Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘Society

A few thoughts on the proportion of complaints in my writings

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Looking back at some of my writings, especially in 2019, I see an awful lot of complaining. Do I have nothing better to do with my time? Is my view of the world really that bleak? Is my life really filled with that many annoyances?

To some degree the answer is “yes”—but to an even greater degree “no”. Notably, no matter how much I might seem to complain when writing, I see myself as of (possibly considerably) over-average happiness in life, in comparison with e.g. various family members and most of my past colleagues.* Why then the high proportion of complaints? The answers include:

*To the degree that I can judge their situation. Further, with the reservation that this was not necessarily always so.

  1. In all fairness—the “yes” aspect: We do live in a world plagued by incompetence, ignorance, irrationality, lack of respect for the rights and interests of others, …

    There objectively is much to complain about, and complaining has the benefit of allowing me to “process” these issues. It makes it easier for me to get things of my mind,* it makes it easier for me to find an upside on a negative situation (“at least I got material for a blog post”), and there is usually something to learn from the events (cf. below).

    *I do have a tendency to not let go of issues that bother me, before I have processed them: Write a text to complain and I can put the issue away; do not write a text and it can annoy me for days.

    However, a critical difference between me and many others is that I seem to be much better at spotting such issues—many are themselves too incompetent or naive to understand that they are the victims of one or more of these problems: They fail to see that things could be done better. They do not realize that someone is taking advantage of them. They miss causal connections. They fail to investigate the truth of claims made by others. They are tricked into ignoring the negative effects of a problem, because the causer of the problem smiled at them and said a few polite words. Whatnot. We all live in a highly flawed world; not all of us have noticed it.

    I can e.g recall how my mother once came home from the auto-mechanics, gushing with gratitude over the fact that he had found or “found” another problem than she originally came in for, which had yet to actually manifest in something negative, and which made the cost of service explode… Now, I am not saying that this was fraud—such problems do legitimately occur, and he might genuinely have found one. However, my mother did not even contemplate the possibility that it might have been a fake discovery. This despite such fake discoveries being a part of the auto-mechanic stereotype*. She shelled out her money, was happy, and might or might not have avoided a future issue. A more wise-to-the-world car-owner would at least have asked for a second opinion.

    *More generally the craftsman et al. stereotype—and for a good reason. My private experiences include, shortly after moving into a new apartment, having a plumber come by to fix something on behalf of the land-lady. He went under the sink, worked vigorously for a few moments, got back up, turned the tap on, pointed out the absence of a water flow, and insisted on changing the entire tap. This did not fly: The tap had worked perfectly until he came and it was obvious that he had just deliberately turned off the main-valve, which was also under the sink…

    While such naive behavior is bad when it comes to commercial transactions, it can be disastrous when politics is concerned—as can be seen both by the typical quality of politician elected and the often useless or even harmful policies that they push.

  2. Writing about the positive things in life usually feels pointless. Yes, it can be nice to recollect* them at some later time; yes, shared happiness is double happiness**. However, there is also less to learn and analyze, less of a need for change, less that might be achieved through writing a text, and less opportunity to provide “food for thought”. Indeed, when I (as a reader) encounter a “feel good” text by someone else, I rarely bother to read it to an end, because it seldom provides a push for me to think or an opportunity to widen my horizons.

    *And I have a few more positive posts in planning relating to my visits to Sweden and the many recollections of the past that they invoked. (That these topics are on my mind might be clear from this text.)

    **To quote a ceramic decoration that I re-encountered in Sweden: Delad glädje är dubbel glädje.

  3. One of my main goals with writing is self-development, and writing about things that are, in some sense, wrong provides me with a better opportunity (also see the previous item). For instance, if we look at my recent eCommerce and delivery issues (cf. a number of recent texts) and assume that everything had gone right—what would there be to learn from and write about? I could note that things went well and I could try to figure out why, but that is pretty much it. (And the “why” mostly makes sense with an eye on past eCommerce and delivery failures, bringing us back to failures…) When things go wrong, the situation is very different: What happened? What could the underlying problem be? How could things be done better? Who is to blame? Is this a wider problem or something that happened just to me? Etc. Not only is there more to write about, but there is also an incentive to read up on related issues. (Here, for instance, I have read a number of pages dealing with the delivery experiences of others, magazine articles dealing with the delivery chaos in Germany, and similar.)
  4. I strongly believe that learning from the failures of others is a great way to excellence—indeed, that merely avoiding the more common errors in a certain field will bring someone quite far towards the top in said field. (It is astonishing what proportion in more-or-less any field is actually quite incompetent and how many “beginner’s” errors prevail even among veterans.) By writing such texts, I do not only give myself an opportunity to learn, I also offer the same opportunity to others.*

    *To which I stress that the important part is not that my opinion be taken as an ipse dixit, although I am pleased when my opinions/reasoning/whatnot are convincing, but that the reader is stimulated to think for himself.

  5. I also strongly believe that many of the current problems remain unchanged because people do not complain enough.* If people were less naive, less complacent, whatnot, and actually stood up against e.g. incompetent service providers, things would change. My complaints might be nothing more than a lone candle in a vast darkness, but it is proverbially better to light a candle than to curse the darkness—and if more would join me, we might have enough candles to actually defeat the darkness.

    *Not counting the many complaints that are misguided effects of propaganda efforts by e.g. Feminists. Cf. any number of previous texts.

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Written by michaeleriksson

April 24, 2019 at 12:10 am

Some problems with the German pension, health-insurance, etc. systems

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In Germany, a few leading politicians are currently (and again) suggesting that the self-employed* be forced to pay into regulated pension schemes, even when they feel that they are better off with other solutions—after already having been forced into extensive** health-insurance, some years back. Moreover, suggestions that private alternatives for various insurances be scrapped and everyone forced to participate in the public*** schemes are often recurring.

*“Selbständige”. Note that there might be differences in exact definition and treatment compared to e.g. the U.S. situation.

**The current German regulations require a, in my eyes, too extensive health-insurance. Cf. excursion.

***The “gesetzlich” (“legal”) this-and-that; as opposed to the “privat” (“private”) this-and-that. For instance, health-insurance is divided into two branches, where one is “gesetzlich” and everyone pays a fix proportion of income for a fix coverage, and the other “privat” with an income-independent fee and a more negotiable coverage.

This is highly misguided on at least two counts (some of which apply to other groups too):

  1. There are other means to provide than these official schemes. For instance, someone rich enough will not need a pension; for instance, someone who invests his money wisely might have a better return on investment than through a pension scheme;* for instance, a home-owner with modest requirements, a reasonable bank account, and the willingness to moon-light past retirement, might get by without a pension.

    *This especially in a system like the German, where money is not necessarily paid for one’s own pension, instead paying for the pensions of older generations; and where one’s own received pension will later depend on what future generations are paying at the time. Moreover, for those who have debts to pay, e.g. a mortgage, it is quite likely that paying off the debt would be a better use of the money than building a pension fund, seeing that the interest (or its rough equivalent) on assets is usually lower than on debt—often considerably so.

