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A Swede in Germany

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“The Crimes of Grindelwald” and recognizing evil

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“The Crimes of Grindelwald” is a very disappointing* movie, but it does point to a few issues that I have addressed repeatedly in the past.

*My main criticisms: The otherwise weakish predecessor was carried by streaks of comedy and the dynamics between/charm of the four main protagonists, especially regarding wizard–muggle interaction. These aspects were largely lost. (The comedy aspect is even replaced by dread and dire and a too depressing visual tone.) The plot is unengaging, seems poorly though-through, and is confusing to boot. New characters and relationships are mostly too bland, boring, and/or unsympathetic to warrant interest and emotional investment, which is a particular negative for several “tragic characters”.

This includes the fact that there will be persons, usually very many, on both sides of a conflict who are convinced that they are “the good guys” and that their opponents are “the bad guys”—implying that even the strongest conviction of being right (that the opposing party is evil, whatnot) does not, in it self, justify extreme means. Indeed, looking at e.g. party programs from more-or-less any party, I can find a lot that makes sense in principle or, at least, is sufficiently plausible that I can understand that weak thinkers are swayed—thought, a knowledge/understanding of the issues, and/or insight into other positions is often needed to see why the program is flawed or would make a poor policy.* Calls for evil actions for “the greater good” tend to be particularly dangerous—it is no coincidence that this phrase is often used by madmen, terrorists, dictators, dystopian societies, whatnot in fiction. (But note that those who call for the greater good in real life rarely do so using the explicit phrase.)

*Consider e.g. a simplistic “women earn 77 cents on the dollar; ergo, the government must intervene to create justice”, which collapses on closer inspection. (See several older texts, including [1].)

It also includes that opinions (goals, ideals, …; I will use just “opinion[s]” below) must not be a primary factor when judging who is more or less evil in most* conflicts.** Instead, we have to consider the following (overlapping) issues:

*Exceptions are sufficiently rare that I cannot give a strong example of the top of my head. They are likely to exist, however. (Possibly, relating to a legally clear situation.)

**With the corollary that condemning an opinion as evil, because of evil methods used to enforce that opinion, is equally as bad as (cf. above) using an opinion perceived as good to justify evil methods.

  1. What methods are used? Do the methods include e.g. unprovoked violence, censorship of dissent, character assassination, …?

    Overlapping with the above, I would even replace the common, misguided, claim that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” with “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to use evil means”. (Where, at least, my “good” refers to self-perception, as demonstrated by many Soviet/Chinese/whatnot Communists and the Nazis.) Very many evils in this world go back to the use of evil means for purposes seen as good; and by refraining from evil means, such evils are considerably reduced or avoided altogether. Vice versa, a believer in the naive original might well take it as a reason to cause, not oppose, evil in the name of good.

  2. How do the counter-parts interact with opposing opinions? Are the opinions evaluated neutrally and with an open mind or are they rejected as wrong, or even evil, in a blanket manner? Are the counter-parts willing to adjust their own opinions, should the evidence call for it? Are arguments engaged with counter-arguments or with insults? Etc.

    I note that this is not just a matter of fairness. Two other important implications is that (a) those who are more open-minded tend to be right more often, (b) a destructive attitude threatens the right of others to develop their own opinions and can limit both societal and scientific progress.*

    *Note e.g. the destructive effects of how parts of the PC movement denounce scientifically supported claims around I.Q., the influence of “nature”, whatnot—to the point that some scientists avoid certain research topics for fear of repercussions. The problems are so large that a pseudonymous journal is in planning to alleviate it (the linked-to article also contains several good illustrations of the problem).

  3. What basis do the opinions originally have? Are they based in reason or wishful thinking, factual arguments or uncritical belief in what one is told, correct or incorrect interpretation of statistics, …?

    Again, those with a good reason tend to be right more often. I note that e.g. pushing policies based on faulty ideas or premises can do an enormous amount of harm to society, as with e.g. how an unduly positive belief in the benefits of school* and a wish for more school (to solve any number of problems) wastes enormous amounts of resources, takes large chunks out of the lives of the students, and often leads to only marginal improvements—or even has negative effects (e.g. through taking time away from self-studies among the bright or frustrating and over-taxing the dim).

    *As opposed to education—a very important differentiation. However, even more education is not always sensible, being dependent on the individuals interests, abilities, and goals in life.

  4. With what degree of honesty do the counter-parts push their opinions and agendas? Do they believe what they say and say what they believe, or do they e.g. have a hidden agenda or do they use arguments that they do not hold-up to scrutiny?

    As a specific example: Was Grindelwald a true believer—or did he rather create and manipulate true believers for his own personal gain? (I strongly suspect the latter to hold.)

(Additional issues might be worthy of consideration, e.g. whether an agenda is driven by partisan benefit* vs. ethical principles or the good of society as a whole.)

*Not to be confused with the above case of e.g. having a hidden agenda of personal power: Here the issue is e.g. wanting to benefit a certain partisan group (say with a laborers’ party, a farmers’ party, a make-our-region-independent party, whatnot).

A particular interesting overlap between the movie and some texts is that the use of evil or disproportionate methods can drive people into the enemy camp, cause radicalization, or similar. This through at least two mechanisms, (a) that “mild” opponents might be left with no where to go but the camp of the “rabid” opponents, (b) that the use of evil methods causes a negative reaction. This, incidentally, appears to have some parallels in other areas, e.g. in that anti-drug legislation often does more to cause crime and worsen the life of the drug-users than to improve matters, or ditto for anti-prostitution* laws. Particularly the (b) case appears to have been working to Grindelwald’s advantage, when the government(s) used evil methods of its own.

