In a recent blog entry (“Zeitgeist” from 2013-04-12) I discussed how certain ideas became unstoppable just because their time had arrived. The corollary to this is that an idea’s time also ends at some time (after all, when a new idea becomes popular it usually replaces an old idea which, in its turn, was popular in the past).
If we look around now what ideas do we see which might be getting just a little bit past their “use by” date? I think neoliberalism is on the way out. Specifically I am talking about the idea of non-interventionist economics, free markets, small government, extreme free trade policies, etc. Clearly these ideas still have some support and they won’t go quietly, because there is a class of people who are doing very well out of them currently. But as I said in “Zeitgeist” an idea whose time has come cannot be resisted.
Here in New Zealand our economic extremist party, Act, is practically dead and the party which would normally follow neoliberalism, even if to a lesser extent (our conservative party, National) has considerably toned down its ideology on the subject. Sure, it is still selling our valuable assets even though it makes little economic sense to do so, but at least these are only partial sales, unlike the irresponsible total “giveaways” of the 1980s and 1990s.
The opposition are promoting policies which would have been considered quite mainstream and possibly even somewhat timid before the neoliberal revolution. But the government are (somewhat predictably) labelling these as “backward steps” and “loony left”. Are these criticisms fair?
Well in a way they are because they do represent a step back to older policies and they do tend to come from the left rather than the right. But does this mean they are automatically bad, as the government suggests? Of course not. But it’s a lot easier just to assign a simplistic and unfair label to your opponents’ ideas rather than debate them on the actual issues, so that’s what many politicians will do, especially our PM who continually demonstrates gross intellectual dishonesty in this way. Still, he’s a politician, so what do we expect?
There does seem to be a gradual global trend towards more interventionist policies as people realise that the old ideas of laissez faire economics simply don’t work. Notice what i did there? It’s easy to criticise your opponents as having out-of-date ideas because these things tend to happen in cycles. The current policies did originate in the late 1970s and early 1980s so they can easily be seen as “tired old ideas from the past” just as much as the left’s ideas can.
In fact non-interventionist policies have caused massive economic disasters in the past which have only been fixed by application of political control over the economies involved. So accusations of particular ideas being “from the past” are irrelevant. Which particular cycle of economic boom and bust are we referring to?
So let’s look at policies based on their merits instead of consigning them to entirely artificial categories based on ideology. Printing money isn’t a bad thing, although it can be if it is used to excess. Government control isn’t a bad thing, unless it is used in a corrupt or incompetent way. Trade control isn’t a bad thing, unless it is used to support obsolete or grossly inefficient industries. Having controls to promote environmental and social issues isn’t a bad thing, unless they are used excessively. Tax isn’t a bad thing, as long as the taxation regime is fair and the income is used sensibly.
So let’s have a look at these ideas fairly and see if there is a way they can be used in a sensible way to actually promote greater fairness and stability in society. We don’t want to over-use them because that is just as bad as under-utilising them like we are doing now. But don’t just throw them out without thinking simply because they came from the left.
When an idea arrives whose time has come it cannot be resisted, and it doesn’t matter which part of the political spectrum it originated in. Back to the past? No, I think of it more as back to the future.
I love quotes from famous people. I don’t pretend for an instant that a quote made by anyone – no matter how brilliant they were – should be given unquestioning acceptance, but they are often an interesting starting point for discussion of a subject and they do often contain a significant element of truth.
I also realise that many quotes attributed to certain people are, in fact, misattributed and are often re-worded or simplified. This may be the case with some of the quotes here but I present them anyway, as I said above, as a starting point.
I found these quotes when I was sorting through some old email recently (I like to do a tidy up of my mailboxes occasionally in a vain attempt to keep the hundreds of thousands of message I have under control). I sent them to a friend who is a fundy (fundamentalist Christian) who dared to send me a quote which he thought supported his views. Needless to say, these quotes are basically contrary to those views.
Anyway, here they are…
Quote: “Religion is all bunk.” and “I have never seen the slightest scientific proof of the religious ideas of heaven and hell, or of a God.” – Thomas Edison
Discussion: Edison was a brilliant inventor and a deist. Deism is sort of like an insipid form of religion so why would Edison had said this? I guess he was referring more to the established, organised religions with their supernatural dogma and unsupported beliefs. Deists claim to believe in a god (usually of a rather poorly specified form) because of logic and evidence rather than faith. It was popular after the Enlightenment and I suspect it was a way for people to abandon Christianity, which had clearly been shown to be untrue by scientific advances, without abandoning religion completely.
Needless to say, I would include deism in the category of religion and is therefore also “bunk”. However I would obviously be more open to arguments based on logic which lead to a conclusion of a god existing rather than pure faith claims (which are basically useless).
Quote: “Surely you do not believe in the gods. What’s your argument? Where’s your proof?” – Aristophanes
Discussion: Doubt of religious claims has been alive and well for thousands of years apparently. This one is from good old Aristophanes. He was a real trouble-maker. Often known as the father of comedy and a person with a wicked wit, especially when applied to political and religious satire!
