, however, long-term events are likely to prove this a temporary state: It took decades for the communist dictatorships of eastern Europe* to fall, but fall they did. I am a little loath to give a specific modern example, because the border towards the prior paragraph can be hard to predict. For instance, it seems likely that government will continue to grow and try to become more and more involved in our lives—as has been the trend for a very long time. However, possibly a point will be reached where even a majority of the broad masses have had too much, and the long-term** trend is reversed.

*Others remain, but I can only think of North-Korea as a strong counter-example—and that too is likely just a matter of time. China, e.g., is still a very oppressive state, but has moved quite a long-way in the right direction on other counts and is not the religiously communist country it once was. Cuba, the last “poster country”, was never that bad, was likely artificially held down by the personal presence of Castro, and appears to be gradually changing after his recent death.

**As opposed to e.g. a brief fluctuation for the better; say, a single President, preceded and followed by more expansionist colleagues.

A particularly interesting example is the worsening of many school systems.* These negative trends has been countered by a positive trend towards home schooling in the U.S., taking several percent of the children out of a negative environment, and with numbers rising. This simultaneously shows how too large a deterioration eventually brings the populace up against it and demonstrates how fragile a counter-movement can be before it reaches a critical mass: With the still low numbers, it would be possible for home-schooling to be banned**, forcing the children back into regular school. The few percent are dwarfed by the majority that has no stake in the issue and are counter-weighed by groups that oppose home schooling (e.g. out of ignorance or a drive for “equity”, because they laud the indoctrination by normal schools, or because they see home schooling as removing resources from the school system).

*Notably through declining academic standards; and increasing dominance of politically correct (or leftist) thought and propaganda at various levels of the school systems, clearly noticeable during my own school years in Sweden (starting in 1982) and entirely out of control in today’s U.S. (And possibly other places, likely including Sweden. As a negative side-effect of reading mostly in English, I am not up-to-date with the details of Sweden in this regard. I do know, however, that problems are present like political pressure groups trying to re-write books on math and physics to remove “gender disparities”…)

**I note that the U.S. stance on home schooling is not shared world wide. In e.g. Germany and Sweden (since a ban a few years ago; it was very rare before that) it is not an option.

On the down-side, the repetition of certain problems is a cause for pessimism: One implication might be that society will not end this time either (as above), but another is that society will remain in a state of crisis and that these repetitions will continue. (Those who do not know history are bound to repeat it—and knowledge of history is not very impressive these days…) The underlying problem is human nature, with its irrationality, emotionality, lack of critical thinking, … Human nature changes only slowly over time, and quite possibly for the worse. Educational efforts can to some degree help, but, more often than not, school systems appear to have the opposite effect.

As an aside, there is an other category of problems that could give the impression that things are going to hell, namely misinterpretation of a difference over e.g. the human life-span as a difference over time. A notable example would be older generations viewing younger generations as immature, lazy, uneducated, rude, …, which is an age-old phenomenon. The explanation of the perceived difference is often that the older generations compare themselves as they are now with the younger generation, and/or that they have a too rosy recollection of their own behaviors. The fair comparison is, obviously, with the older generations as they were then, say grand-child at twenty with grand-parent at twenty—not grand-parent at seventy. (However, sometimes these complaints are justified, as may very well be the case at the moment, and then this paragraph does not apply.) These cases are deliberately left out above, because they do not fit the pattern of new, or even continual, problems that alter the threat situation; they are continuous problems that leave the threat situation unchanged.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 25, 2017 at 12:05 am

Me too, and me too, and me too, and me too, …

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A common, by now unimaginative and hackneyed, scene in U.S. television and movies shows a person of authority (e.g. a principal) about to swoop down on a protagonist (e.g. a teacher) for some perceived sin (e.g. being unconventional or homosexual) in front of a group of comparatively powerless people (e.g. a school class). Suddenly, one brave soul from among the powerless steps forward in the protagonist’s defense. A long tense pause follows, and then another voices his support. A second tense pause, a little shorter this time—and another supporter. After a third pause, quite short this time, another one or two supporters declare themselves—and then the rest of the group cannot join fast enough.

Such scenes are a good illustration of what makes me greatly troubled by the “me too”* take on showing support, admitting something, pointing out culprits, … To take a more real-life example: Someone who stood up for gays or came out of the closet in 1977** was doing something brave, not just risking condemnation by his peers but quite possibly exposing himself to physical danger—and very few did. In 1987 things had changed a bit, but the area was at best highly controversial, and standing up or coming out could still be a major contribution—made by comparatively few. By 1997, homosexuality had gone a long way towards losing its stigma and was not a very big deal for large parts of the younger generations, but was not yet a mainstream phenomenon; standing up or coming out could still contribute, but far less than earlier, and was far less dangerous—and a reasonably large number of people did. In 2007, homosexuality was well in the main stream, nay-sayers were frowned upon, and people were coming out in droves***. 2017? We are now at a point where heterosexuals are more likely to have to explain themselves, where a TV show without at least on homosexual character feels like the exception, where objections towards “gay marriage”**** brings out the villagers with torches and pitch-forks , …—and still there are people jumping on the “me too” band-wagon, protesting how much must be done against “intolerance”, and seeing themselves as the brave heroes or enlightened minority.

