Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘Personal

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.)

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Written by michaeleriksson

November 29, 2018 at 6:59 pm

A few thoughts on role-models

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Disclaimer: The below borders on free association, even by my standards.

In a recent text on math and “college material”, I mentioned the Feminist fallacy of demanding specifically female role-models for young women in various fields, especially the STEM ones—is it not better to pick someone worthy of admiration, while ignoring sex?

Since then, I have spent some time thinking on role-models*, both with regard e.g. to Feminist calls for 50–50 representation of the sexes in math books and to my own experiences:

*Used in an approximate sense on two counts: Firstly, I have mostly seen such calls in Sweden (“förebild”) and Germany (“Vorbild”), and I am not certain what the ideal translation in context is. Secondly, the words in all three languages are unnecessarily strong and imply more than is warranted in context. (This, however, is not unusual with everyday use of these words.)

Let us start with a question: If sex requires such special treatment, why then not e.g. height and hair color?

In a Feminist world-view, which almost invariable denies significant inborn differences between the sexes, these three criteria make comparably little sense.

On the other hand, for those of us who believe that there are inborn differences, e.g. that men tend to be naturally more interested in STEM topics or that they tend to dominate the high (and low) extreme of I.Q., there might be some justification—that young women see that there actually are opportunities for women, should they have the interest, the ability, and the dedication needed. In this manner, the role-models could serve as a counter-weight to the other young women in their circles who show no sign of interest or ability; the female relatives who have trouble telling the difference between Internet Explorer, Google, and the Web; etc.*

*Note that if the feminist world view was correct, such a counter-weight would not be needed, implying that this argument does not apply in their case.

However, here specific examples of (true or faked) great women in the STEM fields give the wrong impression and group statistics would be much more helpful, e.g. what (true) percentage of professionals in a certain field are women. This way, a more correct impression is created and better choices can be made than if e.g. a math text book is arbitrarily filled with 50 % male and 50 % female mathematicians.* Women should know that there are opportunities (subject to the aforementioned constraints) and that they are not carbon copies of other women, but not be led to believe that the field is naturally 50–50, and certainly not led to believe that anyone who has a degree in X is actually good at X**.

*Even such problems aside as smart young women seeing that the women are included on lesser merits or being aware of the debate (bright young women have been known to read the news papers…) that led to the 50–50 proportions—either would not only defeat the purpose, but could actually back-fire though the impression that women are only included through “affirmative action”, never through actually being worthy. More generally, many Feminist, PC, Leftist, whatnot groups appear to be working under the assumption that people are so stupid that they must be manipulated into having the “right” opinion; however, whatever might or might not hold in the overall population, people lacking in intelligence and the ability to think for themselves have no place in e.g. math. Simply put: Someone susceptible to or “benefiting” from such manipulation is unlikely to be a good candidate for the STEM fields in the first place…

**Another common fallacy—and a much worse one at that: A degree is worth little more than the paper it is printed on, should the the right understanding, the right abilities, or the right brain be absent. More often than not, at least with today’s graduates, they are absent… (And, yes, that applies to the men too.)

More: Too much discussion of e.g. top mathematicians can create a very wrong impression and lead to great disappointments, faulty expectations, or undue pressure for members of either sex.* The simple truth is that the likes of Leibniz, Newton, Gödel, or (to pick the likely strongest female candidate) Noether are very rare birds. The chances are overwhelming that no-one, male or female, in this AP math class, this Calculus 101, or this graduate course on Riemann geometry will be comparable to Leibniz et al. Such perceptions of standards was one** of the reasons why I, myself, did not pursue math/academics beyond the master level—I saw what these rare birds had accomplished, measured success against them, and feared that I would fail to make a truly noteworthy contribution, e.g. founding a new field, solving one of the major open problems, or finding a theorem of fundamental importance.*** Today, I realize that even a more modest (and realistic) career as a metaphorical made-the-NFL-but-not-the-Hall-of-Fame mathematician would have been an accomplishment to be proud of.

*But likely especially for women, who are often exposed to a simplistic message of great success being inevitable (at least, unless the “Patriarchy” interferes), despite such success being a rarity and requiring at least one, more often two, and even more often three out of great ability, hard work, and luck.

