Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Archive for June 2018

Some problems with Wikipedia

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Preamble:
On several occasions, I have started a text on problems with Wikipedia. With too many items to discuss, I have always lost interest before I was even half-done. To finally get something published on the matter, I have taken my last attempt (from May 2017), struck out a few keywords-that-should-have-been-expanded-upon, and polished it a little (including a few links to more recent posts); I acknowledge that more specific examples would be helpful, but, with the intervening time, the old examples are long gone. The result is the rest of this text.

I have long been a great fan, avid reader, and sometime editor of Wikipedia. For at least some part of its history, I have considered Wikipedia worth more than the rest of the Web* together. The more painful it has been for me to see the gradual degeneration of Wikipedia, the loss of the encyclopedic ideal, and the takeover by politically and ideologically motivated editors in many subject areas. Below I will discuss some of the current problems, many of which could be explained by a drift** in authorship from people of over-average intelligence, from an academic background, and/or with more technical interests to members of the broader masses.

*Here it pays to make the distinction between Web and Internet. Email, e.g., is part of the latter but not the former.

**A similar drift explains many of the things that have changed for the worse on the Internet, in the Open-Source community, and similar, over time. Indeed, the people who dominated the Internet when I first encountered it (1994) form a very small minority by now. Also see a post expanding on these thoughts.

  1. A great proliferation of “popular culture”* sections that bring little or no value, but waste space and the editors energy. Why on Earth does every nit-wit who has just heard topic X briefly referenced on “Family Guy” or “The Simpsons” feel the need to add this to the Wikipedia article on X?!?

    *The section heading is almost always a variation of, or contains, “popular culture”. The contents are not always compatible with this and I use this phrase without implying that it is well chosen.

    Discussion of films and books referencing X can have a valid place, but this requires some degree of significance of the work, that the presence of X in the work is considerable, and that it actually brings some added value. In rare cases, there might be reason to include some mention to show that X has had an influence on popular culture, but it is then almost always better to just state that it had an influence, rather than to attempt to list every single TV episode that made a fleeting reference. For an article on Mozart, e.g., the movie “Amadeus” is highly relevant; his (hypothetical) appearance on an episode of “Family Guy” is not; that a character on some-TV-show-or-other liked his music is utterly irrelevant and unencyclopedic.

  2. A decrease in the quality of language. This includes a drop in register and increasing deviations from encyclopedic language in favor of journalistic language; and a number of more detailed issues. (See excursion at the end.)
  3. A PC/feminist/whatnot influence, which includes spurious or irrelevant references to social constructs; uncritical support of “equality of outcome” as something positive, or an implicit assumption that any difference in outcome is caused by a lack of “equality of opportunity”; every second article having a section of feminism’s role for the topic, the feminist take on an topic, whatnot*; categorical and unscientific denial that races exist, even in articles where the claim has no obvious purpose or relevance; …

    *Notably, the relevance of specifically feminism is in most cases so low that another dozen movements and whatnots would have an equal right to be included—but rarely are. A particular idiocy is “feminist film analysis”, which does not even appear to be an honest attempt at applying a certain perspective and methodology on film analysis, instead giving every impression of just trying to extend the pseudo-science of “gender studies” to a new area.

  4. The common application of “feminist” to persons who lived before the term was invented and who e.g. have written on women’s issues, from a woman’s perspective, or using “strong women”; have been involved with some part of the women’s rights movement or expressed opinions in that direction; or even just have been successful women. Some of these might have identified with feminism; others would not have. Associating them with this poison of the mind in such a blanket manner is insulting, stupid, and/or intellectually dishonest (depending on the motivations). Giving feminism pseudo-credibility by claiming that historical persons were feminists is just atrocious.

    To put it down plain and simply: Someone who likes strong women is NOT automatically a feminist. Someone who wants men and women to be equal in rights and responsibilities is NOT automatically a feminist—indeed, more likely than not, a random feminist will not believe in true equality. Someone who thinks that women should have the right to vote is NOT automatically a feminist. Etc. To claim any or all of this is the equivalent of saying that anyone who wants to improve living conditions for the poor is a socialist or that all communists are revolutionaries.

    See also a recent post covering similar ground.

  5. Undue reliance on and abuse of the principle of citability:

    One of the core principles of Wikipedia, and originally a very good thing, is that Wikipedia should only reflect what can be supported by reputable sources—not personal conviction, rumors, speculation, or even (possibly faulty) synthesis of facts by the editors. This, in theory, should keep the articles low* in bias, speculation, pseudo-science, mere personal opinion, …

    *A complete absence is likely unreachable.

    With time, this principle has turned out to be very vulnerable to both abuse and incompetence, and it fails whole-sale in areas where pseudo- or proto-sciences (and other fields of “expertise”) are dominated by true believers, ideology, and similar. Gender studies is the paramount, but, unfortunately, not only example. Because there is no equivalent of astronomy, the “astrologers” are the only ones citable and the articles are, by analogy, filled with astrology instead of astronomy.

    Even in areas where there is no such dominating streak of “astrology”, problems are quit common, notably that individual editors refuse to reconsider a claim which is based on a single, often low quality, source; fail to realize that the opinion of the source is not sufficiently supported that it can be viewed as fact; or similar. The use of sources that either do not satisfy Wikipedia’s criteria for good sources or does-but-should-not (e.g. news-paper articles) is abundant. Changes in what main-stream science consider correct are not necessarily reflected and it is not uncommon that scientists with no or minor expertise in a subject area are used as authorities (most of the, absurdly many, references to Stephen J. Gould are unwarranted for this reason—to the point that a blanket ban on using his name might be a good idea).

    This well-intentioned principle can in the end be what kills Wikipedia, and I see it as a near necessity that Wikipedia (a) is more explicit on the difference between fact and opinion*, (b) forces a higher degree of plausibility checking and culling of sources**, e.g. by excluding news papers and other journalistic reporting for material that cannot be considered “current events”. With regard to (a), I also note that a good encyclopedia considers the risk that what is considered fact today can turn out to be wrong tomorrow, e.g. because a better scientific theory appears or because a higher court over-turns a conviction***.

    *Consider e.g. the difference between “The sun is a black hole[1].”, “According to Meyer[1], the sun is a black hole”, “Meyer[1] represents the minority view that the sun is a black hole; main stream science considers it a star[2][3][4]”.

    **However, great care must be taken. It is very easy for such checks to degenerate into “agrees with me, OK; does not agree with me, not OK”. Criteria could include strength of source; whether the claims are logically consistent; whether a claim is actually supported by the source it self or just taken over from another source (note how “facts” are sometimes uncritically propagated in feminist propaganda with no-one knowing when and where the claim originated, cf. the Woozle effect); whether the claim is actually present in the source; to what degree the claim represents personal opinion/speculation by the editor, respectively has a support in the scientific community. (Where “support” need not imply even a majority opinion, but should go beyond rare fringe views.)

    ***Generally, I urge everyone, not just Wikipedia editors, to prefer formulations like “murder convict” over “convicted murderer”, unless the level of evidence goes considerably beyond even “reasonable doubt”.

    This becomes particularly problematic when a given article has one or several self-appointed “owners” and these have a strong opinion. The result is typically that controversy* is not discussed in the article, often hidden behind a flawed consensus among the editors** of the article, and attempts to introduce alternate view-points often result in these being deleted and another several references being tacked on to the view point pushed by the self-appointed owners. (This can result in single statements having between half and a whole dozen references—without the reader having any greater certainty about the correctness of the claim.)

    *This is a scenario to be contrasted with the anti-evolutionary mantra “teach the controversy”: For evolution, there is no controversy within science, only in e.g. U.S. politics and popular opinion. The cases I discuss are often quite the reverse, with an existing disagreement between scientists or even branches of science, whereas the alleged consensus is often political, ideological, “popular”, whatnot. Worse, the latter type of consensus is sometimes allowed to trump a contradictory scientific consensus… Unfortunately, I kept no specific examples when writing the original version of this text; however, a typical generic example (not necessarily present on Wikipedia) of such a reversal is I.Q., where main-stream politicians and “enlightened” citizens “know” that I.Q. only measures how well someone can do an I.Q. test and that I.Q. tests are flawed, evil, and “culturally biased” to begin with—something entirely at odds with what science says on the topic.

