Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘Society

Further damage to democracy / Follow-up: The 2018 Swedish parliamentary election

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As a further sign of how democracy is increasingly lost, Swedish politicians appear to be going down the same perfidious path that the Germans have pushed with their unholy CDU/CSU and SPD coalitions.

Shortly after the Swedish election, things seemed to point to a non-Leftist government, with the traditional non-Left alliance of parties being roughly on par with the Social-Democrats (S) and their support parties, and upstart SD being less likely to support S. Item 6 of the linked-to text is particularly interesting in light of actual developments…

However, just as in Germany, there were endless* delays and negotiations, with the added perfidy that two parties of the decades long non-Left alliance have decided that it is more important to keep SD without influence than it is to support the alliance and to be true to their voters.** This despite a very clear understanding among the typical alliance voters that a vote for any one of these parties was a vote for the alliance as a whole and against S. To boot, said two parties (according to current reporting) would not even get seats in the government as a part of their thirty silver pieces, which would have given some pseudo-justification to this move. They have received some promises of policy changes, but likely none that could not have been handled better with an alliance government to begin with. Of course, these concessions also potentially open S up to criticism, but a lesser one, seeing that it actually gets most of the cake…

*My first text on the election was published four months ago, to the day.

**SD is still, despite having the support of more than every fifth voter in some polls, treated as a pariah by some other parties, in entire disproportion to their actual opinions, and is seen as carrying some type of guilt by association. (Well in line with typical Leftist propaganda methods of condemn-everyone-insufficiently-PC-as-evil-to-the-core: SD is critical of immigration policies and rejects the gender-feminist world-view of “Patriarchy” and “constructs”.) For my part, I would consider S the more extreme and unbalanced of the two… Certainly, it is absurd when parties refuse to even risk winning a parliamentary vote through SD’s support. Consider, by analogy, if the U.S. Republicans (Democrats) would refuse their own bills and nominations if they needed the support from a handful of Democrats (Republicans) to push them through. See also several older texts, including e.g. [1] from before the 2010 election.

As far as I am concerned, the said two parties,“Centerpartiet”–“the center party” (C) and “Liberalerna”–“the liberals”* (L), have de-legitimized themselves entirely, and I cannot at this juncture consider either of Sweden and Germany a true democracy: Democracy is more than just formally having a democratic system—it also requires that the players behave democratically and do not just use the voters as a mere tool for their own purposes.

*I note that the Swedish word “liberal” kept its original meaning for a lot longer than in the U.S., whose “liberals” are often anti-liberals by older standards. Indeed, as late as when I was a teenager, I used the word to describe myself and was correctly understood. However, L has long flirted with the U.S. style of “liberalism”—the more so since a name change, a few years back, from the then “Folkpartiet” (“the People’s Party”).

Excursion on the election procedure:
A potentially severe flaw in the Swedish system is that the new government (resp. the prime minister who appoints the government) is elected within the parliament on a negative basis: Rather than picking whoever can get a majority (or plurality) behind him, the job goes to whoever is not explicitly rejected by a majority. This peculiar system has likely strongly contributed to the current problems, and was behind the absurd 1978 choice of L as sole government party—with 39 (!) out of 349 MPs and roughly one in nine of the (popular election) voters as a basis. (According to Swedish Wikipedia, the in-parliament vote showed 39 for, 66 against, and 215 abstaining, and since the 66 were well short of half… While I see nothing wrong with minority governments in principle, this is too much.) It might be time to experiment with e.g. a knock-candidates-out-until-one-has-a-majority system.

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Written by michaeleriksson

January 11, 2019 at 8:50 pm

Sound-bite communications and too much brevity

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While I have recently criticized older writers for being overly wordy, some modern forms of writing and whatnot is a greater evil: Those that fail to inform or, worse, actually mis-inform, through reducing communication to tidbits without context.

Consider e.g. a typical modern documentary: Someone with some connection to the topic is allowed to say a single sentence, taken entirely out of the original context*. There is a cut to the next person with some connection to the topic, who is also allowed to say a single sentence. There is a cut [etc., etc.] This goes on for five or ten minutes—and what happens after that I frankly do not know, because I have already turned the documentary off… To make matters worse, the connection is not necessarily very strong and the single sentences are often uninformative irrespective of context. At extremes, a documentary about a film-maker can start off with single sentences by people who at some point made a single film with him—or merely share the same field. (But happen to be quite famous…) The sentences themselves can then amount to “He is the greatest!”, “I loved working with him!”, and similar.

*From the optics, this context is usually a longer interview, which would, likely, have been more interesting to begin with. True, such interviews are rarely entertaining, but there is something to be learned and understood—and the point of a documentary is to give that opportunity. For entertainment, pick a good sit-com, action movie, or whatever the current mood calls for.

Note that it is very hard to say something sensible with a single sentence, even when that sentence is targeted to the purpose (not just torn out of context). Look e.g. at the immediately preceding sentence: It does a far better job than the aforementioned and is comparatively long, but it is still just a piece of the overall text. Consider how it would read without the context of the overall discussion or note how it would be just a claim without any support for its truth.*

*This is, admittedly, a situation that can be hard to avoid even in a full text, and not always something that I pay great attention to. A major complications is that what might seem self-evident to one person is not so to the next, e.g. because they have different levels of expertise or because their priorities differ. Another is that the overall text might give enough support when enough time is spent thinking, but that the reader will not necessarily be aware of this (or willing to put in the time, or smart enough), while the writer might be too stuck in his own context to realize that there are things that might better be spelled out. Even so, a larger block of text is almost always better than just a single statement.

Or take the reverse approach and contrast “He is the greatest!” with “He revolutionized the use of camera angles and I have never known a film-maker with such a drive for perfection. I was particularly impressed with his movie X, e.g. the scene where […]”: The former is just a sound-good/feel-good claim; the latter allows the viewer/reader/… to gain some insight, make his own verifications, find other sources of information, whatnot—e.g. through watching movie X with particular attention to the mentioned scene and/or camera angles.

The lack of context can even make claims misleading. For instance, “I loved working with him!” might have been exclaimed after an early successful collaboration, and does not necessarily reflect feelings after a later collaboration that lead to a major falling out—and knowing why the feelings were positive can have a massive impact on interpretation. (Did he make the experience pleasant or entertaining? Did he share insights into film-making that improved the speaker’s own abilities? Did he behave professionally when others might have exploded in anger? …) Similarly, “greatest” need not refer to the film-maker as a film maker—it might have been as a friend, a person, a philanthropist, boxer, or even be referring to physical size. (Other examples can be more subtle, while being vulnerable to similar objections.)

