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A Swede in Germany

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A few thoughts on educationrealist

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In December, I read large portions of the blog educationrealist.* I found it particularly gratifying that the author (henceforth “Ed”) verifies a great number of my opinions on schools and schooling with “from the trenches” information regarding current U.S. schools.**

*Already briefly mentioned during a recent blogroll update. I wrote most of the below a few weeks before publication, based on keywords and short descriptions gathered in December. Taking up writing again today, I can no longer recall much of what I had intended to write for the remaining keywords. This has led to some points being considerably more abbreviated than others. I was torn between throwing them out altogether and keeping the short version, but mostly opted for the short version. With hindsight, I should also have kept more links.

*My opinions are based on a mixture of my own experiences from Swedish schools in the 1980s and early 1990s, reasoning from principles (of e.g. human behavior and abilities), less detailed accounts by students or teachers, and discussions by (mostly) other outsiders. Correspondingly, there was a risk that the non-trivial changes over time or when moving from country to country had mislead me. This does not appear to be the case.

Among the interesting observations to be made:

  1. There is a strong component of innate ability to school success.

    This has corollaries, many contrary to what politicians tend to believe, like: It is not possible to teach everyone everything with a reasonable effort. A one-size-fits-all* school system will fail many students through under- or over-challenging them and through necessitating pedagogical compromises. Over-education is wasteful and unproductive at best. Ignoring group differences in “academic talent” is a recipe for failure.**

    *Ed usually discusses this in terms of (absence of) “tracking”, which is one way to make the school system “multi-sized”. I note that during my own school years more-or-less no such efforts of any kind took place. Cf. e.g. some discussion of skipping grades/being held back in [1]. No in-year acceleration or other differentiation, from which I could have benefited greatly, were available to the gifted. The first true differentiation took place in (the rough equivalent of) senior high-school, where students self-selected into more specialized programs based on interest, with some minor filtering based on previous grades when there were more applicants than places.

    **This especially with an eye on racial variety (which was almost a non-issue during my own school years, with an almost homogeneous population). Many posts deal with racial realism, the evils of various affirmative action measures, etc., approaching the statistics driven topics of “The Bell-Curve” from a more practical/personal/anecdotal angle. However, in the big picture, this is not limited to race—I note e.g. how German news-papers and politicians ever again complain about how the German system would hinder working-class children, without even considering the possibility that the differences in outcome could be partially caused by differences in (inherited) abilities that affect the respective probability of the parents being working-class and of the children doing poorly in school.

  2. The grade system is broken through rewarding effort, compliance, whatnot over actual ability and performance. Indeed, the picture painted is much bleaker than during my own school years, where there was a strong subjective component in the teacher’s evaluation, but where, at least, performance was measured through tests—not home work.

    This is particularly interesting in light of an earlier text on admission criteria, where I oppose the suggestion to remove Högskoleprovet (“Swedish SATs”) for admissions to higher education in favor of a purely GPA based admission.* If we assume that the same trend is (or will be) followed in Sweden, the correct resolution would be to abolish GPA admission and rely solely on Högskoleprovet… (But just as Ed complains about the dumbing-down of the SATs, there is reason to fear that Högskoleprovet is suffering a similar faith. There certainly is a constant fiddling with it—notably, to ensure that boys do not outscore girls.)

    *Swedish admissions are centralized and use numerical criteria—not interviews, essays, extra-curriculars, …

  3. The negative effects of destructive students on others can be considerable.

    Interesting sub-items to consider is what type and degree of disciplinary measures should be allowed, and the benefit of splitting students into groups that are more homogeneous in terms of e.g. interest and behavior. (Yes, the latter might make it even worse for the trouble students, but they are not exactly thriving anyway—and doing so would improve the opportunities for everyone else.)

