Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (and WordPress’ handling of it)

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Roughly a week ago, EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) went into force, as many EU citizens have noticed in form of various emails from businesses* keeping their data, and a more global group in form of more, or more intrusive, alerts concerning use of cookies and whatnot. WordPress bloggers have probably also noticed a notification in their admin areas:

*While I will speak of “business” through-out, seeing that much of the discussion is in a commercial context, the regulation is not limited to businesses in the strictest sense, and replacing “business” with “organization” might be appropriate in some cases.

To help your site be compliant with GDPR and other laws requiring notification of tracking, Akismet can display a notice to your users under your comment forms. This feature is disabled by default, however, if you or your audience is located in Europe, you need to turn it on.

Below, I will briefly* discuss the GDPR, some of points relating to the Web, and why I will not follow the demand of the WordPress message.

*This is a very wide topic and a more complete discussion would require a considerable amount of both research and analysis.

GDPR:
By and large, the GDPR is a good thing, including a much needed change of philosophy (quoting the above Wikipedia page):

Business processes that handle personal data must be built with data protection by design and by default, meaning that personal data must be stored using pseudonymisation or full anonymisation, and use the highest-possible privacy settings by default, so that the data is not available publicly without explicit consent, and cannot be used to identify a subject without additional information stored separately.

This quote alone addresses much of what troubles me with data handling, including that data security is often an afterthought and that users have to run through various settings (or even send a letter) to reduce data use. However, how much it will bring is yet to see, bearing in mind the difference between expectations on paper and their realization in real life, as well as various exceptions and softenings of the rules.

Unfortunately, this change of philosophy is also, indirectly, the source of much of the legitimate* criticism from the business world: Because existing software and procedures were built with a very different philosophy in mind, sometimes decades ago, the transition costs are enormous. On the positive side, while the costs after the transitional period** will be increased compared to the past, it will be by nowhere near as much as during the transitional period.

*As opposed to illegitimate criticism of the “you are spoiling our data party” kind. Other legitimate criticism includes unclear or delayed information from government institutions that have made it harder to implement the GDPR (see also the following footnote).

**In theory, businesses have had several years for this transitional period, implying that much of the cost should be history; however, from news reporting, it does not appear that this period has been used very well on average, implying that there likely will be an additional transition over the coming months. To boot, there are likely very many issues that will need resolution over the coming years, for reasons like later clarifications of regulation, upcoming court cases, and unforeseen practical obstacles.

At the same time, there are reasons to criticize it from a consumer point of view. For instance, the Wikipedia page also says:

Recital 47 of the GDPR states that “The processing of personal data for direct marketing purposes may be regarded as carried out for a legitimate interest.”

This* is very unfortunate, seeing that direct marketing is one of the greatest sources of abuse of data and something many consumers are more upset with than sloppy data treatment per se.** More than that: If there had been stronger and more severe restrictions on various form of marketing, especially direct marketing, much of the reasons for data use and abuse of today would disappear, and we would almost automatically have a considerable reduction.

*This section of the Wikipedia page simultaneously and confusingly deals with both B2C and B2B marketing, and I must make some reservations for the correctness of my understanding.

**Say, when they give an email address in confidence to complete one purchase and are then spammed with unsolicited and unexpected offers to perform another on a regular basis. This is grossly unethical and should by rights be illegal; however, looking at Germany, the otherwise strong laws against spam were artificially weakened by the legal fiction that someone who had once bought something could be assumed to be keen on buying more, making the unsolicited messages quasi-solicited. This is of course an incorrect reasoning on at least three counts: Firstly, very many customers buy something once and never come back (and have no interest in coming back). Secondly, those who are interested in coming back will usually want to do so on their own terms, e.g. when they see a need. Thirdly, it makes an extremely customer hostile assumption about all those who strongly dislike such messages. As an aside, ethical marketing should always work on an opt-in basis, which is not the case here.

Looking at the German Wikipedia page, which differs considerably in content, there is a very odd claim:

Den Mitgliedstaaten ist es sonst grundsätzlich nicht erlaubt, den von der Verordnung festgeschriebenen Datenschutz durch nationale Regelungen abzuschwächen oder zu verstärken.

(Gist: It is not allowed for the member states to reduce or increase [sic!] the protection offered by the regulation.)

That no reduction is allowed is very positive, but the ban on an increase seems extremely ill-advised. Barring the influence of industry lobbyism, the only plausible seeming reason is to reduce complications when consumers and/or businesses from different (EU) countries are involved. Even so, there must be a better way*, because this way there is an artificial upper limit on consumer protections. Indeed, this could be a contributing factor to the existing protection in Germany being lowered in some cases, including criteria for the consumer’s acceptance of data use**.

*What, in detail, goes beyond the scope of this post, but an obvious step would be to allow stricter rules when both parties are situated in the same country.

**“Prinzipiell sind die Anforderungen an eine wirksame Einwilligung gegenüber dem deutschen BDSG reduziert: Die Schriftform ist nicht mehr die Regel, auch eine stillschweigende Einwilligungserklärung ist nach Erwägungsgrund (32) zulässig, wenn sie eindeutig ist.”

One of the more interesting changes from the English Wikipedia page is that “A right to be forgotten was replaced by a more limited right of erasure”. This is to some degree a limitation of consumer/user/whatnot rights; however, not one that I consider a bad thing: The original “right to be forgotten” always seemed disproportional to me, looking at gains for the individual and efforts needed from others, and also carried a risk of destroying/hiding knowledge, distorting history, …

Web:
The sheer amount* of “cookie warnings” and similar poses a considerable problem to comfortable surfing. This especially since the people who surf without cookies and JavaScript are often unable to get rid of them**; while even the rest will have a number of extra clicks to perform over the course of a day. A positive thing is that it becomes obvious how many sites actually use cookies et co, for no legitimate reason: If I enter an online shop to buy something, using cookies for the shopping cart is legitimate, but why would a cookie be needed when I am passively browsing a forum? Using a search engine? Looking at a static site with no means of interaction? My hope is that the mixture of this revelation, in combination with the increased annoyance for the visitors***, will force businesses to reduce their use of such technologies to some degree for fear of losing the visitors. Then again, if a sufficient proportion of the sites give such warnings, the users will have few alternatives and might remain anyway, taking a hit in usability on the way.

*I doubt that the amount will lessen over time, except as mentioned above, seeing that an earlier increase a few years ago, likely related to the original passing of the GDPR, did not.

**Somewhat paradoxical, seeing that these are normally not affected by the data use that necessitated the cookie warning.

***The negative effects of e.g. hidden user profiling do not hurt in such an obvious manner as the warnings: A pin-prick hurts worse than clogged arteries.

In a twist, keeping these warnings from re-occurring will require some way to keep tabs on the users, most likely through cookies… This can cause paradoxical situations where the warnings increase the amount of cookies, tracking, … performed.

A further complication is that the degree of tracking, the needed content of the warnings, whatnot, will not necessarily be under the control of the individual site, possibly necessitating a vagueness that makes the warnings misleading or unhelpful. Consider e.g. a site that uses a tracking network or that allows external content (notably advertising) that can on its pull in tracking functionality. Frankly, what we need are restrictions against user tracking, profiling, …, that goes considerably further than the GDPR—not just warnings.

