Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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New vs. good


Here I intend to gather thoughts on topics like whether what is new is automatically better. (The eventual page could be much longer than the current.)

The topic has featured repeatedly in other parts of my writings, including a much older text on whether what is progressive is automatically better, as well as a number of texts from my Wordpress days (TODO import and link).

There is some overlap with regard to “better for the one, not for the other” between the discussions of announcements and milk cartons below. This is a side-effect of their being written independently with some time between. I have kept both, as they both are also good illustrations of the “new vs. good” theme, which, after all, is the point of this page.

Better for the one, not for the other

A particular complication is that some changes (“newers”) are for the better for some (especially, for the force behind the change) but not for others—and all-too-often this is not given due consideration when making decisions. In the other direction, such complications can make it hard for evaluators, e.g. in a text like this, to judge whether a specific change was a net-improvement or -worsening over the sum of all those affected.

A particular problem is that changes often seem geared at the most stupid, the least informed, whatnot—things are made better for the stupid; everyone else sees things grow worse. This, especially, in the world of software. (The situation is even worse for those of some brightness, as many or most of the remaining changes are geared at the broad masses in a one-size-fits-all manner.)

Another is changes made to favor the changer in a one-sided, ethical disputable, and/or destructive manner. Moreover, such changes often backfire, because side-effects, hidden costs, loss of costumers, etc., are not properly considered in advance.

Good examples can be found in the extreme excesses of loudspeaker announcements and similar in today’s world. For instance:

  1. Various commercial messages in stores are an evil to or blended out by most customers, including myself. However, there might be a small minority of the easily manipulated or naive that either benefit or incorrectly believe that they benefit. (“Oh! Something is on offer! I must rush over! Can’t miss the opportunity!”)

    At the same time, the store in charge of these messages obviously perceives a benefit. Whether the perception is correct is another matter. Yes, the aforementioned minority might buy more, on average, but the majority might end up buying less. (I have been known to outright avoid stores with too many or too intrusive announcements, and/or where an attitude of too great contempt for the customers shines through.)


    In terms of “new vs. good”, these were quite rare in my childhood, if in doubt because few stores had PA systems. They have, since, grown ever more prevalent and intrusive.

    (Over the last few years, I have the impression of an improvement. It might be that the dissatisfaction among customers grew too large or became noticed by decision makers, causing a partial change of course; it might be that coincidence and choices by individual stores have given me the wrong impression.)

  2. Announcements in railway stations and in trains are, at least in Germany, a horror, through the combination of frequency and the proportion that is pointless. To boot, they are often exceptionally loud—presumably, to make life easier, in a noisy environment, for the minority that is hard of hearing. In some cases, as with the Cologne main station, this is taken to such excesses that the actual pain threshold is crossed for many who have normal hearing. (This potentially creates a vicious circle: the travellers’ hearing is damaged by the announcements and the loudness must be further increased to accommodate the increasing number of half-deaf travellers...)


    In terms of “new vs. good”, the frequency was much lower in the past. I cannot give a time scale, but comparing 1997 (my first year in Germany) with 2007, there had definitely been a great increase. Further increases have taken place since, if in doubt because PA systems and whatnots have become more widespread, as older trains (often with no or only a poor PA system) have been replaced with newer trains, as even many smaller stations have been given PA systems, and as use of PA systems have been extended to other means of public transport, e.g. streetcars. To boot, there is a greater amount of automatism, e.g. in that many announcements are pre-recorded, which reduces the need to have onboard staff perform any wished-for announcement.

    To give an example of pointlessness and undue frequency: I have been on train rides with stops every five minutes, where, within these five minutes, something like the following played out as separate announcements, each applying to just a small minority of the passengers, each grabbing attention:

    1. Pointless greeting of the new passengers.

    2. Announcement of what the next station is.

    3. Announcement that this station will be reached in just a few minutes.

    4. Announcement that “we are now arriving” at this station.

      (Note how the second through fourth item could easily have been reduced to one.)

    5. Various cautions not to forget luggage, to be careful when exiting, and whatnot, that usually bring no value.

    Such a set of messages might have some benefit for very inexperienced travellers; however, the majority of travellers are experienced or outright commuters, who travel through the same stations every weekday. (And imagine hearing what amounts to a message a minute, every minute, for, say, twenty minutes in the morning and twenty minutes in the evening, day in and day out, while e.g. trying to read or to get some work done.)

