Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Archive for February 2020

Re-visiting the yearly Swedish book sale

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My very first post through WordPress, almost exactly ten years ago, was on the yearly Swedish book sale. A few days ago, in Sweden to renew my passport, I visited it again for the first time since (probably) 1997.

I left highly disappointed, managing to pick up only three books from one of Sweden’s largest bookstores*:

*The Akademibokhandel in central Stockholm. During a longer stay, I might or might not have tried some other bookstore.

  1. Most of the books for sale were uninteresting junk and/or targeted strictly to the mass-market. Among the exceptions, there was a considerable portion of “public domain” works that are available for free from online sources, e.g. works by Strindberg.
  2. The books on sale were mostly hardcover, giving a rebate on the heavily marked-up hardcover price, leaving the remaining price no better* than I would expect from a (non-rebated) pocket book. To this I note that pocket books are usually the superior format to begin with (and the more so in my current case, as I was trying to save weight for my flight). Indeed, there were several books that I at least would have investigated further, had they, even at the same price, been in pocket. (But also a few that were too large to be suitable for the pocket format and which I might have been interested in, had I not had the airplane to worry about.)

    *I have, obviously, not made an in-depth comparison and the individual book might have rated higher, lower, or roughly the same. The point is that by just buying pocket books, I would have had roughly the same price, even without the benefit of a sale.

  3. There were plenty of pocket books, but they were almost all in English and not part of the sale. (My focus was on Swedish books, for obvious reasons; however, in all fairness, the English sections were excellent by a German standard.)
  4. Among books not on sale, I was astounded by the price level, with prices far higher than in Germany or the U.S. Extremes included a one-volume dictionary for well over 500 SEK and a book of possibly eighty pages for more than 300 SEK.* Even outside the extremes, however, I again and again looked at a potentially interesting book, turned to the price, and decided that I was not going to buy it at 10-or-more Euro above what a comparable book would have cost in Germany. As I later understood my father, this high price level is not restricted to Akademibokhandeln but reflects industry practices in Sweden. (Also cf. my original post.)

    *As a rough rule-of-thumb Euro, Dollar, and (with a larger error) Pound equivalents can be reached by dividing by 10.

  5. While the non-fiction portions of the bookstore were considerably better than in the Wuppertal bookstores, they were not truly strong for what is supposed to be one of the largest bookstores in Sweden—and from a chain originally targeted at academia, at that. The large* Mayersche in near-Wuppertal Düsseldorf, e.g., is considerably stronger (even for fiction); compared to the Berlin Dussmann, a truly good bookstore, Akademibokhandeln is a complete joke.

    *Beware that the chain Mayersche has several stores in Düsseldorf alone, and that the rest are crap.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 29, 2020 at 12:34 pm

Too many emails

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Unethical, annoying, intrusive, customer hostile, whatnot, sending of email is not limited to spam*. Consider e.g. my recent flight booking with EuroWings: As of now, I have received a total of five (!) emails as a result, two which should definitely not have been sent, one which is disputable, and two that are acceptable—and this not counting the “please rate your flight” that I expect to receive a few days after the actual journey. The result is a waste of my time, a risk that I accidentally overlook something important among the unimportant, and a recurring feeling of “not those idiots again”. Five emails from one sender might still be tolerable—if it was only that sender (but it is not). While I am comparatively passive in the eCommerce and whatnot field, even I occasionally have two or three businesses sending such unwanted emails in the same time period; those more active might have even more, possibly supplemented by a range of newsletters and similar messages. (In both cases, obviously, this is on top of regular spam.) This is just not in order.

*With the reservation that I tend to think of more-or-less any unwanted email as spam and might use the word “spam” in that sense on occasion.

To look at these emails more in detail:

The acceptable ones are the confirmation of booking and the confirmation of payment-received (contingent on the fact that I payed by invoice; another payment method might not have allowed this email).

The disputable is a notification about online check-in. There is some legitimate value here, but in my case, and the case of most repeat customers, it would have been better if the email had never been sent: firstly, the information and link to check-in would better have been included in the confirmation, the one justification in the delay being that online check-in is only available within three days of departure*. However, I knew about the three-day rule, it is mentioned elsewhere**, and a pre-mature call of the included link could simply lead to an error message of “please try again on or after the Xth”. Moreover, the current implementation is a definite “value subtracted” one compared to a manual visit by the customer: It is possible to check-in with just the booking number, but the link still leads to a page which insists on a log-in or new registration—almost certainly for the unethical reason of tricking unwary unregistered users to register, regardless of whether they consider this in their own best interest. Even for the “wary” this is a negative, because additional steps are required to find the right page for an account-less check-in.

*It self possibly disputable, but off-topic. I suspect that this is related to choice of plane, that the exact model, seats available, etc., are not finalized earlier than this. However, in a worst case, an explicit choice of seat could be replaced by more abstract criteria, e.g. window/middle/aisle, close to exit/faraway from engine, whatnot. Then again, cf. below, an earlier seat-choice than check-in appears to be possible …

**I have not re-checked exactly where, but I do know that I noted it during my booking. If it is not present in e.g. the booking confirmation, it would be easy to add.

Moreover, this is exactly the type of email that could be imitated and abused for phishing, and the prevalence of which lowers the sensitivity about phishing in the general population. (Indeed, even I did not reflect on the risk until I had already called the link—but on no point did I enter any data that could be of use to a phisher.)

