Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Archive for June 2019

My writings, lack of time, and the future

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One of my great frustrations is the combination of the many, many things that I want to do and how little time there is to actually do them. This includes (but is by means limited to) things that I want to study, books that I want to read, and texts that I want to write.

Writing is increasingly becoming an outright problem, because I can barely keep up with the new (still non-fiction) texts that I am motivated to write—especially, because many texts end up being longer or considerably longer than I had planned. Meanwhile, my backlog blogging-wise is growing*, I have outstanding TODOs on my website that are ancient, and I am not making as much progress with fiction as I had intended. This is made more complicated by occasional finger pains. While these are no major problem by themselves, I see myself forced to limit the portion of my time spent on writing, lest true problems develop.

*Including a number on texts on my recent visits to Sweden that are growing less and less recent…

As a result, I will try to be considerably more restrictive with texts based on new impulses (e.g. news items), in the hope that this will free up enough time to slowly catch up.

Excursion on progress with fiction:
While my progress has been hampered, it is by no means non-existent. I have improved considerably in terms of understanding and, I hope, ability, and I will likely soon be ready to start* on the actual writing of my first book. Meanwhile, I have gathered many ideas and planned out at least some parts of it in my head.

*An important word. I make no statements as to when I will be finished, especially with an eye on the significant re-writes and revisions that I suspect will be needed for this first work. (Publication, of course, is yet another different matter.)

Written by michaeleriksson

June 28, 2019 at 8:31 am

Germany and “Big Brother”

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According to a German source, Horst Seehofer, currently minister of the interior*, appears to have his eyes set on “Nineteen Eighty-Four” level surveillance. While none of his ideas are new, or necessarily unexpected from politicians, or even remotely on the level of my own satirical suggestion, the situation is highly disturbing—this is something that might be pushed through in Germany in the very near future.

*With some reservations for official translations.

A few claims:*

*The first paragraph of each item paraphrases the source; the remainder, including any first-paragraph-footnotes, are my comments.

  1. Seehofer wants to use virtual assistants like Alexa and similar technologies (e.g. “intelligent” TV* sets and fridges) for government surveillance.

    *The very strong parallel to Orwell is somewhat incidental, because the state of technology was much more limited in his days. Nevertheless, I remind that a core part of “Big Brother’s” surveillance was TV sets that sent information in the “wrong” direction and that could not or must not be turned off.

    This will often make the average citizen a helpless target. The likely two largest (but by no means only) problems: Firstly, this will allow an indiscriminate surveillance and/or a surveillance that is hard to reduce to a scope that respects even the closest spheres of intimacy and privacy. Note e.g. that such gadgets will often be present in bath-
    and bedrooms, including during activities like sexual intercourse. Secondly, once the technology is sufficiently enabled, it will only be a matter of time before it is abused outside the legally allowed limits, be it by law enforcement, individuals with access to the technology, and third-parties who either hack the surveillance infrastructure or use weaknesses in the underlying technology (e.g. Alexa) necessitated by the surveillance.

    Moreover, such surveillance will (yet again) hit the average citizen hard while leaving a professional and competent criminal, terrorist, whatnot unfazed, because he will simply take measures like e.g. having sensitive conversations only when and where no such gadgets are present.

    I note that there might come a time when regular citizen can only protect themselves through extreme measures. For instance, in due time, more-or-less any appliance is likely to be “smart”, “IoT” enabled, or similar. Add on a harmless sounding law (or have the manufacturers enforce something similar through their T-and-C’s) that non-manufacturer modifications of appliances are illegal, and the typical citizen might be stuck with several surveillance mechanisms in every room—or need to forego what the rest of the world considers basic necessities.

  2. Seehofer wants to force messenger services like WhatsApp to record (in plain) the encrypted communications of their customers* and provide this record to the government.

    *I hope that this is supposed to be done only in individual cases, e.g. after a court-order; however, the article is not clear on this.

    Apart from privacy concerns, this will severely weaken security/privacy versus other parties, notably cyber-criminals. (Some of the above also applies here and for the following items.)

  3. The use of the Bundestrojaner is to be extended to German citizens within Germany* and breaking-and-entering to install surveillance measures is to be legal.

    *I do not remember (and have not checked) the exact current constraints, but German citizens (still) do have a better protection than the rest of the world.

    Both imply a further severe privacy violation, notably with much involved that has no bearing on any alleged case. (For instance, an unexpected physical visit can reveal things that are of a strictly private nature.) Both imply a great insecurity, because a citizen can never know that he is in the clear from surveillance. (Notably, this applies even when he is perfectly innocent, because innocents are quite often among suspects of various crimes.)

    I note that I consider the use of the Bundestrojaner grossly unethical and worthy of condemnation even in the current scope.

  4. Users* might see as much as six months of imprisonment if they refuse to hand out their passwords to law enforcement. A specific intended use for this is to allow law enforcement to hi-jack virtual identities to communicate with other parties while pretending to be the original user.

    *What users (“Nutzer”) was not clear from the source. Possible interpretations range from each-and-everyone to some groups of cyber-criminals.

    Already the former is inexcusable, and violates any reasonable standard of computer privacy. Indeed, one of the main reasons why everyone should use encryption is for protection against the government’s putting its nose where it does not belong. A requirement to hand out passwords invalidates this protection entirely, in a manner potentially much worse than any regular form of self-incrimination.* Moreover, it will typically make information available that is far more private than warranted and often has no connection with the matter at hand. (E.g. in that someone suspected of terrorism implicitly gives access to love letters, “sexting” messages, private journals, …; there have certainly been times and places where a revelation as a homosexual or Jew could have very negative consequences.)

