Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘Society

A few thoughts around myself and Asperger’s

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I am currently watching the third season of “Atypical”*. This brings me to a few issues around myself, diagnosis, speaking about such topics, etc.

*A series centered on a teenage boy with some form of high-functioning autism.

For starters, I am fairly* certain that I am a non-NT, most likely an Aspie, but I am not formally diagnosed. Not having a diagnosis, I am a little reluctant to bring the topic up in most context, because if I do make a big deal out of it and it later turns out that I am wrong, I could end up with a considerable amount of egg on my face. (But neither have I made a great secret out of it. There are prior mentions in some of my published texts, e.g.) That various non-NT diagnoses, be they official or “self-”, have been “fashionable” in the last decade-or-so is a further deterrent, as is a certain overlap in “symptoms” with giftedness and introversion (as e.g. according to the Ixxx and, in particular, INTx classifications of Myers–Briggs).**

*My amateur study of the topic is sufficiently far in the past that I have forgotten most, but among signs we have e.g. very high scores on several online tests, problems with annoying stimuli (to the point of flipping out), problems with eye contact, a monotone voice, and some lesser known quirks like a tendency, well into my teens, to walk on my toes when not wearing shoes. It would also explain some past oddities, like an unusually poor coordination as a child, especially when it came to hand-writing, in a more parsimonious way than without assuming “spectrum issues”. Also note some potentially supporting resp. conflicting remarks in a text on my baby book.

**Of course, as with any medical classification, the question arises when and to what degree the symptoms resp. the underlying cause is the important part.

On the other hand, I doubt the value of a formal diagnosis, because, again, there is a “fashion” aspect to them and because most non-specialist physicians/psychologists/whatnots will have only a very superficial knowledge and ability to make a correct diagnosis.

This doubt is one reason why I have never bothered with a formal diagnosis. Another is that the main advantages would have arisen at a younger age, e.g. in that I might have had some degree of special treatment or a less hostile environment in school.* This includes e.g. less exposure to noisy kids and not being berated for my poor hand-writing by teachers (or, in one case, having a teacher refuse to correct an essay due to readability issues). As a counter-point, had I been diagnosed back then, I might have ended up in special-ed, which could have turned out to be even worse than regular school.

*Here we have a considerable contrast to “Atypical”, where there are school counselors, support groups, and whatnots. In Sweden back then (school years 1981–1994), there was next to no awareness and the sole image of autism was basically of a near vegetable. (I.e. a very severe case by today’s standard, and some argue that this image is misleading even for the very severe cases.) Notably, I do not recall even hearing about Asperger’s pre-2000, and “regular” autism and Asperger’s do differ. It was likely even later when I encountered the idea of a “spectrum”.

Other reasons include that there is still some risk of an unfair stigma and that an adult diagnosis can be trickier than a child diagnosis, because many of the signs disappear over time, e.g. because the subject has deliberately developed lacking skills, gained through theory or experience what others might have naturally, or similar. A good example of the latter is a scene in season one of “Atypical”: A pretty girl approaches the protagonist to ask him for common study. He obliviously turns her down with the motivation that it would be pointless for him. Adult me had the same “face–palm” reaction that (I assume) most other viewers had; however, his reaction is very similar to what mine used to be well into my twenties. Another example is the below incident with my step-father—such deliberations would also have been strange to me well into my twenties, or even early thirties. A counter-example is eye contact: even today it rarely even occurs to me that I should make eye contact. (I have deliberately tried to change this, e.g. through writing myself reminders, but it has not helped one iota.)

Then there is the issue of using a diagnosis as an excuse, both as a reason why a (formal) diagnosis is less important to me and why I might not have spoken that much of it, even had I had one: seeing some aspects of me and my life in the light of Asperger’s can make it easier for me (or others) to understand, but knowing or not knowing does not fundamentally alter who I am and only very rarely will it affect how I approach something. Similarly, if e.g. Einstein or some other past, undiagnosed person did or did not have Asperger’s, HFA, whatnot, how does this change his works or the impact of his works? Mostly*, not at all: we might gain a different understanding of him by assuming or not assuming a diagnosis, but the theory of relativity remains the same. In fact, focusing too much on a diagnosis might be harmful, e.g. if someone says “I have Asperger’s, so no-one can blame me for not engaging in small-talk with my colleagues”. True, the room for blame might be small, but there might still be negative effects even without blame.

