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A Swede in Germany

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Distortion of literary works / Enid Blyton

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While I have always been strongly opposed to censorship, political correctness, intellectual dishonesty, (mis-)editing of the words of others, and similar, there is a particular area that troubles me with an eye on my own contemplations of becoming an author of fiction—presenting distortions of the works of dead authors as if they were the actual works.

For instance, I recently stumbled over the Wikipedia page on “The Famous Five”, and was distraught to read:

In modern reprints, George still wants to be a boy, but the statement that her short hair makes her look like a boy has been removed as it is now considered offensive to assume that girls need long hair to be considered feminine. Anne’s statement that boys cannot wear pretty dresses or like girl’s dolls has been taken out. Julian and Dick now help the girls with cleaning the house and washing dishes.

This increases the series of children’s’ books* that have been distorted in an irrational and destructive manner, contemptuous of both the author and the readers. (To boot, the claim “now considered” is a further inexcusable lack of encyclopedic standards on behalf of Wikipedia. A correct claim would be that e.g., depending on what applies, the “censor’s** considered it offensive” or “some population groups considered it offensive”.) Not only are such distortions despicable in general, but here the reasons appear to be particularly weak. I note, concerning the hair, that in such young people it can be the only physical differentiation and that judgments like “looks like a boy” and “looks like a girl” have to be measured against the time in which they occurred. To boot, George almost*** certainly otherwise dressed and whatnot as a boy, making the hair just one piece of a puzzle. Removing references to the hair thoroughly distorts the original intentions. Similarly, removing Anne’s statement distorts her character and misrepresents the times. This is especially bad, as it removes the contrast between the boyish/unconventional George and the girly/traditional Anne, weakening the two characters and the “group dynamic”. That the boys help with house-work again misrepresents the times and risks a character distortion—how do we know that they would have helped, had they lived in today’s world? Worse: I strongly suspect that these changes, especially the last, is not so much a matter of wanting to avoid offense as of deliberately influencing modern readers to hold a certain set of values—an utterly inexcusable reason for an already inexcusable act.

*Other examples include “Huckleberry Finn”, “Doctor Dolittle”, and the Swedish “Ture Sventon” and “Pippi Långstrump [Long-Stocking]”—among the at least dozen cases I have heard of. (The true scope of the problem is likely orders of magnitude greater and afflicting many more languages.)

**I call a spade a spade—these people are no better, arguably worse, than regular censors. (To “call a spade a spade” is another example of how unjustified censorship is common: Here, “spade” refers to a digging implement in a saying that goes back to ancient Greece. Still, there are people who consider it offensive because the same sequence of letters, much more rarely, has been used to refer to Black people…)

***It has been a very long time since I read one of the books, and there is some minor room for a combination of character being misremembered and contents not matching what would be reasonable based on first principles.

I note that the motivations give in other contexts tend to be very poor. For instance, Swedish censorship and distortion have been directed at the word “neger” as being offensive—however, unlike the English “nigger”, “neger” was never offensive. This changed at some point in the 1980s or 1990s when the PC movement presumed to declare it offensive. This with no reasonable motivation and likely based on a mindless analogy with the English “nigger”—if the one is offensive, then so must be the other…

A particular perfidious version, inexcusable beyond the inexcusable, is the claim that certain changes were made because “we” are sure that this is what the (long dead) author would have wanted—a presumption so moronic and/or dishonest that I feel like punching the speaker in the face.

Such changes, worthy of the Ministry of Truth, are a crime against the author, who sees his work distorted, and a crime against the reader, who is refused the opportunity to read the original work and whose view of the world of old is potentially distorted. Indeed, for a member of the politically correct who actually had a brain, would it not make more sense to let the children see that the world was different in the past and draw their own conclusions? Would it not be better that a girl noted that Anne did house-work and that Julian did not—and questioned the “why”? To look at Anne and George and ask who she would rather be? For the girl-who-wants-to-be-boy* (or vice versa) to look at George and how she had the courage to go against convention even back then? Etc.

*However, I am uncertain to what degree George’s wishes were comparable to some modern cases and to what degree she just wished for a more boyish life-style, considered girly-girls silly, whatnot. Not only are my contacts too far back, but I doubt that Blyton would have been explicit on the topic (if it even occured to her).

As for myself, I have not yet made up my mind on whether to become an author of fiction, and chances are that I would never have a sufficient and enduring popularity that such concerns would actually be relevant. However, I state now and for the record that I absolutely and categorically forbid such distortions of any of my works, current, past, present, and irrespective of type. If I am alive, I will exercise legal options; if I am dead, I will come back to haunt the culprits. The latter especially if someone presumes to try that utterly inexcusable excuse “we know that this is what he would have wanted”—you now know that it is not!

Excursion on other distortions:
Unfortunately, the general problem of distortion is not limited to e.g. censorship and children’s literature. Notably, newer German editions of older texts often come with the claim that the orthography has been “behutsam angepasst” (“cautiously adapted”) or similar, in order to match modern German—and this even for works that were written as late as the 19th century… This might be less harmful than the above, but still brings risks and disadvantages—and most changes are pointless in that the average reader could take the old spelling in a stride.* (A better solution would be to add a few corresponding notes. For truly extreme examples, a parallel original and “translated” text is an option.) For instance, one reason to read older books is to get a feel for the historical language, which is no longer possible. For instance, any such change risks an unintended distortion.** For instance, it is possible that the author deliberately chose a more traditional spelling over a more new-fangled one, in which case the alteration is in direct contradiction to his will.

*A notable example is the common use of “th” in many cases where today “t” is used, e.g. “Thal” vs “Tal” (“valley”). Consider e.g. the extinct Neanderthals vs. the valley Neandertal—at the time of their discovery, the valley used the “th” spelling, which is preserved in the anthropological name, while it uses the “t” spelling today. (And, yes, Neanderthal is correctly pronounced with a “t” sound—not with a lisp.)

