Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Archive for November 2019

WordPress statistics II / Follow-up: The problem of new trumping good

with 2 comments

To expand on my previous text, there is a known area where either* choice of topic or tags used do have a clear effect on popularity: discussions of blogging. These texts tend to get more visits from “WordPress.com Reader” than other texts, according to the statistics pages, irrespective of quality. Presumably, either WordPress gives such texts a “preferred placement” relative other texts or many WordPress users deliberately keep a lookout for such discussions.

*I suspect tags, but have not investigated this.

This was certainly the case with the previous text, and I allow myself this second, almost gratuitous, text for the purpose of driving the lousy statistics for November up a bit. (I do not normally engage in traffic hunting, but what the hell.)

Of course, this effect is also a good example of how new trumps good: The effect is much stronger on day one after publication than on day two, and it is usually gone by day three.

Another question is to what degree traffic varies by month of year, e.g. due to vacation periods or the length of the month (visits per day is often a better measure than visits per month). To study this effect could be interesting, but would be quite hard based on the statistics for a single blog, especially because it would be tricky to isolate other factors (e.g. post count and topic choice) from the limited material. I do note, however, that December has tended to be one of the weakest months of the year for me, which could be explained by fewer people being active. (Other explanations, assuming that this is not a statistical aberration, could include that readers are just as active as usual, but read with a temporary skew towards Christmas or winter topics.)

Disclaimer: These claims need not hold for other blogs, e.g. because high-traffic blogs might (or might not) be given a leg up in the “WordPress.com Reader” irrespective of topic.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 30, 2019 at 1:31 pm

WordPress statistics / Follow-up: The problem of new trumping good

with 2 comments

Almost half-a-year ago, I wrote about newness and visitor statistics of my WordPress blog (among other things).

In short: Being new seems to trump being good.

Looking at the months since then, statistics seem to bear out that claim. For instance, July saw a record number of posts—and the highest monthly visitor numbers that I have seen since 2013. After that, I dropped my rate of publishing and the length of the average text, in order to focus more on my novel—and numbers, with some delay,* began to drop. Depending on how the last few days of November play out, it might see the fewest number of visitors in a year-and-a-half, and might be short of half the July number.

*I suspect that a greater rate of publication helps to, directly or indirectly, build a temporary standing, which then attenuates over time, while leaving some positive effect for the next month or two.

A particular interesting phenomenon was an increased interest in older texts, to the point that my satirical discussion of Plato* was competitive with my complaints about Clevvermail for one or two months. Here it appears that not the value of these texts were the deciding factor but how often I published other new material. And, yes, the interest in these older texts appears to have faded again.

*In all fairness, with this specific text, the effect was partially caused by a link from another site. Quite a few other texts were affected too, however.

The Plato text is particularly interesting as I had expected it to be quite successful (by my standards) at the time of publishing—it struck me as one of my better texts, one of the most original, and one which could bring some entertainment to the reader (where most of my others texts are heavily focused on facts and arguments). This success did not materialize until the general upswing in traffic, months later, which left me with mixed feelings: on the one hand, this belated success was a validation of my original estimate; on the other, it shows how dependent readership numbers are on factors other than quality.

I also must re-iterate the observation that the more important texts (from my point of view) are among those least read. The text on Clevvermail, a side-topic, a consumer’s complaint, is by far the most successful (in terms of visitors) in the last few years. Give it another year, and it might top the list of all posts on a blog started ten years ago. All those text on important political topics and societal problems? Were my goal to collect visitors, they would be an unproductive waste of my time.*

*Making even a rough analysis of how choice of topic affects my visitor statistics would be a lot of work, but, yes, I do have the suspicion that months are more successful when I publish less on politics and more on other topics. Such differences could indirectly have an effect on the size of the perceived newness–statistics connection.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 28, 2019 at 10:26 am

For want of a dictionary / Paradoxical language issues

leave a comment »

The likely heaviest items that I brought to Germany in 1997 were a two-volume Swedish–German German–Swedish dictionary. I made heavy use of both the first few years. Indeed, early on, the German–Swedish part hardly left the bed of my small student room, as I had to constantly look words up when reading. Repeatedly, I used them to carefully construct and memorize one or two sentence for some official business, e.g. opening a bank account, so that the related meeting would not immediately descend into confusion.

Time passed, my vocabulary grew until I rarely needed Swedish as a starting point, and the exact choice and spelling of words were ultimately better handled by new websites like Wiktionary and Leo.