*Exceptions can exist, especially in the arts. For instance, I read Kafka’s “Der Bau” at around the same time as I researched Asperger’s, and this work might well be understood differently depending on whether the sometime speculation that Kafka had Asperger’s is correct.

A particularly interesting situation arose during my visits to Sweden: My step-father mentioned that my step-brother had (as an adult) been diagnosed with both Asperger’s and ADHD.* What do I answer? If he had the intention of opening a door to discuss my situation, I should probably have taken that door. As is, I reasoned that he probably did not: he might very well have some suspicions based on my past history or something that he might have read on my blog, but I do not believe that he reads it and my suspecting-that-he-had-suspicions is one “if” too far for my taste. Now, assuming that he had no such “door” intentions, what could the effects be if tried to walk through the door? Possibly, positive; possibly, negative; and the negative (a) seems likelier to me, (b) might have a larger impact. Notably, without a diagnosis, there is a risk of perceived “me too”-ism or “wannabe”-ism; notably, he mentioned this in a context of my step-brother having had problems with employment (and/or other “success” areas), and my greater** success with employment might then have come across as a put down of some sort. Correspondingly, I chose to leave my own situation entirely without mention. I certainly swallowed my first reaction of skepticism, as my step-brother had always struck me as out-going and sociable: not only is there no law that Aspies have to be hermits, but the most likely interpretation of such skepticism would be that he was making excuses for being a slacker*** or whatnot, which is not something that most fathers want to hear about their sons.

*Bear in mind that I have never discussed my own issues with my step-father and that I have only met said step-brother a handful of times, the last of which might have been twenty years ago. (He was already an adult, living in a different city, when my mother and step-father married. My move to Germany in 1997 limited the potential for contacts further.)

**I have definitely had many issues of an Aspie kind in my employment history, but I had done a lot better than he and the last few years up to my sabbatical (during which this conversation took place) had been very successful. Indeed, compared to some, I have been extremely successful. For instance, “Atypical” at some point claims that four out of five fail in college (albeit, with regard to autists, not Aspies).

***While this to some degree matched my teenage impression, that impression was based on very limited data and it need not have been fair to older versions of my step-brother, even had it been fair to younger versions.

Excursion on having a PC union card:
Discussions with the PC crowd is one area where proclaiming myself an Aspie might have been beneficial: it appears to often make a major difference to them whether someone has a “union card”, e.g. through being a woman, Black, “ethnic”, gay, transsexual, …, in order to be anything but their stereotype of a “vanilla” White man. Being an Aspie could conceivably have provided me with such a union card. Because I do not want to encourage that type of thinking in the PC crowd, I have mostly kept silent on the topic of Asperger’s. To boot, this is an area where a formal diagnosis might have been needed, to avoid accusations of being a poseur or some analogy of a “cultural appropriator”.

Excursion on penguins:
The recurring reader might have noted my repeatedly speaking of my old toy penguin, while the protagonist of “Atypical” is a penguin fanatic. This is likely a coincidence, as my strong connection to that one penguin probably stems from the early date that it was given to me. I have had some secondary affection for penguins in general, but that might well be caused by the toy. Similarly, that Linux is associated with penguins is likely a coincidence relative me. (Also, I suspect, relative “Atypical”, but there is more room for a connection there.)

Excursion on ADHD:
I am very uncertain whether I would have shared my step-brother’s ADHD diagnosis, which might need further consideration above. I have never been very well-read on ADHD, and I am vague on the changing takes on co-morbidity, mutual exclusion, and so on. I do note that my ability to concentrate can vary quite wildly depending on task, circumstances, and my current mood, but that need not be remarkable even in the overall population.

Excursion on “people first”* language and similar nonsense:
While I strongly believe that no aspect of life, e.g. a medical diagnosis, should define someone, “people first” language and similar ideas are idiotic and ignorant. A statement like “he/she/it is [a/an] X” does not imply that this is all there is. On the contrary, this is a standard phrasing in English. In my case, e.g., the following and many other statements simultaneously apply and each give a portion of what I am: I am (probably) an Aspie. I am a Swede. I am an author. I am a blogger. I am an immigrant. I am an emigrant. I am a libertarian. I am a book lover.

