Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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

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

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

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

To now look at some of the issues involved:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Written by michaeleriksson

November 16, 2017 at 1:08 am

Ozymandias and the vanity of life

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

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

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

(Quoted from the linked-to Wikipedia article.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by michaeleriksson

November 13, 2017 at 1:37 am

The Woozle effect

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One of my main beefs with feminists is the abuse of statistics (there is “lies, damned lies, and statistics”—and then there is feminism), often in combination with the principle that a lie repeated often enough is eventually taken to be the truth. (For instance, I have repeatedly written about the 77 cents on the dollar lie.) As I have also observed in the past, if their claims actually were true, anyone with a brain and a heart would be a feminist, myself included—but they simply are not true.

Recently, I became aware that there was a name for (a subset) of this type of abuse: The Woozle effect, where a piece of (real or merely claimed) information is repeated and repeated, with less and less constraint, until even an originally true claim is turned into an outrageous lie. (Cf. also the “Chinese whispers” game.)

I would strongly encourage the readers to read at least a part of the (lengthy) page behind the link, which includes not only a discussion of the phenomenon in general, but also discusses a number of common feminist “statistics”, including in the area of domestic violence and rape, as well as some uses not necessarily related to feminism. To quote one example:

  • Gelles conducted a study using police domestic disturbance reports as the source. He explained this very specifically as a way to locate clear examples of domestic abuse. 20 Families with known histories were found. There were 20 Families referred by a private Social Service agency, making 40 in total. Then as a control group, neighbours of these families were recruited, making 80 families in total where half had a known history of Domestic Abuse. He was not looking for a national or global sample. Gelles says “Of the eighty families, 55 percent reported one instance of conjugal violence in the marriage. This was not unexpected, since half of the couples were selected because we thought they might be violent.” The evidence is for a small group, selected only due to police reports and known incidents. The 55% also referred to both men and women as victims.
  • Straus writing the forward to the book “The violent home” used the 55% figure but without qualifying it.
  • Langley & levy then cited Gelles & Straus claiming “Estimates that 50 percent of all American wives are battered women are not uncommon”. Gelles & Straus made no such claim or inference in their work.
  • Langley & levy, journalist writing a book, then applied the Woozle to the general population arriving at the figure of 28 to 36 million American Wives being battered annually. “The twenty-six to thirty million are roughly half of all married women.”.
  • The 28 Million figure, published in the book “Wife beating: the silent crisis”, then received extensive media coverage, including claims that at least 7 other studies showed the same 28 Million figure to be valid. In accounting for the lack of previous knowledge of what was called “A conspiracy of silence by men” the US Government, Congress, The American Bar Association, police and FBI, were all referred to as having “Culpable Ignorance”.

And please: The next time someone makes a statistical claim, please stop to consider whether it actually is true, given in the correct context, interpreted reasonably, and carries the appropriate qualifications about the circumstances. Sometimes a healthy skepticism is all that is warranted; sometimes the claim is simply absurd and can be ruled out with a little own thought, as with claims of absurd proportions of false accusations of rape to unreported rape cases or the existence of 14 million child-porn websites; sometimes the interpretation turns out be highly dubious, as with boys and girls doing housework ; sometimes the difference between correlation and causation is not even remotely understood; …

Written by michaeleriksson

November 11, 2017 at 12:28 am

A few thoughts on specialization and excellence (part I)

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In my recent readings, discussions of problems with e.g. schools, uniformization*, and competence levels are quite common. There can be many explanations for this, but I have long been concerned about two specific contributors that I will expand on: Lack of specialization (this post) and fear of excellence (upcoming post).

