Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Archive for August 2018

Hope Solo and misguided legal actions

leave a comment »

It appears that Hope Solo is up to her old tricks again: According to a recent entry on her blog, she is initiating a federal law-suit to get “equal” pay. This in a continuation of an earlier suit ([1]).

These are highly unfortunate developments, which risk setting a damaging precedence, should the suit be successful, removing or weakening the performance aspect of remuneration and risking more “Title IX”-style problems. And that is just in sports: If and when such procedures catch on in the overall economy, there is no telling what the results could be. (I have a number of older texts on related problems, including [2], [3], [4].)

For want of new details, I have briefly looked into the original situation. Going by [1], the (then) complaint alleged that “[t]here are no legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for this gross disparity of wages, nor can it be explained away by any bona fide seniority, merit or incentive system or any factor other than sex”.

I have already discussed much of this matter in an older post on remuneration in Swedish soccer, and I will not re-iterate the arguments made there. However, I do explicitly note that audience figures are similarly poor among women compared to men in the U.S.: For instance, Wikipedia on MLS attendance and NWSL attendance shows that the MLS for 2017 had a total of 8,270,187 spectators over 374 games, with a mean attendance of 22,113—while the NWSL had 609,960 spectators over 120 games, with a mean attendance of 5,083. In other words, less than quarter per game and less than a third of the games…* (For further reference, a single 17-game round of the Bundesliga often exceeds the above season’s total of the NWSL.) The (international) situation in the men’s World Cup and the women’s World Cup is less extreme, but has the same tendency. For instance, the last four men’s tournaments have averaged roughly 50 thousand spectators at 64 games each. The best women’s average was 37,944 over 32 games in 1999; the highest overall attendance was in 2015 after the number of games had been pushed to 53—but with a mere 26,029 in average attendance.

*A better comparison would take total revenue and/or ticket prices into account, but, with the large difference in spectators, the research would not pay off—even a considerably higher ticket price for women’s games would not make up for this difference. To boot, chances are that the men’s tickets are more expensive due to greater demand; to boot, any difference in ticket price would be reduced by secondary game-visit costs, like overpriced hot-dogs.

The lawsuit appeared to claim that the women’s team would actual earn more money for the U.S. soccer federation than the men’s team. Here I have two objections:

Firstly, if that is the case, the women should have an excellent bargaining position and their first move should be to negotiate (see also an excursion below)—not sue. There might or might not be some deranged Old White Man somewhere who takes a perverted pleasure in keeping women down, but, contrary to Feminist propaganda, this is a rare case indeed. Motivations like a wish for more money and more power are far, far more common, and those who can give them what they want can get something in return. Starving the golden goose is just stupid. However, do not expect to get things without negotiating for them: Big organizations rarely work that way; and there are plenty of both Old White Men and Young Black Women who are more than happy to underpay everyone who lets them get away with it.

Secondly, the claim is at best misleading, as can be suspected from the above. I had a look* at a PDF-report with official numbers that is linked in [1]:

*A detailed interpretation might require more background information or more detailed numbers, and I make reservations for errors of interpretation.

Generally, it is misleading to base comparisons of a single year and a greater time stretch has to be considered: The numbers for each team can vary considerable based on the external circumstances of the year, as when the men’s World Cup in 2014 (fiscal year* 2015) increased the numbers for the men in that year and the women’s World Cup in 2015 (fiscal year 2016) did the same for women in that year. Furthermore, there is often a dependency on short-term success, which also make any short-term comparisons misleading. What e.g. if the U.S. women had missed their mark in 2015 the way they did in the Olympics in 2016?** Indeed, the great budgeted numbers for the women’s team in 2017 include an “Olympic Victory Tour” (chart 2; chart 3 for the men). I do not know what the later real games and numbers were, but I do know that the U.S. Women did not win the preceding Olympics, making this “Olympic Victory Tour” a budgetary distortion.***

*Unless referring to a championship, references to years will be fiscal years below.

**Note that I am not arguing that their success should be discounted—they did win and do deserve the credit (and any bonuses they might have negotiated in advance). What I do argue is that differences from one tournament to another (especially, when combined with the question of what tournaments are available in the given year) make it important to be cautious with prognoses for the future. They won in 2015, but flopped in 2016. The German men won the World Cup in 2014 (and were Olympic runner-ups in 2016), but were last in their group in 2018. Keep in mind particularly that there is always an element of chance involved and that even the best team of the tournament is unlikely to win it without at least some luck.

***Interestingly, per game, the men’s budget had both higher average attendance and higher average ticket-prices, making it reasonable with higher per game rewards for the men. (Per game rewards appearing to be one of the main bones of contention. I make no claim as to how much higher would be reasonable at this stage, however.) Note that the overall numbers are further distorted by the greater number of “away” games for the men.

Further, the numbers are not that flattering for the women. True, page 68 shows a projected income from “Men’s National Team Events” of 21,047,216 for 2016 compared to 23,570,326 + a World Cup 3,234,600 for the women—leaving the women almost six million ahead.* However, actual numbers for 2015 show 14,867,576 + 12,892,819 for the men, reaching higher than the women in their World Cup year—and the overall for the women in 2015 is a mere 3,160,386… 2014 tells a similar story—men clearly ahead. The budget for 2017 would show women ahead again, but here we have the influence of the “Olympic Victory Tour” (cf. above). (No other years are listed.) The tentative** conclusion is that the men’s team brings more money and/or that we have to wait and see what happens with future revenue, before judging*** what would, in some sense, be fair.

*There are some other entries with no obvious sex relation, including “International Games”. I have not attempted to investigate their nature.

**A longer time series would be interesting and could alter this conclusion.

***But not before negotiating: The time for the team to hit the negotiating table, and to do so hard, was immediately after the 2015 gold.

It is true, however, that the men’s team also has had higher expenses (cf. page 71), implying that its profitability relative the women’s team might not have been as good as the revenue indicated. Then again, in the budget for 2017, this is changed and the women have about five million more in expenses… (Likely, the “Olympic Victory Tour” again.) To boot, the demands by Solo et al. would drive the women’s expenses even higher.

A point where the women’s team might* have an argument is the area of publicity and sponsorships. However, if so: (a) The continuation of this is contingent on continued success. (b) The individual players should already have been benefactors through their own sponsorship deals. (c) The better solution would be to generally pay out more of “central” sponsorships to the players instead of fattening the federation. (d) If there really is a long-term effect, this should manifest in better attendance numbers, which can then be used for negotiations and/or will lead to semi-voluntary increases by the federation. (e) Strong publicity and sponsorship effects are a perfect base for negotiations—so negotiate.

*This is not unambiguously clear from the parts of the report I have read.

Excursion on Hope Solo:
As for Hope Sole herself, I have done a bit of reading today, and note that, in addition to her dubious legal actions and payment stance, she is alleged to have badly physically abused several relatives (and threatened police officers, and whatnot), and has been referred to as a “piece of work” by Pia Sundhage* (re-quoted through the New York Times). She has been mentioned on this blog before ([5]), that time in her defense. While I stand by my defense in that issue,** I have at least heard the claim that her suspension was based more on prior behavior than the incident at hand. (But this should be taken with a grain of salt, considering that misrepresentations by the other party are not unusual.) The bearing of this on her payment case is at most circumstantial; however, it is interesting how often Feminist activists (and similar people) have similarly shady behavior patterns and personalities.

*In addition to being a former long-time U.S. national-team trainer with considerable exposure to Solo, she was also one of the best player’s in the world in the early years of women’s soccer. The latter implies both that she is not a bureaucrat talking down a player without understanding her situation and that she is likely to have encountered more unwarranted sexual discrimination than Solo.

**Even assuming that the secondary, vague, allegations are true and refer to something less forgivable: Prior behavior might very well have an influence on the degree of punishment; however, it must not make things illegal that are legal for someone with a better background. (Excepting cases where there is a strong reasonable connection and where the consequences are public knowledge well in advance, e.g. that someone convicted for a felony might be forbidden to own a gun. Even here, however, it is better to err on the side of “too little”.)

