Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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International Day Against DRM

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Apparently, today is the International Day Against DRM. No, I have never heard of it before either; no, I have not been able to find an official* explanation of it. At virtually the same time, the W3C has very controversial signed of on DRM on the Web. The latter is particularly disappointing, because the W3C continues its trend of prioritizing the interests of the industry over the interests of the users and the original ideals of Internet, thereby contributing to its degeneration.

*That is: I have found explanations of it from several sources (and the name is fairly self-explanatory…), but none that makes it clear that it is the originator, organizer, whatnot.

This being so, I would encourage my readers to spend some time on the topic, e.g. reading up on what the EFF has to say.

My own take is simple:

While an industry interest in DRM can to some part be legitimate, the problems for the consumers are disproportionate, often unscionable. Honest consumers see their ability to use fairly purchased products in a fair manner* restricted, while actually paying more than without DRM, because DRM costs**—and often while being exposed to security threats*** or the risk of privacy violations. Indeed, the presence of DRM is likely often what motivated an otherwise exemplary user to look for illegal copies in the first place… In addition, the (German) customer already pays compensation to the industry over other channels, notably blanket amounts added onto the price of various electronic devices and media directly or indirectly usable for copying, which are then payed out to the industry. This makes DRM at least partially**** an attempt to eat ones cake and keep it too.

*What this implies depends on the product and DRM involved, but common problems include the inability to use the product without (an otherwise unneeded) Internet connection, to move the product from an outdated to-be-retired device to a new one or to use the product non-simultaneously on more than one device, to play DVDs on a computer instead of a stand-alone player, to copy-and-paste a brief quote from a PDF file, …

**Typical costs include developing and implementing the DRM system, license cost for DRM (notably with DVDs and its infamous and useless CSS), computer resources needed to e.g. decrypt something, … Even additional hardware costs are not unheard of, cf. e.g. (the misnomer) Trusted Computing.

***Not only does DRM virtually necessitate new code that increases the risk of new bugs and new security holes, but many DRMs actually interfere with the user’s system in a dangerous and unconscionable manner. In at least one case, the methods used were indisputably illegal and caused severe security problems.

****Nominally, this is intended only to cover some legally protected uses, e.g. backups. However, firstly, the size of these additional fees and the great number of occurrences are not in, IMO, in proportion to what they nominally should cover, especially when factoring in that everyone pays them—even when never engaging in these protected uses. Secondly, a common consequence of DRM is that these legally protected uses are infringed upon, e.g. in that a backup is no longer technically possible for the average user—and might suddenly be illegal (and a lot more effort…) for the advanced user, because the mere presence of DRM illogically invalidates this right.

To boot, DRM often misses the point. Specifically, there are three main types of users that are impacted by DRM:

  1. The average honest consumers, who are worse off without any benefit or compensation—definitely with no price reduction for the reduction in functionality.
  2. The more-or-less professional pirates and deliberate large scale violators of other types. For them DRM is a mere nuisance—they have the knowledge, resources, and a sufficiently good cost–benefit situation that they can just work around* DRM. The actual benefit of DRM through hindering this type is very small and cannot in anyway justify the disadvantages for the average honest users. (Of course, this is the exact opposite of what the pro-DRM rhetoric dishonestly claims.)

    *“How” will depend on the details, but many DRMs are easy to get around with the appropriate knowledge. Many PDF readers, e.g., ignore DRM entirely—switch reader and presto. Many DRM keys have been cracked or leaked and are available to the pros. Tweaked software or hardware can solve much of the rest. In a worst case scenario, the latest Bluray can be played on a screen and re-captured with a camera with only marginal loss of quality—and the result is a superior product, because annoying animated menus, unskippable trailers, and other user-hostile nonsense is removed…

  3. Some set of misguided people, mostly very young and/or poor, who just want to share what they have bought with their friends, e.g. through copying a CD or DVD while keeping the original. (While lending the original for two weeks and then getting it back is (still…) perfectly legal and unremarkable. Ditto just watching the DVD together.)

    The market impact of this is comparatively small to begin with, because the friends are not users who would otherwise all line up to buy the product themselves (again, the exact opposite of what pro-DRM parties claim through the calculations they present). No: Most of them will forego the product entirely, seeing that the world is drowning in other content; get the product from a professional pirate (cf. above); enjoy the one copy of the product in a legal manner (e.g. through borrowing, cf. above); or on the outside wait until the price has dropped to a more reasonable level*.

    *CDs/DVDs/… are often released at very high prices and over time drop quite considerably. The 29.99 Euro movie of today might sell for 9.99 in a years time and a fraction of that in ten years time. CDs from the 1970s are often sold five or ten at a time for 5 Euro… Calculations by the media industry seems to invariably assume that the release price is what everyone would have paid.

    For the small minority of them who would buy a given product (and many who would not), what is missing is not necessarily DRM—but often the understanding that what they do is illegal, and much of the same effect could be reached simply through better information about copyright, intellectual property, and the like.

    Again, DRM by no means brings enough legitimate benefits to outweigh the disadvantages for the average honest consumers. The problem is that the industry reaps all the benefits while the consumers bear the cost…

Written by michaeleriksson

July 9, 2017 at 2:41 pm

Caster Semenya, human irrationality, and fairness in competions

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The last few days, there has been renewed controversy around Caster Semenya (for the umpteenth time).

Caster Semenya is a case that has interested me on an abstract level, because there have been so many proofs of human irrationality around it and a few somewhat similar cases, notably Oscar Pistorius. Again, this is so:

The latest round is a new study (c.f. e.g. [1]) showing that rates of testosterone affect the performance of female athletes—something that even semi-informed people would consider almost* a given without a study. A potential consequence could be that Semenya must undergo a drug therapy to get rid of an “unfair” advantage (or not being allowed to compete).

*There could have been some unexpected quirk involved due to the different way male and female bodies tend to handle testosterone and estrogen, or similar, but that is not very likely in light of existing observational evidence, e.g. that women do not only have a strong advantage from anabolic steroids used as PEDs (testosterone is a natural anabolic stereoid), but, arguably, a stronger advantage than men. Look e.g. at the age and level of the current world records in throwing events vs. the performance level of today.

