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A Swede in Germany

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Absence from blogging and moving to the console

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While already cutting down on blogging in favor of other activities, I was met with yet another computer issue, namely that the laptop with the tricky display became incurable (cf. [1]).

(Note: Some of the below requires an understanding of relevant Linux concepts and/or tools.)

Since then, I have spent some additional time setting up a backup laptop and switching to a more console based environment, foregoing X-Windows in favor of the Linux consoles in combination with tools like tmux.

Mostly this works quite well and is just a continuation of an older usage pattern in a more consistent manner. Notably, with two exceptions, I already spent more time on the command line or with terminal-based tools like Bash, Vim, and mplayer than I did with GUI tools—just in an xterm (or a tmux within an xterm) instead of a console (or a tmux within a console). The exceptions are (a) reading of various PDFs/ePubs/whatnots, (b) web browsing. (To which mplayer might be seen as a partial third exception, as it needs some graphics capabilities when used as a movie player.)

These exceptions I have partially addressed by just using text-based browsers (notably, w3m) and readers and/or by converting e.g. PDFs to text—if I have PDF with text, why should I not just read it as text in a console? The tricky part comes with contents that are not suitable for treatment as text, e.g. when a PDF contains images or, worse, is a scanned version of a physical book and then amounts to a series of images. Here the Linux framebuffer and/or DRM* comes to the rescue, and tools like fim, fbi, fbpdf, and mplayer (when called with a framebuffer option) are very helpful.

*Where “DR” stands for “Direct Rendering”—not “Digital Rights”. The “other” type of DRM is evil.

At the moment, I have two annoyances and one problem. The problem, of course, is that there are a few rarely used websites, notably for my online banking and the German “IRS”, that unnecessarily require JavaScript and/or other bullshit in a manner that makes them hard to use even from X-Windows using Firefox, and where I necessarily expect text-based browsers to fall flat on their faces.* The annoyances are respectively that accessing the framebuffer/DRM from within tmux does not work optimally (console switching is a particular problem), as tmux is a terminal emulator and detaches the programs run within it from the console,** and that running two separate such programs in parallel, even on different consoles and even without tmux, fails*** more often than not.

*I have yet to come to a decision on how to handle this, but I might be forced to go back to X-Windows for some such special-purpose tasks. I am aware of a tool browsh (?), which claims to be able to handle similar situations through coupling a text-based frontend with graphical browser run as a “headless” backend; however, I have not had time to look into this in detail.

**Similarly, using framebuffer functionality from within an X-term is not possible either, which is a great shame.

***This might or might not relate to a failure to call drmSetMaster appropriately. I have yet to look into this in enough detail, but a manual patching of some tools might be necessary if this is indeed the explanation.

In a bigger picture, I see a major missed opportunity in Linux in that the idea of framebuffers/DRM has not been pushed through as the main graphics environment over X-Windows (let alone Wayland). Just like any pseudo-terminal has input and outputs streams equivalent to those of a real console, they could have been given their own virtual devices for framebuffers and DRM, which are then mapped appropriately to the real devices (or some other graphics mechanism, e.g. when running under X-Windows) and suitable portions of the screen. As a for instance, w3m could then show images everywhere it is run, while issues around console switching and parallel programs would disappear—and who would even need X-Windows? If need be, this could be complemented with mechanisms analogous to those already existing for text, notably the “alternate screen” and the signals SIGTTIN and SIGTTOU.

Excursion on future blogging:
I was working on a few texts at the time of the screen malfunction, and might go on to publish these or abbreviated versions of them on W-rdpr-ss. Otherwise, I will likely move on to publish on my website proper and abandon this W-rdpr-ss shit—especially, as the admin area of W-rdpr-ss is one of those hardly-even-usable-in-Firefox websites. When this will be, I cannot tell. While I have found all the old passwords, repositories, and whatnot that I need by now, I still need the time and notably time to implement something of a more blog-like character than the current functionality of the website. (I might or might not post a notification of new content on my W-rdpr-ss blog, but would otherwise, long overdue, leave W-rdpr-ss behind.)

Excursion on “everything is text”:
An old Unix/Linux paradigm is that “everything is a file”. This is an extremely powerful and useful paradigm, and it is a great shame that it has not spread further—and it is a great shame that it has not been supplemented with something like “[almost]* everything is text”. Once something is in text form and can be accessed with tools like vim, sed, awk, and countless others, magic can be worked in a manner that is very hard in other contexts. Consider the clumsiness of configuration-by-GUI compared to configuration-by-text-file, how a PDF-turned-plain-text can be manipulated so much easier than the original PDF, what can be done to files based on the output of the ls command relative awkward graphical file browsers, and on and on and on.

*Images, videos, sound files, etc. are obvious exceptions.

Excursion on desktops:
Not only have I long preferred text-based applications over more graphical ones for most tasks, but I have found desktops and the desktop paradigm particularly pointless, even harmful—and it is a great shame that so much Linux development and thinking has been wasted on the idea of “making Linux ready for the desktop”. Some version of this mantra has been paradoxically repeated over decades, even after the Linux desktop and/or other graphical environments were already well ahead of e.g. MS-Windows* and even despite the true strength of Linux being on the command line, with text-based tools, etc. Moreover, while we can discuss the pros and cons of graphical vs. text-based environments, the differentiation into vanilla graphical environments and desktop graphical environments is bullshit: desktops just lead to cluttering, unsound paradigms, worse interfaces, whatnot.

*And, yes, the Unix-verse had windows before Microsoft did… Off the top of my head, the only point where Microsoft (and, for that matter, Apple) had an advantage over Unix and its descendants was in aesthetics and consistency of “look and feel”, and that advantage might have been gone for some two decades.

My personal dislike goes back as far as the mid-1990s when the more vanilla X-Windows set-up at uni was replaced with CDE (“Common Desktop Environment”). The main effect? There was a large bar at the bottom of the screen that stole space and did not allow me to do anything that I could not already do better through other means.

Excursion on division of documents into smaller units:
In a semi-parallel to ideas like “everything is text”, or rather the flexibility involved, I have tended more and more to split existing documents into pages, when not convertible into text, as with e.g. scanned PDFs and .cbz files. As long as I have the document as a whole, I must rely on some type of reader to handle e.g. page changes and I am limited to what the reader allows. If, on the other hand, I split the document into individual pages or (often equivalently) images, I can view them much more flexibly, both with regard to my own handling and with regard to what viewers/readers are available. (For instance, a .cbz file is basically a series of images that have been zipped. A viewer must now both have knowledge of this and the ability to unzip the contents, in addition to the ability to display images. Unzip the images and any capable image viewer will do.) This might or might not also provide a possible work-around for keeping several framebuffer/DRM applications running in parallel, by having a script call the applications on individual pages, with the option to pause between pages, and a reduced risk of conflicts. (I have not looked into this in detail, however.)

Excursion on poor config handling:
Unfortunately, I have seen repeated cases of the poor config-file handling discussed in [2] during my many recent experiments. It seems as if every second tool automatically and idiotically installs user-local config files upon the first start. As with some of the above, and many other misdevelopments in Linux and FOSS since the early days, the old ideas that really worked appear to be forgotten in favor of poorly thought-through nonsense. What was conceived in the early days was not always perfect, and often restricted through lack of technology or lack of experience, but it was usually created by highly intelligent and knowledgable developers. What we see today, that is a very different story.


Written by michaeleriksson

April 30, 2023 at 7:10 pm

Killing Hitler

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Earlier today, I watched “No Time Like the Past”, an old “The Twilight Zone” episode. A portion of the episode deals with three failed attempts at changing history, including killing Hitler with a gun shortly before WWII.

This idea of killing Hitler is quite common both in time-travel fiction and in ethics (“If you could go back in time and kill Hitler, would you?”). It also borders on the pointless. This in at least two regards: Firstly, we do not know what would have happened, had Hitler been killed at any given point in time, and there is no guarantee that the results would have been, in some sense, better. A case based on probabilities might be made, that there would have been a greater than 50-percent chance at an improvement, but there is no guarantee of anything and a “better the devil you know” attitude seems prudent. Secondly, anyone who did go back in time from sufficiently far into the future, e.g. from 2023 (my year of writing) or 1975 (the year of my own birth), and successfully killed Hitler would be the greatest mass murderer in history—far, far outdoing Nazi-Germany as a whole, let alone just Hitler. Why? The result would be that virtually anyone born (in the original timeline) after the time of the killing (in the new timeline) would fail to be born.* This includes the vast, vast majority of the 8-or-so billion people currently alive. Yes, there is a good chance that there would be a similar number of humans alive in the new timeline, but that is a small comfort for those bound to die** through the time-travel killing—and imagine if you were given another opportunity than killing Hitler, namely to just wipe out everyone born after, say, 1939 and have them replaced with some unknown number of other humans. From this perspective, very few would agree to the experiment; and someone who did, I suspect, would be considered a horrifying mass murderer by most others.*** Indeed, comparisons with exactly Hitler would likely abound.

*As I have noted in the past, for a certain person to be born, it is not enough that just the right parents meet—the right sperm and egg have to meet, and other conditions beyond that might apply too. The chance of a repetition in the new timeline is extremely small even for someone in the first generation after the killing, as the effects would travel far and wide in a very short time, and negligible for someone in the second generation. Indeed, even going back in time and having a cup of coffee could have similar effects, if with a longer grace period before the effects were global—human reproduction is that vulnerable to change.

**Respectively, never have existed.

***Well, up until the time of their killing, after which they would not consider anyone anything anymore…

In other words, if I could go back and kill Hitler, I would not—no matter my personal feelings on Hitler and his actions (very negative) and no matter my feelings about corresponding killings without time travel (mostly* disapproving). The same, m.m., applies to killing Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc.

*The question is tricky. I acknowledge that there might be times of necessity and/or persons who do deserve to die, but this must be put against the general ethics of killing, the question of “Who decides?” (and, especially, whether the one country may decide concerning the leader of another country), the risk of killing someone based on speculation about future crimes or on faulty evidence, etc., etc., etc.

