Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Archive for July 2020

Record posts / Follow-up: Blogging, records, and new-beats-good

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As a brief follow-up to today’s text on blogging and records:

I just, out of curiosity, had a look at my WordPress post-statistics, and was a little puzzled/disappointed* by what I found. The current record post, On language change, prescriptive and descriptive grammar, and related issues, is one of the more well-written and valuable (to the right reader), but has never been spectacular in success. It has just racked up a view here and there over almost ten years, while flying under my own radar. While language topics have been recurring, they are normally of secondary importance. (The post is a positive, however, in as far as it shows that new does not always beat good.)

*Possibly, I should not be, as I have dealt with this topic before.

However, it is about to be overtaken, leading with just a few views over Stay away from Clevvermail—my complaint as a disgruntled Clevvermail customer. It is a fairly poor and valueless post, and I am almost annoyed at its success in just two-and-half years. (But this success has not flown under the radar.)

Only in place three, we find a post that really matches the main contents of this blog, that I have myself extensively linked to, and which is politically important: The “77 cents on the dollar” fraud.

Place four, a known oddity, is Doubt: A parable—a movie review, of all things. (It was fairly popular in my early days, but rarely sees hits today. Possibly, because the movie has grown old and unwatched?)

Place five goes to a text on Price segmentation. This too has flown under my radar. The contents are not necessarily bad, but they are a little “Economics 101” and something that, arguably, should be taught on the high-school level. If someone has to learn this from me, it is a little depressing.

Finally, in place six we find “The Male Privilege Checklist” debunked. This is a topic close to my heart and of societal and political importance, but the text is two sentences pointing to my website, where the actual text is published. This sixth-ranked page, in it self, is next to useless and likely to have disappointed all these visitors if they found it through a search—they would have been much better off landing directly at the full text.

Of these six texts, three are from 2010, two from 2011, and one from 2018. While older texts have, obviously, had longer to gather views and while my visitor numbers were higher back then, this is still a little depressing. (In particular, as the 2018 text is the Clevvermail one.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 31, 2020 at 6:45 pm

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Blogging, records, and new-beats-good

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As I should focus on my books,* I try not to spend too much time blogging. This July has still seen a record 26 posts (this one included), to narrowly beat last July’s 25.** Moreover, the two month sum over June and July is another record with 41 to the 40 of last years June and July. How did this come about?

*In addition to (still) polishing the first, I have written minor parts of the second and try to plan out a reasonable overall structure in advance (unlike with the more improvised first book).

**After that, there is a fairly sharp drop to 21 for November 2017 as the only other month with more than 20 posts.

Firstly, as I wrote at the beginning of the month (regarding my book writing):

The last few weeks, I have been a little troubled to get work done again. This in part, because I needed a breather; in part, due to the current “interesting times” (note my increased blogging); in part, because the construction work is here again.

This has caused a bit of a vicious circle, as my blogging has taken time from my book writing, significant chunks of time have disappeared on various necessary correspondence and other tasks (e.g. taxes), and the reduced time spent on my books have made it harder to get back to them. Conversely, some of the blog posts have caused further posts to make clarifications, cover related topics, or similar.

Here, there might be a valuable lesson: That writing feeds writing and that it is important to deliberately feed the writing that has priority.

Secondly, for some reason, I find it easier to blog during construction noise than to do other types of writing. I am as yet uncertain why.

Thirdly, at some point, I saw that both my post count and my visitor numbers where heading towards a record level for “all time” resp. a good few years, which motivated me to deliberately post more. (Partially, see below, with an eye on testing the new-trumps-good principle in blogging. Cf. at least [1], [2], [3].) To be more specific, my thoughts on post count went through a chain of “just a few more posts and I will hit 20 for the third time”, “just two more posts and I will have my second highest post count ever”, and “just four more posts to get the record—and I have days left to do it”.

The post record I do reach with this post—and this post is motivated exactly by getting that one extra entry to break the tie. The visitor record will probably remain with last year’s July, but this month’s numbers will almost certainly be the second highest since 2013.*

*There is some small residual uncertainty depending on today’s numbers. I had considerably larger visitor numbers in 2010 and 2011, and some months of 2012 and 2013, for reasons discussed in [1]. This is OK, there is much that I could do to drive traffic here that I deliberately forego.

This brings me to new-trumps-good: The two months with the highest number of visitors since 2013 are the ones with the highest post count—yet another indication. Unfortunately, comparing months more in detail is tricky, because there is a lot of individual fluctuation. For instance, if a single user simply runs through most of the “archive” this will give an artificial boost to that month, and my overall numbers are sufficiently low that this will be very noticeable. For instance, there appear to be some seasonal trends, like that darn December—and, yes, these two top months are both Julys, which might have played in. (But there is no obvious “July high” in the way that there is an obvious “December low”.)

Speaking of December, last year’s December remains the low-point of the last few years, despite this year having several months with a low post count, so December appears to beat new-beats-good. There was a close call in February, but February had two days less to build traffic. Of course, February also saw all of 8 posts to 14 for December.

As to the August that begins tomorrow, there will likely be far fewer posts: I feel satiated, blogging-wise, I really need to get back to my books, and the construction works, knock-on-wood, appear to be over.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 31, 2020 at 7:45 am

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A few thoughts on charity and helpfulness

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Since writing a few earlier texts ([1], [2]) negative towards charity, I have repeatedly seen, with some early puzzlement, the claim that charity would be a major evolutionary benefit—even when directed towards strangers.

To outline my resulting thoughts on this topic:

  1. It is important to make a distinction between cooperation, reciprocal* help, and one-sided help. The first often** allows humans to accomplish more than they can individually or in a more timely manner. The second leaves the “helpee” better off without harming the helper.*** The third is good for the helpee but bad for the helper, risks that the undeserving are helped, risks abuse, and risks a dysgenic effect through allowing the lazy, unfit, stupid, whatnot, to afford children.

