Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The incessant demand that people engage in "lifelong learning" is classist balderdash

Note: The blogster has wanted to use the fun word balderdash for years but either didn't find the courage or an opportunity. So, using it before the end of 2018 felt really good and righteous.

The trigger for this post on lifelong learning was yet another article leading with the famous, though ill-defined, statement that Americans go through seven careers over the course of their lives.

The interview with a very smart German who made it big in Silicon Valley emphasizes the need for lifelong learning to master these careers and the changing work place. It explains the philosophy and uses of the well-known online learning platform Udacity, which the interviewee just so happened to co-found.

If you happened to read earlier posts by the blogster on learning, you might wonder why it* would deride "lifelong learning" as classist balderdash.

The reason is as simple as it is, admittedly, slightly sarcastic.

The vast majority of individual and institutional proponents of the concept of lifelong learning behave as if it were a recent discovery, brought on by the huge changes of the last few decades. They pretend that requirements such as mandatory continued education credits in a variety of professions, from nursing to teaching to the transportation of hazardous materials are great new inventions.

The only thing new about these requirements is that they are increasingly being formalized, with defined curricula and more or less accepted standards. The ZEIT article advances proof of this in the form of Udacity "nanodegrees", which are really a fancy term for the much older certificate of proficiency, or similar quaint nomenclature.  

Never mind the article, it represents just the latest embodiment of the privileged educated classes suddenly discovering a concept because they find themselves affected by it.

Because, guess what. lifelong learning has been an integral part of the human experience since the frigging dawn of time.

The illiterate peasants and workers of just a couple of lifetimes ago engaged in lifelong learning with or without the knowledge of their betters. Frequently, it didn't register because it was not written down. Or better: it was not written down by them. It became common knowledge only when some educated person showed up, observed, and wrote it down - and generally was given all the credit for it.

Probably the biggest reason why the current privileged demanders of lifelong learning feel that they discovered a new paradigm is, as so much of what is wrong, rooted in 19th Century industrial society. In the latter, the industrial workforce didn't show much lifelong learning, did it?

Because we worked them to death with 12 hour days, 6 days a week, and zero vacation days.

Compare that to Europe around the time of the Plague: 60 odd holidays in the UK, for example.

The positive takeaway at the end: Please, do learn as much in your life as you can and feel good with. Don't stop. And when you get oldish, say over 50, and some researcher all of a sudden discovers that learning doesn't stop then, smile. They don't know it any better because their view of the ordinary people is very similar to the experience we have when a first world person visits a 'not do highly developed' country for the first time.

* Gender neutrality rocks.

Friday, January 12, 2018

"Merit based" immigration - the new buzzword of xenophobes and racists

The frequent use of the term "merit based" to describe an immigration system in general or when addressing real or perceived shortcomings of the US immigration system really deserves only one comment.


That's a harsh word for the blogster to use at all, so why is the sedate, gender neutral author of this post so upset with a word as positive as "merit"?

Because it* recently realized that the xenophobes of the world have found the immigration equivalent of the "death tax". Do you remember the term from the days US Republicans were throwing it around in every soundbite, on every Sunday talk show, in every article penned?

A disingenuous, emotionally loaded word playing on envy and fear, that's what the death tax was, and what merit based immigration has become. In the heightened state of racism and greed which characterizes the presidency of Donald Trump and GOP congress, merit is the new weapon to keep undesirables out of your country.

Leave it to Mr. Trump to make it blindingly obvious in his Norway remarks, as expressed in this and other tweets:
5h5 hours ago
The significance is bigger than “shithole.” The president’s supporters are pushing hard for a “merit-based” immigration model, but Trump today didn’t say he wants more doctors, engineers or scientists. He said he wants “Norway.” And Norway is not a skill.

Now, some may ask, if it is so obvious, what's the problem?

The tweet offers a glimpse, stating "doctors, engineers or scientists". These professions are perfect examples of the positive connotation of the term merit. Nobody would seriously object to bringing high value immigrants from these and other equally important fields into the US. Democrats and Republicans alike are advocates for premium immigrants, although not all engineers are good engineers to some. Just specify "software engineers", and you can see many GOPers and some Dems think Indian and become much quieter.