Somewhat overlapping, these single sentences are almost always lacking in nuance and have a tendency towards the hyperbolic—I have yet to hear “X is on my top-ten list, slightly behind Bergman. I waver between him and Fellini for eighth place.”, which presumably is not cool enough for a modern documentary.

I am left with the impression that the documentary makers just try to pump out a certain number of minutes of screen time (never mind its value per minute) and resort to a way that allows even those void of skill to produce those minutes. Possibly, a secondary, highly populist, concern can play in: To allow mindless viewers to get some degree of entertainment, e.g. through rapid changes (never mind that the result is unusable for those with a brain or a genuine interest—those for which documentaries should be made).

The problems are by no means limited to documentaries, however. For instance, there are many journalistic “articles” on the web, especially sport-centric, that consist of as many Twitter-quotes as own text… No analysis, no details, no information—just superficial impressions or sound-bite claims by others. My concerns are similar, as is my lack of enjoyment. I am certainly not informed by such crap.

Twitter, it self, is an obvious further example: If someone wants to inform the world that “I am going to the loo! Yaaay!”, Twitter might be an appropriate medium. For readers and writers looking for something with more substance, it is not a good choice.

Politics (especially Left/PC populist) and advertising are, unsurprisingly, other common sources of examples. Consider e.g. the utterly despicable pro-abortion argument (using the word loosely) “It is my body!”. Not only does this anti-intellectually reduce a very complicated* ethical question to a mere slogan, but this slogan is also extremely misleading—the main reason why this question is so tricky is exactly that it is not “my” (i.e. the current woman’s) body that is the main issue! The main issue is the body of the fetus, and involves sub-issues like when this body should be considered a human and when a disposable something else—which in turn involves medical, philosophical, and (for non-atheists) religious considerations. (Other issues not addressed by this slogan include whether and to what degree the interests of the father** and the grand-parents might need consideration and what the medical professionals consider compatible with their own conscience and religion. At the same time, it fails to use the single strongest pro-abortion argument, i.e. the medical risks resulting from illegal abortions.)

*So complicated that I have no clear opinion on the matter: I do not argue “pro-life” here—I argue against useless, illogical, intellectually dishonest, whatnot argumentation and cheap sloganeering.

**Including the negative direction, since he is usually forced to pay for the child when no abortion takes place.

Excursion on depth in general, especially regarding school:
As I have noticed again and again after leaving school*, what passes for education is often sufficiently superficial to be near useless—sometimes, even dangerous. The same can be said about much news reporting (even when the extreme cases above are discounted). Generally, society is filled with shallow information and a shallower understanding—while most people fail to understand that they know and understand very little. School amounts to twelve-or-so years of superficial orientation on most topics, where it would have been better to dig deeper into more select areas. History is possibly the topic in which this is the most obvious. Look at a typical school text on history, consider how many pages are spent on what topics, and then compare this amount of text with e.g. the Wikipedia article on the same topic—and compare the amount of depth, thought, analysis, whatnot. Reading the Wikipedia article once or twice and forgetting ninety-five percent of the data (but not insight!) will usually be more valuable than even memorizing the school text.

*Somewhat similar arguments apply to higher education too, but to a lesser degree and with more honesty: Achieving a diploma is somewhat comparable to getting a driver’s license—proof that someone is fit to enter traffic, but still trailing severely compared to what is expected ten or twenty years down the line. School, in comparison, often amounts to the knowledge that a car has four wheels and uses gasoline—superficial, border-line useless, and ignoring other numbers of wheels and other energy sources.

Excursion on “likes”:
It could be argued that “likes” takes this type of mis-communication to its purest extreme (or it could be argued to be another topic entirely). Consider e.g. the lack of a motivation why something was “liked”; the uncertainty of whether the text/video/whatnot was viewed as high-quality or whether it was the message that was approved; the typical inability to “dislike” something; the pressure some might feel to “like” as a form of payment (or the hope of getting “likes” in return, or the fear of disappointing a friend, …); etc.

Excursion on neglecting core groups:
Documentaries and entertainment (cf. above) is just a special case of a very disturbing tendency of neglecting the core group (traditional target/raison d’être/whatnot audience), for which something should be made, in favor of the great masses—failing to realize the betrayal implied, the damage done, and that it might be more profitable to hold a large portion of a niche market than a thin sliver of a mass market. A good other example is museums that (at least in Germany) focus so much on populist entertainment that I, as a core-group member, rarely bother to visit one. A particular problem is the drive to include children, even when they gain nothing museum-specific from the visit, and even when their presence is a disturbance to other visitors. For instance, when I lived in Munich, I visited an automotive or vehicle museum—and was ultimately forced to avoid large areas of the museum, lest I flip out. Why? A large part of the museum was occupied by some type of for-children-cinema and a slide—both in immediate vicinity of parts of the exhibition, both entirely lacking sound barriers. To boot, there was an endless stream of children running around and shouting between them. I note both that neither appeared to have any educational value (even discounting the limited value achievable in young children*) and that any hoped for gain in long-term interest in museums (if occurring at all) is outweighed by the adult visitors losing their interest. The true explanation is simply a wish to maximize the number of paying visitors—and education be damned. Other examples include sports’ events going for the ignorant masses, with imbecile commentators, idiotic camera angles, whatnot, and ignoring** those with an interest in and knowledge of the respective sport.

*It is a dangerous myth that children learn better than adults. Even when it comes to raw facts, it is highly disputable. When it comes to gaining an understanding, extrapolating, applying, it is horrendously wrong. See also e.g. [1].

**Note the difference between opening doors for the masses in addition to the core group vs. doing so through locking out the core group.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 4, 2018 at 9:50 am

A potential revamping of college tuition

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With regards to college/university there is a subset of problems that could be partially resolved in a simple manner:

  1. In order to ensure a high degree of equality of opportunity and social mobility, it must be possible even for people with low income and little wealth (be it own or when looking at the parents) to gain degrees. (Assuming that they are intelligent and hard-working enough to succeed with the academic side of the equation—few misconceptions are more dangerous than the belief that college creates diamonds out of charcoal.)
  2. Colleges cost money to run, and it is not optimal to finance them through public funds. Not only is the use of “someone else’s” money a bad idea in general, but here those that do not go to college are disadvantaged in an unfair manner.