    *With laws like this, we might have paradoxical situations where someone is allowed to keep silent on a particular crime, but is also forced to hand out information that will necessarily, indirectly, incriminate him for the very same crime…

    The latter would often compound this by damaging someone’s reputation, destroying future opportunities (even legal ones), leaving others with faulty impressions about human behavior, … To boot, there is a particular perfidy to such methods that I have always found highly distasteful, as with e.g. under-cover work and entrapment. Then there is the issue of trust—can we ever trust that our counter-parts are who they claim to be? If not, what will the effects be?

These items would be a massive step in the wrong direction, as I discuss in e.g. a call for the opposite. (Other texts of relevance include [1], [2], [3].) I note in particular, that the surveillance in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was ultimately not motivated by an interest in knowledge—but by thought control. In the long-run, it is almost hard to avoid a similar abuse, e.g. in that an artificial intelligence evaluates everything said, and posts corresponding notices to law enforcement, e.g. that “X has expressed sympathies for Y—high time to investigate him”.* Few would dare express the “wrong” honest opinions in such a scenario.

*More extreme scenarios are less likely, but certainly still possible, e.g. that a U.S. parent who uses the word “nigger” in front of a child is visited by child services.

Particular questions to ask include how the privacy of e.g. family members of a suspect is affected and what happens when the government turns evil*.

*Something that Germans (noting Nazis and Communists) should be particular leery of. Notably, a core realization of the Rechtsstaat, good constitutions, and similar, is that we cannot and must not assume that the government is and will remain “good”. Doing so is like leaving the door unlocked “because I have never had a break in”—it misses the point of a lock, the Rechtsstaat, whatnot, entirely.

In a bigger picture, this is just one further step of the government, the politicians, or whatnot moving away from a rightful role as a servant of the people and towards a self-appointed role as custodian and arbitrary master.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 28, 2019 at 7:59 am

Follow-up II: Further mistreatment of athletes / a call to revisit the illegality of large groups of drugs

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Almost a year ago, I wrote about long-distance runner Meraf Bahta and the controversy that ensued after she failed to use a tool for tracking her whereabouts correctly—with not one shred of evidence that she had actually taken illegal drugs… (Cf. [1], [2].)

In light of a recent conviction, an update on the case drawing on a Swedish source:

  1. Through the remainder of 2018, Bahta abstained from most competitions, including Finnkampen*. She did, however, set a new Swedish record for the 10 km road-race.

    *A Swedish–Finnish dual meet of great national prestige.

  2. January 4th, 2019, Bahta is originally cleared of the charges. She resumes competition and later improves upon the aforementioned record.
  3. June 24th: An appeal of the original verdict now sees Bahta convicted. (Further appeals are possible, so this need not be the last word.)

The above is extremely unfortunate on at least two counts: Firstly, in terms of e.g. planning and mental pressure, the impact on Bahta is much worse than if she had received a timely conviction shortly after the accusations arose, or if she had been convicted already in the first judgment. Considering the short careers of athletes, such proceeding must be sped up. In addition, some thought might be needed to reduce double jeopardy through appeals.* Secondly, the actual punishment seems like a half-baked attempt at punishing while not punishing: She received a (largely) retroactive suspension from September 1st, 2018, until August 31st, 2019. This conveniently implies that her medal (cf. [1]) from the European Championships remains and that she is allowed to compete in this years World Championships,** which take place exceptionally late in the year. Due to her reduced competition schedule, she loses little more than the aforementioned records—and records in road running are not that important to begin with.*** While I do find it fitting that previous damage is considered in the punishment, just like a convict in the regular courts will typically see “time served” subtracted from the punishment, this pushes the border. I come away with an impression that this was less of an attempt to find her guilty or not guilty and more an attempt to find a compromise acceptable to all parties.

*There are different jurisdictional takes on whether an appeal (absent e.g. new evidence) implies double jeopardy or a mere continuation of the same jeopardy. From the point of view of the accused, the difference is not always large. Here, a compromise might consist in requiring an appeal for an acquittal on the national level to be made on the international level. (Both “courts” involved here were Swedish.) This increases the security for the athlete while preventing cheating or careless countries from giving their athletes unfair acquittals that are both unappealing and unappealable.

**With reservations for her actually qualifying. Here the suspension at least reduces her chances. Going by Wikipedia, the deadline is “6 September 2019”, which would be narrow indeed. (The page also says “The qualification period for the 10,000 metres […] runs from 7 March 2018”, which might give her some leeway in that event. I have not investigated her previous results.) However, the fact that she still has an opportunity increases my suspicion of a “compromise punishment”—had the suspension been shifted by even one week…

***Reservation: I go only by what is mentioned in the source. There might be something unmentioned that she would consider significant, which I also missed in other news or have since forgotten.

As a special note: If the tracking failure had been in conjuncture with actual drug use, then the effects of this drug use would have manifested earlier than the time of suspension. In other words, if she were a true cheater, this verdict fails to give remedy to whomever missed a medal behind Bahta in the European Championships… Moreover, this could give incentives to true cheaters to try to use a similar trick—get to the championship with an unfair advantage and take a punishment for a lesser crime after the championship… A fairer solution, assuming that the offense is at all punishable,* would be to suspend her retroactively from the time of the offense or of the first competition after the offense (or similar).

*Note that I argue in [1] that things have gone too far and that the restrictions on the athletes are unconscionable. I stand by that text. I am especially skeptical to a one-year punishment for such a minor offense (except that the circumstances in this specific case make even one year fairly toothless).