The unacceptable ones: Firstly, a patronizing checklist with (the German equivalent of) “Have you thought of everything?”—pure idiocy and, if at all needed, it should have been provided together with the confirmation information. Secondly, a request that I choose my preferred seat. Notably, the choice of seat came at a time when check-in was not yet possible, implying that I would need to visit EuroWings website twice (once to choose seat; once, a few days later, to check in), were I interested in this offer. In as far there is some value here, it is limited and not worth the bother in most cases. So, I have a greater chance at finding my preferred seat by choosing before the time-limited check-in, but the rules are the same for everyone and the difference is likely to be small even for those keen on specific seats.* In contrast, if the ability to choose seat (or even check-in) was available at the time of booking—that would be good!**

*I suspect that most people are not that interested to begin with, especially as information on the more important criteria, like annoying or four-hundred-pound seat-neighbors, loud near-by children, and similar, are not available in advance …

**But note that restrictions as in the above footnote on the three days might apply.

As to the constant “rate this-and-that” emails, they are an inexcusable intrusion upon the customer and a poor way of getting feedback.* In fact, I suspect, it is less a matter of getting true feedback and more of aggregating statistics, which, while of some value, is less useful than more specific feedback. Firstly, any forms and whatnots for feedback are better given with a confirmation email than after the fact, so that the customer can chose when and if to give feedback. Secondly, if I want to give feedback, I have no interest in forms and whatnots—I write an email! (And, notably, this email has usually already been sent when the harassing request for feedback comes …)

*Possibly excepting some strongly reputation driven fields, e.g. Uber-style services with regard to the individual driver. However, even here it would seem reasonable to only give a rating when something was sufficiently above or below par that it was noteworthy. Certainly, the scales must be normalized to have an average performance imply 3-out-5, not the current “anything less than 5-out-of-5 is an insult”.

Worse: if the customer does not give feedback, chances are that one or two reminders are sent, further wasting the customer’s time and showing a complete disrespect for his decision to not give feedback.

Of course, this type of email is another potential in-road for phishing attacks.

As a counter-measure, I strongly encourage businesses (websites, organizations, whatnot) to adhere to a strict rule about email parsimony; indeed, I see them as under an ethical obligation to do so: If an automatic email is not obviously beneficial to the recipient (not the sender!) and reasonably* expected in context, it should not be sent. Moreover, it is better to send one longer email covering several sub-topics than several shorter with a sub-topic each. For instance, a booking confirmation is both beneficial and reasonably expected. A stand-alone unsolicited checklist is usually not beneficial and it is certainly not reasonably expected, but it might be OK if included in an already legitimate email (e.g. a booking confirmation). If there is any other email that might seem worth sending, it should be sent manually to reduce the risk of abuse and in order to err on the side of too little.**

*As in e.g. “what would a reasonable person with little prior exposure reasonably expect”—not as in “what would a reasonable person consider likely based on prior experiences”. Note that there is a dependency on circumstances, e.g. in that I would not normally expect a “your flight has been canceled due to a storm” email, but that this hinges on my not expecting a storm. If a storm has occurred and left my flight canceled, we have a different situation.

**As an aside, the idiotic German legal fiction that if someone already is a customer, then he is expected to be interested in new offers, and businesses are now allowed to send unsolicited advertising emails/letters/whatnot, fails largely on allowing automatic offers. If this was restricted strictly to manual communications, it would be within the plausible, but, as is, businesses just spam every single customer automatically, causing a very poor ratio of interest and a lot of annoyance, barely better than spam to complete strangers. (But this is improving due to sharper laws.)

To this a possible exception exists in that users might be given a list of choices for what emails they want to receive, e.g. booking confirmation (pre-selected), check-list (de-selected), …, to which the business must then adhere—deliberate choice by the user trumps parsimony. This would have the additional advantage of reducing unethical practices like hiding an “agreement” to this-or-that in the Terms-and-Conditions or claims likes “you agree to this-and-that, but can retract your agreement at any time by writing a letter to our customer service”.

Excursion on the customer/user side:
I strongly recommend that as many of these emails as possible be ignored. This with the three-fold idea to not waste own time, to reduce exposure to phishing attacks, and to not encourage misbehavior.

To the last point, I note e.g. that if no-one ever calls up the feedback forms, then businesses will eventually be discouraged and stop sending emails.

To phishing, I recommend more specifically never to enter any type of data over a link sent in an email or through an automatic email request (and to be very cautious with any manual request). For instance, for an online check-in above, it is better to manually go to the website and find the right entry point there (even the aforementioned attempt to court registrations aside).

Excursion on contractual obligations:
A business-to-consumer contract should work according to the simple principle that the business provides a service and receives money in return, the money being the almost* sole obligation of the customer and contingent on the service being provided adequately**. The result should be rights for the customer and obligations for the business. In current reality, it is often the other way around: yes, the customer still pays, but the rights are given to the business and the obligations put upon the customer. Pick up a typical business-to-consumer contract or Terms-and-Conditions and note how much is said about what the customer must or must not do. Note the freedoms businesses presume to take, e.g. with email addresses. Note how customers are increasingly seen as obliged to give feedback and ratings—often with only five-star ratings being acceptable. Etc.

*Exceptions include general, common sense, and usually not-necessary-to-state restrictions like that a rented item must not be damaged, as well as some situation-dependent that might reasonably apply, e.g. that a rented item must be returned at a certain location no later than a certain time.

**At least in Germany, this is a widely ignored condition: the typical attitude is that a contract is a one-sided obligation for the customer to pay, with the service being provided on a “if nothing goes wrong basis”.