When I moved from Düsseldorf to Wuppertal a few years ago, I threw them away—I had not used them in years and they seemed like a lot of dead weight. There was even a slight feeling of pride, of the knowledge that these books, once so important, were now so unimportant. Big boys do not need training wheels.

Today, I find myself humbled and regretful: I am trying to write a letter to a Swedish bank, where my mother started a few accounts in my name—and finding reasonable Swedish (!) words is proving hard. Not only is my Swedish fairly rusty, especially when it comes to spelling, nuance, and false friends, but I also find that there are “adult” words* that I am accustomed to in German only, because I left Sweden before truly embarking on my adult life. A two-volume Swedish–German German–Swedish dictionary would have been a blessing …

*Business vocabulary and the like—not applied biology.

(The Internet still helps, but my knowledge of sites to help with Swedish is more limited than with English and German.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 26, 2019 at 2:16 pm

Thoughts on Hornblower

with one comment

Recently, I have re-read most of the Hornblower books by C. S. Forester, for the first time since I was a teenager (and likely a fairly young teenager). This has been a very positive surprise, be it as a reading experience or as a means to improve my own writings. While the main target group likely remains young men and older boys who wish to be entertained, there is a lot of brilliance that make these books well worth the effort even for older readers—and I would not classify them as “young adult” books (quite contrary to my expectation). The too young reader is even likely to miss a lot of the benefits in terms of e.g. psychological insight or speculation—I certainly did.* Similarly, a pre-employment reader might miss the possible use of Hornblower as a model of professionalism and dedication, or the value of many discussions on interacting with superiors and subordinates.**

*Quite a few of my early readings, including e.g. the works of James Herriot, were pure entertainment when I was young, but have turned out to contain a lot of potential insight and items worthy of thought when I have re-encountered them as an adult.

**There are similarities between the Royal Navy and school, e.g. relating to press-ganging (mandatory schooling) and enforced rules; however, Hornblower’s (officer) career starts in a position that would not map well to a school student, which limits the applicability of the books for students and their ability to compare and contrast own experiences. A mapping of his career to a school might go from beginning teacher to principal.

A great positive is how exciting the books are: I am quite blasé when it comes to the excitement part of fiction and, nowadays, hardly ever have that “on the edge of my seat” feeling, even when it comes to e.g. thrillers and horror movies. Indeed, it is so rare that the repeated occurrence during these re-readings caught me off-guard, the feeling itself lost from active memory. Forester’s success in this at least partially lies in keeping his hero in a dire situation, where even a single mistake can lead to disaster, for pages, where someone else might have jotted down a few paragraphs. (Of course, this requires the skill to keep these pages “alive”, which not everyone might be able to do. I will certainly revisit his writings again to gain a better understanding.) Forester does not even shy away from killing off important or sympathetic characters, even when the reverse would be expected. (For instance, modern narrative approaches almost demand that Bush would have popped up alive, miraculously saved, at the end of “Lord Hornblower”—but when everyone survives all the time, who cares about apparent danger?) Similarly, bad things do happen to Hornblower, e.g. in that this or that “acting” promotion is not confirmed. The result is an occasional level of suspense that is almost Hitchcockian, if of a different character.

This is also a book series that sees the hero outwit the villains, having Hornblower repeatedly defeat nominally superior enemies or escape seemingly inescapable situations by using his head. (Of course, this is another factor that contributes to excitement, because the odds tend to be stacked against him.) Intelligence can also play in more indirectly, e.g. in that he values a well trained crew and ensures that training takes place, so that his ship is able to navigate better, his guns able to fire more often, etc., when a conflict is at hand. Then again, he sometimes shows an odd stupidity, as with e.g. the short-story “Hornblower and the Widow McCool”—to me, it bordered on the obvious that McCool was engaging in trickery, and I spotted the “bee” and the “eye” almost immediately, while Hornblower might have taken weeks or months (the exact chronology is not obvious). Similarly, it puzzles me how he could have missed a potential connection between the escaped prisoner and the two hundred pounds* that his wife wanted in “Hornblower in the West Indies”. (Both might be explained by a limited insight into the psychology of others on a “good with numbers; bad with people” basis. Also note that I have the benefit of knowing that Hornblower moves in a work of fiction, which can alter my expectations compared to real-life situations.)

*An amount that he felt was extremely large and unexpected in the circumstances, and for which he could see no plausible reason.

