Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Archive for April 2019

A few notes on my language errors II

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Re-reading a text on experiences in Sweden, I found an example that simultaneously illustrates two problem areas: “false friends”* and a weaker knowledge of words for everyday items (or, more generally, a knowledge that varies with the domain). Specifically, I wanted to translate the Swedish “kartong” (“carton”) and jumped straight to “cartoon”… The mistake is understandable, seeing that all three words are derived from the French “carton” or ultimately the Italian “cartone”. The result is still border-line hilarious—and this is a mistake that a native speaker would be unlikely to make. Notably, there is a wide range of words that most native speakers learn as children and that only rarely feature outside e.g. home settings, implying that non-natives are unlikely to pick them up from language courses, science books, fiction,** whatnot.

*I.e. words from different languages that sound/look as if they mean the same thing, but where the actual meaning is different. However, to me, this is normally a greater problem between German and Swedish than a constellation involving English, because the languages are more similar. This includes many cases of words that used to mean the same but have since drifted apart. For instance, when, probably, my mother once complained that I was still unmarried, I tried the excuse that there were too few women at work—and, with the German “Frauen” (“women”) in mind I spoke of “fruar” (“wives”). (A closely related issue, if not “false friends” in a strict sense, is the many words in German that sound/look as if they would have an immediate equivalent in Swedish (or vice versa) but do not, or where there is an almost immediate equivalent with a slightly unexpected shape. Consider e.g. the Swedish “avlasta”, where a naive translator might try a faux-German “ablasten” instead of the correct “entlasten”.)

**Much unlike e.g. “homicide”, “evidence”, “subpoena”, …

More generally, knowledge of a language is often strongly domain dependent, depending on factors like what we have read and what fields we have worked in. I, e.g., am weaker with kitchen and “home” terminology in German and English than in Swedish, due to my Swedish childhood; but stronger with computer terminology, due to my German work-experiences and my English readings. Quite often, I have found myself in a situation where I am well aware of the word for a certain concept in one language but lack the same word in another, depending on what type of readings has created the awareness.*

*This is sometimes noticeable in that I use lengthier formulations or awkward terminology in one discussion and better terminology (for the same concept) a few years later. In some cases, e.g. “identity politics”, I have been aware of the concept before I learned the phrase in any language.

The “carton”–“cartoon” mix-up is not a case of confusing sound-alike words (a problem mentioned in the the first installment). In doubt, the “-ton” and “-toon” parts of the respective word are quite far apart in pronunciation. Instead, it was either a matter of having the right word in mind and not having a sufficient awareness of the spelling, or of grabbing the “false friend” instead of the correct word with too little reflection. (To tell for certain after more than a month is hard.)

In contrast, my mistaken use of “shelve”* for “shelf” is at least partially a sound issue (partially a “not good with home terminology” issue), although of a less unconscious kind: I was uncertain whether the singular of “shelves” was “shelve” or “shelf”, decided to go with “shelve” and to let the spell-checker correct me as needed—overlooking that there is a verb “to shelve”… (Implying that the spell-checker saw “shelve” as a correct spelling, being unable to tell from context that a noun was intended. Actually researching the spelling through the Internet would have given me the correct answer in a matter of seconds…) More generally, the question of “f” vs “v[e]” is often a problem, including my often forgetting the switch to “v” in a plural (e.g. “lifes” instead of “lives” as a plural of “life”) and hypercorrecting (e.g. “believes” instead of “beliefs” as plural of “belief”).

*In a number of recent texts relating to my attempts to buy shelves online, e.g. [1].

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Written by michaeleriksson

April 30, 2019 at 1:52 pm

Germany and its problematic constitution / expropriation

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Apparently, the German party FDP is suggesting a removal of an expropriation rule (Artikel 15) from the German constitution. (Thumbs up!)

Curiosity caused me to read Artikel 15 and the closely connected Artikel 14*.

*Whether this too is in the cross-hairs of FDP was unclear, but the answer has no impact on my text.

Here I found two formulations that illustrate why I am skeptical to the German constitution. (Even apart from skepticism towards expropriation, in general.)

14 (2):

Eigentum verpflichtet. Sein Gebrauch soll zugleich dem Wohle der Allgemeinheit dienen.

Translation: Property obliges*. Its use should also serve the common good.**

*I am a little at loss for a good translation, but “obliges”, in a “Noblesse oblige” sense, is at least close.

**To some approximation. Other translations are possible in detail, but the big picture should be correct. (For instance, my off-the-top-of-my-head translation was “Its use should simultaneously serve the good of the public.”, with the current version arising during revision.)

This is utterly unrealistic,* seeing that it is contrary to how most property is actually used by most people. Actually applying this idea would have absurd consequences and/or severely alter human behavior. To boot, it would not necessarily do society much good in most cases.

*Using an even remotely literal interpretation. There is no guarantee that courts would do so (and I have not looked into precedence). Further, the original intent might have been more to state a principle of how society should work than to introduce actual regulation. (I would oppose such a principle equally strongly.)