Written by michaeleriksson

June 26, 2019 at 4:32 pm

Tennis, numbers, and reasoning: Part III

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Two post-scripts to the previous discussions ([1], [2]):

  1. In [1], I wrote

    Prime Federer’s feats are mind-numbing to those who understand the implications, including e.g. ten straight Grand-Slam finals with eight victories

    Nadal has since won his 12th (!!!) French Open—and was at eleven at the time of writing. How do these feats compare?

    This is a tricky question—and Nadal’s accomplishment undoubtedly is also one of the most amazing in tennis history.

    Overall, I would give Federer a clear nod when it comes to “mind-numbing”, because he has so many other stats that complement the specific one mentioned. This includes semi- and quarter-finals “in a row” statistics that are arguably even more impressive.

    When we look at these two specific feats, it is closer and the evaluation will likely be partially a matter of taste. Leaving probability theory out (in a first step), I would tend to favour Federer, because (a) he had a greater element of bad luck in that he ran into Nadal* on clay in the two finals that he lost, (b) had to compete on different surfaces, which makes it a lot harder, (c) the clay competition (Nadal, himself, aside) has been much weaker than the hard-court competition, (d) Federer reached the finals in his misses while Nadal fell well short of the finals. In Nadal’s favor, he had to span at least** twelve years of high level play, while Federer only needed*** two-and-a-half.

    *Nadal almost indisputably being the “clay-GOAT”, Federer likely being the number two clay player of the years in question, and the results possibly being misleading in the way that Mike Powell’s were in [2]. (Then again, some other complication might have arisen, e.g. had Federer played in another era.)

    **Assuming a twelve-in-a-row. As is, he has missed thrice and therefore needed a span of fifteen years.

    ***But note that his longevity has been extraordinary.

    From an idealized probabilities point-of-view, looking just at numbers and ignoring background information, we have to compare 8 out of 10 to 12 out of 15.* To get some idea, let us calculate the probability** of a tournament victory needed to have a 50 % chance of each of these feats. By the binomial formula, the chance of winning at least*** 8 out of 10 is p^10 + 10 * p^9 * (1 – p) + 45 * p^8 * (1 – p)^2, where p is the probability of winning a single tournament. This amounts to a p of approximately .74, i.e. a 74 % chance of winning any given major. Similarly, at least 12 out of 15 amounts to p^15 + 15 * p^14 * (1 – p) + 105 * p^13 * (1 – p)^2 + 455 * p^12 * (1 – p)^3 and a p of roughly 0.76 or a 76 % chance of winning any given French Open. In other words, the probabilities are almost the same, with Nadal very slightly ahead. (But note both the simplifying assumptions per footnote and that this is a purely statistical calculation that does not consider the “real world” arguments of the previous paragraph.) From another point of view, both constellations amount to winning 80 %, implying that someone with p = 0.8 would have had an expectation value of respectively 8 out of 10 and 12 out of 15.

    *The latter being Nadal’s record from his first win and participation in 2005 until the latest in 2019. In this comparison, I gloss over the fact that Nadal realistically only had one attempt, while Federer arguably had more than one. This especially because it would be very hard to determine the number of attempts for Federer, including questions like what years belonged to his prime (note that his statistic is a “prime effort” while Nadal’s is a “longevity effort”) and how “overlapping” attempts are to be handled. I also, this time to Federer’s disadvantage, gloss over the greater difficulty of reaching a final in a miss. (I.e. I treat a lost final as no better than even a first-round loss.) I am uncertain who is more favored by these simplifications.

    **Unrealistically assumed to be constant over each of the tournaments during the time period in question. This incidentally illustrates Federer’s had-to-face-Nadal-on-clay problem: Two French Opens belong to both series and would then have had both Federer and Nadal at considerably better than a 50 % chance of winning… (Both were, obviously, won by Nadal.)

    ***Winning nine or ten out of ten is a greater feat, but must be considered here. If not, eight out of ten might seem even harder than it actually is. (Exactly eight out of ten corresponds to the third term, for those who must know.)

    As a comparison, having a 74, 76, or 80 % (geometric average) chance of winning any individual match of a Grand-Slam tournament is quite good—and above we talk about the tournaments in their entirety.

  2. When I watched tennis in the mid-1980s, I was often puzzled by the way players would miss “simple” shots, e.g. a smash at the net—why not just hit the ball a little less hard and with more control?

    I did understand issues like nerves and over-thinking even back then; however, I had yet to understand the impact of probabilities: Hitting a safety shot reduces the risk of giving the point away—but it also gives the opponent a greater chance to keep the ball in play. When making judgments about what shot to make, a good compromise between these two factors have to be found, and that is what a good player tries* to do. Moreover, the difference in points won is often so small that surprisingly large risks can be justified. Consider e.g. a scenario where player A wins 55 % of rallies over player B. Now assume that he has the opportunity to hit a risky shot with a 35 % risk of immediate loss and a 65 % chance of immediate victory,** and the alternative of keeping the ball in play at the “old” percentages. Clearly, he should normally take the risk, because his chance of winning the point just rose by ten percentage points… It is true that he might look like a fool, should he fail, but it is the actual points that count.

    *I am not saying that the decision is always correct, a regard in which young me had a point, but there is more going on than just e.g. recklessness and over-confidence. The decision is also not necessarily conscious—much more often, I suspect, it is an unconscious or instinctual matter, based on many years of play and training.