  2. For many, the money taken for these schemes is one of largest reasons why the schemes are needed… For instance, a typical reasoning around health-insurance is that it allows those hit by medical costs to pay those costs, because the insurance company (or the government) is there to cover the brunt. But: If someone had saved all the money paid in insurance fees (or extra taxes), chances are that additional money would not have been needed in the first place. In Germany, health-insurance for a “gesetzlich” insured mid-* to high-earner might be around 10,000* Euro a year—and with most years seeing less or significantly less actual health-insurance claims, there would have been plenty of time to build a buffer for the odd years when costs explode. A healthy ten years leaves a cool hundred grand for that major surgery and there is plenty of time to build reserves for less healthy “golden years”. I would go as far as to say that the German system misses the point of insurance, which is to replace the risk of a large damage (e.g. through robbery) with the certainty of a small damage (e.g. a monthly or yearly fee)—instead, all damages, large and small, are paid by the insurance, which implies unreasonably large fees, additional waste, and (on average) a pointless and wasteful transfer of money from the patient to the insurer to the patient to the hospital (or whatnot), where it would be much more sensible to just move money from the patient to the hospital…

    *There is a cap on the applicability of the (high) percentage fee at earnings of possibly 60,000 Euro/year (which is a good income, but not extraordinarily so, in today’s Germany). In a rough estimate, 18 % might be a typical percentage (including “Pflegeversicherung”), with 0.18 * 60,000 = 10,800. Beware that I have not researched the exact current numbers (and that the percentage will vary depending on circumstances). As a note to naive German readers: No, your employer only pays half of this on paper—in real life, you pay the employer half too, mostly through a lower salary, but also through e.g. higher prices.

    Similar issues are fairly common, e.g. in that the “Riesterrente”* has to be financed somehow. This financing amounts to taking money from everyone through taxes and giving said money to those who invest their money according to certain rules. It would be better and fairer to lower (or not raise, depending on the situation) taxes to begin with, and to let people handle their money as they see fit—including to make sure that they have prepared well enough that they do not need the additional Riesterrente. This especially since the biggest gainers through the Riesterrente are likely the providers of pension schemes, who see a massive artificial in-flow of customers. And, oh, what was the original motivation behind the Riesterrente? To cover the deficits of the regular pension system—implying that, had the politicians not already dropped the ball there, the Riesterrente would have been unnecessary…

    *A program by which certain voluntary pension-schemes payments are subsidized by the government, in order to make people spend their money like the government wants it to.

A potential third count would be the way this forced prioritization and/or time-wise redistribution of money can provide obstacles to small businesses that might have earned well in the long run—but are prevented from reaching this long run due to a short-term lack of money partially caused by these schemes. This either in that the owner is forced to give up the business prematurely after a temporary setback or in that an expansion of the business has to be foregone (also see excursion). Similar arguments can apply more generally, e.g. in that a regular employee is forced to take on debt due to unforeseen circumstances, and that this debt would have been unnecessary without pension fees (and where, as above, the pension funds bring less returns than not having debt).

An advantage of e.g. a mandatory pension scheme is that everyone would be guaranteed a certain minimum pension, and thereby be less likely to require other social aid later in life. For instance, a successful entrepreneur might assume that he has no need for a pension scheme, see his business go broke in his sixties, and not have sufficient late-life income to cover his own needs—he would now turn to the government for “ALG II”* (or some other type of governmental) support. However, (a) chances are that he will not have this problem; (b) the actual pension payments for the current generations appear to be fairly bleak, making a bet on a pension potentially riskier;** (c) considering that he will likely have contributed well-above average to government income through taxes (and possibly the well-being of others through providing employment), I would not see it as unfair if he did receive e.g. ALG II. (Note that this line of reasoning need not hold when we look at long-term low earners. I do not, at this time, rule out that a mandatory system might make sense for them.)

*Literally, roughly, “unemployment benefits II”. In practice, this is a means for those with too little income (and who do not receive “regular” unemployment payments) to cover the difference between actual income and a government-stipulated tolerable minimum income. It is not restricted to those actually unemployed (but I do not rule out that some other scheme might apply).

**Note that this holds even for private pension-schemes: What if the scheme goes bankrupt or does not earn sufficient returns? (A governmental guarantee, similar to bank guarantees, might help, but would put the governments money at a larger risk than with the above entrepreneur.)

In reality, the true reason for the demands for making these schemes mandatory is likely (a)* giving lesser earners a leg up resp. giving the official schemes money that they do not deserve in order to allow them to give lesser earners said leg up, (b) preventing the “social injustice” of some people being better off than others. The same applies to health-insurance, where even now the “privat” insured have a portion of their payments diverted to the “gesetzlich” insured—with no recompense of any kind.

*Over a fairly large portion of the German political spectrum.

**Significant portions of the Left, which truly is (old) Left in Germany. (The Social-Democrats are the second largest party; a Communist or formerly Communist party is represented in parliament.)

Excursion on the scope of health-insurance:
In Germany, the scope of health-insurance is quite large, covering most of the medical bills and (physician ordered) medicines that apply, with usually only small deductibles. The result is astronomical fees, incentives for patients to “see the doctor” too often, and a medical industry that charges overly high prices and often recommends pointless procedures. A much better system would insure the big things*, of which most people will have none in their life-times, and only very few more than one or two. The rest would be up to the individual to cover (such cover could, obviously, be partially through a voluntary additional insurance). In return, he would see a considerably lower monthly fee, in part because he would have a lower coverage, in part because the overall costs in the system would drop.

*Exactly where to draw the line is a question that I leave open for now. I originally gave a few examples, including “major surgery”, but chances are that even a major surgery would be within what most people could pay with money to spare, if they had their insurance fees back (and did not waste them in advance), and that they might then be better off not having a single instance of major surgery covered. One possibility would be to simply have a very high deductible that applies either to the individual year or the individual problem (which can stretch over more than one year)—everything above covered; everything below not covered. The deductible would likely be dependent on personal choice, but might have a typical range from a few thousand to a few tens of thousand. A variable deductible would have the advantage of covering cases like a young family with marginal buffers—the family can reduce the risk of a debilitating blow by paying more per month, for a lower deductible, and continually go for a lower payment/higher deductible as the buffers grow. Alternatively, a fix deductible could be set by a public and mandatory scheme, while additional coverage could be purchased from private sources for a similar effect.

As an aside, this is where ObamaCare clearly went wrong, even objections concerning ethics and implementation aside: It did nothing to solve the true problem of U.S. health care, namely absurdly high prices. Worse, by putting more people into insurance schemes, the problem of high prices is worsened…

Excursion on financing:
Many seem to miss the simple truth that money is not an infinite resource—and that any additional benefits has to be paid for somehow. For instance, a “free” health-care system is not truly free. On the contrary, behavioral changes are likely to make it more expensive than a non-“free” one. The money has to come from somewhere, e.g. taxes, implying that the citizens still bear the full costs. On the outside, there is some redistribution of cost (e.g. from the unhealthy to healthy), but the costs do not disappear.

Excursion on business expansion:
Expanding a small business beyond the one-man stage is unduly hard in many countries, including Germany. Above, I mentioned the need to pay e.g. health-insurance for one-self as a component—but that is just a small part of it. The major problem is the disproportionate cost and risk involved with getting employees—even a single one. For instance, take a one-man business with a revenue of a 10,000 Euro/month. Hire someone for a nominal salary of 5,000 Euro/month, and what is left of the old net is not another 5,000 (to cover other costs and the employer’s own living expenses): As a German rule of thumb, various additional fees increase the price-tag by thirty percent, leaving roughly 3.5 thousand. This without counting existing costs and additional costs not related to the government, e.g. additional office space, training, legal advice in preparation, the potential need to create a GmbH*, and what else might apply. And: This before various taxes, insurance fees, and whatnots that might apply for the business and/or the owner.** In other words, the owner will earn next to nothing (instead of the presumable 5,000 – expenses) until the new employee is up-and-running—in a low-margin business, he might even take a loss.

*A type of limited-liability corporation suitable for small businesses, which might be a good idea with the additional risk that the new employee brings. Of course, then stricter regulations on e.g. accounting apply, the taxation rules change even further to the disadvantage of the business owner, etc.

**In all fairness, taxes might initially be lower than before due to the extra cost, but, obviously, nowhere near enough to offset said cost.

