Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘Society

Follow-ups: A few thoughts on specialization and excellence (part I)

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Two follow-ups to an earlier text ([1]):

  1. Reading a magazine, I note repeated discussions of the need for Germany to have a high competence in this-or-that new field—matching the common politician’s panic when Germany fails to be world-class in any given field. Moreover, this is not uncommon in e.g. Sweden or the U.S. either.

    *Specifically, the members’ magazine of VDE—a German professional organization for engineers, of which I am (still) a member from my days in IT.

    However, is this really needed? Some of the greatest benefits of modern society come from cities, countries, groups, companies, …, specializing and gaining a high degree of competence in a more limited number* of fields. By gaining this high competence, they remain competitive in the market and the market benefits from the higher average competence level in the field. This is similar to specialization by individuals in [1].

    *The suitable number will depend on the entity in question: a company might do well with one single field, a country might need dozens.

    My own Wuppertal is one of many good historical examples: By ducal decree, Wuppertal* received a local monopoly** (the “Garnnahrung”) on certain steps of yarn processing. This lead to a great concentration of textile industry, making Wuppertal’s fortune for long after the monopoly was abolished.

    *Strictly speaking, areas since joined into Wuppertal, which has existed as a legal entity only since 1929.

    **Which should not be seen as an endorsement of monopolies: the monopoly caused the specialization; the specialization was good.

    Such specialization can have many positive effects, including building a higher competence through interaction and increased competition between different masters, but also e.g. lower transportation costs between specialists in various sub-sections,* better infrastructure,** talent being drawn where there is a better chance of work, etc.

    *E.g. that the weaving industry can get its yarn locally, in large quantities and with many competitors to choose from, without having to shop Germany-wide.

    **E.g. that the public roads, treatment plants, whatnot used by the one company benefit the others too. (Note that similar companies tend to have similar needs.)

    I strongly suspect that trying to be good at everything is counter-productive and that specialization, to be really good at something, is the better strategy. If so, politicians should stop complaining about how their respective country is falling behind at new technologies A, B, and C—and instead laud and support its excellence at new technology D. Export D; import A, B, and C.

    As a caveat, being too much of a “one-trick pony” and failing to adapt to new developments is dangerous (and here concerns are reasonable). If, e.g., D had been an old technology, it might not have been a valid argument against lack of excellence with A, B, and C. Wuppertal, again, is a good example: in the 20th century, the lower production costs of e.g. India killed much of Europe’s textile industries. Wuppertal was no exception—but it had some four hundred (!) good years before that.

  2. In [1], I am critical of the U.S. system of requiring a bachelor for certain professional degrees, the (potential) lack of specialization found in “general studies” or “liberal studies”, and the possibility to get a degree* in a softer field while being weak at thinking. I also mention the lower university-entry ages of older times. Factor in the shorter U.S. high school (compared to e.g. Germany),** and the use of variations of “bachelor” and “college” to refer to secondary education in some other countries, and I suspect that we have an unfortunate clash of ideas and terminology that lead us away*** from a better way to handle education, in that students are increasingly forced to go through two stages of education (high school, bachelor) that try to fill the same purpose.

    *Note that I do not necessarily claim either that it is possible to be good in a field while being a weak thinker, or that a weak thinker would profit as much from the studies as a great thinker. The point is that the degree it self is attainable and proves next to nothing about someone’s intelligence.

    **Indeed, it could be argued that at least the first year of a U.S. college is high-school level from a Swedish or German perspective. Cf. e.g. parts of an older comparison ([2]) of my own education with a U.S. J.D. “doctorate”.

    ***Including e.g. the “Bologna” reforms in Europe.

    How to do it better? Let a bachelor be something with a low degree of specialization* and let it be a pre-requisite for e.g. “med school”—but let it come at a younger age, e.g. 15 through 19. Either the students already have the brains to handle it, possibly with some softening to compensate for lack of experience and maturity, or they likely never will. For those that do not,** other educational venues or work should be available. Notably, the benefits of having both e.g. a German Abitur*** and a U.S.-style Bachelor are small when we look at suitability for higher (or even higher) education. Compared to today, this might or might not leave the student short in some areas, but these areas not being necessary for higher education, they can safely be left for the students’ spare time and private interests—should they be so inclined. (I also suspect that the loss would be much smaller than the official syllabus might indicate, considering both memory failures over time and that much of high-school would likely be subsumable in the bachelor. Indeed, when we look at the recent U.S. situation, a considerable portion of college is spent teaching the students what they should have learned in high school—but did not.)

    *As a consequence, more specialized topics, that might today be studied in the form of a bachelor, would earn another degree—as used to be the case in Germany (e.g. the various Diplom-X degrees) and partially still is the case in Sweden. This type of bachelor would be in the “general studies”/“liberal studies”/“liberal arts” area, possible with some hybrid traces of the old high school.

    **The implied restoration of the filter effect is a positive. Do not let PC thinking, unrealistic expectations on humans, and “no child left behind” ruin education.

    ***Secondary education which is longer and decidedly tougher than U.S. high school—but still well short of a U.S. bachelor. (The former is more comparable to the “mittlere Reife” than to the Abitur.) Also see [2]. Note that Germany, to some degree, already performs the type of filtering that I wish, but is increasingly falling into the “everyone must have the Abitur” trap and, thereby, moving in the wrong direction, towards less excellence.

    Disclaimer: This assuming that the traditional system of “go to school first; work later” is followed. I favor an entirely alternate system of mixing work and education (preferably, not school) through-out life.


Written by michaeleriksson

August 8, 2019 at 5:35 pm

Osthyvlar and cheese in Sweden and Germany

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During my visits to Sweden, I re-encountered one of my favorite inventions—the osthyvel.* This kitchen implement amounts to a (carpenter’s) plane for cheese, but in a more compact form, looking** a little like a cake and pie server with a bladed slit, which cuts and collects a slice of cheese.

*Going by Wikipedia, this might translate as “cheese slicer”, but it also claims that the osthyvel would be “very common” in Germany, where it is, in fact, a niche tool (as discussed in this text). I will stick to “osthyvel” (singular) and “osthyvlar” (plural) here. (Note, throughout, that I am weak in kitchen terminology and do not necessarily pick the optimal words.)

