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A few thoughts around childhood recollections

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Through a somewhat random chain of association, I find myself thinking about one of my childhood’s favorite objects: Skåpsängen*.

*I am not aware of an English translation. Literally, “säng” is “bed”, “-en” is “the”, and “skåp” can, depending on context, translate as e.g. “cupboard” or “closet”. Below, I will speak of “box” for the “skåp” part, because this matches the internal structure best, even if it was larger and more finely worked than what I picture when I hear “wooden box”. I keep the word with a capital “S” because it always came over as a proper name to me—not a mere noun or a mere description. (This was often the case with me. Cf. “mormorsfranska” below.)

This was a foldable bed-in-a-box, that I used to sleep in when visiting my maternal grand-parents as a young child. As a result of the construction, I lied down with my head well within the box, which was something of a world of its own. Not only did the walls and roof shelter* me, but I often found myself just staring at the walls for minutes at a time, following the grain of the wood, especially the brown patterns formed by wood knots, or admiring one or two little pencil drawings (possibly drawn by my mother in her youth)—almost as good as TV. My positive associations are strengthened by how grand-parents spoil their grand-children and the “exotic” overall environment, with its new smells, different and older furniture**, different food***, toys that once belonged to my mother and her brother …—and, obviously, the grand-parents themselves.

*In my subjective impression. There was, of course, no actual danger or discomfort to shelter against.

**Including some actual antiques that had been handed down from an even older generation than my grand-parents’.

***Including what I thought was named “mormorsfranska”, but was actually just a descriptive “mormors franska”—“[my specific] grand-mother’s [style of] bread rolls”, often given to me while tucked into the bed.

While a trip down memory lane is all fine and dandy*, it is not something that I often write about. However, there are a few thought-worthy things and my mind kept wandering back to other childhood memories and potential lessons, a few of which I will discuss below.

*Or not: By now, I am actually feeling quite sad, seeing that the grand-parents (and mother) are all dead, the house was torn down decades ago, Skåpsängen probably does not exist anymore, most of the other things likely have gone the same way, the innocence of childhood has long passed, …, One of the risks with looking back at happy times gone by, instead of forward to happy times to come or at the happy times of the now, is that the element of loss can ruin the experience—and the happier the memory, the greater the loss.

The most notable is how my child’s mind could be so fascinated with the walls of the box, where I today might have had a look around and then immersed myself in a book or my computer. This is largely because a child is easier to amuse and stimulate than an adult, who (often) needs something more challenging, and whose curiosity has moved on to other areas. Not only are such contrasts between the child and the adult important in order to understand children and (e.g. in my case) developing a greater tolerance for them, but when similar variations are present in the adult population they can become a tool to understand humanity as a whole better. Consider e.g. how a difference in intelligence levels can cause one person to view a certain activity as too easy to bother with, while another might be challenged and stimulated, and the activity that challenges and stimulates the former might simply be too hard for the latter; or how some might be more interested in stimulation through thinking and some more* through perception, and/or the two having different preferences for channels of perception.

*At least here the “more” is of importance: There seems to be quite a few people who really do not like to think, but few or none who are entirely cold towards sensory perceptions. More often, it is a question of prioritizing them, or some forms of them, lower than other things.

However, another partial explanation is likely the modern tendencies to crave more active forms of stimulation and not appreciating the little things in life: There can be a benefit found in, for a few minutes a day, just relaxing, cutting out stronger sources of stimulation (e.g. blogging or TV), and just focusing on and enjoying something small in the moment. (While I have resolved to deliberately and regularly do so on a few occasions, the resolution has usually been forgotten within a week. It still happens, obviously, but more accidentally and likely not as often as it should.)

Yet another contributing factor, especially for an adult, is today’s intense competition for our attention: There is so much entertainment, so much to learn, so much to see and do, that a dozen life-times would be too little. Back then, for a child, shortly before lights out*? The competition might have been re-reading a comic or just letting my thoughts wander while staring out into the room…

*Possibly more metaphorically than literally, since I was afraid of the dark and usually insisted that the lights be left on—which could, obviously, have prolonged the time available to look at the box…

An event that took place in Skåpsängen during my very early childhood is another good illustration of the difference between more childish and more adult reactions, resp., among adults, more emotional and more rational ones: The most favorite object of my childhood was a toy penguin. At some point after dark, one of its button eyes came off. I raised hell, annoyed my grand-mother (who, understandably, did not see this as a big deal) severely, and ended up being ungrateful when she sew another button on, without locating the original. (My memory of the exact details is a little vague, but I strongly suspect that if I had seen the “injury” as less urgent and waited until the following morning, the original button would have been used.) Apart from the repeated implications on understanding children and, possibly, humans in general, there are at least two lessons: Firstly, that someone who is very upset and/or makes a lot of noise does not necessarily have a legitimate complaint, or a complaint more worthy than that of more reasonable protesters. Secondly, that we should not expect gratitude from these people if we try to satisfy them…

Importantly, however, I did not complain loudly and stubbornly because of any calculation*—I did it because I was very genuinely upset: I was unable to comprehend that this truly was no big deal. Even if we allow that a child can have a very strong emotional connection to a toy penguin**, this was not a damage that was noteworthy, debilitating, or hard to fix—a few minutes with needle, thread, and (preferably the original…) button, and everything would be fine. For I all know, exactly that could have happened to the other eye at some point when I was asleep and unaware of the events, having no way to tell after the fact. This type of inability to make correct assessments is regrettably very common among adults too, if not in such extremely obvious cases.

*In contrast, I suspect that e.g. a large part of the PC crowd is driven by calculation when it comes to their style of protest. I use similar tactics, on occasion, when dealing with e.g. spamming companies-where-I-placed-a-single-order-and-never-consented-to-any-advertising: Reasoning very obviously does not convince them that they are doing something grossly unethical, so let us see whether they pay attention when a customer leaves in (apparent) anger. (To early to tell, but I am not optimistic.)

**Which we certainly should: Even now, I find myself having a surprisingly strong reaction when thinking back, stronger than e.g. when thinking of the real-life people that I later went to school with… Similarly, one of the most enduringly popular songs in Sweden, since before my own birth, is “Teddybjörnen Fredriksson”, dealing with the nostalgic feelings of a grown man towards his childhood teddy bear (named Fredriksson). I suspect that it is better known and more beloved among Swedes that the top hits of ABBA and Roxette.