    I did some minor reading on this from other sources (but did not keep links), and found some stories that make even Ed’s experiences, already well beyond my own,* look harmless—including a female teacher writing about regularly crying with frustration in the evening…

    *To speculate on the difference, I note that I spent a fair bit of my school years in small classes, that anti-authority attitudes were not yet as wide-spread, and that Ed has taught many classes of a remedial nature. Racial factors might also play in, e.g. in that the cognitive differences in the class-room are greater in the U.S. or that many minority boys have a deliberate “tough” image. I know too little of his situation and experiences to say anything with certainty, however.

  4. Student motivation is highly important, and often something that the school system fails at (but which is often blamed on the student).

    This is the more depressing, seeing that a knee-jerk political reaction to school issues is to increase the time spent in school, which obviously will reduce motivation further even among the motivated, let alone the unmotivated. It also comes with other problems. Someone fails in school due to lack of motivation? Put him in summer school so that he will enter the following year already “school tired”. Let him repeat a year to prolong the torture. Let him take remedial classes to make his days longer. Etc.

    The correct solution is, obviously, to attack the lack of motivation (which is very often to blame on the school/teacher/school-system/… in the first place). If this problem cannot be fixed, other efforts are pointless or even harmful. If it can be fixed, the strong students will advance on their own, weaker will at least have a chance, and we have to have enough realism to be willing to part with the too weak students at an earlier time than “year twelve”.

  5. Politicians and education reformers are often very naive.
  6. There is a lot of trickery with re-classification of children, artificial passes of courses, and similar, for the purpose of making schools look good (or “not disastrously bad”?).

    A particularly interesting variation is the confusion of classes for/students in “English Language Learning/er” and special education: Apparently, many students who should be in special ed are put into ELL based on excuses, e.g. because the parents were first generation immigrants, while the child is a reasonably proficient native speaker who happens to do poorly in school. This way, the failure in school can no longer be blamed on the school (or, God forbid, the possibility that not all students are equally smart)—but on an alleged language handicap.

A point where his experiences (and some citations?) do not match my expectation is the competence level of teachers: He repeatedly expresses the view that the effect of increasing the subject* competence levels or minimum test-scores** of teachers has little effect on student outcomes. There is even some speculation on a negative effect on Black students, because they appear to do better with a Black teacher, and increasing the test-score limits would reduce the proportion of Black teachers. My own experiences with teacher competence are very different, but I could see a possible reconciliation in teachers affecting different students differently, e.g. in that a dumber teacher will bore/under-challenge/annoy/whatnot the bright students, while a brighter teacher might similarly over-challenge or have troubles with adapting to the dumber students—leaving the total effect on the student population roughly constant. (Similar explanations could include e.g. brighter teachers being stricter on dumber students when grading than dumber teachers are, resp. dumber teachers failing to appreciate good answers from brighter students.***) If this is so, we have an additional argument for segregation by ability (combined with corresponding choices of teachers); while ignoring teacher competence would be particularly bad for the brighter students.

*E.g. requiring better math knowledge in a math teacher. This in contrast to e.g. pedagogical training, where I am uncertain what his stance is—apart from a negative opinion of some of the training actually on offer.

**On some type of qualification test for teachers. Similar statements might or might not have been made concerning e.g. SAT scores or GPA.

***With several of my own less bright teachers, what I said sometimes went well over their heads. More generally, I have made the life-experience that stupid people often are under the misapprehension that someone brighter disagrees because he lacks insights that they have, while the true cause is typically the exact opposite—he has insights that they lack.

Looking at Ed, himself, he appears to do a great deal of experimentation and tries to improve his teaching over time. There are a few things that appear to work well for him and that could prove valuable elsewhere, including (big picture) running a hard line against students, treating students very differently depending on their behaviors/need/abilities/…, and attempts to motivate his students, as well as (on the detail level) many pedagogical tricks and techniques.

Unfortunately, there are a few other things that strike me as negative, even if some of them might be a result of external circumstances, e.g. that the school system leaves him with no good options or that he must make compromises between the interests of the students, his school, society, whatnot. This applies especially to his “D for effort” policy, which makes him a contributor to problems that he, himself, complains about, e.g. misleading grades and remedial students making it to college (while still being remedial). My take? It is never “D for effort”, it is never “E for effort”, it is absolutely never, ever “A for effort”: Unless actual accomplishment results from the effort, it must be “F for effort”. (Which, to boot, makes for a phonetically better saying.)