A particular annoying behavior, at least in Germany, is to forbid certain uses—not warn against them as dangers, not describe them as warranty invalidating, or similar. This is an inexcusable presumption: if a certain use is not illegal, it is entirely* up to the buyer how he uses the product, including what risks he takes—end of story.

*Under normal circumstances. Exceptions might exist in special cases, e.g. that buying a DVD and then making and distributing copies for personal profit is not allowed. I am, however, hard pressed to come up with an example that does not involve a potential damage to the seller’s or producer’s business opportunities and/or a use of a non-private kind.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 13, 2020 at 11:52 am

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Negative experiences with Desone

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Due to the extreme noise disturbances in my apartment in 2019, mostly due to very lengthy renovations in a neighboring apartment, I looked into “room within a room” solutions as an insurance against repetitions. After some research, Desone* seemed a very likely candidate, based on price**, claimed protection, and an early (misleading) positive impression.

*A small German company. This text is written largely as a warning towards others with an interest who search for e.g. customer reviews. I do not expect the random reader to have any knowledge of this company.

**Hardly cheap and likely with a considerable markup over the actual cost, with prices above a thousand Euros per m2. However, it appears to be a seller’s market and I really do not wish to go through the hellish situation of 2019 again. Keep the cabin small enough and it is acceptable to me. Note, here and below, that all prices mentioned are exclusive of VAT. Further, that I will only give approximate numbers to reduce the risk of a conflict over what information Desone might or might not view as secret. (I do not have the time to research the legal situation regarding disclosure.)

My impression was slightly worsened by a reluctance to answer questions, a push for a visit to Desone’s exhibition (also see excursion) in lieu of answers, and a few odd behaviors*. I still found the overall impression sufficiently strong that I decided to visit the exhibition for a final verification of suitability and a preliminary specification for an offer. This meant four or five hours of travel in both directions, costs for train and hotel, and whatnot.

*E.g. that when I sent the official floor plan of my building for a first overview, explicitly mentioning that I was going to supply actual measurements in a later email, I received an almost snotty answer of how this plan was insufficient, that I needed to deliver measurements, and that Desone worked “to the centimeter” (“auf den Zentimeter genau”). This is the odder as the very, very crudely drawn suggestions delivered in reply were nowhere near centimeter accurate, and as at no point of my interactions a value of centimeter accuracy actually was needed.

The exhibition turned out to be somewhat disappointing, pressed into the same small location as the offices of Desone, but was sufficient. The owner*, a claimed Diplomingenieur**, was even more disappointing, showing no signs of greater expertise, being reluctant to engage in a discussion of technical aspects, and actually trying to demonstrate impact sound*** by playing a recording (!) of drum beats. In addition, I note that the solution provided by Desone seemed to lack sophistication and to be a more “brute-force” approach, by (with some oversimplification) taking two wooden walls and filling the space between them with insulation material. (In contrast, some other providers speak of using one soft and one hard wall or shell for better blocking of different frequencies or of deliberately going for materials with different impedances in order to reduce transmission over boundaries. I note, however, that a simple solution is not automatically a poor solution: the point is to demonstrate the comparatively low level of insight and research needed for a Desone-style solution.)

*Remember: small company. He was also my prior email contact.

**A pre-Bologna degree in engineering roughly equivalent to a combined bachelor and master. (Incidentally, my own first degree is also a Diplomingenieur.) As to “claimed”: While I do not doubt that he has the degree (if nothing else, academic fraud is taken very seriously in Germany and only a fool would run a company with a falsified credential), he did not give me a very “engineery” impression and did not seem to move at the competence level I expect in a Diplomingenieur. The diploma does not make the engineer.

***With some reservations for translations: Here I intend the German “Trittschall” and/or “Körperschall”, sound that moves through a solid medium, e.g. due to a hammer impacting on a wall. This as opposed to “Luftschall”, sound that moves through air. To understand the issue above better, consider an experiment with two apartments divided by a typical concrete wall. On the one side of the wall, someone hammers at the wall while recording the sound; on the other, someone is measuring the sound-pressure level (or whatever might be interesting). Then the original hammering is replaced by a play-back of the recording, set to cause the same loudness in the room of origin, and a new measurement is made on the other side of the wall. Because the “Körperschall” aspect of the sound will be much weaker in the second half of the experiment, the disturbance on the other side of the wall will be much smaller. Similarly, consider someone knocking on a door in order to be let in vs. the same person playing a recording of someone knocking on a door.

A few days later, I received my offer and was annoyed on two counts:

Firstly, what was guaranteed by the offer was far less than what prior material and contacts seemed to promise. This included e.g. that no guarantees were made regarding impact sound and that prolonged stays in the room were not allowed (“nicht zulässig”), even with the expensive active electrical ventilator that I had chosen as an add-on to ensure that such stays were possible—with the oral assurance by my counter-part that this would be enough. Well, without such assurances as a part of the final contract, I would virtually be buying a pig in a poke: possibly, Desone was just (unremarkably) trying to reduce legal risks, while having genuine confidence in its own products and having no intention of misleading customers; however, there was at least some risk that something was amiss. More importantly, with a purchase of this magnitude, I did not want the risk of e.g. a “Monday specimen” (of an otherwise strong product) falling on my head instead of Desone’s.