Consider e.g. the problems caused with items like private computers, ovens, pencils, … Should we be obliged to e.g. bake for the poor in order to be allowed an oven? It would even call the possession of e.g. a house into question—unless the owner hosts meetings of a city committee in the house, or otherwise provides a public benefit. (I suspect, in contrast, that e.g. a farm would be of little issue, because the produce from the farm serves to feed people and, therefore, the common good. Then again, subsistence farming might be an issue…)

Worse, the claim is not even that property should serve the common good—it is the use of property. (Leaving some ambiguity whether, less likely, any individual use is intended, or, more likely, the sum of all use.)

It is disputable whether claims like these belong in a constitution at all. The “property obliges” part is particularly odd, because it amounts to less of a law and more of an ethical or philosophical opinion.

All-in-all, the text reads as if it is either intended to serve as a pseudo-justification* for expropriation or to satisfy Communist ideas contrary to conventional interpretations of property, e.g. in that “you may own a tractor—but only if you allow your neighbor to use it”. (But I have not researched the background.)

*Which is not to rule out that expropriation might have legitimate justifications in some rare cases. This, however, is not such a justification.

A saner clause might have focused on forbidding use that is actively harmful to the community, but even that could prove to be too far-going.

14 (3) (applying equally to 15)

[…] Die Entschädigung ist unter gerechter Abwägung der Interessen der Allgemeinheit und der Beteiligten zu bestimmen. […]

Translation:* […] The compensation [for the expropriation] is to be determined through a fair weighing of the interests of the public and the concerned party [i.e. the victim of the expropriation]. […]

*Again, with reservation for details.

Here, a clause putting the right to expropriate (per se) under the restriction of a weighing of interests would have been sensible, but no such restriction takes place. On the contrary, expropriation remains possible almost* at the drop of a hat. As for the compensation, a literal interpretation (with reservations like above) amounts to how the public benefit from paying as little as possible compares to the victim’s benefit of receiving as much as possible. This including eventual decisions like “we are short on money—let’s just give him a trifle” and “the value of the property is a drop in the ocean compared to our budget—let’s give him ten times the value”.

*There are restrictions, but they are limited in practical scope. (The expropriation must be rooted in law, not e.g. an arbitrary civil-servant decision. Cases under 14 are possible on a vague “common good”/“Wohle der Allgemeinheit” basis; cases under 15 are limited to the purpose of “socialization”/“Vergesellschaftung”, which opens a wide range of possibilities (and it is arguably the worst kind of expropriation).

A saner clause might have implied that expropriation (!) is only possible after a fair weighing of interest, and that compensation must amount to a minimum of the objective value as determined by a qualified and neutral third party or fairly cover all direct and indirect damages caused by the loss of property, the loss of use of the property, and whatever else might apply. (Note that I deliberately do no restrict this to the pre-expropriation owner: Others might be hit too, e.g. through a previously allowed use now being banned. For instance, assume that a farmer allowed city folk to pick-nick on his grounds, but that the sovkhoz does not.) On the upside, the constitution guarantees the right to take the issue of compensation to court; however, not the issue of expropriation.

These formulations are the odder with an eye at the preceding Nazi phase and what was already known about events in the Soviet Union and its satellites. For instance, a “fair” weighing of the interests of a Jew resp. a capitalist in Nazi-Germany resp. Soviet Russia might have led to disproportionately little recompense being paid—possibly, none at all.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 27, 2019 at 6:41 pm

The environment vs. the climate

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Looking back over the last few decades, I have the impression that the sub-topic of climate and climate change (in particular, global warming) has gone from being a marginal issue to dominating the environmental debate, e.g. in that the damage done by a certain technology, behavior, whatnot is primarily measured in terms of effect on global warming, “green house” gases, and similar, while more direct environmental effects are given less and less weight. My recollections of the 1980s include extensive debate around forest death, thinning of egg shells due to DDT, acid rain, local city pollution, and similar. Today, it is quite often just global warming this and global warming that… For instance, reading up a little on means of transportation for an example in a text on shallow knowledge, I found comparisons that focused almost exclusively on C02 emissions and other ways* that the different means might affect global warming—but aspects like local pollution, use of heavy metals, and whatnot were not or only tangentially mentioned.

*E.g. whether it was better or worse to have emissions high in the air, specifically with an eye on global warming.

I find this highly unfortunate for at least two reasons:

Firstly, there are many valuable environmental-but-non-climate topics that are not given their due weight in terms of political debate, public awareness, and actual counter-measures.

Secondly, considerable doubts has to be raised as to whether global warming is that bad a thing. This even under the assumptions that it does exist and is man-made.*

*I believe both assumptions to be true, but I have not personally looked into the research sufficiently deeply to have a definite opinion—in part because I consider the question secondary for the very reasons discussed here. (As for “personally”: I have learned the hard way that what politicians, journalists, and the like claim is not always correct—and very, very often simplistic or exaggerated. Correspondingly, I postpone final judgment until I have “seen for myself”.)

