Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Archive for May 2020

Odd usability decisions and rsync

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One of the most popular tools among e.g. software administrators is rsync, which allows efficient and flexible synchronization of files between different directories—even when located on different servers.

However, every second time that I use it, I feel like tearing my hair in frustration:

For some reason, the makers of rsync decided to implement something better governed by flags through obscure and unintuitive “directory semantics” (for want of a better word) and the behavior of rsync varies depending on whether a source and/or destination directory has a trailing directory separator*. Moreover this behavior is incompatible with almost any other tool, including the Unix command cp, for which it is a natural replacement.** Indeed, I would go as far as calling it a “best practice” to normalize directory inputs with a directory separator to exclude*** it before further processing, in order to ensure that both cases are handled identically and to avoid programming errors through assuming that a directory separator has to be added (or removed) at some later stage, e.g. when specifying the name of a new sub-directory to be created. Of course, here we have an other reason why rsync’s behavior is unfortunate: in a programmatic context, a normalized directory could lead to a very different behavior from the intended—as could a minor slip of the keyboard.

*In the Unix world, a slash resp. “/”. I have not investigated the behavior on other systems, including whether rsync is tied to the slash or the local directory separator, but I go with the more generic term for now.

**The cp command CoPies files and directories. In most cases, it is perfectly good at this, but rsync can be a superior choice for the same task in certain circumstances. Consider, e.g., copying between two servers over an imperfect network connection. If the connection fails during a use of cp, one can either start over from scratch or spend time with a manual clean up, and even then a partially transmitted file has to be re-transmitted from scratch. With rsync, the command can be repeated and the download will automatically be resumed with little overhead. (Interestingly, rsync can be used to save an interrupted cp, but then why not use rsync to begin with?)

***Why “exclude”? In part, through convention; in part, because the directory separator is not a part of the name of the directory, and it makes little sense to keep it at the end of a directory, even when given through a full path, when there is no further sub-directory that it could separate.

Specifically, I am ever again caught by the trailing directory separator of the source directory leading to a different treatment of the destination directory.* If a trailing directory separator is present, the files of the input directory are put directly into the output directory; if it is absent, they are put into a sub-directory** with the same name as the input directory. Not only is this very easy to forget, and not only is this highly counter-intuitive, but the standard file-name completion of e.g. Bash automatically adds a trailing slash when it expands a directory name, implying that the user who has used completion to generate the name has to explicitly think about removing that slash (should it not be wanted in conjuncture with rsync—in almost any other context it will be either wanted or irrelevant).

*At least in terms of manifestation. Conceptually, it might possibly be argued to that the source directory is treated differently. Cf. the rsync–cp comparison that follows.

**Created, should it not already be present. I suspect that the original motivation for these special behaviors related to the complication that such a sub-directory could or could not already be present.

For comparison: “cp -r x y”, “cp -r x/ y”, “cp -r x y/”, and “cp -r x/ y/” all do the same thing—they copy the directory x to the directory y, where there will be a new sub-directory with the appropriate name. In contrast, “cp -r x/* y” (or “cp x/* y/”; in both cases, note the asterisk, which here does not point to a footnote) copies the individual files and sub-directories present in x to y.* An “rsync -r x y” does the same** as the first four cp commands; “rsync -r x/ y” does the same** as the fifth (and sixth).

*Excepting “hidden files”, as the “*” is expanded thus by Bash and shells in the same family. Other shells might have a different behavior. Writing this footnote, I suspect that this could be another clue to the origins of rsync’s idiosyncratic behavior—a poorly thought-through attempt to reduce the dependency on the shell (or scripting language) used.

**With reservations for details, e.g. that cp might give an error and/or ask for a user decision when it tries to copy something which already exists or that, cf. above, cp-with-Bash is more restrictive in terms of hidden files.

Pure insanity.

How to do it better? Well, one option, would be to just have a flag that indicates whether the input directory, it self, should be copied or just its contents—while any trailing slashes are entirely ignored.

Excursion on (and reservation for) flags:
The behavior of these commands can vary considerably depending on what flags are given. The rsync “r” flag is roughly equivalent to the “cp” one, according to documentation, and I use it for consistency between examples. In practical use, I almost always call rsync with “avz”, of which the “a” includes the full effect of “r”. I have “cp” aliased to ‘cp -i”, which increases the “interactiveness”, in case of name collisions, over the “vanilla” cp. (Similarly, I have “mv” aliased to “mv -i”.)


