Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Archive for March 2020

A few observations around COVID-19

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And again, I find myself writing about COVID-19, despite considering the situation extremely overblown—but, in my defense, I write much more about the reactions and indirect consequences than the disease and the epidemic per se.

Some random items:

  1. Since returning from Sweden more than a month ago ([1], [2]), I have had continual bouts of “cold-like symptoms”, culminating in a fever and a somewhat “heavy” chest over the last few days. Even under normal circumstances, I might have taken as much as a week off from work during this more-than-a-month (had I still worked in an office).

    I have still been able to keep from going into a personal panic—apparently, unlike a great many others with similarly moderate symptoms.

    Of course, I have repeatedly considered the possibility that I might be one of the milder cases of COVID-19, especially in the face of this constant news reporting.

    However, this is where the mind of a rational person steps in to push down the almost automatic reaction.

    Firstly, the risk even of infection is comparatively low. Even now, less than 1-in-1000 Germans are considered infected, and the quotient was even smaller in the past. Even assuming a severe underestimation of the number of infected and even allowing for a slight risk increase due to my early air travel, the probability that I would have COVID-19 would be several hundred to one against (without prior knowledge of symptoms). At the same time, I have similar issues due to other diseases every year—and often at roughly this time of year. The current period of continual issues might* be longer than usual, and the worst few days might* be a little (!) beyond the worst of a typical year—but even so, I must consider the risk of some other disease to be above or considerably above 1-in-100 (again, without prior knowledge of symptoms). Given that I do have cold-like symptoms, it is at least several times more likely that I have something other than COVID-19. With less “pro COVID” assumptions, it could easily be several dozen times more likely. (Assuming more than one issue over this more-than-a-month, which seems reasonable, the odds of one of them being COVID-19 are increased, but not enough to change the overall picture.)

    *Or might not: I have not kept notes and my memory is fallible.

    And, obviously, this is without even looking at symptoms. If I did, I might or might not find that the symptoms are incompatible … (There is no particular reason, short of curiosity, for me to look at the symptoms, given that I already see little reason to worry.)

    Secondly, even if it was COVID-19, about* four in five have only very mild symptoms, and the death rate is on the order of one percent—over all infected. For people my age, 45, with no major prior health issues, death is extremely unlikely. Ditto for considerable (but non-lethal) long-term consequences. Moreover, Germany seems to be doing much better in terms of death rate than e.g. Italy.** In other words, the chances are overwhelming that I would be OK, even were it COVID-19.

    *Numbers vary between sources, countries, and whatnots, so take all numbers as very rough approximations.

    **The reason for this is a matter of dispute and that debate could fill several pages—pollution, ACE inhibitors, quality of treatment, stage of epidemic, local age demographics, … One particular important point, however, is whether the reporting focuses on those who died through COVID-19 or those who died through something else while also having a COVID-19. This could have a massive impact on numbers, seeing that the vast majority of deaths have been among the elderly and/or those with dangerous pre-existing medical conditions.

    Thirdly, what I have matters less than how it manifests. There might be some greater room for concern for future developments, if I did have COVID-19, but not by much (cf. above) and my actual symptoms are/were observably what they are/were—I would not magically grow better or worse based on having or not having COVID-19 given this set of symptoms. Whether I have the common cold, influenza, COVID-19, or something else yet, does not change the symptoms. I have certainly felt quite a lot worse on a few occasions, without even visiting a physician—and, no, I never even came close to dying.

    Obviously, I would be much more concerned, if I had more severe symptoms (and I do not suggest that those who do should shrug their shoulders), but even then, there is a considerable chance that it would not be COVID-19, but e.g. a more severe case of flu.

    Fourthly, as a sanity check: Would I even have reflected much over my health, given these symptoms, had it not been for the COVID-19 panic? No.

  2. Looking at e.g. German statistics (cf. Wikipedia), it appears that the percentage increases per day are tendentially dropping, moving us further and further away from the dreaded exponential curve. However, the absolute numbers are still large and might still be increasing.* There definitely were periods when the percentage dropped on the same day as a new record for the absolute increase was set. Correspondingly, we are still not in the clear. This demonstrates how important it is to have different key numbers and to qualify any evaluation of a number with the model used: Someone using a single number would either see the dropping percentage and be optimistic or the rising absolute increase and be pessimistic. Similarly, someone using an exponential** model would be optimistic and someone using a linear model pessimistic.

    *Due to the short data series, complications with inconsistent reporting, etc., little can be said with certainty. Notably, the last two days listed (2020-03-29, 2020-03-30) show lower absolute numbers too.

    **Exponential models are very common when it comes to disease transmission, but are necessarily naive when we move beyond the initial stages, e.g. because the one infected cannot (in most cases) infect the same family member, friend, or colleague twice, or because there will often be an overlap between those potentially threatened by person A with those threatened by person B, when A was originally infected by B (or vice versa). For high numbers of infections, even locally, the model fails among strangers too.

    Then again, when we look at COVID-19 in comparison with other diseases and causes of death, we see that this non-exponential growth could still render it a near triviality, especially when considering how many of the dead belong to the category would-still-have-died-within-a-year. The last (2020-03-30) data for Germany above has 57,298 cases and 455 deaths. The corresponding (yearly) numbers* for influenza regularly go into the millions and the thousands, respectively—in Germany alone. It is not a given that COVID-19 will reach even that level—and it is outright unlikely that the numbers will be an order higher. German Wikipedia on cause of death mentions e.g. 910,902 deaths overall for 2016, by which standard COVID-19 is still just a drop in the ocean. Cancer alone took more than 220 thousand lives (2012), traffic accidents around 4 thousand (2015) and suicide more than 11 thousand (2015), etc.—and this happens year after year after year. What if we met COVID-19 with just influenza-level counter-measures and invested the money saved into cancer research? In terms of saving human lives, this might well be the better decision …

    *Influenza numbers have very similar problems when it comes to registering and estimating cases, and should be taken with a similar grain of salt. A brief search for a good source was not successful for this reason.

  3. The current situation is extremely interesting (“may you live in interesting times”) and could give major opportunities to draw important lessons for e.g. medicine and politics, to perform valuable experiments for the future, etc. Consider e.g. pollution: A recent news item from somewhere* was that pollution was significantly dropping in the wake of the isolation efforts. This, taken by it self, borders on a “duh” observation—what had they expected? However, there is now a chance to actually measure the effect, to compare and contrast with the state before, during, and (later) after the isolation. This could be very valuable to judge the effectiveness of various environmental measures, to improve models, etc. Moreover, it is an almost unique opportunity, because if someone had said “we want to perform an environmental experiment, so no-one is allowed outside for the next month” it would not have gone over well.

    *I did not keep a reference, but the claim is not likely to cause controversy.

    As a particular sub-issue, the situation proves how vulnerable the world currently is. COVID-19 is not the disastrous threat that it is painted as, but such a threat could appear. True threats have been historically rare, but every-now-and-then one has appeared, be it the Spanish flu, the Bubonic plague, cholera, smallpox, or (in a different way) AIDS. Barring sufficient medical progress, it is just a matter of time before some such threat does appear. It might be tomorrow, it might be in fifty years time, but sooner or later … The (over-)reactions against COVID-19 can be very valuable in increasing preparedness for true threats, get some idea of what works and does not work, what has what side-effect on the economy, etc.

  4. Overlapping, it is interesting how the world might change due to the current counter-measures. For instance, what if the temporary surge in home-office work pans out sufficiently well that a long-term switch follows, with a corresponding impact on how we work, how commuting affects the environment, how many bother with owning cars, … Or what if businesses find that home-office workers are less productive and the slow (already present) trend towards more home-office work is reversed? What if a mixture of restaurant bankruptcies and new-formed habits permanently changes habits around dating and socializing? What if people get into the permanent habit of keeping a two meter distance? What if handshakes disappear? Etc.

    (Note that much of this could be positive.)

  5. A particular dire topic is that of politicians, the proverbial “man on the street”, and democracy.* What we see here is a sign that the current system does not work, that the influenza, sorry, influence of the dumb masses is dangerously large, that the quality of current politicians is abysmal, etc.