    **As opposed to the “consensus among scientists”.

  6. Increased use of animations instead of individual images to illustrate processes. Individual images are usually the superior choice for illustration, seeing that the users can jump back-and-forth as they please and can take their time or not. In addition, animations are highly destructive when trying to enjoy other parts of the page—like trying to read a book when someone waves a hand in front of the page once every second or so. With (at least) earlier browser/computers and some forms of animation (notably Flash) this also meant a considerable performance drain, especially for users of tabbed browsing. (I regularly have dozens of tabs open for days or weeks.) Unsurprisingly, to compensate, many users prefer to disable animations entirely, and these then have the problem that the animations are reduced to a single individual image with little or no value.
  7. There are a number of issues on the technical side, including search terms being replaced by something entirely different when Wikipedia presumes to know better than the user what he should search for, use of page transitions (evil, should never have been invented), and highly intrusive* requests for donations when JavaScript is activated**.

    *I have no objection against a valuable “pro bono” service asking for donations from its users; however, when it does so in a manner that dominates the page and comes close to an optical slap in the face, well, that is something very different. If nothing else, this type of behavior likely makes people less likely to donate…

    **This was true around the time I made notes for the first version of this text. I have not verified whether it still is. (I rarely allow JavaScript, in general; and doing so where anyone can add content, including malicious JavaScript code, would be quite dangerous.)

In addition, there are a few problems present that have been with Wikipedia from the beginning (and which I therefore do not discuss above), including a very poor or non-existent coordination between different language versions and that very many U.S. editors fail to understand that en.wikipedia.org is the English language Wikipedia—not the U.S. national Wikipedia. The least of the problems that arise from this is the constant abuse of “American” to mean “U.S.” (with variations). Others include writing from a purely U.S. perspective on an issue (including ignoring legal differences between different countries), not mentioning that a particular claim pertains only to the U.S. (including such bloopers like mentioning “the Department of Justice”, in a generic context, without specifying that the U.S. Department of Justice is intended), giving strictly U.S. pronunciations for English words commonly used in the rest of the English speaking world, etc. On a few rare occasions, I have actually seen articles use formulations like “this country” in manner that implies that both editor and reader are in the U.S.

Articles on movies and books tend to be of a particularly low quality, including being filled with personal speculation* about motives, events, and implications. An ever recurring special case is to claim that a character died, lay dying, fell to his death, or similar, even when the work described leaves the eventual outcome unstated. In many or most cases, death is indeed the most plausible interpretation, but drawing such conclusions is not the role of an encyclopedia—especially since they are quite often incorrect: Fiction is full of characters who appear to die only to come back at an (in)opportune moment.

*Barring explicit claims by the creators of the work, any interpretation is speculative. This is one area where even a reference to a credible source does not alter the irrelevance of the interpretation to an encyclopedia. (Still, personal speculation by the article’s editors is worse.) In fact, even when the creators do make a claim or have a very clear intention, some caution can be needed, as can be seen e.g. by the “death” of Sherlock Holmes—protests by readers famously forced Arthur Conan Doyle to revive him…

Excursion on language and related issues:
With the great number of editors, each with their own weak spots, it is impossible to give an even remotely complete list. However, the following are disturbingly common:

  1. An incessant use of constructs like “being X, he Y-ed”*. Hypothetical examples include “Born in Swaziland, he studied to be a surgeon.” and “A natural red-head, he was sued for malpractice.”, typically with a similar low degree of connection between the two parts of the statement. In the rare cases where a strong connection is present, they are more acceptable, e.g. “Going blind, he was forced to give up surgery.”; however, even then other formulations are usually preferable.

    *I am unaware of an actual name for this type of construct.

    As for the reason for these ugly formulations, I would speculate that we, by now, simply have editors following a hype or trying to use “cool” way of writing, without considering factors like coherence and understandability. Part of the earlier cases could have come from either (unfortunate?) moves of insertions* or the spurious removal of words** in a misguided attempt to shorten the text***.

    *E.g. turning “X, an experienced surgeon, was skilled in anatomy.” into “An experienced surgeon, X was skilled in anatomy.”, which to some degree misses the point of an insertion, and which would be better solved by the original from the next footnote. Note that the variation “X, as an experienced surgeon, was skilled in anatomy.” is also an acceptable starting point, and might be preferable for having a greater internal connection—and would lead to exactly the original of the next footnote. (The greater internal connection can be seen by comparing e.g. “X, a young Frenchman, was skilled in anatomy.” with “X, as a young Frenchman, was skilled in anatomy.”: The latter implies a connection which simply is not warranted, while the former combines the same statements without implying a connection.)

    **E.g. turning “As an experienced surgeon, X was skilled in anatomy.” into “An experienced surgeon, X was skilled in anatomy.”, which makes the the sentence harder to understand and increases the risk of any additional error distorting the meaning.

    ***An older text on my own lack of brevity contains some words on “The Elements of Style” and its corresponding recommendation.

  2. Annoying and (depending on the intentions of the editor) possibly offensive use of “their” and “they” to indicate the third-person singular, even in cases when it introduces ambiguity. Cf. another recent text.
  3. Endless repetitions of “then [s]he”, “[s]he also”, and similar in biographic articles, e.g. to list various movies in which someone acted. (Many biographic articles give the impression that the editor is a high-school dropout.)
  4. Insisting on putting things in prose that would be better handled by a list or a table. (Overlapping with the previous item: A formal list* would have eliminated the awkward formulations.) Annoyingly, there is even a tag that suggests that this-or-that would be better off as prose, which is usually applied to perfectly legitimate lists and tables, while there is no corresponding tag for prose that should be moved to a list or table. (Or there is one that is never used…)

    *E.g. what is created by the UL or OL HTML-tags. Note that I do not necessarily suggest the type of use that I often resort to on WordPress. (My use is partially driven by not wanting to use regular headings/Hx-tags within WordPress, where the effects are not under my control; however, in other contexts, headings are often the better alternative.)

  5. Insertion of a colon (“:”) where it does not belong, e.g. “Examples of names include: Jack, Jill, and Spot”, where “include” implies that no colon should be present, the correct version being “Examples of names include Jack, Jill, and Spot”. Similarly, there should be no colon after words like “are”. In contrast, “Examples of names: Jack, Jill, Spot” would use the colon correctly.
  6. Use of “may” as a replacement for “can” and “might”, apparently under the assumption that it is “fancier”. There is a difference in meaning between the three: “may” implies a permission, “can” an ability, and “might” a possibility.* They should not be used in each others stead unless the difference in meaning is sufficiently small in the given context.**

    *For instance, someone who “can come to visit” has the ability to do so, himself being the limiting factor; someone who “may come to visit” has been allowed to do so, the host (usually) being the limiting factor; someone who “might come to visit” is still waiting to make a final decision.

    **But I admit to not always doing so perfectly myself. I was particularly prone to replace “might” with “may” when I was younger. However, note that I am not complaining about the odd error here and there—some Wikipedia articles appear to use “may” as the sole word for all three functions.

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Written by michaeleriksson

June 22, 2018 at 9:36 pm

Poor decision making

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Poor decision making, especially decision making based on faulty information or flawed criteria, permeates modern* society.

*Often non-modern society too—the central problem is likely the flaws of humanity. However, in the past some decisions (e.g. concerning marriage) might have been more rational, and often there was a lack of choice that prohibited faulty decisions: The son of the blacksmith might have been happier as a shoemaker, but his becoming another blacksmith was often a foregone conclusion. (A lack of choice, obviously, can have more disadvantages than advantages…)

To look at a few examples:

  1. Employment: As I have seen again and again, for an employee to judge whether he will be happy with a certain employer and vice versa for the employer, is virtually impossible using the criteria that normally lead up to the employment (interview, CV/cover letter resp. company presentation, general reputation, …) True, it is often possible to filter out poor candidates at an early stage, but even this comes at a high risk of false negatives—people/companies who are filtered out despite that they would have proved a good match, had the attempt been made. More importantly, it is quite hard to tell the difference between an adequate, a good, and a very good candidate (people who claim to be able to are usually wrong).