    Note that this affects the U.S. too, because of the considerable “financial aid” given. Notably, the financial aid is also a driving force behind tuition increases—when the economically weaker buyers of a uniform product are given more money, the sellers have strong incentives to raise prices. The price raise then hits everyone, while only the weaker where given aid, which increases the group that would benefit from aid. To boot, the original aid receivers do not benefit as much as intended, creating a wish for more aid per person. Here there is a risk of a vicious circle.

  3. Academically poor students tend to cost a lot more money than the better students, e.g. in that they require more support outside of lectures and that they are the main reason why the highly inefficient lecture system is still “needed”.
  4. There is a severe over-inflow of students not suitable for college, who force further dumbing down, weaken graduation criteria, etc.
  5. In tuition-heavy countries, colleges have an artificial incentive to let students graduate, pass, get good grades, or even be admitted, irrespective of whether they have actually earned it.
  6. Excessive income, as e.g. with some U.S. colleges, leads to waste, including an every growing administration.

    (As an overlapping special case, it could be argued that the U.S. campus system is an evil per se, and that the students would be better off paying directly for own and independent housing, as they do in e.g. Sweden and Germany, rather than to pay the colleges to provide housing. Certainly, my impression of the living environment, from U.S. fiction and general reputation, points to it being positively harmful to someone who actually wants to study, which would make it a doubly poor use of money.)

  7. If only partially relevant: Popular programs* often have to reject even qualified students.

    *I use “program” to mean something at least somewhat structured, with an at least somewhat separate admission, and similar. Due to the wide variety of systems in use, this word need not be suitable everywhere. Note that the word “major” would implicitly exclude e.g. master programs and med school, which makes it highly unsuitable, even other potential concerns aside.

Consider the following solution sketch*:

*It is highly unlikely that this sketch would be viable without modifications and there are details to clarify. Complications include what exact numbers to use, whether borders should be sharp or fuzzy, what criteria should determine who belongs where, whether percentages or absolute numbers are better, how many categories are reasonable, what conditions are best suited for what category, …

Colleges are by law forced to let the top 10 percent of students study for free, with costs covered by the colleges’ funds.* Students from 10 (exclusive) to 30 (inclusive) percent are charged approximately at cost**. Students from 30 (exclusive) to 60 (inclusive) percent are charged at cost + some reasonable*** markup. The remaining students can be charged whatever the college wants. There is no additional financial aid.

*It is of fundamental importance that the colleges’ money be used. If, e.g., government money was given to the colleges to cover the costs, the system would fail.

**Based on a reasonable estimate of how much each student costs with regard to what directly relates to the education, e.g. salaries to professors for the courses taken, but not e.g. the cost of running the administration or various sports programs.

***Possibly, 500 or 1000 EUR/semester (resp. the purchasing-power adjusted equivalent in local currency), or some percentage of the costs (on top of the costs themselves).

In such a set-up, worthy students will rarely have financial problems; colleges can still earn plenty of money (but with less issues of insane surpluses); a very wide admittance would be possible, but the academically less* fit would tend to disappear when they discover that they fail to score well enough to study cheaply, which increases the quality of the graduates; etc. Note especially that while colleges might still have incentives for over-admission and “over-passing”, the students so favored would still need to pay their fees, and these incentives will then be largely countered by incentives for said students to drop out**. To boot, the colleges only have incentives to keep the students on—not to give them better grades than they deserve or to let them graduate before they have reached a certain standard.

*Note that these need not be unfit when it comes to a competitive program. In such cases, the effect is not so much a removal of the unworthy as it is a filtering based on result, where today a filtering based on expectation of result takes place. For instance, instead of admitting those with a GPA of 4.0 and leaving the 3.9s lying, a program could admit the latter too, and then let the students filter themselves out based on actual performance over the first few semesters. (But there might still be some programs where this type of increase is not plausible.)

**From the given program at the given college. It is quite possible that studies are continued with more success in a different program and/or at a different college.

In countries where various forms of public funding pay for significant portions of the cost and tuition is kept very low, this scheme would allow the introduction of higher fees (without negative effects on worthy students) and a corresponding reduction of the cost to the public: Instead of effectively shelling out money to everyone who wants to study, the money is limited to the worthy—or even to no-one, because the worthy are already covered by the fees paid by the unworthy.

Also note that the restriction on costs includable in the two mid-categories give incentives to keep administration and other overhead down. For instance, if a professor is given a raise, ninety percent of students can be charged extra—but for an administrator, it is only the bottom forty. Ditto if the number of professors respectively administrators per student is increased.

Excursion on actual costs:
Keep in mind that the actual cost of a student is much, much lower than what some U.S. fees could make one believe—this especially when we look at a “marginal”* student or a student bright enough to learn from books (instead of lectures) and to solve problems through own thinking (instead of being led by the hand by TAs). As I have observed, it would sometimes be cheaper for a handful of students to pool their money to hire a dedicated, full-time professor than to go to a U.S. college.

*I.e. an additional student added to an existing class, who will typically add far less to the overall cost than could be assumed by calculating the average cost per student.

To exactly quantify costs is hard to impossible, when looking at e.g. differences in class sizes, salaries of professors, the type of equipment needed or not needed in different courses, what type of work* the students have to present, etc. However, for a good student taking non-wasteful courses, the marginal cost might be a few hundred Euro per semester, and a few thousand should be plenty in almost any setting and even on average.

*Compare e.g. a math course with one or two tests to a writing course with a handful of essays, all of which should be given insightful feedback. (Whether they are given such feedback, I leave unstated.)

Excursion on percentages:
When percentages are used, we can have situations like someone dropping out of the top 10 percent because others dropped out entirely.* Originally, I saw this as negative; however, on further thought, in might work out quite well, seeing that the limit will grow tougher in the more advanced years, stimulating competitiveness and keeping the level of those who graduate even higher. However, some type of fail-safe might be beneficial, e.g. that the percentages are converted to absolute numbers at the beginning of each semester. (If there were a hundred students to begin with, the ten best students are guaranteed top-level status, even if the class has shrunk to ninety at the end of the semester.)