Secondly, the costs for (mostly) assembly exploded above expectation and what could be considered reasonable. Now, that I was probably already paying a disputable amount for convenience, just like car buyers who pick up extras, was clear to me, e.g. in that there was likely a large markup on the active ventilation, the delivery, and/or the assembly. However, these stated-up-front costs where costs that I deliberately chose to accept and could judge well in advance. The problem was a number of costs that had not been transparently discussed, notably for assembly, but also the apparent need for a second* ventilation shaft at more than two hundred Euros extra, in order to be able to use the already quite expensive active ventilation. (This is not quite as bad as paying two or three hundred Euro for an extra hole in the wall,** but it is not far off.) Looking at the assembly costs, there was a transparent fixed fee of roughly a thousand Euro and an additional, non-transparent, almost two-and-a-half (!) thousand relating to the two assembly men. (That there would be such an “additional” was known, but the size was much higher than reasonable.) The latter consisted of more than four hundred Euro in travel costs (noticeably more expensive than my train tickets); almost twelve hundred Euro in travel wages*** (much more than reasonable); and well over six hundred Euro for food and lodging, or more than a hundred**** Euro per head and night (much too much). Moreover, the schedule by Desone was for four days and three nights (travel inclusive), where three days and two nights seems much more reasonable.*****

*My original impression was that the “standard” cabin already came with two shafts, one for in-flowing and one for out-flowing air. From context, it appears that the standard cabin only had one and that the active ventilation necessitated a second to work properly. (I asked for a clarification from Desone, but never received an answer, leaving this interpretation speculative.)

**Just making a hole would cause the sound protection to drop disastrously, which is why a suitable insulating ventilation structure needs to be put in. While I am not privy to the details of how this works with Desone, there is no chance that the actual cost is on a level with the price.

***Based on 6.5 hours of travel at an hourly rate almost equal to the working rate. My journey was roughly 4.5 hours in each direction and while some recompense might be reasonable for the travel, it is nowhere near this level. Factoring in the excessive alleged travel time, a third of the stated sum might have been acceptable. I also note that I never received one cent of wages for travel time (or travel costs) when I was a free-lance IT consultant traveling to my customers…

****I walked by an Ibis hotel somewhat near-by a few days after the events. It advertised its current rate for a double room as 64 Euro (VAT included!), which is more-or-less the value I recall from other by-passings. In other words, Desone would demand more or significantly more per head than would be reasonable for both together, even after factoring in food. Effectively, Desone is not just forwarding these expenses to the customer, which would be a reasonable thing to do, but is actually charging a markup of more than a hundred percent on expenses.

*****Based on the assembly charge and stated hourly rate, and assuming no hidden overhead, the overall work should have taken roughly 18 man-hours. With two men involved, this amounts to one day to travel to Wuppertal; one nine-hour day of work; one day of travel back, with more than enough buffer to complete any outstanding tasks from day two before leaving. In theory, it might even be squeezed into two days, but that would require highly optimistic assumptions about both the timing of the delivery and a lack of complications. (With a hidden overhead, the number of man-hours drops below 18, making “my” schedule the more realistic.)

Indeed, reviewing the data for writing this text, I see a considerable further flaw in the travel costs: These appear to be calculated by a fix amount of 0.40 Euro per kilometer per person or as 0.40 Euro per kilometer in both directions. (Which is not clear.) However, the fix amount (“Entfernungspauschale”) applied by the German “IRS” for similar calculations is .30 Euro, which applies one way and presumably for the entire car (if by car).*

*In other words, if someone travels 50 kilometers to work in the morning and the same distance back in the evening, this amounts to a deductible 15 Euro—not 30 Euro, let alone Desone’s 40 Euro. I assume that this is per car, not person, because this is what makes sense to cover costs for gas, wear-and-tear, and whatnot, which is what the Entfernungspauschale is intended for. If the cost-estimate of the IRS is viewed as reasonable, then Desone is working with a markup of almost 170 percent on top of the cost. Note the similarity to the hotel costs, with the customer being charged an outrageous markup on expenses, not just products and services.

I wrote a (polite!) email back, to (a) request that the guaranteed characteristics be extended to include impact noise, (b) discuss a revision of the unexpectedly large costs, where I gave Desone the benefit of a doubt of not having researched the situation sufficiently, e.g. by working with a much higher assumption about hotel rates than is warranted for Wuppertal.

The reaction by Desone was so absurd, rude, and unprofessional that I was at loss for words: Desone retracted its binding (!) offer and declined any further business. This after I had spent a good many hours on Desone-specific research and travel, and would have to start over with another provider with a delay of several weeks, compared to choosing another provider from the go. This despite a retraction of a binding offer being grossly unethical, likely illegal, and possibly resulting in a right to compensation for damages.

The motivation for this was equally absurd:

Firstly, the reply email alleged that I would lack any faith in Desone and its products, which was (!) not the case (nor could reasonably be construed from my email). What I had done was to point to great discrepancies between what has been promised through, on the one hand, information material and oral statements, and, on the other, the restrictions made in the actual offer. My wish for greater contractual assurances is a quite normal—I did not expect Desone to fail, but wanted assurances that I would not be out a minor fortune if it did fail. (Similarly, I do not take out an insurance policy because I expect an accident/burglary/whatnot to happen—I do so to be safe if happens.)

Of course, the reaction by Desone does change my expectation, because if I had nothing to fear, why would there be any reluctance to extend the contractual guarantees? Moreover, if I lack in faith, it is up to me to decline the offer—not Desone to retract it. Indeed, even with misgivings, I would have every right to accept the offer at my own discretion. (While an unlikely scenario, it is not an impossible one. Consider e.g. an “only game in town” scenario.)