This brings us to another area of questions: Given the ability to time travel and change history, and discounting the above issues, why kill specifically Hitler? Why not Stalin or Mao, who, directly or indirectly, had more deaths on their consciences? Why not Pol Pot, who might have been worse than either on a “pound for pound” basis? (He might have done less damage, but might also have been more “morally deserving”.) Depending on what speculations about history and alternate history hold true, it is not entirely inconceivable that even killing FDR would have been a better choice.

Those were approximate contemporaries of Hitler. What about some past characters? Napoleon? Attila? Genghis Khan? Karl Marx, as the early source of all the evil of the likes of Stalin and Mao?

Then what about other changes that might have had a similar or better effect without deaths? Consider an intervention to make the Versailles Treaty less damaging and, thereby, reduce the internal problems of Weimar Germany, better information about Hitler given to the high-ranking politicians of the early 1930s, and, maybe, even something as simple as just preventing the Reichtagsbrand or pinning it on the Nazis.

Or look at the timing in the above TV episode: Why wait until 1939? What was yet to come was worse than what had already happened, true, but enough bad things had happened that an earlier killing (or other intervention) would have been better, e.g. to kill Hitler shortly before he joined the NSDAP. (Still assuming, of course, that someone is willing to perform such killings, even in light of earlier arguments.) 1939 might, in fact, have been an extraordinarily poor choice of year, with an eye at the far-going mobilization, Hitler’s then popularity, the risk of creating a martyr, how WWI was triggered,* whatnot.

*I.e. by shooting the heir presumptive of a very powerful country at a time when Europe was a metaphorical powder keg. Of course, this leads me to a truly interesting question: What would have happened during the rest of the 20th century, had someone shot Princip shortly before he (in the original time line) shot the Archduke?

From yet another perspective, what if some other type of intervention entirely would have brought a greater (potential or expected) net-benefit to the world? Consider e.g. a manipulation of events so that WWII led to the defeat of Communism instead of Nazism, or the mutual defeat of the two.

All in all, I almost must consider anyone who uncritically poses the scenario of time travelling and killing Hitler, be it within fiction or as an ethical dilemma, to be very intellectually limited. It simply does not make sense.

Excursion on the overall episode:
The parts following the three failed attempts are more interesting and better made, but give a paradoxical impression, in that the protagonist first deliberately tries to change history, and fails with speculation that what happens stays happened, and then goes back in time determined not to change history. All in all, cutting the failed attempts, which brought little to the episode, and removing the paradox of behavior would have been better. (More generally, the show was better in the roughly 25-minute versions than in the roughly 50-minute versions, and “No Time Like the Past” was one of the latter.) As an aside, the story might have been a partial inspiration for “Back to the Future III”, considering several parallels.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 9, 2023 at 11:33 am

Some remarks around game theory and politics

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I have, on more than one occasion, made brief mentions of game theory and how politicians and/or Leftists show a great ignorance of the topic. Here, I will look a little deeper on two important sub-topics:

Firstly, I have increasingly come to believe that non-Leftists often show a failure to adapt appropriately in their interactions with Leftists, even when elementary game theory (and/or common sense) would have dictated an adaption. (With similar statements likely applying to some other constellations, e.g. many voters vs. politicians and many U.S. Whites vs. many U.S. Blacks, Black interest-pushers, and/or political Blaxploitationers.) In this, they might be as naive as the Leftists, if in a very different manner. (Also see an excursion on hawks and doves, which has considerable overlap with the two sub-topics.)

To illustrate, let us consider the traditional Prisoner’s Dilemma, as a special case of a game:*

*Re-quote of a formalization by Albert W. Tucker from [1]. Note that the applicability of the game is much, much wider than just prisoners, prison sentences, and whatnots—do not get hung up on that part. (Indeed, more abstract formulations are easily possible and quite common.) The prison/snitching aspect is, however, quite interesting in light of my recent readings on Jordan Belfort, for which a follow-up text is coming.

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They hope to get both sentenced to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to: betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The offer is:

  • If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves 2 years in prison
  • If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve 3 years in prison (and vice versa)
  • If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve 1 year in prison (on the lesser charge)

(For better understandability, I will usually speak of “snitching”, or similar, below. This should not be seen as a moral judgment.)

Now, if this game is played once, all bets are off and the result will be determined by factors like the level of trust between the two players (prisoners), the general character of the two players, the presence/absence of an “Omerta” or “snitches get stitches” culture, etc., which leads to a comparatively uninteresting situation.*/** Play the game repeatedly,*** and we have a very different situation. Let us say that A begins with a strategy of not snitching, while B snitches. The outcome for A is bad, and he has an incentive to change his strategy to adapt to the opponents strategy and/or to retaliate. Correspondingly, chances are that A will switch to a snitching strategy and remain there until B abandons the snitching strategy, which implies that the gains that B made the first time around will drown in the subsequent losses and which gives B a strong incentive not to snitch even the first time around.**** Player A might, of course, give B a second chance in the second round, or try an occasional peace offer, but, unless A is an idiot, B will still be far worse off by taking the opportunistic snitching strategy, should more than a trivial number of rounds be played.

*The resulting paradox is interesting, that (a) snitching leads to a better outcome regardless of what the other party does and might seem to be an optimal strategy, (b) if this strategy is used by both parties, both parties will be worse off than if both had chosen not to snitch. However, this gives a single aha-moment and is otherwise a dead-end.

**The game-theory version might be even less interesting than the real-life version, as most investigations will likely ignore such factors in order to create a “pure” version with two parties making choices based solely on speculation about the choice of the other party and on the expected payouts (as defined in the game; here the respective sentences) for a given combination of choices.

***Unlikely to happen very often with prisoners, but might happen already with trouble-making siblings and (with slight variations of the game idea) a great many real-life situations that have nothing to do with snitching or punishment. Consider e.g. two boxers in the ring: someone willing to use illegal blows or headbutts might have an advantage as long as the opponent does not retaliate (and the referee does not intervene)—but if the opponent does retaliate, there is no advantage and a greater mutual injury risk than if both parties had boxed fairly.

****Interesting discussions can be had about what the optimal strategy in the last round should be, what effect this might have on the second-but-last round, etc., but that is off-topic. Besides, in real life, it is often impossible to tell which round will be the last. (Other special cases can be interesting too, e.g. should B cooperate often enough that A is moved to consistently cooperate, and B just steals some extra points every now and then by an occasional snitch.)

But what if A is an idiot (with regard to this game)? What if he naively picks the cooperative strategy of not snitching again and again and again, even in the face of consistent snitching by B? Well, then he takes a massive damage to the benefit of B. Exactly this, however, is what I see among large blocks of non-Leftists vs. Leftists, including many U.S. Republicans vs. many U.S. Democrats, “Equalists” vs. Feminists, “HBDers” vs. “nurture only” fanatics, etc. The former try to play fairly in the hope of fair play from the latter, compromise in hope of compromises from the latter, bring factual arguments in the hope of being met with factual arguments, etc.—and get a kick in the crotch in return. (Resp. are met with foul play, a refusal to compromise in the other direction, sloganeering/lies/rhetoric/whatnot, etc.)

Consider e.g. the issue of free speech: the non-Left has a long tradition of “free speech for everyone”, while the Left has a long tradition of “free speech for all who agree with us”. When the non-Left is in power, both sides have free speech; when the Left is in power, only the Left truly has free speech. The result, then, is that the Left has free speech all the time, while the non-Left only has so when in power, because of a naive strategy.* Or consider various nominations, e.g. to the SCOTUS, where the Democrats began with unfair attacks and attempts to unfairly discredit nominees no later than with Bork in the late 1980s (and possibly earlier) and have taken this to often outrageous levels, while similar foul-play has been either absent or much weaker against Democrat nominees—despite there often being stronger objective reasons to be critical against them.** For that matter, once on the SCOTUS, Republican nominees tend to judge matters based on what the law, constitution, precedence, whatnot actually is/says, while the Democrat nominees very often pick whatever fits a Leftist agenda—and the law be damned. Or contrast the abuse of the justice system for political persecution of Republicans, MAGA supporters, pro-lifers, etc., vs. the absence or far greater rarity of corresponding persecution of Democrats, BLMers, pro-choicers, etc.

*Except that the motivation in this particular case is not strategy but a genuine belief (which I share) in the benefits of free speech and the evil/unfairness of undue restrictions of it. While this does not make the strategy pragmatically less unfortunate, it gives a partial explain of why the non-Left and the Left so often take so different approaches—the non-Left is more likely to have ideals of fairness, while the Left is more likely to apply a “the end justifies the means” approach.

**Sotomayor, e.g., has no business in such a high position already for reasons of incompetence, let alone her abuse of her position for judicial activism.

The problem here is (at least, in part) the asymmetry, that there is no retaliation, that the non-Left continues to turn the other cheek, and that the Left takes full advantage, like player B faced with a naive player A or a boxer faced with an opponent who sticks to the rules even when he is ever again headbutted. (Would retaliation cause a strategy change on the Left? That is a good question, and I am far from certain; however, even if not, retaliation would level the playing field and reduce the long-term negative effects on society from the Left.)

Secondly, as can be seen from the above, it is often the big-picture aspects of game theory that matter—not the details, the math, or the tomes that have been written on the topic. What irks me with politicians and Leftists is that they so often lack the most elementary big-picture insights, up to and including some insights that might arise from common sense even in someone with no exposure to game theory.

To give a simplistic overview, we might divide game insights into three categories:

  1. Those that relate to finding the best strategy for contextually boring games, say, chess or a single game of the “Prisoner’s Dilemma”. These rarely have much to offer to politicians or, for that matter, most persons not dealing with the exact game at hand. (International Grand Masters in chess, e.g., might be quite keen on finding better approaches to play chess, but they form a very small minority of the overall population. As an aside, note that while playing repeated games of chess can lead to changes in strategy, these changes are much more centered on the individual game, while the strategies for the “Prisoner’s Dilemma”, by their nature, involve multiple games.)
  2. Those that relate to adapting strategies over time in light of the behavior of other players, in order to maximize gain/minimize losses/whatnot over time, in light of prior experiences with the other players, in light of speculation about what they might do in the future, in light of considerations about what the other players might do to counter the current strategy and/or how they will react to a strategy change, whatnot. Here considerable value can be found in the overall principles (e.g. that some players will cooperate when met with cooperation, while others will just take advantage), but not necessarily in the details, as different games can have too different characteristics.
  3. To segue into the third item, consider how even variations of the same game can have different characteristics, e.g through something as simple as changing the punishments in the “Prisoner’s Dilemma”. (Say, that the middle outcome is changed from three years in prison to decapitation—few would dare take the risk of not snitching, even if naturally keen on cooperation.) Or allow the players to communicate and consider how e.g. a promise to be more cooperative next time around, or a threat to retaliate unless cooperation is given, can change the dynamics of the game.