Another negative is a considerable mathematical naivete for a math teacher,* that is likely the cause of some weird ideas that are more likely to hinder than help his students, e.g. that higher order polynomials (or functions, depending on perspective) are arrived at by “multiplication” of lines** (i.e. first-degree relations like y = 5x + 3). Yes, this is a possible perspective, but it is just a small piece of the overall puzzle, and it strikes me as highly counter-intuitive and pedagogically unsound as an approach. (In my preliminary notes, I have a second example of “identifying numbers graphically only”, but I am not certain what I meant. It might have been something like requesting students to draw a graph and find the y-value from the x-value by measurement, instead of calculation, which would be pointless as an “only”, but could be acceptable as a preliminary step or to demonstrate the occasional need to use other methods than pure calculation.)

*In all fairness, he, unlike many others, understands and acknowledges that his understanding is superficial when he moves beyond the classes that he teaches.

**Generally, there is an extreme over-focus on geometry; however, I am not certain whether this is caused by Ed or the school (or the text-book publishers, politicians, whatnot). This includes e.g. viewing functions more-or-less solely as graphs, root learning of sine and cosine values, and similar.

Yet another is “lying to students” (see excursion), as demonstrated e.g. in a post on “The Evolution of Equals”. This post also shows some examples of enormous efforts being put in to teach the trivial to the dumber students, who might not belong in high school to begin with—at least a basic grasp of the equals sign should be present years earlier. Move them out of school or to some more practical course and use the freed teacher resources to teach those teachable… (Some other posts make a better job of displaying a great effort with little return, but this is the one post for which I kept the URL.)

Some other points could be seen as positive or negative depending on the details. For instance, he does some type of interactive/quizzing teaching that expects a “chorus answer” from the class. This might keep the students alert and force them to at least rote-learn some material—but it does not allow for much true thought and it does not demonstrate any deeper understanding among the students. I would certainly have found it annoying (or worse), had it been applied during my own school years.

Excursion on a generic solution to tracking, acceleration, etc.:
I have for some time considered taking a more “collegey” approach to school as a solution (sketch) to some problems. I see some support for this in the non-integrated approach taken to e.g. math in Ed’s descriptions.* What if the material to be covered, even in year one, is broken into rough packages of four quarter-semesters per semester and topic—and the students then go through these packages in whatever tempo they can manage? The strong students will soon move ahead of schedule, be it in general or in their favorite topics. Similarly, the student with an interest in a certain area, e.g. math, can move ahead in that area. The weaker students can take their time until they have mastered the matter sufficiently well. Etc. Exactly how to handle the teachers in this scenario is not yet clear to me, but it is clear that mere lecturing** to the class would have to be considerably reduced or combined with a division of people based on the package that they are currently involved with.

*Math was integrated through-out my own school years. While I do not see this as a pedagogical problem, it does limit flexibility.

**With some reservations for the first few years, I consider lecturing to be highly inefficient, often boring, and increasingly only suitable for weak students as we move up in grades. Strong students are able to learn mostly on their own and based on books. Cf. an earlier text on college material. In at least a U.S. context, it also helps with hiding the problem of sub-grade-level literacy—better to reveal and address the problem.