**Others include my time as an exchange student and a wish to remain in Germany afterwards, a wish to make a bit of money, and having become over-satiated with math the first few years of college: I am not telling a sob story about how someone would have been an NFL Hall-of-Famer, had it not been for that knee injury the last year of high school—I merely caution that we should avoid knee injuries…

***In high school and the first one or two years of college, I did well enough that such aspirations originally seemed plausible to me. A little more detail is present in some sections of an older text on issues relating to education ([1]).

Excursion on other issues:
In a more complete analysis of the calls for female role-models (this text is more geared at the issue of impressions caused by role-models vs. reality) other arguments can be relevant, including the inherent unfairness towards the people featured in math books (deserving men “quota-ed” out; undeserving women “quota-ed” in) and the myth of sex being irrelevant gaining a greater foothold in the overall population.

Excursion on differences:
A common problem in discussions like these is misrepresentation or, conceivably, misunderstanding of opinion by e.g. Feminists, notably in the form of statements about groups being distorted to exceptionless statements about individuals. (The equivalent of “every single man is taller than every single woman”.) Here I stress the importance of understanding the difference between the individual and the group, individual and group characteristics, and individual and group outcomes. This especially when areas with a high selectivity, including elites, is concerned. Cf. e.g. parts of [2] (search for/scroll to “Thoughts on comparisons and the effects of variation:”).

Excursion on fear of failure:
One of the negative things ingrained in me through school was a fear of failure, sometimes even a fear of not being perfect*, that I have only overcome through time. This fear of failure was not an obstacle** as long as I succeeded with ease, but when things got tougher it could be a problem. During my college years, my “brute force” approach (cf. [1]) eventually brought me a few unnecessary failures, I learned that I had limits, and I caught enough of the history of math to understand that the best-of-the-best had often already made major contributions*** at my age. To some degree, I fell victim to a “if I do not try, I cannot fail” thinking. (But, again, this was only one of the reasons for my not pursuing a math career.)

*Not to be confused with a tendency towards perfectionism, although there might be some causal overlap.

**But it did lead to e.g. some cases of undue test anxiety and the odd nightmare in the extended why-was-I-not-told-that-we-have-a-test-today family. On the positive side, I have never had a I-forgot-to-put-on-my-pants-before-going-to-school nightmare.

***In all fairness, they had often been helped by having less mandatory schooling, giving them more time for an actual education and for their own thinking.

Interestingly, this type of thinking is one those sometimes alleged special problems of strong female students, especially when society is too be blamed for women’s problems—and, as usual, this “female” aspect is flawed. It might or might not be more common among female students (group differences again), but in reality, it appears to be a reasonably common problem among strong students (strong performers generally?) of either sex. A notable “named” example of a similar type is the “impostor syndrome”, originally alleged as a problem of accomplished women, but which has less to do with being a woman and more to do with being accomplished.

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November 5, 2018 at 3:52 pm

Of Mice and Computer Users

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There are days when I can barely suppress the suspicion that life is a weird cosmic joke, “Truman Show”, or scientific experiment that replaces mice in a labyrinth with humans in a Matrix.

Today is one of those days: I had cleared almost every task of my schedule in order to dedicate myself to the tax declaration for 2017—after having postponed it again and again for the last two weeks and knowing that it would likely leave me in too poor a mood to risk anything else that could aggravate me. (Cf. a number of earlier texts, e.g. [1].)

Then a server crashed, which I had had running for several weeks without problems. I rebooted it, started things up again, and decided to do some minor clean-up while still logged in. (Should have stuck to the plan…) In the process, I (very, very unusually) managed to screw-up a command, leading to all the files in the user account being moved. While I discovered this immediately after submitting the command, I could not interrupt it, because my session froze… After a minute-or-so of waiting, I forced a new reboot.

Less than thrilled, I proceeded to clean up the damage (and fortunately, no irrecoverable damage took place)—only to now have my notebook complain about a CPU being stuck and eventually freezing, forcing a reboot of the notebook… Only yesterday, I had noted an up-time of roughly sixty days—today, right in this already annoying situation, it fails! Worse, after the reboot, after I have got everything* back up again, the notebook just crashes. Roughly sixty days without problems and then two forced reboots in twenty minutes. Worse yet, I next decided to use the latest installed kernel,** seeing that I trailed heavily in version, and that newer kernels are usually better—and found myself needing yet another reboot within five minutes…

*With a number of different user accounts, different encryption passwords, and whatnot, this takes a lot more time for me than for the average user. Normally, this is not a problem, because I only need to reboot every few months. When I have multiple reboots in a single day, the situation is very, very different.

