Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Archive for January 2018

Interesting sports events

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There have been a few recent sports events that have been more interesting to me outside of sports than within:

Firstly, the European Championships in handball: During the time when I was the most interested in sports (late teens or so), Sweden was one of the world’s leading handball nations, often dueling it out with Russia. These days are long gone, and the world has changed sufficiently that Sweden’s smaller neighbor Denmark, an absolute nobody back then, is the reigning Olympic champion—something that teenage me would likely have considered an absurdity, even an insult, seeing that Sweden has racked up four silver medals without ever reaching the gold.

In the first game of the European Championships came the ultimate blow: A humiliating loss against dwarf country Iceland… I wrote off the rest of the Championship, reflecting on how sadly similar things had happened in tennis and table tennis, and noting how well this matched some of my thoughts on how short-lived traditions actually often are and how the world can change from what we know in our formative days. (Cf. my Christmas post.)

Today, Sweden played in the final of the same Championships against Spain, even having a half-time lead and an apparent good chance at victory. (Before, regrettably, losing badly in the second half. Still, a silver is far beyond what seemed possible after the Iceland game and a very positive sign for the future.) The road there was very odd, including the paradox of an extremely narrow semi-final win over Denmark, the aforementioned Olympic Champions, and another embarrassing and unnecessary loss against a smaller neighbor in Norway. Funny thing, sports.

Secondly, the immensity of Roger Federer’s 20th Grand-Slam title. A year ago, he and Nadal met up in the final of the Australian Open for what seemed like their last big hurrah—one of them was going to get a last title before age or injuries ended their competitive careers. Since Federer’s narrow win, we have seen another four Grand-Slam tournaments—with the winners Nadal, Federer, Nadal, and (with this year’s Australian Open) Federer. Indeed, where a year ago I was thrilled over the (presumed) last win, I was now slightly annoyed that Federer narrowly* missed going through the tournament without a loss of set. This is a very good illustration of how humans tend never to be satisfied, to ever want more or better**, and of how our baseline for comparisons can change.

*He entered the final without a lost set, won sets one and three, and only missed the second in a tie break. One or two points more and he would have had it. Such a result is extremely rare. (The oddity of 2017 notwithstanding, where it actually happened twice, making the year the more remarkable: Nadal in the French Open and Federer a few weeks later in Wimbledon.)

**Whether this is a good or bad thing will depend on the circumstances and on whether this tendency leaves us unhappy or not. At any rate, humanity would hardly have gotten to where it is without this drive.

An interesting lesson is the importance of adapting to new circumstances: Apparently, Federer has spent considerable time modifying his approach* to tennis in order to remain reasonably healthy and competitive even at his ancient-by-tennis-standards age of 36. Those who stand still fall behind (generally) and we all do well to adapt to counter aging (specifically).

*In a number of areas including style of play, racket size, and yearly schedule.

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Written by michaeleriksson

January 28, 2018 at 11:15 pm

Stay away from Clevvermail

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For my business activities, I have tried a few service companies that seemed to offer something that would make my life easier. Mostly, they have not—and in one case, I had a considerable amount of extra effort for absolutely nothing in return. I refer to the mail-service company, or quite possibly scam*, Clevvermail:

*To tell the difference between extreme incompetence and evil intentions can be quite hard, but with the most recent events I do tend towards “scam”. Interestingly, the name is quite apt: While the intention of the “clevver” part is probably to invoke associations of the English “clever”, a word occasionally used in Germany too, especially in advertising, my first association was with Klaas Klever—the German name for that utterly amoral and ruthless, yet often incompetent, business duck John D. Rockerduck. Note the repeated letter doubles (“K”/“K”, “l”/“l”, and “aa”) for Klaas Klever and the deliberate doubling of “v” in Clevvermail. To boot, “Klever” likely originated as a similarly deliberate misspelling of “clever”.

Clevvermail at least claims to offer postal addresses in various cities of the world, including in Germany, with the option to forward the mail to another address—something that would have been perfect for me, with long stays in other cities than my official home, often at varying addresses in these cities: I give out my Clevvermail address to others and still receive the mail wherever I happen to be.