    *I have repeatedly been critical of democracy in its current form, most notably in Democracy lost. At best, it is the lesser evil, but, at times like this, I begin to doubt even that, at least where the currently popular forms are concerned.

    Indeed, quite often politicians do more harm than good, be it out of incompetence or to court voters (or even lobbyists). Consider e.g. the misguided aversion to nuclear power in favour of even fossil fuels, the massive and pointless over-education through inefficient means,* over-large bureaucracies, wasteful and contra-productive pension, social-security, and health-insurance schemes,** etc.

    *I am a great fan of education, but schooling is rarely a good way to get it, and a very sizable proportion of the typical Western population is educated (or, worse, just schooled) well beyond what makes sense in the individual case, both with regard to the interest and wishes of the individual in question and the benefit to society as a whole.

    **The U.S. reader should note that e.g. the German and Swedish are much more far-going than the U.S. (But even e.g. ObamaCare is a good example of how not to do it.)

  6. As an overlapping issue, the credibility of politicians, media, etc., must be questioned even more strongly than before. There has been a lot of poor information over the years, ranging from mere misinformation of the people to outright panic making. More generally, panic making seems to be a great weakness of human nature, and it is currently given free reins by the Internet. Consider, recently, Greta-Thunberg-style climate populism,* the “me too” movement (cf. [3], [4], [5], [6], [7] ), the current German “Rechtsruck” panic (cf. e.g. [8]), or, further back, the alleged college rape-epidemic, the alleged satanist child-abusers, …

    *As opposed to a rational and scientific approach to an import issue.

    People really need to pause, think things through, check plausibilities, understand causalities, consider alternative explanations and actions, be aware of potential side-effects, … This the more for those in a position to make decisions or influence others, notably politicians and journalists. Just like we have evidence-based medicine, we need evidence-based politics.

  7. Two interesting individual news items from Sweden respectively Germany (from among the many, many that can be found in this torrent of insanity):

    In Sweden, the Social-Democrat Minister of Finance (Magdalena Andersson) now suggests that the state should buy up portions of companies in the wake of COVID-19, in lieu of just giving financial support. (Cf. [9] in Swedish.) There is a considerable risk that this is more of an excuse to implement the historical Social-Democrat agenda than a “neutral” suggestion. It would also set a dangerous precedent: the government causes a crisis, steps in to “help”, and takes over partial ownership in return for the “favor”. This is dangerously close to the old Löntagarfonder, which allowed the unions to buy up businesses using their (the businesses’!) own profits.

    Moreover, if this happens on a large scale, it could be damaging even absent a hidden agenda, and even absent a genuine wish to make this temporary*. It will invariably increase the distortion of the markets that already takes place through any governmental intervention, as the difference in situation between those who receive “help” and those who do not is increased, and as there would now be three classes of businesses (instead of two): those unaided, those aided without** ownership changes, and those aided with ownership changes.

    *Even notwithstanding that “temporary” tends to be very long-term in politics, as with “temporary taxes”, e.g. the German “Solidaritätszuschlag”, which should have been a one-year measure for 1991, and is still present at the time of writing, in 2020.

    **According to the source, this measure is aimed mostly at larger companies, being too impractical for smaller.

    In Germany (and internationally*), COVID-19 is hitting advertising revenue. (Cf. [10] in German.) This should be a good thing—the advertising pest is growing worse year for year, and if the current epidemic could put a temporary stop to this by making a few advertising agencies** go bankrupt, a few businesses find that they might get along with less advertising, a few websites move away from ad-based financing to an honest payment-model, whatnot, that would be a very good thing—advertising is a problem much more in need of counter-measures than COVID-19.

    *Indeed, re-skimming after writing from memory, I find that a fair amount of the article deals with the U.S. situation

    **A statement which should be seen in light of the unethical methods used and the underlying shadiness of the business idea—to make people buy things, regardless of the value of the product and its benefit to the buyers. A legitimate advertising industry is by no means inconceivable, but the current certainly is not. I have no sympathies whatsoever for these businesses or the people who voluntarily choose to work for them.

    Unfortunately, the effects will likely be limited, as even advertisers are likely to be bailed out, if worst comes to worst. Right now, we have advertisers pleading to please-keep-advertising-regardless-of-your-own-situation.

    An interesting sub-aspect is the attribution* of this drop in advertising revenue largely to fear of association: Advertisers supposedly fear appearing on pages dealing with COVID-19, because the intended buyers might associate them with COVID-19. This attitude is very unfortunate, because the result might be that e.g. certain news topics are given unduly little reporting or are avoided altogether, thereby distorting the news flow even further. Moreover, there is great room for more specific discrimination against organizations and individuals outside the right opinion corridors. Indeed, the article explicitly mentions that “extremist” content had already been hit in the past. It might make great sense to actively forbid this type of filtering, that e.g. advertising networks must accept everyone as a customer, that all pages must be given equal treatment,** that there must be no*** blacklists for words-that-I-do-not-want-associated-with-my-products, etc.

    *I am skeptical, in light of large production cuts, stores being kept closed, etc., but I lack the knowledge to judge the matter in detail.

    **In that there is no discrimination based on e.g. content and affiliation; however, the use of more neutral and objective criteria, e.g. number of views per day, should still be allowed.

    ***With some reservations for more direct conflicts of interests, e.g. that Coca-Cola should not have an advertising network serving Pepsi ads to its own website. Exactly where to draw borders is a potentially complicated topic, but exceptions should be few and do not include a mere we-do-not-want-be-unconsciously-associated-with-X or we-do-not-like-the-politics-of-Y.

  8. There is a world-wide epidemic of impositions upon the citizens. This is a good reason to point to a central issue with the Rechtsstaat:

    The Rechtsstaat must not be restricted to times of “smooth running”. If it is, it is no true Rechtsstaat, but just an alibi for something far less noble.

    What we see here is a repetition of an ignorant and citizen-despising attitude by governments. Indeed, this attitude is constantly manifested even during periods of smooth running, in that it is often assumed that the government can do no wrong—and will continue to do no wrong for the duration. There is no understanding of the many everyday problems of even a non-dictatorship, e.g. through egoistic or stupid politicians, incompetent civil servants, governmental agencies that prioritize their own goals above every other consideration (the Rechtsstaat and current legislation included), … There is equally no understanding of the risk that the status quo changes, that the “good” government of today might be replaced by an “evil” government tomorrow—or the day after that, or at some more distant time.

    This principle must hold, not to satisfy the paranoid who see every current government as source of pure evil, the Patriarchy, the International Jewish Conspiracy, or whatnot, but as an insurance for the future—just like someone might be insured against burglaries not for the expectation that there will be a break-in today, but in acknowledgment that one quite realistically could take place at some point in the future.

    Other concerns: If governments takes stances like they do today over something as trivial as COVID-19, what will happen when a really dire threat appears? Where is the bar for future excuse* making set? Will all restrictions and incursions be repealed in a timely manner or will some remain indefinitely? Might there be permanent damage caused by some of them?**

    *Which is not automatically to say that governments use COVID-19 as an excuse—they might or might not. However, if and when someone does look for an excuse, the bar will be conveniently low. Moreover, by putting certain measures in place now, some degree of normalization of the rightfully abnormal can take place in the minds of the citizens. (Consider e.g. current attitudes towards absurd tax pressures.)

    **Possibly, relating to privacy and data security through some cell-phone tracking measure or publication of some data that should better have gone unpublished, e.g. concerning who has received hospital treatment due to COVID-19.

    As an aside, this restriction mentality is a further example of exceptions that ruin the whole. Other examples include freedom of speech (if freedom of speech only applies to those with the “right” opinions, it is not freedom of speech) and due process (if due process does not apply to all crimes, what is the point?).

Remark on terminology:
“COVID-19” strictly speaking refers to the disease. For some of the above, and possibly some points of the previous texts, it might be better to speak of the virus causing the disease (apparently, “SARS-CoV-2”), e.g. that someone is infected by a virus and then does or does not develop the disease. With a slightly bad conscience, I still go with “COVID-19” throughout. This partly for own convenience; partly, because I would likely miss some occurrence and might then cause more confusion than the more precise terminology gained elsewhere; partly, because I am still ahead of the game: most others are so sloppy with terminology that they speak of “corona” (or some variation thereof), which leads to highly misleading claims.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 31, 2020 at 12:18 am

Toilet paper, pricing, and market forces

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The toilet-paper situation continues: I again failed to find any and have, five minutes before starting this text, started on my last roll.