Written by michaeleriksson

May 31, 2020 at 2:40 pm

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Destructive anti-“fake news” measures

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One of the worst parts of the whole fake-news-and-whatnot debates are attempts by e.g. Facebook, Twitter, and Google to filter what others read. I point e.g. to the recent interventions of Twitter against Trump’s twittering (cf. e.g. [1]) or repeated complaints by Ron Unz that his website(s) has been recently thrown off Facebook and severely punished in Google’s search rankings (at least [2], [3], [4]).* The move, e.g. in Germany, towards laws that would increasingly force Internet services to perform such censorship or distortion is horrifying.

*To boot, Ron Unz seems to have been hit in an entirely unfair and illogical manner, based on guilt by association, despite his site being intended for free speech from any and all direction. (But beware that I have only skimmed through the linked-to articles—they are quite long.)

In the current free-speech crisis this is a disaster—and it would be so, even if the distortions were guaranteed to be introduced fairly and competently. In reality, however, more-or-less the opposite is guaranteed. (Cf. earlier texts, notably [5].)

Such interventions will not only reduce free speech for e.g. ignorants, but will also cause both true statements to be censored and highly legitimate opinions to be drowned out, cementing existing opinion corridors. A particular danger is that services like Facebook will tend to over-censor based on complaints, e.g. that a dozen people write in and says “this text is racist” causing Facebook to delete it to avoid criticism, controversy, or legal measures, even when the text was nothing of the kind.*

*I am not aware of Facebook’s current policy and behavior, but I did repeatedly observe exactly this type of behavior for comments on Swedish online news-papers some ten to fifteen years ago, when I still read them. Someone complains about e.g. xenophobia and a comment was gone—regardless of whether the comment was xenophobic and whether there was some value to it. (Whether one of mine was ever affected, I do not remember, but I have plenty of own experiences from e.g. Feminist blogs. Cf. many texts from my early years on WordPress.)

A good example is the COVID-19 debates and how certain opinions are deemed inviolably true and others “fake news” in a situation where the actual scientific knowledge is/was* limited and even highly qualified experts often disagreed—indeed, even statements by a highly qualified expert were considered “fake news”, if they did not adhere to “the official truth”. Or consider topics like IQ, where the near scientific consensus among experts is overruled by journalist, politicians, and social scientists making claims outside their area of expertise (and very often driven by ideology to boot).

*The state of knowledge is still (2020-05-27) highly incomplete, but it is much, much better than a few months ago. Still, the “fake news” claims where present even back then …

Looking at Trump (cf. [1]), apparently:

Twitter slapped a warning label on one of President Trump’s tweets for the first time on Tuesday, cautioning readers that despite the president’s claims, “fact checkers” say there is “no evidence” that mail-in voting would increase fraud risks – and that “experts say mail-in ballots are very rarely linked to voter fraud.”

Firstly, the fear, even outright opinion, that mail-in ballots would increase the risk of fraud is perfectly legitimate and nothing that e.g. Twitter should interfere with. Should someone be of the opposite opinion, have strong counter-arguments or references to solid research, whatnot—then twitter back. To find the truth, to allow the individual to form his own opinions, etc., we need debate and not various types of censorship and imposition of “truth”.

Secondly, how do we now that the “fact checkers” are worth their salt? Competent and unbiased? Who, at all, are they? Are we talking a group of neutral leading political scientists (or whoever might have expertise on mail-in ballots) or two Democrat-voting, minimum-wage Twitter employees sitting in a basement? Similarly, what experts? What do other experts say?* Etc.

*While I have no own knowledge in the area, I note that [1] claims e.g. “[…] several experts have called mail-in balloting an invitation to widespread fraud.” and “”Absentee ballots remain the largest source of potential voter fraud,” read the conclusion of a bipartisan 2005 report authored by the Commission on Federal Election Reform, […]”, which makes it likely that the issue cannot be written off as e.g. a “real medicine vs. homeopathy” stand-off. (And, unlike with homeopathy, the claim is not ludicrous a priori.)

The current trend must be turned on its head: Laws must non-negotiably require various service providers to deliver all contents, not obviously illegal*, that a user publishes unaltered, unabridged, uncommented, uncensored, un-discriminated-against (in e.g. search rankings). Moreover, they must required e.g. that everyone is accepted as a user on the same terms**, irrespective of e.g. political beliefs and how many others might disapprove. Should e.g. the government, the PC crowd, the film industry want to shut-down or censor a user, they will have to target*** that user on their own. The only action allowed, barring a court order of some kind, by the service providers is to provide the complainants with enough information to proceed—and even that might, depending on the exact situation, require a court-order. (This notably when a reasonable anonymity, a pre-requisite for free speech in e.g. dictatorships, would be threatened—say that a Chinese dissident uses an anonymous U.S. service, that the Chinese government request his name and address, and that the service provider just hands it out.)

