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A Swede in Germany

Archive for December 2019

Perverse incentives and meddling politicians

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A discussion of perverse and/or ineffective incentives for e.g. marriage in Germany (and many other countries) is something that I have long had on my todo list. (Another case of so-ambitious-that-I-keep-postponing-it.) To get it out of the way, an abbreviated version.

Germany has many perverse incentives when it comes to e.g. marriage and procreation, including tax breaks for being married and for having children. This with the idea that the citizens should be more likely to marry (as opposed to e.g. cohabit) and have more children (to avoid a shrinking population). I strongly disagree with this already for reasons like it being an anti-democratic* meddling and through the inherent unfairness against those who prefer to stay single and childless.**

*The correct flow of opinion is from citizen to government. When the government tries to prescribe what the citizens should believe (as with e.g. political propaganda funded with government subsidies) or how they should behave (outside of what is necessary for a functioning society and protection from each other) something is greatly amiss.

**Indeed, it goes so far that, again, those who cause less costs have to pay more …

There are many issues with this, including the inherent perverseness: If two people, in this day of high divorce rates, do get married because they want a tax break, how stable should we expect this marriage to be? Chances are that they will be less happy than those who married without a tax break and those who remained unmarried despite a tax break, that they will have an over-average risk of divorce, that they will perversely stick to a failing relationship a few years longer than they would have without the marriage, etc. Certainly, marriage is not something that should be taken so lightly that tax incentives should be a legitimate concern.

Or consider the potentially different effect on the intelligent and the dumb: While the intelligent are more likely to know their opportunities, they are also more likely to see the negative sides of such schemes. This can then lead to an increase (or a greater increase) in the rate of procreation among the dumb, which is the last thing that we need. At an extreme, I have even anecdotally heard of some black teen girls in the U.S. who deliberately got themselves pregnant for the purpose of receiving government money and not having to work for a living. (I do not vouch for this being true, but it remains a good illustration of principle even if not true. Note that it is not necessary for their calculation to be correct—it is enough that they believe it correct.) A less extreme case is formed by those who get pregnant at a young age, who would have been deterred without government money.

Similarly, many of the benefits given to people with children have a greater positive effect on or are given* to a higher degree to those who earn less. Earnings, however, have a positive correlation with intelligence and this will again lead to an unfortunate skew.

*Not necessarily in Germany. I have not looked into the details, but I am under the impression that the income dependence is comparatively weak. When it comes to specifically tax breaks (but not e.g. governmental child support), those who earn well might even benefit more, because of a higher marginal tax-rate (on the other hand, their need for more money is usually smaller).

Or consider the disputable effectiveness and efficiency: Yes, such incentives can move some people in the intended direction, but unless the incentive is quite large, it will mostly move border-line cases—while the money flows even for those who remained with their original decision. We then have a comparatively small effect at a high cost.

As a counter-point, look at the negative incentives created (at least for men) by other legislation, and consider whether removing these negative incentives would not have a better chance of achieving something (often also leading to a fairer system): For instance, if a man marrys*, he exposes himself to an increased risk of loss of property and need to pay alimony in case of a divorce. Unless he is really certain of the marriage and/or the woman, this gives a strong incentive to prefer a non-marriage arrangement. Similarly, if a child, even extra-maritally, even e.g. through a one-night-stand, is born, the man can see himself forced to pay for two decades, in what amounts to a strict-liability system.** Of course, intelligent men are more likely to be deterred by this than unintelligent, ditto sober vs. drunk, etc., adding a further negative skew to the deterrent. (Other perverse incentives that arise from this include that women might be more likely to have children in poor relationships, knowing that they will receive money even should the relationship fail.)

*Even in Germany; however, the situation here is not as disastrous as in the U.S.

**A saner system would put a strict liability on the woman (outside of rape scenarios): unless she has received prior consent for having the child, it should be entirely her responsibility. (Possibly, with a reversal for married couples, where the husband would have to give an explicit veto.) This particularly as the woman has a much greater control over prevention and “postvention” than the man has. At an extreme, even a “sabotaged condom” scenario leaves the woman much better off: if she sabotages the condom and a child is born, the man is still stuck with payments; if he does it, she can still get out through an abortion.

Excursion on school, etc.:
The above is concerned with fairly direct incentives and subsidies. However, a case can be made that the same reasoning should be used on e.g. school, in that tax-financed school is both an incentive to have children and an unfairness towards those who never have children. (A better system, while still “publicly financed”, might use a parents-only financing that distributes costs over time, e.g. through having the parents pay a fix amount every year after the birth of the child that covers the cost of school in accumulation.)

Excursion on lack of appreciation:
An additional problem with many modern schemes is that those who are bright and work hard pay for those who are stupid and/or lazy over the tax bill—and the credit for this goes to the politicians. In older days, with lower taxes and lesser governmental support, those who chose to give support had a much greater chance at receiving credit, gratitude, receive favors of some kind in return, … Today, someone might pay more for the neighbor’s* children than the neighbor does, and the neighbor will quite often either not be aware of this or ignore it—or even call for higher taxes so that he can get even more.

*In a manner of speaking: Obviously, the taxes from person A1 is not given to person A2 and those of person B1 to person B2, etc. The taxes from persons A1, B1, C1, … are pooled and distributed to the persons A2, B2, C2, … The principle behind the it remains the same, however, even with this more anonymous and pooled redistribution.

