Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Archive for December 2017

A few thoughts on traditions and Christmas (and some personal memories)

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With Christmas upon us, I find myself thinking about traditions* again. This especially with regard to the Christmas traditions of my childhood, in light of this being the first Christmas after the death of my mother.

*Mostly in the limited sense of things that e.g. are done once a year on the same day or in a certain special manner, and as opposed to the other senses, say the ones in “literary tradition” and “traditional role” .

It has, admittedly, been quite a long while since I “came home for Christmas”, as she would have put it, and, frankly, the circumstances of my family had made Christmases at my mother’s hard for me to enjoy long before that. However, while the practical effect is not very large for me, there is still a psychological difference through the knowledge that some possibilities are permanently gone, that some aspects of those Christmases would be extremely hard to recreate—even aside from the obvious absence of my mother, herself. Take Christmas dinner: Even following the same recipes, different people can end up with different results, and chances are that even a deliberate attempt to recreate “her” version would be at best a poor* approximation—just like it was an approximation of what her mother used to make (and my father’s draws strongly on his childhood Christmas dinners). There is simply yet another connection with those Christmases of old that has been cut. In fact, when I think back on the most memorable, most magical, most wonderful Christmases, there are two versions that pop into my head:

*Note that a poor approximation does not automatically imply a poor effort. The point is rather that there are certain tastes and smells that can be important to us for reasons like familiarity and associations with certain memories, and that there can come a point when they are no longer available. I need look no further than my father to find a better cook than my mother, be it at Christmas or on a weekday; however, his cooking is different, just like his signature is—and even if he deliberately tried to copy her signature, the differences would merely grow smaller.

The first, predating my parents divorce, with loving and (tautologically) still married parents, a tree with a certain set of decorations, in the apartment we used to live in, and a sister too young to be a nuisance or even to properly figure in my recollections. I remember particularly how I, possibly around four or five years of age, used to spend hours* sitting next to the tree, staring at and playing with the decorations, and listening to a certain record with Christmas songs**. There was one or several foldable “balls” that I used to fold and unfold until the parents complained, and that fascinated me to no end. I have no idea whether the record and decorations exist anymore, we moved from the apartment almost forty years ago, the parents are long divorced—and I am, obviously, a very different person from what I was back then. With my mother dead, Father is the only remaining connection—and my associations with him and Christmas have grown dominated by those Christmases I spent with him as a teenager. (Which in many ways were great, but could not possibly reach the magic and wonder Christmas holds to a small child.)

*Well, it might have been considerably less—I really had no sense of time back then.

**In a twist, my favorite was a Swedish semi-translation of “White Christmas” by the title “Jag drömmer om en jul hemma”—“I’m dreaming of a Christmas back home”.

The second, likely* post-divorce and living in Kopparberg, where my maternal grand-parents resided, featured a setting in the grand-parents house and the addition of said grand-parents and my uncle and his family to the dramatis personae. Well, the house is torn down, most or all of the furniture and whatnots are gone, the grand-parents are both dead, and on the uncle’s side they started to celebrate separately relatively soon (and I was obviously never as close with them as with my parents or grand-parents). Again, I am a very different person, and with Mother dead, there is virtually no connection left.

*With the long time gone by and my young age, I cannot rule out that some pre-divorce Christmas also fell into this category.

However, memory lane is just the preparatory road, not the destination, today. The core of this post are two, somewhat overlapping, aspects of most traditions that I find interesting:

  1. What we consider traditional is to a very large part based on our own childhood experiences, both in terms of what is considered a tradition at all and what is considered the right tradition. Comparing e.g. my Christmases with my father and mother post-divorce, they had different preferences in both food and decorations* that often (cf. above) went back to their own childhoods. Similarly, U.S. fiction sometimes shows a heated argument over “star on top” vs. “angel on top” (and similar conflicts)—let us guess which of the parties were used to what as children…

    *Although some of the difference in decorations might be based less in preference and more in inheritance of specific objects.

    As for the very young me, I often latched on to something that happened just once or twice as a tradition, being disappointed when the “tradition” did not continue, say when the paternal grand-mother came visiting and did not bring the expected little marzipan piglet.

    Indeed, many traditions simply “run in the family”, and are not the universal and universally central part of, e.g., a Christmas celebration that a child might think. I recall visiting another family at a young age, thanking for dinner like my parents had taught me, and being highly confused when their daughter laughed at me. With hindsight, I cannot blame her: The phrase, “tack för maten och kamraten” (roughly “thanks for the food and the friend”), makes no sense, and is likely something my parents just found to be a funny rhyme—it is certainly not something I can recall having heard anywhere else.

    Even those traditions that go beyond the family can still be comparatively limited, e.g. to a geographical area. Christmas it self has no global standard (even apart from the differentiation into the “Christ is born” and “time for presents and Christmas trees/decorations/food” celebrations). There are, for instance, weird, barbaric countries where they celebrate on the 25th and eat Christmas turkey instead of doing the civilized thing and celebrating on the 24th with Christmas ham. The “Modern Family” episode dealing with the first joint U.S.–Columbian Christmas gives several interesting examples, and demonstrates well how one set of traditions can be weird-bordering-on-freakish to followers of another set of traditions.

  2. Traditions, even those that are nation wide, can be comparably short-lived. Christmas, again, is a great source of examples, with even e.g. the Christmas trees and Santa Clause being comparatively modern introductions, especially in countries that they have spread to secondarily. One of the most important Swedish traditions, for instance, is Disney’s From All of Us to All of You*—first airing in 1960 and becoming a virtually instant tradition, often topping the list of most watched programs of the year.

    *While this might seem extremely surprising, it can pay to bear in mind that Swedish children were starved for animation for most of the remaining year, making the yearly showing the more special. Also note the slow development of Swedish TV, with the original broadcast taking place in a one-channel system, and a two-channel system being in place until well into the 1980s—implying that the proportion of children (and adults) watching was inevitably large. That a TV broadcast of a movie or similar becomes a tradition is, obviously, not without precedent, even if rarely to that degree, with e.g. “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street” being prominent U.S. examples; and e.g. “Dinner for One” being a New Year’s example in several European countries.

    The entire concept of the U.S.-style Halloween is another interesting example, even when looking just at the U.S. and children (related historical traditions notwithstanding), but the more so when we look at adult dress-ups or the expansion to other countries, including going from zero to something semi-big in Germany within, possibly, the last ten to fifteen years. Fortunately, we are not yet at the point where we have to worry about children knocking on doors and demanding candy, but this might just be a question of time.

    Many traditions, in a somewhat wider sense, are even bound to the relatively short eras of e.g. a certain technology or other external circumstance. Consider, again, TV*: It only became a non-niche phenomenon in the 1950s (possibly even 1960s in Sweden); it was the worlds most dominant medium and one of the most important technologies by the 1980s, at the latest; and by 2017 its demise within possibly as little as a decade seems likely, with the Internet already having surpassed it for large parts of the population. By implication, most traditions that somehow involve a TV can safely be assumed to measure their lives in no more than decades. (Often far less, since many will fall into the “runs in the family” category.) If I ever have children and grand-children (living in Sweden), will they watch “From All of Us to All of You”, punctually at 3 P.M. on December 24th? The children might; but the grand-children almost certainly will not—there is unlikely to even be a broadcast in the current sense. (And even if one exists, the competition from other entertainment might be too large.) Looking in the other direction, my parents might have, but my grand-parents (as children) certainly did not—even TV, it self, was no more than a foreign experiment (and the program did not exist).

    *It is a little depressing, how many traditions in my family have revolved around food and TV—and I doubt that we were exceptional.

    Similarly, how is a traditional cup of coffee made? Well, for most of my life, in both Germany and Sweden, my answer would have been to put a filter in the machine, coffee in the filter, water in the tank, and then press the power button—for a drip brew. However, the pre-dominance of this mode of preparation (even in its areas of popularity) has been short, possibly starting in the 1970s and already being overtaken by various other (often proprietary) technologies like the Nespresso or the Dolce Gusto. The dominant rule might have been less than 30, certainly less than 40 years. Before that, other technologies were more popular, and even outright boiling of coffee in a stove pot might have been the standard within living memory*. Possibly, the next generation will see “my” traditional cup of coffee as an exotic oddity; while the preceding generations might have seen it as a new-fangled is-convenient-but-not-REAL-coffee.

    *My maternal grand-mother (and several other family members) was heavily involved with the Salvation Army. For the larger quantities of coffee needed for their gatherings, she boiled coffee as late as, possibly, the 1990s. While I do not really remember the taste in detail, there was certainly nothing wrong with it—and it certainly beats the Senseo I experimented with some ten years ago.