On the downside, the unfortunate order of writing* has lead to a number of continuity issues, including a five-year difference in Hornblower’s birth year. The books written earlier might also have placed unfortunate limits on the events of the books that play earlier in Hornblower’s life but were written later, as with e.g. the situation around (first wife) Maria and their children. A particular annoyance is the jump from the end of “Hornblower and the Atropos”, where he comes home to find his children suffering from smallpox, to the beginning of “The Happy Return” several years** later. This is highly frustrating for the reader who follows the internal chronology, and might have expected the next book to continue from that very point, to follow the care of the children and to discuss their fate. For the reader who follows the order of publication, including those who once read the books as they were published, the situation is toothless, because the deaths of the children of smallpox had been established years earlier.

*The book first written (“The Happy Return”) starts about half-way through the roughly three decades ultimately covered by the books. The next few books continue this chronology, after which a jump back to his career beginnings is made, after which the years tick upwards again for a few books. Forester then starts to jump back-and-forth in the timeline.

**There are a number of similarly sized gaps, which might or might not have been filled over time, had not Forester died prematurely. (Indeed, with one book, “Hornblower and the Crisis”, incomplete.)

A negative or neutral, depending on the point of view, is that events later in the chronology might, in some sense, be too large or too hard to reconcile with the historical record. Consider e.g. his attending a dinner with the Russian czar and the Swedish king simultaneously present; or his key role in a rebellion* of Le Havre against Napoleon, a city of which he then became the governor. Similarly, it might have been better to not have the short-story “The Last Encounter”, set years after the novels, turn him into admiral of the fleet—a position very visible in historical record and far less anonymous than that of rear admiral (as last seen in the novels). Here, if not earlier, we move from historical fiction to alternate reality.**

*I am uncertain whether this has any historical background, but if a real-life rebellion did take place, it was without his assistance and without a governor Hornblower.

**Historical fiction necessarily has some element of alternate reality, because otherwise it would be plain history. However, there is a difference between the type of historical fiction that might have taken place approximately as described without being incompatible with today’s world and the type that cannot. For instance, having Hornblower on one of many ships participating in the naval blockade of France is historically unproblematic; having him, hypothetically, switch sides, rouse ten thousand soldiers, and help Napoleon to a victory at Waterloo, well, that is a different story.

Some other observations:

  1. I have often complained about characters* who keep their plans and ideas too close to the chest, even at the risk of associates making mistakes or not cooperating out of ignorance, or being put in unnecessary insecurity and fear. (“Doctor Who” contains many examples.) To date, I have mostly considered this a way to keep an unexpected twist secret to the reader/viewer for as long as possible, in order to increase the surprise or the suspense leading up to it. Hornblower provides an alternate set of explanations around the need to keep discipline on board, appearing infallible to his subordinates, and similar: if his intended plan fails, he loses little or no face if no-one knows about the plan; if it succeeds, he seems the more far-sighted. (Note the special situation of the then British navy.)

    *Mostly in fiction, but some real-life people have been similar.

  2. The books are quite explicit about differences in intellectual abilities between different persons, including noting a great many very stupid or otherwise incompetent (non-officer) seamen and quite a few somewhat stupid or otherwise incompetent officers. While this is realistic with an eye on my own observations of the world, I have some doubts whether books making such claims would fare well in today’s political climate, where this attitude might be labeled as “elitist” and, therefore, unacceptable.*

    *I strongly contend that we need more elitism and that today’s attitudes are highly damaging. I have a follow-up text in planning with some ideas of how to go about this. Also see e.g. [1], [2].

    As a special case, naive, emotional loyalty to a superior officer is depicted as to some degree relating to stupidity. This also matches my real-life observations.

  3. Hornblower is paradoxical through simultaneously being almost superhuman, notably intellectually, and having unexpected weaknesses, e.g. in that he, as a navy officer, has bouts of sea-sickness. This is quite different from many characters in less well made works, who are superhuman—period. It is also clear that he has had his share of luck and that brilliance alone would not have been enough to get him where he is. (Regular luck, not “Gladstone Gander” luck.)
  4. Somewhat overlapping, Hornblower appears to suffer from what today would likely be considered “impostor syndrome”, in books written decades before the “discovery” of the impostor syndrome—and, notably, with a man as the self-perceived impostor. (Whereas the impostor syndrome was originally naively considered more of a female thing.) This is a good example of the limited intellectual depth of certain “scientists”.

    As an aside, the impostor syndrome, or at least something resembling it, is quite easy to predict by the fact that the “impostor” often (a) has a good knowledge of his own strengths and weaknesses, (b) will tend to view the things that “come easy” to him as easy. If he lacks enough insight into the weakness of others or if others show that they do not understand the reason of his success (e.g. through underestimating hard work put in or attributing success to divine inspiration) then self-perception and perception by others is highly likely to be incompatible.