Excursion on dysgenics:
Dysgenics is another topic on the todo list. Some subtopics are touched upon above. Others include e.g. that those who go through higher education tend to have children later in life than those who do not, leading to longer generations and a further imbalance in the population. (Notwithstanding that the correlation between intelligence and higher education has dropped considerably over time.)

Written by michaeleriksson

December 29, 2019 at 9:04 pm

Westworld

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The TV series “Westworld” has impressed me immensely. The first season is possibly the best single TV season that I have ever seen, because of its combination of entertainment value and food-for-thought (although much of the “food’ covered ground already familiar to me). The second is weaker, especially through failing to add much new* thought, but is still stronger than most of what can be found elsewhere.

*Examples include means vs. ends and whether the pigs are better than the farmers.

“Westworld” is also strong proof that it is not the medium but the content that matters: here there is no need to make excuses for watching TV instead of reading a great book. It is also a proof that it is not necessarily the “high concept” that matters, but what is done with it (as with e.g. “Star Trek Next Generation”). Where the movie (in my vague recollection) was fairly shallow entertainment, the TV series has true depth—“The Truman Show” meets Asimov.

During my first watching of season 1, a few years ago, I put down a lot of keywords for a text, but never got around to writing it, the scope of the intended text being discouragingly large. Most of the below is formed formed through expansion of a subset of these keywords into a less ambitious text. Even with my recent second watching of the first (and first watching of the second) season, I have to make reservations for a mis-remembering of what I wanted to say. Some keywords are left as is, because they are fairly self-explanatory.

Among the food-for-thought we have:

  1. What is the nature of existence, free will, perception, memory?

    As an aside: while I do not suggest that we live in a similar world, merely that this is food for thought, I have often had the nagging suspicion that I am part of some weird cosmic experiment or “The Truman Show” situation, where someone tries to push the limit for what absurdities I am willing to consider real. A simpler, and more plausible, explanation is that humans really are that stupid, irrational, self-centered, whatnot. Similarly, a rats-in-a-labyrinth, “Westworld”, or “Matrix” style setup could easily explain e.g. the theodice problem, but the simpler explanation is the absence of deities in favor of nature taking its semi-random course.

  2. What makes an intelligent entity? When should rights and/or personhood be awarded: Turing-test*, sentience, consciousness, level of intelligence, …

    *And to what degree is a Turing-test effective and useful?

  3. What rights and duties should be awarded to a godlike and/or creator being? (And to what degree does this depend on his status, per se, and his other characteristics?) Rulers in general? Parents? Etc.
  4. What should ethics and law say on the humans vs. robots (or vs. AI) situation? (Note some overlap with the previous item.) This including questions, not limited to robots, like if we have the ability to e.g. induce pain or suffering, plant bad memories (or memories, at all) or scrub memories, prevent self-development, …, when, if at all, do we have the right to do so?

Several keywords relate to the apparent gods (i.e. humans) and the paradoxical and/or odd state on the “inside”, including how paradoxically weak the gods are relative their subjects in some regards, while still having godlike or quasi-magical powers in other regards, e.g. in being able to “freeze” a host at will. Similarly, there is the paradox of the ever young and in some sense immortal hosts vs. the aging and highly mortal gods.* The angle that the creation, freed from artificial restraints, would be superior to the creator is particularly interesting, and will likely be true for humans vs. e.g AI in the long term.** (Of course, this state of the inferior being in charge of the superior is not unusual in the real world, where e.g. many dumber teachers are intellectually inferior to the brighter students and many stupid politicians make decisions over the head of genius citizens.)

*Indeed, in season two, attempts are revealed to replicate a human mind within a host body, with the intention of functional immortality for humans.

**In turn, raising the question whether we should follow the road of resistance, as in a sci-fi movie; engage in identity politics/racism/sexism/whatnot, as the current U.S. Left; or whether we should let the creation take over. From at least some angles, the latter is likely the most reasonable, and one reason why I do not enjoy the “Terminator” movies is my suspicion that humanity is the greater evil and that it might be for the better if the terminators were successful. (Again: humans are that stupid, etc.)

Other “god” issues are how the gods are divided into several groups, including regular guests, crew, management, whatnot, and how the hosts are controlled by Ford even as they attempt to rebel, raising questions as to how much of a rebellion it was. (Theological analogs are by no means impossible: What, e.g., if God meant for Adam and Eve to eat the apple or for Judas to betray Jesus to ensure that some set of events took place? Generally, the thought-experiment of mapping some religion to a “Westworld”-style setting is interesting.)

There were good examples of how sympathies are based on appearances and superficial behavior, rather than substance, as with William (aka the young “man in black”) and his interest in Dolores, which is an obvious great danger in real life. (I am uncertain whether I had such sympathies myself towards characters on the show when I wrote the keywords; however, I do know that I can be somewhat susceptible in the short-term. In the long-term, my observations of behavior and values take over, but this does not necessarily seem to be the case with others, which has lead to me having radically different estimates of some people than the majority has had.)

I spent some time considering the possibility of building a superior humanity: smarter, better memory, stronger, … (As well as long-standing wishes of mine—a conscious control over sleep phases and a built-in volume control for the ears or ear-equivalent.) A very disturbing possibility, however, is the abuse of similar systems to e.g. ensure conformity of opinion: for instance, looking at current U.S. colleges, it would be unsurprising if someone were to mandate the implant of the “right” opinions for someone to even be admitted. Or consider a “Harrison Bergeron” scenario, where someone with a natural advantage in some area has the corresponding control adjusted to limit his ability to the maximum available to the average person. (Note e.g. how the hosts intelligence was normally artificially limited, while Maeve’s had been set to the maximum available to her.)