    **Glossing over cases where the ball remains in play. I also assume, for simplicity, that there are no middle roads, e.g. hitting a safe shot that still manages to increase the probability of a rally win. Looking more in detail, we then have questions like whether hitting the ball a little harder or softer, going for a point closer to or farther from this-or-that line, whatnot, will increase or decrease the overall likelihood of winning the point.

    Similarly, I had trouble understanding the logic behind first and second serves: If a player’s First Serve* is “better” than his Second (which is what my grand-mother explained**), why not just use the same type of serve on the second serve? Vice versa, if his Second Serve actually was good enough to use on the second serve and safer than the First (again, per my grand-mother**), why is it not good enough for the first serve? Again, it is necessary to understand the involved probabilities (and the different circumstances of the first and second serve): A serve can have at least two relevant*** outcomes, namely a fault and a non-fault (which I will refer to as “successful” below). Successful serves, in turn, can be divided into those that ultimately lead to a point win (be it through an ace, a return error, or through later play) respectively a point loss. A fault leads to a second serve when faulting the first serve but a point loss (“double fault”) when faulting the second serve, which is the critical issue.

    *To avoid confusion, I capitalize “first serve” and “second serve” (and variations) when speaking of the actual execution (as in e.g. “Federer has a great First Serve”) and leave it uncapitalized when speaking of the classification by rule (as in e.g. “if a player faults his first serve, he has a second chance on his second serve”). Thus, normally, a player would use his First Serve on the first serve, but might theoretically opt to use his Second Serve instead, etc.

    **I am reasonably certain that these two explanations tapped out her own understanding: she was an adult and a tennis fan, but also far from a big thinker.

    ***A third, the “let”, is uninteresting for the math and outcomes, because it leads to a repeat with no penalty. I might forget some other special case.

    If we designate the probability* of a first serve being successful as p1s and ditto second serve p2s, and further put the respective probability of a point win given that the serve is successful at p1w respectively p2w, we can now put the overall probability of a point win (on serve) at p1s * p1w + (1 – p1s) * p2s * p2w. If using the same Serve, be it First or Second, for both serves, the formula simplifies to p1s * p1w * (2 – p1s) (or, equivalently, p2s * p2w * (2 – p2s)). A first obvious observation is that keeping the serves different gives a further degree of freedom, which makes it likely (but not entirely certain, a priori) that this is the better strategy. Looking more in detail at the formula, it is clear that the ideal second serve maximizes p2s * p2w, while the ideal first serve maximizes the overall formula given a value for p2s * p2w. Notably, an increase in p2s will have two expected effects, namely the tautological increase of the first factor and a diminishing of the second (p2w), because the lower risk of missing the serve will (in a typical, realistic scenario) come at the price of giving the opponent an easier task. An increase of p1s, on the other hand, will have three effects, those analogue to the preceding and a diminishing of the (1 – p1s) factor, which makes the optimal value for p1s smaller than for p2s.** In other words, the first serve should be riskier than the second.

    *Here simplifying (and unrealistic) assumptions are silently made, including that the probabilities are constant and that the player attempts the exact same serve on each occasion.

    **Barring the degenerate case of p2s * p2w = 0. If this expression has already been maximized, then p1s * p1w must also be = 0—and so must the overall formula. Further, unless p1w reacts pathologically to changes in p1s, e.g. flips to 0 whenever p1s < p2s. In such cases, p1s = p2s might apply. (But not p1s > p2s, because p1s * p1w is no larger than p2s * p2w, by assumption of optimization, while (1 – p1s) would then be smaller than (1 – p2s), implying that an increase of p1s above p2s lowers the overall value.)

    A more in depth investigation is hard without having a specific connection between the probabilities. To look at a very simplistic model, assume that we have an new variable r (“risk”) that runs from 0 to 1 and controls two functions ps(r) = 1 – r and pw(r) = r that correspond to the former p1s and p2s resp. p1w and p2w. (Note that the functions for “1” and “2” are the same, even if the old variables were kept separate.) We now want to choose an r1 and r2 for the first and second serve to maximize (1 – r1) * r1 + r1 * (1 – r2) * r2 (found by substitution in the original formula). The optimal value of r2 to maximize (1 – r2) * r2 can (regardless of r1) be found as 0.5, resulting in 0.25. The remaining expression in r1 is then (1 – r1) * r1 + 0.25 * r1 = 1.25 * r1 – r1^2, which maximizes for r1 = 0.625 with a value of 0.390625. In this specific case, the optimal first serve is, in some sense, two-and-a-half times as risky as the optimal second serve. (But note that this specific number need apply even remotely to real-life tennis: the functions were chosen to lead to easy calculations and illustration, not realism. This can be seen at the resulting chance of winning a point on one’s own serve being significantly smaller than 0.5…)

Written by michaeleriksson

June 25, 2019 at 8:53 am

Perverted couples

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There are some language errors that occur again and again. Of these, one of the most annoying to me is “a couple [X]” (instead of “a couple of [X]”). This construct is unfortunate in several regards, even formal incorrectness aside:

  1. It can make some sentences harder to parse or outright ambiguous through confusion with the use of “couple” as a (non-quantifying) noun. Consider e.g. “I watched a couple flying kites”: Did I watch a couple who were flying kites or did I watch a couple of kites that were flying?