*I.e. that statements like “he is autistic” are evil and that we absolutely, categorically must use awkward phrasings like “he is a person with autism”, because the former would reduce someone to a diagnosis (or some other, similarly weak, motivation).

Moreover, “I am an Aspie.” would say more about me and be more closely tied to my inner workings than e.g. “I am a blogger.”, making it absurd to reject the former and accept the latter.

Similarly, without articles, that I am tall, bald, and handsome does not define me, so why should a claim like “Y is autistic” or “Y is blind” be seen as an all-encompassing definition of Y’s very being, as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? The very idea says more about the adherents of “people first” language than about the rest of the world.

Like much of PC language, “people first” amounts to those too stupid or ignorant to understand how language works demanding changes to standard use just to solve a problem that only exists in their own minds.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 5, 2019 at 12:57 am

Follow-up: Osthyvlar and cheese in Sweden and Germany

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I have earlier written about my disappointing experiences with osthyvlar in Germany.

Since then:

  1. My osthyvel was so over-challenged by a stubborn piece of cheese that it slipped, hit my left thumb, and sliced roughly half a cm2 of skin and flesh almost off. (The piece remained connected by a thin strip of skin on one side.) I used osthyvlar in Sweden from a fairly early childhood until I left for German at age 22, and nothing even remotely similar ever happened.

    Obviously, I resolved to never use this particular osthyvel again. Equally obviously, someone with no prior experiences, e.g. the typical German, would have been quite likely to curse osthyvlar as pointless and dangerous, making the introduction of this wonderful tool even harder than it already is (cf. the orginal text).

  2. The next few weeks, I took the opportunity to look for another osthyvel in any likely store that I came across. Most had none at all. The few that I found were usually severely over-priced. This includes other examples of the substandard model that I had rejected at 9.9x Euro and other models going up well above twenty Euro. This for an item that is basically quite cheap and can be had for just two or three Euro in Sweden,* and in a situation where it would make sense to buy several models for experimentation. At this point, I was torn between asking my father to send me a good model and just canceling the experiment entirely (note the other complications mentioned in the original text).

    *As with many such products, there is no real upper limit on price, be it in Sweden or Germany, and the functionality and quality does not correlate well with the price. The problem seems to be that the German stores only go for over-priced “design” or “brand” models (if any at all), while the Swedish market covers the entire spectrum.

  3. At this point, looking for something else, I stumbled upon a 3.9x Euro item in a store that I already had visited without success.* I bought one—and found it to be clearly superior to my original 9.9x Euro specimen, again proving that prices tell little about quality. Most of the issues in my original text remain, but slicing Emmentaler and (even young) Gouda is now possible without effort and risk.

    *Specifically, Kodi. I do not know whether this item will continue to be sold or whether it was a short-term experiment.

Excursion on a previous injury:
While I have never had any prior incident with an osthyvel, I did once get a similar cut through a knife (and on the same thumb): My first year in Germany, with little money and equipment, I used a too blunt (non-bread) knife to cut a too stale piece of bread. I held the bread in my hand to try to get more (for want of a better word) traction than on a cutting board. The knife slipped with considerable force and a similar result. With the knife, I was behaving stupidly and the result was, with hindsight, not that unexpected; with the osthyvel, I did nothing wrong and the event would not have taken place, had the osthyvel been of an acceptable quality.

On the upside, this time I was sufficiently wise to immediately press the almost-sliced-off piece back onto the wound and applying a band-aid. It reconnected very soon and the resulting scar looks to be a lot smaller than the last time around, even after adjusting for the smaller wound.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 1, 2019 at 3:50 pm

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Extreme Left gains in Germany / paradoxical German panic over “Right” gains

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A constant annoyance, and a sign of a deep underlying problem with public perception, is the treatment of the Left* and the “Right”** in Germany, manifested e.g. in widely different rules and reporting, attempts to ban “Right” (real or alleged) extremist parties while tolerating equivalent or worse Left extremist parties, or the constant Leftist complaint about a “Rechtsruck”*** of society, public opinion, politics, whatnot.

