Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘Society

Poor decision making

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Poor decision making, especially decision making based on faulty information or flawed criteria, permeates modern* society.

*Often non-modern society too—the central problem is likely the flaws of humanity. However, in the past some decisions (e.g. concerning marriage) might have been more rational, and often there was a lack of choice that prohibited faulty decisions: The son of the blacksmith might have been happier as a shoemaker, but his becoming another blacksmith was often a foregone conclusion. (A lack of choice, obviously, can have more disadvantages than advantages…)

To look at a few examples:

  1. Employment: As I have seen again and again, for an employee to judge whether he will be happy with a certain employer and vice versa for the employer, is virtually impossible using the criteria that normally lead up to the employment (interview, CV/cover letter resp. company presentation, general reputation, …) True, it is often possible to filter out poor candidates at an early stage, but even this comes at a high risk of false negatives—people/companies who are filtered out despite that they would have proved a good match, had the attempt been made. More importantly, it is quite hard to tell the difference between an adequate, a good, and a very good candidate (people who claim to be able to are usually wrong).

    For instance, what if a prospective employee is dazzled by big promises* and a high salary, only to find that his colleagues are hard to work with, that he is stuck in a noisy “open plan” office**, or that the tools provided for his tasks are infuriatingly inefficient? When I consider a new project, I make a point of at least looking at the offices, checking out the main software used, and (if possible) exchange a few words with a regular employee in the absence of the interview team, to have at least some indication of the general mood. However, even so, the first few weeks of actual work can change the original impression massively—and the correlation between the original impression and the final is often weak.

    *Even assuming that these are truthful, which is by no means a given.

    **These being an another example of poor decision making through poor priorities: I cannot rule out that there are fields or positions where they bring value, especially where salaries are low and little thinking required, but when we look at e.g. software development, they are disastrous. Here we have decision makers seeing a small savings in office costs and failing to consider the negative impact on the work environment and the productivity of the staff. (Exactly how many people in one office is practical will depend on a number of issues, including the distance between individuals, the loudness of the work, the degree of consideration shown for each other, …; however, going beyond four is rarely a good idea, and when there is little need for interaction or the offices are small, lower numbers are better.)

    In reverse, having a great CV and being good at self-presentation is no guarantee for a good work performance. Indeed, self-presentation might even correlate negatively with performance. Even an apparently solid education brings comparatively little information with today’s grade and degree inflation, especially in the softer fields.* References and the like are sometimes based more in personal liking and contacts than in truth; and, in Germany, it is almost always forbidden to say something negative about the former employee, which has lead to a complicated set of euphemistic codes that even HR staff often misunderstands… Worse, some employers actually allow the employee to write his own reference, to his own preferences, and then sign it as is—this way the risk of being sued for a poor reference is removed… More can be gained through probing the attitude** and problem-solving skills/intelligence/whatnot of the applicant, but this is rarely done; I.Q. tests, a very valuable source of information, are basically never used, be it through PC prejudices or (as in the U.S.) unfortunate legislation or legal precedent.

    *Note that the main benefit of a higher degree was not to demonstrate acquired knowledge but to filter for innate ability, especially intelligence. This filter effect has been diminished severely over time. (Fields, like medicine, where a high degree of raw knowledge must be present, form an exception to this.)

    **Doing this can be hard when we speak of generally attitudes, like industriousness. (Anyone can claim to be this-or-that.) However, answers concerning more specific attitudes tend to reflect the truth, and can provide valuable information. For instance, in software development, in can really pay to give a few non-leading questions to probe what the applicant thinks of code quality (good), pre-mature optimization (bad), or copy-and-paste vs. abstraction and re-use (former very bad; latter usually good), …

    An almost paradoxical standard question during interviews is “Why do you want to work here?”, which leaves the non-naive applicant in an uncomfortable spot, forcing him to either lie or tell a truth that might damage his chances. Those who can truthfully give a sufficiently complimentary answer to this question are either highly naive or in an unusual situation (say, having previously had an internship at the same company). A true answer by a non-naive applicant might be “I have to work somewhere and based on my preliminary research, you have given a sufficiently good impression that I am willing to give you a shot.”, which could very easily result in a “Thank you for your time. Don’t call us; we’ll call you.” as an immediate reaction. Worse, a truthful answer might amount to “either here or unemployment”…

    As an aside, an exception to this can include cases where someone has a “calling” into a certain field (e.g. religion or medicine) and the options in that field are limited. My mother, e.g., wanted to work as a priest; in Sweden, this came close to necessitating employment with the state church. Even here, however, it is not normally the employer that has drawing power—it is the field. To boot, the assumptions about the field are often naive to begin with.

    See also e.g. an older text on application paradoxes.

  2. U.S. college applications are similar to employment. If we look at it from the college’s point of view, we have criteria like grades, suffering from severe inflation (and where top colleges can have more 4.0s than they can accept); recommendation letters that amount to who knows whom or who was liked by whom; extra curriculars that often demonstrate nothing more than a willingness to work* or even an over-reliance on school for activities and an inability get by without “organized fun”; “AP” classes that mostly compensate for the weakness of the “regular” high-school classes (and also underlie inflation); and the feared essay, the evaluation of which is extremely arbitrary and subjective, especially when the “right” opinions can come into play, which unduly favors those with an ability to write well, and which gives posers an advantage over non-posers. Then there is the whole personal connection, “my parents are alumni”, etc., which says very, very little about the suitability of the prospective student.

    *Especially on TV, where the main reason to have extra curriculars is exactly to get into college… (As opposed to a genuine interest in a certain area.)

    Today, the best shot at a good selection appears to be the SATs (and similar tests) that try to assess scholastic aptitude, but even here the value of the test has, possibly by design, grown weaker over time—and there appears to be a trend for colleges to not require it anymore… Cf. also a discussion of test vs. grades.

    How to do it better? Reverse grade inflation, strengthen the SATs (especially through an increased “g loading”), and look at some combination of grades and SATs; forget about recommendation letters and all other bull-shit. The Swedish system, while far from perfect, does a reasonable job of the combination. (But not at suppressing grade inflation and keeping the counter-part to the SATs, Högskoleprovet, at a high quality.) A particular benefit is that the admittance system is almost entirely centralized and involves far less effort on behalf of both students and colleges. My own application consisted of filling out a single form, indicating what schools and programs I prioritized how. Compare this to having to write essays, gather recommendation letters, whatnot, and send them to several or many individual colleges …

  3. Politics is an area wrought with problems, including that many or most politicians deliberately try to mislead the voters in order to be elected, some resorting to populism, some to scares, some to empty promises, some to outright lies, … This leaves the voters who have the brains and the attitude to make a good decision in the situation that they cannot, for lack of information. At the same time, the voters who lack in these regards are fooled into making the decisions that the politicians want to see (i.e. their own election).

    Worse, the elected politicians themselves are then confronted with decisions for which they often lack the intelligence or education; where lobbyists, non-neutrals, civil servants, whatnot provide flawed information; and where the decisions are often governed by the wish to be re-elected, rather than by doing what is right for the country or keeping the trust placed by the voters of the previous election. A notable complication is that promotion to a certain office in a government/administration/cabinet is often not based on expertise in the right area, but on importance within the party, previous experience as an office holder, “years of service”, … Looking e.g. at Sweden, the match between ministerial portfolio and experience/education rarely exceeds that of a random choice.

    See e.g. [1] for a longer treatment of problems with democracy.

  4. Business–consumer relationships are quite similar to the first half of the previous item: The consumers are to be tricked into becoming customers by any means necessary, including emotional manipulation, misleading product claims, the hiding of vital information in the fine-print, … Again, those with a brain have too little (or flawed) information; again, those without one fall prey.
  5. Marriage and other long-term relationships is possibly one of the most interesting areas, where there could be much to gain through rethinking the current Western approach. (But I note and fully acknowledge that this item is speculative.)