All of this runs contrary to normal connotations of a tradition—something very lengthy and, preferably, widely practiced. Such traditions certainly exist; going to church on Sunday being a prime example, stretching over hundreds of years and, until the last few decades, most of the population of dozens of countries. However, when we normally speak of traditions, it really does tend to be something more short-lived and more localized. I have e.g. heard adults speak of the “tradition” of dining at a certain restaurant when visiting a certain city—after just several visits… (It could, obviously, be argued that this is just sloppy use of language; however, even if I agreed, it would not change the underlying points.)

Excursion on other areas and nationalism:
Of course, these phenomena are not limited to traditions, but can also include e.g. national or other group characteristics. A common fear among Swedish nationalists (with similarities in other countries) concern the disappearance of the Swedish “identity” (or similar)—but what is this identity? More to the point, is the identity that I might perceive in 2017 the same that one of my parents or grand-parents might have perceived in 1967? Great-grand-parents in 1917? There have been a lot of changes not just in traditions, since then, but also in society, education, values, wealth, work environments, spare time activities (not to mention amount of spare time…), etc., and, to me, it borders on the inconceivable that the image of “identity” has remained the same when we jump 50 or 100 years*. Or look, by analogy, at the descriptions of the U.S. “generations”: While these are, obviously, generalizations and over-simplifications, it is clear that even the passing of a few decades can lead to at least a severely modified “identity”.

*Looking at reasonably modern times. In older times, with slower changes, this was might have been different. (I use “might”, because a lot can happen in such a time frame; and, at least in historical times, there was always something going on over such time intervals, be it war, plague, religious schisms, …, that potentially could have lead to similar variations.)

I strongly suspect that what some nationalists fear is actually losing the familiar and/or what matches a childhood impression: When I think back on Sweden, I often have an idealized image dominated by youthful memories, and this is usually followed with a wish to preserve something like that for eternity, the feeling that this is how the world should be, and this is what everyone should be allowed to experience. While I am rational enough to understand both that this idealized image never matched reality, even back then, and that it there are many other idealized images that would be equally worthy or unworthy, I can still very well understand those who draw the wrong conclusions and would make the preservation a too high priority.


Written by michaeleriksson

December 24, 2017 at 7:37 pm

A paradoxical problem with school

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An interesting paradoxical effect of the current school system is that it simultaneously prevents children from being children and from developing into adults.

The resolution to this paradox is obviously that positive parts of “being children” are suppressed while the negative parts are enforced and prolonged. (Consider also the similar differentiation into child-like and child-ish human characteristics.)

Children in school are severely hindered in (sometimes even prevented from) just enjoying life, playing, walking around in nature, exercising the child’s curiosity, … At the same time, they are being taught just to do what they are told without thinking for themselves or to taking own initiatives, removed from any true responsibility, kept with other children instead of with adults*, … Play and similar activities, when they do occur, are often restricted and “organized fun”. The positive part of being a child is now curtailed around six or seven years of age; the negative is often prolonged into the “children’s” twenties, when they leave college** and get their first jobs—often even moving away from mother for the first time… In contrast, in other times, it was not at all unlikely for teenagers to already have formed families of their own, having children of their own, working at the same tasks as the rest of the adults, etc.***

*Cf. brief earlier discussions on what type of models and examples are presented to children.

**I stress that this is only partially due to the prolonging of studies per se: The more dangerous part is possibly the increasing treatment of college students as children. Cf. e.g. any number of online articles on the U.S. college system, or how Germany has increasingly switched to mandatory-presence lectures in the wake of the Bologna process. (The latter is doubly bad, because it not only reduces the need to take own responsibility, etc.—it also imposes an inefficient way of studying.)

***Indeed, I very, very strongly suspect that the explanation for many of the conflicts between teenagers and their parents are rooted in humans being built for this scenario, with the teenager having a biological drive to assume an adult role and the parent still seeing a little child. Similarly, that some teenagers (especially female ones) treat romantic failures as the end of the world is no wonder—once upon a time it could have been: Today, the boy-friend at age 15 will usually turn out to be a blip on the radar screen—in other times, he was quite likely to be the future (or even current…) father of her children. Similarly, starting over at 17 might have meant that “all the good ones are taken”.

If we compare two twenty-somethings that only* differ in that the one spent his whole life until now in school and the other went through some mix of home-schooling and early work-experience, not even going to college—who will be the more mature, have the better social skills, have more life experience, whatnot? Almost certainly the latter. Of course, the graduate will have other advantages, but it is not a given that they outweigh the disadvantages in the short** term. Why not try to combine the best of both worlds, with a mixture of studies (preferably more independent and stimulating studies) and work*** from an earlier age?

*This is a very important assumption, for the simple reason that if we just pick an average college graduate and an average non-graduate, there are likely to be systematic differences of other types, notably in I.Q. I am not suggesting that non-graduates are automatically superior to graduates.

**In the long term, the graduate will probably catch up—but would he be better off than someone who worked five years after high school and then went to college?

***Here we could run into trouble with child-labor laws. However, these should then possibly be re-evaluated: They are good in as far as they protect children from abuse, unwarranted exploitation, and health dangers; they are bad in as far as they hinder the child’s journey to an adult. I have also heard claimed (but have not investigated the correctness) that such laws had more to do with enabling schooling than they did with child-protection. To the degree that this holds true, they certainly become a part of the problem.

To boot, schooling often gives an incorrect impression of how the world works in terms of e.g. performance and reward. In school, do your work well and you get a reward (a gold star, an “A”, whatnot); in the work-force, things can be very, very different. Want to get a raise? Then ask for a raise—and give convincing arguments as to why you are worth it. The fact that you have done a good job is sometimes enough; however, most of the time, an employer will simply enjoy your work at the lowest salary he can get away with—why should he spend more money to get the same thing? Similarly, where a teacher will have access to test results and other semi-objective/semi-reliable explicit measures of accomplishment, such measures are rarely available to employers. For that matter, if your immediate superior knows that you do a good job, is he the one setting your pay? Chances are that the decision makers simply do not know whether you are doing a good job—unless you convince them.

At the same time, we must not forget that “being children” is also potentially valuable to the children’s development—it is not just a question of having fun and being lazy. On the one hand, we have to consider the benefit of keeping e.g. curiosity alive and not killing it (as too often is the case in school); on the other, there is much for children to learn on their own (at least for those so inclined). As a child, I probably learned more from private reading and TV documentaries than I did in school even as it were—what if I had less school and more spare time? Chances are that I would have seen a net gain in my learning… I am not necessarily representative for children in general, but there are many others like me, and at a minimum this points to the problems with a “one size fits all” approach to school.

Or look specifically at play: An interesting aspect of play is that it is a preparation for adult life, and in some sense “play” equals “training”. It is true that the adult life of today is very different from in, say, the neolithic, but there are many aspects of this training that can still be relevant, including team work, cooperation, leadership, conflict resolution, …—not to mention the benefits of being in better shape through more exercise. These are all things that schools like to claim that they train, but either do not or do so while failing miserably. Chances are that play would do a better job—and even if it does not, it would approach the job differently and thereby still give a benefit. As an additional twist, I strongly suspect that the more active and physical “boy’s play” has suffered more than “girl’s play” in terms of availability, which could contribute to the problems boys and young men of today have. I have definitely read several independent articles claiming that the ADHD epidemic is better cured with more play and an understanding of boys’ needs than with Ritalin (and find the claim reasonable, seeing that ADHD, or an unnamed equivalent, was only a marginal phenomenon in the past).

Excursion on myself:
While I (born in 1975) pre-date the normal border for the “millennial” generation, I have seen a number of problems in my own upbringing and early personality that match common complaints* about millenials or even post-millenials—and for very similar reasons. For instance, I left high school without a clue about adult behavior, responsibilities, skills, …, having never been forced to confront these areas and having never been given much relevant instruction**, be it in school or at home. Once in college, this started to change, notably with regard to own responsibility, but not in every regard. Had I not left the country as an exchange student, thereby being forced to fend for myself in a number of new ways, I would almost certainly have entered the work-force in the state of preparation associated with the millenials. What I know about being an adult, I have mostly learned on my own with only marginal help from school and family***/****—and almost all of it since moving away from home at age nineteen… My sister, length of education excepted, followed an even more millennial path, with even less responsibility at home, a far longer time living with her mother, whatnot, and, as far as I can judge, still has not managed to shake the millennial way—at age forty. Making own decisions and living with the consequences, taking responsibility for oneself or others, not relying on parents to help, understanding from own experience that the world and its population is not perfect, …, these are all things that truly matter to personal development and ability to be an adult—and it is far better to gradually learn to cope from an early age than to be thrown out into the cold as a twenty-something.

