Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Brief thoughts on the decline of Latin and Greek as a scientific languages

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When I first, as a child, learned of the use Latin and Greek names for various plants, animals, and whatnot, it was explained to me that this was done to (a) ensure that there was a name that scientists speaking different languages could use and still be understood by each other, (b) still keep the names in a single language.

I am far from certain that this explanation is correct: More likely, the likes of Linnaeus simply started a tradition based on Latin as the then “science language” for his extensive classifications,* which was kept long after Latin lost ground to modern languages.

*Just like I prefer to write in English over Swedish—why not use the language more likely to be understood?

Still, the purported idea is quite sound: Using a single language allows for greater consistency and enables those so interested to actually learn that single language in order to make identification of the item behind the name that much easier;* and Latin has the advantage of lacking** potential for conflict (as might have been the case if English and French or Mandarin and Japanese were pitted against each other).

*Indeed, even a limited knowledge can be a great help, e.g. by knowing a few commonly occurring suffixes and prefixes.

**Or should do so in any sane era: Some politically correct fanatics apparently consider anything relating to “Western Culture” something to be condemned in a blanket manner. Nothing is certain, except for death, taxes, and human stupidity.

Unfortunately, the scientists of old did not stick to Latin, often turning to Greek. (This includes the names of many (most?) dinosaurs.) However this situation was still reasonably tolerable.

Then things started to get out of hand: Over the last few decades names have increasingly been coined in any locale language. For instance, this text was prompted by the recent discovery of the dinosaur genus Ledumahadi—apparently named “a giant thunderclap at dawn”* in Sesotho

*The silliness and apparent lack of “scientificity” of the meaning, however, has little to do with the language. Dinosaurs have been given similarly silly names from the early days of scientific attention (and many less silly names for extinct animals are obscure through e.g. referring to the shape of a tooth). In contrast, many of Linnaeus names could draw directly on existing Latin names for at least the genus (as e.g. with “homo sapiens”—“homo” being the Latin word for human).

Going by Wikipedia, Sesotho has some five or six million native speakers—considerably less than Swedish today and an even smaller proportion of the world population than Sweden in the days of (my fellow Swede) Linnaeus*. If Linnaeus picked Latin over Swedish back then, how can we justify picking Sesotho over both Latin and English today? The idea is contrary to reason.

If someone were to argue that Latin and Greek, specifically, had grown impractical due to the reduced knowledge among today’s scientists, I might have some sympathies. However, if we concluded that they should go, the reasonable thing to do would be to opt for English as the sole language, thereby ensuring the largest global understandibility. If not English, then some other, truly major language, e.g. Mandarin*, Hindi*, or Spanish should have been considered. Sesotho is useless as single language, and not using a single language will end with names that appear entirely random. It will usually even be impossible to know what language a name is in, without additional research, making it that much harder to find out the meaning.

*Here additional thought might be needed on how the names should be written. (Original writing system? Transliterated to the Latin alphabet? Otherwise?)

For those interested in “local” names, there is always the possibility of introducing an everyday name for the local language: Dinosaurs have normally been known by their scientific names even in the general population, but there is no actual law that this must be the case. Call the Ledumahadi “Ledumahadi” in Sesotho and use a Latin or Greek translation* as the scientific name and the default in other languages.

*My limited knowledge does not allow me to make a suggestion.

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Written by michaeleriksson

September 29, 2018 at 5:46 pm

Search-engines missing the point

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Search mechanisms on the Internet are another ([1], [2]) common source of “missing the point”, be they global search-engines or site-internal:

When a user searches, it is not to find hits—but to find relevant hits. However, most* search-engines, etc., appear to focus on maximizing the number of hits and to consider relevance a secondary criterion—often combined with an attitude of “we know better than the user what he wanted to search for”.

*In my experiences over the last few years: I have, obviously, only used a minority of the world”s searches (and avoid Google for reasons of privacy) and things were a bit better in the past.

Wikipedia is a good example: Almost every time I search for something obscure, I am met with a message of “Showing results for [less obscure word]. Search instead for [original search word].”—utterly unacceptable! If I search for X, Wikipedia should non-negotiably show the results for X. The first assumption should always be that the user knows what he wants. If there is reason to expect a mistake, e.g. if someone searches for “reciever”, then it is acceptable, often beneficial, to also make a suggestion “Did you want to search for ‘receiver’?”—but the hits for “reciever” should be shown by default. Presuming to override the search punishes those who actually know what they do and do so correctly, while assisting those who do not…* (However, in the specific example used, some room for display of both can be available as per excursion below. In many or most other cases this is not so, because the actual word used is correctly spelled, but just happens to not have an article on Wikipedia.)

*I stress that I do not claim perfection in this regard: I often make mistakes that involve turning two letters around, hitting return before typing the last latter, and similar. However, I have no objections to paying the price of a second search when I actually have made a mistake—having to pay that price when I did not make one, that is what annoys me.

My current main search-tool, duckduckgo*, is truly horrible in this regard. It does normally show hits for what I searched for, but very often in a form so diluted as to make the results useless. This includes an ever recurring “Not many results contain [specific search term]. Search only for [the original search terms]?”, which amounts to “if this specific search term is included, we do not find many hits, so we have chosen to consider it secondary”. However, the terms falling victim to this are usually those that I very, very deliberately included in order to ensure that the relevance of the hits was high enough! In effect, the better my original choice of terms, the stronger they filter, the more valuable they would have made the resulting hits—the less likely they are to be taken at face-value by duckduckgo. Even a single relevant hit is better than a hundred irrelevant hits! This misbehavior is especially annoying when the space of potential hits has to be reduced by several types of criteria, each essential for the hits to be relevant.**

*A good choice in terms of claimed philosophy with regard to e.g. anonymity, and often the default with e.g. the Tor Browser. However, due to the poor search results, I will almost certainly look for a replacement in the near future. Notably, duckduckgo is yet another tool that has grown worse over time. This lately includes ever more “paid hits”.