To the IT specialist, “Westworld” is a great illustration of the limits of security, and how even small freedoms might ultimately be used for e.g. privilege escalation to reach great freedoms (cf. Maeve’s development). However, this is not strictly limited to IT: to some degree, similar effects might be available in real life, e.g. in a prison setting.

Some remaining keywords:

  1. extremely intelligent, well-shot/cinematographic, extra-ordinary cast
  2. well-crafted hiding of the two different time-periods
  3. complex network of known and, more importantly, unknown relationships and history
  4. interesting mixture of genres
  5. gratuitous sex scenes*

    *I did not pay attention to this when I re-watched the first season; however, I did not notice much during the second season. This might be a point where the second season was ahead.

Excursion on the first vs. the second season:
Pin-pointing the exact (relative) weaknesses is hard without a repeat watching, but, speaking off the top of my head, the main problem is staleness, too much of the same ground, too much of the same issues. For instance, the alternative “Maeve escapes” scenario would likely have made for a much better attempt at variation than the “prisoners rebel” scenario that was chosen. Here the adventures of Maeve coping in the “outside” world, etc., could have made up a great source of both variation of action and new thought, while the “inside” world could have gone on roughly as before (at least, for the duration of the season).

I can see the point behind the “prisoners rebel” scenario, but it did not work that well; ultimately, we had the same setting and largely similar configurations of people; and there might simply have been too little worthwhile material to cover an entire season, instead of two or three episodes, in the rebellion it self. (Implying that too much filler was present.)

An interesting difference is the use of a jumbled time-line: in the first season, this was used to great effect; in the second, it was mostly a source of confusion with little value added. (A partial exception was Bernard’s journey.)

The last episode strikes me as dissatisfying and contorted, and a poor setup for a continuation. (Notwithstanding that the action seems set to play more on the “outside” for the third season. The manner is simply too different from the “Maeve escapes” scenario.) A particular mistake might have been speaking too explicitly about free-will (either the viewer has got the point already, or he wastes his time with the show) and, possibly, jumping into fallacious reasoning about free will: Free will ceases to be free when it is manipulated from the outside, not because the inner mechanisms have a deterministic character. These inner mechanisms are not a force upon us—they are how we are “implemented”. (An interesting, and in my eyes problematic, border-line case are influences that would often be considered “inner” but disturb the normal state, as when someone grows hungry. Certainly, I would consider these a greater limit on free will than e.g. a deterministic brain.)

Generally, parts of the second season had a bit of “Lost”-y feeling—a series that could have been truly great, but which collapsed on account of too much confusion, mysticism, unnatural story-lines, whatnot. (And, yes, I am aware that J. J. Abrams of “Lost”, and the ruiner of “Star Trek” and “Star Wars”, has been involved with “Westworld” too.)

Excursion on changing franchises:
The recurring reader might see my complaint of staleness as inconsistent with e.g. a text motivated by “iZombie” and its deterioration: would I not prefer a series that remained the same? To some degree, I do find myself reevaluating this stance, especially because my own book plans have come to involve considerable changes from book to book (within a potential book series). To some degree, the claims are compatible: the second season of “Westworld” failed to truly repeat the strengths of the first season (and did not add new strengths). Once it failed at that, the level of constancy or variation on the surface is less important: my original message is not that a franchise should have each installment be a carbon copy of the previous, but that it should play to its strengths. (I have also spoken positively about innovation in e.g. a text on “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”.)

An interesting twist, however, is that the end of the first season left me fearing similar developments as with “iZombie”, where an irrevocable change pretty much killed the series through changing the world too much. With “Westworld” the changes might have been irrevocable and have, in some ways, turned the world on its head, but very similar story lines and ideas could continue with little damage. (Note, e.g., that even during the first season, few guests had any non-trivial impact on the story-lines. Off the top of my head, we might have had no more than the “the man in black” in the “now”, and him and his future brother-in-law in the past. Story-lines in the past can continue with little regard for changes in the now and (in the now) “the man in black” continued as usual. In contrast, had the first season been highly guest-focused, e.g. on a “guest of the week” basis, the rebellion could have been highly damaging.)

Written by michaeleriksson

December 28, 2019 at 10:44 pm

Evil and disregard for others

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The topic of evil has popped up repeatedly in my writings, including a few texts from earlier this December. I have long been tempted to write a more in-depth piece, attempting to classify and explain evils (but I probably will not), including the great influence of some characteristics that are very wide-spread among humans, e.g. stupidity and irrationality.* Another aspect is the difference and overlap between evil actions and evil outcomes.**

*Such characteristics are another reason why I take an “evil is as evil does” stance and why I see much greater similarities between the “extreme Right” and the “extreme Left” (often even the more moderate Left) than with other parts of the “Right”, e.g. traditional conservatives: the members of these groups are often very similarly minded, e.g. in that they are stupid and irrational, and might well have ended up on the “other side” had they been exposed to the other side’s propaganda first or more strongly. Similarly, Nazi-Germany and the USSR, and their respective ideologies, were in many ways evil twins, sides of the same despicable coin, opposites only in the sense that the two sides of any coin are opposites.

