Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘journalism

Deliberate lies, threats to freedom of speech, etc. based on “Unsettled” / Follow-up: Various.

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A while back, I wrote ([1]):

Indeed, these constant cries of wolf have strongly contributed to my changed take on man-made global warming, from “definitely real” to “I do not know”—my previous belief was based on claims made by journalists and politicians, experience shows that I cannot trust their claims, and I have (to date) never done the leg work to actually form an independent opinion on the matter.

I am currently trying to get some of that leg work done by reading Koonin’s “Unsettled”, but find the most interesting observations with regard to my own thoughts not in the area of the climate, but in the discussions of knowledge and free speech that are present in e.g. [1], [2], [3], and [4], as well as some of my many COVID discussions.

This both with regard to the contents of the book and the reactions against it.

I lack the time for a deeper analysis, but the problems discussed include topics like:

  1. Misleading reporting of science (notably through poor choices of what data to include in graphs and how to present that data), often with each layer of reporting distorting the actual finding further.
  2. Scientists being loathe to speak up for fear of repercussions.
  3. The possibility that some journalists and politicians take it upon themselves to deliberately exaggerate or distort so that the broad masses will be convinced of the “right” opinion, while being robbed of the right to form their own opinions.

(Of course, very similar issues can be found in e.g. I.Q. research, research into biological differences between men and women, and any other academic area which comes into contact with the Left and/or the PC crowd. Ditto COVID-related topics. )

Particularly telling is his repeated references to e.g. Einstein and Feynman with regard to a duty to truth, intellectual honesty, and similar in science. Consider e.g. Einstein’s

The right to search for truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true.

I note e.g. my own suggestions for a new press-ethics in [3], where the very first item is:

To always report the facts in a manner that allows the readers to form their own opinions—even if they happen to deviate from the journalist’s. This includes not selectively filtering facts that that are unpleasant or incongruent with the journalist’s world view, and not presuming to be an arbiter of what is relevant and what not.

In a bigger picture, I have long been concerned that systematic lying and distortion in line with this quote is taking place—an adult version of the “snus” example from [2]. Indeed, much of the discussion in [2] is highly relevant. This tendency has been very, very clear during the COVID-era, where any claim deviating even slightly from the official line is to be stomped out as inexcusable heresy and misinformation—even when the speaker is a legitimate scientist, even when the science is not yet settled, and even when the facts might support the claim.

Finally, I have previously argued that being right or wrong is not the only thing that matters, e.g. in [4]. Based on my experience and readings since [4], including the massive suppressions and distortions relating to COVID, I would suggest at least the following three questions to consider:

  1. Is a certain opinion correct?
  2. Is a certain opinion, its correctness or incorrectness aside, held for a good reason? (cf. [4], especially.)
  3. Has a certain opinion been freely formed by its holder? (As opposed to instilled in him by another party through means like indoctrination, selective reporting of facts, emotional manipulation, or other intellectually dishonest means.)

Of these, I consider the last the most important—and one likely to be answered with a resounding “NO” for most people and most opinions in today’s world. This failure is a far worse threat to civilization than COVID and climate change put together. It could kill science, democracy, and societal progress. It could ensure that more and more opinions are and remain incorrect as there is no competition between ideas, and as ideas will go untested once deemed the “official truth”. Etc. This is the realm of Soviet-style dictatorships and “Nineteen Eighty-Four”.

Casting a slightly bigger net, we might add a “Is the opinion professed the true opinion of the speaker?” (as opposed to a claim made for fear of repercussions, in order to seem enlightened, or similar).

Excursion on the climate and “Unsettled”:
Roughly half-way through the book, my impression of climate change and climate science is mostly unchanged, i.e. (a) there is likely something too it, but (b) there is a lot of exaggeration and panic-mongering going on, (c) what e.g. journalists claim does not automatically match what scientists say (in this and countless other fields), and (d) I still have not done enough leg work for a firm own opinion.

Something very interesting, however, is that “Unsettled”, in my reading, largely comes down with a “global warming is real” (etc.) take,* while others seem to read the opposite, e.g. (paraphrased) that “Finally, someone proves us skeptics right!” or “This is just a pseudo-scientific attempt to discredit the very real threat of climate change!”. This discrepancy between contents and reactions are not only another example of how dangerous the political climate is in the U.S. (in general) and on the Left (globally), but also plays in well with some of my recent thoughts around “The Bell-Curve”. Contrary to being e.g. “racist” or “White supremacist”, that book could be argued as anti-racist: If we look at what individuals from the broad masses with e.g. an anti-Black attitude say, it often amounts to “Blacks have some natural propensity towards crime [or whatnot], which makes them unsuitable for this-and-that.”. In contrast, “The Bell-Curve” has a take of roughly “those with low I.Q.** tend to end up in jail more often, and race is very secondary to I.Q.”, etc. If the Leftist hate-mongers had not been so keen on shouting the book down as racist, this could have been a very strong anti-racist argument, led to a far greater degree of tolerance, and led to policies much more likely to benefit all races over the long term.

*That the science and science reporting is criticized does not imply that the overall picture is rejected. Here, again, I suspect a strict policy of “either you are 100% with us, including by supporting any of our misinformation, or you are against us”.

**The authors usually deliberately do not speak in terms of I.Q., but the end result is the same and my last reading is too far back for me to remember the exact term used.


Written by michaeleriksson

May 25, 2021 at 11:11 pm

Odd language use / Swedish journalism

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This text turned out to be much thinner than I had anticipated. I would normally have foregone it entirely or waited until I had more material. However, as I explicitly mentioned it in the linked-to text, I prefer to get it out of the way.

The poor style and grammar of many journalists often annoy me. Recently, I have become increasingly annoyed over the Swedish use of “då” (roughly, “then”, in at least some meanings) as a sentence or even paragraph opener. Unfortunately, this is not even limited to journalists.

For instance, consider a sentence quoted earlier today:

Då menar jag att med hänsyn till dessa omständigheter har det varit försvarligt av Krister Petersson att i sitt beslut namnge den personen.

Here the word is used to imply “in light of this”, “considering this”, “in this situation”, or similar; while a literal translation might be “then”, or something like “at that time” or “in that [sic!] situation”. Looking at the logic of language, not the typical actual use, this seems quite odd.*

*This is not a unique example. Consider e.g. the English use of “since” to imply causality instead of timing; or the French “sans doute” to imply “probably” instead of the literal “without doubt”. Indeed, such small traps are so common that an attempt to save writing from them might lead to unrecognizable texts. Some uses are worse than others, however, and “då” is quite bad.

However, this is a comparatively harmless case. Common uses include e.g. the pattern:*

*I have kept no specific example. The quote is hypothetical, put directly into English for illustration. The division into two paragraphs is deliberate and matches the pattern used; however, the actual examples tend to be a little wordier.

Last year, boxer-X and boxer-Y fought to a controversial draw. Last night, they met again.

Then* boxer-X won on knockout.

*In a past sense. The English “then” is actually less misplaced than “då”, because “then” can be used for sequencing in another manner, as with “I went to the movies and then I went home”. In Swedish, this would likely have been resolved with “sedan”: “Jag gick på bio och sedan gick jag hem”. The same sentence with “då” would likely have been taken as something simultaneous, as with “I went to the movies and while I was there I went home”.

Unnatural, contorted, and with some risk of confusion? It is the same in Swedish. Even “now” (“nu”) would have been better, and something like “this time” clearly so. Moreover, the entire construction is dubious. I might have gone with:

Last night, boxer-X defeated boxer-Y on knockout in a re-match of their controversial draw from last year.

(Of course, many other variations are possible—but few as poor and odd as the original.)

Still, this type of pattern appears again and again: A first paragraph with background information. A second paragraph, beginning with “Då”, with the event. (Optionally, followed by further paragraphs with more details.) This is the odder, as someone reading about a sports event in a newspaper will want to see the result in the first sentence of the first paragraph.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 19, 2020 at 1:45 pm

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Issues with search listings and emotionally manipulative writing

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A recurring problem with online journalism is that the information shown in search listings is often highly misleading, including click-baiting, contents that turn out to be pay-walled after the user clicks the link, and a misleading impression of factuality (cf. below).

