Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

WordPress and its user-hostile administration area

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As I tried to refresh a page from my WordPress account earlier today, I found that I had been logged out.* More specifically, I was forcefully lead to (what I assume was) a log-in page that simply did not work or show anything useful, but which complained about a lack of JavaScript. (No, activating JavaScript did not help.) After digging around, I found a log-in page that did work, logged in—and found myself in some version of the administration area that did not even slightly resemble what I was used to, and which simply did not work—with or without JavaScript activated. Problems included incomplete displays, “my sites” simply not being found, and (browser-side) warnings about a possible XSS** attack by a “doubleclick.net” address***.

*Having a dedicated user-account and browser for WordPress, I have no qualms about never logging out manually. Automatic log-outs, on the other hand, are so rare that I cannot even recall the previous time that it happened (or whether I had similar problems back then).

**Cross-site scripting: Roughly speaking, an attempt to cause mischief for a user by including JavaScript from one site into another, in order to circumvent the user’s and browser’s security controls/checks/awareness/whatnot.

***Presumably, a part of Google’s advertising efforts that still carries the name of the former “DoubleClick” brand. The alarm is likely a false positive to the degree that this is almost certainly is not caused by an illegal activity; however, (a) users are still better off without it, e.g. for privacy reasons, (b) the integration into the WordPress pages is obviously not done sufficiently well.

After wasting five to ten minutes trying this-and-that, I contemplated simply foregoing WordPress entirely and effective immediately*, but resorted to a last ditch attempt: One of my old tabs contained a page from the (familiar) admin area. I copy-and-past-ed** it into a new tab, and things suddenly worked as they should.

*WordPress sucks, and I have long-standing plans to move away anyway. However, time constraints and the many other things that I do has postponed this ever again.

**Just re-loading would likely have worked equally well, but keeping the old tab intact gave me a better chance at a second attempt, should something go wrong.

The difference is likely that this link already led to the blog specific admin area, which still works as it should; while what was served after log-in was a user account admin area.* Should the above happen to you (or me, at a future time): Look at the URL. If it begins with “https://wordpress.com/me”, you are probably stuck in the user level area, and you should try to get to the blog area, which will begin with “https://michaeleriksson.wordpress.com/”**. The “dashboard” of the blog administration can then be found under “https://michaeleriksson.wordpress.com/wp-admin/index.php”**, from where other parts of the administration can be found. (In all cases, with reservations for future changes.)

*There can be more than one blog associated with each user account.

**For my main WordPress blog. Please substitute your own blog name/address as appropriate. Also see excursion below.

Excursion on WordPress, incompetent handling of post-by-email, and how this can influence a text:
I have written repeatedly of how WordPress handles post-by-email incompetently, e.g. through introduction of artificial links. This text provides a good example: without the quotation marks around “doubleclick.net” above, it might have been mangled into “http://doubleclick.net” and turned into a link, which is not only contrary to the purpose of use above, but could also be highly confusing to the reader. Knowing of this issue, I resorted to add quotation marks where I would not normally have used them.

The use of e.g. “https://michaeleriksson.wordpress.com/” above is yet another example of why WordPress handles links poorly: I do not intend to link—only to make a statement of how a link would begin. Indeed, going directly to this address would show the published blog—not the administration area. (But here, I would have used quotation marks anyway, because I discuss strings.) Further, “https://michaeleriksson.wordpress.com” would normally have called for a use of place-holders, e.g. in that I had replaced “michaeleriksson” with “[your blog]”. I refrained from doing so, because I see at least a risk* of mangling.

*I have made good experiences with quoting, which seems to protect the text, but if I find an exception I would need to research a work-around, edit, and/or re-publish the text, which would cost me time and energy. To boot, this would involve a delay and inconsistent texts being sent to subscribers. Better then to take the safe road.

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Written by michaeleriksson

April 8, 2019 at 11:04 am

Some problems with the German pension, health-insurance, etc. systems

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In Germany, a few leading politicians are currently (and again) suggesting that the self-employed* be forced to pay into regulated pension schemes, even when they feel that they are better off with other solutions—after already having been forced into extensive** health-insurance, some years back. Moreover, suggestions that private alternatives for various insurances be scrapped and everyone forced to participate in the public*** schemes are often recurring.

*“Selbständige”. Note that there might be differences in exact definition and treatment compared to e.g. the U.S. situation.

**The current German regulations require a, in my eyes, too extensive health-insurance. Cf. excursion.

***The “gesetzlich” (“legal”) this-and-that; as opposed to the “privat” (“private”) this-and-that. For instance, health-insurance is divided into two branches, where one is “gesetzlich” and everyone pays a fix proportion of income for a fix coverage, and the other “privat” with an income-independent fee and a more negotiable coverage.

This is highly misguided on at least two counts (some of which apply to other groups too):

  1. There are other means to provide than these official schemes. For instance, someone rich enough will not need a pension; for instance, someone who invests his money wisely might have a better return on investment than through a pension scheme;* for instance, a home-owner with modest requirements, a reasonable bank account, and the willingness to moon-light past retirement, might get by without a pension.

    *This especially in a system like the German, where money is not necessarily paid for one’s own pension, instead paying for the pensions of older generations; and where one’s own received pension will later depend on what future generations are paying at the time. Moreover, for those who have debts to pay, e.g. a mortgage, it is quite likely that paying off the debt would be a better use of the money than building a pension fund, seeing that the interest (or its rough equivalent) on assets is usually lower than on debt—often considerably so.