**At least in the standard model. I have seen some other versions over the year.

While ubiquitous in my native Sweden, it is quite rare in my adopted Germany, which has implications on e.g. how cheese is packaged and sold—big blocks of cheese for home slicing in Sweden and pre-sliced cheese in Germany. This, in turn, severely reduces the value of the osthyvel in Germany. Indeed, I spent the first 21 years here without bothering.

After my re-encounter, I decided to purchase one anyway and see where it took me—especially, because German cheese is sold in too thick slices that tend to over-power the taste of a sandwich*, use the cheese up unnecessarily fast, and are likely sub-optimal from a health perspective. To boot, these “value subtracted” slices come at a hefty price increase,** both through the smaller quantities per package*** and for the “service” of slicing—just like the coffee in a coffee pod is more expensive than regular coffee.

*For convenience, I will take “sandwich” to include toast, bread-rolls, and other breads where a slice of cheese might find use.

**Something of increased importance as I try to live cheaply as a struggling author.

***If in doubt, because the larger surface areas, post-slicing, reduce durability. 200 grams, less than half-a-pound, is a typical size, but smaller and larger quantities are available.

My new osthyvel has improved my cheese situation, but nowhere near as much as it could have: In order for it to be useful, I have to buy unsliced cheese. However:

  1. The selection of unsliced cheese in Germany is much smaller than in Sweden. Apart from some more expensive “special” cheeses, most super-markets appear to have only Gouda and Emmentaler (“Swiss cheese”)—and because of the holes and the small blocks, cf. below, Emmentaler is not much of an option. In other words, I am largely restricted to Gouda. (As it happens, Gouda is one of my favorite cheeses, but still…)

    Indeed, I strongly suspect that the unsliced market in Germany is simply not intended for sandwiches, instead aiming at e.g. cooking, grating, cubing, use on crackers, …

    In contrast, Sweden has an enormous variety of cheeses available. This does not just increase the customer’s ability to choose and prioritize, but has a two-fold positive effect on the price: Firstly, because unsliced cheese is not a rarity, there is a downwards price pressure through competition—there is no “niche effect” on the price. Secondly, there is a greater chance of finding something “on offer”. (Non-offer differences in price exist too, but are implicitly contained in the “prioritize” above.)

  2. The package sizes and, often, shapes are unfortunate for slicing, which requires more stability than e.g. cutting. For instance, the Goudas that I usually buy come in at about one pound, are shaped like very high pie slices, and still have the “crust” attached. The result of the former two is that it takes more skill to slice the cheese and that even an experienced slicer can see a portion of the cheese break off rather than be sliced (especially, on the narrow end of the “pie slice”). Indeed, I stick to specifically “medium old” Gouda for this reason—the “young” Gouda is softer and trickier.* The third, at least in combination with the “pie slice”, implies a bit of tricky cutting with a knife and/or a further waste of cheese.** (Emmentalers are more rectangular and without crust, but still have unfortunate proportions—and are, again, weakened further through holes.)

    *The “medium old” also tastes better, but both variety and the lower price might make me prefer “young ” on occasion. “Old” Gouda, the best tasting version, I have yet to see in unsliced form (in Germany).

    **I tried using my osthyvel to remove it, naturally, but this does not work as well as I had hoped. The curvature of the cheese is a particular problem.

    In contrast, Swedish cheeses often come in multi-pound varieties and, when not, have proportions and shapes that make them much more stable—e.g. in that the above “pie slice” of Gouda might have been replaced by a half or entire “pie” of Gouda, or even a larger block pre-cut into a more rectangular and crustless shape. The greater quantities also imply a better price relative weight.

    Disclaimer: It is possible that my (German bought) osthyvel is not the very best and that some of the above would go smoother with a replacement. Unfortunately, the very limited choices and often high prices in Germany make experimentation and comparison harder than in Sweden. Then again, I have no obvious reason to suspect a quality problem. (Going by price and optics, I might even have assumed clearly above average quality, but I know from experience that neither need say very much about a products “fitness for purpose”.)

The above refers to the situation in the self-service areas of more general stores: I have neither checked the “serviced” areas*, nor the specialist stores. Even if they were to have better options, I would likely still avoid them due to the increased effort, e.g. for having to waste time queuing twice. Moreover, one of the main advantages with a “bulk buy” would be a better price; however, in my impression, the former sell by weight without a quantity discount and with an implicit service surcharge, while the latter have a higher markup for reasons like targeting “refined” tastes and bigger pocketbooks, and smaller volumes of more choices.

*Where e.g. meet and cheese can be ordered by quantity, with or without additional cutting, from staff. This might or might not be “fresh-food counter”.

Measured by importance, relevance, whatnot, this is not what I would have chosen for a first text. However, I am a little uncertain on how to begin and coordinate the (often over-lapping) others. This text gives me a start, if nothing else.

Excursion on coincidence vs. conspiracy:
The above is a good example of why it is important to not jump to conclusions about e.g. conspiracies, sex discrimination, or similar. (Cf. e.g. an old text on misunderstood discrimination in hair-salons.) It is tempting to look at the above and conclude that German stores deliberately make it hard to use an osthyvel—so that they can keep selling their over-priced and too-thick pre-sliced slices. Possibly, they do,* but another explanation is more likely, namely that Germany took a different turn than Sweden because the osthyvel was invented and spread too late.** A more likely case for cheese, is the thickness of the slices, but that too might have another explanation, e.g. that it is harder to make thinner slices by machine, that too thin slices are too perishable, or that consumer demand and the need for a one-slice-fits-all solution limit choice.

*There are cases, where I do consider such manipulations outright likely, but those are in the minority. An example is the removal of two-ply toilet papers from stores, which artificially limits access to a (superior, in my opinion) product that was present for a very long time. (While, in contrast, the mere introduction of higher ply-counts is not an example, even if it serves the same purpose.)

**The inventor was Norwegian, and the step to Sweden was considerably shorter. To boot, the invention appears to have taken place as late as 1925.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 3, 2019 at 12:56 am

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Potential flaws in the U.S. justice system (ACLU injunction against Trump’s wall)

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Apparently, an injunction against Trump’s use of Pentagon money for his wall has been overturned. (As reported e.g. in [1]. Note that the main suit continues.) While I do not really care about the wall or its financing, I did note several things that struck me as unfortunate, especially in the current U.S. climate of judicial activism.