Merit, in the above tweet and in the wider discussion, is generally equated with skill. The poster child immigration systems of merit advocates are the Canadian and Australian systems, so let's have a cursory look at them.

One of the main criteria of the Aussie system turns out to be age, with the limits being 45 or 50, and some exemptions.

So, age is a skill, but being Norwegian is not, right.

There are regional incentives, too. If you are not a big city person and don't mind the cold, Canada gives you bonus points for migrating to Newfoundland.

Which, to the blogster, does seem to be a true skill.

Hey, there is merit in being young and willing to tough it out in Newfoundland, doesn't that support calling a system "merit based" instead of skill based, or points system? In a sense, yes, but it also expands the term merit from the praised "highly educated, hard working" to plain old economic need or outright emergency. If your country has an Express Entry list of skilled occupations with "railway carmen/women" and "agricultural contractors" in addition to the doctors and engineers, you are talking more skills than high minded "merits". And for a US audience, nothing says agricultural contractor better than undocumented Central American - the very definition of what the GOP and Trump view as undesirable.

Canada and Australia have a pragmatic approach to "merits", or skills, even if their leaders don't stress the merits of rail carmen or well diggers in their major speeches.

In reality, every single person who comes to the US on a visa has at least one merit: a return ticket, because a billion or more humans are utterly unable to ever afford a flight to the US.

Or take Germany, where conservatives rail against "uncontrolled migration". Ask a German citizen who marries, say, a Thai whether that Thai person can simply board a flight and move to Germany.

The answer is no.

A German and an American spouse on the other hand, how does that work?

Board a plane.

Oh, and if the Thai person passes the language test, he/she can come too. Language is a skill, Germans would agree, especially when it comes to mastering their language. Both the hypothetical Thai and the unicorn American have to demonstrate enough funds or income that they won't be a burden to the state - a merit the billion or so humans living on two dollars a day can only dream of.

Of course, that's not what the proponents of merit based immigration mean, hence the label evil.

* That's how we do gender neutrality here.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Inequality - you get what you measure

The World Inequality Report has been making the rounds in the media, and a variety of experts and commentators have written about the claim that we are witnessing a level of inequality today that the world last saw in 1913.

The range of interpretations shows not only the known biases of the writers, but demonstrates perspectives on the data that allow for completely opposing views all the way to declaring the claim of huge inequality overblown, or even a "fairy tale".

The main, and most simplistic line of dissent is based on pre-tax income versus income and benefits after accounting for redistribution, expressed by the GINI coefficient. Using the German GINI index values based on disposable income for the last 10 years, the country is in a pretty good position compared to others.

The "huge inequality is a fairy tale" article in today's ZEIT makes exactly that argument.

The author goes even further, stating that there was almost no income tax in 1913, while today's highest incomes in Germany are subject to an income tax rate of 47%. Also according to the article, the share of income of the top 1% in 1913 fell from 18% to 13%.

Add to this the author's correct statement that on a worldwide scale, the number of people living in absolute poverty has declined from 40% in the early 1980s to 10% today, and one could be tempted to accept his conclusion.

The gentleman is fully aware that different methods for measuring inequality produce different outcomes - only to leave aside some major drivers of said huge inequality.

For example, the top marginal rate on income in Germany was higher not long ago, at just over 50%.

Unknown to most. German effective tax rates for low income earners and high income citizens are almost the same, at around 25%. High indirect taxes, such as a national sales tax at 19% (with some essential goods at 7%), and a variety of other indirect taxes basically equalize the relative tax burden on the poor and the rich. What the poor do not pay in income tax is taken via indirect taxes, some of which are "taxes on taxes", for example when sales tax is charged on electricity rates which already include a special tax on power.

Capital income is taxed at a flat rate of 25%, and generational transfer of wealth is largely tax exempt. Both substantially increase overall inequality.

There can be no doubt that we live in a world that is much better off than the world of 1913 in so many respects, from low infant mortality to better medical care, to smartphones.

But in the Germany of 2018, more pensioners have to use food pantries to make ends meet, and this alone shows the "huge inequality is a fairy tale" claim to be shaky at best.

From the perspective of "different measures", the blogster likes to point out that the overall "life gap" between average people and the 1% is greater today than it was in 1913.

