Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘Personal

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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Written by michaeleriksson

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

My upcoming sabbatical

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For what seems like an eternity, I have been trying to arrange a sabbatical. This has been easier said than done: After my original main project with my current customer, I have received extension after extension, due to a mixture of new projects and problems with filling a permanent position. (Hiring good software developers in the current Germany is quite hard, demand exceeding supply considerably.)

While a “luxury problem”, the delays have grown frustrating in their own right, there being so much that I want to do, including reading, writing, studying, watching movies, fixing my web site, fixing my apartment, traveling a bit, … To boot, my December vacation did not leave me rested, through a mixture of too much ambition* and the need to catch up with a number of left-over tasks, including tax filings and other bureaucracy; the last few months have left me correspondingly over-worked and lacking in energy.

*In turn rooted in my wish for a sabbatical: With these long delays, I wanted to do the most of what time I did have free, resulting in a (with hindsight) faulty priorisation.

I am almost there: I managed to keep the last extension down to a minimal ten days, of which only four remain. March is a mix of work, preparations*, and recuperation; from April on, I can finally get started.

*Address changes, moving things from Cologne to Wuppertal, ensuring that this-and-that works in Wuppertal, …

Exactly how long this sabbatical will be is yet to be determined, but it will be at least until the end of 2018.

There will likely be a considerable increase in my post rate during this period; however, I hope to eventually switch all my writings back to my web site, and to abandon this WordPress bullshit. (Except to keep existing contents available and, possibly, to inform about new writings published elsewhere.) This too is somewhat open-ended, however, the switch being more time consuming than urgent.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 18, 2018 at 8:59 pm

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A few thoughts on traditions and Christmas (and some personal memories)

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With Christmas upon us, I find myself thinking about traditions* again. This especially with regard to the Christmas traditions of my childhood, in light of this being the first Christmas after the death of my mother.

*Mostly in the limited sense of things that e.g. are done once a year on the same day or in a certain special manner, and as opposed to the other senses, say the ones in “literary tradition” and “traditional role” .

It has, admittedly, been quite a long while since I “came home for Christmas”, as she would have put it, and, frankly, the circumstances of my family had made Christmases at my mother’s hard for me to enjoy long before that. However, while the practical effect is not very large for me, there is still a psychological difference through the knowledge that some possibilities are permanently gone, that some aspects of those Christmases would be extremely hard to recreate—even aside from the obvious absence of my mother, herself. Take Christmas dinner: Even following the same recipes, different people can end up with different results, and chances are that even a deliberate attempt to recreate “her” version would be at best a poor* approximation—just like it was an approximation of what her mother used to make (and my father’s draws strongly on his childhood Christmas dinners). There is simply yet another connection with those Christmases of old that has been cut. In fact, when I think back on the most memorable, most magical, most wonderful Christmases, there are two versions that pop into my head:

*Note that a poor approximation does not automatically imply a poor effort. The point is rather that there are certain tastes and smells that can be important to us for reasons like familiarity and associations with certain memories, and that there can come a point when they are no longer available. I need look no further than my father to find a better cook than my mother, be it at Christmas or on a weekday; however, his cooking is different, just like his signature is—and even if he deliberately tried to copy her signature, the differences would merely grow smaller.

The first, predating my parents divorce, with loving and (tautologically) still married parents, a tree with a certain set of decorations, in the apartment we used to live in, and a sister too young to be a nuisance or even to properly figure in my recollections. I remember particularly how I, possibly around four or five years of age, used to spend hours* sitting next to the tree, staring at and playing with the decorations, and listening to a certain record with Christmas songs**. There was one or several foldable “balls” that I used to fold and unfold until the parents complained, and that fascinated me to no end. I have no idea whether the record and decorations exist anymore, we moved from the apartment almost forty years ago, the parents are long divorced—and I am, obviously, a very different person from what I was back then. With my mother dead, Father is the only remaining connection—and my associations with him and Christmas have grown dominated by those Christmases I spent with him as a teenager. (Which in many ways were great, but could not possibly reach the magic and wonder Christmas holds to a small child.)

*Well, it might have been considerably less—I really had no sense of time back then.

**In a twist, my favorite was a Swedish semi-translation of “White Christmas” by the title “Jag drömmer om en jul hemma”—“I’m dreaming of a Christmas back home”.

The second, likely* post-divorce and living in Kopparberg, where my maternal grand-parents resided, featured a setting in the grand-parents house and the addition of said grand-parents and my uncle and his family to the dramatis personae. Well, the house is torn down, most or all of the furniture and whatnots are gone, the grand-parents are both dead, and on the uncle’s side they started to celebrate separately relatively soon (and I was obviously never as close with them as with my parents or grand-parents). Again, I am a very different person, and with Mother dead, there is virtually no connection left.