    *Where the reciprocation need not be immediate or even short term, and might also, in an extended sense, be indirect e.g. through A helping B, who helps C, who helps A. In a further extension, parents helping children might be included: the parents received help from their own parents and the children will someday help their own children, in a chain of “paying it forward”. Note that there can be some overlap with cooperation.

    **Team-work in schools often provide counter-examples. Among the problems, note that the more intellectual the task, the more the result tends to be determined by the best individual brain, who might even be held back by the team.

    ***At least to some approximation and when accumulating help given and received over a life-time and all actors: that the exact “value” of the overall help in each direction, for two given individuals, will be equal is unlikely.

    For an example of cooperation, consider an Amish barn-raising as portrayed in fiction*: the entire village comes to perform the work that a single man,** or even a single family, would be extremely hard pressed to manage on his own. There is a bit of hard work, then a bit of a feast, and then everybody goes home happy.

    *Reality might or might not be different.

    **In my recollection, these scenes have been heavily dominated by bearded men, but feel free to include women and children.

    For an example of reciprocal help, take the same barn-raising and the understanding that those who helped today will themselves be helped in the future, when they have a barn to raise.

    For an example of one-sided help, with a dose of abuse and the undeserving being helped, take a barn-raising for someone who sees his fellow villagers as dupes, whom he has no intention of helping in return.

    (The barn-raising can be varied further, e.g. that a family with fewer working men might, non-abusively, be net-recipients of help and a family with more working men net-givers of help, or that an old widow might be unable to repay in kind, having either to find other means of repayment or be a non-abusive charity case.)

  2. What is good (general sense) for society, what is good (general or evolutionary* sense) for the individual human, and what is good (evolutionary sense) for the individual gene are not necessarily the same. For instance, help given from a parent to a child is often good in both senses and for society, both individuals, and the genes that they both share. However, help given to a complete stranger is likely to be bad for the genes, good for the individual stranger, and the result for the individual helper and society will depend on the circumstances (including the degree of future reciprocal help).

    *In the below, I will not be exact with this differentiation and mostly work with the implicit assumption that an evolutionary advantage is an objective good. This for two reasons, viz. to keep the discussion simple and because this type of discussion often is used in an evolutionary context and my motivation is partially from an evolutionary claim (cf. the first paragraph). However, this is not the only perspective on the issue.

    This might be a clue to charity-towards-strangers as an evolutionary benefit: it might, within some limits, be beneficial to society, and a more successful society might bring sufficient benefit to the individual that a lesser fitness within the group is overcome. (Cf. my, usually anti-Leftist, analogy that a smaller slice of a larger cake might be better than a larger slice of a smaller cake.) However, this with both a “might” and caveats like “assuming that sufficiently many others are sufficiently charitable” and “assuming that society has had enough time to benefit” (which might rule out a net benefit for a “first generation” helper).

  3. In sufficiently small and tight groups, charitable actions are likely to be to one’s own benefit, through factors like a higher chance of helping a relative and the higher chance of repeated interactions, in turn, with a greater chance at later reciprocation, the greater risk that today’s helpee might be the only possible helper when today’s helper needs help, and the greater ability to judge whether someone is worthy of help. (Compare e.g. a decrepit old man who has hunted for the tribe for decades with a spoiled girl who absorbs help without ever reciprocating and prefers to spend her days watching her reflection in the nearest pond.)

    In larger and looser groups the opposite applies. Indeed, someone needing help on the subway in New York might not be someone the helper will ever see again, whose worthiness is impossible to judge, etc.

  4. A charitable attitude that does make sense in a certain evolutionary setting does not necessarily make sense in another. For instance, humans living in small and tight groups might have benefited even from entirely selfless and uncalculated charity (cf. above), and might have been rewarded by evolution for being unselfishly charitable. Move such humans into a larger and looser group, and the impulse might now be unfit, because more calculation and deliberation is needed to get a sufficient payback, to not reward the undeserving, etc. Move one of these selflessly charitable humans to a big city, and the result might be horrible.
  5. A charitable attitude that uses someone else’s money, work, resources whatnot, can be a very bad thing. Contrast, on the one hand, a wish to help the needy and the resolution to donate money and spend a few hours a week in a soup-kitchen with, on the other, the same wish and the resolution to press for higher taxes to fund a government program, often in the abused name of “solidarity” (cf. excursion).

    From such attitudes*, the horribly inefficient and abused well-fare state has arisen, where the undeserving are helped as much as or more than the deserving (who are less likely to need help), where laziness and dumbness are rewarded by the state, while hard work and intelligence are punished, where the list of those who are to be helped is extended further and further,** where there is less and less personal responsibility, etc.

    *Combined with the self-serving votes of many who look for help for themselves, obviously.

    **Where, indeed, many only need help because their income is eroded by the money that they pay to the government …

  6. Overall, I would at a minimum recommend calculated help over selfless help, once we move outside family and close relatives: I help you today, so that you can help me tomorrow; resp. I help you today, because you helped me yesterday.

    Reservation: I am a little on the fence when it comes to close (non-relative) friends, but would tend towards calculation, as there is a considerable risk that one “friend” or another will otherwise turn into a free-loader. This with the further reservation that someone who has proven himself in the past might be helped in a blanket manner.

Excursion on money:
Much of reciprocal help could be handled wonderfully and even more fairly through use of money and paid services—well in line with my earlier texts. (At least, had it not been for those pesky taxes, today, and the low availability of money or money-equivalents, in the past.) For instance, the barn-raising families with more men could have been paid more than those with few men for their help, while someone who carelessly burns his barn down and needs a new one has to pay twice (once for raising the original barn, once for the new). In addition, those paid in money today do not need to wait for ten years to be repaid with a reciprocal barn-raising.