    Here we find my main beef (in the area of game theory…) with politicians and Leftists—the failure to (a) understand that changing the rules can lead to changes in behavior, because risks, rewards, punishments, incentives, whatnot, change accordingly, (b) consider that the behavioral changes might not be the ones intended.

    For instance, Leftist politicians often seem to believe (or pretend to believe…) that a certain tax increase will only have two effects, namely more money for the government and less for “the rich”. In reality, effects like money moved abroad, reduced investments, increased tax “cheating”,* raised prices, and similar might follow, as can secondary effects like increased unemployment, tertiary effects like greater government expenditure on the unemployed, etc.

    *In light of the obscene tax levels in so many countries, “self-defense” might be a fairer term.

    For instance, similarly, the sole assumed effect of a price cap seems to be that prices are capped, while no thought is given to the risk that production is cut or switched to other products, that products are exported instead of being sold locally, that black markets arise, etc.

    For instance, there seems to be no awareness of the risk that generous social benefits can lead to abuse, including by those who deliberately forego work in order to live off benefits.

    For instance, for a more subtle and less political example, note my recent mentions of closed train stations in [2], and how the behavioral changes of passengers were misjudged.

(As an aside, the third item can be seen as a special case of the second, if we consider the rule maker a player of a special type, but this would make the point under consideration less clear.)

Excursion on hawks and doves:
A terminology of “hawks” and “doves” is popular, most often in contexts of posturing, threats of aggression, and willingness to take a fight. This terminology might not be entirely appropriate here, but much of the same principles apply with regard to e.g. the Left vs. the non-Left and snitches vs. non-snitches.

A hawk can gain benefits through playing the tough guy with a dove, who is likely to back down, but the hawk incurs a risk at getting into an actual fight with some other party when that party does not back down, as when that other party is another hawk. The fewer hawks to doves there are, the more successful is a hawkish strategy; the more hawks, the more dangerous. The problem with the political situation is that hawks do not confront hawks and doves randomly—as disproportionately many hawks are Leftists and doves non-Leftists, a Leftist hawk is much more likely to confront a dove than another hawk, which reduces the risks and increases the rewards. A similar problem can arise when there is some entity that should keep certain behaviors (e.g. cheating, violence, crime) under control, but fails to do so. Consider e.g. a boxing referee who is too lax, a teacher who does not intervene against bullies, an immigration policy that practically welcomes nominally illegal* aliens, the overly lenient treatment of Black criminals by the U.S. police and/or prosecutors in the wake of the BLM riots, a failure by the same and/or the DOJ to go after Leftist criminal behavior (and/or, as with Trump or J6, undue or disproportionate attacks on non-Leftists), how German law-enforcement (or the politicians who give the orders) are obsessed with a largely imaginary threat of “Rightwing extremism” while actual Leftwing extremists are found in parliament, and similar—and consider what the likely long-term effects are.

*Note the difference between making previously illegal immigration de jure legal through a change of law and making it de facto or quasi-legal by simply not applying existing laws. There is room to debate what immigration should be legal and what illegal, but failing to uphold existing immigration laws moves on a very different level. (Similar remarks can apply elsewhere, e.g in that boxing could have other rules than it does, but that this is not a valid reason for a referee to ignore the actual and current rules.)

The idea is similarly applied to evolutionary contexts (evolutionary theory has a considerable overlap with game theory), where we can e.g. take a population of many doves and few hawks,* see how the aggressive hawks have great advantages over the more pacifist doves, and encounter a next generation with relatively more hawks than the original population. This continues for a few generations, but then the proportion of hawks is so large that the risks involved outweigh the benefits, and the trend shifts towards more doves. Here we see another type of changes to players that is important in e.g. politics: not only can the current players change their strategies but the set of players can change.

*Note that the labels are metaphorical and that the doves and hawks would often be of the same species, as in the current example.

Then we have issues like strategy changes based on the proportion of doves and hawks in the overall population, e.g. in that the one hawk might remain a hawk, no matter what, while another might turn dove after losing a first fight, or (likely more interesting in politics) that a dove might observe the success of a hawk and imitate his behavior with other doves. In particular, if we look at e.g. parasitic* use of social aid (for want of a better generic term), we see an interesting inversion relative typical hawk-and-dove scenarios: the more receivers of social aid there are (be they parasites or bona fide), the more money is diverted from those who work, making it relatively a worse deal to be a worker (dove) and creating even greater incentives to become a parasite (hawk). (This, of course, until the government runs out of “other people’s money”.) The presence of more parasites can then lead to even more parasites, especially if being on social aid (in a first step**) and parasitism (in a second step) becomes normalized and loses any stigma, parasitism is increasingly seen as ethically acceptable, whatnot.

*I.e. someone who can work and chooses to live on social aid anyway; as opposed to e.g. someone who is temporarily down on his luck and is actively looking for work in good faith. (For the sake of simplicity, I speak only in terms of work and non-work. While this is a bit simplistic, it illustrates the overall principle, and going into other variations would bring no further value.)

**This step is likely long behind us in most or all of the Western world, but there have been times when receiving social aid was seen as shameful or a personal failure—and that might well have been a better mentality.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 9, 2023 at 4:47 am

A few remarks on my current blogging

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The recurring reader might have noted an unusual silence on some natural topics, e.g. the recent, so obviously politically motivated, legal attack on Trump.

This silence arises from two factors that apply for time being:

Firstly, I have cut down considerably on my reading of news and “current issues” in order to focus more on various books. As a result, I am not always aware of sufficient details of issues sufficiently early to make a worthwhile text while the issues actually are current.

Secondly, I have shifted time away from blogging to other tasks and projects (and will likely mostly prioritize my backlog when it comes to blogging).

(In a more long-term perspective, I have also long had doubts as to how worthwhile it is to write on current issues, as chances are that quite a few others will already have made the same points that I make. There might texts that I have an itch to write, but where the benefit of the writing would be mostly limited to scratching that itch. This might or might not affect my future choices.)

Written by michaeleriksson

April 5, 2023 at 2:44 pm

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A few thoughts on “The Wolf of Wall Street”

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Yesterday, I finished “The Wolf of Wall Street” (TWOWS), an autobiographical* work by investment banker, fraudster, drug addict, and whatnot Jordan Belfort.

*In addition to the obvious disclaimers around faulty memories, partiality, and similar that are common to all autobiographies, it should be noted that Belfort has a self-admitted history of large-scale lying. While I write the below under the assumption that the book is sufficiently truthful, this assumption does not necessarily hold, caution should be taken, and appropriate disclaimers, e.g. “Belfort claims”, should be seen as implicit. There also appears to be at least one sequel, which I have not read, and which might or might shed a different light on this and that. (I have not seen the movie either.)

The book is particularly interesting in light of three other semi-recent autobiographical readings, namely Joseph D. Pistone’s two “Donnie Brasco” books (crime) and Matthew Perry’s “Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing” (drug addiction), with minor additional overlap with recent writings on banks (at least [1] and [2]). Notably, the book begins heavy on the “Wall Street” aspect, specifically regarding crime and unethical behavior, and especially at Belfort’s company, Stratton Oakmont; and increasingly transitions to Belfort’s drug issues, family issues, and general problems to cope with life. Below, I will give some remarks in the two approximately corresponding areas, as well as some remarks in other areas. I will not, however, make a closer comparison with the other books.

Wall Street and crime:

  1. The view of investment banking given here is very different from my previous impressions. Instead of very clever and highly educated bankers trying to find good investments, we have a riffraff of mostly low-education, low-IQ, and (outside investment banking) low-prospect individuals engaging in telemarketing, high-pressure sales, whatnot, to haul in money from unwary investors—to the benefit of the employer and with the outcomes for the customer a very secondary concern.

    Belfort’s type of business might not be representative, then or now, and other companies might be more in accordance with prior impressions; however, I note that the general idea, if not the scope, matches my impressions of regular banks: The various investment schemes offered have the primary purposes of making the customer gift as much money as possible to the bank, with the hope (from the customer’s point of view) that the eventual gains will be large enough to outweigh the losses (and inflation, and the opportunity cost of not investing in some other manner). Generally, this model of receiving money without creating value is quite popular (also see excursion).

    In fact, much of what took place was outright crime and fraud, and often with aspects of a pyramid scheme. Done well enough, this might be one of the single biggest scams available outside those involving the government.

  2. Other illegal and/or unethical aspects include stock manipulations, convoluted deals where both seller and buyer are the same person/entity in disguise, and similar.
  3. There are some parallels with the Mafia, as described by Pistone, including a great focus on loyalty and “Omerta” (a word likely used more often in TWOWS than in “Donnie Brasco”). The natural importance of “Omerta” when engaging in shady dealings makes it plausible that the same principle (with a less overt name or no explicit name) is widely used elsewhere, e.g. by various politicians and the likes of Fauci. Extremely interesting is how a virtually retired Belfort kept receiving a million here and a million there from the companies of former underlings—as if he were a revered Brandonesque Godfather.

    There was also a strong aspect of one-sided communication, avoidance (if not suppression) of alternate viewpoints, and similar, to create a cult-like setting in Stratton Oakmont, which might have gone well past similar issues in the Mafia (and the former might have had more emphasis on the carrot, the latter on the stick).

    However, there seems to be greater winnings* in the stock game than in most of the Mafia activities and, maybe, greater intelligence. (I am torn on the last point, especially as much of the intelligence displayed in TWOWS seemed centered on Belfort and some few other players, while most others just tagged along and success among them seemed to be based more in friendship with Belfort than own competence. However, note that Pistone was quite unimpressed with the real-life Mafia relative e.g. the portrayal in “The Godfather”.) My impression from one of these books was that shady Las Vegas businesses might have brought the top guys in the Mafia more money than the regular criminal activities. On the other hand, the wise guys might have wised up, as Belfort speaks of the mob (whether Mafia or some other mob is unclear to me) running brokerage firms.