    This especially in spoken English, where something like “a coupla” is fairly common: Is this a sloppy (or “cute”) pronunciation of “a couple” or “a couple of”? (With the “e” of “couple” or the “of” perverted.) Chances are that even the speaker is not always certain…

  2. The (often mis-)interpretation as a quantifier only becomes relevant through the removal of “of”: Look e.g. at the contrasts “a couple”–“two persons”, “a romantic couple”–“two persons who are romantic[ally involved]”, and “a couple of lovers”–“two lovers”. Considering the strong difference between the items in the first two pairings, it should be obvious that the same applies to the third too (even though it might be easy to overlook without the others): “a couple of lovers kissing” implies that (a) a couple is kissing and (b) the couple consists of lovers. In contrast, “two lovers kissing” implies that (a) lovers are kissing and (b) there are two of them. Also note how “couple” can be replaced by e.g. “pair” or “group”* in these examples, while “two” cannot.

    *Although the implications of “group” might be slightly different (even numbers aside). For instance, “a couple of lovers” would typically imply a mutual relationship, while “a group of lovers” might contain lovers of one or more people/things/whatnot outside the group.

    Once we drop the “of”, the interpretation as a quantifier in direct parallel to “two” (or “dozen”, or “few”) is a near given: “a couple lovers kissing” most reasonably implies that (a) lovers are kissing and (b) there are a (quantifying) couple of them. Once this interpretation exists, it is hard to not see “a couple of [X]” as implying quantification.

    In other words, dropping the “of” forces many uses of “couple” into a new grammatical class—and it does so for no good reason.

  3. When viewed as a quantifier, it is often unclear whether “couple” intends “two”/“a pair [of]”, or rather “a few”/“several”. (The former is historically correct; the latter seems considerably more common in modern use.)

    Here I recommend sticking to “two” or “a pair of”, unless there is a strong implication of unity*; resp. “a few” or “several”. This even for formulations that would have included the “of”.

    *Cf. the interpretation of “a couple of lovers kissing” vs. “two lovers kissing” above. Note that the etymology of “couple” has implications of things that are joined to each other, as opposed to things that e.g. merely happen to be in the same place, which opens a niche for continued use.

  4. Formulations like “a couple [X]” are inferior to “a few [X]” in terms of both length and aesthetics, making “a few [X]” a much more natural choice. Why shove in those extra letters to create something both ugly and grammatically incorrect?

    (Assuming modern use. The same principle holds for the historical use and “two [X]”.)

Written by michaeleriksson

June 24, 2019 at 6:05 am

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Chilling experiences

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My new fridge and freezer (cf. [1]) are finally here, almost on time for the summer heat.

A few observations around my adventures leading up to the delivery:

  1. I began my research by visiting a local physical store*, intending to have a look around at what appliances** were available, compare some prices and measurements, and then talk to a salesman. I had barely entered the right section of the store when I was almost waylaid by a woman, who provided some helpful information,*** but ultimately was more of an obstacle than a help. This included insisting on showing me some specific freezers, insisting that no others would be interesting, being obsessed with the Liebherr**** brand, and spending great time on providing exact details/prices/measurements for one freezer and one fridge, where I would have been better off with ballpark numbers for half-a-dozen. Eventually, I found myself forced to chose between telling her to piss off (if more diplomatically formulated) and just leaving myself. Being additionally discouraged by the high price level, I chose the latter.

    *Sträter, should someone local read this.

    **For the purposes of this text, I will use “appliance” as a short for “freezer and/or fridge”. (However, some of the text might apply to a wider meaning too.)

    ***Notably, concerning roughly what measurements were available and some solution ideas (with an eye on the limited space available). However, none of this information had any impact on my eventual decisions…

    ****One of the more expensive brands, even by German standards.

    This repeats an experience that I have made repeatedly in the past: Stores that project an image of customer service and provides “customer consultants”* often provide negative value to the customer in terms of e.g. information, try to lead the customer to buy what the store wants to sell (as opposed to what the customer wants to buy or would benefit from), and bring up their prices above the rest of the market to pay the “consultants” … Certainly, these “consultants” are usually nothing but salesmen. Three particular red flags are the presence of more salesmen than customers in the store, salesmen who routinely approach customers at sight**, and salesmen who deliberately try to take control of the process***—all of which applied to this store. And, yes, this is how this store operates as a matter of course: I had already been there on a few other occasions, and have always been addressed by two or three different employees. (But a “I am just looking” mostly deflected them—this time, I had more serious intentions and made the mistake of not lying.)

    *“Kundenberater”, a more common word in German than the English alternatives (that I am aware of) that do not include “sales” somewhere in the title.

    **As opposed to being available when the customer approaches them; and as opposed to approaching a customer who has been wandering about for half-an-hour. I experienced a particularly negative example in a Frankfurt store long ago: I had to decline a cup of coffee from the same salesman thrice…

    ***As opposed to e.g. merely asking whether the customer would like assistance; and, should assistance be wanted, as opposed to just assisting.

    I would recommend only visiting this type of store when one already has narrowed down the alternatives considerably and needs additional assistance not available from a more mass-market dealer (e.g. MediaMarkt, cf. below) or an eCommerce* dealer—use them for fine-tuning, not for getting your bearings. Further, I recommend never, ever to buy anything without having first gained an idea of the general price levels for both the item at hand and comparable items in other stores—even if the cited price is within one’s means. (For instance, I could easily afford to buy two Liebherr appliances, but why should I? I am better off sticking to Bomann (cf. below) and using the money saved on something that brings me more value.)

    *Note that my advice against eCommerce largely does not apply here, because this type of appliance will usually be bought for delivery even when from a physical store.

  2. An interesting piece of information, and ultimately the sole gain from my visit, was that the local utility company, WSW, was running a rebate scheme for their customers, where those who bought energy efficient appliances were refunded a certain amount for purchases from certain stores (cf. below), with the normal amounts doubled this May.* Seeing a chance to recoup some of the over-large fees that I am paying,** I researched the topic and took the opportunity.