Excursion on solidarity and “The Farmer Paavo”:
The abuse of the word “solidarity” by e.g. the Swedish Left (“solidaritet”) is outrageous: “we” must show solidarity—by taxing others and giving to ourselves or our voters.*

*Depending on whether the statement is made by a Leftist working-class voter or a Leftist politician.

This is to be contrasted with the very well-know Swedish–Finnish* poem Bonden Paavo (“The Farmer Paavo”):

*The author, Johan Ludvig Runeberg, was of Finnish nationality and the setting is Finnish, but he was a member of the native Swedish minority and wrote in Swedish.

The poem has a repeating pattern of something going wrong with Paavo’s: farming activities (floods through melting snow in the spring, hail in the summer, cold in the autumn), his wife despairing and exclaiming that God* has abandoned them, and Paavo resolutely pushing through with hard work, ditch digging, and bark bread, while selling of cattle to pay for new seeds. At the end, the two first steps are reversed in character: the intended harvest survives the three misfortunes and his wife rejoices over the newfound happy days and bread without bark; however, in the last step, Paavo insists on bark bread, as his neighbors field is frozen. (With the implication that a portion of Paavo’s harvest will be going to the neighbor.)

*Runeberg was a priest and Paavo’s contrasting confidence in God is another theme of the poem,

That is solidarity.

(Whether it is selfless or calculating, resp. one-sided or reciprocal, help will depend on unstated circumstances. There is no mention of the neighbor helping Paavo in the past, but that might very well be because he has suffered the same set of misfortunes in the prior years.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 30, 2020 at 3:22 pm

Tax filings for 2019 / The German IRS and Elster (again)

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Earlier today, I filed my (German) taxes for 2019—and, for once, with a few days to spare. This through a combination of a general increase in the last date for filing (July 31st; previously, Mai 31st), my less stressful workload, and the fact that I had less positions to file.* It still cost me several hours distributed over two days, to get everything in order and to use ElsterOnline, that utter bullshit tool that the German “IRS” has forced down the throat of the users.

*I spent half of 2019 on a sabbatical and then switched from IT consulting to writing novels, with no bills issued, no income, and much less costs for e.g. hotels and travel than in previous years.

I am not going to give a complete overview of Elster, as I have discussed it repeatedly in the past.* However, a few new (?) observations:

*Search for “Elster”, “IRS”, and/or “Finanzamt”.

  1. There is a new free-text field where the user can add a message to the IRS within the filing—finally: this has been years overdue.

    But: It is not possible to add line-breaks in this message. This repeats an inexcusable error, hostile to both the user and the IRS staff that later works with the filings, which was previously present in the specialized form for sending (external) messages. In that separate form, this error has been fixed—but it is still repeated here. Absolutely incredible!

  2. On several occasions, I tried to run my mouse over a field with outdated values to mark the contents, hit backspace, and then enter the new data. This was simply not possible, which is absurd for a functionality that works out of the box with a regular HTML form—unless somehow sabotaged, be it out of incompetence or malice. Instead, I had to click into the field, right-arrow until I was at the end, and then hit backspace until the field was empty.* This is the more annoying as the form based input and the structure of the forms more-or-less forced use of a mouse for tasks like navigating. This way, the user is forced to constantly switch between keyboard and mouse in a manner that goes too far. (And does it for no legitimate reason.)

    *In my impression, I was always, by force, put at the beginning of the field, with no ability to “click” to another position; however, I did not verify whether this was true. It is also conceivable that I could have “deleted” my way backwards with the “delete key”, but it is awkwardly placed and requires a simultaneous “shift” on my notebook, so that would have been more work—if it actually did work at all …

  3. One of the forms had two (times three; cf. below) fields for the Steuernummer*, one in a “cover” part, one in a content part. The latter was correctly imported from last years forms; the former had to be entered manually. WTF!

    *An identification number used by the IRS.

    To make matters worse, the forms insist on dividing the Steuernummer into three parts, each with a field of its own, which implies that a simple one-step copy-and-paste is not possible. To copy it within a form, with no additional sources, the tax payer then has to go forward one (or more?) page(s?), copy part one, go back to the original page, paste, go forward again, copy part two, etc., until all three parts are filled. (Personally, I committed parts one and two to memory and copied just the third part, trading a slight risk of errors for a reduced work load.)

  4. The data import from my previous filing was not complete. At least the VAT portion likely had not one single data field filled, which makes the new filing harder: there are a great number of obscure, poorly named, and poorly explained fields, and having the ability to just look at the old fields makes it much easier to identify which to use this year. Moreover, when I cannot rely on the old fields being pre-filled (if with outdated values), I do not just have to identify the correct fields, I also have to go through the sum of all fields on a just-in-case basis.
  5. While data import from the old filing was possible, I had no way of actually looking at the old filing, e.g. for comparisons per the previous item. For some reason, likely an arbitrary, unnecessary, and destructive time limit, they cannot be opened.

    And, no, there appears to be no way to save them locally in a reasonable format. (Something that I tried with my new filings, and likely last year too.) The only possibility to download the data, short of taking screenshots or saving countless individual HTML files, is a “save as PDF” functionality. This is sub-optimal and limiting to begin with, but, worse, this does not work at all on my computer (for reasons unknown). Odd: This should be a trivial task if implemented correctly: generate the PDF file server-side and then just let the browser download it. Possibly, the idiots are actually stupid enough to try generation client side, which is a recipe for unknown errors.* If it is server side and they still have bungled it, well, that is even worse.**

    *No, it cannot be justified by data protection. Such concerns are often legitimate, but here we had no data that was not already present and (at least somewhat) permanently stored server-side.