This is a disastrously wrong approach, which would also imply that other natural physical characteristics, e.g. height, must by analogy be considered: Basket-ball players taller than, say, 8 feet should only be allowed to compete if they have a corresponding offsetting handicap. Ditto sprinters with too high a proportion of fast-twitch fibers. Ditto limbo dancers who are too short. Ditto chess players who have to high an I.Q. or too good a memory. Etc.

That way lies the world of Harrison Bergeron

The correct question to ask is not whether Semenya is an extreme outlier in terms of testosterone and has a corresponding advantage—but why:

If she happens to be an ordinary XX with a (in some sense) normal body, which just happens to have so an unusual* configuration that she is an extreme outlier, then she should be allowed to compete on exactly the same terms as everyone else. She does have an advantage, possibly an immense one, but that advantage is within the realms of fair play—just like a basket-ball player should not be barred merely for being 8 feet tall**.

*Say that she has simply won the genetic lottery—all the numbers just happened to go her way, in that she has a genetic configuration where unusually many stimuli are “on” and unusually many inhibitors are “off”. In contrast, the examples below are more comparable to someone who manipulates the drawing of the numbers.

**However, here too there might be some situation where the reason for the tallness could be a relevant criterion. Possibly, people with a pituitary condition might need a class of their own. (Not implausible; however, this would go against historical precedence.)

If she has gained her high levels through e.g. having male testes*, being a cross dresser or a transgender person**, or deliberately injecting testosterone*** then the reason for her advantage is such that the advantage becomes unfair. (Exactly how to resolve this individual cases is beyond the scope of this post. Whether, when, and against whom genetic configurations that are neither XX nor XY should be allowed to compete, provided that they are otherwise “normal” women resp. men, is something that I lack the depth of knowledge to judge, but they could very well be relevant for inclusion upon deeper investigation.)

*One of the rumors I have heard. The actual investigations made are confidential, which implies that this discussion must be hypothetical.

**Almost certainly not the case, but some gender extremists have actually made demands that biological men who consider themselves women should be allowed to compete against women—which would make a complete mockery of women’s sport.

***Possible, but it is unlikely that she would have gotten away with that for so long with the amount of scrutiny she has been subjected to. However, exactly this accusation has been raised against e.g. Jarmila Kratochvilova (the long retired world-record holder at 800 m, which is also Semenya’s main distance).

Of course, another possible take would be to abolish the separate women’s class in competitions, either entirely or through replacement with some other categorization, e.g. by testosterone level, height, and/or (paralleling many existing sports) weight. Somehow I doubt that the other female competitors would be happy with that solution… (And this could turn out to be impractical.)

The case of Pistorius is slightly different: Here it is clear that if he has an advantage, then that advantage is unfair. In a second step, it is at least likely that he does have an advantage*—and if he does not, then he or someone else will in due time. Determining with certainty when that time has come, however, will be virtually impossible, and there would by necessity be some period of time in which the “blade runners” do have an unfair advantage before being separated—unless they are separated at a time before this determination has taken place.

*Contrary to some naive people who have taken it for granted that he has a disadvantage and have reached his level of performance despite his handicap—rather than because of it.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 4, 2017 at 9:34 pm

Follow-up: Some problems for German consumers illustrated by Beyerdynamic and DHL

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Unfortunately, Beyerdynamic compounds its customer hostile behaviour through spam:

Today, I received a rudely* formulated spam message trying to force-feed me additional products.

*Presuming to address me by first name and using the informal “du”, which by German standards is an absolute no-no and a gross breach of protocoll in business (and most private) settings, before a mutual agreement on this point has been reached. It is far worse than e.g. calling a first-time customer “dude” in the U.S.—more on the level of calling the President “dude”.

This would have been an inexcusable abuse of my trust and data, even had the relationship been a good one. This alone would have been enough for me to terminate any further relationships with Beyerdynamic, even without the previous events.

In light of those previous events, its beyond anything and everything that is even remotely conscionable and acceptable.

Unfortunately, this is another recurring problem: Many businesses imagine that as soon as they have sold any product, received any inquiry, or (often) even have just gotten their hands on an email address, they have the right to do anything they want with it.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 2, 2017 at 12:21 pm

Some problems for German consumers illustrated by Beyerdynamic and DHL

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One of the greatest problems in Germany (I suspect, in many other countries too) is the refusal of many businesses to honor their contractual obligations in a reasonable manner in a B2C setting. Depressingly often, a contract, an order, whatnot, is seen as a one-sided obligation for the customer to pay, while performance of the service, delivery of the ordered goods, …, are mere nice-to-haves. Quite often, the customer has to spend so much time seeking rectification of even obvious, indisputable errors, that the working costs* exceed the monetary costs for the product at hand or the value-added that the product/service was supposed to give. Deliveries are a particular problem, with third-party businesses performing the actual delivery, without every having a contractual connection to the actual customer. This results not only in extremely poor performance, but also in restrictions in customer recourse, and that customers have to live with whatever terms were agreed between the delivery service and original business.

*In the case below, e.g., the total time investment in ordering, paying, researching the fate of the package, writing complaints, …, is almost certainly more than an hour (this post not counted). This alone is more than half of the price of the product, compared to my working and billing the same amount of time. The form mentioned below could have pushed it up sufficiently to outweigh the entire price. To this must be added the repeated aggravation of my mood. I would have been better off had I never bought this particular product at all.

Below I will discuss a particularly absurd case that has taken several weeks to come to a (highly unsatisfactory, semi-) resolution.