    In particular, there is no reason to be puzzled by why more recognition, e.g. an award, could increase the feeling of being an impostor, instead of reducing it: On the one hand, the recognition is unlikely to do anything to alter the self-estimate of abilities of someone with a strong self-knowledge—a ship captain does not become better at using the sextant by receiving an award, for instance. On the other hand, the recognition will demonstrate the perception of others and risk an inflation of the difference. When the difference is inflated the feeling of being an impostor is increased.

  5. Similarly, the books provide yet another example of how the Feminist or “gender studies” claim that the male role would be unexplored is unfounded. Here we have books (probably) mostly read by non-adult boys, written before “gender studies” appeared on the chart, which run through many issues helpful as “food for thought” for a boy or a man to find himself and his place in the world, including issues of duty to various entities, how to handle a marriage in unfavorable circumstances, ethical dilemmas, the contrast between rules/laws and ethics, coping with adversity and injustice, self-sacrifice, … (But none of that might matter to the Feminists, because not one word is spent on whether Hornblower should have stayed home with the children while Maria fought the French.)
  6. The strength of the books often come from the restrictions placed on Hornblower, not the abilities at his disposal. For instance, it is not the ability to fire a broadside that makes a naval battle work—it is the need to navigate into a position to fire it without being shot up by the other ship, the need to reload and adjust aim, etc. For instance, if Hornblower could have gone on the radio and talked directly with any ship in the Royal Navy or with the admiralty in London, many things would have been too easy to be interesting, many complications could simply not have taken place, etc.
  7. The books are historically very interesting, including insights into sailing, naval warfare, etc. (And, obviously, portions of the Napoleonic wars as historical events.) A particular point is the extreme discipline on board, the hard and dangerous work (even battles aside), the poor diet, and the large scale press-ganging. I have not investigated how historically accurate Forester’s depictions are, but by-and-large they match my impression from other readings. To re-iterate a point that I have made in the past: when we look at e.g. the U.S. slavery era, it is important to use the world as it was as a bench-mark—not the world as it is. This both when comparing conditions and when looking at what behaviors were or were not acceptable in society.
  8. A strength of the series as a whole is the varying stations and situations that occur as Hornblower reaches different positions in the navy, which creates an automatic variety. A particular issue is the gradual move from predominantly following orders and keeping superiors content to predominantly giving orders and keeping subordinates content.

Meta-information:
This text is not the one mentioned in [3]. I am still developing my ideas, Hornblower is merely the impetus, and it could be a while before I get around to writing something. Also cf. “more elitism” above.

Note on names of books:
Some of the works mentioned might be known to the reader by a different name, because of changes over time or differences between countries.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 24, 2019 at 10:21 am

The struggling author IV

leave a comment »

Currently, I am stuck at three overlapping complications, which have brought me to a temporary standstill. If I forge ahead before I have come to a conclusion and then discover that I was heading in the wrong direction, I could end up with an enormous amount of re-writes. On the other hand, a conclusion can be hard to reach without further practical experimentation. It might be time to write a few short stories.

  1. How close to stick to the bare-bones of the events and how much to flesh it out, be it in terms of side-events or details of the events:

    My writing so far has been fairly bare-bones, which makes for a good tempo, a lack of a waste, and results in something that I find enjoyable to read. However, looking at the writings of others, there is often a great amount of fleshing out, and the result is often still enjoyable. There is a loss of tempo and sometimes too much irrelevancy is added, but this is also a source of atmosphere (or e.g. suspense), it can make an important scene longer and thereby more memorable, it allows more opportunities for character exposition, etc.

    Currently, I am considering to start with a bare-bones version of a scene and then to add material until I find a decent compromise. This has the obvious advantage that it is usable on what I already have written. (But note the contrast to the common advice of removing material over time.)

  2. How much to (explicitly) divulge of the inner workings of the characters:

    Early on, I tended to be extremely low on such information, but I have since tended to include more and more. The former might appeal to the more intellectual reader, give more room for interpretation by the reader, and leave me with more options in terms of later choices, because I have not nailed myself down. However, there is also fair chance that most readers will fail to connect the dots and/or will arrive at the wrong conclusions (in those cases where I do have a specific intention). I also have a suspicion that diverting too much of (even the intellectual) reader’s attention to deciphering the characters’ words and actions could be a misprioritization, and that this attention might be better spent on other aspects of the text.*

    *This might be a special case of the author wanting to achieve too many things in one go, which I suspect is a current weakness of mine.