    *The capitalist might wonder about the business sense of this—they pay people to use less energy, which will reduce their own revenue. The explanation lies in this being a city-owned enterprise, with motivations governed more by politics than business concerns.

    **Including considerable consumption-independent fees that hit low consumers disproportionately (might be a topic for a later text). I have a switch to another provider on my TODO list, but have yet to get around to the research.

    However, the approach of WSW strikes me as doubly ethically dubious: Firstly, it can distort competition on the market, both through giving the (few) “partner” stores* an unfair leg up on the competition, and through driving customers to buy more expensive** appliances than they otherwise would have. In a worst case, producers or stores might chose to raise their prices in the hope that such rebates will keep demand unchanged, in which case the rebate amounts to a subsidy to high-end producers/stores*** with little or no gain for the consumer or the environment. Secondly, it amounts to a redistribution of money from the sum of their customers to one sub-group, namely those who buy new appliances that underlie the right constraints. This potentially includes both a re-distribution to the wealthier, because they are more likely to be able to afford the right appliances and to buy appliances more often, and a potential environmental**** damage through a shortening of the life-cycle of appliances. I would much prefer the scrapping of such programs in favor of more reasonable electricity and gas charges.

    *I am not aware of the criteria and modalities, but only local stores are involved, not all local stores are, and to boot the partners are divided into categories of 30 and 50 Euro rebates (resp. 60 and 100 during May). I would speculate that WSW requires some type of co-payment from the stores, which would lessen the distortion, but it is still bad enough—and without a co-payment (or a similar mechanism) the distortion could be quite severe. (As an interesting special case, the local MediaMarkt is a partner, while the local Saturn is not—despite MediaMarkt and Saturn just being differently branded stores from the same chain.)

    **Normally, only “A+++” energy-rated appliances are covered (cf. below). Because a better energy rating normally implies a higher price, lower-price appliances will tend to be at a disadvantage. This especially because different criteria tends to rise together, leading to an even higher price—chances are that an “A+++” appliance will also have various other quality improvements and “extras”, that are not necessarily wanted or needed by the customer. For instance, many of the Liebherr appliances came with an integrated touch-screen, which to me is more likely to be an additional error source than a benefit.

    ***Cf. the problems within some health-care systems or how the U.S. college tuitions and “financial aid” have risen hand-in-hand.

    ****The motivation behind the rebates is, obviously, to benefit the environment through reducing energy consumption. This, however, will only work as long as the appliances are kept for long enough that the environmental balance is positive, with an eye on energy and materials used to build, deliver, recycle, whatnot. It can fail completely when e.g. someone who has not hitherto had a freezer buys one because the rebate made it more affordable… (Something which might have applied to me, had I not already made the decision to buy one.)

    WSW also provided yet another example of uncooperative or communicatively incompetent staff (and websites): Not having found a specific explanation of the rules, I sent an email to receive clarification of what criteria appliances must fulfill. The answer was “[…] muss die Energieeffizienzklasse A+++, mindestens aber A++ besitzen” (“[…] must have the energy-efficiency-class A+++, but at least A++”). Puzzled, I asked for confirmation that either of A+++ and A++ would be acceptable (as the most likely interpretation), but was met with the claim that A++ was only acceptable when no appliance of the same construction (“baugleiches”) was available—a critical reservation that non-negotiably should have been stated in the first email. Even now, however, this information is too vague: Is this restriction based on the market as a whole, the individual dealer, the individual brand, or some other grouping? What are the exact criteria for determining whether two appliances are “baugleich”?* Instead of wasting more time on this idiot, not to mention taking the risk of getting an answer that later turned out to be faulty, I just decided to try stick to A+++.

    *Indeed, in the strictest interpretation, two appliances that are baugleich would tautologically have the same rating, making the restriction pointless.

  3. After various research and comparisons, I found two suitable appliances from Bomann at 250* resp. 220 Euro for a total of 470 Euro (+ 98 Euro delivery – 120 Euro WSW rebate for an effective 448 Euro) at MediaMarkt. Similar Liebherr (and some other brands) cost more or considerably more than this sum per appliance. I have definitely seen comparable-but-much-higher-end appliances in the area of 800 or 900 Euro each… I very much doubt that the difference in price would be offset by any value-added. As for the specifics of my appliances, it is much to soon (less than a day of ownership) to give them a conclusive “thumbs up”, but they are A+++, they did have a very good** rating on the MediaMarkt website, and so far seem to be excellent.

    *Here and elsewhere I round to avoid numbers like 249.99.

    **Even after adjusting for the extremely inflated scale. They might have been 4.8 resp. 4.9 (or similar) out of 5, while most others landed somewhere between possibly 4.5 and 4.7, which makes it plausible that they would have reached 4 or better even on a scale readjusted to have a mean at 3 (where it belongs).

  4. My purchase at MediaMarkt proved problematic, however. After researching online, I also tried to buy online. This failed due to the shopping cart simply not loading.* I then sent an email to the local store, especially because I feared that the rebates might not apply when buying online, and was gratified by a quick confirmation.

    *While I did not investigate this in detail, I did note that the website used Google APIs hosted at Google, which is a big no-no and a sign of great improfessionalism, e.g. with an eye on protecting the users privacy and reducing the risk of malfunction. For my own protection, I block access to these APIs per filter, which means that any access attempt would lead to a failure.

