Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Archive for April 2020

CAPTCHAs and forced JavaScript

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An increasingly common annoyance, at least for us Tor users, are CAPTCHAs that are impossible to overcome without JavaScript* activated. Worse, an increasing number of sites seem to use “JavaScript is not enabled” as a heuristic for “is a bot”. The point might come where even a security-minded and well informed user is forced to surf with JavaScript activated in a near-blanket manner just to satisfy such checks and to handle such CAPTCHAs, while the site visited, per se, would have worked well anyway. A particular problem is Cloudscape, which in multiple ways is a threat to usability, anonymity, and security for the end users, due to the extreme number of sites that route their contents over the Cloudscape network—a very significant portion of these CAPTCHA requests stem from Cloudscape.

*I highly doubt that JavaScript, or even images, are necessary in order to implement any level of CAPTCHA protection, in terms of difficulty of automatic solving. More likely, the current JavaScript-and-images construct is chosen through a mixture of laziness and a wish to apply the no-JavaScript heuristic mentioned above. (Possibly, combined with an analog no-images or even a no-cookies heuristic.) However, I will not go into this below.

However, JavaScript is a severe hazard, its use in combination with Tor is almost always brainless*, and I would generally, even for non-Tor users, recommend that it only be activated on a case-by-case basis and on sites with a great degree of trust. Such sites cannot include those with a presence of content not under strict control by the site, which rules out, among others, any site using an advertising network**, the whole of Wikipedia***, and all search services****. (As a bonus, most sites intended for reading are more enjoyable with JavaScript off, e.g. due to less or less intrusive advertising and fewer annoying animations. Other sites, unfortunately, are often so misprogrammed that they simply do not work without JavaScript.)

*The main purpose of Tor is anonymity and no-one who has JavaScript activated has any guarantee of anonymity anymore. Even a selective activation of JavaScript for chosen sites (e.g. by the NoScript plugin) can help with profiling and, indirectly, threaten anonymity—even without e.g. a JavaScript attempt to spy on the user.

**The ads come from a third party and can contain hostile content.

***Wikipedia can be edited by more-or-less anyone and could, at least until detection, contain hostile content.

****Search services display foreign content as a core part of their service, and with insufficient sanitizing, someone could smuggle in hostile content. (Even ambitious sanitizing can overlook something, run into bugs, or otherwise be flawed.) Of course, search services also often serve content from an advertising network …

The last few days, Startpage, my currently preferred search service, has thrown up CAPTCHA-with-JavaScript requests at such a rate that I will be forced to switch again, should the situation not improve.

Specifically, I am, again and again, met with the text:

JavaScript appears to be disabled in your web browser. To complete the CAPTCHA, please enable JavaScript and reload the page.

As part of StartPage’s ongoing mission to provide the best experience for our users, we occasionally need to confirm that you are a legitimate user. Completing the CAPTCHA below helps us reduce abuse and improve the quality of our services.

The best that can be said about this, is that it does not make the (otherwise common and highly ignorant) claim that my browser would be outdated or not support JavaScript.

Firstly, a search site is (cf. above) not a place to ever activate JavaScript. Secondly, the legitimacy of a CAPTCHA, at all, is highly dubious. Thirdly, in as far as a legitimate* reason is present, the cited reason is not it. Fourthly, there is nothing “occasionally” about it—today, I have been hit about ten times for about a dozen searches. Fifthly, the talk of “best experience” (and so on) seems almost insulting, considering the quality problems of Startpage**.

*E.g. that the IP from which the current request comes has sent a very great number of request in a very short time span.

**And DuckDuckGo, etc. If anything, these Google-alternatives appear to grow worse over time. Outside the search services that are known or strongly suspected to engage in user-tracking and profiling, are involved with advertising networks, or similar, I know of no truly good alternative since the demise of Scroogle—and that might have been close to ten years ago.

In fact, when I see a combination of such an implausible* message and such a high frequency of CAPTCHAs, I must at least suspect that this is a deliberate attempt to either drive Tor users away or to force users to surf with JavaScript enabled. Whether this is so specifically with Startpage, I cannot know, but that it is the case with at least some sites out there is almost a given.

*In contrast to e.g. “We have seen some odd activity from your IP. Please confirm that you are a human user.”.

As an aside, the use of CAPTCHAs to solve the perceived problem is disputable on several counts, including that CAPTCHAs can often be solved by clever bots, that they can pose great problems to many human users, including those less-than-bright or of weak eye sight,* and that better solutions might be available, e.g. that IPs with a large amount of requests see an artificial delay before treatment**. To boot, it can make great sense to investigate whether a block of bots makes sense, as they are often beneficial or neutral, or whether a block based on amount of traffic, irrespective of the human vs. bot issues, would be better.*** Certainly, a CAPTCHA-based block on bots should only be contemplated if means like the use of a robots.txt (which, in all fairness, is quite often ignored) have failed.

*But even very bright people who can read the text well can run into problems. I have myself sometime failed because it has been unclear e.g. whether a certain character was a distorted “O” (Upper-case letter), a distorted “o” (lower-case letter), or a distorted “0” (digit).

**This has the advantage of serving everyone, while keeping the situation acceptable for a human who makes one or two requests, and while posing a major problem for a bot that makes a few thousand requests.

***This especially with an eye on the truly problematic bots—those that perform denial-of-service attacks.

Startpage does have a robots.txt, which manifestly does not attempt to exclude bots from the page that I have accessed—a further stroke against it:

User-agent: *
Disallow: /cgi-bin/
Disallow: /do/
Noindex: /cgi-bin/
Noindex: /do/


Written by michaeleriksson

April 29, 2020 at 10:35 am

Exponential growth, the economy, and the damage of poor government

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Skimming through a recent article on UNZ, and with the topic of exponential growth on my mind through COVID-19, I cannot resist an item on my backlog: how poor politics and politicians harm economic growth—with dire long-term results.