    For starters, most relationships are based on superficialities like physical attraction, shared interests, or even just opportunity. In the short-term*, this is not a problem, but when something more long-term is called for, is the filtering improved sufficiently? More likely than not, aspects like a romantic love (cf. below), habit, convenience, the sunk-cost fallacy, or a fear to be alone carries a relationship into a much deeper territory than it deserves.

    *By which I here imply something that has developed into an actual relationship, as opposed to e.g. just “dating”, but which can still be shallow and definitely is comparatively short in length. (Possibly between a few months and a year.) A differentiation between dating and short-term relationship is important in as far as the former usually contains a considerable amount of probing and deliberation, while the latter does not. In a rough analogy, the one is the application and interview phase preceding an employment, the other is the early days of the employment it self.

    Then there is the question of love, which proverbial blinds us: Romantic love can develop between people who are not really suited for each other, for reasons that include e.g. an early naive internal image of the partner, wist- or wishful thinking, and those pesky oxytocins—often between people who just happen to be in an originally casual relationship. In a next step, love “hides” incompatibilities, makes annoyances easier to tolerate, and, in general, makes the relationship “smoother”. And then the love fades and two people are stuck together who do not belong together… If this is just a long-term relationship, no marriage, no children, there is still the opportunity to move apart with comparatively little pain and trouble, but if there are children or if a marriage has taken place, this is an extremely bad situation.

    As with employment above, long-term relationships are better filtered than could be done with a coin-toss—but not by that much: Many obviously poor matches can be filtered out early, but when it comes to differing between a good and a barely adequate match, or between an excellent seeming and an actually excellent one, enough information is often not present until it is to late.

    Here I have the strong suspicion that the arranged marriages of old (or as practiced by some non-Western cultures) are actually the better way, after allowing for some modifications. For instance, consider a scenario where the respective parents* make a “short-list” of half-a-dozen to a dozen promising candidates with mutual parental approval for the respective (adult!) child, and the children then work** through their respective lists until a mutually acceptable match (based on non-romantic and openly communicated criteria) has been found. Chances are that such a semi-arranged “Vernunftehe”*** would work better than a modern love story. I note that this is not only based on a more rational decision making, but also because the parties will enter the union with a more realistic view of each other and more realistic expectations.**** I also stress that there is a large difference between a marriage not based on romance/romantic love and a loveless marriage: A romantic marriage will often develop into a loveless one over time; a Vernunftehe can equally develop into a loving relationship—and the same type of loving relationship that a successful romantic marriage would eventually see: Love based on long companionship, deep knowledge of each other, mutual care-taking, having gone through hardships next to each other, …

    *In all fairness, had my parents tried this with me, I would likely have reacted very negatively. Then again, it was a long time before my more romantic take on these things started to fade. Today, I have great problems seeing myself married (if at all) outside a “Vernunftehe”.

    **Taking time to get sufficiently acquainted and to clearly communicate and discuss all relevant issues. How long this should take will vary, but going below several days of interaction spread over several weeks seems risky to me. On the other hand, increasing the amount of time too much might cause the decision making to be clouded through emotionality.

    ***Literally, “marriage of reason[ing]”. I prefer the German term over “marriage of convenience”, partially because the literal meaning of the German term catches my intentions better, partially because I am not certain of the exact equivalence: Wikipedia currently has a German link to “Scheinehe” (a sham marriage, e.g. for “green card” reasons) and an internal description that is potentially closer to that term (e.g. in that not only “love” is excluded as a motivation, but also “relationship, family”). Vernunftehe implies a genuine, honest marriage based on reason rather than romance; Scheinehe implies a mere marriage-in-name, with the “spouses” normally never even having lived together. To boot, cf. above, it is not a given that a marriage based in reason will not cause love to develop. (Wikipedia surprises me here, because the literal meaning of “marriage of convenience” has implications more compatible with Vernunftehe than Scheinehe, and my previous understanding of the term was also equivalent to Vernunftehe. A translation with “arranged marriage” would underemphasize the involvement of the spouses and overemphasize that of others.)

    ****Indeed, my impression is that many of the modern divorces go back to one party (usually the woman) having had unrealistic expectations, and then failing to stand by the promise of “or for worse”. (Often in combination with a failure to appropriately communicate these expectations.)

    Barring this, at a minimum, the prospective spouses should have a good long look at each others parents (especially the mother of the bride and the father of the groom) and how the parents relationships have fared. We are not our parents, but there is still usually quite a bit to be learned (with a reasonable degree of likelihood) from them regarding ourselves (resp. about others from their parents)—including much that might not yet be obvious when looking just at the younger generation. (For reasons that include the effects of physical aging and mental maturation, stations in life not yet encountered, and experiences not yet had—especially when it comes to marriage, parenthood, and the like.)

Excursion on knock-out criteria during affluence:
A common luxury problem is that there are “too many” alternatives. This too can lead to poor decision making. For instance, I once heard the anecdote that someone hiring had two sacks of applications and just threw one of them away, giving the reason that a good employee needed to be lucky… More generally, the more candidates there are, the less time there is for each applicant, the greater amount of early filtering is needed, and the more superficial criteria tend to be used. For instance, in a strong economy, I have myself used criteria like “website requires JavaScript” or “they demand my CV as a MS-Word document” to rule out some potential employers without any further research. Both of these criteria do tell me something about the company, but they are still superficial on a level comparable to being unimpressed with a company presentation, and in no way comparable to having worked there for a few weeks—especially since both point to problems that do not necessarily affect the department I would be working in. (However, it could also be argued that boycotting companies who are so bad at web design or so applicant unfriendly is the ethical thing to do.)

Similarly, we are now so inundated with new movies, TV series, books, …, that a very strong filtering is needed for anyone who wants to do anything else with his life than watch TV (etc.); in contrast, in the 1950s, people watched what was available. For the broad masses, such filter criteria could easily become reduced to “have I heard of it from advertising”, “was the trailer good”, or something otherwise mostly being a matter of manipulation by e.g. a TV studio. Even those more refined must use somewhat superficial criteria, e.g. deciding not to give a TV series a fair chance based on negative impressions of others on a rating web site or an own impression from just the pilot—both of which can give a very incorrect impression (for instance, the pilot of a TV series is often one of the worst episodes).

Excursion on “Black Mirror” and partners:
A particular interesting episode of the TV series “Black Mirror” provided some inspiration for the above. It centers around a simulation of relationship interactions between different partners, running at a far, far higher speed than the real world, in order to determine who would be suitable for whom and to make a corresponding recommendation. Something like that (in the unlikely event that it ever becomes technologically feasible) could go a long way towards preventing marriage problems (with obvious extensions to other areas, including employment and elections). Unfortunately, the episode still fell into the trap of romantic love: Instead of simulating what would have happened in the case of marriage, it simulated what amounted to “who feels the strongest attraction for whom” or “which pairing shows the greatest compatibility based on dating”, which implies a romantic notion of a quasi-magical connection between two people.

However, even absent simulations, parts of the approach could still be adapted in real life: Take two complete strangers; put them in a restaurant on a date; if that went well, put them alone in a cottage for a few days; if that went well, make them a couple-on-probation for a few weeks; … (Note that the schedule is considerably accelerated compared to regular dating, implying that certain revelations and experiences also happen a lot faster, in turn making the mutual evaluation a lot faster, in turn making a happy end or a move to the next partner a lot faster.)

Indeed, this (in a fortunate coincidence) ties the two excursions together: I once read an interview with the German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who described his methodology for not drowning in unread books while still keeping his filtering somewhat non-shallow: He read the first twenty pages of a book; if these were sufficiently pleasing, he skipped ahead some distance, possibly a hundred pages, and read another twenty pages; if these were also sufficiently pleasing, he read the entire book. (Presumably, his approach also contained other steps of pre-filtering to determine what books even got the benefit of the first twenty pages—I doubt that “Twilight” made his reading list…)

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Written by michaeleriksson

June 18, 2018 at 10:25 pm

A few thoughts on the crisis in Venezuela (and the importance of incentives)

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With Venezuela hitting the spot-light again, I decided to read up a little, specifically with the Wikipedia pages on the economy of Venezuela and on the Venezuelan economic collapse of 2016, and at least skimming several other articles, e.g on the Economic policy of the Hugo Chávez administration and Economic policy of the Nicolás Maduro administration.