**Consider e.g. searching for information on installing a certain piece of software, which requires at least three types of information: (1) Installation instructions are different for different platforms, implying that the platform is needed, preferably fairly specifically. Even with Linux there are often differences from distribution to distribution, and the instructions for Windows or MacOS are highly unlikely to be helpful. (2) These instructions are different for different pieces of software, implying that the current software is needed. (3) The fact that an installation is concerned (and not e.g. general product information or information on trouble-shooting a run-time problem) is needed…

However, even when this dreaded message does not appear, the actual use of the search terms appears to be fairly arbitrary and hits are very often of low quality. This to the point that I suspect that duckduckgo internally uses an “or”* search and then delivers the hits based on some ranking** where “and”*** is just a secondary criterion. The result is that I often have to repeatedly manipulate my query using additional instructions,**** which can waste quite a lot of time and be very frustrating, when it occurs repeatedly in a short span of time. It is far better to be honest, deliver the few relevant hits, and suggest a less stringent search, than to pretend that an ocean of relevant hits were found—but which actually are an ocean of irrelevant hits.

*A query like “a b c” should obviously per default be interpreted as “give me hits that match ‘a’ and ‘b’ and ‘c’ and nothing else”—not as “give me hits that match ‘a’ or ‘b’ or ‘c’ or otherwise only partially match my criteria”. The key to good searches is cutting out the irrelevant, not grabbing anything even remotely plausible looking. (The one case for “or”, as a default, that once could have been made, is long outdated. Cf. excursion.)

**Using a ranking is not a problem, but could even be seen as a necessity. (Another problem with Wikipedia is the weak or absent ranking of hits.) However, this ranking must have relevance as the most important criterion. If this is ignored in favor of criteria like popularity, a very popular page that deals extensively with “a” (but not “b” and “c”) might be ranked over an unpopular page that actually deals with all three.

***More strictly speaking, the textual relevance for the search terms.

****Specifically, the use of “+” to force the use of a given search term and quotation marks to ensure that a certain term is taken literally, e.g. “a “b” c” (but see excursion below).

Excursion on synonyms and similar:
An acceptable, normally highly beneficial, exception to the use of the user”s literal query is the application of synonyms and similar fuzziness. For instance, if a search for “horse” does not include pages that use “horses”, “equine[s]”, and whatnot (but fail to use “horse”), there would be a considerable additional burden on the user, including the need for repeated searches or searches that make heavy use of “or” instructions. In the minority of cases where the specific, literal, search-term is required, the user still has the option of being explicit* about this. Some degree of such fuzziness has been a quasi-standard since the late 1990s or the early 2000s.

*Typically, through the use of “””.

However, even this can be taken too far. For instance, I recall once searching for information on User-Mode Linux: Knowing that using the typical abbreviation, “UML”, might give me many irrelevant hits on Unified Modeling Language, I very, very deliberately spelled the phrase out—and found hits dominated by … Unified Modeling Language! Apparently, the search-engine had reasoned that “Hmm, ‘User-Mode Linux’ is the same as ‘UML’, ‘UML’ is the same as ‘Unified Modeling Language’; ergo, I should show hits for ‘Unified Modeling Language’!”, despite the two having nothing to do with each other.

A particular problem with too much fuzziness is that countering it with a literal search will be an all-or-nothing deal (for the search-term in question): For instance, if an over-eager search-engine includes results for “address Doctor John Smith” for the search “address Professor John Smith”, this can be corrected by searching for “address “Professor John Smith””. However, this will also exclude references to “Pr. John Smith” and “Prof. John Smith”. Here, the attempt to combat too much fuzziness requires throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Remark on quotes:
Note that there are three types of quotes used in this text, regular double (“/”), regular single (‘/’), and the-ones-on-the-keyboard (“/”).

Written by michaeleriksson

September 29, 2018 at 12:03 pm

Wordpress at it again: Backups and security through obscurity

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The stream of outrageous incompetence by WordPress continues…

For the first time in half an eternity,* I decided to download a backup of my WordPress blog. In the past, this has resulted in (most likely) a zip-file being offered for saving. Today, however, I was met with a message that a link to this zip-file would be sent to my email account… The link, in turn, was valid for a full seven days, downloadable by any arbitrary Internet user, and protected only by (what I hope was) a random sequence of characters added to the file name. This is not only highly user unfriendly—it is also a great example of idiots relying on “security through obscurity”: It is true that no-one who does not know the random part of the file name (obscurity) will be able to download the file (“security”). However, with the state of email security, a great number of hostiles** would have had the opportunity to grab the email contents and find the link. To boot, this approach opens the door for simple errors or oversights by WordPress to open an unnecessary security hole, e.g. if a list with the current such links is similarly weakly protected… Other risks might exist, e.g. that it might be easier for a family member or visitor to get hold of the email/link than access to the WordPress account.*** In contrast, with the old system, the backup was transient and protected by the normal user-account controls—and if those are breached, it does not matter how backups are handled…

*This is not as bad as it sounds: I write all posts offline, with separate backups, in the first place; there are not that many comments; and I intended to leave WordPress at some point anyhow. Correspondingly, little data would actually be lost, if something bad happened.

**Notably, not necessarily parties hostile towards the individual blogger. More likely, it would be someone hostile towards WordPress or who sees WordPress as an easy source of data. Such a hostile would then watch the outgoing traffic from the WordPress mail-servers, grab all the links it could find, and then simply download everything. And, yes, many blogs will contain contents that are not intended for public viewing, including private blogs, blogs restricted to a smaller circle, and public blogs with unpublished drafts.

***Anonymous bloggers are not necessarily known to even a closer circle and even those who are might have contents not yet suitable for viewing by others. (This need not even relate to something truly secret, which would be foolish in the extreme to put on WordPress in any manner, but could include e.g. a draft of a post dealing with an upcoming proposal, surprise party, whatnot.)

If we consider only the delay, there might be see some justification to accomodate extremely large blogs, where there is at least a possibility that the time needed* for the creation of the backup might be too large for normal in-browser interaction. However, if so, the correct solution would be to present the download only within the account it self. Indeed, even if we assume that this type of linking was acceptable (it is not), the procedure is highly suboptimal: The link should have been presented in the confirmation page, not sent per email;** the availability time should have been far shorter (a day?); and the contents should have been deleted or otherwise made unavailable upon download (if something goes wrong, the user can always create a new backup).

*I received the email almost instantaneously, implying that my backup would have had to be at least one, more likely several, orders of magnitude slower than it actually was before this concern became legitimate.

