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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.

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

Eternal September? I wish! (And some thoughts on email)

with 4 comments

One of the most unfortunate trends of the Internet is that erstwhile standard procedures, behaviors, whatnot are forced out by inferior alternatives, as an extension of the Eternal September. Indeed, the point where even the Eternal September can be viewed with some nostalgia has long been reached:

The name arose through a combination of how, every September, the Internet would see a sudden burst of college freshmen, who still needed to learn how to handle themselves and who were an annoyance to older users until they had done so; and how the popularization of the Internet outside of college caused this inflow of unversed users to take place over the entire year. Even so, in the early days, the new users tended to be of over-average intelligence, tech affinity, and/or willingness to adapt—and many could still continuously be made to leave their newbie status behind. The problem with the Eternal September was its Hydra character: Cut of one head and it grew two new.

Today’s situation is far, far worse: There is no filtering* of who uses the Internet, be it with regard to intelligence, technical understanding, willingness to learn from more senior users, …; and, by now, the vast majority of all users are stuck in a constant newbie state. Indeed, we have long reached a point where those who have been on the Internet since before the problems became overwhelming** are viewed as weirdos for doing things the right way***. Worse: Websites are usually made for the “lowest common denominator”, with regard to content, language****, and interface, making them far less interesting than they could be to the old guard. This is paralleled in a number of negative phenomena on the Internet (and, unfortunately, IT in general): Consider e.g. how much less profitable it would be to spam a collective of STEM students than a random selection of the overall population, or how much less successful an Internet-based virus among the tech savvy.

*A formal filter, a legal restriction, an equivalent of a driver’s license, or similar, was not in place before the Eternal September either. However, Internet access outside of higher education was reasonably rare, and even within higher education it was far more common in STEM areas than in e.g. the social sciences. Correspondingly, there was an implicit filter that made it far more likely for e.g. a math major to have Internet access than for e.g. a high-school drop-out.

**The linked-to Wikipedia page puts 1993 as the start date in the U.S., but other countries like trailed somewhat. I started college in 1994 and the situation was reasonable for a few years more, before the Internet boom really started—after which is has been downhill all the way.

***Note that while there is some arbitrariness to all rules and there is usually more than one legitimate way to handle things, there is at least one important difference between the “old ways” and the “new ways” (even aside from the benefit of continuity and consistency, which would have been present with the old rules): The old ways were thought-out by highly intelligent people and/or developed by trial-and-error to a point where they worked quite well—the new are a mixture of complete arbitrariness; ideas by less intelligent and less experienced users, or even managers of some software company; attempts to apply unsuitable “real-world” concepts to the online world; … To this must be added the technical side: Someone who understands it, all other factors equal, is objectively better off that someone who does not—and less of a burden to others.

****Even Wikipedia, once an exemplary source of good writing, has gone downhill considerably, with regard to both grammar and style. (Notably, the “encyclopedic writing” aspect is increasingly disappearing in favor of a more journalistic or magazine style. I have long had plans for a more detailed post on Wikipedia, including topics like an infestation with unencyclopedic propaganda, but have yet to get around to it.)

A particularly depressing aspect, but great illustration of the more general problems, is the (ab-)use of email by many businesses, government institutions, and similar, who simply do not understand the medium and how to use it properly. No, I am not talking about spam here (although spam is a gross violation)—I am talking about everyday use.

Consider e.g.:

  1. That many businesses and virtually all (German) government institutions fail to quote the original text when replying and replace the subject line with something to the effect of “Your message from [date]”.

    The former makes it harder to process the message, in particular when a re-reply is needed, often forcing the user to open several other messages to check for past contents; the latter makes it much harder to keep messages together that belong together*, to find the right reply to an email, identify why a reply was sent**, etc. To boot, these problems likely contribute to poor customer service through creating similar issues on the other end, e.g. through a member of customer support not having all the information present without looking through old emails or some ticket system: Even if the information is there, access will be slower, more resources will be wasted, and there is a major risk that important information will still be missed.