*I stress that these complaints can be too generalizing and/or fail to consider the effects of being younger, in general, as opposed to specifically millennial; further, that the problems that do exist are not necessarily equally large everywhere.

**We did have variations on the “home economics” theme, but there was little or no content that I have found to be of relevance to my adult life. To boot, these classes came much too early, with many years going by between the point where (what little there were of) skills were taught and when they would have become relevant to my life—so early that I would still have had to re-learn the contents to gain a benefit. That home-economics teachers are pretty much the bottom of the barrel even among teachers certainly did not help.

***In all fairness, it is not a given that I, personally and specifically, would have been receptive had e.g. my mother tried to give me more advice than she did. This should not serve as an excuse for other parents, however. Other aspects, like having to fend more for myself at an earlier date would have been easily doable—even had I not enjoyed it at the time.

****Sadly, much of what I did pick up from my mother were things that I, in light of later own experiences, ended up disagreeing with, either because of different preferences or because it was not a good idea to begin with.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 22, 2017 at 7:38 pm

A review of the new WordPress/Automattic Privacy Policy

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A few days ago, I received an email that WordPress (more correctly, Automattic) was changing its Privacy Policy*. Fearing the worst, in the light of the unconscionable behavior of e.g. Facebook, I decided to review it. The results were depressing, although I have not investigated what was already present and what has changed for the worse: While it is not as bad as what Facebook does, it still leaves the user with minimal protections and reliant on WordPress/Automattic not engaging in abuse.

*I use initial caps for consistency with the (spurious) use in the analyzed text.

Below I will quote some selected parts (in the original order) and offer some analysis*:

*The policy can be found under https://automattic.com/privacy at the moment; however, these contents can naturally change over time. The policy is under the Creative Commons Sharealike 4.0 License, making re-use unproblematic; however, I see my use as covered under “Fair Use” and similar principles, and do not “copy-left” this post under that license. Some change of formatting and typography might have taken place.

This is our updated Privacy Policy going into effect on January 3, 2018.

(Provided for identification purposes only.)

Your privacy is critically important to us. At Automattic, we have a few fundamental principles:

We are thoughtful about the personal information we ask you to provide and the personal information that we collect about you through the operation of our services.
We store personal information for only as long as we have a reason to keep it.
We aim to make it as simple as possible for you to control what information on your website is shared publicly (or kept private), indexed by search engines, and permanently deleted.
We help protect you from overreaching government demands for your personal information.
We aim for full transparency on how we gather, use, and share your personal information.

A very promising start and a laudable attitude, provided that they actually adhere to it. Now, I raise no accusation concerning the actual use, here or below, for the simple reason that I do not know what actually happens with the data. However, in the continuation Automattic gives it self far-going rights that are not compatible with these principles, which raises considerable doubt as to the adherence—if they do not use these far-going rights, why collect them? Even without such rights, there is considerable reason to be cautious: Words are cheap and all-too-many websites abuse customer data in an inexcusable manner. The strength of a Privacy Policy, or e.g. a set of laws, must not be measured under the assumption of good intent and high competence.

Throughout this Privacy Policy we’ll refer to our website, mobile applications and other products and services collectively as “Services.”

(Given for interpretation only.)

Please note that this Privacy Policy does not apply to any of our products or services that have a separate privacy policy.

This is largely understandable, but it is opens a large opportunity for abuse, through simply smuggling in a more specific and less acceptable Privacy Policy while hoping that the users consider themselves under the general Privacy Policy. Even deliberate abuse aside, it makes it harder for the users to know what rules apply for any given service. (Giving a universal rule for how to handle this is impossible, seeing that there is virtually no limit to the constellations to consider; however, a basic guide-line would be to keep the general everywhere and to amend it as needed for the specific service under adherence to the “fundamental principles” stated above.)

We only collect information about you if we have a reason to do so—for example, to provide our Services, to communicate with you, or to make our Services better.

Looks good, but is an almost empty promise: “to make our Services better” alone is enough of an excuse for many service providers to gather any and all data they can get their hands on. At the same time, “to communicate with you”, in my personal experience, is usually code for “to spam you”.

We collect information in three ways: if and when you provide information to us, automatically through operating our services, and from outside sources.

These items are all too vague. For instance, does “you provide” include just what is entered in (in my case) the WordPress account or can it include data gathered from email communications? The “automatically through operating our services” is to some degree unavoidable, but can at the same time be abused in absurd ways, e.g. to build irrelevant and unethical profiles, including e.g. sleeping habits. The part about “outside sources” opens a limitless room for abuse. Combine these three claims, and we are not far from Facebook.

In the continuation the Privacy Policy provides a number of examples of what data can be collected and how. If these examples were exhaustive, it would alleviate the risk of abuse somewhat—but they are not. There are also enough examples remaining that range from slightly dubious to highly problematic.

Consider e.g.:

  1. Content Information: Depending on the Services you use, you may also provide us with information about you in the draft and published content for your website. For example, if you write a blog post that includes biographic information about you, we will have that information, and so will anyone with access to the Internet, if you choose to publish the post publicly.

    Depending on what is intended this is either trivial or harmless—or a sign that there is intention to make automatic evaluations. This might be OK for the actually published* content, but hardly for drafts. Indeed, even if they do have the technical ability to access drafts, they should be ethically or even legally forbidden from doing so**. Note that drafts can contain things that are simply not intended to reach third-parties, be it at all or at the current time. (Consider e.g. a whistle-blower intending to get out of harms way and then to publish a series of posts; or a homosexual having already written a draft with a “coming out” statement, which is waiting for a known-to-disapprove grand-parent to pass away.) Also note that even non-malicious access can increase the risk of inadvertently leaking information to other third parties, e.g. through a security hole or a lack of care***.

    *However, even here there should be some type of restriction, equivalent at least to the restrictions websites can state (but not enforce) through the Robots exclusion standard.

    **Except to the degree that an access is in the immediate service of the user, e.g. to allow him to edit the draft. (A general problem with the analyzed text is that it does not clearly differ between widely separate purposes, e.g. access and storage by the user through the service vs. access by the service provider independent of the user. This limits the analysis somewhat.)

    ***There have e.g. been a number of occurrences of confidential data being accidentally uploaded to servers freely accessible on the Internet without authentication and encryption. (Or possibly servers being accidentally made accessible post-upload—the result is the same.)

  2. Credentials: Depending on the Services you use, you may provide us with credentials for your website (like SSH, FTP, and SFTP username and password). For example, Jetpack and VaultPress users may provide us with these credentials in order to use our one-click restore feature if there is a problem with their site, or to allow us to troubleshoot problems on their site more quickly.

    With reservations for rare special cases, is is a horrifyingly bad idea to hand out such data to third-parties. Requiring such data, including providing services that require such data, is unethical; a user who complies is negligent.

  3. Log Information: Like most online service providers, we collect information that web browsers, mobile devices, and servers typically make available, such as the browser type, IP address, unique device identifiers, language preference, referring site, the date and time of access, operating system, and mobile network information. We collect log information when you use our Services—for example, when you create or make changes to your website on WordPress.com.

    The extent of data collected is too large, violating the principle of parsimony in data collection and bringing no or little legitimate benefit. Even browser information is highly dubious, seeing that a good site should work equally well with any browser; operating system is simply non of their business (and a correctly configured browser should hide such information anyway). Parts can be outright illegal in some countries*.

    *For instance, saving a non-anonymized IP address in Germany.

  4. Usage Information: We collect information about your usage of our Services. For example, we collect information about the actions that site administrators and users perform on a site—in other words, who did what, when and to what thing on a site (e.g., [WordPress.com username] deleted “” at [time/date]). We also collect information about what happens when you use our Services (e.g., page views, support document searches at en.support.wordpress.com, button clicks) along with information about your device (e.g., mobile screen size, name of cellular network, and mobile device manufacturer). We use this information to, for example, provide our Services to you, as well as get insights on how people use our Services, so we can make our Services better.

    Location Information: We may determine the approximate location of your device from your IP address. We collect and use this information to, for example, calculate how many people visit our Services from certain geographic regions. We may also collect information about your precise location via our mobile apps (when, for example, you post a photograph with location information) if you allow us to do so through your mobile device operating system’s permissions.

    Similar objections apply: Parts can be acceptable; others are definitely not so.

  5. Stored Information: We may access information stored on your mobile device via our mobile app. […]

    This is utterly and entirely unacceptable and grossly unethical. I do not use mobile apps (hardly mobile devices, for that matter), but if I did, this would be an immediate call for me to purge my devices of any and all apps underlying this Privacy Policy. I urge the readers to do the same.