**Or the contents behind an emailed link be password protected, with the password displayed in the confirmation page; or the contents only being served after a successful WordPress login.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 28, 2018 at 7:36 pm

Tor Browser missing the point

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I have written before of browser makers having the wrong attitude (recently, Pale Moon; Firefox repeatedly, e.g. [1]) and of people missing the point to such a degree that what they do borders on the pointless.

Unfortunately, the Tor Browser is another case, brought to my mind by a recent “user agent”* issue (cf. below).

*Strictly speaking, “user-agent header”. For simplicity, I will use just “user agent” below.

The Tor Browser is a modified Firefox browser that allows surfing through the anonymisation/privacy/whatnot network Tor, while attempting to remove weaknesses in Firefox that could defeat the use of Tor. On some levels, the developers take a very strict approach, e.g. in that they advice against using Tor with another browser. On others they are paradoxically negligent.

Consider the following claim from the current version of the Tor FAQ:

Why is NoScript configured to allow JavaScript by default in Tor Browser? Isn’t that unsafe?

We configure NoScript to allow JavaScript by default in Tor Browser because many websites will not work with JavaScript disabled. Most users would give up on Tor entirely if a website they want to use requires JavaScript, because they would not know how to allow a website to use JavaScript (or that enabling JavaScript might make a website work).

This, however, makes both the use of Tor with the Tor Browser and the many alterations of the Tor Browser pointless… Allowing JavaScript is not just “unsafe”—it is a complete and utter disaster, defeating the purpose of Tor entirely! Indeed, I am very, very careful about allowing JavaScript even when not using Tor, because JavaScript does not only allow a circumvention of anonymity protection (which is not a concern in a more “vanilla” situation)—it also very severely increases the risk malware infections and whatnots. (To which can be added complications like more intrusive advertising, redundant and annoying animations of other kinds, and similar.) It would be better to use Firefox (over Tor) with JavaScript off than to use the Tor Browser with JavaScript on!

The we-do-not-want-to-scare-away-beginners argument normally carries some* weight; however, here it does not, because the damage done is so massive. This is like a word-processing program that does not allow the user to enter text… I would also argue that because someone is a beginner, it is more important to give him safe defaults—I know the dangers of JavaScript; most beginners do not. These beginners might then surf away as they like, in a false sense of security, and potentially find themselves in jail after insulting the local dictator…

*But only some: To a large part, it is a fallacy, because it so often involves insisting on behavior that benefits the beginners for two days and either harms the more experienced users for years or forces them to invest considerable time in searching for settings/plugins/whatnot to make the behavior more sane. Indeed, in many cases, the result is a background behavior of which most users will not even be aware, despite being harmed by it. (Consider e.g. “accessibility services” that run up processor time, increase the attack surface for hostile entities, make the OS sluggish, …, without ever being used by the vast majority of users.)

A much better solution would be to keep JavaScript off by default and give beginners sufficient information that they can judge why things might not work and when it might or might not be a good idea to activate JavaScript.* Indeed, the nature of anonymity on the Internet is such that Tor is of little benefit unless the user has received some education on the traps and problems.

*In most cases, the answer is “never”: The security loss will always potentially be there, even a trusted website can be abused by third-parties, and most sites that require JavaScript to function properly, at some point, require a de-anonymizing log-in or registration, e.g. to complete a purchase. With the rare exceptions, I would recommend using an entirely different Tor Browser instance.

The text continues:

There’s a tradeoff here. On the one hand, we should leave JavaScript enabled by default so websites work the way users expect. On the other hand, we should disable JavaScript by default to better protect against browser vulnerabilities ( not just a theoretical concern!). But there’s a third issue: websites can easily determine whether you have allowed JavaScript for them, and if you disable JavaScript by default but then allow a few websites to run scripts (the way most people use NoScript), then your choice of whitelisted websites acts as a sort of cookie that makes you recognizable (and distinguishable), thus harming your anonymity.

Apart from understating the risks of JavaScript, this argument hinges on an easily avoidable use of NoScript. (Cf. footnote above.) This use is the normal case when using a vanilla Firefox, but it is only a convenience, it is not a good idea with the Tor Browser, and it is not acceptable to let the uninformed dictate behavior for the informed. Better then to inform them! In a pinch, it would be better to not include NoScript at all,* point to the possibility of using several browser instances (with or without JavaScript on), and let those who really, really want NoScript install it manually.

*With some reservations for secondary functionalities of NoScript, which is not just a fine-grained JavaScript on/off tool. Then again, these secondary functionalities could in some cases also help with de-anonymization through making the browser behave a little differently from others and thereby allowing some degree of finger-printing.

The same type of flawed thinking is demonstrated in a recent change to the user agent: Historically, this identifier of the browser, OS, and whatnot has had the same default for all Tor Browsers (with occasional updates as the version changed), in order to make it harder to de-anonymize and profile individual users. With the recent release of version 8.0*, this had** changed and at least the OS was leaked. The implication was that e.g. a Linux users could be pinpointed as such—and because of their smaller proportion of the overall users, their anonymity was turned into a fraction*** of what it was before.

*Based on Firefox 60.x, incorporating the extreme overhaul of Firefox hitherto kept back. I am not enthusiastic about the changes.

**The developers have recanted in face of protests—a welcome difference to the way the Firefox developers behave.

***In some sense: Consider a game of “twenty questions”, where the “questioneer” is told in advance that a mineral is searched for… Not only does such information prematurely cut the average search space in three (mineral, plant, animal resp. Linux, MacOS, Windows), but due to the smaller size of the mineral kingdom resp. set of Linux users, the specific current search space is made far smaller.

The justification for this appears to be a fear that websites would (as per the old default) hand out Windows content to Linux users, causing sites to not work. While this is not as bad as the JavaScript issue, it is bad enough, especially since this change was not clearly communicated to the users.