I optimistically opened an account—and have had nothing but costs, waste of time, and annoyances to show for it. The problems ended up being so large that I had only given out the address to several other parties and, to my recollection, not received one single piece of mail at the time I terminated the account again. With the sheer amount of problems, my memory is not good enough to give all details, but an incomplete and/or approximate list includes:

  1. An arbitrary rejection of my credit card in combination with 3D-Secure—and a refusal to even attempt to authorize the same credit card manually. To boot, this refusal was rooted in the claim that “da wir hier schlechte Erfahrung mit der Zahlungsmoral unserer internationalen Kunden gemacht habe” (“because we have had poor experiences with the willingness to pay [literally, “payment moral”] of our international customers”, which borders on an absurdity in light of Clevvermail’s own behavior, lack of morals, and invoicing practices. To boot, I was not an international customer…

    Unfortunately, no other reasonable* means of payment was available, short of money transfer, forcing me to pay each bill manually… (Something which will be highly relevant below.)

    *Notably, the German standard of “Lastschrift” was not supported.

  2. The need to register using a copy of my passport, which is strictly speaking an illegal requirement. Clevvermail’s comment: Die Gesetzgebung hat sich da in Deutschland noch nicht ganz den neuen Möglichkeiten des globalen digitalen Wirtschaftens angepasst. (Roughly, “German legislation has not quite caught up with the opportunities of the global digital economy”—or: We know that it is illegal, but we do not agree with the law and do what suits us best regardless of it.)
  3. A user interface that was cumbersome and regularly malfunctioning.
  4. Highly incompetent and uncooperative service staff, who on repeated occasions ignored my actual questions and/or gave “smart ass” answers that told me what I already knew.
  5. The (illegal) sending of non-solicited advertising emails, including for services that are extremely unlikely to be of interest to the average customer. Why should I want a postal address in Moscow* just because I have one in Germany? Barring other scam companies, there is no real reason for anyone to react positively to such an offer: Either someone already is moving in on Russia or he is not. If he is, he will make corresponding inquiries; if he is not, his plans will not change—and “not” is what will apply to the vast majority of the customers.

    *I cannot guarantee that Moscow was one of the specific cities involved in these advertising emails, but the principle of the example stands with any foreign city.

  6. The failure to send me my bills in a timely manner, or at all—something the more absurd with a company that deals with mail services. Indeed, I repeatedly received threats about account suspension due to unpaid bills before receiving the bills. In the end, my account was outright suspended, with no prior notice, without my having received a bill for the amount due… After Clevvermail refused to remedy this, I finally had enough and terminated my account, effective immediately.

It does not end there, however: This Saturday, more than a year after the termination, I received two spammy looking messages that I only ever opened because they used a specific email address*, that made vague claims about debt collection—and did so in English**. After I contacted Clevvermail, as the sole party I had given this address to, they now claimed (again, in English) that I would own them close to fifty Euro, for a period extending months beyond my termination… To boot, they now claimed that they were never able to close my account, “[s]ince only users can delete their accounts”***—however, according to prior communications, I would only be able to close my account per the web interface once the open bill (at the time I terminated the account) had been paid… Kafkaesque, amoral, and certainly not something a German court will accept.

*I usually give out individual email addresses to individual businesses, implying that I a) can block that one single address (e.g. due to spam) without affecting my other correspondences, b) know who is to blame for any abuse (e.g. through handing said address to a spammer).

**Note that this is a German company, that I live in Germany, that prior correspondence had been in German, … Of course, most Germans are quite poor at English, implying that most of the people receiving such communications would be at a severe disadvantage in terms of replying to, possibly even in terms of understanding, the communications.

***A claim which is almost certainly false: Any even semi-reasonable administration interface would give the appropriate administrators such abilities—and in a pinch there is always the opportunity of direct access to e.g. a database system. (I have spent twenty years in the software field and I have yet to see a system which runs without occasional such interventions.) To boot, even if there were no such technical ability, this simply is not my problem.

I can only unambiguously and emphatically tell you to stay well clear of this rotten-to-the-core “service” provider. For my part, I will presently contact both the police and the corresponding regulatory authority. (Poor customer service is not a crime, but the current fraud is—and so is at least the way the passport situation was handled.)

As an aside, it can safely be assumed that much of Clevvermail’s business is aimed at other parties of dubious morality or legality, including businesses trying to creating the incorrect impression of a local or international presence, front and shell companies, and various people seeking greater anonymity for illegal purposes. (As well as many with perfectly legal reasons and motives, like yours truly.)