**At some point, the newest release became unstable with my notebook, and I set up my boot-loader to use an older, stable kernel per default. However, that was at least six months ago, running an older kernel is a potential security risk, and I had hoped that the current newest release would have resolved these problems in the interim. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Switching to a newer kernel in the above situation was, admittedly and with hindsight, pushing my luck; however, if I had not tried it today, the next “natural” opportunity might have been another sixty days into the future. (Indeed, going by my existing plan, I should have switched kernels already for the first reboot, but simply did not remember to do so until the third attempt.)

As of now, I have an up-time of a little more than four hours (back with the old kernel), and hope for another sixty-ish days. However: Half the day has been wasted between the extra efforts and the time needed to restore my mode—and I am not taking the risk of attempting the tax declaration today, lest things end with a notebook that crashes in a more literal sense (say, into the nearest wall).

Written by michaeleriksson

October 25, 2018 at 3:38 pm

Linear texts vs. non-linear thoughts / My style of writing

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With my intense recent writing, and especially writing of longer texts, I have had plenty of opportunity to reflect upon my writing process, the quality of the results, what I might do differently now than in the past, and similar.

I am particularly interested in the problematic linearity of language, something I wrote about as early as (almost) a decade ago, in a text on the Limitations of language [1]: Language is linear; thoughts are not.

The thoughts (opinions, ideas, associations, whatnots) of the human mind form a complex network. An ideal communication would not just bring a single strand or chain of thought into the minds of the “receiver”—it would bring the entire network. Not only is this required for comprehending the totality of what the “sender” thinks, it is also required to truly understand even the single strand that might be the main point of the communication: All understanding of others is imperfect. The degree can vary considerably, but perfection cannot be reached without having the entire network of the counter-part. Notably, relying on one’s own network can lead to very considerable miscomprehension when the networks are far apart, e.g. due to changing times, different cultural backgrounds, differently evolved understanding of the topic, different emotional modes or practical contexts, …

Solving this problem is the Holy Grail of communication.

Unfortunately, it is likely to remain unsolved, at least for human communications: Not only is it unrealistic to even put into words more than a small, pertinent part of the network, but the more of the network is included, the greater the demands on the reader in terms of comprehension, ability to absorb and retain, time and patience needed, … A particular complication is the connections between the nodes of the network: In reality, a text will mostly deal with the nodes, putting most of the burden of correct interconnection with the reader—doing otherwise would lead to impossibly long texts.* Even the collected works of a great philosopher are unlikely to give a complete network—and how many have actually read, let alone retained and comprehended, such a collection? (This even discounting some trifling details like the philosopher’s opinions possibly changing between books A and B…)

*For an understanding, look into elementary combinatorics.

Looking at my own writings, I have long tried to put larger parts of my network into my texts than most others do. This partially for the above reasons, partially (admittedly) through lack of discipline, and partially because doing so helps me develop my network and to extend and revise my understanding of the issues and arguments at hand, society, myself, …—and self-improvement is the main purpose of my writings (cf. [2], [3]). I deliberately do so even at the risk of a text appearing or being unstructured, excessively long, lacking in focus, or violating some other characteristic typically considered part of quality writing.

Notably, given the right reader, “appearing” is often more appropriate than “being”: Someone who reads and thinks like I do, and who is willing to go the extra mile, will gain more from my texts as they are than from the same text written “by the book”—and will do so with little discomfort. (But I realize that only a minority of the potential readers will match this description.)

Consider e.g. what I wrote a week ago (when I did most of the thinking for the current text): On a superficial inspection, the text might look entirely haphazard; in actuality, it is not.

Notably, the general structure of the main text actually has a plan: First, an event (Bahta’s test issues) is taken, described, and expanded upon in terms of implications. Second, the event is generalized to a bigger picture (consequences of anti-doping measures on athletes) and problems of the bigger picture are described. Third, as a center and turning point, a call for change (re-evaluation of doping) is made based on the preceding. Fourth, the call is given additional motivation through a discussion of other aspects than the athletes’ situations. Fifth, some counter-arguments are discussed (partly to “declaw” them; partly to be reasonably complete). Finally, a very strong argument in favor of my call from outside sports is thrown in, to show that the benefits are not limited to sports, and to hammer home the point. (Admittedly, the placing of this final argument was less a rhetorical plan and more a problem of where to fit it.)