Again, the reasoning behind the change is also faulty: Firstly, the influence of the OS is fairly small and any site that relies on OS information is flawed. Secondly, the opposite problem is quite likely, that a website sees “Linux” and decides “I have nothing tailor-made for Linux. What if the display is not pixel perfect?!? Better to just show an error message!”, even though the site would have worked, had the Windows version been delivered. Combined, these two factors imply that the change likely did more harm than good even for functionality…

A specific argument in favor of the change was that it made little sense to spoof the user agent, because this information could still be deduced by other means. However, almost all these other means require JavaScript to be active—and no reasonable user of the Tor Browser should have JavaScript active (cf. above)! For those who, sensibly, have deactivated JavaScript, the user agent is now an entirely unnecessary leak. To boot, there are situations, notably automatic logging of HTTP-requests, that have access to the user agent, but not to other values (or only with undue additional effort). Looking at such a log, an after-the-fact evaluation can show that a Linux (and Tor Browser) user from IP X visited a certain North-Korean site at 23:02 on a certain day, while the JavaScript based evaluation has to take place in real-time or not at all. Possibly, the logs of another North-Korean site shows that a Linux user from the same IP visited that site at 23:05. It need not be the same user, but compared to a (real or spoofed) Windows user in the same constellation, the chance is much, much larger.*

*Among many other scenarios. Consider e.g. a certain page on a site which is visited by a Linux user somewhere between 23:00 and 23:30 everyday—had he been a Windows users, no one might even have noticed a pattern. Or consider a user visiting one page of a site with one IP at 23:02 and another page with another IP at 23:03—now the risk that the user is recognized as the same is that much larger. Such scenarios obviously become the more serious when other information is added from the “regular” twenty questions. (And while they might seem trivial when applied to e.g. me or the typical reader, they can be very far from trivial in more sensitive situations, e.g. that of a North-Korean fighting for democracy or of someone like Assange.)

Excursion on user agent, etc.:
The situation is the more idiotic, seeing that there are* very, very few cases where e.g. the browser or the OS of the user is of legitimate interest to the website. Apart from statistics** and similar, the main use is to deliver different contents, which is just a sign that the web developers are incompetent—with very, very few exceptions, this should never be needed. If in doubt, it is virtually always better to make a specific capability check*** than to check for e.g. specific browser. Writing websites that look good/function in all the major browsers, on all the major platforms, and even simultaneously in “desktop” and “mobile” versions****using the same contents is not that hard—and doing so ensures that the website is highly likely to do quite well in more obscure cases too.

*Today: In the past, this was not always so, with comparatively weak and highly non-standardized browser capabilities. I think back on my experiences with JavaScript and CSS in the late 1990s with horror.

**And what legitimate reasons do websites have to gather statistics on user agents? The answer is almost always “none”. The main reason that is even semi-justifiable is to optimize the website based on (mostly) the browser, and (cf. above) this is almost always a sign of a fundamentally flawed approach—and the solution is to write more generic pages, not to gather statistics. (In contrast, statistics like how many users visit at what hour or from what country can be of very legitimate interest. A partial exception to the above are major technological upheavals like the switch to HTML 5, but these are likely better handled by more central and generic statistics—or, again, specific capability checks.)

***For a trivial example, if a site needs JavaScript to function, it should check for JavaScript with or in combination with the “noscript” tag (not related to the NoScript plugin)—not whether a browser from a short list of known JavaScript capable browsers is used. The latter will give false positives when JavaScript is turned off and false negatives when a rarer-but-JavaScript-capable browser is used.

****If different versions are needed at all (dubious), this should be an explicit choice by the user. I note that I have very often preferred to use the mobile versions of various sites when on a desktop, because these typically are less over-wrought, are “cleaner”, have a lesser reliance on (unnecessary) JavaScript, come with less advertising, …

Unfortunately, a fad/gimmick/sham of the last few years has been adaptive web design. Attempts to apply this virtually entirely unnecessary and detrimental concept is the cause of much of the wish for e.g. knowing the browser, OS, screen size*, device type, … (other reasons relate to e.g. de-anonymization, profiling, and targeted advertising), to the point that some have wanted to detect the charge level of a mobile’s battery in order to adapt the page… The last is horrendous in several aspects, including an enormous patronization, the demonstration of a highly incompetent design (no page should ever, not even when the battery is full, draw so much power that this is a valid concern), great additional risks with profiling, and a general user hostility—if this was a legitimate issue, give the user an explicit choice: He might prefer to run everything at full speed when low on charge, because he knows that he will be home in ten minutes; he might prefer to run everything at minimum speed even with a full battery, because he is gone for the weekend and has forgotten his charger.

*Screen size might seem highly relevant to the uninitiated, but normally is not—a sufficiently generic design can be made for most types of content. With the rare exceptions, leave the choice to the user.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 27, 2018 at 4:08 pm

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Untested extrapolation and human nature

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In the Firefly universe, Shan Yu is claimed to have said:

Live with a man 40 years. Share his house, his meals. Speak on every subject. Then tie him up, and hold him over the volcano’s edge. And on that day, you will finally meet the man.

The ramblings of fictional dictators are rarely a great source of wisdom, but this one points to one of the most important life lessons we can ever learn:

The true nature of someone or something is often only revealed in the right circumstances—and what the careless observer believes is the truth, is often incomplete, occasionally entirely wrong. Before we have seen this someone or something in a situation sufficiently similar, we can often only speculate about the true nature (or aspect of overall nature).

This has a very wide applicability, including scientific phenomena,* doors,** businesses,*** …—and, most notably, humans.

*Countless examples exist on many different levels. A high-level example is the contrast between classical physics and quantum mechanics or the theory of relativity.

**Is that solid looking house-door really an obstacle to a burglar?

***The final impulse to get this particular text done was a reader email concerning Clevvermail, which serves as a great example of how businesses only show their true level of (in-)competence, customer (un-)friendliness, whatnot, when something goes wrong or an unusual situation occurs. See excursion below.

Consider a small selection of the many conceivable examples involving humans:

  1. Shan Yu’s example: While I do not agree that we would meet “the man”,* chances are that we would indeed learn something new about the victim—possibly even something that radically changes our view. Take someone that you truly believe that you know** and imagine him (or her) in that situation—can you now truly predict how he will react? Will there be tears? Threats? Promises? Negotiation? Cold fear or hysterical panic? …

    *Rather, it would show us yet another aspect of the man.

    **A spouse, sibling, close friend, … I will mostly use “friend” below, but the examples easily generalize.

    Turn the table: Can you predict how you* would react in this situation?

    *A similar table-turning is implied in other examples; however, mostly not spelled out, in order to avoid redundancies. (Obviously, the chances that we will have a good idea about ourselves is far greater than for others—often because we already have been tested/tempted/whatnot in a similar manner.)