Written by michaeleriksson

January 24, 2018 at 1:19 am

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Swedish gender nonsense and bandy

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I have written about the absurd Swedish take on equality (in general) and equality in sports (in particular) in the past. (For example in [1].) The last few weeks, the sports police have been at it again—with what might take the cake:

The fact that the women’s bandy world championship is played on the ice of a lake instead of in a rink is proof that women are mistreated, men and bandy are sexist, or whatnot…

Well:

  1. Even if the decision was wrong, this is not necessarily proof of anything. I am not privy to the decision-making process, but it could quite easily have been something along the line of the international federation giving the championships to China to expand the sport* (cf. below) and the Chinese simply not having a rink** suitable for a world championship (or having promised to build one, only to find themselves out of money). For that matter, they could have wanted to give an authentic (cf. below) introduction to the sport. If worst comes to worst, chances are that any sexism involved was restricted to one or several individuals—nothing more, nothing less. Moreover, in as far as sex played a role, it is very likely to have been in an indirect manner, based on the state of the men’s and women’s bandy (cf. below) or the expected costs and earnings from the event.

    *China only even having a national federation since 2014…

    **Note that the playing field in bandy is more like a soccer field than an ice-hockey field/rink, making the setup that much more resource intense and ruling out the use of many existing artificial ice areas, including typical hockey and ice-skating rinks.

  2. What is wrong with playing on a lake in the first place? It does seem a little unprofessional and there is chance that e.g. the element of chance is increased—but not to a degree that it would have a major impact on the results (considering the state of the women’s sport; cf. below). There are, obviously, differences to playing in a proper rink, but they are not earth-shatteringly large—and the differences present will likely introduce complications of a type that, say, skiers and golfers have to deal with every single time. That games are played outside is the rule either which way—unlike with ice-hockey, question like “with or without a roof” are of little relevance. For that matter, bandy is usually considered a sport for people willing to put up with quite a lot from nature, notably several hours of sometimes biting cold; and to complain about playing on a lake does not seem to be in this traditional spirit.

    Moreover, a great many men’s games have been played on lakes over the years; and for a long time it might even have been the most common setting. (No matter whether rinks are more common today.)

    Considering the low number of expected spectators, it might even have been a better experience for them than using a rink…

  3. In terms of participation, money, popularity, and whatnot, bandy is small sport even among men—with the exception of Sweden (and possibly Sweden’s closest neighbors). For the women, the situation is far worse, as is demonstrated by the medal table in the world championships:

    After the current and 9th championships (played this week), we have little Sweden a dominant leader with 8 Golds and 1 Silver—followed by Russia with 1 Gold and 8 Silvers… The Bronze medals are more even, divided between Norway at 5 and Finland at 4, but still show the limited depth of the sport. Even the 4th places are limited, being divided between Canada and the aforementioned Norway and Finland.

    This year, we saw a whole of 8 teams participating—after the federation failed to find the planned 12 teams willing and able to compete… The medals went Sweden–Russia–Norway (surprise!), with Sweden and Russia being entirely unthreatened in all games but two—the ones they played each other (winning one each). Norway beat Finland a convincing 5–2 in the Bronze game and USA 4–0 in a group game. In its other three games, this Bronze winner was destroyed, losing once to Russia (5–0) and Sweden (9(!)–0) in the group phase and a semi-final re-match against Sweden (5–0).

    The international standard is so low (as is often the case with small sports) that the two groups were deliberately lop-sided to keep things “exciting”. In fact, this to the degree that the real championship arguably consisted of just the four teams from Group A, who took three automatic semi-final places and all three medals, and was a hair’s breadth from taking all four and the fourth place to boot.

    Hair’s breadth? Well, the fourth placer in group A, USA, who failed to score a single goal or winning a single point, played the utterly dominant winner of group B, Finland, for the fourth semi-final—and lost after a penalty shot-out. Finland was then taken down 4–0 by runner-up Russia in its semi-final.

    Utterly dominant? Well, if you think that some of the previous wins were large, consider that Finland went 9–0, 10–0, and 27(!!!)–0 against respectively Estonia, China, and Switzerland.

    Moreover, looking at the sum of 19 games played, only 5 (!) saw the losing team even score a goal—and only three were won with less than three goals. (Specifically, the two Sweden–Russia games and the Finland–USA game.)

    With these differences, I would be unsurprised if the women’s Swedish championships has better depth and (outside the two games between Sweden and Russia) quality than these, as it were, world championships—and there are likely hundreds of men’s soccer teams in Germany alone that play on a higher international level than eight-placer Switzerland…

  4. As for spectators? The Wikipedia page currently links to four match reports. One, home-team China’s first game, show a whopping 350 spectators; the other three 50* each… While this might (or might not) have improved in later games, I feel confident that the grand-total of (physically present) spectators for the entire tournament would have been seen as a fiasco had they occurred in a single game of the men’s soccer Bundesliga. (Unless, that is, the Chinese regime decided to force participation during the later stages…)

    *Some rounding or rough estimation might be involved.