    *Not only manually, but also through giving automatic “threading” mechanisms in email clients an unexpected obstacle.

    **When the original text is not included, this becomes even harder. In a worst-case scenario, when several emails were sent to the same counter-part on the same day (rare but happens), it might not even be possible to make the correct match—or only through comparing various IDs in the message headers. The latter is not only much more effort than just looking at subject lines, it also requires that all involved software components have treated them correctly, that the counter-part has used them correctly, and that the user knows that they exist…

    The explanation for this absolutely amateurish and destructive behavior is almost certainly that they have never bothered to learn how to handle email, and just unreflectingly apply methods that they used with “snail mail”* in the past. This is the more absurd since going in the other direction, and altering some snail mail procedures in light of experiences with email, would be more beneficial.

    *This phrase gives another example of how the world can change: Twenty years ago, I could use the phrase and simply assume that the vast majority of all readers would either know that I meant “physical mail sent by the post”—or be willing both to find out the meaning on their own and to learn something new. Today, while typing the phrase, I am suddenly unsure whether it will be understood—and I know that very many modern Internet users will not be willing to learn. I might be willing to give the disappearance of the phrase a pass: We can neither expect every phrase ever popular to continue to be so in the long term, nor the phrases of any group to be known in all other groups. However, the attitude towards learning and own effort is a different matter entirely.

  2. When messages are quoted, established rules are usually ignored entirely, especially with regard to putting the quote ahead of the answer and to intermingle quote and reply, which makes an enormous difference in the ease of processing the reply. Some tools, notably MS Outlook, more-or-less force a rule violation on the users… When quote and reply are intermingled it is usually not done in the established manner, with separating new lines and use resp. non-use of a “> ” prefix; instead, the new text is simply written straight into the old and separated only by a highly problematic* use of a different color.

    *Among the problems: The colors are not standardized. The result becomes confusing as to who wrote what in what order after just a few back-and-forths, to the point of making a lengthier email discussion almost impossible (whereas it was one of the main uses of email in the days of yore). It forces the use of HTML emails (cf. below). There is no guarantee that the colors will be visible after printing or a copy-and-paste action to another tool (notably a stand-alone editor). Not all email clients will be able to render the colors correctly (and they are not at fault, seeing that HTML is not a part of the email specifications). Generally, color should not be used to make a semantic differentiation—only to highlight it. (For instance, in the example below, an email client could automatically detect the various “>” levels and apply colors appropriately; however, the “>” signs must remain as the actual carriers of meaning.)

    To give a (simplistic and fictional) example of correct quoting:

    >>> Have you seen the latest “Star Wars” movie?
    >> No.
    > Why not?
    The one before that was too disappointing.

  3. Ubiquitous use of “no-reply” addresses: Anyone who sends an email has a positive duty to ensure that the recipient can reply to this email. This includes event-generated automatic messages (e.g. to the effect of “we have received your email” or “your package has just been sent”) and news letters. Either make sure that there is someone human able to read the replies or do not send the email at all.* This is not only an ethical duty towards the recipient, it is also a near must for a responsible sender, who will be interested in e.g. tracking resulting failures.

    *The exact role of this human (or group of humans) will depend on the circumstances; often it will be someone in customer service or a technical administrator.

  4. Abuse of email as just a cost-saver relative snail mail: There is nothing wrong with sending relevant attachments in addition to an email text, and in some cases, e.g. when sending an invoice*, even a more-or-less contentless email and an attachment can be OK (provided that the recipient has consented). However, some take this to an absurd extreme, notably the outrageously incompetent German insurance company HUK, and write a PDF letter containing nothing that could not be put in an email, attach the resulting file to the email, and use a boiler-plate email text amounting to “please open the attachment to read our message”. This, obviously, is extremely reader hostile, seeing that the reader now has to go through several additional steps just to get at the main message** and it ruins the normal reply and quote mechanisms of email entirely. To boot, it blows up the size of the message to many times what it should be*** and increases the risk of some type of malware infection.