*As claimed in an article I encountered a few days ago (note several links to further discussion).

Excursion on necessary evil means:
There might be situations where the use of evil means can be necessary even in a good cause. (A widely accepted example is using reasonable amounts of violence in self-defense against an unprovoked attacker.) However, here great care must be taken to not overstep a reasonable minimum, to minimize the effect on third-parties, etc. A more thorough discussion would be well outside the scope of this text, might be impossible without stipulating a number of ethical principles, and might have to include considerable analysis of individual examples. Consider e.g. questions like when and to what degree it might be allowable to interfere with civic rights for fear of terrorism or to accept civilian casualties during warfare.

Excursion on Grindelwald:
Is Grindelwald evil? In my opinion, “yes”—because I have the impression that he does let the end justify the means, is callous of the rights of others, has hidden agendas, … (Then again, my impression might be incorrect, seeing that the movie was not always explicit, that I might misremember previous information, and that earlier books, which mention him as evil, might have predisposed me towards this interpretation.)

Note that my reasons do not (at least consciously) include that he “looked evil”, that the main protagonists opposed him, that he was condemned as evil by officials, … Consider Professor Snape (from earlier books/movies) for someone who gave many superficial signs of being evil, but who was actually* a great hero and an important ally—and contrast him with several good-seeming-but-evil other teachers.

*Notwithstanding that an accusation of “being a mean bastard”, “having an unfair personal dislike of Harry”, or similar might have been true.

Here, as elsewhere, it is important not just to draw the right conclusion (X is evil; Y is good; …), but to do so for the right reasons. Evil in the real world often has a friendly face; good often does not—much unlike in children’s cartoons.

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Written by michaeleriksson

February 21, 2019 at 10:41 am

Hypocritical treatment of the Right and the Left / Yellow vests

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I have often touched on issues like the hypocritical treatment of the Right* compared to the Left, the uselessness of the Left–Right scale, and how often various derogatory and debate killing labels** are thrown around by the Left (the PC crowd, whatnot).

*One of the aspects of the uselessness of the Left–Right scale is that the “Right” is too heterogeneous to be a truly useful term (unlike “Left”). I use it here for consistency with typical discussions.

**For instance, (more often than not) unfounded accusations of someone or something being “Fascist”, “sexist”, “racist”, … I note e.g. the use of “Fascist” by Soviet Communists to refer to other Communists or the condemnation of the entire West-Germany and/or the “Western Bloc” as such by the East-German leaders (e.g. by referring to the Berlin Wall as “antifaschistischer Schutzwall”—“Anti-Fascist rampart”).

The treatment of the Yellow-Vest movement (in at least German and Swedish) media is a good example:

The movement is based on a mixture of general or politically neutral dissatisfaction with dissatisfaction of a Leftist type. It has a strong analog in preceding German movements that were built around general or politically neutral dissatisfaction with dissatisfaction (dubiously) considered “Rightist”.*

*Notably, regarding e.g. immigration, which I consider narrow-minded to not view as neutral on the Left–Right scale (and/or as further proof of its uselessness).

The latter have often been strongly condemned as “Rightist extremists” or “Rightist populist” (“rechtsextremistisch” resp. “rechtspopulistisch”), despite having comparatively little overlap with most Right-wing opinions. They are first (misleadingly) classified as “Right-wing” based almost solely on issues like migration—and then the debate focuses strongly on their being “Right-wing” and “populist” or “extremist”.

Not so with the Yellow Vests, however: I cannot recall seeing a single instance of them being labeled as “Left-wing” (let alone ‘Leftist extremist” or “Leftist populist”). Instead they are discussed in terms of their more specific complaints, issues, and behaviors. In it self, this is good—this is how it should be. But: Why is the same courtesy of issue-based description not extended to movements considered on the “Right”? Why are they blanketed away as “Right-this” and “Right-that” without looking at what they actually believe in detail? Why are they blanketed away as “dissatisfaction movements”* without taking their concerns seriously?

*I am unaware of a corresponding English family of words, but e.g. the Swedish “Missnöjesparti” (“dissatisfaction party”) is long established as a derogatory way of dismissing concerns by the implication that the party just populistically rides dissatisfaction without anything to offer, that its adherents complain about things that are no big deal, that the adherents project their own dissatisfaction in life onto external issues, or similar. Label something as “Missnöjes[something]” and it can be ignored in a blanket manner.

This is the odder as the Yellow Vests have been more prone to e.g. violent behavior than their German counter-parts and do not trail in terms of dissatisfaction mentality and whatnot.

I actually have some fear that the Yellow Vests will be paradoxically condemned as “Rightist” (!) whatnots at some future time, because someone will eventually make statements that are or can be misconstrued to sound e.g. nationalist, xenophobe, or anti-Islam during a major protest—which will allow a pseudo-classification as “Right”…

Written by michaeleriksson

February 9, 2019 at 5:08 pm

Follow-up: Fraudulent product information/German DVDs/Koch Media

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In January, I wrote about the fraudulent behavior of Koch Media regarding the 1980s/1990s Sherlock-Holmes series*.

On the same day, I sent an email to Koch Media with a demand for rectification. This received a near-immediate automatic confirmation of receipt, implying that Koch Media definitely received said email.

Nevertheless, there has been no further reaction in the almost month since then—despite an explicit dead-line set for the 21st of January.

Correspondingly, I will now put the matter in the hands of the police.