*Some types of file sharing or child-pornography, e.g., might fall in the category “obviously illegal”.

**These terms might, however, include provisions that are fair and relevant, e.g. that certain services require payment (from all users …) or exclude minors.

***By notifying the police, filing a civil lawsuit, requesting a court order, or what might be appropriate in any given case.

More generally, the common attitude that “I have the right to change statements by others as I see fit” must disappear. Cf. e.g. various texts on distortions by WordPress (if comparatively minor) or the absolutely inexcusable comment manipulations by Emvie Martin—which make me hope that there is a hell so that she can burn in it. Her behavior was so far beyond the acceptable that there should be a law against it.

Excursion on “the official truth” (“den officiella sanningen”):
This phrase was already quite popular in Sweden certainly fifteen, possibly even twenty, years ago, e.g. with regard to gender-feminist pseudo-science, which was thoroughly disproved by real science, yet held sway among journalists and politicians (and, sadly, still does). Over the last few years, many other countries have caught up and the phrase is highly relevant for e.g. the current U.S.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 27, 2020 at 7:36 pm

Relativizing problems or doing something about them

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A few words on relativizing problems:

It might seem that too many* complain** about too much that is of relatively low importance. So, you did not receive your DHL delivery? Big deal—my car was stolen!***

*Yours truly included—I do more than my fair share of complaining. This text notwithstanding, I have also often pointed to it in others.

**Note that I am not just concerned with someone shaking his fists at the sky or complaining to a third party at the water cooler, but also, and more importantly, with making complaints to the offending party or, when the situation warrants it, e.g. the police, the press, a “better businesses bureau”, a relevant oversight committee, …

***Fictional example: I have never owned a car. (Or, cf. below, been married. I have, however, had problems with the DHL on virtually every occasion that I have expected a DHL delivery.)

In some cases, complaints can truly be too small to reasonably bother with and/or just be a sign that humans are never satisfied—and some complaints are not justifiable for other reasons.* However, in many, even a problem that might seem small compared to someone else’s might well be worth pursuing.

*Strong candidates for all three variations can often be found in the “social justice” area, a phrase which (today; not necessarily so a hundred years ago) is usually nothing but a code for “equality of outcome”, “I want to have A, B, and C, and I want someone else to pay for them”, “I don’t care how much I got as long as no-one else has more”, or similar.

If nothing else, there is always a bigger fish, which would imply that hardly any problem would ever be worthy of a complaint, if relative size was an all-or-nothing criterion: So, your car was stolen? Big deal—my wife died! Wife? Big deal—that plane crash killed two hundred passengers! Two hundred? Big deal—the Spanish Flu killed millions!

More importantly: if we do not complain about and take actions against the small problems, the small problems will not go away. On the contrary, they are likely to increase and they will feed an attitude that allows bigger problems to flourish. This is especially important with problems involving criminal, dishonest, negligent, or even merely incompetent behavior. For instance, if everyone who has been burned by DHL would refuse to buy from online shops that use DHL for, say, a year after the event, then DHL would be faced with the choice of changing its business practices and losing business. On the other hand, if hardly anyone does, then things will continue in the same manner—if anything, they will grow worse, because DHL executives will be tempted to increase DHL’s profit margin just a little further on the cost of its contractors (implying that they have to cut the already inexcusable service level in response), and then a little further, and then a little further, … Yes: an undelivered package is a triviality compared to a dead wife, let alone the Spanish Flu, but there is still reason to complain and to act.

Or consider the general attitude: For instance, if no-one complains about governmental privacy violations to catch child-pornographers, then chances are that few complain about the same violations against drug dealers or due process violations against child-pornographers. Lather rinse repeat, as privacy violations are extended to greater and greater groups and more and more civic rights are restricted—until such a point that sufficiently many do complain. If the process is slow enough, these violations might grow sufficiently established that the protests do not come in time. The earlier and the louder we complain, the greater the chance that the problem will be kept small.

(Make no mistake: civic rights, Rechtsstaatlichkeit, etc. lose value incredibly fast when exceptions are introduced. For instance, if due process is abolished in the case of rape accusations, then someone attempting to e.g. get rid of a political opponent by framing him will forego the murder/extortion/whatnot charge and go with rape instead. Mission accomplished.)

Similarly, if customers tolerate absurdly poor service from DHL, other businesses in other fields will work under the expectation that customers will tolerate absurdly poor service from them too.