Excursion on negotiation:
Should negotiation fail, we have to consider the “why”. It could, for instance, be that the parties involved simply see the world so differently that no mutually satisfactory agreement is possible, in which case the sides need to consider their alternatives (up to and including a refusal to play, in the current case). It could be that the party requesting a change does not make its argument effectively, in which case it might hire a professional negotiator (or a better one, should one already be present). It could be that the one side holds out in the belief that the other side will cave, and then the other side needs to prove the opposite.

It could also be that the one side has a so disproportionately better situation that it can more-or-less dictate terms—which might very well be the case here, and would be well in line with some of my other writings (e.g. in [5]). If, as here, this party is a sports organization dictating to its athletes, however, we have another and more urgent matter—making the organization a tool for the athletes, not the athletes tools for the organization. Focus on that and the issue of negotiation will resolve it self; neglect it and other actions are tantamount to Sisyphus rolling his stone up the hill. (Had this been Solo’s complaint, she would have had my support.)

Advertisements

Written by michaeleriksson

August 30, 2018 at 5:55 pm

Thoughts after re-watching Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

leave a comment »

Earlier today, I re- watched “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”, and found myself contemplating and meta-contemplating the Pearls’ change of life, the starting point being a scene where the originally extremely innocent Pearls break through a wall and attack everyone in the room—but do so using non-lethal weapons.

Going by the movie*, the Pearls started with an extremely low-tech, one-with-nature society, giving the impression of a Pearl being somewhere between an idealized Buddhist and a “noble savage”. An external event destroys their home planet and forces a small group of survivors to flight on a crashed foreign space ship (a very low-nature, one-with-technology setting). They spend a prolonged time learning how to handle technologies and develop new technologies with a Pearlish twist. They do not shy away from illegal black-market deals, or from bringing guns to such a deal.** They intrude on the normal functioning of the eponymous city, perpetrate the aforementioned attack, kidnap a military leader*** (Commander Filitt), cause a great deal of property damage, whatnot. This according to the principle “you have what we need”.

*Which need not have shown everything of interest and might e.g. have given a simplistic view of the pre-apocalypse life of the Pearls.

**Admittedly, a very important deal, central to their hopes of restoring their civilization.

***In their defense, Filitt was personally to blame for their apocalypse. On the other hand, I doubt that they knew this at the time, there being no obvious way for them to have such knowledge (I am uncertain whether the movie made some contrary statement, e.g. relating to psychic powers or extensive research); more likely, they were just looking for a bargaining chip, which caused an implausible coincidence.

Even so, they appear to have kept a pacifist core, tried to limit their activities to the necessary minimum, and (likely) saw their actions as a necessary evil.

Here a series of questions arise, the most notable to me being to what degree an individual, a group of people, or a civilization can ever go back to what it was before such a series of events, to what degree central parts of their being have been altered, and whether they are now better or worse than before. I will not attempt to answer these question, considering them more “food for thought” and an opportunity to see new perspectives of the world than something realistically answerable. (With the added complication that the Pearls are not human, implying that the answer for them need not hold for humans and vice versa.) I do point to some sub-aspects, however: (a) Strong parallels to the Garden of Eden and the banishment of Adam and Eve, where I have long tended not to see the banishment as a bad thing (cf. excursion); however, where the circumstances are sufficiently different that what is true for the one need be true for the other.* (b) The question of whether we are better of as children than as adults. (c) The degree to which we can, in a manner of speaking, switch context, personalities, whatnot.** (d) The effects of highly traumatic events and events where we might have to compromise our beliefs, reveal ourselves to be different than we want to be, and similar.***

*This includes the death of millions of Pearls, the actual destruction of the Pearls’ home-world, and the lack of culpability of the Pearls in their “banishment”. (Here other parts of Jewish history or pseudo-history might be more appropriate analogies, but they are less interesting on a metaphorical level. At the same time, it is interesting how this theme of loss, banishment, search for a home land, …, recurs. Following the hypothesis that much of the Tanakh was written during the Babylonian captivity, this might be explained by a focus on a then relevant theme—but the post-temple diaspora happened some six hundreds years after its end… As a clarification to any PC readers: With “pseudo-history”, I refer to parts of the Bible considered ahistorical.)

**Consider e.g. how the same man can be a war criminal and a loving husband and father, or, like Hitler, be a strong opponent of cruelty towards animals. Looking at less extreme examples, it is by no means rare that someone can not only have e.g. a work persona, a family persona, a out-with-the-gang persona, …, but a fully developed “identity” for each, moving well beyond the mask of a persona. Similarly, it is not unusual for someone to adopt different identities over time, with non-trivial effects on thoughts and behavior—another reason why identity politics is dangerous.

***For instance, when someone actively fights in a war.

Other questions include e.g. what might have happened, had events not resolved themselves, and whether the Pearls might have moved on to “harder” violence; to what degree a person/people can truly be pacifist* and whatnot, when later shown to be able to move even to actions like those of the Pearls; and how large the difference in principle between Filitt and the post-apocalyptic Pearls actually was (see excursion; but, to avoid misunderstandings, the Pearls are far more to my taste).

*I am not certain to what degree the original Pearl society should be seen as consciously pacifist (“we abhor violence”) and to what degree as innocent/naive (“what is violence?” or “what would be the point of violence?”). This can make a large difference when we look at this specific case, but does not affect the abstract question.

From a more “meta” perspective, I see an ever recurring observation repeated: It matters far less what one reads, watches, whatnot, than what is done with what was read, etc. Some material, undoubtedly, contains more “food for thought” than other, but this is of little import when someone does not think—and a good thinker can find interesting ideas even in apparently superficial material. Many of my own early (often superficial and undeveloped, yet valuable as stepping stones) insights into human nature came from watching “Friends”… This is also a major reason why the connection between being “well read” and being intellectually well developed is comparatively weak—having just read a large number of “great books” does fairly little for the intellect. Thinking about the books on the other hand… As corollaries, quality reading is better than quantity reading and quality reading than reading of quality books, and it is a bad idea to read a book just because it is considered “intellectual”. I read e.g. “Crime and Punishment” when I was around twelve—and it did nothing to enhance my intellect, because I did not have the tools and the understanding to do more than just read it.* I read “Nineteen Eighty-Four” at an even younger age—and based my then** strongly negative opinion on the lack of a happy ending… The sad truth is that some adults that pride themselves on intellectual reading have not progressed that much farther.

*Nor am I certain that I had any type of intellectual aspiration at the time: I just loved to read and one of the teachers at school handed me a copy.

**Today, I consider it a strong candidate for the most important book of the 20th century, and one of the few books that might actually deserve the label “mandatory reading”.

Of course, the reverse of this is that far from every insight found in a particular work was actually deliberately planted there. Consider the works of Shakespeare: Their great standing in terms of e.g. insight into human psychology is to a considerable degree rooted in the fact that so many minds have spent so much time searching for meaning. He might or might not have been superior to his contemporaries, but chances are that some of them would have an at least similar reputation, had they been exposed to the same scrutiny. Similar points apply to e.g. the Bible. (This is also a reason why I consider the naive search for symbolism in books dangerous—that the reader finds it does not mean that the author actually intended it to be there… Some books have it and an understanding the symbolism might be needed to truly understand the book; however, too many readers are under the misapprehension that symbolism is the A and O of reading and writing alike.)

Excursion on Eden etc.:
The traditional narrative is basically an ideal life, a crime/violation of trust/act of disobedience, and a resulting banishment into a worse life. I see several possible, partially overlapping, interpretations of the events as more reasonable/plausible, especially when we allow for an imperfect transcription of the actual* events, including e.g. the events being more of a young bird or young adult** (human) being kicked out to begin a separate life after having reached a certain degree of maturity; the eating from the tree inducing a change between two comparable states, one allowing a stay in Eden and the another requiring a move; and a less than exemplary God, who rejected Adam and Eve after they moved past the developmental stage that he had intended. To boot, there is always the interpretation of Eden as more of a state of mind than as a physical place.