Quote: “Absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power.” – Eric Hoffer, and “It is hard to free fools from the chains they revere.” – Voltaire
Discussion: Faith, contrary to what many believers would try to make us believe, is a terrible thing. Let’s have a look at some synonyms for faith in the Oxford dictionary: “church, sect, denomination, persuasion, religious persuasion, religious belief, belief, code of belief, ideology, creed, teaching, dogma, doctrine.” Do most of those words have a positive feeling to them? I don’t think so. When we use words like ideology, dogma, and doctrine in other contexts they tend to have negative connotations. I think the same thing should apply in the area of religion.
Many people cannot appreciate their own faults when viewed from within the belief system they have created for themselves. Ironically many religious people look at belief systems which are different from their own and scoff at how ridiculous they are, yet they fail to see exactly the same problems within their own beliefs.
And yes, I know many believers try to use the obvious (and all too easy) excuse and say atheists also exist within a belief system. Well sorry, but you’re wrong. Atheism is specifically the rejection of a belief system related to god. Thats what the “a-” part of atheism means!
A further quote on faith: “Faith is to the Christian what sand is to the ostrich.” – Anon
Analysis: Exactly. This quote is anonymous but it is too good to ignore. Faith is just an excuse for ignorance, fantasy, and intransigence. When the facts are revealed, when every argument has been shown to be false, and when all else fails, there is always the good old “burying your head in the sand and invoking faith” defence. That cannot be defeated because basically it’s the equivalent of saying “I know I’m wrong but I don’t care. I have faith, aren’t I wonderful?” Er, no. You’re an idiot.
Quote: “If salvation is the cure then atheism is the prevention.” – Dan Barker, and “The Christian resolve to find the world evil and ugly, has made the world evil and ugly.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Analysis: Salvation has always seemed both an odd and very likely a highly corrupt and cynical part of Christian dogma. What is salvation? Being saved, apparently. But from what? From ourselves apparently. Well I don’t really feel the need to be saved from myself. If God made me with some deficiencies (as his followers see it) then why rely on that same entity to fix the problem?
The whole idea of salvation is quite evil, in fact. It’s a clear attempt to victimise the believers and convince them that they are evil and fully deserve any terrible fate which awaits then, unless they follow a particular church of course… Oh, and did we mention the church requires both total subservience, and a certain monetary contribution from you? It’s what God wants, you understand.
So the quote which says that atheism is the way to prevent the need for the “cure” of salvation is quite right. Atheists aren’t subject to this self-serving creation of guilt like Christians are, so we just don’t need that generous offer of salvation.
And in many ways the Christian worldview is evil and ugly as Nietzsche says. Christianity is a cult based on sacrifice according to what they say. John 3:16 (see even I know that passage) must be the most commonly quoted but has anyone really analysed it’s deeper meaning? Rather than a loving contribution to the good of humankind as the believers would suggest it’s really a primitive and pointless sacrifice of nothing for nothing.
Final quote: “Reason should be destroyed in all Christians.”, and “Reason is the Devil’s greatest whore; by nature and manner of being she is a noxious whore; she is a prostitute, the Devil’s appointed whore; whore eaten by scab and leprosy who ought to be trodden under foot and destroyed, she and her wisdom … Throw dung in her face to make her ugly. She is and she ought to be drowned in baptism… She would deserve, the wretch, to be banished to the filthiest place in the house, to the closets.” – Martin Luther
Final analysis: One of the leading figures in the history of the Christian religion, and the person who started the Protestant Reformation, largely because of perceived corruption in the existing church, thought that reason was not a good thing for Christianity. Why not? There doesn’t seem to be any good reason that I can think of that could explain why a religion, assuming it is a true religion, should not be accessible through reason.
And what about that second quote! Wow, settle down Marty. Sounds like he might have a few psychological issues hidden away there. People don’t tend to rant in that way otherwise.
OK, I can’t resist just one more: “I see no God up here.” – Yuri Gagarin. Yeah, well that’s what you get no matter where you look!
We don’t want to be the victims of terrorism, do we? But is there a possibility which is even worse? What if your government becomes a bigger threat than any likely terrorist? And if we want to protect our society from the threat of anarchy shouldn’t that society have sufficient freedoms so that it is worthy of protection?
What is the point of trying to protect a society where the citizens are spied on by their own government, where injustices cannot be reported, where the “good guys” act worse than the bad? And just how far is it really worth going to protect people from a threat which might or might not really exist, and if it does exist is likely to be a minor problem rather than the major one which is portrayed?
And if the terrorists really dislike the freedoms that the western world possesses (at least in comparison to the despotic, religious regimes in the countries most terrorists come from) is it not a victory for them if those freedoms are systematically eroded away? Would the terrorists not see that as a victory?
Government spying is a hot topic at the moment, especially after the admission from Edward Snowden that he was the NSA Prism leak source. But that is just the latest example of a whistle-blower revealing information which the powers wanted to keep secret. The case of Bradley Manning is still ongoing and there is significant support for him after his leak of sensitive information to Wikileaks.
Are these people heroes or villains? Obviously that depends on your perspective. If you believe that secrecy and extreme tactics are justified in the battle against terrorism then they are clearly villains. But if you take the factors into account which I listed in the first three paragraphs of this post then they are equally clearly heroes.
The problem is that there are many reasons why a government would want to keep different things secret. Some of them are legitimate, such as wanting to keep personal details with no public interest private, or keeping information which can be used against legitimate military or police forces out of enemy hands, or preventing criminal organisations gaining access to information they can use.