    A particular issue is the “Various cautions”, where I suspect less of a genuine caution and more of a legal safe-guard for the train company—maybe, good for the train company; bad for the passengers.


    A problem is that the human mind seems geared both at detecting changes in environmental sound and at reacting to human voices, which means that each such message grabs attention, disturbs a flow of thought, must be processed sufficiently far to determine whether something of importance is being said, etc. Alternatively, many passengers eventually become so jaded that they block out the messages entirely—and might then miss something actually important. (These are the lucky ones.)

    Also see below for how the same phenomenon once could be used in a positive manner when calling a hotline.


    There is an interesting potential parallel between this type of “announcement bloat” and feature bloat in software. Just like some software companies seem to think that “we could have X as a feature; ergo, we should have X as a feature”, many with access to a PA system seem to think that “we could make announcements about X; ergo, we should make announcements about X”—in both cases, with little thought on whether the feature resp. announcement truly is beneficial or whether it is neutral or outright detrimental, whether it is something actually wanted by the customers, what the side-effects might be (e.g. a drop in maintainability resp. a growing annoyance among customers), and similar. Likewise, I cannot suppress the suspicion that some genuinely believe that “the more features/announcements we make, the better for the users/passengers”, again without considering factors like what is truly beneficial and what detrimental.

    Other absurdities include air-passengers-going-by-ICE-train, where there then can be two greetings, both indiscriminately pumped out through the entire train, both more wordy than is reasonable: one from the railway company to greet the regular passengers and another from the airline to greet the air passengers. Even if we assume that the air passengers had some benefit from this, no matter how dubious, the annoyance caused to the regular passengers, who far outnumber them, cannot be justified. (The exact reason for the presence of these air passengers is unclear to me. It might be that a greater group of travellers are collected in the one city to go to the airport of another, making this a first leg on a longer journey.)

  3. In the days of yore, calling a hotline was reasonably doable: I was put in a queue, instrumental music played, I put the receiver on my desk and waited for a human voice. Once the voice came, I picked up the receiver again. At some point, however, the hotlines decided that the customer had to be continually reminded that he was “in the queue”, “was important”, “had just a few more minutes to wait”, or similar. As the difference between such a message and the voice of an actual human counterpart was much smaller than the difference between a voice and the music, my options were suddenly much more limited. At the same time, annoyances similar to train-travel now appeared, with an ever-recurring distraction from the task at hand.

    This is not just a good example of “new” being worse, but raises interesting questions about the “why”. It might be sheer incompetence (maybe, as a variation of the bloat mentioned in an earlier side-note), but it is also possible that some specific goal is pursued. Many seem to suspect that hotlines are deliberately set up to be as deterring as possible, and this would fit in well, as an additional annoyance. A personal suspicion is a wish to reduce the risk that customers forget the phone, briefly leave the phone unattended, or similar—a customer who does could cost the hotline, maybe, some twenty or thirty seconds of time at minimum wage. (In both cases, the hotline would gain a benefit at the cost of the callers by such messages.) Then again, it could be that there simply are some callers so stupid that they need the constant reminder, and for whose benefit everyone else takes a hit.


    Even this was, of course, long ago, before cell phones became dominant. For a variety of reasons, I have not called a hotline in ages, including the discomforts of and time waste from queueing, the low competence of the typical counterpart, and the complete unreliability of claims made by the counterpart, where promises were made on the phone and later disavowed by the company in question.

Milk cartoons

Milk cartoons provide a number of examples of how what is new does not necessarily bring an improvement over the whole line, but in some areas at the cost of other areas, and might even be a net negative to some.


The same applies to other issues around milk, e.g. the disappearance of the milkman system that once was popular in the U.K. and the U.S. (and might still be popular in some other countries), and I was tempted to go for a wider discussion. However, this would have made the size of this section explode. (And there is nothing truly unique to milk or milk cartons. The choice of milk cartons as an illustration follows from some earlier, unwritten, thoughts on how they have changed over time.)