    I would not dare to make the prediction even for myself.

  2. Vice versa, can you predict the circumstances* in which you or your friend would hold someone else over a volcano? Actually drop him?

    *Chances are that they exist, no matter how despicable the act might seem. “Do it—or we kill your family!” would likely do the trick in most cases. Now find the borders. (Or haggle.)

  3. Is that friend a true friend, someone who can be counted on for help, or just someone you enjoy spending time with? Would he risk his life to save you from a volcano?
  4. Given the choice, would a certain friend prefer to help you or to obey the law? How would he generally prioritize conflicting obligations, loyalties, whatnot?
  5. Is that confident sounding colleague actually more competent than the rest or just more confident? Is the better-dressed colleague actually more competent or just better-dressed? Is the higher-up actually more competent or just higher up?

    In my experience, these situations are roughly a 50–50, and judgment should be based on the actual performance.

  6. Would your children ever lie* to you, cheat on a test, do drugs, …?

    *Arguably a bad example—if they are old enough to communicate, they almost certainly do…

A particularly interesting issue is the difference between what we want to do (would do in theory, consider the right thing to do, would do if we had the ability, …) and what we actually do. Will someone who rejects theft be able to stick to his principles when faced with a risk-free opportunity to steal ten million dollars? When stealing a loaf of bread makes the difference between eating for the first time in two days and not eating? Who can tell, when someone has not yet been tested… The difference is often even a physiological issue, e.g. in that another repetition of an exercise becomes so painful that even a strong will falters—or that a truly iron will is eventually foiled by a physical inability to complete a repetition. Then again, lack of trying can also leave us underestimating our abilities. For instance, I have several times gone for a walk, felt so lacking in energy after just a few minutes that I considered going back (“must be a cold waiting to erupt”)—and ended up walking for two hours, feeling more energetic at the end than at the beginning. Intellectual activities are the same: Sometimes sleepiness, a headache, or similar prevents me from keeping myself focused for even five minutes on something that I really want to do—and sometimes I can go into a near trance-like state where I spend hours, with only minimal interruptions, doing something that I would normally look for excuses to avoid.

Excursion on Clevvermail:
If we change a single thing in my experiences with Clevvermail, chances are that I would never have written the linked-to text—assume that my credit card had not been arbitrarily rejected (due to some technical, non-credit, issue):

This takes care of the first item (see the linked-to text) outright. It also takes care of most of the fourth item, because it directly or indirectly removes most of my interactions with customer service. It turns the last item from a major issue into a mere inconvenience, with no unwarranted suspensions, and no reason for me to terminate my account effective immediately due to a gross breach of contract. I might or might not have terminated it even so, but if I had, it would have been in a more regular manner, with no opportunity for Clevvermail to later harass me with an unjustified claim. (Be it because a deliberate fraud now lacked even a pseudo-justification or, assuming mere incompetence, because the restrictions concerning online account-termination no longer applied, and the account would have been terminated online.) Indeed, I might even have come off with an impression no worse than “has a poor UI” and “abuses my email address for spam”—both of which are bad, but not necessarily signs of anything unusual. (Some degree of email abuse is fairly common, even among businesses normally considered reputable. This does not make it acceptable, but at least less remarkable and with lesser implications.)

In reality, however, my card was rejected—and Clevvermail proceeded to reveal much more about it self to me than to the average customer. (Or so I hope—for their sake…)

Excursion on (fake?) friendliness and “service experience”:
An interesting special case is formed by the very many who are unable to see the difference between friendly, often fake friendly, service and good service. Smiles, greetings, a few jokes shared, whatnot, are all positive—but they are merely a bonus. The main point must be that the customer gets what he paid for, without any shortage, hidden costs, own unplanned efforts, …

Unfortunately, many incompetent or, worse, dishonest people bank on uncritical customers confusing a smile with good service or hope that a mere smile will be enough to not have to make up for an error and the associated costs/efforts imposed on the customer. Notably, the less competent (or more dishonest) someone is, the greater the past opportunity to practice fake friendliness…

To boot, there can be many border-line cases where someone is friendly just as a bonus, without manipulative motivations, and the uncritical customer is to blame for focusing on the wrong criterion. For instance, old ladies seem to judge how “good” a physician is more by friendliness than by demonstrated competence. This does not automatically make the physician incompetent; however, his reputation is still misleading.

As an aside, the fact that I am not blinded by friendliness has repeatedly led me to view people, including several past colleagues, in a radically different manner than the majority did—be it because I have judged them by their incompetence, not friendliness, or because I have had a greater ability to see through their surface than most others.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 25, 2018 at 2:04 pm

Weak justifications for poor language

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When it comes to grammar, common arguments from the “everything goes” school include “there are countless examples of X being correct; ergo, X should always be allowed”, “X is not an error, because Shakespeare used it”, and other analogy claims.

Such arguments are usually faulty through lack of discrimination:* It is quite possible for a certain phrasing, grammatical construct, whatnot to be correct in one situation and incorrect in another—and the analogy must only be used as justification when the circumstances are sufficiently similar. An extreme example is “over-exaggerate”: There are situations in which “over-exaggerate” is a reasonable formulation, but it remains an error of the ignorant in almost all cases. Consider e.g. a politician deliberately exaggerating a problem in order to be more convincing—but doing so to such a degree that he loses believability. He has now over-exaggerated.**

*In the case of e.g. Shakespeare, they also forget that a once valid use might now be outdated; that he, as a poet, might have taken liberties in order to improve rhyme or meter; that his language might have contained dialectal features in a pre-standardization English; and similar.

**Whether such a use of “over-exaggerate[d]” has ever taken place is unknown to me; however, until five minutes before starting this text, I had not even contemplated the possibility that it could ever be anything but wrong—and the rarity of the correctness shows the danger of superficial analogy arguments that much better. (At “five minutes before”, I read the phrase “exaggerating too much” and saw the applicability to “over-exaggerate”.)

A more common example is the use of “and”, “or”, and similar conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence. There are cases where such use could be seen as correct. For instance, “Mary had a little lamb. And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.” would not bring me to the barricades.* I even occasionally use incorrect** such formulations my self, in a manner that I consider acceptable in context. Correspondingly, I cannot condemn a leading “and” in a blanket manner.