And, yes, with regard to all of DHL, governmental privacy violations, and businesses with poor service, the time to first complain is long come and gone in many or most countries—certainly, in Germany. This makes it the more important to complain loudly today, because the development will be that much harder to stem.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 23, 2020 at 11:49 pm

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A few thoughts on stimuli and emotions

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Watching a horror piece*, a few similar phenomena with, I suspect, a common explanation are brought to my mind.

*The “Black Mirror’ episode “Playtest”.

Specifically, I* often experience a build-up of emotions, emotional reactions, and whatnot, where a (for want of a better word) stimulus initially has little impact, but eventually becomes something major. This would be well explained by assuming that certain (again, for want of a better word) channels of the mind, likely with a physiological** background, are continually drained by some mechanism, much like the drain in a basin. When a small stimulus is present, the equivalent of a slightly opened faucet, then the basin remains more-or-less empty, because the drain swallows the water almost immediately. When the faucet is opened wider, the basin will have some water in it, but the amount will be more-or-less fixed***, because the drain still swallows it all, at roughly the same rate as it enters, but there might be some time before any given water particle is swallowed. When the faucet is opened wider yet, the drain will eventually not swallow the water at a sufficient rate and the amount of water will increase until the basin overflows (unless a secondary drain comes to the rescue, as is the case with most modern basins, but not necessarily the human mind).

*I suspect most others too, but I can only actually speak for myself.

**The exact nature is beyond my speculation as my knowledge of e.g. brain physiology has never moved beyond the informed layman’s and my latest readings are a good many years behind me. I do note, however, that some set of this-and-that receptors, re-uptake, etc. would make a decent fit.

***I.e. we still have an equilibrium, or something close to it.

Consider e.g.:

  1. Watching a (scary, non-laughable, non-splatter) horror movie and how the tension and anxiety, even fear, felt increases until the viewer wishes to take a break or otherwise relieve the tension (also cf. below)—and how a short break can make watching a few more minutes that much easier, until the tension has built to the critical level again. This, while a longer interruption, e.g. to write a discussion relating to horror movies,* can lead to a much greater respite before the tension becomes critical again. Of course, in all three cases (continued watching, short break, long break) the actual movie remains the same.

    *However, the aforementioned “Playtest” is not that bad. The situation of the protagonist, in universe, is repeatedly truly horrifying even by a horror-movie standards, but the viewer has it easier than with many other works, as there is a fair amount of comic relief and relief through threats that turn out to be harmless, and at least some of the episode is less horror and more “meta-horror” and the usual “Black Mirror” investigations into consequences of technology. Besides, this is a second watching. (Now, “Alien” or “The Blair Witch Project” on a first watching …)

    Similarly, the increasing fear that I have experienced during prolonged times close to potential falls. I am afraid of heights, but usually in a controllable manner. However, I can e.g. recall how I once was in a museum looking down on a few very large statues from several floors up for, possibly, ten minutes. By the end, the originally weak fear had risen so close to a panic that I had to move away, unable to take the anxiety any longer.

  2. The increasing mirth when watching a good sit-com, where the first joke or humorous situation might bring a smile or a giggle, while similarly funny portions bring a stronger and stronger reaction, until the point of major laughter is reached. Here too, on rare occasions, I can wish for an outright break, e.g. by putting an episode on pause for a little while. This in part because any further jokes might prolong the laughter and the positive feeling, but not* make it stronger, implying that it is better to take a break, to let the metaphorical water level sink a bit, and only then continue for a new build-up; in part, because it becomes hard to simultaneously laugh and pay attention to what happens on the screen.

    *Or, if it could, possibly to a degree where the situation, literally, became unhealthy.

  3. The increasing annoyance caused by a continuing disturbance, which goes from a triviality* to a horror as it continues, on and on and on and on. In my case, with sufficiently long disturbances, they can even cause rage. Compatible with the metaphor, I have also found that anger surfaces much more rapidly on days when I have already been angry, often through such a disturbance, e.g. in that I have a first understandable anger because someone has ruined my sleep by raising hell at 6:30 in the morning** and that I have a second anger over something much more trivial later in the morning, e.g. because I prepped my coffee maker before showering, but forgot to turn it on. (Something, which would normally just give me a brief moment of disappointment.)

    *After it first enters the realm of awareness. The pre-awareness time is probably usually fairly short, but it might involve some other mechanism than the “faucet and drain”.

    **Unfortunately, not a fictitious example. This has happened quite often the last few weeks, complemented by several past-midnight incidents and quite a lot of odd stomping, hammering, and whatnot during the days. That the anger, understandably, grows worse with every occurrence is probably yet another mechanism. (Yes, I try to apply stoic principles, but it is not that easy in the moment.)