A recurring problem with journalism in general is undue emotional manipulation, cheap and pointless* human interest angles, etc.

*As opposed to more legitimate cases—they are rare, but they do exist. In contrast, it might be argued that emotional manipulation is always undue in journalism (and politics, advertising, and similar).

Both are exemplified by my search for an English source for the topic of my previous text (I encountered the topic in German): I was met by a number of entries in the search list that seemed to be calm and factual, but which turned out to be cheap attempts to provoke emotional reactions when I actually visited the pages. The source that I did pick was the least evil, by a considerable distance, of the four or five pages that I tried. Even here, however, we have a start of: “One-month old Haboue Solange Boue, awaiting medical care for severe malnutrition, is held by her mother, Danssanin Lanizou, 30, at the feeding center of the main hospital in the town of Hounde,” with a corresponding image. This in contrast to a search-list entry of “Hunger linked to coronavirus is leading to the deaths of 10,000 more children a month over the first year of the pandemic, according to an urgent call for action from the United Nations.”

In all fairness, that page lived up to the claims after the image and image text, and even the image text was not that bad. But what do some others do?

Consider https://kvoa.com/news/2020/07/27/covid-19-linked-hunger-tied-to-10000-child-deaths-each-month:

The lean season is coming for Burkina Faso’s children. And this time, the long wait for the harvest is bringing a hunger more ferocious than most have ever known.

That hunger is already stalking Haboue Solange Boue, an infant who has lost half her former body weight of 5.5 pounds (2.5 kilograms) in the last month. With the markets closed because of coronavirus restrictions, her family sold fewer vegetables. Her mother is too malnourished to nurse her.

“My child,” Danssanin Lanizou whispers, choking back tears as she unwraps a blanket to reveal her baby’s protruding ribs. The infant whimpers soundlessly.

Excruciatingly poorly written, horrifyingly cheap, and a waste of time for anyone who wants to actually understand the situation (let alone is looking for a reference). This is the type of anti-hook and reader-despising drivel that kills my wish to read on.

The search-listing?

Virus-linked hunger is leading to the deaths of 10,000 more children a month over the first year of the pandemic, according to an urgent call to action from the United Nations shared with The …

Calm, factual, and something that I would consider reading (and what seems to make a good reference).

Assuming that we wanted to include contents like the above, it should (a) have been moved to a side-bar, not the top of the main text, (b) have been written in a more factual manner. Consider e.g. (with some reservations for the exact underlying intents and facts due to precision lost by the poor original):

The children of Burkina Faso are at particular risk. The harvest is still far into the future and supplies are already low. The coronavirus restrictions have closed markets, which does not just reduce access to food but also the income needed to pay.

Many have already been severely hit, like Haboue Solange Boue, an infant who has lost half her former body weight of 5.5 pounds (2.5 kilograms) in the last month. The closed markets have hurt her family’s vegetables sales and her mother is too malnourished to nurse her.

But it is not just the infant who suffers: the emotional stress on her mother is great.

Note the difference in tone, the lack of (or, at least, far lesser) emotional manipulation, how information is more accessible, and how much easier it is to actually get an idea of what goes on.

Excursion on perceived value of “emotional” writing:
The naive might argue that writing like the original would make it easier to empathize with and understand the situation emotionally. Not only am I highly skeptical to this, based on myself, but I must also point to two major risks: (a) That the reader falls victim to an analogue of emotional contagion.* (b) That reality is distorted (more easily than with more factual writing). More generally, decisions, including government policy, should be made by reason, not emotion.

*More generally, what is meant by “empathy” very often amounts to nothing more than emotional contagion—something which distorts understanding, leads to partiality, and brings about poor decisions.

The latter can be the result of e.g. exaggeration or melodrama, deliberate distortion, and different perceptions. Notably, using emotional writing, narrating reactions, speculating about the internal state of someone, whatnot, it is very easy both to give and to get the wrong impression. Moreover, internal states and external displays do not always reflect what is reasonable.* For an example of such distortion consider the following hypothetical example: “Felicia felt her heart compress painfully as she looked down on the dead body, the remains of her old friend. Tears welled up into her eyes and she sat down in shock. A moment ago, he had been so full of life and now he was gone, gone forever, ripped out of her life by a moment of carelessness. Oh God, what had she done?!?” Here is the hitch: I wrote this with the sudden death of a gold fish in mind and I wrote nothing that might not genuinely have applied in such a case (allowing for some metaphor).

*For instance, when I was a young child and my toy penguin lost an eye, I cried much more than when I, as an adult, learned that my mother had died. Cf. parts of an older text.

Excursion on search listings:
The situation with search listings is quite negative, and includes such problems as various web sites feeding different contents to different user agents, e.g. web browsers used by humans and the “spiders” that gather data for search services. A potential solution would be to require that spiders are fed the exact contents of a regular surfer and that search listings always show the first X words of the page contents. While the result might sometimes be misleading, it will often be better than today, there will often* be a clear indication whether content is pay-walled, and it might lead to better writing that gets to the point faster. The pay-wall issue could be partially solved by some mandatory content tag which can be evaluated by search engines to give the searchers a heads up.

*However, likely less often than could be hoped for, as a simple “pay NOW to read” message might be replaced by a teaser text followed by “pay NOW to read” to ensure that the latter is not present in the search listing. Indeed, such teaser texts are fairly common, even today.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 28, 2020 at 10:40 am

Sweden and COVID

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A recent article on UNZ is very interesting both with an eye on the situation in my native Sweden and with regard to issues like journalism and public policy.

Broadly speaking, the article amounts to Sweden (which has imposed far less restrictions than most other countries) having done much better economically done others and having paid at most a small or tolerable price in terms of health effects, yet also being torn down by international media.

A few meta-issues:

  1. Looking through the article and the comments, it is clear that a great uncertainty exists on what the true situation is.* The truth might well be out there, but how do we outsiders get at the truth? One way is to look into varying sources and to give dissenting voices a hearing, but that takes a lot of time and doing so on all important issues would be more than full-time job. Here there is a niche where journalists could truly provide “value added”: have a strong critical thinker go through various sources, debates, and whatnot, and have him summarize the overall sets of opinions and arguments, determine the currently dominating opinion, and give his own take on plausibility and whatnot as an extra protection. What journalists actually do is pretty much the opposite … Too often, they grab a single source, often a government agency, another media outlet, or a professor of the social “sciences”, and blindly trumpet that one viewpoint to the world. Indeed, in many cases, they deliberate try to squash dissenting opinions to prevent the readers from forming their own opinions, lest they come to a different conclusion or perception than the journalists want to push.**

    *And I am not necessarily saying that the data and interpretation in that article are the superior ones. My impressions go in the same direction, but my leg-work is not even remotely up-to-date.

    **See e.g. a recent text on NYT.

    This problem (and this wasted opportunity) is by no means restricted to epidemics. Consider e.g. the current heavily distorted U.S. reporting on alleged racism, including an often highly incomplete picture of the George-Floyd case.

  2. Chances are that both governments and journalists suffer from a can’t-retreat-now effect: even admitting the possibility that Sweden had made a better choice could lead to a horrifying loss of reputation and credibility. For instance, what politician wants to be known as the “guy who tanked the economy for no reason” or “the guy who cost me my job for no reason”. (Vice versa, I strongly suspect that an early fear in the other direction increased the panic-making: no politician wants to be known as “the guy who let millions die because he did not follow the example of everyone else”.)
  3. Sweden’s policy would have been a good thing, even had it backfired: In order to handle situations like this one, we need information and we need to be able to compare strategies. When more-or-less everyone uses a tight lock-down strategy, how are we supposed to get this information and how are we to compare strategies? (Even aside from complications like inconsistent data gathering, testing, attribution of death, whatnot, between countries.) As is, we do not actually know that more than non-trivial counter-measures were needed, because there is no true benchmark to tell us whether an no-restrictions policy would have led to the equivalent of four-flu-seasons-in-one or the Spanish Flu.* Looking e.g. at Germany (alone), there might not be enough data to allow anything but a second major shut-down, should a second wave of even specifically COVID occur—the room to draw important lessons has simply been too small.**

    *I still suspect the former. Also remember e.g. the SARS and swine-flu scares that eventually had a trivial impact, far less than COVID, even without massive lock-downs.