    *This especially if the contents of the invoice are to some degree duplicated in the email proper, including total amount, time period, and due date (but more data is better). Writing an invoice entirely as a plain-text email is possible, and then the attachment would be unnecessary; however, there can be legitimate reasons to prefer e.g. PDF, including a reduced risk of manipulation, a more convincing and consistent visual appearance if a hard-copy has to be presented to the IRS, and an easier differentiation between the invoice proper and an accompanying message. (There might or might not be additional legal restrictions in some jurisdictions.)

    **Note that it is not just a matter of one extra click to open that one attachment that one time. Consider e.g. a scenario of skimming through a dozen emails from the same sender, from two years back, in order to find those dealing with a specific issue, and then to extract the relevant information to clarify some new development: If we compare a set of regular emails and a set of emails-used-to-carry-PDFs, the time and effort needed can be several orders larger for the latter. Or consider how the ability to use a search mechanism in the email client is reduced through this abuse of email.

    ***This is, admittedly, less of an issue today than in the past (but HUK has been doing this for a very long time…). Still there are situations where this could be a problem, e.g. when a mailbox has an outdated size limit. It is also a performance issue with regard to other email users: The slow-down and increase in resource use for any individual email will be relatively small; however, in the sum, the difference could be massive. What if every message was blown-up by a factor of 10, 100, 1000, …? What would the effects on the overall performance be and what amount of band-width and processing power (especially if spam or virus filters are applied) would be needed? For instance, the two emails at the top of my current mailbox are, respectively, an outgoing message from me at 1522 Byte and the reply to said message at 190 Kilo(!)byte—roughly 125 times as much. The lion’s part of the difference? A two-page PDF file…

  5. Use of HTML as an email format: Such use should, on the outside, be limited to recipients known both to handle the emails in a compatible manner and to be consenting: HTML is not supported by all email clients, and not in the same manner by all that do. It poses an additional security and privacy risk to the recipient. It bloats the message to several-to-many times the size it should be. It makes offline storage of the email more complicated. It makes it harder to use standard reply and quoting mechanisms. The risk of distortion on the way to the recipient is larger. … Notably, it also, very often, makes the email harder to read, through poor design.

    To boot, the reason for the use is usually very dubious to begin with, including the wish to include non-informative images (e.g. a company logo), to try to unethically track the recipients behavior (e.g. through including external images and seeing what images is retrieved when), or to make the message more aesthetic*. A particular distasteful abuse is some newsletters that try emulate the chaotic design of a commercial flyer or catalog, which often deliberately try to confuse the readers—either the newsletter senders are incompetent or they try to achieve something incompatible with the purpose of a newsletter**.

    *This is simply not the job of the sender: The sender should send his contents in a neutral form and the rendering should be done according to the will of the recipient and/or his email client—not the sender. Efforts to change this usually do more harm than good.

    **Most likely, but not necessarily, to use it as advertising. I note that while newsletters are often unwelcome and while the usual automatic addition of any and all customers to the list of recipients is despicable, the abuse of a newsletter for advertising is inexcusable: Many will consent to being or deliberately register as recipients because they are interested in news about or from the sender; and it is a gross violation of the trust placed in the sender to instead send them advertising.

    There are legitimate cases where a plain-text email is not enough to fulfill a certain use-case; however, they are rare and usually restricted to company-internal emails. For instance, one of the rare cases when I use HTML emails is when I want to send the tabular result of a database query to a colleague without having to use e.g. an Excel attachment—and even this is a border-line spurious use: In the days of yore, with some reservations for the exact contents, this could have been done equally well in plain-text. Today it cannot, because almost all email readers use a proportional font and because some email clients take inexcusable liberties with the contents*.

    *For instance, Outlook per default removes “unnecessary” line-breaks—and does so making assumptions that severely restrict the ability to format a plain-text document so that it actually is readable for the recipient.

    Of course, even assuming a legitimate use-case, it can be disputed whether specifically HTML is a good idea: Most likely, the use arose out of convenience or the misguided belief that HTML was a generic Internet format (rather than originating as a special purpose language for the Web). It would have been better to extend email with greater formatting capabilities in an ordered, centralized, and special-purpose* manner, as has been done with so many other Internet related technologies (cf. a great number of RFCs).