*For want of a better word. My implication is the common tendency to e.g. mold the opinions of students into the same pattern or removing individualism from education in favour of a set schedule, as well as variations of the tall-poppy syndrome, and some related phenomena. “Harrison Bergeron” takes this problem to its extreme, but other examples include e.g. such simple things as one-size-fits-all schooling, the not uncommon politically correct brain-washing, or truly demented “social injustice” arguments. To expand on the last, I have repeatedly encountered cases of e.g. a teacher telling parents to not allow a child to read more advanced books at home than the school provides—because this would be a “social injustice” towards the other children and an “unfair” advantage for their own…

In days gone past, people* usually specialized early and heavily, often simply through following in the foot steps of their parents as e.g. farmers, smiths, merchants, …, from an early age. Even among those who did not, it was quite common to enter work-life or apprenticeships at very young ages, while those who entered universities often did so at what is today considered a high-school, possibly even junior-high, age**.

*Arguably more so on the men’s side, because men’s roles tended to be more diverse and the son following the father was more likely than the daughter–father and son–mother combinations. However, even if we posit, for the sake of argument and contrary to fact, that the women of yore were without exception house wives, then that too is a specialization—just one that happened to be shared by half the population.

**How the universities of now and then compare to each other, I leave unstated. The point is not the level of the education, but the earlier specialization. It might be noteworthy that while, in my understanding, the topics read at such young ages (trivium, quadrivium) were comparatively uniform over the student body, they were more still more specialized than today’s school.

Today, many countries (including Sweden, Germany, and the U.S.) have about 9 nine years of mandatory education with very little individual variation, and such a focus on cramming information on every conceivably topic down the throats of the students that they end up knowing next to nothing about most of these topics. (Not only because including more topics take away time and resources from other topics, but also because longer school days and more home work lead to more being forgotten—there is only so much that the human brain can retain in a given time span.) Voluntary, yet mandatory-for-all-practical-purposes, high school follows (the degree of uniformity varies considerably from country to country, however).

The U.S. and the post-Bologna Europe then has a bachelor or its equivalent as the minimum for anyone who wants to qualify as “educated”, for another three or four years of what increasingly amounts to school rather than university, with a following master being relatively common. Depending on choices made, this often includes a high degree of specialization, but can also amount to something fairly generic, e.g. within U.S. “general studies” or “liberal studies” bachelors.

In the end, educational specialization typically starts in the late teens or early twenties, and working life might be entered in the mid-twenties. (In both cases with some variations from country to country, with the U.S. system of requiring a bachelor before entering e.g. law or med school being a particularly negative example.)

Generally, there seems to be a very strong tendency to go for breadth first and depth later (if at all)—which naturally leads me to my main contentions:

There is nothing wrong with having a broad education. On the contrary, it has many benefits and I, myself, have always tried to be well rounded*. However: There is a definite risk of becoming the “Jack of all trades and master of none”, and it seems better to me to start with the depth than the breadth. The latter for several reasons, including that skills are useful at an earlier stage, that the students gain a better understanding of the learning processes and their degree of knowledge** (making it easier to cope in and master other areas), and that having reached a higher degree of mastery of one topic or field is (in my experience) more satisfying that a lower of several or a negligible of many.

*But, at least after I had wizened up, in combination with depth efforts—fully in line with my ideas here. I have certainly not gone deep in every field and on every topic I have dabbled with, but I have done it often enough, at least by the standards of depth of today, that I can speak with a clear conscience.

**The deeper the knowledge and understanding is, the more the insight tends to come, how much more there is not yet known and understood. Note e.g. how those with “easy” solutions to hard problems tend to be people with only a shallow understanding of the problems, or how many political activists put themselves on a pedestal to look down on people who understand the issues far better. This is a particular danger of the, in parts, very shallow education system of today, in combination with the extreme populism and manipulation attempts shown by so many politicians. Even having this awareness from one or two fields can be a great help in seeing the same risks in other fields. (That I complain more about what is wrong than make suggestions for how to do it better is not a coincidence—it is, at least partially, a result of my knowing that it is much easier for an outsider to spot a problem than it is for him to offer a good solution. Of course, if the “insiders” are dumb or ignorant enough, it can also happen that the outsider has a better suggestion to begin with, but that does not invalidate my original point.)