    **Software errors happen even to competent developers, but here we have a system that has been handling the 2019 taxes for almost seven months and is now in a high intensity phase. Not having fixed the problem by now, or having introduced it in the last few days, would be horrifyingly negligent. I also note that there was no error message of any kind, which would have been a must, had there been e.g. a temporary back-end problem, say, due to a temporary overload or system failure.

  6. Two fields were mandatory despite my having no value to provide (regarding transfer of assets from the private to the business sphere and vice versa). Here I had to add two entries of “0’, for no good reason. And, no, I could not just pick an existing field and enter the value “0”: these fields (in a wide sense) contained lists of fields, where each entry had to be manually added. Presumably, the IRS expects a detailed and enumerated list of each individual asset transferred, and it would then make sense to allow an empty list when no transfer has taken place. (This is indeed the case with other “list fields”.) But, no, an empty list was not allowed, and to signify that I had transferred no assets, I had to create two single list entries with the value “0” and an additional dummy “reason” (“name”, “details”, or whatnot).

    This is a “Software Development 101” mistake.

    (I have no recollection of this problem from prior years.)

I can only reiterate my yearly observation that this tool moves on a level of incompetence that is mind-numbing, including obviously faulty behavior, a complete disregard for established conventions, an extremely confused (and confusing) user interface, etc. As a former software developer, it boggles my mind that this type of shit can be made by (alleged) professionals—and while wasting tax payers money. Yes, I know, the government and incompetence, but still …

Written by michaeleriksson

July 29, 2020 at 6:34 pm

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Blogroll update

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A recurring theme in my writings has been the benefit of exposing oneself to different opinions and arguments, especially in this time of deliberate attempts by e.g. journalists and some politicians to narrow the information flow to what they consider the acceptable, where anything not agreeing with the Official Truth is condemned as “fake news”, censored, or otherwise disadvantaged. (Cf. e.g. [1]. [2]).

Indeed, more than ten years ago, concerning one of my first blogroll entries, I wrote:

Here Fria Nyheter* plays an interesting role as a news medium which is not bound by political correctness and official truths, but instead often focuses on the spots that the normal newspapers gloss over. I do not always agree with or identify with what it says, but I feel that it could become a very valuable counter-weight to the newspapers—and would like to give a small help in doing so.

*A now defunct (?) Swedish blog/news medium.

I regularly encounter sources of information that I would like to recommend on this basis, i.e. sources where I might only agree with some of what is written, but where the overall is still valuable through exposing the reader to a diversity of opinion*, information that might have been glossed over**, censored, or distorted in regular media, unconventional perspectives, and/or writing that simply digs deeper*** into issues than media tends to do. So far, I have usually been kept back from doing so by the fear that my (semi-)endorsement will be misunderstood.

*Something far more valuable than diversity of ethnicity.

**Not necessarily with malicious intent: there is only so much space in e.g. a newspaper. (But see the next footnote.)

***The simple truth is that much of the problems in today’s world go back to too shallow knowledge, e.g. that historical perspectives are lacking, that motivations and extenuating circumstances are not known, that raw data and claims cannot be interpreted through lack of context, that too little is known to make reasonable comparisons, …

Consider UNZ as a specific example: At the time of writing, I have two individual blogs from the overall UNZ site (Michelle Malkin and James Thompson) present on my blogroll, but I have (so far) chosen not to add UNZ as a whole, despite some other individual blogs being very worthwhile and despite UNZ as a whole being worthwhile—my endorsement is limited by much of the contents being poorly written or poorly argued, and by the many opinions that I do not agree with in the slightest, as with the many anti-Semitic posts and comments.*

*To this note that UNZ is a free speech site, which does not have an overriding theme or “editorial slant”. Opinions are by individual posters and commenters, and the overall spectrum is very wide and not restricted to e.g. “Right only” or “Left only”. Among these posters and commenters there happen to be a few anti-Semites or, on the outside, anti-Zionists.

A particular complication is that the way that a blogroll (as implemented by WordPress, my platform at the time of writing) works, where a visitor merely sees a list of links that are then typically taken to be endorsed on an opinion level.

To work around this, I am adding a separate page, tentatively called “Forbidden readings”,* linked to from the blogroll. Here I will run an additional blogroll, where such valuable-but-problematic sources can find a space and still carry a disclaimer. For this first “release”, there will only be two entries, the aforementioned UNZ and American Renaissance.

*The name is partially chosen too reflect a problem with the debate, namely that certain types of readings are widely considered forbidden, that certain topics are considered untouchable, that even contemplating certain ideas can cause calls of “Racist!” or “Sexist!”, etc. (Which will overlap strongly with the original and, likely, future contents.) However, another partial reason is the (populist) hope of increasing the number of visitors who actually open the page: the rest of the blogroll is present on every page, while this portion is only visible on this particular page, and if the page is not opened, the links will not be seen at all.

The latter is a broadly a “race realist” site, which incorporates contents from many sources on related developments and thoughts. It can play a particular valuable roll at the moment, where the U.S., and large parts of the “West” in general, is taking severe damage under the dual problems of the long disproved “tabula rasa”/“nurture only” claims and the “Whites are evil oppressors and racists” narrative.

In a minor related update, Michelle Malkin, is moved from the temporary to the permanent English blogroll. Since the original addition, I have had the time to look into at least some of her (very extensive) earlier works. While I do not agree with everything that she writes, especially looking at her earlier years, I find a lot of value in her writings—and not just because of their relevance to the disastrous times that we live in.

As an aside, I have since also come to realize that she was considerably better known than I originally assumed.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 29, 2020 at 11:49 am

Issues with search listings and emotionally manipulative writing

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A recurring problem with online journalism is that the information shown in search listings is often highly misleading, including click-baiting, contents that turn out to be pay-walled after the user clicks the link, and a misleading impression of factuality (cf. below).