**E.g. because two words that used to be spelled (slightly) differently are now spelled the same or vice versa, because some rhyme or play on words does no longer work, or because some spelling choices might have been very personal. (The latter especially in times when the orthography was less standardized than today.) An interesting example is the disappearance of older words, word cases, whatnot. Consider e.g. a modernized version of Shakespeare that replaces “thou” with “you”, etc.: This would lose a lot of nuance as to who is in what relationship to/with someone else and how the relationship might change over time.

The problem is not necessarily limited to dead authors either (but is particularly perfidious there, because they cannot defend themselves). Translations are a horrifying source of problems, at least in Germany, where I have encountered many efforts so awful that they should have led to a summary firing. The German translations of Terry Pratchett’s books have often been disastrous (cf. portions of a text on Pratchett’s death)—and do not get me started on German movie translations… While this is often the result of mere incompetence, e.g. ignorance of what a certain word/phrase/reference/… means,* it can also be deliberate. Notably, there is a school of translators who attempt to hide the fact that a work actually is a translation at any and all cost… (Including rather losing a play on words than giving an explanation of it, or rather re-writing cultural references to some highly approximate local equivalent.) This is an anti-intellectualism and dishonesty that is truly deplorable.

Excursion on Blyton:
Blyton might have mass-produced works with little literary value and might, by reputation, actually have approved in exchange for a bit of extra money. None of that matters: The editors have no such actual approval; the distorting effect for the readers remain (cf. above); the works have, irrespective of literary value, a great following and have been loved by millions (implying that any change is likelier to do damage than to do good); and, above all, if this is accepted for one author, what protects other authors? Indeed, even “To Kill a Mocking-Bird”, widely considered a work of considerable literary accomplishment, has been targeted by the PC crowd. It is important that not one inch be given to these people.

Excursion on tomboys and Feminists:
A peculiarity when it comes to e.g. Feminists and tomboys vs. girly-girls is that “tomboy” is often described as some type of insult or framed in a context of boys/men looking down on the tomboys who “should” be proper girly-girls instead. This repeats a pattern of ignorance and over-generalization about what men are actually like and what they actually think about women—I very much preferred George to Anne at that age, I have preferred girls/women with boyish/mannish interests later in life, and the same applies to a very sizable portion, likely a majority, of the male population. Yes, when it comes to sex and romance, there are many cases where a certain femininity in behavior and style can be attractive; no, when it comes to playing, socializing, whatnot, the tomboy and her adult successor tend to do better. For that matter, too much femininity and/or stereotypically female behaviors are a turn-off in romance too. (Too much make-up, too many shoes, too much emotionality, etc.—the likes of Carrie Bradshaw are not a good ideal.) Of course, even a boyish girl/woman can be quite physically attractive, aesthetically pleasing, and even feminine—this is not an either–or area. (Consider e.g. Evangeline Lilly in “Lost” or Keira Knightley in “Bend it like Beckham”*.) When a man says “tomboy”, it is more likely to be a compliment than an insult.

*Incidentally, a good example of German mistranslations: It was renamed to the alleged English title “Kick [sic!] it like Beckham”… Also a good, if fictional, example of how men tend to view tomboys—compare the positions of the two fathers and the two mothers towards the respective daughters and their “boyish” interests.

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Written by michaeleriksson

December 18, 2018 at 8:22 pm

A few thoughts on the display of emotions (and similar topics)

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There is a lot of prejudice around the display (and presence) of emotions, boring behavior, and similar against e.g. the introverted. Below I discuss some issues relating to these topics from my own point of view and with a partial eye at the Tall Dancer Phenomenon from my earliest writings.

When it comes to “emoting” (in a very wide sense and for lack of a better word), there are many things that I do not do, simply because they are too affected and/or manipulative in my eyes. For instance, I talk relatively monotonously and have toyed with the idea, notably after watching Laurence Olivier in “Rebecca”, of going for a radical change in order to have a better effect on the people around me. However, doing so would be a major affectation and it would be solely for manipulative reasons—even if I stopped well short of Olivier.* Indeed, similar affectations in others have often struck me negatively and reduced their success in interactions with me. For instance, some women looking for a favor go at it with such exaggerated smiles, voices, and gestures that it makes me unwilling to perform that favor… They would be much better off just making a neutral request, accompanied with a factual explanation and, for a bigger request, an offer of a something-for-something. Similarly, a woman who starts with five minutes of flirting** as ground-work before a request is unlikely to do better with me than if she had jumped straight to the point. Smiling politicians, executives, sales people, …, leave me cold, because the smile will almost always be calculated and not reflect something worth-while—and I am naturally*** loathe to smile at others as a (deliberate) sign of friendliness, because it seems an affectation even when I am friendly towards them.

*Which I almost certainly would have to: Olivier had many years of training behind him, is highly unlikely to have spoken in that manner without the extensive training, and I suspect that even he spoke differently in private. (If in doubt, because he speaks differently in some other films.)

**If I even recognized it as flirting: Today, I almost certainly would, but in my younger years I could be quite oblivious to flirting, romantic hints and probes, and similar.

***My thoughts (but, so far, not behavior) have changed compared to my natural state over time: Originally, I saw a smile as something that should just happen, making any “deliberate” smile an affectation. Today, I also see a smile as a legitimate means of deliberate communication, just as a hand-shake or a “hello”, while reserving my disdain for more manipulative uses.

However, even spontaneous and non-manipulative emoting can be off-putting to me, when too exaggerated or too undisciplined*. I am not saying that we should all walk around with poker faces; however, some degree of self-control can benefit those around us and deliberate exaggerations (as seen with some women and many children) are really unbecoming. Such negatives in others have also influenced my relative reluctance.

*Notwithstanding the partial hypocrisy: I have on some occasions emoted so strongly while working with e.g. WebSphere that near-by colleagues complained. (WebSphere is one of the most infuriating and frustrating software products I have ever encountered. While the colleagues complained, they also sympathized—having to work with it themselves on a daily basis.)

Looking at the other direction, reading emotions, the situation is similarly often a matter of differing preferences and norms. For instance, if a low and a high emoter do not catch each others feelings, it might well be that the high emoter over-looks the more subtle* reactions of the low emoter, while the low emoter does not catch a true emotion from the high emoter due to all the “noise”** surrounding it. Similarly, interpretation is hard without knowing the baseline of the counter-part, which is necessary to judge how much noise is usually present and how strong reactions tend to be—without it, we can have problems like a low emoter interpreting something in the counter-part as an emotion that is not, or over-estimating the strength of an emotion that is there.