For the above, I have drawn data from the Wikipedia pages on bandy, the 2018 World Championship, and Women’s Bandy World Championship; as well as the Swedish videotext* to supplement the (currently still) incomplete data for 2018 on Wikipedia.

*Note that content here is not preserved in the long-term. Readers should not expect this link to deliver the right contents for more than a few days; however, the same contents should appear on Wikipedia in due time.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 13, 2018 at 11:55 pm

A few thoughts on the crisis in Venezuela (and the importance of incentives)

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With Venezuela hitting the spot-light again, I decided to read up a little, specifically with the Wikipedia pages on the economy of Venezuela and on the Venezuelan economic collapse of 2016, and at least skimming several other articles, e.g on the Economic policy of the Hugo Chávez administration and Economic policy of the Nicolás Maduro administration.

These are two simultaneously very disturbing and very enlightening reads, especially when combined with e.g. the experiences gathered in the Soviet Union or, more recently, in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Extreme government control, lack of respect for private ownership and the rights of the individual, the lack of incentives to create growth, …, appears to lead to economic disaster everywhere it is tried. (As, of course, predicted by many more free-market minded economists for a very long time.) If we want economic growth, it is central to give people a reason to try to build something for themselves or their families, to make their own lives better, to give those who want to work or start business easy opportunity to do so, etc.; at the same time, it is valuable to have a connection between benefit and cost, to avoid waste and poor resource use. The ideas of Ayn Rand are often naively optimistic or simplistic, but the core principles are the right one—and while human nature causes capitalism and free markets to fail to some degree, its effect on strongly socialist, communist, “central planning” societies is far greater. A sad twist is that poverty often breeds an (understandable) wish for e.g. greater redistribution between “haves” and “have nots”, greater government control, etc.—but that these very measures salt the earth and reduce economic growth. (At least when taken beyond some point. See also an excursion below.)

The starting observation is that Venezuela is one of the poorest countries on earth, and currently likely has the worst developing economy—when it should be a very rich country. Indeed, in the mid twentieth century, it was… Why? Because Venezuela is one of the world’s most oil-rich countries, and oil, now as then, is an immense source of richness. (As can readily be seen by some oil-rich Arab countries; or by how Norway went from trailing Sweden to outclassing it in wealth, after beginning to exploit its North-Sea oil.) Today, “poverty” is too weak a word for the problem: Venezuela is suffering the equivalent of a severe heart-attack—and cannot afford a physician…

To detail what went wrong from then till now would require far deeper studies, but much of it can simply be grouped under the heading “unsound politics”, largely of an extreme Leftist character. Partially overlapping, partially not, we have problems like corruption, crime, and violence. A cardinal error is the over-reliance on oil, making the country vulnerable to economic crisis when the oil price falls—and to over-spending when it rises. A strong, functioning economy would benefit considerably from oil, but oil would not be its only leg: Other industries and areas of business, be it cars, electronics, software, various services, …, would be additional sources of wealth and dampen the fluctuations caused by oil.

To look at some more specific issues from the Wikipedia articles*:

*With the obvious reservation that I do not personally vouch for their correctness—and that I do not bring a great prior expertise on Venezuela. The contents do match my previous, more shallow, impressions both during the Chávez era and the last few years very well, however. Further, with the reservation that this is a very incomplete listing with few details; those interested really should read the original articles.

  1. Social programs* like the Bolivarian Missions have reduced incentives for the people to work and caused a massive cost burden, the harder to carry when oil prices were unfavorable.** At least one included land expropriations, disrupting existing production and giving land-owners great incentives to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Others have aimed at e.g. creating more cooperatives in lieu of regular businesses—despite the disputable or outright poor results such have had when attempted elsewhere (largely, in my opinion, due to poor incentives).

    *Apparently instituted more to gain political support among the poor than to actually improve their lives. Their effectiveness at the ostensible goals appears to have been limited. My take would have been far more positive, had the success rate been greater.

    **I stress that I do not rule out that there have been positive effects to counter-balance the negative; especially since Venezuela, even then, had people who actually were poor—not the “poor” people of today’s Germany or Sweden. However, this post is specifically about the development of the economy. Apart from those programs focusing on teaching, there is mostly negative or neutral effects to be found or expected.