  3. How much information to provide about how something is said:

    If we look at a line from a movie, how something is said is often as important as what is said. This includes indications about mood, emotions, intended irony or sarcasm,* urgency or stress, etc. Writing a book, such information has to be foregone, communicated by explaining text, or communicated (alone) by the words spoken by the characters. (Or some combination of the three.)

    *As a note to the U.S. reader, if the twerps on “The Big Bang Theory” considers something sarcasm, it is almost always irony. Sometimes, it is also sarcasm, but probably in less than half the cases.

    The last seems to be a common ideal,* but few actually try it—and I am honestly uncertain how this could work: it would leave so much up to the reader that (a) readers will disagree as much about the contents of the book as they might about how the characters look, (b) readers might stroll down a path of interpretation that is incompatible** with later parts of the book.

    *Up to the point that I have seen the recommendation to only ever use “said”, as in e.g. “[…] said Tom.”, “[…] said Dick.”, “[…] said Harry.”, irrespective of the circumstances. Variations like “[…] scoffed Tom.” and “[…] said Dick sarcastically.” would then be ruled out.

    **E.g. in that a strongly verbalizing reader has “heard” one of the characters say something in anger, while later events make clear that he said it in jest, without even pretend anger. Note the difference to the previous item, where later information might force a re-interpretation of events, but where a revision of what the reader “heard” is not needed. (Just like we might need to re-interpret experiences from our own lives without having a need to re-imagine how the experiences actually played out.)

    For now, I tend towards including as much information as needed to make the rough intent of (at least) the surface action shine through. In particular, I doubt that even a true master always can manage this using only words spoken by the characters. (Often nothing will be needed, because there is nothing particular going on, e.g. when two characters calmly discuss a topic. Often words will be enough in context, e.g. because a “Fuck!” will usually be interpreted correctly. Always? That is a different matter.)

    As an aside, theatrical plays are not a counter-argument, because they are usually intended to be consumed through the interpretations of actors, who provide the missing clues. The interpretations might be different from run to run, or even performance to performance, but they are not left to the fantasy of the reader. This is perfectly legitimate, and might well be the reason for the enduring success of e.g. Shakespeare, but it is a different situation.

To revisit some issues from the previous update:

I am still in discussions with the Künstlersozialkasse. Highly disturbingly, a recent letter from it tried to exemplify why the rejection was justified by pointing to an earlier court case. I looked into this case (superficially), and it actually appears to support my stance. If in doubt, the Künstlersozialkasse lost the case … This falls in line with prior observations of Germany governmental agencies, who tend to just throw out names of various court cases alleged to support their points of view—without bothering to check whether the respective case applies to the issue at hand.* In this case, it might go even further—just throw out the name of a court case, at all, and hope that the counter-part does not check up on the details …

*A fundamental observation about court cases and precedence is that there has to be substantial similarities between cases for precedence to apply. Without such similarities, the reasoning behind the prior court decision(s) need not apply, and when the reasoning does not apply, the conclusion is left in the air.

The construction work appears to be ended, but it is far from silent. At least one party (yet to be identified) in the building engages in truly excessive noise making, including stomping or jumping on the floor for hours per week, and often at unfortunate times at that. Note: Not “walks”, even be it clumsily or in shoes. Not “runs in the stairs”. Not “has a brief fit after a lost game”. We are talking about outright, prolonged stomping, someone deliberately driving his feet into the floor with force—on a daily basis and for hours per week. Notably, this is loud enough that it is impossible to sleep through even when using ear-plugs; notably, it often happens in the late evening or early morning.

Moreover, the source of the construction work has (accidentally) identified herself: To my great surprise, this was another person in the building, who had bought a second apartment for her daughter. She waylaid me and another neighbor when we were about to enter the building, blocked the way, and started a long speech about “problems in building”. I thought that she was rightly concerned about the noise levels, but no: she alleged that there had been repeated break-ins in the cellar, affecting all the storage units. (I found no trace of a break-in for my unit. Only one of the other units, at the time, showed damages in the lock area.) She also blamed the broken glass in the front-door on these burglars. Interesting: I had hitherto assumed that her construction workers were to blame … As a further oddity: if any reasonable person were aware of burglaries and wanted to bring them to the attention of the neighbors, the obvious measure is to write a letter and post it in the hall-way, so that everyone can see it immediately. She appears to have chosen to pick off individual neighbors person by person, with a considerably induced delay. (To boot, my personal suspicion is that she was more interested in gossiping and trying to turn the neighbors against each other. She struck me as that type of trouble-maker from her behavior and she seems to fit the profile of an angry and bitter aging woman with nothing better to do. During our one prior meeting, she was boiling with fury because someone allegedly had misused the paper recycling. In all fairness, speculations based on two meetings should be taken with a grain of salt.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 23, 2019 at 9:12 am

Tearful visits

leave a comment »

An unexpected side-effect of my visits to Sweden was a mixture of sorrow and nostalgia that had me on the verge of tears for most of the first few days in Kopparberg.