I have already (as explicitly mentioned in the email to Koch Media) taken the non-reaction as cause to download the missing episodes from the Internet, which I consider perfectly legal as a remedy of a defect product in light of an uncooperative counter-part*. I advise other victims to do the same, should Koch Media or the respective seller not respond appropriately to complaints.**

*A minor hitch is that, according to German law, the first point of contact and party required to provide remedy is the seller, not the producer, of a good. However, due to the time period involved, I can no longer safely say who the seller was, let alone provide proof of purchase from that seller. Further, it is obvious that the fraud has been perpetrated by the producer (Koch Media), with the sellers likely acting in good faith or even qualifying as victims. Nevertheless, fellow victims with a sufficient knowledge (and preferably a receipt) should turn to the seller first.

**I stress that any such attempt should be preceded by a complaint with a demand for remedy. This to (a) give Koch Media a fair chance, (b) reduce the risk of legal culpability on behalf of the downloader, (c) let Koch Media know that its fraudulent actions have had consequences, giving incentives for an improved behavior. I further stress that this recommendation only applies to purchasers of Koch Media’s product. I refrain from giving explicit download instructions, seeing that such instructions have been legally problematic in some other contexts (however, it is not hard to find out how).

Written by michaeleriksson

February 4, 2019 at 12:06 am

Democracy failure in Germany

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Shortly after a recent democracy failure in Sweden, following a German precedent, Germany is trying to pull ahead again:

Apparently, the Bundesland (“state”) of Brandenburg has pushed through a highly ill-advised law that parties must present alternating* male and female candidates on their election lists ([1]).

*As I read the source. It is possible, but less likely, that a 50–50 overall was intended.

This is negative and anti-democratic for at least two reasons:

Firstly, it is an illicit form of discrimination based on sex, which does not consider factors like appropriateness for the position, number of willing and suitable candidates available, how many supporters a party has of each sex, etc. I note in particular the complication that more men than women appear to have the interest/ambition and dedication to pursue a political career. The result on the state parliament is that the quality of the elected will take a hit through the smaller pool from which half the candidates come.* The effect on men is that many who would have made strong** members will be left out; the effect on women that many too weak will be forced in by necessity. The effect on parties is that they cannot pick the candidates they consider suitable, worthy, or attractive-to-voters freely, and those male-dominated will be particularly poorly off. Indeed, a party that is sufficiently dominated by women*** might see similar troubles.

*Even discounting a likely difference in ability distributions.

**Relatively speaking and using the word somewhat loosely: These are politicians, and the proportion of great thinkers will likely be on the low side either which way.

***The Swedish Feminist party “Fi” might be a candidate.

Secondly, this demonstrates a complete failure to understand and respect how a representative democracy works: The elected are not intended to be chosen to reflect the demographics of the people—they are intended to be chosen by the people, in order to best represent the interests of the people. Not only is this law a violation of the principles involved, but it also leaves the people worse off—if the people wants more women elected, it should vote for more women. Similarly, if it prefers to vote for men, people of a certain age or a certain background, whatnot, it is up to the people to do so. Limiting the people’s right to chose through such mechanisms is anti-democratic.* Further, the consequences of such “demography thinking” can easily be seen to be absurd: If sex is a valid quota criterion, then why not age, educational background, profession, country of origin, sexual orientation …? What about the demographics of the party?** How can we justify excluding those below (e.g.) eighteen, if demography is an important criterion? Etc.

*It could be argued that the list systems used in e.g. Germany and Sweden are themselves problematic for similar reasons, and it might be a good idea to move to another system entirely.

**Many parties (especially in multi-party systems) have a heavy tilt in several demographic directions and often see themselves as representing a particular group of people—how is that compatible with being forced to find candidates that reflect a different demographic?

If “demography thinking” is to be considered at all, a completely different system is needed, e.g. one based on random choice instead of election. Consider e.g. a pool of candidates consisting of the entirety of the population, or a portion of the population satisfying certain criteria*, and a computer picking out the “elected” based purely on chance from this pool.

*Notable possibilities are “is above eighteen” and “is a citizen”, but criteria that include e.g. a certain level of demonstrated accomplishment are conceivable. Great care must be taken, however, seeing that such criteria could easily lead to skew (“must be an Aryan”, “must not belong to the bourgeoisie”, “must be dedicated to diversity”). Indeed, even something as innocuous as “must be willing” could be problematic. On the other hand, having no additional criteria would lead to parliaments even less qualified and more easily manipulated than today’s.

Looking more in detail at the source, there are several disturbing claims made:

Personen, die sich weder dem männlichen noch dem weiblichen Geschlecht zuordnen, können frei entscheiden, ob sie für die Männer- oder die Frauenliste kandidieren.

Translation: Persons, who do not identify as male or female, can chose freely whether to candidate for the men’s or women’s list.*

*This in reference to internal lists, prescribed by the law, that are used as a basis for the final list of candidates presented to the voters.

This allows manipulation by dishonest candidates, e.g. in that a man claims to identify as a woman in order to be let in with less competition, or that some group (e.g. members of a Feminist faction) claim to identify as members of the “opposite” sex to skew the list away from 50–50 proportions.

(Quoting or paraphrasing the chair of the Leftist extremist “Die Linke”, Katja Kipping.)

Mindestens jeder zweite Platz bei der Listenaufstellung für die Bundestagswahl müsse von einer Frau besetzt werden

Translation: At least every second position on the lists for the (federal) parliament election must belong to a woman.

This demonstrates the typical hypocrisy and poorly hidden agenda: If more that every second position belongs to a woman (and by implication less belongs to a man) this is apparently not a problem at all.

(Quoting Ulle Schauws of the usually Left-leaning and often, without hyperbole, out-of-touch-with-reality Green Party.)

Das neue Gesetz sei “ein erster Schritt, um gleiche Zugangschancen für Frauen in der Politik herzustellen”.

Translation: The new law is “a first step towards equal opportunity for women in politics”.

