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A Swede in Germany

Archive for July 2019

Sabbatical over, going pro

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With the end of July, I am officially terminating my sabbatical to become a professional author of fiction. If and when I will be a good, published, and/or money-earning author—that is yet to be seen.

As for now, I have a number of ideas for books and short-stories, one of which I have been planning in my head for some time. While the planning stage is not yet finished, I will gradually start to generate text—should I make a mess of it, well, Rome was not built in a day and even Steinbeck’s first effort was poor. (Cf. a footnote in an older text.)

The road to this point, has been long: I have casually toyed with the idea since I was a teenager, possibly even earlier, and I fell in love with one particular book-idea at some point in the winter 2017/2018. This idea first made me consider writing books seriously (but I will save it for a time when my skills have improved considerably). During my sabbatical, starting in April 2018, I have grown the conviction that I need to go professional to have a reasonable chance at achieving something, as well as spent considerable time improving my understanding of fiction, writing, what it might take, etc.—including through a more active/conscious reading of fiction, reading about fiction, experimenting with small test stories, and writing about related topics (cf. a number of earlier texts).

I am a few months behind plan for three reasons: a shyness in pulling the trigger, great problems with finding an official source of information on the bureaucracy side,* and the disturbances through renovation works in my house that have made work hard and often forced me to spend a significant portion of the day outside my apartment (cf. several earlier texts; the last period has, knock on wood, been considerably better).

*Including options for health insurance, whom I need to tell about my plans, and similar. I have a text in planning to discuss this in more detail. Short story: plausible sounding information source A insists that I should ask implausible source B who points to source C, who ignores my specific questions in favor of a few PDF files that I had already downloaded and read on my own.

My other writings will likely be scaled back a fair bit as a consequence,* and I will likely focus on the neglected “Sweden visits” texts in the short term.

*Especially compared with this July, which has set a record—partially, because I wanted to get a few texts out of the way.

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July 31, 2019 at 12:51 am

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Paul Carpenter’s further adventures / Follow-up: Identification and sympathy in fiction

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As a brief follow-up to an earlier text and its addendum:

I have by now finished re-reading the two* sequels of “The Portable Door”, and find myself a bit disappointed: I read a number of Holt’s books around the time when I encountered “The Portable Door”, and found most of them low quality—funny, imaginative, and good for a one-off read to keep me entertained on a train, yes; Pratchett-level and strong candidates for re-readings, no. (I briefly visited his Wikipedia page, and he appears to be high on quantity, which might explain the quality.) “The Portable Door” was an exception, a level or two above the others. The first sequel, “In Your Dreams” kept quality up reasonably, but was a little too exaggerated in places (a common fault with Holt). The second, “Earth, Air, Fire and Custard”**, was back to his more typical level, including pushing the Paul-dying-and-meeting-Mr-Dao joke too far, having custard*** as a fifth element, having an entire dimension made of custard, and fiddling with time-lines and in-book continuity in a manner that did not make much sense. To boot, the third book appears to close the lid on a series that could otherwise have been continued for another few books, had he been more dedicated to quality—I would have enjoyed seeing Paul’s (now terminated) career at J. W. Wells unfold.

*With reservation for books that I am not yet aware of.

**I am not clear on why “water” was left out of the title (or why the comma after “Fire” is missing”). I could see an angle of wanting to keep the name short, but leaving “water” out makes it very weird, and opting for some other name entirely would have been a better solution. (Going by the contents of the book, “Custardspace” would have been a candidate, but more thought might produce a better suggestion.)

***Strictly speaking, something almost custard, but the difference is barely interesting.

A particular issue was inter-book continuity, where book 1 shows Paul (and girl-friend/colleague Sophie) hired for some set of natural talents, book 2 describes him as a multi-generation breeding project by his Uncle Ernie to combat one of the partners of J. W. Wells for the safety of humanity (resulting in said talents and, consequently, J. W. Wells’ interest), and book 3 suddenly gives co-credit to a God-like being who engineers Paul and Sophie to combat another partner… To boot, it is hinted that this being is Paul’s biological father, which would make half of Uncle Ernie’s project invalid. (You see what I mean about quality—he sometimes reaches a point where a parody of his works would be less absurd than the works themselves.)

An interesting aspect, however, is that Paul’s engineering and education to a considerably degree deliberately included loserdom and ignorance—to the point that he was artificially put to sleep during many school lessons. This book 3 issue explains e.g his ignorance of Chekhov, which I commented upon in my first text. (Because I had only read book 3 once, many years ago, I had no recollection of this. Moreover, this could not affect the identification issue for a first-time reader of book 1.)

As an aside, my addendum claim “[…] giving someone something to hope for, but with little chance, is a good way to gain sympathies […]” lacks in generality, because it only holds one view-point. Fear and danger likely works even better, e.g. when someone has the sword of Damocles hanging over his head for an extended time.* (Also good for creating suspense.) Similarly, I suspect that e.g. despair can be used decently for the same purpose.

*Most or all of these can be rephrased in terms of hope, but doing so usually misses the point. For instance, a fear that Voldemort will rise again is a more natural and stimulating angle than the hope that he will not. (In contrast, the hope that Harry will defeat him, should he rise again, will often be more natural than the fear that Harry will not.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 30, 2019 at 10:41 pm

Frozen-bubble II

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After a recent text relating to frozen-bubble ([1]), I have spent some time actually playing the game again.

During play, a number of other observations (mostly: re-)occurred to me, many with a wider applicability, including:*

*While I give examples, understanding the examples is not necessary to understand the individual point. Note that levels mentioned are not necessarily the best illustrations, just ones found through quick checks. Moreover, note that while levels with higher numbers tend to be harder, individual levels can deviate considerably, e.g. in that level 70 is likely the hardest, while some of the 9x levels are reasonably easy.

  1. An intensive involvement with a certain activity, including computer games, can be a great source of self-knowledge, e.g. how one reacts when, what errors one tends to make, how one handles stress, … Similarly, it can be a form of training for at least some of the discovered problems. I have learned particularly much about myself from playing “Battle of Wesnoth”. This strengthens my opinion that it is important to build depth first and breadth second (cf. e.g. [2]).

    (I strongly suspect that something similar is behind some Japanese activities that straddle the border between activity and mediation.)