*Apart from the correct phrase almost always being “I too” or even “and I”, but that correction would not mash well with the latter parts of this post.

**The years and implications will vary with geography and should not be taken as more than illustration of the principle—certainly not as an historically accurate overview. (I suspect that the text holds reasonably well for e.g. large parts of the U.S., however.)

***In my impression, those who remained in the closet often either had concerns relating to specific individuals, e.g. a parent with a known aversion, or were held back by (possibly justified) reasoning like “my boss would probably be OK with it, but if he is not then my career could be set back considerably”.

****Another unfortunate phrase.

Sorry, band-wagon-eers: By now you are not heroes, you are sheeple who just follow the main-stream without an ounce of courage. For celebrities, the suspicion of cheap attention seeking has to be added. In 1997 you might have had my respect—and you definitely would have in 1977. Today, I might go as far as seeing you as part of a problem…

A particularly interesting recent example is the situation around Harvey Weinstein and the “#MeToo” Twitter campaign, paralleled, if on a lesser scale, by a number of more individual cases in the past (e.g. the accusations against Bill Cosby):

Allegedly*, Weinstein has a very long history of sexual abuse towards actresses. Yet, until very recently, this was not public knowledge and no-one seemed to publicly care—the more surprising, since the list of actresses includes quite a few women of considerable success**. Even if worst came to worst and raising accusations actually became a career ender***, these are not people who would see themselves living off food-stamps. Why did none of them try to cause a stir in the past? If what happened to them was that bad, why did none of them try to protect the next generation of actresses from the same experiences?

*I have seen somewhat conflicting claims to what he has and has not admitted and do not wish make any assertions in either direction. See the below discussion on presumption of innocence, however.

**I can understand very well if a barely adult actress at the very beginning of her career chooses to not speak up. Neither, apparently, were they all in that situation, nor did all of them remain in that situation.

***And not leaving the career untouched or even giving it a boost through the extra publicity and courage shown, which might or might not have been the case.

Then, earlier this year, allegedly after decades of misbehavior, the news breaks—and we are inundated with “me too” claims. Real courage there…

Now, I lack the detail knowledge of what (allegedly or not) happened in any specific case, and I have no psychic powers enabling me to understand what motivated each of these individual women. However, there are a number of conceivable scenarios in which actresses come off as bad as Weinstein. For instance, allegedly a number of them accepted hush money to keep quite about their experiences—willingly taking into account that others would later find themselves in the same situation… (And possibly committing breach of contract by later coming forward despite taking the money.)

Excursion on behavior as a result of feedback: A particularly problematic point is that in situations like these a lack of sufficient or sufficiently early protest could have strongly contributed to the problem. Such behaviors are highly unlikely to continue for a prolonged time unless the benefits outweigh the costs for the perpetrator. With too little protest or too much success, it is even possible that he fails to realize that certain behaviors are inappropriate. Consider two situations: In the one, nine out of ten women remain uncooperative but silent and the tenth gives him a blow-job. In the other, the tenth sends a knee to his groin. In which of these situations will we see what long-term behaviors? What self-perception and perception of own behavior? Humans are not rats in a lab—but some aspects can be quite similar. (More generally, much of intersex interactions is driven by past experiences. Consider e.g. a rich and famous athlete who is used to women wanting to be with him. He might, especially when not among the brightest, not interpret a negative reaction correctly. Or take the guy with the sleazy pick-up line that instantly turned a given woman off: Chances are that it does work with sufficiently many other women that it pays for him to keep using it…)

Excursion on presumption of innocence: A very disturbing secondary element of the recent waves of accusations is that people are being fired, outright fired, based merely on the accusations. This leads us to a very dangerous territory of deliberate false* accusations for reasons like personal gain or revenge: Jack and Jill compete for the same promotion—good-bye Jack, congratulations Jill. Jack is Jill’s boss and (rightfully) fires her for incompetence—goody-bye Jack, welcome back Jill. Jack voted for Trump and Jill is in tears over Hillary’s failure—good-bye Jack, chin-up Jill. Etc. It is of paramount importance that such drastic actions only be taken in clear-cut cases (e.g. after a confession or a conviction), and that, for interim measures, the interests of the accused are given due concern.