It seems likely to me that the channels are not entirely separate and/or that the conscious mind can be distracted from one channel to another. Consider e.g. comic relief* in the case of a horror movie—a sudden joke will not only reduce the anxiety from the scary parts, it will also typically have a much stronger humorous effect than the same joke would have in a less stressful situation. (The phenomenon of “nervous laughter” is likely related.) Or consider the rare works of fiction that manage to hit a spot where the viewer/reader/whatnot is simultaneously laughing and crying**: I hardly ever experience it, but it is an immense feeling on those rare occasions.

*Disclaimer: It is possible that I slightly misuse the term here, but my meaning should be clear.

**Due to a very sad (or very happy) situation—not because the laughter has grown strong enough to cause tears in its own right.

More speculatively, I could see a connection with mood swings. For instance, I have the subjective impression that I am more prone to a strong negative reaction when I am on a (positive) emotional high, e.g. after having watched a particularly funny sit-com. Say that I hit my elbow on something: when I am in a neutral mood, my reaction tends to be an equally neutral “that was painful”, but when I am in a strongly negative or positive mood, the reaction is likely to be in the fuck-this-piece-of-a-shit-of-an-object direction.

Looking at autism*, just assuming that autists/aspies/whatnot have a smaller drain (or a smaller basin) would go a long way to explain many differences in behaviors and preferences relative NTs, in that they are, in reality, not that different, but happen to be triggered by a different level of stimulus, be it through a difference in magnitude or duration. Even the likely most stereotypical** behavior, flapping, appears to be more a matter of exceeding some level of excitement or anxiety than anything specifically autistic. For instance, some type of flapping is regularly used in animes*** to indicate exactly extreme excitement—but not autism. On the contrary, it seems much more common in everyday outgoing high-school girls than in even introverted high-school boys. (The boys, those hentai-kuns, appear to be more prone to nose-bleeds, however.)

*I am a suspected aspie.

**Possibly unfairly: I have no recollection of flapping myself and have only very, very rarely seen another suspected non-NT flap (and I worked for two decades in the software industry).

***It might, conceivably, be a trait shared by autists and the Japanese, but that seems less likely.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 19, 2020 at 8:39 pm

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German department stores (and COVID-19)

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As a follow-up to an excursion in an earlier text ([1]):

Barmen’s is, obviously, not the only city center that risks severe damage or structural changes due to the COVID-19 counter-measures. A good example is the recent claim that about half of Germany’s department stores might close (cf. a German source [2])).

As historical background, for a large portion of the 20th century, Germany had a flowering department-store business, with a number of large* individual stores and a number of chains. Over time, these consolidated almost entirely into two chains, Karstadt and Kaufhof, which both ended up struggling.

*At least by the standard of the day. While some, like the famous KaDeWe, are large even by today’s standard, others need not have been.

When I moved to Germany, in 1997, this consolidation was already mostly completed, but older names were often still in use. For instance, the big Karstadt store in Frankfurt still carried the “Hertie” name. Since then, I have seen these names disappearing, more and more stores closing, and an endless stream of news about Kaufhof and its poor profitability (including repeated owner changes and almost-bankruptcies*).

*Reminding me of the German saying “totgesagte leben länger” (roughly, “those believed dead live longer”), as it has come back from apparent death more often than Michael Myers.

About a year ago, these two chains began a merger process, which automatically would imply a reduction of business, e.g. to avoid having two large department stores from the same chain in close vicinity to each other.

Now, factor in the damage done by the COVID-19 counter-measures and we have the situation discussed in [2], where about 80 of the remaining 170-or-so stores might close.

Even apart from the drop in the level of competition and the risk that the overall “shopping opportunities” (I know of no good word) are reduced, this is highly unfortunate, because there has been a long drift towards small stores that are almost pointless to visit. For instance, a typical German* mall has just a few decent-size stores and then a barrage of “hole in the wall” stores, often with a strongly overlapping set of products, often differentiated only by what brand or which few brands are offered. (This particularly when it comes to clothes.) Effectively, a customer can take a few steps inside the store, look left and right, and determine that there is nothing to bother with. Alternatively, there is one thing to look at, which in nine cases out of ten turns out to be a waste of time, e.g. because of an excessively high price.

*I suspect that this is not limited to Germany, but my experiences from other countries are much more limited.