Children do provide many, with hindsight, ridiculous examples. The proudest moment of my life came when I, about four years old, gave my grand-father a tip on how to repair a broken (probably) 16mm film—and he, an actual adult!, followed my tip. Did I save the day, like I thought? No: As I realized later in life, he would have done the exact same thing anyway. (As implied e.g. by the fact that he already had the right equipment for the repair.) Similarly, the first, and possibly only, time I played croquet, at about the same age, I was very proud at having beaten my grown-up uncle. (He claimed that I did, and who was I too disagree, not even understanding the rules…) Can you say “Dunning–Kruger”?

The pride aspect is yet another case where children could differ from mature adults: I am not necessarily free from pride, but this particular type of pride (as opposed to e.g. contentment) over a specific event or a specific accomplishment is comparatively rare, and it seems pointless and vain to me for anything but the greatest accomplishments (major scientific break-throughs, Olympic medals, …) Then again, I need not be representative for adults. For instance, while I keep my college diplomas somewhere in a stack of paper, many others, including my mother, have theirs framed and hung on the wall.

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Written by michaeleriksson

November 22, 2017 at 10:03 pm

Follow-up: The German 2017 election

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Six or seven weeks ago, I wrote “We are now two weeks past the last German parliament election, and there is still no certainty about who will rule with whom”.

This is now more true than it was back then, because the coalition talks between CDU/CSU, FDP, and the Greens have failed. There is great insecurity, and even the option of a new election is on the table.

To some degree, this is bad; to some, it gives me great hope, because of the motivation given by FDP leader Christian Lindner for why he terminated the talks. What I wrote in a footnote about the preceding CDU/CSU and SPD coalition was “[…]it had two parties in bed with each other that simply do not belong together. This type of coalition amounts to a breach of the voters trust and is by its nature not very democratic.”—and Lindner, highly unusually for a politician, appears to have an at least similar take on the ethics of coalition building.

To give some quotes from his speech (translations somewhat approximate due to idiom):

Nach Wochen liegt aber heute unverändert ein Papier mit zahllosen Widersprüchen, offenen Fragen und Zielkonflikten vor. Und dort, wo es Übereinkünfte gibt, sind diese Übereinkünfte erkauft mit viel Geld der Bürger oder mit Formelkompromissen.

(

After weeks we still have a document* with countless contradictions, open issues, and conflicting targets. And where there is consent, the consent is bought with large amounts of tax payers’** money or [formulaic compromise]***.

*Referring to the preliminary agreement, common statement, whatnot, which would have been the result of the negotiations and the base for the coalition.

**More literally, “citizen”.

**I am not aware of an English equivalent, and to boot this is one of the rare occasions where I learned a new German word. Wikipedia gives an explanation amounting to “we pretend to have reached a compromise, while actually leaving the issue open for the time being”.

)

Es hat sich gezeigt, dass die vier Gesprächspartner keine gemeinsame Vorstellung von der Modernisierung unseres Landes und vor allen Dingen keine gemeinsame Vertrauensbasis entwickeln konnten. Eine Vertrauensbasis und eine gemeinsam geteilte Idee, sie wären aber die Voraussetzung für stabiles Regieren.

(

It turned out that the four parties [to the negotiations] could not develop a common understanding for the modernization of our country and, above all, a mutual trust base. However, a trust base and a common understanding* would be necessary for a stable government.

*“Idee” is normally translated with the cognate “idea”; however, the use here appears to be more abstract and “understanding” matches the previous formulation better.

)

Unser Einsatz für die Freiheit des Einzelnen in einer dynamischen Gesellschaft, die auf sich vertraut, die war nicht hinreichend repräsentiert in diesem Papier.

(Our efforts for the freedom of the individual in a dynamic society, which trusts [has confidence in?] it self, were not sufficiently represented in this document.)

Wir sind für die Trendwenden gewählt worden, aber sie waren nicht erreichbar, [list of sub-topics]

(

We were elected for course* changes, but these were not reachable, [list of sub-topics]

*Literal meaning closer to the English cognate “trend”.

)

Den Geist des Sondierungspapiers können und wollen wir nicht verantworten, viele der diskutierten Maßnahmen halten wir sogar für schädlich. Wir wären gezwungen, unsere Grundsätze aufzugeben und all das wofür wir Jahre gearbeitet haben. Wir werden unsere Wählerinnen und Wähler nicht im Stich lassen, indem wir eine Politik mittragen, von der wir im Kern nicht überzeugt sind. Es ist besser, nicht zu regieren, als falsch zu regieren.

(

The soul of the document we cannot and will not be responsible for [stand by?], many of the discussed measure we even consider harmful. We would be forced to relinquish our principles and all that for which we have worked for years. We will not abandon our voters, by signing off on a policy*, of which we are not truly** convinced. It is better not to rule, than to rule erroneously***.

*“Set of policies”, “political direction”, or something similar, might catch the intention better.

**Literally, “in the core”, which could conceivably and alternatively refer to the core of the policy, or possibly even FDP.

***“Falsely” or “wrongly” might be better translations when understood correctly; however, these words could introduce unintended connotations, e.g. two-facedness or moral wrongness. These would make sense it context, but do not match the normal intent of the German formulation.

)

Respekt, Herr Lindner! I would like to see a lot more of this attitude among modern politicians.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 21, 2017 at 1:45 am

A few thoughts on specialization and excellence (part III)

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(This is the third part of longer discussion. See also part I and part II.)

Annoyingly, I find that I left out a major subtopic from part II: Denial that one thing* can be be better than the other, or even that there can be differences between them. This post is thrown together a little haphazardly with the aims to 1) be able to close the discussion, 2) have enough material to justify a part III.

Among the disadvantages of such stances is, obviously, that it becomes harder for people to gain opportunity to excel and recognition when they do; ditto the risk that suboptimal things are taught, that societal progress is reduced, etc. Of course, in many cases, it can be discussed whether two items are comparable**, which of the two is the better, whether a certain valuation only applies from one perspective or for one purpose, what is a matter of objective evaluation and what is a matter of personal taste, etc.—and, yes, sometimes the comparison is highly dubious to begin with***. If that was the level of discussion, I would have no beef—but it is not: Far too often blanket rulings of “everything is equally good” are made. Often, especially in politically correct areas, merely raising the discussion can be a cause of condemnation and vicious attacks.