  2. For many, the money taken for these schemes is one of largest reasons why the schemes are needed… For instance, a typical reasoning around health-insurance is that it allows those hit by medical costs to pay those costs, because the insurance company (or the government) is there to cover the brunt. But: If someone had saved all the money paid in insurance fees (or extra taxes), chances are that additional money would not have been needed in the first place. In Germany, health-insurance for a “gesetzlich” insured mid-* to high-earner might be around 10,000* Euro a year—and with most years seeing less or significantly less actual health-insurance claims, there would have been plenty of time to build a buffer for the odd years when costs explode. A healthy ten years leaves a cool hundred grand for that major surgery and there is plenty of time to build reserves for less healthy “golden years”. I would go as far as to say that the German system misses the point of insurance, which is to replace the risk of a large damage (e.g. through robbery) with the certainty of a small damage (e.g. a monthly or yearly fee)—instead, all damages, large and small, are paid by the insurance, which implies unreasonably large fees, additional waste, and (on average) a pointless and wasteful transfer of money from the patient to the insurer to the patient to the hospital (or whatnot), where it would be much more sensible to just move money from the patient to the hospital…

    *There is a cap on the applicability of the (high) percentage fee at earnings of possibly 60,000 Euro/year (which is a good income, but not extraordinarily so, in today’s Germany). In a rough estimate, 18 % might be a typical percentage (including “Pflegeversicherung”), with 0.18 * 60,000 = 10,800. Beware that I have not researched the exact current numbers (and that the percentage will vary depending on circumstances). As a note to naive German readers: No, your employer only pays half of this on paper—in real life, you pay the employer half too, mostly through a lower salary, but also through e.g. higher prices.

    Similar issues are fairly common, e.g. in that the “Riesterrente”* has to be financed somehow. This financing amounts to taking money from everyone through taxes and giving said money to those who invest their money according to certain rules. It would be better and fairer to lower (or not raise, depending on the situation) taxes to begin with, and to let people handle their money as they see fit—including to make sure that they have prepared well enough that they do not need the additional Riesterrente. This especially since the biggest gainers through the Riesterrente are likely the providers of pension schemes, who see a massive artificial in-flow of customers. And, oh, what was the original motivation behind the Riesterrente? To cover the deficits of the regular pension system—implying that, had the politicians not already dropped the ball there, the Riesterrente would have been unnecessary…

    *A program by which certain voluntary pension-schemes payments are subsidized by the government, in order to make people spend their money like the government wants it to.

A potential third count would be the way this forced prioritization and/or time-wise redistribution of money can provide obstacles to small businesses that might have earned well in the long run—but are prevented from reaching this long run due to a short-term lack of money partially caused by these schemes. This either in that the owner is forced to give up the business prematurely after a temporary setback or in that an expansion of the business has to be foregone (also see excursion). Similar arguments can apply more generally, e.g. in that a regular employee is forced to take on debt due to unforeseen circumstances, and that this debt would have been unnecessary without pension fees (and where, as above, the pension funds bring less returns than not having debt).

An advantage of e.g. a mandatory pension scheme is that everyone would be guaranteed a certain minimum pension, and thereby be less likely to require other social aid later in life. For instance, a successful entrepreneur might assume that he has no need for a pension scheme, see his business go broke in his sixties, and not have sufficient late-life income to cover his own needs—he would now turn to the government for “ALG II”* (or some other type of governmental) support. However, (a) chances are that he will not have this problem; (b) the actual pension payments for the current generations appear to be fairly bleak, making a bet on a pension potentially riskier;** (c) considering that he will likely have contributed well-above average to government income through taxes (and possibly the well-being of others through providing employment), I would not see it as unfair if he did receive e.g. ALG II. (Note that this line of reasoning need not hold when we look at long-term low earners. I do not, at this time, rule out that a mandatory system might make sense for them.)

*Literally, roughly, “unemployment benefits II”. In practice, this is a means for those with too little income (and who do not receive “regular” unemployment payments) to cover the difference between actual income and a government-stipulated tolerable minimum income. It is not restricted to those actually unemployed (but I do not rule out that some other scheme might apply).

**Note that this holds even for private pension-schemes: What if the scheme goes bankrupt or does not earn sufficient returns? (A governmental guarantee, similar to bank guarantees, might help, but would put the governments money at a larger risk than with the above entrepreneur.)

In reality, the true reason for the demands for making these schemes mandatory is likely (a)* giving lesser earners a leg up resp. giving the official schemes money that they do not deserve in order to allow them to give lesser earners said leg up, (b) preventing the “social injustice” of some people being better off than others. The same applies to health-insurance, where even now the “privat” insured have a portion of their payments diverted to the “gesetzlich” insured—with no recompense of any kind.

*Over a fairly large portion of the German political spectrum.

**Significant portions of the Left, which truly is (old) Left in Germany. (The Social-Democrats are the second largest party; a Communist or formerly Communist party is represented in parliament.)