*Under the arguendo assumption that the Bible is even approximately historically correct in this regard—I do not believe that Adam and Eve actually existed, and I suspect that the Pope does not believe it either, at this stage of Biblical criticism.

**I note the strong similarities with a child–parent relationship, the potential of a teenage rebellion, the obvious potential sexual interpretation of both snake and fruit, and the potential division into an innocent and non-innocent stage of development.

Excursion on Filitt and the Pearls in comparison:
Looking at actual damage done, the comparison is bordering on the ridiculous; and Filitt is far more ruthless than the Pearls. However, looking more at motives and principles, they shared a willingness to commit acts that others might consider wrongful in order to further the cause of their respective peoples, and both almost certainly considered themselves the Good Guys and fighting for a Greater Good*. We also do not know with certainty how they would have acted in transposed situations; especially when applying the psychological principle that one death is a tragedy and a million deaths a statistic, and when considering how different the respective stakes and means were.** By the same token, I cannot reliably predict how I would have acted if actually in the Pearls’ shoes, but from an “ivory tower” perspective I would have started with an entirely non-violent diplomatic approach with regard to the searched for artifacts, an attempt to get the legal authorities on Filitt’s trail,*** and/or an appeal to public opinion. If such approaches were tried by the Pearls, it is not clear from the film.

*A good example of why appeals to the Greater Good are dangerous and should be used only with great caution and great respect for the rights and interests of others.

**At least when we look at Filitt and the original apocalypse. The later events in the “city” are hard to see as more than self-preservation without a genuinely proposed Greater Good.

***Assuming that his culpability was known to them; otherwise, a more general target.

Excursion on reading material for precocious children:
The problems with reading “too adult” books too young are not limited to a mere lack of appreciation and benefit—it can also include exposure to material of a potentially harmful character: The too scary, too violent, too sexualized, … This only partly because of the risk of a direct negative influence*, but also because of the incomprehensibility of too many events that are easily understood by someone older. I can e.g. recall my first contact, at a very young age, with the word “condom” (resp. the Swedish “kondom”): A teenage couple was talking to each other, the boy pulled a carton (“kartong”)** of condoms out of his jacket, and the girl expressed a considerable reluctance—teenage stereotypes 101. I was so ignorant of related matters that I focused on “carton”, pictured the thing I associated most strongly with this word, a carton of corn flakes, and was highly confused—starting with the question how he had managed to carry it in his jacket… Such lack of comprehension can, in it self, cause a feeling similar to some night-mares when prolonged.

*Which I recognize, but where I do not want to call for a moral panic: Being too strict is just as bad as being too lax.

**Note that in an English text the words used or associations present might be different.

On the other hand, material that is “age appropriate” is also usually so much shorter, using so much simpler language, whatnot, that a precocious reader risks being severely understimulated. To boot, a parental ban on certain books will likely do more to increase interest than prevent reading…

Written by michaeleriksson

August 27, 2018 at 6:36 pm

More on the German IRS

leave a comment »

And my problems with the German IRS and the inexcusable Elster tool continue:

  1. I have written about technical and other issues forcing me to make repeated unnecessary visits to Elster to file my preliminary VAT ([1])—unnecessary, because I am on a sabbatical and have a preliminary blanket 0 for the rest of the year. The idiocies of Elster and the IRS have already extended the one visit that should have been necessary to four, as discussed in [1]. Come early August, I tried again, found that my Steuernummer and whatnot now were available for automatic use, and opted to minimize the additional effort by pre-declaring my VAT in two quarterly forms—stating 0 for the third and the fourth quarter. Alas, a few days ago, I received a note from the IRS claiming that my submission for the third* quarter had been rejected on the grounds that I was not eligible to file quarterly… In other words, these nitwits actually consider it reasonable that I should use even more of my spare time to file individual 0s for every individual month of the year… All in all, I would be better off just terminating my status as a freelancer. (Of course, if do, they will probably shove yet another Steuernummer down my throat—and another one after that, when I terminate my sabbatical and start working again… Cf. [2].)

    *I have as yet no word on the fourth quarter, but the outcome seems predictable…

  2. End of May, I explicitly contacted the IRS about a stay on my tax filings for 2017, due to the urgent need to handle other IRS related matters, including entirely unwarranted additional fees imposed upon me for errors that the IRS had committed. (Some of them are covered in earlier posts, but I will likely write a larger one later on.)

    This is normally no problem whatsoever, for the simple reason that it is good for the IRS when tax declarations are delayed: They can divide their own work more evenly over the year without being bogged down around the deadlines and they have the interest advantage (because most German filers see a tax return).

    Standard procedure is to simply request a stay under the assumption that no answer means consent—and while rejection likely can happen, I have personally never heard of it. In this specific case, I would not even consider the matter negotiable: I had to take action to compensate for errors by the IRS; ergo, the IRS has only it self to blame. (And, no, I did not receive a rejection notice.)

    Nevertheless, I recently received another letter complaining that I had not yet filed for 2017, setting me a deadline for 2018.09.24—six (!) days before the end of the stay…

    This is so unbelievably pointless and idiotic that I am starting to doubt whether incompetence is enough to explain the behavior of the IRS…

  3. My complaint concerning the main points behind the previous item is as yet unanswered, close to three months afterwards…

    Considering the quite obvious situation behind these complaints, which should allow the matter to be decided in five minutes by an intelligent reader (barring the need for checks and verifications that under no circumstances should take more than a few days of waiting time), and considering that communications in the other direction regularly come with very short deadlines*, my enthusiasm over this delay is limited.

    *I have not kept statistics, but, going by feel, I would say that most deadlines set by a government agency towards me have been fourteen days after some reference event—and often an event taking place before I actually receive the corresponding message.

    The only message I have as yet received in return appeared* to merely state that my complaint had arrived and been sent back to the local IRS office, rather than being treated by the recipient, the Oberfinanzdirektion**. This too was highly annoying, because I had explicit chosen the Oberfinanzdirektion as a suitable escalation—high enough to avoid the worst incompetence and partiality of the lower levels of the governmental hierarchies, but not so high as to seem like overkill. By sending the matter back to the local IRS, they still expose me to the exact problems I wanted to avoid, and I consider it highly likely that I would*** be forced to escalate the matter again, making the this action a waste of everyone’s time and energy.

    *Unfortunately, I cannot find it on short notice to verify the details, and there was no reason for me to pay attention to said details at the time.

    **A mid-level supervisory agency within the overall IRS system.

    ***At this juncture, and in the light of the additional issues discussed in the first two items, I will escalate pre-emptively.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 26, 2018 at 8:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

Identity politics and contradictions in Leftist thought

with 2 comments

Identity politics is in many ways contrary to the ostensible ideals of the Left, yet it is currently a corner-stone of the politics of the U.S. Left.

Consider the similarities between nationalism (“bad”) and identity politics (“good”): The former, in somewhat stronger* forms, puts loyalty to a group based on birth at the center, trumping concerns like “who is better suited”, “which country has the better legal claim to this island”, etc. This is occasionally combined with a thinking that “being one of us” automatically makes someone better suited. The latter puts loyalty to a group based on birth at the center, trumping concerns like “who is better suited”, “who deserves the job”, etc. This is very often combined with a thinking that “being one of us” automatically makes someone better suited.

*“Nationalism” is a very wide term and can mean a lot of things to different people. It is by no means a given that a nationalist is keen on e.g. expanding the national borders or keeping foreigners out. Weaker (or more constructive…) forms can focus on, say, just wishing the own country to excel at this-and-that.

Hillary for President! Why? Well, it is high time that we have a woman as President… This is not one iota better than supporting someone because it is high time that “we New Mexicans” have a President from New Mexico.* The choice should be made based on factors like (perceived) competence, political orientation, personal integrity, …—not sex or (quasi-)nationality. This becomes the more absurd, even outright offensive, when those who do not fall in line are considered illoyal or even traitors: Why should a woman who does not support Hillary Clinton’s politics and/or does have an accurate assessment of her flaws even consider voting for her? If anything, those who vote against their own convictions based on superficial criteria are the true traitors—to themselves, if nothing else.