Excursion on memory:
A recurring issue is that Ed’s weaker students often actually do learn how to do something—but have forgotten it again by the next semester. This is likely partially caused by a too superficial understanding,* but it could also point to many simply having very weak long-term memories. Revisiting some past interactions with others, such a weak memory could explain quite a few incidents that I had hitherto considered rooted in e.g. an original pretended understanding or agreement,** willful non-compliance using pretended ignorance as an excuse, too great a stupidity to be able to make even a trivial generalization of a known fact, or similar. (Whether weak memory is the explanation I leave unstated, but it is something that I must consider in the future.) A twist is that I have partially not considered memory an issue, because I thought my own memory poor and rarely had such problems—but in comparison to some of Ed’s students, my memory is excellent…

*Understanding does not only help with recollection, but can also be used to fill in many “blanks”. Of course, in terms of school, it can require a teacher with the right attitude: I recall an oral examination (on the master level, no less) where the professor asked for a formula. I had not bothered to learn the formula, knowing that the derivation was very easy from first principles, and set about deriving the formula. He immediately interrupted me, stating that he was content with the formula and that the derivation was out of scope. Apparently, he expected students to blindly memorize the formula, while having no clue how it came about…

**Something that also occurs among some of Ed’s students, as might some of the other items mentioned.

Excursion on lying to students:
“Lying to students” roughly refers to giving them a simplified (or even outright incorrect) view, which is (perceived as) good enough for now and which they can easily understand—without telling them that it is a simplified view. The result of this is that those who do not progress in their studies believe things that are not true, while those who do progress have to unlearn and relearn things in a highly unnecessary manner. A particular complication is that it can be very hard to be certain what opinions/knowledge/whatnot, gathered over a prolonged time period, corresponds to what state of knowledge. In many cases, the simplifications can make something harder to understand for the bright students, because it simply does not make sense or because the non-simplified version is (in some sense) cleaner. A very good example is the theory of relativity taught on the premise that the speed of light in vacuum is fixed* vs the premise that there is an upper speed-limit on causality or information, which light reaches in vacuum—the latter is much easier to see as plausible, leads to more natural conclusions, etc.** To toy with a simpler example in Ed’s direction: Compare the teacher who says “It is not possible to subtract a larger number from a smaller number!” with the colleague who says “If one subtracts a larger number from a smaller number, the result is a negative number—but that is for next semester!”. Which of the two is more likely to have confused students the next semester? Possibly, to the point that other claims made are no longer seen as credible? Which is more likely to peak an interest into what negative numbers are? Possibly, to the point that ambitious students read ahead or ask for explanations in advance?

*In all fairness, this could be based less on a wish to (over-)simplify and more on historical development. Even so, it should not be the starting point today.

**Consider e.g. questions like “What is so special about light?!?”, “Why must it be the speed in vacuum?”, “What happens when light travels through a crystal at a lower speed?”, …

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Written by michaeleriksson

January 14, 2019 at 10:42 am

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Follow-up: Wordpress and more post-by-email distortions

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Looking at the actual results of the WordPress-spelling issue just mentioned, it seems that all-but-one occurrence of “Wordpress” were indeed turned into “WordPress”—the one that actually was in quotation marks.

This has the advantage that it does allow discussions of spelling and correct quoting of others statements; however, it does so at the cost of an inconsistent behavior, and a behavior that is highly unpredictable. To boot, it does not resolve the overall problem. The correct solution is and remains to keep all occurrences the way that the blogger actually wrote them.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 7, 2019 at 10:53 pm

Wordpress and more post-by-email distortions

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I have already written about how WordPress distorts quotation marks in “post by email” texts, and why this is idiotic. However, these are not the only artificial problems caused by WordPress. For instance, I have long noticed that line-breaks are often added or removed compared to the display of my HTML original, e.g. in the list entries in my recent blogroll update. Looking at the actual HTML code, I can see that WordPress has simply removed closing paragraph-tags (p) before a closing-listentry tag (li), which is very poor style. Not only does the result indisputably display differently* in my browser, but good code does not rely on implicit closures of that kind.

*Unlike in my original, very preliminary observations, when I first experimented with post-by-email. Then, I had mainly (or exclusively?) seen a removal of tags around the asterisks that I use for footnotes, which indeed did not seem to affect display. (At least in my browser and with the fonts used—there is always a risk that the situation is different in other circumstances.)