Excursion on the scope of health-insurance:
In Germany, the scope of health-insurance is quite large, covering most of the medical bills and (physician ordered) medicines that apply, with usually only small deductibles. The result is astronomical fees, incentives for patients to “see the doctor” too often, and a medical industry that charges overly high prices and often recommends pointless procedures. A much better system would insure the big things*, of which most people will have none in their life-times, and only very few more than one or two. The rest would be up to the individual to cover (such cover could, obviously, be partially through a voluntary additional insurance). In return, he would see a considerably lower monthly fee, in part because he would have a lower coverage, in part because the overall costs in the system would drop.

*Exactly where to draw the line is a question that I leave open for now. I originally gave a few examples, including “major surgery”, but chances are that even a major surgery would be within what most people could pay with money to spare, if they had their insurance fees back (and did not waste them in advance), and that they might then be better off not having a single instance of major surgery covered. One possibility would be to simply have a very high deductible that applies either to the individual year or the individual problem (which can stretch over more than one year)—everything above covered; everything below not covered. The deductible would likely be dependent on personal choice, but might have a typical range from a few thousand to a few tens of thousand. A variable deductible would have the advantage of covering cases like a young family with marginal buffers—the family can reduce the risk of a debilitating blow by paying more per month, for a lower deductible, and continually go for a lower payment/higher deductible as the buffers grow. Alternatively, a fix deductible could be set by a public and mandatory scheme, while additional coverage could be purchased from private sources for a similar effect.

As an aside, this is where ObamaCare clearly went wrong, even objections concerning ethics and implementation aside: It did nothing to solve the true problem of U.S. health care, namely absurdly high prices. Worse, by putting more people into insurance schemes, the problem of high prices is worsened…

Excursion on financing:
Many seem to miss the simple truth that money is not an infinite resource—and that any additional benefits has to be paid for somehow. For instance, a “free” health-care system is not truly free. On the contrary, behavioral changes are likely to make it more expensive than a non-“free” one. The money has to come from somewhere, e.g. taxes, implying that the citizens still bear the full costs. On the outside, there is some redistribution of cost (e.g. from the unhealthy to healthy), but the costs do not disappear.

Excursion on business expansion:
Expanding a small business beyond the one-man stage is unduly hard in many countries, including Germany. Above, I mentioned the need to pay e.g. health-insurance for one-self as a component—but that is just a small part of it. The major problem is the disproportionate cost and risk involved with getting employees—even a single one. For instance, take a one-man business with a revenue of a 10,000 Euro/month. Hire someone for a nominal salary of 5,000 Euro/month, and what is left of the old net is not another 5,000 (to cover other costs and the employer’s own living expenses): As a German rule of thumb, various additional fees increase the price-tag by thirty percent, leaving roughly 3.5 thousand. This without counting existing costs and additional costs not related to the government, e.g. additional office space, training, legal advice in preparation, the potential need to create a GmbH*, and what else might apply. And: This before various taxes, insurance fees, and whatnots that might apply for the business and/or the owner.** In other words, the owner will earn next to nothing (instead of the presumable 5,000 – expenses) until the new employee is up-and-running—in a low-margin business, he might even take a loss.

*A type of limited-liability corporation suitable for small businesses, which might be a good idea with the additional risk that the new employee brings. Of course, then stricter regulations on e.g. accounting apply, the taxation rules change even further to the disadvantage of the business owner, etc.

**In all fairness, taxes might initially be lower than before due to the extra cost, but, obviously, nowhere near enough to offset said cost.

But: Getting a new employee to the point of adding serious revenue can take several months (depending on competence, type of business, businesses climate, …)—and doing so might cut into the employer’s own revenue generation (or force him to work additional hours).* Worse: It might turn out that the employee is not up to the job and needs to be replaced. Then is the question: How soon can he be removed? The legal minimum might be four (?) weeks**, which then amounts to another month down the drain—and chances are that he will not earn anything significant for the company during that month anyway.*** If he is fired, he might choose to go to court, which brings additional risks, costs, and personal effort to the employer.**** Or, possibly, he chooses to leave, leaving the employer with a few wasted months and the need to start over…

*For instance, in my line of business (IT consulting and on-site software development for customers), I would need to convince one customer or other that this particular employee is worthy of being hired-out to them—a process that involves searches and application processes quite similar to a regular job search. This would not only bring me unbillable work for myself, but could leave the employee with nothing billable to do for weeks on end. The last few years, demand has exceeded supply, but customers often have specific requirements, and will strongly prefer e.g. someone with ten years of relevant experience over the newly graduated who has still to complete his first project. (And just to hire someone both highly competent and more experienced is easier said than done, because these tend to want more money, already be in employment, or run their own businesses.)

**IIRC, for a small business and a newish employee. For larger businesses or longer periods of employment, the delay might be considerably larger.

***For instance, in my case, putting him in a customer project for that month would be next to impossible (and arguably negligent towards the customer). Of course, he might already be in a project, but then the proof of his unsuitability is likely to coincide with a rejection from the customer, which would terminate that project…

****In all fairness, the strong German restrictions on termination of employment are largely suspended for such small businesses. However, this can be a real concern when additional growth has taken place, together with many other regulatory obstacles.