*Even voting based on state in a federation is a type of nationalism (albeit it a less interesting one) and the principle is illustrated well enough. Interestingly, Wikipedia on Presidents by place of birth shows a massive deficit of Presidents west of an imaginary geographic center-line: Guesstimating where the line would be on the map provided, only Nixon and Obama qualify. A more generous guesstimate might include a few others, but the disparity is glaring enough that the application of Leftist logic would mandate intervention… Similarly, why is it not high time to have an Atheist or Jewish President? (Cf. Wikipedia on religious affiliation of U.S. Presidents.) Etc.

Racism and identity politics is another absurdity: Racism is considered the greatest sin there is by large portions of the Left, yet identity politics often amount to exactly that. This in at least two ways, namely (a) the often intense focus on the own group combined with a feeling that this group is superior, (b) favoring the own group with arguments that imply that members of the group can bring something to the table that others cannot. The latter notably in the form of “diversity” arguments, where the presence of just one single woman or minority member will somehow magically* bring more value than a handful of White men. If we apply misdefinitions of racism popular with the PC crowd, e.g. that racial discrimination is automatically racism, then the list grows, starting with various forms of “affirmative action” and “racial preferences”. Of course, very similar arguments can be made around e.g. sexism and identity politics.

*Normally, no attempt whatsoever is undertaken to explain why diversity would be good in a given case or why this specific person would bring such additional value. Instead there is a quasi-magical assumption that more diversity brings advantages. To boot, this is usually limited to e.g. racial or sexual diversity, with e.g. diversity of opinion, educational background, whatnot, among White men counting for nothing. (But see an excursion.) If the attempt is at all undertaken, it is limited to claims about perspective, life experience, background, that can be shared by others, that are not automatically present among the “diverse”, and which are usually less important than other factors (see the aforementioned excursion).

Or how about diversity, integration, and tolerance vs. monopolization and segregation of culture? If diversity (etc.) is good, why is it wrong when someone tries to expand his understanding of others? Writes a book featuring someone not of his own heritage? What about the whole “cultural appropriation” nonsense?* This effectively disqualifies people based on (e.g.) race, keeps groups apart, and furthers “us vs. them” thinking. Instead of the proverbial U.S. melting pot, this creates a “metallo-racist” set of groupings: Iron—left corner. Copper—right corner. Get away from the copper, tin! We want no bronze here! From another point of view, identity politics holds the minorities back in their own development for very similar reasons. For instance, much of what is condemned** as “acting White” appears to be nothing more than being professional, being ambitious, trying to get a good education and job, having an interest in learning, and similar—and those who “act White” simply have more mature interests than those who do not. Replace “acting White” with something more behavior than race oriented, e.g. “acting professional”, and the whole issue looks different. (This is doubly beneficial, because far from all White people are “acting White” in these senses to begin with…***)

*I have a separate post in planning where I will address this and some similar issues in more detail.

**If not necessarily by e.g the Democrat party. It remains a portion of the identity politics, group thinking, whatnot problem, however.

***Indeed, a very similar type of anti-intellectualism or contempt for those more ambitious was readily observable during my own school years (in Sweden, where almost everyone was White to begin with), but with very different terminology. The use of e.g. “nerd” in U.S. fiction points to a very similar problem. Looking at scholastic achievement, the size of the one group relative the other might be considerably different from the Black community, however.

Or what about prejudice? There is likely no greater source of this than “us vs. them” thinking, and identity politics is exactly that…

Of course, identity politics also soon leads to the fellow-traveler fallacy, paving the road for future internal discord, conflict, and hostility: The indoctrinated portions of the female, Black, Latino, queer, whatnot, populations, might appear to be allies, fighting their (usually naive) version of the “good fight”. In reality, this is an unholy alliance, if identity politics is actually followed through: If being e.g. Black is an important part of one’s identity and there is a wish to further the Black cause, then sooner or later (likely sooner…) this comes into conflict with the Latino cause. Etc. Indeed, it is already well documented that “racial preferences” during U.S. college admissions have cost Asians students places that they rightfully should have had, based on objective criteria—not just White students. Then there is the question of what identity matters the most: Is it more important to be a woman, Black, or a lesbian, and what causes should be prioritized? Or do Black female lesbians form their entirely own group? The consequences of “identity thinking” are absurd.

Excursion on counter-arguments to “Hillary for President”:
A partially valid counter-argument is that “we need someone to look out for our interests”; and with strongly disadvantaged groups, promises to do just that can be an objective argument in favor of a candidate. However, when it comes to such important offices and someone who actually is one of “us”, this argument does not hold—the mere fact that a woman were elected U.S. President would be an extremely strong indication that women are not in such a dire situation. Even such a close loss is enough to invalidate the counter-argument. Ditto Obama and Blacks. In contrast, if some group has great problems with political representation, the support of a high-ranking politician who is not a group member can be quite valuable; a first few low-ranking politicians who are group members can be similarly valuable. Even in such cases, however, the voters should make a holistic choice, where “our interests” is just one of the factors considered—putting Hillary in further trouble (and ruling the likes of Mona Sahlin out entirely).

Excursion on discrimination:
The question of discrimination in the true sense repeatedly occurs above. For instance, “acting White” is not a matter of being or behaving “White”: Many Whites do not, very many Asians do, and quite a few Latinos and Blacks do too. These behaviors might be following a certain group pattern, when we look at aggregates, but they are not immediately tied to groups. Focus on what matters, like professionalism, ambition, …—not “Whiteness”. Similarly, “Hillary for President!” above uses poor discrimination—the criterion that she is a woman. Good discrimination would look for someone competent, honest, with sound politics, which all things that do not apply to Hillary. (Nor necessarily Trump and Sanders.) Indeed, even self-classifications that put being Black or being a woman before being a human (or even something more specific but self-chosen, e.g. being a member of a certain profession) could be seen as poor discrimination. (They are certainly bad ideas with an eye on e.g. self-development.)

Excursion on diversity, interdisciplinary teams, “Quereinsteiger”, etc.:
I have repeatedly worked with teams and/or businesses that were convinced that interdisciplinary teams with many Quereinsteiger* were better than more specialized teams. Mostly, they have been wrong… There are instances where having different backgrounds and experiences can be valuable to a team, but software development does not appear to be one of them. On the contrary, what is needed is a good head, the ability to think in the right way, conscientious work, etc.—either the Quereinsteiger has these characteristics or he does not. Tendentially, those coming from another STEM field has had them to a similar degree as those with a purer IT background; with very few exceptions, those from non-STEM fields have not. (Yet, the latter would be more valuable if the reasoning behind interdisciplinary teams were followed…) Notably, the specialist skills that Quereinsteiger might have been able to leverage from their original fields only very rarely were of direct relevance to the work at hand. Similarly, I have a very broad knowledge of topics even outside STEM—and they, too, are only very rarely of relevance.** In a reasonable analogy, if a mason changes careers to be a carpenter, his masonry skills will only rarely be of use—but more abstract personal characteristics like his professionalism will be very important.

*A German word with no obvious English correspondent. Roughly speaking, someone who enters the one field of work from another field or with an unrelated educational background. I am one myself, having had a focus on math and physics in college, with only some exposure to topics like programming and computer science, but I went into software development straight after graduation. (I did earn a Master in Computer Science at a later date, however.)

**Excepting those that have arisen through my work as a software developer/engineer/consultant/whatnot, including domain-specific knowledge relating to this-or-that project or some recurring topics like handling of issues around time (e.g. date formatting, calendars, time zones, complications around daylight-savings time).