The largest reason was the respective deaths of my maternal grand-mother (2012) and mother (2017): This was my first visit to Kopparberg in a good many years and seeing their graves for the first time made their deaths real in a different manner. The effect and the feeling are hard to put in words, but imagine knowing that -X degrees is cold and then actually being exposed to -X degrees.

Moreover, seeing old places and things stirred up a great many memories of the two, some of which had not entered my mind this side of my move to Germany in 1997 (or even earlier). I did spend a fair amount of time thinking about them and our past history after their respective deaths, but memory is a tricky thing and there was so much that was simply not available without the right prompts. This especially when it came to older memories, from when I looked upon them as kind and caring figures through the eyes of a child, before the eyes of a teenager took over and turned them into annoying adults who just got in the way. (An unfortunate side-effect of my moving to Stockholm to study in 1994, and then to Germany, was a reduction in contacts, limiting my ability to look at them through an adult’s eyes and leaving the teenage view quite strong even twenty years later.)

Other deaths contributed too, especially as I went through old photos, including one or two that actually showed my parents and all four of my grand-parents at the same time—a meeting that must have been quite rare, as my paternal grand-father died when I was one or two years old and as all three families lived a good distance from each other. Of the six, only my father remains. (My maternal grand-father also died prematurely in 1982; my paternal grandmother more reasonably in 1994.) Then there were photos of Liza, the family dog, who had to be put down when I was a child, a cousin who died in his twenties, and his (also dead) father. (This not to mention a great number of less emotionally loaded dead people, e.g. a great-uncle that I had only ever met a handful of times.)

Then there were a lot of nostalgia and resurrection of memories in general (as opposed to those dealing with relatives). As the recurring reader knows, I have a weakness in this area and there were a great many triggers to process in a fairly short time. (See e.g. [1], [2] for some prior discussions.) This especially with an eye on the reason for my visits: My mother’s house was being sold, and I had to decide what of my childhood and teenage possessions I wanted to and realistically could bring back to Germany and what must ultimately be lost. Ditto remaining things from my mother and what she had kept from my maternal grand-parents. (More on this in a later text.)

Other areas of nostalgia and a feeling of loss were common, e.g. through what in the village had remained the same and what had changed over the years, including the closing of the school that I visited as a child, the one bookstore, and one of the two grocery stores (specifically, the one my mother and grand-mother always used). Generally, Kopparberg was quite small to begin with and has been heading downwards for decades—the current population is around three thousand.

In many ways, I had a few weeks to process emotions, make decisions, reach closure, etc. that others might have several decades for—as would I have had, had I remained in Sweden. (While I do not regret the move, especially as Sweden has been going downhill since then, I often wonder how my life would have turned out, had I stayed.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 19, 2019 at 8:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

Thoughts around social class: Over-estimating our own class

with 2 comments

Preamble: About a year ago, I worked on a series of texts about social class. At some point, I lost interest and the remaining intended texts were forgotten. The below text was left half done, and I only realized that it was still unpublished today, as I contemplated a short text with some observations on “Hornblower” and class. To get it out of the way, I have done some minor fixes, including proof-reading. A number of points-to-be-expanded have been removed. The previous installments include at least [1], [2], [3]. Further texts might or might not be added (“Hornblower”, probably; the removed points-to-be-expanded, possibly; other originally planned texts, probably not).

Until the mid-20th century, Germany used three train classes—1st, 2nd, and 3rd. Even further back, there was a 4th class. Today, there are two—1st and 2nd. Surely, this is a sign of societal progress? That the for-the-poor 3rd class has become redundant and been abolished, as everyone in modern society can afford at least the 2nd class?

Not so: What happened was quite the opposite—the 1st (!) class was abolished, while the other classes were promoted in name. It can be argued that today’s 2nd-class passenger is actually a 3rd-class passenger, while the alleged 1st-class passenger travels in the 2nd class… Indeed, looking at some trains (e.g. the “S-Bahn”), the difference between even the current 1st and 2nd class is often just cosmetic, making everyone a 3rd-class passenger.