But: Getting a new employee to the point of adding serious revenue can take several months (depending on competence, type of business, businesses climate, …)—and doing so might cut into the employer’s own revenue generation (or force him to work additional hours).* Worse: It might turn out that the employee is not up to the job and needs to be replaced. Then is the question: How soon can he be removed? The legal minimum might be four (?) weeks**, which then amounts to another month down the drain—and chances are that he will not earn anything significant for the company during that month anyway.*** If he is fired, he might choose to go to court, which brings additional risks, costs, and personal effort to the employer.**** Or, possibly, he chooses to leave, leaving the employer with a few wasted months and the need to start over…

*For instance, in my line of business (IT consulting and on-site software development for customers), I would need to convince one customer or other that this particular employee is worthy of being hired-out to them—a process that involves searches and application processes quite similar to a regular job search. This would not only bring me unbillable work for myself, but could leave the employee with nothing billable to do for weeks on end. The last few years, demand has exceeded supply, but customers often have specific requirements, and will strongly prefer e.g. someone with ten years of relevant experience over the newly graduated who has still to complete his first project. (And just to hire someone both highly competent and more experienced is easier said than done, because these tend to want more money, already be in employment, or run their own businesses.)

**IIRC, for a small business and a newish employee. For larger businesses or longer periods of employment, the delay might be considerably larger.

***For instance, in my case, putting him in a customer project for that month would be next to impossible (and arguably negligent towards the customer). Of course, he might already be in a project, but then the proof of his unsuitability is likely to coincide with a rejection from the customer, which would terminate that project…

****In all fairness, the strong German restrictions on termination of employment are largely suspended for such small businesses. However, this can be a real concern when additional growth has taken place, together with many other regulatory obstacles.

Now, consider a world with everything else as it was—just with considerably less taxation, health-insurance fees, unemployment fees, … Run through the same scenario with a monthly own income of even just 3,000, instead of the “next to nothing”. Now our entrepreneur can lead a good life, possibly even increase his personal buffers, and if the employment attempt flops, he is back where he started. If things with the first employee seem to turn out well, he can add a second that much faster. Etc. In today’s Germany or, worse, if even stricter rules for e.g. pensions are instituted? Well, then it is the question of how large buffers are present and how much risk the wannabe employer is willing to take.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 6, 2019 at 7:05 pm

A few thoughts on the word “gender”

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The abuse of “gender” for “sex” has long annoyed me, but I have taken the view that the use for “self-perceived sexual identity” (or similar) was acceptable or even beneficial—if nothing else, the latter is a separate concept and using a separate term for a separate concept is usually a good idea.* However, I unconsciously based this view on a faulty premise: that the grammatical gender was inherently a division into masculine/feminine/neuter or something along similar lines (e.g. just masculine/feminine or masculine/feminine/neuter/common; while an apparently genderless language can equally be viewed as having exactly one gender**). Using this premise, an application to similar*** divisions in other areas would not be absurd—if a good word was not already present.

*Indeed, one of my more common complaints about the PC crowd is the high-jacking of words to mean something different from what would be historically expected and/or expected among other speakers, e.g. (in the same area) that “man” and “woman” would refer to self-perception instead of biology. It would be much better to introduce new words for these new concepts. Even worse is deliberate re-/mis-definition for purposes like manipulation, as with e.g. “racism” and “rape” in some circles.

**At least, assuming that it follows a pattern somewhat similar to the typical Indo-European languages, as e.g. a version of English where “they” (“them”, etc.) was abused as a full replacement for “he”, “she”, “it” (“him”, etc.)—which is where, regrettably, English seems be heading. (The abuse as a generic third-person singular is already dominant.) A sufficiently different language might behave too differently (but is then unlikely to be relevant in this context).

***I stress that e.g. a grammatical “masculinity” does not automatically imply a physical or biological “masculinity”, which is obvious from languages with a more differentiated system than English—hence, “similar” above. This differentiation is another reason not to use “gender” for “sex”—grammatical gender and biological sex are not always coinciding. (In German, words for things can be grammatically masculine, feminine, or neutral, even when a logical neutral might be expected. Words applied to men can be feminine (e.g. “die Person”/“the person”); words applied to women can be masculine (e.g. “der Mensch”/“the human”); words for either can be neutral (e.g. “das Individuum”/“the individual”. Of course, the gender changes based on what word is used—not based on the entity referred to.)

This, however, is not strictly the case: it happens to be true in many languages, including English and German, but other divisions are possible. For instance, Proto-Indo-European might have had an animate/inanimate division. Even my native Swedish deviates through a somewhat arbitrary division into utrum and neutrum:* The members of these genders, for all practical and modern purposes, only differ in what indefinite (“en”/“ett”) and definite (“den”/“det”) article is used and whether an “-en” or an “-et” is to be suffixed in certain situations.** Indeed, they were more often referred to as “en-ord” och “ett-ord” (“ord” = “word(s)”) than “utrum” and “neutrum” in school.

*The discussion of actual Swedish grammar in school was superficial, incomplete, or even incorrect—a problem that native speakers of other languages might also have encountered. For this reason, I had simply never really reflected on the implications of the Swedish deviation until today. As an added complication, there are several different perspectives on Swedish genders (above, I discuss the most common) and the situation was historically different.

**E.g. “en sak”/“a thing” vs. “ett träd”/“a tree” and “den saken”/“that thing” vs “det trädet”/“that tree”.

Looking outside of grammar, there have been many uses of the word “gender” that also follow the line of a more general classification, e.g. that being English/German/whatnot or belonging to a certain family was discussed in terms of “gender”. Older use for sexual division (e.g. “the female gender”) is just a special case of this, and not* a precedent for a specialized use relating to sex or sexual identity. This makes it the more illogical to use “gender” when it is actually the sex (or even sexual identity) that is intended: a “Sex:” on a driver’s license calls for “M[ale]” or “F[emale]” with some clarity**, while “Gender:” might equally call for “E[nglish]”.

*Similarly, the fact that we could speak of someone being of the “female persuasion” does not make “persuasion” a good replacement for “sex”, because we can equally combine “persuasion” with other words implying group membership. Note that this applies to a wide range of other words too, e.g. “class”, “set”, “category”. (If it had just been “persuasion”, it might have been rejected as an abuse, or something to restrict to humorous formulations, for other reasons. The choice of “persuasion” as an example is based on the higher frequency of “female persuasion” over, say, “female category”.)

**Or at least it used to… However, even for those who cannot or does not want to be classified as male or female, the type of the classification is clear. On the other hand, confusion with sexual acts is highly unlikely outside of the famous joke about the girl who found her mother’s driver’s license (“Mommy! I know why Dad divorced you! You got an ‘F’ in sex!”).

I re-iterate my recommendation never, ever to use “gender” when “sex” is the traditional word. When it comes to sexual identity, the question is trickier because, again, a separate* word makes sense, and I am unable to offer an alternative that is both sufficiently understandable and has a sufficient current use to not cause as much confusion as “gender”*. However, this might be an area where “persuasion” (see earlier footnote) has some possibilities, actually gaining through its more regular meaning in the area of opinions and convictions, e.g. in that the-athlete-previously-known-as-Bruce would be considered of the male sex and the female persuasion.** Possibly, some shortening of “sexual persuasion”, e.g. “sexper” or “seper”, might work as a replacement for “gender” in such an attempt.***

*Another strong argument against the abuse of “gender” for “sex” is that many will assume a reference to sexual identity where biological sex was intended and vice versa.

**Or at least was so “pre-op”. Possibly, additional terminology is needed for the “post-op” case.

***Using an unabbreviated “sexual persuasion” would be too lengthy in many contexts, e.g. on driver’s licenses. It would also risk a dropping of “sexual” in sloppy use, with negative effects on other meanings of “persuasion”—just like “discrimination” and “intercourse” has seen a drift towards using the word solely for a special case implied by a longer phrase. To start with just “persuasion” would be even worse.