  2. Looking at levels, there is a difference between “average” difficulty and difficulty when having good or bad luck—something notable in many other games too. Some levels are just plain difficult, irrespective of luck (unless it is absolutely outrageous), while others are easy or difficult depending on random events. For instance, level 65 can be completed with two single shots—if the first two (randomly colored) balls in the “gun” happen to be orange. (And if the player happens to have good nerves…) On the other hand, with a more typical series of balls, it can be quite hard—and with “poor” balls it can rival level 70.

    Level 86, in contrast, is very easy on a “normal” day, with even somewhat reasonable balls, but can turn into a nightmare when no blue shot appears over a prolonged time.

    Similarly, an easier level can be less tolerant of errors than a harder level, especially in the first few shots—something that seems to correlate mostly with how low down the balls reach at the beginning of the level. (Something that might be a partial explanation for the “cursed” games from [1]: An early screw-up and a bit of poor luck leads to a first failure, I make a second attempt with a little more adrenaline, and see a repeat, etc.)

  3. The best sign of greater skill is not manifested through being able to complete a level at all, but to be able to do so with more consistency and even when playing poorly (relative a base level). Even a comparatively poor player can get by level 70 with the right mixture of luck and “being in the zone”—but the better player is much more likely to do so with few attempts.
  4. The best approach to a certain level can depend on the amount of luck. For instance, look at level 65 again: If orange balls appear fairly early, the best approach is typically to just avoid blocking the orange “line of fire”, and then to let the two orange balls kill half the field each. However, if orange balls come later, the best approach is to play the level more-or-less like any other. The problem: The set of balls to fire is (excepting the next two) not known in advance, making a perfect choice of approach impossible, which forces the player to find some compromise between using an approach suitable for more likely eventualities, hedging his bets, and risking failure when sufficiently “wrong” balls appear. (In addition to, obviously, adapting as the level develops.) In the case of a sufficiently hard level, where more than one try is usually needed anyway, it might even pay to play under the assumption of a certain set of balls, and then play the level repeatedly until this set actually does appear. (But I have no recollection of actually having done so myself.)
  5. Some of what I have learned about game play has had an accidental component, in that I have seen the fired ball do something* unexpected, which I have later been able to duplicate deliberately.

    *A trivial example is the first time I saw a ball bounce of a wall—likely on the first or second level of my very first session. A more notable is firing a ball between other balls, when there is a one ball space, but even a slight imprecision causes the ball to “stick” rather than pass through. A quite surprising one is that, on level 98, either one of the two lower “bunches” can be taken down with a single shot, even in the state at the beginning of the game (assuming that the ball to fire is white respectively blue).

  6. A shift of perspective has often led to an unexpected, temporary improvement in level of play, e.g. playing with the game at an unaccustomed screen position*. This might be a result of increased concentration and less self-confidence. I have similarly made the experience that I can (in general) work quite well when a bit tipsy, because I am more focused than normally—I know that I am not at the peak of my mental capacity and try harder to compensate. (Not to be confused with the misjudgment of ability that can also follow drink. Of course, the best approach is to be perfectly sober and focused…)

    *There is a full-screen mode, but I prefer to play with a smaller “windowed” game that covers just a quarter-or-so of the screen area.

    This overlaps with e.g. a text on how easy tasks can be harder than hard tasks.

  7. In at least one case, which shot is hard and which easy has changed places: In my early days, I had great problems with shooting a ball through a one-ball gap—normally, it just got stuck in the gap. Today, I have great problems making it stick—it often goes through even when I want it to stick. (Note that getting through is what I want to do in the clear majority of cases, which makes this the more accustomed shot and might also cause an unconscious thought of a sticky shot being poor.)

    A similar effect is present on the entire level 39: With some experience and skill, I could easily shot off the most of the elongated bunch with my first shot by bouncing a ball on the wall and into the right “slot”, and be done in a very short time. With much more experience and skill, I find myself constantly missing the easy-on-paper shots involved, making it take longer than in the past. (But I cannot recall the last time I actually failed on this level.)

    (Through an unrelated effect, I am less likely to get through level 70 today, despite being a better player: with less experience, I usually played it again and again until I got through; today, I rarely bother to give it more than a single try.)

  8. While playing faster is usually good, and being able to play faster with quality is a sign of greater proficiency, play can easily become too fast: Choosing a better shot and reducing the risk of failure just a little can have a major impact on results, especially because (a) the effects can accumulate, (b) there is often a great difference in value between a great choice and a merely good one. If an increase in speed leads to worse play, this can often overcome the gain through having more shots per time frame.
  9. When playing for a longer time, especially on easier levels, I occasionally zoom out mentally, and have my thoughts wondering while playing. To some degree, this is a problem, because my play suffers; to some degree, it can be a very nice, relaxing, meditative state.

    On rare occasions, I can even lose the focus of my eyes on the game—and continue to play with no obvious problem. (Possibly, because movements are detected more by the “fuzzy” parts of human vision.)

  10. Especially when playing fast, decisions are not necessarily made based on the playing field as it is but as it will be in a few shots time. This is mostly good, because it allows faster decisions; but can lead to complications like a missed shot causing one or two other poor shots, e.g. because they aim at a target that is not reachable. It can also lead to gross errors like shooting the one ball where the next should have gone, because the brain “jumps the gun”.
  11. Deficits in one area can be partially made up by another, e.g. in that (for frozen-bubble) a beginning player can compensate a lack of precision shooting with a better strategy. This can even promote a better understanding of a level, and I do in part find myself having a lesser understanding of how some levels work now than I did at earlier times–despite having played them more often.
  12. Skipping lower levels because they are too little of a challenge can backfire by removing a great training opportunity. With the greater security margins, a player can try out a lot of hard shots with little pressure, and will not have to improvise them for the first time when there is pressure. In some ways, lower levels can be seen as training sharp-shooting while higher levels train speed-shooting.

    To boot, the lower tempo and lesser stress can be a very pleasant change.

  13. General ideas for good tactics apply differently to different levels. For instance, many levels benefit from “going deep”, trying to hit ball clusters far away from the player (e.g. level 70 or, when having early orange balls, level 65), while others benefit more from trying to hit balls close to the player and to work oneself upwards (including level 65 without orange balls).

    (Not to be confused with those levels, where going deep simply is not possible or only possible after having already made considerable progress.)