  2. Property expropriations of various kinds (cf. also above) that give owners, including foreign companies and investors, incentives to leave.
  3. Price controls that reduce the incentives to produce and import (or increase the incentives to export) contributing to shortages and creating black markets. In the case of gas, effectively sold by the government, this also implied a missed income opportunity compared to selling the gas far more profitably abroad and finding other arrangements for the domestic situation. (This especially since the low gas price almost certainly led to wasteful use.)

    Of course, the help for the population is dubious: What good are lower prices when there is nothing to buy? What about the opportunity cost of standing in line, Soviet style, wasting time that could have gone towards earning money (usable to pay for more expensive goods)?

  4. Trying to keep the exchange rate to the U.S. dollar at an unrealistic level, reducing the country’s competitiveness, incurring additional costs, (again) creating black markets, … I also strongly suspect that this, contrary to intentions, has strongly contributed to the degree of inflation: Firstly, this type of dual rates could make the people lose faith in the currency and consider it worthless, rather than worth less. Secondly, it becomes a second choice for currency, seeing how much easier everything goes if one has a few dollars. That a price spiral (in the native Bolivares) then occurs is not the least surprising—and an actually usable currency with a single exchange rate would be preferable, even if this one exchange rate is far less favorable than the government prefers.
  5. Allowing* oil output to fall: This reduced the oil income even at times of high prices and made the fall in prices the more hurtful.

    *The word should be seen with some caution. This was likely a hard-to-prevent side-effect of other policies, and it might not have been in the power of e.g. Chávez to prevent. However, a government take-over certainly did not help…

Of course, these and other factors often interact negatively in vicious circles, e.g. in that poor living conditions and prospects make the best and the brightest leave the country, thereby reducing productivity and the attractiveness of Venezuela as a place of business, thereby worsening living conditions and prospects further. Or consider how poverty leads to more crime, which leads to less incentives to work and to run businesses, which leads to more poverty. There are also very often direct and indirect negative side-effects (in addition to the above), especially through the immense inflation of recent years—as well as, if to a lesser degree, the “merely” very high inflation of the decades preceding them.

What can be done to save the country? Barring a miraculous rise of oil prices followed by a complete turn-around in economic and other policy, I see little hope. The least bad resolution that is realistic might be a complete collapse and a fresh start—to build something new from the ashes, even if it means that the road is that much longer. Superficially reasonable analogies might be found in the German Weimar Republic or possibly the German or Japanese post-WWII economies—all instances of rapid recuperation from a disastrous situation. However, these situations differed in many regards, including that there was a strong tradition of successful industry and a great number of bright and educated people in the country, that the problems were largely caused by external events (own culpability notwithstanding), and that the state of the rest of the world made it far easier to become internationally competitive again. In the latter two cases, considerable external support have to be added.

Excursion on GINI and similar:
I deliberately do not include issues like “income inequality” or a high GINI* value, even though these can be common Leftist complaints. These are not normally problems per se; and might even, within limits, be positive. The real issue is something very different: Lack of social mobility, where our parents’ fortune or lack of fortune do more to determine our fortunes than do our own efforts. When the poor-but-bright-or-industrious can end up being wealthy, they are far more likely to have hope and to realize those hopes; and larger parts of society will strive to build something. On the other hand, when they have little chance of making themselves a good life, why should they bother?** (Be it because there is too little social mobility or because even a middle-class life is not very good, as has usually been the case in e.g. most Leftist dictatorships.) Similarly, I do not put that much stock in complaints about imperialism, foreign ownership, and other ever-recurring examples of Leftist scape-goats: Even if the actual profits were to leave the country, there are still positive effects in terms of local employees earning money, infrastructure improvements, foreigners spending money locally, … All other factors equal, local ownership is better for the locals; however, the factors seldom are equal—and experiences point to it being better to have foreign owners running a well-managed and profitable operation than, like in Venezuela, having locals running a disastrously mismanaged one.

*Another reason to consider GINI complete bullshit is that it is too simplistic a measure, not taking absolute wealth levels into account, potentially giving the same value for very different income distributions, and, above all, not considering why a certain situation has arisen (e.g. politics, demographics, high or low social mobility).

**In a twist, countries like Sweden and Germany can suffer from the reverse problem with the same effect—if someone can have a materially great life without putting in an effort, then why bother with the effort?