**Throwing a stone at a political enemy to prevent him from speaking is an evil action, but it need not lead to an evil outcome (e.g. because the stone lands harmlessly on the ground after a too weak throw). On the other hand, many well-intended acts can have evil outcomes (“the road to Hell …”), e.g. attempts to protect one group that reduces civic rights for everyone. Depending on context and point of view, even natural accidents, e.g. a lightning stroke, might be considered an evil outcome. At least for the purposes of this text, I will gloss over the differences.

One specific such characteristic (or family of characteristics?) that has been on my mind over the last year: a lack of concern for the rights and interest of others, or even the inability to understand that others do have rights and interests. This, obviously, in part due to the excessive renovations and other unnecessary noise-making that has taken place in my building during the last year (cf. earlier texts and below). However, a great many other examples can be found, including some having a society-wide impact, notably (kept) promises made by politicians for the sole purposes of ensuring re-election and “after me, the flood”,* warfare for personal glory, gross violations of civic rights to stay in power, … Or, on a more individual scale, murder for a wallet, suicide bombings, pyramid schemes, …

*Here some reservations has to be made for the intent behind this-and-that, e.g. in that a political promise might instead be explained by stupidity or ignorance in the area at hand. Similar reservations might apply elsewhere.

However, it is the many small examples that truly depress me, that prove how large the problem is, and that make me fear that this issue will be almost impossible to resolve, because e.g. replacing one crop of politician with another will merely replace one group of people prone to this attitude with another, proving that farmers and pigs have much in common. For instance, during a very recent four-day excursion to Bonn (where I spent hours each day walking around the city), I observed e.g. (a) how many willfully drove bikes on sidewalks* in order to increase their own convenience, (b) how employees of some type of “electric scooter” rental deliberately placed scooters in the middle (!) of the sidewalks, in order to increase the visibility (and, presumably, chance of a rental), with no regard for the obstacle this posed to pedestrians, (c) some marketing company or pseudo-charity** aggressively approached by-passers, even those obviously and deliberately trying to avoid the employees. (Of course, none of this is unique to Bonn or this time of year.)

*This is illegal in Germany, for good reasons, unless an explicit, announced by signs, exception has been made.

**A very sizable portion of the major charity organizations spend a disturbing amount of money on their directors, organizational costs, marketing, etc., with the well-being of the directors or the organization often taking precedence over the actual cause. (Analogous to problems around e.g. the IOC, FIFA, whatnot.) The employees harassing people in the street, at least in Germany, are typically not volunteering do-gooders—they work for a marketing firm hired by the charity.

Why was I on a four-day excursion to Bonn? Renovations started up again on the 19th, in form of hours upon hours of very, very loud hammer strokes. Even a conservative estimate lands at thousands of strokes that day alone (to what purpose, I do not know). I barely got through the day. On the 20th, the hammering started again, but this time less loudly, and I thought that I would manage. Then the drilling began … This at a volume that made a further presence intolerable. I left the building and made the impromptu decision to go to Bonn until the evening of the 23rd, having received notification that the works would allegedly be ended on the 23rd. (Going by the noises today, the 24th, the main Christmas day in Germany, this was not true, even though the disturbance today was much smaller.)

This provides yet another example of the complete disregard for others discussed above, even the works*, themselves, aside: it would cost next to nothing to just put up a sign at the house-door two weeks earlier, warning those living in the house that e.g. “I have ordered renovation works between the 19th and the 23rd. There might be some considerable noise. For any questions, please call [etc.]”—something which would have both lessened the impact of the negative surprise and made it easier to work around, e.g. through a better planned** trip. How did I know that the works were supposed to end on the 23rd? No sign, that is for sure: I had contacted the authorities for advice on my situation on the 19th, and there was apparently some type of record.***

*I have serious doubts as to whether this type of work, especially in a year which has already had months upon months of loud renovations, can be justified; however, there is at least an obvious “egoistical trade-off”: the renovator improves his apartment and someone else takes the hit. With the lack of sign, there is no such trade-off, the costs of a sign being dwarfed by the benefit to the others living in the house. Is the perpetrator truly too stupid to understand the damage done or is it a matter of simply not giving a fuck? (Other explanations exist, but all seem far less likely to me, e.g. that there was a sign, that someone tore it down, and that the perpetrator did not discover this until it was too late.)

**Indeed, because I made up my mind long after leaving the apartment, even deciding on the destination only after my arrival at the train-station, I did not even have a change of clothes or a tooth-brush with me.

***I have not investigated the details of or reasons for this, but it is remarkable that someone would bother to notify the authorities without seeing the need to notify those actually exposed to the disturbance.

Excursion on stupidity as a root cause/characteristic:
A problem with stupidity is that it tends to pervade a person’s being, development, other characteristics, whatnot. For instance, someone more intelligent is more likely to have an awareness of others and the potential consequences of actions on others, more likely to have a better developed ethical system, more likely to be able to put himself in the other party’s shoes (“do unto others …”), etc. In this, stupidity is the root cause of many other problems, be they related to evil or not. (Unrelated examples include a lesser likelihood of being proficient at a given task and a lesser return on education.) Both Hanlon’s Razor and the Dunning–Kruger effect are notable in this context.

Excursion on this Christmas:
If today is the main day of Christmas in Germany (and Sweden), why am I writing and not celebrating? The days in Bonn contained a never ending stream of Christmas decorations, trees, sales, whatnot—I need to come up for non-Christmas air. There will be some food and Christmas related DVDs tomorrow.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 24, 2019 at 8:25 pm

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Trump impeachment

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The recent Trump impeachment is a clear sign that something is very wrong with U.S. politics, no matter how the situation is twisted and turned, irrespective of whether Trump is guilty* or innocent. (Also see many earlier texts for democracy failures, e.g. [1].)