Another issue is that I write “Wordpress” (as I attempt here; let us see whether it is changed) with a small “p”, but that this somehow always turns out as “WordPress” (with a capital “P”). WordPress might have its own preferred spelling, but it has no right to impose it on me, especially since the word could conceivably refer to something else in some context (possibly, within a book by Jasper Fforde?). Certainly, there are a few* people who disapprove strongly of such unconventional casing, and imposing something that it disapproves of in such a manner would be doubly unethical—with strong parallels to a recent text on distortion of literary works. Or what about a text (e.g. this one) discussing the spelling, which is now unable to quote the word in variant forms? Or what about an attempt to quote something that someone else said, which simply did not use the preferred-by-Wordpress spelling?

*I am not one of them, but I have sufficiently strong opinions in other areas that I can sympathize and put myself in their shoes in this scenario.

Moreover: What guarantees do we have that no more insidious changes take place (or later will take place)? What if someone decides that words like “nigger” and “fuck” are to be auto-censored*, that all spelling be converted to U.S. conventions to suit the broadest spectrum of readers, or that all occurrences of “he” be automatically replaced by “they” to ensure PC conformity? Also note that there is no notification whatsoever as to what changes have been made, which leaves the blogger the choice between blind trust and entirely disproportionate checks and/or manual corrections.

*In the context of forums, such auto-censorship is relatively common, and often applied in an utterly idiotic manner. For instance, words like “analyst” can be turned into “****yst”, because the filters do not differ between a stand-alone “anal” and “anal” as part of a larger word with an entirely different meaning. (The question aside, whether “anal” is worthy of censorship in any context.) On the other hand, they are typically foiled by variations like “f*ck” or “F-U-C-K”, the censorship of which would be much less unreasonable (but still disputable!) than a plain-text “anal”.

This is all the more annoying, since one of the reasons that I use post-by-email is to avoid the extreme fuck-ups that WordPress causes through its GUI*.

*Cf. e.g. the current state of a text dealing with “Google’s ideological echo chamber”, where a post-by-email malfunction forced me to correct the text in the GUI—with very weird layout results. (Actually, this might be yet another example of consistent idiocy: I used the HR-tag, which has over-time been redefined from meaning “horizontal ruler” to “general content separator”. Because my original posting attempt was cut off exactly where the HR-tag was, I suspect that WordPress has imposed an even further going private semantic of “end of post”, which would yet again be an inexcusable meddling contrary to reasonable assumptions. However, I have made no further experiments with said tag in conjuncture with WordPress.)

The only reasonable solution is to respect the actual words and code of the blogger.

Disclaimer:
In order to avoid additional complications through possible WordPress interference, some of the above formulations are less explicit than they would be in another context, e.g. in that I speak of “paragraph-tags (p)” where I would normally have included an explicit tag example.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 7, 2019 at 10:31 pm

Blogroll update (much delayed)

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It has been a very, very long time since I updated my blogrolls—or even visited most of the linked-to pages.

To improve matters, I have just added three new links and removed a number of others. Note that the “temporary” section is reduced to one entry, due to the excessive time since the last update. (Normally, it would be fixed at three. Cf. my blogroll policy.)

Links that currently appear to be defunct are prefixed with a “#”. They might or might not work at some later time, from some different geographic area, or similar, but do not bet on it…

New:

  1. Minding the Campus deals extensively with problems on U.S. college campuses (and similar settings), notably in areas like freedom of speech and opinion, due process, and damaging PC excesses. Seeing that higher education is an enormously important topic and that the current course is disastrous, this site is one of the most important around.

    Recurring readers might recognize the name from repeated prior mentions.

    (English blogroll)

  2. Academic Rights Watch is a similar site with a focus on my native Sweden (in Swedish, despite the English name). Much of the same applies, but there are some thematic differences resulting from the different Swedish situation and/or different priorities in detail. (The former includes a more homogeneous population, a system that does not involve U.S.-style campuses, and a less intrusive-upon-the-students mentality of the colleges/universities.)

    (Swedish blogroll)

  3. educationrealist writes about practical experiences from teaching U.S. high-school students in a highly informative manner. I have a half-finished draft of a longer discussion that will be published in the near future.