Excursion on approaches to raising living standards:
Venezuela well exemplifies an ever-recurring difference between the approaches of the Left and and large parts of the non-Left—the former focuses on changing the division of the pie, even at the risk of making the pie smaller; the latter at making the pie larger, even at the risk of increasing the difference in pie slices. In most cases, even the poor seem to fair better with the second approach…

Written by michaeleriksson

January 11, 2018 at 12:35 am

Fire and Fury

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I am currently almost half-way through the controversial book Fire and Fury, discussing the early phases of Trumps presidency. After some internal back-and-forth, I have decided not to bother with the second half:

On the one hand, getting some insight into the Trump administration from someone who has seen it from the inside seems like a good idea, in light of both the extremes of Trump himself and the possible turning point in U.S. politics his presidency could (but need not) be.

On the other:

  1. The book is abysmally poorly written, be it with regard to grammar, style, structure, … My impression is that the author was told to have a certain word count ready by a certain date—and kept far more attention to that word count than anything else. If this is the work of an award-winning journalist, then I see my low opinion of journalists and journalism confirmed.
  2. The information density is quite low, and many of the claims are obvious speculation (including regarding the intents of others) or subjective opinions—often by someone else than the author.

    Much of the rest is off-topic. Indeed, to this point, a disturbingly large portion of the book has simply been very amateurish mini-biographies of various individuals related to Trump’s campaign or presidency. Now, these can have some justification, e.g. in order to understand who is who and what their places in the bigger scheme is, or what might motivate them—but is not justified to fill out most of the book in that manner and with this type of writing. Most of these biographies could be reduced to a single page.

    In the last chapter that I read, “CPAC”, pages are spent retelling events happening on stage…

  3. Much of the relevant information has long been common knowledge or easily predictable based on Trump’s history, making parts of the book less revelation and more reiteration.
  4. Books that fail to be informative can often compensate through being entertaining (and vice versa). This one does not…

The likely most worth-while point, in the parts read by me, is the take that Trump might not actually have wanted to be president, having instead seen the campaign as a publicity opportunity—and that this was something shared by some key figures in his campaign, who thought that they would lose but make themselves a name and improve their future opportunities. While I have heard somewhat similar speculation on a few occasions, it has never been on this scale. In a twist, this puts an earlier post of mine in a new light: What if a poor candidate, deliberately looking lose, is faced with so poor an opponent that he wins anyway?

A lot of the controversy around the book has arisen due to the reactions by Trump (and some other persons concerned) to it. Lacking own insider knowledge, I cannot judge to what degree the book’s portrayals of persons and events are accurate; however, even if we assume that the factual contents, per se, are correct, this book is bound to be seen as an insult: The way the book is written, the way virtually everyone is painted as stupid, naive, amoral, out of his depth, and/or otherwise unsuited for this-and-that, goes well beyond what is warranted in even a highly critical treatment.* Moreover, this must have been obvious to any even semi-qualified author, editor, and publisher. This leaves us with the question why this approach was chosen. In my current estimate, it is likely a deliberate attempt to provoke reactions and debate in order to drive up sales—which has, obviously, been quite successful. Other potential explanations include using existing** anti-Trump sentiments to … drive up sales; and an attempt to increase such sentiments for political purposes.

*A serious book would discuss the actual facts at hand and let them point the way for conclusions—and if the facts are bad this will be enough to achieve the right effect. Here we have a tendentious mixture of slights, speculation, negative angling, …, that falls only an inch short of literally calling people idiots. (In all fairness, my own writings have occasionally included even the remaining inch; however, this is a blog and not a best-selling book on politics—and I would rate the average level of diplomacy in my writings higher.)

**People tend to prefer to read things that confirm what they already believe—and there are millions of disappointed Hillary supporters (and other Democrats, and quite a few Republicans) who have extremely negative opinions of Trump.

Actually, there is one other very important question: Given how the author has proceeded, what degree of credibility can we give his book? It could be truth from cover to cover; it could be a pack of lies; it could be somewhere in between. (If the latter, what parts are true and what false?) Having no way of knowing which, my reasons for reading the book are largely voided: I wanted to gain some insights from within—and I am left with Trump might or might not be (or believe/have said/done/…) X, Bannon might or might not be Y, Kushner might or might not be Z, …

As an aside, Trump and I might share opinions about e.g. privacy and how house-keeping should behave (I have a few posts in the pipe-line that touch related topics), with the book saying things like:

In the first days he ordered […] a lock on the door, precipitating a brief standoff with the Secret Service, who insisted they have access to the room. He reprimanded the housekeeping staff for picking up his shirt from the floor: “If my shirt is on the floor, it’s because I want it on the floor.”