One way to attack this issue could be to allow and encourage a greater specialization no later than during secondary education, possibly to the point of a student taking just a handful of (self-chosen) subjects, be it through the course of the educational stage or just a given year, but having a greater number of hours dedicated to each of these subjects. An added benefit of this is that issues like boredom with school are likely to grow smaller, while students with wider interests can always broaden their studies at a later date or in their spare time, should they have the interest and energy.* An idea in a similar vein is to give** each child, from a very early age, a specific field of study or mental accomplishment***, a single instrument, and a single sport, and give him a go for a few years. I would not be surprised if this actually resulted in more well-rounded individuals, because it simultaneously allows for more specialization and more variety compared to a more regular curriculum.

*What I have seen from both myself and others point to a clear lesson: People with interest and curiosity naturally strive to learn more both in old and new areas, like thirsty horses greedily drinking, while those without will not drink even when lead to the water. The best school can do is often to just stimulate interests; the worst to kill them and to let the students associate learning with boredom and obligations.

**With some possibility to choose and a right to opt for something different should the original choice prove unsuitable—forcing children into activities often does more harm than good.

***Within the limits posed by age, obviously.

I stress that the above is with regard to some aspects of education. In other contexts I have lamented e.g. the lack of focus on critical thinking and related areas, as well as the low emphasis on e.g. “life skills” and interpersonal skills, over-focus on teachers and under-focus on books (for at at least some students), the grouping by age instead of ability, …

A few asides:

  1. A disadvantage of early specialization is that more in-depth knowledge and understanding is needed from teachers. This could turn out to be a tricky obstacle…
  2. A central tenant of my views on education is that own thinking is the most important aspect: What is read in a book or said by a teacher can be valuable as “raw material” or “processing instructions”—but the actual processing of the raw material still has to be done by the student. An in-depth approach is more likely to ensure that this thinking takes place, and does so with corresponding depth, than a “in-breadth” approach does. (Notwithstanding that impulses from other areas often can provide new perspectives and help with unexpected insights.) Similarly, the higher the work-load, the less likely it is that the students will have the time and energy to truly think, instead preferring to just read, copy, memorize, …
  3. This type of earlier specialization and/or entry to the work-force can play well with “life-long learning”, e.g. in that someone does not stay in school until 25, instead starting to alternate phases of work and study, or combining part-time work and part-time study, in his teens—and keeps at it.
  4. I read at least one article lamenting the increased focus on STEM topics and diminished focus on human-oriented topics*. I would disagree with this for the simple reason that certain topics (e.g math, theoretical physics, theoretical computer science) require an ability to think, and to think strictly, being able to follow and criticize reasoning, etc. For most other topics, even as brainy ones as philosophy (at least outside the areas of logic and the borders towards some STEM topics), there is too much subjectiveness, vagueness, and lack of stringency for this too be true (even if many would like it to be true). It is conceivable that some non-STEM topics might be, in some sense, more important from an abstract point of view; however, I would definitely take someone who knows how to think and still needs to learn over someone who is learned and still needs to develop his thinking skills. To boot, topics like math can be very humbling and useful in learning ones own limits and fallibility: If two people disagree in math, one of them is usually provably wrong; while in many other topics matters of taste, interpretation of circumstantial evidence, whatnot, can leave both feeling correct or have them “agree to disagree”—there is no need to be confronted with “I was wrong!”. Similarly, it is possible to spend five minutes with a text by a philosopher and come away with the faulty impression of having understood it and failing to understand that another half hour might have been needed; with a math proof, one typically either has understood it after five minutes (or half-an-hour) or one knows that the understanding is still missing**. Or compare a math problem with an ethical dilemma—it is possible to spend hours on the latter without a conclusion, but there will be a progress in those hours and in the end the student can always shrug the problem off with (the correct) observation that there is no actual solution to the problem; with the former, most of the time, one either finds or does not find a satisfactory solution. I am very far above the average in intelligence; I know from actual results that I was well above the average even among my strongly pre-filtered college class mates; and I still often found myself challenged to or beyond my limits during more advanced courses. Similarly with computer programming (my field of work): I am exposed to the fact that I make errors on a daily basis—the code was supposed to do ABC, but as can be seen it manifestly does ABD in this-or-that special case. Someone who writes in a natural language rarely has this type of feedback when we move past mere orthography (even grammar tends to be highly subjective these days).