*If he is, obviously, a further problem is present beyond those discussed here. Also see an excursion.

The most glaring issue is that the attempts to reach impeachment are so obviously not primarily about e.g. upholding the law or the integrity of the executive office—they are about getting rid of Trump because of who he is and/or because he is a Republican. Consider similarly, among other situations, the attempts to block the Kavanaugh nomination. This type of abuse of processes and extra-democratic means to circumvent democratic results has reached a ridiculous and inexcusable level. Unfortunately, the problem is not limited to political appointees, as can be seen by the great number of individuals and organizations who have been targeted with malicious means for not being sufficiently Left, PC, “woke”, whatnot, as discussed repeatedly in the past. (The problem is also not limited to the Left, as can be seen e.g. in the birth-place controversies around Obama.)

A second issue is that the votes to impeach followed party lines almost perfectly. This is a strong indication that a significant proportion* of at least one side (much more likely: both) did not vote based on legal and ethical criteria but in a partisan manner. (There is enough of that type of abusive voting in e.g. the Supreme Court.) This is unfortunate on at least two counts, namely the dishonesty involved and the reduction of the parliamentarian to a tool for his party, when what the world needs are parliamentarians who think for and stand up for themselves and the people.

*But hardly all: in all likelihood many did vote according to more reasonable criteria.

A third is that the current events might amount to a pointless waste of time and energy, which raises an additional suspicion of frivolous and vexatious litigation, that the negative effects on Trump, his re-election chances, his administration, and/or the GOP are the main purpose—not an actual removal from office:* In my understanding, the later vote in the Senate will require a two-thirds majority, which will be quite tricky in light of a Republican majority among the senators, the aforementioned party line votes, and the reasonable assumption that stricter criteria are applied for a vote of “guilty” than for a vote of “enough signs to warrant a trial”. The preceding trial must show a very negative image indeed of Trump for this two-thirds majority to manifest. (Or do the Democrats bet on Trump having too many enemies among Republican senators?)

*But such arguments should be applied with caution: it is better to err on the side of permissiveness, lest bona fide attempts are blocked.

Excursion on the underlying issues:
I lack the legal expertise and detailed knowledge of events to judge whether Trump has done something impeachment-worthy, and the question is secondary to me. However, my impression so far, based on common sense* criteria, is that this is overkill. What the Democrats try now, and e.g. against Kavanaugh, is certainly a worse abuse. I also note a piece by Pat Buchanan that makes some of the arguments against Trump seem hypocritical or otherwise unreasonable. (But I warn that Buchanan might be no more neutral and objective on the issue than e.g. Pelosi—take it with a grain of salt.)

*Which does not preclude e.g. an illegality.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 19, 2019 at 2:59 pm

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A few thoughts on “The Dark is Rising”

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Among my many recent re-readings we have Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” series—which was a great favorite of mine as a child*. This especially the eponymous second book, which introduced Will Stanton, who to me was (what I imagine that) Harry Potter became to a later generation.**

*I do not remember the exact ages when I read this series in the past, but my first reading was well before I turned 11 (cf. **) myself and, excepting a nostalgia reading some ten years ago, I doubt that I read them past “Mellanstadiet” (years 4–6 in the Swedish school system). The childhood readings were, obviously, of a Swedish translation; the adult in English.

**Indeed, I strongly suspect that Rowling borrowed a fair bit from Cooper, including a British boy whose magic powers are revealed when he turns 11. Generally, Rowling used a great many ideas from the works of others for the “Harry Potter” series (unless she independently came up with the same ideas).

By and large, at age 44, I find the books disappointing. “Over Sea, Under Stone” was boring to me even as a child; and the too long, too haphazard, too pointless, too nightmarish* “The Lost Land” sequence in “Silver on the Tree” leaves me with just the same feeling as back then (as, to a lesser degree, do some other sequences from that book). However, the stronger books (in my recollection) now leave me a lot colder, and I see some outright deficiencies. The most notable among these is the very black-and-white approach to good and evil, including the apparent evil-for-the-sake-of-evil, which poorly matches real evil, and the common description of sensing almost tangible evil, malice, whatnot, again much unlike real evil.** This is possibly not that unusual in literature for children, but others have done it better—even Voldemort was more nuanced, including an unhappy childhood and a wish for power; and he was a real person, not some abstract force of evil. Other deficiencies include how Will jumps into the camp of the good guys more-or-less based on their own word that they are the good guys (well, apart from that almost tangible feeling of evil emanating from the other camp …), how problems often come close to solving themselves (instead of being solved by the heroes) or how just following a near-trivial instruction resolves the problem, how confrontations between the camps often amount to nothing but abstract forces clashing like two weather fronts, and how the behavior of the camps often does not make sense***.

*As in having that weird, distorted, “wrong” quality that nightmares often have—not in the “is scary” sense.

**This deficiency is what tipped the scales when I contemplated whether this text was worth the trouble. Note a few earlier texts dealing with the nature of evil, including the quite recent [1] and [2].

***Possibly, there are hidden rules, the revelation of which would change this impression. If so, however, too much of the rules are hidden, leaving the reader in a sea of arbitrariness. How, by analogy, is someone supposed to truly appreciate a football game without understanding the rules and without being able to interpret what happens (or does not happen) why? Similarly, would he not enjoy a game with rules that make more sense, e.g a game of Quidditch that does not boil down to just catching the golden snitch?