Reading this second point, half the readers and almost all the environmentalist readers might not believe their eyes, but there are (again) at least two reasons for this statement:

Firstly, we are in an era of the Earth’s history which is quite cold. In fact, we are in (an inter-glacial* phase of) an ice age… Looking at most of the known record, it has been warmer or considerably warmer.** If the temperature rises further, we will only be leaving an atypical cold period—not entering an atypical warm period. (Unless the trends get entirely out of hand.) We might bring the Earth to a certain new temperature range earlier or faster*** than what the non-human processes would have managed, but it would have gotten there anyway, sooner or later.**** Moreover, it is conceivable that the global warming is counter-acting a further fall of temperature that might otherwise already have started (or, if not, would likely start within some thousands of years). Such a fall of temperature, leading into a glacial phase, would be as bad or worse as a rise for non-human species—and almost certainly much worse for us humans.

*Ice ages are divided into glacial and inter-glacial phases, depending on the spread of ice. Sloppy language often misuses “ice age” to refer specifically to a glacial phase.

**Cf. e.g. Wikipedia’s Timeline of glaciation article. Note that common journalist claims like “the hottest July of all times” are outrageously wrong, and might well contribute to the common misconceptions discussed below. In reality, it is merely the hottest July since the beginning of measurements—with measurements usually going back to some point in the 19th century. (The exact time depends on the country in question.)

***A faster change, obviously, increases the risk that some species will be unable to adapt in time. This aspect should not be neglected (but also see below).

****And continued to alternately grow warmer and colder again and again and again, long after humanity has become extinct.

Secondly, of the human made changes that occur, such a warming would be a comparatively small issue in a longer perspective. While even the sum of all human activities are dwarfed by various mass extinctions, specifically global warming is almost negligible in destructive* impact on a geological scale. (In contrast, a further-going destruction of the ozone layer could have had far worse consequences before sufficient adaptions occurred. Or consider the many extinctions that humanity has caused or could in the future cause through over-hunting/fishing, farming, introduction of foreign species, …—all on a time-scale that makes adaption hard.)

*This restriction is important, because it could lead to extensive changes that are not destructive, e.g. because they allow for various species to relocate or adapt.

The hitch is that too many fail to realize that the world we live in is ever-changing, was so before humans arose, and will continue to be so after we are gone. Temperatures change, coast-lines change, the positions of land-masses change, ocean streams change, … Even the position of the Earth’s magnetic poles change. If someone takes a human life-span, or even the life-span of some nations, as the scale of comparison, it might seem that higher temperatures, less ice, a higher sea-level, whatnot, are drastic changes. Using time-scales of a few thousand, often even few hundred, years, gives a very different perspective—and applying a time scale of millions of years makes it seem almost ridiculous. As a variation of the same theme, assume that most of New York were to be lost due to rising water—cataclysmic, disastrous, uprooting millions of people, causing billions upon billions of dollars of damage, … Or? Another perspective is that most of the current buildings and almost all of the population have been there for less than a hundred years. On a scale of two hundred years, the citizens of today and of yore would be hard-pressed to even recognize the respective other version of the city as New York—starting with the population of yore being a fraction of what it is today. A “New New York”, further inland, might exceed the old New York within decades, and certainly* within a hundred years. Moreover: if the change was slow enough, the negative effects might be largely counter-acted by minor changes to independent events, e.g. that people have a decreased tendency to move there and an increased tendency to move away, that newly founded companies are less likely to head-quarter there, and similar.

*Barring other developments and complications, many of which would have impacted New York too, and assuming that a corresponding re-founding took place (other choices are possible).

Realistically speaking, the destructive effects of climate changes (of the currently projected size) could hit current human society hard, but when we look at the long-term prospects of humanity, human society, or most non-human species, the effects will be smaller and/or transient. Of course, such threats to current human society are of great importance, but not for “environmental” reasons and it is dubious to frame the debate mainly as an environmental or a “save nature from humans” one.

Excursion on reasons for the shift in focus:
Apart from the use of inappropriate time scales, I suspect three factors behind the shift in focus: Firstly, many of the “old” threats have been averted, turned out to have been exaggerated (notably, forest death), or have lost their appeal to the masses (e.g. because a threat of extinction has been present for decades without the point of extinction actually being reached). This has lead both to these specific threats fading from the discussion and to similar other threats appearing less dire. Secondly, the scope of climate changes make them a very useful noble cause for politicians looking for voters, movements looking for followers, and similar. Thirdly, climate issues might well have been under-discussed at earlier times, because the awareness of their existence was not there. (More generally, the history of environmental protection contains a long series of discoveries that what-we-thought-was-harmless-might-actually-be-harmful, e.g. with CFCs and the ozone layer.)