  1. The original suit* for an injunction appears** to argue that because Congress had not authorized this use of money, Trump should not be allowed to order this use. This is, in it self, a potentially valid objection and such challenges must be allowed in order to ensure that the “checks and balances” and “separation of powers” work as intended.

    *With reservations for terminology. Possibly, e.g. “filing” or “petition” would be better.

    **Going by [1]. I have not myself studied the details, and note that such study might give a different view.

    However, the suit was not filed by Congress as the primarily (allegedly) injured party or by individual members feeling overruled. Neither was it filed by the Pentagon or someone with a high standing in the Pentagon, who might have (metaphorically speaking) chain-of-command concerns or seen an injury through other uses of the money no longer being possible. Neither was it filed by an entity that could be considered as having a strong standing in terms of e.g. protecting Congressional rights. No—it was filed by the ACLU… (Additionally, raising the suspicion that the suit was never intended to protect the division of power or whatnot, but rather followed the ACLU’s pro-immigrant and anti-Trump stance.)

    I could see a line of reasoning that a violation of e.g. “separation of powers” would infringe upon the rights of the individual citizens, making a civil liberties union a reasonable champion. However, in a situation when none of the more immediately involved parties have taken action, this strikes me as far-fetched. This especially, because the suit was filed “on behalf of the Sierra Club and Southern Border Communities Coalition” (cf. [1]). I am not aware of either entity, but the names do not point to a citizen’s rights connection (nor e.g. a “protect Congress” connection).

    There would be more reasonable other champions, e.g. the states* or the Congressmen representing the complaining citizens. (Especially, as the former might argue an own injury similar to the citizens’.)

    *There appears to be another suit that was launched by some states, which might or might not make the ACLU suit redundant in the first place. (I have not looked into the details.)

    I would raise doubts as to whether a system that allows e.g. the ACLU to file suits in cases like this* is sensible, or whether there should** be a restriction to more central parties (notably, but not exclusively, Congress and its individual members).

    *However, there might be a wide range of other cases where such a restriction is less sensible, e.g. to prevent various branches of government from colluding to violate constitutional rights. This is not the case here, because if Congress was colluding with Trump, it would have a perfectly constitutional, ethical, whatnot way of doing so—by authorizing the use.

    **Note, here and elsewhere, that I do not speak of what current law, practice, whatnot is in the U.S., nor necessarily of how it should be interpreted. Some “shoulds” in this text might very well involve non-trivial changes.

  2. The original suit was placed before District Judge Haywood Gilliam—a black Obama-appointee.

    By allowing such important matters to be treated on such a low level as the District Courts, there is a considerable risk of “court shopping”, that the plaintiffs file where there is a large chance of finding a sympathetic judge.

    Here it would make great sense to have a higher and/or a more specialized court available to handle such high-level matters, both to ensure a high relevant competence and to avoid the court-shopping issue. This especially in cases, like here, where there was a great a priori likelihood that any injunction would be challenged through all instances.

    Disclaimer: I cast no aspersions on Gilliam’s expertise—I have no other knowledge of him than what is present in the linked-to texts. Similarly, while “black Obama-appointee” fits what a court-shopping ACLU might look for, I have no way of knowing that he actually was partial or biased. However, neither matters, because the risk is the problem.

  3. The over-turning Supreme Court was again divided “on party lines”, making it highly likely that at least one, possibly both, side[s] again looked less to the law and more to what fit an agenda. (I have already expressed opinions on which side is more likely to be at fault in [2]—and how to do it better.)

Excursion on me and the wall:
Being neither USanian nor Mexican, the issue of the wall is fairly academic to me. However, I note in favor that: (a) Illegal* immigration is a major U.S. problem. (b) There is a very, very large difference between walls keeping people out (China) and walls keeping people in (Berlin)—garden hedge versus prison wall. Further, against that: (a) It is enormously expensive. (b) It has not convinced me of its effectiveness and efficiency. (c) It comes with negative side-effects at least with regard to the environment and the potential need to expropriate private land.

*I am willing to discuss exactly what types of immigration should be deemed illegal. However, until and unless a law change is affected, the current illegal immigration remains illegal, and this is not one of the laws that people have a plausible right to ignore or subvert. (Unlike e.g. a law preventing emigration. I have vague plans for a text on types of laws and rules where this would be addressed more in detail.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 27, 2019 at 3:27 pm

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Problems with German health insurance

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I am currently looking into switching my (German) health insurance, specifically moving from a “private” (“private”) to a “gesetzliche” (“legal”) one. Here I re-encounter some idiocies in detail that I have previously discussed in a bigger picture ([1]; also note many related discussions, e.g. [2]).

The “gesetzliche” insurance is a public scheme, with at least the partial purpose that those who earn more should pay for those who earn less. (While a proper insurance would have those with luck in health pay for those unlucky.) It is the default and is hard to get out of—by design, because the more people leave, the less money is left for the rest, and because those who earn more have more to gain by leaving. The monthly fees are a proportion of the income at an outrageous 14.6 % “kranken” (“sick”) insurance and another 3.05 or 3.3 “pflege” (“care”) insurance—to which is added a “Zusatzbeitrag” (“additional fee”) averaging* another 1 %. Typically, then, about 19 % of income is paid for health insurance alone**.

*Unlike the other percentages, the individual insurer may chose it as it sees fit.

**Another 18 (?) percent goes to mandatory pension schemes. Then there is income tax, VAT on purchases, and whatnot…

Some of the detail issues:

  1. Because the fees are (almost) unchangeable by the insurers, and a certain basic cover must not be reduced, the insurers mostly compete through offering services beyond the basic cover. The result is an increase in costs, which puts an unnecessary upwards pressure on the percentages. These additional services usually include the quackery that is homeopathy… (Something that does not just cause entirely unnecessary costs, but also allows this quackery to remain profitable.)
  2. The use of percentages give negative incentives towards earning more (e.g. through harder work, more responsibility, or a switch from part- to full-time or to working more over-time), because that much more of any pay increase is swallowed. (Up to a certain maximum amount, which is beyond the reach of most of the population. Also note, again, that it is not just the insurance fees that cause problems—we also have pension fees, income tax, lost or reduced government support for low earners, …)
  3. Because the percentages are independent of actual use of services, the customers do not have a reason to be restrictive in their use, implying that the overall costs are unnecessarily high. Moreover, this does not just lead to those lucky in health paying for the unlucky, but also to the fit paying for the obese, the non-smoker for the smoker, the reluctant hospital visitor for the hypochondriac, the skeptic for the superstitious (cf. homeopathy above), …
  4. The insurance includes children and spouses with no (or only minor) own income, implying that those who are unmarried or lack children have to pay that much more to cover other peoples expenses.* Moreover, it can give spouses (pre-dominantly women) additional incentives to not find own work.