This raises the question: where are the market forces? This is a good example of where market forces on a free market could really be useful, e.g. in that the price of toilet paper is quadrupled, reducing* the trend towards hoarding, increasing the chance that a supply will be present, and giving those in a greater need** the ability to solve their issue through a greater expenditure. At the same time, it would give the stores and/or other parties greater profits and give them incentives to increase supply. (The same applies to similarly coveted products.) It would also make unnecessary the blunt, potentially unfair, and potentially ineffective attempt to regulate sales by a limit of one or two packages per household, tried in Germany.***

*With some reservations for human psychology. I would not be shocked if a sudden price hike was taken as proof, by the dumb masses, that there was a dire underlying toilet-paper scarcity, with even greater hoarding as a consequence …

**More strictly, those with a greater need relative their willingness to pay. This could be due to a greater scarcity, e.g. being on the last roll; it could be about a greater benefit, e.g. having a large family; it could be about having more money; … The positive effects, from my point of view, are obviously more on the needs-can-be-met than the is-price-insensitive side of the equation.

***Consider e.g. that I, living alone, am allowed (should there be a supply!) to buy the same one or two as the head of a six person household; or that preventing someone from showing up repeatedly, or having several members from the same household use different shopping carts, would be hard to prevent without costly counter-measures.

A partial explanation is demonstrated by the attitude of a press release by a consumer-protection agency: Apparently, toilet paper is sold for exorbitant prices on e.g. eBay, which has attracted the wrath of the agency. On the positive side, it does advice consumers to not purchase at these prices, and to trust in a coming improvement of the supply situation in brick-and-mortar stores. On the negative side, it also charges the consumers to complain to the respective platform and condemns the practice with words like “überteuert[en]” and “unseriös[e]”.*

*Both words are tricky to translate, but, respectively “overpriced” (with strong negative connotations) and “shady”/“dubious” come close.

However, having a product that is in demand, and selling it for whatever price one can get, is not inherently* wrong. On the contrary, it will often help society and the overall economy through better resource allocation and stimulation of production—not to mention that it gives those with a greater need a way out that does not involve spending four hours in a Soviet queue with no guarantee of success.

*However, there are a number of ways that they can become e.g. dubious, unethical, or even outright illegal, e.g. through emptying the shelves in a store by buying up the supply at regular prices and then selling at heightened prices, by making misleading claims, or by failing to pay VAT on the price difference. (Also note a later footnote concerning the first item.) Such problems were not mentioned in the linked-to text …

Nevertheless, such attitudes are quite common, especially in Left-leaning countries, where e.g. a price increase in the stores might be condemned as price gouging, usury, or similar, and where e.g. a change in the underlying price after a VAT change is condemned as unethical abuse, without considering the impact of market forces.* Indeed, the Swedish Left often has a cliche response to any suggestion that e.g. some medical procedure should be even partially financed by the individual instead of the tax bill: this-or-that must not be just for the “rich”. (Usually, not only cheap sloganeering but also a fundamental misunderstanding of the suggestion.)

*E.g. in that the presence of VAT drives the (resulting) price up, which drives demand down, which drives the underlying price down—and that a reduction in VAT will drive demand up and naturally allow the underlying price to recover a portion of what it has lost.

Similarly, the last time I went shopping, there was no milk. Today (different store), the regular milk brands had been replaced by others and prices were higher than I am used to*, but there was milk. Was I annoyed at the price hike and having to pick a different brand? Yes. Was I as annoyed as the last time around, when I found no milk at all? No. Would I have been much more annoyed, had I not found any milk, for the second time in a row, after already not finding any toilet paper, for the third time in a row? YES!

*Moving from 0.6x Euro/liter to either 0.99 or 1.15 Euro per liter, depending on brand. I note that I tend to buy low-price brands and that more expensive brands can land on the same order even on a regular day.

Moreover, I understand that this is not (or not just) the store trying to earn more money, that the real problem is the hoarders, and that the store too might have faced unusual costs, e.g. in that the normal channels were temporarily exhausted and other, more expensive, channels had to be used. I am better off paying more than going without.

If the people are unable to see clearly on such issues, then this is where the pedagogical effort would be better spent.

Market forces might not be perfect, but they are valuable and trying to overcome them usually leads to more harm than good, as evidenced by the problems faced by consumers in the old Communist Eastern Europe or during war-time rationing. (Notwithstanding that some rationing might be necessary in extreme circumstances.) For instance, if a farmer is told that he will get X Euro for a sack of potatoes, he will provide potatoes according to the limits imposed by X in addition to existing limits on time, grounds, whatnot. If X is too low or sinks, he is likely to cut back on production, because it does not pay for him to use all his fields. They might now lay bare, of no use to anyone, or be used for some more profitable, but paradoxically less wanted, product—or he might still grow potatoes, but move them into production of vodka. If prices are held extremely low, he might even be better off using his potatoes as animal fodder or even letting them rot in the ground—while people are screaming for potatoes. Of course, if production is cut back, he might have to lay off helpers, who will then be a further burden on society … Vice versa, if prices are too low, he might have to cut back production because he cannot afford the helpers.

In contrast, if X rises or the limit is abolished, the price might warrant additional measures to increase output, e.g. that his private lawn, or that piece of land with poor soil, is now used to grow potatoes. In the long term, he might even be willing to go through the hard work of cutting down a bit of forest, de-rooting and de-rocking it, and planting potatoes there. He might forego existing vodka production in favor of selling unprocessed potatoes for eating. Etc.

(Similar arguments apply to some degree to other steps in the supply chain, e.g. relating to what distances potatoes might be shipped or whether attempts are made to salvage potatoes after an accident during transportation.)

What use is there for a consumer in being guaranteed a low price for potatoes, when there are no potatoes on the shelves? (And what use is toilet paper at the “old” price to me, when there is no toilet paper on the shelves?)

Re-selling tickets to sports and music events is usually forbidden. But why? For someone to want to engage in professional* re-selling, he must perceive a profit opportunity. This opportunity can only exist if the pricing strategy of the original seller is sub-optimal. (If it does not exist, the re-seller will lose money on and, likely, interest in the venture.**) If the original tickets costs 20 Euro and the re-seller gets away with 25, then the original price is too low.*** If the original tickets are fixed at 20 Euro and the re-seller manages to sell one third at 30, one third at 20, and one third at 15, and still break a profit over his own efforts, then the original pricing scheme is too inflexible. Etc. In these cases, the original seller is throwing away money that the re-seller is willing to pick up. As to the consumers, some will be better off, some will be worse off.

*As opposed to private ad-hoc sales, e.g. because “I bought a ticket, but now I must go to an unexpected funeral.”.

**With some reservations for return policies. When it comes to ticket-sales, we are likely on the safe side, because refunds are unlikely to be possible after the event has started, while claiming a refund too early will reduce the re-sellers shot at profitable last-minute sales. For toilet paper, especially in combination with temporary fluctuations in demand and/or great consumer irrationality, this might be different. If someone loads up on toilet paper in a store for the purpose of re-selling, he will typically be able to return any surplus for a full refund of the original price at a later date—in an extreme case being the cause of an artificial shortage that allows outrageous prices. (In contrast, if someone buys toilet paper without a return right, having to take the loss on surplus himself, the situation is different. Ditto if quantities bought are too small or over such channels that it does not create an artificial impression of a supply deficit.)

***Note that there are other factors than just profit making that enters here. For instance, more revenue from a rock concert might lead to more rock concerts (in turn leading to not only more entertainment but also e.g. more jobs); for instance, more revenue from an opera performance might reduce the subventions needed to keep the opera house in business and ease the corresponding tax burden.