These are two simultaneously very disturbing and very enlightening reads, especially when combined with e.g. the experiences gathered in the Soviet Union or, more recently, in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Extreme government control, lack of respect for private ownership and the rights of the individual, the lack of incentives to create growth, …, appears to lead to economic disaster everywhere it is tried. (As, of course, predicted by many more free-market minded economists for a very long time.) If we want economic growth, it is central to give people a reason to try to build something for themselves or their families, to make their own lives better, to give those who want to work or start business easy opportunity to do so, etc.; at the same time, it is valuable to have a connection between benefit and cost, to avoid waste and poor resource use. The ideas of Ayn Rand are often naively optimistic or simplistic, but the core principles are the right one—and while human nature causes capitalism and free markets to fail to some degree, its effect on strongly socialist, communist, “central planning” societies is far greater. A sad twist is that poverty often breeds an (understandable) wish for e.g. greater redistribution between “haves” and “have nots”, greater government control, etc.—but that these very measures salt the earth and reduce economic growth. (At least when taken beyond some point. See also an excursion below.)

The starting observation is that Venezuela is one of the poorest countries on earth, and currently likely has the worst developing economy—when it should be a very rich country. Indeed, in the mid twentieth century, it was… Why? Because Venezuela is one of the world’s most oil-rich countries, and oil, now as then, is an immense source of richness. (As can readily be seen by some oil-rich Arab countries; or by how Norway went from trailing Sweden to outclassing it in wealth, after beginning to exploit its North-Sea oil.) Today, “poverty” is too weak a word for the problem: Venezuela is suffering the equivalent of a severe heart-attack—and cannot afford a physician…

To detail what went wrong from then till now would require far deeper studies, but much of it can simply be grouped under the heading “unsound politics”, largely of an extreme Leftist character. Partially overlapping, partially not, we have problems like corruption, crime, and violence. A cardinal error is the over-reliance on oil, making the country vulnerable to economic crisis when the oil price falls—and to over-spending when it rises. A strong, functioning economy would benefit considerably from oil, but oil would not be its only leg: Other industries and areas of business, be it cars, electronics, software, various services, …, would be additional sources of wealth and dampen the fluctuations caused by oil.

To look at some more specific issues from the Wikipedia articles*:

*With the obvious reservation that I do not personally vouch for their correctness—and that I do not bring a great prior expertise on Venezuela. The contents do match my previous, more shallow, impressions both during the Chávez era and the last few years very well, however. Further, with the reservation that this is a very incomplete listing with few details; those interested really should read the original articles.

  1. Social programs* like the Bolivarian Missions have reduced incentives for the people to work and caused a massive cost burden, the harder to carry when oil prices were unfavorable.** At least one included land expropriations, disrupting existing production and giving land-owners great incentives to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Others have aimed at e.g. creating more cooperatives in lieu of regular businesses—despite the disputable or outright poor results such have had when attempted elsewhere (largely, in my opinion, due to poor incentives).

    *Apparently instituted more to gain political support among the poor than to actually improve their lives. Their effectiveness at the ostensible goals appears to have been limited. My take would have been far more positive, had the success rate been greater.

    **I stress that I do not rule out that there have been positive effects to counter-balance the negative; especially since Venezuela, even then, had people who actually were poor—not the “poor” people of today’s Germany or Sweden. However, this post is specifically about the development of the economy. Apart from those programs focusing on teaching, there is mostly negative or neutral effects to be found or expected.

  2. Property expropriations of various kinds (cf. also above) that give owners, including foreign companies and investors, incentives to leave.
  3. Price controls that reduce the incentives to produce and import (or increase the incentives to export) contributing to shortages and creating black markets. In the case of gas, effectively sold by the government, this also implied a missed income opportunity compared to selling the gas far more profitably abroad and finding other arrangements for the domestic situation. (This especially since the low gas price almost certainly led to wasteful use.)

    Of course, the help for the population is dubious: What good are lower prices when there is nothing to buy? What about the opportunity cost of standing in line, Soviet style, wasting time that could have gone towards earning money (usable to pay for more expensive goods)?

  4. Trying to keep the exchange rate to the U.S. dollar at an unrealistic level, reducing the country’s competitiveness, incurring additional costs, (again) creating black markets, … I also strongly suspect that this, contrary to intentions, has strongly contributed to the degree of inflation: Firstly, this type of dual rates could make the people lose faith in the currency and consider it worthless, rather than worth less. Secondly, it becomes a second choice for currency, seeing how much easier everything goes if one has a few dollars. That a price spiral (in the native Bolivares) then occurs is not the least surprising—and an actually usable currency with a single exchange rate would be preferable, even if this one exchange rate is far less favorable than the government prefers.
  5. Allowing* oil output to fall: This reduced the oil income even at times of high prices and made the fall in prices the more hurtful.

    *The word should be seen with some caution. This was likely a hard-to-prevent side-effect of other policies, and it might not have been in the power of e.g. Chávez to prevent. However, a government take-over certainly did not help…

Of course, these and other factors often interact negatively in vicious circles, e.g. in that poor living conditions and prospects make the best and the brightest leave the country, thereby reducing productivity and the attractiveness of Venezuela as a place of business, thereby worsening living conditions and prospects further. Or consider how poverty leads to more crime, which leads to less incentives to work and to run businesses, which leads to more poverty. There are also very often direct and indirect negative side-effects (in addition to the above), especially through the immense inflation of recent years—as well as, if to a lesser degree, the “merely” very high inflation of the decades preceding them.

What can be done to save the country? Barring a miraculous rise of oil prices followed by a complete turn-around in economic and other policy, I see little hope. The least bad resolution that is realistic might be a complete collapse and a fresh start—to build something new from the ashes, even if it means that the road is that much longer. Superficially reasonable analogies might be found in the German Weimar Republic or possibly the German or Japanese post-WWII economies—all instances of rapid recuperation from a disastrous situation. However, these situations differed in many regards, including that there was a strong tradition of successful industry and a great number of bright and educated people in the country, that the problems were largely caused by external events (own culpability notwithstanding), and that the state of the rest of the world made it far easier to become internationally competitive again. In the latter two cases, considerable external support have to be added.

Excursion on GINI and similar:
I deliberately do not include issues like “income inequality” or a high GINI* value, even though these can be common Leftist complaints. These are not normally problems per se; and might even, within limits, be positive. The real issue is something very different: Lack of social mobility, where our parents’ fortune or lack of fortune do more to determine our fortunes than do our own efforts. When the poor-but-bright-or-industrious can end up being wealthy, they are far more likely to have hope and to realize those hopes; and larger parts of society will strive to build something. On the other hand, when they have little chance of making themselves a good life, why should they bother?** (Be it because there is too little social mobility or because even a middle-class life is not very good, as has usually been the case in e.g. most Leftist dictatorships.) Similarly, I do not put that much stock in complaints about imperialism, foreign ownership, and other ever-recurring examples of Leftist scape-goats: Even if the actual profits were to leave the country, there are still positive effects in terms of local employees earning money, infrastructure improvements, foreigners spending money locally, … All other factors equal, local ownership is better for the locals; however, the factors seldom are equal—and experiences point to it being better to have foreign owners running a well-managed and profitable operation than, like in Venezuela, having locals running a disastrously mismanaged one.

*Another reason to consider GINI complete bullshit is that it is too simplistic a measure, not taking absolute wealth levels into account, potentially giving the same value for very different income distributions, and, above all, not considering why a certain situation has arisen (e.g. politics, demographics, high or low social mobility).

**In a twist, countries like Sweden and Germany can suffer from the reverse problem with the same effect—if someone can have a materially great life without putting in an effort, then why bother with the effort?