    For instance, what if a prospective employee is dazzled by big promises* and a high salary, only to find that his colleagues are hard to work with, that he is stuck in a noisy “open plan” office**, or that the tools provided for his tasks are infuriatingly inefficient? When I consider a new project, I make a point of at least looking at the offices, checking out the main software used, and (if possible) exchange a few words with a regular employee in the absence of the interview team, to have at least some indication of the general mood. However, even so, the first few weeks of actual work can change the original impression massively—and the correlation between the original impression and the final is often weak.

    *Even assuming that these are truthful, which is by no means a given.

    **These being an another example of poor decision making through poor priorities: I cannot rule out that there are fields or positions where they bring value, especially where salaries are low and little thinking required, but when we look at e.g. software development, they are disastrous. Here we have decision makers seeing a small savings in office costs and failing to consider the negative impact on the work environment and the productivity of the staff. (Exactly how many people in one office is practical will depend on a number of issues, including the distance between individuals, the loudness of the work, the degree of consideration shown for each other, …; however, going beyond four is rarely a good idea, and when there is little need for interaction or the offices are small, lower numbers are better.)

    In reverse, having a great CV and being good at self-presentation is no guarantee for a good work performance. Indeed, self-presentation might even correlate negatively with performance. Even an apparently solid education brings comparatively little information with today’s grade and degree inflation, especially in the softer fields.* References and the like are sometimes based more in personal liking and contacts than in truth; and, in Germany, it is almost always forbidden to say something negative about the former employee, which has lead to a complicated set of euphemistic codes that even HR staff often misunderstands… Worse, some employers actually allow the employee to write his own reference, to his own preferences, and then sign it as is—this way the risk of being sued for a poor reference is removed… More can be gained through probing the attitude** and problem-solving skills/intelligence/whatnot of the applicant, but this is rarely done; I.Q. tests, a very valuable source of information, are basically never used, be it through PC prejudices or (as in the U.S.) unfortunate legislation or legal precedent.

    *Note that the main benefit of a higher degree was not to demonstrate acquired knowledge but to filter for innate ability, especially intelligence. This filter effect has been diminished severely over time. (Fields, like medicine, where a high degree of raw knowledge must be present, form an exception to this.)

    **Doing this can be hard when we speak of generally attitudes, like industriousness. (Anyone can claim to be this-or-that.) However, answers concerning more specific attitudes tend to reflect the truth, and can provide valuable information. For instance, in software development, in can really pay to give a few non-leading questions to probe what the applicant thinks of code quality (good), pre-mature optimization (bad), or copy-and-paste vs. abstraction and re-use (former very bad; latter usually good), …

    An almost paradoxical standard question during interviews is “Why do you want to work here?”, which leaves the non-naive applicant in an uncomfortable spot, forcing him to either lie or tell a truth that might damage his chances. Those who can truthfully give a sufficiently complimentary answer to this question are either highly naive or in an unusual situation (say, having previously had an internship at the same company). A true answer by a non-naive applicant might be “I have to work somewhere and based on my preliminary research, you have given a sufficiently good impression that I am willing to give you a shot.”, which could very easily result in a “Thank you for your time. Don’t call us; we’ll call you.” as an immediate reaction. Worse, a truthful answer might amount to “either here or unemployment”…

    As an aside, an exception to this can include cases where someone has a “calling” into a certain field (e.g. religion or medicine) and the options in that field are limited. My mother, e.g., wanted to work as a priest; in Sweden, this came close to necessitating employment with the state church. Even here, however, it is not normally the employer that has drawing power—it is the field. To boot, the assumptions about the field are often naive to begin with.

    See also e.g. an older text on application paradoxes.

  2. U.S. college applications are similar to employment. If we look at it from the college’s point of view, we have criteria like grades, suffering from severe inflation (and where top colleges can have more 4.0s than they can accept); recommendation letters that amount to who knows whom or who was liked by whom; extra curriculars that often demonstrate nothing more than a willingness to work* or even an over-reliance on school for activities and an inability get by without “organized fun”; “AP” classes that mostly compensate for the weakness of the “regular” high-school classes (and also underlie inflation); and the feared essay, the evaluation of which is extremely arbitrary and subjective, especially when the “right” opinions can come into play, which unduly favors those with an ability to write well, and which gives posers an advantage over non-posers. Then there is the whole personal connection, “my parents are alumni”, etc., which says very, very little about the suitability of the prospective student.

    *Especially on TV, where the main reason to have extra curriculars is exactly to get into college… (As opposed to a genuine interest in a certain area.)

    Today, the best shot at a good selection appears to be the SATs (and similar tests) that try to assess scholastic aptitude, but even here the value of the test has, possibly by design, grown weaker over time—and there appears to be a trend for colleges to not require it anymore… Cf. also a discussion of test vs. grades.

    How to do it better? Reverse grade inflation, strengthen the SATs (especially through an increased “g loading”), and look at some combination of grades and SATs; forget about recommendation letters and all other bull-shit. The Swedish system, while far from perfect, does a reasonable job of the combination. (But not at suppressing grade inflation and keeping the counter-part to the SATs, Högskoleprovet, at a high quality.) A particular benefit is that the admittance system is almost entirely centralized and involves far less effort on behalf of both students and colleges. My own application consisted of filling out a single form, indicating what schools and programs I prioritized how. Compare this to having to write essays, gather recommendation letters, whatnot, and send them to several or many individual colleges …

  3. Politics is an area wrought with problems, including that many or most politicians deliberately try to mislead the voters in order to be elected, some resorting to populism, some to scares, some to empty promises, some to outright lies, … This leaves the voters who have the brains and the attitude to make a good decision in the situation that they cannot, for lack of information. At the same time, the voters who lack in these regards are fooled into making the decisions that the politicians want to see (i.e. their own election).

    Worse, the elected politicians themselves are then confronted with decisions for which they often lack the intelligence or education; where lobbyists, non-neutrals, civil servants, whatnot provide flawed information; and where the decisions are often governed by the wish to be re-elected, rather than by doing what is right for the country or keeping the trust placed by the voters of the previous election. A notable complication is that promotion to a certain office in a government/administration/cabinet is often not based on expertise in the right area, but on importance within the party, previous experience as an office holder, “years of service”, … Looking e.g. at Sweden, the match between ministerial portfolio and experience/education rarely exceeds that of a random choice.

    See e.g. [1] for a longer treatment of problems with democracy.

  4. Business–consumer relationships are quite similar to the first half of the previous item: The consumers are to be tricked into becoming customers by any means necessary, including emotional manipulation, misleading product claims, the hiding of vital information in the fine-print, … Again, those with a brain have too little (or flawed) information; again, those without one fall prey.
  5. Marriage and other long-term relationships is possibly one of the most interesting areas, where there could be much to gain through rethinking the current Western approach. (But I note and fully acknowledge that this item is speculative.)

    For starters, most relationships are based on superficialities like physical attraction, shared interests, or even just opportunity. In the short-term*, this is not a problem, but when something more long-term is called for, is the filtering improved sufficiently? More likely than not, aspects like a romantic love (cf. below), habit, convenience, the sunk-cost fallacy, or a fear to be alone carries a relationship into a much deeper territory than it deserves.

    *By which I here imply something that has developed into an actual relationship, as opposed to e.g. just “dating”, but which can still be shallow and definitely is comparatively short in length. (Possibly between a few months and a year.) A differentiation between dating and short-term relationship is important in as far as the former usually contains a considerable amount of probing and deliberation, while the latter does not. In a rough analogy, the one is the application and interview phase preceding an employment, the other is the early days of the employment it self.

    Then there is the question of love, which proverbial blinds us: Romantic love can develop between people who are not really suited for each other, for reasons that include e.g. an early naive internal image of the partner, wist- or wishful thinking, and those pesky oxytocins—often between people who just happen to be in an originally casual relationship. In a next step, love “hides” incompatibilities, makes annoyances easier to tolerate, and, in general, makes the relationship “smoother”. And then the love fades and two people are stuck together who do not belong together… If this is just a long-term relationship, no marriage, no children, there is still the opportunity to move apart with comparatively little pain and trouble, but if there are children or if a marriage has taken place, this is an extremely bad situation.