*I deliberately use a vague word, because there are so many, very different examples.

**In a mathematical sense; along the lines of comparing two oranges and not an orange and an apple.

***Humans appear to have a strong tendency to feel superior to others based on groups, including even who favors what sports team. The PC crowd is no better, having merely substituted one “superior” grouping with another. This is often the PC crowd, it self, or a sub-section of it; however, individual choices can include e.g. a particular combination of sexual and gender orientation—I have seen people who non-ironically identify with something containing two or even three hyphens… Sadly, the problem with sexism/misandry within the feminist movement is enormous; while the black movement, in my impression so far, contains considerably more racism than the white (or black) overall populations. Whenever contrasting two groups, while being a member of one of them, it pays to really consider whether the evaluation is a knee-jerk support of the “home team” or whether there are actual arguments to support it.

To consider a few examples (I stress that these are not all examples of actual problems; some merely illustrate the general attitude; and all are resulting from “free association”):

  1. My early school years (I doubt that things have improved…) and much of the children’s literature I encountered had a very strong focus on “different—not better”. A particularly telling example*, is how I talked to the school nurse after we had been measured for height and she showed me a diagram of height projections. I used the word “normal” to refer to the average curve, a use I still consider harmless—and saw her go into full panic mode, as if I had just called those lying on more extreme curves, including my own**, deficient.

    *And I have to admit that I, after so many years, remember very little else with sufficient detail to use as an example. In my strong suspicion, I would not remember this incident either, had the nurse reacted less strongly…

    **I was an unusually fast grower as a child, and had a projection well over two meters at the time. (Adult me topped out at a more modest 1.91 ~ 6’3”.)

  2. In a natural continuation, we have the whole “differently abled” thing: In many cases, this can be a justified phrasing, e.g. with some groups of autists, or blind people who have developed other senses and abilities to a considerable degree. In many other cases, however, the correct prefix cannot reasonably be “differently ”—it should be “dis-”: In most cases of disabilities, we have a clear possibility to compare, with no or only an inadequate compensation in other areas. Still going with “differently abled” in these cases is a clear sign of an agenda.

    Of course there is no evil in e.g. considering someone with a bum leg less able as walker or a soccer player—the evil would arise when he is considered of less worth in unrelated areas, say suitability to hold office. Similarly, going a bit off topic, it is not the words and descriptions used that matter, and just finding more pleasing names does not alter the underlying facts.

  3. And another step further, we have the Swedish obsession (at least back then) with educating everyone together, irrespective of ability—piece of shape-less dough in, kneed and bake, identical bread out. That someone was offered to skip classes was extremely rare* at the time and other forms of “acceleration” were mostly unheard of; only the worst of the worst** had to re-take a year; and everyone had to do virtually the same things. Of the re-takers, a particularly illustrative case is Hans-Erik, who joined my class for a year in (likely) fifth grade, during his slow, wasteful, even cruel*** progress through school: Hindered by severe cerebral palsy, he had only very barely managed to get where he was at age 17 (!), about six years older than the rest of us.

    *I recall only one case among the several hundred children that I came into contact with during my school years, but there might have been others.

    **I recall only three cases, but there almost certainly were more.

    ***Off topic, this is still something that infuriates me: Imagine being forced to spend year in and year out in school, getting no where, always the slowest, ridiculed by half the class-mates, seen as a recalcitrant obstacle by the teachers, …—and what for? Even a nominal fifth-grade level is almost useless for a modern adult, and his real grade level was lower yet. If he ever entered the work-force, it would by necessity be in so simple a position that his school years brought him no benefit. (And with his coordination problems and severe speech impediment, there is no guarantee that any job would be available.) Any personal benefit from education would be dwarfed by time wasted during schooling. Why not just let him spend his time having fun?

  4. One of my own first contacts with the current negative trends in the U.S. college world was reading an introductory text in linguistics, where the author claimed, without supporting arguments or qualifications on the claim, that “Ebonics”* was just as good as standard English (possibly also that no language was better than any other, but my memory is to vague). This might be superficially true in that all languages** with some degree of development can fulfill the same tasks, just like one Turing-complete programming language can, in some sense, replace another. However, just as with programming languages, it does not end there. On the contrary, there are many factors to consider, often with a dependency on the perspective applied. Take e.g. (inherent to the language) expressiveness, number of words and nuances available, the risk of ambiguity, the ease of learning; or e.g. (relative the overall world) number of speakers, compatibility when comparing the language at different points of time, available literature; or (subjectively) aesthetics.

    *Do not get hung up on the specific example. The rest of the discussion is mostly in the abstract and I do not make direct comparisons within this specific pair. (Nor do I imply that English would necessarily win all comparisons, e.g. ease of learning, if they were made.) The point of Ebonics as an example is a combination of the claim almost certainly being motivated by politically correct and non-linguistic concerns, and the failure to provide a supporting argumentation, although this pairing should have made such an argumentation non-negotiably necessary, considering the typical reputation of Ebonics. (Indeed, at the time, I assumed that the claim was outright and obviously incorrect. Today, I do tend strongly towards rejection, but am too cautious to do so outright, seeing that my knowledge of Ebonics is highly limited—and I focus my criticism on the way she approached the claim.)

    **Used in a wide sense, without e.g. differing between language, in a narrower sense, and dialect.

  5. When we extrapolate such claims within a single language, the result is the currently popular and very detrimental everything-goes-because-there-is-no-right-and-wrong attitude. (Cf. e.g. an older post discussing prescriptive and descriptive grammar.)
  6. The PC crowd and the Left is obviously a major source of other examples, many that have been discussed repeatedly in the past, notably the common absolute denial that differences in outcome can result from differences in inherent characteristics. I will not rehash them here, but note that the interesting point for the purposes of this post is not what the truth* of the matter is—but how the truth-finding is approached. Feminists, e.g., tend to start with a certain set of assumptions (a new-born as a “tabula rasa”, social construct this and Patriarchy that, etc.), and then interpret observations to fit this assumption—while the very thought that in-born differences could exist is anathema.