    *This type of undue, unethical, and absurd discrimination against the unmarried and childless is quite common in Germany. The next item is another example—as are different tax rates to the disadvantage of the unmarried; that the childless pay taxes to cover school costs; and the government provided “Kindergeld” (“child money”), which amounts to more than 200 Euro per child and month!

  5. People with children pay the 3.05 % “care insurance” (cf. above), while those without pay the 3.30 %. Imagine this: Someone causes less strain on the system and has to pay more!

On the other hand, the “private” insurers are equally bad. In theory, these work according to the principle that everyone pays an income independent fee, which does vary depending on how services are used, what age someone is, and (possibly) other factors relating to the likelihood to cause costs. Moreover, the choice of scope of insurance is larger, allowing a choice between paying more for better service and paying less for a lesser service. Children and spouses are not automatically included. On paper, this is a fair system—this is how it should be.

In reality there are a number of problems, some caused by the politicians, some by the insurers, including:

  1. Even the buyers of private insurance has to pay a supportive fee to the gesetzliche system. (Unfortunately, my brief search for details on this was not successful, and I do not want to spend too much time on this text. Going by memory, it might have been a few tens of Euros per month, starting a few years ago.)
  2. Sex is not included in the risk/fee assessment, implying that there is a transfer from men to women, the latter being much more cost-intensive when it comes to health insurance. Apart from the dubious ethics of this, it reduces the possibility of giving women incentives to not over-use medical services, which keeps the cost level up.
  3. A significant portion of the monthly fees are used for “Altersrückstellungen” (possibly, “old-age savings”), which are nominally intended to make the insured party pay a little more today so that he can pay a little less during his old age (compared to what would otherwise have been the case). In reality, these fees are intended to lock him in, because if he switches insurer, the old insurer keeps the “saved” money… However, if they truly were gathered for his future benefit, it would be obvious that he would either take them with him to the new insurer or receive the money as a payout.

    Moreover, whether someone wants to have Altersrückstellungen should be up to him—it should not be decided over his head by others. (Note arguments made in [1] on similar issues, including that the money might be more profitably spent paying off a mortgage.)

  4. At least* with my insurer, HUK, the increase of fees with age is not based on a fair risk assessment. Instead, fees are continually hiked up and up and up, year by year by year, in a disproportionate manner. Even when discounting inflation, my own rates are entirely disproportionate to my (low) use, age increase**, health, whatnot. The scheme is simple: Because it is hard*** to leave the private insurance (and because of Altersrückstellungen), chances are that most people will remain with the same insurer even with the disproportionate increases—as long as no individual increase becomes too painful individually. (Boiling frogs…) Switching to another private insurer is an option, but would not necessarily lead to lower fees…

    *Going by media, it is the same everywhere.

    **How they relate to my absolute age, I leave unstated, because that is much harder to judge. However, even if they were in order today, they would be out of order in ten years, assuming the same upwards trend.

    ***Yes, it is hard to switch in this direction too: The politicians want to actively prevent even high-earners from returning to the gesetzliche insurance, because they would usually do so in their old age, when they (a) cause more costs, (b) eventually will not earn that much (at the latest after retirement).

    Indeed, I have heard the claim (but do not vouch for its correctness) that many private insurers deliberately offer young people artificially reduced fees to lure them in—and the money lost there must then be recovered through higher fees later in life. This is not only unethical but contrary to the principles behind an insurance. (Interestingly, a mechanism that is the reverse of the Altersrückstellungen—how about just skipping them both?)

    On the positive side, the law has at least partially made this scheme less profitable through mandating a “Basistarif” (“base [scheme, rate, fee, plan, whatnot]”), which roughly matches the gesetzliche insurance and is capped in terms of fees. Should the fees grow too high, the aging can move to the Basistarif and avoid a complete disaster.

Excursion on how to do it better:
How to do it better is tricky, and the answer depends on what compromises are acceptable to the individual. (For instance, most Leftist politicians take the line that the private insurance should be abolished, so that everyone must be in the gesetzliche system, which I would rule out as unethical and increasing problems.) Moreover, a complete answer might require a full Ph.D. thesis… I would make the incomplete suggestions, however, that:

If both schemes are kept, then everyone should have the ability to switch from the one to the other and back again at will. This would make the tricks of the private side hard to pull and force the gesetzliche to be more responsible and cost competitive.

The gesetzliche be remodeled to be more like the (on-paper version) of the private.

The gesetzliche should not include family members without additional fees.

All insurances should work with a very large deductible, to give incentives for the insured to be responsible, to put downward pressure on costs, and to reduce the overall fee level. Failing this, the requirement of being insured at all must be reduced for groups like free-lancers.

The Altersrückstellungen are abolished and existing amounts paid out to the rightful owner.

Excursion on my switch:
My attempts to switch have three reasons: Firstly, cf. above, the private insurance is not what it portrayed it self to be when I originally* switched. Secondly, with my move from IT consulting to writing, a percentage is much less costly. Thirdly, my insurer, HUK, has not only again and again and again proved to be extraordinarily incompetent (to the point that even a change of address is beyond what it can handle), but has also left me serious doubts as to its honesty—even if I were to remain with a private insurer, it would not be with HUK.

*I was aware of the increasing costs with age, but not of the disproportionate increase and Altersrückstellungen were not actively mentioned—obviously, these are aspects that the insurers try to keep on the down-low and the amount of information on the Internet was much smaller than today. Items 1 and 2 above, in turn, did not yet apply.