The above does not include observations on good approaches to the game it self, e.g. the benefit of having a free center of the field, or things that the game makers could have done better, e.g. by not having that annoying, unskippable animation after a loss—for the simple reason that this is not a text about frozen-bubble, just on experiences and thoughts caused by playing frozen-bubble.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 29, 2019 at 10:03 pm

Frozen-bubble

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Looking at my backlog, I find a few thoughts on “frozen-bubble”*, that I originally thought too short and uninteresting to publish. However, they do in part give a different perspective on things that I have written about tennis** (notably item 2 of [1] vs. item 2 below), so what the hell:

*An arcade-style game that I have played reasonably often over the years, especially since it comes for free with Debian. The exact details of the game are not that interesting for this text, but involve firing balls of varying colors onto other balls of the same color to eliminate them from the playing field, before they reach the ground.

**Especially because (a) I have never played tennis, (b) the two have in common that the player has to make many very fast decisions based on incomplete information and then execute those decisions with a high precision. (However, frozen-bubble is likely considerably more extreme, and likely more akin to playing at the net than at the base-line.)

  1. Situations often arise when I am under extreme pressure for some time, where even one false shot will virtually ensure a loss. When (and if…) those situations are overcome, there is a very great danger that I lose my concentration and/or become over-confident and thereby get myself into trouble again. Similarly, I have often had a feeling of “I have as good as won already”, even without preceding pressure, and then somehow ended up losing. (Vice versa, I have often had the opposite feeling and the opposite result.)

    This is possibly most interesting in light of the constant accusations on the Internet that a certain player “choked”, as e.g. with Federer in the recent Wimbledon final. Might it be that certain-looking-victories-after-a-hard-fight are not lost due to e.g. nerves—but do to loss of concentration or over-confidence in the unconscious belief that the victory is already finalized? This would be understandable in someone very used to winning, like Federer, and matches the above final very well—a long, long fight, and then two championship points that he both burned. (With the remaining items, I will leave potential applicability to tennis as an exercise for the reader.)

  2. It is often the “safety shots” that go awry. Indeed, I do not know how many times I paused, thought “I am no hurry at the moment, let’s go for safety”, and then missed a normally trivial shot—sometimes in such a manner that I soon found myself in hurry.
  3. In contrast, when playing under high stress, I can often pull off a series of shots that I would have considered near impossible as a beginner—and at a rate and with a decision time that I would have considered impossible. When having no time to think, the brain can do some really impressive things, and training certainly pays. (But do not construe this as “I am a great player”—I suspect that there are those who would still make me look like a beginner.)

    A wider lesson, well matching my observations in other areas, is that training and experience does not necessarily or solely result in the ability to reach better decisions—it is often a matter of reaching the same decision faster and with less effort.

  4. I have often found that I am a noticeably better player after a prolonged break, e.g. in that I play very intensely for two or three days, take a six month break, and then play at a higher level than before the break. (This is a fairly typical rhythm for me and frozen-bubble.) Likely, the brain has received enough stimulus to, in some sense, re-wire it self, and after the break the re-wiring remains.

    This is not to be confused with the drop of ability that can occur simply through playing for too long without interruption and how this drop disappears after a break or a good nights’ sleep.

  5. There are situations when the game seems cursed, when I suddenly put three, four, or five important shots just half-a-step off, whereby I not only miss the benefit from making the shots, but also often found that important later shots are blocked. Worse, I have sometimes gone through level after level in the first attempt—and then suddenly become stuck on one level for five to ten attempts, where I would normally go through in one attempt or, on a bad day, two or three.* This can usually be resolved through just taking a quick break, clearing my head, and re-starting—but doing that is hard. My instinctive reaction is just to try again and again, with a continual decrease in both my mood and my playing level. Often, the issue is not resolved by success in the umpteenth attempt—but by me just closing the game before I lose my temper.

    *Not to be confused with getting stuck on a hard level—if I got through level 70 in five attempts I would consider it a good day… Indeed, usually I give it one attempt, and then just skip to level 71. (With the side-effect that my mastery of level 70 likely trails that of other levels, even difficulty aside.)

  6. It is very easy to “blame the game” when things go wrong, at least in the moment. When I gain some distance, I usually see what I did wrong, which has been an important real-world lesson: Do not blame others for everything that goes wrong in a blanket manner. Instead think things through and blame them for the problems that they have actually caused. (Which is plenty enough…)

    However, in my defense, there are a few quirks that can cause a loss out of mere bad luck, notably when a needed color does not manifest for ten rounds or an “extinct” color is re-born again and again at the end of the game. (Players will understand what I mean.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 27, 2019 at 10:53 pm

Potential flaws in the U.S. justice system (ACLU injunction against Trump’s wall)

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Apparently, an injunction against Trump’s use of Pentagon money for his wall has been overturned. (As reported e.g. in [1]. Note that the main suit continues.) While I do not really care about the wall or its financing, I did note several things that struck me as unfortunate, especially in the current U.S. climate of judicial activism.

  1. The original suit* for an injunction appears** to argue that because Congress had not authorized this use of money, Trump should not be allowed to order this use. This is, in it self, a potentially valid objection and such challenges must be allowed in order to ensure that the “checks and balances” and “separation of powers” work as intended.

    *With reservations for terminology. Possibly, e.g. “filing” or “petition” would be better.

    **Going by [1]. I have not myself studied the details, and note that such study might give a different view.

    However, the suit was not filed by Congress as the primarily (allegedly) injured party or by individual members feeling overruled. Neither was it filed by the Pentagon or someone with a high standing in the Pentagon, who might have (metaphorically speaking) chain-of-command concerns or seen an injury through other uses of the money no longer being possible. Neither was it filed by an entity that could be considered as having a strong standing in terms of e.g. protecting Congressional rights. No—it was filed by the ACLU… (Additionally, raising the suspicion that the suit was never intended to protect the division of power or whatnot, but rather followed the ACLU’s pro-immigrant and anti-Trump stance.)

    I could see a line of reasoning that a violation of e.g. “separation of powers” would infringe upon the rights of the individual citizens, making a civil liberties union a reasonable champion. However, in a situation when none of the more immediately involved parties have taken action, this strikes me as far-fetched. This especially, because the suit was filed “on behalf of the Sierra Club and Southern Border Communities Coalition” (cf. [1]). I am not aware of either entity, but the names do not point to a citizen’s rights connection (nor e.g. a “protect Congress” connection).

    There would be more reasonable other champions, e.g. the states* or the Congressmen representing the complaining citizens. (Especially, as the former might argue an own injury similar to the citizens’.)