Nobody could receive an organ transplant in 1913, no matter how rich they were. The CEO with a bad heart enjoyed a marginally better prospect of survival than the worker with heart troubles.

Dying in childbirth was as much a life threatening prospect for queens as for maids. While both queens and maids do better today, the CEO can buy himself a new heart in most countries, the worker can not.

Dismissing stunning inequality as a fairy tale also ignores the fact that humans have the means and the resources to provide people in poor Asian, African, or American communities with more than one pair of shoes, education, and healthcare.  

Not doing so is a choice, and no relatively good national GINI coefficient can gloss over this.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Crowdsourcing - the Soylent Green of Tech: It's People!

Regular readers will know that the blogster is not above exploiting a cheap trope, but some dystopian images are better and more fun than others.

Let's hope the headline of this post is one of them.

Wikipedia has a well written article about the origins or crowdsourcing, including what they call historical examples that "in retrospect" could be called crowdsourcing.  Standard definitions still emphasize the nature of the work as "a type of participative online activity". The blogster, on the other hand, sides with those who consider the internet a tool and a means of communication, hugely important and far reaching, but a tool nonetheless.

The advantage of this is that we can focus on the people engaged in this activity and are less likely to fall for the glossy PR and the paid enthusiasts promoting crowdsourcing.

The difficulties associated with crowdsourcing are well known, and the Wikipedia article describes issues with quality, finding the right contributors, sorting through completed tasks, as well as ethical implications of low pay.

Since crowdsourcing is being used in a wide variety of sectors, results are also tied to a sector, even to specific projects within a sector, making general assessments a foolish undertaking.

Therefore, the blogster limits its* observations to paid online work, the kind of work you would do mainly to make a few extra dollars, and a few of the main issues for the workers.

1. Unrealistic compensation estimates
Not a single one of the piece work compensation projections encountered did prove realistic. They all were too high, even after allowing for a learning curve and adjusting for a "less than perfect" worker. True, sometimes lower productivity is caused by a single factor, such as a website that has a habit of failing, not saving, or the like. But unless fixed, that is what you will live with.
Coming up with realistic hourly compensation based on per task work is not trivial, but the fact that not a single one out of about 20 was anywhere near accurate gave the blogster pause.

If you decide to take per task work, cut the compensation dangled in front of your eyes in half.

2. Communication
That's the aspect which justifies the "It's People!" part. Communication is hard at the best of times, but when it comes to crowdsourcing, it often becomes very painful and costly to the workers.

If you doubt that it is a daunting effort to tell workers what the goals of a project are, to describe each task in a manner that is complete and reduces human error to the minimum, and to do so using language which often accommodates non-native speakers, hey, give it a try.

Just like on social media and in other encounters lacking visual and vocal cues, communication in a crowdsourcing setting can have lots of unintended effects. It is no coincidence that supervising personnel are constantly told to be polite and helpful.

When you write instructions for an online crowdsourcing project, it is wise to look at each step from two distinct angles. The first and obvious one is whether a step or detail wis correct.
The other is less clear: try to understand how a step can fail, how a statement can be misunderstood.

One recent example the blogster saw concerned two online bug testing projects. In the first project, the instructions to the "crowd" of about 45 people said "3 bugs only, no reproductions".

The second project said: "20 bugs, no more than 2 reproductions".

You can see where the fail was, right?

The first number, 3, meant 3 bugs per tester. The second, 20, meant a combined total of 20 bugs for all testers.

Needless to say, the second project saw twice the number of bugs filed, and this despite an intervention by a supervisor when the limit was reached. Of course, you could implement a technical solution for the second case, a maximum limit after which the system locks the project and prevents additional submissions.

But such a technical hard stop did not exist in the system.

It is anybody's guess, how many frustrated participants will not come back for another project like this one.

Coming back to the Soylent Green image, crowdsourcing can feel like the movie. There is an opaque, shadowy power structure insisting everything is fine. People disappear for no apparent reason.

And even if you get on top of the garbage truck, you are not safe.

* Gender neutrality is important to us.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

It is 2017, abortion is not legal in Germany, and a doctor is in court for saying she offers the procedure

All three claims in the title of this post are true.