WordPress:
I will not comply with the notification from WordPress (cf. above):

I do not actively gather or track any user data, except what is provided through e.g. comments and subscriptions*; I do not use cookies, JavaScript, …; I have no access to data excepting fully pre-anonymized read-only access statistics provided by WordPress (and the aforementioned comments etc.) To boot, I am blogging in a private capacity, as a natural person, with no monetary interests involved, which makes it likely that the GDPR does not apply to me in the first place (in this particular context).

*And even here the “actively” is typically limited to me passively accepting e.g. a comment through the wordpress software, reading (and possibly answering) it, and then forgetting that it is there.

Should* WordPress choose to engage in such practices in a manner exceeding the reasonable minimum, this is simply not my problem, not within my control, and contrary to my preferences**. WordPress, not I, has the responsibility to inform people correspondingly—better yet, it should cease these activities. An attempt to roll the responsibility over to the bloggers is unethical and amateurish. This especially seeing that the notification contains no reason whatsoever why it would be my duty to comply. Almost certainly, there is no such reason.

*Going by the privacy notice provided together with the notification, it appears that WordPress is abusive. This includes unethical over-tracking of user data, e.g. “browser type, unique device identifiers, language preference, referring site, […], operating system, and mobile network information” as well as potentially (depending on details unknown to me) unethical over-communication to e.g. “Independent Contractors” and “Third Party Vendors”. Cf. also an older analysis of WordPress’ privacy policy—a very similar document.

**If I had the power, I would explicitly forbid them to do certain things in relation to my WordPress blog. I definitely recommend readers to surf with cookies, JavaScript, …, off to the degree realistically possible, as well as to user various forms of anonymizers, in order to minimize their exposure.

To boot, if the responsibility were to reside with the bloggers, the means of communication chosen is entirely insufficient, and WordPress would have exposed its bloggers to an unnecessary period of involuntary law violation…

I note that the restriction to Europe* is somewhat arbitrary: The ethics of data economy, respect for user privacy, etc., does not end at borders, even should the law do so. It also raises so many questions and caveats that the typical blogger will not be able to make an informed decision without consulting an independent expert. For instance, what if a non-European blogger has an European following that he is not aware of? What if he blogs while spending time within Europe? Is this different for a one-week vacation and one-year period as an exchange student? Etc. With very few exceptions, he would have to activate these notifications in a blanket manner to be on the safe side.

*Of course, the GDPR does not apply to all of Europe to begin with, again making the notification too vague and poorly thought through.

What I will do is to add an extra page, giving fair warning that WordPress might be engaging in dubious practices outside of my control.

Disclaimer:
Note that the external pages quoted are unusually likely to undergo changes over time. The quotes reflect the state of the page at the time of my visit.

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Written by michaeleriksson

June 3, 2018 at 11:20 am

Yet another firing based on opinion

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Browsing the pages of SVT teletext, I encountered a very disturbing entry*, dealing with events at Kalmar HC, a lower-level Swedish ice-hockey team:

*The source does not provide permanent content; however, I have saved a copy locally, should anyone require the full Swedish text.

Its trainer, one Duane Smith, has been fired for expressing private opinions on Twitter, with no immediate relation to the team or his work.

It is claimed that he made at least ten relevant statements*. Two** quotes are given, “Nigeria är världens aidshuvudstad” (“Nigeria is the aids capital of the world”) and “Fuck Islam” (no translation needed).

*“inlägg”: This is vague term that could mean different things in different contexts. I chose “statements” as a similarly vague English term. In context, “tweets” is probably what is meant.

**Note that if some of the other quotes were, in some sense, worse, it is reasonable to assume that they would have been used instead. Most likely, these two statements were those considered the most convincing. (While, cf. below, not being convincing at all…)

In the body of the text, it is claimed that he has expressed xenophobe opinions (“uttryckt främlingsfientliga åsikter”); the heading speaks of racist statements (“rasistiska inlägg”).

Looking at the two given statements, it is clear that neither can be considered racist or xenophobe in it self. Further, that even ascribing a racist or xenophobe motivation is pure speculation*. (The same applies to the alleged violation of KHC’s values. Cf. below.)

*With reservation for information not present in the entry. However, if such information was present, it would be inexcusable to not present it correspondingly, instead giving two quotes that do not support the claims. It is possible that Duane Smith is racist, but it is up to the “prosecution” to prove it.

The first claim comes close to being factually true*, does not (alone) contain any type of value statement, and could, depending on context, be seen as a factual observation or even something supportive of e.g. Nigeria**. Would there have been much outrage if he had said “The U.S. is the crime capital of the world”? Highly unlikely, even though this claim is further from the truth.

*According to Wikipedia “Nigeria has the second-largest number of people living with HIV.”, making the claim off-by-one if we count absolute numbers. Going by relative numbers, there are those who do much worse, including South-Africa, which is also the number one in absolute numbers; however, the rate is still disastrous by e.g. Swedish standards. (I give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume that “capital” is used just to follow the template phrase. However, even if he actually believed that Nigeria is a city, rather than a country, that only makes him weak at African geography—not racist.)

**Say, “Nigeria is the AIDS capital of the world. Please donate to help give the sick modern medicine.” or something implying that “AIDS capital” means “AIDS research capital”. (Which is not to say that this is what Duane Smith actually intended. The point is rather that condemning someone for this statement, without additional support, and without being explicit about context, is incompetent, intellectually dishonest, or both.)

The second expresses a negative opinion about a religion—and a religion which has members of a great number of nationalities and ethnicities, including white-as-snow Swedes. Note carefully that the claim is not even “Fuck Muslims”—it is “Fuck Islam”. To boot, this opinion is one that is shared by very many otherwise considered sensible (although most would be less blunt), be it because they dislike Islam specifically or religion in general. Here too, the context could be quite relevant.* Would there have been much outrage had he said “Fuck Christianity”? Highly unlikely (at least in Sweden).

*Compare e.g. “I just heard about the latest ISIS attack. Fuck Islam.” with “I just saw another woman with a burka. Fuck Islam.”, and note how very different these two words come over. (Notwithstanding that even the first could be seen as unfair or ignorant, seeing that ISIS is just one part of Islam, just like Nazi-Germany was just one part of Europe.)

To boot, we have to consider that Twitter, by its nature, is not a medium for eloquence and deep thought—but for soundbites and spur-of-the-moment statements. What is said on Twitter should be viewed less seriously than what is written in e.g. an article, for the simple reason that it need not reflect deeper opinions. (And for reasons like the lack of context, cf. above; or the greater relative impact of typos, “auto correction”, an accidental misformulation, …) A recent “Family Guy” episode, “The D in Apartment 23”, contains a brilliant illustration with disturbing parallels to what happened here. Some claims, e.g. “Kill all Jews.” would be out of the question even on Twitter; others, e.g. “Fuck Islam.” is within the realms of what a perfectly reasonable (but careless) person could “tweet” in the wrong circumstances—or a perfectly none-careless person when he assumes that the reader knows the context. (Cf. the above footnote.)

Further, even if Duane Smith, for the sake of argument, is a racist (xenophobe, whatnot), that is in and by itself not a legitimate reason to fire him: Actions are what counts—not opinions. A world in which opinions alone lead to such consequences is a tyranny and a dystopia, where diversity of opinion will be severely diminished, where faulty decisions will be made because they happen to be more orthodox, where even science will be hindered, where personal freedoms are unfairly reduced, … Unfortunately, this is the world towards we are increasingly heading, and even now all this, including restrictions on science, is happening—the question is merely one of degree and whether we will be able to turn this disastrous trend in time. Such firings are the more unfortunate, even offensive, considering the very large number of incompetent, negligent, and/or lazy people who are allowed to keep their jobs despite legitimate reasons to get rid of them.