*With the long time gone by and my young age, I cannot rule out that some pre-divorce Christmas also fell into this category.

However, memory lane is just the preparatory road, not the destination, today. The core of this post are two, somewhat overlapping, aspects of most traditions that I find interesting:

  1. What we consider traditional is to a very large part based on our own childhood experiences, both in terms of what is considered a tradition at all and what is considered the right tradition. Comparing e.g. my Christmases with my father and mother post-divorce, they had different preferences in both food and decorations* that often (cf. above) went back to their own childhoods. Similarly, U.S. fiction sometimes shows a heated argument over “star on top” vs. “angel on top” (and similar conflicts)—let us guess which of the parties were used to what as children…

    *Although some of the difference in decorations might be based less in preference and more in inheritance of specific objects.

    As for the very young me, I often latched on to something that happened just once or twice as a tradition, being disappointed when the “tradition” did not continue, say when the paternal grand-mother came visiting and did not bring the expected little marzipan piglet.

    Indeed, many traditions simply “run in the family”, and are not the universal and universally central part of, e.g., a Christmas celebration that a child might think. I recall visiting another family at a young age, thanking for dinner like my parents had taught me, and being highly confused when their daughter laughed at me. With hindsight, I cannot blame her: The phrase, “tack för maten och kamraten” (roughly “thanks for the food and the friend”), makes no sense, and is likely something my parents just found to be a funny rhyme—it is certainly not something I can recall having heard anywhere else.

    Even those traditions that go beyond the family can still be comparatively limited, e.g. to a geographical area. Christmas it self has no global standard (even apart from the differentiation into the “Christ is born” and “time for presents and Christmas trees/decorations/food” celebrations). There are, for instance, weird, barbaric countries where they celebrate on the 25th and eat Christmas turkey instead of doing the civilized thing and celebrating on the 24th with Christmas ham. The “Modern Family” episode dealing with the first joint U.S.–Columbian Christmas gives several interesting examples, and demonstrates well how one set of traditions can be weird-bordering-on-freakish to followers of another set of traditions.

  2. Traditions, even those that are nation wide, can be comparably short-lived. Christmas, again, is a great source of examples, with even e.g. the Christmas trees and Santa Clause being comparatively modern introductions, especially in countries that they have spread to secondarily. One of the most important Swedish traditions, for instance, is Disney’s From All of Us to All of You*—first airing in 1960 and becoming a virtually instant tradition, often topping the list of most watched programs of the year.

    *While this might seem extremely surprising, it can pay to bear in mind that Swedish children were starved for animation for most of the remaining year, making the yearly showing the more special. Also note the slow development of Swedish TV, with the original broadcast taking place in a one-channel system, and a two-channel system being in place until well into the 1980s—implying that the proportion of children (and adults) watching was inevitably large. That a TV broadcast of a movie or similar becomes a tradition is, obviously, not without precedent, even if rarely to that degree, with e.g. “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street” being prominent U.S. examples; and e.g. “Dinner for One” being a New Year’s example in several European countries.

    The entire concept of the U.S.-style Halloween is another interesting example, even when looking just at the U.S. and children (related historical traditions notwithstanding), but the more so when we look at adult dress-ups or the expansion to other countries, including going from zero to something semi-big in Germany within, possibly, the last ten to fifteen years. Fortunately, we are not yet at the point where we have to worry about children knocking on doors and demanding candy, but this might just be a question of time.

    Many traditions, in a somewhat wider sense, are even bound to the relatively short eras of e.g. a certain technology or other external circumstance. Consider, again, TV*: It only became a non-niche phenomenon in the 1950s (possibly even 1960s in Sweden); it was the worlds most dominant medium and one of the most important technologies by the 1980s, at the latest; and by 2017 its demise within possibly as little as a decade seems likely, with the Internet already having surpassed it for large parts of the population. By implication, most traditions that somehow involve a TV can safely be assumed to measure their lives in no more than decades. (Often far less, since many will fall into the “runs in the family” category.) If I ever have children and grand-children (living in Sweden), will they watch “From All of Us to All of You”, punctually at 3 P.M. on December 24th? The children might; but the grand-children almost certainly will not—there is unlikely to even be a broadcast in the current sense. (And even if one exists, the competition from other entertainment might be too large.) Looking in the other direction, my parents might have, but my grand-parents (as children) certainly did not—even TV, it self, was no more than a foreign experiment (and the program did not exist).

    *It is a little depressing, how many traditions in my family have revolved around food and TV—and I doubt that we were exceptional.