Excursion on other damage vs. natural changes:
To some degree, other types of environmental damage, extinctions, whatnot, can be vulnerable to similar counter-arguments. For instance, sooner or later any given species will either go extinct or develop into another species—if humans do not exterminate the black rhino it will still go disappear at some later time, following the footsteps of e.g. the triceratops. I would, however, not use this type of reasoning to declare human-caused extinctions harmless: human intervention reduces species diversity, intra-species genetic diversity, and causes “unnatural selection”, all with a much deeper impact than global warming. If it had been “just” the black rhino, I might have let the argument hold—but the number of species concerned is much larger. Indeed, if we look at e.g. mammals in Europe, there are few, if any, species that have not been impacted by humans, be it through hunting of the species, hunting of the species’ predators or prey, shrinking biotopes, pollution, commensualism with humans, … True, if humans were to go extinct today, nature would ultimately bounce back; and true, the impact is still much smaller than that of the presumed dinosaur-killing asteroid. However, it is also much larger than impact from gradual global warming.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 26, 2019 at 2:57 am

A few notes on my language errors

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When proof- or re-reading my own texts, I am often annoyed by the number of language errors that I make, even discounting those relating to ignorance* and sloppy typing**. Below, I will discuss some issues that I have seen repeatedly recently.

*I am not a native speaker, and my understanding of the rules of English can have weird holes. For instance, it was only fairly recently that I realized that “one’s” (“someone’s”, etc.) takes an apostrophe (as opposed to “ones”, “someones”, etc.) in standard English. I also often rely on my spell-checker to find problems with words that I have only used actively on rare occasions. To boot, my own opinion on certain less regulated language questions develops over time, e.g. in that I earlier used “may” quite often to indicate a “might”, “could”, or similar—but now consider this poor style, because of the loss of precision.

**While I only very rarely pick the wrong character, I can get characters turned around (e.g. “on” instead of “no”) and occasionally pick the entirely wrong syllable (e.g. “-er” instead of “-ing”). And, yes, I would count the latter as sloppy typing in my case, because it is not a conscious choice but more of “crossed wires” at some point in the transfer from brain to computer—I pick the wrong set of keys where a less experienced typist might pick the wrong individual key. On occasion, my fingers type an entirely different word than I had in my mind.

The influence of pronunciation* is particularly frustrating, e.g. in that I might mix-up “two”, “too”, and “to”—despite having a firm grasp of when which should be used. It seems that the influence of the similarity in sound often tricks my fingers when typing and my eyes when proof-reading. This is likely an area where being a fast typist and reader is actually a disadvantage, because I spend less time on each word (compared to someone slower) and am less likely to notice such differences. Generally, proof-reading is hard for me**, because of the problems with keeping myself concentrated and suppressing the temptation to read faster.

*Beware that I might be more vulnerable to this as a non-native speaker, because different languages have different rules for pronunciation and phonetical “minimal pairs”.

**Here I found myself writing “more” instead of “me” in an example of the crossed-wire issue mentioned above—somehow, a spurious “or” was inserted.

Late stage changes and additions to a text are often stumbling blocks: The parts of the original draft that remain until publication have been proof-read at least twice (often more)—but the changes made during proof-reading, the new thoughts added after the first draft, the reformulations made because the original was too clunky,* etc., will have gone through fewer stages of checks. Factor in how boring proof-reading is, and a last-minute change might even end up with a single skimming in lieu of proper proof-reading. Sometimes these errors can distort the text, as with a recent use of “net”**: I originally wrote an example in terms of net income/profit, but decided that it made more sense to start with revenue, re-wrote the example correspondingly—and left a “net” in. This causes the numbers used in the example to seem incompatible with each other. In German, with its more complicated grammar, I often have problems like a change of words leading to a change of gender, which would require different suffixes on other words in the same sentence or the use of differently gendered pronouns (possibly, in other sentences)—but where I fail to make all of the secondary changes.***

*Yes, even I have a limit…

**The error is still present at the time of writing, but I might edit the text at a later date. I have refrained from doing so, so far, because I do not trust WordPress’ editing functionality. The same applies to other examples.

***Consider the differences between “Ich habe ein kleines Tier gesehen. Es war braun.” and “Ich habe einen kleinen Hund gesehen. Er war braun.”, and contrast this with the identical English surroundings: “I saw a small [animal/dog]. It was brown.” (However, something similar can happen with at least “a” vs. “an” in English too, e.g. “a dog” vs. “an animal”.)

The imitative character of language learning (see excursion) has often led me astray—to the point that I might find myself unconsciously making the same mistakes that I criticize in others. For instance, I have condemned linking on the word “here”* as naive (and stand by that text!), but found that I have myself made this mistake on a few occasions. (E.g. in blogroll** updates, where I have repeatedly used formulations like “That link was first described here.”, with a link on “here”.)

*Which I would see as a part of language use in the context of hyper-text.

**Originally, I wrote “role” instead of “roll”.

While I have repeatedly complained about how people screw up the “linguistic logic”* of their sentences, I am not infallible myself. For instance, I recently wrote “not entirely unsurprisingly” in a context where “not entirely surprisingly” was the actual intention. I should have stuck with a plain “unsurprisingly”, which had been less likely to cause confusion for writer and reader alike.