    *There appears to be another suit that was launched by some states, which might or might not make the ACLU suit redundant in the first place. (I have not looked into the details.)

    I would raise doubts as to whether a system that allows e.g. the ACLU to file suits in cases like this* is sensible, or whether there should** be a restriction to more central parties (notably, but not exclusively, Congress and its individual members).

    *However, there might be a wide range of other cases where such a restriction is less sensible, e.g. to prevent various branches of government from colluding to violate constitutional rights. This is not the case here, because if Congress was colluding with Trump, it would have a perfectly constitutional, ethical, whatnot way of doing so—by authorizing the use.

    **Note, here and elsewhere, that I do not speak of what current law, practice, whatnot is in the U.S., nor necessarily of how it should be interpreted. Some “shoulds” in this text might very well involve non-trivial changes.

  2. The original suit was placed before District Judge Haywood Gilliam—a black Obama-appointee.

    By allowing such important matters to be treated on such a low level as the District Courts, there is a considerable risk of “court shopping”, that the plaintiffs file where there is a large chance of finding a sympathetic judge.

    Here it would make great sense to have a higher and/or a more specialized court available to handle such high-level matters, both to ensure a high relevant competence and to avoid the court-shopping issue. This especially in cases, like here, where there was a great a priori likelihood that any injunction would be challenged through all instances.

    Disclaimer: I cast no aspersions on Gilliam’s expertise—I have no other knowledge of him than what is present in the linked-to texts. Similarly, while “black Obama-appointee” fits what a court-shopping ACLU might look for, I have no way of knowing that he actually was partial or biased. However, neither matters, because the risk is the problem.

  3. The over-turning Supreme Court was again divided “on party lines”, making it highly likely that at least one, possibly both, side[s] again looked less to the law and more to what fit an agenda. (I have already expressed opinions on which side is more likely to be at fault in [2]—and how to do it better.)

Excursion on me and the wall:
Being neither USanian nor Mexican, the issue of the wall is fairly academic to me. However, I note in favor that: (a) Illegal* immigration is a major U.S. problem. (b) There is a very, very large difference between walls keeping people out (China) and walls keeping people in (Berlin)—garden hedge versus prison wall. Further, against that: (a) It is enormously expensive. (b) It has not convinced me of its effectiveness and efficiency. (c) It comes with negative side-effects at least with regard to the environment and the potential need to expropriate private land.

*I am willing to discuss exactly what types of immigration should be deemed illegal. However, until and unless a law change is affected, the current illegal immigration remains illegal, and this is not one of the laws that people have a plausible right to ignore or subvert. (Unlike e.g. a law preventing emigration. I have vague plans for a text on types of laws and rules where this would be addressed more in detail.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 27, 2019 at 3:27 pm

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Problems with German health insurance

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I am currently looking into switching my (German) health insurance, specifically moving from a “private” (“private”) to a “gesetzliche” (“legal”) one. Here I re-encounter some idiocies in detail that I have previously discussed in a bigger picture ([1]; also note many related discussions, e.g. [2]).

The “gesetzliche” insurance is a public scheme, with at least the partial purpose that those who earn more should pay for those who earn less. (While a proper insurance would have those with luck in health pay for those unlucky.) It is the default and is hard to get out of—by design, because the more people leave, the less money is left for the rest, and because those who earn more have more to gain by leaving. The monthly fees are a proportion of the income at an outrageous 14.6 % “kranken” (“sick”) insurance and another 3.05 or 3.3 “pflege” (“care”) insurance—to which is added a “Zusatzbeitrag” (“additional fee”) averaging* another 1 %. Typically, then, about 19 % of income is paid for health insurance alone**.

*Unlike the other percentages, the individual insurer may chose it as it sees fit.

**Another 18 (?) percent goes to mandatory pension schemes. Then there is income tax, VAT on purchases, and whatnot…

Some of the detail issues:

  1. Because the fees are (almost) unchangeable by the insurers, and a certain basic cover must not be reduced, the insurers mostly compete through offering services beyond the basic cover. The result is an increase in costs, which puts an unnecessary upwards pressure on the percentages. These additional services usually include the quackery that is homeopathy… (Something that does not just cause entirely unnecessary costs, but also allows this quackery to remain profitable.)
  2. The use of percentages give negative incentives towards earning more (e.g. through harder work, more responsibility, or a switch from part- to full-time or to working more over-time), because that much more of any pay increase is swallowed. (Up to a certain maximum amount, which is beyond the reach of most of the population. Also note, again, that it is not just the insurance fees that cause problems—we also have pension fees, income tax, lost or reduced government support for low earners, …)
  3. Because the percentages are independent of actual use of services, the customers do not have a reason to be restrictive in their use, implying that the overall costs are unnecessarily high. Moreover, this does not just lead to those lucky in health paying for the unlucky, but also to the fit paying for the obese, the non-smoker for the smoker, the reluctant hospital visitor for the hypochondriac, the skeptic for the superstitious (cf. homeopathy above), …
  4. The insurance includes children and spouses with no (or only minor) own income, implying that those who are unmarried or lack children have to pay that much more to cover other peoples expenses.* Moreover, it can give spouses (pre-dominantly women) additional incentives to not find own work.

    *This type of undue, unethical, and absurd discrimination against the unmarried and childless is quite common in Germany. The next item is another example—as are different tax rates to the disadvantage of the unmarried; that the childless pay taxes to cover school costs; and the government provided “Kindergeld” (“child money”), which amounts to more than 200 Euro per child and month!

  5. People with children pay the 3.05 % “care insurance” (cf. above), while those without pay the 3.30 %. Imagine this: Someone causes less strain on the system and has to pay more!

On the other hand, the “private” insurers are equally bad. In theory, these work according to the principle that everyone pays an income independent fee, which does vary depending on how services are used, what age someone is, and (possibly) other factors relating to the likelihood to cause costs. Moreover, the choice of scope of insurance is larger, allowing a choice between paying more for better service and paying less for a lesser service. Children and spouses are not automatically included. On paper, this is a fair system—this is how it should be.