As I try to keep my blogging down, I will not give this backlog item more than a fraction of the attention that it deserves, but:

Firstly, growth rates accumulate multiplicatively over time and, if constant, lead to an exponential growth. Ditto, if varying growth rates are replaced by a geometric* average. The implication is that even apparently small differences in growth rates can have enormous consequences over time. For example, compare two economies with a growth rate (fix or as geometric average) of respectively 2 and 2.5 percent. The yearly difference might seem like nothing, but look at the difference over e.g. 70 years, which could be viewed as more-or-less the experience span of a single individual. 1.02^70 ~ 4, while 1.025^70 ~ 5.6; giving a 4-fold “new” size of the economy compared to a 5.6-fold. The one with the marginally higher grow rates is then roughly 40 % larger than its competitor at the end of the 70 years; or, in absolute terms, 1.6-times-the-size-of-the-original-economy larger. Where would you like your grandchildren and great-grandchildren to grow up?

*As in multiply-and-take-the-nth-root, and as opposed to the add-and-divide-by-n used by the “regular” or arithmetic average.

With greater differences in growth rate, the end results explode apart. For instance, 1.04^70 ~ 15.6 or almost four (!) times as large as the “1.02 economy”. If growth rates remain even approximately as they are, originally-poor-but-fast-growing countries like the “tiger economies” will necessarily outdo originally-rich-but-slower-growing economies (like the US or Germany). The original richness can cover up the difference in growth rate for a long while, but sooner or later the advantage runs out and the tables turn.

Obviously, economies that are both poor and and low in growth will do disastrously—one reason why socialism and poverty is so dangerous, as the poverty leads to calls for socialist politics, which stunts growth, which keeps poverty going, … (cf. below).

Secondly, current economic policies in many Western countries do a lot, as a side-effect, to artificially keep economic growth back. This especially in countries that have a strongly Leftist take on policy, where the focus is on re-distributing the existing cake instead of making the cake larger. For instance, high taxes and bureaucracies keep enterprising individuals back; high employment costs* make it harder to be competitive and reduce the willingness to expand, especially taking the step from a one-man company to having even that first employee; attempts to compress differences in income/lower the GINI coefficient reduce the rewards for competence and hard work, make it harder to get the right employees in the right positions,**; etc.

*Which includes more than the actual salaries/wages/whatnot. These can be problematic enough, but then add half a fortune of additional taxes, fees, whatnot for the employer to pay …

**E.g. because someone who would have worked in field A due to a higher salary than in field B now chooses field B; because someone who would have put in extra overtime, if he kept the pay, does not when the government takes most of it; because someone would have taken extra responsibility for a significant earnings increase, but does not when the increase is small; and so on.

To this I note that there is considerable empirical evidence on this issue, as with China (discussed in the linked to article), the Venezuela of the last few decades, the old East vs. the old West Germany, etc.* Indeed, Germany’s likely greatest period of growth, the Wirtschaftswunder era, coincided with the likely most free-market-friendly politics of its history, while the current, slow growing, Germany has redistribution mechanisms, social security and health-insurance costs, whatnot, that might fit the Sweden of the 1970s.

*But I caution that looking at any given individual example is tricky, because a multitude of factors can play in, e.g. that West Germany received help from the US while East Germany was exploited by the USSR. Looking at the totality of examples, however, the picture is quite clear.

Could the current Germany or the current US reach and sustain “Chinese” growth rates? Possibly not—and even the Chinese have been having trouble doing so for quite a few years. However, they could easily do better, say in getting that 0.5 % of extra yearly growth. That they fail to do so could be seen as a crime against future generations to the same degree as undue pollution can.

In the long run, it really does pay better to get a fix proportion of the growing cake than a growing proportion of the fix cake. If in doubt, note that a growing cake can help everyone, while a growing proportion of a fix cake means that someone else has less.

Note on inflation, etc.:
Above, I have ignored topics like inflation, purchasing power, “per capita”, whatnot. They have no effect on the principles discussed, and, indeed, the exact same examples can be used if e.g. a growth rate is declared to be adjusted for this-and-that. However, they can lead to a different set of numbers that are realistic—and, in doing so, they will tend to increase the importance of higher growth (unless the higher growth is correlated with a higher inflation or whatnot). For instance, in the original economies, assume that the growth rates were “naive” and without considering inflation, and that inflation, in both cases, is 2 percent per year. The one economy will be more-or-less stagnated while the other will still grow, even be it considerably more slowly than before. In the one case, future generations are stuck on the level of past generations; in the other, they see still see significant improvement.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 28, 2020 at 11:55 am

Pinning the tail to the COVID-19 donkey

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Recently, I wrote that there “has been a very strong element of pin-the-tail-to-the-donkey so far”, regarding COVID-19.

Right now, we can see an excellent example of this in Germany: As the actual disease seemed to be easing up, there were signs that the counter-measures would to, including last weeks partial re-opening of stores. However, apparently, as of today, it is mandatory to use face masks in stores, which is an increased imposition* on the citizens. So, are we reducing or increasing impositions—and why? If it made sense to have most stores closed and without a face-mask imposition two weeks ago, how come it makes sense to have most stores opened but with a face-mask imposition today?

*I do not necessarily say that it is a disproportionate or ill-advised imposition. (In particular, face masks appear to bring little benefit to the wearer and more to other people, which implies that arguments relating to own choice, own risks, and citizens actually being adults are much less relevant than when it comes to closing stores.) However, it is an imposition and it is something hitherto not deemed necessary.

Possibly, a connection could be seen, that stores are opened now to cap the damage and that (mandatory) face masks are introduced to compensate for the perceived increase in risk. But if so: Why was there a delay between the opening of the stores and the face masks?

Possibly, vital new information concerning face masks has been discovered, but if so, I am not aware of it. On the contrary, the claims that I have heard so far seem to go in the direction that the benefit of face masks has been overestimated … (True, there were findings that infection through non-aerial means was less likely than originally thought, which could increase the relative benefit of face masks. However, these findings are not very recent and the change would have made more sense earlier, when the disease was growing faster.)

Possibly, the changing rate of infections and the number of known infected has led to a different situation,* and I could see that as strongly contributing to partial re-openings. It is a mystery to me, however, how a lower number of infected would lead to a greater need for face masks.

*Official statistics show a small and still shrinking percentage of newly infected and the number of currently infected is continually diminishing. (But I caution that these statistics could over- or under-estimate a number of aspects of the situation.)