With a larger store, the chance of finding something worthwhile are larger, the product and price ranges are wider, it is easier to make price comparisons, …

These problems are artificially made worse, because even the larger stores (department stores included) often sort products by brand instead of e.g. type. Let us say that I want to buy a pair of trousers: in a good store, I would find wherever the dark, somewhat business-like trousers were, go to the right size grouping, and look through the various item with an eye at aspects like looks, price, and quality. In a typical larger store, as is, I have to go to section for brand 1, find the right product type, find the right size grouping, look through it, then go to brand 2, lather-rinse-repeat. In a small store, I would go to the one brand, find the right product type, find the right size grouping, look through the mere handful of candidates, and then make a decision whether to (a) buy from this particular store, (b) go to a different store, hoping to find something better, (c) go to several stores, try to make comparisons, and then go back to the best alternative. No wonder that eCommerce is beating brick-and-mortar …

Of course, in a larger store, ideal or actual, I would also stand a good chance of making several purchases at once: if I need a new pair of trousers, I can also pick up a few shirts. Not so with a smaller store, because it is unlikely that I would find both in the same store. (Sometimes, they are not both present at all in a non-trivial scope; but, even when they are, I am unlikely to find a good match for both in a single store.) In a big department store, I could find not only trousers and shirts but also e.g. a lamp and a few DVDs.

To discuss the reasons behind these developments goes beyond the scope of this text, and would likely require a lot of research, but I do note the push towards shopping-as-an-experience (rather than shopping-to-get-a-needed-product), the increased influence of the individual brands in the trade and the brand obsession of many irrational customers, and a deliberate tactic by at least some stores and/or brands to make comparisons harder, as they know that they would not come off well in these comparisons.

From another angle, chances are that increasing costs of business (notably, rent) in the more attractive city centers has favored high-markup articles, implying e.g. that the generic clothing store has been closed in favor of a Prada store.

This, in turn, could be a contributor to the failure of the department stores, as they have often stuck to a high-markup* strategy, making it unnecessarily expensive to buy there and forcing entire product ranges out. (For instance, many department stores do not sell lamps.) Now, I understand the wish to optimize profitability, but this type of action has often amounted to cutting off the branch one sits on. In particular, from my point of view, the attraction of a department store is rooted in the idea of “everything under one roof”—that I can go to one store and get all my purchases done in one go. This ideal, however, was only weakly adhered to even in 1997—today, not at all. When I do not have “everything under one roof”, when I still have to visit several different stores, and I have to pay a considerable markup for what I do buy, why should I bother? There we have one customer less, less revenue, a need to optimize profitability even further, and the vicious circle continues.

*Notably, department stores often come with a double markup: one for the brand, as highly over-priced brand products are favored, and one for the store.

As is, the likes of Walmart are closer to the department store ideal than department stores are—and at much better prices. But: the likes* of Walmart are rarely found in city-centers, requiring use of a car to reach some far off, obscure location … Sadly, I had one of these just a few kilometers away, when I first came to Barmen, but it has since closed—incidentally, leaving the (otherwise very small) mall that it anchored almost dead.

*Specifically Walmart is likely not present in Germany anymore, but stores with a similar “hyper market” concept are, if likely not to the degree of e.g. the U.S.

Excursion on suicidal optimization:
The aforementioned type of optimization, which damages long-term business development, is quite common, even to the point that the net-effect might be negative* or that a niche for upstart competitors is accidentally created. One of the first examples that I encountered was the railway connection between the very small town of Kopparberg, where I lived for most of my pre-adult life, and the rest of the world. Early on, the train had a number of halts at even smaller places. Every know and then, one of them was cut from the schedule—presumably,** because too few passengers traveled to and from them. Possibly, in any given case, this was a rational decision, but it had the effect that overall passenger load was reduced and that fewer passengers used the other stations, making the next cut that more tempting.*** The result was a continual deterioration of both revenue for the business and service for the population—and the creation of a niche for a competitor, who has by now been trafficking quite a few of these stations since the 1990s.

*Which is by no means a given, as the optimization presumably also has positive effects. It is, e.g., conceivable that the German department stores would have failed even faster without them, that the vicious circle resulted from a damned-if-do-damned-if-you-don’t dilemma.

**Likely helped by a wish to reduce travel times on the main line.

***I note that this was deep in the country-side, where almost everyone had a car, and that it was rarely worth the trouble to take the car to the next station: unless the intended train travel was very long, one might just as well go the entire distance by car as go to a further-away station by car and then taking the train from there.