    *But, yes, the evidence in favour of in-born differences of various kinds is much stronger than against when we compare e.g. men and women.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 19, 2017 at 11:24 pm

Those elusive Christian values

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A while back I wrote a footnote on Christian values:

Exactly what is meant with this expression is another thing that can vary considerably, but by-and-large few see them as negative, and what forms the “common core” is almost invariably (including by me) seen as something positive, notably the “Golden Rule” and related values.

This has left me a bit dissatisfied, especially with the problem of widely varying interpretations of the phrase and the knowledge that quite a bit of what Jesus taught is not followed by modern Christian and/or does not meet my own approval*—not to mention the differences between the Old and the New Testament**.

*For instance the idea of “turning the other cheek”, which could result in disaster (but the related idea of forgiveness is potentially a different issue). Charitable acts without strings attached is another thing I find problematic, because the consequences can be negative. Other points, e.g. a negative take on material values, leave me torn: Seeing material things as less important and living in modesty are good things (if not necessarily easy), but extremes like giving everything to charity and living as a monk are a different matter. I see nothing wrong with a degree of comfort; extremes of all types, even apparently virtuous, tend to do more harm than good; and a society without at least some people striving for wealth (and having other ambitions) would be doomed to poverty and stagnation—to the point that we would likely still be living in the stone age and would be unaware of Jesus and his now pre-alphabet teachings… Other yet are things where I could see a benefit in principle, but would be unable to comply. Notably, “love thy neighbor” is a tricky one for a misanthrope…

**Including the sometimes preference of the Old over the New by Bible proponents when it happens to match their ideas or agenda, even though the New Testament should take precedence when it comes to things Christian.

To remedy this dissatisfaction, I today visited a few Wikipedia links and did a few searches—and feel that I got nothing for the trouble.

For instance, the English Wikipedia article appears to be written by someone who has capitulated in face of the problems, spending half the (short) article on listing alleged world-wide “conservative” and “liberal” takes. A part from these being more U.S. centric than world wide, they contain a number of too specific items: How, e.g., is teaching “intelligent design” a (conservative) Christian value? (Even disregarding that many or most Christians, including almost all Swedish, do not believe in it…) How, e.g., is “high, progressive income tax” a (liberal) Christian value? For that matter, this is not necessarily something that even a U.S. liberal Christian would necessarily agree with, let alone see as Christian. The part of the article dealing with the New Testament is truly lazy; the Old is left out..

The German article does a better job , but also notes that “Ein allgemein akzeptiertes, in heutiger Terminologie genau konkretisiertes Verzeichnis christlicher Werte ist daher kaum realisierbar.”*

*The gist being that it is not possible to find a list of Christian values that would be accepted by everyone. I refrain from a direct translation, largely because “in heutiger Terminologie genau konkretisiertes Verzeichnis” is the type of sentence fragment that should be taken out and shot.

Other sources found are mostly similar, contentless, or depict a too personal view to be interesting.

It seems clear, however, that the Ten Commandments and the “Sermon on the Mount” (which includes the “Golden Rule”) are of great importance to any discussion. I will refrain from a more detailed analysis (lacking the time to do the necessary leg work; but also see the first footnote); however, I note that the latter is more likely to contain controversies and differences between supposed and actual behaviors, and that the former is mostly free from controversy once the religious parts are left out and noting that there are allowances for circumstance* in typical interpretations.**

*E.g. in that killing is allowed in self-defense situations.

**A remaining complication is whether a violation occurs already with the thought or only with the action. That we should not sleep with the neighbor’s wife is uncontroversial; if we must keep “naughty thoughts” about her out of our heads, then controversy is hard to avoid. (As the recurring reader knows, I am a strong believer in thoughts not being punishable—only actions.)

Surprisingly little time appears to be spent on “the seven deadly sins” and the opposing virtues, whereas I would have thought them central. While these are quite open to interpretation, many or all could be seen as beneficial for both the individual and society in at least some interpretations. Avoiding sloth, gluttony, and wrath might be beneficial in all reasonable interpretations. As an aside, I have long found these to be more a matter of instructions on how to lead a happy life than e.g. on how to please God or how to fit within society.

A very different source gives me an equally different angle, especially with the common U.S. intermingling of Christian and family values. I have been revisiting “Family Guy” lately, which has a (highly ironic!) theme song of:

It seems today that all you see is violence in movies and sex on TV

But where are those good old fashioned values on which we used to rely?

[…]

(Quoted, with some editing, from http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/f/family_guy/family_guy_theme_song_lyrics.html.)

These two sentences* catch much of the Conservative view on the issues, while also explaining much of the attraction of Conservatism. Honestly: Where are those good old fashioned values?

*The first obviously giving only a special case to be taken as representative.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 19, 2017 at 2:42 pm

A few thoughts on specialization and excellence (part II)

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(This is the second part of longer discussion. See also part I.)

To continue with the topic of excellence:

My main concern is that excellence is very often not recognized, considered important, given opportunity to develop, …. Consider e.g.:

  1. Overlapping with part I, we have the obvious problem that too little specialization prevents excellence from being reached. A sad fact is that many go through their entire lives without being more than moderately good at anything—or have a sole area of excellence that is of little practical value*, e.g. because it arises out of a hobby.

    *This type of excellence is of course still personally satisfying and can help with personal development, but if we compare say an excellent physician who dabbles in Skyrim with a second-rate physician who excels at said game, who is more beneficial to society? Who is likely to better provide for his family? Who can make a better life for himself?

    An obvious observation is that people who specialize earlier can reach excellence earlier—and when it comes to reaching the very highest top, to be one of just several of the best in world at something, early specialization is often a necessity. The type of “Jack of all trades” schooling that I discuss in part I could turn out to be severely detrimental when it comes to producing e.g. Nobel-Prize winning physicists. Indeed, if school was the only source of education/training, it would be a massive obstacle; those who excel usually do so through own efforts on top of school—or, at least in earlier times, instead of school. What if Mozart had had the one or two hours of music class a week that I had—and then decided to be a professional composer or concert pianist after graduating high school?