*E.g. because he was the tenth best student in a class of one hundred, and is now the tenth best in a class of ninety.

Excursion on choice of college, program, whatnot:
A potentially positive side-effect is that strong students have new incentives to consider less popular colleges and programs. For instance, someone who could be accepted to Harvard, but with a considerable risk of having to pay, might prefer a college where he is almost guaranteed to be a top-10-percenter. Such decisions might in turn have effects like creating a downward pressure on tuition fees of expensive colleges, spreading talent more uniformly, reducing the “networking effect”* of top colleges, etc.

*According to some, the main benefit of going to e.g. Harvard is not the level of the education, but rather the career-boosting contacts made there. Also note that networking is often just a form of corruption—something that damages an employer and/or society for the benefit of the networker. Such damage can e.g. occur when someone is hired because of “whom he knows” rather than “what he knows”.

Excursion on the freedom of the colleges:
One negative effect is that it limits the freedom of colleges regarding pricing, which could have negative market implications and/or be ethically dubious. This complication should be seriously considered before an implementation is attempted.

A reconciliation might be to only put some categories of colleges under the suggested system, including all that are state owned/run, all that have received non-trivial public support within some number of years prior to the “now”, and all that have directly or indirectly benefited from financial aid to their students in the same time frame.

However, if push truly comes to shove, this is one area where even such a strong regulation would be acceptable to me—in light of the catastrophic decline of higher education over the last few decades and the great threat that an even further decline poses.

Excursion on living costs:
In a non-campus system, topics like rent might need additional attention. It might e.g. be necessary to allow some amount of financial aid, preferably in the form of loans, to cover such costs. However, importantly, this would be something between the government and the student—with the college having nothing to gain. Further, it is not a given that such aid would be necessary on a larger scale, especially as societies grow more affluent: For very many, living with the parents, monetary help from the parents, working summers, private loans based on expected future income, or similar, can provide a solution that does not use tax-payer’s money and does not have a major impact on success in college.

Remark concerning “Thoughts around social class”*:
This text is not strictly a part of that text series, but there is some overlap and the implied division of students into more and less worthy categories is highly compatible with an intended future installment.

*See e.g. the last installment published at the time of writing.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 26, 2018 at 7:29 am

Thoughts around social class: Part II (prices etc.)

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As I have often remarked, the best way to create a society with a higher degree of wealth for those* with relatively little wealth and income, is not to redistribute the existing wealth (often at the risk of reducing it)—but to increase the overall wealth (even should it result in larger differences in distribution).

*I am troubled to find a good phrasing, with “poor” often being highly misleading, “disadvantaged” simultaneously a euphemism and (potentially) interpretable as a statement about opportunity (where the intended meaning relates to outcome), “lower class” too fixed in perspective, “less well off” either a euphemism or covering too large a group (depending on interpretation), …

The most obvious sub-topic is economic growth (e.g. in the rough GNP sense); however, for my current purposes, the area of prices and purchasing power is more relevant.* Trivially: If earnings rise faster than inflation** then every major group will (in real terms) earn more.*** This is, in turn, closely connected to factors that, directly or indirectly, relate to economic growth, including government policies, introduction of new or improvements to old technologies, energy prices, wastefulness or efficiency of business planning, …

*However, I have a text planned on some other aspects relating to growth.

**But note that inflation also has an effect on e.g. bank balances, which implies that not everyone will automatically grow wealthier in a stricter sense. These effects, however, will naturally hit people harder the more money they have—and might even be beneficial to those in debt.

***With a number of caveats and reservations when we look at the gritty details, e.g. that the distribution of increases is sufficiently reasonable, that there are no upsetting changes in (un-)employment patterns, and similar. Discussing such complications would lead to a far longer text.

A few observations relating to this sub-topic:

  1. The current “economic power” of e.g. a well-todo (but not outright rich) German is quite great in some areas, e.g. relating to food; however, it is quite poor in others, notably where the government or major businesses tend to be involved. For instance, laying a single meter of Autobahn costs roughly six thousand Euro—under ideal circumstance. In extreme cases, it can be more than twenty times as much. (Cf. [1], in German.) A clear majority of all Germans could not afford to build a single meter of Autobahn out of their monthly income—even taxes and living expenses aside… Looking at “discretionary income”, most would need to work for several months for this single meter—and real low-earners might need years.

    Through such examples, we can see a clear difference between living in a wealthy/well-fare/whatnot state and actually being wealthy. Indeed, as will be argued in a later installment, the vast majority of people are still (and might permanently remain) second- or third-class citizens in a bigger picture. (While, I stress, having far less to complain about than their grand-parents.) This includes very many who typically consider themselves successes in life, e.g. middle managers, most upper managers, professionals in good employment or running small businesses, …

    The Autobahn example also raises some questions on the effective use of tax-payer’s money: Chances are that these costs could be a lot lower with a greater efficiency—but when the politicians pay with someone else’s money, there is little need for efficiency.

  2. A particularly troublesome issue is rent, prices of apartments/houses/land, and building costs: Looking at the vast improvements in most other areas (in terms of better products and lower prices) we might expect even relatively poor earners to affordably live in their own houses or large apartments. The reality, excepting some unattractive areas, is very different. In booming areas, prices can even be preventative for many. Even in non-booming areas, the monthly rent or mortgage payment is often the single largest expense. To further increase the economic well-being of the people, reducing these prices should be a priority.

    To some part, these prices are caused by high localized population growth that is hard to work around in a timely manner—and lack of land can be a long-term issue for the duration. (Someone happy with an apartment can be accommodated e.g. by building higher; someone looking for a large garden either has to be loaded or live somewhere else.) However, there are other issues, including too long delays in building new apartments, building* costs, taxes**, luxury renovations***, “unnecessary”**** and temporary***** rentals, and undue realtor fees (see also several older texts, e.g. [2]).

    *For one thing, these are generally quite high in Germany, for reasons that include great demand, personnel costs (taxes and the employment construct; cf. a later installment), VAT, and a mentality with a disconnect between the value delivered and the price. For another, building methods, materials, “pre-fabrication”, …, have not advanced at the rate that they should have—possibly, because the building industry has little incentive for progress.

    **If a landlord makes a profit, he must pay taxes. Even if he does not make a profit, VAT will often be an issue. (Generally, note that taxes do not just hit an employee when he earns his money—they also hit him when he spends it, although usually in less obvious manners than income tax etc.)