*While this is not a behavior that I would expect from the average woman, there are enough non-average women who would resort to such tactics. Common feminist claims like “a woman would never lie about rape” or “a woman would never lie about her children being abused” are demonstrably (and very…) false—and the lie is often calculated, e.g. to avoid a revelation of infidelity or to gain the upper hand in a divorce. Some previous discussion and links to other sources are present on [1], [2].

Written by michaeleriksson

November 23, 2017 at 5:53 pm

Finally writing again!

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As the subscribers and recurring readers might have noticed, I have posted at an unusually high rate lately, especially compared to the near dormancy of 2012–2015. This post actually sets a new “personal best”* for a month with 16 posts and counting—and it is admittedly gratuitous, made mostly for the purposes of getting that record out of the way.

*Which is not to say that it is the month I have written the most in: During the days when I actively worked on my website, this was not a remarkable number.

There are several reasons for this increase:

  1. I have been reading a lot of other peoples opinions lately, which always makes me itch to write.
  2. There has been a welcome slowdown in my current project and I am already “writing checks” based on having a lot of vacation in December.
  3. Writing more again has made me remember how rewarding it can be in terms of gaining a better understanding of the world or myself, clarifying and developing thoughts, re-evaluating* my opinions, etc. Most of the time, this is the reason why I write—self-improvement. If I am able to change the mind of the odd reader, show a new perspective, seed a little doubt, …, that is just the cherry on top.**

    *This is something close to my heart: Re-evaluation with an open mind and a willingness to change is at the core of intellectual development, a sine qua non. The result of the re-evaluation need not be a change of mind, but it must be undertaken with such a change as a possibility. (Indeed, the unwillingness of others to do so is directly or indirectly connected with the majority of my criticism of e.g. the PC crowd.) Incidentally, I have a post on this topic in preparation.

    **Which is a good thing at the moment, because the visitor numbers on this blog have yet to recover and I still have not gotten around to fixing my website.

I plan to go on writing, but I suspect that the post numbers will drop down a bit in the following months; and I hope that I will be able to take my ridiculously delayed* mini-sabbatical in the course of 2018, during which I will likely switch my main attention to where it belongs—my long neglected website.

*Originally planned for the autumn of 2016…

Written by michaeleriksson

November 23, 2017 at 6:59 am

A few thoughts around childhood recollections

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Through a somewhat random chain of association, I find myself thinking about one of my childhood’s favorite objects: Skåpsängen*.

*I am not aware of an English translation. Literally, “säng” is “bed”, “-en” is “the”, and “skåp” can, depending on context, translate as e.g. “cupboard” or “closet”. Below, I will speak of “box” for the “skåp” part, because this matches the internal structure best, even if it was larger and more finely worked than what I picture when I hear “wooden box”. I keep the word with a capital “S” because it always came over as a proper name to me—not a mere noun or a mere description. (This was often the case with me. Cf. “mormorsfranska” below.)

This was a foldable bed-in-a-box, that I used to sleep in when visiting my maternal grand-parents as a young child. As a result of the construction, I lied down with my head well within the box, which was something of a world of its own. Not only did the walls and roof shelter* me, but I often found myself just staring at the walls for minutes at a time, following the grain of the wood, especially the brown patterns formed by wood knots, or admiring one or two little pencil drawings (possibly drawn by my mother in her youth)—almost as good as TV. My positive associations are strengthened by how grand-parents spoil their grand-children and the “exotic” overall environment, with its new smells, different and older furniture**, different food***, toys that once belonged to my mother and her brother …—and, obviously, the grand-parents themselves.

*In my subjective impression. There was, of course, no actual danger or discomfort to shelter against.

**Including some actual antiques that had been handed down from an even older generation than my grand-parents’.

***Including what I thought was named “mormorsfranska”, but was actually just a descriptive “mormors franska”—“[my specific] grand-mother’s [style of] bread rolls”, often given to me while tucked into the bed.

While a trip down memory lane is all fine and dandy*, it is not something that I often write about. However, there are a few thought-worthy things and my mind kept wandering back to other childhood memories and potential lessons, a few of which I will discuss below.

*Or not: By now, I am actually feeling quite sad, seeing that the grand-parents (and mother) are all dead, the house was torn down decades ago, Skåpsängen probably does not exist anymore, most of the other things likely have gone the same way, the innocence of childhood has long passed, …, One of the risks with looking back at happy times gone by, instead of forward to happy times to come or at the happy times of the now, is that the element of loss can ruin the experience—and the happier the memory, the greater the loss.

The most notable is how my child’s mind could be so fascinated with the walls of the box, where I today might have had a look around and then immersed myself in a book or my computer. This is largely because a child is easier to amuse and stimulate than an adult, who (often) needs something more challenging, and whose curiosity has moved on to other areas. Not only are such contrasts between the child and the adult important in order to understand children and (e.g. in my case) developing a greater tolerance for them, but when similar variations are present in the adult population they can become a tool to understand humanity as a whole better. Consider e.g. how a difference in intelligence levels can cause one person to view a certain activity as too easy to bother with, while another might be challenged and stimulated, and the activity that challenges and stimulates the former might simply be too hard for the latter; or how some might be more interested in stimulation through thinking and some more* through perception, and/or the two having different preferences for channels of perception.