    *I am a little uncertain what the original formulation and intention was, but the general idea was the contrast between topics dealing with the world and those dealing with humans. The specific scope might have been as narrow as e.g. “the classics” or as wide as non-STEM topics in general.

    **Obviously, there there can be nuances missed, points misunderstood, etc., in math that leads to similar problems; certainly, a more advanced mathematician might take away more than a beginner. However, the probability that one is exposed to the realization of “I do not understand this!” is larger in math.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 10, 2017 at 1:20 am

German taxes and Elster

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Germany, like so many other countries, is plagued by bureaucracy, incompetent civil servants, and a general governmental attitude that the rights and interests of the citizens do not matter.

The area of taxes is particularly egregious—even apart from issues like the undue proportion of income paid in taxes*.

*When I spend a day at work, the government often earns more than I do, when all factors are considered. The nominal marginal income taxes tops out at less than 50 %, but then there are various other complications, like the VAT that applies when I actually use my money (privately), or the VAT that my clients have to pay on top of my bills (on the business side). (However, on the business side it is tricky to say exactly what the effect is in what direction. If the client earns well enough, he can deduct all of the VAT of my bills and go scotch free—but then again, since my bills could drive his prices up, the overall VAT amount might still increase. If the client earns poorly, he might not have enough own VAT to offset mine and needs to pay the difference out of his own pocket… That I alone will have a major impact is of course unlikely—but then I am not alone. There are other contractors, service providers, and whatnots that also have to charge VAT on behalf of the government, and the marginal effect of my working an extra day could, in a worst case scenario, be that the client has to hand over another 19 % to the government on top of what it gives me.) The situation is similar for very many regular employees, because there are various “social” fees that the employer has to pay on top of the salary—and, again, when the employee uses his money, he must pay VAT.

Problems include severe competence issues, an extreme lack of transparency*, an “IRS” that sets its own rules without always paying attention to the law (preferring to wait until a judge strikes a rule down—and even then the precedence set for other cases is often ignored…), and what might be the most complicated tax system in the world. In fact, the tax system is so complicated that I have long felt that any tax payer should have the right to hire a “Steuerberater” (“tax advisor”) at the cost of the government**. (Given that they refuse to simplify the system, which would be the by far preferable alternative.)

*Communications often include merely a decision and/or a result description, without in anyway explaining e.g. why a certain deduction was not approved—worse, whether it was approved is typically not clear without careful comparison of input and output. Requests for clarifications have, in my admittedly limited experiences so far, typically either gone unanswered or resulted in what amounts to a repetition of the claim without the requested explanation of the why.

**Merely hiring one, at ones own cost, is of course a right—but for most people this will simply not pay: Most of the additional tax return (if any) and the time saved will be eaten up by the Steuerberater’s fees. In other words, the tax payer is, in most cases, little or no better off than before, while some amount of money has moved from the government to the Steuerberater. To boot, some of even this effect is neutralized by the fact that Steuerberater pay taxes too…

The possibly worst thing, however, is Elster: Tax payers are no longer allowed to use paper forms, instead being reliant on either an utterly, utterly inexcusable web-interface* or various less-than-impressive applications. (Not to be confused with a situation where good applications have been provided!) Said applications are not available “natively” for Linux, effectively forcing the user to also have a Windows license—even when he does not use Windows for anything else. And, no, Wine has not proved a viable work-around to me**, even if some people have reported success. Of course, very few of the applications are free-of-charge, causing yet another cost. All this provided that he already has a computer—while the opposite might be very rare today, it is not something that can actually be assumed with certainty. As a result, Elster often brings more work, cost, and frustration than the paper forms did, leaving the tax payers worse off than before, while the government reaps all the benefits through a more automated processing on its end.