But there are many times when governments might want to keep information secret for the wrong reasons too. For example the information might reveal corrupt or dishonest activities by the government or its allies, or it might show where errors have been made which those in power would prefer to cover up rather than correct, or it might show that what the leadership say they are doing and what they are really doing are not the same thing.
I would suggest that many of the leaks are in the second category: they are sources of embarrassment to those in power rather than genuine security threats to society as a whole. So leaking secrets should be looked at on a case by case basis.
If the leak shows that the military of the US has murdered innocent civilians and barely concerned themselves with the mistake then the leaker is a hero, because that is the sort of news the people need to know. They might be prepared to say that is an unfortunate side-effect of war and a sacrifice we need to make for the greater good; but they might also say that the negatives of war outweigh the positives and it should be terminated as soon as possible.
But if the people don’t even know what is happening how can they make that decision? Supposedly we all live in democracies where the general population vote to determine who makes the big decisions, but how is it possible to know how to vote if critical information is hidden?
I think I would rather have a free society with as much as possible out in the open even if there is a slightly greater risk of the enemies of that society using it. And I would rather a few terrorist escape detection (after all, they seem to avoid detection most of the time anyway) rather than have spies poking through the phone records, internet logs, and other data belonging to the people whose liberty they are supposed to be protecting.
Many people say there is nothing to worry about as long as you don’t break the law. But many laws are immoral and breaking them isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And it’s basically up to the government to decide who is acting badly and clearly they don’t always act with the greatest level of honesty and integrity. So everyone is potentially at risk.
And one other thing: we should never be placated by the claim that a spy agency doesn’t spy on its own citizens. First, as we found out here in New Zealand, they spy on whoever they like irrespective of what the law says, and then just change the law to suit; and second, all the agencies cooperate so if the American agencies can’t spy on Americans they will just ask an ally to do it and get the information indirectly. So there’s no escape. We just have to be aware that sometimes our worst enemies are those who claim to be our friends and protectors.
Benjamin Franklin said “He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.” Surely this is true. I know there must be some compromise on this and that some surveillance is probably justified but the standard must be far higher than just automatically spying on everyone.
Thomas Jefferson said “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.” And surely this is also true. Just because something is lawful doesn’t make it right. A law can be made to cover any situation and anyone who breaks a bad law isn’t a criminal, they are a hero.
So yes, Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning are both heroes. Many people see them that way now, but many others don’t. I think in the future they will be almost universally regarded as heroes just as many of the heroes we have today were seen as dangerous subversives in their own time. It’s unfortunate that the truth takes time to reveal itself because until it does those heroes are persecuted by those currently in power.
But I guess it’s just like Edward Abbey said: A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.
Jony Ive (Senior Vice President of Industrial Design at Apple) says that there is beauty in simplicity. It’s easy to get sucked into the reality distortion field (even without the influence of Steve Jobs) and rave about how great Apple’s latest efforts are without really analysing them logically, but I think that catch-phrase – beauty in simplicity – has a lot of truth.
As a programmer and database and web site designer myself I know how easy it is to create something with a lot of features and functions. But while a “Microsoft” type of product with every feature imaginable and a disorganised mess of user interface elements to access those features may seem impressive, it’s actually the simpler, uncluttered products, such as the one’s Apple makes, which are truly superior.
In some ways it’s about what you leave out rather than what you put in. If something is designed properly it can appear simple and uncluttered while still providing plenty of functionality. But that is actually harder than just trying to do everything with little thought to how the user accesses those functions, how they are presented, or how they work together.
I think this principle applies to everything which is why I used more general terms above, but it is most apparent in software design, hence the example of Microsoft software user interfaces.
So what’s the point of all this? Well Apple are currently holding their World Wide Developers’ Conference in San Francisco and the keynote presentation showed off several new iterations of Apple’s current products including iOS7, the latest version of the operating system for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch.
I don’t generally like to comment on products I haven’t used myself but I will present some initial thoughts here and perhaps do an actual review once I have used iOS7 for a while.
Many people (me included) think that the current version of iOS is very functional and simple to use but it is starting to feel a little bit lacking in some areas and maybe starting to show it’s age. After all, the first iPhone which used iOS was introduced a whole 6 years ago now – an eternity in computer terms!
So something had to be done and it seemed to make sense to have Apple’s design genius, Jony Ive, have a look at the system and bundled apps and apply some of his magic. It looks like he has succeeded. The new iOS looks simpler and cleaner but still has more functionality. The advanced features are accessible when they need to be, but don’t get in the way. It looks encouraging although I think they could have gone even further in perhaps eliminating the simple grid application layout.
Some people will say there isn’t a lot of real innovation there. I agree. But in many ways – despite what is often believed – Apple isn’t really about innovation at the most basic level. They are more about doing things right rather than doing them first. Let’s look at some examples…
The Apple II was the first home computer which most people could use, but there were a few other models which pre-dated it so it wasn’t really first home computer.
The graphical interface and mouse on the Mac (and Lisa before that) weren’t invented by Apple. They were developed at Xerox PARC. But Apple took those elements and improved them to a point where they worked (within the limitations of the hardware of the day). So again they weren’t the first with a graphical interface they were just the first to do it right.