*The difference is not necessarily one of emoting vs not emoting. When actual emotions are present (not just faked), the difference is more likely to be one of strong emoting vs. weak emoting.

**If someone “cries wolf” when no wolf is there, the alarm for an actual wolf might be misinterpreted. From another angle, I have often found the “logical” members of the “Star Trek” universe to be more expressive than the regular ones. Data, e.g., has a baseline that involves very few and small facial expressions—which makes the expressions that do occur the easier to recognize and the more significant. His colleagues move their faces (raise their voices, whatnot) at the drop of a hat—and how are we to know when it was a hat that dropped, and when a bomb?

Then again, if a low emoter does not react (or appear to react) to the emotions of a high emoter, it is not a given that he has missed them. It could also be that he deliberately ignores them (e.g. out of diplomacy, because he sees them as unwarranted or none of his business, awaiting an explicit verbal clarification*, etc.) or that he has reacted while the counter-part failed to notice…

*E.g. whether the counter-part is looking for some particular reaction or to establish whether he is just venting, looking for sympathy, or wants advice.

Of course, some people (including yours truly) have or have had more genuine problems with reading emotions.* By now, I am probably better than most, courtesy of the implicit training from watching so many movies and TV series,** but I trailed my age bracket until at least my late twenties and was disastrously behind during my school years. The effect of training is not to be underestimated and the introverted (even outside sub-groups with complications like autism) are at a disadvantage, because they, unsurprisingly, tend to spend less time socializing.

*More generally, the great degree of arbitrariness in human behavior and the way that most people ignore reason in favor of emotion often left me stumped in interactions. Women (in general) and women in connection with romance (in particular) were especially problematic. Cf. an earlier footnote.

**Starting with a growing awareness through cartoons, where the emotions are usually portrayed very strongly and have an obvious connection to events. As awareness coupled with a more grown-up mind, these emotions became easier to detect, increasingly subtle signs could be read and increasingly nuanced emotions differentiated. (Of course, other sources of awareness than cartoons featured later in life, including own experiences and verbal descriptions.) That actors tend to exaggerate expressions is an advantage during the early learning stages, but can be a disadvantage later on. Combined with the fact that they are acting, this implies that real life observations are necessary too.

Excursion on smiles and changing times:
An interesting development is that people on photographs (and paintings) were a lot less likely to smile in the past than today. In the case of politicians, statesmen, whatnot, the difference is particularly large—many past depictions of politicians show someone (almost certainly deliberately) grim or fierce looking, while bright, artificial smiles are par for the course today. Presumably, a modern politician wants to send a message of friendliness, while those of yore went for e.g. strength, domination, and the ability to face an assault by a foreign power.

Excursion on emotions vs. emoting:
A common misunderstanding is that people with low emoting are also low on emotion. In actuality, emotions appear to be more-or-less evenly divided between high and low emoters, with the groups simply displaying these emotions differently. I suspect that I, myself, am a fair bit above the male average when it comes to emotional intensity, e.g. in that I tend to feel more intense happiness, grow angrier at injustices, be likelier* to cry during a movie, whatnot. I would even speculate that many emotional people deliberately suppress their emotiveness, somewhat like the Vulcans of “Star Trek”, who do not have an in-born emotional control—on the contrary, they are naturally highly emotional and have developed techniques to keep their emotions under control.** Similarly, it is allegedly common for functioning alcoholics to have a facade that leaves other people believing that they have an under-average interest in alcohol.

*Note that “likelier” does not imply “likely”: Most movies with scenes that are intended to have this effect, and often have it on women, are simply too poorly made to actually hit home (e.g. because the scene is too cheesy/exaggerated or because sufficient emotional investment in the characters has not been created).

**However, the Vulcans attempt to control the actual emotions, not just their expression.

Excursion on “mirror neurons”:
A partial explanation for some of the above could lie in “mirror neurons” (or an equivalent mechanism) that trigger some degree of emotional or behavioral “mirroring”, e.g. in that many people reflexively smile back when smiled at. I only very rarely have such an impulse, and tend to just note that “someone is smiling at me”—often with such absentmindedness or (with strangers) such lack of interest that the question of whether I should smile back only occurs to me after the fact… I can even recall a few cases of extremely shy and insecure appearing* girls/women slowly start to smile at me, stop halfway through, and then sadly fade back to not smiling, when I did not reciprocate. Using smiles as an indicator of e.g. friendliness, potential romantic interest, whatnot, is very prone to error when we do not know how the other party tends to behave.**

*Based on e.g. posture, downwards turned eyes, and similar. To some degree the reasoning could be circular, however, since the type of failed smile is a part of the reason for the classification—confident women tend to jump straight to a full smile without “interactively” checking for feedback.

**Also for reasons like the many fake smiles made by manipulators and the artificially friendly.

Excursion on affectation and manipulation:
There are some things that I actually do that could be considered affectations or manipulations. For instance, I do not let my facial hair grow wild and I do so for reasons of aesthetics*. The differentiation towards the above is not entirely objective and I do not rule out that I will change my mind about e.g. altering my speech patterns—the above is not a discussion of why something would be morally** wrong to do but of why I (and likely many others) have not done it. However, there are at least three differences between the facial-hair and speaking-like-Olivier examples: I groom my facial hair at least partially for my direct own benefit (I have to look at that face in the mirror), not just for the indirect benefit through others. The type of grooming I make is sufficiently common that there is nothing remarkable about it (in fact, people who do not groom at all are more likely to be seen as following an affectation, even be it unjustly). There has been no major conscious decision to change anything, but a gradual change of habits until I found something that required little effort while still pleasing me.

*As opposed to practical reasons, which would have neutralized the accusation. (Chances are that if I did not groom, I would eventually be caught by practical reasons, e.g. when my beard landed in my soup; however, such concerns have not explicitly featured in my decision making so far.)