Before I do so, I would like to make the following very strong recommendations (in Germany, the international mileage may vary):

  1. Stay away from Beyerdynamic.
  2. If at all possible, stay away from DHL (but beware that this is rarely an option left to the costumer).
  3. Unless you have a specific agreement with a well-known neighbor, make it very, very clear that delivery to neighbors is ruled out. If you do have such an agreement, make this equally clear. Something like “!!!Nur Eigenhändig!!!” prefixed to the name or address might work.
  4. Conversely, never accept a package for someone else when you do not have an agreement, let alone do not know the recipient personally.
  5. Never, ever pay before delivery—not even when you have reason to believe that the business is not one of the many outright fraudulent web shops.
  6. Consider whether it is not less hassle to just buy things in stores to begin with, even at the risk of higher prices and a smaller selection of products.

Details:

My secondary apartment (for reasons of work, I keep several households) has the advantage that the property manager has offices in the building it self, and when I have received packages when not at home (i.e. on every single occasion), it has been left with the property manager. Coming home from work, I can simply collect it, without having to search for absent neighbors, going to the post office, or wherever my package ended up.

Due to my living situation, I wanted to buy a second pair of head-phones* from Beyerdynamic, and being wary of the problems with Internet orders I (just like the last time) ordered directly from the manufacturer. Considering that this was known entity, I reluctantly agreed to pay in advance**.

*I will not mention the model, because I do not want to make even an indirect recommendation of any Beyerdynamic product.

**While I do not recall the exact set of payment options offered, a typical scenario is that advance payment is the only realistic option. Payment per invoice is very rare and/or reserved for well-known customers. The old German “Lastschriftverfahren” has virtually disappeared online. Credit cards are hardly usable, because most shops demand use of 3D-Secure (or an equivalent technology) and this, in my experience so far, results in two minutes of work and then an obscure error message. Paypal is notorious for its arbitrariness and is arguably a riskier payment method than advance payment…

I suffixed (! cf. above) my address with a statement that delivery to the property manager (NOT e.g. “neighbor of your choice”) was acceptable, even though considering this unnecessary: Deliveries had so far always been left there anyway.

The DHL delivery presumably took place nine days after my order (specifically: 2017-06-09).

To my dismay, it was NOT delivered to the property manager, but to some “Höbel” in the 18th Stock. I live in the 24th Stock, I have no idea whatsoever who this “Höbel” is, and with not even a first name added, this was not a satisfactory identification. To boot, it should have been self-evident that the delivery to a random neighbor instead of the alternative explicitly specified in the address was not acceptable.

It comes worse: According to the name signs, THERE IS NO HÖBEL IN THE 18TH STOCK! (Nor could I find a “Höbel” at all in the door-bell listing at the entry, but with the great number of entries, one might have existed.)

On the 17th, having given this “Höbel” plenty of time to present himself or at least leave a note (he did not…), I sent a complaint to Beyerdynamic, detailing the situation and demanding an immediate remedy, seeing that the situation had arisen through errors by its contract partner.

Despite my full explanation of the situation, the reply was a request that I should fill out and sign a form. There are a number of problems with this:

  1. It causes even more effort for the costumer without adding any value to the process. There was no valid extra information, and even a signature would be worthless, seeing that on the off-chance that someone was lying, he would not hesitate to sign that lie: After all, no-one could realistically prove that he was lying.

    In my case, this effort is quite severe: My printer is in my other apartment and going there just for a one-off print would cost me hours; alternatively, cause a delay until I was in Wuppertal for other reasons. Using the printers at work for such purposes is shady even for employees, for me, as an external contractor, the more so. There is no* copy shop in the immediate vicinity, and finding and using one would cost me a minimum of half-an-hour, quite possibly more—too which the actual printing costs must be added.

    *Actually, there is one, but it is a complete joke. For instance, they regularly fail in printing even PDF correctly, e.g. through mishandling margins or the German umlauts—unacceptable in a business communication. The print quality (in the ink on paper sense) is abysmal and the one staff member I have interacted with on my few visits lacks even basic computer skills and takes minutes to print even a one-page letter.

    Most likely, this form was something that Beyerdynamic needed vs. DHL—and that is simply not the costumer’s problem. Basically, “DHL will not voluntarily do their duty towards us, so we will just refuse to do our duty towards the customer” / “…put the whole burden on the customer instead”, which is of course a grossly unethical and customer hostile attitude.

  2. I have proof of payment. In this situation it is the duty of Beyerdynamic to prove delivery. Not only had delivery (if at all…) not taken place in a manner that could be considered reasonable and a fulfillment of contractual obligation, but there was a more than fair chance that the package was stolen (or otherwise lost/damaged)—either by this “Höbel” (possibly giving a false name) or by the deliverer, faking delivery to this unknown entity. I note that Beyerdynamic did not even bother to give signed confirmation of the alleged delivery to “Höbel”…* Failing a complete disappearance, there was always the possibility that the package would only turn up many weeks later**.

    *While that has so far been the normal next step in my experience, the value is admittedly limited. I recall some ten years ago, when DHL swore that someone IN MY APARTMENT had accepted delivery and “proved” this through an unreadable signature. A week or so later, I received a note from a near-by mattress shop, “reminding” me to collect said package. I very much doubt that the shop keeper had broken into my apartment, signed for the package, and then left with it…

    **I once had a neighbor accept a package in my name, move (!!!) without notifying me, and leave the package in her old apartment, resulting in me only receiving the package more than a month later, when the new tenant moved in…

    In as far as the package was not stolen (etc.), e.g. because “Höbel” had accepted it and gone on vacation or because DHL had made a mistake with the name or stock number, it would equally be the duty of Beyerdynamic to rectify, say by calling DHL and causing an investigation into whoever had actually received it.

  3. Since it is perfectly clear that DHL had not, even by its own claims, made a proper delivery, the question of a form is absurd: The delivery (allegedly) went to an unknown third party, who was not an immediate neighbor, against any reasonable interpretation of my instructions, and with information provided to me that was too faulty and/or incomplete to identify this neighbor…
  4. There is a fair chance (layman’s perspective) that requesting a reclamation on paper and/or with signature would be disallowed by the courts when the original contract was entered without such actions. There have been cases where requests for written termination have been disallowed for such reasons. Even if this did not generalize legally, the same type of reasoning would definitely leave the request unethical: The burden of rectification (termination, whatnot) must not be disproportionally higher than the burden of initiation.