  2. The way schools, including colleges, too often have an “everyone gets a trophy” approach, where dumbing down and grade inflation hides* many differences, while feedback that could cause students to realize weaknesses and move forward is suppressed. Similarly, one of the greatest benefits of higher education was the filter effect present: Having received a certain degree was a far stronger sign of accomplishment and ability than it is today.**

    *When even merely decent students can get A’s, how do we tell who is decent, good, very good, …? (Aside from problems not directly relevant to this post, like how to compare grades from different generations.)

    **Which also implies that the higher rate of college graduates, unlike what naive politicians like to believe, does not increase the overall excellence to a very high degree (in a worst case, the effect could actually be negative): In order for every larger numbers of students, with a lower and lower “least common denominator”, to actually graduate, the requirements have to be lowered correspondingly. This not only contributes further to the weakening of the filter effect, but it also implies that the better students learn less and less compared to what they once would have learned.

  3. How members of too many professional groups are seen as fungible, e.g. (in my area) the grossly incorrect belief that any software developer can be a drop-in replacement for any other. Such misconceptions are common among e.g. politicians, managers, and those within the respective profession whose own low competence hamper their judgment (cf. Dunning–Kruger).

    This is particularly dangerous in areas like social reform, where just increasing the number of graduates in a field, members of a profession, whatnot, is seen as sufficient to solve problems. (See also the preceding footnote.)

    It is also an at least partial explanation of e.g. the constant German employer complaint about “Fachkräftemangel”*, while media and politicians point to the many unemployed who would love to have this-or-that position. The point is not that too few are interested, nor even necessarily that they lacked the right qualifications on paper. The (partial**) true explanation is found in the lack of candidates who actually have the skills needed. This is particularly interesting in the case of the German apprentice system: College skeptics in e.g. the U.S. point towards Germany and suggest that something similar be implemented in lieu of sending everyone to horrendously expensive colleges—while the German system is starting to fail, because not enough quality apprentices can be found. Why can they not be found? Because the potentially attractive candidates go to college*** instead…

    *Effectively, that employers cannot find sufficiently many qualified people to hire. I have been unable to find a truly satisfactory translation, but “skill shortage” and “higher skill shortage” have a great overlap, while Wikipedia suggests “labour shortage”. A combined “skilled labour shortage” comes close to being a literal translation.

    **Another partial explanation is the lack of people who both have the skills and are cheap. This is on-topic when we look at highly proficient people being underpaid (because employers misprioritize); it is off-topic when we look at employees who simply do not bring enough value to offset their price tag.

    ***In all fairness, college is much, much cheaper in Germany, implying that the cost–benefit analysis looks different compared to the U.S.

  4. The increase of “commoditization” as fields once relatively small and relatively filled with highly competent people grow and are increasingly filled with less competent people, lose in status, see individual experts be replaced by companies providing “experts” (or hiring real experts for a lower salary while pocketing the gains originally available to the expert); or where typical tasks are increasingly moved to a less prestigious role.* The IT world provides good examples, where e.g. the growth of software (and in particular web) development has caused employers to cast quite wide nets to fill positions, including hiring many people who are outright unsuitable for the job; how the type of contracting I do is getting a bad reputation because of the many people entering the field with more wish for money** than ability; or how the field is saturated with “talent agents”, often forming chains, just interested in getting a commission for having (in analogy) brought talent and show in connection, and see no down-side when the cooperation does not work out—anyone is as good as the next, as long as the money flows…

    *Which is not to deny that this can have positive effects too. Commoditization, which is a quite common phenomenon as time goes by, is usually bad for (the provider of) the commodity but often good or good to a certain degree for the customer. It becomes bad for the customer too, when e.g. he cannot differentiate between who or what is worth the money resp. when spending more money gives a sufficient return on investment and when it is a waste, or when what he gets for the money is largely a matter of luck.

    **At the same time putting a downward pressure on hourly and daily rates, through a mixture of over-saturation and the customers’ common inability to see differences in ability (but ability to do see differences in price).

  5. Related to commoditization is the problem of using criteria for e.g. raises and promotions that are not based on performance and ability (for instance age or years of employment), as can happen in e.g. the civil service or in areas where wages are set more-or-less in a blanket manner based on employer–union negotiations. A major problem for Swedish companies who want to down-size is that they often have to let people go by the last-in–first-out principle, which can imply letting the newly hired star-to-be go and keeping someone who has spent the last twenty years barely avoiding being fired for incompetence and negligence.
  6. Variations of the “tall poppy” syndrome, where those who excel are disliked, looked down upon, or even sabotaged—starting in school with “teacher’s pets”, “geeks”, and “nerds”.* This to a point that I have heard claims that some boys, especially from macho cultures, deliberately abstain from study to not lose street cred and coolness points. In adult life, the problem likely grows smaller, both due to greater maturity and less competition/more collaboration; however, it definitely still exists, especially when weaker employees feel themselves threatened by stronger new comers.

    *Which is not automatically to say that everyone classified as such actually excels, only that those who do excel academically are often given such names.

  7. Likely strongly overlapping, extreme “social justice” positions.

    “Harrison Bergeron” depicts the phenomenon taken to its absurd conclusion, but real-life examples include e.g. such simple things as a teacher telling parents to not allow a child to read more advanced books at home than the school provides—because this would be a “social injustice” towards the other children and an “unfair” advantage for their own… (Sadly, I have read about a quite a few such cases over the years, be it from the U.S., Germany, or Sweden. The latter was long permeated by an attitude that it was better for everyone to have the same, even if it meant making things worse for one party without improving them for another…)

As an aside, it can pay to keep in mind that society, communities, organizations, …, are often better of with specialists than with generalists. Would you rather have two “physician/lawyer”s or one specialized physician and one specialized lawyer in your town? Would your employer be better off with two “accountant/janitor”s or one of each specialization? (Which is by no means to say that it is bad to know something of other fields—quite the contrary. The point, cf. part I, is rather that depth should precede breadth—not the other way around, as is currently the case.)