Excursion on “Arbeitgeberanteil” (“employer’s portion”):
A common portrayal by politicians and insurers is that “the employer pays half”, in that the percentages above are partially deducted from pay (like income tax), partially paid on-top of pay by the employer. This is, obviously, a complete fiction, because the Arbeitgeberanteil does not grow on trees—it is an additional cost of employment that implies a downward pressure on salaries. This pressure might not amount to exactly the Arbeitgeberanteil, but it should at least be similar, implying that the situation is the same as if the employee received a larger pay-check and paid the full percentage—and that is the correct view. A minor side-effect, however, is that the exact percentages are slightly exaggerated: Someone who nominally earns 40,000 Euro/year, assuming 19 % overall, would pay roughly 7600 Euro. His “true” salary, after adjusting for the Arbeitgeberanteil, would then be roughly 43,800 Euro/year, and the “true” percentage 16.4 (give or take).

Written by michaeleriksson

July 27, 2019 at 1:39 am

Unorthodox thought and the ability to find refuge

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That diversity/freedom/tolerance of opinion is import to scientific and e.g. societal progress is hardly surprising—nor that the current trends towards the establishment of “official truths”, blanket* academic rejection of non-PC thought and limits on academic freedom** for its proponents, whatnot, are very dangerous.

*Because it is non-PC and irrespective of the state of evidence, arguments, etc. If a rejection took place on scientific grounds, it would be different.

**Limits on academic freedom are not in order, even when science points against an idea/theory/field/whatnot. This partly because early impressions can deceive, e.g. in that an implausible-seeming theory can be validated at a future time (as is fairly common); partly because once restrictions are allowed where they might seem acceptable, they can spread to areas where they are not acceptable. (Cf. e.g. opinion corridors and their current influence on politics and media.)

Compared to large stretches of Western history, this could involve a fatal change:

I am toying with the idea that the relative success of Western society between some point in the late middle ages and the 20th century was partially based on the ability of unorthodox thinkers or thought to escape oppression or to find an otherwise more nurturing environment. Comparing e.g. Europe and China, Europe had (a) a greater number of distinct groups with their own autonomous territory (e.g. the Italian, French, German, and Swedish areas), and (b) a much greater number of independent states (including the many German and Italian ones). This was not only a source of potentially greater diversity, of potentially a greater number of cultural and scientific centers, of potentially more literary traditions, whatnot,* but it also had the side-effect that someone with too unpopular ideas in one country or city could move on to the next, someone who woke the hostility of one ruler might make friends with another, etc. If all else failed, there was always the escape overseas, as with some unpopular religious groups. Of course, even if the individual thinker did not manage to escape, some of his books and ideas might still be available in other parts of Europe—Galileo might have been silenced, but his ideas lived on. In less dire cases, someone who failed to find sponsorship for an idea (or e.g. his art) in the one city might have better luck in another.

*On the down-side, also a risk e.g. of ideas traveling slower or never leaving the area of their origin.

A notable example is the Catholic–Protestant split: If the German emperor (or the Pope) had had the power and authority to just forbid Protestant thought, Catholicism would have remained dominant and without major competition, while the Protestant ideas might have lived on only in small and powerless under-ground movements. As is, many German rulers individually sided with the Protestant movement, there was a very major and prolonged turmoil, and both Germany and Western Europe ended up split roughly 50–50. Indeed, e.g. Sweden and England sided with the Protestant cause mostly because their respective king wanted to strengthen his own position vis-à-vis the Pope and the Church.

In contrast, Christianity once became the dominant religion in the Roman empire simply through having a Christian emperor. (And appears to later have aggressively lobbied the respective rulers when it moved into new territories.) Other attempts to reform the Christian faith or to split* from the Catholic church on a more local level might have had some temporary success, only to fail in the longer run, because there was no refuge available (as with e.g. the English Lollards).

*The East–West Schism had a very different character and very different circumstances.

Similarly, much of the great Greek progress took place in an environment of city states.

This idea is speculation, I have not gone through the (considerable) leg-work to see whether it checks out more in detail, and I have not even spent as much time mulling it over as most other topics. But: When we look at current developments, where scientists run an increasing risk of being globally condemned for having the “wrong” opinions or even researching the “wrong” topics, I feel forced to mention the possibility. What if even seemingly totalitarian, intolerant, whatnot societies still allowed progress through such escapes, while the modern, allegedly democratic, diversified, enlightened*, whatnot society will fail horribly? (This especially when combined with e.g. the strong current trends of anti- and pseudo-intellectualism in the softer sciences, an increased focus on feelings and subjectivity over facts and objectivity in public discourse, etc.)

*What passes for enlightenment today is often the exact opposite, the holding of a set of (often poorly supported) opinions and a pride in condemning everyone not sufficiently orthodox.

As an aside, the repeated use of religious examples above is not coincidental: not only are those among the most obvious—there is also a strong parallel in attitude with the current PC crowds. This includes many occurrences of a quasi-religious conviction of being right, belief without or even contrary to evidence, a wish to indoctrinate others “for their own good”, extreme condemnation of the “heretics”, and similar. Indeed, from what I have read about Galileo in the past, his treatment might originally have been met with more factual arguments and a fairer treatment than many heretics against the PC “truths”.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 21, 2019 at 4:34 pm

A book lover’s lament

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Yesterday, still plagued by loud renovations, I decided to take a day trip somewhere. The decision fell on near-by Düsseldorf, largely due to the presence of one of the few bookstores that I take seriously—Stern-Verlag. This especially with almost every visit to one of the weak Wuppertal bookstores having been a waste of time.

While on the train, I sketched a plan for the day, which would see me visit some other stores, do a bit of walking, including revisiting the park and the birds that I had enjoyed so much during my years as a Düsseldorf resident, have a prolonged meal with a good read—and then to go through Stern-Verlag from top to bottom, to make up for several years without visiting a good bookstore.

After dinner, I set out in the rough correction direction, to my surprise finding that I had forgotten the exact location, a fair bit outside the actual city-center. As I drew nearer, my memories started to click again, and I knew that I was either in the right street or one parallel to it. The latter applied, because I suddenly spotted the back-entrance. Good enough. I approached—and found the glass-door locked on a conspicuous lack of books.

Hoping against hope, I went around to the main entrance—possibly, there had just been cut backs, with a portion of the store closed? Alas, no. (Rest in peace, old friend.)

A last hope was a sign in the window pointing to a nearby Mayersche. While this chain has been one of the leaders behind the declining quality of bookstores, there might at least be some possibility that it had taken over a significant portion of Stern-Verlag stock, possibly because Mayersche had bought and stream-lined the old Stern-Verlag. No, this too was an unfulfilled hope—the “new” store was not worth the trouble, being even smaller than the Mayersche a few hundred meters from my apartment. The size of the downgrade is clear from German Wikipedia, which gives the sales floors as 7,000 m2 resp. 400 m2—a cut by more than a factor of 17… Veni, vidi, exivi.