In reality there are a number of problems, some caused by the politicians, some by the insurers, including:

  1. Even the buyers of private insurance has to pay a supportive fee to the gesetzliche system. (Unfortunately, my brief search for details on this was not successful, and I do not want to spend too much time on this text. Going by memory, it might have been a few tens of Euros per month, starting a few years ago.)
  2. Sex is not included in the risk/fee assessment, implying that there is a transfer from men to women, the latter being much more cost-intensive when it comes to health insurance. Apart from the dubious ethics of this, it reduces the possibility of giving women incentives to not over-use medical services, which keeps the cost level up.
  3. A significant portion of the monthly fees are used for “Altersrückstellungen” (possibly, “old-age savings”), which are nominally intended to make the insured party pay a little more today so that he can pay a little less during his old age (compared to what would otherwise have been the case). In reality, these fees are intended to lock him in, because if he switches insurer, the old insurer keeps the “saved” money… However, if they truly were gathered for his future benefit, it would be obvious that he would either take them with him to the new insurer or receive the money as a payout.

    Moreover, whether someone wants to have Altersrückstellungen should be up to him—it should not be decided over his head by others. (Note arguments made in [1] on similar issues, including that the money might be more profitably spent paying off a mortgage.)

  4. At least* with my insurer, HUK, the increase of fees with age is not based on a fair risk assessment. Instead, fees are continually hiked up and up and up, year by year by year, in a disproportionate manner. Even when discounting inflation, my own rates are entirely disproportionate to my (low) use, age increase**, health, whatnot. The scheme is simple: Because it is hard*** to leave the private insurance (and because of Altersrückstellungen), chances are that most people will remain with the same insurer even with the disproportionate increases—as long as no individual increase becomes too painful individually. (Boiling frogs…) Switching to another private insurer is an option, but would not necessarily lead to lower fees…

    *Going by media, it is the same everywhere.

    **How they relate to my absolute age, I leave unstated, because that is much harder to judge. However, even if they were in order today, they would be out of order in ten years, assuming the same upwards trend.

    ***Yes, it is hard to switch in this direction too: The politicians want to actively prevent even high-earners from returning to the gesetzliche insurance, because they would usually do so in their old age, when they (a) cause more costs, (b) eventually will not earn that much (at the latest after retirement).

    Indeed, I have heard the claim (but do not vouch for its correctness) that many private insurers deliberately offer young people artificially reduced fees to lure them in—and the money lost there must then be recovered through higher fees later in life. This is not only unethical but contrary to the principles behind an insurance. (Interestingly, a mechanism that is the reverse of the Altersrückstellungen—how about just skipping them both?)

    On the positive side, the law has at least partially made this scheme less profitable through mandating a “Basistarif” (“base [scheme, rate, fee, plan, whatnot]”), which roughly matches the gesetzliche insurance and is capped in terms of fees. Should the fees grow too high, the aging can move to the Basistarif and avoid a complete disaster.

Excursion on how to do it better:
How to do it better is tricky, and the answer depends on what compromises are acceptable to the individual. (For instance, most Leftist politicians take the line that the private insurance should be abolished, so that everyone must be in the gesetzliche system, which I would rule out as unethical and increasing problems.) Moreover, a complete answer might require a full Ph.D. thesis… I would make the incomplete suggestions, however, that:

If both schemes are kept, then everyone should have the ability to switch from the one to the other and back again at will. This would make the tricks of the private side hard to pull and force the gesetzliche to be more responsible and cost competitive.

The gesetzliche be remodeled to be more like the (on-paper version) of the private.

The gesetzliche should not include family members without additional fees.

All insurances should work with a very large deductible, to give incentives for the insured to be responsible, to put downward pressure on costs, and to reduce the overall fee level. Failing this, the requirement of being insured at all must be reduced for groups like free-lancers.

The Altersrückstellungen are abolished and existing amounts paid out to the rightful owner.

Excursion on my switch:
My attempts to switch have three reasons: Firstly, cf. above, the private insurance is not what it portrayed it self to be when I originally* switched. Secondly, with my move from IT consulting to writing, a percentage is much less costly. Thirdly, my insurer, HUK, has not only again and again and again proved to be extraordinarily incompetent (to the point that even a change of address is beyond what it can handle), but has also left me serious doubts as to its honesty—even if I were to remain with a private insurer, it would not be with HUK.

*I was aware of the increasing costs with age, but not of the disproportionate increase and Altersrückstellungen were not actively mentioned—obviously, these are aspects that the insurers try to keep on the down-low and the amount of information on the Internet was much smaller than today. Items 1 and 2 above, in turn, did not yet apply.

Excursion on “Arbeitgeberanteil” (“employer’s portion”):
A common portrayal by politicians and insurers is that “the employer pays half”, in that the percentages above are partially deducted from pay (like income tax), partially paid on-top of pay by the employer. This is, obviously, a complete fiction, because the Arbeitgeberanteil does not grow on trees—it is an additional cost of employment that implies a downward pressure on salaries. This pressure might not amount to exactly the Arbeitgeberanteil, but it should at least be similar, implying that the situation is the same as if the employee received a larger pay-check and paid the full percentage—and that is the correct view. A minor side-effect, however, is that the exact percentages are slightly exaggerated: Someone who nominally earns 40,000 Euro/year, assuming 19 % overall, would pay roughly 7600 Euro. His “true” salary, after adjusting for the Arbeitgeberanteil, would then be roughly 43,800 Euro/year, and the “true” percentage 16.4 (give or take).

Written by michaeleriksson

July 27, 2019 at 1:39 am

Addendum: Identification and sympathy in fiction

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As I realized immediately after posting the previous text, I left out two important observations around Paul Carpenter.

Firstly, a reason why he comes across so negatively is what appears to be a deliberate portrayal as “loser”, for reasons of sympathy, especially with e.g. others who have trouble getting started in life. At the beginning of the first book, he has never had a serious job or girl-friend, has no higher education, has bad luck with his family*, etc.—and his prospects appear bleak in every area. The early scene with the job interview and its lead-up are clearly geared at displaying a feeling that he is out of his water.

*A possible injustice: his parents moved to the U.S. leaving him in London, poorly supported and having to forego university.

Secondly, giving someone something to hope for, but with little chance, is a good way to gain sympathies—have the reader hope with the protagonist. For instance, the early parts of the book already show him hoping for a job that he likely will not get and a girl that he likely will not get either. (But he does get both.) “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is possibly the paramount example of this with a hope for the impossible that is squashed, re-awakened, squashed, …, but ending with Charlie holding the Golden Ticket.