As a further aside, the above issue with grades and degrees that lose the power to differentiate is likely part of a wider problem. I note e.g. that the U.S. SATs and other tests with a similar purpose (including the Swedish “Högskoleprovet”) often have problems with a gradual dumbing down and/or attempts to skew the results. For instance, every now and then Högskoleprovet is changed to “correct” the “problem” that men tend to score higher than women—without stopping to consider the possibility that this is not an effect of the test but of natural differences*. Unsurprisingly, such attempts tend to fail, unless they are willing to drop the ability to differentiate between those of greater and lesser suitability for studies (which is the actual purpose of the test). A possibly related issue is that the “verbal” part of the SATs are allegedly a better proxy for I.Q. than the “math” part—flying in the face of both common sense and practical experience. If true, the explanation is likely that this is an artifact caused by 1. the higher average and larger standard deviation of the math part, 2. the greater dumbing down of the same. For instance, it is far easier to get a perfect 800 on the math part, not to mention being among those who miss it only through sloppiness, and once there the test can no longer differentiate. However, the latest change (that I am aware of) might go in the other direction—through removing “too hard”** words, the difficulty of the verbal (!) part could drop, weakening the SATs ability to serve as an I.Q. proxy further, as well as reducing its discriminatory powers in general.

*This is the more absurd, because it is not necessary to consider men, in some sense, better for this to hold true. For instance, it could be that the better school grades of female high-school students simply implies that less of those who want to go to college have to take the test, thereby skewing the samples of test takers… As an example of where a naive approach to differences can lead: In a somewhat recent change, the math part was increased to favour women (!)—and it ended up favoring men. (A male advantage in math ability is very well established; however, the test makers reasoned that because women had better math grades in high school, women would have an advantage.)

**The rational appears to be to just test words that could reasonably be needed to understand college literature. While superficially reasonable sounding, this removes (above a certain cut-off) the implicit earlier check of how well-read and knowledgeable the students are. At the same time, it increases the risk of further dumbing-down of college literature and SAT in a vicious circle.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 19, 2017 at 12:43 am

Starting school too soon (Sweden wants reduce the start-of-school age)

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Earlier today, I had a brief talk with two colleagues on the problems of early schooling, including that it is largely a waste of time and that the large developmental differences between individual children makes it highly problematic.

I get home—and find that my native Sweden is about to lower the entry age for mandatory schooling from 7 years to 6… Generally, it is truly depressing how naive politicians, especially in Sweden, try to “solve” problems around schooling, competence levels, skill shortages in the labor force, …, by just throwing on more time, be it an extra early year, an extra later year, more hours per week, or more people directed towards college (irrespective of their suitability). The one hope is that the additional damage in this particular case will be comparatively small—for the simple reason that most Swedish children are already in non-mandatory school at age 6.

Before moving on, I stress that I am a great fan of education (including having earned two master’s degrees)—but that there is a very, very large difference between education and schooling. Understanding this difference is paramount. This post, obviously, deals mostly with schooling.

To now look at some of the issues involved:

  1. Waste of time (as above): The simple truth is that someone 6 (or 7…) years old is not a quick learner. Theoretical learning will be mostly fact based, without any understanding (let alone deeper understanding). The amount retained in memory will be far lower than for an older student, and the time available to forget it again longer (cf. the concept of a learning curve). Practical learning will be equally limited, e.g. in that the ability to write with a pen or pencil is not only dependent on training but also on pre-existing fine-motor skills*, or that it is fairly pointless to learn by rote what the hands of the clock imply when the child’s mind** lacks the ability to understand why and to extrapolate correspondingly.

    *To some degree the fine-motor skills can certainly be improved by e.g. learning hand-writing. However, at this age, the physical maturation is more important. What I took away from the early days of mindlessly repeating letters (which was the Swedish approach at the time), was a hatred of writing—nothing more. My handwriting remained a disaster through-out my entire school years. As an adult, when I had forgotten the hatred and I could draw on the fine-motor skills I had since developed, I easily learned how to write at least passably (when I wanted to…), and I fully assume that I had sufficiently strong motor skills years earlier—with the initial “training” sabotaging my use of them. Similarly, this hatred for writing (extended from the mere motorics to the overall intellectual process) set back other parts of my remaining development: Only as an adult, long after school ended, did I rediscover writing as something positive. (My current belief in the benefits of voluntary writing e.g. for developing my own thoughts and understanding should be manifestly clear.)

    **Not to mention the teacher’s mind… Now, very few teachers, even of first year students, are so dense that they have problems with comprehending the clock—but they do exist. More to the point, very many, even in the majority that does understand the clock, do not understand that understanding is important, that understanding is more valuable than knowledge, than understanding makes remembering that much easier, that someone who understands can take a special case (“when the little hand is on 3…”) and apply it more generally (“when the little hand is on X…”), etc. Notably, this problem is not in anyway limited to the first school years—even in high school I had a few teachers with severe problems in this regard (when dealing with more complex topics than the hands of the clock).

    Comparing the amount of material covered in various years of my own education is tricky, both due to my fallible memory and due to the very different contents and goals at various stages. However, I can say with certainty that I learned more in my last semester of high school than I did during the entire “lågstadiet” (the first three years). What if I had skipped lågstadiet and spent an extra semester in high school? (This suggestion is admittedly a bit simplistic, in that a later start could have slowed down the following stages. The general principle holds true, however, and this danger could have been reduced severely by ensuring that some core skills, notably reading, were still covered in a minimized hour plan covering, say, ten hours a week.) Similarly, why are some younger children allowed to “skip a grade”? Normally, it is not because they have already learned all the material of that grade, but because they are deemed to be sufficiently intelligent or sufficiently strong learners that they are better off in a higher grade. That they would “miss” some material (and that this is considered acceptable) and/or have to make up for it in parallel with their normal studies is a strong sign of how little ground is actually covered.

  2. Developmental differences (as above): Not only do children develop at different rates, including a somewhat consistent boy–girl difference*, but they are also born at different points of the year—and the younger the children, the larger is the relative difference, possibly even absolute difference. In typical systems**, there can be close to a year’s age difference between the oldest and youngest child in a group, to which the development rates must be added. How do we sensibly, effectively, and efficiently teach a class where the one child is on the intellectual level of an eight y.o. and the other of a five y.o.? It might be possible to do—but the one-size-fits-all schooling that is normally attempted will fail.

    *It is possible, however, that this is of little relevance for this specific age group. Overall, it remains a very important issue.