His firing might have been legitimate, had it been shown that these opinions hindered him in his work. No such argument was raised, however, with the claimed reason “These opinions conflict with KHC’s values on the equal worth of all humans” (“Dessa uppfattningar står i strid med KHC:s värderingar om alla människors lika värde”). As can be seen, this was purely a matter of Duane Smith’s allegedly* having the wrong opinions. A firing might also have been legitimate, had he claimed to speak for KHC; however, no indication is made that this was the case.

*As can be seen from the above discussion, even this has not been demonstrated.

Did Duane Smith do something wrong? Yes! He appears to have apologized and not taken a fight, thereby giving the forces of intolerance and political correctness yet another easy victory, making repetitions of such scenarios even more likely, moving us even closer to dystopia.

Please, if you are ever in such a situation, in particular should you be a politician, executive, celebrity, …, have the guts to do the right thing! Take a stand for freedom of speech! Stand by your opinions! Do not just cave and apologize! (And if a PR specialist advises you to the contrary, fire him…) If sufficiently many stand up against scenarios like these, they will cease.

Clarifying note:
In the analysis of the text, it is often unclear who is to blame for what. For instance, is the grossly incorrect use of “racism” stemming from KHC or from the incompetent and PC obsessed “journalists” from SVT? Were there actual damning information that SVT left out through poor judgment? Etc. In the big picture, this does not really matter, because the overall, societal problem remains the same and of roughly the same scope. For this reason, I have chosen not to dwell deeper into the details of the issue to clarify blame, to check whether other sources might have more damming information, whatnot. However, I do advice the reader to be aware that it is not a given where, in this case, the societal problem has manifested how and who is to be criticized in detail for what.

Excursion on the PC crowd vs. Muslims:
The treatment of Islam and Muslims in PC circles is quite inconsistent: In situations like the above, anyone who says anything negative is a racist and should be fired. In other circumstances, Muslims are evil sexist bastards and … should be fired. I note specifically several cases of Muslim men refusing to shake hands with women for religious or decency reasons—despite Muslim women often having the same attitude of not wanting to shake hands with men. Indeed, this is the type of cultural difference that should be tolerated—but in PC circles imaginary misogynism appears to trump real cultural intolerance. (And misandrism is mysteriously considered non-existent…) This attitude to handshakes is not comparable to the attitude against pork, but appears to be more comparable to a Christian man not feeling up women during introductions—a matter of respect, not contempt.

Excursion on organizations and values:
It is questionable whether organizations should be allowed to profess or require values in the first place (unless, like a political party, values are a central aspect). Take KHC: It has players, it has volunteers, it has paying members, …* What if the board or whatnot suddenly decides that it has a certain set of values? What if a player/volunteer/whatnot has different values? What if, as is often the case, someone has spent decades actively supporting the club with his time and money, this someone is member of party X, and the new values are incompatible with those of X? Etc. What if the board today has different personal preferences than the board five years ago, and in another five years the new board has yet another view? Worse: Chances are that there is not even a decision on values, a list of values, or anyway to verify compliance in advance. More likely than not, these “values” were made up ad hoc to sound good in front of the press or to conform with societal expectations, like the stereotypical answer of “World peace!” from a beauty-pageant contestant.

*Assuming that it follows typical patterns in sport. I have not verified this.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 1, 2018 at 4:06 am

American Vandal

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I have just watched the first season* of “American Vandal”—another proof that it is possible to do something original and worth watching even today, and that there is no need to just dust of every old franchise**, hoping that the “brand value” outweighs the lack of quality and originality.

*Whether this terminology reflects reality remains to be seen. From the closed character, I suspect that the series will remain at one season, and considering its shortness, it might be better labeled as a “mini-series”.

**Something I have spoken negatively of in the past, e.g. in [1].

It is not the best made series ever—not even close. However, it does bring something new to the table, and it does so while giving food for thought. This most notably in the area of due process, but also concerning privacy, the benefits and dangers of social media, press ethics, and organizations sweeping their problems under the rug—all areas where I have considerable concerns about current developments. (Cf. a number of older posts.) Some of these areas are discussed below.

!!!Here be spoilers!!!

A particular disturbing part, obviously, is how one character, Dylan, was originally expelled from school based on scant* evidence, by an entity that served as judge, jury, and prosecutor in one, and how his “conviction” was almost a foregone conclusion based on his previous behavior**. While this example is fictional, it does reflect common practices in the U.S., where there, for instance, have been cases of colleges expelling people under similar circumstances, often in word-against-word situations, using “preponderance of evidence” (or another too weak standard). Considering the effects of a college*** expulsion and the damage than can accrue through e.g. social media and reputation damage in today’s world, the consequences are potentially horrifying—often far worse than the alleged crime or even “crime”. When it comes to actual crimes****, it is vital that proceedings follow a level of due process, rights of the accused, whatnot, that is comparable to that of a real criminal trial—better yet, leave this to the actual justice system, and then make decisions, e.g. regarding expulsions, based on what the results of the justice system were. Even when no crime is present (e.g. with a pure behavioral matter), it is vital that the (real or virtual) roles of judge, jury, and prosecutor are sufficiently separated from each other, and that the “accused” is given sufficient opportunity to defend himself.

*The only evidence against him that was not, at best, circumstantial was a testimony by a witness, which was offset by conflicting testimony by an alibi giver. Neither witness had any obviously superior credibility.

**Dylan was a highly problematic student, and I do not rule out that his past behavior might have been enough for an expulsion. However, he was, as eventually transpired, innocent of the vandalism for which he actually was expelled.

***However, note that the series deals with a high-school expulsion. This is bad enough, but less disastrous both because there are more opportunities to gain back ground and (usually far, far) less money invested at the particular school. To boot, people who are expelled from high-school are rarely among those likely to do well in college, implying that the career effect is considerably smaller: We are still typically talking unemployment and/or low-wage, dead-end jobs, considering the low value of a modern high-school diploma.

****As was the case here, specifically the spray painting of 27 cars with stylized penises.

A somewhat tricky question in the series is that of false accusations—paralleling the considerable problems in the real world with especially, rape, child-abuse, and domestic-violence accusations: While Dylan was originally expelled and facing (real) criminal and/or civil charges*, the “witness for the prosecution”**, who seemed*** to have lied outright, did not face such repercussions—his sole fear being a beating from Dylan. It is possible that any attempt at action against him would eventually have failed due to problems of proving intent; however, it appears that an attempt was not even made. Similarly, in the real world, women who make false rape accusations are often let go with a slap on the wrist, while their victims could have faced many years in jail—and often see their lives ruined even when acquitted. Under such circumstances, there is a severe risk that the system is abused e.g. to maliciously hurt personal enemies who have not committed a crime.

*He was proved innocent by video evidence before the real trial in the real justice system started.

**Whether he should be considered the accuser or just a witness can be disputed, but from the details of the show, the difference is likely uninteresting for the current discussion. (However, in most other cases, witness and accuser are quite different things.)