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July 25, 2019 at 11:14 pm

Identification and sympathy in fiction

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Re-reading Tom Holt’s “The Portable Door”, I ponder the benefits of having a protagonist that the reader can identify* and sympathize with—and how to best achieve them.

*In a stronger sense than a mere “I want the protagonist to succeed” or a superficial and generic “everyman” identification.

Here we have Paul Carpenter—a young man, making his first in-roads into working life and romance. So far, we have someone that most young men can readily identify with. Indeed, with minor modifications, so can many young women. Even the older generations can often look back and recognize certain situations, fears, naive mistakes, whatnot—especially, where romance is concerned.

However, over large stretches, I also find myself partially repulsed and repeatedly having thoughts like “How can he be that stupid!”—as I did even during my first reading as young-ish* man. Paul, at least by my standards, borders on being an idiot. The book is filled with examples of poor judgment, beyond what can be explained by e.g. stress and unusual situations**. To boot, he is horribly uneducated and ignorant, as exemplified by his being entirely unaware of Chekhov-the-playwright. No, I do not mean that he had failed to develop an educated opinion of Chekhov’s works,*** I mean that he genuinely had no idea that there was another Chekhov than Chekhov-from-Star-Trek … It is virtually impossible for me to truly identify with someone like that—and even having sympathies is often hard (but Paul overcame that obstacle).

*Going by a still present label on the cover, I likely bought the book in 2004, when I was 29.

**Note a number of in-roads that most young men do not encounter, including magic, goblins, and the eponymous portable door.

***Which was requested as part of a job interview—some questions of which were unreasonably tough and of dubious relevance to Paul’s application. For the record, I do not have such an opinion either: I read one or two of his works at a very young age, and have not gotten around to reading anything more in the thirty-or-so years since. Chekhov, however, remains one of the most influential and best known authors in the history of literature, and should be known by name by anyone past high school. (In fact, I have always assumed that Chekhov-from-Star-Trek was named as a joking reference to Chekhov-the-playwright.)

To boot, he is as assertive as a wet noodle, falls in love with and fails to pursue his closest co-worker, has more luck than skill, …

Still, I found myself enjoying the book immensely, even at what must be my forth or fifth reading. (But the last previous reading might be some ten years back, which lessens their impact.) This is not only a genuinely funny book, with dashes of excitement, romance, and whatnot—it also builds an interesting world, gives a depiction of office life that most of us can recognize in that simultaneously amusing and depressing Dilbert manner, and it left me starting on the sequel just a few hours after I had finished the first book.

This brings me to three more detailed questions (and at least partial answer attempts):

  1. How import are identification and sympathies?

    Certainly, they are beneficial, and there are some works that have left me cold because I not only failed to identify with the protagonist—I outright detested him.* However, mostly they are not necessary. In the case of some works (e.g. “Clockwork Orange”), the deviation might even be a positive, because it leaves the reader with more detachment and allows the exploration of actions and situations that are strange to the reader.

    *“Catcher in the Rye” is an excellent example—especially, because I have heard others base their enjoyment on how well they could identify with Holden. (Also see item 2.)

    If in doubt, I would likely go with sympathy over identification (as a priority for authors)—it could even be argued that the point of identification is to elicit sympathies. With Paul, e.g., I could see how his incompetence and weakness could create some amount of “pity sympathy”, and I have often made the observation that a character only took off after a tragedy/misfortune/injustice, as e.g. with Spike on “Buffy” after he (temporarily) ended up in a wheel-chair, saw Angelus take over his operation, became the butt of Angelus’ and Drusilla’s jokes, whatnot. Buffy, herself, serves as an example of sympathies-over-identification: a valley-girl with super powers—nothing like me.* Vice versa, too competent, successful, happy, whatnot characters often come across negatively, as with the “Mary Sue” type.

    *However, I did see considerable parallels with her mentor Giles, at least in his early portrayals. It should also be noted that there were some aspects of Buffy and her life that became more “identifiable” (for want of a better word) as the show and the character matured—if not to the point that identification could take place.

  2. If an author goes for identification (or, to a lesser degree, sympathy), what target reader should he imagine?

    For instance, I am very considerably above average in intelligence, and I have trouble identifying with stupid characters—but what about the readers who are less intelligent? Similarly: Will the jock and the bookworm see e.g. Harry Potter* and Hermione differently? What about those who liked “Catcher in the Rye” because they could identify with Holden? Will youthful naivete work as well on older readers as on younger?** Can the teenage reader feel for the old geezer? Etc.

    *I will use the “Harry Potter” books as my main source of examples, because they are sufficiently widely read (or the films watched) that the examples are likely to be recognized.

    **As a specific example, had I read “The Portable Door” at Paul’s age (20?), I would have sympathized very strongly with his romantic incompetence, because I was very similar at that age (“that is me”). Even at the time of the original reading, I had sufficient memories of those days that I could recognize the situations and really feel for him (“that was me”). Now, however, I mostly cringe (“I cannot believe that I once was like that”). Of course, the high-school studs might have reacted negatively from the beginning.

    The solution might be found in the ensemble, in that if a reader does not click with the one character, then there is a handful of other candidates. (Also note the boy-band principle of covering the bases sufficiently that every girl of 14 will fall in love with some member.) This can to some degree be applied to individual characters too, in that they have several aspects that allow at least a partial identification, e.g. in that someone is an orphan, a Quidditch star, and a hero. A more personal example is “Dexter”, where I was originally drawn to the series through the way Dexter has to put on a mask to blend in, something that I recognize very well from my own background (although the mask is different and I have gone to far less trouble, not having the need to appear normal to avoid murder charges). In contrast, I have very little sympathy for Dexter as a serial killer.

    Barring that, it might pay to “know the audience”, but I would likely recommend to just write something that the author, himself, would like to read (or would have liked to read at the right age).

    As an aside, it is not a given that an apparent good match will actually pan out. For instance, most portrayals of e.g. software developers tend to fail with me because I am a former software developer: I do not see another software developer in action—I see some acting caricature, clueless of real software development, often even of the basics of computers.

  3. What means are suitable?

    Some additions to what has already been implicitly covered:

    When you look for identification, make the protagonist a better version of the reader, the version of himself that the reader wants to be, the version that his younger self expected him to become, or similar. This because (a) most people view themselves as better than they are, (b) it is easier to mentally slip into a better version of something, (c) this opens a venue of “hopes and dreams” and “reality escape”. A particular trick is to make the hero good at something that the reader will not have encountered, where exposure to reality is a lesser threat (I would make a terrific Quidditch player and be great at magic, if someone just were to invite me to Hogwarts).