Here the main part of the text, when skipping the footnotes, is formed into a linear skeleton, or strand, which during my own readings* moved my mind from A to B to C … in a pleasing, structured, and target reaching manner—even be it somewhat unusually.

*I try to read and proof-read my texts several times before publication. I am aware that my experience of the text can be different from what others see, because my mind tends to work differently and because being the author can change the experience for anyone.

This strand is expanded by a number of footnotes that can be read during, alternating with, or after the reading of the strand—or they can be left out entirely, at some risk of reaching a simplistic understanding of my intentions and the details of the issue. The result is not quite a net, but goes well beyond a single strand.

A further expansion takes place as a series of excursion at the end, that either did not fit content-wise in the main text, or were simply too long to be a constructive part of the main text or the footnotes.

With the occasional intra-text and (per link) inter-text reference, as well as some combinatory ability on part of the reader, I now have a “net-ish” overall structure. This remains far from being the complete net, but it covers far more ground than the single strand does.

(Of course, the description above need only partially reflect an original plan—as my understanding, intentions, whatnot change, so can the plan. Equally, it does not necessarily reflect the order of writing: Footnotes are mostly written concurrently with the paragraph they appear in, and excursions can, in rare cases, even be written before the main text.)

Looking at the negatives of my writings, there are many things that I could do better (even in the light of my priorities). For instance, not every piece has a structure or focus that I approve of myself. Consider e.g. yesterday’s post and the sub-topic of pharmacies: This text would have been better, had I removed every single word on pharmacies. Barring that, this sub-topic should have been cut considerably—especially, being somewhat off topic. However, since pharmacies were a part of my original intention, I thought that I would just mention this and why I had chosen not to expand on the intention. Doing so, I was led to speculate on the underlying mechanisms, the topic of service reared its head—and then things got out of hand…* In terms of my main priority, this was not necessarily a bad thing, seeing that it caused me to think some things through, do a bit of reading around pharmacies, and brought me the realization that I have a surprising amount of annoyance at them (relative my comparatively few interactions); however, the published text was worse off, and I should have put this sub-topic in a separate text or even canned it entirely—not every word I write must be published.** More generally, the fact that I put in comparatively little effort in preparation regularly leaves me with pieces that do not quite fit in the whole, or a need to restructure the text as the writing proceeds.***

*A sometime danger with my approach to writing. Similarly, I have on some occasions started to write on topic A and found that the main part of the text actually dealt with other topics, because I began with a specific idea around topic A, saw it sprout a few associations, that in turn sprouted further associations, …, and most of these associations related to topic B. (Mostly, I have either moved the “official” topic of the text to B, or divided it into several smaller texts.)

**I failed to do so out of a mixture of laziness, tiredness after the already long work on the text, and a misguided feeling of “it’s a shame to waste all that effort”.

***This is contrary to many recommendations on writing, e.g. that one should start with a very clear outline (and stick to that outline) or that preparation is key. However, having more than a very rough outline would hinder me in my main priority: With these texts, it is not the goal of the journey that is important—but the journey, it self.

Another problem is the lack of more formal structure, e.g. the use of headings and sub-headings or the inclusion of e.g. a brief introduction or conclusion. Here the recent considerable increase in text length has caught me off guard, and I still proceed in a manner more suited to my pre-sabbatical texts.* As a special case, I have found that for shorter and more focused texts, a simple list/enumeration often works better than formal headings, especially when it allows a more natural textual flow; however, this can fail for longer texts, when the items of the list grow too long, or when several lists would be needed. The matter is complicated by technical restrictions and a fear of technical problems in my current markup-to-HTML-to-Wordpress setup, which make me hesitant to introduce headings before I am back on my website proper.

*I have more time to spend on writing, the process is less of a chore, and I usually have a clearer head than I do in the hours between “got back from work” and “time to sleep”. In combination with my writing approach, this has lead to an entirely unplanned change of typical length.

Obviously, this length issue could prove problematic for the type of structure discussed above too: It might be a pragmatical necessity to change approach with works of such lengths. (Or to deliberately write shorter pieces…)

Yet other problems have nothing to do with structure. For instance, I noted my own wordiness a decade ago, and things have not approved since then—for the very reason given in that text.