    As with employment above, long-term relationships are better filtered than could be done with a coin-toss—but not by that much: Many obviously poor matches can be filtered out early, but when it comes to differing between a good and a barely adequate match, or between an excellent seeming and an actually excellent one, enough information is often not present until it is to late.

    Here I have the strong suspicion that the arranged marriages of old (or as practiced by some non-Western cultures) are actually the better way, after allowing for some modifications. For instance, consider a scenario where the respective parents* make a “short-list” of half-a-dozen to a dozen promising candidates with mutual parental approval for the respective (adult!) child, and the children then work** through their respective lists until a mutually acceptable match (based on non-romantic and openly communicated criteria) has been found. Chances are that such a semi-arranged “Vernunftehe”*** would work better than a modern love story. I note that this is not only based on a more rational decision making, but also because the parties will enter the union with a more realistic view of each other and more realistic expectations.**** I also stress that there is a large difference between a marriage not based on romance/romantic love and a loveless marriage: A romantic marriage will often develop into a loveless one over time; a Vernunftehe can equally develop into a loving relationship—and the same type of loving relationship that a successful romantic marriage would eventually see: Love based on long companionship, deep knowledge of each other, mutual care-taking, having gone through hardships next to each other, …

    *In all fairness, had my parents tried this with me, I would likely have reacted very negatively. Then again, it was a long time before my more romantic take on these things started to fade. Today, I have great problems seeing myself married (if at all) outside a “Vernunftehe”.

    **Taking time to get sufficiently acquainted and to clearly communicate and discuss all relevant issues. How long this should take will vary, but going below several days of interaction spread over several weeks seems risky to me. On the other hand, increasing the amount of time too much might cause the decision making to be clouded through emotionality.

    ***Literally, “marriage of reason[ing]”. I prefer the German term over “marriage of convenience”, partially because the literal meaning of the German term catches my intentions better, partially because I am not certain of the exact equivalence: Wikipedia currently has a German link to “Scheinehe” (a sham marriage, e.g. for “green card” reasons) and an internal description that is potentially closer to that term (e.g. in that not only “love” is excluded as a motivation, but also “relationship, family”). Vernunftehe implies a genuine, honest marriage based on reason rather than romance; Scheinehe implies a mere marriage-in-name, with the “spouses” normally never even having lived together. To boot, cf. above, it is not a given that a marriage based in reason will not cause love to develop. (Wikipedia surprises me here, because the literal meaning of “marriage of convenience” has implications more compatible with Vernunftehe than Scheinehe, and my previous understanding of the term was also equivalent to Vernunftehe. A translation with “arranged marriage” would underemphasize the involvement of the spouses and overemphasize that of others.)

    ****Indeed, my impression is that many of the modern divorces go back to one party (usually the woman) having had unrealistic expectations, and then failing to stand by the promise of “or for worse”. (Often in combination with a failure to appropriately communicate these expectations.)

    Barring this, at a minimum, the prospective spouses should have a good long look at each others parents (especially the mother of the bride and the father of the groom) and how the parents relationships have fared. We are not our parents, but there is still usually quite a bit to be learned (with a reasonable degree of likelihood) from them regarding ourselves (resp. about others from their parents)—including much that might not yet be obvious when looking just at the younger generation. (For reasons that include the effects of physical aging and mental maturation, stations in life not yet encountered, and experiences not yet had—especially when it comes to marriage, parenthood, and the like.)

Excursion on knock-out criteria during affluence:
A common luxury problem is that there are “too many” alternatives. This too can lead to poor decision making. For instance, I once heard the anecdote that someone hiring had two sacks of applications and just threw one of them away, giving the reason that a good employee needed to be lucky… More generally, the more candidates there are, the less time there is for each applicant, the greater amount of early filtering is needed, and the more superficial criteria tend to be used. For instance, in a strong economy, I have myself used criteria like “website requires JavaScript” or “they demand my CV as a MS-Word document” to rule out some potential employers without any further research. Both of these criteria do tell me something about the company, but they are still superficial on a level comparable to being unimpressed with a company presentation, and in no way comparable to having worked there for a few weeks—especially since both point to problems that do not necessarily affect the department I would be working in. (However, it could also be argued that boycotting companies who are so bad at web design or so applicant unfriendly is the ethical thing to do.)

Similarly, we are now so inundated with new movies, TV series, books, …, that a very strong filtering is needed for anyone who wants to do anything else with his life than watch TV (etc.); in contrast, in the 1950s, people watched what was available. For the broad masses, such filter criteria could easily become reduced to “have I heard of it from advertising”, “was the trailer good”, or something otherwise mostly being a matter of manipulation by e.g. a TV studio. Even those more refined must use somewhat superficial criteria, e.g. deciding not to give a TV series a fair chance based on negative impressions of others on a rating web site or an own impression from just the pilot—both of which can give a very incorrect impression (for instance, the pilot of a TV series is often one of the worst episodes).

Excursion on “Black Mirror” and partners:
A particular interesting episode of the TV series “Black Mirror” provided some inspiration for the above. It centers around a simulation of relationship interactions between different partners, running at a far, far higher speed than the real world, in order to determine who would be suitable for whom and to make a corresponding recommendation. Something like that (in the unlikely event that it ever becomes technologically feasible) could go a long way towards preventing marriage problems (with obvious extensions to other areas, including employment and elections). Unfortunately, the episode still fell into the trap of romantic love: Instead of simulating what would have happened in the case of marriage, it simulated what amounted to “who feels the strongest attraction for whom” or “which pairing shows the greatest compatibility based on dating”, which implies a romantic notion of a quasi-magical connection between two people.

However, even absent simulations, parts of the approach could still be adapted in real life: Take two complete strangers; put them in a restaurant on a date; if that went well, put them alone in a cottage for a few days; if that went well, make them a couple-on-probation for a few weeks; … (Note that the schedule is considerably accelerated compared to regular dating, implying that certain revelations and experiences also happen a lot faster, in turn making the mutual evaluation a lot faster, in turn making a happy end or a move to the next partner a lot faster.)

Indeed, this (in a fortunate coincidence) ties the two excursions together: I once read an interview with the German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who described his methodology for not drowning in unread books while still keeping his filtering somewhat non-shallow: He read the first twenty pages of a book; if these were sufficiently pleasing, he skipped ahead some distance, possibly a hundred pages, and read another twenty pages; if these were also sufficiently pleasing, he read the entire book. (Presumably, his approach also contained other steps of pre-filtering to determine what books even got the benefit of the first twenty pages—I doubt that “Twilight” made his reading list…)

Written by michaeleriksson

June 18, 2018 at 10:25 pm

Disturbing German news

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Today, I stumbled upon two German news stories that were both highly disturbing, overlapping with some of my writings, and showing how easy it is for the any of us to fall victim to forces that we might naively believe ourselves protected from*.

*E.g. because “the innocent have nothing to fear”, “things like that only happen to others”, …

Firstly, some poor sod has been assaulted in his own apartment, because of a TV program on pedophilia*, through which some people misidentified him as a pedophile** from the program, and took it upon themselves to beat him up so badly that he almost died***…

*According to the article and/or the TV program: There is a fair chance that the label is, for the umpteenth time, abused to include interest in post-pubescent “children” younger than 18, which is in a different realm than pedophilia—sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children.

**From the sparse information given, it is not clear whether he was identified as someone who actually had abused children (or “children”), or as someone who merely felt a sexual attraction towards them. Both are conceivable, considering how many appear to consider it impossible for a pedophile to not control himself; but the latter would make his attackers the more monstrous.

***Whether the attackers deliberate tried to kill him, whether his death was not intended, but at least considered acceptable, or whether an intended lesser attack “just” got out of hand, is not stated. However, if, as it appears, seven to ten people physically assault someone, it is almost a given that “lethal force” applies, irrespective of intent.