Now, consider a world with everything else as it was—just with considerably less taxation, health-insurance fees, unemployment fees, … Run through the same scenario with a monthly own income of even just 3,000, instead of the “next to nothing”. Now our entrepreneur can lead a good life, possibly even increase his personal buffers, and if the employment attempt flops, he is back where he started. If things with the first employee seem to turn out well, he can add a second that much faster. Etc. In today’s Germany or, worse, if even stricter rules for e.g. pensions are instituted? Well, then it is the question of how large buffers are present and how much risk the wannabe employer is willing to take.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 6, 2019 at 7:05 pm

Follow-up II: Some more experiences with eCommerce and poor web-design II

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As a further follow-up to recent writings ([1], [2], [3]) I have to categorically advice to stay away from Cyberport. What has transpired here is so Kafkaesque as to stretch the believable.

I placed my order on the 26th March, received an email request for choice of alternate payment methods on the 27th, and immediately replied. After having received no reaction by the 29th, I sent a reminder and additionally set a deadline for the 1st of April. On the 1st, I received an email incorrectly claiming that I had not replied to the request from the 27th, with no indication that my reminder from the 29th would be known either. I immediately replied, quoting my previous emails and requested an immediate resolution.

Today (i.e. the 2nd), I received what amounts to the same email again—and again with no acknowledgment of any of my replies and reminders.

I note that I have had no email problems on my end, including no error messages, no bounces, no indications that other recipients would not receive their emails, …, and must conclude that Cyberport has a severe email problem on its end, is unable to perform even the most basic customer service actions, and/or is deliberately* doing something inexcusable.

*I tend to apply Hanlon’s Razor, but it is noteworthy that the 1st of April is involved. Combine this with an individual employee with an inexcusable attitude, and it is not impossible.

I have now unambiguously rescinded my order.

Excursion on computers:
In parallel, I have looked for alternative providers. Apart from the problems of finding OS-free computers and an online store with reasonable payment options, I am puzzled by the current price and “bang for the buck” levels. It has been quite some time since I last followed price developments, but there does not appear to be a significant price advantage for desktop computers anymore (despite the savings on the display, keyboard, whatnot, and from the lesser need to keep things small). Very many systems sell for absolutely astronomical prices*, probably because the desktop market has been skewed towards very high-end gaming computers. The cheaper systems, on the other hand, have considerably worse** specifications than I would have expected from the standards and trends from, say, five years back (when I was much more up-to-date).

*Often upwards of two thousand Euro, quite often upwards of one thousand Euro—are we back in the 1990s?

**Many systems have dual-cores below 3 GHz. None of the cheaper systems (and far from all of the more expensive) have 16 GB of RAM, many fail to have even 8 GB, and I have even seen some with a measly 2 (!) GB. As a comparison, my 2012 desktop had 2 GB, and was not a very expensive one. By Moore’s Law, I would have expected 16 and 32 GB to dominate even among the lower end systems.

Excursion on shelves:
After Bauhaus’ failure, I visited some other websites, and found that of competitor Hornbach to be much more user-friendly. It, too, suffers from excessive reloading, but is so much faster that this is acceptable (but still not ideal). I have replaced my Bauhaus order with a roughly equivalent one from Hornbach. (The payment options were similarly weak; however, I decided to risk prepayment, seeing that Hornbach, unlike e.g. Cyberport, is well-known, “brick and mortar”, and has a history that goes back decades.)

Written by michaeleriksson

April 2, 2019 at 1:47 pm

A few thoughts on the word “gender”

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The abuse of “gender” for “sex” has long annoyed me, but I have taken the view that the use for “self-perceived sexual identity” (or similar) was acceptable or even beneficial—if nothing else, the latter is a separate concept and using a separate term for a separate concept is usually a good idea.* However, I unconsciously based this view on a faulty premise: that the grammatical gender was inherently a division into masculine/feminine/neuter or something along similar lines (e.g. just masculine/feminine or masculine/feminine/neuter/common; while an apparently genderless language can equally be viewed as having exactly one gender**). Using this premise, an application to similar*** divisions in other areas would not be absurd—if a good word was not already present.

*Indeed, one of my more common complaints about the PC crowd is the high-jacking of words to mean something different from what would be historically expected and/or expected among other speakers, e.g. (in the same area) that “man” and “woman” would refer to self-perception instead of biology. It would be much better to introduce new words for these new concepts. Even worse is deliberate re-/mis-definition for purposes like manipulation, as with e.g. “racism” and “rape” in some circles.

**At least, assuming that it follows a pattern somewhat similar to the typical Indo-European languages, as e.g. a version of English where “they” (“them”, etc.) was abused as a full replacement for “he”, “she”, “it” (“him”, etc.)—which is where, regrettably, English seems be heading. (The abuse as a generic third-person singular is already dominant.) A sufficiently different language might behave too differently (but is then unlikely to be relevant in this context).

***I stress that e.g. a grammatical “masculinity” does not automatically imply a physical or biological “masculinity”, which is obvious from languages with a more differentiated system than English—hence, “similar” above. This differentiation is another reason not to use “gender” for “sex”—grammatical gender and biological sex are not always coinciding. (In German, words for things can be grammatically masculine, feminine, or neutral, even when a logical neutral might be expected. Words applied to men can be feminine (e.g. “die Person”/“the person”); words applied to women can be masculine (e.g. “der Mensch”/“the human”); words for either can be neutral (e.g. “das Individuum”/“the individual”. Of course, the gender changes based on what word is used—not based on the entity referred to.)