Two of the greatest strengths of “The Dark is Rising” (the book) in my child’s eye were the atmosphere and situations created (a) around the family of Will and in the family house, and (b) the scenes in the snowed-in mansion. These had a much smaller effect on me today, which could give me some pointers on how different people might experience the same scenes differently.

Looking at (a), Will was the opposite of Harry Potter, having an unusually large*, loving, and (relatively speaking) harmonious family. My own family, at the time, had been cut by divorce and was anything but harmonious—me, my mother, and a sister that I could not stand. Brothers there were none and the family dog was dead. Despite my introversion and comparatively low interest in socializing, his situation seemed so much better. Today, my interest is even lower and I suspect that I would have gone bonkers had I had his family—“Too many [children]!”, to quote the very first words of the book. Here there was, I suspect, a strong “the grass is always greener” effect in play.

*I could not find the exact number during a quick look at the book, but Will was a seventh (and youngest) son and there were sisters, two parents, and a few animals to boot.

Looking a (b), I have long held a fascination with being snowed in, fighting the cold and dark, and similar, likely partially as a side-effect of my life in Sweden, but somehow the scenes did not click this time around. This possibly partially because there were, again, very many people involved, both as a plus back then and a minus now; however, too haphazard writing and a too short duration might also have something to do with it.*

*Generally, thinking back on my recent re-reading, I have the feeling that there were quite a few crises and periods of suspense that loomed large for a short time and then were gone, almost anticlimactically, where a longer duration might have been more realistic and/or more captivating. What if they had jumped straight to the duel in “High Noon”?

Compared to works by some other authors, there is also quite little going on under the surface. The Narnia books definitely had more depth, as (going by vague memory) did the Prydain books.* To some degree, Cooper’s books are quite simplistic, as with the treatment of evil (cf. above) or the caricatured or cartoony bad guys—more Blyton than C. S. Lewis. Even Rowling, against whom I would raise a similar criticism, is ahead of Cooper.** Off the top of my head, there is only one major exception (and a few minor): the sub-story of Hawkin in “The Dark is Rising” (book), which is thought-worthy, tragic, and almost paradoxical—and the largest reason why I still rank “The Dark is Rising” as number one among the books (cf. excursion).

*These were, together with the-for-an-older-audience Tolkien and “The Dark is Rising”, the big book series of that period of my life, all with multiple readings.

**In some earlier text, I noted that books for women often had similar problems, while books by women gave me no reason to complain. “The Dark is Rising” series is written by a woman for, likely, mostly boys; while “Harry Potter” is by a woman and at least slightly tilted towards boys. With a few similar examples, I might have been too optimistic with the “books by women” part, and I begin to suspect that male authors are more likely to produce “depth” than female ones. (But my sample might be too small. Certainly, there are individual women, even in fantasy, e.g. Le Guin, who do better, and plenty of men who are as bad.)

The question of length is interesting with an eye on child-me vs. adult-me (also note an earlier footnote): children tend to read slower and have a shorter attention span, and what might seem short or too short to an adult might not be so for a child. (Generally, I do realize that viewing a children’s book from an adult’s perspective might not be entirely fair.) However, Cooper can be quite long-winded in other regards, and I had repeated occasions when I found my self skipping half a paragraph just to avoid boring dead-weight, often of a descriptive kind. If she had cut material where it served little purpose and inserted more material where it would have, then the books could have been improved.

On the upside, Cooper has a quality of language that is considerably higher than some modern authors, including Rowling (which seems to be part of a more general trend of less and less attention being paid to grammar and style as time passes).

Excursion on ranking:
My personal ranking of the books, now as then, would be “The Dark is Rising” (chronologically 2), “The Grey King” (c. 4), “Silver on the Tree” (c. 5), “Green-Witch” (c. 3), and “Over Sea, Under Stone” (c. 1). This is interesting in two regards: (a) The books with the Drew children do not fare well, and the fact that I clicked less with them as characters than with Will (and Bran) might play in.* (b) “Silver on the Tree” appears to be the most lauded by others, but is in the middle of the pack for me. I grant that this is the most ambitious of the books and likely (at least attempted as) a bit deeper than the others, but there is too much in it that does not work well as written, including (cf. above) the “The Lost Land” scenes (good ideas, poor execution). As a child, I also reacted very negatively to the revelation of Blodwen as a “double agent”; today, however, I see it as one of the few points where something thought-worthy is introduced, and evil actually has the guise of good, instead of being too obviously evil.

*But it should be noted that the order might be distorted by “Over Sea, Under Stone” being written considerably earlier than the other books, implying that Cooper might simply have been a less accomplished author at the time and that the other books might have benefited from ideas for the series gathered over the years. Moreover, “Green-Witch” is quite short, which might have had a negative effect on its ranking.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 17, 2019 at 2:03 am

Superficial opinions / EU

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To complement a recent text on naive beliefs, a few words on how my own opinions on the EU have changed. (Also in light of the recent UK general election, and its character as an almost-referendum on Brexit.)

The question of the EU first entered my own life in a major manner with the early 1990s Swedish debates on EU membership, culminating in a referendum in 1994.

At the time, I was extremely positive, seeing advantages like fewer trade obstacles, likelihood of higher growth, easier migration*, a lesser risk of war, …

*And the ease of my own later migration to Germany is a result of the Swedish and German memberships.