There are at least three important points to consider:

  1. That self-proclaimed “good” people who commit evil deeds are worse than the “evil” people who do not—these “good guys” are the true evil, the true monsters. I note that even if the victim had been a child-abuser, chances are that his crimes had not warranted his death; and unless the abuses had been unusually bad, his attackers proved themselves to be worse monsters. Here the victim was innocent…
  2. That it is extremely important to get the facts straight before taking drastic actions. Indeed, one of the reasons why the justice systems in “civilized” countries put emphasis on “due process”, “reasonable doubt”, etc., while strongly limiting self-justice, is exactly to try to prevent such scenarios. Regrettably, innocent people are still regularly convicted—and if a professional justice system can fail, how can a mob of TV viewers presume to take action?
  3. That there is tremendous danger in an attitude of “he is evil; he must not live”, “he has the wrong opinion; he must not speak”, “he does not support our cause; he must not vote”, …

Depending on unknown-to-me details of the case, other points might need making. For instance, if a “passive” pedophile has been grouped with child-abusers, this exemplifies both the danger of seeing opinion/being/character/whatnot and assuming action, or treating them as equal to action, and of believing that what applies to the group applies to each individual member of the group*.

*Interestingly, the politically correct are among the groups most likely to commit this error—despite being among those who complain the loudest of it in others…

Secondly, various apartments have been searched and computers confiscated based on suspicion of “hate postings”. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find examples or quotes of these alleged hate postings, implying that I cannot judge whether these specific instances could have been considered illegal* (as might be the case with “kill all X”), offensive-to-a-reasonable-reader-but-legal, or just everything-not-pc-is-hate-speech**. Irrespective of this, this situation is troubling on several counts, including that confiscating computers is an extreme and improductive measure*** and that going to such lengths based on, as it appears, mere suspicion of guilt jeopardizes the Rechtsstaat. (And is a dubious prioritization of police resources…)

*Note that the German law is unusually strict, especially when anything even hints at support of the old Nazi-regime or its ideas. (This sometimes to a point that the ethical justifiability of the laws seems dubious, and including absurdities like computer games being censored for using Swastikas in depictions of Nazi enemies…)

**During the years that I actually bothered debating on blogs, I saw a great many examples of this. Other examples regularly reach me through the current news, as with [1]. The situation is so bad, that I am not willing to attribute this to sheer incompetence or the inability to see the flawed perspective and the hypocrisy, nor to forgive this by applying Hanlon’s Razor—no, problems on this scale can hardly occur without malice and intellectual dishonesty, by a deliberate use of unfair accusations as a means to an end.

***I note e.g. disproportionately negative effects on the victims of the confiscation; the uselessness of any found evidence through the ease with which digital evidence can be planted; and the uselessness of a search on the computer of a “big fish”, who will have the means to protect himself through use of encryption and similar technologies. See also e.g. [2].

The “chilling effect” of such actions is also disturbing: How do we know that what we say will not be deemed hate speech or illegal speech by someone in a position to cause trouble? What if the police overreacts as mindlessly as in [3]? What if our own words are judged by such absurd criteria as in [1]? How do we know that factual statements, reasonable opinion, attempts at serious debate will not cause the police to knock on our own doors? The simple truth is that we can only hope, and if this trend is carried on, the borders of even de facto illegal “hate speech” will continually be pushed into a more and more unreasonable territory*.

*Based on the comparatively small size of the police action, there is a fair chance that it was directed at outrageous cases—this time around. If no protests follow, this is likely to change… Obviously, what is called “hate speech” (or “racism”, “sexism”, whatnot) in PC circles are very often far from being so, even now.

More generally, I would seriously question whether even the vilest* expression of opinion (per se; without e.g. a call for action) should ever be treated thus. It would be better to restrict measures to expression that also imply an action or a call for action (e.g. “Go kill an X today!”**, but not “All X deserve to die!”***).

*When it comes to anything but the vilest expression, measures like police intervention are unacceptable, anti-democratic, and a violation of the Rechtsstaat. Consider e.g. the relative triviality of the case discussed in [1] and the disproportionate reaction (admittedly by non-police).

**Again, this type of statement is sometimes heard from extremists within the Leftist or PC spheres. Cf. e.g. my discussion of the Charlottesville events.

***Statements that are not uncommon among Leftist and PC extremists.

As an aside, I found the claim disturbing that hate speech would come predominantly from the “extreme Right”*: Not only have I so far seen far more hate from Leftist and PC extremists (especially feminists) than from the “extreme Right”, which makes me doubt the neutrality of this action and suspect a double standard**, but I also suspect the common tendency to consider anyone with e.g. nationalist, anti-immigration, or whatnot opinions to be “extreme Right”, even when other opinions would point to Left, thereby skewing the estimations of the (non-extreme) Left and “Right” among the broad masses.

*Starting with the renewed observation that this is a misnomer, unlike “extreme Left”: The extreme Left consists of people with extreme versions of Leftist opinions or who are willing to use extreme methods to reach Leftist goals; the “extreme Right” does not have the same role relative the “Right” in general. (To which must be added that the “Right” is far more heterogeneous than the Left, and that while the label “Left” can make sense, the label “Right” hardly ever does, except as an opposition to “Left”.)

**I note both that a double standard concerning opinions and behaviors is extremely common among e.g. PC, and Leftist groups, with the most intolerant people often being the ones that complain the most of intolerance in others, the most sexist those who complain the most of sexism in others, etc.; and that there is a considerable skew in German law between the extreme Left and the “extreme Right”. For instance, a few years ago I read a news-paper article on crimes committed by these groups. The main claim was that crimes were more common on the “extreme Right”; however, it was clear from the presented statistics that this was only true due to a legal asymmetry, e.g. in that German law forbids carrying swastikas but is silent on the hammer-and-sickle. When we looked only at non-asymmetrical crimes (e.g. assault, break-ins, …), the numbers were approximately the same.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 16, 2018 at 7:42 am

Some points on the German IRS

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Detailing everything wrong with the German tax system would take an immense effort. However, a few points relating to jurisdiction and responsibility:

  1. Despite taxes being handled almost uniformly through-out Germany, no reasonable centralization has taken place. Instead each individual town has its own “Finanzamt”*, with large cities even having several, independently working, each poorly managed and filled with incompetent pea-counters.

    *I will use the German “Finanzamt” (pl. “Finanzämter”) when referring to the individual “office”—each being a somewhat independent government agency or sub-agency. When I speak of the overall collective of various tax-related agencies and/or the system as a whole, I will in (a slight misnomer) adopt the U.S. term “IRS”.

    This does not only cause inefficiencies compared to having a single entity handling taxes*, it also leads to problems like unnecessary changes of contact persons and addresses, additional efforts for tax payers to inform and coordinate after moves, the Steuernummer complications below, and delays when different Finanzämter need to coordinate the dealings concerning one tax payer (as with my recent move to Wuppertal).

    *For reasons like economies of scale, the easier supervision, a greater ability to stream-line, a greater ability to pick good staff, whatnot; especially, when this single entity has a considerably smaller number of offices. This, obviously, with the reservation that if no honest attempt is made by the IRS to do better, the advantages might not matter…

    The main advantage that this brings is the ability to personally deliver a message, thus removing postal delays and stamp costs—but after the abolishment of paper forms, there are few or no messages where postal delays are relevant and the stamp costs are usually smaller than the cost of the extra distance compared to the next post box. A secondary advantage is the opportunity to talk to someone physical in case of problems or need for clarifications—but considering the low competence levels, the usual lack of “customer” friendliness, and the benefits of having a paper trail* for any dealing with the IRS, this is only extremely rarely worth the trouble. In any case, both of these categories could easily be handled by providing a local skeleton crew and having all the real work done centrally.

    *There have even been the odd claim that someone went to the Finanzamt in person and was given information concerning his case orally—and that the Finanzamt later refused to give the same information in writing and/or to re-iterate this information at a later date, with the attitude that “we have already explained this, so piss off”. While I have no personal experience with this, even the risk should be a great deterent.

    Historically, this might have been justifiable; for decades it definitely has not been; with the removal of paper forms it has become a travesty. At this juncture, the real reason is almost certainly that the interests of the IRS, including its local wannabe big-shots and whatnots, trump the interests of the tax payers.

  2. There are two main identifiers used for a tax payer, the “Steuernummer” and the “[steuerliche] Identifikationsnummer”. The latter is an unchanging nationwide identifier that would be perfect for keeping track of the tax payers. It is basically never used… It does not appear on correspondence from the IRS, most forms do not contain a field for it, Elster does not store it, … To my recollection, I have only ever used it for the tax declaration, where there suddenly is a request for this identifier—and I had to go through years of correspondence to find the single letter in which I had been notified about this number.*

    *The first time around: I made sure to store it in a file of my computer for subsequent need.