To save something of my main purpose, I walked to the known second best alternative—a Mayersche about a kilometer away, in the main shopping district, which had a similar size to Stern-Verlag, but which, obviously, suffered from the Mayersche attitude towards books and customers. There I found myself demotivated and found the usual, depressing, Mayersche proportions of hyper-commercialism to more worthy content. However, I still managed to pick out two books, both college texts on literary science. (Exactly the type of book that is the first to go when we move down bookstore sizes.)

In this, I see two sad problems repeated: The death of bookstores and the take-over of highly commercial products, often even non-books.

Now, I can understand the wish, even need, to make a profit—and I do realize that with less commercialism, even more bookstores would already be gone. I also understand that the bookstores are not always the source of the problem, themselves being victims of “people don’t read anymore” and decreasing intellectual aspirations among those who do read. (Even eCommerce competition aside.) The development is still a negative and lamentable one—it might be a necessary evil, or a lesser evil, but it remains an evil. Moreover, the same development appears to have spread to libraries, where it is not defendable.

If we look* e.g. at the bookstore closest to me, the aforementioned Mayersche a few hundred meters from my apartment, we find that:

*I go by memory here. I might be off in detail, but the broad strokes hold true—and match what is typical for at least the major German chains. (But any quantities mentioned might need scaling by store size, including that a very large store, like the larger Mayersche from yesterday, might contain some types of books that smaller stores do not have—but still only in small proportions. Also see an excursion below.) Stern-Verlag, at least at the time of my last visit, had better proportions.

  1. A significant portion of the products are not books at all. This includes calendars, cups, writing utensils, DVDs, … I have seen bookstores where more than a quarter of the floor space is lost to such products. (But I do not think it to be quite that bad here.)
  2. The sections* for cooking, travel, and languages are among (or outright) the largest. That such sections are present is by no means wrong, but when they are so large compared to the overall, something is amiss, and such large sections on cooking and travel might even be better left to a specialist cooking respectively travel store. (Note: “store”, not “book store”.)

    *Here used to imply a portion of a bookstore with a clear own theme, typically somehow labeled to inform of the contents. In the case of this store, most sections (not including the above three or the main fiction sections) are just a single bookcase from top to bottom.

    Note, not necessarily as a criticism, the common theme of a practicality or a use unrelated to reading per se—and often unrelated to learning, education, and Bildung* too. Languages is likely the most “traditional” of these sections, but even here, the character of the books is different from both fiction and more regular non-fiction—it is not a matter of reading, Bildung, whatnot, but of learning a language.

    *This German word is hard to translate to English, although a metaphorical “cultivation” or some older meaning of “culture” might come close. It contains aspects of growing intellectually, growing as a person, and similar. The “Bildungsroman” (as might be guessed from the name) deals with Bildung, if typically on a beginners’ stage or the specific stage of growing from youth to adult. Bildung is not to be confused with just gaining an education—and certainly not with e.g. dressing well and visiting the opera.

  3. A very significant further section is school literature—large heaps of mostly the same books that parents buy for their children’s classes. At the seasonal height, one might think that “bookstore” actually should be “school store”, due to the sheer quantity of books, the common addition of non-book school supplies, and the prominent placement. College-level literature is far rarer.
  4. There are a few shelf meters with natural-science books. These are virtually all popular science and they are matched by a similar quantity of shelf for esoteric/“new age”/superstition/astrology/… books (that take these topics seriously) and a similar quantity of “self-help” books offering trite, superficial, and not very helpful advice for those unable to handle themselves on their own.
  5. Other non-fiction sections of a more serious character (to which cooking and travel do not belong), tend to fair similarly poorly, languages excepted. There is a computer section, but it contains only or almost only practical guides to various programs—with no sign of more abstract treatments, including books on actual computer science. Psychology books tend to be superficial pop-psychology or even “self-help” in disguise. Ditto religion. History does bit better, but not much. Literary theory, history of literature, and similar themes are absent (despite there being a natural connection between reading and having an interest in such topics). Mathematics is absent. Engineering is absent. Philosophy is probably absent. Etc.

    Two more practical sections are law and “work topics” (e.g. concerning job applications, on-job conflicts, middle-management skills, and similar By the nature of the topics, their contents seem appropriate, but, again, we have fields not strongly relating to reading, education, Bildung, … I have bought a few books from the latter category myself over they years—and have usually not found them to be very helpful or insightful. (I have bought a few reference books from the law section too. These have done their job, but today I would stick to the Internet.)

    Other notable sections include biographies and politics. I have never looked into either in more detail, but my superficial impression is that they continue the best-seller, for-the-masses, well-short-of-academia trend of other sections. For instance, recently a book by Michelle Obama has been very heavily featured.

    Through-out, irrespective of field, books on the college level or above, including actual textbooks, are rare or entirely absent.

  6. The various sections for fiction are dominated by best-sellers—works of “high literature”, “classics”*, whatnot are very obviously secondary to the latest Stephanie Meyer or whatnot. The proportions given to children’s and “young adult” literature sections seem larger than warranted by their part of the population—which is a shame for adult me.** A very significant portion are English works translated to German.*** This includes the many sci-fi and fantasy works that I might have been interested in, had they been in English—and would have been very interested in during my twenties.

    *In all fairness, most books counted as classics are in the public domain, and I recommend trying Internet sources for free access before looking in a book store.

    **However, I stress that I do not necessarily see this as a bad thing in a bigger picture—if children never learn to love books, bookstores are doomed.

    ***There is not necessarily anything wrong with translations in principle, but (a) most translations that I have encountered in Germany have been quite poor, (b) it borders on the shameful that the average German is so bad at reading, or unwilling to read, English in the original (other languages are more understandable). We are at a stage when most books by English authors should be sold and read in English even in Germany.

It does not contain a cafe, but that is only because it is too small… Larger Mayersche (and many other larger bookstores) typically do. Similarly, the lack of book signings and book-readings-by-the-author is more likely to relate to size than to insight into the typical commercialism and lacking intellectualism that dominates the former and is very often a factor in the latter—the former is for idiots and while the latter might have value for many non-idiots, I suspect that the idiots dominate among the actual visitors. (Consider e.g. motivations like “A reading by the author might reveal something new about the text.” vs. “Yes! I get to see my favorite author in the flesh!!!”.)