In my opinion formation there were (at least) two weaknesses: I was too unaware of disadvantages and, too some degree, I was influenced by “the party-line”, in that the party I supported was strongly positive and that I might not have reflected enough over potential down-sides.*

*An issue that I have observed at a fairly large scale among others, including absurdities like Leftists simultaneously claiming the correctness of Gender-Feminism and Evolution, despite these being largely incompatible, on the basis that these are both “should believe” ideas in some circles. (I am, obviously, pro Evolution and anti Gender-Feminism, having actually looked into these topics with a critical mindset.)

As time has gone by, I have seen a number of problems. Some are of an almost unavoidable nature, unless the EU is to be a half-measure, as with e.g. the extra layers of government that risk to further reduce the independence of the individual, increase costs and bureaucracy, etc., or with the risk that certain political ideas can become more “monopolistic”, reducing the possibility of escaping a “bad” country through migration, because all other near-by countries are equally “bad”.* Others are pure implementation errors, like the excessive redistribution of money from wealthier to less wealthy countries within the EU.**

*Among many examples of potential bad legislation that reduces civic rights in favor of the government or increases copyright durations unduly. Of course, such legislation can equally be made in the “good” direction, but the risks outweigh the chance of benefits in my eyes, and the reduced option of escape remains. What, e.g., if the insane Swedish sex laws were exported to the entire EU at some point? More generally, I have only over time become aware of how ridiculously much of what politicians decide is nonsensical or harmful; and while I have long been in favor of small government, possibly even some version of a Nachtwächterstaat, my realization of the harm that big and/or over-involved governments cause has grown year by year.

**This is unfair, distorts the free markets, creates inappropriate incentives for less wealthy countries to join, and causes resentment in the wealthier (including as a Brexit contributor). Moreover, the money flows often depend on e.g. negotiation skill and the strength of the negotiation position, rather than uniform and objective criteria.

I am still in favor of the EU (and Swedish/German membership), because the overall advantages seem to outweigh the overall disadvantages, but my opinion is far more nuanced than e.g. in 1994 when I, at age 19, voted “yes”. Moreover, I do not rule out that the Brexit will bring a net-benefit to Europe and the citizens of the EU through ensuring a greater degree of diversity of policy and development. (But I suspect that it will still turn out to be bad for the UK and its population and/or the EU when viewed as a state.)

I would also say that there are many implementation errors in the current EU, e.g. the aforementioned re-distribution of wealth between countries, and that many* of the benefits of the EU could be reached by other means. For instance, freer trade and easier border passage could be achieved without the EU (to a large degree, this even amounts to removing artificial obstacles imposed by the individual states); for instance, a high degree of uniformity of e.g. product regulations could be achieved by voluntary means, be it by states or businesses. In this line, I am willing to at least consider suggestions like that an earlier level of integration within the EU was better than the current level.

*By no means all, unless a similarly “heavy” solution as the EU still results. For instance, every or almost every aspect of the EU could be replicated by separate agreements and organizations, but then we would have the same results with a likely greatly increased complexity and overhead. (Possibly, with some degree of eclecticism available for the member states, but this would then reduce the advantages from compatibility improvements.) A particularly interesting example is the use of a common currency: entirely separate countries could use the same currency, but this would lead to great complications (including a risk that some become highly dependent on the monetary policies of others without having any say) and might require the parallel use of a country-internal currency (e.g. Krona in Sweden) with an international (e.g. the Euro as a new creation or D-Mark or Dollar as “imports”).

Excursion on absolutes:
A common problem in political debates, especially from the Left, is the assumption (or deliberate mis-representation) that things are uniformly and absolutely good or bad. The EU is an extremely good example of how things, on the contrary, tend to have positive and negative sides, both strengths and weaknesses, etc.; and of how important it is to have a nuanced understanding. Similarly, if a little of something is good, it does not follow that more of the same thing is even better.

Excursion on the weak-argumentation meta-argument:
Another contributor to my early opinions was the usually weak argumentation of the Swedish anti-EU factions. They might or might not have raised similar concerns that I do above (this was a long time ago and my memory is vague), but the brunt of the argumentation that has remained in my memory was unconvincing and lead me to apply the meta-argument that if someone relies heavily on weak arguments, chances* are that there are no strong arguments. This especially as the main proponents of “no”, e.g. the former Communist party, had a long track record of weak arguments.

*This is not foolproof, e.g. because strong potential arguments might simply be unknown.

One of the most often repeated was roughly “once we are members of the EU, we can never get out again, so we should wait” or “[…] not join at all” (depending on the speaker). A fatal flaw of this argument is, witness the Brexit, that it does appear possible to leave—and the argument was proved largely dishonest by the reactions of the same groups a few years after Sweden had joined, when the trend had turned and the opinion temporarily was against the EU: “We must hold a new referendum to reflect the new will of the people so that we can leave as soon as possible!” If we look at the “wait” version of the original argument, there is some point to it, in that a better decision can made with more information, but (a) this would apply at any given time, implying that one could argue “wait” perpetually, (b) a further wait comes at a cost of missed opportunities, e.g. in that the advantages do no apply during the waiting period, that a longer wait could lead to a worse negotiating position*, and similar. (The “not join at all” version is entirely absurd, because this would preclude any activity with a real or merely claimed permanency.)

*Notably, because the EU grows and the relative size of population, economy, and proportions of import/export of the applicant changes accordingly.