*However, I would have preferred “Mary had a little lamb; and everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.”, because the full stop implies a strong separation that the “And” then reduces, as if someone was simultaneously pressing down on the gas pedal and braking. (Alternatively, I might have tried to cut the conjunction entirely.) Generally, I always remain a little skeptical: Even when the construct can be argued as grammatically acceptable, there are often reasons of style, logic, coherence, whatnot that speak against it.

**For instance, I might use a leading “And” within brackets in situations where I (a) want to strengthen the connection to the preceding text to overcome the bracket, (b) do not consider the bracketed content important enough for more words or even fear that more words might reduce legibility in context. (Of course, others might argue that if the text was that unimportant, it should have been cut entirely…) Similarly, my footnotes are almost always intended to be read in the immediate context of the main text, and will not always be complete sentences or thoughts without that context—some footnotes and brackets could be seen as a branch on a trunk and only make sense when the branch is entered from the trunk. (Why not forego the bracket + “And”, as another case of simultaneously hitting the gas pedal and braking? Well, the bracket is often beneficial to break out less important or less on-topic thoughts, as with the current. From the point of view of the main text, the bracket serves to separate such parts. However, sometimes the connection with the unbracketed text then becomes too weak from the point of view of the bracketed, and the “And” remedies this. This argument does not hold with Mary and her little lamb.)

However, most practical uses remain both incorrect and unacceptable, and those critical of these constructs do not typically suggest a blanket ban—only a ban of incorrect cases. For instance, where someone with an even semi-decent understanding of English would write “Mary had a little lamb and a goat.”, a journalist or a pre-schooler might write “Mary had a little lamb. And a goat.”, which is incorrect by any reasonable standard.* However, the problem does not reside with the “And”, but with the way a single sentence or thought has been artificially, confusingly,, and unnecessarily divided into two parts, one of which cannot stand on its own. The error is one of interpunctuation—not of what word is allowed where. “Mary went home. And took the lamb with her.”, makes the same mistake, if a bit more subtly. A faulty separation of a subordinate clause is a common variation, and often includes a far wider range of words. Consider e.g. “John went home. Because Mary was sick.”: Both parts contain a complete sentence and the situation might be salvaged by simply removing the “Because” (at the cost of no longer having the causal connection); however, a “because” clause can come both after and before its main clause, which can cause a lot of ambiguity. For instance, how do we know that the intention was not “John went home. Because Mary was sick, Tom also went home.”, with a part of the text missing?** What if the text, as actually given, had read “John went home. Because Mary was sick. Tom also went home.”? Was it John, Tom, or possibly both, who went home because of Mary’s health?

*Notably, the complete-sentence standard; however, see an excursion for an alternate suggestion and more detail.

**This gives another reason to stick to the rules: If a text contains language errors, it is often not clear why; and by deliberately deviating from correct grammar, the ability to detect accidental errors and to deduce the true intended meaning in face of errors is reduced. Equally, a deliberate deviation can make the reader assume an accidental error where none is present, leading to unnecessary speculation. Other examples that can soon become tricky include leaving out “unnecessary” uses of “that”, “unnecessary” commas, and similar. If in doubt, doing so can lead to their exclusion out of habit in a situation where they were definitely needed.

Someone criticizing such sentences usually does so, directly or indirectly, because of the division—of which “And” is just a result. Even if we were to say that sentences are allowed to start with “and”, “or”, whatnot, these sentences would still be wrong, because they still make an absurd and ungrammatical division. As an analogy, if someone has a viral infection accompanied by a fever, the infection does not go away because the patient’s body temperature is declared normal. More generally, we must not focus on superficial criteria, like a temperature or an optical impression of a sentence—we actually have to understand what goes on beneath the surface and we have to ask the right questions. Above, the right question is “Is the interpunctuation correct and reasonable?”—not whether a sentence starts with an “and”.

Excursion on my historical take on “and” et al. and on the reverse mistake:
I my younger days I belonged to the “never acceptable” school, largely through committing the opposite error of “sometimes wrong; ergo, always wrong”—something equally to be avoided. My opinions have become more nuanced over the years. However, I still feel that these constructs should be left to those with a developed understanding, because (a) by simply resolving to never start a sentence with “and” et al., a great number of other mistakes will be far less likely to occur (cf. above), (b) even most grammatically acceptable uses are better solved in other ways (cf. footnote above). I would also argue that a grammar which does categorically forbid these constructs would be perfectly valid and acceptable—it just happens that established English grammar does not. (In contrast, a grammar that allows e.g. “Mary had a little lamb. And a goat.”, while conceivable, would make a mockery of the concepts of full stop and sentence. The purpose of these are to give the reader information about the text not necessarily clear from the words themselves; and it would be a lesser evil to abolish* them entirely than to spread misinformation through them.)

*while interpunctuation is a wonderful thing writing systems tend to start without it uptothepointthatthereisnotevenwordseparation we do not need interpunctuation but do we really want to forego it fr tht mttr nt ll wrtng sstms s vwls still misleading information, is even worse

Excursion on complete sentences:
A typical criterion for the use of full stops is that all sentences are complete, typically containing at a minimum subject and verb. However, I would argue that it is more important to have a thought* of sufficient completeness** and sufficient context to understand that thought. For instance, this is the case when someone takes a fall and says “ouch”; a soldier shouts “incoming” or a surgeon says “scalpel”; a (compatible) question is answered with “yes”, “no”, “probably”, “the red one”, …; one opponent exclaims “son of a bitch” to the other; any number of imperatives are used (“buy me an ice cream ”, “assume that X”); etc. Indeed, a subject–verb criterion might not even make sense in all languages. Many Latin sentences, e.g., will only contain an implicit subject, implying that at least an explicit subject cannot be a universally reasonable criterion. (The English imperatives could also be seen as a case of an implicit subject.)

*I see myself supported by the more original and non-linguistic meanings of “sentence”, which are strongly overlapping with “thought”. Also cf. “sense” and “sentiment”.

**I deliberately avoided “complete thought”, which could imply that the entirety of a thought is expressed. This, in turn, is only rarely the case with a single sentence. (Cf. [1].)