***At least for some time: A later hypothesis involved a suspect with some similarity in looks, and assuming, as was claimed, that the perpetrator wore a hood, an honest mistake is conceivable. However, this hypothesis only arose some time after the “acquittal”, was not necessarily presented to the school, and certainly remained a hypothesis. To boot, the witness had originally spoken with considerable certainty. (I do not recall the exact formulations used, but it was on the level of “I saw Dylan do it”—not e.g. “I saw who did it; he looked like Dylan”.

As a counter-point, we have the question of witness pressure: The “witness for the prosecution” later spoke of having been under a lot of pressure to say the right things. If that was the case, and if he modified his statements to comply with the pressure, someone of his age should be seen in a more forgiving light. However, we then have to condemn the proceedings even more: Witnesses are unreliable enough as it is and when they additionally face pressure to give the “right” answers, testimony is worth very little. It is vital that witnesses are induced to say what they actually remember—not directly or indirectly moved to say what the prosecution wants to hear. Here we again see the importance of dividing the roles of the “court” appropriately, so that the prosecution is neither judge nor jury. Further, where there is a prosecutor to exert pressure on witnesses, there must be a defender to press back. In this specific case, we had the additional complication that the witness was another student, and therefore in a dependent role visa vi the school staff making the decisions, implying that thoughts like “I must keep Mrs. X happy, or she might give me a poor grade!” could have crossed his mind. Such problems could have been alleviated by hiring external specialists to handle the investigation and decision. Consider as comparison a real trial where a witness is employed as a house-keeper by the DA handling the case…

The problem of organizations sweeping their problems under the rug, has probably not featured in my previous writings to any notable degree. A few words on the topic*: There are many types of problems that can arise when there is too little distance, objectivity, self-criticism, whatnot, present in how an organization deals with complaints and internal problems. The most obvious is that it might be so keen on preserving its imagine towards the outside world that it deliberately does not address problems in the appropriate manner. However, we also have to consider constellations like a superior receiving a complaint about an employee with whom he has developed a friendship, an investigative board containing people with personal ties, a biased treatment due to the feeling that that the target of a complaint is “one of us” and the complainer is “one of them”, the target of the complaint being able to influence the proceedings through inside connections (e.g. through giving someone false verbal information that the complainer never even knows of, let alone has an opportunity to refute), etc.

*Since I am filling a deficit, I will remain mostly abstract. If we look at events in the series, I can point to e.g. the illegal failure to upload certain complaint acts to a public server, an attempt to shut-down an independent investigation/documentary, when it threatened to put the school and/or some staff members in a poor light, suspensions (detentions?) being handed out for potentially (depending on interpretation) having critized the principal, …

A particular disastrous example from my personal experiences, where problems were almost guaranteed and remedies highly unlikely due to a massive conflict of interest: Being faced with a blatant breach of contract, I simultaneously sent a bill to the perpetrator and contacted its trade association with a complaint and a request for intervention. In a horribly misguided system, this trade association on the one hand provided arbitration, certifications of quality, and similar, on the other legal service to its members. The result was that the perpetrator took the bill, sent it to the legal branch of the trade association, which immediately gave the opinion that the bill was void and all related claims baseless*—and thereby tied the hands of the rest of the organization with regard to my complaint and any chance of intervention—if another branch had given support to my complaint, it could have caused severe credibility problems for the legal branch, had I taken legal action to receive payment.

*Beware that such “opinions”, by their very nature, have no actual legal value, give little information on the true estimation of the involved lawyers, and cannot, seeing that the lawyers at this juncture only know a fraction of the information, be a complete legal evaluation. To act in his client’s best interest, a lawyer will have to officially side with said client in a near blanket manner, even when the facts at hand, relevant law, and his actual opinion would go in the other direction. There are cases where the situation is so clear, that he is forced to chose another first official stance than a (real or metaphorical) “not guilty”; however, this is rare. The result is that irrespective of how well or poorly founded the complaining party’s claims are, the legal branch would have started with a blanket rejection, and the hands of the trade association would be tied. The complaining party is, almost by necessity, wasting time by approaching such a trade association.

Correspondingly, any organization who wants its complaint management to be taken seriously, must take steps to minimize such problems (a complete prevention is likely not possible). This could include e.g. making sure that there is a special complaints branch, that supervisors/investigators/whatnot with too strong ties to the target of the complaint recuse themselves, that external helpers are brought in (especially when larger amounts of money are concerned, the heads of the organization are involved, or the matter is otherwise unusually important), … While the presumption of innocence must be preserved in terms of treatment and consequences, the potential guilt must also be kept very clearly in mind during any investigation.

(A more specialized post on the misbehavior of German governmental institutions and their blanket rejection of any type of criticism might follow, especially with an eye on the IRS, the incompetence of which is currently again costing me a load of time. It appears to be a universal law that the more incompetent an organization is, the less willing it is to accept criticism.)

A few words on the final scenes of the series:
After his acquittal, Dylan goes through a brief high and then faces repeated disappointments, including that a very hostile* teacher, who had pushed heavily against him, and even (very incorrectly) attributed the crime as directed mainly against her, personally, failed to give the type of apology that he had pictured. He now misguidedly does commit an act of vandalism against her, by painting a penis on her drive-way.

*Her hostility is not unreasonable, considering their previous history.

It follows a brief sequence on how the expectations of others, the roles we have been pushed into, and similar, can lead to poor decisions, even deliberate attempts to fulfill negative expectations—Dylan thought that others saw him as a villain and correspondingly behaved like a villain. While this is likely only partially true, there are at least two thought-worthy aspects to this issue. Firstly, that we should be careful with our expectations of others and the effects they can, at least sometimes, have. Secondly, that we should beware of potential influence from others through expectations, that we should deliberately counter such expectations (at least when negative), and that we ultimately must take responsibility for our own actions, even if they arose under such influence.

In a disturbing parallel to a recently discussed real case, it is claimed that the police brought him away in handcuffs in the middle of the night, over something as trivial* as a this. Now, I do not know whether this could have happened in the real world; however, I re-iterate how important it is that law enforcement act in proportion to the crime. Not only could this easily have waited until the following morning, it might even have been prudent to just ask him to come to the station at a given time. While I do not agree with the practice of some law enforcements** of letting all crimes below a certain level just slide, this is one case where the main issue might even be considered a civil matter between the two: He pays damages, apologizes, promises to never do it again, and we call it a day.

*To be contrasted with the original vandalism, were a figure of a hundred thousand dollars of damages was mentioned. In the act he actually committed, the cost of cleaning or repairing the drive-way is unlikely to exceed a few hundred dollars, possibly being far smaller.

**Including, in my impression, the German police.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 30, 2018 at 5:26 am

A few observations around an open fly

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This Saturday, I spent close to an hour walking around Wuppertal with my fly accidentally open. A few observations:

  1. This is a good example of how much of what we do in daily life is run on autopilot: This would normally never happen, because I have an ingrained, unconscious, unthinking routine that takes care of the steps involved in putting on a pair of trousers. That day, however, I had just switched to a pair of newly washed and dried trousers, which implied several extra steps to fill my pockets with keys and whatnots, and to put on my belt. This brought me out of my routine, and I must unwittingly have skipped the important step of zipping the fly.