Secondly, I was allegedly questioning the honesty/respectability/whatnot (“Seriösität”, a tricky word to translate; and likely a misspelling to begin with) of Desone’s calculations. I do not deny that I had some doubts, but I made no allegations, I wrote my answer firmly with the possibility of e.g. a lack of thought or research in mind, and I do not see attempts to gain additional profits, within reasonable limits, as necessarily wrong. (If in doubt, I could always have turned the assembly down in favor of hiring a few locals on my own. Cf. below.) Indeed, I had not even mentioned the hourly wage rate during travel.

However, again, the reaction by Desone is what makes me assume that something considerably lacking in “Seriösität” is going on, as it points to someone being caught with his hand in the cookie jar and trying to avoid the embarrassment by severing communications. This especially as there would have been a wide range of mutually acceptable solutions available, had we not been able to reach an agreement on the original constellation, e.g. that I would have arranged hotel and travel directly. Indeed, at the overall cost of more than three thousand Euro for assembly (alone!), I might well have foregone (the non-mandatory) assembly through Desone altogether, just taken delivery, and then hired two locals to do the job. (According to Desone’s own claims, no particular expertise is needed.) Even assuming somewhat slower work, this would have been a massive money saver. Indeed, had I had any idea that the overhead would be so extreme, I would have gone with the option of “delivery only” to begin with (or foregone Desone entirely).

Of course, here too, it is up to me to decline the offer if I feel that it lacks in “Seriösität”—not for Desone to retract it.

Excursion on much cheaper means:
Those troubled by noise should look to much cheaper solutions first. The top-of-the-class ANC headphones* sell for less than three hundred Euro, I bought the apparent market leader in ear muffs** for roughly 30 Euros, and ear plugs can be had for next to nothing. However, in my case, these have not been enough, not even in combination, because of “bone conduction”: sound does not reach the inner ear just through the outer ear, but also through bone, which limits the effectiveness of “outer-ear protection” to, possibly, somewhere between forty and fifty dB, depending on frequency and circumstances—likely less for impact noise. Moreover, using these for hours at an end can be uncomfortable. In sum, these are not a sufficient solution to the extremely loud and prolonged disturbances of 2019. In contrast, a well decoupled “room within a room” can reduce the noise-level before bone conduction comes into play and comes with fewer or other comfort issues.

*Which those are, I leave unstated, especially as this tends to change over time. Strong current candidates at the moment include the Sony WH-1000XM3 and the Bose 700. I have no experiences with either, but they are both highly rated. (I have made OK-ish experiences with the Sennheiser HD 4.50 BTNC, cheaper but considered class or two below the aforementioned; and, in the past, the Bose QC 25, once widely considered the top-of-the-class but now outdated.)

**The 3M Peltor X5A—quite good.

As an aside, white/pink/brown/whatnot noise is a highly insufficient help for non-trivial disturbances, as it alters noise, instead of removing it. To combat e.g. loud hammer strokes, the volume needs to be pushed up to entirely unpractical levels, and soon becomes a disturbance in its own right. Other means that might be helpful for smaller disturbances but fail for larger include e.g. changing the room/apartment acoustics through absorbing surfaces (e.g. textiles on the wall).

Excursion on visits, exhibitions, etc.:
The visit to the exhibition irks me particularly, as I make a point of not taking hours of my time to e.g. visit exhibitions—unless I am already deeply interested. (In the case of Desone, my decision had virtually already been made, and my purpose was a last verification and a hammering out of details. Else I would not have taken that total of nine hours of travel and the associated costs.) Unfortunately, a more-or-less blanket insistence on a personal visit, a personal talk, or similar, at a much too early stage, seems to be standard procedure in Germany—possibly, under the assumption that a prospective customer is easier to fool into poor decisions in person than via email. For instance, when I looked for an apartment to buy, many realtors insisted, even when the apartment was hours away from my then residence in Cologne, that I immediately make an appointment to inspect the apartment—this rather than answering one or two simple questions that would have allowed me to judge whether an appointment made sense.* Of course, I never did, because they effectively wanted to turn a first inquiry into an automatic promotion to my personal short-list, which is utterly insane.

*Usually resulting from vital information not being present in the ad or other written information material, to begin with. In one case, the realtor did not even want to answer what the monthly “Hausgeld” (similar to a condominium fee) was, despite this being a major cost factor in Germany, and one that can vary very considerably from building to building.

As a special point: the impression given by e.g. an exhibit or the display in a store can be highly misleading, possibly to the point of being “value subtracted”. For optical impressions, e.g. of watches or TV screens, reasons can include unnatural lighting conditions, deliberate manipulations for impressive short-term effects, overall impressions caused by several objects instead of just the object being viewed, etc. A particular “in advance” concern of mine with Desone was that a demonstration of impact-noise reduction could be misleading if the mediums that transmit the impact noise are too different, e.g., hypothetically, in that walls/floor/ceiling are made of concrete twice as thick in the exhibition building as in my apartment. (As is, there were no real means of performing a demonstration. My counter-part stomped on the floor, but there is no guarantee that I would see a similar reduction when someone hammers on a wall in my building—there are too many potential differences.