However, these examples are only valid given the right context: Go up to a random person on the street and say “yes”, and chances are that he will be very confused.

“And a goat.” will usually fail this criterion, because it is so heavily tied* to something else that it cannot stand alone. Usually, this something is the preceding own statement (“Mary had a little lamb.”), and the best solution would be to integrate the two (“Mary had a little lamb and a goat.”) or to complete the missing portions (“Mary had a little lamb. And she had a goat.”). However, there are some cases that can be argued, mostly relating to immediate interactions (spoken word, texting, and similar). Consider e.g. “And a goat.” as an afterthought** to a previous complete thought or as an interjection by a second speaker—and compare it with “Oh, wait, it just occurred to me that I would also like to have a goat.” resp. “I agree with the previous speaker, but would like to add that we should also buy a goat.”, and similar overkill. In contrast, “Mary had a little lamb. And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.” has two separate and independent thoughts, both of which are complete subject–verb sentences, both of which could be taken as stand-alone claims with minimal context. (Except as far as the “And” sends a confusing signal and would be better removed in a stand-alone context; however, the result remains a perfectly valid sentence even in the traditional sense.)

*Interestingly, just “A goat.” is more likely to be a valid thought, because the “And” points to something else that must already have been communicated.

**With sufficient delay that the afterthought cannot be integrated into the whole: If someone is currently writing an essay and sees the sudden need to add a goat to the discussion, there is no justification for “And a goat.”—there is more than enough time to amend the text before publication.

However, in most cases, I would recommend sticking to the traditional “complete sentence” criterion, because it makes a useful proxy and can serve to avoid sloppy mistakes when trying to be clever.

Excursion on full-stops for effect:
Full-stops are often deliberately (mis-)used for e.g. dramatic effect or to imitate the spoken word. For instance, “Mary had a little lamb. And a goat.” might arise in an attempt to put extra emphasis on the latter, to simulate a “dramatic pause”, or similar. I recognize that there is some benefit to this effect—but not to how it is achieved. I strongly recommend using the “m-dash” (“—-”) for such purposes—and do so myself all the time.* To boot, I would strongly advice against striving for a literal pause, seeing that the written and spoken word are not identical in their character. Notably, most proficient readers do not “sound out” the words in such a manner that an intended pause would actually occur.

*To the point that even I cannot deny overuse… Then again, I do not suggest that others change the frequency of their use of the effect, just that they replace one means of achieving it with another. Some might raise objections against this use of the m-dash, e.g. based on historical use for parenthesis; however, I do not use the old semantics, there are other means to achieve a parenthesis effect, and the m-dash is otherwise fairly rare in modern English.

A particularly idiotic use is the insertion of a full-stop after every word, to indicate that each words is heavily emphasized and separated in time, e.g. “Do. Not. Do. This.”: The only situation where this might even be negotiable is when spoken word is to be (pseudo-)transcribed, e.g. as part of a dialogue sequence in a book. For a regular text, including e.g. a post on a blog or in a forum, textual means of emphasis should be used (italicization, underlining, bold type, …)—the written word is not a mere transcription of the spoken.

Excursion on full-stops in long sentences:
I sometimes have the impression that an artificial full-stop has been inserted to prevent a sentence from being too long, by some standard. (Possibly, some journalists write a correct sentence, see it marked as “too long” by a style checker, and just convert a comma to a full-stop to land below the limit. Then again, some journalists appear to use a full-stop as the sole means of interpunctuation, even when length is not a concern…) The result is a completely unnecessary hindrance of the reader: Because valuable hints are now absent or, worse, misleading, it becomes harder to read the sentence. (Note that there is no offsetting help, because the actual thought expressed does not magically become shorter when a few full-stops are inserted.) For instance, when reading the FAZ (roughly, the German equivalent of the New-York Times), I have often encountered a complete sentence of a dozen or more words, followed by “Because”/“Weil” at the beginning of a subordinate clause of another dozen words—and then a full-stop… The result is that I, under the assumption that the grammar is correct, “close” the first sentence, absorb the second with the expectation of applying the causality to a later main clause, and am then thrown entirely off track. I now have to go back to the first sentence, (at least partially) re-read it, make the causal connection, re-think the situation, and then scan forwards to the end of the subordinate clause again, to continue reading. It would have been much, much better to keep the subordinate clause joined by the grammatically correct comma—the more so, the longer the sentences.

Meta-information:
My use of full-stops and capital letters in the above examples is deliberately inconsistent. Mostly, I have tried to avoid them in order to not complicate matters around the resulting double* interpunctuation. However, many examples have required them to be understandable. When it comes to standalone “And” vs “and” (quotation marks included), I have used “And” when it appeared thus in the example, and “and” when speaking of the word more generically.

*Examples like ‘abc “efg.”, hij’ are awkward and can be hard to read. I also categorically reject some outdated rules around interpunctuation and quotes that originated to solve pragmatical problems with equally outdated printing technology.

I found the asymmetry of “Mary had a little lamb and a goat.” a little annoying, and considered adding a “g-word” before “goat”; however, a reasonable “g-word” was hard to find* and some of the later stand-alone examples became awkward.

*The most orthographically and semantically obvious example is “giant”, but it is typically pronounced differently. Other candidates made too little sense.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 21, 2018 at 12:11 am

Abuse of political power in Germany

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A recent German debate around Hans-Georg Maaßen and his forced resignation* from the office of president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (colloquially, “Verfassungsschutz”) well illustrate the problems with the societal attitude towards the Left** and “Right”** in Germany:

*Technically, it appears to be a promotion; however, there is no doubt about what actually took place.

**Caution: While the Left is an at least semi-coherent group, the “Right” is not. Notably, the “extreme Right” often has little in common with the “Right” in general, being defined (by the Left) solely through e.g. attitudes to nationalism and immigration, even in cases where it has more in common with the Left than the (non-extreme) “Right”. This problem is largely ignored below, because the sub-topics relate strongly to the Leftist view of the “Right”.

After large-scale, allegedly immigrant hostile and violent,* protests in Chemnitz, Maaßen made claims amounting to his having no decisive information about hunts (“Hetzjagden”) of foreigners during the protests, and he expressed doubts about the authenticity of a video circulating the Internet—quite correctly pointing to recurring problems with exaggerations and distortions around alleged “Right-wing” violence. He might or might not have been wrong about the events and the video,** but even should his estimate have been wrong, he could still have been truthful, e.g. in that no such decisive information was known to him or that he had genuine doubts about the authenticity of the video, awaiting a deeper investigation. (Note that the situation was chaotic and information given in e.g. media has been contradictory and confused.)