    No, the number that is used is the idiotic Steuernummer, which changes according to the whims of the IRS. For instance, every single time that I have moved from one city to another, I have been given a new Steuernummer, because these appear to be specific to the individual Finanzamt. When I became self-employed, there was another change, despite my not moving, for reasons that are unclear to me*.

    *Likely there are further criteria (directly or indirectly) coded into the Steuernummer, e.g. relating to a general tax classification.

    The effects of such changes include that I have to pay attention that Elster does not include the old number in a given form, that I cannot just copy-and-edit an old letter to the IRS while leaving identifiers unchanged, and that I might need to use both the new and old identifiers concurrently, when I have dealings with both the new and the old Finanzamt—not to mention the risk of error that is created by having an ever-increasing list of Steuernummer to keep track of. (In a guesstimate, I have had more than ten so far, with various moves and status changes.)

    Of course, if the tax payer accidentally uses the wrong Steuernummer the Finanzamt does not have the common sense to just look the correct one up, nor to internally translate everything to the Identifikationsnummer based on the current or historical Steuernummer. No, they send a letter that rudely demands that he uses only the new one—despite the involved problems being caused solely by IRS incompetence.

    (See also excursion at the end.)

  3. Despite this high degree of geographical dispersement, I still have (at least) two different government institutions handling my taxes (both requiring separate notifications about addresses and whatnot, both needing separate payment):

    My income (and other regular) taxes and VAT are handled by the Finanzamt of Wuppertal.

    My property taxes are handled by a department of the city of Wuppertal.

    This is the more annoying, seeing that the property taxes have a very disputable justification and that the world would be better off without them entirely. (Even compared to the general observation that fewer and lower taxes would be better.) The nonsensical nature of these taxes is demonstrated by the yearly amount of ~120 Euro for my apartment—payable in quarterly rates. For me, the additional effort is disproportionate*; for the city a significant portion of this money is lost again just to keep the the tax system it self going.

    *Not just due to the obvious extra effort, but also due to secondary complications. Last year, I had agreed with the previous owner, who had received the last annual assessment notice, that he would keep paying to the city for 2017, and I would reimburse him accordingly. (He felt that this would be easier, after having consulted the city.) Lo and behold, for the second quarterly payment, I received my own assessment and the instruction to pay directly to the city. Clearing this up and redirecting money accordingly took out a chunk of both his and my time. This year, the city kept using my Cologne address, despite my clear notification of a move, resulting in long communication delays and additional efforts to clarify why I suddenly received a very nasty letter threatening to, I kid you not, break down my apartment door in order to collect the roughly 30 Euro of the first quarterly payment. (A separate post on this and some other recent IRS problems is in planning.)

    More generally, this is both an example of problems that arise through there being too many individual entities with taxation rights, and of how the German system for money distribution between various organization levels (federation, states, cities, …) is poor. See excursion below.

Excursion on moving and an out-dated world view:
Many problems in Germany, especially where the government is concerned, could be explained by outdated ideas about how people will live their lives. For instance, if we assume that the IRS works under the premise that people only very, very rarely move from one city to another, this could help explain the reluctance to change this broken system. Ditto other unnecessary bureaucracy around moves. Similarly, if people are not “supposed” to change banks, this explains why there are so many screw-ups when someone does. Similarly, the historically very poor opening hours and the problems around meter readings/chimney sweeps/whatnot are explainable under the assumption that everyone is married and a non-working wife can handle this-and-that at any working hour. Etc. Of course, in the modern Germany, people do move and change banks, there are very many singles, and even married women often spend nine or more hours a day away from home due to work.

Excursion on Steuernummer:
The problems are likely rooted in history, because the Steuernummer existed long before the Identifikationsnummer. However, it is doubtful whether it ever truly made sense to have Steuernummer be Finanzamt-specific—and even if it did, the technical means to overcome those reasons have been present for decades. If the IRS has failed to take corresponding actions to e.g. make each Steuernummer awarded after, say, 1990 permanent and personal, this in it self is a sign of great incompetence or negligence. To boot, that forms and whatnot still use the Steuernummer is absurd—-whatever the historical situation might have been, we now do have a proper identifier! Use it!

Some remaining justification for Steuernummer could possibly be seen, were it needed to differ between the same tax payer in different roles, e.g. when working for several companies in the span of one year or when, like me, moving from (regular) employment to self-employment. However, the former is already solved, if at all needed, by a third (!) identifier, the eTIN, and the second is obviously not the case, because (in the year that I switched) I was supposed to use the new Steuernummer for both my business and my time in employment… (Note that I am still acting in a capacity as the same natural person, not as e.g. a corporation.)

As an aside, I have a fourth and a fifth identifier, both related to VAT handling. These might, however, have a greater degree of justification because this part of the system is shared with various juridical persons*, and the use of the Identifikationsnummer, Steuernummer, or similar, could be problematic.

*I am not aware of how the other numbers or their equivalents are handled for juridical persons; however, the tax system it self is sufficiently different that constraints that might apply legitimately to e.g. a corporation should not be imposed on regular in-employment tax payers.

Most likely, the true reason is that the IRS calculates the Steuernummer using semantic information and then uses that information, precluding changes. This is a beginner’s mistake: Identifiers of this type should always be kept abstract and use of any information present should be reserved for very rare exceptions. For instance, if a Steuernummer was constructed through a Finanzamt (without coordination with other parties) generating a sub-identifier unique within its own “name space” and then appending a globally unique identifier for it self, this would be legitimate. If someone later takes the Steuernummer, extracts the part that identifies the Finanzamt, and then concludes that the tax payer belongs to that Finanzamt, this is not legitimate, e.g. because such use necessitates that a tax payer who moves to the “jurisdiction” of another Finanzamt be given a new Steuernummer, e.g. because it makes it hard to move to another scheme later. Identifiers should be considered abstract numbers, once generated, and systems that use them should be built accordingly! (As I have seen again and again through my more than twenty years in IT.)

Excursion on subsidiarity and Germany as a federation:
Possible objections against centralization include an adherence to the principle of subsidiarity (in general); and that Germany is a federation (in particular), and that any reform must consider the rights of the individual states (“Länder”) relative Germany as a whole (“Bund”).

Looking at states vs. federation, the influence of the individual states on taxation is highly limited* in the first place, and I see no obvious reason why a system in which the federation collects and administrates all taxes and distributes various amounts back to the states would be impossible within the framework of the German system. (Apart from administration, this is already more-or-less what happens. Note that this might be very different in other federations.) If worst comes to worst, objections of this type could do no more than speak against a centralization beyond the state level—it would not preclude centralizing the great number of individual Finanzämter on a per state basis.

*Most and the most important taxes are all ultimately handled by the federation. The most important on the state level is likely the inheritance tax, and this is the type of tax that really should be on the federal level, in order to avoid arbitrary differences. In contrast, e.g. a traffic tax could have some legitimacy on the state (or lower level) to accommodate e.g. local geography. (Even here, however, I would see it as more advantageous to unify the tax system entirely. This especially as the justification of various taxes appears to grow smaller the more “local” they are. Consider e.g. the absurdity of tourists and other visitors having to pay an additional hotel tax in and to certain German cities: The tourists stimulate the local economy through the hotel stay, restaurant visits, shopping, museum excursions …—and are punished for coming by an arbitrary and unethical tax, in a manner that, practically speaking, amounts to racketeering.)

As for subsidiarity, the more important part is the right to local/decentralized/whatnot decision-making, which (in the specific case of taxes) is not given as things are now, and where no or little additional restrictions would apply. The lesser part is local/decentralized/whatnot execution. Here there would be a change, but not a harmful change, seeing that this is the type of task better handled centrally. If subsidiarity is used as an excuse to keep things de-centralized that should be centralized, subsidiarity becomes something negative.