    Of course, there are strong reasons to believe that at least some businesses deliberately puts obstacles in the way of the customers, so that they do not terminate contracts (on time or at all), do not file complaints, do not pursue their rights, …, for the simple reason that the hassle to achieve something is larger than the expected gain or that they just do not have the time.

I naturally refused and insisted on delivery without the need for additional efforts on my part, threatening to rescind the purchase. This just led to a renewed request for the above-mentioned form, spouting nonsense about how DHL would otherwise assume that delivery had taken place*. Firstly, again, what happens between DHL and Beyerdynamic is not my problem: Beyerdynamic chose a partner to do a severely sub-par job and has to live with the consequences; I have no contractual obligations to DHL; and DHL’s position does not remove Beyerdynamic’s obligation to fulfill the contract resp. provide proof of contract fulfillment. Secondly, DHL has no legal ground to assume that delivery to me had taken place: Delivery was not to my hands, even by their own claims. Delivery did not take place according to my instructions, even by their own claims. Delivery did not take place (if at all…), to an entity identifiable through DHL’s own claims. All this even assuming that delivery to an (identifiable…) neighbor is considered delivery in the first place, which might be what the T & C’s of DHL says, but which is obviously idiotic, seeing that I do not have a contract with DHL and have never agreed to those T & C’s—DHL might not need to prove to Beyerdynamic that the next step of the delivery has taken place, but Beyerdynamic sure as hell has to prove it to me! Thirdly, considering the circumstances, the obvious procedure would have been for Beyerdynamic to re-ship and file a claim against DHL, and for DHL to file a claim against/recover the original package from “Höbel”.

*This remains the only motivation ever given, everything else was on the level of “we need”, with no references to anything that could have implied, even on a disputable basis, a duty on my behalf, e.g. a reference to some unethical clause in their own T & C’s.

After several iterations, I escalated the issue, knowing that many of these problems result from low-level employees who are deeply stupid, naive in matters of business/law/whatnot, and/or just follow protocol for some standard situations (being unable to handle anything not in their, literal or metaphorical, script). People higher in the hierarchy tend to be much more able and cooperative. At this juncture, I also rescinded the purchase and demanded my money back (and compensation, personnel consequences, and an email address to the appropriate contact at DHL, for a parallel complaint).

Alas, this was not the case with Beyerdynamic: The answering email expressed all sorts of regrets, but eventually just re-requested the same form… Other issues were ignored (including something as simple and cheap as the email address). The request for the form was at this juncture utterly inexcusable, because this amounted to an intention of keeping my money until I proved that Beyerdynamic had not fulfilled its duties, which is an absolute absurdity.

Shortly thereafter, two weeks (!) after the original “delivery”, the head-phones did turn up, left outside my door for anyone to steal…

I reported this to Beyerdynamic together with my intention to let the purchase stand (returning the package would have thrown good time after bad), and restated my other demands. All these items were just ignored in favour of a congratulatory message… This is the more absurd, as I had just showed a considerable amount of honesty and cooperation, despite Beyerdynamic’s previous behavior: I could easily just have kept the package, sent the form, and had both the head-phones and my money back. Obviously, honesty does not pay…

As an excursion on the unethical and customer hostile blanket approach of many delivery services, DHL above all, of leaving packages with neighbors:

Firstly, for this to be at all acceptable, the list of neighbors must be limited to those who actually know each other in person and the neighbor must be uniquely identifiable. Under no circumstances can it be acceptable to leave a package with someone 6 floors away in a 26 floor building, neighbors in other buildings, or random shops in other buildings. (All of which I have encountered.) Under no circumstances can a mere “Höbel” be acceptable, nor an incorrect claim of stock and/or name. Under no circumstances can it be acceptable to just put notifications on the house door instead of in the mail box of the recipient*.

*This was not the case above, but has been a common problem in the past. In at least one house, the DHL deliverer appeared to just give the packages to a near-by kiosk, without bothering to check whether the recipient was at home, and then slap on a notice for each package on the outside of the house door, where anyone could have removed them. The record might have been as much as five individual notifications at the same time. Of course, the kiosk never checked any IDs, possession of the notice was always enough…

Further, even when a neighbor is acceptable, it is very often not in the interest of the recipient (or the neighbor—just the delivery service):

  1. Collecting a package from a neighbor is often more work and/or requires more attempts than if the package was just left at a package shop/post office, for the simple reason that people spend different parts of the day at home, due to differences in working hours, evening and weekend activities, etc. In extreme cases (cf. above) a move or a prolonged holiday can cause an enormous delay.
  2. This causes a problem when a package is damaged and the neighbor makes a different judgment call than the actual recipient would have done.
  3. There can be instances where the recipient would prefer the neighbor to not know about the package (respectively, who sent the package or what can be speculated about its contents). Note that this is not restricted to contents of a nature normally sent “discretely”. Other reasons can include having an, in some setting/by some standard, embarrassing hobby; the package being intended as a gift for the same neighbor’s birthday; not wanting to rub a better economic standing in someone’s face; …
  4. Not all neighbors are friends, not all neighbors are honest, and there is no guarantee that a given neighbor will ever actually hand out the package.
  5. Delays in eventual delivery can threaten periods of reclamation and the like. Notably, Germany has blanket fourteen-day return right on all online orders. It can be safely assumed that many businesses will refuse to honor that counting from the delivery to the recipient proper, alternatively require proof that the delivery took place at a later date; instead they will just count from the delivery to the neighbor.

    (I suspect that this would not hold up in court, but going to court over the values typically involved would be next to impossible in Germany. Lawyers would not touch the case. The court would try to steer it away, e.g. through arbitration and a compromise. The effort, even with a lawyer, for the costumer would outweigh the value of the goods. And then there is the risk of losing… The lack of a “small claims court”, or a corresponding mechanism, is likely a strong contributor to the extreme attitudes of many businesses.)