This, however, is not strictly the case: it happens to be true in many languages, including English and German, but other divisions are possible. For instance, Proto-Indo-European might have had an animate/inanimate division. Even my native Swedish deviates through a somewhat arbitrary division into utrum and neutrum:* The members of these genders, for all practical and modern purposes, only differ in what indefinite (“en”/“ett”) and definite (“den”/“det”) article is used and whether an “-en” or an “-et” is to be suffixed in certain situations.** Indeed, they were more often referred to as “en-ord” och “ett-ord” (“ord” = “word(s)”) than “utrum” and “neutrum” in school.

*The discussion of actual Swedish grammar in school was superficial, incomplete, or even incorrect—a problem that native speakers of other languages might also have encountered. For this reason, I had simply never really reflected on the implications of the Swedish deviation until today. As an added complication, there are several different perspectives on Swedish genders (above, I discuss the most common) and the situation was historically different.

**E.g. “en sak”/“a thing” vs. “ett träd”/“a tree” and “den saken”/“that thing” vs “det trädet”/“that tree”.

Looking outside of grammar, there have been many uses of the word “gender” that also follow the line of a more general classification, e.g. that being English/German/whatnot or belonging to a certain family was discussed in terms of “gender”. Older use for sexual division (e.g. “the female gender”) is just a special case of this, and not* a precedent for a specialized use relating to sex or sexual identity. This makes it the more illogical to use “gender” when it is actually the sex (or even sexual identity) that is intended: a “Sex:” on a driver’s license calls for “M[ale]” or “F[emale]” with some clarity**, while “Gender:” might equally call for “E[nglish]”.

*Similarly, the fact that we could speak of someone being of the “female persuasion” does not make “persuasion” a good replacement for “sex”, because we can equally combine “persuasion” with other words implying group membership. Note that this applies to a wide range of other words too, e.g. “class”, “set”, “category”. (If it had just been “persuasion”, it might have been rejected as an abuse, or something to restrict to humorous formulations, for other reasons. The choice of “persuasion” as an example is based on the higher frequency of “female persuasion” over, say, “female category”.)

**Or at least it used to… However, even for those who cannot or does not want to be classified as male or female, the type of the classification is clear. On the other hand, confusion with sexual acts is highly unlikely outside of the famous joke about the girl who found her mother’s driver’s license (“Mommy! I know why Dad divorced you! You got an ‘F’ in sex!”).

I re-iterate my recommendation never, ever to use “gender” when “sex” is the traditional word. When it comes to sexual identity, the question is trickier because, again, a separate* word makes sense, and I am unable to offer an alternative that is both sufficiently understandable and has a sufficient current use to not cause as much confusion as “gender”*. However, this might be an area where “persuasion” (see earlier footnote) has some possibilities, actually gaining through its more regular meaning in the area of opinions and convictions, e.g. in that the-athlete-previously-known-as-Bruce would be considered of the male sex and the female persuasion.** Possibly, some shortening of “sexual persuasion”, e.g. “sexper” or “seper”, might work as a replacement for “gender” in such an attempt.***

*Another strong argument against the abuse of “gender” for “sex” is that many will assume a reference to sexual identity where biological sex was intended and vice versa.

**Or at least was so “pre-op”. Possibly, additional terminology is needed for the “post-op” case.

***Using an unabbreviated “sexual persuasion” would be too lengthy in many contexts, e.g. on driver’s licenses. It would also risk a dropping of “sexual” in sloppy use, with negative effects on other meanings of “persuasion”—just like “discrimination” and “intercourse” has seen a drift towards using the word solely for a special case implied by a longer phrase. To start with just “persuasion” would be even worse.

Addendum to the linked-to text:
Possibly ten years ago, I wrote “The possibility that existing literature eventually would be actively re-written to adhere to ‘gender-neutrality’ is not at all far-fetched:”. Indeed not: Consider e.g. my (much later) text on distortion of Blyton, where I lament that the actual events and characters of her books, not just specific words, have been altered for similar reasons.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 1, 2019 at 7:47 am

The perversity of offers in B2C commerce

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Portions of my recent (and past) problems with eCommerce (cf. e.g. [1], [2], [3]) were worsened by a fundamental flaw in the typical* legal view of how a (B2C) purchase takes place: What should be viewed as an offer to sell a product is just an “invitation to treat”, leading up to the prospective**buyer making an offer to the seller, which the latter can then accept or reject at will.

*I have not researched the global situation, but this is the case in both Germany and the U.S. (and likely most or all other “common law” countries, because they naturally tend towards the same legal principles).

**A word that I will leave out in the remainder of the text, for brevity, irrespective of whether a purchase actually takes place.

The absurdity of this is proved by how the price and other conditions are usually unilaterally determined by the seller: Go to a grocery store, grab something priced at 9.99, go up to the cashier—and offer to buy it for 7.50. Not only will the offer be rejected out of hand almost everywhere*, but chances are that the cashier will even lack the comprehension that this type of offer should be possible. Indeed, she would likely neither be legally authorized by the store to negotiate the price, nor technically able to accept a different price**—even should it be a higher one. Effectively, “we invite you to extend an offer towards us with these exact conditions—and if you do not like said conditions, don’t waste our time”.. To consider that an invitation, not an offer, is absurd.

*One potential exception is a mom-and-pop store when the owner actually happens to be at the cash register.

**At least without causing a discrepancy between the electronic transaction logs and the contents of the cash drawer, which the cashier might be forced to cover with own funds.