    **And I suspect that the one lesson (or “lesson”?) will be an immediate introduction of face masks, as opposed to the delayed one that took place this time.

    Imagine instead that there had been an international agreement that different countries* should apply different levels of restrictions. Take something as trivial as varying where masks are mandatory, how large gatherings are allowed, or whether old people should be isolated. When the next epidemic comes, we would have a better idea of what counter-measures bring what benefit or damage* to health and what damage to e.g. the economy. Indeed, as even this wave has hit the world at a stagger, controlled experiments with the first countries hit could have given some help to countries hit later.

    *Or, in e.g. Germany or the U.S., different states of the federation.

    **To this, remember that e.g. involuntary isolation can have negative health effects of its own, as can unemployment caused by the counter-measures, etc. It is not a given, in advance, that even the net health effect will be positive. In my own case, it has almost certainly been negative through weight-gain and damage caused by an idiot neighbor (cf. e.g. portions of an older text, which also address the general issue in a little more detail).

    Sweden’s heretic road gives us at least some chance of comparison.

Excursion on “we can’t risk it”:
Looking at the last item, some might argue that we simply cannot take the risk and that it would be a callous risking of human lives. With this I would disagree on several counts, including that the same argument would apply in a great many other cases and result in a crippled society, that we could equally argue that the opposite would be a callous risking of the economic well-fare of the people, that neglecting to gather this information is a callous risking of future lives, and that policies can always be changed, should the situation turn out* to be unacceptable.

*One of my complaints with how the situation has been handled is that the gun was jumped—extremely far-going restrictions were applied before it was clear that the situation would actually turn out badly without restrictions. (Something that we still do not know …)

Excursion on my take on the core issues:
This few-restrictions policy is in line with my own recommendations (if in doubt because adults should themselves decide what small or moderate risks they do take) and the economic advantage is a near given. That the health effects are small* is in line with my expectation, but confirmation is good. The treatment by media is not unexpected, but I would have hoped for better.

*Compared to e.g. the overall death toll from all causes or total loss of life-years, not necessarily “raw” COVID death cases from comparable countries with a more restrictive policy. (Note that COVID still only provides a fraction of all deaths and that many of the dead were so old and sick that they lost only a small portion of their lives—unlike e.g. that middle-aged chain-smoker who died in lung cancer or that child who died in a car accident.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 26, 2020 at 1:22 pm

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How much is a housewife worth according to The Telegraph and by common sense?

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In a recent text, I pointed to an article in The Telegraph on housewives as containing “nonsensical calculations”, which gave the fantasy amount of “£159,137” as a housewife’s salary.*

*For comparisons in other currencies and at later times, note that the corresponding amount in e.g. Euro and USD would currently be larger and that the article is from “2:54PM BST 15 Oct 2014”, implying that we already, at my time of writing, have to factor in almost six years of inflation. (I will not attempt to calculate e.g. a “current Euro” amount, because it would soon become outdated.)

The best I can say about that article is that it does not include CEO as one of the comparisons, which some other similar texts have. However, to be more specific:

A “Here’s how we calculated a housewife’s appropriate salary” is followed by an almost nonsensical list. Let us look at the items involved, which are summed in blanket manner, regardless of whether they are full-time salaries in their own right or based on e.g. hourly calculations, and regardless of whether there is some overlap between them::

Private Chef

It’s fair to say that housewives earn the title of head personal chef, often cooking the majority of meals for a family. According to National Careers Service, Private Chefs can expect to earn £30,000 a year.

At least two questions spring to mind: (a) Does the housewife spend as much time cooking and whatnot* as a private chef? (b) Does she have the same skills** and qualifications? Chances are overwhelming that the answer is “no” to both questions, and she would then not deserve those £30,000 a year for being a private chef. Either she should have a fraction of that amount to correspond to time spent and actual performance, or she should get (on the outside!) that amount and then nothing more for the many following titles added.

*I am not familiar with the details of this profession, but I would assume that it entails a lot more than just physically cooking, say, a different (compared to a housewife) level of meal planing, supervision of other staff, purchasing decisions, and similar.

**While the amateur rarely reaches a professional standard in general, the days where the typical (house-)wife might have been an accomplished amateur cook are long gone: pasta and meatballs with a salad is not what I would expect from a private chef—and certainly not TV dinners and take-out.

House cleaner

Housewives do an average of 18 hours of cleaning a week. At an average rate of £6.86 an hour, that adds up to £6,4320 a year. (No weeks off if you’re a housewife, remember).

I very much doubt that the time spent is as large as 18 hours a week for what constitutes house cleaning, as opposed to other work subsumed elsewhere. Indeed, I doubt that my mother spent as much as 18 hours overall on housewife tasks, with reservations for the baby stages,* and we still had a clean house with clean and well-fed children. She certainly did not spend anywhere near that time on house cleaning alone. (My mother, admittedly, was not a housewife, but, as she was a single mother of two, her workload is unlikely to have been lower in terms of necessary** tasks.) As to myself, the comparison is unfair, as I have a one-person household and might err on the side of too little cleaning, but 4.5 (18 / 4 family members) hours would easily suffice to keep my apartment in top shape. My actual cleaning is probably below 1 hour a week, on average. My mother might have complained, but I have yet to die from it.

*Especially, as this was in the 1970s, when many household helpers were unavailable to most or of (often considerably) lower efficiency than at my time of writing (2020; the discussed article, again, is from 2014). For instance, it was a long while before we ever had a dishwasher.

**Performing unnecessary tasks, like vacuuming once a day, can drive the effort up considerably, but that should not entitle a housewife to more money. As a comparison, a hired house cleaner might be brought in once a week, because the minor benefit of doing so once a day does not outweigh the cost explosion.

From another perspective, take Sundays off and we have 18 hours for six days or 3 hours a day—who, in a modern home, with modern appliances, cleans for 3 hours a day?!? Mr. Monk might, but he is hardly a good role model for a housewife. The owners of an old English mansion might, but they are likely to have hired people in the first place and are certainly not representative in terms of e.g. floor space.

The claim that a housewife has no weeks off is obviously nonsensical: most will spend time away with relatives or in hotels at some point of they year. If in doubt, should we assume that the husband goes on vacation to Italy and leaves the wife at home?!?

A more realistic calculation for house cleaning might be 48 weeks a 6 days a 1 hour a £6.86 or roughly £1976. Even that, I suspect, is being generous for the specific, sole, tasks of house cleaning—this, especially, for the very many housewives, who, in a slight misnomer, live and work in an apartment.

Live-in nanny

Child care can take up the bulk of a stay-at-home mother’s time. As live-in nannies earn £400 per week (£20,800 a year), shouldn’t housewives get the same?

Possibly, but that should then also be the bulk of the payment or even the entire payment, depending on how much work a live-in nanny performs relative a housewife.


Don’t forget work as a personal chauffeur in the typical housewife details! That’s an extra £24,860 per year.

The same specious reasoning as for the private chef.

Laundry and ironing

A professional laundering and ironing service would cost £3,661 per year for a typical household’s washing.

If so, it includes factors like VAT, profit margins, and costs that a housewife does not have, e.g. rent for premises, business related insurance, various on-top-off salary quasi-taxes to the government, etc. Certainly, in a housewife–officehusband scenario, electricity, water, equipment, whatnot, are paid by the husband. The actual work done is likely at or close to minimum wage. Giving her another £1976 (cf. house cleaning) seems on the generous side: ironing and stubborn spots might take some time, but most of the rest is taking clothes from a hamper, putting the clothes in a washing machine, waiting a while in front of the TV, putting the clothes in the drier, waiting a while in front of the TV, etc.

Private nurse

Children get sick an awful lot. A housewife with two kids can expect to care for each at least ten times a year (three days for each illness). Plus 4.4 days for the husband, at a private nurse’s rate of £200 per day. Add £5,480 to the housewife’s salary.