    *Which is not automatically to say that something should be developed from scratch or without regard for other areas—merely that it should be made to suit the intended purpose well and only the intended purpose. Some member (or variation of a member) of the ROFF-family might have been suitable, seeing that they are much closer to plain-text to begin with.

  6. A particularly idiotic mistreatment of emails is exemplified by Daimler and in recent discussion for another large auto-maker (which one, I do not recall):

    If an email is sent to an employee at the wrong time, e.g. during vacation, the email is simply deleted…

    The motivation given is absurd and shows a complete lack of understanding of the medium: This way, the private time of the employees would be protected. To make matters worse, the “threat” comes not from the outside but from a (real or imagined) pressure from within the company to always be available. In effect, Daimler has created a problem, and now tries to solve this problem through pushing the responsibility and consequences onto innocent third parties.

    Email is by its nature an asynchronous means of communication; and one of its greatest advantage is that the sender knows that he can send a message now, even outside of office hours or during vacation periods, and have it handled on the other end later. He does not have to consider issues like whether the recipient (if a business) is open or (if a person) is at home with his computer on. Moreover, the “later” is, with some reservations for common courtesy and stated dead-lines, determined by the recipient: He can chose to handle the email in the middle of his vacation—or he can chose to wait until he is back in the office. Whichever choice he makes, it is his choice; and if he chooses the former against his own best interests, well, then he only has himself to blame.

    By this utterly ridiculous rule, one of the greatest advantages of email is destroyed. To boot, it does this by putting an unfair burden on the sender, who is now not only required to re-send at a later and less convenient time—but who can see a number of additional disadvantages. Assume e.g. that the sender is about to head for his vacation, sends an important and urgent email, goes of the grid for two weeks, and comes back to see that his email has not even been read. Or take someone who writes a lengthy email and loses* any own copy after sending—should he now be required to re-type the entire thing, because of a grossly negligent policy of the recipient’s? Or what happens when employees in very different time zones or with very different vacation habits try to communicate with each other? Should the one work during his normal off-hours or vacation so that the other can receive the email during his time in the office? What happens if the notification** of “please send again” from company A is it self deleted by company B?

    *Disk crashes and accidental deletes happen; I have worked with email clients that do not automatically save sent emails; and, in the spirit of this post, not all users actually know how to retrieve sent emails that are saved…

    **Daimler apparently at least has the decency to send such notifications. I would not count on all copy-cats to follow suit.

    Want to keep your employees from reading company emails in their spare time? Do not give them email access from home or do cut it off during those times when no access is wanted! The way chosen by Daimler turns the reasonable way of handling things on its head—to the gross detriment of others. (This even assuming that the intended goal is legitimate: These are adults. We could let them chose for themselves…)

Written by michaeleriksson

January 5, 2018 at 12:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

Iceland, irrational laws, and feminist nonsense

with 2 comments

As I learned today, there has been a highly negative development and dangerous precedent in Iceland:

An extremely unwise new law requires “equal” pay between men and women*. This is a good example of the problems with a mixture of democracy and stupid/uninformed voters resp. stupid/uninformed/populist politicians; and equally why it is important to have “small government”, with governmental interference limited to what is necessary—not what buys more votes. Further, it is a good example of how a “noble” cause does more harm than good to society.

*The linked-to article uses the absurdly incorrect formulation “legalise”, which would imply that it would be legal to have equal pay. Presumably, the author intended some variation of “legislate”. (If not ideal, at least much better than “legalise”.)