    *Belfort and some similar characters throw around a hundred grand like someone in “Donnie Brasco” might throw around a single grand. Most of the Mafiosi in “Donnie Brasco” did move on a considerably lower level, but even comparatively low-level employees at Stratton Oakmont seemed to earn ridiculous amounts.

    More generally, there are parallels in both attitude and approaches between Belfort and Pistone, allowing for the one wanting to earn money illegally and the other to prevent others from doing so. In particular, both were master manipulators and shameless liars.

  4. For investments to truly work, it pays to be the one in control—not a small provider of money with little influence. Those in control are in a position to make decisions in their own favor, while those not in control have to rely on the competence, good intentions, honesty/fairness, whatnot of others. (This is the more important, of course, when criminals are involved, but applies even in more law-abiding settings—including with regular banks.)
  5. As with the dubious ethics of undercover work in “Donnie Brasco”, there are signs of the government acting inappropriately, unfairly, in bad faith, whatnot in TWOWS. This includes the SEC hitting targets with various forms of suits and extortion, in the hope that a perceived bad guy will croak without proof or engage in some analogue of plea bargaining. Particularly perfidious is the case of a bargain struck between the SEC and Stratton Oakmont/Belfort with no guarantee of immunity from other agencies and whatnots. My impression of (at least U.S.) law enforcement goes a fair bit in this direction, that it does not matter so much whether justice is done, due process is upheld, etc., as that the culprits are caught even at the cost of taking down a few innocents—or, worse, that someone, even someone innocent, is caught so that the DA looks good, police officers fulfill their arrest quotas, whatnot.

Drugs, etc.:

  1. The book has good examples of functioning or semi-functioning addicts (including early Belfort) vs. non-functioning addicts (including late Belfort) and shows, in particular, how drug use that seems under control today might be clearly out of control a few years down the line. Another angle is the danger of drug use for long-term pain management* (notwithstanding the possibility that this might be a necessary evil) and, especially, combinations of medicinal and “recreational” drug use.

    *Belfort had suffered a back injury and botched surgeries to correct a resulting problem. As a result, he had issues with severe chronic pain.

    **I cannot rule out that some patients/junkies use pain as an excuse to use drugs, rather than pain being the legitimate cause of the use.

  2. Looking at the early parts of the book, there might be some potential for drugs to have positive effects, e.g. to increase concentration, overcoming boredom, whatnot. These, however, must be measured against the risk of negative effects on cognition and in other areas—as well as, cf. the previous item, any long-term problems that might arise. A particular issue is that some might be able to buy themselves early career success through working harder than the colleagues, at the cost of such long-term problems.

    Cocaine, as an “upper”, has some reputation* for such short-term benefits, as do Ritalin** and some other ADHD medicines. Anecdotally, one of my old employers often used a small external contractor, the boss of which was rumored to slack off until the deadline for work to be delivered was around the door, then to spend a few days working around the clock on (likely) cocaine, barely meet the deadline, and slack off again.

    *Whether this reputation is justified or, e.g., just wishful thinking among users, I leave unstated. However, there does seem to be a strong trend for cocaine users to have a greater chance of being functioning (or being functioning for a longer time) than e.g. heroin users.

    **Again, I leave unstated whether the reputation is justified. I have heard conflicting claims, including variations of “I felt hyper-productive, but when I looked at the work the day after, it was garbage”.

    I have no personal experiences with illegal drugs, nor with use of “misappropriated” drugs like Ritalin. This makes the matter harder for me to judge.

  3. Looking at the overall behavior of Belfort and some others, there is a question to what degree drugs and/or drug addictions are the cause of misbehaviors and to what degree they are, themselves, a symptom/misbehavior caused by some other underlying problem that also, directly or indirectly, causes other misbehaviors. Perry’s book gives an excellent example of this. (But note that Perry’s addiction seemed to be of a less destructive nature vis-a-vis others than Belfort’s.)
  4. Some scenes in rehab have a “Nineteen Eighty-Four” vibe, potentially with aspects of primitive mind-control and with allegations of an extortion* factor. This could be a further lead on the idea that psychiatry is mostly practiced as** a scam or pseudo-science.

    *Apparently, most of the patients were themselves physicians, dentists, and the like, and were dependent on a sufficiently positive evaluation in order to get their licenses back.

    **Note the difference between “is mostly practiced as” (which I strongly suspect) and a plain “is” (to which I remain agnostic). It is very possible that something is legitimate and beneficial when done correctly and that issues arise when too many practitioners fail to meet that bar. I note e.g. my own experiences with Scrum: when done correctly, it can be highly beneficial, but many practice it as a cargo-cult, missing most of the benefits and incurring all of the overheads.

  5. Post-rehab, AA (and/or AN) features somewhat prominently. My impression that AA is partly a scam, partly something cult-like, is reinforced. These programs might possibly keep its members from drinking (or whatnot; Belfort has Quaaludes as his main poison), but they might also be what keeps them from becoming non-addicts. Note the common idea that there are alcoholics who are drunks and alcoholics who are former drunks—but no former alcoholics. (With many variations.) There might even be an aspect of AA as a substitution (quasi-)drug.

    I have never had any addictions of this type, so my own experiences are of limited value, but I do note that I have on two or three occasions set myself on harder diets. The result of that was always that almost everything became a matter of eating or not eating, e.g. in that eating more rarely made my mind center back on finally eating, again and again, that a feeling of hunger broke my concentration, again and again, etc. In contrast, when I just try to eat a bit healthier or a bit less, I have no such problems, while still losing weight, if at a lower tempo. Similarly, I have gone through long stretches in the office with skipped lunches, or lunches that just amounted to a single sandwich—which has been no problem after some “acclimatisation”. Why? Because it has never been a matter of not eating, only a matter of saving time, and eating or not eating has not been on my mind in the same manner. I strongly suspect that there is a similar effect for many members of AA-style programs, that drinking or not drinking is given an unduly great weight in daily life, which keeps the issue of being an addict alive, while simply not drinking might have worked better. They might not drink, but life still revolves around drinking.


  1. The overall story of TWOWS is too incomplete to be truly satisfying as a biography, to give a sufficient understanding of the whys and wherefores, etc. It would have been more satisfying, had more of the early blanks been filled in, especially the six-year leap from the prologue (Belfort is a lowly new employee and complete nobody) to chapter one (Belfort runs his own business and is drowning in money).
  2. It is an interesting twist* that the FBI struck at a time when Belfort appeared to be mostly law-obedient, not abusing drugs, whatnot, and that this strike might have done more harm than good,** while it failed to manifest when major good could have been achieved by stopping his illegal business practices.

    *The more so, if there was an aspect of deliberation involved; however, going by TWOWS, chances are that lack of evidence was the deciding/delaying factor.

    **With regard specifically to Belfort. Other aspects might need consideration, like a discouraging effect on others or a satisfaction for prior victims. Then, again, the eventual punishments were well short of what they rightfully might have been.

  3. A similar twist is the wife who loved (or claimed to love) him through endless shit of crime, hookers, cheating, drugs, rehab, and whatnot—and divorced him when he was arrested but the other issues seemed a thing of the past. I would have found the opposite more understandable (but note that her side of the story is never heard).
  4. There are repeated references to the incompetence of regulators, SEC agents, and similar, which well matches my impressions of government virtually everywhere and everywhen.
  5. There are many examples of the nouveaux riches being tasteless, wasteful, engaging in conspicuous consumption, whatnot. (Of course, outside “old money” snobbery, the derogatory implications of “nouveau[x] riche[s]” are less a matter of being newly rich and more of handling being rich poorly, including being tasteless, etc.) I note in particular how Belfort’s wife had him replace a gold Rolex (as too “vulgar” or similar) with a gold Bulgari, while having no qualms about e.g. monogrammed 500-dollar bath towels… For that matter, whether a Bulgari is less “vulgar” than a Rolex can be disputed. Rolex might be too much of a default (among those looking for an expensive watch) to be “refined”, but Rolex is at least a watch-maker with a decently long tradition, which turned “brand” over time. Bulgari, in contrast, is a brand that moved into watch-making and which might be even more conspicuous in most cases. My main objection might have been less to “Rolex” and more to “gold”—but the Bulgari was gold too… (In contrast, a move to e.g. a non-gold Patek Philippe or Audemars Piguet might have been argued as a sign of refinement over a Rolex. It would certainly have been a better way to display great wealth without looking “vulgar”.)

Excursion on superficiality:
The book reinforces my impression of management/executives as more of poseurs than persons of actual accomplishment—they look superficially good but often have little substance. A secondary problem is that once those with little substance gain control, they seem to have a strong tendency to prefer other persons of little substance for e.g. promotions (maybe, because they fear the competition; maybe, because they recognize kindred spirits in other poseurs; maybe, for some other reason). Indeed, recently I have done some reading on MBAs,* and there seems to be a much greater focus on factors like building a network** during the studies than learning during the studies, and on getting the degree from a school with as much prestige as possible rather than as high-quality*** as possible. I also have some suspicion of a vicious circle of MBA-holders hiring MBA-holders because pushing the (real or alleged) value of an MBA makes their own investment in an MBA seem the more worthwhile.

*I often play with the idea of getting further degrees, but (generally) I know that I can learn as well or better on my own and (MBA specific) I took two semesters of business classes in the 1990s, and I was not impressed in terms of e.g. self-development, skills valuable for the office, quality of education, whatnot. (However, an MBA is often intended for more practical learning and/or learning at a higher level, so who knows.)

**Most of the time, networking appears to be a bit of a scam in its own right. It usually brings comparatively little value to the employer of the networker, but allows the networker to gain success by using the resources of the employer to do mutual back-scratching with other members of the network, e.g. by hiring someone as a high-paid consultant because he is a member of the network—not because he happens to be highly competent.

***With the added complication that the influence of the school on the level of education is likely mostly felt in how strict grading and passing/failing is and how much material is covered. The idea of a miracle professor (or other teacher) that turns vegetables into geniuses is fantasy. Indeed, I suspect that much of the benefit of a high-prestige school lies in the filtering performed on applicants—that someone who graduated was good enough to be admitted, and that someone who was admitted was filtered much more strongly at Harvard than at Hicktown. This filter can then be indirectly used by future employers. From another angle, someone from a more prestigious school is likely to have a network with other MBAs who have been similarly strongly filtered.