That this face-mask decision appears to have come with very little warning makes the situation worse. There has been a debate about it, yes, and some individual Bundesländer (“states”) had already implemented mandatory face-masks. However, as late as yesterday, I had no idea that the this was coming today (or, necessarily, at all), be it in nationwide or in my own Bundesland.

Grab a pin-board. Pin notes with possible counter-measures on the board. Put on a blindfold. Throw darts at the board. See what counter-measures were hit. There we have this weeks policy. Next week? Who knows.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 27, 2020 at 9:26 am

COVID-19 and information harassment

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A particular annoyance with the COVID-19 situation is over-information, that entities that have no legitimate reason to speak on the topic do speak and that entities that should say something little instead bombard us with information. The result is that virtually nothing is achieved (except annoyance) while the ears and eyes are start to filter information to such a degree that something important might be missed. Of course, this type intrusive “information”, presumption to demand obedience from others without any true own expertise*, and the resulting annoyance, are all likely to contribute to recalcitrance—causing the opposite of what was intended** through psychological naivete. (This not to be confused with the extreme amount of information from e.g. newspapers, which can be similarly annoying and have similarly negative effects, but at least is a legitimate part of the business at hand. Too much, possibly, but basically legitimate.)

*What does (cf. below) a grocery store or my bank know about COVID-19 that goes beyond the informed citizen? (And: What gives it a reason to speak in addition to what e.g. governmental agencies say?) Little or nothing. A strong sign of this problem is the constant, highly misleading use of “corona” over the more specific “COVID-19” and “SARS-CoV-2”. Indeed, chances are that they are often outright misinformed through going strictly by “official channels” without applying critical thinking or considering the (legitimate, non-“fake news”) experts that have a dissenting opinion. The sad truth is that there has been a very strong element of pin-the-tail-to-the-donkey so far, even among experts, with an only slowly improving information situation.

**Unless the intention is just to fulfill some external requirement or to be able to show that something has been done, without regard to effectiveness and efficiency. Sadly, this is quite common, e.g. in politics.

For instance, earlier today, I went to buy groceries. The store was (still!) plastered with identical notices about corona-this and keep-distance-that, while every few minutes a patronizing and overly loud keep-your-distance announcement was repeated on the PA system. Why?!? Post a big sign on the entry door and be done with it! For instance, when I last logged into my Internet banking I was not allow to proceed without dealing with an intrusive blocking pop-up that requested whether I wanted to be informed about “corona” now, later, or not at all. There should have been absolutely no information on the general topic at all—and to more specifically relevant information, e.g. changes to opening hours due to COVID-19, a regular notification that “We have restricted our opening hours.” with a link to details would have been appropriate.

The general attitude seems to be that “everyone else is an uninformed idiot and we, specifically we, must inform and save the day”.

That the information/instructions provided are often contradictory from entity to entity does not help, e.g. that the one store requires a distance of 1.5 meters between customers and the other 2 meters. Sometimes even the same entity is contradictory (and/or redundant), as with the very small newspaper-and-whatnot store that I visited a few days ago to buy stamps: on the one hand, customers must keep a distance of at least two meters; on the other, only one customers was allowed in the store at any given time. And, yes, the store was large enough that a distance of two meters was possible. (Except when passing each other, but that applies to supermarkets too.)

Written by michaeleriksson

April 25, 2020 at 9:29 am

A few further observations around COVID-19

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Some random items:

  1. Sweden is regularly cited as going its own road in the fight against COVID-19, as being more permissive and giving the citizens a greater own choice and responsibility than most other countries.

    That Sweden chooses its own road is not new, but: Sweden is historically, likely, the non-dictatorship most strongly associated with the “nanny state” mentality, having treated its population as dummies to be led by the hand for many decades of Social-Democrat rule. Indeed, the current government is a Social-Democrat one.

    It might be that attitudes in Sweden and/or the Social-Democrats have changed, it might be that this is some type of vote fishing, it might be incompetence, …

    However, it might also be a sign that attitudes in other countries have degenerated to a Swedish level. For instance, in Germany, even outside of COVID-19, there are currently strong tendencies for the state to “educate” the population into having the right opinions (something thoroughly anti-democratic) or for political parties to put themselves beyond the will of the voters, as with the absurd events in (the state of) Thüringen after AfD successes (while a near third of the vote for an extreme-Left party went without comment) or the repeated “great coalitions” on the federal level, which form a government of two parties that, on paper, should be greater enemies than the U.S. Republican and Democrat parties. (Cf. e.g. [1], [2].)

    This is a threat far worse than COVID-19.

  2. There have been absurd developments around Beate Bahner, a German lawyer specializing in medicine and a vocal critic of the current German COVID-19 measure. The linked to (German) article is a bit on the confused side, and exactly what has happened why seems unclear in other sources too, but to look at a few key points:

    Allegedly, she appeared so confused in the public that the police decided to bring her in for psychiatric treatment/observation/whatnot. She spent several days locked up in a hospital and is now also under investigation for physically resisting the police during the event. If there is any connection between her COVID-19 protests, this would be an absolute horror, an act so inexcusable that the actor must be thrown in jail. I do not, however, believe this to have been the case, based on the limited data* available to me—a more likely scenario is that the police, rightly or wrongly, judged her behavior to be sufficiently erratic as to warrant involuntary measures. However, even then, the situation is quite negative. It implies e.g. that anyone living in Germany could be put into temporary psychiatric custody** on the word of a few policemen, without consultation with a judge. The stay might then be brief, but it could still cause severe problems for the victim. Here we have a somewhat public figure with a potential reputation of “being crazy”, which might damage both her credibility as a debater and her ability to gain new clients as a lawyer. In another scenario, we might have someone miss work or an important appointment and being unable to give a satisfactory explanation without risking a similar reputation. In yet another, we might have young children traumatized because of mysterious events around a parent—and for a single parent, the result might include the children being temporarily confiscated by Social Services, with yet more trauma involved, and possible negative strikes in e.g. a custody hearing. This might be acceptable, if there is some genuine psychiatric issue involved, but the same result would arise even from e.g. poor judgment or malice from the police.***

    *Consider statements apparently made by Bahner that could point to confusion or paranoia, e.g. that the physicians might be receiving instructions from the U.S.; or how the original incident is more parsimoniously explained by not assuming that the police had been deliberately out to get her. Of course, with more information, the picture might change.