    However, the contents of some emails were less than ideal, including that my contact refused to send the invoice to me per email, claiming data-protection concerns (“Datenschutztechnischen Gründen”). This is obviously absurd, because the rules are there to protect me and my request that an invoice be sent per email implies a corresponding waiver. Moreover, the invoice would not have contained any data not already present in the email correspondence. Moreover, sending invoices per email has been standard for years and I am not aware of any extremely recent ban on this (and would consider such a ban border-line idiotic). The refusal to send the invoice did not come with a statement of the overall sum, which would have been quite beneficial and was the reason why I had requested the invoice in the first place. This largely due to vagueness as to which of the two possible (and differently priced) delivery schemes applied in my case. (And, no, she did not state which scheme either. While I had not explicitly asked for clarification of this, it should have been clear from context that the information was wished for.) Noting that May 31st had arrived and wanting to avoid any complications* around the WSW rebates, I left it at that and just went to the physical store to pay and collect my invoice.

    *Notably, that there might be some rule that not the date of the purchase counted, but the date when the corresponding vouchers were presented, in which case a further delay would have cost me 60 Euro. Ditto if, absent such a rule, an incompetent counter-part wrongly believed this to be the rule—a fear justified by some of the below.

    At the store, I was met by another employee who knew nothing of the matter and who claimed that my previous contact was out for lunch at the time. Apparently, my request for an invoice at this stage was absurd, and an invoice would normally only be provided once the appliances had arrived. Pushing the issue, I convinced her to have a look and an invoice had indeed already been prepared by my contact. As I paid, I presented the WSW vouchers for them to be deducted, but was met with the claim that this must be done by the information desk.* This is sub-optimal on two counts for me and two counts for MediaMarkt, it self: I (a) have to go stand in a second line for no good reason, (b) have to temporarily put out more money than is needed.** MediaMarkt (a) has to hand out actual cash, rather than just book less money from an account or card,*** (b) has to have at least three different “units” handling money instead of two (regular cashiers, the “Warenausgabe”****, and the information desk).

    *This was originally more annoying than with hindsight, because I had read an email from my original contact sloppily, and failed to note that she did indeed speak of the information desk. However, and in my defense, she had also spoken of “verrechnet” and “Verrechnung”, which in my eyes does imply a deduction from the amount due before payment—not the refund after payment that actually took place.

    **While not an actual problem in my case, others might see a credit-card limit exceeded or an account overdrawn despite having enough money to pay the net amount. This especially at the end of the month…

    ***Note the increased risk of fraud, e.g. in that someone might hand in falsified vouchers while using someone else’s card, leaving MediaMarkt with a charge-back of the full amount and the loss of the cash handed out, because WSW would be unlikely to reimburse the vouchers. Further, I suspect that there might be complications with (non-fraudulent) cancellations, e.g. when someone buys something, changes his mind, and returns the items for a refund—coordinating the refund would be much easier if the rebate had been deducted from the bill and not handed out as cash in an independent transaction.

    ****Where I originally was sent and where my contact worked. I am uncertain as to the translation, but it is the point where ordered goods would be manually collected. (Handling money and payments here is far more reasonable than at the information desk, because there will be customers who wish to pay when collecting the goods.)

    The information desk was a borderline disaster: The young lady there first did not want to take my vouchers at all, and only did so after spending several minutes consulting with colleagues. She then refused the one for the freezer, because only fridges were covered… As I pointed out that WSW had mentioned no such restriction and that my original contact had not protested my mention of the full intended deduction of 120 Euro, she stood her ground for a while, but eventually re-consulted with colleagues and finally backed down—after another several minutes… Apart from the annoyance and time-loss for me, personally, I note both the risk that a less insistent or informed customer would have unnecessarily lost his money and that this held up the queue to the (sole) information counter for everyone else. Moreover, if there were (in some other case) a legitimate rejection, then the customer would have made his prior full payment under faulty assumptions, which would have been avoided, had the amount (ordinarily) been deducted to begin with. (This also raises the interesting question of what would happen, should the customer wish to cancel the purchase due to the changing circumstances.)

    But, unfortunately, it does not end here: My original contact had stated the delivery time as two to four work days. With my order processed and paid on May 31st, this would imply delivery no later than June 5th (Saturday counts as a work day in Germany for “legal purposes”) or on the outside June 6th (assuming a non-standard counting without Saturdays). By the end of June 7th, there still had been no delivery, nor even a notification* about the delivery. I sent an email to inquire, which was met by the claim that a phone-call had been attempted on the 5th, that I had not been reachable and that I should please call back or provide a telephone number (as if one failed phone call would imply that the number was invalid…). Apparently, one call had been attempted, with no follow-up and no email of “we failed to reach you, please call us back”—-leaving the ball in the corner of the customer who might not even know that he had the ball…

    *A call in advance was standard, as is sensible with such large deliveries.

    Due to an intervening Sunday (9th) and public holiday (10th), when all stores are closed, my first chance to react was the 11th. I called shortly after 10 AM, when MediaMarkt was allegedly reachable per telephone. I was met with a basically dead line… I tried again the next day, shortly before 8 PM, when MediaMarkt was allegedly still reachable for the day. Now the line worked, but instead of being directed directly to my contact or her department, I landed in a generic automatic telephone menu. After clicking myself to a human counter-part, I was told that he could no longer put me through (despite this still being before 8 PM), but that he would pass on a message, that I would receive a call the next day (13th), likely immediately after 10 AM, and “please give me your number”. In effect, I called in to (a) give MediaMarkt a number that it already had, and (b) tell it that I was still waiting for a call (which it already knew…).