It is true that various advancements have increased the comfort and quality of the current classes compared to their incarnations in the day of yore. This to the point that the current 2nd-class might compare favorable not only to its “true” correspondent (i.e. the old 3rd class), but also to the “real” 2nd class of yore. In some* regards, it might even surpass the abolished “true” 1st class. However, in others it still trails or might even have lost ground. Most notably, travelers in the current 2nd class are regularly packed like sardines and/or forced to stand (even in Germany!)—and even when everyone has a seat, there is not necessarily a plenitude of room for legs, movement, and luggage available…

*Definitely travel speed and the availability of on-board Internet… Note, here and elsewhere, that I lack the personal experiences to make a detail comparison of the many attributes over time and class. Some of the statements might need revision in detail, but they remain true in principle.

The same development matches overall society well: Many people with some success in life believe that they are 1st-class or 2nd*-class citizens, because it say so on the virtual door or because some attributes of the higher classes are present in their lives. The reality is that they are one or two train classes below what they believe that they are.

*Note that the use here contrasts the 2nd to the 3rd and the 4th class—not to the 1st class (as would be the case with most uses of “2nd-class citizen”). I stress that the delineation is mostly one of money and influence—not true worth. (Just like a worthier human might not have the money for 1st-class travel, or might prefer a cheaper ticket to greater comfort.)

Now, being a class or two lower than perceived still makes for quite a good life by the standards of our grand-parents. Materially speaking, the vast majority of Germany’s population is in a state that would fill most of our ancestors (and most of e.g. the current African population) with envy and a wish for the same. In some ways, e.g. entertainment and dentistry, the “poor” of today’s Germany have it better than medieval kings. We have reached a point where the increased risk of obesity is commonly cited as a one the largest problems with being “poor” in many Western countries.*

*To a large part, because many politicians and poor social scientists assume that this increased risk is caused solely through lack of money or a college diploma, and ignore the difference between correlation and causality. In reality, much of it is caused by e.g. the unwillingness or inability to read the nutrition labels on the packages and adapt eating habits in accordance. (In addition to those problems that are fairly income-and-whatnot independent.)

The hitch is that there are many areas where even the perceived 1st-class passenger is nothing of the kind. Look at 19th-century English literature*—and consider how anyone even remotely “someone” had at least one servant or how there was no end to politeness towards those in a higher standing.

*Fiction should always be taken with a grain of salt; however, there are so many instances of similar depictions from so many contemporaries that more than minor exaggerations and idealizations are unlikely.

Disclaimer: The below servant discussion was a mess in the draft, with problems including a single too-long paragraph, inconsistent footnote references, and unsourced numbers. (How did I get from 100,000 to 65,000, e.g.) I have tried to straighten it up a bit, but might not have put in enough effort for clarity and correctness. In particular, I suspect that the numbers used were bordering on place-holders, with most of the work still remaining. Also see e.g. [4] for some words on the extremely large non-tax mandatory payments, which would cut away even more money.

Outside the truly rich, very few people in today’s Germany can afford* more in the way of servants than e.g. a once-a-week cleaning lady. Even hiring a handyman to do some minor work can be sufficiently expensive** that most people only do so grudgingly.

*In a sense that includes a reasonable cost–benefit comparison. The proportion that could pay for, say, a house-keeper at all is larger, but most would be forced to far greater compromises in other areas than the house-keeper would bring benefit.

**With VAT and other taxes, a travel surcharge, the often low work tempo, and the hourly fee. This assuming that no deliberate cheating takes place, which could move us to yet another ball park.

Consider e.g. a hypothetical scenario where a family with 100,000 Euro (well above average) in yearly earnings would try to hire a live-in house-keeper for 20,000* Euro a year + food and lodging. Naively calculated, the prospective employer would have close to 80,000 Euro left, assuming that the additional living cost for the house-keeper can be kept reasonable. This should leave enough to grow the bank account, even in the face of two children, two cars, some amount of travels, and whatnot—the house-keeper might well be worth it.

*I have no idea what is a realistic value, but I doubt that there would be many good takers without the “food and lodging” part—and a bad house-keeper is likely worse than no house-keeper… The principle of the example is more important than such details, however.