Excursion on an perfect solution:
Perfect sound-proofing is not possible for someone with my restrictions on, location, available space, and money. (At least not with today’s technologies: for instance, better ANC on a room level might be a future solution.) I cannot live in space capsule or surround myself with stone walls twenty feet thick. However, as a thought experiment,* I considered what might be possible in the “room within a room” family with sufficient resources:

*Do not misconstrue the below as a practical suggestion, at least not in the now.

The most promising road is likely to ensure that we have two air-tight shells, one within the other, separated by a vacuum. Vacuum is as good a sound insulator as can realistically be found, and the constraints on the size of the vacuum and character of the walls (air-tightness aside) are not imposing. A hitch is that while ceilings/roofs and walls can easily be kept separated, this is not so with the floors (unless some other connection is formed, e.g. by having the inner room suspended on wires from the ceiling of the outer). One possibility is to use “magnetic levitation”, which avoids any physical connection between the shells while preserving* the vacuum. This should lead to truly great protection against all reasonably likely types of noise, including the low frequencies that are often troublesome for other solutions. Some coupling still exists over the levitation mechanisms, as a physical movement of the “outer” portions could lead to variations in the magnetic field, which could lead to physical movement of the inner portions; however, if this is an issue, the addition of a physical decoupling of the mechanism from one or both of the shells should reduce it to a quite low level.

*Using an air cushion like a hover craft would violate the vacuum idea (and might cause a lot of noise on its own). A helium balloon would not work in vacuum either (even space needed aside). Etc.

Getting in and out is not trivial without creating a coupling, but a solution like a retractable passage might work: when extended, it forms a connection between a door in the inner and a door in the outer shell, acting like an air-lock and allowing entry/exit. When retracted, it is connected to at most one of the two doors, preserving decoupling.

Solutions for electricity, air, whatnot are possible, e.g. through internal batteries and tanks for fresh/used air in a manner similar to a space capsule. (We might want to look for something more user-friendly, but some compromise in decoupling would be hard to avoid.)

With a setup like this, even a Motörhead concert might be rendered inaudible or near inaudible.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 11, 2020 at 8:31 am

Follow-up: The influence of the actor and the part on the performance

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To briefly follow-up on my thoughts on actors and performances:

The 2020 Academy Awards have been awarded, with outcomes perfectly supporting my text.

Best actor: Joaquin Phoenix

Best actress: Renee Zellweger

Written by michaeleriksson

February 10, 2020 at 2:46 pm

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In Cold Blood

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Another recent read is “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote. From my personal point of view, it is interesting in at least three regards:

  1. It demonstrates how a particular style of journalistic writing that usually fails completely actually can work, reinforcing my more general belief that it is not so much the type* of something as the quality that matters. Indeed, it shows that I had not generalized sufficiently, because I thought this type of writing hopeless. Consider e.g. the abysmally-poor-but-award-winning drivel of Claas Relotius or much of what ends up in “The New Yorker” or “Der Spiegel”. Having read “In Cold Blood”, I have a better idea of what some journalists try to do, and am somewhat more willing to respect the attempt—but I remain unaltered in my claim that they usually fail badly. (And I do not say that this type of writing should normally be considered appropriate for e.g. a news-paper, even when of Capote-level quality, as it is usually contrary to the purposes of good journalism.)

    *I deliberately go with a vague word, because the application is wide. For instance, TV is not inherently inferior to books—but the risk of finding garbage quality when randomly turning on the TV has historically been greater than when randomly grabbing a book in a bookstore. (Whether this still holds true might be disputed, considering current bookstore trends.) Similarly, the sci-fi genre might once rightfully have been maligned because so much of what was written/filmed/whatnot was on the pulp level—but this was not a consequence of the genre, it self, but of the low quality. Today, there is sufficiently much quality sci-fi available that it would be foolish to attack the genre instead of the individual work.

  2. It is a good example of an improvement of the art of writing, per se, in which it displays a legitimate case of literature without “higher values”. The main value of the book is not its content but its successful exploration of a new or different type of writing, which brings the art or the craft forward. (Secondary value is found in both entertainment and the potential for insight into the backgrounds, psychology, behavior, whatnot of the criminals involved. However, the latter should be taken with some caution, as Capote apparently did not stick entirely to the truth.)
  3. In my own writings, I wrestle with the question of detail. (How much is appropriate? What adds color and what wastes time? Etc.) This book gives many examples of how adding detail can be used to great effect and without leaving the reader on autopilot.* (But I still feel that he errs slightly on the side of too much.) The use for characterization and sympathy building is particularly effective, somewhat like Stephen King**, but in a much higher quality writing.

    *As a contrast, note my discussion of “A Discovery of Witches”, a book with damaging amounts of undue detail.

    **Stephen King might seem an odd comparison, but he has often impressed me exactly by his ability to use just a few lines to give a successful first characterization and/or build sympathy, and I would view this as his second greatest strength (behind his imagination). Reading “In Cold Blood”, I was struck repeatedly by the suspicion that it (or some other work by Capote) might have been a strong influence on King. (However, I have seen similar abilities elsewhere, in particular among short-story writers.)

Written by michaeleriksson

February 9, 2020 at 5:13 am

Notes on hotspots and smartphones / Follow-up: Stay away from Unitymedia

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A few notes on sub-topics from an earlier text.

I spoke of an automatic disconnect* from the Deutsche Telekom hotspot every six hours, which appears to be overly pessimistic. I got this number from the webpage presented after login, and there has indeed been a number of automatic disconnects; however, nowhere near as often as every six hours. While any type of disconnect is a user-unfriendly annoyance, the current rate of disconnects is acceptable.**

*I assume that we speak of a “disconnect” in the sense of “user must log in over the page again”. A mere “the WIFI-connection is severed” (unless combined with the need to log in again) is a lot less harmful, because a properly setup client can just automatically reconnect. Of course, this makes a severing of the WIFI connection fairly pointless.