Women already bloody well have equal opportunity in politics—by law. Furthermore, they have had so for a long time. Indeed, since more than half the voters are women, it would have been no problem for underrepresented women to turn things around, had they been blocked internally in some parties: Just vote for another party or found a new party. If too much of the female vote goes missing, any such recalcitrant party would be forced to adapt. The truth is that we have a long history of fewer qualified women being sufficiently interested and dedicated—if you want more women in politics, Frau Schauw, change that!

(Quoting Katerina Barley, member of the social-democrat SPD and current (federal) minister of justice.)

“Unser Ziel muss eine Reform des Wahlrechts* sein, die eine gerechte Beteiligung beider Geschlechter im Parlament unterstützt”

*Here and elsewhere, I translate with “election law”. It is possible that some other phrasing, e.g. “election legislation”, would be more accurate.

Translation: “Our goal must be a reform of the election law that supports a fair participation of both sexes in parliament”

The same as above applies, with an additional pointer to previous comments on representative democracy.

(Quoting Franziska Giffey, also a member of the social-democrat SPD and the current (federal) family minister.)

Auch [sie] plädierte dafür, […] Frauen verstärkt anzusprechen und für politische Beteiligung zu gewinnen. “Das Wahlrecht kann dabei ein wichtiger Hebel sein”

Translation: [She], too, pleaded* […]** that women be more strongly addressed and won for political participation. “Election law can be an important lever for this purpose”

*The English word might be stronger than its German cognate (“plädierte”).

**The deleted portion has only a marginal effect on meaning, but is hard to translate in context and consists of unnecessary political verbiage.

Unlike the preceding, Frau Giffey appears to have an eye on the ball—lack of female participation. However, this type of law is not suited to achieve an increase, and I doubt that there is any other law that would be suited. There can be a positive effect through women realizing that they would get a leg up compared to men,* should they participate, which might actually move some of them to do so. However, this comes as a cost to everyone else (cf. above) and I would view it as an abuse of law-making. If official measures are at all needed and/or justifiable,** better such would simply encourage women to participate, e.g. through pointing to how non-participation increases the risk of, in some sense, “too few” women being elected.

*Or on the outside, through some women who used to (incorrectly) believe that they were disadvantaged now (and now incorrectly) believing in a fair playing field.

**Which I doubt: It is not the government’s decision what people do with their lives.

Notably, no-one who disagreed was quoted, no man was quoted, and no-one not on the Left was quoted, which raises the suspicion of partiality and poor journalism on behalf of the source. It does, however, note that two parties (CDU, AfD) voted against the law and consider it unconstitutional.

Oh, and by the way: The German Chancellor (highest elected politician) for the past thirteen years has been Angela Merkel—a woman. The current cabinet appears to contain 9 men and 7 women (including the Chancellor), according to Wikipedia on Merkel IV. Those poor powerless women…

Written by michaeleriksson

February 1, 2019 at 8:14 pm

A few thoughts on educationrealist

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In December, I read large portions of the blog educationrealist.* I found it particularly gratifying that the author (henceforth “Ed”) verifies a great number of my opinions on schools and schooling with “from the trenches” information regarding current U.S. schools.**

*Already briefly mentioned during a recent blogroll update. I wrote most of the below a few weeks before publication, based on keywords and short descriptions gathered in December. Taking up writing again today, I can no longer recall much of what I had intended to write for the remaining keywords. This has led to some points being considerably more abbreviated than others. I was torn between throwing them out altogether and keeping the short version, but mostly opted for the short version. With hindsight, I should also have kept more links.

*My opinions are based on a mixture of my own experiences from Swedish schools in the 1980s and early 1990s, reasoning from principles (of e.g. human behavior and abilities), less detailed accounts by students or teachers, and discussions by (mostly) other outsiders. Correspondingly, there was a risk that the non-trivial changes over time or when moving from country to country had mislead me. This does not appear to be the case.

Among the interesting observations to be made:

  1. There is a strong component of innate ability to school success.

    This has corollaries, many contrary to what politicians tend to believe, like: It is not possible to teach everyone everything with a reasonable effort. A one-size-fits-all* school system will fail many students through under- or over-challenging them and through necessitating pedagogical compromises. Over-education is wasteful and unproductive at best. Ignoring group differences in “academic talent” is a recipe for failure.**

    *Ed usually discusses this in terms of (absence of) “tracking”, which is one way to make the school system “multi-sized”. I note that during my own school years more-or-less no such efforts of any kind took place. Cf. e.g. some discussion of skipping grades/being held back in [1]. No in-year acceleration or other differentiation, from which I could have benefited greatly, were available to the gifted. The first true differentiation took place in (the rough equivalent of) senior high-school, where students self-selected into more specialized programs based on interest, with some minor filtering based on previous grades when there were more applicants than places.

    **This especially with an eye on racial variety (which was almost a non-issue during my own school years, with an almost homogeneous population). Many posts deal with racial realism, the evils of various affirmative action measures, etc., approaching the statistics driven topics of “The Bell-Curve” from a more practical/personal/anecdotal angle. However, in the big picture, this is not limited to race—I note e.g. how German news-papers and politicians ever again complain about how the German system would hinder working-class children, without even considering the possibility that the differences in outcome could be partially caused by differences in (inherited) abilities that affect the respective probability of the parents being working-class and of the children doing poorly in school.

  2. The grade system is broken through rewarding effort, compliance, whatnot over actual ability and performance. Indeed, the picture painted is much bleaker than during my own school years, where there was a strong subjective component in the teacher’s evaluation, but where, at least, performance was measured through tests—not home work.