The one that will become patently untrue in a little over a month from now is the first one. Unless the world ends before that.

The other two will continue to be true in 2018.

To the blogster, much of what constitutes the legal system in any of the countries where it* has lived, has elicited more WTF moments than the tweets of a certain president.

"Abortion is not legal in Germany" was one such moment. A few minutes of research showed that the statement is correct. The German penal code is nice enough to have kept the same number for the paragraph that has governed abortion from the times of the newly formed country to this day: paragraph 218. We quote the first part of 218 below under ** and ***.
There are minor differences, from funky spelling in 1982 to a reduction of the maximum sentence from 5 to 3 years, or a fine.
But both versions are clear: a felony it is.

Leaving aside the fact that abortion in the first 12 weeks was legal in East Germany, the basic legal view has been consistent, which leads to the question how German women do get abortions today without the sort of international outcry we see when women in other countries with a felony statute run afoul of the law.

The legal trick is in paragraph 219, which states that no prosecution according to 218 will take place if the pregnant women undergoes specialist consultation and then waits for three days before having the pregnancy terminated. This post does not detail the exact requirements and times, you can look them up elsewhere. Instead, we go to paragraph 219a, which explains the third item of the post title.

"A doctor is in court for saying on her website that she offers the procedure". On 21 November 2017, gynecologist Kristina Haenel from Giessen, Germany, was sentenced to a fine of 6000 Euros for violating § 219a of the penal code, which prohibits "advertising" of abortions. Legal experts have questioned the wide scope of the provision, which basically covers providing any sort of information on terminating a pregnancy outside of the narrow confines of prescribed consultation or medical publications. At first glance, the statute may seem reasonable because it penalizes the activity if it is performed "for financial gain". But courts have held that even doing it at a loss still constitutes "financial gain".

What did the gynecologist do to warrant a felony conviction?
On her website, she lists services offered by her office. Abortion is just a one word bullet point link to an email form where the public can request a flyer.

This outdated provision has been used for decades by self-proclaimed "pro-life" organizations to file reports against individual doctors or organizations.

Mrs. Haenel has indicated that she will fight the conviction in the hope of getting the absurd provision taken up and eliminated by the legislature.

* The blogster does gender neutrality.
**  [1. Januar 1872–8. Juni 1926]  
§ 218.
(1) Eine Schwangere, welche ihre Frucht vorsätzlich abtreibt oder im Mutterleibe tödtet, wird mit Zuchthaus bis zu fünf Jahren bestraft.
***  [16. Juni 1993]
§ 218. 
(1) Wer eine Schwangerschaft abbricht, wird mit Freiheitsstrafe bis zu drei Jahren oder mit Geldstrafe bestraft.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Look ma: virtually no East Germans in the country's elite

November seems to be Germany's "Quick, let's write about East Germany Month" for a couple of great reasons:

One, the Berlin Wall/Iron Curtain came down on 9 November 1989, signalling momentous change in Europe.

Two, 9 November 1989 made it so that the Nazi pogroms of Kristallnacht of 9/10 November 1938 were pushed back in public discourse and that the end of Word War I with the armistice of 11 November 1918 lost even more of what little import it had in Germany.

Just for the sake of completeness, the 11th minute of 11th hour of the 11th month is also the traditional start of the carnival season in large parts of Germany.

Obviously, the opening of the Wall is a convenient date to publish not just the trivial but also the thoughtful about the part of the country that is home to just under 20 percent of its population.

We all know about the crimes of the Stasi, the feared apparatus of state oppression, the doping in sports, the prison industry producing cheap goods for the West. We hear little about the fact that a full one third of businesses in East Germany were privately owned. And even less about the fact that some owners found out they were millionaires because they had hoarded so much inventory in the face of supply shortages.

This became part of the past on 9 November 1989. From thereon out, everything would be wonderful.

Freedom and blooming landscapes would be the future.

Many things happened, and books have been written about that. So, yes, the autobahns in the East are a driver's wet dream, as the blogster has pointed out before. You can tell even today where the border was because, going East, the freeways widen and straighten out.

But this year's main topic goes to the heart of the matter: the almost complete absence of East Germans at the top levels of leadership in Germany more than 25 years after the Wall fell.