Written by michaeleriksson

January 7, 2018 at 11:44 pm

German taxes and Elster III

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In a telling development of what prompted my original post (that I just had wasted several hours trying to use the third-rate Elster products to file my VAT):

I recently received a notification from the “IRS” that because I had exceeded the normal deadline, caused exclusively by their incompetence, they would book me a 35-Euro late fee.

They prevent me from fulfilling the rules they impose to their one-sided advantage, they waste hours of my time, they bring me to the point that I want to throw my notebook at the wall—and I have to pay them…

Of course, the complaint I just filed took another fair bit of time—and forced me to use Elster again…

I can only re-iterate that the situation is utterly inexcusable. Elster, the overall tax system, and the German IRS all need to be completely over-hauled or replaced by something better.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 7, 2018 at 4:40 pm

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Meltdown and Spectre are not the problem

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Currently, the news reporting in the IT area is dominated by Meltdown and Spectre—two security vulnerabilities that afflict many modern CPUs and pose a very severe threat to at least* data secrecy. The size of the potential impact is demonstrated by the fact that even regular news services are paying close attention.

*From what I have read so far, the direct danger in other regards seems to be small; however, there are indirect dangers, e.g. that the read data includes a clear-text password, which in turn could allow full access to some account or service. Further, my readings on the technical details have not been in-depth and there could be direct dangers that I am still unaware of.

However, they are not themselves the largest problem, being symptoms of the disease(s) rather than the disease it self. That something like this eventually happened with our CPUs, is actually not very surprising (although I would have suspected Intel’s “management engine”, or a similar technology, to be the culprit).

The real problems are the following:

  1. The ever growing complexity of both software and hardware systems: The more complex a system, the harder it is to understand, the more likely to contain errors (including security vulnerabilities), the more likely to display unexpected behaviors, … In addition, fixing problems, once found, is the harder, more time consuming, and likelier to introduce new errors. (As well as a number of problems not necessarily related to computer security, notably the greater effort needed to add new features and make general improvements.)

    In many ways, complexity is the bane of software development (my own field), and when it comes to complicated hardware products, notably CPUs, the situation might actually be worse.

    An old adage in software development is that “any non-trivial program contains at least one bug”. In the modern world, we have to add “any even semi-complex program contains at least one security vulnerability”—and modern programs (and pieces of hardware) are more likely to be hyper-complex than semi-complex…

  2. Security is something rarely prioritized to the degree that it should be, often even not understood. In doubt, “Our program is more secure!” is (still) a weaker sales argument than “Look how many features we have!”, giving software manufacturers strong incentives to throw on more features (and introduce new vulnerabilities) rather than to fix old vulnerabilities or to ensure that old bugs are removed.

    Of course, more features usually also lead to greater complexity…

  3. Generally, although not necessarily in this specific case: A virtual obsession with having everything interfacing with everything else, especially over the Internet (but also e.g. over mechanisms like the Linux D-bus). Such generic and wide-spread interfacing brings more security problems than benefit; for reasons that include a larger interface (implying more possible points of vulnerability), a greater risk to accidentally share private information*, and the opening of doors for external enemies to interact with the software and to deliberately** send data after a successful attack.

    *Be it through technical errors or through the users and software makers having different preferences. For an example of the latter, consider someone trying to document human-rights violations by a dictatorship, and who goes to great length to keep the existence of a particular file secret, including keeping the file on an encrypted USB drive and cleaning up any additional files (e.g. an automatic backup) created during editing. Now say that he opens the file on his computer—and that the corresponding program immediately adds the name and path of the document to an account-wide list of “recently used documents”… (Linux users, even those not using an idiocy like Gnome or KDE, might want to check the file ~/.local/share/recently-used.xbel, should they think that they are immune—and other files of a similar nature are likely present for more polluted systems.)

    **With the particularly perfidious variation of a hostile maker of the original software, who abuses an Internet connection to “phone home” with the user’s private information (cf. Windows 10), or a smart-phone interface to send spam messages to all addresses in the user’s address book, or similar.

To this might, already or in the future, government intervention, restrictions, espionage, whatnot, be added.