Excursion on the main topics:
As to the main topics of [1], and with a strong connection to e.g. [3], I note that there have been several interesting political decisions recently, e.g. the new, insanely large, and hopefully-to-be-blocked-by-the-senate U.S. COVID-19 rescue package, or the recently finalized German pension increase. In the latter, the monthly payout is hiked for many former low earners*, the increases are, so far, unfinanced, will almost certainly come from tax hikes for the rest of the population, and they are implemented despite the extra expenditures through COVID-19. Apart from the boost in working-class votes, would it not be better to put it on ice until we know what happens with the economy and what resources will actually be available? Of course, the extra costs to finance this reform will leave others with less money available, a lesser ability to secure their own future, and a greater need for government support, be it now or in the future.**

*This also raises questions of fairness, incentives, etc.: On the one hand, many of those benefiting have done the best that they could, and might deserve a leg up in their old age; on the other, many have not. They will also have paid in much less in the pension system than most others, many will already have received considerable handouts during their working years, and this might make future generations the less likely to work hard to secure their own future, as they are taught to rely on the government to put food on the table.

**This particular reform, alone, is unlikely to have much of an effect, but the overall pressure on the citizens is enormous: a major reason why the current level of pensions, social security, health insurance, … is “needed” is simply that the population pays so much in taxes, pension fees, social-security fees, health-insurance fees, …, that their ability to build own buffers and to pay running costs through earnings is limited. In a twist, this is a partial parallel to the previous excursion, as every change makes the situation worse for the population. (But it is, arguably, an anti-parallel when comparing the train company and the government, as the government benefits from the increased reliance of the population on the government.)

Written by michaeleriksson

May 16, 2020 at 11:02 am

Poor journalism and journalism as a source of fake news (The New York Times)

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A while back, I encountered a quite interesting article, in which a renowned* journalist deplores the The 2016 Election and the Demise of Journalistic Standards.

*One Michael Goodwin. While unknown to me, apparently he is “the chief political columnist for The New York Post” and “he worked for 16 years at The New York Times”, among other qualifications relevant for the current discussion.

He is, obviously correct, but too optimistic, e.g. in that he says “We were generally seen as trying to report the news in a fair and straightforward manner. Today, all that has changed. For that, we can blame the 2016 election or, more accurately, how some news organizations chose to cover it.”: The problem in lacking standards has existed for a very long time before that, although it is conceivable that the trend has been slower in the U.S. than in e.g. Germany and Sweden. If the public has acquired a greater awareness of this problem through the reporting around the 2016 election, then this is a good thing—but, make no mistake, many were aware long before that. My own first complaints in writing are likely more than ten years old by now, and I had been an unhappy camper for a long time before that.

A particularly interesting claim:

The [New York] Times’ previous reputation for having the highest standards was legitimate. Those standards were developed over decades to force reporters and editors to be fair and to gain public trust. The commitment to fairness made The New York Times the flagship of American journalism. But standards are like laws in the sense that they are designed to guide your behavior in good times and in bad. Consistent adherence to them was the source of the Times’ credibility. And eliminating them has made the paper less than ordinary. Its only standards now are double standards.

While I cannot vouch for his estimate of the past of this paper, the trend well matches the problems and trends that I have seen elsewhere. Cf. e.g. portions of the my discussion of the Relotius fraud or my suggestions for a new press ethics [1] (and a number of links from these pages). In fact, if his claims about The New York Times hold true, it can be argued that my new press ethics is on many points just a return to an older press ethics …

Earlier today, I found an article on Minding the Campus dealing with the New York Times, specifically a recent, highly problematic Pulitzer Prize awarded for its highly problematic “The 1619 Project”. As discussed in this article and several preceding on the same site, there are grave problems with historically incorrect claims that even fairly basic fact checking would have caught—and which appear to have been made out of a wish to push a certain political angle relating to slavery, exploitation of Blacks, and similar, beyond what is warranted by actual history. (The alternative is gross incompetence, which, obviously, can never be ruled out when it comes to journalists.)

This, too, plays in well with some of my past writings, including (again) [1] and a portions of a recent text on fake news and COVID-19. In particular, we have here publications that at least partially* are “fake news”, journalistic fraud, “bad science”, or whatnot, yet are not only accepted as “non-fake news”—but actually wins Pulitzers …

*I have not studied the project in detail, myself, and I do not rule out that there is considerable valuable and correct content (but neither do I rule out that there is not). The deficits repeatedly detailed by Minding the Campus are, however, sufficiently extensive and severe as to make the whole irredeemably bad journalism, the type that rightfully should get journalists fired and “you will never work in this town again”-ed. But instead, again, it wins prestigious prizes …

Written by michaeleriksson

May 11, 2020 at 8:03 pm

COVID-19 and state support

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As the COVID-19 crisis and restrictions are slowly ending in Germany, the calls for support from the state are increasing—everyone and his uncle wants to receive (or already does receive) support, be it unemployed workers, businesses on the verge of bankruptcy, an opportunistic automotive industry, or cities/municipalities/whatnot.