Children do get sick a lot, but an average of ten times a year at three days each?!?* I very much doubt it, and it does not match my own recollections of me and my sister in the remotest, even as small children. As to the husband, I have lived alone for basically my whole adult life, now 45, and have never needed someone to take care of me when I was sick.** Looking at the cost, a typical housewife has nowhere near the qualifications of a private nurse and would typically do far less or far less taxing nursing. Going back to my own days of sickness,*** even as a small child, my parents might have had an additional effort of less than an hour a day, likely considerably less: check on me in bed, bring me something to eat, arrange for cough-medicine, … But let me be generous and call it 2 children a 20 days a 1 hour a £6.86 or a sum of £274. This, obviously, for sufficiently small children—over the kids-live-at-home era, let alone a lifetime, a more realistic “housewife average” might be less than half of this.

*Note that, by implication, we are not even talking about overall time sick, e.g. having the sniffles, but actually being sufficiently sick as to require a considerable extra effort on behalf of a housewife or a nurse. At a minimum, we have a “sick enough to be spend the day in bed” scenario.

**Which is not to say that I would have refused assistance had I had a housewife, but I have not yet needed it, and certainly not for as much as 4.4 days a year. (Reservation: In all fairness, the presence of children might increase the risk of the husband catching something.)

***Excepting the croup problems that I had over some periods: I was too young to have a clear recollection of the overall time and effort, it covered just a small portion of my overall years “at home”, and it was something exceptional in nature. The risk that any given child will have something exceptional at some point is fairly large, but most probably do not or only do so for short times. (And those few who have truly major problems, well beyond croup, might best be broken out and covered by a separate case-based allowance, while the salary for the typical housewife is based on a median value.)

Of course, once in a while, the housewife will be sick too, and she should make plans to pay money back to whoever takes care of her. (Similar arguments might apply elsewhere, e.g. when the husband drives her somewhere.)


Housewives are expected to ease the burdens and stresses of their family. All the listening, encouraging and consoling is effectively the work of a therapist – who earn an average £24,645 per year.

Again, we have the “private chef” fallacy. (And how often is the husband the one doing the listening, encouraging, and consoling of the wife? And where the children are concerned, is she not already paid for this by being the “live-in nanny”?)

Personal assistant

In between cleaning the house and looking after kids, there’s a lot of organisational work that goes into running the home. Plan a holiday, book dinner with the in-laws, deal with the tax returns – it’s all in five minutes’ work for a housewife. And while those duties may be overlooked, an effective personal assistant can expect to charge £22,500 per year.

And again, the “private chef” fallacy. Further, will the housewife actually do all those things? Dealing with the taxes, at least, is a stereotypical “husband task”. Further yet, planing a holiday is something that many women would consider fun (not work); and booking dinner* implies that she is not cooking herself, so … Was she not supposed to be the private chef?

*I assume, in the sense of booking a table at a restaurant.


Those precocious yet adorable children aren’t going to get to the top of the class by following the school syllabus. A housewife cajoles them into homework, devotes herself to hours of reading and arranges some educational field trips to the science museum. High quality tutors are worth £20,770 a year – add it to the total.

And again, the “private chef” fallacy. Moreover, chances are that this would already, wholly or partially, fall under other headings, e.g. “live-in nanny”. Besides, the positive effects of tutoring are disputable to begin with, as own brains and motivation tend to matter much more; my mother did none of these things and I was still among the top few in class.*

*During the times of my life where motherly intervention might have been beneficial, we had no grades and it made little sense to speak of “top of the class”. In years 7–9, when we had grades, I was old enough to handle things myself, and, to my recollection, was typically third not just in my class but in the entire four parallel classes. (The division of brains was very uneven between the classes.)

What then would be a fair yearly salary? The question is near impossible to answer, due to the great variety of effort needed in different families* and the quality of effort from different housewives. but it is bound to be fraction of the claimed total. Indeed, the working husband, who pulls in 40 hours + overtime in the office, commutes for an hour a day, and then still has to mow the lawn and clear the drains, is likely to have an actual salary a fraction of that amount. Even just picking one of the full-time salaries that were accumulated by this idiot journalist, e.g. the private chef’s £30,000, might well be too generous. A somewhat fair estimate might be 10** to 40 hours a week at the aforementioned £6.86***. This amounts to £68.6 to £274 a week or £3567 to £14268 a year—from which we must now deduct taxes and the non-monetary recompense through free food/lodging/whatnot (paid by the husband).

*Including the same family at different stages. Compare e.g. this year’s family of four, when the children are six months and two years, respectively, with the same family ten and twenty years later.

**For a low effort family, this need not be unrealistic, and I would be more concerned about the 40 hours being too much. Looking not at overall time worked but on the extra amount of house work over a non-housewife, 10 would be ample in many or most cases. Note e.g. that office workers do not just teleport from the office to the couch, where they vegetate for the rest of the day—they have a commute, they go grocery shopping, they do the dishes, they have sick children too, etc. Does the typical housewife actually put in 10 to 40 hours of “housewifing” over what the non-housewife does?

***We can, obviously, dispute whether this is a fair hourly rate, but it was introduced by The Telegraph and most of the tasks are at or close to the minimum wage level. However, even if we were to, extremely generously, double this rate, it would not change the big picture much. It would, however, give yet another argument why finding a fair yearly salary is tricky.

As to the latter, using the pseudo-logic of the discussed article: a high-quality hotel might go for £60 a night or £21900 a year. Call it another £30 for quality restaurants, whatnot, and we have another £10950. A rental car is another handful of thousand (or more) a year. Etc. Call it a cautious overall of £40000 a year and, oops, it looks like our housewife should make a considerable payment instead of receiving money …

As an aside, if a housewife should receive a salary, who should pay it? Not the husband certainly—that would amount to him paying her for her pulling her own weight. (Just like he pulls his own weight by bringing in the pay check that pays for everything else.) If he is “employer”, then food, lodging, access to cars, gifts, spending money, …, must already be considered enough.* The government? The result would be more housewives and fewer tax payers to cover the large amounts of money needed. (Good-bye economy.) The children? Might be fair, but they will not usually have enough money for a good many years to come.

*And the amounts involved can be considerable, even the joke calculation with hotels, etc., above aside: Rack up “her” share of the rent or mortgage, utility costs, food costs, car costs, vacation costs, …, factor in that diamond bracelet for the anniversary, etc. Chances are that her remuneration already is considerable—even without a salary. Throw in a divorce and the husband might have been better off actually using hired help …

Excursion on low intensity tasks:
When trying to estimate time worked, it is important to count fairly, as with the washing above—that the washing machine was running for an hour does not mean that some person spent an hour washing. (While, a few generations back, washing actually was a labor intensive manual task.) Similarly, someone who claims to spend one or two hours a day cooking is unlikely to tell the truth by any fair estimate: even an actual “home cooked” meal (as opposed to TV dinners or even pasta-and-meatballs-from-the-store) is usually* not that labor intensive today and most of the actual cooking time is spent waiting while the stove or oven does its work. Count the time worked, not the time from the first preparation until “dinner is served”!

*Exceptions can include e.g. particularly elaborate or multi-course dinners for a larger group, or something requiring a continuous stirring, but not a typical daily meal.

Those who hover in front of the stove when they can read at the kitchen table with an egg timer have themselves to blame. Those who do hover passively while they share gossip over the phone, are not actually working, for most of the hovering.

A typical meal might need some little time for preparations, e.g. thawing* or hacking this-and-that, usually even less to mix things together, a little time to check in or add a pinch of salt or oregano ever so briefly every now and then. Setting the table is a fast task (outside particularly “fancy” days) and can be done in parallel. The pots, pans, tellers, …, go into the washing machine. Those “one or two hours” might actually be twenty or thirty minutes—or two minutes for the TV dinner. (And note that if washing up and setting the table is counted as cooking, they cannot be counted elsewhere at the same time. And note that they do not count for the housewife, at all, if someone else does them.)