The iPod was not the first MP3 player. There were plenty of others before that. But again the iPod was easy to use and had good capacity (although 5GB seems small by today’s standards) so it become very successful (at least once a PC compatible version was released) and to many seems like it was the one product which started the digital music revolution.
The same applies to the iPhone. There were many smart phones before that. Some of them had quite impressive feature lists, but those features were slow and awkward and most people didn’t use them. I had a very sophisticated Sony phone before I got my first iPhone and it had a web browser, email client, video chat, and many other features. But I didn’t use those features because they just didn’t work well. That all changed with the iPhone because everything was usable.
You must be getting the idea now so do I really need to mention that the iPad was not the first tablet, but that earlier efforts were truly awful?
So the same applies to iOS7. There are elements there which are just enhanced versions of what is in iOS6, and there are elements reminiscent of alternative systems like Android and Windows 8. But I suspect that it is how the functions work together and how they are so easily accessible and so intuitive to the user which sets them apart.
I guess I won’t really know until I start using iOS7. Luckily my iPhone 5 is new enough to be able to use all of its features. Sadly, my poor old iPad 1 can’t even run iOS6. Still, that is now 3 years old – virtually a vintage device in the fast moving world of computers!
Note: the comedy routine I am going to discuss in this blog entry contains many instances of words which some people might find offensive. To avoid this I am going to use f— and c— instead. If you think that the use of a lot of extreme swear words indicates a lack of sophistication or merit then I think you are wrong. I really think they work in this situation and there has been a history of this going back years with comedians such as Billy Connolly. If you want to enjoy the routine in its full glory just use this URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TynFaEQj_Ys
They say that many a true word is spoken in jest. And the standup comedy routine I recently found on YouTube is a classic example. It’s called “God is for Idiots” by Jim Jefferies. I will give you a few parts of this routine and then explain why I think they have a deeper relevance. Are you suitably prepared? OK, here goes…
God loves the stupid and the f—ing… [pauses] this is the thing about people who believe in God… they’re idiots. There’s no dancing around it, you’re a border line f—ing mentalist… you’re an idiot… you’re like a 13 year old kid who still believes in Santa.. oohh [sounds like a retard], I’m still going to get… oh f— you. You know, I don’t hate people who believe in God, I don’t hate them… right. But I just don’t want to talk to them, I don’t want to be around them. It’s like how I don’t hate the mentally insane, right? But the mentally insane and religious people are in the same f—ing bag. If I’m standing at a bar chatting to either of them I’ll eventually walk away saying “OK…” [gestures like he's trying to back away from the crazy person]
Actually having written this down and reading it through it sounds a lot more like a mindless rant than the original! But I still think there’s an element of truth here. If anyone told me they believed in an invisible man in the sky who talks to them in their heads and answers their questions, but no one else can see him, I would say he is most likely insane. And religion is close to insanity, it really is, because that’s really what a lot of religious people think.
Of course there are believers who have a lot more loosely defined ideas, such as a god not really existing but there being some universal spiritual force, which you can’t define, etc. In reality they don’t have a belief at all and I really wouldn’t count them as being religious. They’re probably not quite as crazy as the ones who have a more well defined belief but they’re just as annoying!
And religious belief is often childish as well, and the comparison with Santa is a good one. After all Santa is based on a real saint from Christianity who allegedly performed as many great miracles as Jesus himself! But most adults don’t take that too seriously. They grow out of that idea so why can’t they grow out of their other equally silly ideas?
You know there’s a web page called “Ask God” where children can ask questions from God and through the power of the Internet [sarcastic look] God will answer them. I’m a bit dubious, but… So the most asked question on “Ask God” is “were there kangaroos in the Ark”. So, children could ask any question in the world but a child’s mind works like this, they go “I like kangaroos, I think the Ark story is bullshit so… shazam”. And the answer to that question is “although there are no mentions of kangaroos in the Bible, it does state there were two of each animal so you can be assured there were kangaroos in the Ark”. Now why is there no mention of kangaroos in the Bible? Could it be that when the Bible was written Australia hadn’t been discovered so… no mention of kangaroos. But didn’t God create kangaroos? Isn’t the Bible written through the hand of man through the voice of God? But why didn’t he mention kangaroos? They’re such an exciting animal! It seems to me that they only seem to mention things in the Bible that are within a 5 mile radius of the guy writing it. Like if I was God in the end of the Bible I would have lent in and said “Oi, tell ‘em it’s round”. ’cause, ah, didn’t know the world was round. F—ing built it, but didn’t know the world was round.
The flood story is clearly total nonsense. There is not the slightest doubt about it: a global flood did not happen, and animal species were not saved from extinction on an Ark. The discussion is over… or should be because unbelievably many of these f—ing idiot [there, I'm starting now too] Christians really think it happened!
Even if the flood story was only supposed to be a metaphor what sort of message does it send? I’ll tell you: some people weren’t behaving themselves the way God wanted so he killed them all. All the adults, guilty or not, all the children, all the unborn babies, everyone (except Noah and his family). But he wasn’t even happy with that! He killed almost all the animals (and presumably plants) as well. So the message seems to be God is a mindless, evil monster. Is that really it?