In this situation, a delivery to the neighbors should, by law, only be allowed after an explicit opt-in by the recipient. Not an absent opt-out, not an opt-in by the sender, not some T & C claim by the delivery service, not whatever-saves-time-for-the-delivery-man: Only pure, explicit recipient opt-in.

Of course, much of this would be academic if delivery services had the common sense to deliver when most people were home rather than at work…

Written by michaeleriksson

July 1, 2017 at 5:18 pm

A call for greater limits on governmental surveillance of the population

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It feels like I cannot turn around without reading more news concerning surveillance of citizens by their own (or other) governments in various forms. This especially where computers are concerned, e.g. requests that the use of the infamous German “Bundestrojaner”* be expanded.

*A tool ordered and used by the German government to infiltrate computers in the same way that some illegal malwares do.

This is extremely unfortunate for a number of reasons, including (but likely not limited too):

  1. The contents of a computer can be extremely intimate and personal in many ways, some obvious, some not. If someone has access to the contents of a computer, this can* give insights into the owner in a manner that is usually not achievable e.g. through getting an ordinary search warrant and going through a house, top to bottom. Even a diary is typically less revealing, because a diary will be incomplete through factors such as limited self-knowledge, self-censorship (due to the fear that others do read the contents), and lack of time or space. A computer can contain personal notes, private correspondence, fan-fiction never intended for publication, … among the more obvious items; surfing habits, movie preferences, porn interests, sleeping patterns, … among the less obvious. This only passively reading the contents on or communications with the computer—install a surveillance tool and there is no limit to what can be found. A computer can simply give so much private information about someone that an intrusion can only very rarely, if at all, be ethically justified—we are on a completely different level from e.g. a (physical) search warrant, more comparable** to actually being in the head of the computer’s owner.

    *There is a great variation from person to person, but by now a majority would likely already be included in this “can”—and the proportion is rapidly increasing.

    **In some cases, myself included, there might actually be more to be deduced from the computer’s hard-drive than from the owner’s memory.

    If in doubt, Richelieu allegedly said If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.—imagine what even a far lesser conspirator could do with an entire computer… Indeed, there are a number of things on my computer that could give a very wrong impression, including e.g. materials that I have down-loaded according to the maxim “know your enemy”—but which a naive or hostile spy could misconstrue as support for the corresponding ideology or whatnot.

  2. Digital evidence is so easy to falsify that its actual value is far smaller than for physical evidence. Yes, physical evidence can be planted. Yes, photos and film clips can be manipulated or even, by now, generated through CGI. No, they are not comparable to e.g. claims about what was found on a computer. As soon as another party has the ability to write to the disk, all bets are off. If a knowledgeable entity like the NSA decided to frame someone, it would be a walk in the park, if they had digital access*—and so long as digital evidence is allowed in a court system that has yet to catch on to the uselessness of such evidence.

    *Note that this need not be a case of physical access. Tools like the aforementioned “Bundestrojaner” could equally well be used to plant evidence remotely.

  3. Many of the measures used by governments risk the security of computers from other parties*. Consider e.g. the ever popular idea of limiting the key length of encryption methods or forcing software makers to install backdoors in the software for use strictly by the government and strictly after a court order: The shorter key length still makes it far easier for other hostiles to attack the computer; at least some of the backdoors will be discovered or published sooner or later (probably sooner…), and even those that go unpublished can still introduce weaknesses. Or consider recent claims of the U.S. government keeping back information about discovered security holes (so that they can use them), which prevents the software makers from fixing the problems, which opens the door for independent discovery and abuse by e.g. computer criminals…

    *An interesting physical example of the same principle is the “TSA lock” often seen on luggage today: It is there so that the TSA (and only the TSA) can unlock a piece of luggage without damaging it—ostensibly, all in the interest of the travelers. In reality, most (all?) key patterns have been leaked to the Internet, are available as input files for 3D printers, and any Tom, Dick, Harry with a 3D printer can get a set of physical keys and unlock any “TSA lock”…

    Other problems can occur that are out of proportion in comparison to what used to be the case. For instance, if someone was suspected of preparing a bank robbery or a terrorist attack, hording child pornography, trying to subvert the government, …, in the past, there might be a thorough house search and possibly some temporary confiscations, but by-and-large the house was still usable, most of the contents would still be present, and (barring an actual find) life would go on as before, except for an emotional scar. Today, the computer(s) would simply be confiscated, likely including any backups, and the victim/suspect would be severely hindered, possibly to the point that he cannot complete important business communications on time, cannot access important personal data, …

  4. For a “democratic”* system to work, one of the main purposes of the constitution and laws has to be to protected the citizens from the government. The system must work even when the government is evil. If the current government happens to be good, the laws still has to protect the citizens, because there is a considerable risk that the government will be evil at some later time. To boot, the very concepts of “good” and “evil” can be very subjective, with the most evil regimes (by the standards of many others) often being convinced that they are the good guys, actually defending** the world against evil… To boot, even a more or less “good’ government can contain bad apples, e.g. a DA looking for re-election and willing fake evidence for a conviction with great PR value or a policeman who “knows” who the perp is and plants the evidence that “should” have been there. To boot, the machineries of bureaucracy, the incompetence of civil servants, and similar problems, tend to make even the most well-intended system fall well short of “good”.

    *I am always at loss to translate concepts like “Rechtsstaat”, but (strictly speaking incorrectly) variations of “democratic” are often used, as are “civic rights”. U.S. citizens often refer to the opposite with variations of “unconstitutional”.

    **One of the reasons that I tend to judge people, parties, countries, …, based on their actions rather than their opinions: Fascist is as fascist does.

    The current trends make a mockery of the principles behind a sound constitution. How can the citizens defend themselves when the government uses any and all means to circumvent security—including absurdities like requiring suspects to hand out passwords to investigators.

Correspondingly, I call for a complete reversal of course, where “digital trespassing” is considered a very severe crime, government surveillance of its citizens is reduced to the absolute minimum, tools like the “Bundestrojaner” are categorically and unequivocally forbidden, the citizen’s right to protection (including a very wide interpretation of “taking the fifth” and its equivalents) against the government is given priority, etc.