**However, some of the above examples arguably are, e.g. trying to flirt oneself to office favors.

Note that it is conceivable that similar factors played in with Olivier, himself, and it is not a given that his speech seemed remarkably affected to him or his peers (at least while performing)—much unlike a software developer who makes a conscious decision to emulate him in the office. He might simple have started with regular stage English and continually improved himself with an eye on practical stage effect. (Note that while software developers often have cause to speak, is not the core part of the job and what is said should* be far more important than the delivery.)

*Unfortunately, this is not always the case; however, the impact is still far smaller than for an actor, even when the ideal is not reached.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 12, 2018 at 3:39 am

The status of practical learners

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In my earlier days in the Blogosphere, one of my comments* was answered with “So, you are a practical learner!”**. Knowing “practical learner” mostly as euphemism for those with some limited practical talent and a complete lack of intellectual accomplishment, I almost choked with the perceived insult and condescension.

*This was too long ago for me to remember the context and details.

**To paraphrase my main take-away. Here too, I do not remember the details, but the actual answer was likely a bit longer, and probably not intended to be insulting.

Since then, I have revised my opinion on practical learning considerably. For one thing, I have over the years increased my proportion of practical learning, e.g. in that I have so often found claims by others to be faulty that I often prefer to do my own informal experimentation/trial-and-error/whatnot (not just my own thinking). For another, practical learning (in the literal sense, which I will use throughout below) plays in well with my opinions on learning in general:

There are, somewhat over-simplified, two types of learners: Those who just gather knowledge provided by others and those who gain an understanding from the knowledge of others and/or create new knowledge of their own. A practical learner can to some degree be either; however, the weakest aside, the latter will likely dominate. Examples include anyone who observed an event and drew conclusions about how this event could be reproduced or avoided, what the positive and negative effects were, how the event could be utilized, … Consider a stone-age man who accidentally hits a piece of flint so that it can be used as a cutting implement, realizes that it is a potential cutting implement, tries to create new cutting implements by hitting other pieces of flint, and refines his technique based on further experiences—a practical learner who has done something most of his peers did not do and which helps the group to be more successful. Or consider a software developer who tries a certain approach to solve a problem, sees an unforeseen complication when the code is run, and modifies his approach thoughtfully* the next time around. I certainly suspect that many of the great inventors and researchers have drawn considerably on an aptitude for practical learning.

*Not to be confused with the “worst practice” of making random changes in the code until it appears to be running as intended.

Contrast this with someone who just mindlessly absorbs the contents of books, who can apply the algorithm of long division (see excursion), who knows in-what-year for a thousand events, who has absorbed but not understood the deep thoughts of others, … (In turn, not to be confused with the mindful reader. Cf. e.g. [1].)

Of course, the border between the practical learner and, e.g., the theorist can be hard to find—is our stone-age man still acting as a practical learner if he takes a thirty-minute break to just think his options through, during which he does not even touch a piece of flint? This, however, is only natural with an eye on how deeper learning works: Deeper learning, with an understanding of the matter involved, always comes from within, from own thought. External influences, be they practical observations, books read, statements heard by others, …, are food for thought—they are not thought it self. The source of this food matters less than what we do with the food. It is true that some sources provide more, more nourishing, or more easily digested food than others, but ultimately it is up to us to do the digesting.

In all fairness, it is likely true that the set of practical learners will contain a comparatively large sub-set of those not-very-bright (including the stereotypical “shop students”), compared to e.g. those who actually learn from e.g. books. However, there is no true reason to believe that the sub-set of the very bright would be smaller, even if those might engage in practical learning in other areas (e.g. experimental physics instead of auto mechanics)—and worth-while thinkers will almost certainly have several sources of food for their thoughts. Moreover, there are plenty of readers, likely an outright majority, who are not all that bright either—they read but do not truly learn. Similarly, many or most college* graduates have not truly learned—they have internalized some (possibly, a very considerable) amount of facts, methods, whatnots, but have failed to gain an understanding, cannot draw own conclusions, are bad at applying what they have internalized, etc.

*School and, increasingly, higher education have a strong tendency to favor the wrong type of learner. Too often, the mindless absorption is rewarded during tests, while understanding brings little or no additional benefit. In some cases, critical thought can be positively harmful to success, e.g. in fields like gender-studies.

Excursion on long-division:
I have never mastered it: In school it was presented as a set of mechanical steps, with no attempt to explain the “why”, which I imitated a few times to create the impression that I knew them. After that, I just winged the divisions that came up on tests (usually as comparatively easy steps within a longer calculation). In adult life, the divisions that I encounter are either so trivial that I can easily do them in my head (say, 231/11=21), so complicated that I would use a calculator* anyway, or from a context where I only need an approximate** value to begin with. In the unlikely event that I really need an algorithm, I understand division, the decimal system, etc. well enough that I could create it—which is far more valuable than memorizing a set of steps.

*I do not need long-division to solve e.g. 2319523/2344 using pen and paper, but a calculator removes an entirely unnecessary risk of an accidental error and is usually faster—be it compared to long-division or to an improvised calculation. This especially as the very few such calculations that are needed tend to carry a legal relevance, e.g. the extraction, for my tax declaration, of the VAT from an amount paid that includes VAT.

**That 2319523/2344 is a little short of 1000 will be enough in many contexts.

Excursion on men vs. women:
While the problem with a lacking understanding (etc.) is quite bad among men, it appears to be considerably worse among women (and is very often combined with the knee-jerk classification of everyone as intelligent who graduated from college). This could turn out to be a major future problem, if the trend of giving women artificial preference in e.g. hiring/promoting and politics is continued.

For an example, consider the relative likelihood of a homeopathic physician* being a man vs. being woman.

*As opposed to an uneducated user who might be forgiven for not seeing through the obvious quackery that homeopathy is. (But women appear to dominate there too.)

Remark on double posts:
Subscribers might have seen two incomplete postings of the above contents. This was caused by my failing to close the “tags” declaration for WordPress within the HTML code.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 9, 2018 at 1:58 pm

Sound-bite communications and too much brevity

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While I have recently criticized older writers for being overly wordy, some modern forms of writing and whatnot is a greater evil: Those that fail to inform or, worse, actually mis-inform, through reducing communication to tidbits without context.