A recurring problem with journalism in general is undue emotional manipulation, cheap and pointless* human interest angles, etc.

*As opposed to more legitimate cases—they are rare, but they do exist. In contrast, it might be argued that emotional manipulation is always undue in journalism (and politics, advertising, and similar).

Both are exemplified by my search for an English source for the topic of my previous text (I encountered the topic in German): I was met by a number of entries in the search list that seemed to be calm and factual, but which turned out to be cheap attempts to provoke emotional reactions when I actually visited the pages. The source that I did pick was the least evil, by a considerable distance, of the four or five pages that I tried. Even here, however, we have a start of: “One-month old Haboue Solange Boue, awaiting medical care for severe malnutrition, is held by her mother, Danssanin Lanizou, 30, at the feeding center of the main hospital in the town of Hounde,” with a corresponding image. This in contrast to a search-list entry of “Hunger linked to coronavirus is leading to the deaths of 10,000 more children a month over the first year of the pandemic, according to an urgent call for action from the United Nations.”

In all fairness, that page lived up to the claims after the image and image text, and even the image text was not that bad. But what do some others do?

Consider https://kvoa.com/news/2020/07/27/covid-19-linked-hunger-tied-to-10000-child-deaths-each-month:

The lean season is coming for Burkina Faso’s children. And this time, the long wait for the harvest is bringing a hunger more ferocious than most have ever known.

That hunger is already stalking Haboue Solange Boue, an infant who has lost half her former body weight of 5.5 pounds (2.5 kilograms) in the last month. With the markets closed because of coronavirus restrictions, her family sold fewer vegetables. Her mother is too malnourished to nurse her.

“My child,” Danssanin Lanizou whispers, choking back tears as she unwraps a blanket to reveal her baby’s protruding ribs. The infant whimpers soundlessly.

Excruciatingly poorly written, horrifyingly cheap, and a waste of time for anyone who wants to actually understand the situation (let alone is looking for a reference). This is the type of anti-hook and reader-despising drivel that kills my wish to read on.

The search-listing?

Virus-linked hunger is leading to the deaths of 10,000 more children a month over the first year of the pandemic, according to an urgent call to action from the United Nations shared with The …

Calm, factual, and something that I would consider reading (and what seems to make a good reference).

Assuming that we wanted to include contents like the above, it should (a) have been moved to a side-bar, not the top of the main text, (b) have been written in a more factual manner. Consider e.g. (with some reservations for the exact underlying intents and facts due to precision lost by the poor original):

The children of Burkina Faso are at particular risk. The harvest is still far into the future and supplies are already low. The coronavirus restrictions have closed markets, which does not just reduce access to food but also the income needed to pay.

Many have already been severely hit, like Haboue Solange Boue, an infant who has lost half her former body weight of 5.5 pounds (2.5 kilograms) in the last month. The closed markets have hurt her family’s vegetables sales and her mother is too malnourished to nurse her.

But it is not just the infant who suffers: the emotional stress on her mother is great.

Note the difference in tone, the lack of (or, at least, far lesser) emotional manipulation, how information is more accessible, and how much easier it is to actually get an idea of what goes on.

Excursion on perceived value of “emotional” writing:
The naive might argue that writing like the original would make it easier to empathize with and understand the situation emotionally. Not only am I highly skeptical to this, based on myself, but I must also point to two major risks: (a) That the reader falls victim to an analogue of emotional contagion.* (b) That reality is distorted (more easily than with more factual writing). More generally, decisions, including government policy, should be made by reason, not emotion.

*More generally, what is meant by “empathy” very often amounts to nothing more than emotional contagion—something which distorts understanding, leads to partiality, and brings about poor decisions.

The latter can be the result of e.g. exaggeration or melodrama, deliberate distortion, and different perceptions. Notably, using emotional writing, narrating reactions, speculating about the internal state of someone, whatnot, it is very easy both to give and to get the wrong impression. Moreover, internal states and external displays do not always reflect what is reasonable.* For an example of such distortion consider the following hypothetical example: “Felicia felt her heart compress painfully as she looked down on the dead body, the remains of her old friend. Tears welled up into her eyes and she sat down in shock. A moment ago, he had been so full of life and now he was gone, gone forever, ripped out of her life by a moment of carelessness. Oh God, what had she done?!?” Here is the hitch: I wrote this with the sudden death of a gold fish in mind and I wrote nothing that might not genuinely have applied in such a case (allowing for some metaphor).

*For instance, when I was a young child and my toy penguin lost an eye, I cried much more than when I, as an adult, learned that my mother had died. Cf. parts of an older text.

Excursion on search listings:
The situation with search listings is quite negative, and includes such problems as various web sites feeding different contents to different user agents, e.g. web browsers used by humans and the “spiders” that gather data for search services. A potential solution would be to require that spiders are fed the exact contents of a regular surfer and that search listings always show the first X words of the page contents. While the result might sometimes be misleading, it will often be better than today, there will often* be a clear indication whether content is pay-walled, and it might lead to better writing that gets to the point faster. The pay-wall issue could be partially solved by some mandatory content tag which can be evaluated by search engines to give the searchers a heads up.

*However, likely less often than could be hoped for, as a simple “pay NOW to read” message might be replaced by a teaser text followed by “pay NOW to read” to ensure that the latter is not present in the search listing. Indeed, such teaser texts are fairly common, even today.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 28, 2020 at 10:40 am

Hunger and COVID

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Apparently, the UN estimates “10,000 child deaths” from* hunger related to COVID, with “[m]ore than 550,000 additional children” suffering from wasting—each month. Presumably, the adults in the affected areas are not magically protected from hunger either …

*The text uses the word “linked”, which does not necessarily imply a causal connection. Contextually, however, a causality from COVID (counter-measures) to hunger is almost certainly intended and present.