*E.g. through screwed up negations (as above), use of phrases like “fast speed” (a car is fast; its speed is great), or some examples from an earlier discussion.

A quite surprising problem area is line-breaks: If a line-break takes place after a (usually) one-syllable word, I often type this word again after the line-break. Likely, the end-of-the-line suffers some variation of “out of sight, out of mind”, with the result that I fail to recognize that I had already typed the word once. More rarely, the opposite happens and the word is left out entirely; however, this could be unrelated to the line-break, as it happens in other parts of the text too*.

*Just wrote “two”…

Excursion on imitation:
Human language is naturally learned by imitation, and humans seem to be strongly geared towards such imitation. This to the point that I have occasionally found myself correctly using words that I did not know (at least, on a conscious level). This imitative character can have many negative effects, including that people make incorrect assumptions about what a word means (e.g. “decimate”, “discriminate”, “petrified”), use words in a manner that causes a drift in meaning over time (e.g. “discriminate”; possibly, “decimate”); or pick up weird language errors that would have been obviously incorrect to someone who had stopped to think (e.g. “I could care less” or “literally” to imply the exact opposite of what is actually said). Correspondingly, those whose language reaches a greater number of people should see it as their duty to speak and write as correctly as possible, be they authors*, teachers, journalists, politicians, … Similarly, parents should take care when speaking to their children, lest they pick up poor habits from the beginning. In particular, they should avoid deliberate “baby words” like “doggy” and “bowwow”.

*A complication is the compromise between correct/standard/whatnot and realistic speech by fictional characters. Unless the author wishes to put heavy emphasis on some quality of a character (e.g. that he is unusually stupid or belong to a different dialectal/sociolectal/whatnot group than the main characters), I recommend erring on the side of the correct, e.g. through assuming that this particular member of a certain group is one of the more well-read and educated—the variation between e.g. construction workers on the same building site can be quite large.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 24, 2019 at 11:44 pm

A few thoughts on the proportion of complaints in my writings

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Looking back at some of my writings, especially in 2019, I see an awful lot of complaining. Do I have nothing better to do with my time? Is my view of the world really that bleak? Is my life really filled with that many annoyances?

To some degree the answer is “yes”—but to an even greater degree “no”. Notably, no matter how much I might seem to complain when writing, I see myself as of (possibly considerably) over-average happiness in life, in comparison with e.g. various family members and most of my past colleagues.* Why then the high proportion of complaints? The answers include:

*To the degree that I can judge their situation. Further, with the reservation that this was not necessarily always so.

  1. In all fairness—the “yes” aspect: We do live in a world plagued by incompetence, ignorance, irrationality, lack of respect for the rights and interests of others, …

    There objectively is much to complain about, and complaining has the benefit of allowing me to “process” these issues. It makes it easier for me to get things of my mind,* it makes it easier for me to find an upside on a negative situation (“at least I got material for a blog post”), and there is usually something to learn from the events (cf. below).

    *I do have a tendency to not let go of issues that bother me, before I have processed them: Write a text to complain and I can put the issue away; do not write a text and it can annoy me for days.

    However, a critical difference between me and many others is that I seem to be much better at spotting such issues—many are themselves too incompetent or naive to understand that they are the victims of one or more of these problems: They fail to see that things could be done better. They do not realize that someone is taking advantage of them. They miss causal connections. They fail to investigate the truth of claims made by others. They are tricked into ignoring the negative effects of a problem, because the causer of the problem smiled at them and said a few polite words. Whatnot. We all live in a highly flawed world; not all of us have noticed it.

    I can e.g recall how my mother once came home from the auto-mechanics, gushing with gratitude over the fact that he had found or “found” another problem than she originally came in for, which had yet to actually manifest in something negative, and which made the cost of service explode… Now, I am not saying that this was fraud—such problems do legitimately occur, and he might genuinely have found one. However, my mother did not even contemplate the possibility that it might have been a fake discovery. This despite such fake discoveries being a part of the auto-mechanic stereotype*. She shelled out her money, was happy, and might or might not have avoided a future issue. A more wise-to-the-world car-owner would at least have asked for a second opinion.

    *More generally the craftsman et al. stereotype—and for a good reason. My private experiences include, shortly after moving into a new apartment, having a plumber come by to fix something on behalf of the land-lady. He went under the sink, worked vigorously for a few moments, got back up, turned the tap on, pointed out the absence of a water flow, and insisted on changing the entire tap. This did not fly: The tap had worked perfectly until he came and it was obvious that he had just deliberately turned off the main-valve, which was also under the sink…

    While such naive behavior is bad when it comes to commercial transactions, it can be disastrous when politics is concerned—as can be seen both by the typical quality of politician elected and the often useless or even harmful policies that they push.