    **Here and elsewhere some problems could conceivably be reduced through alternate approaches (although often with new side-effects). For instance, by grouping children by the half-year they are born in, instead of the year, the above problem would shrink. I will not explicitly discuss such alternate approaches elsewhere, but I encourage the reader to keep the possibilities in mind.

  3. Taking in younger children increases the risk of a harmful uniformization and indoctrination (cf. e.g. parts of [1]. Note that this is not primarily a matter of being in school for a longer period—the main problem is the lower ability to analyze arguments, think critically, etc. I point specifically to the risk of a deliberate abuse: We do not have to worry about just individual teachers with an agenda or a distorted world view. We also have to consider more systematic abuse from above—even in Sweden, I have heard the claim that school should be used to raise good social-democrat citizens… (Consider also the situation in many U.S. colleges.)

    I note that a Swedish source cites the minister of education (Gustav Fridolin, whom I have considered a complete idiot for years…) as saying “Vi vill ge barnen en jämlik start”—“We want to give the children an equal* start”.

    *“Equal” does not catch exactly the right nuisances. “Jämlik[het]” historically started in an “equal rights”/“equal opportunity” sense, but is not very often used in an “equal outcome” sense and/or has strong implications of “social justice”, where the playing field is leveled at all cost, even if it means making the situation worse for one person without improving it for anyone else. Depending on who uses it, other implications are possible, e.g. as with a sport reporter who considered it a sign of increasing jämlikhet that the number of female competitors in a city run had almost caught up with the number of male competitors… Use often goes hand in hand with extreme and out-dated “tabula rasa” opinions of human development. (While I cannot speak for the exact intentions of Fridolin, his previous history points in the direction of these interpretations.)

  4. An extra year of school is not free: teachers cost money, facilities cost money, stationary costs money, school books cost money, … Someone has to foot the bill. In Sweden, this most likely means the tax payers—irrespective of how many, few, or any children they have. This, of course, unless the new expenses are offset with cost-cuts for older children… (With potential effects similar to the next item.)
  5. More schooling almost necessarily implies a lower quality of tuition: The number of people who are suitable* to be teachers is limited. If more schooling is needed, then we have to take in more people not suited, and/or let those suited work longer hours, and/or cut the hours spent per child, and/or yank up class sizes even further.** In all cases an extra year implies choosing quantity over quality, which is entirely the wrong way to go about education.

    *I note that, contrary to what many naive politicians believe, just ensuring that someone has the appropriate degree (as a teacher, engineer, physician, …) does not automatically make him good at the job—people are not fungible! Just increasing the number of graduates with a degree in teaching will not remove the underlying problem.

    **Some relief might be available through directing candidates from other areas into teaching. However, this comes with at least two problems: Firstly, this will not remove the resource problem, just move it from one area to another. Secondly, these people did not go into teaching for a reason, and they might not be willing to reconsider, or they might require more money, or they might make the switch only to later grow dissatisfied, …

  6. The more time is spent in school, the greater the risk that the will to learn, natural curiosity, and the like, are diminished. (Cf. e.g. an earlier footnote.) This is a big enough problem as it is. We should not make the problem larger.
  7. The result of an extra school year is more time spent with age peers and less with adults, yet more time with adults will give the children better examples, better opportunities to learn, etc. More time with other children will, if anything, be harmful. This holds already for fairly average children—when we move on to those who are highly introverted, sensitive, and/or on the autistic spectrum, it holds ten times over. “Hell is other children” to us.

    I note that people favoring more time with other children tend to use the “they learn social skills” argument (as more-or-less their only argument). There is little or no support for this from research, and both common sense and my own experiences clearly indicate that social skills are best learned in interaction with adults or considerably older children—not same-age children.

  8. More early-years schooling is arguably a theft of childhood. Life is long and filled with duties. Let children be children.

    By all means, give them skills, teach them how to read (and encourage reading!), give them every opportunity to learn when they want to learn, … But: Do so in a reasonable manner that does not entail hours a day of being force fed information.

Some of the above points apply generally to increased schooling, others specifically to increased early-years schooling. However, there are also points that would apply to a discussion of the high-school or college years, but not the early years. Consider e.g. that someone in college is not available to the job market. True, once done with college, he might be “a better product”, but it is not a given that this will outweigh the opportunity costs caused by the earlier absence from a societal point of view. This especially, since it is possible that he will be able to improve the skill set relevant for the job better on the job than in school. Also note that one of the greatest benefits with hiring a college graduate in the past was that he had been filtered more strongly (than e.g. a high-school graduate) on criteria like intelligence, work ethic, ability to work independently, … With the current strong trends towards dumbing-down college and ever more people entering and graduating college, this filter effect is more-or-less gone.

I note that there are many other points of criticism towards the school system in e.g. Sweden. The above deals with a specific sub-issue and is not intended as a complete analysis of the problems. Consider e.g. the ineffectiveness of school in that I learned more English from watching TV than I did in the class room, or that I learned things about physics from educational television at age seven that impressed a few class-mates when we were in seventh grade.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 16, 2017 at 1:08 am

Ozymandias and the vanity of life

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I am not a great reader of poetry, but some of it inevitably crosses my path and, on occasion, I stumble upon something that moves me, emotionally or intellectually. Earlier today, Shelley’s Ozymandias did both:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

(Quoted from the linked-to Wikipedia article.)

Now, the idea behind it is nothing new, it might even border on the trite (sic transit gloria mundi, memento mori, and all that); however, the presentation is something very different. (Cf. e.g. the weaker variation on the same theme by Horace Smith, also present on the Wikipedia page.) Moreover, it strikes home with me, because I have for decades been troubled by the ultimate futility of humanity, and have repeatedly been close to writing something on the topic. (Today, I did…)

If we consider a normal human life, what purpose and meaning can it have? How can someone truly leave a mark and ensure that his life was not in vain? Achieve some form of immortality?