To get some sense of how large these monthly numbers are: The current Wikipedia page on COVID-19 seems* to see overall numbers of infections and deaths at roughly 14 million resp. 600 thousand as of July 18. At current rates, it would take these child deaths 60 months to catch up with the current COVID deaths, and roughly 25 to catch up with the overall cases (infection vs. wasting—and the effects of wasting are likely to be worse in the long term). In other words, we are talking of something highly significant in its own right—not just a mole hill next to a COVID mountain. (And this is just one of the side-effects.)

*I estimate off two graphs. Looking for more exact or current numbers is fairly pointless as there are great complications with over- and underestimation, inconsistent reporting in different countries, etc. In addition, these numbers will continue to grow.

Of course, these effects are largely caused not by the disease, per se, but by the counter-measures against it, showing again how important it is to actually consider opportunity costs and side-effects, and to look at more than one criterion*, whatnot, before implementing far-going policies. Looking e.g. at my adopted Germany, I would consider it a near** certainty that the counter-measures has done more harm than good, which I speculated as far back as mid-march. It also shows that the effects of COVID can be both highly indirect and only manifest fully in a faraway future: How many of those wasting children will not die this year but still have ten years cut off the end of their lives? What about non-lethal health effects, like a stunted growth or mental development due to malnutrition? (Similarly, how many Germans will die a few months or years prematurely in the future, due to the direct and indirect effects of that isolation that took place in 2020? For that matter, what about the additional strain on the already strained European economies when the campaign to “save the starving children in Africa” comes? )

*Which will depend on the situation and the list can potentially be quite long. Two obvious extensions in the case of COVID are changes in non-COVID deaths in addition to just COVID deaths and effect on economic growth, unemployment, bankruptcies, whatnot in addition to just effects on deaths (whether overall or just COVID-deaths).

**As we can only speculate about what would have happened without counter-measures, there is some small remaining uncertainty.

Excursion on interpretation by idiots:
Unfortunately, I suspect that many will jump to the opposite conclusion of what is warranted (and/or that e.g. some politicians will try to spin it in the opposite direction): Oh, my those poor children, COVID is so horrifying—we need more counter-measures!

Excursion on UN and credibility:
While I have no particular reason to doubt these numbers, apart from the obvious problems with correct estimates, I do mention that the UN and its various organizations have little credibility as sources of data, in my eyes. There is too much politics and ideology, and too little science, involved.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 28, 2020 at 8:49 am

Undue checks of values

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A common annoyance with poor software is undue intolerance against values that are, in some sense, faulty. (And, no, this is not a post about the political Left …)

Checks for correctness and consistency can be a great aid, as can automatic warnings of errors. However, often, the baby is thrown out with the bath water.

Consider e.g. Alpine, an email client that I use extensively: It has a field in the configuration to specify the default sender address. Here I have simply specified “@” and my domain because I use a great number* of different user names for different tasks (mostly to reduce the damage when one address falls victim to spammers). The idea is that I have this string pre-filled in the “From” field and then just need to add the right user name.

*Too many for a solution using e.g. Alpine’s role system to be a good alternative.

But what happens? If I begin to compose an email, the “From” field is just filled* with INVALID_ADDRESS@”.SYNTAX-ERROR.” (quote signs present in the original), presumably to indicate its dissatisfaction with the missing user name. The actual value entered by me is neither visible nor retrievable and there is no reasonable world in which this is a good reaction. A check when the user attempts to send, by all means, but not when a default value is retrieved or entered. If there are objections to the default value, they should be uttered when and where the default value is configured;** however, here such objections are not reasonable, as use cases like the above are quite common.

*The actual field. Contrast this with keeping the “faulty” value and displaying a warning message next to it. (Which also would have been acceptable.) Writing this, I begin to suspect that this is not so much a deliberate choice as poor programming, that there is an internal consistency check when retrieving the value, that this check gives an unnecessary error message, and that the error message is blindly taken over as the value.

**This is not the case with Alpine. The explanation might be that the the entry mask deliberately has a tolerance that is later arbitrarily removed, or that this config value is part of a larger string, which is not parsed or verified at the time of entry.

The result is that I have to delete the error message, write the user name, and copy the remainder of the address from elsewhere, i.e. one step more than without this configuration and two steps more than if it had worked reasonably. Time to remove it …

Of course, these extra steps occasionally lead to errors. For instance, when I use post-by-email with WordPress, I usually just “reply” to the last post, switch out Subject and Body, and re-enter* the email address. But today, with the three steps needed for the email address, I forgot the Subject and published a text under the same title as the previous (entirely unrelated) text …

*No, Alpine is not smart enough to handle replies to own messages correctly, i.e. that the old address is kept. Instead, the configured one is used (if present, else the field is, probably, empty).

Other examples include e.g. applications that prevent any entry of faulty information, even without saving*, e.g. that a numerical value using a decimal point is not allowed in a German application expecting a decimal comma. Then, instead of copying a (read-only) value from a PDF file or output from a calculator into the field, changing the point to a comma, and then continuing, the user is forced to copy the value, paste it in an editor, edit the point to a comma, re-copy it, and then paste it in the field.** Or consider fields that allow entry of most, but not all, legal values or makes normally optional parts mandatory.***

*In many cases, even the saving of faulty values can be beneficial, e.g. that a numeric field can be filled with a “TODO”, and that the application merely gives a warning that the input is faulty. However, this is not always trivial and rarely worth the benefit, as it might require switching a numeric internal data type to a string data type or similar.

**Yes, this could be solved e.g. by some type of keyboard macro, but it is not a sufficiently common scenario to be worth the trouble—in stark contrast to writing a better functioning field that e.g. allows entry of any value and just shows a warning message or allows entry but not saving.