Excursion on school books:
The presence of school books is easy to understand in that this is a recurring and large scale way to sell a lot of books—the number of books needed by a student at the beginning of the year might match or exceed the number of other books bought by the typical parent for the entire year. However, in my eyes, there is a systematic error here: if books are mandatory for school, it would be much better for the school to buy them, in bulk, with VAT deductible, with some leverage to negotiate prices,* etc. This not to mention the time and effort the parents would be saved. (This might, of course, come with some type of additional fee for the parents corresponding to the shift of immediate costs.)

*In fact, when schools dictate what books the parents must buy, publishers have every incentive to artificially inflate prices, and as long as parents pay, schools have no incentive to consider costs when making choices.

Similarly, I have read about U.S. schools where parents are given lists of things to buy for their children, include crayons and “Kleenex”* packages, which are then confiscated by the teacher, to be handed out among the students according to need. Apart from the implied Socialism, this causes a considerable extra effort and cost for the parents, which would be much better handled if the school bought in bulk and then just billed the parents a small amount—notably, an amount almost automatically smaller than what the parents would have payed individually, and potentially much smaller when the opportunity cost of the extra work is factored in. To boot, the quantities I saw in at least one list were such that the average child would be unlikely to use everything up, implying that the reminder turns into an involuntary gift from the parents to the school.

*Which raises the additional question of whether any brand will do or whether it has to be specifically Kleenex—a question which is not moot, considering variations in price, quality, and package size.

Excursion on Düsseldorf:
With my prolonged absence, I had forgotten how loaded with stores and large stores Düsseldorf was. Compared to Wuppertal (where I currently live) and Cologne (the stop before that), there is a mismatch with the population size. For instance, the larger Mayersche above could alone contain all of the bookstores that I have seen in Wuppertal—probably twice over. The Wuppertal Saturn (electronics store/chain) might be a third as large as the one in central Düsseldorf. Etc. Population-wise? Wikipedia gives population sizes for 2015 of 350,046 for Wuppertal, 612,178 for Düsseldorf, and 1,060,582 for Cologne—going only by stores, I would have matched the 1,060,582 to Düsseldorf and the 612,178 to Cologne. This is likely partially explained by a “magnet” effect after reaching some critical limit—even for me, Düsseldorf might be a better alternative than Wuppertal for my rare (non-grocery) shopping.

On the down-side, during my years in Düsseldorf, I repeatedly noted how the city was ruining it self through construction works, including causing traffic jams and reducing access to some smaller stores to the point that they lost too much business and had to close or relocate. Amazingly, such works are still on-going… (But it is much better now than around e.g. 2012.) Of course, for the big-shots of the city, this might not have been seen as a problem at all—the cost of traffic jams are carried by others and the loss of a mom-and-pop store just means that there is an opening for a new Prada or whatnot store that brings more prestige and tourist interest. The overall gain from these works, with the incompetent and intrusive implementation,* were not worth the cost.

*The same works done in a better manner, might have been a very different matter.

Excursion on bookstore sizes:
As might be clear from above, we need large bookstores. With smaller bookstores, the choice of books is highly limited; and having two, three, or four small ones, only means that we have the same limited choice repeated in each of them. Comparing e.g. the large Mayersche in Düsseldorf with my local, we can e.g. note that the proportion of books on literature is quite small—but there are still a few shelf meters. Similarly, it does not have many math books, and likely no truly advanced—but it does have a few shelf meters of the early college level. The Wuppertal Mayersche has a few shelf meters with (untranslated) English books—in Düsseldorf there is a similar quantity of French and Spanish books, and the English sections might be ten times as large. Etc. I would rather walk two hours to a bookstore of this size than five minutes to the local Mayersche. (Unfortunately, a walk to Düsseldorf would take far longer than two hours.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 18, 2019 at 1:35 pm

Follow-up: A German’s home is not his castle / a few issues around inspections and meter readings

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Last Friday, the exhaust inspection for my gas heater took place (cf. [1]).

My previous impression of a somewhat cooperative attitude on behalf of the chimney-sweep (responsible for the check) turned out to be very wrong.

Not only did the employee in question claim that I would be (illegally and unethically) billed for an out-of-hours visit, she also, for the second time in three years, tried to start a fight over my (calmly and factually) not agreeing with her often absurd claims—this time, that I pointed out that there was no legal justification for this bill. This is a highly unprofessional behavior that should be unacceptable in any service profession. (To which I note the difference between a factual discussion and the highly dubious behavior displayed here—she was an inch short of throwing a hissy fit.)

Looking at the bill issue, I note that:

  1. I had suggested a date and time within the narrow (cf. [1]) scopes that she had provided and that she had accepted them. Thus, either we were within regular hours or the out-of-hours aspect was solely her fault.

    I note (cf. [1]) that she had previously rejected a total of four suggestions: The 7th and 14th of June for being already booked,* the 19th and 26th of July due to company holidays. While the two former are understandable, the two latter are a pure own convenience. In effect: On the hand, customer suggestions are rejected; on the other, the customer is to be billed for a date and time practically suggested by her.

    *Here she had also explicitly mentioned that these (later in the day) suggestions were out-of-hours, removing any chance of applying the (already highly implausible) excuse of “because I did not state the opposite, you should have assumed that it was out-of-hours”.

  2. No mention had been made of any extra fee at the time of the agreement, nor had there been any reason for a reasonable third-party to expect an extra fee. This, in it self, rules a fee out.

    In particular, the day in question, I would have had no problem with arranging an earlier time—and would have done so, had there been any talk of an extra fee.

  3. The only possible angle of attack that she (and/or her employer) could have is that she had given intervals for possible times of day that would normally be interpreted as referring to the beginning of the visit, but which could conceivably be construed as referring to its end. If so, however, it would have been her responsibility to point out that the end of the interval was not an acceptable start time—but instead she accepted the suggested time… Moreover, considering the length of the visit, the latter interpretation would have been unconscionable in combination with a fee: subtract the delays through her belligerence and the visit could have been done in just several minutes, implying that just replacing 2 PM with 1:55 PM or, on the very outside, 1:50 PM would have put me within the interval.