    Vice versa, when you look for sympathy, make him a lesser version, preferably one who is competent, intelligent, whatnot, but who has suffered a severe stroke of bad luck or, better, some great injustice, which has prevented the success that would otherwise have followed. However, even some personal deficits can be welcome, because it is easier to pity those that we can look down upon.

    Look for a means to get the reader into the protagonists shoes, even be it in just one aspect. For instance, as with Paul, a young person* who has problems with the opposite** sex through reasons like lack of self-esteem or the insight that said opposite also* has a very strong interest in finding partners—well that covers a major slice of the younger population, because it is a very familiar situation. Unjust treatment, again, is often a workable way, because even those who have not suffered the same treatment will almost always have (or imagined themselves to have) suffered some other major injustice—and even those who do not, can often picture themselves in the same situation, because it is not self-caused. (Harry Potter is a prime example, at various stages, including with his aunt and uncle, with Rita Skeeter, etc., but his situation might be over-the-top for an adult reader.)

    *Regardless of sex: The dual insight that many members of both sexes deal with similar problems and have a similarly strong interest in the area, is of fundamental importance to over-coming such issues.

    **I strongly suspect that the problems are lesser among homosexuals, both because they have a better understanding of the potential others, what they like and do not like, etc., and because a lack of reciprocated interest can often be written of as “is straight” instead of “does not like me, specifically”.

    Be aware* that strong opinions that deviate from the reader’s, actions that the reader would not take, and similar can be off-putting. Take particular care with politics, sexual acts, and the commitment of injustices. The latter, obviously, work both ways—they are good for the protagonist’s sympathy situation when they are committed against him, bad when they are committed by him.

    *Which is not to say that they should be avoided (especially, because keeping all the readers happy all the time would lead to extreme blandness)—just that the author should be aware of the risk and make a decision that takes the risk into consideration.

    Having someone strive for a second chance, redemption, forgiveness, or similar can be very helpful.* This too is a situation that many either know from own experience or can easily imagine themselves in. (Unlike unjust treatment, the situation is normally self-caused; however, there is always “I was mislead by others [who are to blame]”, “I am a different person now [blame the old me}”, whatnot.) Moreover, a reluctance by others to accept the attempts can be framed as an injustice.

    *But do not fall into the trap of making the enemy of yesterday the friend of tomorrow in a blanket manner. This even when it comes to popular-with-readers villains, because a good villain is a major asset.

Excursion on horror movies:
There is a stereotypical family of horror-movie reactions, e.g. “Why are you going out in the dark where the killer is?!?’, that are similar in principle to some of my reactions to some of Paul’s behaviors. Generally, horror movies contain a lot of stupid behavior that can sometimes get in the way of sympathies. For instance, if a protagonist has just managed to ambush the killer, has him on the ground, and could move in to finish the job with a baseball bat—why is the typical tactic to throw down the bat and run away, giving the killer time to recuperate? OK, if we are dealing with someone preternaturally resilient and dangerous, e.g. Michael Myers, I can see the point—but what about all those who are just someone with a knife? (Or those presumably just someone-with-a-knife, seeing that preternatural aspects are often only discovered through the course of the movie.)

Excursion on naive translations:
I recently observed that naive translations, use of synonyms, whatnot can be tricky. One of Holt’s books, likely the aforementioned sequel, contains an excellent example: One character is German and uses a lot of German words. At some point, she is (from context) supposed to say “third gear [of a car]” in German, which comes out as “drittes Pferdegeschirr”. The meaning of “Pferdegeschirr”, however, is the gear used on horses… Moreover, someone with even a basic grasp of German would not have made this mistake, because “Pferd” means “horse”. (The true translation would have bin “dritter Gang”.)

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July 25, 2019 at 10:53 pm

A few notes on my language errors III

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A few more notes:

  1. I have already written about my problems with spelling “shelf”. Recently*, I have been bothered by the fear that I have made a much more serious mistake: Using “shelf” to imply something other than a shelf…

    *Specifically, caused by a text on bookstores ([1]), where my doubts arose and I took the safe path by using “bookcase” (but kept some plausible uses, e.g. “shelf meter”).

    My true intention was what the Germans call “Regal”—a set of shelves (strict sense) above each other, typically held together by two sides and/or a back. A bookcase is a special case of this, but English does not appear to have a good generic term, short of using “shelf” in a wider (and, likely, dubious) sense. German Wikipedia on “Regal”* does not point to a counter-part in English (but e.g. Swedish, Russian, and Polish are included). Vice versa, English Wikipedia on “shelf”, does not point to a German counter-part (but e.g. Spanish, French, Russian are included)—and the text deals mostly or solely with “shelf” in the stricter sense.

    *This is a “disambiguated” page. There are other pages that might have an English counter-part, but these deal with other meanings. In particular, the disambiguation page exists in English too, but does not list anything with the right meaning. Here and elsewhere, note that I refer to the state of the page at the time of writing and that the state at the time of reading might be different.

    Some hope is given by translation-website Leo, which does cite “shelf” as one* of the possible translations of “Regal”. Similarly, Wiktionary on “shelf” and Wiktionary on “Regal” gives the respective other as a translation. However, such sites are often highly approximate, in the same manner as entries in a thesaurus usually are only approximately the same in meaning.

    *Together with e.g. “rack” and “frame” in a somewhat similar meaning, and e.g. “royal prerogative” in an entirely different one.

  2. Re-reading [1], I note a rare variation of the words-that-sound-alike* theme—use of “fair [poorly]” for “fare”. Here the cause is different than the main case discussed earlier: the similarity of the words, and/or too few exposures to the written version, led me to actually consider “fair” correct. Re-reading, the optics struck me as somehow odd, and I eventually concluded that it really must be “fare” (cf. “farewell” and the more reasonable core meaning of “fare”).

    *Discussed in e.g. the first installment of the language-error discussions.

    (I also used “reminder” for “remainder”, which is a more typical case. Other errors might be present.)