Addendum to the linked-to text:
Possibly ten years ago, I wrote “The possibility that existing literature eventually would be actively re-written to adhere to ‘gender-neutrality’ is not at all far-fetched:”. Indeed not: Consider e.g. my (much later) text on distortion of Blyton, where I lament that the actual events and characters of her books, not just specific words, have been altered for similar reasons.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 1, 2019 at 7:47 am

The perversity of offers in B2C commerce

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Portions of my recent (and past) problems with eCommerce (cf. e.g. [1], [2], [3]) were worsened by a fundamental flaw in the typical* legal view of how a (B2C) purchase takes place: What should be viewed as an offer to sell a product is just an “invitation to treat”, leading up to the prospective**buyer making an offer to the seller, which the latter can then accept or reject at will.

*I have not researched the global situation, but this is the case in both Germany and the U.S. (and likely most or all other “common law” countries, because they naturally tend towards the same legal principles).

**A word that I will leave out in the remainder of the text, for brevity, irrespective of whether a purchase actually takes place.

The absurdity of this is proved by how the price and other conditions are usually unilaterally determined by the seller: Go to a grocery store, grab something priced at 9.99, go up to the cashier—and offer to buy it for 7.50. Not only will the offer be rejected out of hand almost everywhere*, but chances are that the cashier will even lack the comprehension that this type of offer should be possible. Indeed, she would likely neither be legally authorized by the store to negotiate the price, nor technically able to accept a different price**—even should it be a higher one. Effectively, “we invite you to extend an offer towards us with these exact conditions—and if you do not like said conditions, don’t waste our time”.. To consider that an invitation, not an offer, is absurd.

*One potential exception is a mom-and-pop store when the owner actually happens to be at the cash register.

**At least without causing a discrepancy between the electronic transaction logs and the contents of the cash drawer, which the cashier might be forced to cover with own funds.

Looking at e.g. eCommerce, this legal approach causes problems like a seller being able to refuse purchases even on the flimsiest grounds, no matter what efforts the buyer has gone through, and even after the buyer’s “offer” might appear to have been accepted. For instance, in my interactions with Cyberport (cf. parts of [2]), the web interface appeared to accept my “offer”, a confirmation email was sent, and my offer then rejected* some 15 (!) hours later. More generally, such transactions (at least in Germany) tend to have an attached disclaimer that “a legal contract only results with our confirmation” (or similar). Cyberport takes it to an extreme “Im Übrigen** kommt ein Vertrag mit Zusendung der Versandbestätigungs-E-Mail zustande.” (“In other cases**, a contract results with the confirmation-of-shipping email.”), which effectively implies that Cyberport can reject any “offer” until the product is actually sent on its way.***

*Cyberport still wanted my business, but refused the “offered” payment per invoice. Legally, this amounts to a rejection.

**A previous sentence specifies other rules for the special cases of prepayment and cash-on-delivery.

***Even afterwards, actually, through simply suppressing said email, but this would almost always be to Cyberport’s own disadvantage.

In other areas, problems like undue discrimination can arise, say with a (physical) store refusing customers due to a too dark skin tone, a Jewish nose, or a pro-Trump hat.

The advantages of altering this legal view include greater safety and fewer complications for the buyers, e.g. in that situations like mine will occur far more rarely, that selling items online without being certain that they can be procured will backfire,* and that bait-and-switch schemes will be harder. To boot, the situation will be more logical—cf. above or note how even the typical language of the sellers tend to place the offer on their side.**

*This practice is apparently somewhat common: A store offers a product at a certain price and a buyer places an order (makes an “offer”). If the store manages to procure the product at a price that allows it a profit, it eventually accepts; if it cannot, it rejects. This is particularly problematic when there is a non-trivial delay in time, because the buyer will have to wait that much longer before he goes to the competition. Indeed, chances are that he would never have gone through the effort to place an order, had he known in advance that delivery was not next to guaranteed. (Of course, the point of the scheme is to keep customers from going to the competition, even when it would be in their best interest.) I once read an article (likely in C’t) about a computer dealer who systematically tried to delay delivery so long, weeks or months, that it could profit from changes in the price level for its products. (Along the lines of promising a brand new Apple product for five percent below the typical retail price—but not actually delivering until the retail price had dropped by six percent. This leaves a percentage point extra profit and a number of customers who would have gone elsewhere without the misleading price claim.)

**As in “today’s offers”, “we offer”, etc. Vice versa, the word “offer” is typically not used for what the customer does—instead words like “order” and “application” dominate.

Now, making the actual offer (by the seller) an offer in the legal sense, raises a few complications, but none that cannot be handled. For instance, if the price of a product is considerably lower than normal by accident, a reservation for “obvious errors” would give the seller protection—that a car normally in the 20,000-Euro price range does not sell for 20.00 Euro or 2,000 Euro is almost a given.* Running out of product is not much of an issue in a physical store, because the offer through a sign/label/whatnot is obviously directed at the products in front of the buyer—you can buy one of these cartons of milk for 50 cent. If no cartons are present, then no offer takes place. Online, the stores would be forced to keep their listings up-to-date to reduce the risk, but that is relatively easy and increases customer friendliness.** Should later problems ensue, e.g. that the store does not receive expected deliveries, it is only fair that the store keeps the customers unharmed and settles its own problems without disadvantaging them.*** Issues like credit worthiness are largely beside the point, because if a seller has a reasonable fear that the buyer will not fulfill his part of the bargain, he cannot be obliged to stand by his offer.**** If worst comes to worst, there is always the option to make an offer conditional—with a condition that must then be explicitly stated in advance and is, correspondingly, fairer towards the buyers than the current arbitrariness.

*But with lesser errors, the store might well have to sell at the stated price—and that would be good in my eyes. (Exactly where to draw the lines is beyond the current scope, and might well depend on both product and audience.) Indeed, this is often what would happen today anyway: If the bar code is associated with the wrong price, the cashier is unlikely to even notice—and, cf. above, might not be able to do anything about it, even if she did.

**Or to implement better order management, or similar, with an improvement for both the buyers and the store.

***Note e.g. that what product sources the store uses, and what risks are associated, is a decision made by the store—not the customers of the store. Correspondingly, the store should carry the consequences of these decisions.

****However, the seller might see restrictions in the great arbitrariness that currently applies, where “unreasonable fear” is quite common. That too would be good.

Excursion on different types of deals:
Regular store sales, e.g., are by their nature offers—not invitations. However, this does not apply to all other conceivable deals. For instance, the sale of a single house or a single painting is by its nature an invitation to negotiate—all involved parties expect a negotiation and understand that only one buyer will actually get the house/painting. For instance, auctions are by their nature invitations to bid.

Excursion on advertising:
In contrast to the above, advertising might be an area where “invitation to treat” is a reasonable concept, e.g. because it is impossible to change the contents of a prospect after its been sent in the mail, even should the circumstance change or an error be detected. Explicit reservations for errors or the supply running out might be helpful substitutes (and I have seen them relatively often even as is), but might come with the danger of raising red flags to the customer, who could suspect e.g. a bait-and-switch scheme or a “lure” product that is offered at a fantastic price (but in extremely low numbers) solely to get people into the store.

Excursion on the historical situation:
In earlier days, the situation might not have been as absurd as it is today, giving some explanation to how the legal view arose. (But the more likely explanation is the convenience of the sellers.) For instance, price haggling was far more common and often outright expected in the past, amounting to a series of offers and counter-offers.* For instance, mail-order catalogs are much harder to update than websites, and there was a lot of room for misprints with older technology. (Then again, mail-order catalogs might be better viewed as advertising or otherwise be exempt, with an eye on inflation, price fluctuations, VAT changes, and similar, which can make it impossible to guarantee the same price over many months.)