Looking at diversity at work, this is far less of an issue in Germany than in the U.S. (for demographic reasons); however, I have not seen any sign that the presence of e.g. women or Turks would be beneficial to a team. They have brought nothing to the table that a White man cannot and have usually performed in the lower half. By hearsay, I am aware that my last pre-sabbatical customer had once had a major drive to hire women and foreigners, possibly ten years earlier. As I was told, of those hired back then, most were gone and the proportion of women had continually dropped—indeed, this was in conjunction with the last remaining woman of the IT department leaving… My own experiences with this customer covered five (?) years, on and off. Of the women of the IT department, I encountered three, two* of which were below average and one which was let go before I had had the opportunity to gain an estimate**. The foreigners fell into two categories: Eastern European, who where mostly above average. Others, e.g. Persians, who were mostly below average—including one of the worst software developers I have ever encountered…

*Which I believe were hired within this drive, but I could be wrong. At least some of the foreigners in the rest of the discussion, but not all, were remnants of this drive.

**The claim was lack of competence or performance, but the water-cooler talk, in all fairness, pointed to personal issues between her and her team lead.

In conclusion, I very strongly encourage the use of criteria that have an objective and/or intuitively plausible relevance over those that do not. In most cases, diversity, interdisciplinarity, etc., do not belong among the reasonable criteria.

Excursion on identity politics and “privilege”:
A somewhat related absurdity is the combination of strong identity whatnot with accusations of “privilege”. (Cf. a debunking.) If we assume that White people are privileged over Black people, why do so many people who are as much or more White than they are Black (in a truer sense) cling to a Black identity? Would it not make greater sense to try to be as “White” as possible, especially for those who are optically more whitish/pinkish than blackish/brownish in actual skin color. For instance, I was honestly surprised when I, in my late teens, first heard Mariah Carey referred to as “Black” (or possibly “African-American”), having just taken for granted that she was White, based on what little I had seen on TV at the time. Even those who look dark are often very far from a state where terms like “Black” or “African-American” make sense—Obama’s actual color is brown, not black*, and he is about as much “European-American” as he is “African-American”… In some ways, the Black community has appropriated the “one-drop rule” to build an identity cage around it self. (Of course, this nonsense will eventually have to cease, because in the fulfillment of time, almost everyone would be “Black”…)

*I have at some point heard the claim that “black” for brown people would be no worse than “white” for pinkish people. These falls on the problem that there are some African groups who actually are black—not brown. To boot, “brown”, unlike “black”, is a very reasonable average description for Black people, while e.g. “pink” or “pinkish” is not so for White people. In cases like Carey, the word “black” is absurd. (A slightly stronger case reasoning around “red”/“Red” and “yellow”/“Yellow” might once have been possible, but these and their variations have not been used on a larger scale for a long time.)

Written by michaeleriksson

August 24, 2018 at 11:09 am

Brief reflections on learning how to read, reading speed, speed reading, …

leave a comment »

Learning how to read, laboriously stringing letter after letter together, was a very frustrating experience for me—not because I was a slow learner, but because the learning was too slow for my patience.* Then, six, seven years old, I was reading my Donald Duck magazines, and from the one moment to another I suddenly saw words instead of letters. The first time, it only lasted for a few seconds before I stopped reading, being almost freaked out. I could not immediately reproduce the effect, but it soon happened again, and again, and I entered a permanent state of a-word-at-a-glance reading—but where I still said the word in my head (subvocalization).

*This was a general problem during a large part of my youth. Notably, it contributed to my then dislike of anything resembling sports: I was not immediately good at a given physical activity, grew frustrated, and gave up. Of course, by giving up, I ensured that I would not improve and lost even more ground to the other children than had I merely been a book-worm, instead of a book-worm who gave up.

This reading stage was when I read with the most concentration: It took sufficiently little effort that reading was not a chore; it took sufficiently much effort that there was little risk that my thoughts would wander during reading, and reading was a dual process of putting the words together into sentences and making sense of what I read, ensuring some variety. This is also the time where I found it the easiest to retain what I had read—my comprehension improved when I became a more proficient reader, but my retention dropped. (Also see an excursion at the end.)

For reasons that are unclear to me today, I feared suppressing the subvocalization for a number of years, which meant that my reading speed was limited by the need to “say” the words. I even recall some instances where I read an entire sentence fragment (silently), stopped myself, and went back to read it again, word for word. Of course, this was highly counter-productive: Just like I had once moved from reading letters to reading words, I should have taken the opportunity to move from reading words to reading sentence fragments.

At some point, possibly aged twelve, thirteen, or thereabouts, I realized that this was silly, mostly* dropped the subvocalization, and saw my reading speed rise rapidly. An early peak came shortly before college, when I, as preparation/training, deliberately tried to read some books as fast as possible.

*I occasionally do it even today to some degree, especially during periods of less reading, e.g. in that I read a group of words and subvocalize one of them. During proof-reading, I can do so more extensively and more deliberately.

During college, however, I often found that reading fast was of little use to me: I mostly took courses in math, physics, and similar topics with comparatively little to be read, but where the information density was high and where it was very important to think about what one was reading (and where a fair bit of what was read was mathematical formulae rather than text).

This tendency to think about what has been read, be it through force of college habit or as an independent development, has come to dominate the way I read more and more over the years. The paradoxical result is that I am often a slower reader today than at age ten: I might read a portion* of a text much more rapidly and easily, but then stop and think about it to a much higher degree (or make some associations to the topic, think through reasons and consequences, visit Wikipedia to read up on something related, whatnot). However, I gain so much more from reading a text today than I did back then—or at twenty, for that matter.

*Depending on what I read and how energetic I am, this might be a sentence, a paragraph, a page, … Notably, the higher my concentration and interest, the greater the likelihood that I will pause my reading. The likelihood is, unsurprisingly, considerably lower for fiction than non-fiction; however, it is by no means uncommon even with fiction—indeed, it can even happen when I am watching a DVD.

This brings me to the general observations that (a) improving one’s reading skills makes sense to the degree that reading becomes effortless and is removed as the bottle-neck when consuming a text, (b) it makes little sense to deliberate try to “speed read” a greater quantity of text. Even if someone is able to speed read at a high reading comprehension*, the net benefit will be considerably lower without such extra thought. So, someone has speed read “War and Peace”. What did that bring that could not have been achieved even faster and better by just reading the Wikipedia page? This is the equivalent of going to a museum and spending no more than a single glance on any individual object…

*My own experiences speak against this: While trying to go really fast, my comprehension dropped disproportionately with every speed increase. Apart from deliberate skimming, which is obviously a legitimate task, I found it better to read at a lower and more controlled tempo, thereby removing the need to have to re-read a text two or three times… (I do not recall more than the vaguest numbers from my long-ago experiments, but I do know that I, in my mid twenties, have clocked myself above a thousand words per minute for an entire page—with lousy comprehension and retention. Others claim to read at several to many times that speed, with strong comprehension and retention, which leaves me skeptical.)

Excursion on retention:
As I wrote above, my comprehension increased as I became a more proficient reader, but my retention decreased. This is a special case of a more general phenomenon, namely that the less effort I have to get through a text, the less I retain. This was a particular problem during the two semesters of business classes that I took parallel to my main university studies: Early on, I read through a text once or twice, understood all of it, did a bit of cramming a day or two before the exam, and expected to cruise through the test. Unfortunately, the tests were less directed at checking the degree of understanding of the course contents, and more on the degree of memorization. The texts and tests in math and physics had been very, very different…

The paradoxical result is that someone who is a worse reader or slower on the uptake can actually have an easier time with an easy course than the better reader and more intelligent student. Sure, the latter might be able to get through the text in half the time or less, and do so with a better understanding of the subject matter, but actually committing all the contents to memory becomes far more of a chore—leg work instead of head work.

During very heavy reading periods, I have occasionally reached a stage where the act of reading was so automatic, so ingrained, that I found my mind wandering off during uninterrupted reading, to the point that I had no idea what I had spent the last few minutes reading… (Similar to how someone can get lost in his thoughts while walking from point A to point B, and arrive at point B with only the vaguest recollection of what had happened since point A.)