  3. Issues like hyphenation and treatment of compound words have been on my mind lately. In German and Swedish, these are usually written together in a near blanket manner, sometimes with, much more often without, a hyphen.* In English, they are typically still written as separate words long after e.g. German has made one out of them. Worse, the “full” (“XY”) and “spaced” (“X Y”) compounds can have different meanings (as might the “hyphenated”?). Consider “side wall” and “sidewall” according to Wiktionary:** The former points to walls that are at the side of something, possibly*** restricted to a specific context of certain sports, while the latter has the “side of a tire” as the primary meaning (but also allows a side wall as a second meaning.)

    *Hyphens are typically used when a word becomes very cumbersome, is a bit ad hoc, or is ambiguous. (The latter similar to the, too rare, introduction of hyphens between separate words in English, e.g. to differ between “Female-Body Inspector” and “Female Body-Inspector”.)

    **Better examples exist, but this one arose from the writing of the current text: I originally used “by two side-walls” where the above reads “by two sides”. Being uncertain how to join “side” and “wall”, I actually checked Wiktionary, and found it best to go with “sides” instead…

    ***The linked-to Wiktionary page is poorly written and likely is just too vague on the wider meaning. I also suspect that the pages are poorly coordinated, which is a common problem with Wiktionary.

    Here I am often a bit confused and/or deliberately deviate from the most likely “native” use, especially because the lack of “true” compounds is a considerable weakness of the English language, in my eyes. This in at least three ways (by order of likelihood): (a) using a hyphen (“X-Y”) instead of a space (“X Y”), (b) fully joining (“XY”) something instead of using a hyphen (“X-Y”), (c) inserting a hyphen (“X-Y”) between two fully joined words (“XY”). The former two to some degree overcome the weakness; the third might increase it, but can lead to a more consistent use, might be etymologically sounder, and lessens the secondary weakness of inconsistent treatment of compounds in English.

    In the faraway past, strongly influenced by my native Swedish, I very often went from a “spaced” compound (“X Y”) to a “full” compound (“XY”) without reflection and awareness. I likely still do on occasion, but I try to avoid it and have long overcome the knee-jerk application of Swedish rules for compounds to English.

    (In addition, I also often, very deliberately, add hyphens for other reasons, e.g. disambiguation, grouping, or introduction of a lengthier ad-hoc compound.)

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July 24, 2019 at 6:14 pm

Unorthodox thought and the ability to find refuge

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That diversity/freedom/tolerance of opinion is import to scientific and e.g. societal progress is hardly surprising—nor that the current trends towards the establishment of “official truths”, blanket* academic rejection of non-PC thought and limits on academic freedom** for its proponents, whatnot, are very dangerous.

*Because it is non-PC and irrespective of the state of evidence, arguments, etc. If a rejection took place on scientific grounds, it would be different.

**Limits on academic freedom are not in order, even when science points against an idea/theory/field/whatnot. This partly because early impressions can deceive, e.g. in that an implausible-seeming theory can be validated at a future time (as is fairly common); partly because once restrictions are allowed where they might seem acceptable, they can spread to areas where they are not acceptable. (Cf. e.g. opinion corridors and their current influence on politics and media.)

Compared to large stretches of Western history, this could involve a fatal change:

I am toying with the idea that the relative success of Western society between some point in the late middle ages and the 20th century was partially based on the ability of unorthodox thinkers or thought to escape oppression or to find an otherwise more nurturing environment. Comparing e.g. Europe and China, Europe had (a) a greater number of distinct groups with their own autonomous territory (e.g. the Italian, French, German, and Swedish areas), and (b) a much greater number of independent states (including the many German and Italian ones). This was not only a source of potentially greater diversity, of potentially a greater number of cultural and scientific centers, of potentially more literary traditions, whatnot,* but it also had the side-effect that someone with too unpopular ideas in one country or city could move on to the next, someone who woke the hostility of one ruler might make friends with another, etc. If all else failed, there was always the escape overseas, as with some unpopular religious groups. Of course, even if the individual thinker did not manage to escape, some of his books and ideas might still be available in other parts of Europe—Galileo might have been silenced, but his ideas lived on. In less dire cases, someone who failed to find sponsorship for an idea (or e.g. his art) in the one city might have better luck in another.

*On the down-side, also a risk e.g. of ideas traveling slower or never leaving the area of their origin.

A notable example is the Catholic–Protestant split: If the German emperor (or the Pope) had had the power and authority to just forbid Protestant thought, Catholicism would have remained dominant and without major competition, while the Protestant ideas might have lived on only in small and powerless under-ground movements. As is, many German rulers individually sided with the Protestant movement, there was a very major and prolonged turmoil, and both Germany and Western Europe ended up split roughly 50–50. Indeed, e.g. Sweden and England sided with the Protestant cause mostly because their respective king wanted to strengthen his own position vis-à-vis the Pope and the Church.

In contrast, Christianity once became the dominant religion in the Roman empire simply through having a Christian emperor. (And appears to later have aggressively lobbied the respective rulers when it moved into new territories.) Other attempts to reform the Christian faith or to split* from the Catholic church on a more local level might have had some temporary success, only to fail in the longer run, because there was no refuge available (as with e.g. the English Lollards).

*The East–West Schism had a very different character and very different circumstances.

Similarly, much of the great Greek progress took place in an environment of city states.

This idea is speculation, I have not gone through the (considerable) leg-work to see whether it checks out more in detail, and I have not even spent as much time mulling it over as most other topics. But: When we look at current developments, where scientists run an increasing risk of being globally condemned for having the “wrong” opinions or even researching the “wrong” topics, I feel forced to mention the possibility. What if even seemingly totalitarian, intolerant, whatnot societies still allowed progress through such escapes, while the modern, allegedly democratic, diversified, enlightened*, whatnot society will fail horribly? (This especially when combined with e.g. the strong current trends of anti- and pseudo-intellectualism in the softer sciences, an increased focus on feelings and subjectivity over facts and objectivity in public discourse, etc.)

*What passes for enlightenment today is often the exact opposite, the holding of a set of (often poorly supported) opinions and a pride in condemning everyone not sufficiently orthodox.

As an aside, the repeated use of religious examples above is not coincidental: not only are those among the most obvious—there is also a strong parallel in attitude with the current PC crowds. This includes many occurrences of a quasi-religious conviction of being right, belief without or even contrary to evidence, a wish to indoctrinate others “for their own good”, extreme condemnation of the “heretics”, and similar. Indeed, from what I have read about Galileo in the past, his treatment might originally have been met with more factual arguments and a fairer treatment than many heretics against the PC “truths”.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 21, 2019 at 4:34 pm