The implications are chilling. Consider e.g. the “Internet of things”, “smart homes”, and similar, low benefit* and high risk ideas: Make your light-bulbs, refrigerators, toasters, whatnot, AIs and connect them to the Internet and what will happen? Well, sooner or later one or more of them will be taken over by a hostile entity, be it a hacker or the government, and good-bye privacy (and possibly e.g. money). Or consider trusting a business with a great reputation with your personal data, under the solemn promise that they will never be abused: Well, the business might be truthful, but will it be sufficiently secure for sufficiently long? Will third-parties that legitimately** share the data also be sufficiently secure? Do not bet your life on it—and if you “trust” a dozen different businesses, it is just a matter of time before at least some of the data is leaked. Those of you who follow security related news will have noted a number of major revelations of stolen data being made public on the Internet during the last few years, including several incidents involving Yahoo and millions of Yahoo users.

*While there are specific cases where non-trivial benefits are available, they are in the minority—and even they often come with a disproportional threat to security or privacy. For instance, to look at two commonly cited benefits from this area: Being able to turn the heating in ones apartments up from the office shortly before leaving work, or down from a vacation resort, is a nice feature. Is is more than a nice-to-have, however? For most people, the answer is “no”. Do I actually want my refrigerator to place an order with the store for more milk when it believes that I am running out? Hell no! For one thing, I might not want more milk, e.g. being about to leave for a vacation; for another, I would like to control the circumstance sufficiently well myself, e.g. to avoid that I receive one delivery for (just) milk today, another for (just) bread tomorrow, etc. For that matter, I am far from certain that I would like to have food deliveries be a common occurrence in the first place (for reasons like avoiding profile building and potential additional costs).

**From an ethical point of view, it can be disputed whether this is ever the case; however, it will almost certainly happen anyway, in a manner that the business considers legitimate, the simply truth being that it is very common for large parts of operations to be handled by third-parties. For example, at least in Germany, a private-practice physician almost certainly will have lab work done by an external contractor (who will end up with name, address, and lab results of the patient) and have bills handled by a factoring company (who will end up with name, address, and a fair bit of detail about what took place between patient and physician)—this despite such data being highly confidential. Yes, the patient can refuse the sharing of his data—but then the physician will just refuse taking him on as a patient… To boot, similar information will typically end up with the patient’s insurance company too—or it will refuse to reimburse his costs…

On paper, I might look like a hardware makers dream customer: In the IT business, a major nerd, living behind the keyboard, and earning well. In reality, I am more likely to be a non-customer, to a large part* due to my awareness of the many security issues. For instance, my main use of my smart-phone is as an alarm clock—and I would not dream of installing the one-thousand-and-one apps that various businesses, including banks and public-transport companies, try to shove down the throat of their customers in lieu of a good web-site or reasonably customer support. Indeed, when we compare what can be done with a web-site and with a smart-phone app (in the area of customer service), the app brings precious little benefit, often even a net detriment, for the customer. The business of which he is a customer, on the other hand, has quite a lot to gain, including better possibilities to control the “user experience”, to track the user, to spy on other data present on the device, … (All to the disadvantage of the user.)

*Other parts include that much of the “innovation” put on the market is more-or-less pointless, and that what does bring value will be selling for a fraction of the current price to those with the patience to wait a few years.

Sadly, even with wake-up calls like Meltdown and Spectre, things are likely to grow worse and our opportunity to duck security risks to grow smaller. Twenty years from now, it might not even be possible to buy a refrigerator without an Internet connection…

In the mean time, however, I advice:

  1. My fellow consumers to beware of the dangers and to prefer more low-tech solutions and less data sharing whenever reasonably possible.
  2. My fellow developers to understand the dangers of complexity and try to avoid it and/or reduce its damaging effects, e.g. throw preferring smaller pieces of software/interfaces/whatnot, using a higher degree of modularization, sharing less data between components, …
  3. Businesses to take security and privacy seriously and not to unnecessarily endanger the data or the systems of their customers.
  4. The governments around the world to consider regulations* and penalties to counter the current negative trends and to ensure that security breaches hurt the people who created the vulnerabilities as hard as their customers—and, above all, to lay off idiocies like the Bundestrojaner!

    *I am not a friend of regulation, seeing that it usually does more harm than good. When the stakes are this high, and the ability or willingness to produce secure products so low, then regulation is the smaller of the two evils. (With some reservations for how well or poorly thought-through the regulations are.)

Written by michaeleriksson

January 7, 2018 at 1:08 am