Excursion on approaches to raising living standards:
Venezuela well exemplifies an ever-recurring difference between the approaches of the Left and and large parts of the non-Left—the former focuses on changing the division of the pie, even at the risk of making the pie smaller; the latter at making the pie larger, even at the risk of increasing the difference in pie slices. In most cases, even the poor seem to fair better with the second approach…

Written by michaeleriksson

January 11, 2018 at 12:35 am

Eternal September? I wish! (And some thoughts on email)

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One of the most unfortunate trends of the Internet is that erstwhile standard procedures, behaviors, whatnot are forced out by inferior alternatives, as an extension of the Eternal September. Indeed, the point where even the Eternal September can be viewed with some nostalgia has long been reached:

The name arose through a combination of how, every September, the Internet would see a sudden burst of college freshmen, who still needed to learn how to handle themselves and who were an annoyance to older users until they had done so; and how the popularization of the Internet outside of college caused this inflow of unversed users to take place over the entire year. Even so, in the early days, the new users tended to be of over-average intelligence, tech affinity, and/or willingness to adapt—and many could still continuously be made to leave their newbie status behind. The problem with the Eternal September was its Hydra character: Cut of one head and it grew two new.

Today’s situation is far, far worse: There is no filtering* of who uses the Internet, be it with regard to intelligence, technical understanding, willingness to learn from more senior users, …; and, by now, the vast majority of all users are stuck in a constant newbie state. Indeed, we have long reached a point where those who have been on the Internet since before the problems became overwhelming** are viewed as weirdos for doing things the right way***. Worse: Websites are usually made for the “lowest common denominator”, with regard to content, language****, and interface, making them far less interesting than they could be to the old guard. This is paralleled in a number of negative phenomena on the Internet (and, unfortunately, IT in general): Consider e.g. how much less profitable it would be to spam a collective of STEM students than a random selection of the overall population, or how much less successful an Internet-based virus among the tech savvy.

*A formal filter, a legal restriction, an equivalent of a driver’s license, or similar, was not in place before the Eternal September either. However, Internet access outside of higher education was reasonably rare, and even within higher education it was far more common in STEM areas than in e.g. the social sciences. Correspondingly, there was an implicit filter that made it far more likely for e.g. a math major to have Internet access than for e.g. a high-school drop-out.

**The linked-to Wikipedia page puts 1993 as the start date in the U.S., but other countries like trailed somewhat. I started college in 1994 and the situation was reasonable for a few years more, before the Internet boom really started—after which is has been downhill all the way.

***Note that while there is some arbitrariness to all rules and there is usually more than one legitimate way to handle things, there is at least one important difference between the “old ways” and the “new ways” (even aside from the benefit of continuity and consistency, which would have been present with the old rules): The old ways were thought-out by highly intelligent people and/or developed by trial-and-error to a point where they worked quite well—the new are a mixture of complete arbitrariness; ideas by less intelligent and less experienced users, or even managers of some software company; attempts to apply unsuitable “real-world” concepts to the online world; … To this must be added the technical side: Someone who understands it, all other factors equal, is objectively better off that someone who does not—and less of a burden to others.

****Even Wikipedia, once an exemplary source of good writing, has gone downhill considerably, with regard to both grammar and style. (Notably, the “encyclopedic writing” aspect is increasingly disappearing in favor of a more journalistic or magazine style. I have long had plans for a more detailed post on Wikipedia, including topics like an infestation with unencyclopedic propaganda, but have yet to get around to it.)

A particularly depressing aspect, but great illustration of the more general problems, is the (ab-)use of email by many businesses, government institutions, and similar, who simply do not understand the medium and how to use it properly. No, I am not talking about spam here (although spam is a gross violation)—I am talking about everyday use.

Consider e.g.:

  1. That many businesses and virtually all (German) government institutions fail to quote the original text when replying and replace the subject line with something to the effect of “Your message from [date]”.

    The former makes it harder to process the message, in particular when a re-reply is needed, often forcing the user to open several other messages to check for past contents; the latter makes it much harder to keep messages together that belong together*, to find the right reply to an email, identify why a reply was sent**, etc. To boot, these problems likely contribute to poor customer service through creating similar issues on the other end, e.g. through a member of customer support not having all the information present without looking through old emails or some ticket system: Even if the information is there, access will be slower, more resources will be wasted, and there is a major risk that important information will still be missed.

    *Not only manually, but also through giving automatic “threading” mechanisms in email clients an unexpected obstacle.

    **When the original text is not included, this becomes even harder. In a worst-case scenario, when several emails were sent to the same counter-part on the same day (rare but happens), it might not even be possible to make the correct match—or only through comparing various IDs in the message headers. The latter is not only much more effort than just looking at subject lines, it also requires that all involved software components have treated them correctly, that the counter-part has used them correctly, and that the user knows that they exist…

    The explanation for this absolutely amateurish and destructive behavior is almost certainly that they have never bothered to learn how to handle email, and just unreflectingly apply methods that they used with “snail mail”* in the past. This is the more absurd since going in the other direction, and altering some snail mail procedures in light of experiences with email, would be more beneficial.

    *This phrase gives another example of how the world can change: Twenty years ago, I could use the phrase and simply assume that the vast majority of all readers would either know that I meant “physical mail sent by the post”—or be willing both to find out the meaning on their own and to learn something new. Today, while typing the phrase, I am suddenly unsure whether it will be understood—and I know that very many modern Internet users will not be willing to learn. I might be willing to give the disappearance of the phrase a pass: We can neither expect every phrase ever popular to continue to be so in the long term, nor the phrases of any group to be known in all other groups. However, the attitude towards learning and own effort is a different matter entirely.

  2. When messages are quoted, established rules are usually ignored entirely, especially with regard to putting the quote ahead of the answer and to intermingle quote and reply, which makes an enormous difference in the ease of processing the reply. Some tools, notably MS Outlook, more-or-less force a rule violation on the users… When quote and reply are intermingled it is usually not done in the established manner, with separating new lines and use resp. non-use of a “> ” prefix; instead, the new text is simply written straight into the old and separated only by a highly problematic* use of a different color.

    *Among the problems: The colors are not standardized. The result becomes confusing as to who wrote what in what order after just a few back-and-forths, to the point of making a lengthier email discussion almost impossible (whereas it was one of the main uses of email in the days of yore). It forces the use of HTML emails (cf. below). There is no guarantee that the colors will be visible after printing or a copy-and-paste action to another tool (notably a stand-alone editor). Not all email clients will be able to render the colors correctly (and they are not at fault, seeing that HTML is not a part of the email specifications). Generally, color should not be used to make a semantic differentiation—only to highlight it. (For instance, in the example below, an email client could automatically detect the various “>” levels and apply colors appropriately; however, the “>” signs must remain as the actual carriers of meaning.)

    To give a (simplistic and fictional) example of correct quoting:

    >>> Have you seen the latest “Star Wars” movie?
    >> No.
    > Why not?
    The one before that was too disappointing.

  3. Ubiquitous use of “no-reply” addresses: Anyone who sends an email has a positive duty to ensure that the recipient can reply to this email. This includes event-generated automatic messages (e.g. to the effect of “we have received your email” or “your package has just been sent”) and news letters. Either make sure that there is someone human able to read the replies or do not send the email at all.* This is not only an ethical duty towards the recipient, it is also a near must for a responsible sender, who will be interested in e.g. tracking resulting failures.

    *The exact role of this human (or group of humans) will depend on the circumstances; often it will be someone in customer service or a technical administrator.

  4. Abuse of email as just a cost-saver relative snail mail: There is nothing wrong with sending relevant attachments in addition to an email text, and in some cases, e.g. when sending an invoice*, even a more-or-less contentless email and an attachment can be OK (provided that the recipient has consented). However, some take this to an absurd extreme, notably the outrageously incompetent German insurance company HUK, and write a PDF letter containing nothing that could not be put in an email, attach the resulting file to the email, and use a boiler-plate email text amounting to “please open the attachment to read our message”. This, obviously, is extremely reader hostile, seeing that the reader now has to go through several additional steps just to get at the main message** and it ruins the normal reply and quote mechanisms of email entirely. To boot, it blows up the size of the message to many times what it should be*** and increases the risk of some type of malware infection.