As to specifically the milkman system, it does point to something important, namely that the sets of advantages and disadvantages of something are not necessarily fixed over time. For instance, a milkman might have been much more valuable in the days of poor in-home refrigeration than today. We might also see an influence of exactly changes to packaging (heavy glass bottles -> light paper cartons).

As far back as I can recall from my Swedish childhood, milk was always bought in one-liter cartons—and ones extremely similar to those that I, today, age 49, encounter when I buy milk in Germany. (Mostly, approximately brick-shaped. Some alternate shapes occur, but are rarer.)

Of the changes that have taken place, the most obvious is the development of how pouring is handled.

  1. In the very early days, the customers were supposed to fold up a piece of the cartoon, take a pair of scissors, and cut out a spout. There were even printed markings for how to cut in the optimal way. Resealing the carton, for better durability of the milk, required more work or equipment than it was worth, and the carton was usually left unsealed in the refrigerator. (I have a vague recollection of some type of plastic “shoe” that could be put on the top of the carton for closure. Short of that, duct tape might have worked.)

  2. At some point, small plastic spigots (with great reservations for English terminology) arrived on the market. The customer now had the option to buy one of these spigots, push or drill it into the carton, and then pour through the spigot—which was easily un-/resealed through a screw-cap.

    This was in many ways an improvement, but it did bring the disadvantages of having to own one or several additional pieces of equipment and some minor loss of milk, as the outflow of milk could not be brought as close to the edge of the carton as with the cut-out spout. Other disadvantages yet might have been present, e.g. through the fact that the spigot stuck out several centimeters over top of the carton.


    Why “or several”? Apart from the possibility that someone might want to have several cartons open at the same time, there was the issue of switching cartons, where the spigot had to be exchanged or washed at least occasionally for reasons of hygiene. Having several spigots made such switches easier. (Here we also see a potential, but more subtle, disadvantage: what if someone failed to perform such occasional washings and eventually caught some type of illness?)

    Why would someone want to have several cartons open at the same time? There are at least two reasons: Firstly, milk in Sweden was sold with different fat percentages, many (especially, among children) had a near-religious preference, and these preferences were not necessarily the same even in the same family. Secondly, while such cartons were mainly associated with milk, other drinkables also used them (occasionally, in the early days; comparatively often, as time went by).


    Of course, at this stage, there was a choice—no-one needed to buy a spigot and scissors still worked. The spigot could be argued as a net-improvement already through this choice: those preferring the old way could stick to the old way; those who preferred the spigot could use the spigot. (I preferred the spigot.)

    This is an important lesson: that a good way to make things better is to provide more options, as opposed to finding something new and forcing everyone else to switch. The world of software is particularly lamentable in this regard: in the days of yore, software makers often sought to give options and to enable; today, they try to force everyone into a one-size-fits-all model with as few options as possible, even at the cost of disabling instead of enabling.

    On the detail level, we have to consider whether flexibility comes with an additional cost that reduces the value of the flexibility. For instance, someone who used a spigot could ultimately cut open a spout to get at those last few drops in the carton. This would remove one of the disadvantages of the spigot, but it would do so at an additional cost in form of work, few would bother (leading to a waste of milk, even be it a small one), and those who did bother might have lost more value in terms of time than they gained in form of milk.

  3. As the spigots grew more popular, cartons increasingly came with a little cross (or other marking) to indicate the optimal position for a spigot, and, eventually, even came pre-weakened at this spot for easier insertion.

    This was, again, likely a net improvement; and, certainly, made life easier for spigot users. However, it did come at the cost of a less durable carton, with a greater (if still small) risk of accidental breaking or penetration during transport or whatnot—and it did so without any benefit for those who preferred to cut a spout. At the same time, changes to manufacturing machines were needed and chances are that manufacturing was now more complicated.

    (I do not remember when the indications for an optimal spout-cut were removed, but chances are that it was at this time or not much later . If so, the choice mentioned above was weakened, to the additional disadvantage of “spouters”.)