*Incidentally, yet another argument why the seller’s offer should be the offer from a legal point of view: When haggling is reduced to a single statement of the seller’s price wish, this amounts to only the seller’s final offer remaining, making it absurd to interpret it as a “invitation to treat”. Negotiations did not usually go like “A: If you were to offer me ten shillings, I would sell. B: No, I couldn’t do that—but if you were to offer to sell for seven shillings, I would be on board.” (where the formulations are intended to be interpreted literally, not as round-about formulations of offers).

Written by michaeleriksson

March 30, 2019 at 9:11 am

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Older discussion of DN / Follow-up: The problem of too shallow knowledge / experiences in Sweden

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In a recent text, I discussed the decline of the Swedish news-paper DN (among other things).

In a much earlier text, dated 2009-11-03, I had already brought up some points relating to its decline, notably a severe attitude problem. This in form on comments on an online-chat* with the then editor-in-chief, who made a number of statements that are interesting both in general and in retrospect. It truly is no wonder that DN has failed as a news source.

*Except that it was no true chat at all, but just her answering pre-filtered questions in one sitting, as discussed in the linked-to text.

One question was “Where will DN be in ten years?”*, which is almost the time passed. The answer began “DN will still be Sweden’s most important paper.”*, which has not panned out at all in my eyes. (Discounting the question whether DN was the most important paper back then, which is dubious.) On the contrary, DN has made it self so useless that its importance in a weightier sense is very low. If it is important, the importance is increasingly more akin to that of the Kardashians than that of Benjamin Franklin. The answer continues “The number of readers is even larger through the online edition, and therefore our journalism has an even greater impact.”*, which is a hard claim to check. However: According to a graph on page 5 of a report (PDF, in Swedish), DN dropped from an estimated 905 thousand “print” readers** in 2009 to 570 thousand in the first quarter of 2018 (with a further decline until now likely). The “overall” (“total”) numbers beginning in 2017 confuse the issue and could be (mis-)construed to imply an increase, which I discuss in an excursion. Looking at some graphs for other papers, I suspect that DN has also lost ground relatively speaking (but I have not dug into the details and might well be wrong).

*In my translation from a Swedish original.

**Strictly speaking, if I interpret the very unclear source correctly, these numbers likely refer to the potential readers counted for e.g. advertising purposes. See an excursion on readers.

With great reservations for interpretation, my conclusion would then be that DN has lost readers both absolutely and relatively despite the online edition. However, in all fairness, the 2009 online edition was likely free, implying that the prediction was made under radically different circumstances.

Excursion on potential vs true readers:
The report speaks of “räckvidd” (“reach”), which likely includes e.g. all members of a subscribing household (or all in a certain age bracket), even if only one actually reads the paper. (Disclaimer: I might be off in the details, but the principle is correct.) These numbers are then likely inflated considerably above the true number of readers. The general trend should remain the same, however. If anything, I would speculate on the trend being understated, because of generational differences and different habits among the young “now” and “then”. (In other words, the children living at home were more likely to read the paper in the past than they are today.)

Excursion on numbers and types of editions:
There are potentially three types of editions (and DN uses all three): Paper, digital-but-not-web (e.g. as a PDF file), and web. It is not obvious how what is counted where, and this could distort the discussion. (Especially, if the treatment is different for different papers.)

The graph contains several measures. The line called “Total”, in my best guess, includes all readers of all three editions. The “Print” line likely originally was the paper readers, but after 2016 include “e-tidningsläsande” (“e-paper reading”), which I suspect is digital-but-not-web. The “Digital” line is very unclear, but might refer to the web edition, which would work well in conjuncture with “Total”, if we allow for a discount of readers who belong to both “Print” and “Digital” (leaving the “Total” number smaller than the sum of “Print” and “Digital”).*

*I suspect that the closeness of “Digital” to “Print” is just a coincidence, because the corresponding entries for e.g. Aftonbladet are quite far apart. If not, some closer connection might have been present and forced a different interpretation. The much larger “Digital” value for Aftonbladet is also well compatible with an interpretation as a web edition, because Aftonbladet’s web edition is free of charge.

If we work under this assumption, the “Total” number for 2018 is a highly misleading comparison for the “Print” number for 2009: There was a great number of web readers even in 2009. Indeed, there might* well have been considerably more of them than today, because the current version is “pay-walled”, while the 2009 edition was not. Also note that “Digital” has fallen throughout its few years of display, and that this trend might have been present earlier too. Correspondingly, I suspect that the drop** in “Total” had been even larger than in “Print”, had the number been available. Under no circumstance is it reasonable to imagine an increase of 166 (1071 – 905) thousand from 2009 to 2018. (This even assuming that the editions are roughly comparable. If not, the addition is even more misleading.)

*This boils down to a fight between the trend towards greater online activities and the loss of visitors through the pay-wall. Seeing that Sweden had a very large Internet penetration very early on, my money is on the latter.

**At least in absolute numbers. It might have fared better in relative numbers.

To boot, I suspect that the difference between potential readers (as reported) and true readers (more interesting) will be larger for the web edition. This partly because it is more convenient and more natural to share a physical paper than online access, especially if different computers or computer accounts come into play; partly because the lower price makes it less wasteful to have a subscription that only one person uses.

However, even if we were to look at “paying customers”, the calculation would be misleading. Yes, the number of these might actually have increased. However, this must be seen in light of a much lower* price for the web edition, with less money actually flowing in.

*Compared not just to the paper edition, but to the digital-but-not-web edition. The former difference might have been offset by printing and distribution costs, the latter is not.

Disclaimer:
I suffered a computer crash during late-stage editing. Some changes might have been lost.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 28, 2019 at 9:00 am

The problem of too shallow knowledge / experiences in Sweden

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During my recent travels in Sweden, I encountered other information sources than I usually do, including Swedish news-papers and Swedish TV. As a result, I saw quite a few examples of how common a too shallow or outright incorrect knowledge is, how this can lead to an incorrect understanding of e.g. a situation, and how important it is to gain a deeper understanding before forming strong opinions or demanding action.* This especially when it comes to topics like public policy, whom to vote for, what cause is worthy of support, …

*I have discussed similar topics, although often less generally, on a great number of occasions, e.g. in [1], [2], [3], [4], [5].

A discussion I had with my father over a cartoon of yogurt provides both a good example and an analogy for the larger problems—the difference between the advertisy claims on the cartoon and the truth revealed by the “nutrition facts label”:

The front of the cartoon proudly proclaimed 0.5 % fat*—the more extensive declaration on the back, in fine print, noted sufficiently much added sugar to ruin the energy savings from the reduced fat content, when compared to “traditional” yogurt. Indeed, since sugar is likely worse than fat, this might amount to a health**-downgrade… In the same way that many just note the front of the cartoon and do not bother to read the true information, so many rely on superficial, incomplete, deliberately angled, or otherwise flawed information in other contexts—even when better information is not that hard to find and gives a very different view. (Of course, many even better examples exist, including sugary candies advertised as “0 % fat”…)

*I might misremember the exact number, but the value was of this order.

**Here and elsewhere I use “health” (and variations) in a manner similar to the usual discourse. However, I caution that I consider this use simplistic, sometimes even misleading. Phrases like “healthy food” could even be seen as illogical, because an excess of virtually any food is unhealthy—just like a too great lack of variation.

Among the many other examples:

  1. We ate the yogurt with müsli—another food stuff traditionally considered healthy. Said müsli contained a considerable amount of candied fruits…

    My father happened to know* what he was eating, but many others do not. They know that müsli (and yogurt) is supposed to be a healthy food, go by reputation, fail to look at the specifics of the product at hand, and find themselves eating unhealthily* while believing that they are doing the opposite. The food business, I suspect, even deliberately plays on this, adding sugar and whatnot to make a product taste better** than the competition’s alternative—hoping that the customers will notice the taste difference, not the health difference.