Excursion on single and multiple taxing entities:
Having more than one entity that has the right of taxation over a given tax payer is unfortunate*, in general, with problems including confusion, more bureaucracy, and, at least potentially, more arbitrariness. A better system would focus on one such entity, and then have this entity distribute money as appropriate. We could, for instance, have the federation as a sole tax collector (both in terms of administration and determination), which then distributes money to the states according to some agreement, who then distribute money to counties, etc., in a trickle-down chain; or we could have a county (or an even smaller entity) collect taxes and let them “trickle up”. (I would prefer the former, however, to make the tax system as uniform as possible.)

*Some room for exceptions is present when the tax payer is legitimately touched by different jurisdictions, e.g. when someone lives on one side of a border and earns money on the other. Even here it is more a matter of a necessary evil than a good, however.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 15, 2018 at 3:50 pm

A few guidelines on when not to use “feminist”

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The word (and, by implication, the associated concept) “feminist” and its variations are extremely overused. A few, likely incomplete, guidelines for when not to use it:

  1. Never use the word to refer to someone who does not self-identify as feminist.

    Note particularly that many (including women, including those who see men and women as equal) see the word as an insult. For this reason, particular care should be taken with those who are already dead or will be otherwise unable to defend themselves against what can amount to an accusation.

    Even among those who do not, the use is often too speculative or commits the fellow-traveler fallacy (which I recommend keeping in mind through-out this post).

    A fortiori, never use the word about someone who died before the word was coined (preferably, became mainstream with a stable meaning)*. This is particularly important, because by associating it self with successful or important women from the past, many of which might have viewed it as absurd, feminism can create an unduly positive perception of it self.

    *The earliest mentions, in a somewhat current sense, appear to have been in the 1890s. A more reasonable cut-off might be the 1949 publication of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which arguably brought a change of character in the women’s right movements; and at which time there had been considerable changes in women’s opportunities and rights through e.g. WWII and various law changes in various countries, and the word had reached a greater popularity than in the 1890s. Beware that the spread of the word necessarily progressed differently in different countries.

  2. Be cautious about applying the word to someone who does self-identify as feminist, but is unlikely to be fully aware of the implications. Notably, every second young actress appears to self-identify as feminist, without having any actual understanding, instead being “feminist” because it is what is expected of the “enlightened” or because they have fallen into one of the traps of meaning discussed below. To boot, they give reason to suspect me-too-ism.

    More generally, a disturbing amount of supporters of feminism fall into the category of “useful idiots”, e.g. through declaring themselves supporters after uncritically accepting faulty claims by feminist propagandists. Obviously, however, a significant portion of these do qualify as feminists. (By analogy, someone who follows a certain religion based on flawed evidence should still be considered a follower, while someone who has misunderstood what the religion teaches often should not.)

  3. Never use the word because someone supports equality between the sexes. Very many non-feminists do to; very many feminists do not*.

    *Contrary to their regular self-portrayal, which has even lead to some grossly misleading dictionary definitions. Notably, the red thread of the feminist movement has been women’s rights, which only coincides with a fight for equality in a world where women are sufficiently disadvantaged. The inappropriateness of this self-portrayal is manifestly obvious when we look at e.g. today’s Sweden, where men now form the disadvantaged sex and feminist still clamor for more rights for women—but hardly ever mention rights of men or equal responsibilities for both sexes.

    Notably, I believe in equality and very clearly identify as anti-feminist. Cf. e.g. an older post.

    Equating “wanting equality” with “feminism” is comparable to equating “wanting freedom” with “liberalism” or “wanting [socio-economic] equality” with “communism”. (However, there is an interesting parallel between feminism and the political left in that both seem to focus mostly on “equality of outcome”, which is of course not equality at all, seeing that it is incompatible with “equality of opportunity”, except under extreme and contrary-to-science tabula-rasa assumptions.)

  4. Never use the word because someone believes in strong women, takes women seriously, writes fiction with a focus on women or showing women in power, or similar.

    None of this has any actual bearing on whether someone is a feminist or not. Indeed, much of feminist rhetoric seems based on the assumption that women are weak, in need of protection, unable to make their own minds up*, unable to make sexual decisions for themselves, and similar.

    *Or, make their minds up correctly, i.e. in accordance with the opinion that feminists believe that they should have. (For instance, through not professing themselves to be feminists, or through prefering to be house-wifes.)

  5. Never use the word because someone agrees with feminists on a small number of core issues, even if these have symbolic value within the feminist movement.

    For instance, it is perfectly possible to have a very liberal stance on abortion without otherwise being a feminist. (And feminists that oppose abortion, e.g. for religious reason, exist too, even though they might be considerably rarer.)

Addressing the issue from the opposite direction, it would be good to give guidelines on when the word should be applied. This, however, is tricky, seeing that there is a considerable heterogeneity within the movement. An indisputably safe area, however, is that of gender-feminism, which has dominated feminist self-representation, reporting, politics, …, for decades, and likely has the largest number of adherents once non-feminists (per the above) and useful idiots are discounted. The use can with a high degree of likelihood safely be extended to variations that are otherwise strongly rooted in quasi-Marxism, a tabula-rasa model of the human mind, and/or de Beauvoir’s writings.*

*With the reservation that we, for some aspects, might have to differ between those who actually apply a certain criticism or whatnot to the modern society and those who merely do so when looking at past societies.

I personally do not use it to refer to e.g. “equity feminism”, which is so contradictory to gender-feminism as to border on an oxymoron—and I strongly advise others to follow my example, for reasons that include the risk of bagatellizing or legitimizing gender-feminism through “innocence by association” and, vice versa, demonizing “equity feminists” through guilt by association. However, the case is less clear-cut, in either direction, than the cases discussed above.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 10, 2018 at 1:02 pm

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The fellow-traveler fallacy

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I am currently writing a shorter post on the use of the word “feminism”. As a result of my contemplations, I suggest the existence of a “fellow-traveler fallacy” (based on the originally Soviet concept of a fellow traveler and its later generalizations):

If a group of travelers take a ship from London to New York, can we assume that they share the same eventual destination? No: One might remain in New York indefinitely. Another might go back to London a week later. Yet another might take a different ship to cruise the Caribbean. Yet another might travel across the continent to Los Angeles. Yet another might move on to Anchorage. For some time, they are fellow travelers, but not because they wanted to reach the same destination: They merely had a part of the road in common, before their paths diverged.

During their time together, they might very well have enjoyed each others company, they might have helped each other, they might have even have collaborated to survive a ship-wreck. This, however, does not imply that their destinies and interests are forever bound to each other. Those who did not intend to remain in New York would have been grossly mistreated if forced to do so. The one heading for the Caribbean could hardly have been expected to be pleased about going to Anchorage instead. For the one to entrust his suit-case to the other (and not to collect it again in New York) would be silly. Etc. Even this does not directly consider the underlying reasons for the respective journey: What if the one was returning from a vacation and the other just starting his? What if one was going to a conference, another visiting a relative, and a third taking up a new position? With factors like these in the mix, even people who are fellow travelers through-out the journey might have so different objectives that grouping them together becomes misleading.

By analogy, it is a fallacy to assume that people who at some point have the same current goals and/or strive in the same current direction will continue to do so, will remain allies, can be permanently grouped together, whatnot—and, above all, to allow one of the temporary fellow travelers to permanently speak for the entire group. Similarly, if there is disagreement about methods, a status as fellow traveler is not necessarily a good thing: If the one buys a plane ticket to Cuba and the other, even for the exact same reason, forces a plane to go to Cuba at gun point, are they really the same?

An easily understood example is how the U.S. and the Soviet Union were close allies during WWII, only to become bitter enemies for the rest of the latter’s existence—they traveled together for a short span, forced by external circumstance, and then went their own, very different, ways for more than four decades. Ideologically, they were as night and day; but as long as they had a common all-important goal (i.e. defeating the Axis powers) they still fought on the same side. Those naive or uninformed enough to commit the fallacy by expecting a post-WWII friendship were severely disappointed; those who actually saw the alliance for what it was, an unnatural union of natural enemies to defeat a common enemy, were not surprised. (This is also a good example of why the saying “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” (a) is at best a semi-truth, (b) gives no guarantees once the common enemy is defeated.)