*Likely the worst I have ever worked with in the 23 years I have been on the Internet. The usability is horrible in virtually every regard, including intuitiveness and consistency, it relies on technologies (notably “DOM storage”) which are highly problematic from a security and anonymity point of view, and parts of it must simply be deemed broken. For instance, if the initial capabilities check complains that JavaScript is turned off, it is not sufficient to just activate JavaScript and reload the page—no, the user has to activate JavaScript and go back to the start page in order to try again. Today, not even this helped: The web interface complained again and again and again that JavaScript was turned off, despite it most definitely being turned on. Or take how some amount fields require inputs like “123,45” (note that Germany has a decimal comma) and others “123” (even when the actual amount is not “round”)—and insist on this format even when no information changes: Not only is “123,45” not automatically turned into “123”, but the same applies to “123,00”! Vice versa, if “123” is entered in a field expecting a comma, this is not amended to “123,00” (why would I type those redundant places myself?!?). No, this is considered another input error. Or consider the download functionality for sent and received messages: Half the time it downloads, half the time it does not—and there is no error message when it fails…

**For instance, I gave it a try with the “official” software provided by the government it self, after today’s problems. I got it up and running, tried to familiarize myself with the interface (second rate, at best), moved over some information, and tried to give my monthly VAT forecast (“Umsatzsteuervoranmeldung”). The program promptly crashed, and nothing I could obviously do, including trying to start the program again and using the virtual re-boot, got anything other than an error message. (Which is not to rule out that someone more familiar with Wine would have been able to fix it, nor that I would have, had I been willing to put in enough time.) Easily an hour, likely more, wasted and nothing gained—on top of the time I had already wasted with the web-interface…

This is an absolutely and utterly inexcusable way to treat the tax payers—especially since it’s their money that has been wasted providing these highly sub par solutions. Effectively, tax payers are mandated by law to perform certain actions electronically—but the government provides no reasonable manner in which many of them (including Linux users) are able to do so… Consider a law forbidding automobiles: This will be next to no problem for those who live and work within the same major city, it will be tolerable to many commuters, and it will be an utter disaster for those who are used to riding twenty miles from their country house to their city office every morning and the same distance back every evening—now they can ride a bike for several hours a day or move somewhere else…

A particularly infuriating aspect is that most or all of what needs to be input could be input simply through using a text file in a suitable format*, possibly with some small program to do consistency and format checking. While this would be of little interest to the average citizen, it would make life so much easier for people like me, and it would imply that there is automatically and at very little cost a way to perform these tasks on any platform, using any OS. But, no, instead it is bloated, user-unfriendly or outright user-hostile GUIs. Hell, even PDF forms would work better!

*Even something as simple as a long lines of rows, each consisting of “field name: value to be input” would cover all or almost all needs. (And imagine how much easier it would be to re-use data from the one month/quarter/year to the next.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 9, 2017 at 12:41 am

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Follow-up: On Firefox and its decline

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Since my post on the decline of Firefox, the developers have released another “great” feature, supposed to solve the speed problem compared to Chrome and other competitors: Electrolysis* (aka. e10s).

*I have no idea how they came up with this misleading name. Possibly, they picked a word at random in a dictionary?

This feature adds considerable multi-threading capability and detaches the GUI from the back-end of the browser, thereby on paper making the browser faster and/or hiding the lags that do occur from the user.

In reality? In one browser installation* (shortly after the feature being activated) I had to disable this feature, because it caused random and unpredictable tab failures several times a day, forcing me to “restart” (I believe the chosen word was) the tab in order to view it again. Even the tabs that did not need to be restarted only displayed again with a lag every time another tab had failed. The net effect was not only to make the browser more error prone, but also to make it slower (on average).