    *Note that there is not necessarily anything wrong with picking a less healthy alternative when it is an informed decision. (Indeed, I often go by taste or convenience myself. Moreover, I suspect that fanaticism with healthy food can lead to unhealthy eating too.) The issue here is how often the decision is uninformed—or even misinformed.

    Here we have a good example of a special case: Focusing too much on the name, reputation, appearance, whatnot of the thing rather than on its true nature. This especially through changes over time (e.g. in what an ideological label implies or what goals a party has), appropriation of names/reputations/whatnot by others (e.g. any number of brands and marketing gimmicks), and confusing the characteristics of one group member with those of another (e.g. by assuming that two party members agree on a certain question, or that “corresponding” parties from different countries have the same ideology and policy in detail).

    *It is conceivable that the yogurt and müsli at hand were still better than many of the alternatives—and certainly better than chocolate milk and whatever passes for breakfast cereal among sugar-addicted children. However, more traditional versions would have been better, and the problem is not limited to these. Indeed, many even sabotage reasonably healthy foods by own manipulation, e.g. by drenching a salad in mayonnaise. A notable complication is that müsli is very high in energy to begin with, making additional sugar the worse an idea.

  2. The culture section of Dagens Nyheter* (DN) usually contained about as many articles on topics like society, politics, economics, …, as it did on culture. Those that I bothered to read invariably were written from a very limited understanding of the issue at hand and very often with a one-sided perspective or an unnuanced black-and-white world view. As a result the texts were uninformative, poorly reasoned, and often** off in their conclusions. To boot, they often had an ideological tilt.

    *A major Swedish daily news-paper, to which my father subscribes. Also see excursion below.

    **It is possible to be right for a poor reason…

    Broadly speaking: Some culture expert, “cultural intellectual”*, or similar** develops a strong opinion based on an understanding and intelligence that is not or not much better than the average, and is allowed to write about it for an audience of hundreds of thousands of paying readers. Those among the readers who are not themselves well informed and/or good critical thinkers stand a fair risk of being worse off for reading these articles.

    *For want of a better phrase and too differ from those who have a broader intellectual background.

    **I have not investigated the authors in detail and, in all fairness, it is possible that some of them have another background (e.g. as regular news-journalists, who simple happen to express their opinions in the culture section). However, because similar topics are covered in the main section too, and often in an editorial or opinionating manner, I suspect that the culture section is the playground of a subset of the staff. (This in contrast to e.g. to a system where some types of content appear in the culture section as a matter of course, with the word “culture” remaining merely for historical reasons.) Either way, the problems with the contents remain unchanged and worse than in the rest of the paper.

    (I cannot give specific examples, because these readings took place during my first visit. During my second, where my specific recollections are fresher, I either merely leafed through this section or did not bother to open it at all… Indeed, even during my first visit, the low quality usually lead me to stop reading before the half-way mark of the article at hand.)

  3. I encountered a great number of articles (by no means restricted to DN or, within DN, the culture section) based on or propagating weird misconceptions and misrepresentations of “gender issues”, including claims that rape would not be taken sufficiently seriously in Sweden or how too few reports lead to convictions,* that women earn much less than men,** that there are too few women in tech/politics/whatnot,*** and so on. As long as people do not have the depth of knowledge and the ability to think critically to see through such misinformation, the impact on politics, public policy, business, education, …, will be considerable.**** Sweden provides a nightmare example of this, but the problem is present in large portions of the rest of the world too.

    *A ridiculous claim considering how strong feminism is in Sweden, how laws on consents have been altered in an insane manner, how rape is presented in media, etc. With an eye on conviction rates, I point to portions of an earlier discussion of rape statistics.

    **See e.g. [1]. This topic should be stone-dead by now. It has been debunked again and again and again by so many people over such a long time span, but I see it dozens of times per year, including several mentions last week alone.

    ***Questions like suitability, interest, willingness to sacrifice for a career, whatnot, are almost invariably ignored—worse, it is often considered sexist to even bring them up as possibilities. (Note that this unscientific and misological attitude would be a very bad thing even if there were no differences between the sexes. Of course, science tells of considerable differences when looking at groups, and evolution more-or-less necessitates them.) Instead, there is a blanket assumption that any difference is explained either by (a) some version of “discrimination” or “oppression” (I am often left with the impression that there must be some secret club of cigar-smoking men deliberately plotting to keep women down…), (b) “structures”, societal indoctrination, whatnot (i.e. it simply is not possible that their might be some biological difference in e.g. male and female career preferences—differences in behaviors and preferences must have an external cause).

    ****A particularly blatant example of such an impact, if only for one day: DN reported that (probably) Berlin’s public transport would give women a 21 % rebate to “compensate” for the difference in income—without understanding that there is no unfairness involved in the original difference, which makes the rebate unfair. To boot, this might be one of the many cases where it would be more relevant to look at house-hold income, which is often to a significant part shared, sometimes even mostly under the control of the woman—an aspect which I have never heard mentioned in main-stream media and politics.

    That was on regular days. During my second visit, the International Women’s Day reared its ugly head again. Nine years ago (cf. [6]), I already wrote a very negative piece on this. This year it appeared to be worse.

  4. Luring out school-children to demonstrate for the environment (or any other major issue) despite the clear majority knowing and understanding little more than what they have been told. Most adults do not have a sufficiently solid understanding of these issues that a measure like a demonstration* would make sense—for a young student this applies even more strongly. Worse: In many cases, this is likely to be more of an excuse to get out of school… To take such actions without having a reasonable** understanding is irresponsible and should be condemned—not lauded.

    *There are very few cases where a demonstration is legitimate and effective at all, but here, for the sake of argument, I work on the premise that demonstrations are a reasonable idea in principle.

    **Such an understanding is not reached by reading news-papers and listening to teachers, but requires going to deeper sources one-self, to look at both sides of an issue, and to actually think. This is not to say, however, that the understanding must be perfect and the opinion unchanging—such criteria would bring everything to a stand-still. Certainly, a weaker dedication/action/statement/whatnot requires less prior effort than a stronger one.

    While not a topic I encountered during my visits, I am also reminded of the malpractice of parents dragging even small children to demonstrations to protest issues that the parents do not understand sufficiently, e.g. nuclear power.

  5. There appears to be an extreme aversion towards flying, including some member of the “Green Party” demanding a ban on intra-country flights. In earlier times, I have repeatedly seen news-paper articles complain that too few would “klimatkompensera” (“climate compensate”) when flying, which amounts to making a “voluntary” monetary donation to, in some sense, offset the environmental impact of the flight*—on top of already existing taxes and whatnot.

    *Which, obviously, does not work very well: In the short-term, the environmental impact is entirely unchanged; in the long-term, it is dubious that charities handle money effectively and efficiently. Indeed, I cannot quell the suspicion that there is some aspect of scam to this, aimed less at saving the environment and more at getting money to keep charities running and their leaders well payed. (But I have not looked into this.) Note how a similar scheme for cars would make more sense, but would also be harder to guilt people into for practical reasons—they use their cars everyday, but fly far less often.

    This shows a great lack of thinking:

    Firstly, the main problem related to flying is not the means of travel (i.e. airplane) but the distance traveled. Questions like “Is it a good idea to travel long distances during vacations?” should take precedence over “Is it a good idea to fly during vacations?”.

    Secondly, problems through air travel are dwarfed by problems through cars. If current air travel was kept constant and car travel was removed (in favor of e.g. train travel, walking, or non-travel; or reduced through car-pooling; or made more environmental through non-fossil fuels), the effect would be much larger. Indeed, many in e.g. Germany spend one to two hours per work-day just with a car commute—to which various other trips must be added. (And then there is trucking of goods and whatnot.)