    This is particularly interesting in light of an earlier text on admission criteria, where I oppose the suggestion to remove Högskoleprovet (“Swedish SATs”) for admissions to higher education in favor of a purely GPA based admission.* If we assume that the same trend is (or will be) followed in Sweden, the correct resolution would be to abolish GPA admission and rely solely on Högskoleprovet… (But just as Ed complains about the dumbing-down of the SATs, there is reason to fear that Högskoleprovet is suffering a similar faith. There certainly is a constant fiddling with it—notably, to ensure that boys do not outscore girls.)

    *Swedish admissions are centralized and use numerical criteria—not interviews, essays, extra-curriculars, …

  3. The negative effects of destructive students on others can be considerable.

    Interesting sub-items to consider is what type and degree of disciplinary measures should be allowed, and the benefit of splitting students into groups that are more homogeneous in terms of e.g. interest and behavior. (Yes, the latter might make it even worse for the trouble students, but they are not exactly thriving anyway—and doing so would improve the opportunities for everyone else.)

    I did some minor reading on this from other sources (but did not keep links), and found some stories that make even Ed’s experiences, already well beyond my own,* look harmless—including a female teacher writing about regularly crying with frustration in the evening…

    *To speculate on the difference, I note that I spent a fair bit of my school years in small classes, that anti-authority attitudes were not yet as wide-spread, and that Ed has taught many classes of a remedial nature. Racial factors might also play in, e.g. in that the cognitive differences in the class-room are greater in the U.S. or that many minority boys have a deliberate “tough” image. I know too little of his situation and experiences to say anything with certainty, however.

  4. Student motivation is highly important, and often something that the school system fails at (but which is often blamed on the student).

    This is the more depressing, seeing that a knee-jerk political reaction to school issues is to increase the time spent in school, which obviously will reduce motivation further even among the motivated, let alone the unmotivated. It also comes with other problems. Someone fails in school due to lack of motivation? Put him in summer school so that he will enter the following year already “school tired”. Let him repeat a year to prolong the torture. Let him take remedial classes to make his days longer. Etc.

    The correct solution is, obviously, to attack the lack of motivation (which is very often to blame on the school/teacher/school-system/… in the first place). If this problem cannot be fixed, other efforts are pointless or even harmful. If it can be fixed, the strong students will advance on their own, weaker will at least have a chance, and we have to have enough realism to be willing to part with the too weak students at an earlier time than “year twelve”.

  5. Politicians and education reformers are often very naive.
  6. There is a lot of trickery with re-classification of children, artificial passes of courses, and similar, for the purpose of making schools look good (or “not disastrously bad”?).

    A particularly interesting variation is the confusion of classes for/students in “English Language Learning/er” and special education: Apparently, many students who should be in special ed are put into ELL based on excuses, e.g. because the parents were first generation immigrants, while the child is a reasonably proficient native speaker who happens to do poorly in school. This way, the failure in school can no longer be blamed on the school (or, God forbid, the possibility that not all students are equally smart)—but on an alleged language handicap.

A point where his experiences (and some citations?) do not match my expectation is the competence level of teachers: He repeatedly expresses the view that the effect of increasing the subject* competence levels or minimum test-scores** of teachers has little effect on student outcomes. There is even some speculation on a negative effect on Black students, because they appear to do better with a Black teacher, and increasing the test-score limits would reduce the proportion of Black teachers. My own experiences with teacher competence are very different, but I could see a possible reconciliation in teachers affecting different students differently, e.g. in that a dumber teacher will bore/under-challenge/annoy/whatnot the bright students, while a brighter teacher might similarly over-challenge or have troubles with adapting to the dumber students—leaving the total effect on the student population roughly constant. (Similar explanations could include e.g. brighter teachers being stricter on dumber students when grading than dumber teachers are, resp. dumber teachers failing to appreciate good answers from brighter students.***) If this is so, we have an additional argument for segregation by ability (combined with corresponding choices of teachers); while ignoring teacher competence would be particularly bad for the brighter students.

*E.g. requiring better math knowledge in a math teacher. This in contrast to e.g. pedagogical training, where I am uncertain what his stance is—apart from a negative opinion of some of the training actually on offer.

**On some type of qualification test for teachers. Similar statements might or might not have been made concerning e.g. SAT scores or GPA.

***With several of my own less bright teachers, what I said sometimes went well over their heads. More generally, I have made the life-experience that stupid people often are under the misapprehension that someone brighter disagrees because he lacks insights that they have, while the true cause is typically the exact opposite—he has insights that they lack.

Looking at Ed, himself, he appears to do a great deal of experimentation and tries to improve his teaching over time. There are a few things that appear to work well for him and that could prove valuable elsewhere, including (big picture) running a hard line against students, treating students very differently depending on their behaviors/need/abilities/…, and attempts to motivate his students, as well as (on the detail level) many pedagogical tricks and techniques.

Unfortunately, there are a few other things that strike me as negative, even if some of them might be a result of external circumstances, e.g. that the school system leaves him with no good options or that he must make compromises between the interests of the students, his school, society, whatnot. This applies especially to his “D for effort” policy, which makes him a contributor to problems that he, himself, complains about, e.g. misleading grades and remedial students making it to college (while still being remedial). My take? It is never “D for effort”, it is never “E for effort”, it is absolutely never, ever “A for effort”: Unless actual accomplishment results from the effort, it must be “F for effort”. (Which, to boot, makes for a phonetically better saying.)