Or consider the cartoon cliche of the lemonade salesman in the middle of a dessert: Why should he not be allowed to charge the crawling, disheveled, and thirsty customer ten times what what the same product would cost in the nearest city? He could have chosen to sell in that city to regular prices. He could have chosen to go into some entirely different line of business. Instead he took additional costs and risks on his head in order to provide a product where it might be needed. The customer in turn, could have prepared better, brought more water, returned home sooner, brought spare parts for his jeep, whatnot. Selling very expensive lemonade at high prices in the dessert is a legitimate* business model—end of discussion. The lemonade salesman has brought himself into a position of leverage through providing a service that would otherwise not be there, and the customer can take it or leave it. (He cannot “leave it”, because he is dying of thirst? Well, without the lemonade salesman, he would have died of thirst anyway. His way out might be expensive—but he has a way out.) In contrast, those who create an artificial monopoly are on much shakier ground, e.g. in the context of a sports venue where certain merchants have a monopoly on certain products and the visitors are forbidden to bring similar** goods from home—that is a negative.

*If not necessarily one that would work in real life—this is just an illustration of principle. In real life, there might e.g. not be sufficiently many, sufficiently ill-prepared customers, and the chance of actually meeting anyone outside of commonly traveled routes is likely small .

**Note that some bans might be valid in some contexts, e.g. a “do not bring hot meals” in order to protect the seats—but if hot meals are sold within the venue for consumption in those very seats, it is obvious that this ban is not justifiable in this particular context.

From another perspective, one* of the most common differences between a Leftist and e.g. a Conservative, Libertarian, or Neo-liberal perspective is how they would treat a grasshopper-and-ants situation. Let us say that someone has prepared for the eventuality of a negative future event, has gone to great pains and costs to prepare for it, e.g. by stocking up on canned foods and suitable tools—while the rest of his village has not. Indeed, they might even have ridiculed him for being a weirdo. Disaster does strike—and now the villagers are banging at his door for food and help. The general Leftist attitude tends to be that he should be obliged to give this food and help for free (e.g. by the cliche of “showing solidarity”). Others believe that it is up to him whether and under what conditions**, e.g. in exchange for money or services, he doles out his food, possibly risking his own long-term survival in the process. As a special case, let us return to the desert: Two travelers are forced to travel the desert on foot. One has the wherewithal to bring water; the other does not. Half-way there, the first is in decent shape but has used half his supply, while the second is about to have a heatstroke—should the second have the right to demand water at will, or should it be the decision of the first what he provides? (Real-life examples are, obviously, often more subtle, e.g. in that taxation schemes rarely (if ever) consider why someone earns more than someone else or social-security schemes why someone is on the dole. Sometimes it is a matter of luck; more often, nowadays, it is a matter of one or more of industriousness vs. laziness, planning vs. not planning, delaying or not delaying gratification, being professional or unprofessional, saving in the bank or spending on entertainment, …—and, obviously, actual own ability.)

*Another, with some overlap, is that the former tend to focus on equality of outcome, while the latter tend to prefer equality of opportunity.

**Note that e.g. I would not say that he should sell his food as expensively as he can, with no regard for the well-being of others. I am saying that it is his choice. That choice might be profit maximization, it might be enough profit to just make the effort and future risks worth his while, it might be selling “at cost”, it might be giving things away—as he sees fit, not I, the villagers, Karl Marx, or Bernie Sanders.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 26, 2020 at 7:14 pm

Overreactions and Fukushima

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Yesterday, I read a very interesting take on the Fukushima accident. Apart from repeating some of my own observations, e.g. that the death-toll from nuclear accidents is dwarfed by that of e.g. fossil fuels, it brings up claims of politically motivated overreaction and distortion around Fukushima, including a very expensive and mostly useless clean-up and an original evacuation that did more harm than good.

This is an interesting parallel to my recent texts on COVID-19 (e.g. [1]), where (at least until now*) most of the damage in e.g. Germany has been caused by overreactions, counter-measures, fear, whatnot. It is also a further strong sign of the danger of trusting populist politicians and sensationalist journalists.

*The hitch, obviously, is that we do not know how great the eventual scope of the disease will be, and cannot know what the scope would have been with a more moderate set of counter-measures.

Moreover, if* the claims of the above article hold, then much of the (already extremely short-sighted, ignorant, and/or intellectually dishonest**) abolish-nuclear-power propaganda falls flat on its feet. For instance, a recurring news item over the years since the Fukushima accident has been some version of “The clean-up goes on and on and costs more and more money–yikes!”. But what if (even just most of) the clean-up has been unnecessary? What if someone agitates with “Do we want to risk evacuating tens of thousands of people?” when the evacuation was not really necessary? Etc.

*I have mostly not attempted to verify those claims that were new to me. An exception is the evacuation death-toll, which is broadly corroborated by an article from 2013. (Larger numbers in the above 2019 article would be unremarkable due to ongoing side-effects.)

**Including failing to account for the extreme causes behind the Fukushima accident, failing to compare (or grossly misstating) deaths by nuclear power with e.g. fossil fuels, ditto the Fukushima disaster vs. the natural disaster that caused it, and (at least before the recent climate panic) not having an eye on the immense damage caused by fossil fuels.

Similarly, it might well be that COVID-19 is the most costly and damaging epidemic in a long time—but why is this the case? It is not the disease, it self, but the reactions to the disease. If COVID-19 was magically exterminated from today till tomorrow, if every single currently infected person was brought back to pre-COVID-19 health, even if every single death was somehow reversed, it would still remain the most costly and damaging epidemic in a long time. The damage caused by the reactions and counter-measures is that large.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 24, 2020 at 6:21 pm

Escalation of virtue signaling

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The recent COVID-19 reactions by politicians are likely partially a problem that I have suspected repeatedly in the past, e.g. in the context of political correctness, the environment, and, more historically, e.g. religion and Communist dictatorships:

Many are very keen to prove themselves among the righteous/enlightened/orthodox/whatnot (preferably, the most righteous, but the main thing is to avoid condemnation)—and in order to do so, they make sure to go one step further than others: If X says that we should voluntarily abstain from visiting restaurants, then Y says that opening hours must be forcefully restricted to prove himself “better” than X, Z that restaurants must be closed altogether to prove himself “better” than Y, etc.

Obviously, if Z does have the audacity to suggest mere voluntary abstinence when the bar has already been raised, his opponents can condemn him for being too cavalier, ignorant, naive, whatnot. In more dire situations, e.g. Soviet Russia, the epithets could be harsher and the consequences worse.

Broadly, this could be seen as a continual escalation of virtue signaling.

An interesting question is to what degree such behavior would be by conscious decision, as above, and to what degree have unconscious causes, e.g. some type of fallacy or a pathological drive to be the “best” in some area.

(The above was intended as an excursion to [1], but slipped my mind.)

Written by michaeleriksson

March 22, 2020 at 1:22 pm

Follow-up II: COVID-19 reactions doing more harm than good?

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I really had not intended to write more than the one text on COVID-19; certainly, not to go beyond the second text.

However, the continued reporting forces me to make at least two additions:

Firstly, there are already signs of coming lasting negative side-effects of the counter-measures being reported, affecting lives not just temporarily (as e.g. the failure to complete a sports season might, or a temporary stop of schooling): Businesses are going bankrupt, people are being let go, and the consequences for individuals could be dire. Recent reports include claims that the Swedish* taxi business is in trouble, with many minor operators threatened by bankruptcy. German* handymen are suffering a severe drop in business, and some might go bankrupt. The already troubled German* and somewhat international restaurant chain Vapiano has been brought to insolvency by the drop of customers, and some two (?) hundred restaurants might close permanently. It can safely be assumed that such problems will grow more common if e.g. do-not-travel and do-not-leave-your-apartment advisories are extended.

*I mention the nationality for the sake of precision—this is what was reported. The likelihood is very high that a similar situation is arising in other countries.

Such issues, obviously, in addition to the less permanent problems already reported, like businesses temporarily shutting down or reducing their activities, temporarily suspending employees, etc. (Which can all be bad enough in their own right.)