    *This especially if the contents of the invoice are to some degree duplicated in the email proper, including total amount, time period, and due date (but more data is better). Writing an invoice entirely as a plain-text email is possible, and then the attachment would be unnecessary; however, there can be legitimate reasons to prefer e.g. PDF, including a reduced risk of manipulation, a more convincing and consistent visual appearance if a hard-copy has to be presented to the IRS, and an easier differentiation between the invoice proper and an accompanying message. (There might or might not be additional legal restrictions in some jurisdictions.)

    **Note that it is not just a matter of one extra click to open that one attachment that one time. Consider e.g. a scenario of skimming through a dozen emails from the same sender, from two years back, in order to find those dealing with a specific issue, and then to extract the relevant information to clarify some new development: If we compare a set of regular emails and a set of emails-used-to-carry-PDFs, the time and effort needed can be several orders larger for the latter. Or consider how the ability to use a search mechanism in the email client is reduced through this abuse of email.

    ***This is, admittedly, less of an issue today than in the past (but HUK has been doing this for a very long time…). Still there are situations where this could be a problem, e.g. when a mailbox has an outdated size limit. It is also a performance issue with regard to other email users: The slow-down and increase in resource use for any individual email will be relatively small; however, in the sum, the difference could be massive. What if every message was blown-up by a factor of 10, 100, 1000, …? What would the effects on the overall performance be and what amount of band-width and processing power (especially if spam or virus filters are applied) would be needed? For instance, the two emails at the top of my current mailbox are, respectively, an outgoing message from me at 1522 Byte and the reply to said message at 190 Kilo(!)byte—roughly 125 times as much. The lion’s part of the difference? A two-page PDF file…

  5. Use of HTML as an email format: Such use should, on the outside, be limited to recipients known both to handle the emails in a compatible manner and to be consenting: HTML is not supported by all email clients, and not in the same manner by all that do. It poses an additional security and privacy risk to the recipient. It bloats the message to several-to-many times the size it should be. It makes offline storage of the email more complicated. It makes it harder to use standard reply and quoting mechanisms. The risk of distortion on the way to the recipient is larger. … Notably, it also, very often, makes the email harder to read, through poor design.

    To boot, the reason for the use is usually very dubious to begin with, including the wish to include non-informative images (e.g. a company logo), to try to unethically track the recipients behavior (e.g. through including external images and seeing what images is retrieved when), or to make the message more aesthetic*. A particular distasteful abuse is some newsletters that try emulate the chaotic design of a commercial flyer or catalog, which often deliberately try to confuse the readers—either the newsletter senders are incompetent or they try to achieve something incompatible with the purpose of a newsletter**.

    *This is simply not the job of the sender: The sender should send his contents in a neutral form and the rendering should be done according to the will of the recipient and/or his email client—not the sender. Efforts to change this usually do more harm than good.

    **Most likely, but not necessarily, to use it as advertising. I note that while newsletters are often unwelcome and while the usual automatic addition of any and all customers to the list of recipients is despicable, the abuse of a newsletter for advertising is inexcusable: Many will consent to being or deliberately register as recipients because they are interested in news about or from the sender; and it is a gross violation of the trust placed in the sender to instead send them advertising.

    There are legitimate cases where a plain-text email is not enough to fulfill a certain use-case; however, they are rare and usually restricted to company-internal emails. For instance, one of the rare cases when I use HTML emails is when I want to send the tabular result of a database query to a colleague without having to use e.g. an Excel attachment—and even this is a border-line spurious use: In the days of yore, with some reservations for the exact contents, this could have been done equally well in plain-text. Today it cannot, because almost all email readers use a proportional font and because some email clients take inexcusable liberties with the contents*.

    *For instance, Outlook per default removes “unnecessary” line-breaks—and does so making assumptions that severely restrict the ability to format a plain-text document so that it actually is readable for the recipient.

    Of course, even assuming a legitimate use-case, it can be disputed whether specifically HTML is a good idea: Most likely, the use arose out of convenience or the misguided belief that HTML was a generic Internet format (rather than originating as a special purpose language for the Web). It would have been better to extend email with greater formatting capabilities in an ordered, centralized, and special-purpose* manner, as has been done with so many other Internet related technologies (cf. a great number of RFCs).

    *Which is not automatically to say that something should be developed from scratch or without regard for other areas—merely that it should be made to suit the intended purpose well and only the intended purpose. Some member (or variation of a member) of the ROFF-family might have been suitable, seeing that they are much closer to plain-text to begin with.

  6. A particularly idiotic mistreatment of emails is exemplified by Daimler and in recent discussion for another large auto-maker (which one, I do not recall):

    If an email is sent to an employee at the wrong time, e.g. during vacation, the email is simply deleted…

    The motivation given is absurd and shows a complete lack of understanding of the medium: This way, the private time of the employees would be protected. To make matters worse, the “threat” comes not from the outside but from a (real or imagined) pressure from within the company to always be available. In effect, Daimler has created a problem, and now tries to solve this problem through pushing the responsibility and consequences onto innocent third parties.

    Email is by its nature an asynchronous means of communication; and one of its greatest advantage is that the sender knows that he can send a message now, even outside of office hours or during vacation periods, and have it handled on the other end later. He does not have to consider issues like whether the recipient (if a business) is open or (if a person) is at home with his computer on. Moreover, the “later” is, with some reservations for common courtesy and stated dead-lines, determined by the recipient: He can chose to handle the email in the middle of his vacation—or he can chose to wait until he is back in the office. Whichever choice he makes, it is his choice; and if he chooses the former against his own best interests, well, then he only has himself to blame.

    By this utterly ridiculous rule, one of the greatest advantages of email is destroyed. To boot, it does this by putting an unfair burden on the sender, who is now not only required to re-send at a later and less convenient time—but who can see a number of additional disadvantages. Assume e.g. that the sender is about to head for his vacation, sends an important and urgent email, goes of the grid for two weeks, and comes back to see that his email has not even been read. Or take someone who writes a lengthy email and loses* any own copy after sending—should he now be required to re-type the entire thing, because of a grossly negligent policy of the recipient’s? Or what happens when employees in very different time zones or with very different vacation habits try to communicate with each other? Should the one work during his normal off-hours or vacation so that the other can receive the email during his time in the office? What happens if the notification** of “please send again” from company A is it self deleted by company B?

    *Disk crashes and accidental deletes happen; I have worked with email clients that do not automatically save sent emails; and, in the spirit of this post, not all users actually know how to retrieve sent emails that are saved…

    **Daimler apparently at least has the decency to send such notifications. I would not count on all copy-cats to follow suit.

    Want to keep your employees from reading company emails in their spare time? Do not give them email access from home or do cut it off during those times when no access is wanted! The way chosen by Daimler turns the reasonable way of handling things on its head—to the gross detriment of others. (This even assuming that the intended goal is legitimate: These are adults. We could let them chose for themselves…)

Written by michaeleriksson

January 5, 2018 at 12:54 am

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A paradoxical problem with school

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An interesting paradoxical effect of the current school system is that it simultaneously prevents children from being children and from developing into adults.

The resolution to this paradox is obviously that positive parts of “being children” are suppressed while the negative parts are enforced and prolonged. (Consider also the similar differentiation into child-like and child-ish human characteristics.)

Children in school are severely hindered in (sometimes even prevented from) just enjoying life, playing, walking around in nature, exercising the child’s curiosity, … At the same time, they are being taught just to do what they are told without thinking for themselves or to taking own initiatives, removed from any true responsibility, kept with other children instead of with adults*, … Play and similar activities, when they do occur, are often restricted and “organized fun”. The positive part of being a child is now curtailed around six or seven years of age; the negative is often prolonged into the “children’s” twenties, when they leave college** and get their first jobs—often even moving away from mother for the first time… In contrast, in other times, it was not at all unlikely for teenagers to already have formed families of their own, having children of their own, working at the same tasks as the rest of the adults, etc.***

*Cf. brief earlier discussions on what type of models and examples are presented to children.