  4. In a next step, cartons increasingly came with built-in spigots. This was a further step in customer comfort for spigot users, but, again, not one without additional costs. Consider e.g. the now considerably more complicated manufacture, the environmental impact of using some additional quantity of plastic for each and every carton (as opposed to the old spigots that could be used for several years), and how there was now some space wasted during transport. (As the spigot stuck out slightly above the end of the carton, cartons could no longer be packed quite as densely.)

    From another point of view, users were now stuck with the one specific spigot provided by the milk carton, without the options that (potentially) existed in the past. Yes, of course, they could still put in a spigot of their own, but these largely disappeared off the market, the markings and pre-weakening were now gone, and the use of such a second spigot seems like overkill—even when considering the superior make of the old spigots. The last brings us to another disadvantage: the built-in spigots were much shorter and more prone to mis-pouring than the old spigots. (Presumably, to reduce the aforementioned disadvantages of packing density and use of plastic, as well as to reduce the risk that something would break before the carton reached the customer.)

  5. This remained the state for a long time—maybe, even, since the late 1980s. Come 2024, there appears to be a new development: the screw-cap that tops the spigot no longer detaches properly from the spigot. This might have some advantage in terms of not losing the screw-cap—but I cannot even recall the last time that happened. Instead there is the disadvantage that opening and closing the spigot is a bit harder and that more attention has to be paid to the screw-cap, lest it gets in the way of the milk while pouring. Alternatively, the screw-cap has to be detached with a bit more force or e.g. a pair of scissors, but the former risks a breaking and the latter reduces comfort by several decades.

    Here, we see a change that will likely be a net worsening for most. (While the other instances have been net improvements, even while demonstrating that they are not improvements for everyone and/or in every regard.)


    I am uncertain how pervasive this change is at the moment. So far I have noticed it while buying milk at Aldi, which prompted me to prefer Akzenta for my milk purchases. Last time around, however, the same issue appeared with the Akzenta milk. (Aldi and Akzenta are the grocery stores that I visit the most often. The respective milk brands are the cheapest in the store.) Ditto some other, rarer, purchases of other drinkables at Aldi, sold in a similar type of carton and with a similar type of spigot.

    For the time being, I hope that this is an experiment that will fail and that the earlier, easily detachable, screw-caps will be reintroduced (or, on the outside, that some compromise will be found where the “new” screw-caps are more easily detachable).


    On 2024-07-03, roughly two weeks later, German news sources claim that this, beginning “today”, is a legal mandate, which removes any hope of an improvement. Specifically, and entirely unrelated to usability issues, some EU directive has been implemented in order to avoid loose screw-caps landing on the beach. Whether this mandate will have any significant effect on the environment, I leave unstated—but I do express the strong suspicion that this is yet another case of taking environmentalist action for the sake of taking action or of over-prioritizing details of the environment while achieving little in the big picture. (In both cases, without a proper cost–benefit analysis and a holistic view of pros and cons.) In this, it is a good example of why we need evidence-based politics: if the decision is a poor one, this would have been more obvious and the decision easier to avoid; if it is a good one, the sceptic could have convinced himself of this, instead of speculating about further incompetence from politicians.

    It does point to something interesting around the theme of this text, however, namely how easy it is to miss pros and cons that go beyond our own experiences, patterns of use, or whatever might apply: I cannot recall the last time that I drank any type of screw-capped beverage outdoors, let alone at the beach (nor the last time that I was at a beach at all), and complications like screw-caps being lost or forgotten by beach visitors did not even occur to me during the original writing.

    My purpose with this text is, of course, not to analyse the pros and cons of undetachable screw-caps (but to illustrate “new vs. good”), so I will give myself a pass. (And, no, I did not consider hypothetical explanations like “a detachable screw-cap could land in the throat of a curious toddler” either.) In a bigger picture, however, those who do set out to analyse the pros and cons in a reasonably holistic manner (or who should do so) often fail spectacularly, which is a major contributor to problems with e.g. software usability, because software is all too often directed at the weakest users with no thought for anyone else, and all to often targets the preconceived opinions (preferred usage patterns, ingrown habits, or similar) of some decision maker without concern for those who might have other opinions (whatnot). Analogous problems exist elsewhere, e.g. in politics. (And, again, we do need evidence-based politics.)