    ***German law allows landlords to make many renovations, with a corresponding rent increase, even against the will of the tenant and in alteration of the terms of the contract. This is often used to artificially increase the rents considerably, and often with the side-effect that old tenants are forced to move out to be replaced by better earners.

    ****A common investment strategy in Germany is to buy a single apartment for the purpose of letting it for rent. This does increase the number of available rentals, but it also decreases the number of apartments available to those purchasing for own living, which (a) drives the prices up unnecessarily, (b) forces some people to rent who otherwise would buy.

    *****In times of project work, temporary assignments, and whatnot, increasing numbers work in cities for so short times that it does not pay to rent or buy a regular apartment, but still long enough that living in a hotel is unnecessarily expensive. This has led to a market of furnished apartments that are rented for weeks or months at a considerably higher than ordinary rent—and each of these apartments is removed from the regular market, increasing the deficit.

  3. A drop in prices is increasingly countered by product alternatives, product improvements, and product “improvements”, that partially or wholly move inexpensive products of the market in favor of more expensive ones. Consider e.g. the boom around various coffee machines, like Nespresso, Dolce Gusto, Senseo, which allows the sale of coffee grounds with an immense increase in markup.* Another good example is the continual replacement of computer models with more powerful and pricey versions. This is to some degree good, however, the simple truth is that, for most people, a modern computer already is more powerful than it needs to be, and that the average customer would be better off if technological advancements were directed at lowering costs. A particularly perfidious** example is toilet paper, which becomes more and more expensive the more plies it has, even at the same overall quantity***—and where even two-ply paper has been artificially removed from the B2C market.

    *This is an example where the customer still has the option to use the older and cheaper versions—and often are better off doing so. For instance, I have repeatedly had a Nespresso in temporary (furnished) apartments, but actually grew tired of the taste and tended to prefer drip brews. In my own apartment, I have a Dolce Gusto, which I used on a daily basis for a while, enjoying the greater variety, but I ultimately returned to drinking drip brews almost exclusively—I have not used the Dolce Gusto in months, despite having a dozen capsules still lying around. A Senseo that I owned some ten or fifteen years ago produced outright poor coffee, having a shorter preparation time as the sole benefit compared to a drip brew.

    **In the other discussed cases, I pass no moral judgment: That businesses try to gear customers towards more profitable products is only natural, while the customer does gets something in return and often still has a choice. The result might or not might not be unfortunate for the customer, but at least there is only rarely an ethical wrong-doing. With examples like toilet paper, the customer is left with no improvement and no choice—and is forced to pay the additional and unnecessary cost.

    ***One segment of four-ply is more expensive than two segments of two-ply, etc., even though the overall weight and volume is virtually the same, and even though the customer could just fold the two two-ply segments over another for what amounts to four-ply.

    Without such artificial market alterations, life could be a whole lot cheaper.

  4. A partially overlapping area is convenience products that reduce the work-load for the customer at an increase in monetary costs. This is most notable when it comes to food, where e.g. very few people bake their own breads and whatnots today, because the convenience of store-bought alternatives almost always outweighs the additional* costs—and despite own baking once being almost a given.** Indeed, most bread loaves appear to be sold even pre-sliced today—unlike just a few decades ago.*** Coffee was regularly ground by hand in earlier days; today, it is mostly**** bought pre-ground. “TV dinners” can reduce effort considerably, but are a lot more expensive than own cooking. Etc.

    *In this specific area, we might have reached a point where even the monetary cost of own baking exceeds the price of ready-made products; however, if so, this is not generally true and it was not originally true in this area either.

    **Indeed, further back, even more elementary steps (e.g. grinding flour) might have taken place at home; while subsistence farmers might even have provided most of the ingredients.

    ***Here the additional cost in the process is likely to be very small; however, the customers are potentially hit from another angle: Pre-slicing reduces the expected “best before” date.

    ****And the exceptions are likely almost exclusively for use in coffee machines that automatically grind beans.

    As an aside, these convenience products do not only bring a money–effort trade-off, but often result in less choice and/or suboptimal products. Consider e.g. the German pre-sliced cheese vs. the block cheese for manual slicing that is common in Sweden—to me, the former slices are too thick, simultaneously reducing how long a given quantity of cheese lasts and making sandwiches less healthy. Or consider the often quite poor nutritional profiles of TV dinners compared to own cooking.

  5. Luxury and brand products is an area bordering on the perfidious: Often these come with a value added; often they do not; and only very rarely is the value added comparable to the price hike. For the rich, this is not much of an issue; however, even the “middle class” is often well-advised to stay away from brand products without a plausible real* value added. Unfortunately, a liking for brand, or even luxury, products is quite common even among those who earn little—and here the effects can be outright dire, e.g. when a low-earner spends most off a small yearly surplus on shoes** instead of putting it in the bank for a rainy day.

    *As opposed to e.g. one that is explicitly or implicitly claimed in advertising, or one that only applies to other groups than the actual buyer: If, hypothetically, Nike brings a value-added to an Olympic runner, it is not a given that a junior-high student taking physical education also benefits.

    **To take an extreme fictional example, the infamous Carrie Bradshaw once discovered that she (a) could not afford her apartment, (b) had spent forty-or-so thousand USD on shoes over the years. Generally, she might be a good example in that she likely was not that low-earning, instead creating her recurring economic problems through wasteful living.

    In particular, it is a very great fallacy to assume that “more expensive” also implies “better”.

  6. Attempts to gain through large scale salary/wage increases, as attempted by unions, will not be overly successful without a simultaneous and independent trend towards lower prices (relative earnings). Not only will people with more money have a tendency to spend more,* which drives prices upwards, but the additional cost of work will also have an effect on product prices. Notably, there are often chain effects, e.g. that a wage hike in the mining industry increases metal prices, which increases costs in e.g. the machine industry, both metal prices and machine prices affect the tin-can industry, etc. If we, hypothetically, were to increase wages and salaries with a blanket ten percent, the individual businesses would not just see a ten-percent increase of cost of work—they would also see an increase of almost all other costs. While these other increases might fall well short of the full ten percent, they can still be sizable—and they will lead to a greater price increase on a business’ products than would a similar cost-of-work increase limited to only that business. (Also note e.g. that a three percent wage increase at two percent inflation is slightly better than a ten percent increase at nine percent inflation.)