  2. Writing about the positive things in life usually feels pointless. Yes, it can be nice to recollect* them at some later time; yes, shared happiness is double happiness**. However, there is also less to learn and analyze, less of a need for change, less that might be achieved through writing a text, and less opportunity to provide “food for thought”. Indeed, when I (as a reader) encounter a “feel good” text by someone else, I rarely bother to read it to an end, because it seldom provides a push for me to think or an opportunity to widen my horizons.

    *And I have a few more positive posts in planning relating to my visits to Sweden and the many recollections of the past that they invoked. (That these topics are on my mind might be clear from this text.)

    **To quote a ceramic decoration that I re-encountered in Sweden: Delad glädje är dubbel glädje.

  3. One of my main goals with writing is self-development, and writing about things that are, in some sense, wrong provides me with a better opportunity (also see the previous item). For instance, if we look at my recent eCommerce and delivery issues (cf. a number of recent texts) and assume that everything had gone right—what would there be to learn from and write about? I could note that things went well and I could try to figure out why, but that is pretty much it. (And the “why” mostly makes sense with an eye on past eCommerce and delivery failures, bringing us back to failures…) When things go wrong, the situation is very different: What happened? What could the underlying problem be? How could things be done better? Who is to blame? Is this a wider problem or something that happened just to me? Etc. Not only is there more to write about, but there is also an incentive to read up on related issues. (Here, for instance, I have read a number of pages dealing with the delivery experiences of others, magazine articles dealing with the delivery chaos in Germany, and similar.)
  4. I strongly believe that learning from the failures of others is a great way to excellence—indeed, that merely avoiding the more common errors in a certain field will bring someone quite far towards the top in said field. (It is astonishing what proportion in more-or-less any field is actually quite incompetent and how many “beginner’s” errors prevail even among veterans.) By writing such texts, I do not only give myself an opportunity to learn, I also offer the same opportunity to others.*

    *To which I stress that the important part is not that my opinion be taken as an ipse dixit, although I am pleased when my opinions/reasoning/whatnot are convincing, but that the reader is stimulated to think for himself.

  5. I also strongly believe that many of the current problems remain unchanged because people do not complain enough.* If people were less naive, less complacent, whatnot, and actually stood up against e.g. incompetent service providers, things would change. My complaints might be nothing more than a lone candle in a vast darkness, but it is proverbially better to light a candle than to curse the darkness—and if more would join me, we might have enough candles to actually defeat the darkness.

    *Not counting the many complaints that are misguided effects of propaganda efforts by e.g. Feminists. Cf. any number of previous texts.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 24, 2019 at 12:10 am

The plights of printing / Canon MG5650

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My printer for the last three (?) years, a Canon MG5650, has been a great source of problems.

Today, this included the idiocy that the color-cartridges are allegedly empty and that it tried to refuse me the right to print in black-and-white until I had them exchanged! Indeed, the printer locked up to the degree that it was not even possible to e.g. access the main menu of the printer… (Fortunately, there is a work-around that allows this check to be disabled on a per-cartridge basis—a prolonged simultaneous press of the “down-arrow” and “encircled triangle” buttons. On the down-side, this could endanger the printer, should I ever do try to print in color, because apparently printing with low ink can damage it—specifically, IIRC, the print-heads.)

This is extremely annoying on two counts: Firstly, the contents of the color-cartridges have no bearing whatsoever on a black-and-white print. Still, people are put in a situation where they might have to forego an urgent print and/or incur unnecessary extra costs.* Secondly, the only use of the color-cartridges that I have ever made is printing a few test pages, including for alignment of the print-heads, and a single call of the routine to clean the print-heads—they simply should not be empty at this juncture. (Unless, cf. a below footnote, Canon wastes my ink.)

*I note that the above-mentioned work-around is not suggested by the printer and that most users will likely not even know that a work-around exists. I found it on the Internet.

Of course, Canon has a corresponding opportunity of an unethical gain, well in line with common tricks of the industry, including attempts to prevent re-filling of cartridges or purchases of cartridges from independent suppliers at a considerably lower cost. (This through means like patents, design changes, and, perfidiously, chips that try keep track of previous printing, rather than the actual ink level. The latter might be the explanation for the allegedly empty cartridges in my case.)

A few weeks ago, while the printer was already complaining about the color-cartridges being almost empty, I found myself unable to print for another reason—the black* cartridge suddenly was empty. This with not one word of preceding warning, while the printer had kept harping about the color-cartridges for weeks. This forced me to forego a few printouts that I needed for a meeting, because I did not have anywhere near the time to buy a new cartridge. Had I had an advance warning, I could have bought one in time and been up-and-running in the thirty seconds it takes to change a cartridge…

*The main black one—not the little black one intended for photos or whatnots.

Ever since my move to Wuppertal, the printer had ever-and-ever-again complained that it was out of paper—while the tray was full. Indeed, often a mere press of “OK”,* without even touching the paper tray, was enough to cause printing, proving how flawed the complaint was. Worse, this complaint comes at the end of an endless-feeling period where the printer just makes noises (presumably, trying to load or detect paper), which causes the overall printing time to explode. About a month ago, I took a screw-driver, removed** and re-attached the tray, having made good experiences with the disassemble–reassemble approach on other items. Since then, the number of complaints have dropped from an average of one or two per printed page to a single complaint for a-dozen-or-so*** pages.