Not only is the damage to the overall economy considerable; not only will many individuals, including e.g. single low-income parents, be hard hit; but we will see lives outright ruined, including livelihoods lost, personal bankruptcies, and deaths by suicide and heart attacks. It is true that the death toll through the counter-measures might not be that impressive, but it will be there, and no-one seems to take it into account. Generally, cf. earlier texts, there seems to be no understanding of concepts like opportunity cost.*

*Apart from what has already been mentioned, consider e.g. the potential negative health effects of remaining in an apartment without ever going for a longer walk or engaging in other exercise, never having sun exposure, whatnot. This too will include even premature deaths, if not as short-term as COVID-19 might.

Secondly, the approach of many politicians is disturbingly totalitarian, presumptuous, and “parental”, illustrating a recurring problem with current politics (even COVID-19 aside): The people are children, we are the adults. Too many are too stupid to “get the message” that we noble politicians send. As long as people stay at home, there will be no curfew; if they do not, there will be—with harsh punishments for violators.* Etc.

*Cf. e.g. parts of a German text on NRW, the German Bundesland where I live.

Not only is this attitude disturbing in it self, but the speed with which a comparatively minor problem can lead to immense reductions in civic rights and whatnots, how citizens can be straitjacketed, well, that is horrifying. This is neither the Black Death nor an invasion by a foreign power.

In both cases, we have to additionally remember that COVID-19 is not a unique, once-every-hundred-years problem. Within the last twenty years, we have had countless-will-die claims about SARS, “swine flue”, and “bird flu”, and possibly some others that I do not even recall. This not to mention more localized outbreaks of more dangerous diseases, e.g. Ebola. If the current reactions are taken as a template for future threats, the long-term effects on public life will be radical.

Disclaimer: I stress again that I am not against counter-measures. The point is rather that many counter-measures are out-of-proportion; that most of the positive effect could be reached less intrusively; and that the reactions are odd in comparison to other, more damaging, sources of death.

Excursion on risks through international travel:
An interesting aspect, and a potentially large problem, is how infectious diseases can jump from country to country so much faster and easier today than e.g. a hundred years ago. This is a point where long-term counter-measures might make great sense. Exactly which are beyond the scope of this text, but (international) possibilities might include a switch to teleconferencing over personal meetings in business and a severe reduction of “mass tourism” (especially, the pointless sun-on-the-beach and visit-foreign-bars types; while keeping more cultural view-buildings-visit-museums tourism open). Such measures might also have positive effects on e.g. the environment (but could prove problematic for local businesses).

Excursions on hoarding and negative effects on myself:
As of now, I have seen little of negative effects, in part because I tend to spend much more time in my apartment than outside it even during a normal month (but, knock-on-wood, chances are that the counter-measures, e.g. closing of this-and-that, will affect me more strongly in the near future). However, I have now twice found that the store I visited was out of toilet paper, once as early as around 8 AM. If I fail again on Monday, this could end badly. This brings me to the topic of hoarding—widely decried as irrational and pointless in the current situation. From an overall societal point of view, this might well be true, and I would certainly prefer it, if people had not hoarded toilet paper … However, the irrationality depends on the reason. For instance, it is currently likely irrational to hoard because “businesses are crashing and X will be not be available for the next few months”. In contrast, it is not necessarily irrational, if game-theoretically and societally unfortunate, to hoard because “all those irrational hoarders could leave me without X for weeks, so I better stock up while I have the chance”. Then we have scenarios like “if I do get sick, I might not have the ability to go to the store, so I had better build up my buffers of X, just in case”. An interesting border-line case is formed by “I intend to do whatever the politicians say, so I stock up on everything non-perishable now so that I can minimize my future store visits.

I am puzzled, I admit, why specifically toilet paper would be among the priority items for the current hoarders—it does not strike me as an item with an unusually large supply problem and we do not have a “I need to survive for six months without interruption in my atomic bunker” scenario.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 22, 2020 at 12:51 pm

Follow-up: COVID-19 reactions doing more harm than good?

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Since my recent text on COVID-19 reactions, the stream with we-are-shutting-this-and-that-down, stock-exchanges-are-crashing, etc., has continued, now (if not earlier!) reaching ridiculous proportions. France, apparently, is trying to legally force people to remain in their homes absent non-postponable errands—a truly extreme measure. Denmark is blocking Swedes from entry. Etc. While the threat must be taken seriously, the vast majority of the damage until now has been caused by the reactions to the epidemic and by the fear of the epidemic—not the epidemic, it self. While the number of infected can grow much larger than today, I note that we are not dealing with the Spanish Flu or the Bubonic Plague, which posed a truly great risk of death to the infected. Moreover, again, that limiting the infected proportion of the population might well be doable with less extreme means.

We are rapidly approaching a point where even a worst-case scenario of the actual epidemic might cause less damage than fear and counter-measures.

To boot, recommended actions can have unexpected negative effects, be pointless, or see contradictory advice from other sources. For instance, today, I read on SVT’s video-text* that the Swedish police is urging schools to remain open for as long as possible, because the effect** on the police’s work would be too large otherwise. For instance, yesterday, someone noted that closing schools would be ineffective if the same students just met privately outside of school instead, and that students must also be kept at home.***

*The pages are short and not archived, and I have been unable to find a more detailed and linkable source on short notice. (This in part, because Swedish online news-papers are moving more and more towards pay-walling; in part, likely, because the video-text tends to react faster with news.)

**What effect is not specified, but I speculate that they fear having the cities overrun with restless children and teenagers. This especially, as the same page quotes or paraphrases the education minister (Anna Ekström): “Om skolor stängs måste barnomsorgen för dem med samhällskritiska jobb säkras” (“If schools are closed, the childcare for those with critical-for-society jobs must be secured.”) Both, incidentally, supports the school-skeptics claim that the role of school is too much “child storage” and too little education.

***I only partially agree: The claim would hold, if we truly had the same students meeting (and in similar or worse interactions as in school), but this is unlikely to be the case. Groups are likely to be smaller, interactions more restricted to certain “cliques”, and many will prefer to remain at home and/or physically alone anyway. (I certainly would have, at that age, and that was long before social media and smart phones moved social interactions away from personal meetings.) Nevertheless, this type of critical thinking is vital when dealing with far-going measures—and it seems to be missing among journalists and politicians.

Excursion on resistance:
An unfortunate side-effect of trying to avoid infections is that the overall human resistance to infections drops or fails to increase over time, making us less prepared for subsequent epidemics. This both regarding the training of the immune system of the individual (for sufficiently similar infections) and regarding evolutionary pressure. From this point of view, the current attempts to reduce exposure might well backfire in the long-term (assuming that future epidemics are handled similarly).

Excursion on “epidemic” vs. “pandemic”:
My choice of “epidemic” over “pandemic” in my first text was unconscious. However, I consciously stick with “epidemic” in the current text, because it is the more general word and much of what is said would apply equally without a global spread (e.g. assuming the same risks and reactions within an individual country).

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March 17, 2020 at 3:06 pm

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COVID-19 reactions doing more harm than good?

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Occasionally, I encounter threats (or even “threats”*) where the counter-measures, on the balance, do more harm than good. A prime example is nuclear power, where the extreme “anti” stances have left us with a very considerable increase of damage both to the environment and to human lives, because the energy not coming from nuclear power has to a large part come from fossil fuels.

*Depending on how lose criteria are used, the list could be made very long, including a great many of the things politicians do. However, also see an excursion at the end.

The current COVID-19 epidemic might well be another example. Obviously, no discussion, the death of a few* percent of the world’s population would be a great disaster, worthy of very far-going counter-measures. However, the current death-toll is in the thousands (!) and the clear majority is still in China, with e.g. Germany having 11 and Sweden 2 deaths.** Despite this, we have schools being closed, air flights and sports seasons being canceled, some shortages appearing, the stock exchanges crashing, news reporting on other topics being neglected, … Then there is the impediment to economic growth.

*There appears to be a great uncertainty around the actual death rate, but the numbers that I have seen so far have typically been 2.x or 3.x percent of the infected.

**Data from Wikipedia on the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic in version 945690424.

Are the counter-measures and reactions truly in proportion to the threat—or would lesser or alternate counter-measures, doing less damage, be better? Moreover, if we react this way to one epidemic, what will happen when the next one comes around? (Especially, if we are taught to react with panic.) From another perspective: what about all the other dangers that costs so many more lives per year at the moment—and does so year in and year out?* A chain-smoker, e.g., would be a fool to fear the current epidemic while continuing his smoking habits. Averaging** over a life-time, the risk of death is already above one percent per year, which is the same order as COVID-19 among those infected (and currently much lower when we look at the overall populations).