Another negative is a considerable mathematical naivete for a math teacher,* that is likely the cause of some weird ideas that are more likely to hinder than help his students, e.g. that higher order polynomials (or functions, depending on perspective) are arrived at by “multiplication” of lines** (i.e. first-degree relations like y = 5x + 3). Yes, this is a possible perspective, but it is just a small piece of the overall puzzle, and it strikes me as highly counter-intuitive and pedagogically unsound as an approach. (In my preliminary notes, I have a second example of “identifying numbers graphically only”, but I am not certain what I meant. It might have been something like requesting students to draw a graph and find the y-value from the x-value by measurement, instead of calculation, which would be pointless as an “only”, but could be acceptable as a preliminary step or to demonstrate the occasional need to use other methods than pure calculation.)

*In all fairness, he, unlike many others, understands and acknowledges that his understanding is superficial when he moves beyond the classes that he teaches.

**Generally, there is an extreme over-focus on geometry; however, I am not certain whether this is caused by Ed or the school (or the text-book publishers, politicians, whatnot). This includes e.g. viewing functions more-or-less solely as graphs, root learning of sine and cosine values, and similar.

Yet another is “lying to students” (see excursion), as demonstrated e.g. in a post on “The Evolution of Equals”. This post also shows some examples of enormous efforts being put in to teach the trivial to the dumber students, who might not belong in high school to begin with—at least a basic grasp of the equals sign should be present years earlier. Move them out of school or to some more practical course and use the freed teacher resources to teach those teachable… (Some other posts make a better job of displaying a great effort with little return, but this is the one post for which I kept the URL.)

Some other points could be seen as positive or negative depending on the details. For instance, he does some type of interactive/quizzing teaching that expects a “chorus answer” from the class. This might keep the students alert and force them to at least rote-learn some material—but it does not allow for much true thought and it does not demonstrate any deeper understanding among the students. I would certainly have found it annoying (or worse), had it been applied during my own school years.

Excursion on a generic solution to tracking, acceleration, etc.:
I have for some time considered taking a more “collegey” approach to school as a solution (sketch) to some problems. I see some support for this in the non-integrated approach taken to e.g. math in Ed’s descriptions.* What if the material to be covered, even in year one, is broken into rough packages of four quarter-semesters per semester and topic—and the students then go through these packages in whatever tempo they can manage? The strong students will soon move ahead of schedule, be it in general or in their favorite topics. Similarly, the student with an interest in a certain area, e.g. math, can move ahead in that area. The weaker students can take their time until they have mastered the matter sufficiently well. Etc. Exactly how to handle the teachers in this scenario is not yet clear to me, but it is clear that mere lecturing** to the class would have to be considerably reduced or combined with a division of people based on the package that they are currently involved with.

*Math was integrated through-out my own school years. While I do not see this as a pedagogical problem, it does limit flexibility.

**With some reservations for the first few years, I consider lecturing to be highly inefficient, often boring, and increasingly only suitable for weak students as we move up in grades. Strong students are able to learn mostly on their own and based on books. Cf. an earlier text on college material. In at least a U.S. context, it also helps with hiding the problem of sub-grade-level literacy—better to reveal and address the problem.

Excursion on memory:
A recurring issue is that Ed’s weaker students often actually do learn how to do something—but have forgotten it again by the next semester. This is likely partially caused by a too superficial understanding,* but it could also point to many simply having very weak long-term memories. Revisiting some past interactions with others, such a weak memory could explain quite a few incidents that I had hitherto considered rooted in e.g. an original pretended understanding or agreement,** willful non-compliance using pretended ignorance as an excuse, too great a stupidity to be able to make even a trivial generalization of a known fact, or similar. (Whether weak memory is the explanation I leave unstated, but it is something that I must consider in the future.) A twist is that I have partially not considered memory an issue, because I thought my own memory poor and rarely had such problems—but in comparison to some of Ed’s students, my memory is excellent…

*Understanding does not only help with recollection, but can also be used to fill in many “blanks”. Of course, in terms of school, it can require a teacher with the right attitude: I recall an oral examination (on the master level, no less) where the professor asked for a formula. I had not bothered to learn the formula, knowing that the derivation was very easy from first principles, and set about deriving the formula. He immediately interrupted me, stating that he was content with the formula and that the derivation was out of scope. Apparently, he expected students to blindly memorize the formula, while having no clue how it came about…

**Something that also occurs among some of Ed’s students, as might some of the other items mentioned.

Excursion on lying to students:
“Lying to students” roughly refers to giving them a simplified (or even outright incorrect) view, which is (perceived as) good enough for now and which they can easily understand—without telling them that it is a simplified view. The result of this is that those who do not progress in their studies believe things that are not true, while those who do progress have to unlearn and relearn things in a highly unnecessary manner. A particular complication is that it can be very hard to be certain what opinions/knowledge/whatnot, gathered over a prolonged time period, corresponds to what state of knowledge. In many cases, the simplifications can make something harder to understand for the bright students, because it simply does not make sense or because the non-simplified version is (in some sense) cleaner. A very good example is the theory of relativity taught on the premise that the speed of light in vacuum is fixed* vs the premise that there is an upper speed-limit on causality or information, which light reaches in vacuum—the latter is much easier to see as plausible, leads to more natural conclusions, etc.** To toy with a simpler example in Ed’s direction: Compare the teacher who says “It is not possible to subtract a larger number from a smaller number!” with the colleague who says “If one subtracts a larger number from a smaller number, the result is a negative number—but that is for next semester!”. Which of the two is more likely to have confused students the next semester? Possibly, to the point that other claims made are no longer seen as credible? Which is more likely to peak an interest into what negative numbers are? Possibly, to the point that ambitious students read ahead or ask for explanations in advance?

*In all fairness, this could be based less on a wish to (over-)simplify and more on historical development. Even so, it should not be the starting point today.