Looking at e.g. eCommerce, this legal approach causes problems like a seller being able to refuse purchases even on the flimsiest grounds, no matter what efforts the buyer has gone through, and even after the buyer’s “offer” might appear to have been accepted. For instance, in my interactions with Cyberport (cf. parts of [2]), the web interface appeared to accept my “offer”, a confirmation email was sent, and my offer then rejected* some 15 (!) hours later. More generally, such transactions (at least in Germany) tend to have an attached disclaimer that “a legal contract only results with our confirmation” (or similar). Cyberport takes it to an extreme “Im Übrigen** kommt ein Vertrag mit Zusendung der Versandbestätigungs-E-Mail zustande.” (“In other cases**, a contract results with the confirmation-of-shipping email.”), which effectively implies that Cyberport can reject any “offer” until the product is actually sent on its way.***

*Cyberport still wanted my business, but refused the “offered” payment per invoice. Legally, this amounts to a rejection.

**A previous sentence specifies other rules for the special cases of prepayment and cash-on-delivery.

***Even afterwards, actually, through simply suppressing said email, but this would almost always be to Cyberport’s own disadvantage.

In other areas, problems like undue discrimination can arise, say with a (physical) store refusing customers due to a too dark skin tone, a Jewish nose, or a pro-Trump hat.

The advantages of altering this legal view include greater safety and fewer complications for the buyers, e.g. in that situations like mine will occur far more rarely, that selling items online without being certain that they can be procured will backfire,* and that bait-and-switch schemes will be harder. To boot, the situation will be more logical—cf. above or note how even the typical language of the sellers tend to place the offer on their side.**

*This practice is apparently somewhat common: A store offers a product at a certain price and a buyer places an order (makes an “offer”). If the store manages to procure the product at a price that allows it a profit, it eventually accepts; if it cannot, it rejects. This is particularly problematic when there is a non-trivial delay in time, because the buyer will have to wait that much longer before he goes to the competition. Indeed, chances are that he would never have gone through the effort to place an order, had he known in advance that delivery was not next to guaranteed. (Of course, the point of the scheme is to keep customers from going to the competition, even when it would be in their best interest.) I once read an article (likely in C’t) about a computer dealer who systematically tried to delay delivery so long, weeks or months, that it could profit from changes in the price level for its products. (Along the lines of promising a brand new Apple product for five percent below the typical retail price—but not actually delivering until the retail price had dropped by six percent. This leaves a percentage point extra profit and a number of customers who would have gone elsewhere without the misleading price claim.)

**As in “today’s offers”, “we offer”, etc. Vice versa, the word “offer” is typically not used for what the customer does—instead words like “order” and “application” dominate.

Now, making the actual offer (by the seller) an offer in the legal sense, raises a few complications, but none that cannot be handled. For instance, if the price of a product is considerably lower than normal by accident, a reservation for “obvious errors” would give the seller protection—that a car normally in the 20,000-Euro price range does not sell for 20.00 Euro or 2,000 Euro is almost a given.* Running out of product is not much of an issue in a physical store, because the offer through a sign/label/whatnot is obviously directed at the products in front of the buyer—you can buy one of these cartons of milk for 50 cent. If no cartons are present, then no offer takes place. Online, the stores would be forced to keep their listings up-to-date to reduce the risk, but that is relatively easy and increases customer friendliness.** Should later problems ensue, e.g. that the store does not receive expected deliveries, it is only fair that the store keeps the customers unharmed and settles its own problems without disadvantaging them.*** Issues like credit worthiness are largely beside the point, because if a seller has a reasonable fear that the buyer will not fulfill his part of the bargain, he cannot be obliged to stand by his offer.**** If worst comes to worst, there is always the option to make an offer conditional—with a condition that must then be explicitly stated in advance and is, correspondingly, fairer towards the buyers than the current arbitrariness.

*But with lesser errors, the store might well have to sell at the stated price—and that would be good in my eyes. (Exactly where to draw the lines is beyond the current scope, and might well depend on both product and audience.) Indeed, this is often what would happen today anyway: If the bar code is associated with the wrong price, the cashier is unlikely to even notice—and, cf. above, might not be able to do anything about it, even if she did.

**Or to implement better order management, or similar, with an improvement for both the buyers and the store.

***Note e.g. that what product sources the store uses, and what risks are associated, is a decision made by the store—not the customers of the store. Correspondingly, the store should carry the consequences of these decisions.

****However, the seller might see restrictions in the great arbitrariness that currently applies, where “unreasonable fear” is quite common. That too would be good.

Excursion on different types of deals:
Regular store sales, e.g., are by their nature offers—not invitations. However, this does not apply to all other conceivable deals. For instance, the sale of a single house or a single painting is by its nature an invitation to negotiate—all involved parties expect a negotiation and understand that only one buyer will actually get the house/painting. For instance, auctions are by their nature invitations to bid.

Excursion on advertising:
In contrast to the above, advertising might be an area where “invitation to treat” is a reasonable concept, e.g. because it is impossible to change the contents of a prospect after its been sent in the mail, even should the circumstance change or an error be detected. Explicit reservations for errors or the supply running out might be helpful substitutes (and I have seen them relatively often even as is), but might come with the danger of raising red flags to the customer, who could suspect e.g. a bait-and-switch scheme or a “lure” product that is offered at a fantastic price (but in extremely low numbers) solely to get people into the store.