*Here a very wide range of issues can come into play, natural, societal, and individual. Consider, e.g. and respectively, deaths through extreme floods and droughts, deaths through air pollution and traffic accidents, and deaths through smoking and poor diet.

**The risk is obviously very different at e.g. 20 and 80, but this applies equally to those infected, in that the chance of surviving at 20 is much higher than at 80. Exactly how the distributions compare is beyond my knowledge; however, having the first approximation be the same in both cases does not seem unreasonable. Of course, the reduced risk of death at younger ages is also something to consider when looking at e.g. the risk of visiting a sports event below.

Consider, for a more specific illustration, sports: The current attitude seems to be that all events and seasons must be canceled immediately (or, on the outside, be postponed)—and anyone who is not in favor of this is a cold-hearted villain, prioritizing money over human lives. However, there are other alternatives, including a more controlled reduction that still allows a fair choice of e.g. league champions, reductions of the number of visitors* to reduce the risks, moving the events from a “live audience” to a pay-per-view one, and likely quite a few others. Especially, if we do not take any specific counter-measures, then any risk will typically be on the individuals own head, in that no-one actually forces him to e.g. go to a soccer game—he can go or not go as he sees fit.** A significantly increased risk for players need not be present either: have them travel by private bus or plane and reduce the contact with fans (e.g. by keeping physical buffer zones between the two groups). This assuming, of course, that there is a risk of infection to begin with, which might or might not be the case in any given country at any given time.

*Cf. excursion. Note that this could go hand-in-hand with a price hike, partially neutralizing the loss of revenue, because a smaller supply allows for higher prices for the wealthier or more hard-core fans.

**In a twist, this might well be why the cold-hearted villains are in favor of termination—with the season terminated, there is no risk of losing money on events with too few paying customers.

Excursion on non-lethal outcomes:
Obviously, even a non-lethal infection is not be to be trifled with, as this is a severe disease for the patient and an extra burden on hospitals. However, the same line of argumentation holds even if we look at COVID-19 infections in general, especially as many are low on symptoms. For instance, consider the negative health consequences on the patient and the burden on the health-care system from chain smoking.

Excursion on size of gathering:
The size of a gathering plays in two-fold: The more people are present, the greater the risk that someone will carry the infection; and the more people are present, the greater the number of people at risk. (Where the latter effect grows through the risk that the personal closeness increases with the size of the crowd, but shrinks through limits on how many others that any given person can infect, by e.g. distances involved.) Not having a giant stadium filled to the last seat might make great sense even if the risk of infection is low—but does the same apply to the same stadium with e.g. only one seat in ten occupied? Does it apply to a class room with two dozen children, or even a school with a few hundred children? Only for a considerable larger risk of infection.

Excursion on a flawed attitude towards sports:
Obviously, here we see another issue that I have complained about in the past: a faulty prioritization of athlete vs. audience, athlete vs. sports organization, winning and/or competing vs. earning money, etc. If what truly counted was the sport and the competition, then the various leagues and championships would still take place even if there was no audience of any kind.

Excursion on threats that disappeared:
There have been quite a few cases of apparent threats that proved far less harmful than originally claimed. To automatically classify these as misunderstood non-threats or “threats” might go too far, however: it might be that the threat was overstated to begin with; it might be that the counter-measure taken are what neutralized the threat; it might be some combination of the two. AIDS, e.g., was painted as doomsday disease when I first encountered reporting in the early or mid 1980s. The actual spread and damage done was far smaller, but this reporting very likely led to more cautious sexual habits. What would have happened without this change of habits? (Similarly, if COVID-19 were to silently disappear over the next few weeks, this would not automatically imply that the threat was overrated.)

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March 15, 2020 at 7:56 pm

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Follow-up: Notes on my recent flight with Finnair

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Three follow-ups to my complaints about a recent flight:

Firstly, my chronology* in Stockholm appears to be off: Add half-an-hour to 12:15 and we might still have taken off more-or-less on time. However, we arrived in Helsinki with a delay of, possibly, twenty minutes. Exactly when and where these twenty minutes were lost, I can no longer reconstruct; however, chances are that they took place in Stockholm, as airline schedules tend to have time buffers, and they might well have taken place as I waited to board. In that case, the time waiting and standing must be increased; if not, then some other time interval.

*I only began to takes notes once on board the second-leg airplane and went by memory for the earlier phases.

Secondly, the overall delay, relative my travel time, was shorter than it felt: about an hour in the air; about an hour lost due to the re-scheduled meal. With hindsight, I wrote as if I had lost twice that amount of time, and might have been more forgiving, had I written the same text today. However, as with a working day, every extra hour hits home that much harder the longer the day has already been. Moreover, the circumstances, especially the screaming babies, made it that much worse—and, indeed, much of the earlier text was directed at the circumstances and the mishandling by Finnair (as opposed to just the delay).

Thirdly, Finnair has continued to give a poor impression, even after the flight: I sent a link to my text as a courtesy information. In order to do that, I had to visit the imprint to find a usable and even semi-relevant email address—the official contact channels pushed those user-hostile contact forms. It then took more than a week before I had any type of reaction* and the reaction was a complete disaster: Half the (short) answer was in German, informing me that email support was only available in English—despite my having used an email address for Germany and/or Germans. (And what about Finnish?) The other half claimed that

*I did not necessarily expect, let alone require, a reply, but given that one was sent, I would have expected something much more professional.

Could you please attach a file with your notes? Due to security reasons we do not have access to this webpage. As soon as you send it to us, I will forward your Email to our responsable department.

This made clear that English was not a strength of customer support either. Moreover, the approach to online access is inexcusable and amateurish (if, admittedly, not uncommon). Now, if Finnair wants to deny their “first-level support” Internet access, it is of no concern to me. But: if so, Finnair must take measure to ensure that e.g. blog entries and similar linked-to material can be read when needed, e.g. by providing a means to request retrieval by staff members with greater rights. To push the extra effort onto the customers is ridiculous. (And, no, I am not going to comply.) Moreover, either this woman is too daft to just forward the link to “our responsable department” or there are restrictions on Internet access well beyond first-level support. And: what if my “notes” had been in German too? (And: what if some customer does not speak English at all?) Either Finnair would now have demanded a translation, which would be far too much effort, or the original claim that support was only available in English would be proved incorrect.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 13, 2020 at 12:22 am

Follow-up: Stay away from Unitymedia

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The saga of the inexcusable customer hostility of Unitymedia continues:

My most recent problems had long resulted in no reaction whatsoever from Unitymedia (not counting automatic confirmations of receipt), until the 28th of February, almost a month after my first marked-as-urgent (!) query.

This reaction first came in the form of another* “please confirm your email address” email, again with a body consisting just of the text “null”**. Of course, this is entirely pointless, because I have terminated the contract with Unitymedia and have no intention whatsoever of confirming, registering, or whatnot anything—and this should have been obvious even to Unitymedia.

*As I speculate, based on previous interactions, every time a Unitymedia staffer gets her hands on an email address, the first thing she does is to create some type of online account for this email address. Once it is created, automatic emails are sent badgering the user to confirm this email address—even when he has no interest in this account.

**Either the email is basically empty or it is made out of such poor HTML that my email client cannot convert it to something readable. Using HTML, per se, is wrong in an email (and especially business email); using severely broken HTML is inexcusable. I note that this problem was present already during my first contacts with Unitymedia several years ago, and that I pointed it out explicitly: not correcting a known problem with inexcusable behavior over several years is doubly inexcusable.

This email I just saved in my Unitymedia folder and wrote it off as yet another proof of gross incompetence. Worse is to come, however:

Later the same day, I received a (readable, but extremely poorly formatted) email from a human. First claim: “Bitte entschuldigen Sie die ungewohnt lange Bearbeitungsdauer.” (“Please excuse the unusually long treatment [processing?] time.”) Under no circumstances will I excuse an almost month-long response time to a message marked as urgent—a time during which, important, not even a message of “we are sorry, but there will be several weeks before we can get back to you” arrived. Even now, an explanation for the delay was missing.