    (Temporary blogroll)

Replaced:

  1. #My own old OpenDiary seems to be defunct. (Without my having been notified…)

    I have changed the link to point to a (complete or near complete) backup on my main web-site.

Removed:

  1. Foundation for Individual Rights in Education currently, in an unethical and visitor-hostile act, blocks access to content with a request that visitors join a mailing list. To boot, the usability of the web-site has otherwise been reduced considerably since the original addition; to boot, the interested reader will find much more information on Minding the Campus.

    (However, the foundation appears to still play an important part as freedom-of-speech and whatnot activists.)

  2. #Feminismus oder Gleichbehandlung leads to a browser-error page.
  3. #Call for a more sensible take on prostitution (German) leads to a server-error page.

    This site was also part of my temporary blogroll, and ripe for removal.

  4. #Länger Einkaufen in Bayern leads to a server-error page (and might have been hi-jacked by some type of squatter, porn site, or whatnot).

    This site was also part of my temporary blogroll, and ripe for removal.

  5. Human Stupidity was part of my temporary blogroll, and ripe for removal.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 5, 2019 at 12:19 am

Wordpress and mangling of quotes

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Preamble: Note that the very complications discussed below make it quite hard to discuss the complications, because I cannot use the characters that I discuss and expect them to appear correctly. Please make allowances. For those with more technical knowledge: The entity references are used for what decimal Unicode-wise is 8220 / 8221 (double quotes) and 8216 / 8217 (single quotes). The literal ones correspond to ASCII/Unicode 34, which WordPress converted to the asymmetric 8220 and 8221. (I stay with the plain decimal numbers here, lest I accidentally trigger some other conversion.)

I just noticed that WordPress had engaged in another inexcusable modification of a text that I had posted as HTML by email—where a truly verbatim use of my text must be assumed.* Firstly, “fancy”** or typographic quotation marks submitted by me as “entity references”*** have been converted to literal UTF-8, which is not only unnecessary but also increases the risk of errors when the page or a portion of its contents is put in a different context.**** Secondly, non-fancy quotation marks that I had deliberately entered as literal UTF-8 had been both converted into entity references and distorted by a “fanciness” that went contrary to any reasonable interpretation of my intentions. Absolutely and utterly idiotic—and entirely unexpected!

*Excepting the special syntax used to include e.g. WordPress tags, and the changes that might be absolutely necessary to make the contents fit syntactically within the displayed page (e.g. to not have two head-blocks in the same page).

**I.e. the ones that look a little differently as a “start” and as an “end” sign. The preceding sentence should, with reservations for mangling, contain two such start and two such end signs in the double variation. This to be contrasted with the symmetrical ones that can be entered by a single key on a standard keyboard.

***A particular type of HTML/XML/whatnot code that identifies the character to display without actually using it.

****Indeed, the reason why I use entity references instead of UTF-8 is partially the risk of distortion along the road as an email (including during processing/publication through WordPress) and partially problems with Firefox (see excursion)—one of the most popular browsers on the web.

The latter conversion is particularly problematic, because it makes it hard to write texts that discuss e.g. program code, HTML markup, and similar, because there the fancy quotes are simply not equivalent. Indeed, this was specifically in a text ([1]) where I needed to use three types of quotation marks to discuss search syntax in a reasonable manner—and by this introduction of fanciness, the text becomes contradictory. Of course, cf. preamble, the current text is another example.

This is the more annoying, as I have a markup setup that automatically generates the right fancy quotes whenever I need them—I have no possible benefit from this distortion that could even remotely compete with the disadvantage. Neither would I assume that anyone else has: If someone deliberately chooses to use HTML, and not e.g. the WYSIWYG editor, sufficient expertise must be assumed, especially as the introduction of fancy quotes is easy within HTML it self—as demonstrated by the fact that I already had fancy quotes in the text, entered correctly.