*I have not investigated the details, cf. excursion, and neither support nor reject these claims, except as far as I advice others to be similarly cautious in the light of tendentious news reporting. I note, however, that the protests were a direction reaction to a murder involving immigrant and/or asylum-seeker suspects.

**I have not investigated this either.

Nevertheless, this has led the Leftist parties of the German Parliament to (successfully) demand his resignation. This confirms the ever-present problem of the Verfassungsschutz being seen as a tool mainly to restrict freedom of opinion on the “Right”. Consider e.g. that the parliamentary party AfD has repeatedly been the target of unfounded claims of “Verfassungsfeindlichkeit” (“hostility towards the constitution”) by Leftist parties—while a direct continuation of the ruling East-German Communist party, SED*, also sits in parliament, and is met with no such claims. Or, among the extra-parliamentary and more extreme parties, consider how there have been repeated attempts to have the Right-wing NPD banned outright, while the Left-wing MLPD*, openly calling for revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat, is tolerated. There is an extreme and intolerable double-standard, where the Left has to commit acts and express opinions several degrees worse, before the same treatment is awarded. Indeed, it is obvious that very large parts of the Left (in Germany, in Sweden, in the U.S., …) sees its own opinions as the sole acceptable norm, with any non-Left opinion almost ipso facto being evil, extremist, or otherwise worthy of condemnation.

*To avoid misunderstandings: I am not saying that these parties should be banned—just that it is an anti-democratic hypocrisy to tolerate them while calling for the ban of lesser evils in another camp.

Excursion on news reporting, etc.:
Maaßen is quite correct in that there is a major problem with distortions through press and media (as well as, obviously, Leftist propagandists). This includes the same double-standard as discussed above, conflation of fellow travelers,* and even reporting that puts the true events on their head, e.g. in that a longer article discusses violence around an “extreme Right” demonstration and only at the very end briefly mentions that the demonstration had been peaceful until Leftist counter-demonstrators attacked it… The likes of Antifa are certainly a far greater problem and far more deplorable than the people they attack. (I have already made similar points in [1].)

*E.g in that a demonstration or protest somehow involving immigration is considered “extreme Right” in a blanket manner, without looking at the motivations of the group as a whole or, more importantly, as individual members. I point particularly to the Pegida phenomenon, which collected a wide variety of people with very different motivations. I recall in particular a brief discussion with a colleague a few years back: He positively bragged about how he was fulfilling his civic duties by being a counter-demonstrator—and followed this up with a condemnation of the Burka, where he had to draw the line… Many of his “enemies” had opinions no worse than that—as he would have known, had he bother to find out. Indeed, many on the Left consider it a firing offense when a Muslim does not want shake hands with a member of the opposite sex…

As a side-effect of these distortions, the truth of events is very hard to find, which is why I have not even tried in this case. (As it does not matter what happened, when it comes to evaluating Maaßen’s fate. Chances are that he would have been condemned either which way, because he did not do his “duty” of using the Verfassungsschutz to put down the “Right” and the “Right” only. Cf. parts of [1].)

Excursion on Maaßen:
My own opinion on Maaßen in general is divided, seeing that he has been a source of controversy before, including for a decidedly negative NSA-style attitude to surveillance; however, most of the controversy, going by memory, has been Leftist condemnation of his failure to be sufficiently compliant with Leftist ideas about who is good and who is evil. Of course, what he has or has not done, said, whatnot, in the past does not alter the fact that the recent events were rooted in politics and ideology—not in Maaßen’s actual suitability for the job.

Excursion on Verfassungsschutz and Verfassungsfeindlichkeit:
In a bigger picture, I find the Verfassungsschutz and the concept of Verfassungsfeindlichkeit troubling. While much of this amounts to legitimate activities, e.g. tracking terrorists and potential sources of political violence, the setting is disputable, and e.g. a “Federal Office for the Prevention of Terrorism and Political Violence” (or similar) would have been better. By focusing on the constitution, there are implicit limits on the “correct opinion” that are not tolerable in a Rechtsstaat, because of inherent defects. For instance, the German constitution prescribes, non-negotiably, non-revocably, that Germany is to be a “sozialer Bundesstaat”, effectively a social/well-fare (federated) state, which is a thoroughly anti-democratic restriction. (But I stress that merely having the “wrong” opinion in this regard will not bring the Verfassungsschutz into action.)

Of course, the German constitution arose in a manner that makes it a snapshot of political opinion shortly after the demise of the Nazis, which is not a good basis for a document that potentially will last for hundreds of years—and it was not intend to be more than a temporary solution. (Unfortunately, after roughly seventy years and the re-unification of Germany, there is precious little chance that a more suitable constitution will arise.)

Excursion on Marx et co:
The mentioned double-standard is highlighted by where the controversy originated: Chemnitz (aka Karl-Marx-Stadt) still has more than a few traces of the old East-Germany, including a giant head of Karl Marx at the edge of the central park. Similarly, Wuppertal (my current residence) has a major street named after Friedrich Engels.* A test for Verfassungsfeindlichkeit could have ended badly for both (had they been active today), and especially the Karl-Marx head is in bad taste, because it is not there as an independent honoring of Marx, but as a remnant of the old East-German propaganda and symbolism.

*Engels, coincidentally was born and spent a fair bit of his life in and around Barmen, the specific part of Wuppertal where I live. Generally, Wuppertal has been the source of quite a few prominent Leftists, including Johannes Rau (whose career included a term as German President).

Excursion on the coalition government:
I have repeatedly written on the democracy problems caused by having an unholy alliance form a coalition government (e.g. [2]). The events above are a potential illustration: Many of the demands for Maaßen’s resignation came from the junior and Leftist partner (SPD). Had it not been a member of this unholy alliance, the senior partner (CDU/CSU; e.g. in a more natural coalition with FDP) is more likely to have kept him on: Do we get rid of that one guy or do we risk the coalition failing?

Written by michaeleriksson

September 19, 2018 at 12:56 am