Next claim: She was sending a replacement router. Why?!?! I have TERMINATED my account! I have no interest in anything relating to Unitymedia and under no circumstance will I bother with collecting a package from Unitymedia, renew my troubleshooting, and whatnot for an account that I do not want!

Various other claims were equally idiotic, like that I should give her my telephone number, that she would check whether compensation was possible after my connection had been restored (Why the hell would that be relevant? Why should I go by her opinion on the matter?), a one-sided rejection of any damage claims (for a more* than month-long service interruption), and a request that I manually transfer allegedly outstanding fees.

*In a best case scenario, I would receive the new router (cf. below) tomorrow, March 6th, 34 days after my first email for assistance—and 41 days after the likely occurrence of the problem (January 24th, based on router logs). Factoring in my experiences with e.g. DHL, I doubt that I would have had the package, even would I try to receive it, before Monday, the 9th, for another three days and a total of a-month-and-a-half.

A particular absurdity is the claim “Wunschgemäß habe ich Ihnen einen Retourenschein zugesandt. Sie können Ihren Vertrag nicht allein durch die Rückgabe des Zubehörs kündigen. Die monatlichen Beträge werden weiterhin berechnet.” (in paraphrase: I have sent you the requested pre-address return label*, but you cannot terminate the account just by sending back the equipment and we will continue to charge monthly fees.). Considering that I have explicitly (!) terminated my account, the return of the equipment (i.e. router, etc.) is secondary, and was certainly not the means of my termination. Unitymedia has no basis whatsoever for continuing to charge monthly fees, and this seems like an outright fraudulent attempt to trick unsavvy customers into continuing an unwanted, intolerable, and unconscionable contract.

*I have not found a good translation for “Retourenschein”, but I do not that it has yet to arrive. Further, that I had explicitly requested a pre-paid one, and whether that will be the case is yet to see.

I replied with harsh email stating that I remained as a non-customer and would* outright block the used email address. About a week later, this email has seen no reaction, but I have received a notification that “my” package, presumably with the replacement router, would now be underway (earlier today, March 5th). I have also noted that Unitymedia has made an illegal “Lastschrift” withdrawal from my account, despite my having terminated the corresponding permission and despite an alleged (according to the above email) switch from Lastschrift to manual transfer for my account.

*And will, but I have not yet gotten around to it. It is the very next thing on my todo list after publishing this text …

Written by michaeleriksson

March 5, 2020 at 11:41 am

Notes on my recent flight with Finnair

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My most recent visit to Sweden was open ended,* and I bought the return ticket on just a few days notice. Faced with unnecessarily high prices on the direct flights from Stockholm to Düsseldorf, as well as a poor choice of hours,** I decided to make the experiment of flying via Helsinki on the 26th—a grave mistake.

*Besides renewing my passport, as my sole means of identification, I needed to handle some bank business for which I needed some form of identification. This introduced two uncertainties: (a) when would I receive my new passport and (b) when could the bank give me an appointment after I had received the passport.

**Flights were either very early, very late, or even more expensive.

On paper, it did not look too bad: The time from first take-off to second landing was prolonged to 5 hours, but both departure and arrival were at reasonable hours, there was an hour-and-a-half stop in Helsinki during which I could take a meal, stretch my legs, and add Finland as a country that I had at least nominally visited*. In reality?

*Long ago, I did visit Åland on some type of short cruise. However, while Åland belongs to Finland, it is more Swedish than Finnish in many regards, and it is certainly not a part of mainland Finland.

For starters, I came to the gate in Stockholm shortly before the alleged boarding time of 12:25, an excessive seeming 30 minutes before the alleged take-off time.*/** For lack of available seats, I took a standing position near the gate at possibly 12:15. I remained standing or walking for likely more than half-an-hour before I was in my seat on the plane, because there was a short-term delay of the preceding flight of the same plane (cf. below). If an explanation was given, I did not hear it.

*Note that this time was not given as a “We begin boarding at” but as “Please report […] at the latest”, effectively making it a “final boarding call”. (Notwithstanding that this is unrealistic, as boarding an entire plane takes a while. Likely, the airline deliberately lied in order to increase its own comfort on the expense of the customers.)

**Keep in mind, although not the airlines fault, that the various delays were made worse by my father badgering me into appearing early at the airport, at around 11, and that I already had a fair bit of Stockholm-internal travel behind me, having left his apartment at (probably) around 09:30.

I arrived correspondingly late in Helsinki, where another load of time was spent on busing the passengers from the plane to the terminal. I eventually arrived at the gate at around 14:30*, and was faced by another thirty-minutes boarding limit, putting the alleged time of boarding at 14:55. With a mere 25 minutes to go, I decided to forego the planned meal**. I did have a look for a bottle of water, but found them priced at an outrageous 3.50 Euro in two different stores, for what looked like at most half-a-liter. No thank you!***

*Throughout, I use CET (the Swedish and German timezone). Finland is an hour ahead and the local time was correspondingly around 15:30 (and so on, for other times mentioned).

**Note that fairly long queues and other potential delays have to be factored in, making anything beyond take-away fast-food or a sit-down sandwich and a cup of coffee risky.

***If in doubt, when realistically possible, I try to avoid such utterly excessive prices in order to not encourage this type of pricing. According to [1] the price of a liter of tap water is 0.2 cent in Germany or 0.1 cent for a bottle this size. Even a regularly priced bottle, then, has a markup of several hundred percent, while the aforementioned bottles were at a full 3500 percent. (Beware that this might vary depending on the country of comparison.)

This time, I found a seat, but was soon forced to move due to a screaming baby*. That is another twenty minutes standing, but I am reasonably young, so let us stand and be done with it. Alas, five minutes later, another baby from the other direction, and nowhere left to go.

*What type of self-centered, inconsiderate idiot travels by plane with a screaming baby?!?

Did I say twenty minutes? That is what it should have been, but again and again, there were announcements that there was a delay of another ten or so minutes. Actual boarding took place 15:42, 47 minutes after boarding should have begun, more than an hour after my arrival, and 17 minutes after the plain should have left. All this, standing, exposed to screaming babies, and fed a stream of faulty information. Of course, an even remotely correct earlier estimate would have allowed me a proper meal and even a more realistic or earlier interim claim about the delay would have allowed me to grab a sandwich somewhere.

So, after boarding, it could safely be assumed that we took off as soon as possible to lose as little further time as we could? No: The plane remained firmly on the ground. At 16:35, taxing started; at 16:40 the actual takeoff procedure commenced (with the actual lift of the ground yet a little later). About another hour lost between boarding and takeoff … And, oh, that bloody screaming baby screamed for around the first half hour after boarding too. To boot, there were some ten minutes of pre-recorded and highly artificial security announcements, very poor music, and an outright advertisement broadcast on the plane. At this point, I was so close to snapping that I downed an entire sleeping pill to calm my nerves—and while this worked, it did not suffice to let me sleep, but did leave me a little groggy for the remainder of the evening. Of course, if we had been told e.g. “we will take off in fifty minutes and will keep the gate upon until the last quarter-hour” then I could still have eaten something—but, no, it was boarding first and waiting later.

We hit the ground again at 18:48; the time until official landing was obviously longer, and likely left us still about an hour late (scheduled landing was 17:55).

Of course, the delays do not end here, because I had hardly eaten anything since breakfast, and the meal that should have taken place in Helsinki during the flight portion of the day had to take part after it in Düsseldorf. At this point, I had no eye on the time anymore, but I was likely done shortly before eight. Remained only to find a train and get to Wuppertal, where I probably arrived around nine, for a total of more than eleven hours from one apartment to the other, about two of which were direct or indirect delays.

To this I note that there was no offer of even a complimentary bag of peanuts on the plane, let alone a meal or a monetary recompense*. (Coffee and water/juice/whatnot was included in the ticket price to begin with. Meals and snacks were on sale, but buying one on the plane would amount to awarding incompetence—another thing that I try to avoid.)