Consider e.g. a typical modern documentary: Someone with some connection to the topic is allowed to say a single sentence, taken entirely out of the original context*. There is a cut to the next person with some connection to the topic, who is also allowed to say a single sentence. There is a cut [etc., etc.] This goes on for five or ten minutes—and what happens after that I frankly do not know, because I have already turned the documentary off… To make matters worse, the connection is not necessarily very strong and the single sentences are often uninformative irrespective of context. At extremes, a documentary about a film-maker can start off with single sentences by people who at some point made a single film with him—or merely share the same field. (But happen to be quite famous…) The sentences themselves can then amount to “He is the greatest!”, “I loved working with him!”, and similar.

*From the optics, this context is usually a longer interview, which would, likely, have been more interesting to begin with. True, such interviews are rarely entertaining, but there is something to be learned and understood—and the point of a documentary is to give that opportunity. For entertainment, pick a good sit-com, action movie, or whatever the current mood calls for.

Note that it is very hard to say something sensible with a single sentence, even when that sentence is targeted to the purpose (not just torn out of context). Look e.g. at the immediately preceding sentence: It does a far better job than the aforementioned and is comparatively long, but it is still just a piece of the overall text. Consider how it would read without the context of the overall discussion or note how it would be just a claim without any support for its truth.*

*This is, admittedly, a situation that can be hard to avoid even in a full text, and not always something that I pay great attention to. A major complications is that what might seem self-evident to one person is not so to the next, e.g. because they have different levels of expertise or because their priorities differ. Another is that the overall text might give enough support when enough time is spent thinking, but that the reader will not necessarily be aware of this (or willing to put in the time, or smart enough), while the writer might be too stuck in his own context to realize that there are things that might better be spelled out. Even so, a larger block of text is almost always better than just a single statement.

Or take the reverse approach and contrast “He is the greatest!” with “He revolutionized the use of camera angles and I have never known a film-maker with such a drive for perfection. I was particularly impressed with his movie X, e.g. the scene where […]”: The former is just a sound-good/feel-good claim; the latter allows the viewer/reader/… to gain some insight, make his own verifications, find other sources of information, whatnot—e.g. through watching movie X with particular attention to the mentioned scene and/or camera angles.

The lack of context can even make claims misleading. For instance, “I loved working with him!” might have been exclaimed after an early successful collaboration, and does not necessarily reflect feelings after a later collaboration that lead to a major falling out—and knowing why the feelings were positive can have a massive impact on interpretation. (Did he make the experience pleasant or entertaining? Did he share insights into film-making that improved the speaker’s own abilities? Did he behave professionally when others might have exploded in anger? …) Similarly, “greatest” need not refer to the film-maker as a film maker—it might have been as a friend, a person, a philanthropist, boxer, or even be referring to physical size. (Other examples can be more subtle, while being vulnerable to similar objections.)

Somewhat overlapping, these single sentences are almost always lacking in nuance and have a tendency towards the hyperbolic—I have yet to hear “X is on my top-ten list, slightly behind Bergman. I waver between him and Fellini for eighth place.”, which presumably is not cool enough for a modern documentary.

I am left with the impression that the documentary makers just try to pump out a certain number of minutes of screen time (never mind its value per minute) and resort to a way that allows even those void of skill to produce those minutes. Possibly, a secondary, highly populist, concern can play in: To allow mindless viewers to get some degree of entertainment, e.g. through rapid changes (never mind that the result is unusable for those with a brain or a genuine interest—those for which documentaries should be made).

The problems are by no means limited to documentaries, however. For instance, there are many journalistic “articles” on the web, especially sport-centric, that consist of as many Twitter-quotes as own text… No analysis, no details, no information—just superficial impressions or sound-bite claims by others. My concerns are similar, as is my lack of enjoyment. I am certainly not informed by such crap.

Twitter, it self, is an obvious further example: If someone wants to inform the world that “I am going to the loo! Yaaay!”, Twitter might be an appropriate medium. For readers and writers looking for something with more substance, it is not a good choice.

Politics (especially Left/PC populist) and advertising are, unsurprisingly, other common sources of examples. Consider e.g. the utterly despicable pro-abortion argument (using the word loosely) “It is my body!”. Not only does this anti-intellectually reduce a very complicated* ethical question to a mere slogan, but this slogan is also extremely misleading—the main reason why this question is so tricky is exactly that it is not “my” (i.e. the current woman’s) body that is the main issue! The main issue is the body of the fetus, and involves sub-issues like when this body should be considered a human and when a disposable something else—which in turn involves medical, philosophical, and (for non-atheists) religious considerations. (Other issues not addressed by this slogan include whether and to what degree the interests of the father** and the grand-parents might need consideration and what the medical professionals consider compatible with their own conscience and religion. At the same time, it fails to use the single strongest pro-abortion argument, i.e. the medical risks resulting from illegal abortions.)

*So complicated that I have no clear opinion on the matter: I do not argue “pro-life” here—I argue against useless, illogical, intellectually dishonest, whatnot argumentation and cheap sloganeering.

**Including the negative direction, since he is usually forced to pay for the child when no abortion takes place.

Excursion on depth in general, especially regarding school:
As I have noticed again and again after leaving school*, what passes for education is often sufficiently superficial to be near useless—sometimes, even dangerous. The same can be said about much news reporting (even when the extreme cases above are discounted). Generally, society is filled with shallow information and a shallower understanding—while most people fail to understand that they know and understand very little. School amounts to twelve-or-so years of superficial orientation on most topics, where it would have been better to dig deeper into more select areas. History is possibly the topic in which this is the most obvious. Look at a typical school text on history, consider how many pages are spent on what topics, and then compare this amount of text with e.g. the Wikipedia article on the same topic—and compare the amount of depth, thought, analysis, whatnot. Reading the Wikipedia article once or twice and forgetting ninety-five percent of the data (but not insight!) will usually be more valuable than even memorizing the school text.