    **Take the terminology with some caution. I am uncertain what good English translations of this-and-that would be, and the sources are confused on exactly what German terminology would have applied.

    ***As I keep repeating: The Rechtsstaat can only work if the rules are made in awareness of the possibility of incompetence, abuse, “evil”, whatnot.

    The legal charges for resisting are absurd, even if we assume that the custody was legal and even if we agree that such custody should be a legal option: If she was indeed so confused that she needed psychiatric custody against her own will, then she cannot reasonably be considered accountable for her behavior during the incident. If she was not, then the police was sufficiently out of line that she should not have had to accept their behavior.

    Moreover, it might well be justified to institute some type of exemption to such rules in order to prevent both abuse to silence or harass political (or other*) opponents and the accidental silencing of someone with an unlikely but true story. Consider the Martha Mitchell effect or the case of Gustl Mollath.

    *I note that I once had an, apparently mentally ill, landlord sic the police on me in the middle of the night because I allegedly held a woman captive in my apartment—such abuse of the legal system does happen. (One illegal and warrantless search of my apartment later, I was free of that accusation. However, he also made various other libelous allegations with lesser consequences.)

    Prior to this, she was already in the cross hairs of law enforcement for calling for criminals actions (it self a crime in Germany). What actions? To demonstrate against the COVID-19 measures and their (in her eyes; I have not looked into this, myself) illegality and/or unconstitutionality, including the ban on demonstrations. If this ban on demonstrations is indeed illegal/whatnot, this is, obviously, a gross and dictatorial measure, worthy of the old GDR. However, even if it is not, it would be extremely unfortunate to apply this ban even on demonstrations against the ban, as this would create an Orwellian and Kafkaesque deficit in the Rechtsstaat, where attempts to question the legality of governmental actions becomes illegal, per se. Here some type of exemption must be present to protect the right to demonstrate against, or otherwise protest or criticize, governmental behavior. (Here we have only one special case of protest, but note in parallel the massive drive to e.g. mark unconventional opinions as “fake news” or otherwise silence them. Indeed, Bahner’s own website was apparently offline for hours for just such reasons.) I am reminded of a passage in one of Terry Pratchett’s books, where a religious dictatorship practiced human sacrifice, but was limited to volunteers and those condemned to death—and where not volunteering was a crime punishable by death.

  3. As an excursion to the previous item, the step from branding someone as a spreader of “fake news” (or “racism”, “hate speech”, whatnot) to naming someone insane is not that large. I do not believe that this is what happened above, but I could easily imagine portions of the current U.S. pseudo-academia pushing for “racism” to be classified as a psychiatric condition or for having ideas contrary to what they preach considered signs of impaired judgment or delusion.* The abuse of psychiatry to hamper political opponents is certainly not unheard of in dictatorships.

    *Note that this would a very dangerous road to go down, even if the assessment was broadly correct (while, here, the reverse is more likely to hold—that the pseudo-academians have mental issues). For instance, it might well be that most people who have pet-theories about the JFK assassination are a little off, but if we were to silence them on that charge, there might be false positives among the individuals silenced, there might be a “chilling effect” in other areas of discourse, and we could continue to believe in something false—the chance that they are correct might be quite small, but it is not zero. Of course, if we take sufficiently many highly unlikely hypotheses, some of them will turn out to be true—and we cannot know which in advance, implying that a pre-mature stifling is dangerous. (Note again the cases of Martha Mitchell and Gustl Mollath, as specific examples.)

  4. There is a lot of talk about “corona apps” that would e.g. allow someone on the street to keep a sufficient distance to the infected. This could be extremely problematic, due to obvious future extensions, as with an inclusion of further and/or future diseases, of political support, of sexual orientation, or, obviously, of Jewishness—that little yellow star making a come back.

    Far fetched or impossible, due to laws of data protection? No. Consider e.g. the situation in many U.S. colleges. It would be very easy to imagine someone writing an app that indicates who in a certain college has and has not registered with said app to indicate support for e.g. “diversity” or opposition to e.g. Donald Trump. (Which would be unproblematic from a data protection point of view, because the registration is voluntary.) The app is widely published around the college, might even be pushed by the administrators or recommended by some professors, and soon anyone who has not registered is deemed as a deliberate case of non-registeration, aka a “racist”. Then it spreads to other colleges.

    Those who do not register would stand a non-trivial risk of being avoided or harassed, receiving worse grades, and/or falling victim to some other type of negative treatment.

    (Read Minding the Campus, if you have doubts.)

    Then there is the issue of what happens to those who do not have a smartphone, whose batteries have run out, or similar, …

Written by michaeleriksson

April 18, 2020 at 2:13 pm

Some follow-ups based on receipts (and some thoughts on VAT)

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Sorting my private and business receipts for the past quarter for my VAT declaration, I found two that have some impact on past texts:

My receipt from the the Swedish book sale:

As I see from the receipt, the VAT on books (and in general) in Sweden is an absurd 25 %. The German rate is a more civilized rebated 7 % (to a standard rate on most products of 19 %—already very hard to defend).

This is something that I failed to consider when complaining about prices, and it does explain a portion of the price disparity. Say, for easy numbers, that the pre-VAT price of a book is 10 Euro (or its equivalent in SEK). Then the post-VAT price is respectively 10.70 and 12.50. At least for cheaper books, this might explain most of the difference in price. For more expensive, unfortunately, the lion’s part remains.

(A completely fair comparison would also consider factors like purchasing power, but that would require too much research. However, for the record, the purchasing power of low earners tends to be higher in Sweden, but that of high earners lower, relative Germany.)

My receipt from the post-flight meal from my Finnair fiasco:

In the text, I write that “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).” and “At this point, I had no eye on the time anymore, but I was likely done [with the meal] shortly before eight.”.