*However, the setup could be unacceptable to others and/or for me with only a minor change in circumstances. For instance, the same page spoke of a disconnect after fifteen minutes of inactivity, which could be a very severe restriction, and it is easy to imagine scenarios where a user logs in, opens one web page, reads it for a while, tries to call the next, has to log in again, etc. In my case, an inactivity is unlikely to take place, because I have both Tor and a VPN running, which causes some amount of recurring traffic even when I do nothing in person. The same likely applies to my email client.

As an aside, I was positively surprised by the low restrictions on ports, where I had feared that this-and-that would not work due to blocked ports. Similarly, unlike with the Unitymedia WIFI-spots (cf. [1]), ping does work.

As to the increasing need to have a smartphone (or, at a minimum, cell-phone), I note e.g. that it becomes harder and harder to use Internet banking and credit cards without a smartphone, that Deutsche Bahn (“German Railways”) has begun to retire ticket machines in favor of ticket-by-app, that many input forms on the web require specifically a cell-phone number (not a telephone number in general), and that there is a growing trend among businesses towards ignoring over-the-Internet functionality in favor of smartphone apps.

The latter is particularly annoying, because the combination of this with the use of texting over email, the obsession with Facebook, etc., could spell the end of the Internet. (Which once seemed set to be the dominant medium for decades or, in a modified form, centuries.) Things might still work out for the best, but if the current trend continues, we might regress to an 1980s setup of limited, limiting, and proprietary technologies, as if dial-in BBS crap and AOL had developed into Apps and Facebook while by-passing the Internet era. Indeed, some early Internet technologies, including the once greatly successful newsgroups, are reduced to niche use without a better replacement. Or note how reluctant many businesses are to give out email addresses, while pushing their Facebook, Twitter, and whatnot, accounts/identities down the customer’s throat, and while using his email address as a means to one-sidedly send unwanted messages. Absurdly, it is often impossible to even reply to such emails, because they use unethical “no-reply” addresses as senders, and insist that the user go to a user-hostile web form to reply …

Written by michaeleriksson

February 8, 2020 at 11:33 am

Stay away from Unitymedia

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I have repeatedly, but highly incompletely, written about my problems with Unitymedia (cf. [1], [2], [3]).

The original problems eventually resolved themselves through my efforts, with not one iota of help from Unitymedia. However, as of January 24th, my connection is gone again and nothing seems to help. Contacting Unitymedia has been hard, because, of course, my telephone runs over the same connection and is also not functioning.* An attempt to visit one of Unitymedia’s stores failed due to it being closed in the middle of the day.**

*I do not currently have a cell-phone; however, due to problems like these, the extreme restrictions on e.g. credit-card payments without a cell- or even smart-phone, etc., I am currently looking into the topic again. Effectively, individuals without a cell-, increasingly smart-, phone are put in an evermore unconscionable situation, have it ever harder to function in a smartphone-centric society.

**And I strongly suspect that I would have been turned out again with a “Call the hot-line. We only sell subscriptions and refuse to help in any way, shape, or form.” had it been open.

Over the weekend, I moved a planned visit to Mönchengladbach ahead; and used the WIFI in my hotel room to send an email, including a detailed description of the problem and my counter-measures, and to do research on various related topics.

Despite my email being marked as “urgent”, I have still not, five days later, received a reply of any type (except an automatic confirmation of receipt) and my connection is still unusable. Correspondingly, I have today terminated my contract(s) with Unitymedia, effective immediately.

Excursion on my current situation:
I am currently, based on my research, using a near-by Deutsche Telekom hotspot, which is actually cheaper per month and seems to have a considerably lower latency (and/or otherwise let me surf faster). On the downside, there is an automatic disconnect every six hours, the maximal through-put is lower (but not too low), and I do stand a risk that the hotspot is turned off at some point (has not happened during these few days). Long-term, this might be replaceable with a mobile subscription and tethering, but at the moment I am kept back by the poor conditions in Germany. There are recently some true* flatrates, but these go at 85 (?) Euro per month with a 24-month minimum subscription, which does not leave me enthusiastic. Non-flatrates invariably have an upper limit on the high-speed traffic which is much too low for the money paid, while the providers praise the high speed and hope that the customers are too stupid to calculate how short a time that speed is usable before the limit is hit.**

*As opposed to the pseudo-flatrates often claimed to be flatrates, where the user has a few GB per month to surf at high speed with, after which the speed is dropped to the level of an ISDN connection.

**Useless speed-promises are extremely common. For instance, Unitymedia raves about how it can deliver up to 400 Megabit/s, but only rarely will even several parallel users actually benefit from that rate. In my case, the WIFI on my (possibly outdated) notebook could not handle more than a fraction of that rate and even my old 100 Mbit/s subscription was overkill. (Specifically, the highest numbers I have seen during download have been around 50 Mbit/s, resp. 6.x MB/s.)

Written by michaeleriksson

February 6, 2020 at 10:06 pm

The influence of the actor and the part on the performance

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A few recent movies have brought me back to the question of when and to what degree a great acting performance is to be credited to the actor and when to the part (and/or, possibly, something else yet). Moreover, to what degree the accolades for the performance actually match the performance and to what degree they are influenced (a second time) by factors like the part.