Excursion on thinking and subvocalization:
Just like poor readers tend to engage in massive subvocalization, poor thinkers subvocalize, or, with my preferred word, verbalize. Indeed, many people seem to be unaware that it is at all possible to think without saying the corresponding words in one’s head… This slows them down considerably and would make e.g. advanced mathematics close to impossible for them (unless they unconsciously drop the verbalization).

Of course, this verbalization is entirely unnecessary—as can be seen by considering e.g. a soccer player making a rapid decision: Does he really go through a long monologue of “If I pass to George, he could score, but I could also lose the ball to the other team; Henry, on the other hand, […]”? No: If he did, it would end with something like “Shit! Someone just took the ball from me!”, because this delay in action would be disastrous. Similarly, a painter is far more likely to picture what he is going to paint than to verbalize it. Etc.

An easy exercise is to just stop verbalization one word before the end of a sentence. Did the suppression of that one word actually change the thought? No. Do the same with two, three, four, …, words, until the verbalization of the sentence is not even started—and the thought will remain.

As an aside, I suspect that something related is behind automatic writing: Let someone suppress the words in his head while letting them flow through the pen and we have a phenomenon that is quite close—with no need for a supernatural explanation.

Disclaimer on phonics and other philosophies:
None of the above should be seen as being pro or contra phonics, “sight words”, whatnot: While “reading words” is better than “reading letters”, I do not see it as given that the letter-reading stage can be skipped without a net loss in development speed.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 20, 2018 at 1:14 pm

Stephen King and school shootings

with one comment

Shortly after writing a piece on the slogan guns don’t kill people; people kill people, I read a part of Stephen King’s “On Writing” (see excursion), I soon encountered sections on “Carrie”, and realized that it and another of his early works, “Rage”, deal largely with similar topics.

A few observations after re-reading these works*:

*I will not summarize them, except to the degree immediately necessary for my discussion (spoiler alert). However: The main characters are respectively the eponymous Carrie and the rageful Charlie. I will follow a convention from “Carrie” and use “TK” as a short for “telekinesis”.

  1. They are in many ways mirror images in that e.g. one has girl as the main cause of havoc, the other a boy; one has a mother, the other the father as a partial cause of events; one has an innocent person driven to evil, the other (potentially) an evil person using others as an excuse; one has supernatural powers as the cause of death*, the other a technology (a gun); one shows the behavior of the students in advance and leading up to the crisis, the other reveals their past and causes new behavior through the crisis; one shows a destructive cathartic act that left people dead, the other a cathartic series of discussions** that might have left some better off with their lives; one begins with an unjust virtual assault on a student, the other ends with one; …

    *In “Carrie”, at least one person, not counting Carrie herself, died through non-supernatural means and by another hand; however, this is dwarfed by the sheer number of deaths caused directly or indirectly by Carrie and supernatural influence. (Note that most deaths were only indirectly caused by her, the direct cause being e.g. electrocution or fire.) On the other hand, “Rage” only saw two deaths, both deliberate, by Charlie, and by gun-shot. (The number of deaths and the circumstances could be seen as yet another mirroring.)

    **Think a darker version of “The Breakfast Club”. (Indeed, I repeat the suspicion that I uttered when we saw and discussed “The Breakfast Club” in junior high—the idea is stolen from “Rage”.)

    Two interesting mirror aspects on another level is that (a) “Carrie” is published under his real name, while “Rage” uses the pseudonym Richard Bachman, (b) Charlie could* be a darker version of himself, while he professed to asking his wife for help with the more female perspective of “Carrie”.

    *“On Writing” mentions several conflicts with teachers, including receiving reprimands from the principal and at least one detention. While these are nowhere near the level of Charlie’s problems, it is not unusual for an author to use exaggerated versions of himself, his experiences, and whatnot, as a basis for a character. “On Writing” mentions several more explicit uses of his own life, including (unwittingly?) as a role-model for the alcoholic author in “The Shining”. Some other potentially autobiographical details are obvious in these books, including the fatherlessness of Carrie and the incident with poison ivy. For both “Rage” and “Carrie”, his experiences as a teacher are likely to have provided additional inspiration or insight.

    (Similarities include the (nick-)names “Carrie” and “Charlie”, the school setting, the teacher–student conflicts, a violent mother–daughter resp. father–son confrontation, the sometime maliciousness of teens, extensive use of flashbacks, partial narratives through fictitious second-hand accounts, …)

  2. In the case of Carrie, her development can be clearly followed, through years of living with a controlling and abusive, “sex is sin”, and likely outright insane mother; years of unpopularity and mobbing in school; and the chain of events that form the “now” of the book—culminating in her going from a rare hope of acceptance and happiness to complete humiliation within seconds, which finally snaps her. Carrie is the type of “school shooter” that could have been prevented.* Even in light of the enormous death toll, it is hard to view her as more than a victim of others and of circumstance.

    *Here and below, I will make the for-the-sake-of-argument assumption that a real school shooter would have gone through and been influenced by at least a similar set of (non-supernatural) experiences to Carrie and Charlie. See an excursion, however.

    However, this leaves a number of others open to discussion: Why were so many other female students so mean, cruel, even evil, towards her? Why were a number of boys sufficiently callous to let themselves be drawn into the machinations of Chris (a girl with a particular hatred of Carrie)? What turned Carrie’s mother into what she was?

    The students are likely best explained through human nature—there are simply too many accounts of similar pointless cruelty among people that age or younger. (And a great deal of cruelty among adults too, albeit often with a more obvious purpose.)

    The mother is harder to understand, because she appeared to be (going by memory) severely unhinged even at the earliest ages she is discussed in the book. Here there might be something that the book never revealed*, or she might just be someone naturally** unhinged. I do have the strong impression that she was a very stupid woman, however, which could go some way to explain e.g. a distorted world view.

    *Possibly, something relating to her own mother (grand-mother?), who appear to have had the same powers as Carrie.

    **Whether this actually happens in real life, I leave unstated. Remember that she is a fictional character.

  3. Charlie is a much trickier beast, because nothing that is done to him reaches the same proportions, and I suspect that the events were only possible through some type of additional personality flaw or lack of control* and/or (cf. below) a continual escalation. There are a few incidents from his childhood discussed, but none that, individually or combined, seem strong enough to cause anything so drastic. For instance, that his father temporarily lost control after Charlie, as a very young child, willfully destroyed a number of “storm windows”, is something that even Charlie really should have understood in retrospect. That he would have seen things differently at the time is unremarkable, but when someone at the brink of adulthood does not, this shows a severe lack of insight—especially, for Charlie, who himself has an anger-management problem… If anything, I cannot help feeling that it was the father who was mistreated in the extended scene, being harangued by his wife in an unfair manner after already having lost his windows. Indeed, if Charlie’s assessment that his father did not love him, was disappointed with him, whatnot, was correct, I am left with the question to what degree this and other similar events might have contributed…

    *The opposite is well illustrated by a scene from the “Buffy” episode “Earshot”, dealing with similar themes: XANDER Yeah, I mean, who hasn’t just idly thought about taking out the whole place with a semi-automatic? / Everyone stares at Xander. / XANDER I said idly. / BUFFY I know the difference. (But, of course, even this “idly” shows that something is seriously wrong with the school system.)

    Looking at his later life there are a few disappointments, especially of a sexual or romantic nature, but nothing going beyond what happens to many other teenagers in real-life or fictional teenagers in his class.