Excursion on the Holy Grail vs. own understanding:
Receiving a message as intended is only a part of message processing. While the goal of communication, per se, is to send and receive messages with as little loss as possible, it is not a given that understanding the sender is the best the receiver can do. In many cases, interpreting the message in the own network can be more worthwhile, especially when the receiver is (in some sense) more advanced than the sender or when sender and receiver have different priorities. (But he should then keep this in mind when e.g. criticizing the message.) For instance, if the sender presents some facts and arguments, the receiver might use them for other purposes than the sender did. Certainly, there is no obligation to accept the sender’s conclusions and recommendations: The receiver should strive to understand why the sender came to a certain conclusion and how the sender reasoned, but whether he agrees with the sender is a matter of his own reasoning, possibly under application of additional facts and arguments that might not have been present in the message.

Excursion on footnotes*:
An interesting difference in structure between my current writings and what I once wrote for my website is the use of footnotes and “informal” excursions rather than “formal” boxes with side-notes. The latter are more optically pleasing and I originally only started to use footnotes as a quick-and-dirty solution. By now, however, I actually find the new way to be superior in most regards, including being less intrusive (at a given length) and having a better possibility to anchor the footnote to a specific part of the main text. (Possible technical and formatting improvements, e.g., a switch from “starred” markers to numerical markers, notwithstanding.)

*“Paragraph note” might hit the actual use better, but might also cause more confusion than it brings clarity.

Excursion on writing vs. coding:
My approach to writing is likely unconsciously influenced by how I (often) program: I have had considerable exposure to e.g. systematic refactoring, Scrum, and test-driven development, often leading to an approach of writing code according to the current need and then constantly adapting it as requirements are incrementally specified, weaknesses are spotted, … A critical difference, however, is that the code is driven by a specific goal and my texts are more driven by the learning experience; making e.g. an excursion a waste of time and a potential source of problems in the former case, but a beneficial means of growth in the latter. I stress, however, that I do not recommend shoddy planning when it comes to coding. On the contrary, spending time thinking through the general outline of the code, what complications might ensue, what interface must be provided, what might be modularized how, etc. in advance is highly recommendable. (With the reservation that the simpler the problem and more competent the developer, less planning tends to be needed. With the right “feel” and experience, much of this is sufficiently intuitively obvious that the planning stage can be diminished.)

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August 5, 2018 at 12:15 am

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A few semi-random points around my blogging and writing

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I have a few points relating to my blogging and writing, sometimes more generally applicable. Since not all have sufficient mass individually, I publish them as a group:

  1. When I first started my website, I had highly ambitious goals in terms of both quality of “markup” and continual improvement* of the texts themselves. Over time, the sheer amount of text has grown so large that I must consider these goals entirely unrealistic—attempting to keep them would cost far too much time, and would make writing a too boring leg-work task.

    *Largely based on my experiences as a software developer, especially with refactoring.

    Indeed, even the wish to make certain texts sufficiently high-quality for a first publication can cause severe delays—and I have often seen my self forced to draw a line and publish something three-quarters done just to avoid an eternal state of non-publication. (In cases where I felt that the importance of the topic to me, the amount of time already invested, or some other factor, made non-publication worse than sub-optimal publication.)

    Over-time, such complications have also changed my attitude towards blogging vs. running a “proper” website. While blogging is not optimal in terms of the resulting product, including the reduced ability to improve* texts, to link from an older work to a newer, and similar; it does have the advantage that it is easier to keep productivity up. A blog-like format is hard to avoid when the quantities of text grow beyond a certain point.

    *In the case of larger changes (arising e.g. through a better understanding of an issue, with a wish to expand, alter, retract, whatnot) a blogger will usually even have to resort to an entirely new post. While this too has advantages, it is more of a “necessary evil” than something positive, forcing me away from a more “book-like” result to a more “newspaper-like” one. However, I have noted that such larger changes on my website often led to problems with e.g. structuring or focus, and writing something new might sometimes have been the better idea.

  2. Partially overlapping: What I put off for the future can be delayed by months, even years, or not be done at all. It is, for instance, quite common for me to mention an “upcoming” text and not actually write it until months later—or to write a text half-way and then to leave it be for a few months.