*I have several Firefox (more specifically Tor Browser) installations for different user accounts and with different user settings, including e.g. separate installations for business purposes, private surfing, and my WordPress account. This to reduce both the risk of a security breach and the effects of a breach, should one still occur. As for why the other installations were not affected, this is likely due to the roll-out manner used by Firefox of just activating a feature in existing installations, based on an installation dependent schedule, instead of waiting for the next upgrade. Presumably, all the other installations had received upgrades before being hit by the roll-out. (This approach is both ethically dubious and a poor software practice, because it removes control from the users, even to the point of risking his ability to continue working. What if something goes so wrong that a down-grade or re-install is needed—with no working browser installed? This is very bad for the private user; in a business setting, it could spell disaster.)

Today, I had to deactivate it in another installation: After opening and closing a greater number of tabs, Firefox grew more and more sluggish, often only displaying a page several seconds after I had entered the tab, or showing half a page and then waiting for possibly 5–10 seconds before displaying the rest. This for the third time in possibly a week after my latest upgrade. (I would speculate on some type of memory leak or other problem with poor resource clean up.)

I note that I have never really had a performance problem with Firefox (be it with pure Firefox or the Tor Browser*) before this supposed performance enhancer, possibly because I use few plug-ins and have various forms of active content (including Flash and JavaScript) deactivated per default—as anyone with common sense should. This makes the feature the more dubious, because it has (for natural reasons) taken a very large bite out of the available developer resources—resources that could have been used for something more valuable, e.g. making it possible for plugins like “Classic Theme Restorer” to survive the upcoming XUL removal.

*Not counting the delays that are incurred through the use of Tor. I note that Tor is a component external to the Tor Browser, and that these delays are unrelated to the browser used.

Unfortunately, the supposedly helpful page “about:performance”, which was claimed to show information on tabs and what might be slowing the tabs down, proved entirely useless: The only two tabs for which information was ever displayed were “about:config” and “about:performance” it self…

Oh, and apparently Electrolysis is another plugin killer: The plugin makers have to put in an otherwise unnecessary effort in order to make their plugins compatible, or the plugins will grow useless. Not everyone is keen on doing this, and I wish to recall (from my research around the time of the first round of problems) that some plugins face sufficiently large obstacles that they will be discontinued… (Even the whole XUL thing aside.)

Now, it might well be that Electrolysis will prove to have a net benefit in the long term; however, we are obviously not there yet and it is obvious that the release(s) to a non-alpha/-beta tester setting has been premature.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 6, 2017 at 11:02 pm

Follow-up: Differences in how our lives play out (geographic mobility)

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As a brief follow-up to my previous post:

I have received some additional information from my father. While I will keep most of it unpublished, having no bearing on the main points and being mostly of personal interest, it appears that I have severely underestimated how much my paternal grand-mother moved.

For starters, she did not actually spend her childhood in Sala, but in Säter—something I actually knew but somehow had suppressed. She moved to Sala as a young adult, then studied in Nyköping*, moved to Eskilstuna with my grand-father, and only then settled in Högsby. She eventually moved back to Sala as originally stated, but apparently the first of the two retirement homes she later lived in was not in Sala but a neighbouring village**. This makes for at least six different places in eight different phases (not counting any intra-town moves that might have taken place)—many of them in the days of her youth. Grand-father had a similar history in his youth, and I might have understimated the mobility of this generation. (Although it remains lower than today, considerably so when foreign countries are included.) Still, this actually strengthens my original point, in as far as there being great differences even within a generation (as e.g. with me vs. my sister, or my maternal vs. paternal grand-parents).

*A study stop does not surprise me, and was the main reason I said “at least” in the original post. However, I had imagined something along the lines of Sala–X–Högsby. (And might have guessed that the X was Uppsala.)

**With hindsight, I recall that there was a “rural” drive to reach it, and I possibly should have remembered this too.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 6, 2017 at 10:55 pm

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