Most examples, however, are likely to be less obvious (and, therefore, more dangerous). Consider e.g. how the goals of feminism might be almost identical to those of a true equality movement when women are considerably disadvantaged, only to grow further and further apart as female disadvantages are removed or supplanted by new privileges, while male disadvantages remain or are increased and privileges removed, until, eventually, they are on opposing sides. Similarly, a classical liberal or a libertarian might have a considerable overlap with feminism in the original situation, only to end up on opposing sides as the situation changes.

Other potential examples include stretches of classical liberals and social-democrats or social-democrats and communists going hand-in-hand at various times and in various countries, as well as many other political cooperations or “common enemy”/“common goal” situations—even groups like vegetarians-for-health-reasons and vegetarians-for-animal-rights-reasons could conceivably be relevant. I am a little loath to be more specific and definite, because “fellow traveling”, in and by it self, does not automatically imply that the fallacy is present. To boot, even when the fallacy does occur, it will not necessarily affect the majority. (Feminism, in contrast, is an example where the fallacy is extremely common.)

As a sub-category of this fallacy, the temporary fellow travelers who fail to understand that later destinations will diverge, or who are apologetic for misbehavior by their current fellow travelers, are an ample source of “useful idiots”. (Feminism, again, provides many examples.) This becomes a great danger when apologeticism extends to methods, not just opinions, as when lies, censorship, or even violence is tolerated because “they are on our side”, “it helps our cause”, or similar, by someone who would condemn the exact same actions from a group that is not a current fellow traveler.

Another potential sub-category is those that identify some group as fellow travelers, fail to consider the fallacy, and then start to adopt opinions that they “should” have in order to conform further with the fellow travelers, leading themselves astray through committing a second fallacy. (Cf. parts of two older posts: [1], [2])

Written by michaeleriksson

June 9, 2018 at 6:47 am

Living in Wuppertal / issues around heating

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After the true start of my much delayed sabbatical, I have now lived for roughly two months in a row in Wuppertal. My impressions so far are positive, and (to my relief) the reasonably-researched-but-speculative purchase of an apartment in a city that I had seen so little of appears to have worked out quite well.

Looking at the city in general, the one major issue is the potential deterioration of the city through population loss*. Major positives include many green areas, plenty of hills**, and a less “intrusive” environment compared to e.g. Cologne—noise levels, crowdedness of streets, traffic intensity, … are all much lower when comparing similar parts*** of the cities against each other. A major bonus is that the number of constantly traffic-violating bicyclists is far smaller****. (Living in Wuppertal is also discussed in at least one older post.)

*This, however, was something I was aware of in advance, and something that could turn around over time. It certainly helped in keeping the price of the apartment down.

**I like walking; I do not like running, spinning, tread-milling, … With the amount of hills, some steep, I can get a decent amount of exercise without boring myself.

***I.e. city center vs. city center, outskirt vs. outskirt, …

****This was a major issue in Cologne, to the point that there were more bicyclists (illegally) on the pavement than on the streets and designated bicycle lanes—and often riding with no regard for the pedestrians.

The vicinity of my apartment is particularly fortunate, including having a secondary city-center in close vicinity in one direction and a number of grocery stores, including a very large Akzenta* in the other—as well, as a number of kiosks, cafes, and whatnots. The Barmen train station is also close by, as are two stations of the “Schwebebahn”**. A potential particular bonus could be the Wuppertal Opera, which is also quite close by; however, I have yet to actually visit it, and cannot yet speak for the quality. And: Despite all this, I live in a quite street—much unlike what someone in e.g. Cologne could expect to do in a similar set-up.

*A super-market chain and subsidiary of the more well-known Rewe.

**An aerial tramway that stretches from one end of the city to the other.

Looking at the apartment, it self, I remain mostly satisfied and feel very comfortable. So far, I have three complaints: An incompetent property manager (as mentioned in an earlier post), a door bell that is so loud* that I actually chose to detach it, and the gas water-heater**, which is half the reason I felt motivated to write this post:

*Being awake without ear-plugs, the sound was outright painful. Sleeping using ear-plugs, I was invariable woken up when it tolled—and since the postman hits every single button on the bell system in a blanket manner to be let into the house, this is quite bad. I know that he does this, because when he comes when I am already awake, I have no problem hearing the bells going off in apartments on other floors of the building. (I will likely replace it with something more suitable in due time.)

**Here and elsewhere, my terminology can contain errors.

Instead of central heating, the radiators rely on a per-apartment gas heater (which also handles the hot tap-water). Originally, I thought that this would be a good thing, both because the otherwise quasi-mandatory, annual meter readings* disappeared and because I was now myself in control of the heating**. The latter part has panned out; the former not so much: True, the meter-reading has disappeared, but in turn there is both a yearly service and a yearly exhaust (and whatnot) inspection, effectively trading one day for two… This is the more absurd, seeing that German regulations ensure that the service company, which should have been eminently qualified to certify the exhaust situation, is not allowed to do so, this being the domain of chimney sweeps***. Costwise, the rule is that gas is cheaper than electricity when it comes to heating (including hot tap-water); however, much of this is canceled out by my now having to pay two consumption-independent base rates**** (gas + electricity) to the utilities company, instead of just the one (electricity). During my almost constant absence between my purchase and the beginning of my sabbatical, I certainly lost money this way, having to pay the dual base rate every month, but not using anywhere near enough gas to gain the money back. To boot, the heater takes up a very considerable chunk of space over the bath tub (much more so than the more common on-demand tap-water heaters), and it is placed in a manner relative the taps and the drain that a bit of carelessness easily leads to a head bump. Worse, only about half the bathtub is usable when standing, which considerably restricts flexibility during showers. (Worsened through the hose being a bit on the short side, but at least I can buy a longer hose.)

*Mostly, in Germany, there is a separate meter on every radiator of an apartment that (e.g. through condensation) tries to estimate how heavily used the radiator has been in the preceding year. This is then combined with the readings from other apartments and the known overall heating cost to estimate the cost for each individual apartment. Not a good system. (Problems include the intrusive annual reading, a great risk of errors during recordings and calculations, the influence of other heat sources, …)

**Central heating is usually handled quite poorly, e.g. in that the heating is only turned on during some months of the year without considering actual outside temperature, or that the heating is turned off during the evening and night (when most people are at home) and runs high during the day (when most people are at work). A particular complication is that some central heatings are manipulated according to time of day and external temperature in such a manner that the settings on the individual radiators become misleading and changes potentially harmful. For instance, assume that the central heating runs at a certain, low, temperature, that the outside temperature drops, and that I turn up the radiators—all fine and well. Now comes the next day, the building management decides to turn up the temperature of the central heating to (with a days delay!) compensate for the outside temperature, and I come back from work to an apartment that is uncomfortable hot—and where, to boot, nine or ten hours of this excessive heating have been wasted because I was not even in the apartment.

***Generally, the German system of chimney sweeps is under heavy fire from many directions, with several web sites dedicated to the topic, for reasons that include unduly frequent inspections of-this-and-that, unduly high fees, a very unfortunate mongrelisation of private and public roles (the chimney sweep being a private business often acting on behalf of the government and in a quasi-governmental role), and a very customer unfriendly attitude. To boot, the regulations are sufficiently complex that it is hard for the customers to know when the chimney sweep is acting as a private service company and when as a government representative, when he has to do want the chimney sweep wants and when he can tell him to shove it, etc. If I were willing to do the leg-work, I could likely write an article of several pages on this topic alone.

****A strong case can be made that base rates are unethical to begin with: They are usually far larger than the actual fix costs involved and appear to serve mostly to gain an undeserved profit on customers with a low consumption. This especially, when they are combined with other service fees, notably setup and installation fees. At least when it comes to gas, water, electricity, and (in the pre-flatrate era) telecommunications, a pure “per consumed unit” fee would be a fairer solution.

All-in-all, I would have been better off with central heating, which is the typical solution in Germany, especially if the tap water had been heated electrically and on-demand.

As an aside, I am surprised that gas is even still allowed considering the potential hazards. This partly through the risks per se, compared to electricity; partly because this is exactly the type of issue that tends to cause exaggerated populist demands for a ban. Cf. e.g. nuclear power, “gene foods”, or the German legal requirements to not only have smoke detectors, which I might be on board with, but to actually have them inspected once a year (!)—all of which have seen the counter-measures grow out of proportion to the danger.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 8, 2018 at 12:24 pm