    Another good example is making coffee: My normal (ingrained, unconscious, unthinking) routine is to put water into the machine, add the coffee grounds, start the machine.* On very rare occasions, I put the grounds in first—and almost invariably forget to put in the water at all before starting the machine. The ingrained sequence is that the start follows the grounds, and this appears to take precedence over even a conscious thought or decision from twenty seconds earlier.

    *For simplicity, a number of detail steps, like “open the lid”, “find a filter”, are left out.

    There is a famous experiment or experiment family with insects, where an insect is fooled into again and again performing the same set of steps by the researcher’s repeated restoration of an initial condition—even when this restoration did not necessitate a repetition by the insect. Humans are possibly not that different: They, unlike the insect, would be able to discover that they were being strung along after one or two iterations, but, given the right constellation, most of us might be fooled into at least one unnecessary repetition of such an “autopilot task”.*

    *Generally, I suspect that many examples of “stupid” animal behavior give too much credit to humans, at least if the abstraction level is increased a little. For instance, documentaries about bees sometimes point out that bee “security” is only active at the entrances to a hive, and that hostiles/strangers/… that have already entered the hive are usually left alone (and “ha, ha, stupid bees”)—but how does that differ from security in most office buildings? Or take an intelligence test to differ between bright and dumb dogs: Will the dog keep standing next to a steak (or whatnot) with a pesky fence between the two—or will it run away from the steak, through the gate twenty feet away, and back to the steak on the other side of the fence? Few humans would fail this test with a literal fence, but how about a more metaphorical one? What if the best way to solve a problem is to retreat from one promising-but-ultimately-futile road and try something else? What if the best way to make a certain career advancement is to leave the current employer? Etc.

  2. There was a surprising lack of reaction: Except a few odd looks that only carried significance after I had learned of my faux-pas, there was no indication that something was amiss until about an hour into my walk, when a passer-by made a brief, barely audible comment: No friendly caution, no pointing and laughing children, no old lady who tried to beat me up with her cane, …

    This lack of reaction included a teenage girl who struck up a short, apparently random conversation—and who failed to even hint at something being wrong.

  3. Women are weird: Here we have a teenage girl striking up a random conversation with a man old enough to be her father, who is severely behind on his shaving, who is sweating from the hot weather and brisk tempo—and who has his fly open.

    Why?!?*

    *Even someone very outgoing and friendly, who would normally engage strangers in conversation for no actual reason (in it self a strange behavior to me), really should think twice about such an approach. I would certainly have advised my (hypothetical) teenage daughter against it. It is obviously possible that she started the conversation because she wanted to bring the problem to my attention, and that she then found it too embarrassing. On the other hand, through her not mentioning it, she ran the risk of coming across like a complete weirdo/pervert/freak/… to her near-by friends—which seems much more embarrassing to me.

    Even in my forties, I sometimes find the behavior of women incomprehensible. For instance, during another walk a few weeks ago, a woman asked me the German equivalent of “Can you call?”—not “Can you call X for me?”, not “Can you call me to check whether my phone is working?”, not “Do you have reception?”, not “Why haven’t you called me yet?”*, or any other somewhat reasonable question. When I asked what she meant, the answer amounted to something along the lines of “Like, you know, call?”—both times with a too “native” pronunciation to allow “German as a second language” as an explanation, both times with not the slightest hint of e.g. being drunk. (Because I had no phone on me, making her intents academic, I did not inquire further.)

    *Assuming a mistaken identity: I have no recollection of ever even meeting her before.

  4. Thank God for underwear…

Written by michaeleriksson

May 28, 2018 at 6:48 am

Abuse of “they” as a generic singular

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Preamble:
I had gathered ideas and individual paragraphs for this post for a few weeks without actually getting to the point of writing it. In order to finally get it done today, I have pushed quite a lot of what should or could have been parts of the integrated text into detached excursions at the end of the text and made some other compromises in terms of structure and contents.

One of the greatest annoyances in current English is the growing* tendency to abuse “they” as a generic third-person singular (including secondary forms, notably “their”). Below I will discuss some of the reasons why this abuse is a bad idea and give alternatives for those who (misguided, naive of the history of English, and/or unable to understand the abstractness of a language) oppose to use of “he” in the same role. An older article on “gender-neutral language” covers some other aspects, usually on a more abstract level (and some of the same ground; however, I have tried not to be too duplicative). Some other articles, including one on language change, etc., might also be of interest in context.

*While this has a fairly long history, I regularly saw people being corrected for committing this error even some five or ten years ago. To boot, cf. below, there are strong reasons to suspect that the main motivation has changed from simple ignorance or sloppiness to a deliberate abuse for PC reasons.

Below, I will largely discuss practical aspects. Before I do so, I am going to make a stand and call this abuse (when done for PC reasons) outright offensive.* It offends me, and it should offend anyone who cares about language and anyone who opposes political manipulation through newspeak. More: This is not just a question of good language or newspeak. The abuse of “they” is also a direct insult towards significant parts of the population, who are implicitly told that they are that easy to manipulate, that they and their own opinions matter so little that they deserve such manipulation, and that they need to be protected from the imaginary evils of “gendered language”. Moreover, this abuse is** often dehumanizing and deinvidualizing, in a manner disturbingly similar to what took place in the dystopian novella “Anthem”.

*I am normally very careful when it comes to words like “offensive”—unlike the PC crowd I actually understand the aspects of subjectiveness involved and how misguided such argumentation usually is. However, since “offensiveness” is used by them in such a systematic and, mostly, irrational and unjustifiable manner, I will not hold back in this case.

**At least if we were to apply PC “logic” in reverse, which, again, is something that I would likely not do, had the PC crowd not gone to their extreme excesses.

Now, discounting the evils of PC abuse, per se, the worst thing about abusing “they” is the risk of entirely unnecessary confusion and misunderstandings*: In a very high proportion of the cases I encounter, additional context or even guesswork is needed to connect “they” with the right entity/-ies; often this choice is contrary to what would be grammatically expected; occasionally there is so much ambiguity that it is impossible to be certain what was meant. Consider something like “My friend went with Jack and Jill to see their parents”: Unless they are all siblings (or went to see multiple sets of parents), this really must mean that they went to see the parents of Jack and Jill; however, in a modern PC text, it could just as easily be the friend’s parents. Or take something like “Monopoly is played by two to six players, one of which is the bank. They [the `bank’] handle most of the money.”: Without already knowing the rules, the second sentence is impossible to understand when “they” is abused (and stating something untrue when it is used correctly).

*There are situations where ambiguities can arise even when using correct grammar, especially with a sloppy author/speaker; however, the proportion is considerably lower, the probability that the ambiguities are resolved through context is higher, and the added confusion caused by the uncertainty whether a given author/speaker abuses “they” is absent. (Note that the argument that “if everyone spoke PC this would not be a problem” is flawed through failing to consider the great number of existing texts as well as the necessarily different adoption rates in different countries and generations.)

A few days ago, I encountered a particularly weird example, in the form of an error message, when I was trying to clean-up unnecessary groups and users* on my computer:

*In Unix-like systems, “users” (accounts) can be assigned “groups”. With extremely few exceptions, every user should correspond to at most one physical user. (Some users are purely technical and do not have any physical user at all.) A group, however, can be assigned to arbitrarily many users and, by implication, arbitrarily many physical users. As a special case, it is common for every user to be a member, often the sole member, of a group with the same name as the user name. Below, this is the case for the user “gnats”.

/usr/sbin/delgroup: `gnats’ still has `gnats’ as their primary group!