**I stress that this is only partially due to the prolonging of studies per se: The more dangerous part is possibly the increasing treatment of college students as children. Cf. e.g. any number of online articles on the U.S. college system, or how Germany has increasingly switched to mandatory-presence lectures in the wake of the Bologna process. (The latter is doubly bad, because it not only reduces the need to take own responsibility, etc.—it also imposes an inefficient way of studying.)

***Indeed, I very, very strongly suspect that the explanation for many of the conflicts between teenagers and their parents are rooted in humans being built for this scenario, with the teenager having a biological drive to assume an adult role and the parent still seeing a little child. Similarly, that some teenagers (especially female ones) treat romantic failures as the end of the world is no wonder—once upon a time it could have been: Today, the boy-friend at age 15 will usually turn out to be a blip on the radar screen—in other times, he was quite likely to be the future (or even current…) father of her children. Similarly, starting over at 17 might have meant that “all the good ones are taken”.

If we compare two twenty-somethings that only* differ in that the one spent his whole life until now in school and the other went through some mix of home-schooling and early work-experience, not even going to college—who will be the more mature, have the better social skills, have more life experience, whatnot? Almost certainly the latter. Of course, the graduate will have other advantages, but it is not a given that they outweigh the disadvantages in the short** term. Why not try to combine the best of both worlds, with a mixture of studies (preferably more independent and stimulating studies) and work*** from an earlier age?

*This is a very important assumption, for the simple reason that if we just pick an average college graduate and an average non-graduate, there are likely to be systematic differences of other types, notably in I.Q. I am not suggesting that non-graduates are automatically superior to graduates.

**In the long term, the graduate will probably catch up—but would he be better off than someone who worked five years after high school and then went to college?

***Here we could run into trouble with child-labor laws. However, these should then possibly be re-evaluated: They are good in as far as they protect children from abuse, unwarranted exploitation, and health dangers; they are bad in as far as they hinder the child’s journey to an adult. I have also heard claimed (but have not investigated the correctness) that such laws had more to do with enabling schooling than they did with child-protection. To the degree that this holds true, they certainly become a part of the problem.

To boot, schooling often gives an incorrect impression of how the world works in terms of e.g. performance and reward. In school, do your work well and you get a reward (a gold star, an “A”, whatnot); in the work-force, things can be very, very different. Want to get a raise? Then ask for a raise—and give convincing arguments as to why you are worth it. The fact that you have done a good job is sometimes enough; however, most of the time, an employer will simply enjoy your work at the lowest salary he can get away with—why should he spend more money to get the same thing? Similarly, where a teacher will have access to test results and other semi-objective/semi-reliable explicit measures of accomplishment, such measures are rarely available to employers. For that matter, if your immediate superior knows that you do a good job, is he the one setting your pay? Chances are that the decision makers simply do not know whether you are doing a good job—unless you convince them.

At the same time, we must not forget that “being children” is also potentially valuable to the children’s development—it is not just a question of having fun and being lazy. On the one hand, we have to consider the benefit of keeping e.g. curiosity alive and not killing it (as too often is the case in school); on the other, there is much for children to learn on their own (at least for those so inclined). As a child, I probably learned more from private reading and TV documentaries than I did in school even as it were—what if I had less school and more spare time? Chances are that I would have seen a net gain in my learning… I am not necessarily representative for children in general, but there are many others like me, and at a minimum this points to the problems with a “one size fits all” approach to school.

Or look specifically at play: An interesting aspect of play is that it is a preparation for adult life, and in some sense “play” equals “training”. It is true that the adult life of today is very different from in, say, the neolithic, but there are many aspects of this training that can still be relevant, including team work, cooperation, leadership, conflict resolution, …—not to mention the benefits of being in better shape through more exercise. These are all things that schools like to claim that they train, but either do not or do so while failing miserably. Chances are that play would do a better job—and even if it does not, it would approach the job differently and thereby still give a benefit. As an additional twist, I strongly suspect that the more active and physical “boy’s play” has suffered more than “girl’s play” in terms of availability, which could contribute to the problems boys and young men of today have. I have definitely read several independent articles claiming that the ADHD epidemic is better cured with more play and an understanding of boys’ needs than with Ritalin (and find the claim reasonable, seeing that ADHD, or an unnamed equivalent, was only a marginal phenomenon in the past).

Excursion on myself:
While I (born in 1975) pre-date the normal border for the “millennial” generation, I have seen a number of problems in my own upbringing and early personality that match common complaints* about millenials or even post-millenials—and for very similar reasons. For instance, I left high school without a clue about adult behavior, responsibilities, skills, …, having never been forced to confront these areas and having never been given much relevant instruction**, be it in school or at home. Once in college, this started to change, notably with regard to own responsibility, but not in every regard. Had I not left the country as an exchange student, thereby being forced to fend for myself in a number of new ways, I would almost certainly have entered the work-force in the state of preparation associated with the millenials. What I know about being an adult, I have mostly learned on my own with only marginal help from school and family***/****—and almost all of it since moving away from home at age nineteen… My sister, length of education excepted, followed an even more millennial path, with even less responsibility at home, a far longer time living with her mother, whatnot, and, as far as I can judge, still has not managed to shake the millennial way—at age forty. Making own decisions and living with the consequences, taking responsibility for oneself or others, not relying on parents to help, understanding from own experience that the world and its population is not perfect, …, these are all things that truly matter to personal development and ability to be an adult—and it is far better to gradually learn to cope from an early age than to be thrown out into the cold as a twenty-something.

*I stress that these complaints can be too generalizing and/or fail to consider the effects of being younger, in general, as opposed to specifically millennial; further, that the problems that do exist are not necessarily equally large everywhere.

**We did have variations on the “home economics” theme, but there was little or no content that I have found to be of relevance to my adult life. To boot, these classes came much too early, with many years going by between the point where (what little there were of) skills were taught and when they would have become relevant to my life—so early that I would still have had to re-learn the contents to gain a benefit. That home-economics teachers are pretty much the bottom of the barrel even among teachers certainly did not help.

***In all fairness, it is not a given that I, personally and specifically, would have been receptive had e.g. my mother tried to give me more advice than she did. This should not serve as an excuse for other parents, however. Other aspects, like having to fend more for myself at an earlier date would have been easily doable—even had I not enjoyed it at the time.

****Sadly, much of what I did pick up from my mother were things that I, in light of later own experiences, ended up disagreeing with, either because of different preferences or because it was not a good idea to begin with.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 22, 2017 at 7:38 pm

A clarification of my opinions on schooling and education

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In my recent writings, I have noticed an apparent paradox that might confuse the recurring reader: On the one hand, I speak negatively about schooling; on the other, negatively about people with a weak(-ish) educational background. (Including concerning the U.S. Supreme Court.)

As with most paradoxes, it resolves it self with the proper understanding (cf. below); however, it is true that more or more advanced degrees are not an automatic proof of greater ability, and when we look at someone with dozens of years of experience and accomplishment in a field, the sum of that experience and accomplishment is almost always more important than degrees.

To resolve the apparent paradox, consider the following:

  1. Schooling and education are different things; I am very skeptical towards schooling, but a great fan of education; and one of my main objections is that the education system is too much school and too little education.
  2. The problems with the education system today were not always present in the past. Dumbing down, grade inflation, and the like, are paramount examples. When we compare degrees earned today with those earned degrees twenty, forty, or sixty years ago, the latter were usually (!) of greater value in terms of developing the degree holders and in filtering by ability*. That I criticize today’s degrees does not automatically imply a criticism of the degrees of yore.**

    *Notably, this filtering continues to make an important statement long after the degree holder has entered the work-force, even when what was learned has grown relatively less important, been forgotten, grown outdated, …

    **But I doubt that there has been a time when education was anywhere near perfect. By implication, going back to how it was will not make things perfect—merely better. There might even be some areas where the current system is better.