Another interesting change is an increasing switch, likely around the mid-1980s, from a greyish or brownish type of carton to a whiter one. The latter was more aesthetically pleasing, but came with greater processing (likely, some type of bleaching), was environmentally controversial, and was, likely, slightly more expensive. While I have not seen one of these greyish or brownish cartons in a very long time, they were certainly present in at least Sweden until at least the early 1990s (maybe longer) as a minority option for those who feared unnecessary damage to the environment.


During these times, I had no reason to buy milk myself (milk was something that just appeared in the refrigerator), and I cannot speak for the prices charged. However, I would strongly suspect that the “minority option” was the more expensive—that is how “environmentally friendly alternatives” tend to work. Regardless of whether they actually are good for the environment, they are targeted at those willing to pay more in the hope of doing something for the environment. (Here, the “minority option” likely was slightly beneficial. In many other cases, the effect is more marketing ploy than substance. Ditto “organic” and “fair trade” this-and-that. Caveat emptor!)

However, regardless of the price, it is clear that the more aesthetically pleasing version(s) won out, which raises questions like how much money might be spent on mere optics of product packaging, to what degree customers are influenced, whether the looks of a carton/container/packaging/wrapping/whatnot can have some beneficial psychological effect or is just a waste, etc. I sometimes have a feeling of pure waste when I see packaging with outright photography on it, where the equivalent packaging in my early childhood might have been unicolored with a mere product designation, or have had some minor simple illustration. (However, I do not rule out such a “beneficial psychological effect” in at least some cases, e.g. because color can affect mood.)

A similar trend is present with books, and this I would see as an outright negative, as books should not be judged by their covers, the covers bring virtually no information as to whether the book is worth reading, and as the covers can be an unnecessary distraction from information that does matter when visiting a bookstore. This is likely rooted in a deep-seated contempt for the readers within the book industry: the (increasingly female) reader is seen as so superficial and easily manipulated that she is supposed to see the right cover, go gaga, and feel compelled to read the book because of the cover—not the words inside. (With several other problems of a similar nature in the book industry, I find myself strongly tempted to write a separate text on such topics. For now, I must postpone it.)

However, this is in my lifetime and Sweden/Germany. At other times and in other places, other types of packaging have been used, and these have their own advantages and disadvantages. For instance, the approximately brick-shaped cartons, to which I am accustomed, have advantages like easy stacking and dense transportation, a low cost of manufacture, and similar, relative the glass bottles that preceded them. Glass bottles, however, at the time had the great advantage of re-use; as did other types of earlier containers. We might then even have scenarios like a milk buyer going to the store with his own container, having it filled with milk, and, thus, having a smaller effect on the environment. Indeed, in past times, this was often the case and I have seen the suggestion by some environmentalists that we should return to this approach. Other approaches yet have other advantages and disadvantages, like the plastic one-gallon jugs of milk that seem to be popular in the U.S. or the Canadian bags (!) of milk, and might have different sets of advantages and disadvantages relative their predecessors.


How practical this environmentalist suggestion is, I leave unstated. (Note complications like the potential need for a radically different infrastructure or greater involvement of store staff.) The point of this text, however, is not to analyse and improve the milk business or the environmental situation, but to discuss ideas like “new vs. better” and to show how advantages in one area often come with disadvantages in another.

I note, in particular, that most of the glass vessels currently used in Germany, e.g. vegetable jars and wine bottles, are not reused. The glass is (ideally) recycled through deposition in special public containers, but the individual jars/bottles/whatnot typically break in the process and the idea is that they be re-smelted into entirely new vessels—not re-used. (Some outright re-use of e.g. beer bottles might still take place.)

As I have pointed out in some past text, a flaw of the hysteria against plastic bags is that abolishing plastic bags while keeping all the packaging for various foods and other products is a good example of optimizing in the wrong place—even aside from issues like the, according to some, higher environmental damage from paper bags. (The demise of the old plastic bags is a potential later sub-topic for this page.)

Excursion on software

As is clear from the above, I have negative feelings about modern software (and modern websites).

The categories on software development and web design already contain some examples and discussions, if not necessarily with a mention of “new vs. good”. Ditto, some texts from my Wordpress days (TODO import and link), e.g. on the continual and severe worsening of Firefox.

I might or might not add further examples here in due time.