*Somewhat similar arguments apply to higher education too, but to a lesser degree and with more honesty: Achieving a diploma is somewhat comparable to getting a driver’s license—proof that someone is fit to enter traffic, but still trailing severely compared to what is expected ten or twenty years down the line. School, in comparison, often amounts to the knowledge that a car has four wheels and uses gasoline—superficial, border-line useless, and ignoring other numbers of wheels and other energy sources.

Excursion on “likes”:
It could be argued that “likes” takes this type of mis-communication to its purest extreme (or it could be argued to be another topic entirely). Consider e.g. the lack of a motivation why something was “liked”; the uncertainty of whether the text/video/whatnot was viewed as high-quality or whether it was the message that was approved; the typical inability to “dislike” something; the pressure some might feel to “like” as a form of payment (or the hope of getting “likes” in return, or the fear of disappointing a friend, …); etc.

Excursion on neglecting core groups:
Documentaries and entertainment (cf. above) is just a special case of a very disturbing tendency of neglecting the core group (traditional target/raison d’être/whatnot audience), for which something should be made, in favor of the great masses—failing to realize the betrayal implied, the damage done, and that it might be more profitable to hold a large portion of a niche market than a thin sliver of a mass market. A good other example is museums that (at least in Germany) focus so much on populist entertainment that I, as a core-group member, rarely bother to visit one. A particular problem is the drive to include children, even when they gain nothing museum-specific from the visit, and even when their presence is a disturbance to other visitors. For instance, when I lived in Munich, I visited an automotive or vehicle museum—and was ultimately forced to avoid large areas of the museum, lest I flip out. Why? A large part of the museum was occupied by some type of for-children-cinema and a slide—both in immediate vicinity of parts of the exhibition, both entirely lacking sound barriers. To boot, there was an endless stream of children running around and shouting between them. I note both that neither appeared to have any educational value (even discounting the limited value achievable in young children*) and that any hoped for gain in long-term interest in museums (if occurring at all) is outweighed by the adult visitors losing their interest. The true explanation is simply a wish to maximize the number of paying visitors—and education be damned. Other examples include sports’ events going for the ignorant masses, with imbecile commentators, idiotic camera angles, whatnot, and ignoring** those with an interest in and knowledge of the respective sport.

*It is a dangerous myth that children learn better than adults. Even when it comes to raw facts, it is highly disputable. When it comes to gaining an understanding, extrapolating, applying, it is horrendously wrong. See also e.g. [1].

**Note the difference between opening doors for the masses in addition to the core group vs. doing so through locking out the core group.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 4, 2018 at 9:50 am

Follow-up: Revisiting verbosity based on Wesnoth

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A minor unfairness in my recent text on Wesnoth was the use of an outdated version (1.12), instead of the latest (1.14).

I have since installed and briefly tried 1.14 through use of Debian’s “backports”. My experiments were cut short by the fact that it was unplayable on my computer for performance reasons. Specifically, the game used up an entire processor core even when doing nothing* and was slow as molasses—click somewhere and the reaction took place ten seconds later…**

*Including when being on the start screen and when having all animations deactivated.

**Note that this is a different type of delay than discussed in the original text: There we had artificial delays deliberately introduced by misguided developers; here we have delays as a side-effect of a too resource-consuming application.

If (as it likely was*) this performance delay was caused by changes to Wesnoth it self, it demonstrates a disastrous attitude so common in today’s software—the assumption that any type of performance waste in order to gain minimal benefits is acceptable. Notably, nothing that this game does should cause such performance delays. That the display part can be handled much more efficiently is proved by older versions of the game, the amount of calculation needed during user interaction is negligible, and the observed delays were by no means restricted to the AI’s/computer’s play**. And, no, neither 1.14 nor the older versions use graphics of an impressive kind—strictly 2D, a mostly static map (especially with animations off), no fanciful textures, …***

*It is unlikely-but-conceivable that some version incompatibilities or other problems in/with/between the simultaneously backported libraries and/or the original setup led to problems that are not the fault of Wesnoth. (The backports are typically nowhere near as thoroughly tested and come with far less guarantees than the “regular” Debian packages.)

**If it had been, it might be explained by deep analysis, simulation, or whatnot preceding the AI’s decisions. However, considering how trivial and fast the AI had been in older incarnations, this would have been a surprising development.

***Which is good: There is no true benefit to be found from such features in a game of this type. Equally, chess is played just as well with a simple wooden board and wooden pieces as if diamonds and rubies were used—likely, better.

I did manage some minor comparisons with 1.12 before giving up, however, and must amend my original criticism slightly: The blend-in of text and movement-to-and-from-a-war-council in 1.12 were not as slow as I perceived them when writing the original text. (However, both are still entirely unnecessary delays. Also note that at least the latter is sped up by a factor of four in my settings, compared to the default.) Here we likely see an effect of different standards of comparison: During regular play, I am used to things happening very quickly; coming straight from experiences with 1.14, I saw the contrast to the truly slow.

(As for differences, they appeared to be mostly optical. However, I did not manage to do any non-trivial game play nor test some of the features at all or more than very superficially, and there might have been significant changes that I am not aware of.)

Excursion on performance:
It is true that processing power is quite abundant today, with even a low-end cell-phone comparing well to the first computers that I knew. However, it is still not a limitless resource; not all computers have top-end processors (graphics cards, whatnot), notably because even an outdated low-end notebook can handle almost any task with ease;* and there are still factors like environmental impact and battery life to consider when a heavy workload increases energy consumption. In some case, even heat might be a factor to consider—what if a game is not playable on a hot summers day?