Here it is impossible to delete the group “gnats”, because the user “gnats” belongs to this group; however, this fact is obscured through the incompetent error message that uses “their”, giving the impression that the group is meant… In many cases, say with the user “gnats” and the group “audio”, this would not have been the end of the world, but when the names coincide, it is a horror, and interpretation requires more knowledge about the internals of the system than most modern users will have. This example is the more idiotic, because the pronoun is entirely unnecessary: “[…] as primary group!” would have done just fine. Even given that a pronoun was wanted, “its” would be the obvious first choice to someone even semi-literate, seeing that the user “gnats” is an obvious it*—regardless of whether the physical** user behind it is a he or a she.

*Similarly, a bank account remains an “it”, regardless of the sex of the account owner.

**As case has it, “gnats” is one of the users that do not have a physical user at all (cf. above footnote), making “it” the more indisputable.

The use of “their” instead of “its” is just one example of the many perverted abuses that occur. A very similar case is using “they” instead of “it” for an animal*. Mixing “one” and “they” is yet another (e.g. “one should always do their duty”, which would only be correct if “their” refers to some people other than the “one” ). A particular extreme perversion is using “they” when the sex of the person involved is actually known (or a necessity from context), as e.g. in “my friend liked the movie; they want to see it again”.**

*Whether “it” is more logical than “he”/“she” for an animal can be disputed, but it is the established rule. Going with “they” over “it” gives only disadvantages. (Even the pseudo-advantage of “gender neutrality” does not apply, because “it” already had that covered.)

**As aside, there might be some PC-extremists that actually deliberately use such formulations, because they see every sign of sex (race, nationality, religion, …) as not only irrelevant in any context, but as outright harmful, because “it could strengthen stereotypes”, or similar. Not only would this be a fanaticism that goes beyond anything defensible, it also severely damages communications: Such information is important in very many contexts, because these characteristics do have an effect in these contexts. (And it is certainly not for one party do selectively decide which of these contexts are relevant and which not.) For instance, if someone cries, the typical implications for a male and a female (or a child and an adult) are very different. Ditto, if a catholic and a protestant marriage is terminated. Etc.

Assuming that someone absolutely does not want to use “he”, there is still no need to abuse “they”. Alternatives include:*

*What alternatives are usable when can depend on the specifics of the individual case. I can, however, not recall one single abuse that could not be resolved better in at least one way. Note that I have not included variations like “he or she” or “(s)he” in the below. While these are better than “they”, and can certainly be used, they are also fairly clumsy and the below works without such clumsiness. (I have no sympathies at all for solutions like using “he” in odd-numbered chapters and “she” in even-numbered ones. They bring little value; do not solve the underlying problem, be it real or imagined; and, frankly, strike me as childish.)

  1. Use a strict plural through-out, e.g. by replacing “everyone who wants to come should bring their own beverages” with “those who want to come should bring their own beverages”.
  2. Using “one” (but, cf. above, doing it properly!), e.g. by replacing “everyone should be true to themself” with “one should be true to oneself”.
  3. Similarly, rarely* using “you”, e.g. by having “you should be true to yourself” as the replacement in the previous item.

    *Cf. another older article why “you” is usually best avoided (for completely different reasons).

  4. Using “who” or another relative pronoun, e.g. by replacing “My friend is nice. They came to help me.” with “my friend, who came to help me, is nice”.*

    *But in this specific example, the sex is known and it would be better yet to use “he” or “she” as appropriate. This applies equally in any other examples where the sex is known.

  5. Avoiding the pronoun altogether, e.g. by replacing “every student should bring their chosen book” with “every student should bring a chosen book”, or “someone asked me to describe the painting to them” with “someone asked me to describe the painting”.
  6. Using the passive, e.g. by replacing “they* brought the horses back to the stable” with “the horses were brought back to the stable”. (If there is fear of information loss, we could append a suitable “by X” at the end of the replacement, just making sure that “X” is not “them”.)

    *Assuming that this is intended as a singular. If “they” is actually used for a plural, it is perfectly fine.

  7. In many cases, it is possible to use either “he” or “she” as a semi-generic singular from context. For instance, when generalizing based or semi-based on a man/woman, “he”/“she” can often be used accordingly without losing much genericness and without upsetting any but the most extremist of the PC crowd. For instance, “If a beginner like you cannot succeed, they should still try.” would be better as (male counter-part) “[…], he […]” resp. (female counter-part) “[…], she […]”.

    (Of course, when all of those we generalize to belong to a single sex, the appropriate of “he” and “she” should be used, analogously to the Thalidomide example below.)

Excursion on “it” vs. “they”:
Using “it” rather than “they” (as a replacement for “he”) would have made much more sense, seeing that it actually is a singular and that it actually is in the neutral gender*. Many of the arguments against “they” would still apply, but if someone really, really wanted to use an existing word as a replacement, “it” really is the obvious choice. I could have had some understanding and sympathy for “it”, but “they” is not just idiotic—it is obviously idiotic.

*“They” has some (all?) characteristics of a neutral gender in English, but whether it actually is one is partly depending on perspective. In English, it might be better to consider it a mix-gender form; in other languages, there might be different words for a third-person plural depending on the grammatical genders of the group members; whatnot.

The somewhat similar (but off-topic) question of whether to use “it” or “they” for e.g. a team, a company, or a band is less clear-cut. I would weakly recommend “it” as the usually more logical alternative, as well as the alternative less likely to cause confusion; however, in some cases “they” can be better, and I probably use “they” more often in my own practical use.

Excursion on “everyone”, etc.:
Errors that originate in ignorance or sloppiness are far more tolerable than those that originate from PC abuse. The most common (relating to “they”) is probably to take “everyone” to be a grammatical plural (logically, it often is; grammatically, never), resulting in sentences like “everyone were happy with their choices”, which is almost OK and unlikely to cause confusion considerably more often than a strictly correct sentence. In contrast, a PC abuse would result in “everyone was happy with their choice”, which is ripe with possibility for misunderstanding.

Excursion on PC language in general:
It is not uncommon that other attempts to “be PC” or “gender-neutral” in language cause easily avoidable problems. For instance, parallel to writing this post I skimmed the Wikipedia article on Thalidomide, which among other claims contained “Thalidomide should not be used by people who are breast feeding or pregnant, trying to conceive a child, or cannot or will not follow the risk management program to prevent pregnancies.”—leaving me severely confused. Obviously, if we look at “breast feeding or pregnant”, this still necessarily* refers only to women**—but what about the rest of the sentence? If a man tries to conceive a child with his wife, does he too have to stay clear of Thalidomide?*** If the author of the sentence had left political correctness (and/or sloppiness) at home and spoken of “women” instead of “people” where only women were concerned, and then of “people” where both sexes were concerned, there would have been no problem present. This is the more serious, as such pages will inevitably be used for medical consultation from time to time—no matter how much their unsuitability for such purposes is stressed.

*There are rare cases of men lactating, but I have never even heard of this being used for breast feeding. If it has happened, it is too extraordinarily rare to warrant consideration here.

**Implying that speaking of “people” would be at best misguided and unnecessary, even for this first part. However, since no actual confusion or miscommunication is likely to result, this alone would be forgivable.

***Later parts of the page make clear, very contrary to my expectations, that men are included, “as the drug can be transmitted in sperm”. (I still suspect, however, that the risks are smaller for men than women, due to the smaller exposure from the fetus point of view.)