    The shorter chain of events leading up to main event (shooting two teachers and holding the class hostage) is potentially more interesting, including his beating a teacher into the hospital with a pipe wrench: On the one hand, the teacher (in Charlie’s account!) appears to have taunted him in front of the class, but if Charlie had not already brought the wrench with him, nothing that dangerous is likely to have happened. To boot, the details of the scene do not show someone just snapping into violence after being pushed one step too far—there is lengthy stand-off, during which Charlie engages in vandalism, and only hits the teacher when he tries to interfere. This leads up to the events of the “now”, where Charlie has a talk with the principal, during which he feels talked-down to and is informed that he will be expelled (based on previous deliberations)—after which he, with no apparent rage, goes to his locker, picks up a gun that he has kept there for some time, continues to class, and shots the teacher…

    Indeed, thinking back, I honestly question whether “Rage” is a descriptive title: Charlie’s issues might have been more of having or not having power, controlling a situation, or similar.* Cf. his frustration with teachers, his behavior in the class-room post-shooting, and, above all, his talks (often per intercom) with officials during the hostage situation.

    *While my own mentality is very different, I can to a high degree sympathize with such emotions: Too much of our modern lives are spent in helplessness as e.g. politicians make (often poor) decisions about us. Mandatory schooling is in it self a great example; the situation of students vs. their teachers another. This is the more annoying when the decision maker is someone vastly intellectually inferior, e.g. a typical entry-level civil servant or customer-service worker. (I am skeptical to Charlie’s own intelligence; however, there are at least some indications that he saw himself as superior, and he certainly had a considerable manipulative skill.)

    In the case of Charlie, we might well have someone who was bound for disaster no matter what. Possibly, the pipe-wrench event would not have taken place if the teacher had been more professional; possibly, Charlie would not have gone for his gun, had he not been expelled; possibly, a timely use of a psychiatrist would have been helpful; … However, I doubt that the end effect would have been that much different—he might have gone through high school without disaster, only to become a drunk* and get into bar fight after bar fight, until someone ended up with a knife between the ribs, or [take your pick from a number of similar scenarios]. The principal’s wish, thwarted by state politics or similar, that Charlie be serving time for assault, would have saved the two teachers, but is unlikely to have helped Charlie with his problems, and might well, as is often the case, have turned him into a career criminal.**

    *Notably, King was an alcoholic for most of his early adulthood—I am not aware of any bar fights, however.

    **Nevertheless, I have to second the principal: If a student beats a teacher into the hospital with a pipe wrench, the matter should be turned over to the legal system, and the student certainly not be allowed onto school grounds again for the foreseeable future. To proceed otherwise seems highly irresponsible to me. (Excepting unusual circumstances, like the teacher viciously attacking the student, and the student acting in self-defense.) Indeed, one possible interpretation of events is that the adults were too lenient with him: He escaped the thrashing he might have gotten over the windows. Earlier action from the teacher during the pipe-wrench incident might have prevented Charlie from getting his nerves up. Following the principal’s wish would have saved the two teachers. (With likely more events that could have been mentioned with a more detailed biography.)

  4. The case of Charlie points to a contradiction in the typical U.S. Leftist opinions: On the one hand, they favor gun-control*; on the other, they see nurture as overwhelmingly more important than nature. However, if Charlie and people like him are a product of (mal-)nurture, what help would gun-control be?** This basically leads us back to my original post.

    *For historical reasons, most other countries have far stricter gun-control, far weaker traditions around guns, whatnot, which all implies that the topic is hardly ever under discussion.

    **The exact scenario that played out, in all fairness, is one where gun control might have helped—killing two teachers with just a knife is one thing, holding a class hostage quite another… Then again, I am not aware of any real-life case that played out similarly; mostly, it has been a matter of just killing people.

    (However, I stress that I do not have strong opinions on gun-control in either direction. The point of this item is rather the ever recurring observation that Leftist thought tends to be inconsistent and illogical.)

  5. Even without TK, tragedies could have happened in “Carrie”, including Tommy’s* death: Tommy was hit on the head by a falling bucket, released by the scheming Chris to spill pig’s blood on Carrie; and there is no immediate** connection to TK involved. Carries death is at least a candidate, depending on how strongly her mother’s attack was tied to TK resp. sexual matters, general insanity, or whatnot. Even considerable other deaths might have been possible: In a worst case scenario, a vengeful Carrie could have slunk away, surreptitiously blocked the exits, and then set a fire—TK gave her the option of acting with more power and more impulsively, but it was not her sole possible recourse.***

    *Her date to the prom, at which they were crowned “king” and “queen” shortly before the bucket incident.

    **However, an indirect cannot be ruled out, e.g. that Carrie’s mother would have been less oppressive without the fear of TK, which might have made Carrie less of an outsider, which might have reduced the conflict with Chris, which might have led to a less harmful series of events.

    ***Which makes me wonder what would have happened, had King written that story for his first publication. TK makes the book more interesting on some levels, but I am uncertain whether it really contributes to the story. From a more “literary” point of view, it would likely have been a better book. (I certainly rate “Rage” higher; several other of his better books are low on the supernatural.)

  6. An interesting claim/explanation/excuse offered by one of the survivors in “Carrie”, years after the events, is “We were kids.”, which has my support as an explanation (cf. above), if not necessarily as an exculpation. More to the point, it raises a question that I have discussed before: Would it not be better to let children learn adult practices from adults, instead of childish practices from children? (Cf. [1] for this and some other issues around school and education; also e.g. [2] and [3] for more on the general issues.)

Excursion on realism:
If we look at these books and actual “shoot up the school” scenarios, the personal experiences that can lead to such a situation, etc., how much attention should we pay to works of fiction? (And especially by an author like King?) I have no deeper insights into the psychology of mass killers, and I doubt that Carrie (even without TK) and Charlie are truly realistic depictions of individuals. However, King was working as a teacher at the time he wrote “Carrie” and “Rage” (?*), was not that far away from his own high-school years, and his depictions of high-school students match my own impressions reasonably (some behaviors might be more appropriate in a slightly lower age-bracket in my opinion, some allowance for artistic exaggerations might be needed). To boot, at least some aspects of Carrie’s and Charlie’s specific lives match his own (cf. above), implying that he might have some insight into the potential consequences.

*“Rage” appears to have been published in 1977, but in “On Writing”, King claims that it was written before “Carrie”. Absent a statement of how much before, it might pre-date his teaching career, but would then be even closer to his high-school days. Some additional reservations have to be made for what might have changed between the original and the published version.

More generally, I have mixed feelings about using fiction as a source of information about the world: On the one hand, there is much to be learned by seeing the (even fictional) perspectives of other people, much of fictions is ultimately based on actual personal experiences, and most stereotypes (which are likely to be found in fiction) actually are true, when we look at groups. On the other, there are many outrageously unrealistic depictions* of people/events/skills/…, not all stereotypes are true,** and even a true stereotype applies to the group rather than the individual.

*Including e.g. how fights play out, what the police can do with a video tape, what hackers can do with anything, …

**Notably, stereotypes relating to men as abusers of women, driven by consistent feminist propaganda and “Lifetime”-style exploitation of women’s fears.

Excursion on “On Writing” and on learning how to write:
I picked this book up with the intent of getting a better insight into the writing of fiction, seeing that I have plans for a book of my own. The first part* has not been very useful directly, being more of a short autobiography. However, as I realized from the re-readings of “Carrie” and “Rage”, it might still be useful in conjuncture with his fictional works, to gain an understanding of their history, his motivations, and (more obviously) what parts of his own history are present in his works (cf. above).

*Most of the remainder is still left unread, partially because I switched to reading the books under discussion, partially because he started spouting a lot of very trite advice (do not use the passive, and similar). I will finish the rest next week.

With an eye on my own book, I find the observation repeated* that the road to become a sufficiently skillful author can be quite long**, and I suspect that in order to write the book I have in mind, rather than a pale shadow of it, I might actually have to write several “practice” books (not to mention short-stories) and target a date years from now—very discouraging. This might be perfectly fine for a full-time professional author, but going pro was never really my intention… (The amounts of money mentioned by King does raise the temptation, but I have no illusions about what proportion of authors actually get rich, or even make a living. To boot, I would likely have to take a more commercial turn than I had intended to even have a chance.)