*The request by the printer is to fill the (allegedly empty) paper tray and then to press “OK”.

**There are a few screws and plastic attachments on the bottom of the printer.

***Which by my standards is a print-heavy month. (Otherwise, I would have attempted a correction a lot earlier.)

A great idiocy is a recommendation that the user print at least several pages in both color and black-and-white every week to avoid that the print-heads clog (or whatnot).* If I were to do that, almost all my color-printing (and a sizable portion of my black-and-white printing) would amount to printing-for-the-sake-of-preserving-the-print-heads. This would run up unnecessary costs and, obviously, lead me to the point where empty color-cartridges prevent black-and-white printing that much sooner (cf. above; note that the color-cartridges are a lot smaller than the black cartridge). Of course, Canon has little incentive to make the printer less sensitive, because the sooner new cartridges are sold, the more money it makes.

*I apologize for being vague on the details. I read this somewhere in official recommendations when the first warnings concerning the color-cartridges appeared, many weeks ago; and do not have the motivation to go back to look for details.

Then we have issues like long start-up and shut-down times,* a surprising amount of noise,* keys that carry obscure icons instead of text, an on-display navigation that ignores the left and right arrows,** …

*Both might be connected to internal maintenance programs or similar that might be a cause of wasted ink, which might explain my color-cartridges. Possibly, this can be avoided by not turning the printer on-and-off, but I use mine less than once a week on average, making this wasteful in other regards. To boot, fire-safety advice is typically to not leave electronic devices in the stand-by mode but to turn them of entirely. Of course, again, Canon has little incentive to be more economical with the ink…

**In favor of three keys below the display, which makes the navigation highly counter-intuitive. By all means, keep the extra keys—but also make the arrows work as expected. There is no need for an either–or.

However, my poor experiences have not been limited to this printer. (And not because I use Linux: CUPS et co. have done a very good job so far.) I note e.g. how:

  1. I helped my mother buy a printer (brand forgotten), did a test print of a black text, and was puzzled by the slightly brownish result. It turns out that the printer had chosen to print the black text using the color-cartridges, increasing cost and losing print quality (achieving a true black print through mixing colors is very hard). I went into the printer settings, disabled color-printing entirely, and now the same text came out black. (Note that I have made very certain to take corresponding steps with any printer that I have bought myself since then. A similar issue is not the explanation for the allegedly empty cartridges of my MG5650, unless it does some weird trickery on the hardware side.)
  2. At the beginning of the Windows Vista era, I bought a notebook with Vista pre-installed. At roughly the same time, I bought a new printer (brand forgotten), which was explicitly declared as Vista compatible. It turned out not to be… Moreover, my Internet searches back then indicated that such mislabeling was comparatively common.

    (While I was already a dedicated Linux user, I had no experience with Linux on notebooks or of (non-laser) printing under Linux, and I had heard again and again that both were complicated, did not work as intended, whatnot. For this reason, I originally stayed with Vista. Seeing that Vista was an absolute usability disaster, I eventually did try to install Linux—and it worked like a charm (as it has with any later notebook of mine). This particular printer, I had already returned, so I do not know whether it would have worked under Linux, but I do know that my MG5650 was easy to install. If I had but trusted in Linux to begin with… In all fairness, however, these might have been much more problematic areas in even earlier times.)

  3. Further back (possibly, 1998 resp. 2002), I had two Lexmarks (models forgotten, but different) under Windows. The first had, in terms of user-friendliness, one of the most awful print-apps, printer drivers, or whatnots that I have ever encountered. As I bought the second a few years later, I reasoned that with the years in between, Lexmark was bound to have improved. No: The second had virtually the same hopelessly idiotic interface.

    (Generally, I have found the manufacturer-provided interfaces somewhat to very poor. Under Linux, in contrast, CUPS, lpr, lpq, etc. provide a much more user-friendly and almost device independent interface. I might or might not miss out on some special settings, but this has not hurt me to date. Indeed, with printers or with other gadgets, I would prefer it, if more time was spent on developing standardized interfaces/APIs/whatnot for standard functionality and less on providing nice-to-have functionality over non-standard interfaces.)

Written by michaeleriksson

April 23, 2019 at 1:51 am

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Follow-up II: Deliveries

with one comment

As a probably final follow-up on Hornbach ([1], [2]), I have just canceled the remainder of my order. Even now, and even after contacting Hornbach directly, my shelves have not been delivered and no guaranteed date for delivery has been set.

This is the more annoying as the one part that has been delivered is something that I only ordered on the assumption that there would be one single, joint delivery of all items in one go. With a separate delivery, the order of this item (a smaller shelf) borders on being pointless, and I would probably not have ordered it all. (And, cf. [2], this item turned out to be damaged…) What I actually had my eyes on, the actual purpose of the order, has not been delivered.