*I.e. taking something from the freezer and putting it in a warm kitchen or, if speed is needed, in the microwave. The actual work will typically count in seconds—not minutes.

Excursion on similarly flawed math:
I have occasionally seen similarly flawed math even outside a “women deserve” or other “political” context. Then, however, it has usually been intended as a joke—not, as above, as something apparently intended to be taken at face value. For instance, as I child, I encountered a bewildering calculation that “proved” that we hardly went to school at all. While I do not remember the exact details, it did include e.g. counting eight hours of sleep from every day of the year (before subtracting weekends and holidays) and the weekend from every week (before subtracting holidays). Due to the resulting double counts, the number of hours in school per year appeared minimal. A correct calculation would first establish the school days per year and then multiple this with the number of hours in school per school day.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 20, 2020 at 8:51 pm

Another journalist speaks up / Follow-up: Poor journalism and journalism as a source of fake news (The New York Times)

with 3 comments

About two months ago, I wrote about problems with the New York Times, including criticism by a 16-year insider of that paper.

Today, I encountered another insiders’ view and see a further validation of both my take on this particular paper and the press and media in general (to some degree, society in general). This long resignation letter by Bari Weiss is worthy of being quoted in full and picking cherries out of it is hard, but the below is an attempt to do so:

[Lessons after Trump’s election:] the importance of understanding other Americans, the necessity of resisting tribalism, and the centrality of the free exchange of ideas to a democratic society—have not been learned. Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.

Indeed, one of my largest criticism of the press is not that it has the wrong opinions (from my POV), but that journalists see themselves as the “enlightened few” and the rest of us (even those vastly more intelligent, better educated, and well informed) as ignorants who need to be fed pre-processed opinions.

Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions.

To this I note the two possible interpretations of “BILD dir deine Meinung”, the slogan of BILD, Germany’s largest (and likely worst) news-paper: It could be read as an imperative to “Form your own opinion!”; it could be read as a presumptuous and reader despising “BILD [gives] you your opinion”.

Indeed, the distortions by the press regularly includes filtering out facts that could be interpreted in the “wrong” manner by the readers, leading them to opinions other than the journalists.

My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views. They have called me a Nazi and a racist; […] [On Slack], some coworkers insist I need to be rooted out if this company is to be a truly “inclusive” one, while others post ax emojis next to my name.

This repeats the enormous problems that exist e.g. in U.S. colleges, on sports teams, and whatnots. Moreover, note the hypocrisy of using claims for inclusiveness to exclude someone.

Showing up for work as a centrist at an American newspaper should not require bravery.

Note: Not “conservative”, not “rightist”, not “Trump supporter”, but actually just “centrist”. The linked to Wikipedia page says “Bari Weiss describes herself as a ‘left-leaning centrist.’ ”, making it even worse … Apparently, someone not solidly “leftist” is not welcome.

But the truth is that intellectual curiosity—let alone risk-taking—is now a liability at The Times. […] And so self-censorship has become the norm.

But how can a journalist who is not intellectually curious possibly do a good job? One who self-censors? Both are antithetical to good journalism.

Op-eds that would have easily been published just two years ago would now get an editor or a writer in serious trouble, if not fired.

Persons being fired over expressing the wrong opinion is (sadly) nothing remarkable today and not unheard of even two decades ago. There are two particularly disturbing aspects here, however: (a) The short time-span, which points to a disastrous and disastrously fast trend.* (b) That even journalism is affected. Indeed, here and with some other quotes, it pays to bear in mind that the justification for the press is to a large degree to ensure expression of opinions that might otherwise be silenced and to ensure that someone criticizes what is wrong with society, the government, whatnot, even in the face of suppression attempts. When the press cannot do that or, worse, is complicit in the suppression of opinion, something is very, very foul.

*Note that both this resignation letter and the previous insider view seem to see the Trump election as something of a watershed. (But I consider this to be a bit optimistic about the age of the problems.)

Even now, I am confident that most people at The Times do not hold these [PC, Leftist, SJW, …] views. Yet they are cowed by those who do.

I have heard similar claims about e.g. the U.S. college situation (at least outside the social sciences) and e.g. Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton points in the same direction for the overall population. However, this makes it the more important to take a stand, to not bow to threats, to not “apologize” for having said something “inappropriate” (“racist”, “sexist”, whatnot), to not have a “two thousand ants can’t be wrong—this is a great place for a picnic!” attitude, etc.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 15, 2020 at 1:21 pm

Poor journalism and journalism as a source of fake news (The New York Times)

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A while back, I encountered a quite interesting article, in which a renowned* journalist deplores the The 2016 Election and the Demise of Journalistic Standards.

*One Michael Goodwin. While unknown to me, apparently he is “the chief political columnist for The New York Post” and “he worked for 16 years at The New York Times”, among other qualifications relevant for the current discussion.

He is, obviously correct, but too optimistic, e.g. in that he says “We were generally seen as trying to report the news in a fair and straightforward manner. Today, all that has changed. For that, we can blame the 2016 election or, more accurately, how some news organizations chose to cover it.”: The problem in lacking standards has existed for a very long time before that, although it is conceivable that the trend has been slower in the U.S. than in e.g. Germany and Sweden. If the public has acquired a greater awareness of this problem through the reporting around the 2016 election, then this is a good thing—but, make no mistake, many were aware long before that. My own first complaints in writing are likely more than ten years old by now, and I had been an unhappy camper for a long time before that.

A particularly interesting claim:

The [New York] Times’ previous reputation for having the highest standards was legitimate. Those standards were developed over decades to force reporters and editors to be fair and to gain public trust. The commitment to fairness made The New York Times the flagship of American journalism. But standards are like laws in the sense that they are designed to guide your behavior in good times and in bad. Consistent adherence to them was the source of the Times’ credibility. And eliminating them has made the paper less than ordinary. Its only standards now are double standards.

While I cannot vouch for his estimate of the past of this paper, the trend well matches the problems and trends that I have seen elsewhere. Cf. e.g. portions of the my discussion of the Relotius fraud or my suggestions for a new press ethics [1] (and a number of links from these pages). In fact, if his claims about The New York Times hold true, it can be argued that my new press ethics is on many points just a return to an older press ethics …

Earlier today, I found an article on Minding the Campus dealing with the New York Times, specifically a recent, highly problematic Pulitzer Prize awarded for its highly problematic “The 1619 Project”. As discussed in this article and several preceding on the same site, there are grave problems with historically incorrect claims that even fairly basic fact checking would have caught—and which appear to have been made out of a wish to push a certain political angle relating to slavery, exploitation of Blacks, and similar, beyond what is warranted by actual history. (The alternative is gross incompetence, which, obviously, can never be ruled out when it comes to journalists.)

This, too, plays in well with some of my past writings, including (again) [1] and a portions of a recent text on fake news and COVID-19. In particular, we have here publications that at least partially* are “fake news”, journalistic fraud, “bad science”, or whatnot, yet are not only accepted as “non-fake news”—but actually wins Pulitzers …

*I have not studied the project in detail, myself, and I do not rule out that there is considerable valuable and correct content (but neither do I rule out that there is not). The deficits repeatedly detailed by Minding the Campus are, however, sufficiently extensive and severe as to make the whole irredeemably bad journalism, the type that rightfully should get journalists fired and “you will never work in this town again”-ed. But instead, again, it wins prestigious prizes …

Written by michaeleriksson

May 11, 2020 at 8:03 pm

The fake-news problem

with 4 comments

When it comes to the fake-news and hate-speech* issues, there are three overlapping aspects that have disturbed me for some time and that have been repeatedly illustrated during the recent COVID-19 reporting:

*I will mostly leave out hate speech, for simplicity, but similar abuse is common, e.g. that statements with the “wrong” political opinions are often condemned as “hate speech” in a blanket manner, and often after a severe distortion, exaggeration, or unproved claim of intent. Cf. e.g. portions of [1], [2], [3].

  1. What is considered fake news is determined less by objective criteria* than by (a) who said it, (b) whether it matches the perception** of scientific consensus or some other ideal, e.g. the ideological*** message a certain journalist or politician wants to push.****

    *E.g. statistics cited and arguments raised.