  6. Information from Cookies & Other Technologies: [simplistic descriptions of cookies et al.] Automattic uses cookies and other technologies like pixel tags to help us identify and track visitors, usage, and access preferences for our Services, as well as track and understand e-mail campaign effectiveness and to deliver targeted ads. […]

    The use it self is highly disputable; email campaigns (aka spam) are unethical; targeted* ads at best ethically dubious and requiring unethical profile building.

    *In today’s Internet, the use of advertising in general might be called into question: The excesses of amount and intrusion have reached a point where an ad blocker and/or a blanket ban on images/Flash/JavaScript/whatnot per browser setting is a necessity. When it comes to advertising-driven “free” content, I apply the German phrase “Geschenkt ist noch zu teuer”—“Too expensive, even when gifted”.

  7. We may also get information about you from other sources. For example, if you create or log into your WordPress.com account through another service (like Google) or if you connect your website or account to a social media service (like Twitter) through our Publicize feature, we will receive information from that service (such as your username, basic profile information, and friends list) via the authorization procedures used by that service. The information we receive depends on which services you authorize and any options that are available.

    This is another unethical, Facebook-style, idiocy. The disclaimer about “The information we receive depends on which services you authorize and any options that are available.” might be OK if sufficient options are available and presented to the users in a reasonable manner (and/or default to “no sharing”)—but will they be? Worse, these controls are with yet another party, and now the user has to trust several parties to be both honest and competent… I urge all readers to turn any such settings off and to never engage in such “cross-site” activities. (I use a whole separate computer account for WordPress, e.g.)

  8. We may also get information from third party services about individuals who are not yet our users (…but we hope will be!), which we may use, for example, for marketing and advertising purposes.

    Doubly unethical: Firstly, this implies that individuals who have had no opportunity to read and accept/decline this Privacy Policy are affected by it. Secondly, the intended use at best amounts to ethically dubious advertising—at worst to outright spam.

A following section on (alleged) use is mostly OK, but contains:

To communicate with you about offers and promotions offered by Automattic and others we think will be of interest to you, solicit your feedback, or keep you up to date on Automattic and our products; and To personalize your experience using our Services, provide content recommendations and serve relevant advertisements.

The first amounts to spam; the second is again in the area of ethically dubious advertising. To boot, looking at WordPress (and almost any other service or software tool I have ever used), automatic personalization has no place and does/would do more harm than good: By all means, provide new options and ways of doing things—but let the user be in complete control of the choice whether to use them.

The following section on information sharing is, again, mostly OK, even if some of the talk of third-parties is on the vague side*; however, it contains at least two problematic items:

*The applicable use cases are reasonable and the third parties are required to adhere to the same rules as Automattic, but there is uncomfortably much room for third-party involvement. Note that the more parties are involved, the greater the risk that data are maliciously used, carelessly exposed to the public, or stolen through a security hole.

Aggregated and De-Identified Information: We may share information that has been aggregated or reasonably de-identified, so that the information could not reasonably be used to identify you. For instance, we may publish aggregate statistics about the use of our Services.

The given example is OK, as is, likely, aggregation in general; however, the “reasonably de-identified” is not: This allows handing out data in a per-user manner, and what is considered de-identified by Automattic need not actually be so. It is, in fact, very hard to remove the possibility to track back a non-trivial amount of data to a single individual. (I have no references at my hand, but I point more generally to discussions around the Germany census of 2011 for more information.) To illustrate the problems (without necessarily saying that this scenario would occur with Automattic) assume that I was blogging anonymously and had never made much mention of personal details, except that I was Swedish. Combine this with an IP address coming from Wuppertal, Germany, and this alone could be enough to nail me down. At any rate, there would be no more than a handful of potential candidates, and just one or two pieces of additional data would be enough to clear the others. So, OK, my being Swedish makes me more vulnerable than a German, but, critically, not by much: This amounts to a game of “twenty questions” and where two questions was enough above, a German posting from Germany might have been identified with, possibly, another five to ten*… Correspondingly, non-trivial amounts of non-aggregated data simply should not be exposed to third-parties.

*Consider the rapid reductions of the set of candidates that can occur through knowing not only place of residence but place of birth, alma mater, a previous employer, …

Published Support Requests: And if you send us a request (for example, via a support email or one of our feedback mechanisms), we reserve the right to publish that request in order to help us clarify or respond to your request or to help us support other users.

Such requests can contain information not suited for publication (and it would be insane to trust customer support with such decisions), and it is an unambiguous ethical duty to either collect a specific agreement for any individual such publication or to paraphrase and anonymize the text and other data to such a degree that no problems can occur*. To boot, there is a risk of outright abuse, e.g. in that someone writes a scathing complaint in anger or feigned** anger (which would be very understandable with WordPress), and that this complaint is then republished out-of-context by the service provider for revenge purposes.

*This is also recommendable because the original text can contain much that is irrelevant to the core issue and other users are helped by a corresponding filtering.

**I repeat my recommendation to take a hard line against incompetent support staff and uncooperative businesses, and to use increasingly harsher language during escalations so that it actually registers that customer dissatisfaction cannot just be shrugged off.

Various other items:

While no online service is 100% secure, we work very hard to protect information about you against unauthorized access, use, alteration, or destruction, and take reasonable measures to do so.

Specifically WordPress is known to be highly problematic from a security point of view—and to large parts for reasons that code be avoided were Automattic doing a better job. This includes a better thought-through interface with greater consistency and less useless features, less reliance on JavaScript*, and, obviously, better code. Words are cheap.

*While JavaScript is always dangerous to some degree, it can become very highly problematic when third-party content is present, even in such a trivial situation like browsing ones own blog and encountering hostile or misprogrammed comments or ads.

To enhance the security of your account, we encourage you to enable our advanced security settings, like Two Step Authentication.

In many cases, such statements contain an implicit “and if you do not, we will assume that any breach was your fault and wash our hands”. (Whether this applies to Automattic, I simply do not know; however, I note that this, and a few other statements, are not part of anything that reasonably could be called “policy”, leaving the suspicion that the true purpose is not to state policy but e.g. to reduce or shift legal culpability.)

At this time, Automattic does not respond to “do not track” signals across all of our Services. However, you can usually choose to set your browser to remove or reject browser cookies before using Automattic’s websites, with the drawback that certain features of Automattic’s websites may not function properly without the aid of cookies.

Not respecting “do not track” is weak for a service provider with so large resources. Making a complex service without cookies can be hard, but it is usually possible, and some of the uses on at least WordPress are of negative value. For instance, when I try to confirm a comment subscription not made with my WordPress account, using the provided link, WordPress steps in, matches it with my WordPress session, and refuses the confirmation, claiming that it does not know the email address used for the subscription—thereby forcing me to use another browser for such confirmations. Utterly, utterly idiotic and amateurish.

Automattic encourages visitors to frequently check this page for any changes to its Privacy Policy.

Unacceptable: People have better things to do than over and over again visiting any Privacy Policy, T & C, whatnot, that any of the multitude of online services provide. It is Automattic’s job to gather consent for any and all changes. Anything else is ridiculous and unrealistic. (But, unfortunately, this follows a current destructive trend of various businesses doing their darnedest to make consent to various conditions more-or-less automatic and actual access to said conditions as hard as possible. This even outside the Internet, where I have e.g. received notifications from banks that amount to “Our conditions have changed. The conditions are available in our offices. If you do not object to the changes by X, this is considered consent.”—utterly unconscionable, especially since the changes normally would have fit in the notification message at virtually no additional cost.)

Written by michaeleriksson

December 20, 2017 at 8:49 am

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A critical look at PISA

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A few weeks ago, I downloaded a PDF with sample questions from the 2012 PISA math test*; today, finally got around to look at it.

*Linked to and discussed in some article somewhere. I do not remember the details.

I find myself being highly critical, with my main beef being the excessive amounts of irrelevant text, and the associated lack of abstraction and clarity. Consider e.g. the first problem group (“MEMORY STICK”) with formulations like:

Ivan has a memory stick that stores music and photos.


Ivan wants to transfer a photo album of 350 MB onto his memory stick


During the following weeks, Ivan deletes some photos and music, but also adds new files of photos and music.


His brother gives him a new memory stick with a capacity of 2GB (2000 MB), which is totally empty. Ivan transfers the content of his old memory stick onto the new one.


Not only are such formulations patronizing, more-or-less calling the test taker a child to his face, but they and the unduly concrete formulations distract from the actual math, hide the math, and introduce a too large aspect of reading comprehension*: A math test should test math ability—not reading comprehension**. This in particular when it comes to a test that could put students under time or other pressure, where the translation from text to math could prove to be a stress factor for many of them. To boot, there is at least a risk that the results are misleading through blending out the ability to handle abstract problems. “2 = 2 = ?” is a math problem; “Jack has two cookies and Jill has two cookies. How many cookies do they have in sum***?” is not.