On the one hand, the damage done to the economy is mostly to blame on the government imposed counter-measures (rather than COVID-19, per se), which makes it hard to deny these requests from an ethical point of view. (Not that I expect e.g. the typical politician to understand this, however.)

On the other, who is actually eventually supposed to pay for this? When the demands for support are this large and wide-spread, the state cannot just fiddle a little with the budget and create space for handouts—and it certainly does not have an immense surplus to spread on the needy. Where will the money come from? Printing money ups inflation and, indirectly, destroys wealth. Borrowing money only postpones the problem. Increasing taxes just pushes money back and forth, while incurring waste. (Someone receives a support check from the state’s left hand and a new tax demand from the right.) Cutting in the existing expenses will be both hard to justify politically and take a long time, even when it comes to bureaucracy and waste.* Considering the strong Leftist tendencies in Germany, I fear that the “solution” will ultimately be that the “rich” must “show solidarity” with the “poor”, which is implemented e.g. by the government simply confiscating large portions of wealth (hypothetically, 20 % of all bank assets above 100.000 Euro). A perpetuation of the highly unethical and abused “Solidaritätszuschlag” seems likely—a “temporary” tax of the past thirty years, which, before COVID-19, finally seemed to approach the end of its life.

*And even here, the cuts will do damage somewhere, which might require additional intervention and/or reduce the beneficial effects of the handouts. (But, to avoid misunderstandings, apart from the political obstacles, I would consider this the best way to go, as those damaged will often lose an unfair benefit, e.g. that of being employed for life as a civil servant while being incompetent and lazy, and as the long-term societal effects are likely to be positive.)

The most that can be hoped for is some degree of redistribution of damage, but this hardly ever ends up fair either, and often implies that the smart, hard-working, economically prudent, whatnot pay for the dumb, lazy, wasteful, and/or you-name-it. The COVID-19 countermeasures have hit more randomly than, say, regular career or business success, but it has not resulted in a “negative lottery”. For instance, a business with a sounder original economy, greater buffers, less debt,* fewer unnecessary costs, …, will be less endangered than a less sound business—but which will receive more governmental support and which will tendentially be at risk for an additional tax payment? Similarly, the individual who has saved as little as 100 Euro a month during his working life will be more likely to come out of this without needing help than the one who has consistently spent the same 100 Euro in a bar or on a bigger apartment.

*In a bigger picture, this is a strong indication that running businesses in debt and deficit, even be it to achieve growth and in the hope of future profits, is a dangerous strategy. (Often for the individual business, even more often for society as a whole.) Here very considerable rethinking might be beneficial. Generally, everyone, individuals, businesses, municipalities, …, should strive to build buffers instead of living on credit.

Indeed, just like COVID-19 kills far more among the elderly and those already in poor health than among the young and healthy, the counter-measures will kill struggling business first. (But also, unfortunately and unfairly, small businesses, which could have very negative effects on the “demographics” of businesses.) Compensation then risks saving businesses that would have failed anyway comparatively soon and might well still fail despite the compensation within a year or two—and if they grab onto COVID-19 as an excuse, we might see a larger scale repetition of e.g. the decades long German coal-industry subventions. This amounts to a great waste of money and could additional skew competition in a manner that is harmful for society.

Then there are those who might fake or grossly exaggerate a crisis in order to get compensation that they do not at all deserve …

It would have been better, had there been fewer and/or less drastic countermeasures, with (a) less damage* and (b) a greater justification for letting business developments run their course without support. As is, the situation is extremely poor with no good answers. I do suspect, however, that erring on the side of too little compensation will be the better way to go.

*And note that even a comparatively small change in damage can have a large effect on the businesses (and more generally, persons, entities, whatnot) that are close to the border of failure, e.g. in that being closed one week less or one week more can be a make-or-break criterion, as can having a tenth of the normal revenue vs. being closed entirely.

Excursion on Barmen:
I live in Barmen, a part of the German city of Wuppertal. Just a few hundred meters from my house is the local city center, once flowering. Even during my few years here, I have noticed a continual drop in stores, presumably driven by a mixture of the general brick-and-mortar crisis and the establishment of a major new mall in Elberfeld (another part of Wuppertal). This possibly aided by a drift towards shopping in nearby Düsseldorf. Of course, such decline leads to a vicious circle, where every store that closes makes it less attractive to shop in Barmen than in Elberfeld, shifting even more of the commerce away, which risks more store deaths, … Add in the negative consequences of the COVID-19 countermeasures and this could end badly.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 7, 2020 at 7:53 am