And regarding kangaroos. Of course there are many possible excuses for why they might not be mentioned in the Bible but extend the idea a bit further. Why are so many amazing things which science has discovered not mentioned in the Bible? Again you can make excuses about humans not being able to understand or not being ready for certain types of knowledge but surely there would be a few clues from the word of God which showed a greater knowledge of the real universe. But no, there’s nothing. Just primitive superstitious nonsense, almost as if the whole thing had been made up by desert nomads. Hey, perhaps it was.
Now, when I started this show my first routine was about how lesbians were fat, ugly, useless, with no sense of humour, and you couldn’t applaud more. Then I killed an Arab man from a f—ing helicopter. Just shot him dead. Then I said… that Christians are bullshit and there is no god. And that’s the moment that half the audience chose to be offended. Was that the f—ing moment that got you? How very Christian of you towards the Muslims and the lesbians. Next time start your sentences with “Well, as a hypocrite…”
So far we know most Christians are childish, slightly insane, and believe complete nonsense. Now we see how they are also hypocritical. It’s true, I think. The only truly evil people I have ever talked to have been religious (Muslims as well as Christians). Sure, I have talked to some fairly good people who also had religious beliefs too but even they tended to become very upset and offended by comments against their beliefs rather than things that really mattered. In many cases their priorities are very mixed up!
You think you’re a good person because you have Christian values? Do you want to know what Christian values are? Christian values are a load of shit. What are Christian values? The Ten Commandments. What are the Ten Commandments? Very sensible values to live your life by. Do you know what’s a load of shit about them? The fact that you had to have them written down! The fact that you couldn’t figure out internally not to kill people, don’t steal… really? You should just know these. These should be internal in you. The Bible is too wordy. All the stories are too wordy. The Ten Commandments are a load of shit. You don’t need all these things. The Bible should be just one sheet of paper and on that sheet of paper it should say just one thing “Try not to be a c—”.
The argument gets a bit self-contradictory here: Christian values are shit, they are represented by the Ten Commandments, which are a good guide for living. I sort of see what he’s saying but I think he’s wrong. The Ten Commandments are not a good guide at all. About half of them are OK: don’t kill, don’t steal, etc. But as he says, we all know this anyway and really moral people (like atheists) don’t do these things because they know they’re wrong. Christians either also know they’re wrong (independently of the Bible, in which case why have the Commandments) or they are inherently evil and only stopped from acting in an evil way by fear of breaking their God’s rules.
As well as being unnecessary the Ten Commandments are also incomplete and have superfluous elements. The first half about having only one god, something about graven images, and other crap, are irrelevant nonsense. The second half, as I said, are obvious and included in almost every moral philosophy (some pre-dating Christianity) so are also unnecessary. But what’s maybe worse is the lack of commandments related to important topics such as freedom, slavery, women’s rights, environmentalism, etc. Apparently God forgot about these, maybe because he was too concerned about people coveting their neighbour’s ass!
There are many times I would like to rant about religion the way the comedian did but it would possibly be seen as an unnecessary attack or even some sort of hate crime. But when an opinion is presented as humour it is often more acceptable. It’s a bit like a modern version of the court jester who is the only one who can criticise the king.
Yeah, all Christians should watch this movie, and please think about the message, and try not to be too offended!
In a recent blog entry I talked about my pet peeve regarding work: people who refuse to read and work on screen and insist on printing pages of paper instead. Today I want to talk about another one (and perhaps another example of me being a bit pedantic), incorrect use of the English language.
My favourite example is a common problem which many other people have commented on: use of the word “literally” when the person really means the exact opposite (figuratively). There was a classic example recently when a school principal said that the minister of education, Hekia Parata, was “literally drinking from a poisoned chalice”.
Many people might wish that it was true, but (presumably) it isn’t. She was forced to figuratively drink from the poisoned chalice because her party has forced her to implement its education policies even though almost every expert and a lot of the public disagree with them. Of course there’s also a good chance that Parata also thinks her party’s ideologically driven schemes really are a good idea.
So a school principal, who really should know better, made a really simple and obvious mistake. But I guess anyone can make an error like that in a highly emotionally charged situation where schools are being closed, and as I said before, maybe he was secretly thinking that the minister meeting an unfortunate end after imbibing person might not be so bad!
Another good misuse, which I have noted for years, is the use of adjectives with the word “unique”, specifically “quite” (and similar words) and “very”. Unique means one of a kind so how can anything be quite one of a kind or very one of a kind? It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense although I have read a few justifications of the phrase “quite unique” which have a sort of twisted logic.
This mistake has been seen on some prominent sites, even the BBC. Here’s an example: “Another reason why our R&D department is quite unique is that we don’t just create insight and innovation for the BBC…” Clearly “quite” doesn’t fit here if the conventional meaning of unique is used (one of a kind) but if a technically incorrect one (very unusual) is used, it’s OK.
Here’s another classic. When US President, George HW Bush, was elected he said that he “couldn’t believe the enormity of the situation.” The correct definition of the word “enormity” is “the great or extreme scale, seriousness, or extent of something perceived as bad or morally wrong” or “a grave crime or sin”.
Bush clearly meant the strictly incorrect but increasingly common meaning of “something of great size” but I sort of think the real meaning was probably a lot more appropriate in that situation!