Excursion on Wikipedia:
Wikipedia, which used to be exemplary in its use of language (and strong in other “encyclopedic” characteristics) has degenerated severely over the years, with abuse of “they” being near ubiquitous. Unfortunately, other language problems are quite common; unfortunately other PC problems are quite common, including that an entirely disproportionate number of articles have a section of feminism, the feminist take on the topic, the topic’s relation to feminism, whatnot, somewhere—even when there is no particular relevance to or of feminism. (Including e.g. many articles on films with a section on how the film is interpreted using “feminist” film analysis.)

Excursion on duty to correctness:
Human acquisition and development of language is to a large part imitative. When people around us use incorrect language, there is a considerable risk, especially with young people, that the errors will be infective. For this reason, it could possibly be argued that we have duty to be as correct as possible (within the borders of our own abilities). When it comes to e.g. teachers, TV, news papers, … I would speak of a definite such duty: They have the opportunity to affect and, possibly, infect so many people that it is absurd to be sloppy, especially seeing that many of them have the resources to use professional checkers, e.g. copy editors. (Of course, sadly, these also have other duties like proper research, “fairness in reporting”, and whatnot, that are neglected disturbingly often.)

Excursion on logic of language:
Much of language is illogical or arbitrary, or seems to be so, because of remnants of long-forgotten and no longer used rules; however, much of it is also quite logical and a great shame today is that so many people are so unable to see patterns, rules, consequences, whatnot, that should be obvious.* Failing to keep numbers consistent is one example. Others include absurdities like “fast speed”, “I could care less”, “in the same … with …”, “try and”. That someone slips up on occasion is nothing to be ashamed of—I do too**. However, there are very many whose language is riddled with such errors, and there appear to be a very strong correlations between such errors and low intelligence, poor education, and simply not giving a damn.

*Not to be confused with the many language errors that arise from e.g. not remembering the spelling of a certain word, having misunderstood what a word means, not knowing the right grammatical rule, … These are usually easier to forgive, being signals of lack of knowledge rather than inability to think. Other classes of errors not included are simple slips of the pen/keyboard and deliberate violations, say the inexcusable practice of abusing full stops to keep the nominal length of a sentence down, even at the cost of both hacking the sentence to pieces that cannot stand alone and making it harder to understand.

**I have a particular weak spot for words that sound similar, e.g. “to”, “too”, and (occasionally) “two”: Even being perfectly aware of which is the correct in a given context, I sometimes pick the wrong one through some weird automatism. The difference between a plural and a possessive “s”-suffix is another frequent obstacle.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 27, 2018 at 7:41 am

Judging old civilizations

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In my impression, ancient civilizations*, cultures, and whatnots, are to a large degree judged positively by the masses because of an ability to work and move stones and/or erect large buildings, monuments, or similar, be it the ancient Egyptians, Olmecs, Toltecs, or any number of others.

*I will go with “civilization” as a catch-all below, even at the risk of being imprecise, and even when implying something normally considered pre-civilization. (I originally went with “culture” as the catch-all, but since I still found myself again and again using “civilization”, I revised the decision.)

However, the ability to merely move large stones has been shown so often in human history and pre-history, even by comparatively primitive groups, that it borders on uselessness as a criterion: Building Stonehenge was no small accomplishment, but it was more a matter of brute force than engineering. The “walking” moai on Easter Island used a very clever trick, but also relied more on brute force than engineering—and the trick might have required as little as one very clever guy with a bright idea.

Similarly, cutting stones, working stones, etc., requires* surprisingly little in terms of technology, and can be accomplished with hard work, primitive tools, and a few tricks.

*To do at all, even at a relatively large scale; however, better technology can obviously speed up the process enormously.

To boot, we have to keep in mind that many of these civilizations either were neolithic (“late stone-age”) or had a greater ability to draw on neolithic skills and knowledge than later civilizations, implying that they had a head-start relative, say, a random 21st-century engineer in the area of stone work. Specific new skills, techniques, whatnot developed by these civilizations are definitely laudable, but not very surprising: Spend a few hundred years building walls, temples, pyramids and relevant innovation is virtually unavoidable—the inborn faculties of humans were at least approximately the same as today even a few thousand years ago.

Stone-work, monumental or otherwise, alone proves very little. In many ways, it boils down to the observation that the 19th-century French could have built the worlds largest pyramid, had they really wanted to—but that the ancient Egyptians could never have built the Eiffel Tower. The level of engineering, materials science, precision of manufacture, …, necessary for the latter is on a very different level from the former. (Similarly, the 19th-century French could never have built the computer I am writing on right now.) Indeed, even building a tower of the Eiffel Tower’s height is only half the feat—the other half is doing it with so little material and so fast. More generally, I would view it as a greater sign of progress to be able to do more* with less** than to simply do more, and it is often more impressive to be able to do smaller things than larger: A modern micro-chip is a far greater accomplishment than either of the Eiffel Tower and Egypt’s pyramids. Similarly, doing things with a high precision and detail can be more impressive than doing them at a large scale. Compare a moai with a Greek (or even Egyptian) statue, a wind-mill with a mechanical watch, or a mechanical watch with (again) a micro-chip.

*A taller building, a more voluminous ship, a computer with more FLOPS, …

**Less material, man-power, time, money, …

Similarly, looking just at accomplishments in a narrow range of areas tells us comparatively little: Some degree of astronomical (or astrological…) observation and calculation is not that impressive, considering the importance of stars in the past. Broaden this to include a wide variety of mathematical calculations and results, an understanding of physics and cosmology, …, and I am far more impressed. Specifically artistic accomplishment is a tricky area: On the one hand, even comparatively primitive civilizations have produced works that can produce a “Wow!” effect in a modern viewer (and the Romans and ancient Greeks were superior to possibly even the late medieval Europe). On the other, their works are often in a very uniform tradition*, often show more craft skills than artistic skills, and specifically the “Wow!”-works often appear to have been outstanding in their own day: They were not everyday accomplishments but made for the king or another extreme VIP, by the best of the best, possibly over the course of several years. Arts could, by the previous paragraph, be a better measure of advancement than “building big”, at least up to a certain point, but, taken on its own, it is rarely a good measure.

*Not only implying accomplishment in a very narrow area, which is relatively easy, but also a lack of innovation and development in terms of style.

Correspondingly, I would see it as important to take a much more holistic view* and look at accomplishments in a greater number of areas—were they good at A, B, and C or where they good at A–Z?** Ditto, to look at how they accomplished what they accomplished: Did they use refined tools and engineering or brute force? A machine or dozens of rope-pulling workers? Etc.

*But beware that this can be hard to do without extensive preserved writings.

**Note that the fields to consider are not restricted to variations like “were they good at stones” vs. “were they good at stones and wood”, but also include scientific accomplishments, technology, literature, philosophy, medicine, road network, level of plumbing, … Being good at everything is not a prerequisite; however, neither a civilization of brilliant stone artists with no other skills, nor a civilization of mathematicians living as otherwise primitive hunter/gatherers, can be considered advanced. Within specific fields, questions arise like “did they build boats?”, “did they build boats that could survive the open sea?”, and “did they also have the navigational skills to reliably travel on the open sea?”.