***I do not remember any of the specific cases off the top of my head, but consider, again, email addresses: These can be quite complicated, and e.g. a simplistic name-plus-@-plus-domain parser would disqualify many legitimate versions. Vice versa, an idiotic tool could make the idiotic display name idiotically mandatory.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 26, 2020 at 2:36 pm

Sweden and COVID

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A recent article on UNZ is very interesting both with an eye on the situation in my native Sweden and with regard to issues like journalism and public policy.

Broadly speaking, the article amounts to Sweden (which has imposed far less restrictions than most other countries) having done much better economically done others and having paid at most a small or tolerable price in terms of health effects, yet also being torn down by international media.

A few meta-issues:

  1. Looking through the article and the comments, it is clear that a great uncertainty exists on what the true situation is.* The truth might well be out there, but how do we outsiders get at the truth? One way is to look into varying sources and to give dissenting voices a hearing, but that takes a lot of time and doing so on all important issues would be more than full-time job. Here there is a niche where journalists could truly provide “value added”: have a strong critical thinker go through various sources, debates, and whatnot, and have him summarize the overall sets of opinions and arguments, determine the currently dominating opinion, and give his own take on plausibility and whatnot as an extra protection. What journalists actually do is pretty much the opposite … Too often, they grab a single source, often a government agency, another media outlet, or a professor of the social “sciences”, and blindly trumpet that one viewpoint to the world. Indeed, in many cases, they deliberate try to squash dissenting opinions to prevent the readers from forming their own opinions, lest they come to a different conclusion or perception than the journalists want to push.**

    *And I am not necessarily saying that the data and interpretation in that article are the superior ones. My impressions go in the same direction, but my leg-work is not even remotely up-to-date.

    **See e.g. a recent text on NYT.

    This problem (and this wasted opportunity) is by no means restricted to epidemics. Consider e.g. the current heavily distorted U.S. reporting on alleged racism, including an often highly incomplete picture of the George-Floyd case.

  2. Chances are that both governments and journalists suffer from a can’t-retreat-now effect: even admitting the possibility that Sweden had made a better choice could lead to a horrifying loss of reputation and credibility. For instance, what politician wants to be known as the “guy who tanked the economy for no reason” or “the guy who cost me my job for no reason”. (Vice versa, I strongly suspect that an early fear in the other direction increased the panic-making: no politician wants to be known as “the guy who let millions die because he did not follow the example of everyone else”.)
  3. Sweden’s policy would have been a good thing, even had it backfired: In order to handle situations like this one, we need information and we need to be able to compare strategies. When more-or-less everyone uses a tight lock-down strategy, how are we supposed to get this information and how are we to compare strategies? (Even aside from complications like inconsistent data gathering, testing, attribution of death, whatnot, between countries.) As is, we do not actually know that more than non-trivial counter-measures were needed, because there is no true benchmark to tell us whether an no-restrictions policy would have led to the equivalent of four-flu-seasons-in-one or the Spanish Flu.* Looking e.g. at Germany (alone), there might not be enough data to allow anything but a second major shut-down, should a second wave of even specifically COVID occur—the room to draw important lessons has simply been too small.**

    *I still suspect the former. Also remember e.g. the SARS and swine-flu scares that eventually had a trivial impact, far less than COVID, even without massive lock-downs.

    **And I suspect that the one lesson (or “lesson”?) will be an immediate introduction of face masks, as opposed to the delayed one that took place this time.

    Imagine instead that there had been an international agreement that different countries* should apply different levels of restrictions. Take something as trivial as varying where masks are mandatory, how large gatherings are allowed, or whether old people should be isolated. When the next epidemic comes, we would have a better idea of what counter-measures bring what benefit or damage* to health and what damage to e.g. the economy. Indeed, as even this wave has hit the world at a stagger, controlled experiments with the first countries hit could have given some help to countries hit later.

    *Or, in e.g. Germany or the U.S., different states of the federation.

    **To this, remember that e.g. involuntary isolation can have negative health effects of its own, as can unemployment caused by the counter-measures, etc. It is not a given, in advance, that even the net health effect will be positive. In my own case, it has almost certainly been negative through weight-gain and damage caused by an idiot neighbor (cf. e.g. portions of an older text, which also address the general issue in a little more detail).

    Sweden’s heretic road gives us at least some chance of comparison.

Excursion on “we can’t risk it”:
Looking at the last item, some might argue that we simply cannot take the risk and that it would be a callous risking of human lives. With this I would disagree on several counts, including that the same argument would apply in a great many other cases and result in a crippled society, that we could equally argue that the opposite would be a callous risking of the economic well-fare of the people, that neglecting to gather this information is a callous risking of future lives, and that policies can always be changed, should the situation turn out* to be unacceptable.

*One of my complaints with how the situation has been handled is that the gun was jumped—extremely far-going restrictions were applied before it was clear that the situation would actually turn out badly without restrictions. (Something that we still do not know …)

Excursion on my take on the core issues:
This few-restrictions policy is in line with my own recommendations (if in doubt because adults should themselves decide what small or moderate risks they do take) and the economic advantage is a near given. That the health effects are small* is in line with my expectation, but confirmation is good. The treatment by media is not unexpected, but I would have hoped for better.

*Compared to e.g. the overall death toll from all causes or total loss of life-years, not necessarily “raw” COVID death cases from comparable countries with a more restrictive policy. (Note that COVID still only provides a fraction of all deaths and that many of the dead were so old and sick that they lost only a small portion of their lives—unlike e.g. that middle-aged chain-smoker who died in lung cancer or that child who died in a car accident.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 26, 2020 at 1:22 pm

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Not perfect; ergo, useless

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Quite a few odd human behaviors, especially on the political Left, could be explained by assuming a “not perfect; ergo, useless” principle, be it as a logical fallacy or as an intellectually dishonest line of pseudo-argumentation. (To the latter, I note that this principle seems to be applied hypocritically to the ideas of opponents but not to own ideas.)