In reality, the numbers are very different. For starters, the taxes and whatnots on those 100,000 Euro will diminish the available money to some 65.000, not counting e.g. fees to the pension systems and the mandatory health-insurance systems. At the same time, taxes and various fees* that hit the house-keeper will force the employer to pay well above 25,000 Euro for a net of 20,000 to arrive to the house-keeper. This not counting any side-costs that might or might not be necessary or beneficial, e.g. work-place insurance; and not counting the food and lodging, which is now far more relevant in terms of margins. To boot, there is some risk (I have not researched this) that food and lodging would it self be considered taxable by the IRS, driving the cost up even higher. In other words, we land at a surplus well below 40,000 Euro, instead of close to 80,000. Even this could make for a decent life, depending on how far below, but the money for the house-keeper would be much better kept for other purposes. This even assuming that the original 100,000 Euro was the family’s earnings and not the total salary, tax, whatnot cost put on the adults’ employer(s)—otherwise the family would bankrupt it self with a house-keeper… More generally, the insane cost increase on hired work compared to bartered** work has strongly limited service levels and what can be done with even an over-average amount of money.

*I have not done the leg-work for this constellation, but a regular employment sees considerable increases on top of salary. See e.g. [4]. (There might be special regulations for e.g. household services and private employ.)

**Consider e.g. the relative cost to each party when an electrician and a plumber trade services for their private homes or pay “under the table” respectively when they send each other official bills. (And the government wonders why “under the table” deals are so common…) The house-keeper example (food and lodging) is another partial example—servants of old were often border-line “au pairs”, being paid less through money than food and lodging, which could be provided a lot more cheaply. (Compare e.g. the cost of a servant using an otherwise spare-room and having shared access to an existing kitchen and bathroom with the cost of a taxed-and-whatnot pay increase to rent even a small own apartment.)

(Also consider portions of [3].)

Or consider the many instances in life where being a 1st-class citizen brings no value—just like a 1st-class passenger cannot* arrive in time with the same train that leaves the 2nd-class passengers an hour late. The analogy immediately provides a good examples of this (even be it one that applied equally to 19th-century England—while the truly rich of today have the option of buying a helicopter and avoiding both delayed trains and “Stau” on the Autobahn). Another example, with many sub-examples, is influencing local (let alone national) politics—the very rich can do so, the nominal 1st-class citizen can do little more than the 2nd-class and 3rd-class citizens.

*Depending on circumstances, there might be some work-arounds available using money; however, (a) those will rarely be worth the price, (b) will not always be available. For instance, leaving the train at an early station in order to take a taxi could cost many times the train price; might not be successful, because the train would still be faster in most scenarios; and might not even be attemptable, because there is no halt between here and the end-station or because the delay becomes known at a too late stage.

I have no interest in having people bow, call me “guv’nor”, or similar—on the contrary, excesses in this regard is a major fault in some past societies (including 19th-century England). However, the mixture of a general lack of respect for others (even towards those intellectually superior) and complete absence of service* mentality (even towards paying customers) which manifests so often in Germany is truly deplorable. For instance, the typical civil servant, train conductor, building super, whatnot, appears to see his job as keeping the customers in line for the benefit of his employer—while it should be to provide services to the customers on behalf of the employer. This, of course, only as far as they even try to do their job—shirking of duties to the disadvantage of the customer is no rarity. Or consider the attitude of bicyclist, who often ignore every even slightly inconvenient traffic rule—and often (illegally) spend more time on the pavement than on the street. What is the effect of pointing out the illegality and lack of respect for others involved, even in a factual tone? In my experience, it ranges from being ignored, to stupid comments, to attempts at pseudo-justifications, or even, in one case, a threat of a fight.** Or consider how the advertising industry increasingly presumes to call their intended victims “Du” instead of “Sie”—despite being the last group of people I would ever grant this privilege.***

*To which degree this is rooted in the individual employee and to which in the respective business, I leave unstated. Both are likely problematic, however.

**“More on this in an upcoming post.” according to the original footnote. I do have a text on problems with bikes in Germany in my backlog, but I cannot guarantee that it will ever be written.

***German (like e.g. Shakespearean English; unlike e.g. modern English) has both polite (Sie/you) and familiar (Du/thou) forms of address. The use of “Du”, without explicit permission, between non-child strangers is it self border-line unacceptable. In a business setting, e.g. when trying to sell something, it is extremely rude and presumptuous. Coming from a grossly unethical and human-despising group like the advertising industry, it is utterly unacceptable and a presumption that borders on the incomprehensible. (Imagine Professor Moriarty addressing Sherlock Holmes with “Sherlock”.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 16, 2019 at 3:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,