Two concluding remarks:

Firstly, while there may be cases so extreme that they do require or can justify at least some of the above methods (say, that someone is suspected of planning a bombing of a soccer stadium), these cases do not, can not, and must not justify the extension of these methods to more trivial suspicions. The “slippery slope” is a particular danger, where data is gathered or methods used today for the specific purpose of investigating terrorism, but where the police, certain politicians, …, will clamor for their use for less severe crimes tomorrow—and where the movie and music industry will demand their use for civil cases two days from now.

(And even with extreme cases caution must be used, because one of the things a good justice system should protect against is accusations raised out of malice. If standards become to different when the crime changes, the malicious party only has to alter the crime of the accusation in order to circumvent the protections. I have myself been torn out of sleep and forced to open the door to police in the middle of the night, because a mentally demented piece-of-shit landlord had claimed that I would keep a woman captive in my apartment. Because the alleged crime was so urgent, the police insisted that they did not even need a search warrant…)

Secondly, there is always a risk that data is spread to the wrong group of people or the wrong time, as soon as even a non-hostile entity gets its hand on it. (E.g. because someone hacks a police server with confiscated data, because an individual member of the police, deliberately or accidentally, takes data home, because some juicy piece of information is leaked to the press in exchange for money, …) For instance, what if an in-the-closet gay movie star or politician is the suspect of a crime, acquitted, but the fact that he is gay is discovered and eventually made public without his consent? At a minimum, this is severe violation of his privacy. In a less gay friendly era or a less gay friendly country than e.g. modern Germany, he could have a very severe problem, starting with a termination of his career.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 24, 2017 at 12:27 am

My mother’s last funeral / Gunilla Wilhelmsdotter 1949-2017

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Today is the day of my mother’s last funeral.

While a funeral is how we all end, this feels very weird and somehow wrong. Not because she died or because she was my mother, but because officiating at funerals is one of the two things I associate most strongly with my mother (the other being “bringing flowers to old people”): She spent several decades as a priest* in the Church of Sweden, and in her small rural town, with its aging population, funerals outnumbered weddings and baptisms considerably.

*There was a lot more to the job than flowers and funerals, but some things simply come across in a more obvious manner to others, children in particular. Funerals also likely took more preparation than, say, baptisms, for the simple reason that is so much more important to say the right things and not say the wrong things. Much of this preparation was done at home.

It has been a long time since I had any major contact with her, mostly because my recollections of my childhood, school years, and family life in Kopparberg (for reasons that she could not control) were mostly negative, sometimes horrible. For my own peace of mind, I had an absolute need to distance myself from that world for a number of years and to build my own life, away from the past. A few attempts to re-connect per letter or email with my mother failed on our having too different interests, personalities, and opinions of how, to the point that contacts always felt like a chore to me, something more done out of duty than out of actual interest. On the rare occasion, we have likely all met someone who is a perfectly fine person, possibly someone loved by most others, but who just happens to be so incompatible with ourselves that interactions are hard or even annoying. In my case, very unfortunately, my mother was one of these rare people.*

*As with several points below, the details do not belong here. However, much of it was directly or indirectly caused by a clash between her extreme extroversion and my extreme introversion. Note that this is not to be confused with the “my parents are annoying/embarrassing/…” that most teenagers go through for a few years.

Still, this is one of the few things in my life that I have a bad conscience about and in which I have been far from a model son. In part out of necessity, true, but also in part because it was so much easier to keep certain chapters closed than to re-open them. I am well aware that my mother put in a larger effort and sacrificed more than most other parents do and that her life was harder than that of most modern Westerners.

Let me talk a little of what she did do (apart from delivering flowers and holding funerals) and what happened in her life:

When I was born, she was twenty-five years old and she and my father were both officers in the Salvation Army. My sister followed two and a half years later. Life in the Salvation Army was frugal*, the budget often tight, and I remember how my mother actually sew clothes for the family to save money. By the time I was four, we had moved twice**, which was an added stress and implied a removal from local friends and co-workers for both my parents, my mother in particular. Friends were very important to my mother and she kept in close contact with some particular friends (like Ruth, who was her assistant for a few years, a long, long time ago) over decades, even after all geographical and workplace connections were long gone.

*The Salvation Army is based on dedication to a higher cause, which includes getting by with less so that the needy can get by at all.

**The Salvation Army shares many aspects with some “ordinary” armies, e.g. in that its personnel is often ordered to re-locate every few years based on what happens to suit the army.

By the time I was five or six, my parents divorced and from here on the problems really started. The divorce was very amicable and little blame can be attached, seeing that my father was gay and eventually had understood that this was not a condition that marriage could cure.*

*I am, admittedly, not certain whether my mother ever knew this. My father only told me two decades later.

However, even an amicable divorce turns the world on its head and causes immense stress—even under normal circumstances. Here the circumstances were not normal: The Salvation Army disapproves of divorce and my parents had to leave their jobs and the apartment the Salvation Army had provided. This caused a further lack of money and yet another up-rooting, with mother and children moving back to my mother’s childhood town of Kopparberg, and my father to Stockholm. To boot, being an officer in the Salvation Army is normally a life-time career, making this worse than losing a regular job; and it requires a multi-year education that brings very little “market value” outside of the Salvation Army, giving my parents a worse starting point than if they had earned the equivalent of a regular Bachelor’s degree.

Once in Kopparberg, things were not easy:

  1. Employment was scarce and for several years my mother went through a mixture of unemployment and low-paying, temporary jobs. This included a stretch as leader of after-school activities, which lead her to a pun in which she took great delight: Legitimerad lekare.*

    *Unfortunately untranslatable, but it is a play on “legitimerad läkare” (roughly, “licensed physician”) and “lek” (“child’s play”, in the literal sense). A Bond fan might similarly have punned on being “licensed to kid”.