    **An important word: politicians and journalist often have the science incredible wrong, as with e.g. I.Q.—especially, when the ideas or consequences are not compatible with their ideological positions. Sadly, the same applies to many social scientists. In the Wikipedia consensus debates, it is often not a matter of establishing the true scientific consensus, but the consensus among the editors what the scientific consensus would be—or, even, just the consensus among the editors.

    ***While I have seen much more of such problems on the Left, especially in Sweden and Germany, the problem is by no means limited to the Left, especially in the U.S..

    ****Here and elsewhere: Note that there are many blatant cases of actually incorrect claims being described as “fake news” (e.g. “COVID-19 was created by Donald Trump to defeat China”). Here I concern myself with the more subtle, e.g. “COVID-19 numbers over-/understate the problem because X”. However, note that much of the same argumentation extends to more extreme cases due to the problems of (a) where to draw the border, (b) who decides. In particular, while COVID-19 is almost certainly not created by any government, it is not inconceivable that someone at some point in the future does try to direct an artificial virus against an enemy—and what if a rightful warning is shouted down with “Fake news! Fake news!” until it is too late?

    Was a particular text written (claim made, whatnot) by a journalist for a news-paper? Then it will almost always be considered “news”, no matter how poorly researched or reasoned it was. (And journalistic texts are poorly researched and poorly reasoned disturbingly often, and quite often incorrect too. Most of the exposure to actual “fake news” that the average person has is likely to come from journalists and politicians—exactly those complaining of “fake news” the loudest.)

    By a blogger? Might well be condemned as “fake news” even when the text is well-researched and well-reasoned. (The more so, all other factors equal, when poorly researched, but for non-journalists there is no guarantee even for a quality piece. Even actual scientists specializing in the area at hand might be condemned as spreading “fake news”.)

    Does the text match the perception of scientific consensus (the doctrine of the dominating ideology, whatnot)? If so, it will almost always be “news”.

    Does it go counter to the perception? If so, it is very likely to be “fake news”, even when it matches the real scientific consensus or when at least some reputable experts believe the same.

  2. There is no awareness of the risks involved in approaching a question with the attitude “this is the truth and no-one has a right to say the opposite” (instead of “I am almost certain that this is the truth, but let us look impartially at the arguments for and against each side”).

    While many perceived truths have been truths or very good approximations* of the truth, they have also often been wrong—and there is often a long period during which we cannot say for certain whether a perceived truth actually is the truth. When no-one is allowed to question these perceived truths, this might or might not be beneficial when they are truths, but it is highly damaging when they are not and they are allowed to hang on long past their expiration date. Indeed, those who have raised new and unconventional ideas that were correct have often been disbelieved, ridiculed, or even per- or prosecuted, as with criticism of many issues relating to religion or kooky ideas like evolution and continental drift. Today, sadly, even well established actual truths can lead to condemnation when they do not fit the ideologically imposed new “truth”, as with e.g. the influence of inborn factors on behavior or success in life.**

    *Even in science, it is par for the course that well established, strongly-supported-by-evidence theories are refined over time. Even something that, in some sense, actually is true is not necessarily the last word on the issue.

    **Indeed, here it is not uncommon that the mere mention of the possibility is met with a storm of outrage, e.g. that someone is condemned as a disgusting sexist for even contemplating the possibility of men and women (viewed as groups) having different inborn preferences for math and nursing.

    For my part, I have always found that my insight grows the most when I listen* to different positions and opposing arguments. This sometimes even for the patently absurd**; very often, when there is some room for doubt. This type of campaign does not just imply that the campaigner is denying himself the benefit of such growth, but that he is actively trying to prevent others from gaining it. Worse, any serious attempt at debate risks drowning in name calling, where whoever has the most or loudest supporters wins—not whoever has the best arguments. It certainly relieves the one party of the duty of providing own arguments.

    *A partial explanation for the problems discussed here could be that some are unable to understand the difference between “listens to” and “sympathizes with” or even “will be converted to”. (Possibly, because they are themselves so weak critical thinkers that they might be convinced in the same situation …)

    **For instance, consider the deeply flawed anti-evolution argument that evolution is like having monkeys type randomly in order to reproduce Shakespeare. It is almost entirely without merit and shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what it attempts to disprove—but understanding why it is without merit, etc., can help someone develop his own understanding. Notably, most people who “believe” in evolution do so just because they have been told that it is true—not because they have any own insight into the matter.

  3. It is a massive threat to freedom of speech, especially when entities like Facebook are more-or-less forced to track down and delete what is considered “fake news”, “hate speech”, whatnot. (Note recent political trends to enforce just such obligations, as well as the voluntary or “voluntary” efforts by such entities on their own.)

    For free speech to be worth anything, it is not enough that someone has the legal* right to speak his mind. It is also necessary that he is protected from attempts at sabotage, intimidation, ad hominem** attacks, whatnot. This includes the wide range of “fake news” accusations. If a certain claim or set of claims is false beyond a reasonable doubt, it is better for all parties (possibly, excepting the accuser) if this falsity is demonstrated, than if it is just met with outraged screams of “Fake news!”. If it is not false beyond a reasonable doubt, on the other hand, then the outraged screams are entirely and utterly inappropriate.

    *But note that even this right is increasingly under challenge.

    **Excepting those very rare cases when the man is actually relevant to the issue. Either the arguments for and against are sufficiently clear, and there is no reason to attack the man; or they are not, and then it is the more important that we focus on the issue, not the man.

(And, yes, there is some overlap between these items and opinions that I have expressed in more generic contexts, including free speech, intellectual honesty, and “scientific mindedness”. And, yes, like with COVID-19, we might well have a situation where the attempted counter-measures do more damage than the original problem.)

Indeed, many appear so sure of the truth of a matter, the benefits/dangers of a certain behavior, whatnot, that they are willing to exaggerate or outright lie, slander and libel, use intellectually dishonest arguments, etc., just to ensure that others land at the “right” opinion. (Cf. e.g. portions of [4], as with the attempts to trick children into believing that “snus” comes from chamber pots, to ensure that they stay away from it.)

This is, obviously, quite incompatible with the ideals of a good journalist—someone who realizes that it is his job to report so that others can form their own opinions, not to just shove his opinion down their throats. (Cf. [5], which also covers some of the same ground as the current text.) If anything, a journalist should expose and criticize common misperceptions and -conceptions—not perpetuate them.

Worse, I cannot suppress the suspicion that at least some journalists abuse the “fake news” formula to discredit non-journalists, so that they can save their own industry—at a time when the quality of journalism, news-papers, etc., is at a disastrous low. I do note that the term “fake news” first became wide-spread in Germany (but not internationally) in the wake of the reverse accusation of “Lügenpresse” (see [5] for an explanation).

As an aside, the sheer quantity of accusation along these lines (“fake news”, “hate speech”, “racism”, …) has grown so long and contained so many unjustified cases, that I consider the current press and a great portion of the current politicians/parties as “the boy who cried wolf” (and I am hardly alone in this, something which should give the accusers reason to reconsider their approach):

By now, I tend to view any and all accusations from certain groups with extreme skepticism, sometimes to the point of having a subconscious reaction* in the other direction, and I expect them to support their own claims and opinions with the more evidence before I believe them (but they hardly ever do). Moreover, in some cases, I must suspect that the reason for this type of accusation is the lack of own evidence, which then is a rational indication that the accuser is in the wrong.** Indeed, these constant cries of wolf have strongly contributed to my changed take on man-made global warming, from “definitely real” to “I do not know”—my previous belief was based on claims made by journalists and politicians, experience shows that I cannot trust their claims, and I have (to date) never done the leg work to actually form an independent opinion on the matter.

*E.g. in that claims like “X is Y!” subconsciously cause me to view “X is not Y” as more likely without looking at the evidence, or in that I have some degree of automatic sympathies for X.