*Note that the German Left corresponds roughly to the U.S. “Old Left”, with a lesser (but growing) emphasis on e.g. PC issues and a greater (but diminishing) on economic issues. Also note that the German Left is Left of the U.S. Left.

**While I disapprove of the Left–Right scale in general, for a number of reasons, the concept of “Right” is almost impossible through being too heterogeneous, which is why I put it in quotation marks. I note in particular that the “extreme Right” is not an extremer version of the “regular” “Right”, but is almost solely defined (by its enemies …) based on positions regarding e.g. immigration. Often the alleged “extreme Right” has more in common with the Left than with the rest of the “Right”, when it comes to other issues.

**Approximately, “[sudden?] move to the Right”.

This “Rechtsruck” label is applied to any and all change away from the opinions the Left declares that people should have and grossly ignores that such a move is often* nothing more than a move towards sanity from the extreme Leftist opinions and politics that are so common in Germany. A highly Leftist populist Social-Democrat party is currently a part of the government and has been involved in roughly half all historical democratically elected governments in German history. Die Linke, Leftist extremist/populist and a direct descendant of SED, the dictatorial Communist rulers of East Germany, are represented in parliament. MLPD, an extreme Left and Marxist-Leninist party, is regularly and openly calling for revolution and the ban of other parties.

*The question is made more complicated by the uselessness of the term “Right” (cf. above). Note that “Rechtsruck” is not applied just to e.g. immigration policy, but also to e.g. taxation, union issues, and similar.

A good example (and the impulse for this text): Yesterday, there was an election to the state parliament of Thüringen (Thuringia; a state within the German federation). The aforementioned Die Linke arose as the largest individual party, with almost a third of the votes, and will likely* become the core of the next state government. This after already having reached number two in the last election (2014), which resulted in it being a part of the ruling coalition, joined by the Social-Democrats and the “Green” party.

*It will be impossible to say for sure before the various negotiations that will follow have been concluded. Note that Germany has a multi-party system, which by its nature leads to different consideration and complications that the two-party system of the U.S. Ditto the difference in parliamentary approach, where Germany is closer to the British Westminster system. In 2019, six parties made state parliament; in 2014, five.

In any sane world, this would have been a considerable cause for concern. But, what do I find, as I go looking for suitable references? That we now have an anti-“Right” panic! [1]*, because AfD, a migration critical party, often (rightly or wrongly) labeled as extreme or populist “Right”, managed to become the second largest party. Still, in the current Germany, it is a lesser evil than Die Linke, it has very little chance of joining any government arising from this election, and its success, I suspect, reflects the divide** between the politicians and the people more than it does any “Rechtsruck”. In contrast, the success of Die Linke has a strong component of reactionary Leftist opinions, as shown e.g. by how Thüringen was a part of the old East Germany and how Die Linke has a long history of doing better in the “East” than in the “West”. It is true that the absolute change pro-AfD is considerably larger (cf. footnote), but it is less dire both in its immediate consequences and its implications about opinions (again, cf. footnote). Moreover, AfD remains smaller than Die Linke by a considerable margin.

*I found this link on “Spiegel Online”, but it lands on another site. I am an uncertain about its exact relation to “Spiegel Online”. However, other site-internal sources include e.g. [2], where more traditional “Right” and “Center” parties are called to “ihrer staatspolitischen Verantwortung gerecht werden” (“take their political responsibility”) by keeping Die Linke, a natural political archenemy!, in power. [3] collects opinions from other news sources under the title “Der Schock ist groß” (“The chock is great”): Most of this chock seems to be directed against AfD. (Disclaimer: I have only skimmed through the collection of opinions.)

**Apart from the normal issues in this area, we have the repeated “great coalitions” between Conservatives (CDU/CSU) and Social-Democrats, especially on the federal level. We can indeed see that the 12.8 percentage-point increase for AfD corresponds well with the 11.7 percentage-point drop of CDU—two changes that are each of roughly the same size as the sum of all other changes for all other parties. (For instance, Die Linke +2.8, SPD -4.2. While a similar effect might very well be present between those two parties, it is a lot smaller and more likely to reflect a natural drift of voters according to what party best matches opinions.)