  3. While I am not a fan of what is happening with higher education, my criticism is the harsher the lower we go: For one thing, there is more to be salvaged* by the intelligent student on the post-graduate level than on the bachelor level than on the high-school level … than on the first-grade level. For another, the current negative trends of education have yet to be as pervasive in the higher reaches as in the lower.

    *Especially with regard to the difference between schooling and education.

  4. How much someone gains from advanced education depends much on the individual characteristics. On average, the very bright will see a much better effect than the less bright, making the investment the more worthwhile. (In the specific case of the Supreme Court, all its members should be among the very bright.)

    A caution must be added concerning the relative benefit of formal education vs. informal private studies and autodidactic activities (as well as formal research leading to a new degree vs. that being done as “part of the job”, and a few similar constellations). However, an unfortunate* disadvantage of private studies is that it is very hard for a third-party (and often the student too…) to judge what has actually been accomplished. With a degree there is some clarity.

    *I would love to have a magic fairy create me an academic degree for what I have learned outside of formal settings. I also regularly consider going back to earn an additional degree of some form (e.g. a Ph.D. to move beyond the master level or an “x of arts” degree to complement my “x of science” degrees), even though I know that I could learn the contents of the degree as well or better on my own. This partially through vanity (this is one area where I am not immune to it); partially through the pragmatical advantages of having stronger formal credentials.

Excursion on degrees with different grades:
An annoying complication when comparing degrees is that the requirements for merely passing are often quite weak, implying that not all degree holders have that solid a knowledge. Worse, I suspect that the clear majority does not have the understanding one would expect to be present. A much better approach, in my opinion, would be to grade everything on a pass/fail basis—with “pass” being the equivalent of a (pre-inflation) A! “A-students” would get through in the same tempo as today. “B-students” might need more time, but would leave with a more solid education. “C-students” and below would rarely graduate, not distort the meaning of a degree, not waste time and resources, …—usually discovering in the first or second term that they are not college material. (Something, unfortunately, hidden from them till the day they die, the current system.)

Excursion on the SCOTUS and education:
Instead of just complaining, what would I suggest as an educational background?* I am not knowledgeable enough in the area of law education or the actual work involved to detail what the ideal would be, but something along these lines seems reasonable to me (within the U.S. framework):

*I stress that formal education is not everything needed, just one aspect. Also note that this curriculum is intended for a very select group—it is not a generic legal curriculum.

  1. A bachelor focusing on proving and honing the ability to think, implying a strong math and/or science component. A connection to the law is unimportant (that is what the J.D. is for), but something contributing to an understanding of humans, society, history, or similar would be beneficial.

    Example: Double major in math and philosophy.

  2. Get the basic legal education: J.D. + bar exam.
  3. Master’s degree building a deeper understanding in some relevant area, e.g. jurisprudence or constitutional law.
  4. A real doctorate building a deeper understanding in another relevant area.

Excursion on general education levels:
Similar points about education can be made with many other important positions and organizations than the SCOTUS. I note e.g. the horrifying educational background displayed by many leading Swedish social democrats. Take Stefan Löfven, the current Swedish prime minister: According to the linked to (Swedish) Wikipedia page, his education consists of a two-year vocational high-school program, a 48-week welding (!) class that he did not complete, and a year-and-a-half of college without earning a degree. There are people with better credentials working as cashiers at McDonald’s; while Angela Merkel, his conservative counter-part in my adopted Germany, has a doctorate in quantum chemistry. Importantly, this is not only a very weak academic record, it is also a strong indication both of a poor head and of poor follow-through—I would give a greater benefit of a doubt to someone who had just earned the vocational degree and then remained in the work-force: The latter could be someone with a good head who just lacked the interest for studies, was denied the opportunity through external reasons, found so great success at work that college felt like a waste of time, or similar.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 15, 2017 at 1:39 pm

Me too four

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As a follow-up to Me too three, where I write “not yet proof that more legislation will come”:

SVT teletext now claims:

Regeringen lägger ett förslag till ny sexualbrottslag redan före jul, lovade jämställdhetsminister Åsa Regnér (S) vid måndagens riksdagsdebatt om metoo- uppropet.

(The cabinet* will propose a new sex-crime law even before Christmas, equality minister/secretary Åsa Regnér (social democrats) promised during Monday’s parliamentary debate on the metoo call-to-action.)

*Translating the Swedish “Regering(en)” is a bit tricky, especially with terminology and systems differing from country to country. In a U.S. context, “administration” might be a term more likely to be used; however, possibly, mostly because of differences in system.

In other words, my fears of rushed through and potentially* damaging legislation are coming true. (And, yes, these fears were a strong motivator behind my previous post, on “noble causes”.) I note that nothing has actually changed over the last few months that makes new legislation beneficial: Either it would have been beneficial six months ago or it is not beneficial today. The only thing “me too” has achieved is to cause a political momentum and an opportunity for politicians to look good and to further their own agendas. I might go as far as doubting that even a parliamentary debate was called for—politics should not deal with hype topics on social media, it should deal with genuine societal concerns. (To which I note, again, that things have changed only with regard to the former, not the latter.)

*To judge this in detail, I will have to await the actual proposal—but the obsession of Swedish politics with men as evil-doers and women as victims leaves me pessimistic. I will possibly follow-up on this later, once the details are known. Obviously, all of this post must be read with the caution that details are lacking.

In as far as legislation is needed, it must not be rushed in this manner. Legislation should be thought-through and well-researched. In a situation like this, it can safely be assumed that the cabinet does not have sufficient own expertise, making calls for third-party input necessary*. In areas, like this one, where the daily life of a great many people can be affected, extra care should be taken; especially, to ensure that no measures do more harm than do good when everyone is considered.

*Unfortunately, knowing Swedish politicians, these calls would likely just consist in asking a few professors of gender studies for their (predictable and predictably misandrist) input. The principle still holds.

Förslaget kommer att innehålla både samtycke och oaktsamhet, samt skärpt straff för vissa sexualbrott.

(The proposal will contain* both consent and negligence**, as well as increased punishment for certain sex crimes.)

*The unfortunate and ambiguous formulation is present in the original. The actual intention is, almost certainly, that the proposal will address issues of whether consent exists between the involved parties (or what constitutes consent) and whether sufficient care (of some form) was taken.

**The use of “negligence” for “oaktsamhet” is correct in most contexts; however, it is possible that something different was intended here (possibly “carelessness” or “lack of consideration”). For want of details, I must speculate.

This could be an attempt to push through disproportional and unrealistic consent laws, or result in men being put in an unreasonable situation. Cf. the almost absurd take on sexual harassment that is present in many U.S. organizations, or how some schools call for verbal (!) consent every ten minutes (!). Also note that some Swedish “sex crimes” are actually Orwellian sexcrimes*.

*Cf. e.g. the situation around Julian Assange, who was accused of “rape” based on alleged events that in no reasonable country could have been considered rape (notwithstanding the possibility of another crime); or the absurd legislation on prostitution.

Det var en debatt som enbart fördes av kvinnor och sällan har enigheten varit så stor mellan partierna, vilket Åsa Regnér också lyfte fram som särskilt värdefullt. Genom Metoo-rörelsen har många kvinnor vittnat om övergrepp och sextrakasserier.

(It was a debate by women only and rarely has the unity between the parties been this large, which Åsa Regnér pointed to as particularly valuable. Through the Metoo movement, many women have testified about abuse and sexual harassment.)

That the debate was women only is inexcusable, a gross violation of democratic processes and a dangerous precedent: What is next? That only women are allowed to vote on certain issues?** To call this “valuable” demonstrates a complete unsuitability for any cabinet role. Unity might be good, but firstly there is a fair chance that this would have looked differently, had men been allowed*, secondly, considering how little has actually changed, this unity is more likely a sign of irrationality.

*Effectively, the participants are pre-filtered in a way that distorts the implications of consent and dissent. Similarly, a debate with only the immigrant MPs from the various parties might show a pseudo-consensus on some immigration issue that does not match the overall views of the respective parties. Ditto, a debate on property taxes with only property owning MPs. Etc.