The receipt claims that my “tab” was opened 19:09 and closed 19:47. Add a few minutes before and after, and this would be a good estimate of my stay. The “shortly before eight” is verified, and the “about an hour late” seems plausible, as I had no checked luggage and could move fairly directly to the restaurant.

Excursion on VAT:
The above is a good illustration of one of my own pet theories: Governments like VAT, because the enormous amount of money diverted to the government usually flies under the radar.

With income tax, the earner knows that he has earned amount X*, but for some reason only received amount Y. Why? The government. With VAT, he sees the price tag including** VAT to begin with and if the price is too high, who is to blame? The store. (Or the manufacturer, capitalist greed, whatnot.) That the government might well be the single party earning the most money on the purchase, and might well be responsible for the lion’s share of the difference between end-price and accumulated costs, that does not register with most people.*** (And, cf. above, even those who are aware of it, might fail to consider it in all circumstances.) Assume, in contrast, that customers saw the pre-VAT price of products cited and, again and again, had to shell out that Swedish 25 % extra at the cashier’s. The acceptability of VAT, I suspect, would drop very considerably.

*However, this amount is also often distorted, if not so blatantly as with VAT. Consider e.g. the Swedish “arbetsgivaravgifter” or the portion of social-security and health-insurance the German employers pay on behalf of their employees. In both cases, the increase of employment costs push the nominal salary down by a similar amount, implying hat they are actually paid by the employee, but in such an indirect manner that many are unaware of it.

**At least in every country that I have made purchases in. From fiction, I have the impression that this is different in at least some parts of the U.S.

***This will depend on factors like the overall markup on an item and what business has charged what business what amount during production. Note hat Value Added Tax is fairly agnostic on how the value has been added, and treats hard work by employees no better than a luxury markup. (Of course, this is just looking at VAT, without factoring in e.g. the income tax on salaries and taxation of company profits. Overall, the government is almost always the main earner in e.g. Germany.)

Written by michaeleriksson

April 13, 2020 at 5:59 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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The negative effects of staying at home vs. COVID-19

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An interesting aspect of the various stay-at-home orders is the effect on the semi-prisoners, which can conceivably be quite dire.

Until recently, this has not been much of a concern to me, because I (a) am an extreme introvert, (b) was already foregoing the office in order to write my first book—apart from empty shelves in the stores, my life had originally seen a comparatively small practical effect.

Over the last week or so, I have seen a handful of complaints, by more extroverted individuals, along the lines of “if I don’t get out of the house soon, I will snap”* or “I could kill for human company”, and the cause of such complaints is likely to have a damaging effect on the physical and mental health of the complainers, and the more so the longer it continues. This even discounting the possibility that someone actually does snap in manner that results in death or injury.

*I have yet to see a “if I don’t get away from my family soon, I will snap”, but the sentiment is bound to exist; and in light of the known phenomenon of “cabin fever”, it might be quite common in a few weeks time.

To this, factors like lack of sunshine and exercise must be added. Even I have been hit here, as I have cut down on my walking considerably for about two months*, and a weight gain is visually observable (I have no “bathroom scale”). Moreover, I have gotten out of the habit, and know from experience that regaining it can take a while.

*Of which, admittedly, only about half is COVID-19 related: Prior to governmental restrictions, I had a long visit to Sweden, followed by a period of cold symptoms. Also see an excursion below on the COVID-19 portion.

Moreover, the last two-or-so weeks, there has been another period of considerable noise disturbances, comprising hours of poundings of various kinds per day—likely because one or several children who should be in school or in the park are stomping* around in their apartment instead. This also includes several days with loud hammering, which (with an eye on prior issues) makes me suspect that some party in the house is occasionally abusing his apartment for professional carpentry or such like—and that the current situation has moved more of his works from the workshop to the apartment. Not only are these disturbances a considerable annoyance during the day, but it has also very severely impacted my sleep, where I have lost, possibly, an average of two hours a day for at least two weeks. I am at a point, where I have concerns for both my long- and my short-term health. (And, obviously, the work on my book and my quality of life are both negatively affected.)

*Really, stomping.

Now, according to Wikipedia, there are currently 2,673 deaths in Germany attributed to COVID-19 (time of writing: April 12th).* Give these an average of five years of lost life, which seems on the high** side to me, and we have roughly 13 thousand years. Give a low estimate of 80 million people in Germany, and see how much each of these would need to loose to outweigh this time: in hours, we have roughly 13,000 * 365 * 24 / 80,000,000, or a roughly 1.4 hours. Has the negative side-effects of the counter-measures already more than exceeded an average of 1.4 hours of lost life? I would consider this pretty much a given.*** I would, indeed, consider 1.4 hours a ridiculously optimistic number.

*But note complications like under-
and over-reporting and potential delays in reporting.

**Note that deaths disproportionately hit the elderly and the already ill.

***Even when considering some potentially positive effects through less pollution and less commuter stress. Also remember that the overall negative effects will include factors like unnecessary bankruptcies, unemployment, etc., which in turn cause loss of life; as well as e.g. people who die prematurely because they were afraid of COVID-19 and failed to visit a hospital in time.

Of course, if we want to determine what set of counter-measures makes sense, we should not look at the number of deaths that remain but the number that has been, respectively, caused and prevented. Here, I suspect, it would be possible to write a doctoral thesis and still have nothing better than speculation; however, even if we grant that the current counter-measures have saved as much as a hundred thousand lives over a more moderate set of counter-measures, well, look at the numbers. This would be roughly one person in 800. If we apply the same high estimate of five years extra per saved person, this is a little more than two days saved per person of the overall population—but round up and call it three days. Firstly, I very, very strongly suspect that this is more than outweighed by the loss of life caused by the counter-measures; secondly, if there, strictly hypothetically, were no such loss of life at all, would those three days really be enough to justify the bankruptcies, the loss of quality of life, the restrictions in civic rights, etc.? We each have different preferences, but my answer is a resounding no.