    Thirdly, it is a myth that air travel is unusually “dirty”. It does compare poorly with e.g. train travel, but looking at the cost (in some sense) per kilometer compared to regular car travel, it is often superior.* Note e.g. that planes are reasonably energy efficient once cruising (but not when taking-off), that the environmental impact of construction is larger for cars on a per-seat basis, and that airplanes are much lesser contributors to localized concentrations of emissions in cities (which are quite hazardous both for the local environment and the people in the area).

    *Beware that comparisons are often made unfairly, e.g. through assuming a car with four passengers, when many (most?) real car journeys are made by a solitary driver.

    More generally, climate debate in Sweden invariably forgets that what the Swedes do matters far less than what e.g. the Chinese do. I am not saying that Swedes should ignore the environmental impact of their own behavior based on this; however, for a comparatively small group of people to endlessly optimize* its own environmental impact is not the most productive of strategies from a global perspective, with an eye on other groups and on the issue of diminishing returns. This repeats the airplane-vs-car error of not putting in the effort where it has the largest impact.

    *As another example: During my first visit, DN had an article on eating “klimatsmart” (“climate smart”) almost every day. Apparently, the most import thing Swedes can do for the environment is to cut down on meat and whatnots… Here a detail is optimized even when there are targets much more worthy of optimization, e.g. the Swedish use of cars or the Chinese eating habits. In addition, the very phrase is idiotic, using “smart” (undoubtedly for rhetorical purposes) where e.g. “friendly” would have been appropriate, and speaking of “climate” where the more general term (and priority!) “environment” would be better.

    Looking specifically at the suggested ban on intra-country flights: It is true that air travel is often sub-optimal for shorter distances, which will include most intra-country travel in at least European* countries. Still, going from Malmö to Kiruna by car might not be ideal… For shorter distances, we have to ask why people chose to fly: Either they have some reasonable advantage over other means of travel or they should be informed about the benefits of these other means. (Of course, if they do have reasonable advantages, an additional approach could be to improve other means of travel, e.g. by a faster train that removes a time advantage.) A ban simply makes little sense. Indeed, a part of the reasoning for banning flights was that there would be no point in travel by plane between Göteborg and Stockholm, because there would be no time saved.** But: If there is no point, why do people fly?!? Either there is a point or they need to be informed better.

    *Which tend to be small area-wise compared to the rest of the world.

    **In a twist, while my father was reading the article and I had only seen the headline, I argued that there was unlikely to be much of a time gain between exactly Göteborg and Stockholm, implying that there was unlikely to be a major reason to fly, implying that a ban on that route would be pointless. Then I read the article myself, and noted the perverted turned-on-its-head reasoning by the “Greens”… (Note that the time for air travel also includes travel to-and-from airports, time for check-in and security checks, and similar. When I had a weekend commute between Düsseldorf and Munich, I soon switched to trains for this exact reason—the time needed was about the same, but travel by train was less of a hassle and more comfortable.)

  6. A U.S. admissions scandal found its way into even Swedish news-papers: Some few rich and famous had bribed colleges into admitting their children.

    What went without mention is how fundamentally flawed and arbitrary the U.S. admissions tend to be: Without these flaws, this scandal would not have happened (or, at least, not as easily)—and there are far worse consequences. An article dealing with these problems would have been a much worthier undertaking, but the journalists were likely clueless. (And such and article might have had less entertainment appeal to the broad masses…)

    For instance, consider that Asian* applicants regularly need hundreds of points more on the SATs than Black applicants (and/or a corresponding difference in GPA). For instance, consider that many “jocks” that are not college material not only get into college, but actually get scholarships—taking places from some “nerds” that are college material.** For instance, consider that having the right connections, notably alumni parents, can be a greater benefit than scholastic aptitude.

    *Whites are often suffering a similar disadvantage, but (a) it tends to be smaller, (b) the focus on Asians is justified through demonstrating that e.g. belonging to a minority is secondary to something else.

    **A sometime suggested justification is that college sports help with paying for colleges. So far, I am not convinced by this line of reasoning, considering factors like the immense profits of many U.S. colleges, the costs incurred by sports programs that reduce the profit from the same sports programs, and the possibility that even sports competitions involving non-bought talents would also earn money. (Nevertheless, this is an area that could need investigation.) In addition, even if we assume that the gains would be sufficient to ensure that the “jocks” do not steal places from others, we have to consider issues like the devaluation of academic standards and the value of a diploma.

    (To detail a solution would be beyond the scope of this text, but I would tend towards looking only at proved (e.g. through GPA) and projected (e.g. through SATs) academic ability, and using other criteria only as a tie-breaker. An essay is out entirely, as too arbitrary; an interview should be an exception, seeing that it brings little value, that many college applicants simply are too young to interview well, and that interview success is unusually coachable.)

  7. A more everyday example is given by a brief conversation about crêpes vs. pancakes, where someone mentioned that “crêpes Suzette” might or might not have been invented or named by the Swedish Prince Bertil. I took the trouble to check—and its “not”: According to Swedish Wikipedia, which mentions the claim, the dish existed by that name no later than 1903, which predates the Prince’s birth.

    Now, I do not check every claim that comes my way, nor do I investigate everything mentioned as a possibility, but I do have an investigative attitude and I do check many things and read up more in depth on others—or, as when visiting my father, I ask questions when I believe that someone has more knowledge in a certain area.* Above all, I realize that my opinions cannot be set in stone—when I encounter no information, when old information is revised, when new arguments are presented, …, then I must be willing to re-evaluate my opinions. Most other people, including typical journalists and politicians, do not do this to the necessary degree (if at all). From day to day, the impact might be small—but accumulated over a life-time it is enormous.

    *And I do not claim that every text I write is researched and thought-through to the last detail—especially, because I often use the process of writing as a means of learning and as a stepping stone to a better future understanding. Nevertheless, I do better than the typical journalists, and I only rarely write something that I would consider an outright blunder afterwards. (An example would be assuming that Linnaeus did not use Greek.) More often, the research or thinking brought on by the writing has led me to forego a text entirely or to write a different text on the topic than I originally had intended.

Excursion on DN (and other news-papers):
When I grew up, DN was one of the two “big” morning news-papers (Svenska Dagbladet/SvD being the other), considered to be of very high quality and vastly superior to various local and evening news-papers. My father subscribed as far back as the 1980s, and I must have read hundreds of them during my many visits. (During my first year in college, my student dorm subscribed to both DN and SvD, and I read both each day.) Compared to the local news-paper that my mother subscribed to there was a world of difference, be it in depth of coverage, quality, or number of pages.

Now, it is possible that I would be less enthusiastic about the “old” DN, had I encountered it today—a part of my different evaluation is almost certainly rooted in my own development. However, there is objectively much less text today than back then, which tells in terms of depth and breadth of coverage. Worse, the current* incarnation of that local news-paper that I encountered when visiting my step-father was often superior—something unthinkable twenty or thirty years ago. And, no, while the local news-paper might (or might not) have improved, the main explanation is the drop by DN.

*In my youth, this was a separate paper, “Bergslagsposten”, which merely cooperated with and had the same owner as “Nerikes Allehanda”. By now, the former has been integrated into the latter. (While I only very rarely read the latter in my youth, it was of a similar quality level as the former.)

More generally, there are many news-papers that have grown worse over the years, and considering the low competence levels typical among journalists, the populist take, and problems like an ideological slant and the natural limits of the format*, I see little reason to bother: My advice is to get a brief overview of the events of the day from some online source, to dig deeper in other (typically also online) sources when something is of interest, and to focus more on building a solid knowledge of various topics than on news when reading. This has been my own approach for years.

*For instance, that individual articles cannot cover all angles in depth without growing too large and that there are often time constraints involved.