    I was too young to have very clear recollections or knowledge of our economy, but for quite some time second-hand and hand-me-downs dominated.* The help of her parents (i.e. my grand-parents) and, to a lesser degree, brother, who all had remained in Kopparberg, was certainly essential during the first few years, on both the material and the emotional side.

    *However, this was something that we children took in stride and considered perfectly normal, not something that we suffered from—the point is rather the compromises and extra effort my mother had to go through, compared with most other families. I even remember objecting strongly when my mother handed down one of my jackets to my sister: It was my jacket and it should, in due time, be handed down to my children—not to my sister. Today I hear people debating the dangers of childhood “poverty” and how it prevents children from wearing the brand clothes their class-mates wear or how they cannot afford to join a trip abroad with the other children… Go back just another generation or two, or look at some other countries in today’s world, and even what I had might be considered luxury in comparison.

  2. A further major personal blow fell within just a year or two after the divorce, when her father died very pre-maturely. The emotional distress was, of course, coupled with the removal of one of her two main support pillars. I was too young to know their relationship first hand, but from what I have gathered later I believe that she had an unusually strong connection to him, shown e.g. by her changing her last name to Wilhelmsdotter (“daughter of Wilhelm”) in his honor.

    Not long after that, the family dog, which had been with my mother longer than I had, likely since before she married, grew ill and had to be put down.

  3. Something went very wrong with both my sister and me during these first years, likely largely as a consequence of the many central people disappearing from our lives, in combination with a considerable friction between the two of us. I even had a recurring nightmare of being with my family and again and again, every time I looked away, have one of them disappear until I was all alone—and knowing that whatever had taken them would come for me next. The worst nightmare I have ever had…

    Thinking back, we were so horrible that I wonder how my mother could take it. In fact, one of the reasons why I have never founded a family of my own is the fear of ending up as a parent to that type of children. While the money issues eventually passed, these conflicts and problems endured for a very long time. (Including contributing to issues like my distancing myself from my “old” life, as already described, and my sister’s dropping out of high-school and only getting a job and moving away from our mother’s in her late twenties.)

    Regrettably, the stress on my mother was something I was too young to understand back then, making the task even harder for her.

    (I similar failed to understand the situation of my sister, who was even younger and probably hit even worse by the family losses, especially since I got to spend a lot more time with our father than she did. With hindsight, much of what I saw as pure malice back then might have been nothing more than little girl acting out her distress, possibly even just trying to get attention and interaction.)

Attempting to get back to steady employment and reasonable earnings, my mother took up studies of Theology aiming at priesthood: Four years of studies and long travels, with the university being hours away, while being a single mother—a task that most people would not even attempt.

However, having a good head for studies was one of my mother’s particular prides and failure was not an option: She bit down and got the job done, even when the odds were against her. (As when she had to squeeze in the mandatory class in Classic Greek in half the allotted time—something she liked to brag that her professor had considered impossible.) She traveled, she studied, she graduated. For reasons of geography, she did have to delegate a part of the child rearing to her mother, who stepped in and took care of us for several days a week.

Post-ordination, things improved: The earnings were better; the job was secure; a house was bought (courtesy of the dwindling local population and equally dwindling real-estate prices) as a replacement for the too small, rented apartment; and she found a new husband—-an old friend from the Salvation Army who had been kicked out after his divorce and who had taken up studies for priesthood… (A match made in heaven?)

During the next few years, she grew to be one of the most popular people of the community, smiling, bringing flowers to old people, and gaining friends even when she was holding funerals. She worked hard for the benefit of others as a priest, just as she had as mother. Even with the problematic children and the hard work, this was likely one of the happiest times of her adult life, with exactly the effect on others and the type of recognition that she wanted.

Unfortunately, the rest of her life saw many medical problems that got in the way, starting with a car crash* that broke her leg and might have had a negative effect on her back. Irrespective of the reason, she did develop severe back problems that lead to major surgery, which prevented her from sitting for many months and hampered her ability to work for even longer. Naturally, not being able to sit made car travel hard or, for longer distances, impossible—and for someone living in a rural area of Sweden, travel by car is a necessity for many things. I remember being home from college, likely over Christmas, and finding the living room rearranged to include a hospital bed, allowing my mother to join in the interactions.

*Probably traveling on duty between Kopparberg and Hörken, where she had her main responsibilities, but I could misremember.

She bit down and got through this too, still working hard, but in her early sixties (late fifties?) developed Spinal Stenosis, which is particularly bad in a job that involves a lot of standing and walking. From here on, she was forced to cut back on work considerably, working on a part-time or free-lance basis.

Then came ALS

ALS patients usually die within just a few years. My mother, unfortunately, was no exception, seeing her life cut short at 67.

And that brings us my mother’s last funeral.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 17, 2017 at 2:20 pm

Suggestions for a new press ethics / the indirect effects of fake news

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It is no secret that I am deeply troubled by the incompetence, irrationality, and partiality of journalists*. For some years, the short-comings of journalism have seen a partial cure through independent, Internet-based, sources of news and opinions. True, the average blogger is worse than the average journalist, but there are very many bloggers who make journalists look clueless.** True, many of the independent news sites are even more partial than traditional news papers, but they are partial in different directions and help to give readers a different perspective and to overcome the censorship*** and partisan angling that is common in journalism.

*For the sake of simplicity, I will mostly speak of “journalist”, “news paper”, and similar. This should not be taken to exclude e.g. TV news, TV reporters, and the like. The problem is a general one with traditional news media.

**And, frankly, when I hear journalists speak derisively about bloggers, or complain about bloggers not treating “real journalists” with sufficient respect, I marvel at their conceit and lack of self-insight.

***Usually driven by a fear that the readers will come to the “wrong” conclusion (i.e. another conclusion than journalist has) if exposed to the uninterpreted and unfiltered facts.