Again: Die Linke has almost a third of the vote—a party corresponding not the U.S. Democrats but to the extreme Left sub-sections of the U.S. Democrats, or possibly even ranging too far left to be willing participants even in the Democrat party. In this situation, there are complaints about “Right”-wing gains!

Indeed, even the possibility of a CDU–Die Linke coalition has been broached, as if the GOP would form a coalition government with someone Left of Bernie Sanders.

Note on sources: I have additionally drawn on pages from the German Wikipedia for the elections in 2019 and 2014.

Excursion on “democracy”:
In Germany, the word “democracy” (and its variations) is increasingly used to denote “having the correct opinions” (or similar), e.g. in that banning a “Right” wing party, censoring members of the “Right”, etc., is seen as being democratic, while the “Right” is considered anti-democratic based on e.g. immigration critical ideas (as opposed to attempts to restrict civic rights* or attempts to ban other parties**). Indeed, [1] complains that German schools spend more time on explaining words like “gross” and “net” than on explaining “democracy”. In this, the author might well address a genuine problem, but the problem is to the disadvantage of e.g. the AfD and to the advantage of the Leftist parties, because attempts to curtail democracy, proof of a lacking understanding of democracy, and so on, is predominantly a problem with the Left in Germany.

*As e.g. CDU and its Bavarian sister CSU has repeatedly attempted with regard to e.g. computer privacy.

**As the Leftist parties are quite fond of doing.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 28, 2019 at 11:22 pm

The 2019 Nobel Prizes: Women and the Nobel Prize

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Time for the yearly Nobel-Prize update:

Compared to 2018, the historical male dominance has returned.

The three* regular Prizes (Physics/Chemistry/Physiology or Medicine) saw a total of nine laureates, all men.

*As noted for 2018, I will ignore Literature and Peace in the future. However, they would not have changed the picture this year, with both laureates being men.

The “extra-curricular” Economics Prize saw two men and one woman (Esther Duflo).

In total, there were eleven male to one female laureate, and 3.75 to 0.25 Prizes.*

*Note that, in my understanding, Duflo received a quarter, not a third, as the price was shared equally between Michael Kremer and the team of Duflo and her husband, Abhijit Banerjee.

Excursion on 2018:
The 2018 analysis was slightly hampered by the delayed awarding of the Literature Prize. It is noteworthy that the delayed award did go to a woman (Olga Tokarczuk), which makes 2018 a truly exceptional year for the women. Factoring in the rarity of a share of the Physics Prize, 2018 could be argued as even on par with 2009.

Excursion on the married couples:
With Duflo, we have another instance of a husband/wife team sharing a Price. While this is unremarkable when looking at husbands,* the proportion of female winners is sufficiently large that there could be a distortive effect, e.g. in that a brilliant male scientist has his merely good wife as a tag-along. Official information gives four** other cases, leaving us with five couples:

*Not because the reverse scenario of brilliant female with tag-along husband would be impossible, but because removing a few male winners would not affect the overall proportions.

**Not counting the also mentioned Gunnar and Alva Myrdal. While they did both win, they won in different fields in different years, which reduces the risk of a tag-along effect. To boot, Alva was awarded the Peace Prize (1982), which is not under consideration. Also note Marie Curie’s Chemistry Prize below.

  1. Duflo/Banerjee, Economics in 2019. Duflo is only the second female laureate (in the field in question).
  2. May-Britt and Edvard Moser, Medicine in 2014. May-Britt is one of twelve female laureates. With Gerty Cori (cf. below) this makes two in twelve or one in six.
  3. Gerty and Carl Cori, Medicine in 1947. She was the first female laureate by thirty years.
  4. Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie, Chemistry in 1935. Irène is still one of only five female laureates. She was only the second female recipient of any non-Literature/non-Peace Prize, behind only her mother (cf. below).
  5. Marie and Pierre Curie, Physics in 1903. Marie is still one of only three female laureates, and was the first by 60 years. Indeed, she was the first female laureate in any category, Literature and Peace included.

    (But note that she won the 1911 Chemistry Prize unshared, a few years after Pierre’s death. Moreover, that the delays between effort and award were far shorter back then, implying that Pierre need not have had any effect on the Chemistry Prize, even had he had one on the Physics Prize.)