*I will look into the legal situation later, but I am not optimistic, as there are aspects of force majeure (cf. below) and as travel laws tend to be customer unfriendly, working on the principle that delays are unimportant as long as the customer actually arrives. See an earlier text for why I consider force majeure a disputable argument in most circumstances, however.

Aside from the delays, there is the question of lost/delayed luggage: Finnair also managed to screw up the luggage situation, and those* unfortunate enough to have something checked-in only began to receive their luggage on the 28th (according to an email), with no upper limit stated. With coordination problems, I assume that many will have to wait a few days more.

*One of the reasons why I dared this experiment was that I had no checked-in luggage: I had flown with a stop on two prior occasions, first between Stuttgart and Stockholm, with a change of planes somewhere in Denmark, and then the reverse going back. (I do not recall the airline, as this was long ago.) My luggage was lost in both directions and only delivered with a considerable delay.

As to the underlying reason, there appears to have been an “[u]nexpected walk out of the ground handling operator Swissport” due to a strike. This implies that Finnair cannot be blamed for (at least parts of) the delay per se; and it also implies that planning is harder, because Finnair is not in control of (at least parts of) the circumstances* and might it self be victim of faulty/delayed/incomplete information. However, (a) I doubt that this mess, at least informationwise, is explainable without additional incompetence on behalf of Finnair, (b) Finnair definitely failed to paint an accurate picture, e.g. by making claims of “x to y minutes delay”, where “at least x minutes delay” would have been called for,** (c) Finnair failed to e.g. offer complimentary meals and the possibility to re-book the flight for a later day*** (d) Finnair failed to inform sufficiently in advance about the luggage situation, which might have moved some passengers to forego or re-book the flight (as might some, if the scope of the delay had been clear in time***). (e) Finnair allows babies to travel in their airplanes without having the staff ensure silence. (f) Finnair molested the passengers with advertising, pling-plong music, and unnecessarily annoying security announcements. (In contrast, I do not blame Finnair for the inadequate seating in the airports, because this is not under its control and does reflect the typical situation in airports. Of course, normally this is not much of an issue either, because waits tend to be a lot shorter.)

*As an obvious example, Finnair might not have known at the time of (actual) boarding about some constraint, e.g. available time slots, that postponed takeoff.

**Note that this is a call that Finnair must have been in a position to make, while the passengers have a lot less leeway and must assume that the claims by the airline about upper limit can be taken at face value, already containing sufficient safety margins. (In contrast, it is up to the passenger what he risks or does not risk doing in light of e.g. “at least ten minutes delay”—but here I do not rule out that Finnair deliberately set an unrealistic upper limit in order to take this choice away from him, so that the passengers remained at the gate like well-behaved little sheeple.)

***I would, myself, have been quite interested in taking the corresponding flight the following day and spending the mean time seeing something of Helsinki, because the delay hits an all-day traveler harder, the circumstances at the gate were unconscionable, and a one-day Helsinki visit would have been a productive use of my time.

Excursion on pre-flight times:
The attitude of airlines and airports towards pre-flight times (e.g. “be there two hours before the flight” recommendations) is unconscionable and severely outdated. That a traveler chooses (or chooses not) to work with a safety margin leading up to the airport is one thing—what if there is a delay of the train to the airport or a connecting train is missed? That should be entirely within his discretion, however, as different people have different trade-offs in risk and travel time. These recommendations are aimed at something very different, namely: (a) To ensure that the passenger is on time at the gate no matter how badly things go wrong in the airport, e.g. due to a security strike—which should be the sole responsibility of the airport/airline/whatnot (depending on the exact complication). (b) That inexperienced passengers do not underestimate e.g. the time needed for the security check or intra-airport travel.* The better solution here, however, is to inform people, let them make their own decisions, and for airports/whatnot. to take responsibility for their parts of the equation, e.g. that various stations are manned in proportion to the number of passengers.

*I recall a major twist in my own travels: The first time I flew from Düsseldorf Airport, to an interview in Munich, I went there a few days in advance to get some idea of travel times, layout, where I needed to go. Came travel day, I was there well ahead of time and still missed my flight due to hour-long delays caused by a security strike announced just the day before. Even well-informed and experienced passengers can become victims of problems that the airport/whatnot should handle.

Reasonable time limits might include “be at the gate no later than fifteen minutes before takeoff”, “check all non-cabin luggage at least an hour before takeoff”, and/or something similar—possibly combined with advice on how long the process in the airport normally is. Certainly, it must be more than enough, even for international travel, for someone with only cabin luggage and with a prior online check-in to be at the airport with an hour to spare. This must be enough time to get to the security check, be checked, go the gate, and beat the end of boarding, usually with a fair buffer. If not, the system is seriously flawed.

Excursion on strikes, etc.:
The topic of strikes is a horror when it comes to flights. Here small groups of people, often poorly qualified, have enormous leverage and cause enormous damage to others. To boot, they often do so at extremely short notice, as with the German “Warnstreik”*, which is allowed with next to no notice. From the extremely shallow information available to me concerning the Finnair issues, the strike might or might not have been legal, but it definitely took place and, apparently, caught both airlines and airports off-guard. Here, a radical change in thinking is needed, including the need for advance notice from strikers well ahead of time, that strikers can be held liable for damage to third-parties under some circumstances**, and that certain key groups like security personnel are exempt from the right to strike entirely.

*“Warning strike”, an ethically extremely dubious one-day (typically) strike that amounts to a “not touching; can’t get mad” way of harming or intimidating the employer during negotiations. They should by all rights be illegal. (To paraphrase a old colleague and Yoda fan: Either do or do not strike. There is no warn.”)

**Exactly what circumstances, I leave unstated for the time being, but the above is one clear case. A blanket liability will hardly work without making strikes impossible for very large groups, however.

More generally, I have long found the idea of a strike as a refusal to work without having to fear consequences an absurdity, and the entire idea might be outdated. This is a topic well beyond the scope of the current text, and not something that I thought on in detail, but I note e.g. that a right to fire strikers need not be bad, because those strikers that the employer actually is willing to fire likely are not worthy of a raise in the first place. (Raises being the most typical reason for strikes.)

Excursion on security checks:
While some security checks are almost certainly needed, the scope of them and the restrictions on passengers past 9/11 might well do more harm than good, including through the time wasted for passengers even on a regular day, the extra cost for staff and equipment, odd* restrictions on what may and may not be brought on board, etc. Then there is the creation of a group of employees with low qualifications and great leverage and the risk of strikes (and other blockages of this bottleneck). Then there is the artificial creation of an over-expensive market for e.g. water between security check and gate, as with the 3.50 Euro water bottles mentioned above. An interesting twist is that some items banned are among those an experienced traveler would like to take, e.g. a bottle with tap water, a pocketknife, …

*At least from a naive point of view. Then again, how effective will e.g. a ban on unsealed fluid containers be to an intelligent and dedicated terrorist? Especially, when there might be medical exemptions?

A particular issue is whether it makes sense to have such strict restrictions on airplanes while e.g. trains go almost unprotected in most countries. (And/or why terrorists have not jumped onto using trains to cause murder and mayhem. True, they cannot fly someone to Cuba, but killing a few hundred people and causing great property damage is very possible.)

Excursion on non-direct flights:
Based on my own experiences, I consider the risk of non-direct flights over direct flights (when available!) to be too large, even the expected increase in travel time aside. Not only do I have the three aforementioned negative experiences with non-direct flights, but my experiences with direct flights are sufficiently poor as to imply a fairly large risk that something goes wrong per flight—and flying twice in one days doubles that risk. Indeed, it is often far more than a doubling, e.g. because it seems plausible that luggage getting lost is disproportionately more likely when changing flights. Moreover, the damage done is often greater, e.g. in that a severe delay in a first flight might lose a few hours when flying direct and cause a missed connection when flying non-direct, in turn, possibly, resulting in a full day’s delay, the need for a hotel, etc.

The savings might or might not be worth the extra expected increase in travel time; it is not worth the extra risk.

In addition, environmental concerns might be added. In my case, e.g., there was a considerable detour; in all cases, there will be at least one extra takeoff, ascent, and landing.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 4, 2020 at 12:24 am