    *Or e.g. work less to keep income roughly constant with an increase in spare time. Similarly, an employer who must pay his workers more might opt to employ fewer of them, e.g. through use of more automation. Such aspects will be largely left out, for the sake of simplicity.

    To some part, such increases can even amount to a competition between different unions and their members, in that any increase drives prices upwards, and that those with smaller increases will see a larger part killed by the resulting increase in prices. At least in theory, there could even be a net decrease in purchasing power for one union/member connected to the net increase seen by another.

  7. For similar reasons, naive sometime suggestions from the radical Left that everyone should earn the same, that the fortunes of Billy Gates et al. should be confiscated and divided among the people, and similar, will work poorly (even questions like ethics aside): Give people more money and they will (a) buy more, which drives prices up, and/or (b) work less, which forces businesses to page higher wages/salaries, which drives prices up. After a period of fluctuation, the lower earning/less wealthy would be back at roughly* the same purchasing power as before, and little would be gained. At the same time, the incentives to start businesses, come up with inventions, earn money, whatnot would be reduced, which would harm economic growth…

    *It would probably be a bit higher, but by nowhere near as much as expected in a naive calculation. Indeed, in some scenarios, the prices of lower-priced goods are likely to see unusually large increases, which would be particularly harmful. Consider e.g. a simplistic world of poor peasants and rich noblemen, of which the former live on bread and the latter on cake. Turn the noblemen into peasants and divide their money in equal shares among the population—and watch cake prices drop while bread prices increase. Either cake has to grow cheaper, or no-one will now be able to afford it. Bread, meanwhile, will be eaten by more people than before (unless the price decline for cake is very sharp) and the increased competition for this traditionally scarce resource will drive prices up.

As an aside, some of these items allow the customers a degree of own choice and prioritization, and quite a lot of money can be saved by making the more frugal choice.

Excursion on myself and brand products, etc.:
While I do not take frugality to an extreme, I have almost always tried to avoid expenses without a corresponding practical value to me. This includes avoiding brands that are “famous for being famous”, buying lamps* at hardware stores instead of department and pure lamp stores, having no qualms** about going into a “one euro” store, usually preferring the cheaper hotel to the hotel with more stars, and having never owned a car***. Outright luxury items have been quite rare and restricted to times of high income.

*For instance, when new in Wuppertal, I wanted to buy an uplight (?). Asking around, I was directed to a lamp store where prices started around three hundred Euro. I spent the extra time to find a hardware store and bought a perfectly satisfactory specimen at (possibly) sixty Euro. To boot, I found the visual design of the latter to be superior…

**These days, I suspect, few people are hesitant, but in earlier days I have heard strong negative opinions expressed towards these and similar stores, both in terms of perceived product quality and the risk of being seen as a pauper for visiting them. (Quality can be a legitimate concern for some products, but mostly the products are fine enough.)

***I have mostly lived in major cities with decent public transportation, and I prefer to walk when it is reasonably possible. Having a car would rarely have been worth the cost.

This, however, does not mean that I am skimpy when I see a benefit. Most notably, I have repeatedly taken sabbaticals to spend time on studies/writing and to enjoy life—while a year-or-so off work is very expensive, it really brings me something. (I strongly recommend it to those fortunate enough to have the opportunity.) However, I have also had no qualms about living in hotels or temporary apartments when working in other cities, even at distances where most others commute. If I can afford to cut out that extra one-to-two hours a day, with all that extra stress, having to go up earlier in the morning, having to wait longer before I can relax in the evening, etc., then I have a very real benefit. At the same time, I have always adapted to my income, e.g. in that I spend considerably less money on food, eating out, clothes, whatnot today (on a sabbatical) than I did a year ago (working full-time).

Written by michaeleriksson

November 12, 2018 at 1:15 am

Prose and “Der Untergang des Abendlandes”

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I find myself unexpectedly returning to prose and style of writing—after having intended to deepen my understanding of history and societal development: Yesterday, I started to read Oswald Spengler’s “Der Untergang des Abendlandes”, which, going by reputation, should have contained a fair amount of material of interest to me. After about a hundred pages, most of which consisted of a foreword, I gave up in frustration—the man simply could not write. (And the overall work is two volumes of more than six hundred pages each.)

Ideas, definitions, and arguments are drawn out ad eternam. What could have been stated in a single ordinary* sentence covers an entire paragraph—or more. The total contents of these hundred-or-so pages could be compressed to ten. (If the rest of the work is of a similar character, I could have been more than three-quarters through a compressed version with the same effort.)

*As opposed to the often very long sentences used by Spengler, which can be paragraph-sized in their own right. (Also see below.)

The flow of the individual sentence is often highly confused, reminding me of a compass needle in the presence of magnetic disturbances. Hypothetical* example: A horse is a four-footed, in other words quadruped, animal, excelling in speed, contrary to the cow, whose digestive system is of the utmost complexity, and ridden, i.e. used as a means of transport, by humans, or dogs in a circus, the cow hardly ever being ridden, …

*Considering his complicated style and issues of idiom, I am loath to actually attempt a translation of a real example. Besides, I would need to make a re-download to find such an example. Note that I have not attempted to duplicate his style in any detail—I just try to bring the general impression of the compass needle across.

As for sentence structure, sentence length, and choice of words, he makes me look like Hemingway. I do not like to throw the first stone here, both because of the hypocrisy involved and because many failures to understand a sentence can be put more on the reader than on the writer. However, I readily admit that there were sentences that I had to re-read even to just understand them as sentences (as opposed to understand the idea or arguments presented by them—and the ideas and arguments were usually not hard to understand once the sentence had been deciphered). In a few cases, a sentence was also so long that I had to go back to the beginning in order to replenish my memory and to be able to put the end of the sentence in context…

The “reasoning” often consists of nothing more than claiming that something would be obvious, often drowned in a barrage of words. Spengler appears to continually confuse “personal belief” with “logical conclusion” and/or attempt to hide a lack of actual arguments through a flow of words.