    Indeed, despite the aforementioned goals, my website still has many articles with TODOs or obvious defects in them, because I published knowing that I could (and assuming that I would) relatively soon make corresponding updates. Some of these have been around since the first year of my website. (2009! The time of writing is 2018…) Worse: My first major attempts at writing consisted of a number of (paper) notebooks, especially based on my experiences at the now defunct company Firstgate/ClickandBuy*—the hands down worst employer I have ever had. Most of the contents of these notebooks are still only present in the very same notebooks…**

    *Due to the “defunct” part and the long time gone past, I no longer have any hesitation in mentioning its name: Those reading my website might find references to “E4” (=> my 4th employer), which is an anonymized version of the same company. (The lack of a key to understand some such names is a good example of an “obvious defect”.)

    **It is uncertain whether they will ever be published: In addition to the problem I discuss here, it is quite possible that my opinions, priorities, whatnot, have changed too much in the intervening years. This especially since parts of these writings had a cathartic character. Despite my considering these notebooks the core of my writing for a number of years, it is conceivable that I will at some point simply put them in my shredder…

  3. A special case of the first item is tagging and categorizations: As I have found over time, it is more-or-less futile to do such things manually, except on a very, very broad scale. This not just restricted to writing, but often in other areas too.

    Consider e.g. categories: If there are more than several categories, it is quite common that there is no single obvious match—implying that more than one category should be awarded, lest the readers look for something in one plausible category and miss it, because it is in another category. On the other hand, if this is done, we have the confusion that the same text (generally, “entity”) can appear in several categories. (This, in turn, might seem like a job for tags, but tags have their own problems, cf. below.) If the categories are fixed in number, there is often no really good match (implying “no category”); however, if new categories can be added to resolve this situation, then the number will tend to increase unduly, the risk of overlap is rises (because the new categories tend to have a less thought-through and ad-hoc character), and we also risk ending up with almost empty categories.

    Tags are usually* very similar to entirely ad-hoc categories, which are just thrown on various entities as seems fit, leading to complete chaos. To boot, we have questions like what degree of detail should be used, what number of tags applied, etc. Should e.g. an article on association football be tagged “association football”, “football”, and/or “soccer”? In most cases, only automatic tagging (and mechanisms with a similar purpose) make sense—to the point that I might even recommend not tagging most texts on the Internet at all, instead letting search engines and similar tools find relevant texts. I have even seen the recommendation to only use tags when the relevance of the tag is not clear to an automated tool from the text it self.**

    *Exceptions occur e.g. when the number of tags is small and/or their values are predictable. For instance, an email reader could use a few fix tags like “read”/“unread”, “urgent”, …; a version-control system could use tags indicating certain releases and other important events, and do so in unlimited numbers, as long as a consistent naming scheme is used; the window manager WMII, to which I have recently switched, uses a tagging system in lieu of “virtual desktops”, which works very well as long as the user does not do anything stupid.

    **Which obviously makes a mockery of tagging, because the most expected tags are then not set, and anyone who tries to use tags to e.g. browse contents will be lost.

    (Also see an excursion at the end.)

  4. I have grown uncertain what to call my works: When I wrote mostly for my website, I usually used “article”; and I continued that use on WordPress too for a long time. Over time, I switched to using the word “post” on WordPress, seeing that this is the standard on blogs. For a few months, I have been torn between “article” and “post”, because I intend to return to my website in the long term, likely including some type of import of my WordPress blogs, which might make “post” misleading. Recently, I have resolved this by mostly speaking of “text”, which is more neutral, avoids the risk of being misleading, and also distances me from journalists*.

    *Recurrent readers will likely have noticed that I have a very low opinion of journalists—and I do not wish to be associated with them.

  5. The “re-boot” of my website, which is one of the main reasons why I have taken a sabbatical, is likely to be one of the many things delayed, for the simple reason that there is much, including the above, that I want to think through before I start. I suspect, however, that the result will be something more like a blog* than the old website (cf. above); albeit, with better support for later changes, notably to fix minor errors, e.g. typos, with less effort than provided by WordPress.

    *But using WordPress as an alternative is not a long-term option: WordPress is and remains a lousy platform. Further, the attitude of the WordPress people towards both bloggers and readers is depressing.