This, obviously, is not necessarily to say that this-or-that civilization was not worthy of praise*—just that we should be careful what measures we apply, and that we are praise them for the right reasons and to the appropriate degree. Building a civilization is comparatively easy to do; building an advanced civilization, that is a very different matter.**

*For one thing, many of them did have more to offer than big stones and a little astrology; for another, in many contexts the main criterion for praiseworthiness is not how advanced a civilization actually was—but how much it advanced beyond its neighbors and predecessors.

**I lack the depth of knowledge to be specific about where all the discussed (let alone unmentioned) civilizations should be classified; using a vague “advanced” would be bound to cause disagreement based on different definitions; it is unlikely that a binary classification would make sense in the first place; and it would often be necessary to include a time frame (“ancient Egypt”, e.g., covers thousands of years and several highs and low). Correspondingly, I do not attempt to make such a classification here. However, as a rough guide-line, a reasonable and reasonably detailed classification would need to put e.g. the 19th-century French, the Roman Empire, pyramid-era Egypt, and the moai-sculptors of Easter Island in different classes, descending in that order, quite possibly with additional, intervening, classes.

Excursion on rate of progress:
Some of the above can be better understood when we consider that progress in any given area can be quite fast when enough resources are dedicated. For instance, sixty years before the first moon landing, airplanes were taking their baby steps. Similarly, compare the world of IT today with the world sixty years ago. Similarly, note how the standards for sky-scrapers has exploded over a few decades when rich East-Asians or Arabs wanted to set their marks (and how it did the same thing for a few decades last century with rich New Yorkers). Similarly, note how individual art movements have reached their heights in just decades or even years. Etc. That a more primitive civilization, even with a considerably smaller population, would manage to reach a relatively high level of accomplishment in one or several areas, if it focused sufficiently strongly on those areas, is entirely unremarkable. Accomplishment over a wide range of areas is far more impressive.

Excursion on alien visitors:
Speculation along the lines of “aliens built the pyramids” have occurred in the past, as has speculation that this-or-that culture only arose through the influence of a contemporary culture from another part of the word (e.g. that Chinese colonists had it made it to pre-Columbian Latin-America). From my point of view, in accordance with the above, I consider such influence entirely unnecessary to explain the archaeological record—even discounting the low probability of such contacts. (Notwithstanding that more geographically close civilizations have influenced each other, often strongly.)

Written by michaeleriksson

May 22, 2018 at 9:42 pm

Unfortunate U.S. copyright developments

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Copyright laws that extend too far into the future have long annoyed me, although I have written relatively little on the topic. However, as a part of a (much older) discussion of patents, I made several recommendations that are grossly violated by a suggested U.S. law*, close too passing. This included a strong focus on the author** (and the life of the author) of the work in question, limitations if the rights were sold to another party, and that the period that a copyright is valid, by law, cannot be extended.

*I draw more on a German article for my discussion, however.

**I will mostly remain with the generic term “author” below; however, in most of the relevant cases, it amounts to “recording artist”, “song writer”, “lyricist”, “composer”, or similar. I refer strictly to the author in the literal sense and not to the legal fiction implied by formulations like “for purposes of copyright law, the author of this work is XYZ”.

This suggested law could retroactively extend copyright* for some musical works to 144 (!) years, long after most of the original authors can be assumed dead**, and with no regard for transfer of rights.

*The law appears to focus strongly on “digital performance” and/or “transmission”; however, this would already cover, or could be interpreted to cover, a clear majority of all modern and copyright-relevant uses—and the proportion will grow over time. The effective difference between “digital performance” and “copyright” (in general) will likely be correspondingly small. In as far as a difference is present, virtually all of the below discussion remains valid after trivial modifications.

**Cf. calculations below; use common sense; or note that a very significant portion, possibly the majority, are dead even now—with almost fifty years to go.

The ostensible reason for this law could be seen as positive: Musical works created before 1972 have a weaker protection than works created later, based on previous changes to U.S. copyright law.

Practically speaking, this law comes too late to effectively provide the benefits it claims to provide in the majority of the cases; the time limits involved are out of proportion to newer works; and I would be very surprised if the true purpose was not to benefit the music industry, not the authors, in a highly questionable manner:

  1. Works created in the span 1923–1972 will, in a blanket manner, be protected until 2067 (!), effectively implying that almost all the original authors will be dead: Even someone as young as 15 when he wrote something in 1972 would have to live to an age of 110*, in order to use up the entire time of protection. Someone who wrote a work at age 15 in 1923 would have to be 110 right now, in order to enjoy even a day’s worth of additional protection. Even our friend from 1972, if still alive, would be 61 at the time of writing—better late than never, but… Of course, the overwhelming majority of authors were not 15 and the numbers look even worse when adjusting for a more realistic age.

    *With some reservations for the exact reference point of each of the involved years.

    If the law was actually geared at protecting the authors’ interests, it should have been shaped very differently—and passed a lot earlier. (Especially seeing that the interest in a given piece of music typically diminishes rapidly over time—the author’s death being one of the very few events that can cause a major new interest… Not only will the typical sales be less counted in items, e.g. CDs, but the price per item will also typically decline.)

  2. The years involved are likely based on the already hyperextended and disproportionate 95 years used for newer works: 1923 is 2018 – 95; 2067 is 1972 + 95. Now, using a number based on current rules might have been a reasonable idea, if it had been applied sensibly. A sensible application would have been to let the copyright expire in the year of the creation + 95. In other words, a works from 1972 would indeed be protected until 2067, but a work from 1923 only until 2018, a work from 1950 only until 2045, etc. The actually suggested implementation gives the owners of older works an unwarranted advantage over those of younger works.
  3. The law amounts to a change after the fact. I note in particular that there is no guarantee whatsoever that 2067 will remain the upper limit. Further, that counting from 1923 implies that almost all recordings ever made will be under copyright for the foreseeable future, possibly, eventually, forever. (To boot, those recordings that were made before 1923 will be of very poor quality by today’s standards, be it through differences in recording technology or through decay over time—if they have not been lost entirely…) Continuing the age calculations, chances are that both I and half of the readers will already be dead by 2067: I, e.g., would turn 92 in that year.

    All in all, this looks suspiciously like an attempt to ensure that music without a copyright is permanently limited to a minimum.

  4. The music industry is possibly the least worthy of protection of all the copyright related: The actual authors of the music are very often detached from the rights to it, and the music industry is infamous for taking unfair advantage of its musicians. Cf. e.g. [1] and the linked-to article by Courtney Love. The implication is that this law, even timing aside, would do comparatively little for the authors and a hell of a lot of for the music industry.

As an aside, I strongly suspect that the point of long copyright terms is not primarily to get royalties on older works—but to diminish the competition for newer and more lucrative ones: A rational consumer will think twice about paying top-dollars for the latest works when there are many, many quality works of old that are available for free or at a nominal cost. For instance, my own purchases of books* have diminished considerably over the years, in favour of Wikisource, Project Gutenberg, and other repositories of free readings. Note that the music industry is extremely driven by new material, new hits, new sounds, …, that rarely have what it takes to be of note even ten years later; and that it is likely the copyright industry with the most to lose from competition from older materials.

*Books, unfortunately, is one of the few areas where a sufficient quantity of copyright-free works exist, with e.g. movies and musical recordings being limited in time for technological reasons. The same principle would apply, however.)

Written by michaeleriksson

May 21, 2018 at 2:37 am