(Additional data from a Wikipedia page listing female laureates. With reservations for oversights on my behalf.)

A similar tag-along effect could, obviously, exist even without a married relationship, when a team is jointly awarded a Prize but the contributions of the laureates vary in importance. Again, such an effect would have only a small impact on men, while the impact on women could be considerable. (Most winning teams have been all-male, implying that the number of male laureates could drop, but it would still be far larger than the number of female laureates, and the number of “male” Prizes would remain almost or entirely unchanged.)

Excursion on the Economics Prize:
With repeated awardings of the Peace and Literature Prizes for “being Left”, I have some fears that the Economy prize will eventually be similarly politicized. The motivation for the 2019 Price could point in this direction: “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”, which might be an indication that the award is less for scientific accomplishment and more for choice of topic. (I have not attempted the very considerable leg-work needed to judge this in detail.)

Other potential suspects include “for integrating climate change into long-run macroeconomic analysis” (William D. Nordhaus) and “for his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare” (Angus Deaton).

As a depressing contrast, this years Literature choice, Peter Handke, has been criticized for reasons unrelated to literary accomplishment—his opinions relating to Serbia et co. appear to be considered unacceptable.

(All motivations from official information.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 14, 2019 at 7:38 pm

My current noise situation / renewed renovations II

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After my last text on renovations, things improved a fair bit and the last few weeks have been somewhat OK. The works often started early or went late, but there were no machine noises and very little hammering. Indeed, just wearing ear-plugs often made the noises ignorable.

Yesterday, a large stretch of the morning was so quite, that I believed the works to finally be ended, after possibly four months… It was the first working-day of a new month, and, possibly, they were done and the offending apartment now handed over to new tenants.

No, just like the last time I thought the works to be ended ([1]), it was the calm before the storm: 09:40 a very loud drilling (or similar) started. When the drilling stopped, hammering started, when the hammering stopped, drilling started, … It was not as bad as in [1], but far worse than in many weeks. Around 10:25, I fled the building, and remained away until (by coincidence) exactly 15:00. The disturbance was still ongoing. Only some time after* 18:20 silence finally ensued.

*How long, I do not know: this was the time of my last note.

Today, It was silent well past 09:40, and I had renewed hopes. Possibly, they had done last minute work yesterday, and were now finally done? Again, no: 10:45 this bullshit started again. For now, I try to slug it out and, fortunately, there are long pauses with lesser amounts of noise. But: If I, again, have to spend a major part of each day outside my apartment, my literary efforts will be severely hampered.

I have managed to make one improvement compared to the past, however. White-noise was not very effectual, largely because most of the disturbances are at a low frequency resp. a long wave-length.* Using the tool “sox”, I have prepared a one-hour file of brown noise, which is stronger on lower frequencies and works better (but is still far from perfect).

*If in doubt, higher frequencies will be swallowed better by the walls, which might also partially explain why ear-plugs and similar are not that satisfactory: The sounds that get through the walls are the same sounds that tend to get through the ear-plugs.

Shortly after my last text, I wrote down a number of sub-topics for further discussion, but the relative silence made me forget them. Because I am revisiting the topic:

  1. In [1] I was highly skeptical to the “Mittagsruhe”, as oddly timed, pointless, or even damaging. A possible explanation is that it was intended for sleep: Today’s typical schedules make it hard to not be awake through-out the day and sleep solely during the night. This was not always so, and the Mittagsruhe would fit a scenario with a longer post-meal nap reasonably well. Still, today, it remains mostly pointless.

    As a further complication, the Mittagsruhe applies only to private individuals, e.g. if the owner or the tenant performs works himself. For hired professionals, it does not apply. (I was not aware of this when I wrote [1].) This makes the Mittagsruhe the more pointless. It can also increase the harm further, because the harassed parties will only very rarely have any prior information as to who performs the work, which makes planning that much harder. (Indeed, it could very well be both owner and professionals on different days and for different tasks …)