There are at least the following problems involved:

  1. It falls into the trap of the obnoxious and extremely misleading “77 cents on the dollar” lie. Men and women already have equal pay for equal work in very large parts of the world, including Iceland (and Sweden, Germany, the U.S., …) In fact, in as far as there are differences, they actually tend to favour women… Only by making unequal comparisons by failing to adjust for e.g. hours worked, qualifications, field of work, …, can such nonsense like the “77 cents on the dollar” lie even gain a semblance of truth. Cf. below.
  2. It fails to consider aspects like skill at negotiation and willingness to take risks. Cf. an earlier post.
  3. It risks, as a consequence of the two previous items, to give women a major artificial advantage and men a corresponding disadvantage. Basically, if feminist accounting would eventually find “100 cents on the dollar”, a true accounting would imply “130 cents on the dollar”, given women a de facto 30 % advantage instead of the current alleged male 30 % advantage implied by “77 cents on the dollar”).
  4. Judging whether two people actually do sufficiently similar jobs that the same remuneration is warranted is extremely tricky, and the law risks a great degree of arbitrariness or even, depending on details that I have not researched, that differences in remuneration between people on different performance levels shrink even further*.

    *In most jobs, and the more so the more competence they require, there is a considerable difference between the best, the average, the worst of those who carry the same title, have the same formal qualifications, whatnot. This is only very rarely reflected in payment to the degree that it should be (to achieve fairness towards the employees and rational decision making among employers). In software development, e.g., it is unusual that the difference in value added between the best and worst team member is less than a factor of two; a factor of ten is not unheard of; and there are even people so poor that the team would be better off without their presence—they remove value. Do salaries vary similarly? No…

  5. For compliance, “companies and government agencies employing at least 25 people will have to obtain government certification of their equal-pay policies”. The implication is considerable additional bureaucracy and cost for these organizations and likely, again depending on details I have not researched, the government it self.

    To boot, this is exactly the type of regulation that makes it hard for small companies to expand, and that gives the owners incentives to artificially limit themselves.

    From the reverse angle, for those who actually support this law, such vagueness could weaken* the law considerably—while keeping the extra cost and bureaucracy. Similarly, if the checks are actually fair and come to a conclusion that reflects reality, then changes in actual pay levels will be small and mostly indirect—with, again, the extra cost and bureaucracy added.

    *But I would not bet on it being enough to remove the inherit injustice and sexual discrimination it implies.

  6. It opens the doors to similarly misguided legislation, like e.g. a law requiring that certain quotas of women are met by all organisations—even when there are few women who are interested in their fields. (Implying that women would be given better conditions and greater incentives than men in those fields. Incidentally, something that can already be seen in some areas even with pressure stemming just from “public opinion” and PR considerations—not an actual law.)

As to the “77 cents on the dollar” and related misconceptions, lies, misinterpreted statistics, whatnot, I have already written several posts (e.g. [1], [2] ) and have since encountered a number of articles by others attacking this nonsense from various angles, for example: [3], [4], [5], [6], [7].

Simply put: Anyone who still believes in this nonsense is either extremely poorly informed or unable to understand basic reasoning—and any politician who uses this rhetoric is either the same or extremely unethical. I try to remain reasonably diplomatic in my writings, but enough is enough! The degree of ignorance and/or stupidity displayed by these people is such that they truly deserve to be called “idiots”. They are not one iota better than believers in astrology or a flat earth.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 2, 2018 at 9:35 pm

German taxes and Elster II

with 3 comments

Yesterday, I was forced* to spend several hours in one of my least favorite ways: Doing my taxes and using Elster, one of the most horrible web interfaces I have ever encountered. It is quite clear that the makers know nothing of good usability and standard UI paradigms, that they are not well versed with writing web applications, and that they have very little common sense. The amateurishness is absurdly, ridiculously large.

*Due to deadlines at years end. Of course, I could have done this earlier and kept New Year’s Eve free for more pleasant things, but my self-discipline during vacations is lousy—and I would still have had to do the same amount of work.