Excursion of Firefox and encoding:
Note that Firefox insists on treating all* local text as (using the misleading terminology of Firefox) “Western” instead of “Unicode”, despite any local settings, despite the activation of “autodetect”, despite whatever encoding has actually been used for the file, and despite UTF-8 having been the only reasonable default assumption (possibly, excepting ASCII) for years. Notably, if I load a text in Firefox, manually set the encoding to “Unicode”, and then re-load the page, then the encoding resets to “Western”… Correspondingly, if I want to use Firefox for continual inspection of what I intend to publish, I cannot reasonably work with pure UTF-8.

*If I recall an old experiment correctly, there is one exception in that Firefox does respect an encoding declared in the HTML header. However, this is not a good work-around for use with WordPress and similar tools, because that header might be ignored at WordPress’ end. Further, this does not help when e.g. a plain-text file (e.g. of an e-book) is concerned. Further, it is conceptually disputable whether an HTML page should be allowed to contain such information, or whether it should be better left to the HTTP(S) protocol.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 29, 2018 at 8:27 pm

Multiple ideas vs. focused texts

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I have repeatedly encountered claims by authors* that their stories only truly work, come to life, whatnot, when they are based on two or more separate ideas. I have made the same, but more ambivalent, observation regarding my own (non-fiction) texts: The texts that I really have a drive to write, that are the most fun to write, that develop my own thoughts the most, …, tend to be the ones combining two or more ideas. The way of writing described in an older text also almost forces the inclusion of multiple ideas, even when the original drive was not rooted in more than one idea. On the downside, these texts are also the least focused, might give the readers less value for their time, and would be most likely to be torn to pieces if submitted to e.g. a college course on essay writing.**

*Including Stephen R. Donaldson with regard to his “Gap” and “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant” series. As for the others, I have to pass, seeing that I only took superficial note at the time, and that these encounters stretch back over decades.

**However, I state for the protocol that I simply do not agree with much of the standard writing advice and that my deviations are more often rooted in disagreement with than ignorance of such advice. This includes, outside of very formal types of writing, keeping a tight focus on a single topic, or focusing on a single side of an issue. (The latter might be more convincing, but should a good essay aim at convincing or at giving insight and attempting to get at the truth?) It also includes “avoid the passive”, which I consider one of the worst pieces of advice a writer can get.

Consider, for a comparatively simple example, a few thoughts around the 2018 Chess World Championships and the fact that all the regular games ended in draws:*

*I originally intended to write a separate text on that matter. Since I sketch the material here, and have an ever-growing back-log, I will forego that text.

On the one hand, I have long observed that as a sport matures and as we look at higher levels within a sport, (a) players/teams tends to grow stronger defensively at a higher rate than they do offensively and/or that differences in scores tend to grow smaller, (b) the nature of the sport often changes.*

*Consider for (a) the chance of in soccer finding a five-goal victory margin or an overall of ten goals for a single game between national teams today vs. fifty years ago, between men’s teams vs. between women’s teams, or between Bundesliga teams vs. between local amateur teams. (With great reservations for temporary fluctuations, the presence of a truly exceptional team, unusually large mismatches in level, and similar.) Consider for (b) how a low level bowler aims to knock down as many pins as possible, hoping for a strike every now and then, while the pro is set on failing to get strikes as rarely as possible.

On the other hand, partially overlapping, it seems to me that chess is being crippled by too many draws. Notably, at increasingly higher levels of play, it becomes rarer and rarer for Black to win, implying that the “job” of Black is to get a draw. In contrast, the “job” of White is to win. However, even White’s win percentage is often so low that draw orgies result. Looking specifically at the 2018 World Championships, we also have another negative: The defending champion and eventual winner, Carlsen, was known to be stronger at speed chess than his opponent, Caruana—and in case of a tie after twelve regular games, the match would be determined by a speed-chess tie-breaker. Considering this, Carlsen had a strong incentive to play risk-free games, knowing that a tie was close to a victory and that draws in the individual games favored him. Going by the account on Wikipedia, this almost certainly affected the 12th game.* After twelve consecutive draws, the tie-break came, and Carlsen now won three games out of three… Similarly, even without a favorable tie-breaker, a player who got an early win might then just go for safety draws in order to keep that one-point advantage until the end.