Other weak arguments included “The EU is silly! Look at their banana-shape regulations!”*, “Brussels will decide over our heads and Stockholm will lose power”**, and, in a wider sense, the claim that we should hold the referendum first and negotiate later, which seems more like a delaying tactic or a deterrent tactic than anything else: If someone comes to the negotiating table set to buy, he has little room to negotiate, making the order idiotic. At the same time, those voting will be unable to make an informed choice (again making the order idiotic) and … be more likely to say “no”, just in case. (The ostensible reason was to save the costs of the negotiations, if I recall correctly.)

*As opposed to e.g. “We fear that a membership in the EU will lead to an excess of new regulations with too little tangible benefit.”; an acknowledgment that regulations could have a purpose was usually lacking.

**While this is a possibility, it matters comparatively little to a rational citizen whether politicians decide over his head in Brussels or in Stockholm. The additional layers of politicians (cf. above) is a different matter—there are now more groups of politicians that can decide things over his head.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 15, 2019 at 5:28 pm

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A few recommendations around “X began Y-ing”

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Preamble: The weird formulation family X began Y-ing has remained in the back of my head. I had gathered some resulting recommendations in a draft (almost draft-of-a-draft), which I have polished up a little below, to get the topic out of my backlog. Note that there is some overlap with and repetition of the original text.

Prefer a non-“start”* formulation, whenever it is not contrary to intentions. For instance, “he started to swim ashore” is usually** inferior to “he swam ashore”. The non-“start” formulation is both shorter and more likely to match the actual intention. (It seems to me that e.g. some Wikipedia editors throw on an entirely unnecessary “start” formulation in a blanket manner. Consider, hypothetically, “modern humans first appeared” vs. “modern humans first began to appear” or, jikes, “modern humans first began appearing”.)

*With “start”, I include equivalent words, e.g. “begin”.

**An exception is when he did not reach the shore. Another when something follows in the text that takes place before arrival, e.g. an incident with a shark or a mermaid.

Prefer a “to” formulation. For instance, “he started to swim ashore” is superior to “he started swimming ashore”. The former is grammatically sounder, less prone to ambiguity, more likely to bring the intent over, and stylistically better. Note that the most reasonable interpretation of “swimming” (in this context) is as a participle describing what he was doing when he “started”. (Be it in the sense of a sudden movement or of “began” with a missing verb indicating what began, as with “he started to drown swimming”, which, while awkward, is a possible formulation.)

Prefer a regular noun over a gerund. For instance, “he started constructION” is better than “he started constructING” (with very minor reservations for the exact contexts and intentions, seeing that there is a slight difference in meaning). As a special case, be careful not to replace a regular noun with a gerund that is the noun + “ing”, as with “he heard a moan” vs. “he heard a moaning”. (Again, with reservations for exact intention: If one moan is meant, it is “moan” and not “moaning”. However, if an on-going series of moans is intended, then “moaning” might be acceptable.)

Pay attention to prepositions: a gerund will often require one. For instance, “he began teaching of math” is logically acceptable as a gerund (even if very ugly), while “he began teaching math” implies* that “teaching” is a verb form, making “he began to teach math” the preferable version.

*Unless it is a participle, with something missing from the sentence: “he began to write on the blackboard teaching math”. (Incidentally, a good example why participles should be used with caution in English.)

Pay attention to the difference between gerunds (quasi-nouns), participles (quasi-modifiers), and verb forms. A great deal of confusion and a fundamentally flawed understanding of grammar arises when the simplistic idea of “ing” words (and, similarly, “ed” words) is used as a blanket replacement. These might all end with “ing”, but this is arbitrary and we might well have had them end with, respectively, “ing”, “ang”, and “ong”—or any other suffix, or have them be distinctive in some other manner yet. They happen to be the same in English, but that does not mean anything. The two lefts in “I left to the left” are not the same either and treating them as the same would be idiotic. “Swimming, he was swimming during the swimming” uses all three: The first is a participle, the second a (part of a) verb form, the third a gerund (if a little artificial in context). We can e.g. see that “was swimming” can be replaced with “swam” but that the others cannot; and that “was” fits with the second but not the others. The third can be replaced by e.g. “swim session”, while the others cannot. It also goes well with “the”, which the others do not. The first allows extensions like “pleasantly swimming” that are incompatible at least with the gerund use.* Indeed, the corresponding** sentences in Swedish and German display three visually (and phonetically) different words: “Simmande, simmade han under simmandet” resp. “Schwimmend, schwamm er während des Schwimmens”.***

*A gerund, as a quasi-noun, takes an adjective like “pleasant”. Participles and verb forms take adverbs like “pleasantly”.

**The commata are a little dubious in Swedish and German, but I have kept them to make the identification with the English sentence easier.

***The German version also illustrates a complication not obvious in the weakly inflected English language: Different word classes can underlie different modifications. Here the basal “[das] Schwimmen” is turned into “[des] Schwimmens” in the genitive case, which (at least in German) would affect neither the participle use nor the verb use. (The preposition “während” causes the genitive.)

Addendum on infinitives: In the original text, I spoke of how “Y-ing” in this type of formulation “logically fills the role of an infinitive”. With hindsight this was a partial misjudgment on my behalf: an infinitive is often used in such roles, but it is hardly a universal linguistic law. There might, for instance, be cases where English uses an infinitive and Latin a subjunctive, e.g. “he does it to win” vs. (with great reservations for correctness) “facit ut vincat”, not “facit ut vincere”. (This could possibly be the result of long-term confusion between “logical case” and appearance of the words involved, where one case disappears from consciousness or language because all its forms coincides with those of another case.)

Written by michaeleriksson

December 14, 2019 at 1:09 am