An excellent (non-recent) example is Natalie Portman in “Black Swan”: Would she have won an Academy Award playing another part in another movie in that year, had she been cast in another lead? Could someone else have been found for the part in “Black Swan” and won in Portman’s stead? The answers are “probably not”* and “almost certainly”**, respectively.

*She is a legitimately good actress, and a bit of a personal favorite, but there are others as or more skilled that she would need to overcome. Also note that this currently remains her only Academy Award.

**There might not be many candidates, seeing that the average “waitress/actress” would be well out of her depth, that Judi Dench would have been too old and Jessica Alba too unskilled, etc. There would almost certainly be some, however. (I am too uninformed to judge who might or might not manage the ballet part, and refrain from specific suggestions.)

On other occasions, it might be a combination of actor and part. Consider Marlee Matlin: She won an Academy Award at 21, spectacularly young, and might have seemed destined for a great career. The problem? She won as a deaf woman playing a deaf woman … Her deafness might have been a major asset for this particular part and movie*, but more of a liability for most other parts. Actingwise, she does not appear to be anything special based on the few things that I have seen her in (including a recurring minor part on “My Name is Earl”)—decent, yes; special, no.

*“Children of a Lesser God”. Note that I have not seen this movie and cannot, myself, judge the quality of her performance.

Then again we might have performances that are highly overrated because of the part or the movie. Russel Crowe in “Gladiator” springs to mind: not a bad performance by any means, but it was not even the best performance of the (extremely well-cast) movie. Joaquin Phoenix, as his counter-part, did a better job in the second largest part; and, even off the top of my head, I would mention at least Richard Harris as better too. (Neither was, obviously, eligible to compete for “best actor”, but they did not win “best supporting actor” either.)

The recent performances, whose fate at this year’s Academy Awards will be interesting*:

*Note: The first draft of this text was written before nominations were available. Reading up on past winners (cf. below) I note that Sandler has not been nominated. Phoenix and Zellweger, however, are both in the respective short-list of five. Of the other movies involved, I have only seen “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and have no objections to DiCaprio’s nomination.

  1. Joaquin Phoenix* in “Joker”: A quite good performance, but not perfection. There are dozens of others who might have achieved a similar level, actingwise. Throw in the part and the overall movie, and this changes. This is, I suspect, a very strong victory candidate. (But see excursion.)

    *No, I am not a Phoenix fanatic (although I do consider him one of the best of the current actors). “Gladiator” was brought to my recollection because of Phoenix already being present in this text.

  2. Renee Zellweger in “Judy”: The performance is first rate. The movie is a weakish, but the topic (Judy Garland as a tragic figure) added weight to the performance and the “sentimentality bonus” that might play in with the judges could very well clinch the victory.
  3. Adam Sandler in “Uncut Gems”: A crappy performance by a (still) crappy actor—but one apparently lauded by many. Why? Most likely the part. (With e.g. Joaquin Phoenix or Gary Oldman, or any number of considerably better actors, even comedy rival Ben Stiller*, this might have been a strong victory candidate. Should Sandler win, I will be truly depressed.)

    *Who is strong both as a comedian and as an actor, while Sandler is only good at comedy (and possibly even just a certain type of low-brow comedy).

Excursion on “Joker”:
I remain somewhat skeptical to the movie as a whole, because it feels redundant: A lot of the ground that it covers has already been done better in “King of Comedy”, to the point that it felt partially like a weaker copy. At the same time, the whole “Batman” franchise, the Joker included, has been done to death at the movies (and elsewhere). In the choice of movies for a second viewing, I would definitely prefer “King of Comedy”.

Excursion on brilliant actors:
Of course, a brilliant actor might bring a brilliant performance to a less than brilliant part and a weaker actor might bungle the brilliant part. Daniel Day-Lewis seemed to be an Academy Award candidate almost by default, if in part because of his selectivity. Gary Oldman’s recent Academy Award was a big “finally” moment for me—he has been a threat for decades, with quite a few lesser winners before him. (The win was also personally satisfying to me, because I had called it immediately after watching the movie.)

Excursion on other Academy Award factors:
Sometimes, the Academy Awards seem like a game of pin-the-donkey, leaving me with the suspicion that other factors play in, e.g. personal relationships or a wish to push a movie. (Hardly controversial ideas, admittedly.) This particularly for “best picture”, which lost all credibility with me when a “Lord of the Rings” movie won. However, even the list of “Best Actor/Actress” seems odd at times.

Excursion on other examples:
I trail behind in my watchings of recent movies, especially of the “artsy” type. However, looking from 2010 and onward, the winning roles for male actor seem to support my hypothesis that the part is of great importance. Consider names like King George VI, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Hawking, Winston Churchill, and Freddie Mercury—all important (within their respective field) historical characters, all house-hold names, all with an interesting story and strong “human interest” opportunity. To boot, at least two (Lincoln*, Mercury*) died highly prematurely and at least one another (Hawking) unusually/tragically. The lesser names involved include Hugh Glass and Ron Woodroof—lesser known, but otherwise of a similar character and both non-fictional. (The remaining two, George Valentin and Lee Chandler, are likely fictional. I have only a vague recollection of “The Artist” for Valentin and have not seen “Manchester by the Sea” for Chandler, so I will not make further statements.)

*Or is the true explanation some form of subtle product placement by Ford? A long term plan to build interest for the recent “Ford v Ferrari”?

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February 6, 2020 at 4:06 am

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