    By around 2 PM the next day, I had still not received a call, and strongly considered calling again myself—but decided against doing so, to see what would happen. (This text, which I had already started to plan in my head, reads better with “MediaMarkt did not call at all” than with “MediaMarkt did not call in a timely manner”.) Indeed, MediaMarkt did not call at all…

    I now wrote an email, pointed out these deficiencies, and gave MediaMarkt a choice between delivery at 5 PM on respectively the 17th and 18th—which should have been arrangeable without any further back and forth.

    The answer: Delivery ranges of less than three hours were not possible and the range 5 PM to 8 PM was not available until the 19th.*

    *There was no mention whether any earlier range was available; however, even so, doubts must be cast on the originally claimed 2–4 work days for delivery. Going from the 13th to the 19th is already 5 work days, despite the goods now being present in the store (while the 2–4 work days included the original delivery to the store). Further noting the original delay between order and call, I suspect that a true and honest estimate would have been more than the double or something like “2–4 days + a delay until we (a) have reached you, (b) have a free slot that you can actually use”… In my case, we almost reached the 3 week mark…

    I note that (a) we again (cf. [2]) have a counter-part unwilling to go the extra mile to correct its own error, (b) such long delivery ranges are very hard to defend considering the (usually) short distances, delivery through in-house employees (not an external delivery service), and the considerable fee for delivery. (Remember that I paid 98 Euro for this travesty.) In my case, the time to drive from the store to my apartment measures in minutes, and (going by the rough time taken at my house on the 19th) chances are that the delivery men could have driven to me, unpacked, carried the appliances to my apartment, and driven back to the store in less than half-an-hour… Considering the circumstances, an attempt to “squeeze me in” should have been made (even were the official slots taken)—but it was not.

    On the 19th, however, things went fairly smoothly, including the delivery arriving only shortly after 5 PM.

Excursion on delivery intervals:
Even MediaMarkt, even with the considerations mentioned above, cannot realistically guarantee delivery on the minute. This I do not question. I could even see situations where as much as three hours could be relevant, e.g. when two customers in a row live roughly one hour away.* However, for most of the customers, three-hour intervals are too much and something like X o’clock +/- 30 minutes would be much more reasonable and still realistically doable, if need be by giving far away customers different** conditions, both to prevent deliveries to them from screwing up the schedule for others and to apply rules that are easier to keep with the longer distance. Note that this does not automatically that imply deliveries more often than once every three hours will be possible (although they likely will)—the point is that the customer will have a narrower interval of delivery, which makes it easier for him to plan and places lesser constraints on his schedule.

*I am not aware of the delivery ranges of this individual store, but there are sufficiently many MediaMarkts in Germany in general and this part of Germany in particular that so long travel times must be a definite minority scenario.

**Exactly how goes beyond the current scope, especially because I might need more information to make a good suggestion. However, something like +/- one hour and only one slot per day, or +/- one hour and only on Wednesdays, might be doable. To boot, a more differentiated set of fees would be positive, where near-by customers do not implicitly subsidize far-away customers.

Excursion on refunds for poor service/Hornbach:
While I will demand a refund for the delivery costs above, I am not optimistic. However, I will take the opportunity to give the prior offender Hornbach (cf. [2] and related texts) credit for a very un-German restitution: I have eventually received independent 20 Euro refunds for the damage to my shelf and my considerable delivery troubles with the other shelves (the order of which I ultimately canceled)—and I actually received them as money, not as vouchers “for your next purchase”. In this manner, the overall price for the one delivered shelf has been cut from (possibly) 70 Euro to 30 Euro. I would much rather have had my original order delivered in full, with no damages, without the wasted efforts, and without the need to find another source—but credit were credit is due. This unexpected development, combined with the significant portions of the blame that attaches to third parties hired by Hornbach (as opposed to Hornbach, it self), is enough for me to again consider Hornbach as a candidate for future business and to rescind any recommendation to avoid it (that I might or might not have made).

Excursion on making appointments per email vs. telephone:
It might seem like a given that the telephone is better for making appointments than email—and even I, an ardent proponent of email, have long considered this to be the case. Scenarios like the above make me skeptical, because the telephone is useless unless both parties are available at the same time, and due to complications like the dangers with relying on someone else to call vs. the extra own effort of hunting someone down per telephone. Other aspects include the need to check for availability, which is often easier when not on the phone (and especially cell phone), and the benefits of being able to think the situation through.* When coordinating more than two parties, the telephone is likely more cumbersome than email even in an ideal situation…

*E.g. in terms of complications with time to travel from work requiring leaving early, the need to make preparations, other things that might need to be foregone, whether something will clash with a spouses schedule, whether a spouse could stand in, and similar.

All in all, I suspect that email will often be the better option…

Written by michaeleriksson

June 20, 2019 at 3:39 pm

Journalistic fraud II

with one comment

Yesterday, I published a text on gross journalistic fraud; today, I am met with news sources claiming that RTL* has discovered at least seven cases of deliberate manipulation by one of its employees**… According to e.g. [1] (in German), the proofs are sufficiently clear that the employee has been summarily fired. Further checks of work stretching back twelve years is under way.

*One of the largest German TV senders.

**Original sources use “Mitarbeiter”, which is vaguer than “employee” and might well refer to a non-employed collaborator. Depending on (unknown) context, another translation might be better.

While these individual cases do not necessarily say anything about the typical reporting,* they are a very bad sign—and they do make clear that we must not “believe everything written in the paper”, be it literally or metaphorically. Moreover, they point to a considerable need for media to improve its fact-checking.

*There are thousands of journalists, TV reporters, and whatnots active on a daily basis in Germany alone. Even a small percentage of fraudsters will lead to a non-trivial number of cases.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 14, 2019 at 5:47 pm

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