Excursion on the actual contents:
Because I covered so small a portion of the overall work, I cannot make that many statements about the actual contents (as opposed to how the contents were written). However: On the one hand, Spengler and I seem to share a conviction that there are many lessons and, possibly, predictions to be drawn from past civilizations and phases of individual periods and fields*. (Also note sayings like “history repeats it self” and “those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it”.) I also share the general fear that the “Abendland” could, conceivably be approaching its “Untergang”; and the general idea that progress might be replaced by stagnation as a civilization develops.** On the other, his “Morphologie”*** takes this to such an extreme that it lacks plausibility and would likely be considered pseudo-science today. Going by a few tables with comparisons between civilizations, I also suspect that he has bent the data to fit his theory on more than one occasion. (Something almost impossible to avoid with the great difference in the developments that are considered morphologically equivalent…)

*For instance, I suspect that there are great similarities in the rise, flowering, and fall of this-or-that style of painting or music—not just empires.

**I note factors like that a lesser need to work hard in order to survive could lead a “softer” and less industrious population, that entertainment could grew more important than accomplishment, the risks of dysgenic pressure, and similar.

***Roughly speaking, that the development of a civilization follows a certain fix pattern with (on a historical scale) synchronously repeating stages of even areas like math and art. Unless the unread parts of the work contains strong arguments and examples, I see this as much too far-going.

Excursion on predictions:
Future prediction based on history should always be taken with a grain of salt—Asimov’s psychohistory will likely remain more fiction than science. A good example is H. G. Wells’ “The Shape of Things to Come”, which gets almost everything wrong—and when it gets something partially right, the flaws render the prediction almost comical. For instance, he does manage to predict a German–Polish war with far-reaching consequences around 1940, half-a-dozen years past the time of writing, but has the Germans barely able to keep up with the Poles and, in my recollection, had the Poles as the original aggressors.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 8, 2018 at 12:10 pm

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Follow-up: Abuse of political power in Germany

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As a follow-up to an older text on Maaßen’s “resignation”:

Recent news is that the firing-by-promotion that was originally claimed has been replaced by an outright firing, the new job disappearing due to further Leftist criticism.

Specifically, his resignation speech appears to have been too much for them to swallow—never mind freedom of speech and whatnot.

I have read this speech (in German), and cannot agree with their reaction. Yes, I can see how some might see themselves slighted; no, it does not go beyond a reasonable expression of personal opinion, and is mostly cloaked in “diplomat speak”. It is certainly far more diplomatic than some of the statements directed against Maaßen… I lack the detail knowledge to judge the truthfulness/correctness of some claims (that require inside knowledge or even are a matter of interpretation or perspective); however, the general trend well matches my own view of German society. I also note that this is one of those cases where similar attacks would have been highly likely even if Maaßen was entirely truthful throughout—there are some claims that the Left does not tolerate even when they are both truthful and factually correct.

A core claim:

Am folgenden Tag und an den darauffolgenden Tagen stand nicht das Tötungsdelikt im politischen und medialen Interesse, sondern rechtsextremistische “Hetzjagden gegen Ausländer”. Diese “Hetzjagden” hatten nach Erkenntnissen der lokalen Polizei, der Staatsanwaltschaft, der Lokalpresse, des Ministerpräsidenten des Landes und meiner Mitarbeiter nicht stattgefunden. Sie waren frei erfunden.

Ich habe bereits viel an deutscher Medienmanipulation und russischer Desinformation erlebt. Dass aber Politiker und Medien “Hetzjagden” frei erfinden oder zumindest ungeprüft diese Falschinformation verbreiten, war für mich eine neue Qualität von Falschberichterstattung in Deutschland.

Gist in English:

After a murder (by a foreigner), the attention of politicians and media was not directed towards the murder, but towards alleged extreme-Right Hetzjagden* of foreigners. However, according to the local police, the DA, local press, the state president, and Maaßen’s own co-workers, these Hetzjagden had not taken place.** In his interpretation, politicians and media had either invented the alleged Hetzjagden or (re-)distributed misinformation without fact checking.

*I am unable to find a reasonable translation into English. Indeed, even the meaning in German is open to interpretation based on context. The literal meaning is a type of hunt (persistence hunt?), and could at an extreme be taken to involve e.g. foreigners being chased through the streets. A more metaphorical interpretation could include e.g. the type of negative political and media attention directed towards Maaßen, himself. Some overlap with a (metaphorical) witch-hunt could be present; however, that would be “Hexenjagd” in German.

**Note that much of the original criticism against Maaßen was based on his denial of these Hetzjagden. If his claims here are truthful, he was drawing on (mostly) independent sources that he had legitimate reason to consider both well informed and credible. This as opposed to just making a claim based on superficial knowledge from TV or prior prejudice.

Generally, German media, main stream politics, etc., does not seem to be aware of how much unreasonable Leftism there is. SPD (second largest party and member of the current coalition government) is to the Left of the U.S. Democrats; Die Linke, a direct descendant of GDR’s ruling communist party, is represented in parliament; and Die Grüne, a Left-dominated “green” party, also sits in parliament, and is at least partially* Left of the Democrats. In total, the Left-of-the-Democrat forces make up roughly forty percent of parliament… Despite this, the Left is ever again complaining about Rechtsruck** this and Rechtsruck that, trying to cause an anti-Right panic—despite concerns about undue and long-standing far Left influence being much more justified. (Not limited to parliament, but also including e.g. long traditions of “Autonomous” organizations, the Antifa, and other sources of hatred, violence, and the-end-justifies-the-means actions; and a strong dominance of media, with Die Linke and the Leftist part of Die Grüne being considerably stronger than even in the general population.)

*For natural reasons, it is heterogeneous when it comes to non-environmental issues and a blanket classification going beyond “Left-dominated” would be unfair.

**Roughly, “pull/move/scooch to the Right”—a vague and (intended to be) ominous slogan used by the Left whenever they fear that non-Leftist opinions are spoken too freely, that some people who “should” vote Left are suddenly not, or similar. Notably, it is not followed by arguments, being used instead of arguments.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 5, 2018 at 8:56 pm

A few thoughts on role-models

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Disclaimer: The below borders on free association, even by my standards.

In a recent text on math and “college material”, I mentioned the Feminist fallacy of demanding specifically female role-models for young women in various fields, especially the STEM ones—is it not better to pick someone worthy of admiration, while ignoring sex?

Since then, I have spent some time thinking on role-models*, both with regard e.g. to Feminist calls for 50–50 representation of the sexes in math books and to my own experiences:

*Used in an approximate sense on two counts: Firstly, I have mostly seen such calls in Sweden (“förebild”) and Germany (“Vorbild”), and I am not certain what the ideal translation in context is. Secondly, the words in all three languages are unnecessarily strong and imply more than is warranted in context. (This, however, is not unusual with everyday use of these words.)