**Consider e.g. questions like “What is so special about light?!?”, “Why must it be the speed in vacuum?”, “What happens when light travels through a crystal at a lower speed?”, …

Written by michaeleriksson

January 14, 2019 at 10:42 am

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A dialogue on some topics relating to Plato’s “The Republic”

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Glaucon, I am sure that you know Plato’s “The Republic”.

I do.

Then you have also noted his way of presenting an argument?

I have. I find it most convincing.

I see. Would you agree that our understanding of a matter is improved through critical thought?

Undoubtedly.

And that mindless and uncritical agreement does little to achieve this?

It is so.

Would you further agree that this applies also to the speaker, who might be more stimulated to investigate his own position, deepen his own understanding, and improve his arguments, when faced with some opposition? That there might even be cases, where a speaker comes to reject his old opinion?

You speak the truth.

Then I will also claim that the reader of a dialogue will be better off when this dialogue is not a one-sided presentation of ideas by the first speaker, interleaved with a blanket agreement by the second; especially, in those cases where the claims are specious, simplistic, one-sided, leave out a discussion of special cases, or similar.

Truer words were never spoken.

We might even argue that, unless satirical, a great convincer, or someone with an interest in finding the truth, or someone who respects his audience, should avoid such one-sidedness—even that an argument will often be more convincing when it is given a hard test and survives that test, than when it is left untested.

For sure.

As you agree so far: Would you still consider Plato’s reasoning convincing?

I admit that my faith is weakened, and I will return to his thoughts with a more critical mind.

Your doubts please me. Still, while his reasoning is often weak, there is much reason and many good ideas in his writings.

So there is.

Some, however, I find troubling, be it because of changing times or different preferences.

I, too, have always thought.

Are you not contradicting yourself, Glaucon?

I am indeed.

Any way, consider topics like the formation of opinions in the populace: While Plato makes a great case against lies in general, he appears to make exceptions when it comes to the rulers of a country. He also favors censorship of myths and legends to give the broad masses the right ideals.

This is so.

Today’s leaders are obviously often duplicitous, but they are far from Plato’s ideal.

How so?

Plato has an image of the best of the best being groomed for high office, as philosopher kings, while today’s leaders … Well, you do follow politics?

I do; and I see what you mean.

In fact, Plato seems to see a ladder of decay of government or governance where democracy is just one step short of tyranny as the penultimate stop on the ladder.

He does. But have you not yourself called democracy the least evil among forms of government?

Echoing Churchill—yes. I am not necessarily saying that Plato is right with his hierarchy, but I do find the perspective interesting.

It is indeed.

But to return to my earlier thoughts, it is clear that Plato’s ideas are often dependent on each other and do not necessarily function on their own. For instance, if we had a rule that a philosopher king might be allowed to lie to his citizens, while his citizens would be forced to speak the truth to him, and that rule actually proved beneficial, could we conclude that the same rule would be beneficial when the philosopher king gives way to an incompetent populist?

Certainly not.

Could we conclude that the same rule applies even for a merely reasonably competent politician?

No. I see your point that it has to be the philosopher king, or the rule might prove faulty.

Of course, even with a philosopher king, and even assuming that the rule is beneficial, which would still need verification, there is an ethical problem.

How so?

It juxtaposes a pragmatic benefit with an ideal of how to handle knowledge: At the very core of my beliefs on forming opinions, growing of knowledge, and similar, is the right to do so on one’s own terms, based on own thinking and with free access to information not distorted by others. Indeed, I have used a part of “The Republic” to illustrate this very thing.

Your insight blinds me like the sun does a cave dweller.

But a ruler lying to his people would be exactly such a distortion. So would censoring myths, legends, and tales to change their real or imagined message to something else. So, indeed, could a too one-sided dialogue be.

So it is. I do recall a certain vehemence on your part against distortion of literature.

I am pleased that you paid attention. From another point of view, one of the central ideas of the modern law system is that everyone should be equal in front of the law, and when a ruler is allowed to lie, while his citizens are not, then they are not equal in front of the law.

True.

Similarly, modern thoughts on topics like the Rechtsstaat are steeped in ideas like safe-guards of democracy, use of checks and balances, giving the citizens rights towards the state rather than vice versa, …

Pardon me for disagreeing, but that sounds more like the 18th-century idealism.

Consider yourself pardoned: Unfortunately, proponents of a true Rechtsstaat are rarely heard today and the insight into what is needed has lessened; and many fall into the trap of considering any state that enables their own ideology and politics as an ipso-facto Rechtsstaat, if rarely using that name, while states that do not are condemned irrespective of to which degree they adhere to the ideals of a Rechtsstaat. Still, when we contrast even the 21th-century take with Plato’s times, the world is very different—and there are many of us who do hold and propose strong Rechtsstaatlichkeit.

I see your point. But: If we do have a philosopher king, what would the purposes of safe-guards be? And: Do we really need safe-guards specifically for democracy?

Good questions. The first is likely easier to answer: Such safe-guards, or their presence or absence, must never be based on the assumption of an ideal situation. The situation might or might not be ideal today, but even then there is no guarantee for tomorrow. If I trust all my fellow humans, I could leave my door unlocked or even forego a lock entirely—but I do not. I might know and trust my neighbors sufficiently, but what about the mail-man? The mail-man’s vacation replacement? Guests of my neighbors? All strangers who pass by the house in the course of the day?

It is clear now. You say that the next king need not be a philosopher, despite having been carefully chosen and groomed.

Or that he was a philosopher king and has since succumbed to insanity or dementia, or that the choice was not careful, or that the grooming was flawed, or whatever other complications can occur. Worse, if the philosopher king is seen as a literal monarch, rather than e.g. one of the members of a governing council, then the main difference between him and the tyrant, who is the lowest rung on the ladder, lies in his person—not in the system of government. The later concept of an “enlightened despot” has a great overlap with Plato’s “philosopher king”, and illustrates in its very name how small the difference can be—the one despot happens to be enlightened, the other not.