*Likely also other irrelevant factors relating to the translation from text to math.

**I similarly recall once buying a book with mathematical and similar puzzles, likely by Martin Gardner, and ending up throwing it away: Not because the puzzles were to hard, but because I had to waste too much time wading through a sea of text to isolate the handful of data that actual was relevant to the respectively problem—boring and without an intellectual challenge. Only afterwards could I focus on solving the problem, which was what I wanted to do. This is very much like trying to watch a DVD and finding that the actual movie cannot be started before a number of copyright warnings, mandatory trailers, animated menus, …, have wasted several minutes of the viewer’s time.

***As an aside, I saw a similar formulation in a different context, for a younger audience, but using “[…] do they both have”. This is a good example of how incompetent question makers can ruin a question: The expected-by-the-question-maker answer would be four; the correct answer in the most reasonable textual interpretation is zero—there are no cookies that they both have.

Of course, there are many instances where a corresponding translation is needed in a practical situation; however, such translations are mostly not very hard and they tend to differ from the textual for at least two reasons: Firstly, in a practical situation the problem solver picks the relevant facts out of the practical situation—not out of a text by someone else describing the practical situation. To boot, the texts for “math” problems like these tend to not describe practical situations—just theoretical situations someone has translated into practical terms in a simplistic manner. Secondly, the view of a practical situation can often make aspects of the problem, thought errors*, unexpected complications, whatnot, obvious that are not so in a text.

*A good example of such obvious thought errors is one of the few problems I got wrong: “The ice-cream shop”, question 3. The question requires placing sets of chairs and tables within a shaded area, under a constraint regarding the walls of the surrounding room. Being in too much hurry, I just focused on the shaded area without considering that the walls did not coincide with its borders. This error would, admittedly, have been easy to avoid, had I taken my time—but it would have been virtually impossible to commit when standing in the physical room. This type of textual problem differs in quality from a real-life problems (to more than the roughest approximation), in a manner similar to how e.g. racing a car in a computer game differs from doing so in real life.

An added disadvantage of these text-heavy problems is “cultural loading [bias, whatnot]”*: The text introduces opportunities for such problems that would otherwise not be present, especially in light of potentially suboptimal translations (also cf. below).

*I am normally skeptical to complaints in this area, seeing that e.g. I.Q. tests tend to be abstract; that cultural knowledge tends to lower differences between groups, through adding an irrelevant factor; and that the cultural difference from test taker to test taker is usually comparatively low to begin with. Here we have a test intended for extensive global use, where little or no effort has been put in eliminating cultural variations, where there is an additional severe translation complication—and where the very point of the test is to compare and evaluate different countries! (Whereas e.g. I.Q. tests are conceived to compare and evaluate individuals.)

Some more specific criticisms:

  1. A few the items come with translation notes (the document being intended more for test makers and test administrators than test takers). However, there is typically no obvious reason why a specific point has a translation note and so many others do not. Worse, the translation notes are often highly specific, e.g. referring to translation into French (but not German or Swahili)*. To me, these notes mostly serve as a proof that the test is suboptimal.

    *For instance, `Translation Note: In French, “penguin” is “manchot”.’ Do they consider specifically French translators to be idiots? Is there some (unmentioned) odd complication around penguins in French? (If so, are there really no other language with the same problem?) Of course, if the questions had been made abstract, there would be no need to mention penguins in any language…

  2. There are quite a few unfortunate formulations that could lead to unnecessary errors—and one where the formulation is outright incorrect: “Question 4: MP3 PLAYERS” states “The normal selling price of the MP3 items includes a profit of 37.5%.”, which would normally mean that 37.5% of the overall price is the profit. However, what is actually meant is that the price includes a mark-up, not a profit, of 37.5%. It is true that a later sentence claims “The profit is calculated as a percentage of the wholesale price.”, referring to the same profit; however, in combination, this is an extremely non-standard usage and in order to take this into consideration, the reader basically has to ignore the fact that he has a clear claim. A reasonably analogy would be a question claiming “a gin-and-tonic includes 37.5% gin” and then slapping on a “the percentage is relative the amount of tonic”. To boot, even a careful reader would not necessarily make the corresponding modification, because it would be equally conceivable that the several uses of “profit” referred to different concepts*. (This was another question I got “wrong”; however, unlike with the “ice-cream shop”, I put the blame on the test makers.)

    *E.g. in a scenario of “Given the profit (as a percentage of the selling price), give the profit (as a percentage of the wholesale price).”, incidentally showing that it would be better to use “profit” for the amount only, and otherwise speak of e.g. “profit margin”.

  3. “CHARTS” uses a poorly structured and hard-to-read diagram* as data input. Coloring, spacing, and lining contribute to introducing an entirely unnecessary complication; it can even be disputed whether this type of diagram was suitable for the data at hand**. Being able to read a diagram is a valuable skill, but here it is not just a matter of understanding how to read data from the diagram in principle—there is also an optical complication that made my eyes water.

    *Generally, the examples using some type of excel-style diagrams give an argument that such diagrams are more-often-than-not inferior to a table with the same data: Save diagrams for complex data where the visual can truly help in detecting trends and connections—do not throw them together willy-nilly because “diagrams are cool”.

    **A bar chart; a line chart would would likely have been more appropriate. It can also be disputed whether it really made sense to combine all four entities in one chart, or whether one chart per entity would have been better. (Assuming that we do not use a proper table to begin with…)

  4. At least question 5 of “CHARTS” is ambiguous through the talk of a “trend” that “continues”: When we speak of a continuation, it is the question what continues. Here we deal with diminishing CD sales, and in a real-life scenario, it would be highly likely that a continuing trend would be measured by a percentage (e.g. sales diminishing by twenty percent per month) or otherwise be measured relative the remaining sales; however, looking at the previous data, from which the extrapolation must be made, it appears to be more of a fix drop. (The instructions for the test administrator do indeed speak of a “linear trend”.) When extrapolating a trend, however, a model is needed, and it is highly simplistic to just assume e.g. a linear trend—even when a handful of data points point towards an approximately linear relationship. There are other models that might match the data, especially when factoring in the risk of a diagram distorting the data ever so slightly.*

    *Indeed, using my original numerical approach, with approximate read-outs, I repeatedly landed above 400 (compared to 370 as the allegedly correct answer), on at least one occasion close to 500. (Note that this is still close enough that I would have picked the right option from the multiple-choice entries.) Only after using a knife to approximate a straight line from A to B did I find 370 acceptable. However, even this is approximate, because I had to guess where the crossing line for July was… (Note: I am unaware of the equipment available to the test takers. If graded rulers are allowed, better “measurements” are possible, and correspondingly better outputs are to be expected—but at a cost of boring detail work that would have been unnecessary, had the test makers had the common sense to use a table of data instead of a diagram…

  5. “Question 2: PENGUINS” is extremely naively modeled and/or poorly formulated, to the point that a bright* student could** get caught up in time-consuming speculation about the correct-yet-unrealistic assumptions to make. The hitch lies in “By the end of the year 20% of all the penguins (adults and chicks) will die.”: The eventually needed model assumes that the deaths will all occur at the end of the year (or at least after the other main event of the year, the raising of a chick), which is entirely unrealistic. In reality, deaths will occur through-out the year. Had the formulation been “At the end of the year […]” this would have been OK—unrealistic, but without ambiguity. However, this is not the formulation used. Now, the formulation used is inconsistent and ambiguous, and the “at” interpretation is a quite reasonable way to resolve the issue—but it is not the only way: The resolution could equally be “[…] will have died.”, which is consistent with a more realistic model and is what would be expected, were we dealing with a real-life penguin situation. Unfortunately, with this resolution the problem becomes under-determined…

    *The less bright tend not to see such complications, which can be to their advantage when it comes to simplistic tests—but to their disadvantage (and science’s…) when they try to become scientists.

    **As was I, but I had the leisure of not being under time pressure; and have enough knowledge of poor test questions to come to the “right” conclusion fairly fast.

  6. “SAILING SHIPS” deals with a technology that seems dubious and/or where weird fictional data have been used to describe a real technology. The inclusion of an apparently actual trademark (“by skysails”) makes it outright shady—is this a commercial plug?