Excursion on the historical situation:
In earlier days, the situation might not have been as absurd as it is today, giving some explanation to how the legal view arose. (But the more likely explanation is the convenience of the sellers.) For instance, price haggling was far more common and often outright expected in the past, amounting to a series of offers and counter-offers.* For instance, mail-order catalogs are much harder to update than websites, and there was a lot of room for misprints with older technology. (Then again, mail-order catalogs might be better viewed as advertising or otherwise be exempt, with an eye on inflation, price fluctuations, VAT changes, and similar, which can make it impossible to guarantee the same price over many months.)

*Incidentally, yet another argument why the seller’s offer should be the offer from a legal point of view: When haggling is reduced to a single statement of the seller’s price wish, this amounts to only the seller’s final offer remaining, making it absurd to interpret it as a “invitation to treat”. Negotiations did not usually go like “A: If you were to offer me ten shillings, I would sell. B: No, I couldn’t do that—but if you were to offer to sell for seven shillings, I would be on board.” (where the formulations are intended to be interpreted literally, not as round-about formulations of offers).

Written by michaeleriksson

March 30, 2019 at 9:11 am

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Follow-up: Some more experiences with eCommerce and poor web-design II

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I recently wrote of my negative experiences with Bauhaus [1] and eCommerce, including the inexplicable payment problems.

I have now received an email answer from Bauhaus to my request for a solution to enable the purchase despite the technical problems caused by Bauhaus. This answer is depressing and shows a complete disregard for customer interests, leaving me with a grand-total of possible two hours* of time wasted with nothing to show for it—and, yes, I was too optimistic in ascribing the behavior to an unintended technical problem.

*Including the phase two weeks ago described in [1], but not including the time spent writing texts. The single order that failed might have taken around an hour, including browsing the catalog and working with the abysmally slow website.

I will certainly never use Bauhaus again, not even the physical stores, unless it backs down from this customer-hostile stance. Factoring in the extreme slowness of the website, I can only encourage others to avoid it. I note that Bauhaus’ website has by now cost it the chance at orders over thousands of Euro of products and services (most of it relating to events in [1] prior to the current order). The issue is the more annoying, because I basically had already decided against using Bauhaus for any of the intended orders (cf. [1])—I made the mistake of still ordering the shelves from Bauhaus and was immediately burnt.

To quote pertinent parts*:

*A few minor manual corrections were necessary after copy-and-paste, since Bauhaus appears to have used non-standard characters or encoding. Reservations for undetected problems caused by this.

Bei jeder Bestellung erfolgt eine automatisierte handelsübliche Prüfung der Adress-und Bestelldaten, auf die wir keinen Einfluss haben.

Die angebotene Zahlart ist abhängig von verschiedenen Faktoren.

Abhängig von Warenwert, Größe und Gewicht der Artikel sowie der Kategorie der Artikel stellt Ihnen der Online-Shop eine Auswahl an Zahlarten zur Verfügung.

Wir behalten uns nach dieser Prüfung vor, bestimmte Zahlungsarten im Rahmen des Bestellvorgangs auszuschließen.

Translation (with reservation for the correctness of terms of trade):

For every order, an automatic customary-in-the-trade (“handelsübliche”) check of address-and [hyphen present in original] order data is made, on which we have no influence

The offered payment methods depend on different factors.

Depending on the value of the goods, size and weight of the article and the category of the article, the online-shop gives you a selection of payment types.

We reserve the right to, after this check, remove specific payment types from the order transaction (“Bestellvorgang”).

This might have been acceptable in principle, had the payment options not already been offered. Filtering out the options before the user makes a choice could be OK, but doing so after he has already started choosing, and then choosing based on faulty premises, is inexcusable. To boot, there was no prior information that this might take place and no obvious means to make a preliminary check—to avoid spending all that time waiting on and searching on the uselessly slow website.

Further, either I was filtered out based on flawed criteria* or a very large proportion of the users will meet similar problems. I note that while some type of credit or similar check is not unusual, it is usually very explicit** and to speak of “customary” (“[handels]üblich”) for whatever checks Bauhaus used is extremely dubious.

*My credit rating should be flawless and not an obstacle. I also do not recall having given an authorization to perform a credit check, implying that this would boil down to me living in the wrong place (“address”)—if so, intolerable. The order value was small (possibly, around a 150 Euro) and would not be a legitimate cause for concern. The size and weight might have been well above average, but there is no obvious legitimate reason as to why this should have affected the payment methods. Further, both the value and size/weight were known before showing payments methods, and (for what should be a strictly internal check) it cannot be justified to not make the corresponding check in advance.

**E.g. in the form of a request to do a credit check or, for invoicing, a request to send data to a separate service, e.g. Klarna. I note that doing such a check without my consent would involve an illegal use of my data.

Also note that there was no indication of any connection to a check made in the messages displayed, including no mention of credit rating, size, weight, whatnot having had an impact. On the contrary, the impression of a Bauhaus wide restriction for everyone is created. This gross miscommunication is a further time waster.

As for the Cyberport issue discussed in the same text: Cyberport had per email requested that I state my preferred other payment options. I did so on the 27th (same day) and requested further instructions, due to the vagueness of the request. I am still waiting on a reaction from Cyberport. (But note that a lack of reaction within, at the time of writing, 46 hours need not indicate a major problem. It still compounds the delay, however. Even if Cyberport eventually honors my order, it will arrive at least three times later than originally indicated.)