As a general observation, there is a strong tendency for German companies to not in any way, shape, or form try to reduce the customers’ problems or to compensate him for them. On the contrary, the general attitude towards contracts seems to be that they are an obligation for the customer to pay—while the product or service that is to be provided is left to good fortune. In particular, it is considered acceptable by businesses that a customer spends more time on trying to resolve something directly or indirectly caused by the business than the product, the fixing of the issue, or the intended recompense is worth.* In as far as a recompense takes place, the business presumes to unilaterally decide what it is to be, the sum is usually an absolute trifling, and the form is almost invariably some type of coupon “to use with your next purchase” (yeah, right). This is demonstrated e.g. by IDS’ refusal to deliver on a Saturday, despite having had the audacity to dictate a date and time for delivery and then not show up… To me, it would have been a given that if I screw something up for a customer, then I go the extra mile for the customer to get things corrected, including that I work on an unusual day or at an unusual time. Similarly, in a last effort, I gave Hornbach a final opportunity to deliver with the if-all-else-fails suggestion to just have one of the regular employees of the local physical store drive-out the same product to me—something entirely reasonable (unless out-of-stock), seeing that it were poor choices by Hornbach that led to the situation, including a spurious split of the delivery and the hiring of severely incompetent or negligent service providers.***

*As a specific example, this shelf cost 69 (?) Euro. Assuming that the damage lowers the value by 20 %, we have 13.80 Euro. Now, consider the effort and delay (especially in light of recent events) of arranging to send the shelf back and getting a new one in return. Unless I am compensated for my actual efforts, it makes more sense to live with the damage. Similarly, I did demand a refund of 20 %, which Hornbach refuses to honor without photographic proof—but photographic proof implies that I have to search for my (not used since I moved) camera, hope that I have compatible batteries (or new ones must be bought), take photographs, transfer them to my computer, and then email them. Again, hardly worth the trouble. (But, in all fairness, the photographic evidence is one case where I do not consider the requirement undue in principle, seeing that someone could claim a damage for an undamaged product. Indeed, I demanded the refund more in the hope of getting a message across than of getting money back.)

**Note that this is not a hypothetical: I have run a small business for several years, and that I e.g. have spent a few hours extra to clean up something has happened. Indeed, I have stayed late, come early, or similar to help with situations not caused by me…

***But I was not the least surprised that this did not happen. Again, this was more of an attempt to get the message across than something I actually expected to happen.

I note that it would be highly beneficial if businesses did take or were forced to take such responsibility: Things will only change for the better if the costs of errors land with the actual source of the errors. This applies in particular to deliveries, where the sender sees its job as done when a package is given to the delivery service, after which it is the problem of the recipient to arrange for actually getting the package—but where the recipient is more-or-less powerless against the delivery service, because there is no contract between them. The delivery service, in turn, does what saves costs, even if it falls well short of a reasonable expectation of performance—-the sender will not complain and the recipient is powerless. Also see a text on force majeure for a more general discussion of this principle.

Another interesting thing is the refusal to deliver on Saturdays*, per se: A delivery service worth its salt should deliver when it can expect to find someone at home. Refusing to deliver on Saturdays is absurd—just like the stubborn insistence on trying to deliver at times of day when most people are at work. The result is, again, that the effort lands with the recipient, who has to make arrangements, go out of his way, take a day off from work, go in person to the post-office, whatnot.

*Note that a Sunday delivery is probably ruled out by antiquated German legislation—just like supermarkets are still, in the year 2019, forced to be closed on Sundays.

As a personal conclusion, I will probably forego eCommerce entirely in the foreseeable future—there is simply too much that goes wrong. If I deviate, I will do my darnedest to keep to my own advice and never pay per “Vorauskasse”—as long as the seller already has the money, I have no bargaining chips. Cf. the problems around deliveries already discussed in [1] and [2]; around payment methods, web-design, etc. in e.g. [3] and [4]; and some other aspects in an up-coming text.

As a correction to my previous texts: It appears that the package that I did receive was the IDS package, which shifts the blame (cf. [2]) from DPD to IDS. On the other hand, DPD is guilty of causing a complete non-delivery of the other package. To boot, it is odd that the larger package was sent by DPD (in my understanding, a “postal package” delivery company), while the smaller was sent by IDS (in my understanding, a “bulky goods” delivery company).*

*A possible explanation could relate to weight: I believe that I at some point saw a weight of 26 kg for DPD, vs. the 31 kg from IDS. If so, it could be that some cut-off was used in the decision. However, the difference is fairly small, the volume difference remains, and the fact that IDS was used anyway would have made it reasonable to just deliver both packages at once by IDS. To boot, I am not certain that 26 is a reasonable number, as this would imply less than 13 kg per shelf (subtract weight of packaging, divide by two), while a similar-but-considerably-smaller shelf purchased earlier (in person) weighed 16 kg.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 18, 2019 at 12:13 am