Excursion on myself and “get rich” schemes:
Looking at the first item, it indirectly points to two* reasons why I am not rich, namely that I (a) have a sense of ethics that prevents many such tricks and even on a much less extreme level, as with e.g. over-billing, (b) in a manner of speaking had the right ideas about money at the wrong time. To expand on (b), I remember lying in bed as a young child and thinking about schemes to be gifted just one cent** from everyone in the world, which would make me quite rich, or finding, say, a few one-in-a-million willing to give me considerably larger amounts. As an adult, I have not made any attempts to implement any such scheme (or a more sophisticated version of one), as they have struck me as childish, unproductive, and unrealistic (who falls for something like that?). Moreover, depending on the details, they might come into conflict with ethics per (a). Nevertheless, very many who have grown rich, Belfort among them, have done so exactly by getting others to give them money in return either for nothing or for something worth much less—or, worse, by making the government dole out tax-payers’ money. (Note the difference to textbook Capitalism, where two parties exchange some combination of goods and money in order to leave both parties better off.) Indeed, many more legitimate or legitimate-seeming businesses have a somewhat similar angle, e.g. many high-markup brands, over-expensive U.S. colleges that effectively sell the diploma (not the education), insurance companies who happily collect fees for years but refuse to fulfill their obligations when the time to pay out comes, banks who use the customers’ money for their own purposes, many charities, etc.

*Other reasons include different priorities (at least, again, as an adult), a too low willingness to engage in office politics/networking/sucking-up/whatnot, a great risk averseness, a constant underestimation of how stupid most others really are, and being told from my early childhood that running an own business (as opposed to working as an employee) would imply too much work, too low rewards, and too great risks.

**Strictly speaking, “öre”, the öre being the corresponding smallest unit of Swedish money back then. The principle remains the same.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 4, 2023 at 12:26 am

Publishing on April 1st

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In a partial parallel to my recent texts* on version control and how its use can affect how someone works, I am currently contemplating other factors that can affect our behavior in an unexpected or indirect manner. The reason? It is April 1st and I am torn between writing** and not writing a (different-from-this-one) text—the “not” influenced by the tradition of April-Fools’ jokes (AFJs). Anything non-joking published on this day stands some risk of being honestly misinterpreted or maliciously mislabeled as an AFJ. Certainly, there are a great many otherwise “serious” newspapers, magazines, and whatnot that engage in AFJs on this day—unwisely, in my opinion.

*Notably, [1].

**Why not write it today and publish it tomorrow? See excursion.

This raises the interesting issue of when and whether such risks should affect behavior. I, e.g., can afford to not write/publish that other text today, but a daily newspaper does not have that luxury for most of its contents. Or consider laws, regulations, restrictions, COVID-countermeasures, whatnot:* Laws are often written to take effect on the first day of the respective quarter, which matches April 1st. (Ditto those that might take effect on the first of a month.) Should laws now be postponed by a day to avoid misunderstandings? This might border on the ridiculous—but, as a counterpoint, many laws are themselves so ridiculous that they might otherwise be taken to be AFJs. Then we have the issue of reporting on laws: even if the law-makers and governmental sources on laws never engage in AFJs, there is no guarantee that some newspaper or other will not e.g. claim a new law taking effect and/or having been decided “today” as an AFJ. And then there is the issue of nit-wits who make potentially harmful or incompetent AFJs despite being in an “official” position of some sort.**

*I will stick with “laws” for the sake of simplicity.

**For instance, earlier today, I encountered the claim that a high-ranking local Swedish politician had announced a 50-percent cut in municipal electricity prices, had intended this as a (grossly inappropriate) AFJ, and, for full effect, had made the announcement yesterday, when no-one was expecting an AFJ… (To boot, a far-Left politician, but this might have been coincidence.)

Now, looking at the effects of e.g. version control and AFJs on behavior, it is important to note the incidental character, that neither has a purpose of altering behavior. (Or, in the case of version control, not in the areas discussed.) In contrast, a law taking effect on April 1st can alter behaviors in a certain way, but it is often*intended to do so. The mechanism for these more incidental changes often involves (feared) perceptions/reactions in others. Ditto additional work/trouble/whatnot for oneself. To the former, someone might e.g. wear certain clothes in high school today and very different clothes in the office in five years’ time, because someone who deviates too far from the local norm might be viewed as “off”, “uncool”, “unprofessional”, or whatever might apply. To the latter, consider someone regularly visiting two near-by grocery stores, one of which is harder to reach through various roadworks, and how he might shift business to the other store for the duration of the roadworks.**

*A problem with laws, and here we enter an overlap, is that they often alter incentives, and often perversely so, in a manner unforeseen, underestimated, or judged as unimportant by the law-makers. For instance, a law establishing a price cap for some product might have the intended effect of capping prices, but might also have effects like some producers cutting back on production, shifting production to an area without a price cap, reducing investments for the future, or giving up business altogether—or a black market arising as a workaround for the problems and limitations caused by the price cap. (And, yes, these changes to incentives are usually of a kind that the law-makers should have foreseen, estimated correctly, and/or judged important.)

**This matches my own recent situation. Involving the same two stores, but in the other direction, I also had a lengthy period of shift through ongoing construction inside one of the stores. Issues included various foods being relocated within the store, again and again over months, making things hard to find, aisles and areas that were occasionally blocked off, and recurring construction noise.

Particularly interesting examples involve software and shifting features, annoyances, bugs, and whatnots. For instance, note how my own path with browsers has been affected (cf. [2] and other texts). For instance, during my days as a Java developer, I used JSwat as a debugger for several years, because JSwat had the “unique selling point” of an internal command-line, which was lacking in the otherwise (often) stronger competing products. At some point, a new release was made and the command-line scrapped, with the motivation that (paraphrasing from memory) all functionality would now be available graphically—but, without the command-line, why should I not go to one of the otherwise stronger competitors instead?* For instance, users of tools like MS Outlook have had many bad email habits instilled in them and have been prevented from following existing norms and quasi-standards in favor of Microsoft’s amateurish preferences. (Consider e.g. how quoting is handled or not handled when replying to an email.)

*Two side-issues: Firstly, this attitude showed that the developer(s) were ignorant of the benefits of the command-line, as many tasks are simply much better done per command-line. Secondly, by analogy, it shows what idiotic road Firefox is on, as more and more functionality is removed and Firefox grows ever closer to being a second Chrome—but if someone is content with what Firefox-pretending-to-be-Chrome has to offer, why should he use Firefox, instead of Chrome, in the first place?

Excursion on taking AFJs at face value:
Another danger is, of course, than an actual AFJ is taken at face value, which can be potentially dangerous when otherwise respectable publications engage in AFJs. An interesting border-line case from my own past is my first encounter with the annual AFJ-article in C’t*. The article described some new technology to save space on DVDs (or some such) by storing the faces (and/or some other characteristics) of various actors separately and having the movie just include the right references and generate the right images and whatnots. I immediately realized that this was complete nonsense—that this simply would not work with the technology of the day (around 2000) and that, if it somehow did work, it would be unlikely to lead to an actual improvement.** However, I did not realize that it was a AFJ article until a great many years later, when C’t published an overview of some past AFJ articles and a mention was made. In the meantime, I had on some few occasions thought back on the article and taken satisfaction in that I had not heard another word on the topic, that this obvious-to-me nonsense had indeed failed…

*Germany’s leading computer magazine, usually known for its high quality, in-depth material, and its stark contrast to the dumbed-down nonsense that is found in most other computer magazines. (Disclaimer: While I was an ardent reader in my early years in IT, it has been a few years since my last issue, and I cannot vouch for the current character of the magazine.)

**With the technology of 2023, I would not rule out that a more sophisticated version could work, and somewhat similar ideas are certainly used in areas like animation (e.g. in that some parameterized model is used for something-or-other over an entirely individual rendering—which might be were the jokers got the original idea). Whether it would be worthwhile is another matter.

Excursion on writing vs. publishing:
Experiences show that I either get a text completed and published within a day or stand a nine-in-ten chance of an indefinite delay of completion and/or publication. I struggle enough with my backlog as is and try to avoid this particular trap, which is the historical cause of, maybe, a quarter of that backlog. I could make that day stretch past midnight and, indeed, my current sleep patterns are detached from when the sun happens to rise and set; however, (a) coincidentally, I began this day at a “conventional” hour and might well fall asleep again before midnight, (b) the potential perception of an AFJ will in part depend on the reader’s timezone and that I am “safe” from a German perspective does not automatically make me “safe” from e.g. a U.S. perspective. (To the latter, I am also a little uncertain how W-rdpr-ess handles the assignment of dates.)

Excursion on likelihood of misunderstandings/mislabelings:
The likelihood that one of my texts would be misunderstood or mislabeled is likely small, and I likely would have written that other text, had I not prioritized the current one. (Why this prioritization? The current text is directly connected to the date and it seems better to publish it specifically today. The other text has no such connection.) However, these are the days of both the Internet and a pandemic of rabid Leftism, and neither danger can be entirely ruled out. That I do publish a text (and with not the slightest intent at a joke) shows that the effects discussed here are by no means absolute and that we can, barring unconscious effects, usually decide against an altered behavior.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 1, 2023 at 7:32 pm

New vs. good as illustrated with some numbers and units

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The issue of new vs. good has appeared repeatedly in my writings. In my backlog, I have a text intended to go more into depth on various such issues, e.g. when and whether modern society and modern norms are better than those of yore. A particular issue is that various systems and approaches might address different problems (cf. below) and/or different situations;* another that there is an automatic jump to the conclusion that “newer is better”, without actually investigating the evidence. Consider e.g. the development of money and the road from coins-valuable-per-se to pure fiat money (and soon, maybe, CBDCs) over stations like notes-convertible-to-gold and the Bretton-Woods system. Here the impression given is often one of steady progress, while, in fact, one set of advantages and disadvantages has been replaced by another at each step of the way. In as far as there has been a monotone “progress”, it has been in favor of the government** (and, maybe, the banks) at the cost of the people—a bad thing, for the most part. Similarly, consider the idea that more and more schooling is better, never mind what results the schooling actually achieves, never mind the issue of diminishing returns, and never mind the crucial difference between education (good) and schooling (often a very poor means to the end of achieving education).