And finally I should attain the heights of pedantry and mention some punctuation. How about the good old apostrophe? Some people like to always put an apostrophe before an “s” on the end of a word. So I see words like “its” spelt “it’s”. Actually when I look back through this blog I see that I was guilty of something similar in the past (generally not using the apostrophe when it was technically required) so I guess I shouldn’t be too smart about this particular one!
The rules about using an “s” on the end of “it” to indicate possession are kind of odd, but the more common thing is to use an apostrophe when an “s” is used to indicate a plural of a noun in the form of an acronym. For example, I have seen this: “I read several FAQ’s on this subject” but much more rarely this “I have read several book’s on this subject”. Both are wrong, of course, but for some reason the apostrophe following the acronym seems less bad.
Actually there is one more thing (as Steve Jobs said) I should mention. That is using adverbs. The best example of this is Apple’s (or was it Steve Jobs’ again) advertising slogan “think different”. The word “think” is a verb so “different” is incorrect here and should be the adverb “differently”. At least that’s the way it initially seems.
I recently debated this with someone who counted herself an expert on grammar. Superficially it is clear: the second word here qualifies how we should think therefore it should be the adverb “differently”, not the adjective “different”. But I wanted to be awkward and show how initial impressions could be wrong so I came up with an alternative explanation.
I said to image different as a noun. I know that technically the noun is “differentness” but that sounds really clumsy. So if we allow the noun then the phrase is asking us to think about something, specifically the idea of difference. It sounded a bit weak at the time but it was the best I could come up with (except that it was a deliberate error which made the phrase stand out).
So imagine my delight when I read this in Wikipedia: “Many have noted that the clause ‘Think different’ is not grammatically correct. Since ‘different’ is considered a modifier, it has to be conjugated as an adverb, making ‘think differently’ the accurate phrase. However, according to Jobs’s official biography, this was because Jobs insisted that he wanted ‘different’ to be used as a noun, as in ‘think victory’ or ‘think beauty’…”
So clearly one of my heroes, the great Steve Jobs, thought about this the same way as I did. Of course, now that I think about it, all that means is that we were both wrong!
Most people have a few problems getting English completely correct, and if everyone understands what the writer or speaker is trying to say what’s the harm? There is none really, but it’s still fun looking at those little errors which are particularly amusing: especially poisoned politicians and evil presidents!
How seriously should we take cartoons? Judging from the controversy over the “Danish Mohammed” cartoons of 2005 some people take them very seriously. And now, here in New Zealand, we have a similar issue with two cartoons representing a political view which is being viewed by some as racist.
The cartoons depict a Pacific Island (or possibly Maori) family abusing the government’s new food in schools program when the adults dress up as school kids to get the free food. In one cartoon it is explicitly stated and in the other implied that the money they save on food can then be put towards buying cigarettes, alcohol, scratch and win tickets, and possibly electronic goods.
So the cartoons reinforce the long-held view by some people that certain sections of the New Zealand population, especially Maori and Pacific groups, can’t afford to feed their children or themselves because they waste money on luxury goods and just generally make bad buying decisions.
It’s an interesting assertion, but is it true? A lot of the debate seems to portray the issue as black and white (no pun intended). A question asked in a TV poll was whether the cartoons represent reality. Interestingly three quarters of respondents thought they did. But the whole question is invalid because I’m sure there are families who can’t afford food because they waste money on tobacco and alcohol, but I’m equally sure there are others who economise as much as they can and still can’t survive. And undoubtedly both types of families exist in all racial groups.
There is no doubt (at least there is none amongst reasonable people) that the current economic and political environment has caused a huge amount of inequality in wealth distribution. There is also no reasonable doubt that the cost of basics like power and housing have gone up much faster than rates of pay. Of course the people who have done well from these policies don’t want to be bothered by any potential feelings of guilt for the victims, and blaming the victims by suggesting they can’t feed their families because they make poor decisions is just too easy.
So it’s unfortunate that the cartoons reinforce this belief when it is probably only true in a minority of cases. But it is still an opinion and political cartoons generally represent an opinion and try to make a point of some sort without pretending to be too unbiased or rigorous about it. Anyone who uses a cartoon as a serious source of information is being rather foolish, and it’s likely that the people who do take the cartoon seriously already held the view it represents anyway.
I have heard a lot of discussion on the issue but I have heard very little presenting both sides of the argument and backing up any conclusions with actual statistics. The people who condemn the cartoons as racist or inappropriate or offensive and just being much too sensitive. And the ridiculously insipid nonsense from the new race relations commissioner just reinforces how silly that role is (as well as how useless Susan Devoy is in that role – she really should have stuck to playing squash!)
The cartoonist, Al Nisbet, has received some hate mail but also a lot of supporting messages. He says that the country is too politically correct and that the cartoon was intended just to get a laugh. I think he’s right about the PC bit, but it’s disingenuous to say that humour was his only motivation. There is a clear deliberate political message there and everyone knows what it is.
So in summary, the cartoons are fine. They represent a political opinion and do have some element of humour as well. If some people find them offensive or inappropriate then that is their problem – they need to take things a little bit less seriously. I would like to see a further cartoon in the future perhaps representing the opposite view. Maybe something representing the greedy rich class who have done well out of current policies and who are living a life of luxury while hypocritically criticising those who haven’t.