  2. A major problem with the crisis situation described in [1], was that I had no recourse and no contacts. Due to the extreme loudness, I was not even able to tell which apartment was the source. I certainly had no idea of who was employed to do the work and by whom. These, too, are facts that should always be announced in order to facilitate protests and, in extreme cases, legal actions. Here, if I had grown so desperate as to e.g. file for an injunction, it might have taken me weeks to even find out against whom
  3. Some type of upper limit on work per house (or some other criterion) and year should be instituted, e.g. that the sum of all works above some decibel limit must not exceed two months and above some higher limit not two weeks.
  4. A compensation scheme should be in place so that the offending party must cover damages to others, e.g. through paying for alternate accommodation. As is, only a part of the cost falls on the party that reaps the entire benefit, which leads to highly suboptimal decision making from a societal point of view. (Even discounting the great injustice.) Also cf. a more general discussion.
  5. Some rough equivalent of “habeas corpus” might be beneficial for long running works, where the disturber has to demonstrate in court that sufficient permissions are present, that sufficient anti-noise measures are being taken, etc. If he fails, the works must be interrupted.
  6. Too loud noises should unequivocally be considered equivalent to physical assault* and result in both a right to self-defense and the possibility to file criminal charges. This includes any case where the pain-threshold is exceed for a non-trivial time**, highly exceeded for even a short time, or when the combination of loudness and duration can cause hearing damage. The extreme and extremely prolonged loudness described in [1] is a definite such case. Another case, from my personal experiences, was when a train conductor blew a whistle a shoulder’s width from my ear, with not one single word of warning. Certainly, I would rather take a slap in the face than relive the events of [1]. Indeed, without counter-measures, I would certainly take the slap over the current situation.

    *Depending on the severity and the correct legalese, some other term, e.g. “battery”, might be better suited.

    **Hitting the breaks of a car might move the sound into the lower ranges of pain, but only for a very short time.

  7. There should be no government subsidies and only very limited tax deductions available for this type of work. They are often to the sole benefit of the apartment owner and the workers; often a negative for the tenants (of the apartment), who see a rent hike for “improvements” that they do not necessarily want; and a negative for everyone else. Moreover, they remove resources from the building of new apartments—the low rate of which is a major problem in e.g. Germany. There is a lack of construction workers, plumbers, electricians, …, and when they spend time doing renovations instead of building new houses, the rate of building is lowered and the general price level is pushed upwards. Moreover, those who want to invest are more likely to do so by purchasing and/or renovating apartments in a setup where renovations are subsidized, and correspondingly less likely to invest in building something new.

Note that some of these items could have positive effects e.g. through works being done in 3 weeks with ten men instead of 3 months with two.

Excursion on noise cancellation:
In theory, noise cancellation might work well on this type of low frequency. It might be something worth testing later. I used to own a pair of noise-canceling head-phones, the Bose QC25, but they eventually broke during my many journeys and I did not reinvest: they did a lousy job where I needed them most at that time—blocking the overly loud, hyper-annoying, constant PA announcements on German trains and railway stations.* Indeed, because they let most speech through while blocking most background noise, they might even have made the situation worse… Ear-plugs did a better job—and a pair of ear-plugs costs less than a Euro**, while the QC25 were at least 200 Euro. Was the life-time of the QC25 equal to two or three hundred ear-plugs? I doubt it. (But, in all fairness, the sound was quite good.)

*A problem with noise cancellation is that it has (has had?) problems coping with the faster reactions needed to neutralize higher frequencies, which lets speech through with too little blocking.

**Even assuming e.g. a German drug store as source. They might be cheaper elsewhere or in bulk buys.

Excursion on the economics of renovations:
An interesting issue is the comparatively poor economics of (extensive) renovations. They can easily cost tens of thousands of Euro. Hypothetically, let a renovation cost thirty thousand and allow a later average net earnings increase of 100 Euro/month. This implies that it will take 300 months or 25 years to get the money back—and after 25 years, another renovation would almost certainly be needed… Here we can also see the danger of subsidies and tax breaks that make such propositions artificially more attractive… (Disclaimer: The starting numbers are off-the-top-of-my-head guesses. They need not reflect reality in detail—but they do correctly demonstrate the principle. Even a highly optimistic 300 extra a month for the same investment leads to 100 months, for instance. Even getting back the rent lost during renovations might take years…)

Written by michaeleriksson

September 3, 2019 at 1:19 pm

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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