*Reading the “Federalist Papers”, e.g., it is crucial to keep in mind both how the world has changed since the writing and that they were written light of a certain set of experiences and problems partly alien to the modern reader—and that the modern reader’s experiences and problems might be partly alien to the authors. There would, I suspect, have been a great many changes, had they been written today. As a counterpoint, in tone with the overall text, many in the modern world, especially on the Left, seem to be blind to the many points that still apply.

**E.g. in that increasing the money supply and/or devaluing existing money has grown easier over time.

As this type of text might end up exploding into a dozen installments, with no true advantage in demonstrating the principle, I will just deal with portions of one sub-field, for the purpose of illustration, and then drop the backlog item: numbers and units.

The dominance of the decimal system* and the switch to “decimal units” (e.g. meter and liter over foot and gallon; often coinciding with SI-units) and “decimal money” (e.g. pounds–pence over pounds–shilling–pence) is almost invariably described as a great progress in the sources that I have seen, beginning in school—a good-bye to the dark ages and a triumph of enlightenment, an abandoning of the obscure and random in favor of the consistent and logical. In reality, the perceived obscurity and randomness often goes back to the failure of modern judges to understand the reasons that actually were there.

*In at least two regards: (a) Replacing use of fractions (e.g. 1/2) with decimal numbers (e.g. 0.5). (b) Abandoning various more informal uses of/thinking in non-decimal groupings, e.g. dozens. With a wider net, possibly without the “dark ages” angle, I also treat: (c) Preferring math based on 10 instead of e.g. 60. (To look at other aspects can be tricky: The overall history of numbers and what might be considered a decimal or proto-decimal system is sufficiently complex that I would need considerable research to draw proper borders. Note e.g. the complication of the difference between using 10 as an informal base for numbers, e.g. by “fifty” amounting to five tens, and using a formal base-10 positional system for arithmetic.)

An unambiguous progress can be argued with units in (at least) two regards: that (a) units have been increasingly standardized with the introduction of SI units,* (b) these units have connections between them that make conversions** and math easier. However, neither of these are inherently tied to the decimal. It would, for instance, have been possible to standardize a twelve-inch foot, a three-foot yard, a 1760-yard mile, and whatnot internationally; it would, for instance, have been possible to keep the foot and replace the gallon with something based on the cubic foot.

*The meter is the meter everywhere, e.g., while units like the foot had different definitions in different areas and at different times. (Time-wise, there has been changes to the meter too, but much smaller and in a more “backwards compatible” manner.) Indeed, even in the current U.S., which has been reluctant to adapt SI units resp. “metric”, there are different definitions for e.g. the gallon in different contexts and there is need to differ between e.g. solid (weight) and fluid (volume) ounces.

**For instance, “a cubic meter” and “a thousand liters” describe the same volume, while no such easy conversion, to my knowledge, exists between foot and gallon. (The exact definitions of various SI units have varied over time, but the definition of liter is probably still one cubic decimeter, corresponding to the volume of a cube with a side of 1 decimeter/0.1 meter.)

The more interesting aspect of the “decimalization” of units is the switch from seemingly random multipliers between units of the same dimension to a consistent use of multiples of 10. The most commonly used “metric” units of length are likely the millimeter (0.001 meters), the centimeter (0.01 meters), the meter, and the kilometer (1000 meters).* Similar “imperial” units include the inch (1/36 of a yard), the foot (1/3 of a yard), the yard,** and the mile (1760 yards)—with some funny additions like the furlong at 220 yards or 1/8th of a mile.

*In my native Sweden, followed by the very popular “Swedish mile” at 10 kilometers/10,000 meters.

**The yard appears to be far less common than the foot in my own encounters. I include it/use it as a base, because it is approximately the same size as a meter (1 yard = 0.9144 meter), which makes the comparisons a little easier. However, they are by no means exact in nature, as both the millimeter and the centimeter are more than an order smaller than the inch resp. foot. Feel free to mentally limit the comparison to e.g. centimeter/inch, meter/yard (or meter/foot), and kilometer/mile, which are all pairwise of the same order.

But now consider dividing* a meter into three equal parts, and we have a brief overview of many of the issues at hand, e.g. in that the decimal system cannot even properly give the right share of 0.333333333333333… meter,** while the fractional system can (1/3 meter) and while 1/3 of a yard is a convenient foot—which needs neither fractions nor decimals.

*Here and elsewhere, references to “dividing”, “division”, whatnot should often be seen with an eye at both the mathematical operation and a more physical act, e.g. for the purpose of sharing in equal parts.

**There are conventions of notation, e.g. that a bar is put above (or sometimes below) a set of numbers to indicate that they repeat without limit. However, these are shady for everyday use and not even necessarily expressible in all contexts—let alone necessarily understood by the average man on the street.

This idea of easy division seems central to many old units and e.g. the Babylonian mathematics, based on 60. Consider e.g. what divisors work cleanly with various “imperial” resp. “metric” units.

To take a more critical example,* consider buying something in a package of 10 resp. 12 (i.e. a dozen): In even portions, the former can be divided as 1 x 10, 2 x 5, 5 x 2, and 10 x 1 while the latter allows 1 x 12, 2 x 6, 3 x 4, 4 x 3, 6 x 2, and 12 x 1. Now repeat this with 100 vs. 144 (i.e. a dozen dozen or a gross**).

*Cutting a meter into three will not usually lead to a great conflict. If in doubt, any injustice, e.g. by giving 333 millimeters to two takers and 334 to the third, might be lost in measurement errors.

**A unit once so popular that the Swedish word for “wholesaler” is (used to be?) “grosshandlare”—someone who traded by the gross.

Or, similarly, money: One of my first encounters, as a young child, with issues like these involved Scrooge McDuck and Donald’s three nephews. The latter had found a 5-dollar bill and were arguing about how to divide it. They consulted Uncle Scrooge, who gave them one dollar each—and kept the balance as a fee. If we look at the “old” pound, there would never have been a problem: 5 pound would have been the equivalent of 1200 pence (5 x 20 x 12),* which is easily and evenly divisible by 3, for 400 pence each. (Resp. 1 pound, 13 shilling, 4 pence.)

*Why not a consistent 20 (or 12) shillings to the pound and 20 (or 12) pence to the shilling? Likely exactly to introduce new factors: 20 is 2 x 2 x 5 and 12 is 2 x 2 x 3. By taking these combinations, the full pound has four nice factors of 2 and one each of 3 and 5; by going 20–20 or 12–12, there would have been two of the one and none of the other, which would have been suboptimal for purposes of division.

As we can see, a dozen might well be superior to a group of ten for many purposes (even the greater size aside), and even base-12 can be superior to base-10 for arithmetic—depending on what arithmetic is intended. Similarly, what is the smallest number divisible by all of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6? The answer is 60 (= 2^2 x 3 x 5). As a bonus, 60 is also divisible by the respective counterparts of 60, 30, 20, 15, 12, and 10. This makes 60 very convenient for certain types of arithmetic.

The 60 seconds to the minute and the 60 minutes to the hour has a Babylonian source* and Babylonian mathematicians were big on the number 60. (And contrast the divisibility of 1 day = 24** x 60 x 60 seconds with e.g. 1 day = 10 x 100 x 100 “neo-seconds”.) We also have 360** degrees to a circle, 60 minutes to a degree, and 60 seconds to a minute. This brings us to failures of the metric systems to take over. For instance, why not replace the 360-degree circle, resp. 90-degree right-angle, with a 400-gradian circle, resp. 100-gradian right-angle? (As has been attempted.)

*If possibly with a few intermediaries.

**Why specifically 24 resp. 360, I do not know, but it is of secondary importance. Do note that both involve additional simple factors, with 24 = 2^3 x 3 and 360 having another factor of both 2 and 3 over what 60 already provides.

The failure might be more a matter of tradition than math,* but 100 and 400 only contain prime factors of 2 and 5 (e.g. 400 = 2^4 x 5^2), while 90 and 360 also contain prime factors of 3 (e.g. 360 = 2^3 x 3^2 x 5). The first few divisors of 400 are 1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 10; the first few of 360 are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10. Among the first ten natural numbers, the one misses 3, 6, 7, 9—the other just 7. (360 is the smallest number only missing 7; the smallest also including 7 is 7 x 360 = 2520.) In many ways, 360 is more practical than 400: Take something as simple as giving the degrees of the angles in an equilateral triangle. With 360 degrees, their sum is 180, which gives 60 for each. With 400 gradians, their sum is 200, which gives 66.666666666666666666… (or 66 2/3, if fractions are allowed).

*And mathematicians often go down an entirely different road and use the radian, with 360 degrees = 2 x pi radians.

That there is nothing magic about base-10 is also demonstrated by the popularity of base-2 (and base-8/base-16) in computing. Here, too, older units can be more compatible in approach, if arguably more incidentally so. Consider e.g. “metric running” in track-and-field. Typical distances include 100, 200, 400, and 800 meters, with a nice doubling—but then follows a break to 1500 meters, a doubling to 3000, a break to 5000, and a doubling to 10.000.* In the olden days, the (coincidentally?) approximately same distances were based on the mile (1760 yards) for 110 yards, 220 yards, 440 yards (the famous quarter-mile), 880 yards, 1 mile, 2 miles for a consistent doubling—and with the potential to continue onwards without interruption and in nice, even quarter-mile laps.**/*** Indeed, 1760 has the prime factorization 2^5 x 5 x 11, which is very heavy on factors of 2; another two are added by going down to inches; and the mile in inches is divisible by all natural numbers between 1 and 12, except for that elusive 7.

*After which the matter is made even more complicated by the Marathon and half-Marathon.

**For instance, the 1 and 2 miles were run in an even 4 resp. 8 quarter-mile laps, while the modern equivalents of 1500 and 3000 meters are run as 3.75 (!) resp. 7.5 laps of 400 meters. Note complications like different starting and/or finishing lines being needed for different races.

***I am uncertain what distances actually were customary beyond this, and it might well be that a 3-mile run was more popular than a 4-mile run. Even absent a doubling, going from 2 to 3 miles feels more natural than going from 3000 to 5000 meters.