**I note e.g. that the German “Green party” has a fair bit of internal regulations one-sidedly favoring women when it comes to voting, including optional women-only votes. The fear is by no means absurd.

As repeatedly stated, none of the testimony has actually given reason to re-evaluate the scope of existing problems, making the second sentence* useless filler, especially since no SVT reader could reasonably be unaware of the campaign. Cf. also Me too two; and also note problems like ignoring that the direction is often the opposite (female-on-male instead of male-on-female) or the inclusion of flawed examples (e.g. due to misunderstandings, overreactions, made up accusations).

*From context, it is not entirely clear whether this sentence should be attributed to something Regnér said; or whether it is SVTs words only.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 11, 2017 at 6:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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That noble cause

with 3 comments

One of the greatest problems with today’s democracies, possibly societies, is the over-focus on “noble causes” and populist single issues*, while firstly failing to provide a program that is suitable for society as a whole, secondly ignoring the negative effects of the solutions to these causes, thirdly often providing unrealistically easy solutions and measures, fourthly not bothering to truly find out whether these causes are just or at all relevant. To boot, the causes are often misrepresented or presented so simplistically that uninformed voters draw incorrect conclusions.** And, no, I am not talking about populist or one-item upstarts—I am talking about established main-stream parties and politicians.

*I will use “cause” to denote both below, for the sake of simplicity, but without an intended limitation in meaning. This especially since the border between the two can be hard to detect or depend strongly on perspective.

**Be it deliberately or because the politicians’/propagandists’ own understanding is too shallow. Both can apply, but I suspect that in the more strongly ideological movements the latter is the greater problem.

The reason is easy to understand: Such causes are easier to sell to the broad masses, and promise greater gains in votes than a more responsible and nuanced approach. This especially since there is often a cost–benefit distribution that leaves a smaller group considerably better off and/or seeing its demands met, while the rest of the population takes a small hit and/or is unaware of the larger hit it does take: The smaller group sees enough benefit to influence its decision making; the larger group does not see enough detriment to be moved to opposition. Of course, while the cost of one cause might be small, the accumulated cost of a few dozen can be quite large…

In most cases, however, such approaches are at best irresponsible, at worst highly detrimental. A good example is the common “Green” drive to abolish nuclear power at all costs, especially exploiting the fears around nuclear accidents with a mixture of fear-mongering and misrepresentation. Look at what happened in Germany with its “Energiewende”*: At an enormous cost, a government intervention succeeded in considerably increasing the use of renewable energies; but this was all wasted, because the corresponding reductions in use of other sources were mostly limited to nuclear power—with the use of the far more problematic fossil fuels actually increasing**… Exaggerated fear of nuclear power left the environment worse off than before the Energiewende!

*Roughly, “energy turn-around” or “energy revolution” (“revolution” having unnecessarily strong connotations).

**At the time I last looked into numbers, possibly two years ago: In the long term, this will obviously be better. An improvement might or might not already have taken place, but I am not optimistic—and even if it has, it does not change my point: The brunt of the reduction should have been put on fossil fuels to begin with, with reduction of nuclear power being a mere nice-to-have.

Schooling* is another good example, even source of examples: Every now and then some nit-wit politicians insists that more schooling is needed to solve this-or-that societal problem, without considering consequences (cf. e.g. [1]). Every now and then some change is implemented to solve a problem with the current schooling that ends up making things worse (notably in math education). Every now and then disproportionate extra regulations are added (e.g. in that small children are suspended for a triviality, like using a hand as a pretend-gun or kissing someone on the cheek, because there is a fear of real gun use or sexual harassment among high schoolers). Etc.

*The recurring reader is aware that I am highly critical of schooling, as opposed to education, in general. Here, however, I do not deal with this overall problem, just with the additional problems caused by unwise new measures pushed through to solve some (perceived or real) problem in the guise of a “cause”.

Of course, sometimes the cause can be something more trivial, yet still have a downside not appropriately considered. For instance, recent regulations in NRW (my state/Bundesland of residence in Germany) require all apartments to have a smoke alarm; this smoke alarm has to be serviced by a professional once a year. Now, I could easily imagine that the installation of a smoke alarm has a net benefit: The one-time cost is not overly large and it can help with saving lives. However, an annual servicing? This is a recurring cost and forces tenants to take a significant chunk out of their workday*. And: It brings very little benefit… I note that the voluntary smoke alarms of old usually went entirely without service, barring a battery change every few years; that the likelihood of malfunction within a year is so small that the value added through the service is negligible; that even the requirement to have a smoke alarm is not universal, making the service requirement disproportional; that e.g. the chimney inspection for my gas heating (which can actually cause or contribute to a fire) is once every three years; and that the number of apartment fires in Germany has dropped very considerably over time anyway. (I also note that there are many who suspect that even the requirement to have a smoke alarm in the first place is driven mostly by manufacturer lobbyism… Cf. e.g. a German article.) Five years, for instance, might be an appropriate service interval with regard to costs and benefits—one year is not even remotely close.

*Based on my limited experience so far, the service company one-sidedly dictates the time and date, which then naturally tends to fall in the middle of the ordinary work-day. Combine this with a commute…

The problems do not end with the negative side-effects or the lack of benefit, however. Consider the relevance of a cause: For instance, many political causes of today are strongly rooted in the non-negotiable premise that any difference in outcome goes back to a difference in opportunity. With such a world-view, many problems are severely exaggerated or even created out of the blue. Is is a cause for government intervention (e.g. through affirmative action) if the proportion of women on a certain corporate or governmental level, or even within a certain field, is lower than roughly 50 %? No! We have to consider aspects like voluntary choices and life priorities, potentially differing skill sets and levels, differing interests, … Now, if we can determine that the same proportion of men and women want to do or be X, that they have the same skills, that they are willing to sacrifice as much to get there, …, then we might have a cause for government intervention. There is, however, no proof that this is the case—on the contrary, even the attempt to prove it is usually left out: We see a difference in outcome; ergo, it must be discrimination, indoctrination, Patriarchy, structures, …

A particularly insidious problem is that such causes are often insatiable: Once the original goal has been reached, the goal posts are moved further away; with the same thing happening again and again, every time the next goal is accomplished. In many cases, the point is exceeded where a fight for justice/equality/liberty/… is turned into its opposite, because the push has gone too far. Very often, the continual pushing of the goal posts is only possible through (typically intellectually dishonest) re-definitions, deliberate misinterpretation of statistic, “willful ignorance”, or similar means. A good example is poverty, which in modern Leftist rhetoric is usually taken to mean e.g. someone earning less than a percentage of the average—making people “poor”, who have in their lives never gone hungry or lacked a roof over their heads, and opening the doors for vote fishing with “childhood poverty” even in countries like Sweden and Germany.* How absurd such a measure is, is proved by the fact that it is possible for someone to grow “poor” when, all other factors equal, someone else becomes wealthier…

*In these countries, childhood poverty, in any real sense, is almost non-existent. Poverty, in general, does exist, but is rare and is mostly either limited to short times or caused by own negligence or laziness. Even the single mother working a minimum wage job, which is one the worst long-term and non-negligent situations that do occur, would be the envy of many of her ancestors—no matter how unfortunate her situation is compared to the current average. As for her children: I had a similar situation for several years of my own childhood—and grew fat and spoiled. In the roughly 35 years since, things have not changed for the worse.

This cause obsession leads to poor decisions and poor policy, it raises taxes, introduces inefficiencies, limits personal freedom, worsens bureaucracy, … The positive effects are usually considerably smaller. I urge the politicians to be more responsible in their actions; the voters to never support a cause they have not understood.

(Many other examples than the discussed can be found, especially within the Left and the PC crowd, or looking at some charities, that reward the giver with a warm feeling, keep their employees paid, make the chairman and the odd middle-man wealthy, and achieve very little for the needy.)

Written by michaeleriksson

December 10, 2017 at 2:01 am