*For instance, my current notebook has a quadcore processor topping out at 2 GHz and only “on-board” graphics—and that is more than enough to watch even HD movies, play older versions of Wesnoth, listen to music, browse the Web, etc. Indeed, the average load on my processor is often below 1 %…

It is also noteworthy that some of this computing is a complete waste, e.g. because (as with 1.14) there is no benefit to it. Often, it is based on faulty assumptions about what the user wants.* Often, it is a pseudo-optimization; sometimes, it is even contra-productive.** It is particularly infuriating when an idle application (as with 1.14 above) runs the processor up—by rights, it should have a negligible processor load. Even as a professional software developer, I have problems understanding how they manage the opposite: Is it amateurish “busy waiting”? Is it a polling multiple times per second for an event that takes place every few hours? Is it a hidden malware that tries to spy on me? Is it an equally hidden bitcoin-mining operation? …

*For instance, many applications leave background processes hanging around after they are (ostensibly) terminated. This is usually with the intent that the application should start faster the second, third, fourth, … time around—but what if this does not happen for several weeks or only after a re-boot? Worse, there are some applications (especially on Windows machines) that insist on starting such background processes before the first application start. What if the actual application is then never started?

**A good potential example of contra-productive “optimization” is the “save_index” file of Wesnoth: Interacting with the saves is usually faster after deleting it… (I have not studied its exact purpose, but based on the name, it is likely intended to speed up said interaction. I note that I have never experienced any negative side-effects of the deletion.) And, no, this is not a unique example: I first deleted this file because I knew that emptying a cache (or a similar measure) often had led to a speed-up in other applications and thought that I should at least give it a try. Indeed, while caches can have major benefits in the right situation, they are often more a hindrance than a help. For instance, it only rarely makes sense for an application to add its own file caching on top of the file caching done by the operating system and other mechanisms. (And the introduction of SSDs have created many situations where the value of any file caching is strongly reduced compared to the past.)

Written by michaeleriksson

December 2, 2018 at 1:39 am

Wordpress and mangling of quotes

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Preamble: Note that the very complications discussed below make it quite hard to discuss the complications, because I cannot use the characters that I discuss and expect them to appear correctly. Please make allowances. For those with more technical knowledge: The entity references are used for what decimal Unicode-wise is 8220 / 8221 (double quotes) and 8216 / 8217 (single quotes). The literal ones correspond to ASCII/Unicode 34, which WordPress converted to the asymmetric 8220 and 8221. (I stay with the plain decimal numbers here, lest I accidentally trigger some other conversion.)

I just noticed that WordPress had engaged in another inexcusable modification of a text that I had posted as HTML by email—where a truly verbatim use of my text must be assumed.* Firstly, “fancy”** or typographic quotation marks submitted by me as “entity references”*** have been converted to literal UTF-8, which is not only unnecessary but also increases the risk of errors when the page or a portion of its contents is put in a different context.**** Secondly, non-fancy quotation marks that I had deliberately entered as literal UTF-8 had been both converted into entity references and distorted by a “fanciness” that went contrary to any reasonable interpretation of my intentions. Absolutely and utterly idiotic—and entirely unexpected!

*Excepting the special syntax used to include e.g. WordPress tags, and the changes that might be absolutely necessary to make the contents fit syntactically within the displayed page (e.g. to not have two head-blocks in the same page).

**I.e. the ones that look a little differently as a “start” and as an “end” sign. The preceding sentence should, with reservations for mangling, contain two such start and two such end signs in the double variation. This to be contrasted with the symmetrical ones that can be entered by a single key on a standard keyboard.

***A particular type of HTML/XML/whatnot code that identifies the character to display without actually using it.

****Indeed, the reason why I use entity references instead of UTF-8 is partially the risk of distortion along the road as an email (including during processing/publication through WordPress) and partially problems with Firefox (see excursion)—one of the most popular browsers on the web.

The latter conversion is particularly problematic, because it makes it hard to write texts that discuss e.g. program code, HTML markup, and similar, because there the fancy quotes are simply not equivalent. Indeed, this was specifically in a text ([1]) where I needed to use three types of quotation marks to discuss search syntax in a reasonable manner—and by this introduction of fanciness, the text becomes contradictory. Of course, cf. preamble, the current text is another example.

This is the more annoying, as I have a markup setup that automatically generates the right fancy quotes whenever I need them—I have no possible benefit from this distortion that could even remotely compete with the disadvantage. Neither would I assume that anyone else has: If someone deliberately chooses to use HTML, and not e.g. the WYSIWYG editor, sufficient expertise must be assumed, especially as the introduction of fancy quotes is easy within HTML it self—as demonstrated by the fact that I already had fancy quotes in the text, entered correctly.

Excursion of Firefox and encoding:
Note that Firefox insists on treating all* local text as (using the misleading terminology of Firefox) “Western” instead of “Unicode”, despite any local settings, despite the activation of “autodetect”, despite whatever encoding has actually been used for the file, and despite UTF-8 having been the only reasonable default assumption (possibly, excepting ASCII) for years. Notably, if I load a text in Firefox, manually set the encoding to “Unicode”, and then re-load the page, then the encoding resets to “Western”… Correspondingly, if I want to use Firefox for continual inspection of what I intend to publish, I cannot reasonably work with pure UTF-8.

*If I recall an old experiment correctly, there is one exception in that Firefox does respect an encoding declared in the HTML header. However, this is not a good work-around for use with WordPress and similar tools, because that header might be ignored at WordPress’ end. Further, this does not help when e.g. a plain-text file (e.g. of an e-book) is concerned. Further, it is conceptually disputable whether an HTML page should be allowed to contain such information, or whether it should be better left to the HTTP(S) protocol.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 29, 2018 at 8:27 pm

Multiple ideas vs. focused texts

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I have repeatedly encountered claims by authors* that their stories only truly work, come to life, whatnot, when they are based on two or more separate ideas. I have made the same, but more ambivalent, observation regarding my own (non-fiction) texts: The texts that I really have a drive to write, that are the most fun to write, that develop my own thoughts the most, …, tend to be the ones combining two or more ideas. The way of writing described in an older text also almost forces the inclusion of multiple ideas, even when the original drive was not rooted in more than one idea. On the downside, these texts are also the least focused, might give the readers less value for their time, and would be most likely to be torn to pieces if submitted to e.g. a college course on essay writing.**

*Including Stephen R. Donaldson with regard to his “Gap” and “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant” series. As for the others, I have to pass, seeing that I only took superficial note at the time, and that these encounters stretch back over decades.