All in all, and noting the reputation German chimney-sweeps (and e.g. plumbers) have, I suspect that this is just a trick to earn a few Euros above what the employer was actually entitled to. (German readers can look at e.g. a dedicated web-site/forum for many examples of disputable billing attempts and other problems relating to chimney-sweeps.

As for some claims made by her:

  1. She (again) went on about how hard the “late” Fridays were for her to arrange—at 2 PM. Apparently, she was now incurring over-time, needed a baby sitter (more expensive than her over-time pay), and whatnot (I do not remember all the details).

    Well, cry me a river…

    First, compare this to what many of the customers* have to go through every year because time ranges set for her convenience: What about all those who have to take several hours off work? Those that have to commute twice in a day? Those that are so far away and receive so unfortunate a time that they miss an entire day of work, as e.g. with me and my Cologne project? For the employed, the last amounts to using up a vacation day; for me, it would have amounted to a full day that I could not bill. For that matter, consider the potential negative effects on e.g. an employer. Or consider her complaints about arranging to have her children picked up from school—what about the children of the many customers who are force-fed an unfortunate time?

    *The word “customer[s]” is misleading, but I will stick with it for ease of use and the lack of something obviously better.

    Second, much of this is a pure luxury problem, amounting to “because of this customer, I do not get to enjoy an artificially short work-week” or “[…] a much earlier week-end than most others”. I note that the central collective agreement (Bundestarifvertrag) for chimney-sweeps sets the weekly hours at 38.5, whereas I have never had anything less than 40—sometimes with the expectation that overtime be performed without additional remuneration above the monthly salary. (Whereas the same source would give her her regular hourly pay + 25 % for every hour overtime.) I further note that by the standards of past generations (and some modern low-end jobs) even 40 hours a week would be a relief. Further yet, that when I have gotten off at 2 PM on a Friday, it has usually been because I have had a long weekly commute on top of my 40 hours. For instance, when I lived in Düsseldorf and did a project in Munich my weekly schedule was roughly: Monday, five hours of travel and another six hours in the office; Tuesday through Thursday, nine or ten hours in the office; Friday, five or six hours in the office and another five hours of travel—to which must be added time needed for hotel handling, time to pack and unpack, time lost due to unforeseen delays during travel, whatnot.

    Third, none of this is my problem—it is a matter between her and her employer. If she has a complaint, she should direct it at him—too “harsh” working hours, too little over-time pay, whatnot.

    My grand-mother, I suspect, would have called her a spoiled brat to her face…

  2. She claimed that her working hours would be regulated by law. Not only do I find this implausible, but I have also not found any support for this claim on the Internet. Moreover, other companies appear to have different working hours (and/or a different distribution between “office” and “customer” hours). For instance, a magazine article discussing the field in general says “[…] der Außendienst, der meist so gegen 16 Uhr endet” (“[…] customer visiting hours that tend to end towards 4 PM”). Another company lists time intervals from 7–7:15 AM to 4–4:15 PM for possible visits. In other words, it seems highly unlikely that there would be such a law—and her employer appears to be unusually restrictive.

    More likely than not, she is deliberately lying, with the expectation that the customer will just accept the customer-hostile situation “because its the law”. (I cannot rule out that she is deeply ignorant or that her employer has earlier lied to her.)

  3. She claimed that I should be happy that replacement dates were offered at all, because I would have a legal obligation to let her in at her convenience. It is true that there are some jobs performed by a chimney-sweep that have a quasi-governmental (“hoheitliche”) character,* and for which this claim could to some degree apply. However, the exhaust check is not one of these and this reasoning does not apply. Extending it to general tasks is like a land-lord claiming that “because I have the right to enter an apartment unannounced and on short notice when there is an emergency requiring immediate action, I always have the right to enter an apartment unannounced and on short notice”. Or consider a police officer who reasons that “because I can violate some traffic rules when on duty, I can violate them when off duty too”.

    *Due to a very unfortunate and highly outdated legal situation in Germany. To be specific, this does not refer to chimney-sweeps in general, but to the designated local “Bezirksschornsteinfeger”; however, this company happens to be Bezirksschornsteinfeger in my area.

    Again, she is likely deliberately lying to trick customers into compliance.

  4. She claims that the works would be done for my benefit and paints the situation as if she were doing me some type of favor. She is not—on the contrary, her employer relies on outdated and disproportionate regulations to perform a service for the government, which in many cases amounts to cheap money-making for the chimney-sweep. I have very little to gain from this farce, and am stuck with considerable extra efforts. This claim is as absurd as when governments claims that issuing passports would be a service to the citizens, when the need for a passport only arises because of governments and their artificial impositions.

    What benefit there is to gain, could be achieved much better by having e.g. the maintenance company* do the same check and/or doing the same check every five-or-so years—or by use of some type of detector**. Such a detector would actually be vastly superior through giving a timely warning, while the yearly check could lead to exposure over a full year before detection…

    *When this suggestion has been raised on the Internet, chimney-sweeps tend to answer that this would increase the risks, e.g. through giving the maintenance company incentives to approve its own work. This argument is not entirely without merit, but the benefits of avoiding this risk are not in proportion to the additional costs of the current system, making it specious. More likely, it is an excuse to justify own money-making than something honestly believed. In particular, the “incentives” part is highly dubious, because a maintenance company that does both work and check would be liable for any health damage without excuses, while the current system allows blame pushing between maintenance company and chimney-sweep.

    **I wish to recall having seen such in the past, but have not researched the availability and details. Even if I misremember, however, such detectors should be comparatively easy to provide.

    From another perspective, entering someone else’s apartment, outside of rare emergencies, is a privilege and should be treated as such—no matter the law. Indeed, even when a legal right is present, even e.g. when we talk of police with a search warrant, the self-invited visitor should show a corresponding humility and respect. The attitude displayed by this woman is entirely lacking in this regard. The same applies to the impositions regarding e.g. time: even to the degree that she might be legally entitled to force people to forego work and whatnot for her benefit, she should show a corresponding humility and respect, and realize that she causes a major imposition* for her own benefit—but she does not.

    *Indeed, so large an imposition that I consider it outright unethical, even to the degree that it is legally allowed. A more ethical company would still provide times for the convenience of the customers, not for its own.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 17, 2019 at 8:17 am