This fact has been obscured because Angela Merkel, the country's chancellor for over a decade and going on two decades, grew up in the East. Germany even had a president from the East.

But outside of that, the elite is thoroughly Western, and there is no improvement in sight.
For example, 105 out of 109 department chiefs in the federal government are Westerners.

Sociologists are now accepting the marginalization of the East in the 1990s as a fact, attributing that period largely to the "lack of qualified personnel" in the aftermath of the fall of the Wall and the challenges of reunification.

Today, though, claims the continued marginalization is "self marginalization" misses the point.

Complaining that East Germans don't want to put in the hard work needed to advance into the top levels of power and industry ignores what the complete dissolution of a country does to its inhabitants, it ignores the resilience of power networks once entrenched.

What's left?

The rhetorical question asked by ZEIT whether a quota for East Germans should be established.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Germany's working poor: Almost 1 in 10 Germans cannot pay their bills anymore

In the 'stream of semi consciousness' that is the reporting in German daily news on economic issues, the country's working poor drift in an and out of focus.

Mostly, they remain out.

The frequent claim that the media are giving bad news too much attention does not seem to hold up when it comes to debating the problems of those who work full time and still are over their heads in debt.

The latest short blip that tells us 1 out of 10 German adults cannot pay their bills anymore is only days old. The data are interpreted in somewhat different ways, with the more liberal ZEIT online pointing out that overall increase in the number of indebted households has slowed down.

The conservative WELT, however, sounds the alarm, calling the phenomenon "the erosion of the German middle class" because almost all of the increase over the past year has occurred in what German economists call "the backbone of society", the quasi mythical had working middle.

The main reasons for getting trapped in unmanageable debt are unemployment, family crises (separation, child support), and loans. Unlike in the US, unpaid medical bills are not a cause of major debt.

According to experts, reckless consumption is also not a factor.

Oh, and the numbers are expected to continue to rise, so expect calls to reduce the tax burden on the middle class.

Very soon, the question what to do about rising household debt will be replaced with the usual arguments, for example, blaming poor immigrants for the woes of the German middle class.

Squabbling over what to do with the surplus tax revenue is a much sexier topic than asking why the poor in this country face the same relative tax burden as the wealthy. For those of you who don't know how this is done: indirect taxes, like high sales tax, and other speciality taxes, like taxes on electricity, insurance policies, and a slew of others accomplish this, while giving those who pay high income taxes the opportunity to feel oppressed and exploited.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Trump's Twitter outage - a reminder of social rank and the dreaded loss of control

Every now and then the blogster feels like telling teens that their impression that adults mainly muddle through in life is fundamentally correct.

It is also basically true that human societies have been trying to reduce the muddling through with some degree of success.

That's why we have formal education systems, accreditation, bar and board exams, and similar structures. Yes, the blogster is aware of the fine moral and philosophical underpinnings of schooling and training, but that was apparently not why mandatory schooling was introduced on a large scale in the 1800s.

Sporadically, we are reminded that control can be lost easily, that an unremarkable, lowly individual can press a single key on a computer keyboard with worldwide ramifications.

On 11/2/2017, a Twitter employee did just that. He or she deactivated the account of "realDonaldTrump" for a few minutes.

And the former employee was offered praise, pizza, and drinks.

6h6 hours ago
Ted Lieu Retweeted Katie Couric
Dear Twitter employee who shut down Trump's Twitter: You made America feel better for 11 minutes. DM me & I will buy you a Pizza Hut pizza.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Nicknames matter - the quiet change from "Rocket Man" to "Little Rocket Man"

We know that words matter, whether spoken, written, or even the unspoken ones.

Words matter so much that humans spend countless hours debating the "correct term" for something physical or abstract. Open any paper on a random page, including the sports section recently, and you find numerous examples. In case an article or opinion piece does not explicitly define or delimit terms and their meanings, you can be sure that the reader comments section will make up for it - unless the comments function is blocked, which in turn is an unspoken statement by the publisher.

For example, did the German governing Christian Democratic Party just agree with its Bavarian appendix Christian Social Union on a ceiling for refugees to be allowed into the country?

Well, they did agree on a recommended maximum number of refugees, allowing the Bavarian hardliners to claim victory while leaving the promise of "no ceiling" made by current and future Chancellor Merkel unbroken.