That shouldn’t be too difficult, maybe something along the lines of some fat, white capitalist pigs feeding at the trough while their political servants toss food to them which they have taken from the poor. Yeah, that’s just as offensive and inappropriate as the other cartoons and has just as much relevance: some, but not enough that it should be taken too seriously.
People’s work habits usually change slowly. Maybe they just don’t change, and it’s only new generations which allow any change at all (because they don’t have old habits to overcome) but I think it should be possible for people to improve their routines if they just made the effort.
In this blog entry I want to discuss one of my little pet complaints: how people can’t get out of the habit of wasting paper by printing every document they want to read or store. Why can’t they use modern technology and use less paper and save a few trees?
I have worked on being paperless for a few years now myself and have succeeded almost 100%. I must admit that I do still occasionally scribble notes on small scraps of paper but most of the time I type them into my computer, iPad, or (most times) iPhone. I have got quite used to reading from the screen of my various devices so I almost never print anything. And all my document storage is in electronic form.
Mostly this works well. The notes synchronise between all of my devices through Apple’s iCloud and I use the computer (a MacBook Pro with an i7 processor, solid state drive, and 15″ screen) as the “master device” to create permanent documents which synchronise back out to the other devices.
If anyone hands me a piece of paper (such as a receipt, business card, or order of some sort) I just take a photo of it with the iPhone and give it back to them. And I might mention that using an electronic version next time would be preferred. Again, the photos synchronise to the other devices for permanent storage.
And I don’t read books or newspapers, at least not in a conventional form. Ironically, the last book I read on paper was the biography of Steve Jobs, the person who allows me to dispense entirely with conventional reading material. I read news on the iPad and computer through news web sites and I supplement this with podcasts from Radio New Zealand and other sources which I download every morning. And I read a few books on the iPad but mainly listen to audio books which means I can “read” and drive or “read” while walking from one job to the next.
So paper is basically a thing of the past for me. I didn’t even have a printer driver installed on my computer until I had to do some testing for a client. But what about the people I work with? How have they adapted to the new technology?
Generally, extremely poorly.
Almost everyone I work with refuses to read from a screen. They print things and read from the paper instead. Some people even print their email messages! And this applies even to people with high quality devices intended for reading such as iPads.
There have been some truly absurd examples of this. One person has his PA print his emails so he can read them. Then he amends them on paper or writes a new email by hand which the PA types as a new email message. So several sheets of paper are temporarily used for no good reason.
Here’s another example. When I noticed someone printing a 40 page PDF so it could be read I asked why she didn’t get an iPad. She said she had one but didn’t have it at work so couldn’t use it for reading from. When I asked why she left it at home she said it was because she didn’t use it at work so why bring it in? Clearly this was not someone with with knowledge of philosophical logic such as circular arguments!
I try not to be judgemental and I try not to tell everyone how they should work, but I don’t think there’s any harm in suggesting that going paperless is a good idea or even that it is possible. It’s not just because of the environmental advantages of reducing paper use, it’s also about working more efficiently and making the most of the technology we already have available.
Continuing my series of “random fact” blog entries, I thought I would move on to another potentially controversial subject: evolution. If you follow this blog you will know the previous subject was environmentalism and that could reasonably be said to involve controversy because it is a basically political subject and one which is prone to extreme views on both sides.
But really evolution is not the same sort of thing at all. There should be no controversy because evolution is a fact and is entirely scientific. The only controversy is one manufactured by deluded nutters. But even if it is totally unjustified there is still a controversy, so let’s move on to the facts…
First of all, a fact about that controversy: The result of recent surveys (from 2011) showed that just 50.9% of Americans believe evolution. In the 18 to 44 year old age group 56% believed it, in the older group under 50%, and amongst college graduates 63%.
Analysis: If I remember correctly this is the first time that surveys have shown that a majority of Americans believe evolution, so at least that is a positive point. This is supported by the fact that more young people believe it, which indicates the trend is likely to continue. No doubt this greater level of education leading to greater belief in the facts of science is what is worrying creationists and leading them to wanting to have their myths taught in school.
The last statistic – that 63% of college graduates believe evolution – is nice because it confirms the idea that the more educated a person is the more likely they are to believe in science. But it is still a surprisingly low number. It is hard to believe that a (presumably) intelligent person can complete a college (university) course without being convinced by the evidence. Of course there are many courses which have no scientific content so I guess this lack of knowledge might not be so surprising for graduates in the area of the arts and commerce, for example.
Fact: 99.8% of all species which have ever existed have become extinct.
Analysis: I have heard slightly different numbers for this statistic but they are always above 99% so it is safe to say the number is very high. I do agree that the definition of species is somewhat uncertain but this makes no difference to the basic idea (as I will explain below).
Evolution predicts that the forms of life gradually change over vast periods of time. The change happens through differential survival so extinction is really the most important outcome of evolutionary change. If the variety of life came about by a more directed mechanism, such as creation or intelligent design, we would expect little or no extinction. Why would an intelligent agent create species which are so poorly designed that only one fifth of one percent of them survive?
And the difficulty in defining a species is also a natural consequence of evolution. Because populations are constantly splitting, merging, and changing as a result of environmental and genetic factors species are never stable. Again a designer would be expected to create “types” of life in distinct groups. What we see is totally contrary to this idea.