    Similarly, how is a traditional cup of coffee made? Well, for most of my life, in both Germany and Sweden, my answer would have been to put a filter in the machine, coffee in the filter, water in the tank, and then press the power button—for a drip brew. However, the pre-dominance of this mode of preparation (even in its areas of popularity) has been short, possibly starting in the 1970s and already being overtaken by various other (often proprietary) technologies like the Nespresso or the Dolce Gusto. The dominant rule might have been less than 30, certainly less than 40 years. Before that, other technologies were more popular, and even outright boiling of coffee in a stove pot might have been the standard within living memory*. Possibly, the next generation will see “my” traditional cup of coffee as an exotic oddity; while the preceding generations might have seen it as a new-fangled is-convenient-but-not-REAL-coffee.

    *My maternal grand-mother (and several other family members) was heavily involved with the Salvation Army. For the larger quantities of coffee needed for their gatherings, she boiled coffee as late as, possibly, the 1990s. While I do not really remember the taste in detail, there was certainly nothing wrong with it—and it certainly beats the Senseo I experimented with some ten years ago.

All of this runs contrary to normal connotations of a tradition—something very lengthy and, preferably, widely practiced. Such traditions certainly exist; going to church on Sunday being a prime example, stretching over hundreds of years and, until the last few decades, most of the population of dozens of countries. However, when we normally speak of traditions, it really does tend to be something more short-lived and more localized. I have e.g. heard adults speak of the “tradition” of dining at a certain restaurant when visiting a certain city—after just several visits… (It could, obviously, be argued that this is just sloppy use of language; however, even if I agreed, it would not change the underlying points.)

Excursion on other areas and nationalism:
Of course, these phenomena are not limited to traditions, but can also include e.g. national or other group characteristics. A common fear among Swedish nationalists (with similarities in other countries) concern the disappearance of the Swedish “identity” (or similar)—but what is this identity? More to the point, is the identity that I might perceive in 2017 the same that one of my parents or grand-parents might have perceived in 1967? Great-grand-parents in 1917? There have been a lot of changes not just in traditions, since then, but also in society, education, values, wealth, work environments, spare time activities (not to mention amount of spare time…), etc., and, to me, it borders on the inconceivable that the image of “identity” has remained the same when we jump 50 or 100 years*. Or look, by analogy, at the descriptions of the U.S. “generations”: While these are, obviously, generalizations and over-simplifications, it is clear that even the passing of a few decades can lead to at least a severely modified “identity”.

*Looking at reasonably modern times. In older times, with slower changes, this was might have been different. (I use “might”, because a lot can happen in such a time frame; and, at least in historical times, there was always something going on over such time intervals, be it war, plague, religious schisms, …, that potentially could have lead to similar variations.)

I strongly suspect that what some nationalists fear is actually losing the familiar and/or what matches a childhood impression: When I think back on Sweden, I often have an idealized image dominated by youthful memories, and this is usually followed with a wish to preserve something like that for eternity, the feeling that this is how the world should be, and this is what everyone should be allowed to experience. While I am rational enough to understand both that this idealized image never matched reality, even back then, and that it there are many other idealized images that would be equally worthy or unworthy, I can still very well understand those who draw the wrong conclusions and would make the preservation a too high priority.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 24, 2017 at 7:37 pm

Finally writing again!

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As the subscribers and recurring readers might have noticed, I have posted at an unusually high rate lately, especially compared to the near dormancy of 2012–2015. This post actually sets a new “personal best”* for a month with 16 posts and counting—and it is admittedly gratuitous, made mostly for the purposes of getting that record out of the way.

*Which is not to say that it is the month I have written the most in: During the days when I actively worked on my website, this was not a remarkable number.

There are several reasons for this increase:

  1. I have been reading a lot of other peoples opinions lately, which always makes me itch to write.
  2. There has been a welcome slowdown in my current project and I am already “writing checks” based on having a lot of vacation in December.
  3. Writing more again has made me remember how rewarding it can be in terms of gaining a better understanding of the world or myself, clarifying and developing thoughts, re-evaluating* my opinions, etc. Most of the time, this is the reason why I write—self-improvement. If I am able to change the mind of the odd reader, show a new perspective, seed a little doubt, …, that is just the cherry on top.**

    *This is something close to my heart: Re-evaluation with an open mind and a willingness to change is at the core of intellectual development, a sine qua non. The result of the re-evaluation need not be a change of mind, but it must be undertaken with such a change as a possibility. (Indeed, the unwillingness of others to do so is directly or indirectly connected with the majority of my criticism of e.g. the PC crowd.) Incidentally, I have a post on this topic in preparation.

    **Which is a good thing at the moment, because the visitor numbers on this blog have yet to recover and I still have not gotten around to fixing my website.

I plan to go on writing, but I suspect that the post numbers will drop down a bit in the following months; and I hope that I will be able to take my ridiculously delayed* mini-sabbatical in the course of 2018, during which I will likely switch my main attention to where it belongs—my long neglected website.

*Originally planned for the autumn of 2016…

Written by michaeleriksson

November 23, 2017 at 6:59 am