Some labels are less obviously damaging and require historians or economists to tease out the underlying reality. Take the chippy "gig economy" in all its independent glory and self-determination. As it turns out, pre-industrial work was very much like today's gig economy, and today's auto rickshaw drivers in India work in the same basic gig setup as the Uber or Lyft drivers. Minus the web company that funnels customers to them.

One of the common tools of the word fighter is nicknames and derogatory labels. An older example is the label "death tax" used by American conservatives for the estate tax.

The most in our face labels, very literally when you call an American president the Orange Thing, are nicknames attached to a specific person. All it takes is swapping out one word against another, like for the death tax, or adding a loaded adjective, as was done to stigmatize a candidate as Crooked Hillary. 

The more elaborate version removes the person and highlights one or more traits of the person, for example The Orange Thing. Readers in 2017 will easily recognize the person so labeled. "Thing" is, of course, a derogatory moniker, depersonalizing a human. 

In professions where brawn and heroism are common descriptors, mainly in law enforcement and the military, nicknames associated with a certain level of aggressiveness are a standard of praise. Take the example of James "Mad Dog" Mattis, general and US defense secretary. Mad Dog would probably not be considered praise if given as a nickname to, say, a librarian or a math teacher.

Sometimes, nicknames go wrong.

What happens next is a tribute to the power of nicknames and to the importance of quietly fixing a nickname gone wrong.

That's where Rocket Man comes in.

The nickname Rocket Man for the leader of North Korea burst onto the stage when US President Trump used it in a speech at the United Nations this September.

Rocket Man - the term, not the man - posed several problems in addition to reminding the older folks among us way too much of the Elton John hit (link to the official music video here). Fans of the song lyrics might well have been wondering if the president was doing a triple-meta-slam of Kim Jong Un by alluding to the song line "high as a kite".

To the blogster, the real issue with Rocket Man was that it missed its negativity target. Rocket Man has some positive connotations, and even the context of the speech could not make the positive vibe go away.

Within a week or so, the blunder was fixed: Rocket Man was replaced with Little Rocket Man throughout the media. "Little" put the North Korean leader in his place, thus rectifying the image.

Just for the sake of completeness, calling the North Korean strongman Rocket Man goes back to at least 2006, when the British Economist magazine featured Jong Un's father on the front page under the headline Rocket Man.

Friday, October 6, 2017

More major German media sites blocking ad blockers - good riddance

Over the past few years, major German news sites have moved to denying access to folks who use ad blockers.

The principle is as simple as it is German: Unblock or pay, or we give you no access.

Nasty German tabloid rag BILD was the first of the majors, the blogster recalls. This one was a godsend. Finally, no more late night peek at the latest screaming headlines designed to rile up readers and stir anger and divisiveness.

More respectable papers followed, such as Sueddeutsche Zeitung, and more recently Spiegel Online. The funny things about Spiegel Online is that its international, i.e. English language, section is still accessible to users with active ad blockers at the time of this post.

Maybe they don't want to seem provincial, maybe they haven't gotten around to modifying the site.

In a little over a week, Frankfurter Allgemeine will be next. To their credit, they are nice enough to notify readers of the upcoming policy change.

Die Welt has a free section and a "Plus" section.  Economics weekly Handelsblatt refuses active ad blockers too.

What does this mean to the blogster?

Should it* be worried about missing insightful discourse or crucial news?

Absolutely not. There are still freely available German news sites, both general and specialized ones. To be honest, only a few authors of all these papers will be missed. Much of the news is not just predictable but also almost indistinguishable at times anyway, no matter if you read Spiegel or Frankfurter Allgemeine,
The huge German public television system has been receiving the blogster's contribution for years, paid grudgingly, but the blogster's household has neither a TV nor a radio. So, why not finally use some of the 'services'?

And then there is the small matter of not being limited to German or English. French and Spanish work just as well, and over the next few years, they will have the distinct advantage of not covering the populist right AfD excessively, while it will dominate much of the German native news.
Lastly, exploring other German news sources may offer the opportunity to expand the blogster's view of country and culture.

So, thanks for all the fish.

* Gender neutrality rules!