Excursion on why I have cut down on walking:
I am not in a panic about catching COVID-19 during a walk or of being dragged into a cell for defying Frau Merkel, but my typical walks are negatively affected in other ways. Notably, I usually have one longer walk (10 km or more) a week, which usually consists of going from Barmen* to Elberfeld*, walking around a while there, having a cup of coffee or a bit to eat somewhere, reading a while in the library, and/or performing a planned purchase, and then walking back. Now, more-or-less everything is closed … Factor in the lower practical gain and the loss of motivation on top of the stay-at-home dictates, and I tend to stay at home.

*Subdivisions of Wuppertal. Elberfeld contains the main city center.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 12, 2020 at 11:25 am

The fake-news problem

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When it comes to the fake-news and hate-speech* issues, there are three overlapping aspects that have disturbed me for some time and that have been repeatedly illustrated during the recent COVID-19 reporting:

*I will mostly leave out hate speech, for simplicity, but similar abuse is common, e.g. that statements with the “wrong” political opinions are often condemned as “hate speech” in a blanket manner, and often after a severe distortion, exaggeration, or unproved claim of intent. Cf. e.g. portions of [1], [2], [3].

  1. What is considered fake news is determined less by objective criteria* than by (a) who said it, (b) whether it matches the perception** of scientific consensus or some other ideal, e.g. the ideological*** message a certain journalist or politician wants to push.****

    *E.g. statistics cited and arguments raised.

    **An important word: politicians and journalist often have the science incredible wrong, as with e.g. I.Q.—especially, when the ideas or consequences are not compatible with their ideological positions. Sadly, the same applies to many social scientists. In the Wikipedia consensus debates, it is often not a matter of establishing the true scientific consensus, but the consensus among the editors what the scientific consensus would be—or, even, just the consensus among the editors.

    ***While I have seen much more of such problems on the Left, especially in Sweden and Germany, the problem is by no means limited to the Left, especially in the U.S..

    ****Here and elsewhere: Note that there are many blatant cases of actually incorrect claims being described as “fake news” (e.g. “COVID-19 was created by Donald Trump to defeat China”). Here I concern myself with the more subtle, e.g. “COVID-19 numbers over-/understate the problem because X”. However, note that much of the same argumentation extends to more extreme cases due to the problems of (a) where to draw the border, (b) who decides. In particular, while COVID-19 is almost certainly not created by any government, it is not inconceivable that someone at some point in the future does try to direct an artificial virus against an enemy—and what if a rightful warning is shouted down with “Fake news! Fake news!” until it is too late?

    Was a particular text written (claim made, whatnot) by a journalist for a news-paper? Then it will almost always be considered “news”, no matter how poorly researched or reasoned it was. (And journalistic texts are poorly researched and poorly reasoned disturbingly often, and quite often incorrect too. Most of the exposure to actual “fake news” that the average person has is likely to come from journalists and politicians—exactly those complaining of “fake news” the loudest.)

    By a blogger? Might well be condemned as “fake news” even when the text is well-researched and well-reasoned. (The more so, all other factors equal, when poorly researched, but for non-journalists there is no guarantee even for a quality piece. Even actual scientists specializing in the area at hand might be condemned as spreading “fake news”.)

    Does the text match the perception of scientific consensus (the doctrine of the dominating ideology, whatnot)? If so, it will almost always be “news”.

    Does it go counter to the perception? If so, it is very likely to be “fake news”, even when it matches the real scientific consensus or when at least some reputable experts believe the same.

  2. There is no awareness of the risks involved in approaching a question with the attitude “this is the truth and no-one has a right to say the opposite” (instead of “I am almost certain that this is the truth, but let us look impartially at the arguments for and against each side”).

    While many perceived truths have been truths or very good approximations* of the truth, they have also often been wrong—and there is often a long period during which we cannot say for certain whether a perceived truth actually is the truth. When no-one is allowed to question these perceived truths, this might or might not be beneficial when they are truths, but it is highly damaging when they are not and they are allowed to hang on long past their expiration date. Indeed, those who have raised new and unconventional ideas that were correct have often been disbelieved, ridiculed, or even per- or prosecuted, as with criticism of many issues relating to religion or kooky ideas like evolution and continental drift. Today, sadly, even well established actual truths can lead to condemnation when they do not fit the ideologically imposed new “truth”, as with e.g. the influence of inborn factors on behavior or success in life.**

    *Even in science, it is par for the course that well established, strongly-supported-by-evidence theories are refined over time. Even something that, in some sense, actually is true is not necessarily the last word on the issue.

    **Indeed, here it is not uncommon that the mere mention of the possibility is met with a storm of outrage, e.g. that someone is condemned as a disgusting sexist for even contemplating the possibility of men and women (viewed as groups) having different inborn preferences for math and nursing.

    For my part, I have always found that my insight grows the most when I listen* to different positions and opposing arguments. This sometimes even for the patently absurd**; very often, when there is some room for doubt. This type of campaign does not just imply that the campaigner is denying himself the benefit of such growth, but that he is actively trying to prevent others from gaining it. Worse, any serious attempt at debate risks drowning in name calling, where whoever has the most or loudest supporters wins—not whoever has the best arguments. It certainly relieves the one party of the duty of providing own arguments.

    *A partial explanation for the problems discussed here could be that some are unable to understand the difference between “listens to” and “sympathizes with” or even “will be converted to”. (Possibly, because they are themselves so weak critical thinkers that they might be convinced in the same situation …)

    **For instance, consider the deeply flawed anti-evolution argument that evolution is like having monkeys type randomly in order to reproduce Shakespeare. It is almost entirely without merit and shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what it attempts to disprove—but understanding why it is without merit, etc., can help someone develop his own understanding. Notably, most people who “believe” in evolution do so just because they have been told that it is true—not because they have any own insight into the matter.

  3. It is a massive threat to freedom of speech, especially when entities like Facebook are more-or-less forced to track down and delete what is considered “fake news”, “hate speech”, whatnot. (Note recent political trends to enforce just such obligations, as well as the voluntary or “voluntary” efforts by such entities on their own.)

    For free speech to be worth anything, it is not enough that someone has the legal* right to speak his mind. It is also necessary that he is protected from attempts at sabotage, intimidation, ad hominem** attacks, whatnot. This includes the wide range of “fake news” accusations. If a certain claim or set of claims is false beyond a reasonable doubt, it is better for all parties (possibly, excepting the accuser) if this falsity is demonstrated, than if it is just met with outraged screams of “Fake news!”. If it is not false beyond a reasonable doubt, on the other hand, then the outraged screams are entirely and utterly inappropriate.