Quite true.

To turn to the second point, I agree that safe-guards for democracy might seem a bit paradoxical in light of my other writings. The answer falls into at least three parts: Lesser evil, semantic misunderstanding/misuse, and the self-servingness of politicians.

I see what you mean by “lesser evil”, from past discussions, but you have to explain the others.

My pleasure: In terms of semantics, words like “democratic” are often used to imply certain things that are not necessarily relating to democracy. It is, for instance, possible to have a democracy without strong due process and to have due process without democracy; however, due process is often incorrectly seen as a part of democracy. Similarly, it is possible to have freedom of speech without democracy; and while it is arguably not possible to have true democracy without freedom of speech, many self-proclaimed democracies do have strong limits on speech. In such a context, “safe-guards of democracy” could include safe-guards for various civic rights, aspects of the Rechtsstaat, and similar—which I, incidentally, consider more important and beneficial than democracy per se.

That makes sense. What about the politicians?

Here we do not so much have an argument for as much as an explanation of such formulations, or of the safe-guards themselves: Politicians, in the modern sense, are kept in power by what passes for democracy and they are correspondingly set on preserving it…

Very true.

Wonderful. Then this will be a good point to wrap the discussion up, before our dialogue reaches Platonesque proportions.

If it is not too bold, I have some questions concerning the above and the later books of the “The Republic”.

Well, strictly between you and me, I have only read about half of it so far. You know how I tend to have a dozen books open in parallel, often over months, and how that annoying dialogue format makes it hard for me to keep my concentration up. It is true that the preceding might give an incorrect view of Plato’s ideas through this incomplete and unfocused reading, but I thought it better to get this text out of the way now, before I forget what I already wanted to say and before I have so much other material from the rest of the “Republic” that this text would grow too long and chaotic.

A most wise decision.

Glaucon, you are, unless I am much mistaken, a great sycophant.

I regret to admit that this is true.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 13, 2019 at 2:33 am

Further damage to democracy / Follow-up: The 2018 Swedish parliamentary election

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As a further sign of how democracy is increasingly lost, Swedish politicians appear to be going down the same perfidious path that the Germans have pushed with their unholy CDU/CSU and SPD coalitions.

Shortly after the Swedish election, things seemed to point to a non-Leftist government, with the traditional non-Left alliance of parties being roughly on par with the Social-Democrats (S) and their support parties, and upstart SD being less likely to support S. Item 6 of the linked-to text is particularly interesting in light of actual developments…

However, just as in Germany, there were endless* delays and negotiations, with the added perfidy that two parties of the decades long non-Left alliance have decided that it is more important to keep SD without influence than it is to support the alliance and to be true to their voters.** This despite a very clear understanding among the typical alliance voters that a vote for any one of these parties was a vote for the alliance as a whole and against S. To boot, said two parties (according to current reporting) would not even get seats in the government as a part of their thirty silver pieces, which would have given some pseudo-justification to this move. They have received some promises of policy changes, but likely none that could not have been handled better with an alliance government to begin with. Of course, these concessions also potentially open S up to criticism, but a lesser one, seeing that it actually gets most of the cake…

*My first text on the election was published four months ago, to the day.

**SD is still, despite having the support of more than every fifth voter in some polls, treated as a pariah by some other parties, in entire disproportion to their actual opinions, and is seen as carrying some type of guilt by association. (Well in line with typical Leftist propaganda methods of condemn-everyone-insufficiently-PC-as-evil-to-the-core: SD is critical of immigration policies and rejects the gender-feminist world-view of “Patriarchy” and “constructs”.) For my part, I would consider S the more extreme and unbalanced of the two… Certainly, it is absurd when parties refuse to even risk winning a parliamentary vote through SD’s support. Consider, by analogy, if the U.S. Republicans (Democrats) would refuse their own bills and nominations if they needed the support from a handful of Democrats (Republicans) to push them through. See also several older texts, including e.g. [1] from before the 2010 election.

As far as I am concerned, the said two parties,“Centerpartiet”–“the center party” (C) and “Liberalerna”–“the liberals”* (L), have de-legitimized themselves entirely, and I cannot at this juncture consider either of Sweden and Germany a true democracy: Democracy is more than just formally having a democratic system—it also requires that the players behave democratically and do not just use the voters as a mere tool for their own purposes.

*I note that the Swedish word “liberal” kept its original meaning for a lot longer than in the U.S., whose “liberals” are often anti-liberals by older standards. Indeed, as late as when I was a teenager, I used the word to describe myself and was correctly understood. However, L has long flirted with the U.S. style of “liberalism”—the more so since a name change, a few years back, from the then “Folkpartiet” (“the People’s Party”).

Excursion on the election procedure:
A potentially severe flaw in the Swedish system is that the new government (resp. the prime minister who appoints the government) is elected within the parliament on a negative basis: Rather than picking whoever can get a majority (or plurality) behind him, the job goes to whoever is not explicitly rejected by a majority. This peculiar system has likely strongly contributed to the current problems, and was behind the absurd 1978 choice of L as sole government party—with 39 (!) out of 349 MPs and roughly one in nine of the (popular election) voters as a basis. (According to Swedish Wikipedia, the in-parliament vote showed 39 for, 66 against, and 215 abstaining, and since the 66 were well short of half… While I see nothing wrong with minority governments in principle, this is too much.) It might be time to experiment with e.g. a knock-candidates-out-until-one-has-a-majority system.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 11, 2019 at 8:50 pm