  6. While virtually all my writings to date have been of a non-fictional nature, I have lately developed far-going plans for a novel.* Regardless of whether this is successful, there will be stretches of time where my other writing and website activities will be correspondingly reduced. It will also likely imply that I prolong my sabbatical considerably.

    *Do not hold your breath: Even in a best case, this will take a long time; especially since I need to develop new skills. Outside of the best case, there is no guarantee that I will manage to complete it and do so with a satisfactory quality for publication.

Excursion on how I tag on WordPress:
I try to pick five* tags with minimal thought spent**. Occasionally, I cannot actually come up with five reasonable tags; somewhat more often, more than five feel relevant. Sometimes I try to pick tags consistent with earlier works; sometimes I try to pick something I have not or only rarely used before; often I just pick the five tags most obvious to me.*** Is this much better than throwing darts? Possibly not…

*Rationale: This is something recommended to me years ago, as a compromise between too-little-too-be-noticed and so-much-that-automatic-mechanisms-think-it-is-spam. Whether this recommendation still holds, I do not know.

**Rationale: This approach of “speed tagging” attempts to make sure that I do not lose too much of any benefit that might be present, while keeping down the time potentially wasted. I am skeptical towards tagging and would rather not tag at all. However, in the days of yore, WordPress had wonderful global lists of posts grouped by tags and sorted by date (that I loved to browse myself). While these grew more user-unfriendly over time and appear to have been abolished entirely years ago, I still cling to the hope that they or some equivalent is still around or will at some point be re-instated. Certainly, some amount of tagging did make sense in the early days of my blogging due to these lists.

***(Ir)rationale: I am torn between a wish to be consistent, a hope to reach someone new in the (possibly imaginary) category listings, and the feeling of just wasting my time with tags.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 9, 2018 at 5:42 am

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Living in Wuppertal / issues around heating

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After the true start of my much delayed sabbatical, I have now lived for roughly two months in a row in Wuppertal. My impressions so far are positive, and (to my relief) the reasonably-researched-but-speculative purchase of an apartment in a city that I had seen so little of appears to have worked out quite well.

Looking at the city in general, the one major issue is the potential deterioration of the city through population loss*. Major positives include many green areas, plenty of hills**, and a less “intrusive” environment compared to e.g. Cologne—noise levels, crowdedness of streets, traffic intensity, … are all much lower when comparing similar parts*** of the cities against each other. A major bonus is that the number of constantly traffic-violating bicyclists is far smaller****. (Living in Wuppertal is also discussed in at least one older post.)

*This, however, was something I was aware of in advance, and something that could turn around over time. It certainly helped in keeping the price of the apartment down.

**I like walking; I do not like running, spinning, tread-milling, … With the amount of hills, some steep, I can get a decent amount of exercise without boring myself.

***I.e. city center vs. city center, outskirt vs. outskirt, …

****This was a major issue in Cologne, to the point that there were more bicyclists (illegally) on the pavement than on the streets and designated bicycle lanes—and often riding with no regard for the pedestrians.

The vicinity of my apartment is particularly fortunate, including having a secondary city-center in close vicinity in one direction and a number of grocery stores, including a very large Akzenta* in the other—as well, as a number of kiosks, cafes, and whatnots. The Barmen train station is also close by, as are two stations of the “Schwebebahn”**. A potential particular bonus could be the Wuppertal Opera, which is also quite close by; however, I have yet to actually visit it, and cannot yet speak for the quality. And: Despite all this, I live in a quite street—much unlike what someone in e.g. Cologne could expect to do in a similar set-up.

*A super-market chain and subsidiary of the more well-known Rewe.

**An aerial tramway that stretches from one end of the city to the other.

Looking at the apartment, it self, I remain mostly satisfied and feel very comfortable. So far, I have three complaints: An incompetent property manager (as mentioned in an earlier post), a door bell that is so loud* that I actually chose to detach it, and the gas water-heater**, which is half the reason I felt motivated to write this post:

*Being awake without ear-plugs, the sound was outright painful. Sleeping using ear-plugs, I was invariable woken up when it tolled—and since the postman hits every single button on the bell system in a blanket manner to be let into the house, this is quite bad. I know that he does this, because when he comes when I am already awake, I have no problem hearing the bells going off in apartments on other floors of the building. (I will likely replace it with something more suitable in due time.)