A detailed analysis of the problems with modern news-papers is beyond the current scope, but I note poor writings skills, a lack of critical thinking, poor knowledge, and an attitude aimed more at getting attention and entertaining than at informing. I note especially the idiocy of weaving together several logically distinct articles regarding a larger theme into one, e.g. through having one logical article dealing with facts and arguments, one logical article dealing with human interest and emotions (often even a sob story), and then throwing them together into a chaotic mixture—which is poor writing caused by a wish to entertain. An interesting example of attention getting is DN’s common idiocy of using a number (!) as the headline of a shorter news item. For instance, five lines dealing with recent statistics on X might be head-lined (!) by “35” (or whatever the number associated with X was). Another is the inclusion of images of the journalists themselves…

Written by michaeleriksson

March 20, 2019 at 5:08 am

“The Crimes of Grindelwald” and recognizing evil

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“The Crimes of Grindelwald” is a very disappointing* movie, but it does point to a few issues that I have addressed repeatedly in the past.

*My main criticisms: The otherwise weakish predecessor was carried by streaks of comedy and the dynamics between/charm of the four main protagonists, especially regarding wizard–muggle interaction. These aspects were largely lost. (The comedy aspect is even replaced by dread and dire and a too depressing visual tone.) The plot is unengaging, seems poorly though-through, and is confusing to boot. New characters and relationships are mostly too bland, boring, and/or unsympathetic to warrant interest and emotional investment, which is a particular negative for several “tragic characters”.

This includes the fact that there will be persons, usually very many, on both sides of a conflict who are convinced that they are “the good guys” and that their opponents are “the bad guys”—implying that even the strongest conviction of being right (that the opposing party is evil, whatnot) does not, in it self, justify extreme means. Indeed, looking at e.g. party programs from more-or-less any party, I can find a lot that makes sense in principle or, at least, is sufficiently plausible that I can understand that weak thinkers are swayed—thought, a knowledge/understanding of the issues, and/or insight into other positions is often needed to see why the program is flawed or would make a poor policy.* Calls for evil actions for “the greater good” tend to be particularly dangerous—it is no coincidence that this phrase is often used by madmen, terrorists, dictators, dystopian societies, whatnot in fiction. (But note that those who call for the greater good in real life rarely do so using the explicit phrase.)

*Consider e.g. a simplistic “women earn 77 cents on the dollar; ergo, the government must intervene to create justice”, which collapses on closer inspection. (See several older texts, including [1].)

It also includes that opinions (goals, ideals, …; I will use just “opinion[s]” below) must not be a primary factor when judging who is more or less evil in most* conflicts.** Instead, we have to consider the following (overlapping) issues:

*Exceptions are sufficiently rare that I cannot give a strong example of the top of my head. They are likely to exist, however. (Possibly, relating to a legally clear situation.)

**With the corollary that condemning an opinion as evil, because of evil methods used to enforce that opinion, is equally as bad as (cf. above) using an opinion perceived as good to justify evil methods.

  1. What methods are used? Do the methods include e.g. unprovoked violence, censorship of dissent, character assassination, …?

    Overlapping with the above, I would even replace the common, misguided, claim that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” with “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to use evil means”. (Where, at least, my “good” refers to self-perception, as demonstrated by many Soviet/Chinese/whatnot Communists and the Nazis.) Very many evils in this world go back to the use of evil means for purposes seen as good; and by refraining from evil means, such evils are considerably reduced or avoided altogether. Vice versa, a believer in the naive original might well take it as a reason to cause, not oppose, evil in the name of good.

  2. How do the counter-parts interact with opposing opinions? Are the opinions evaluated neutrally and with an open mind or are they rejected as wrong, or even evil, in a blanket manner? Are the counter-parts willing to adjust their own opinions, should the evidence call for it? Are arguments engaged with counter-arguments or with insults? Etc.

    I note that this is not just a matter of fairness. Two other important implications is that (a) those who are more open-minded tend to be right more often, (b) a destructive attitude threatens the right of others to develop their own opinions and can limit both societal and scientific progress.*

    *Note e.g. the destructive effects of how parts of the PC movement denounce scientifically supported claims around I.Q., the influence of “nature”, whatnot—to the point that some scientists avoid certain research topics for fear of repercussions. The problems are so large that a pseudonymous journal is in planning to alleviate it (the linked-to article also contains several good illustrations of the problem).

  3. What basis do the opinions originally have? Are they based in reason or wishful thinking, factual arguments or uncritical belief in what one is told, correct or incorrect interpretation of statistics, …?

    Again, those with a good reason tend to be right more often. I note that e.g. pushing policies based on faulty ideas or premises can do an enormous amount of harm to society, as with e.g. how an unduly positive belief in the benefits of school* and a wish for more school (to solve any number of problems) wastes enormous amounts of resources, takes large chunks out of the lives of the students, and often leads to only marginal improvements—or even has negative effects (e.g. through taking time away from self-studies among the bright or frustrating and over-taxing the dim).

    *As opposed to education—a very important differentiation. However, even more education is not always sensible, being dependent on the individuals interests, abilities, and goals in life.

  4. With what degree of honesty do the counter-parts push their opinions and agendas? Do they believe what they say and say what they believe, or do they e.g. have a hidden agenda or do they use arguments that they do not hold-up to scrutiny?

    As a specific example: Was Grindelwald a true believer—or did he rather create and manipulate true believers for his own personal gain? (I strongly suspect the latter to hold.)

(Additional issues might be worthy of consideration, e.g. whether an agenda is driven by partisan benefit* vs. ethical principles or the good of society as a whole.)

*Not to be confused with the above case of e.g. having a hidden agenda of personal power: Here the issue is e.g. wanting to benefit a certain partisan group (say with a laborers’ party, a farmers’ party, a make-our-region-independent party, whatnot).

A particular interesting overlap between the movie and some texts is that the use of evil or disproportionate methods can drive people into the enemy camp, cause radicalization, or similar. This through at least two mechanisms, (a) that “mild” opponents might be left with no where to go but the camp of the “rabid” opponents, (b) that the use of evil methods causes a negative reaction. This, incidentally, appears to have some parallels in other areas, e.g. in that anti-drug legislation often does more to cause crime and worsen the life of the drug-users than to improve matters, or ditto for anti-prostitution* laws. Particularly the (b) case appears to have been working to Grindelwald’s advantage, when the government(s) used evil methods of its own.

*As claimed in an article I encountered a few days ago (note several links to further discussion).

Excursion on necessary evil means:
There might be situations where the use of evil means can be necessary even in a good cause. (A widely accepted example is using reasonable amounts of violence in self-defense against an unprovoked attacker.) However, here great care must be taken to not overstep a reasonable minimum, to minimize the effect on third-parties, etc. A more thorough discussion would be well outside the scope of this text, might be impossible without stipulating a number of ethical principles, and might have to include considerable analysis of individual examples. Consider e.g. questions like when and to what degree it might be allowable to interfere with civic rights for fear of terrorism or to accept civilian casualties during warfare.

Excursion on Grindelwald:
Is Grindelwald evil? In my opinion, “yes”—because I have the impression that he does let the end justify the means, is callous of the rights of others, has hidden agendas, … (Then again, my impression might be incorrect, seeing that the movie was not always explicit, that I might misremember previous information, and that earlier books, which mention him as evil, might have predisposed me towards this interpretation.)

Note that my reasons do not (at least consciously) include that he “looked evil”, that the main protagonists opposed him, that he was condemned as evil by officials, … Consider Professor Snape (from earlier books/movies) for someone who gave many superficial signs of being evil, but who was actually* a great hero and an important ally—and contrast him with several good-seeming-but-evil other teachers.

*Notwithstanding that an accusation of “being a mean bastard”, “having an unfair personal dislike of Harry”, or similar might have been true.

Here, as elsewhere, it is important not just to draw the right conclusion (X is evil; Y is good; …), but to do so for the right reasons. Evil in the real world often has a friendly face; good often does not—much unlike in children’s cartoons.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 21, 2019 at 10:41 am