Above, we also saw the issue of fractions vs. decimal numbers in cases like 1/3 vs. 0.333333333333333… Decimals have some advantages over fractions, e.g. in that calculating 1/4 + 1/5 = 9/20 might be harder than 0.25 + 0.20 = 0.45. (And certainly so for some more complicated fractions.) Ditto in that it is easier to see that 0.55 is larger than 0.54 than that 11/20 is larger than 27/50. However, with fractions, we can handle e.g. 1/3 + 1/5 = 8/15 exactly, while 0.333333333333333… + 0.2 = 0.5333333333333333… is a horror. Multiplication by 3, e.g., is computable* using fractions but not using plain decimals read a digit at a time.** Generally, all decimal numbers with a finite number of post-decimal places and all with a repeating finite group (e.g. a constant stream of 3s or the constant stream of “90” in 10/11 = 0.909090…) can be represented by a finite-length fraction—but not all finite-length fractions (e.g. 1/3, 10/11) can be represented by a finite-length decimal number.***

*In the computer-science sense.

**For a stream of digits like 0.333333333333333…, the multiplier would never be able to output a first digit when the 3s continue without end. If the stream ends, or if another digit than a 3 shows up, it is clear that one of 0 and 1 can be output as the first digit, but as long as the 3s continue the decision for even that first digit cannot be made.

***Some numbers, e.g. pi, would require an infinite-length version of either. (However, infinite-length fractions are not customarily used, and, if needed, some other means would likely be found, e.g. an infinite sum of fractions summing to the right value, an infinite series of fractions converging to the right value, or an infinite “continued fraction”, the latter of which might be the closest equivalent to a decimal number with infinite post-decimal digits.)

Excursion on units for special contexts:
Notwithstanding the extensive use of SI units, non-SI units and units not trivially reducible to SI units are popular in specialized areas. Consider e.g. the light year and the electronvolt. As this text is not intended to discuss units for the purpose of discussing units, only to use them as illustration of another issue, I ignore such complications above.

Excursion on over-use of the millimeter:
In somewhat naturally metric countries, like my native Sweden, the meter and the centimeter are more common than the millimeter for most measurements and whatnots. When e.g. the non-metric USanians or the late-coming British use metric there seems to be a strong tendency to jump to the millimeter, e.g. in that a natural “1.5 m” is turned into “1,500 mm”. This, notably, even when the implied type of exactness is neither needed nor guaranteed—to the point that the same source might convert this to (the slightly larger) “5 feet” without a bad conscience. (If in doubt, “1.500 m” would have a more unambiguous exactness than “1,500 mm”, as the former has four significant digits, while the latter might have two, four, or, maybe, even three.) As to why, I can only speculate, but one possibility is that there is some type of prejudice, paralleling the main topic above, of seeing a more exact looking or otherwise impressive number as, in some sense, better, without actually thinking the issue through.

Excursion on 7:
That the number 7 has so little luck above likely relates to its relative size and its status as a prime—there is comparatively little value for the money in adding a factor 7. However, the oddity of the mile, which has a factor 11 (a number with similar issues to 7) might be coincidental. As a contrast, units of weight include 14 (2 x 7) pound to the stone but no similar factor of 11 in any of the units known to me.

Excursion on the seemingly complex as an intelligence test:
An interesting idea is that those with more intelligence might have an easier time to master some of the complications of old, say, how-many-X-goes-into-a-Y or keeping track of the relative value of gold and silver coins. If so, they would have had the additional benefit of favoring the intelligent, which might have been good for society. As a counterpoint, if the less intelligent had trouble reaching a sufficient mastery, this might well have had negative effects, e.g. in a reduced work-quality or misallocation of resources.

Excursion on infectious readings:
Much of the above is unusually stilted even for me. This is not deliberate, but likely a side-effect of re-reading portions of the aforementioned “Federalist Papers” recently. (On the contrary, I have re-written some portions to be less stilted.) As much as I disapprove of the style, I currently have to exert some effort not to accidentally emulate it—or “try hard not to be as bad”. On the upside, I am not quite as abstruse.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 29, 2023 at 10:02 pm

Some thoughts on the “Donnie Brasco” books

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About a month ago, I read the two “Donnie Brasco” books,* and made some notes during reading for a text on the topic. I did not get around to it in time and my memory of the details is fading, so I will just give a very brief treatment based on what I remember around the notes.

*Respectively, “Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia” and “Donnie Brasco: Unfinished Business”. These are mostly based on the real-life FBI-exploits of Joseph. D. Pistone, using this false identity of Donnie Brasco to infiltrate the Mafia, and various observations on what became known during the trials that resulted, to a large part, from his work. (The “Donnie Brasco” movie is, unsurprisingly, based on the same exploits, but takes great artistic liberties. The first book pre-dates, the second post-dates, the movie.)

  1. A few of my older texts (most notably [1]) deal with the similarities between life in a nominally free society and life in prison. This especially with regard to compliance. The Mafia life showed in these books is very much the same, although arguably exceeding even prison life in some regards, notably compliance.
  2. A particular point was that wise guys side with wise guys against outsiders—even should they know that the outsiders are really in the right.* This well matches the (mis-)behaviors that I have seen from some other groups, notably civil servants, in real life. Looking at my own experiences in Germany, there appears to be a governmental attitude of “a civil servant is never wrong—period”. Looking back at [1], it is a near given that prison guards side with prison guards much more often than with inmates.

    *One of the books drew an immediate parallel with something else, and I should have mentioned what, but I simply do not remember and my note was not specific enough.

  3. A “might makes right” attitude often shines through and, again, well matches what I have seen in society. Human behavior, in general, seems to be less directed by “right and wrong” and more by “can and can’t”, most notably in the forms “what can and can’t I get away with” and “who can and can’t impose his will upon the other”. Government, in particular, seems to be entirely detached from ethical concerns; and much more often works on principles like “we have the police, so do what you are told”.
  4. I have long seen an analogy between “protection rackets” and governments, in that governments take the money that others have earned, give very little back in return, and have an implicit threat of violence in case someone should try to refuse.

    In these books, there is something that might come even closer to the government’s racket/taxes, namely the constant stream of money up the hierarchy, with no tangible service rendered in return. A low-level guy who has just committed a crime, doing all the work and taking all the risks, might have 10 grand in his hand—but must now kick 5* grand up to the next higher guy, who has to kick 2.5 grand to the next higher guy, etc. Pretty much taxes, except that the government does not need to bother with the many middlemen.

    *I do not remember the typical proportions. Here I go with a factor of 0.5, which, if not outright correct, gives the right impression.

    As an aside, this shows an additional issue with organized crime, that the low-level guys must do that much more “business” (at the cost of the rest of us) to gain a certain “income” for themselves. There might also have been an issue of expectations of money flowing upwards at a certain rate, which might well have led to more desperate crimes in hard times, as not meeting the expectations could have very negative consequences.

  5. The books give an impression of a great pervasiveness of crime, which raises the question of how much crime might be going on under our noses and which seemingly legitimate businesses might actually be crooked. (In a way that goes beyond a mere adding-some-extra-items-to-the-bill or a mere doing-some-shady-accounting-to-pay-less-taxes. That there are very many crooked businesses of that type is obvious.)

    From a 2023 point of view, most of the crimes discussed lie forty-or-more years back, Pistone might have had a skewed view through his profession, and there might have been a great geographical variation (e.g. in that New York might be more criminal than Anchorage); however, human nature tends to change but little over time and the possibility of such pervasiveness certainly exists.

    On a somewhat pro-government angle, for once, some of the discussions make it easier to see e.g. why governments are so keen on tightly regulated cash registers. If crime is pervasive, various types of cheating relating to e.g. money flowing in and out of a store could be an enormous issue.

  6. I repeatedly contemplated how the “Donnie approach” to gain confidence and infiltrate various groups could be used for e.g. confidence tricks and (non-criminal) career purposes. For those sufficiently scrupleless, there might be much to learn. Indeed, exactly pretending a friendship is a go-to tactic of most manipulators, if rarely on such a scale and in such a dedicated manner. (And there was much more to “Donnie” than just pretended friendships.)

    An interesting question is how many of those who reach a success in e.g. management are nothing but skilled manipulators of this type, with as little ability to actually manage as “Donnie” had to engage in non-trivial* crime. (I have repeatedly expressed great scepticism towards the competence levels of many managers, and this angle might do less to increase the possibility of low competence and more to explain that low competence.)

    *He was still bound by the law during his undercover activities and, to a large part, had to rely on fakery to create the right impression. (Some scenes in the movie, to my recollection, skip this complication and might give the wrong impression.)

  7. I have long had concerns about the ethics of undercover work, based on the perfidy involved and how even a reasonable man might* be torn between loyalties. The books, while in favor of undercover jobs, raise further questions to the critical thinker, including where to draw the border between participation and instigation,** what the effects of not clamping down on crime early enough might be, and similar. Is it e.g. truly better to let the small fry go in the hope for a much bigger fish at some much later time, or would it not, with an eye at protecting the public, be better to get all the small fry as soon as the option presents it self? (And note that the big fish might starve, should too many of the small fry disappear—it need not be an either–or in terms of targets.)

    *“Donnie” did not seem to have such concerns when it came to closing the trap; however, he does mention that fears of agents “going native” (or some similar formulation) were wide-spread.

    **Also note many recent issues of U.S. law enforcement entrapping political dissidents, who would have been unlikely to commit a crime, had it not been for the encouragement and manipulation of various agents and whatnots.

  8. “Donnie” had several opportunities to create a war between different groups within the Mafia. A war could come with many negative side-effects, e.g. that a shoot-out might take out a civilian, but I would be unsurprised if such wars “now” would have been better than a court circus “in five years’ time”, including a lesser net-damage to the civilians.
  9. There are a few interesting twists with an eye at current politics, including that Governor Cuomo contrafactually denied that the Mafia existed, and blamed the claims of a Mafia on anti-Italian sentiments, while (then-prosecutor) Rudy Giuliani successfully took the same Mafia to court. This seems symptomatic for Leftist idiocies and the other Governor Cuomo makes the parallels the more interesting.
  10. The abuse of “woman” as a modifier, in lieu of “female”, is a recurring pet peeve of mine. In the second book, I encountered a particularly poor case (with reservations for mistyping):

    There was a pub in a neighbourhood outside London that the woman owner was suspected of running guns out of.