    Notably, the intention is to use a sail attached to a ship by a line, hovering considerably higher up than a regular sail, because “the wind speed is approximately 25% higher than down on the deck of the ship”. Now, this would probably imply a maximum of 1.25 * 1.25 = 1.5625 gain in “push” (both the number of air molecules hitting the sail and the average momentum of individual molecules increases by a factor of 1.25), but with a minimum that could be considerably lower, because the faster the ship goes the lesser the net air speed and the lesser the advantage. At the same time, one example seems to aim for a 45 degree angle, which would divide the force into components, with a proportion of 1/sqrt(2) going horizontally and the same (uselessly) vertically. We then have a maximum gain of 1.5625/sqrt(2) ~ 1.1: The 25% higher wind speed has resulted in a 10% improvement… Barring other advantages (e.g. the possibility to use greater sails) this is hardly worth the trouble. True, the 25% higher wind speed could still give a higher overall speed by more than 10%, because the positive force will only cease after the ship hits the wind speed; however, firstly a higher ship speed means a greater loss in terms of water and air resistance, secondly this technology is not intended for pure sailing ships, but as a help for diesel ships. If the data provided are realistic, I am puzzled as to what the actual point would be.

    Or take specifically question 4: A sail is here alleged to cost 2 500 000 zeds*, while diesel costs 0.42 zeds per liter, which implies (with some other assumptions made in the text) that the sail will pay for it self after 8.5 years! Compare this to the reasonably to be expected costs for regular sails and consider the risk that the sail has failed and needed replacement or extensive repairs before 8.5 years. Sigh… An online source gives the current price of diesel as “1-Dec-2017: The average price of diesel around the world is 0.99 U.S. Dollar per liter.”, from which we can give a rough Dollar estimate of the sail price as 5.9 million**—what the fuck?!?!

    *A fictional currency used for several examples.

    **2 500 000 zed * 0.99 dollars/liter / (0.42 zed/liter)

    (If I were to analyze the technology more thoroughly, as opposed to a test dealing with the technology, I would have additional objections and/or points needing clarification. How, e.g. is the sail handled during a storm without having to cut it loose, to a horrifying loss of money?)

I probably had more objections when going through the questions the first time around (with the purpose of solving the problems), but I have lost my energy here, being about half-way through on my second iteration (with the purpose of writing this post). There was definitely at least one case of “faster speed” or something in the same family, showing a conceptual confusion that no mathematician should underlie: A vehicle can be fast or slow, but its speed cannot; an item for sale can be cheap or expensive, but its price cannot; etc.

As a final note: There was a third question that I failed, namely “Question 2: REVOLVING DOOR” (i.e. the penultimate question). Lacking in concentration, I calculated (I hope, correctly) the linear width of the opening, but the question actually asked for the “arc length”. I take some comfort in the arc length being easier to calculate, but would of course still, correctly, have been marked down.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 17, 2017 at 12:40 am

A few thoughts on The Last Jedi (Star Wars Episode VIII)

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Having written a very negative review of the previous installment, I did something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago: I decided to not watch the latest “Star Wars” sequel: The Last Jedi.

Out of curiosity, I did read the Wikipedia page earlier today. A few notes:

  1. The plot does not appear to be an improvement over the previous movie or to add anything original. (I note that one of my criticisms of he Episode VII was too much imitation of the older movies.)
  2. Luke gets more screen time in this movie, but part of this screen time consists of his death…

    Already last time around, I wrote “this is a liberty that a non-Lucas movie should simply not have taken” with regard to Han’s death—and now they kill off Luke Skywalker!?!?! Watch your back, Santa Claus—you are next!

    Seeing that Carrie Fisher has died in real life, this movie is also likely the end of the line for Leia. With that, the remaining connection to the older movies is only Chewbacca and the droids. (Or do I overlook someone?)

    As to the screen-time issue, it is hard to judge the amount from Wikipedia, but I would speculate that Luke’s is still comparatively short. Leia “is incapacitated” early on and, while she reappears in the text towards the end, her part is likely quite small.

  3. A major plot-point appears to be a mental connection between Rey and Kyle, leading to them briefly becoming allies and Kyle killing Snoke instead of Rey*, extending mutual offers of “join me and …”, and then parting as enemies.

    *Paralleling Vader and his killing of the Emperor instead of Luke. Sigh…

    Not promising. I note that my review of Episode VII said

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

    This goes some way towards an “absurd surprise” in its own right, and it actually makes the sibling connection somewhat likely.

  4. Rey again beats Kyle in a fight, to which I re-iterate my criticism that

    The film-makers fail to understand that a villain that is too easy to defeat (and, vice versa, a hero that is too strong) is a liability. A good story has the hero winning despite being weaker, outnumbered, or otherwise having the odds against him/her. when the hero suddenly proves to be the stronger and the villain turns into an easy target (never mind a snivelling loser like Kylo)—that is just pointless.

As for the planet Ahch-To, I can only say “Gesundheit”.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 15, 2017 at 11:27 pm

A clarification of my opinions on schooling and education

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In my recent writings, I have noticed an apparent paradox that might confuse the recurring reader: On the one hand, I speak negatively about schooling; on the other, negatively about people with a weak(-ish) educational background. (Including concerning the U.S. Supreme Court.)

As with most paradoxes, it resolves it self with the proper understanding (cf. below); however, it is true that more or more advanced degrees are not an automatic proof of greater ability, and when we look at someone with dozens of years of experience and accomplishment in a field, the sum of that experience and accomplishment is almost always more important than degrees.

To resolve the apparent paradox, consider the following:

  1. Schooling and education are different things; I am very skeptical towards schooling, but a great fan of education; and one of my main objections is that the education system is too much school and too little education.
  2. The problems with the education system today were not always present in the past. Dumbing down, grade inflation, and the like, are paramount examples. When we compare degrees earned today with those earned degrees twenty, forty, or sixty years ago, the latter were usually (!) of greater value in terms of developing the degree holders and in filtering by ability*. That I criticize today’s degrees does not automatically imply a criticism of the degrees of yore.**

    *Notably, this filtering continues to make an important statement long after the degree holder has entered the work-force, even when what was learned has grown relatively less important, been forgotten, grown outdated, …

    **But I doubt that there has been a time when education was anywhere near perfect. By implication, going back to how it was will not make things perfect—merely better. There might even be some areas where the current system is better.

  3. While I am not a fan of what is happening with higher education, my criticism is the harsher the lower we go: For one thing, there is more to be salvaged* by the intelligent student on the post-graduate level than on the bachelor level than on the high-school level … than on the first-grade level. For another, the current negative trends of education have yet to be as pervasive in the higher reaches as in the lower.

    *Especially with regard to the difference between schooling and education.

  4. How much someone gains from advanced education depends much on the individual characteristics. On average, the very bright will see a much better effect than the less bright, making the investment the more worthwhile. (In the specific case of the Supreme Court, all its members should be among the very bright.)

    A caution must be added concerning the relative benefit of formal education vs. informal private studies and autodidactic activities (as well as formal research leading to a new degree vs. that being done as “part of the job”, and a few similar constellations). However, an unfortunate* disadvantage of private studies is that it is very hard for a third-party (and often the student too…) to judge what has actually been accomplished. With a degree there is some clarity.

    *I would love to have a magic fairy create me an academic degree for what I have learned outside of formal settings. I also regularly consider going back to earn an additional degree of some form (e.g. a Ph.D. to move beyond the master level or an “x of arts” degree to complement my “x of science” degrees), even though I know that I could learn the contents of the degree as well or better on my own. This partially through vanity (this is one area where I am not immune to it); partially through the pragmatical advantages of having stronger formal credentials.

Excursion on degrees with different grades:
An annoying complication when comparing degrees is that the requirements for merely passing are often quite weak, implying that not all degree holders have that solid a knowledge. Worse, I suspect that the clear majority does not have the understanding one would expect to be present. A much better approach, in my opinion, would be to grade everything on a pass/fail basis—with “pass” being the equivalent of a (pre-inflation) A! “A-students” would get through in the same tempo as today. “B-students” might need more time, but would leave with a more solid education. “C-students” and below would rarely graduate, not distort the meaning of a degree, not waste time and resources, …—usually discovering in the first or second term that they are not college material. (Something, unfortunately, hidden from them till the day they die, the current system.)

Excursion on the SCOTUS and education:
Instead of just complaining, what would I suggest as an educational background?* I am not knowledgeable enough in the area of law education or the actual work involved to detail what the ideal would be, but something along these lines seems reasonable to me (within the U.S. framework):

*I stress that formal education is not everything needed, just one aspect. Also note that this curriculum is intended for a very select group—it is not a generic legal curriculum.

  1. A bachelor focusing on proving and honing the ability to think, implying a strong math and/or science component. A connection to the law is unimportant (that is what the J.D. is for), but something contributing to an understanding of humans, society, history, or similar would be beneficial.