The new phenomenon of “fake news” threatens to end this cure: Firstly, the presence of “fake news” makes alternative sources of news less likely to be trusted to begin with. Secondly, traditional media and their allies are campaigning massively for more censorship against “fake news”. If that happens, even those alternative sources that engage in honest reporting could end up suffering severely, (E.g. because platforms like Facebook could choose to censor on the mere suspicion or because of uninformed or malicious complaints directed at actual news. This problem is worsened by the simultaneous increase in complaints against “hate-speech”—which, sadly and real occurrences of hate-speech notwithstanding, quite often amounts to nothing more than disagreeing with the politically correct “truth”) Considering how these things tend to run, it would also not be unsurprising if the bars were pushed higher and higher over time, giving traditional news sources their monopoly back. The meaning of “fake news” could very soon turn from actual fakes (“Trump is an alien”) to that which violates the world-view of the journalists or the politically correct (in Sweden, possibly, a study indicating differences between men and women that are in-born and not caused by societal brain-washing).

Depending on developments, “fake news” per se could prove to be a smaller problem than these side-effects…

Given this situation I have to call for another cure through a new type of press ethics based on strict adherence to principles like:

  1. To always report the facts in a manner that allows the readers to form their own opinions—even if they happen to deviate from the journalist’s. This includes not selectively filtering facts that that are unpleasant or incongruent with the journalist’s world view, and not presuming to be an arbiter of what is relevant and what not. (Except to the degree that space constraints prevent a listing of all details that e.g. Sherlock Holmes might have liked to hear.)
  2. Never to assume that journalists are more clever, better informed, better at critical thinking, …, than their readers. Quite often, the assumption is faulty even for the average reader—and it will virtually never be true for a significant part of the readership.
  3. Never to mix news and opinion. Opinion belongs in opinion pieces. If a journalist wants to express a certain opinion, he should keep the news clean and write a separate opinion piece, clearly marked as such. More often than not opinion pieces will be irrelevant; when they are relevant contrasting opinions should be allowed a say.

    As a notable special case, issues of ethics, “right and wrong”, …, are always (?) a matter of opinion, and, if ever, such opinions should only be applied when they are supported by a virtual consensus of the population. In many cases, a better solution is to contrast something against a specific set of rules. (E.g. by preferring “X’s article violates several rules of press ethics suggested by Michael Eriksson” rather than “X’s article is unethical”.)

  4. Ditto news and analysis, with the addendum that analysis is usually better left to an independent expert on the matter at hand than to a journalist (and that analysis might be relevant far more often than opinion). A good analysis, of course, will give all sides of the issue a fair hearing and will not be limited to using one particular approach. (Unless using the approach is uncontroversial: Solving a mathematical equation usually leads to the same result irrespective of which (sound) approach is used; however, a fiscal measure can lead to very different expected results when analyzed with different models.)

    I point especially to the many, many instances of journalists encountering a scientific study and jumping to a conclusion that is premature, only one of several possible, or simply nonsensical. Even something so trivial is often not understood as that “the study failed to show X” does not automatically imply “the study showed not-X”.

  5. To understand that the “common wisdom” among journalists, politicians, and the average citizen is often very far from what science actually says and to give preference to scientific opinion over personal opinion when reporting.
  6. To, as a counter-point, understand that not everyone who claims to be an expert actually is, that scientists often differ in opinion, and that the softer sciences are often fraught with ideological concerns.

    Experts tied to political or ideological movements are particularly likely (deliberately or through a biased world-view) to make flawed claims. To boot, the risk of encountering “experts” who simple lack the intelligence, tools, and/or depth and breadth of knowledge is considerably higher when talking with a member of a movement than with, say, a university professor.

  7. To always respect and convey any uncertainty present, especially in a legal context. For instance, someone suspected or accused of murder should always be referred to as “murder suspect” (and so on). In fact, considering how many miscarriages of justice take place, it is better to speak in terms of “convict”, “convicted”, and similar, even after a suspect has been found guilty—and to speak in terms “found guilty” rather than “guilty”. (In the U.S. system of bartering confessions for less punishment, not even a confession can be seen as conclusive proof of guilt.)
  8. To always give both parties in a controversy an equal say (or at least the opportunity for it) and to never side with either one in a news item. (That a journalist will side with one or the other in private is often unavoidable.) Siding within an opinion piece or analysis might or might not be justifiable depending on the circumstances, but it is clear that the siding should be based in reason and not emotions or prejudices about the parties involved.
  9. To never distort or exaggerate someones opinions or statements, including making assumptions about intent, motivation, inner state, unstated opinions, etc. A particular problematic case (that I have often complained about) is distortions like someone protesting against (militant) Islamism but being categorized as anti-Islam or even anti-Muslim. Another is the common assumption or claim that someone is racist or sexist based even on a factual, scientifically uncontroversial claim that does not fit the own world-view.

I stress that this list is by no means complete. There are likely many items of a similar type that can be added, with an even greater number coming from other areas, at least some of which are present in many current attempts at similar lists*. I could probably write several blog entries alone on journalists’ use of language… Admittedly, these several blog entries would be on the wrong abstraction level for a discussion of press ethics, but the point is that there other problem areas.

*While much of the above goes contrary to what many journalists appear to consider their role and would imply a major change of course.

I further stress that this list is intended for journalists and their like. Some of it can be taken to apply to e.g. bloggers or commenters too, especially where issues like representation of others’ opinions and other matters of “intellectual honesty” are concerned; however, much of it is simply irrelevant, redundant, or impractical when we move away from traditional journalism. (Starting with something as simple readers’ expectations: Blog–personal opinion. News paper–facts.)

As an aside: It is almost funny that the “fake news” debate has started in the wake of increased criticism of the press (at least in Germany). Even the phrase it self is close to the “Lügenpresse” (“lie press”, “liar press”) used by some German groups to belittle the press. While “Lügenpresse” has caused an outrage among journalists, I can only see it as unfair on two counts: Being too much of a blanket claim, seeing that some areas are worse than others, and ascribing a deliberate intent to the reality distortion that is often going on. More often than not, I suspect, it is just incompetence, in particular lack of critical thinking, that causes the distortion.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 25, 2017 at 12:07 am