    Not only is this sentence horrifyingly poor,* there is also an obvious ambiguity in the context at hand: Are we talking a female pub-owner and gun runner or e.g. a white-slave trader and gun runner? (As is clear from the continuation, it was a female pub-owner and the author would have been wise to actually use “female”.)

    *Generally, the books are comparatively poorly written, but the topic and experiences are sufficiently interesting to more than make up for this.

I am left with a harder-to-interpret note of “commission as tool for individuals/federations ditto”. (With “commission” presumably referring to the “Mafia Commission”, which, to some approximation, could be seen as the board of directors of the Mafia.) My intention was probably that organisations stand a great risk of being turned into mere tools for the personal success/interests of some one or some few, often in violation of the ostensible purpose of the organisations. (If so, “federation” might have referred to the likes of FIFA.) It is possible that I had intended something else, however.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 28, 2023 at 12:23 pm

Version control changing how the user works / diffs and line-breaks

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In my recent writings on Subversion and version control, I also discuss how use of version control can change how someone works (cf. parts of [1]). Since then, a much better example has occurred to me, namely the potentially strong incentives to reformat texts less often:

Both traditional diff-/merge-tools and traditional editors tend to be line-oriented (and for good reason: it makes many types of work easier). Ditto many other tools, especially those, like Subversion, that make heavy use of diff-/merge-abilities.

However, LaTeX, which I use for my books, treats line-breaks within a paragraph entirely or almost* entirely as if they were regular spaces. Similarly, LaTeX treats two consecutive spaces within a paragraph virtually as one space. Etc.

*It has been years since I studied the details, and it is very possible that I overlook some subtleties or special cases. However, for the purposes of the below, no such subtleties/whatnot are relevant.

As so much of the textual formatting of the markup, e.g. with regard to line-breaks within paragraphs, does not matter, a LaTeX author will usually format the raw text in a manner that is convenient for viewing/editing as text, while relying on a mixture of LaTeX automatisms and, when needed, own explicit instructions* to generate a presentable formatting of the output (e.g. generated PDF).

*For instance, “\,” has the implication of adding a small horizontal space, suitable to e.g. put the “e.” and “g.” in “e.g.” slightly further apart than when written together, but not as far apart as when a full space is used. Use of the thinsp[ace] character entity reference in HTML has a similar effect. Contrast (assuming correct rendering), “e.g.”, “e. g.”, and “e. g.”.

However, a formatting change that is harmless with regard to LaTeX and its generated output might trip up a line-based diff or merge. For instance, a line-based diff would recognize a one-line difference (on the second line) between

We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are Life,
Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.


We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all mice are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are Life,
Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

However, if we compare the first with

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator
with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

the result is a complete line-wise* difference—while LaTeX would have rendered both texts identically and while they read identically from a human point of view.

*The standard diff-command would show this as five lines disappearing and four new appearing. Some other tool (or some other set of settings) might show e.g. two lines disappearing, one line appearing, and three lines being changed.

Such re-formatting, however, is very common. A notable case is a small edit in one line that increases the length of that line, followed by a semi-automatic reformatting* to keep all lines within the paragraph beneath a certain length (and all but the last close to that length). In a worst case, this leads to every single line in the paragraph being changed and creates a nightmare in terms of diffs and version control.

*In Vim, my editor of choice, e.g. by just typing “gq}” to format from the current cursor position to the end of the paragraph.

(In contrast, code is much less likely to be affected by such drastic changes. It happens, as with e.g. inconsistent use of tabs vs. spaces between different users/editors, but much more rarely.)

Excursion on mitigation:
The issue can be mitigated by instructing diffs to partially ignore white-space, with the effect e.g. that “abc_def” (one space, indicated by “_”) is treated as identical to “abc__def” (two spaces). However, this cannot be extended to line-breaks without reducing the benefits of diffs very considerably—and it would require a non-trivial intervention with the tools that I know. (For code, however, ignoring even regular white-spaces can be extremely helpful.)

Excursion on subtleties in formatting and my own markup:
Above, I tried to give the “We hold” examples using HTML’s “pre” tag for pre-formatted text. (An exception where HTML does care about line-breaks. It is otherwise almost entirely agnostic.) This failed, because I explicitly remove line-breaks from my own markup during generation, which makes my markup language even more agnostic than HTML (and thereby circumvents any use of HTML’s “pre” tag to preserve line-breaks).

The reason? In my early days of experimenting with W-rdpr-ss and “post by email”, I had the problem that W-rdpr-ss messed* up line-breaks, forcing me to take corrective actions.

*This is so long ago that I am uncertain of the details. However, I believe that it involved spuriously turning a simple line-break into a completely empty line or, equally spuriously, surrounding individual lines with “p” tags, thereby converting a line-break within a paragraph (which should have been ignored) into a paragraph break.

Instead, I proceeded by just giving the markup-indication for a “hard” line-break at the end of each line, which is converted into a “br” tag during HTML generation and remains in effect even as (regular) line-breaks are stripped.

(This might have been for the best, in as far as mixing HTML tags with my own markup is potentially dangerous. I have done it on a few occasions, e.g. to demonstrate thin spaces in this text, but I normally avoid it, as it relies on the target language/format being HTML. If I were to generate e.g. LaTeX as output instead, I could fall flat on my face.)

Excursion on own markup(s):
I have two similar-but-not-identical markup languages: Firstly, a more powerful and useful that I use(d) for my website. Secondly, the more primitive that I use for W-rdpr-ss. I am disinclined to make the latter more powerful than it is, as W-rdpr-ss causes so many odd disturbances that I cannot rely on the result (and as e.g. the above line-break stripping might cause problems here and there). Instead, I will get by until I finally get around to set up my website for blogging and abandon W-rdpr-ss, at which time I will either return to the other language or modify the current as needed.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 27, 2023 at 10:46 pm

An interesting overview of problems with COVID-handling

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Post-anniversary, my COVID-readings have dropped to almost nothing, but I did stumble upon a very interesting text yesterday: 40 Facts You NEED to Know: The REAL Story of “Covid”.

On the upside, it gives a thorough overview of many of the problems involved, including use of faulty or flawed statistics (notably, based on poor tests and a poor division between “died from” and “died with”), the problematic approach to vaccines (notably, wholly inadequate testing and the highly unusual mRNA angle), and the ineffective or outright harmful countermeasures (e.g. ventilators, lockdowns, and, again, vaccines).

On the downside, it is a bit polemical and might to some degree use straw-men* or exaggerations. I advise particular caution with “Part I: Symptoms”, especially in light of the repeated use, including in the article title, of quotation marks** around “Covid” and its variations (e.g. “Covid19”). (And, of course, I do not vouch for the correctness of any individual claim.)

*For instance, the first item is a claim that COVID and the flu have identical symptoms, which I suspect to be not entirely true in detail, which definitely applies similarly to some other disease comparisons (and is unremarkable), and which can miss aspects like relative likelihood and typical severity of any given symptom.

**With scare-quotes being the most likely explanation among the multiple uses of quotation marks.

A discussion of potential malignant abuse and/or creation* of the pandemic to push a political agenda, after the main list, is particularly interesting. I tend to favor Eriksson’s Razor(s) over conspiracy theories, and am also a frequent user of Hanlon’s Razor, but I do find it almost impossible to believe that what happened was just a matter of coincidence, conscious (prime) movers acting without coordination, incompetence, whatnot. Certainly, these, especially incompetence, played in; certainly, much of what happened can be explained by after-the-fact opportunism. However, after more than three years of ever-mounting absurdities and utterly inadequate explanations of prior actions, I cannot see them as enough.

*In the sense of creating a storm in a teacup by taking a non-crisis and pushing propaganda and mis-/disinformation until it looked like a major crisis.

(In a bigger picture, for which I have a text in planning, it is quite clear that we live in a type of reverse democracy, where elected governments do too much to influence the will of the people, with the people’s own money, and are themselves influenced too little by that will—to the point that some governments try to dictate to the people what opinions they may and may not have.)

A few other items of particular interest:*

*With the usual reservations for formatting, etc.

18. There was a massive increase in the use of “unlawful” DNRs. Watchdogs and government agencies reported huge increases in the use of Do Not Resuscitate Orders (DNRs) in the years 2020-2021.


The increase is attributed to a deliberate pushing of DNRs, regardless of the will of the patient and relatives, and interests me on two counts: Firstly, that I have no recollection of hearing about this in the past.* Secondly, my recent writings on life-and-death choices (cf. [1], [2], [3]), which overlap in the idea of less-than-voluntary death. Indeed, pushing DNRs to e.g. free up hospital beds or allowing more transplants would be quite in the same line.

*But I have heard a few complaints of a general and non-COVID push for more DNRs.

[In item 19.]

[Use of ventilators] was not a medical policy designed to best treat the patients, but rather to reduce the hypothetical spread of Covid by preventing patients from exhaling aerosol droplets, this was made clear in officially published guidelines.

This is another first claim to me, but it does have the advantage of explaining why there was so strong a drive to use ventilators early on, contrary to typical practice, and, maybe, why ventilators became a non-topic after the early phase. (However, it is also notable that hospitals were often given flawed incentives, in that patients on ventilators led to more revenue than patients not on ventilators, and that it might make more sense to investigate the motives of the incentive creators.)

34. The EU was preparing “vaccine passports” at least a YEAR before the pandemic began. Proposed COVID countermeasures, presented to the public as improvised emergency measures, have existed since before the emergence of the disease.


In fact, vaccination and immunisation programs have been recognised as “an entry point for digital identity” since at least 2018.


Here there is a possibility that the EU and/or other entities are maliciously using COVID to force the people into various control measures, in order to enforce long-term compliance. This is consistent with other observations, in that “government of the people, by the people, for the people” does not at all match the ideal of many Leftists, many politicians, and many civil servants/government bureaucrats, who put the government first and the people second—a recurring theme in my writings. (And/or put something else first in a similarly perfidious manner, e.g. their own careers or their favored causes.)

Written by michaeleriksson

March 26, 2023 at 10:28 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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