A typical use is to find some flaw or disadvantage and use it to discredit the whole. (If a small flaw, usually combined with rhetorical exaggeration.) This without weighing the overall pros-and-cons, without acknowledging similar flaws in other ideas, products, whatnot, and without considering whether the flaw is repairable*. Consider e.g. an infomercial that I watched at a tender age: A hyper-energetic salesman ran around comparing “his” fitness product to the competition’s:** “The X is great—but, unlike my product, you can’t stow it under the bed!”, “The Y is great—but twice as expensive!”, “The Z is great—but not portable!”, etc., without comparing stowability, price, portability, and whatnot, over all products. It was simply not a fair comparison or an attempt to find the best choice, just a series of excuses to “prove” that any given competing product was inferior to the one sold by him.

*As a good counter-example, complicated mathematical proofs often turn out to contain defects. While these are sometimes fatal, they are often repairable and often the proof can still stand by limiting the conclusion to a subset of the original scope. Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s wild claim is a good example.

**This was likely more than 30 years ago, so I cannot vouch for the exact comparisons (let alone formulations), but the idea should be clear.

Or consider the example that was the impulse to write this text: In Hans Fallada’s Kleiner Mann — was nun?, the protagonist (Pinneberg) tries to get a payment from an insurance company, is met with an unexpected request for must-be-provided-before-payout documents, and inquires at some type of supervisory agency whether these were justified. He obtains and sends all the documents in a batch to the insurance company (in parallel). Now, some of these document were obtainable sooner (e.g. a birth certificate); others later. Pinneberg’s actions are then limited by the availability of the last of the documents that the insurance company requested. When the insurance company replies to the supervisory agency, it, among other things, tries to pawn off the delay on Pinneberg: he had the birth certificate at date X and sent it at date Y; ergo, the delay from date X to date Y was his own fault.*

*The book is not sufficiently detailed for me to judge whether these documents were reasonable and exactly how the blame is to be divided. However, this particular reasoning remains faulty, as Pinneberg could not have expected more than very marginally faster treatment through sending in a partial set of documents at an earlier time, and as the extra costs might have been unconscionable. (Pinneberg was a low earner with wife and child in the depression era, and want of money, unexpected expenses, risk of unemployment, etc., were constant issues.)

A more common example is IQ, which (among many other invalid attacks) is often met by e.g. variations of “there are poor high-IQ individuals; ergo, IQ is useless”, “the correlation between scholastic achievement and IQ is not perfect; ergo, IQ is useless”, “IQ is only X% heritable; ergo, we should ignore heritability of IQ”, …*

*Note the difference between these and perfectly legitimate and correct ones, e.g. “there are poor high-IQ individuals; ergo, IQ is not the sole determinant of wealth and income”. These, however, appear to be rarer in politics.

The last points to another common example: nature vs. nurture: too many* seem to think that because “nature” only explains some portion of individual** variation, it can or should be ignored entirely. Note e.g. calls for very high female quotas even in absurd areas, as with a 50% quota within a Conservative party, or various forms of distortive U.S. college recruiting to “help minorities”, unless these minorities happen to be Jewish or Asian. (Or male, for that matter.)

*Even among those who do not blindly deny any non-trivial influence of nature at all, whose position is solidly refuted by the biological sciences. It is rarely clear to me which school any given debater belongs to, which makes the division and the giving of examples tricky.

**This also relates to another fallacy: assuming that a small difference (in e.g. characteristics or outcomes) between typical individual members of different groups implies small group differences. This is sometimes the case, but not always, and especially not on the tails of a distribution.

The possibly paramount example, however, is postmodernism and its take on knowledge and science (logic, whatnot):* because science cannot give us perfect knowledge, science is a waste of time (or, even, quackery). Worse, even attitudes like “because we cannot have perfect knowledge, all hypotheses are equal”, “[…], we can decide what the truth is”, “[…], we can each have our own truth”, are common in, at least, the political and pseudo-academical use. However, even absent perfect knowledge, science can achieve much, say, finding what hypotheses are likely resp. unlikely, what models are good and bad at approximating the results from the unknown “true” model, or increasingly better approximations of various truths. Certainly, I would not be writing this text on a computer had it not been for science and the practical work done based on science.

*At least, as applied practically and/or by those less insightful. I cannot rule out that some brighter theorists have a much more nuanced view.

Excursion on fatal flaws:
Of course, there are cases when a flaw is fatal enough that the whole or most of the whole must be given up. A good example is, again, nature–nurture: if someone wants to base policy on a “nurture only” assumption, any non-trivial “nature” component could invalidate the policy.* A good family of examples is “yes, X would be great, but we cannot afford it”.

*And vice versa, but I cannot recall anyone basing policy on “nature only” in today’s world, while a “nurture only” or a “too little nature to bother with” assumption is ubiquitous. Cf. above.

Excursion on nature vs. nurture and removed variability:
A common error is to assume that the relative influence of “nature” and “nurture” is fix, which is not the case: both depend strongly on how much variability is present. Notably, if we remove variability from “nurture”, which appears to be the big policy goal for many on the Left, then the variability of “nature” will be relatively more important—and when we look at group outcomes, where the individual variation through chance evens out, then “nature” will increasingly be the dominant determinant. In other words, if “nature” (strictly hypothetically) could have been mostly ignored in the Sweden of 1920, a century of Leftist hyper-egalitarianism would almost certainly have made it quite important today. Similarly, note how attempts at removing “cultural bias” from IQ tests have not eliminated the many group differences in test results, of which it allegedly was the cause. Indeed, the group differences have sometimes even grown larger, because the influence of “culture”/“nurture” has been diminished in favor of “nature”.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 24, 2020 at 3:58 pm