By having children? No: Children have the same problem as their parents. To use the children to reach such goals “by proxy” would imply that there is some other way of reaching such goals than having children—and then the parent would be better off focusing on that. (Although children could serve as “second chance”.) On the outside, a benefit could conceivably be gained over many generations; however, this comes with at least one of two problems (depending on exactly what we want to achieve): Firstly, our own part in our offspring is halved with every generation, and even grand-children and great-grand-children can be quite far from us—ten generations into the future, barring severe inbreeding, our own actual descendants (should there actually be any*) have about as much of “us” in them as does a randomly chosen non-descendant… Secondly, sooner or later everything will end: Even if humanity (or whatever evolves out of humanity over time) were to survive all the dangers of extinction**, sooner or later earth will grow inhabitable; should they escape earth, even the solar system, sooner or later the galaxy will fail; … If in doubt, sooner or later the universe will end.

*I have never looked into this issue, but I strongly suspect that chains of descendants are often short, even for those who do prioritize having children, e.g. because the children do not share this priority, because of unfortunate accidents, lack of fertility, … For instance, my paternal grand-parents had two children; these, in turn, had three children between them. In this third generation, my cousin died without children; I am 42, childless, and in no hurry to change this; while my sister has one child and, by now 40, is not overly likely to have more. (In all cases, to the best of my knowledge.) At this point, my grand-parents are one step away from seeing their lines ended. (While their daughter, my aunt, is already there; ditto her son; ditto myself, should I not change course in the future.) In fact, seeing that my father is gay, two of the grand-children and the single great-grand-child could very, very easily have not happened to begin with…

**Note that the vast majority of all species and greater groupings of species, be they plants, mammals, fish, …, that have ever existed are extinct—including some of the most successful of their own day and age. Consider e.g. the Trilobites.

By influencing others close-by on an intellectual level, e.g. as a parent, teacher, mentor, pastor, …? No—much for the same reason as above. (With the difference that, on the one hand, it is easier to reach a larger number of “children”, but, on the other, this influence diminishes even more rapidly over generations, and only rarely reaches the magnitude of the genetic parent-to-child influence to begin with.) If in doubt, sooner or later the universe will end.

By influencing overall society as an important scientist, philosopher, politician, …? This is more promising, but pre-supposes that one actually manages to reach a sufficient degree of influence—and only very few will. Even for those who do, this influence will usually be fairly fleeting: Yes, some philosophers from the Greek heydays are still read (by a small minority…) and some religions have preserved and propagated the influence of some individuals over a similar time span. No, this is not the rule—and even these will eventually be forgotten. If in doubt, sooner or later the universe will end.

By erecting great buildings, writing great books, composing great music, …? More or less as above. The Egyptian pyramids still stand and Homer is still read, but these are exceptions* and eventually they too will be forgotten. If in doubt, sooner or later the universe will end.

*Note e.g. that all the other ancient “wonders of the world” are gone. Quickly, name me one other author contemporary with Homer… For that matter, while almost everyone has read or seen something by Shakespeare, those once equally famous, like Marlowe and Jonson, are mere names (if at all known) to most of us, and for the authors behind them we might have to look at literature students with a period interest to find modern readers…

By a life filled with charitable acts? Again, more of the same problems—and the complication of whether these acts actually made the world better*. I have, e.g., heard claimed that Mother Theresa did more harm than good through her anti-contraceptive stance. What if I save a child’s life today, and that child grows up to be genocidal dictator? What if I give money to charity, and that money eventually helps with the preservation of an evil and corrupt regime? What if I give a hitch-hiker a ride, causing him to be run over the next day, instead of leaving him where he was, causing him to live another sixty years? If in doubt, sooner or later the universe will end.

*Admittedly, most of the time a net benefit is to be expected (barring chaos effects, cf. a following footnote), and this is likely the assumption we will have to work with to prevent a complete paralysis and indifference.

By being a great king and conqueror? Well, this brings us back to Ozymandias (aka Ramesses II): He is arguably one of the most important historical figures on record; at the time of his death, he might well have been the most important up to that date. Ruler of Egypt at its height for 66 years, conqueror, builder, … More than three thousand years later, there is still some historical record, there are buildings and monuments, and (courtesy of the Egyptian drive for immortality) even his actual mummy. Yet, while his mummy still exists, he himself is long dead. While buildings and monuments still exist, they are often, like in Shelley’s poem, ruins. While the historical record remains, what value does it have when his Egypt has fallen, the successor has risen and fallen again, where the remnants have been been taken by first the Greeks and then the Romans, then by various Islamic powers, Ottomans, the French, the British? Does it really, at this point, matter whether he was a great conqueror, a pacifist, who never waged war, or whether he was himself conquered? No, not really.* If in doubt, sooner or later the universe will end.

*Of course, we would live in a different world, but this applies to virtually everyone when we go back far enough. This is where chaos theory enters: Change something at time X, and the results at time Y will have no obvious connection, provided that sufficiently much time has passed. Chances are that none of me and the readers of this post would be alive today, had a single dice came up differently in 1850…

Add to this that our entire earth is like a dust speck compared to the entirety of the universe and that a single human, on that cosmic scale, is less significant than an amoeba is on the “earth scale”.

In the end, I see only three major options, short of despair and depression: The one is to simply try to be the best we can be*, even if it ultimately makes no difference. The second to deliberately suppress such thoughts, and live as if what we do really does matter. The third to take an extreme hedonistic position and just try to maximize our own happiness for whatever time we have. (I mostly swing between the first two.)

*According to some personal standard. This can, of course, include charitable acts, conquering, building, raising children, …; I tend towards “self-improvement”.

As an aside, this is another instance where those religious can have an advantage (cf. e.g. some thoughts in my post on the temptation of conservatism), especially in the days of yore, before the discovery of “deep time” and “deep space”. Consider e.g. the Christian world view of just a few hundred years ago: Humans were the cream of God’s creation, earth was its center, the entirety of the world* had existed for less than six thousand years—and after death there was or was not an eternal reward based on what we did down here. Applying this time scale to Ozymandias (not that he is likely to have done so), his roughly ninety year lifespan would have covered approximately a thirtieth (!) of the existence of the world up till then—now it is roughly a 50-millionth (!) of the earth’s existence.

*Exactly what should be included in “world” is a little unclear to me and depends on how the creation stories are interpreted. Since the dating is based on genealogies, it would strictly speaking be the creation of humanity that is identified. The rest is interpretation and could range from nothing more to the entirety of the universe (in an older understanding).

Written by michaeleriksson

November 13, 2017 at 1:37 am