    Example: Double major in math and philosophy.

  2. Get the basic legal education: J.D. + bar exam.
  3. Master’s degree building a deeper understanding in some relevant area, e.g. jurisprudence or constitutional law.
  4. A real doctorate building a deeper understanding in another relevant area.

Excursion on general education levels:
Similar points about education can be made with many other important positions and organizations than the SCOTUS. I note e.g. the horrifying educational background displayed by many leading Swedish social democrats. Take Stefan Löfven, the current Swedish prime minister: According to the linked to (Swedish) Wikipedia page, his education consists of a two-year vocational high-school program, a 48-week welding (!) class that he did not complete, and a year-and-a-half of college without earning a degree. There are people with better credentials working as cashiers at McDonald’s; while Angela Merkel, his conservative counter-part in my adopted Germany, has a doctorate in quantum chemistry. Importantly, this is not only a very weak academic record, it is also a strong indication both of a poor head and of poor follow-through—I would give a greater benefit of a doubt to someone who had just earned the vocational degree and then remained in the work-force: The latter could be someone with a good head who just lacked the interest for studies, was denied the opportunity through external reasons, found so great success at work that college felt like a waste of time, or similar.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 15, 2017 at 1:39 pm

Unethical news sites endangering their readers

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Trying to research the previous post a little, I had major problems: Almost every German news site I visited displayed nothing but the claim that the site was unusable without JavaScript.

This is extremely problematic, because they have no legitimate* reason that could possibly require** JavaScript—and a news site is the last place, short of a porn site, where a user should allow JavaScript to be activated! News sites usually contain considerable external contents, e.g. in the form of advertising or comments left by other readers. This implies that the visitor is exposed to a very considerable and entirely unnecessary security risk— even when he trusts the news site it self to be non-hostile (potentially naive) and even if he can live with the entirely unnecessary animations and other idiocies that almost invariably worsen the user experience when JavaScript is on. This is the computer equivalent to having sex with a nymphomaniac without a condom…

*As opposed to illegitimate, like profile building or implementing unethically intrusive adverts.

**As opposed to providing a smaller benefit somewhere..

For a news site* to require JavaScript is grossly unethical and reckless, and I strongly encourage you to without exceptions avoid such sites.

*Much of the same argumentation applies to many other sites too. However, some other sites do have legitimate reasons and/or provide a considerable benefit; while the danger is usually smaller, since there tends to be less external content of various types. Still, most uses of JavaScript are entirely unnecessary and only bring an unnecessary risk to the visitors.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 11, 2017 at 11:20 pm

Aldi screws up / Follow-up: That noble cause / Follow-up: Plastic bags, the environment, and dishonest companies

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Shortly after finishing my last post, I went to buy some groceries—and promptly encountered another cases of a misguided noble cause:

The Aldi Nord store that I visited had decided to discontinue disposable bags entirely, with the pretext or under the misguided opinion that this would benefit the environment. (See a previous article on a closely related topic for a skeptical discussion of this idea.) The result was that I was forced to buy a 49 (!) cent bag for frozen goods that used several times as much plastic as a normal bag, would pose a far greater threat to nature if ever left outside, and which I am unlikely to ever be able to re-use without considerable extra effort: The walls are very thick and there is a stiff handle over the width of the entire bag, making it impossible to e.g. fold it and carry it in a jacket pocket. There were other alternatives that might or might not have been more suitable for re-use; however, they were even more expensive. This included textile bags for roughly EUR 1.50 that optically seemed to be of the same quality as textile bags I have bought elsewhere for twenty cents… (Please refer to the earlier post and my suspicion that the true drive is money-making—not environmental protection.)

Well done: The environment has just been harmed in the name of the environment.

The highly dubious pro-environment arguments aside, what are the effects of the discontinuation of disposable bags? More costs and efforts for the consumers!* For instance, in the past, I could just go by the store on my way between work and home—no preparation needed. Now, I have to either bring a bag with me to work (must remember to do so in the morning or even carry a bag as a matter of course); go home, collect a bag, and then go back to the store (or to another store not on my way); or visit the store as normally and pay a severe markup for an even more anti-environmental bag. Well, there is one other alternative, at least for now: Just avoid Aldi in favor of more customer friendly stores…

*A common issue with “causes” is that extra costs and efforts are put on third-parties that have little or no practical say in the matter at hand, making the cause cheaper to implement for the decision makers, but still costly to society as a whole. Cf. e.g. the smoke alarm discussion in the post on noble causes.

Trying to find some information on the topic I encountered one (German) article* that compares the new situation to the old GDR (in this one aspect). It also makes several good points, including that the new policy is mostly a symbolic, feel-good action—not something that truly benefits the environment.

*While the article is dated in July, it remains current. The process from first announcement to final implementation has apparently taken quite some time.

Fortunately, at least for the time being, most other chains still provide disposable bags, but I fear that the writing is on the wall. For one, there is an opportunity to earn* more money; for another, the other chains will suffer in image among the environmental naive, should they not follow suit.

*Or at a minimum having a higher ROI, depending on how high or low the old net profit was and how customers adapt to the new situation.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 11, 2017 at 11:20 pm

Me too four

with one comment

As a follow-up to Me too three, where I write “not yet proof that more legislation will come”:

SVT teletext now claims:

Regeringen lägger ett förslag till ny sexualbrottslag redan före jul, lovade jämställdhetsminister Åsa Regnér (S) vid måndagens riksdagsdebatt om metoo- uppropet.

(The cabinet* will propose a new sex-crime law even before Christmas, equality minister/secretary Åsa Regnér (social democrats) promised during Monday’s parliamentary debate on the metoo call-to-action.)

*Translating the Swedish “Regering(en)” is a bit tricky, especially with terminology and systems differing from country to country. In a U.S. context, “administration” might be a term more likely to be used; however, possibly, mostly because of differences in system.

In other words, my fears of rushed through and potentially* damaging legislation are coming true. (And, yes, these fears were a strong motivator behind my previous post, on “noble causes”.) I note that nothing has actually changed over the last few months that makes new legislation beneficial: Either it would have been beneficial six months ago or it is not beneficial today. The only thing “me too” has achieved is to cause a political momentum and an opportunity for politicians to look good and to further their own agendas. I might go as far as doubting that even a parliamentary debate was called for—politics should not deal with hype topics on social media, it should deal with genuine societal concerns. (To which I note, again, that things have changed only with regard to the former, not the latter.)

*To judge this in detail, I will have to await the actual proposal—but the obsession of Swedish politics with men as evil-doers and women as victims leaves me pessimistic. I will possibly follow-up on this later, once the details are known. Obviously, all of this post must be read with the caution that details are lacking.

In as far as legislation is needed, it must not be rushed in this manner. Legislation should be thought-through and well-researched. In a situation like this, it can safely be assumed that the cabinet does not have sufficient own expertise, making calls for third-party input necessary*. In areas, like this one, where the daily life of a great many people can be affected, extra care should be taken; especially, to ensure that no measures do more harm than do good when everyone is considered.

*Unfortunately, knowing Swedish politicians, these calls would likely just consist in asking a few professors of gender studies for their (predictable and predictably misandrist) input. The principle still holds.

Förslaget kommer att innehålla både samtycke och oaktsamhet, samt skärpt straff för vissa sexualbrott.

(The proposal will contain* both consent and negligence**, as well as increased punishment for certain sex crimes.)

*The unfortunate and ambiguous formulation is present in the original. The actual intention is, almost certainly, that the proposal will address issues of whether consent exists between the involved parties (or what constitutes consent) and whether sufficient care (of some form) was taken.

**The use of “negligence” for “oaktsamhet” is correct in most contexts; however, it is possible that something different was intended here (possibly “carelessness” or “lack of consideration”). For want of details, I must speculate.

This could be an attempt to push through disproportional and unrealistic consent laws, or result in men being put in an unreasonable situation. Cf. the almost absurd take on sexual harassment that is present in many U.S. organizations, or how some schools call for verbal (!) consent every ten minutes (!). Also note that some Swedish “sex crimes” are actually Orwellian sexcrimes*.

*Cf. e.g. the situation around Julian Assange, who was accused of “rape” based on alleged events that in no reasonable country could have been considered rape (notwithstanding the possibility of another crime); or the absurd legislation on prostitution.

Det var en debatt som enbart fördes av kvinnor och sällan har enigheten varit så stor mellan partierna, vilket Åsa Regnér också lyfte fram som särskilt värdefullt. Genom Metoo-rörelsen har många kvinnor vittnat om övergrepp och sextrakasserier.