**However, I state for the protocol that I simply do not agree with much of the standard writing advice and that my deviations are more often rooted in disagreement with than ignorance of such advice. This includes, outside of very formal types of writing, keeping a tight focus on a single topic, or focusing on a single side of an issue. (The latter might be more convincing, but should a good essay aim at convincing or at giving insight and attempting to get at the truth?) It also includes “avoid the passive”, which I consider one of the worst pieces of advice a writer can get.

Consider, for a comparatively simple example, a few thoughts around the 2018 Chess World Championships and the fact that all the regular games ended in draws:*

*I originally intended to write a separate text on that matter. Since I sketch the material here, and have an ever-growing back-log, I will forego that text.

On the one hand, I have long observed that as a sport matures and as we look at higher levels within a sport, (a) players/teams tends to grow stronger defensively at a higher rate than they do offensively and/or that differences in scores tend to grow smaller, (b) the nature of the sport often changes.*

*Consider for (a) the chance of in soccer finding a five-goal victory margin or an overall of ten goals for a single game between national teams today vs. fifty years ago, between men’s teams vs. between women’s teams, or between Bundesliga teams vs. between local amateur teams. (With great reservations for temporary fluctuations, the presence of a truly exceptional team, unusually large mismatches in level, and similar.) Consider for (b) how a low level bowler aims to knock down as many pins as possible, hoping for a strike every now and then, while the pro is set on failing to get strikes as rarely as possible.

On the other hand, partially overlapping, it seems to me that chess is being crippled by too many draws. Notably, at increasingly higher levels of play, it becomes rarer and rarer for Black to win, implying that the “job” of Black is to get a draw. In contrast, the “job” of White is to win. However, even White’s win percentage is often so low that draw orgies result. Looking specifically at the 2018 World Championships, we also have another negative: The defending champion and eventual winner, Carlsen, was known to be stronger at speed chess than his opponent, Caruana—and in case of a tie after twelve regular games, the match would be determined by a speed-chess tie-breaker. Considering this, Carlsen had a strong incentive to play risk-free games, knowing that a tie was close to a victory and that draws in the individual games favored him. Going by the account on Wikipedia, this almost certainly affected the 12th game.* After twelve consecutive draws, the tie-break came, and Carlsen now won three games out of three… Similarly, even without a favorable tie-breaker, a player who got an early win might then just go for safety draws in order to keep that one-point advantage until the end.

*Going by the other game accounts, there were no strong signs of such caution. (I have not attempted to analyze the games myself, and I might even lack the ability to judge what is “safety first” play on this level.) However, another player in his shoes might well have played with an eye mainly at forcing a tie-break, and have viewed a victory within the regular portion as a mere bonus.

Looking more in detail, my plans did not advance so far that I can say with certainty what I would have written, except that it would have included a potential rule change to e.g. give Black more points than White in case of a victory and/or to make the split of points uneven (in favor of Black) in case of a draw. This would have had the intention of giving Black incentives to play harder for a win and/or to make White dissatisfied with a draw, and some discussion of how such rule changes could turn out to be contra-productive would have followed. For the latter, an intended parallel example was the off-side rule in soccer: Abolishing it would lead to more goals if the teams play as they do today and it could give incentives to play more aggressively through putting forwards higher in the field to await a pass; however, it could also lead to more defensive play through keeping defenders back even when attacking, in case the ball is lost and a quick counter-attack follows.

*For some value of exciting: I usually find watching soccer to be quite boring.

Here we also have an illustration of one of the problems with more focused texts: If I were to try to divide the above into two (or more) texts, they would each be missing something or be forced to partially duplicate discussions. It could be done. There might even be contexts when it should be done. However, this would entail more work than writing a single text, the result would be lesser in my eyes, and I would, myself, prefer to read the joint text.

The illustration would have been better, had I been further along in my planing. However, consider e.g. how a discussion of the off-side rule in the chess text would have been weakened without a discussion of the more general phenomenon and the context of the comparatively low number of goals in soccer (if in doubt, when compared to e.g. basket-ball or ice-hockey). Goals in soccer, in turn, would be a fairly uninteresting and loose special case without having an eye on the wider issue of (a) above. Or consider just discussing the “drawiness” of top-level chess without mention of (b) in general. Etc. For a good example of a text actually written, see [1]: Here a discussion of a specific PED-related controversy is combined with a general discussion of some sub-topics, and then transitions into a questioning of how reasonable the current take on PEDs is. (Could have been two or even three texts, had “focus” been a priority, but, to my taste, the actual text works better.)

Excursion on fiction and multiple ideas:
The above-mentioned claims by authors are likely mostly relating to fairly abstract ideas or broad themes that do not automatically point the way;* however, in my experiences as a consumer of fiction, the better works often have a number of ideas or concepts of a more concrete kind that combine to make them that much greater. For instance, “Star Wars” without light-sabers would still be “Star Wars”, but it would not have been quite the same. Similarly, “Star Wars” without the Force would still have worked, but … Or consider “Star Trek” and the individual series with and without holodecks. Clearly, the holodeck is not needed, but it adds so many great additional possibilities. It would certainly be possible to make a reasonably good “high concept” series around the holodeck alone. Similarly, “Chuck” basically combines two different TV series—comic spy adventures and the absurdities of a fictional electronics store. Taking just the latter and combining it with the family-life of Chuck would have made for a reasonable comedy series. Taking just the former in combination with family-life would have made for a very good action-comedy series. Having both in one series made it truly great entertainment.

*Donaldson speaks e.g. of a combination of leprosy and unbelief for “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant”—the road from those ideas to the actual books is quite long and very different books would have been equally possible.

And, no, this is not limited to modern screen entertainment: Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, e.g., is not just a tragedy or love story—but both. It also has more comedy in it than most modern rom-com movies… Then there are life lessons to be drawn, some remarkable poetry, and whatnot. At least the filmatisations by Zeffirelli (outstanding!) and Luhrman show the room for action scenes.*

*I am uncertain how this could have come across in an Elizabethan theater: On the one hand, the means would have been more limited; on the other, the standard of comparison was necessarily much lower. (Both movies also make remarkable use of music; however, that is independent of the underlying play.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 29, 2018 at 6:59 pm