    *But note that even this right is increasingly under challenge.

    **Excepting those very rare cases when the man is actually relevant to the issue. Either the arguments for and against are sufficiently clear, and there is no reason to attack the man; or they are not, and then it is the more important that we focus on the issue, not the man.

(And, yes, there is some overlap between these items and opinions that I have expressed in more generic contexts, including free speech, intellectual honesty, and “scientific mindedness”. And, yes, like with COVID-19, we might well have a situation where the attempted counter-measures do more damage than the original problem.)

Indeed, many appear so sure of the truth of a matter, the benefits/dangers of a certain behavior, whatnot, that they are willing to exaggerate or outright lie, slander and libel, use intellectually dishonest arguments, etc., just to ensure that others land at the “right” opinion. (Cf. e.g. portions of [4], as with the attempts to trick children into believing that “snus” comes from chamber pots, to ensure that they stay away from it.)

This is, obviously, quite incompatible with the ideals of a good journalist—someone who realizes that it is his job to report so that others can form their own opinions, not to just shove his opinion down their throats. (Cf. [5], which also covers some of the same ground as the current text.) If anything, a journalist should expose and criticize common misperceptions and -conceptions—not perpetuate them.

Worse, I cannot suppress the suspicion that at least some journalists abuse the “fake news” formula to discredit non-journalists, so that they can save their own industry—at a time when the quality of journalism, news-papers, etc., is at a disastrous low. I do note that the term “fake news” first became wide-spread in Germany (but not internationally) in the wake of the reverse accusation of “Lügenpresse” (see [5] for an explanation).

As an aside, the sheer quantity of accusation along these lines (“fake news”, “hate speech”, “racism”, …) has grown so long and contained so many unjustified cases, that I consider the current press and a great portion of the current politicians/parties as “the boy who cried wolf” (and I am hardly alone in this, something which should give the accusers reason to reconsider their approach):

By now, I tend to view any and all accusations from certain groups with extreme skepticism, sometimes to the point of having a subconscious reaction* in the other direction, and I expect them to support their own claims and opinions with the more evidence before I believe them (but they hardly ever do). Moreover, in some cases, I must suspect that the reason for this type of accusation is the lack of own evidence, which then is a rational indication that the accuser is in the wrong.** Indeed, these constant cries of wolf have strongly contributed to my changed take on man-made global warming, from “definitely real” to “I do not know”—my previous belief was based on claims made by journalists and politicians, experience shows that I cannot trust their claims, and I have (to date) never done the leg work to actually form an independent opinion on the matter.

*E.g. in that claims like “X is Y!” subconsciously cause me to view “X is not Y” as more likely without looking at the evidence, or in that I have some degree of automatic sympathies for X.

**Not to be confused with the more automatic reaction of the previous footnote. A good example is “The Bell Curve”, where the vast majority of the criticism seems to be some variation of “It is racist!”, while very few bother to explain why it would be racist and many of the accusers simply have never read it or engaged with its content in any other non-trivial manner—they are merely repeating what they have been told to believe. Moreover, the ‘It is racist!” typically serves as a blanket condemnation, without any attempt to analyze any individual points of the book, some of which might have been true and/or thought-worthy, even had the book been racist. As an extreme example, the first German animal-rights laws were instituted by the (indisputably racist, genocidal, and otherwise problematic) Nazis. Should we, then, automatically conclude that animal rights is something negative? Should these laws have been automatically repealed after the fall of Nazi-Germany?

Written by michaeleriksson

April 8, 2020 at 10:23 pm

Follow-up: A few observations around COVID-19

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My previous text on COVID-19, while broadly correct, might need some cautions in detail:

  1. Recently, I have repeatedly heard the claim that the daily increase in cases is mostly a question of an increase in the number of tested individuals, with the proportion of infected changing very little within this group. If so, this could make the numbers and trends I looked at extremely misleading, overstating the current spreading and relative death-toll radically, e.g. in that the virus has mostly done its work already, while we are now only finding out about the results. (Note the parallel to the hypothesis that death rates and whatnots are mostly those of a yearly flu and that this year is unique in that someone is looking into the causes of death—not in that there would be a significant new driving cause.)

    On the other hand, assuming the testing-drives-numbers hypothesis to be true, it is possible that the reason that more are tested is more people being infected, feeling symptoms, going to a physician to have the symptoms checked, and being tested because they went to a physician. Then the numbers could still reflect reality.

    What-is-what will depend on the circumstances of testing, which are not within my knowledge and might vary from area to area or from time to time. Even so, this is yet another reason to keep a cool head, yet another reason why the situation is* or could** be less dangerous than the numbers might seem to imply.

    *Examples include that the number of deaths must not be seen in isolation but be compared to other causes of death and that the deaths largely hit those already in poor health.

    **Examples include potential over-reporting of deaths through mixing “killed by COVID-19” and “died while having COVID-19” in the statistics and unclear/inconsistent use of measures like “case fatality rate”.

  2. From the previous item, it is quite possible that the number of infected is far higher than the “less than 1-in-1000 Germans” that I used as a basis. If so, the relative risk that my own issues are COVID-19 (and not a cold/flu/whatnot) could sky-rocket. However, this does not change the overall reasoning, because as the risk of having COVID-19 would rise, so would the risk of non-trivial complications, given that I had COVID-19, sink.

    At an extreme, some have hypothesized that almost everyone would already be infected (most of them either asymptomatic or already cured).* If so, I would probably be among them, but the danger, based on e.g. proportion of infected who died, would drop to next to nothing and I would have no greater need to worry than before.

    *This hypothesis I encountered for the first time much further back, but I kept it out of the discussion, because it is on the fringes of the spectrum, is more far-fetched, and, per this item, does not really matter in this particular context. The complication in the previous item still does not matter, but is less far-fetched and more mainstream. (More generally, there are a great many claims, arguments, speculations, etc. that I have left out of my own discussions.)