(It was a debate by women only and rarely has the unity between the parties been this large, which Åsa Regnér pointed to as particularly valuable. Through the Metoo movement, many women have testified about abuse and sexual harassment.)

That the debate was women only is inexcusable, a gross violation of democratic processes and a dangerous precedent: What is next? That only women are allowed to vote on certain issues?** To call this “valuable” demonstrates a complete unsuitability for any cabinet role. Unity might be good, but firstly there is a fair chance that this would have looked differently, had men been allowed*, secondly, considering how little has actually changed, this unity is more likely a sign of irrationality.

*Effectively, the participants are pre-filtered in a way that distorts the implications of consent and dissent. Similarly, a debate with only the immigrant MPs from the various parties might show a pseudo-consensus on some immigration issue that does not match the overall views of the respective parties. Ditto, a debate on property taxes with only property owning MPs. Etc.

**I note e.g. that the German “Green party” has a fair bit of internal regulations one-sidedly favoring women when it comes to voting, including optional women-only votes. The fear is by no means absurd.

As repeatedly stated, none of the testimony has actually given reason to re-evaluate the scope of existing problems, making the second sentence* useless filler, especially since no SVT reader could reasonably be unaware of the campaign. Cf. also Me too two; and also note problems like ignoring that the direction is often the opposite (female-on-male instead of male-on-female) or the inclusion of flawed examples (e.g. due to misunderstandings, overreactions, made up accusations).

*From context, it is not entirely clear whether this sentence should be attributed to something Regnér said; or whether it is SVTs words only.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 11, 2017 at 6:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , , ,

That noble cause

with 11 comments

One of the greatest problems with today’s democracies, possibly societies, is the over-focus on “noble causes” and populist single issues*, while firstly failing to provide a program that is suitable for society as a whole, secondly ignoring the negative effects of the solutions to these causes, thirdly often providing unrealistically easy solutions and measures, fourthly not bothering to truly find out whether these causes are just or at all relevant. To boot, the causes are often misrepresented or presented so simplistically that uninformed voters draw incorrect conclusions.** And, no, I am not talking about populist or one-item upstarts—I am talking about established main-stream parties and politicians.

*I will use “cause” to denote both below, for the sake of simplicity, but without an intended limitation in meaning. This especially since the border between the two can be hard to detect or depend strongly on perspective.

**Be it deliberately or because the politicians’/propagandists’ own understanding is too shallow. Both can apply, but I suspect that in the more strongly ideological movements the latter is the greater problem.

The reason is easy to understand: Such causes are easier to sell to the broad masses, and promise greater gains in votes than a more responsible and nuanced approach. This especially since there is often a cost–benefit distribution that leaves a smaller group considerably better off and/or seeing its demands met, while the rest of the population takes a small hit and/or is unaware of the larger hit it does take: The smaller group sees enough benefit to influence its decision making; the larger group does not see enough detriment to be moved to opposition. Of course, while the cost of one cause might be small, the accumulated cost of a few dozen can be quite large…

In most cases, however, such approaches are at best irresponsible, at worst highly detrimental. A good example is the common “Green” drive to abolish nuclear power at all costs, especially exploiting the fears around nuclear accidents with a mixture of fear-mongering and misrepresentation. Look at what happened in Germany with its “Energiewende”*: At an enormous cost, a government intervention succeeded in considerably increasing the use of renewable energies; but this was all wasted, because the corresponding reductions in use of other sources were mostly limited to nuclear power—with the use of the far more problematic fossil fuels actually increasing**… Exaggerated fear of nuclear power left the environment worse off than before the Energiewende!

*Roughly, “energy turn-around” or “energy revolution” (“revolution” having unnecessarily strong connotations).

**At the time I last looked into numbers, possibly two years ago: In the long term, this will obviously be better. An improvement might or might not already have taken place, but I am not optimistic—and even if it has, it does not change my point: The brunt of the reduction should have been put on fossil fuels to begin with, with reduction of nuclear power being a mere nice-to-have.

Schooling* is another good example, even source of examples: Every now and then some nit-wit politicians insists that more schooling is needed to solve this-or-that societal problem, without considering consequences (cf. e.g. [1]). Every now and then some change is implemented to solve a problem with the current schooling that ends up making things worse (notably in math education). Every now and then disproportionate extra regulations are added (e.g. in that small children are suspended for a triviality, like using a hand as a pretend-gun or kissing someone on the cheek, because there is a fear of real gun use or sexual harassment among high schoolers). Etc.

*The recurring reader is aware that I am highly critical of schooling, as opposed to education, in general. Here, however, I do not deal with this overall problem, just with the additional problems caused by unwise new measures pushed through to solve some (perceived or real) problem in the guise of a “cause”.

Of course, sometimes the cause can be something more trivial, yet still have a downside not appropriately considered. For instance, recent regulations in NRW (my state/Bundesland of residence in Germany) require all apartments to have a smoke alarm; this smoke alarm has to be serviced by a professional once a year. Now, I could easily imagine that the installation of a smoke alarm has a net benefit: The one-time cost is not overly large and it can help with saving lives. However, an annual servicing? This is a recurring cost and forces tenants to take a significant chunk out of their workday*. And: It brings very little benefit… I note that the voluntary smoke alarms of old usually went entirely without service, barring a battery change every few years; that the likelihood of malfunction within a year is so small that the value added through the service is negligible; that even the requirement to have a smoke alarm is not universal, making the service requirement disproportional; that e.g. the chimney inspection for my gas heating (which can actually cause or contribute to a fire) is once every three years; and that the number of apartment fires in Germany has dropped very considerably over time anyway. (I also note that there are many who suspect that even the requirement to have a smoke alarm in the first place is driven mostly by manufacturer lobbyism… Cf. e.g. a German article.) Five years, for instance, might be an appropriate service interval with regard to costs and benefits—one year is not even remotely close.

*Based on my limited experience so far, the service company one-sidedly dictates the time and date, which then naturally tends to fall in the middle of the ordinary work-day. Combine this with a commute…

The problems do not end with the negative side-effects or the lack of benefit, however. Consider the relevance of a cause: For instance, many political causes of today are strongly rooted in the non-negotiable premise that any difference in outcome goes back to a difference in opportunity. With such a world-view, many problems are severely exaggerated or even created out of the blue. Is is a cause for government intervention (e.g. through affirmative action) if the proportion of women on a certain corporate or governmental level, or even within a certain field, is lower than roughly 50 %? No! We have to consider aspects like voluntary choices and life priorities, potentially differing skill sets and levels, differing interests, … Now, if we can determine that the same proportion of men and women want to do or be X, that they have the same skills, that they are willing to sacrifice as much to get there, …, then we might have a cause for government intervention. There is, however, no proof that this is the case—on the contrary, even the attempt to prove it is usually left out: We see a difference in outcome; ergo, it must be discrimination, indoctrination, Patriarchy, structures, …

A particularly insidious problem is that such causes are often insatiable: Once the original goal has been reached, the goal posts are moved further away; with the same thing happening again and again, every time the next goal is accomplished. In many cases, the point is exceeded where a fight for justice/equality/liberty/… is turned into its opposite, because the push has gone too far. Very often, the continual pushing of the goal posts is only possible through (typically intellectually dishonest) re-definitions, deliberate misinterpretation of statistic, “willful ignorance”, or similar means. A good example is poverty, which in modern Leftist rhetoric is usually taken to mean e.g. someone earning less than a percentage of the average—making people “poor”, who have in their lives never gone hungry or lacked a roof over their heads, and opening the doors for vote fishing with “childhood poverty” even in countries like Sweden and Germany.* How absurd such a measure is, is proved by the fact that it is possible for someone to grow “poor” when, all other factors equal, someone else becomes wealthier…

*In these countries, childhood poverty, in any real sense, is almost non-existent. Poverty, in general, does exist, but is rare and is mostly either limited to short times or caused by own negligence or laziness. Even the single mother working a minimum wage job, which is one the worst long-term and non-negligent situations that do occur, would be the envy of many of her ancestors—no matter how unfortunate her situation is compared to the current average. As for her children: I had a similar situation for several years of my own childhood—and grew fat and spoiled. In the roughly 35 years since, things have not changed for the worse.

This cause obsession leads to poor decisions and poor policy, it raises taxes, introduces inefficiencies, limits personal freedom, worsens bureaucracy, … The positive effects are usually considerably smaller. I urge the politicians to be more responsible in their actions; the voters to never support a cause they have not understood.

(Many other examples than the discussed can be found, especially within the Left and the PC crowd, or looking at some charities, that reward the giver with a warm feeling, keep their employees paid, make the chairman and the odd middle-man wealthy, and achieve very little for the needy.)

Written by michaeleriksson

December 10, 2017 at 2:01 am