Let us start with a question: If sex requires such special treatment, why then not e.g. height and hair color?

In a Feminist world-view, which almost invariable denies significant inborn differences between the sexes, these three criteria make comparably little sense.

On the other hand, for those of us who believe that there are inborn differences, e.g. that men tend to be naturally more interested in STEM topics or that they tend to dominate the high (and low) extreme of I.Q., there might be some justification—that young women see that there actually are opportunities for women, should they have the interest, the ability, and the dedication needed. In this manner, the role-models could serve as a counter-weight to the other young women in their circles who show no sign of interest or ability; the female relatives who have trouble telling the difference between Internet Explorer, Google, and the Web; etc.*

*Note that if the feminist world view was correct, such a counter-weight would not be needed, implying that this argument does not apply in their case.

However, here specific examples of (true or faked) great women in the STEM fields give the wrong impression and group statistics would be much more helpful, e.g. what (true) percentage of professionals in a certain field are women. This way, a more correct impression is created and better choices can be made than if e.g. a math text book is arbitrarily filled with 50 % male and 50 % female mathematicians.* Women should know that there are opportunities (subject to the aforementioned constraints) and that they are not carbon copies of other women, but not be led to believe that the field is naturally 50–50, and certainly not led to believe that anyone who has a degree in X is actually good at X**.

*Even such problems aside as smart young women seeing that the women are included on lesser merits or being aware of the debate (bright young women have been known to read the news papers…) that led to the 50–50 proportions—either would not only defeat the purpose, but could actually back-fire though the impression that women are only included through “affirmative action”, never through actually being worthy. More generally, many Feminist, PC, Leftist, whatnot groups appear to be working under the assumption that people are so stupid that they must be manipulated into having the “right” opinion; however, whatever might or might not hold in the overall population, people lacking in intelligence and the ability to think for themselves have no place in e.g. math. Simply put: Someone susceptible to or “benefiting” from such manipulation is unlikely to be a good candidate for the STEM fields in the first place…

**Another common fallacy—and a much worse one at that: A degree is worth little more than the paper it is printed on, should the the right understanding, the right abilities, or the right brain be absent. More often than not, at least with today’s graduates, they are absent… (And, yes, that applies to the men too.)

More: Too much discussion of e.g. top mathematicians can create a very wrong impression and lead to great disappointments, faulty expectations, or undue pressure for members of either sex.* The simple truth is that the likes of Leibniz, Newton, Gödel, or (to pick the likely strongest female candidate) Noether are very rare birds. The chances are overwhelming that no-one, male or female, in this AP math class, this Calculus 101, or this graduate course on Riemann geometry will be comparable to Leibniz et al. Such perceptions of standards was one** of the reasons why I, myself, did not pursue math/academics beyond the master level—I saw what these rare birds had accomplished, measured success against them, and feared that I would fail to make a truly noteworthy contribution, e.g. founding a new field, solving one of the major open problems, or finding a theorem of fundamental importance.*** Today, I realize that even a more modest (and realistic) career as a metaphorical made-the-NFL-but-not-the-Hall-of-Fame mathematician would have been an accomplishment to be proud of.

*But likely especially for women, who are often exposed to a simplistic message of great success being inevitable (at least, unless the “Patriarchy” interferes), despite such success being a rarity and requiring at least one, more often two, and even more often three out of great ability, hard work, and luck.

**Others include my time as an exchange student and a wish to remain in Germany afterwards, a wish to make a bit of money, and having become over-satiated with math the first few years of college: I am not telling a sob story about how someone would have been an NFL Hall-of-Famer, had it not been for that knee injury the last year of high school—I merely caution that we should avoid knee injuries…

***In high school and the first one or two years of college, I did well enough that such aspirations originally seemed plausible to me. A little more detail is present in some sections of an older text on issues relating to education ([1]).

Excursion on other issues:
In a more complete analysis of the calls for female role-models (this text is more geared at the issue of impressions caused by role-models vs. reality) other arguments can be relevant, including the inherent unfairness towards the people featured in math books (deserving men “quota-ed” out; undeserving women “quota-ed” in) and the myth of sex being irrelevant gaining a greater foothold in the overall population.

Excursion on differences:
A common problem in discussions like these is misrepresentation or, conceivably, misunderstanding of opinion by e.g. Feminists, notably in the form of statements about groups being distorted to exceptionless statements about individuals. (The equivalent of “every single man is taller than every single woman”.) Here I stress the importance of understanding the difference between the individual and the group, individual and group characteristics, and individual and group outcomes. This especially when areas with a high selectivity, including elites, is concerned. Cf. e.g. parts of [2] (search for/scroll to “Thoughts on comparisons and the effects of variation:”).

Excursion on fear of failure:
One of the negative things ingrained in me through school was a fear of failure, sometimes even a fear of not being perfect*, that I have only overcome through time. This fear of failure was not an obstacle** as long as I succeeded with ease, but when things got tougher it could be a problem. During my college years, my “brute force” approach (cf. [1]) eventually brought me a few unnecessary failures, I learned that I had limits, and I caught enough of the history of math to understand that the best-of-the-best had often already made major contributions*** at my age. To some degree, I fell victim to a “if I do not try, I cannot fail” thinking. (But, again, this was only one of the reasons for my not pursuing a math career.)

*Not to be confused with a tendency towards perfectionism, although there might be some causal overlap.

**But it did lead to e.g. some cases of undue test anxiety and the odd nightmare in the extended why-was-I-not-told-that-we-have-a-test-today family. On the positive side, I have never had a I-forgot-to-put-on-my-pants-before-going-to-school nightmare.

***In all fairness, they had often been helped by having less mandatory schooling, giving them more time for an actual education and for their own thinking.

Interestingly, this type of thinking is one those sometimes alleged special problems of strong female students, especially when society is too be blamed for women’s problems—and, as usual, this “female” aspect is flawed. It might or might not be more common among female students (group differences again), but in reality, it appears to be a reasonably common problem among strong students (strong performers generally?) of either sex. A notable “named” example of a similar type is the “impostor syndrome”, originally alleged as a problem of accomplished women, but which has less to do with being a woman and more to do with being accomplished.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 5, 2018 at 3:52 pm