  3. Remark on notation: Below I will use the “^” sign to denote exponentiation (e.g. 2^3 = 2 * 2 * 2). Beware that instances of “*” (for multiplication) might or might not look odd, for technical reasons: I normally use this sign only for footnotes with my current markup, and I have no provisions in place to differ between footnote use and multiplication use typographically. Proof-reading, I also note that “t” (“tee”, used for time below) and “f” (“eff”, used for functions below) look extremely similar in my own browser, possibly, because of an unfortunate default font.

    While I maintain that exponential models become naive very fast, there is a complication of quasi-exponentiality that I overlooked in my last discussion. This also affects the relevance of the greater-than-linear-but-smaller-than-exponential growth mentioned in the German data. (Assuming that the data is usable in the first place. Cf. the first item above.)

    Exponential growth amounts to the increase at time t being proportional to the value at time t.* A typical case of this is a population where each member of the population contributes identically** to the growth, e.g. when each infected infects the same number of new people in each “iteration”.

    *More formally, e.g. by a differential equation like df/dt = k * f or, in a discrete analog or approximation, f(n + 1) = f(n) + k * f(n).

    **This is a common, simplifying, assumption when making models, in the hope that the variations “average out”. I suspect that it is naive more often than not.

    For instance, assume that this number is two and that we start with a population of one at t = 0. At t = 1, we have the original plus the two people infected by him for a total of three. At t = 2, we have the three plus the 2 * 3 = 6 people they infected, or 9 overall, etc. We then have f(t) = 3^t. (Where t is time in some context dependent unit, e.g. hours, days, or years. Below, I will silently assume days, but note that the numbers used are not necessarily realistic. For instance, a tripling of the infected every day would be horrifyingly large.)

    A slightly less naive* model might assume that the increase from t to t + 1 is affected only by the new cases from time t – 1 to t. Running through the same scenario, we still have f(0) = 1 and f(1) = 3, as the sum of the first person and the two he infected. However, at t = 2, we have the previous three and the 2 * 2 = 4 people infected by those infected in the previous iteration, for a total of 7 (not 9), At t = 3, we have the previous 7 plus the 2 * 4 = 8 newly infected, for a total of 15, etc. This amounts to the series 1 + 2 + 4 + … 2^t. By a high-school formula, this sums to (2^(t + 1) – 1) / (2 – 1) = 2^(t + 1) – 1. This is technically not an exponential function; however, 2^(t + 1) is, and the difference of – 1 rarely matters for a large t.**

    *I am not familiar with the models actually used, but a more sophisticated model might work with e.g. variable probabilities for different generations of the infection, where someone in the latest generation has a greater probability of infecting others than those in the second latest, the second latest one greater than the third latest, etc. Different probabilities might apply to e.g. office workers, school children, and house wives. (This classification would have to remain crude, or the complexity would explode with little benefit.) Different probabilities could apply in different areas depending on how long the infection has been present locally. Some mechanism should be in place to consider recoveries and deaths. Etc.

    **For instance, t = 10 gives 2048 in one case and 2047 in the other. But, as a comparison, our original 3^t results in the much larger 59049.

    More generally, there are many “sub-exponential” functions that are still bounded from below by an exponential function and/or might be near indistinguishable from one for large input values. These would then show a less than exponential growth in each iteration of e.g. a model of infections, but would be as bad as an exponential function in the long run. (If often a smaller exponential function than if the growth had not been sub-exponential.) One example is a combination of a larger pre-infected and non-infectious sub-population with an (originally) smaller and highly infectious sub-population, e.g. for f(t) = 10000 + 2^t. For small t, the effects might seem like trivial measurement noise or an extremely slow-moving infection, e.g. in that f(5) – f(4) = 16, a small fraction of the overall; however, a little later, we have e.g. f(20) – f(19) = 524288, which almost doubles the overall at t = 19 and dwarfs the overall at t = 0 (and e.g. t = 5).

    Then again, an exponential function is not automatically a problem, if the growth rate is sufficiently small relative the length of time. For instance, if we know that a cure will be widely available within three months then 1.1^t is much better than (the merely polynomial) 1 + t^2, no matter how much worse it would be after four months.

On a more personal note: By the time of my last text, I had managed to get hold of toilet paper (cf. an earlier text), but I might have failed again, had I arrived ten minutes later—so fast was the product moving. (And not necessarily even through hoarding at this juncture: everyone seemed to be taking one package, implying that it was likely mostly just others who were in a deficit.) However, the scarcity seems to continue and quite a few other items are (still) affected, including canned foods and frozen meals. Considering that the supply chain has had weeks to react, this is a disturbing sign for the future and any non-artificial* crisis.**

*While the supply side might have been hit by various restrictions on work and whatnot, the brunt of the problem is likely still through the unwarranted increase in demand. (And even the supply effect could be seen as artificial …) Now consider a similar situation when the supply side has been severely hit, e.g. in a war.

**Whether any blame, e.g. based on poor planing, should be attached to someone, I leave unstated—there are too many factors that I am unaware of, e.g. how large the storage buffers tend to be and to what degree e.g. farm output can be a limiter. I do note the failure to raise prices as per my earlier text, however.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 3, 2020 at 2:01 pm

Follow-up: Westworld

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A while back, I wrote very positively about the TV-series “Westworld”. We are now some part into the third season, and I am no longer watching. The strengths of the first two seasons are largely gone; the new story lines have so far not been impressive, ditto their execution; many strong characters and actors have been written out or (characters) been severely altered, with insufficient replacement; … Nothing against Aaron Paul, but he is not (yet?) on the level of Ed Harris and Anthony Hopkins. Interesting philosophical questions have been replaced with almost hackneyed dystopia scares* relating to e.g. surveillance and demonstrations of how-easy-I-can-kill-you. The last scene that I (partially) watched struck me as simultaneously almost silly and trying too hard to be dramatic (episode 3 / Caleb, Dolores, the milkshake, and whatnot).

*Which is not necessarily to say that they will turn out to be wrong or that I do not share similar concerns, but it is just variations of what others have already done the last few years.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 1, 2020 at 4:57 pm