To look at some specific examples of problems (in addition to an overall extremely poorly thought-through and unintuitive interface and problems already discussed in the linked-to post):

  1. There is no good way to add a free-text explanation to a form*—despite this very often being needed. The main way** is to use a separate message form, which then is tautologically not connected to the original form. This message form can contain a text of some 14, 15 thousand (!) characters—more than enough for any reasonable purpose, one would think. Unfortunately, this text has to be entered in a window of a mere three (!) lines, making the use of an external editor a virtual necessity for any non-trivial text.*** Worse: The text must not contain any line-breaks—an entirely arbitrary and indefensible restriction. Consider the absurdity: I can enter a message that is longer than most of my blog posts, but I am not allowed to enter a line-break anywhere in that message… In doubt, this amounts to the German IRS**** shooting it self in the foot: Good luck with the reading… Almost needless to say, there was no mention of this restriction in advance; it only became apparent when I pasted the completed text—which I then had to modify accordingly.

    *To be understood as the virtual equivalent of a paper form—not e.g. a form in the technical sense of HTML.

    **There is some way to add an additional message to at least some forms; however, this option is only displayed at the very end of the submit process and, to my recollection, requires an MS-Word and/or PDF document. It cannot be added during the actual input processes, it requires considerably more effort than a normal text field, and there is no information given in advance that/whether it will be there.

    ***I very strongly encourage the use of external editors anyway, but the choice should be made by the individual—not the IRS.

    ****For the sake of brevity, I will use “IRS” through-out. This, however, is not an official translation, and the corresponding Germany entities are not perfect analogies of the U.S. IRS.

  2. The button, or more accurately looks-like-a-tab-but-leads-to-an-action element, “Prüfen” (“Check”) should reasonably check the form for inputs, consistency, whatnot, and then return the user to editing the form. It does not… Well, it does do the checks, but it then displays one single button, almost irresistibly hard not to click on before reading it, which leads to a “send” action—something that would release the form for the enjoyment of the IRS and likely cause a number of problems for the user, if he was not actually finished*.

    *For obvious reasons, I have not tried this. It is possible that a renewed submit/send would be possible after amendments; it is possible that it would not be. However, even if the former, there will be more effort involved, and chances are that having multiple submits would over-tax the low-competence IRS.

    No, to resume editing, the user has to go into the line of looks-like-a-tab-but-leads-to-an-action elements and click on the element that amounts to “edit”.

  3. In stark contrast, the looks-like-a-tab-but-leads-to-an-action element “Speichern und Formular verlassen” (“Save and leave form”) does not actually do this, instead presenting the user with three different options—one of which leaves the form without saving… One of the other two allows to continue with editing (the option that should have been, but was not, present for “Prüfen”!); while the third actually does what the original element purported to do: Saves the form and leaves it.

    Interestingly, there is no indication whether the element form continuing the edit saves the document or or continues without saving. However, I do note that there is no separate looks-like-a-tab-but-leads-to-an-action element for the obviously needed action of just saving the form and continuing in one step—despite this being one of the most common actions that a user would reasonably take. (Yes, there are dim-wits who spend two hours editing an MS-Word document between each save; no, this is not how a wise computer users works. Saves should be frequent; ergo, they should be easy to do with a single action.)

  4. Yet another unexpectedly behaving looks-like-a-tab-but-leads-to-an-action element is “Versenden” (“Send”; however, I am not certain that I got the exact German name): This does not send the form; it leads to a check-your-data page with a real send button on it.

    By all means, the step of checking the data is quite sensible. But: Why is the element not called the equivalent of “Check your data and send”? (Contrast this with the previous item, which uses that type of longer name and then fails to perform that action… All in all, the approach to naming elements looks like a game of “pin the donkey” gone wrong.)

  5. The page is so misdesigned* that an important navigation bar on the left only becomes completely visible at 50 (!) % zoom, while being undetectable at 100 % zoom and workable to some approximation at 80 %.

    *Individual experiences could possibly vary based on the browser used. I used TorBrowser 7.0.10, which is an anonymity-hardened version of Mozilla Firefox 52.5.0—a recent long-term-release version of the second most popular browser on the planet: If a web page does not work with a browser like that, something is horribly wrong with the implementation and/or quality assurance of the page.

Believe it or not: This years version, following a re-vamp, was a major improvement over last year’s—despite still being an absolute horror.