**Here and elsewhere, my terminology can contain errors.

Instead of central heating, the radiators rely on a per-apartment gas heater (which also handles the hot tap-water). Originally, I thought that this would be a good thing, both because the otherwise quasi-mandatory, annual meter readings* disappeared and because I was now myself in control of the heating**. The latter part has panned out; the former not so much: True, the meter-reading has disappeared, but in turn there is both a yearly service and a yearly exhaust (and whatnot) inspection, effectively trading one day for two… This is the more absurd, seeing that German regulations ensure that the service company, which should have been eminently qualified to certify the exhaust situation, is not allowed to do so, this being the domain of chimney sweeps***. Costwise, the rule is that gas is cheaper than electricity when it comes to heating (including hot tap-water); however, much of this is canceled out by my now having to pay two consumption-independent base rates**** (gas + electricity) to the utilities company, instead of just the one (electricity). During my almost constant absence between my purchase and the beginning of my sabbatical, I certainly lost money this way, having to pay the dual base rate every month, but not using anywhere near enough gas to gain the money back. To boot, the heater takes up a very considerable chunk of space over the bath tub (much more so than the more common on-demand tap-water heaters), and it is placed in a manner relative the taps and the drain that a bit of carelessness easily leads to a head bump. Worse, only about half the bathtub is usable when standing, which considerably restricts flexibility during showers. (Worsened through the hose being a bit on the short side, but at least I can buy a longer hose.)

*Mostly, in Germany, there is a separate meter on every radiator of an apartment that (e.g. through condensation) tries to estimate how heavily used the radiator has been in the preceding year. This is then combined with the readings from other apartments and the known overall heating cost to estimate the cost for each individual apartment. Not a good system. (Problems include the intrusive annual reading, a great risk of errors during recordings and calculations, the influence of other heat sources, …)

**Central heating is usually handled quite poorly, e.g. in that the heating is only turned on during some months of the year without considering actual outside temperature, or that the heating is turned off during the evening and night (when most people are at home) and runs high during the day (when most people are at work). A particular complication is that some central heatings are manipulated according to time of day and external temperature in such a manner that the settings on the individual radiators become misleading and changes potentially harmful. For instance, assume that the central heating runs at a certain, low, temperature, that the outside temperature drops, and that I turn up the radiators—all fine and well. Now comes the next day, the building management decides to turn up the temperature of the central heating to (with a days delay!) compensate for the outside temperature, and I come back from work to an apartment that is uncomfortable hot—and where, to boot, nine or ten hours of this excessive heating have been wasted because I was not even in the apartment.

***Generally, the German system of chimney sweeps is under heavy fire from many directions, with several web sites dedicated to the topic, for reasons that include unduly frequent inspections of-this-and-that, unduly high fees, a very unfortunate mongrelisation of private and public roles (the chimney sweep being a private business often acting on behalf of the government and in a quasi-governmental role), and a very customer unfriendly attitude. To boot, the regulations are sufficiently complex that it is hard for the customers to know when the chimney sweep is acting as a private service company and when as a government representative, when he has to do want the chimney sweep wants and when he can tell him to shove it, etc. If I were willing to do the leg-work, I could likely write an article of several pages on this topic alone.

****A strong case can be made that base rates are unethical to begin with: They are usually far larger than the actual fix costs involved and appear to serve mostly to gain an undeserved profit on customers with a low consumption. This especially, when they are combined with other service fees, notably setup and installation fees. At least when it comes to gas, water, electricity, and (in the pre-flatrate era) telecommunications, a pure “per consumed unit” fee would be a fairer solution.

All-in-all, I would have been better off with central heating, which is the typical solution in Germany, especially if the tap water had been heated electrically and on-demand.

As an aside, I am surprised that gas is even still allowed considering the potential hazards. This partly through the risks per se, compared to electricity; partly because this is exactly the type of issue that tends to cause exaggerated populist demands for a ban. Cf. e.g. nuclear power, “gene foods”, or the German legal requirements to not only have smoke detectors, which I might be on board with, but to actually have them inspected once a year (!)—all of which have seen the counter-measures grow out of proportion to the danger.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 8, 2018 at 12:24 pm

A few observations around an open fly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Why?!?*

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

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

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

  4. Thank God for underwear…

Written by michaeleriksson

May 28, 2018 at 6:48 am