*At least here the “more” is of importance: There seems to be quite a few people who really do not like to think, but few or none who are entirely cold towards sensory perceptions. More often, it is a question of prioritizing them, or some forms of them, lower than other things.

However, another partial explanation is likely the modern tendencies to crave more active forms of stimulation and not appreciating the little things in life: There can be a benefit found in, for a few minutes a day, just relaxing, cutting out stronger sources of stimulation (e.g. blogging or TV), and just focusing on and enjoying something small in the moment. (While I have resolved to deliberately and regularly do so on a few occasions, the resolution has usually been forgotten within a week. It still happens, obviously, but more accidentally and likely not as often as it should.)

Yet another contributing factor, especially for an adult, is today’s intense competition for our attention: There is so much entertainment, so much to learn, so much to see and do, that a dozen life-times would be too little. Back then, for a child, shortly before lights out*? The competition might have been re-reading a comic or just letting my thoughts wander while staring out into the room…

*Possibly more metaphorically than literally, since I was afraid of the dark and usually insisted that the lights be left on—which could, obviously, have prolonged the time available to look at the box…

An event that took place in Skåpsängen during my very early childhood is another good illustration of the difference between more childish and more adult reactions, resp., among adults, more emotional and more rational ones: The most favorite object of my childhood was a toy penguin. At some point after dark, one of its button eyes came off. I raised hell, annoyed my grand-mother (who, understandably, did not see this as a big deal) severely, and ended up being ungrateful when she sew another button on, without locating the original. (My memory of the exact details is a little vague, but I strongly suspect that if I had seen the “injury” as less urgent and waited until the following morning, the original button would have been used.) Apart from the repeated implications on understanding children and, possibly, humans in general, there are at least two lessons: Firstly, that someone who is very upset and/or makes a lot of noise does not necessarily have a legitimate complaint, or a complaint more worthy than that of more reasonable protesters. Secondly, that we should not expect gratitude from these people if we try to satisfy them…

Importantly, however, I did not complain loudly and stubbornly because of any calculation*—I did it because I was very genuinely upset: I was unable to comprehend that this truly was no big deal. Even if we allow that a child can have a very strong emotional connection to a toy penguin**, this was not a damage that was noteworthy, debilitating, or hard to fix—a few minutes with needle, thread, and (preferably the original…) button, and everything would be fine. For I all know, exactly that could have happened to the other eye at some point when I was asleep and unaware of the events, having no way to tell after the fact. This type of inability to make correct assessments is regrettably very common among adults too, if not in such extremely obvious cases.

*In contrast, I suspect that e.g. a large part of the PC crowd is driven by calculation when it comes to their style of protest. I use similar tactics, on occasion, when dealing with e.g. spamming companies-where-I-placed-a-single-order-and-never-consented-to-any-advertising: Reasoning very obviously does not convince them that they are doing something grossly unethical, so let us see whether they pay attention when a customer leaves in (apparent) anger. (To early to tell, but I am not optimistic.)

**Which we certainly should: Even now, I find myself having a surprisingly strong reaction when thinking back, stronger than e.g. when thinking of the real-life people that I later went to school with… Similarly, one of the most enduringly popular songs in Sweden, since before my own birth, is “Teddybjörnen Fredriksson”, dealing with the nostalgic feelings of a grown man towards his childhood teddy bear (named Fredriksson). I suspect that it is better known and more beloved among Swedes that the top hits of ABBA and Roxette.

Children do provide many, with hindsight, ridiculous examples. The proudest moment of my life came when I, about four years old, gave my grand-father a tip on how to repair a broken (probably) 16mm film—and he, an actual adult!, followed my tip. Did I save the day, like I thought? No: As I realized later in life, he would have done the exact same thing anyway. (As implied e.g. by the fact that he already had the right equipment for the repair.) Similarly, the first, and possibly only, time I played croquet, at about the same age, I was very proud at having beaten my grown-up uncle. (He claimed that I did, and who was I too disagree, not even understanding the rules…) Can you say “Dunning–Kruger”?

The pride aspect is yet another case where children could differ from mature adults: I am not necessarily free from pride, but this particular type of pride (as opposed to e.g. contentment) over a specific event or a specific accomplishment is comparatively rare, and it seems pointless and vain to me for anything but the greatest accomplishments (major scientific break-throughs, Olympic medals, …) Then again, I need not be representative for adults. For instance, while I keep my college diplomas somewhere in a stack of paper, many others, including my mother, have theirs framed and hung on the wall.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 22, 2017 at 10:03 pm