Fact: RNA has a single helix and can contain information just like DNA can, but it can also act as an enzyme. Therefore a simplified model of early life is possible, involving one molecule (RNA) instead of two (DNA and protein). Because DNA is a better information transfer mechanism it would have out-competed RNA once it became established.
Analysis: There is no doubt that the chemistry of life is incredibly complex and many people have difficulty understanding how it could have arisen without intelligent intervention. But when the details of these mechanism are examined closely it can generally be seen how a much simpler function could have served as an intermediate stage to the complexity we see now.
The “RNA world” hypothesis isn’t universally accepted but it does illustrate one way that the current complexity could have arisen. The current mechanism in “advanced” life involves DNA, RNA, and proteins and is perhaps too complex. But if DNA evolved after RNA it starts making sense that the complexity we see now could have started with something much simpler. It also explains why it is now perhaps unnecessarily complex.
Fact: Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, other primates have 24 pairs. If there was a common ancestor (as evolution states) the chromosomes must have fused at some point because humans couldn’t survive the loss of a whole chromosome. Telomeres are structures which appear at the end of most chromosomes but are present in the center of human chromosome 2 (but are not in other species). This clearly shows a fusion corresponding to chimp chromosome 13.
Analysis: Despite creationists’ ridiculous attempts to suggest the contrary, this is fairly strong evidence for a common ancestor. If an intelligent designer created two species why would one have almost identical DNA to another and why would there be clear signs that one branch had similar chromosomes to the other but slightly rearranged? Wouldn’t the *intelligent* designer get it right the first time and not need to make changes “on the fly”?
The facts indicate evolution is true. Of course there is also a chance that there is a different mechanism involved but one which is virtually indistinguishable from evolution. But that sort of theory is just intellectually dishonest. The Catholic Church accepts evolution but says it is guided by God. Why would they even suggest anything so idiotic? If a god is guiding evolution he’s sure doing a bad job.
A 99.8% failure rate is about what we would expect from a natural process with a high random component, but it certainly isn’t what we expect if there is intelligent guidance going on.
The reality is clear to anyone who actually bothers to look at the facts and then applies an honest appraisal process to those facts. I could have thrown out all of the other facts in this file (those I included here are just a sample) and replaced them with one word: evolution. It’s a fact.
In 1984 New Zealand began its great experiment in open and free markets, minimal regulation, and user pays. Strangely it was all started by a Labour government, which would traditionally be far from enthusiastic about these concepts. But that government had been hijacked by extreme idealists form the libertarian camp and bore little resemblance to what would normally be expected from them.
Since then these extreme neo-liberal policies have peaked and are now gradually being backed away from, unless you are one of the few people left in the libertarian wing of the dying Act party. So the experiment has clearly been a failure although some people might argue that things would have been even worse if we hand’t followed the path we did (but who can prove or disprove that?)
And this phenomenon didn’t just happen in New Zealand. As I said in a recent blog entry titled “Zeitgeist”, during the late 70s and 80s it seemed to be an idea whose time had come and many countries were following similar ideas, with Reagan in the US and Thatcher in Britain being great enthusiasts for it.
But let’s just move all the politics and economic dogma aside and look at the concept of user pays from a purely logical perspective. Whatever the political ideology it is usually associated with, is it a good idea? Actually yes, in many ways it is a good idea, but only in certain contexts. Let me explain…
A basic idea behind user pays is that nothing is free. Every user pays for what they need – for housing, food, education, electricity, etc – and the market will establish appropriate prices for these items based on true costs and on market forces such as competition.
So if electricity supplies don’t keep up with demand then the price will go up which will either persuade people to economise to save power or will provide more money to build new power plants. It sounds great in theory and in fact it can be a very effective economic mechanism.
But there are certain necessities for living which any person living in a relatively rich, modern democracy like ours (or in the US or Britain for example) should expect. There is no real excuse for New Zealand having a whole family living in a garage or in a single room, or in getting sick because they can’t heat their homes (or their garage) in winter, or for relying on charities to supply them with food because their other expenses are so great.
So user pays is fine as long as the users can afford to pay for the basics. And in many cases today that just isn’t true. Many user actually can’t pay for housing or for electricity or for food in an open market because their income just isn’t sufficient.
And that is also a natural outcome of user pays. Most employers will pay as little as they can get away with and will claim they are just following the model (which they are). But at the same time people who own rental housing will charge as much as they can get away with. So the user pays a lot but isn’t paid a lot to compensate.
User pays seems to be naturally suited to making the privileged minority much richer while they prey on the majority of “users”. And that’s exactly what we see in every case. I discussed the obscene extremes this phenomenon has reached in the US – where the top 1% have about as much wealth as the bottom 90% – in a blog entry called “When the Revolution Comes”.
So in summary I support the idea of user pays but only if the minimum income is linked to how much a user needs to survive with a reasonable standard of living. Where that point is will depend on individual opinion, but I think compromise is possible. One thing’s for sure: the point certainly isn’t at the income level which the minimum wage provides.
And if there are no jobs for a significant number of people and if the income of many people on poorly paid jobs isn’t sufficient then a user pays system simply isn’t appropriate. We can’t have it both ways: we have to either make sure people have enough to participate in the user pays system or use a different system. It’s a simple choice.