To boot, there are a number of problems not (necessarily) related directly to Elster, but to the original conceptions of the old paper forms, the incompetence of the IRS, and/or the overly complicated German tax system. For instance, the main form (“Mantelbogen”) for the tax declaration, needed by everyone, contains a number of pages that apply to only small minorities, e.g. those who have cared for an invalid in their respective homes. In contrast, the “N” form, which is used by all regular employees (i.e. likely an outright majority; definitely a majority among those pre-retirement) is a separate form. Now, I have no objections to the latter, seeing that not everyone* uses the “N” form; however, why not do the same to considerably rarer special cases? Note that while those who do not fall into these special cases can (and should!) simply forego filling these sections out, they still have to read through them in order to verify that nothing has been missed. For instance, the forms require the addition of a number of data items that the IRS already knows (or should know, if they did their job properly), e.g. the total salary paid, the tax-on-salary paid, the amount of unemployment insurance paid, … Requesting this information again not only puts an unnecessary burden on the tax payer, it also introduces a considerable risk of even more unnecessary errors. For instance, even among the forms themselves, there are redundancies (and additional risks of unnecessary errors). In my case, I have to enter information about various VAT amounts in both the VAT declaration and the EÜR (which calculates the taxable earnings); afterwards, I have to copy the taxable earnings from form EÜR into form S by hand. This is not only a potential source of errors, it also implies that I cannot complete the almost independent forms in any order I chose, possibly even get the comparatively short form S out of the way immediately after the year’s end and turn my attentions to the more complex EÜR when I have a bit of vacation.

The whole system is a complete disaster, and I re-iterate what I wrote in the linked-to post: If the tax system and the available tools are so complex/unsuitable/whatnot as they are, then the government should be obligated to pay for “Steuerberater” for all tax payers.

*This includes me for the year 2016 (and 2017). Those self-employed need the “S” form (and the “EÜR” form; and the form for VAT, whatever it is called). Those who, like me in 2015, switch from regular to self-employment during the year need to fill out forms for both cases: N, S, EÜR, the form for VAT—and, naturally, all applicable common forms like the “Mantelbogen” and “Vorsorgeaufwand”.

As a funny/tragic aside:
There appears to have been a modification in how numbers are handled compared to my description in the linked-to post. Back then, I complained that an entry like “123” into a field requiring decimal places was not considered the same as “123,00”, instead resulting in an error message. This time I had the absurd problem that input like “123.45” (copied from a calculator that, naturally, uses a decimal point; whereas German forms use a decimal comma) were automatically turned into “123.45,00”—and then followed by a new error message that no points where allowed. What the hell?!? Firstly, adding the “,00” outright is sub-optimal; it would be better to keep the original value and note that “123,00” is mathematically equivalent to “123”. Secondly, checks for errors should be made before* doing any modifications; if not, there is no telling what the end result is. Thirdly, any modification should be done in a sound manner and the values “123,45” and “123.45,00” simply are not sound—assuming the German system, it would have to either be “12.345” respectively “12.345,00” or a pre-modification rejection. To boot, although more of a nice-to-have, there should be some setting where the user can determine his preference for the semantic of “.” and “,”. This would certainly have saved me a number of edits (and another possible source of errors) of values I rightfully should have been able to copy-and-paste. However, I would not necessarily recommend that the software be changed to allow the use of “thousand separators”—counting them as an error is a potential annoyance; however, it also allows an additional consistency check to prevent the dangerous misinterpretations of “international” numbers.**

*Depending on the exact circumstance, it can be very wise to check afterwards too; however, the “before” check is more critical, because it corresponds to what the user has actually entered. He needs to be given feedback to his own errors and any error remaining to be caught during the “after” check would be the result of errors made by the program.

**Many years ago, I entered something like “16.45” in my online banking, intending to transfer a small amount to pay a bill—and this was automatically turned into either “16.450,00” or “1.645,00”… Fortunately, I caught this change before the final submit. A no-periods-allowed check would have been quite welcome here (as would a does-the-value-make-sense check: “16.45” does not make sense as an input in the German system; just like “16,45” does not make sense in the U.S. system.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 1, 2018 at 10:58 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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