*Over the last few years, I have read most of Steinbeck’s works and the complete works of Orwell. Steinbeck’s first novel, “Cup of Gold” is horribly bad and “The Grapes of Wrath” (a candidate for his main accomplishment) was written a full ten years later. While he had improved considerably in the works in between, only “Of Mice and Men” was a great work, but it also took eight years and is “just” a novella. (“Tortilla Flats” is highly overrated in my mind.) Orwell’s first novel, “Burmese Days”, is at best so-so, despite being preceded by considerable non-fiction writings; his main accomplishment, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, followed fifteen (!) years later. Orwell did have one extraordinary effort in between, “Animal Farm”, but that too took eleven years…. To boot, I have never been quite certain to what degree Orwell had grown into a truly great writer and to what degree he had mastered a truly important subject matter. As a counter-point, there are many authors who have been great from an early stage of publishing, but then I do not know how much unpublished effort preceded this. (As for King, his early published books are very unpolished, partly amateurish, but he already had a weird ability to hook the reader, and his aspirations might have been higher than in his works until the mid-1990s, when I was last up-to-date. And, yes, there appears to have been a fair bit more than ten years between his first efforts and “Carrie”…)

**King actually addresses the topic on his own, with a somewhat paradoxical take of emphasizing practice while denying that significant leaps in ability are possible. I concur with the first, especially in light of my experiences from other fields; I reject the second, citing Steinbeck, as above, as a prime counter-example. (However, I would have concurred, had he said that there are limits to what practice can do absent inborn talent.) He also says “One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose”, which matches my own experiences—we learn most from mistakes, and why not use the mistakes of others. It might also give me an excuse to read or re-read more of his own works…

Written by michaeleriksson

August 19, 2018 at 3:24 pm

A discussion of naive use of links

with 2 comments

People with a poor understanding of the Web and/or “hyper text” often add links in odd and suboptimal ways, including what I think of as “here”* links, which make the text specific to the medium, can confuse readers, and/or cause problems for automatic and semi-automatic tools (screen readers, link listers, search engines, whatnots). A typical example**:

*Because of the common use of the word “here”.

**All examples adhere to patterns that I have seen on many occasions; however, none are direct quotes. I mark the linked portions of the text by an opening and a closing “#”. For instance, “a #b# c” implies a text of “a b c” with a link on the “b”. (Using real links could cause problems very similar to those I advice against with this text, and has the added complication that the difference between e.g. “#a# #b#” and “#a b#” is not always obvious.)

Smith has written an extensive report on X. You can find the report #here#.

Consider e.g. how this would look in a link list: Now we have a link identified only by the word “here”… Consider what happens after printing, conversion to plain-text, or similar: What is “here” even supposed to imply? “You can find the report here.” leads to the obvious question “Where?!?”, which cannot be answered from the text it self. (And there need not be any indication in the text that this resulted from a link being lost, since coloring and, often, underlining will also be lost.) Consider the lack of information as to where the link leads. Consider how search-engines are hampered in their attempts to make classifications and evaluations. Etc.

Of course, these problems are not restricted to “here”. Consider variations like:

Smith has written an extensive report on X. #Use this link to download.#

Unsurprisingly, it is common for “here” links to occur repeatedly in the same document, often in the same sentence:

[…]
You can find the report #here#.
[…]
Other sources can be found #here#, #here#, #here#, and #here#.
[…]
For more on X click #here#. For more on Y click #here#.

Now the problems are made that much worse, because the links are indistinguishable without further investigation.

Contrast the first example with:

Smith has written #an extensive report on X#.

This avoids most* of the above problems, is more informative, more user-friendly, and shorter to boot. Other alternatives are possible, especially when some reformulation is allowed. For instance, “#Smith has written an extensive report on X#.” is even more informative, but makes the link unnecessarily long (which is why I preferred the chosen version).

*When moving to another medium, the link is still lost; however, the result is at least less confusing. (This could be avoided by spelling out the full link, which is legitimate and sometimes the best thing to do. Much more often, the negative effects on the HTML view would be too large through breaking a natural text flow or taking up too much space, as with e.g. #https://www.fictional-college.edu/~john.smith/my-extensive-report-on-X.html#.)

Similarly, what if the middle part of the third example had been:

[…]
Other sources include #an interview with Mike Tyson#, #the book XYZ#, #a NASA study#, and #Smith’s Ph.D. thesis#.*
[…]

*The exact texts to use are open to discussion, depending on factors like how the author prioritizes informative links vs. short links, what is clear from context, and similar. Going down to e.g. “[…] include #Mike Tyson# […]” might, depending on context, keep enough information, and would make the link shorter.

Ideally, the resulting text should read in a manner that is agnostic of the medium and could be moved unchanged to e.g. a (printed) news-paper article, as with a regular text that has simply been enriched with links for the convenience of the reader; ideally, the text of the link should have sufficient explanatory value that the reader has a good expectation of what to find even when just looking at a link list, but, at a minimum, when looking at the full sentence of the link. (Which is not to say that these ideals are always realistic or that I, myself, always keep them in mind—I do not. However, by making links even somewhat sensible, and by categorically avoiding nonsense like “You can find the report #here#.”, most of the problems automatically disappear. Compromises that I often deliberately make include “#an older text#” and the “#[1]#” discussed below.)

The alternative of using “#[1]#”, “#[2]#”, etc., is a hybrid between “good” and “bad” linking. Compared to “#here#”, such links have the advantage of being unique, being easily recognizable as references in other contexts (e.g. after printing), and allowing an easier transition to another medium by extending the text with a set of explanatory references (cf. how Wikipedia handles references*). They also allow for easier intra-text references. They still share disadvantages like the linked text not being very informative. I use this alternative fairly often, especially when several links are given at once and/or I will reference the same source later on in the text—however, I stress this is a compromise between effort and result.

*I.e. as combination of bracketed numbers in the text that refer to a later section with more information, including the full link, book title, author, or whatever might apply. In terms of results, this is arguably a better solution even for HTML; however, it implies a lot more work than if a link is put directly on the bracketed number, and will be impractical in many contexts. To boot, the effort for the reader can also be increased unduly when he is expected to actually visit the linked-to source in a high proportion of the cases (which is not the case with Wikipedia).

Excursion on other problems:
Other common problems include failing to indicate that a link leads to non-HTML content (e.g. a PDF-file), causing unexpected behavior* when the link is clicked; and forcing the opening of external links into new windows/tabs, contrary to the expectations of a reasonable user, potentially breaking tabbed browsing**, and violating the principle that the user should be in control: If the reader wants a page to open in a new tab/window, he actively does so. If he does not, it is not the right of some far away author to override his decision.

*Including opening additional applications (or a sub-standard browser view), often in combination with focus stealing; longer download times; and bandwidth wasted for those on a slow or non-flatrate connection.

**Even when the page is opened in a new tab, the result rarely fits the normal workflow of tabbed browsing, i.e. that tabs are opened in the background for later viewing, while the user remains on the original page. If the browser does not support the conversion of “new window” requests into “new tab” requests, the results can be far worse.

Excursion on too specific assumptions in general:
Youtube provides many examples of making too specific assumptions. For instance, a video that asks the users to “comment below” might become misleading even through a minor Youtube redesign. Others, e.g. “please ‘like’ this video” might survive even a drastic redesign, but would still be irrelevant if moved to or viewed in another context, e.g. after a manual download.

Blogging comes with potentially similar problems, but is rarely as bad (likely because bloggers are less obsessed with “likes” and subscriptions); however, I advice being careful about using highly blogging specific terminology for a text that might later appear in another context—just like a book or news paper written in the era of e-books and online news should avoid speaking of the paper it is (not necessarily) printed on. (I acknowledge that I have often violated my own advice.)

Many instructions for computer and whatnot use make far too many assumptions. Consider e.g. giving users instruction to use a certain key shortcut that is browser specific (or even to “click” on a link), telling him to start a certain program, giving him OS instructions that require Windows (or even a specific version of Windows), giving instructions on how to start an application through menus in a specific language (instead of giving the name of the application to start), …

Written by michaeleriksson

August 16, 2018 at 8:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,