*Going by the other game accounts, there were no strong signs of such caution. (I have not attempted to analyze the games myself, and I might even lack the ability to judge what is “safety first” play on this level.) However, another player in his shoes might well have played with an eye mainly at forcing a tie-break, and have viewed a victory within the regular portion as a mere bonus.

Looking more in detail, my plans did not advance so far that I can say with certainty what I would have written, except that it would have included a potential rule change to e.g. give Black more points than White in case of a victory and/or to make the split of points uneven (in favor of Black) in case of a draw. This would have had the intention of giving Black incentives to play harder for a win and/or to make White dissatisfied with a draw, and some discussion of how such rule changes could turn out to be contra-productive would have followed. For the latter, an intended parallel example was the off-side rule in soccer: Abolishing it would lead to more goals if the teams play as they do today and it could give incentives to play more aggressively through putting forwards higher in the field to await a pass; however, it could also lead to more defensive play through keeping defenders back even when attacking, in case the ball is lost and a quick counter-attack follows.

*For some value of exciting: I usually find watching soccer to be quite boring.

Here we also have an illustration of one of the problems with more focused texts: If I were to try to divide the above into two (or more) texts, they would each be missing something or be forced to partially duplicate discussions. It could be done. There might even be contexts when it should be done. However, this would entail more work than writing a single text, the result would be lesser in my eyes, and I would, myself, prefer to read the joint text.

The illustration would have been better, had I been further along in my planing. However, consider e.g. how a discussion of the off-side rule in the chess text would have been weakened without a discussion of the more general phenomenon and the context of the comparatively low number of goals in soccer (if in doubt, when compared to e.g. basket-ball or ice-hockey). Goals in soccer, in turn, would be a fairly uninteresting and loose special case without having an eye on the wider issue of (a) above. Or consider just discussing the “drawiness” of top-level chess without mention of (b) in general. Etc. For a good example of a text actually written, see [1]: Here a discussion of a specific PED-related controversy is combined with a general discussion of some sub-topics, and then transitions into a questioning of how reasonable the current take on PEDs is. (Could have been two or even three texts, had “focus” been a priority, but, to my taste, the actual text works better.)

Excursion on fiction and multiple ideas:
The above-mentioned claims by authors are likely mostly relating to fairly abstract ideas or broad themes that do not automatically point the way;* however, in my experiences as a consumer of fiction, the better works often have a number of ideas or concepts of a more concrete kind that combine to make them that much greater. For instance, “Star Wars” without light-sabers would still be “Star Wars”, but it would not have been quite the same. Similarly, “Star Wars” without the Force would still have worked, but … Or consider “Star Trek” and the individual series with and without holodecks. Clearly, the holodeck is not needed, but it adds so many great additional possibilities. It would certainly be possible to make a reasonably good “high concept” series around the holodeck alone. Similarly, “Chuck” basically combines two different TV series—comic spy adventures and the absurdities of a fictional electronics store. Taking just the latter and combining it with the family-life of Chuck would have made for a reasonable comedy series. Taking just the former in combination with family-life would have made for a very good action-comedy series. Having both in one series made it truly great entertainment.

*Donaldson speaks e.g. of a combination of leprosy and unbelief for “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant”—the road from those ideas to the actual books is quite long and very different books would have been equally possible.

And, no, this is not limited to modern screen entertainment: Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, e.g., is not just a tragedy or love story—but both. It also has more comedy in it than most modern rom-com movies… Then there are life lessons to be drawn, some remarkable poetry, and whatnot. At least the filmatisations by Zeffirelli (outstanding!) and Luhrman show the room for action scenes.*

*I am uncertain how this could have come across in an Elizabethan theater: On the one hand, the means would have been more limited; on the other, the standard of comparison was necessarily much lower. (Both movies also make remarkable use of music; however, that is independent of the underlying play.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 29, 2018 at 6:59 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