**Not to be confused with the more automatic reaction of the previous footnote. A good example is “The Bell Curve”, where the vast majority of the criticism seems to be some variation of “It is racist!”, while very few bother to explain why it would be racist and many of the accusers simply have never read it or engaged with its content in any other non-trivial manner—they are merely repeating what they have been told to believe. Moreover, the ‘It is racist!” typically serves as a blanket condemnation, without any attempt to analyze any individual points of the book, some of which might have been true and/or thought-worthy, even had the book been racist. As an extreme example, the first German animal-rights laws were instituted by the (indisputably racist, genocidal, and otherwise problematic) Nazis. Should we, then, automatically conclude that animal rights is something negative? Should these laws have been automatically repealed after the fall of Nazi-Germany?

Written by michaeleriksson

April 8, 2020 at 10:23 pm

Wasting a reader’s interest

with 3 comments

A personal annoyance in the writing of others, is when they waste my time, interest, or concentration. This not (necessarily) because the topic is uninteresting, not because the text is poorly researched, not because there is a severe clash of style preferences,* whatnot—but because the text contains too much that is off-topic, sprinkles a minimum of information in a sea of text, is written without regard to how it will be read, … This in particular in the initial portions of the text.

*As might be the case with many of my own text vs. much of the potential readership.

A good illustration is found in the documentation of my Linux-system: When listing the options for many programs, some nitwits start the respective description with a “This option” (or a similar formulation), as with e.g. the “man page” for xwininfo:


-id id This option allows the user to specify […]

-name name This option allows the user to specify that […]

-root This option specifies that […]

-int This option specifies that […]

-children This option causes the root […]

-tree This option is […]

-stats This option causes the display of various attributes pertaining to the […]

-bits This option causes the display of various attributes pertaining to the […]

-events This option causes the selected window’s […]

-size This option causes the selected window’s […]


Note how not only “This option” is repeated again and again, but also how further words with little impact often follow, and how much repetition there is. Further, how unnecessary filler is sometimes present even when the author manifestly can do it more economically. (Compare the equivalent formulations “This option allows the user to specify” and “This option specifies”, which are both used in the text.)

The effect? The user starts with the option (e.g. “-stats”), finds the next few words to be pointless, and either looses his concentration or wastes his time. Trying to scan this type of documentation is outright frustrating to me, because: (a) My brain is hit with a steady stream of “This option”, “This option”, “This option”, ad nauseam. (b) It is often impossible to just keep my eyes on the options, scan downwards, and get information about the option at the same time. When I want to just move my eyes down, I instead have to move them to the right, back to the left, then down, etc.

The first sentence, in full, for the “-name” option is “This option allows the user to specify a target window id on the command line rather than using the mouse to select the target window.”. Consider instead “Specifies a target window id on the command line rather than using the mouse to select the target window.” or even “Specifies a target window id.” or possibly even “Target window id.”—all of which would work better in the context of Linux documentation. Note how the important information is pushed forward and how fewer irrelevant words are present. If more details are needed, they can be given in subsequent sentences.

Journalistic writing is particularly troublesome, including through mixing in irrelevant human interest angels. However, its paramount example is what I would consider the “anti-hook”—an introduction to a text that kills the wish to read said text.

Consider e.g. a poor “New Yorker” piece: The article is preceded by a summary that actually caught my curiosity (“My best friend left her laptop to me in her will. Twenty years later, I turned it on and began my inquest.”).* Alas, my interest was soon killed again…

*I do not think highly of what I have seen from this magazine in the past, I visited for the specific purpose of finding an example to use, and was surprised to actually see my interest caught, if ever so briefly. As is, I hit the jack-pot in terms of an example.

The first paragraph has nothing obvious to do with the promised topic. It starts with “The piping on the red snowsuit was yellow, and on the green snowsuit it was blue: fire-engine red, sunflower yellow, summer-grass green, deep-ocean blue, the palette of preschool, the colors in a set of finger paints.”, and continues with another 86* words of a similar style and low relevance.

*All word counts by copy-and-paste into the command wc.

The next paragraph, surely, proceeds with the topic? No, it does not. Here follows more about snow suits and teddy bears. The third paragraph? Starts with a recollection of giving birth… But, true, here the best friend and laptops are actually introduced. Paragraph four is mostly filler, detailing how the author started the lap top, using 241 words, including formulations like “I plugged in a power cord attached to an adapter the size of a poundcake, but when I pried open the laptop sharp bits of steel-gray plastic broke off like chipped teeth, and the hinges cracked, and the screen fell away from the keyboard and dangled, like a mostly decapitated head, the Anne Boleyn of Apples.”—for the love of Steve Wozniak!

802 (!!!) words precede the point where the author actually starts to read what her friend left behind. (“‘Transitions’ turned out to be notes she’d taken on a book published in 1980 called ‘Transitions: […]”) Of course, this is a point of the text that I would normally not have reached. Instead, I would likely have bowed out after the first paragraph, annoyed at having my time wasted and knowing from experience what such a first paragraph typically implies about the rest of the text. On a generous day, or with a less disastrous intro, I might have extended a second chance and read the next paragraph too, but that would be the absolute limit.

From a very superficial skimming through the rest of the text, is appears to be similarly low in information, filled with poor writing and verbal diarrhea, and dealing more with the author than with the friend… I am not a fan of the 500-word essay, as should be obvious from my own writings, but forcing this woman to write nothing except 500-word essays for a few months would do her a world of good.

This example is the more absurd as the author appears to have cared a great deal for this friend—and she still unleashes such an abomination of a text on the world in her “honor”…

Of course, such extremes are rare even within journalism; however, the attempt to use some type of hook is quite common—and it usually backfires. A hook is a legitimate means of starting a text, and is often one of the first recommendations a beginning writer gets, but it must serve its purpose—to actually hook the reader. Moreover, there is a wide variety of cases when a hook is, at best, a waste of time, because the reader already intended to read the text.* For instance, above, I was made curious by the summary, I hoped for something that matched this summary, and the first paragraph was then entirely off topic (and highly dubious in other regards too). If the first paragraph was intended as a hook, it was a complete failure, because (a) I did not need to be hooked, (b) I had an interest that it failed to meet and stimulate, (c) it turned me off from reading the rest of the text. (In contrast, the summary could have made a good hook, had it been the first paragraph.) Similarly, if I have made a search for a topic, then I visit the links found to learn about the topic. A hook will not serve to deepen my interest—only to waste time before I actually get to the information…

*It could even be argued that hooks are always ill-advised, because the hook will only ever have an effect when it is read—and it is only read when someone actually starts on the text. However, some allowances might be made for scenarios like a news-paper reader filtering which articles are worth reading and which not. (If you find something looking like a hook in my texts, it is more likely to be coincidence than design.)

Similarly, if not strictly speaking a hook or anti-hook, some texts waste a lot of the reader’s time with explanations of why it would be beneficial for him to read the text that he is already reading, or why the topic would be important. Why not assume that the reader, who is already reading the text, is sufficiently interested in the topic?!?

Another variation (that I have often seen in Germany) is an article that has a certain title, a summary that is a more verbose version of the title with some new information added, and a first paragraph that does the same to the summary, effectively being nothing but another summary. The result is a great amount of repetition and redundancy that wastes time and my interest. For a hypothetical example:

Man bites dog

Yesterday, a man in Kentucky bit a pit-bull in the leg for urinating on his bicycle.

A Kentucky sales clerk lost his temper yesterday, as Fido, a peaceful pit-bull, urinated on his bicycle. He then viciously bit poor Fido in the leg. Fido was saved as its owner bravely intervened.

[Paragraphs two and onward]

Note that the information added at each step is not necessarily that relevant. For instance, that the man was in Kentucky will rarely be of value at such an early stage of the text, and the suspicion of mere filler is warranted. (But mentioning it in the main text might be valuable.) For instance, what does it matter what the dog was named? In contrast, that Fido was a pit-bull can be interesting in the context of who-bit-whom, and the urination aspect could partially explain the unexpected behavior—and both facts are reasonable inclusions.