Written by michaeleriksson

March 29, 2019 at 7:16 pm

Older discussion of DN / Follow-up: The problem of too shallow knowledge / experiences in Sweden

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In a recent text, I discussed the decline of the Swedish news-paper DN (among other things).

In a much earlier text, dated 2009-11-03, I had already brought up some points relating to its decline, notably a severe attitude problem. This in form on comments on an online-chat* with the then editor-in-chief, who made a number of statements that are interesting both in general and in retrospect. It truly is no wonder that DN has failed as a news source.

*Except that it was no true chat at all, but just her answering pre-filtered questions in one sitting, as discussed in the linked-to text.

One question was “Where will DN be in ten years?”*, which is almost the time passed. The answer began “DN will still be Sweden’s most important paper.”*, which has not panned out at all in my eyes. (Discounting the question whether DN was the most important paper back then, which is dubious.) On the contrary, DN has made it self so useless that its importance in a weightier sense is very low. If it is important, the importance is increasingly more akin to that of the Kardashians than that of Benjamin Franklin. The answer continues “The number of readers is even larger through the online edition, and therefore our journalism has an even greater impact.”*, which is a hard claim to check. However: According to a graph on page 5 of a report (PDF, in Swedish), DN dropped from an estimated 905 thousand “print” readers** in 2009 to 570 thousand in the first quarter of 2018 (with a further decline until now likely). The “overall” (“total”) numbers beginning in 2017 confuse the issue and could be (mis-)construed to imply an increase, which I discuss in an excursion. Looking at some graphs for other papers, I suspect that DN has also lost ground relatively speaking (but I have not dug into the details and might well be wrong).

*In my translation from a Swedish original.

**Strictly speaking, if I interpret the very unclear source correctly, these numbers likely refer to the potential readers counted for e.g. advertising purposes. See an excursion on readers.

With great reservations for interpretation, my conclusion would then be that DN has lost readers both absolutely and relatively despite the online edition. However, in all fairness, the 2009 online edition was likely free, implying that the prediction was made under radically different circumstances.

Excursion on potential vs true readers:
The report speaks of “räckvidd” (“reach”), which likely includes e.g. all members of a subscribing household (or all in a certain age bracket), even if only one actually reads the paper. (Disclaimer: I might be off in the details, but the principle is correct.) These numbers are then likely inflated considerably above the true number of readers. The general trend should remain the same, however. If anything, I would speculate on the trend being understated, because of generational differences and different habits among the young “now” and “then”. (In other words, the children living at home were more likely to read the paper in the past than they are today.)

Excursion on numbers and types of editions:
There are potentially three types of editions (and DN uses all three): Paper, digital-but-not-web (e.g. as a PDF file), and web. It is not obvious how what is counted where, and this could distort the discussion. (Especially, if the treatment is different for different papers.)

The graph contains several measures. The line called “Total”, in my best guess, includes all readers of all three editions. The “Print” line likely originally was the paper readers, but after 2016 include “e-tidningsläsande” (“e-paper reading”), which I suspect is digital-but-not-web. The “Digital” line is very unclear, but might refer to the web edition, which would work well in conjuncture with “Total”, if we allow for a discount of readers who belong to both “Print” and “Digital” (leaving the “Total” number smaller than the sum of “Print” and “Digital”).*

*I suspect that the closeness of “Digital” to “Print” is just a coincidence, because the corresponding entries for e.g. Aftonbladet are quite far apart. If not, some closer connection might have been present and forced a different interpretation. The much larger “Digital” value for Aftonbladet is also well compatible with an interpretation as a web edition, because Aftonbladet’s web edition is free of charge.

If we work under this assumption, the “Total” number for 2018 is a highly misleading comparison for the “Print” number for 2009: There was a great number of web readers even in 2009. Indeed, there might* well have been considerably more of them than today, because the current version is “pay-walled”, while the 2009 edition was not. Also note that “Digital” has fallen throughout its few years of display, and that this trend might have been present earlier too. Correspondingly, I suspect that the drop** in “Total” had been even larger than in “Print”, had the number been available. Under no circumstance is it reasonable to imagine an increase of 166 (1071 – 905) thousand from 2009 to 2018. (This even assuming that the editions are roughly comparable. If not, the addition is even more misleading.)

*This boils down to a fight between the trend towards greater online activities and the loss of visitors through the pay-wall. Seeing that Sweden had a very large Internet penetration very early on, my money is on the latter.

**At least in absolute numbers. It might have fared better in relative numbers.

To boot, I suspect that the difference between potential readers (as reported) and true readers (more interesting) will be larger for the web edition. This partly because it is more convenient and more natural to share a physical paper than online access, especially if different computers or computer accounts come into play; partly because the lower price makes it less wasteful to have a subscription that only one person uses.

However, even if we were to look at “paying customers”, the calculation would be misleading. Yes, the number of these might actually have increased. However, this must be seen in light of a much lower* price for the web edition, with less money actually flowing in.

*Compared not just to the paper edition, but to the digital-but-not-web edition. The former difference might have been offset by printing and distribution costs, the latter is not.

Disclaimer:
I suffered a computer crash during late-stage editing. Some changes might have been lost.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 28, 2019 at 9:00 am