Consider instead either dropping the summary or removing the first paragraph and its implied second summary. The casual reader, who uses them to decide whether to read on or as a means to get an overview without reading on, will only need one of the two. The more intent reader sees his time wasted. For a short enough main text, removing both might be the best solution.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 10, 2019 at 10:37 am

Some thoughts around a personal anecdote / suppression of information

with 2 comments

Looking over some old posts, I found a footnote dealing with suppression of information from a discussion:

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

This brought to my mind an incident with a colleague* some years ago, which well illustrates the problems of such information suppression—and does so even in the face of the most stubborn PC objections**.

*And, yes, he was fairly strongly PC. In another incident, he tried to defend the throwing of eggs at immigration critics when we discussed free speech—he did not seem to see the contradiction with his alleged support of free speech…

**E.g. “that the implications of a male crying are different is just a result of societal brain-washing; ergo, it is even more important that we leave such information out, in order to reduce the brain-washing”.

Our discussion (paraphrased from memory and into English):

He: Huh! It says in the paper that a German killed his daughter over pre-marital sex.*

*Or something similar of the “honor” variety, e.g. having the “wrong” boy-friend.

I: Really?!? Was it a “German German” or a Turk* or something?

*Contextually taken to be someone of Turkish ethnicity living in Germany.

He: Yeah, well, um, yeah, I mean, it waaas a Turk, but I did not want to, um, say it like that…

Firstly, such attempts at censorship waste time, can cause unnecessary confusion, and can make something seem more “newsworthy” than it actually is. (Note the idea that “man bites dog” is news, while “dog bites man” is not. In this case: while honor killings are rare even among Turks, they are virtual unheard of among “German Germans”.)

Secondly, and more importantly: by not providing such information, limits on (in this case) the group of perpetrators are removed and a greater number of innocents are potentially implicated. It is true that those uninformed or weak in critical thinking might build an image of the typical Turk as an “honor murderer”, and I can at least understand the PC case for wanting to avoid this.* However, by not keeping the limiting information, aspersions are now cast on the group of men or the group of fathers: if there was a danger before, it remains and it is extended to a larger group—and the proportion of the innocent in this group is higher yet. This is particularly unfortunate in this specific case, because of the great amount of Feminist propaganda directed at painting a faulty** picture of men as abusers of women—to the point that “mäns våld mot kvinnor” (“men’s violence against women”) is one of the most common phrases in Swedish politics, bordering on being a slogan. To boot, this abuse is often implied to serve the deliberate purpose of oppressing women, for which the above killing would have been a splendid example.

*But I stress that I do not agree with it: Presuming to be a filter of information or an arbiter of what others are allowed to know is inherently dangerous. (If in doubt, because it rests on an assumption of knowledge and understanding on behalf of the presumptive arbiter that could be faulty—and, indeed, virtually always is faulty with the PC crowd.) Moreover, I very strongly disagree with denying knowledge (or e.g. self-determination) to those with a brain in order to protect those without one. (And if we try to separate people into groups by e.g. the ability to think, how can we be certain that the arbiter and the criteria are sufficiently good?) Then there is the issue of filtering out information that does apply to a very significant portion of the group. (E.g. through denying that crime rates in a certain group are far higher than in the rest of the population.)

**In reality, women are violent towards men slightly more often than vice versa, and men are far more likely to be victims of violence overall.

From another perspective, if he had been right in censoring the ethnicity of the father, why was he not obliged to leave out “father” (and the implied “man”)? Why not say “parent”? What makes the one piece of information acceptable/relevant/whatnot and the other not?

In some cases, information is sufficiently prima facie relevant or irrelevant that a decision is easy. For instance, that is was a parent (or other close relative) has an impact on the type of crime, and that it happened in (or in relation to) Germany made the incident more personally relevant* than had it happened in some random place in the world. On the other hand, the hair-color of the involved persons would almost** always be irrelevant, except in as far as it revealed*** something more significant. More generally, it can be tricky—especially, when different people have different priorities, interests, and “open questions”.

*At least for some people and/or for some types of news.

**I point to The Red-Headed League for a fictional counter-example, and note that there might, in real-life, e.g. be situations where violence involving people of rarer hair-colors might be more likely for personal reasons.

***For instance, if the hair-color is locally rare, it might point to a tourist or an immigrant, either of which has a considerably higher degree of prima facie relevance. (While this is unlikely to apply to Germany, it might very well apply to e.g. Nigeria and Japan.)

While I can see the case against providing too much information, I see a stronger case against providing too little and would prefer if e.g. journalists erred on the side of too much. Say that a man has beaten a woman: What is the effect of just saying “man” and what of saying “an uneducated, unemployed male alcoholic with a prior criminal record”?* Whether that much information will always be relevant, I leave unstated, but more information would help to build a more nuanced world-view and to foil attempted distortions of said world-view, e.g. by countering propaganda claims like** “all men are rapists” and attempts to hide negative information about certain groups***.

*When e.g. “college professor” applies, it is no less worthy of mention.

**Note that this works in the context of Turks too. For instance, the (hypothetical) knowledge that this was a first-generation immigrant would have lessened the risk of unfair suspicions against those with a longer familial history in Germany. An (equally hypothetical) knowledge of alcoholism would have lessened the risk even for many first generation Turks. Etc.

***For instance, hiding the ethnicity of criminals does not just protect the innocent members of that ethnicity from unfair suspicions—it also creates a too positive view of the group as a whole. Such a view can lead to poorer decision making, especially in politics. To boot, it can lead to unnecessary personal or group conflicts, e.g. when person A has access to information that person B lacks and B incorrectly assumes that A bases his opinion in the overall issue on bigotry/racism/sexism/xenophobia/… or lack of information. (Ditto, m.m., for groups A and B.) I note that both the Swedish and the German press appear to systematically suppress the ethnicity of perpetrators and suspects.

From yet another perspective, these tactics need not be very helpful. For instance, above, I immediately considered it more-likely-than-not that a non-Western immigrant was involved—even in the face of an explicit mention of “German”*. I asked; many others would have jumped to the conclusion and kept it to themselves. Moreover, even I might have asked the wrong question… Was ethnicity the core issue or might it have been religion (or yet some other factor)? Here I saw another case of a Turkish honor killing, where it might (or might not) have been better viewed as a Muslim or a Turkish Muslim honor killing. Having more information, e.g. not just whether the father was a Turk but also whether he was a Muslim, would, again, have given me a more nuanced world-view. This applies the more to those who jump to the conclusion, because even when their conclusions are correct (e.g. “was a Turk”), they need not hit what was actually important.

*While the use of “German” (or “Swede”) to refer to ethnicity is increasingly (and irrationally) frowned upon, the context made ethnicity more likely than nationality, because the clear majority of all people in Germany are German citizens, leaving ethnicity as the natural intention with cases within Germany. Similarly, I suspect, an “Italian-American” is more likely to spontaneously mention that he is Italian (even when not a citizen) than that he is a U.S. citizen (unless he is abroad).

As to what to do instead, if the PC fears are valid? Focus on developing critical-thinking skills, raise awareness of fallacies (e.g. “confirmation bias”), and further the understanding of some very basic ideas like “what applies to some group members do not necessarily apply to all group members”, “that most members of group A are also members of group B does not imply that most members of group B are also members of group A”, “individual variation very often trumps group membership”, “correlation does not imply causation”, and variations. A greater ability to discriminate would also be positive, notably in knowing what criteria are important and what unimportant—but also including ensuring that everyone knows some basic differentiations, e.g. that “Arab” and “Muslim” are not synonymous, that neither (ethnic) Turks nor (ethnic) Iranians/Persians are Arabs, and similar.

Excursion on information and identification:
One concern with being liberal with information is the increased risk of someone intended to be anonymous becoming identifiable. This is a legitimate reason why e.g. journalists should show some restraint, but they should do so on a case-by-case basis. (And I cannot recall ever having heard either the PC crowd or a journalist raise this concern as a reason to censor ethnicity.) For instance, the number of Swedes living in Wuppertal is unlikely to be very large, and just combining “Swede” with “Wuppertal” would limit the candidates correspondingly. Throw in just one or two additional facts and that might be enough to pin-point me—and if it does not, the number of candidates will be small enough that each of them could be considered the match by third parties. I point to the case of a physically assaulted innocent man as just one example of why this can be dangerous.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 6, 2019 at 1:23 pm